Fearless Females: The tragic stories of Julia Kunkel and Janet Melvin

Lisa Alzo of The Accidental Genealogist blog presents Fearless Females: 31 Blogging Prompts to Celebrate Women’s History Month. March 11 — Did you have any female ancestors who died young or from tragic or unexpected circumstances? Describe and how this affected the family?

There are two tragic deaths of young women in my family tree. One was my maternal great-grandfather’s first wife, Janet Melvin nee Peterkin and the other my paternal great-grandmother, Julia Celia Kunkel nee Gavin.

Janet Melvin nee Peterkin

Janet Melvin’s story is a truly tragic one. Last Friday, 2nd March 2012, was the 135th anniversary of her death. Janet set sail for Australia from London on the Woodlark in October 1876. With her were her husband Stephen and infant son Lawrence, aged 4 months.

The family were all when the ship arrived in Moreton Bay in January 1877, but not long after Janet fell ill. She died on 2 March 1877 at Peel Island, in quarantine. I feel so sad when I think of her courage in making this voyage then knowing she would leave her infant son motherless. I was consoled that her husband and son were still with her on Peel Island when she died, and she wasn’t entirely alone. Janet had just turned 22.

Janet’s son Lawrence survived this early tragedy but I’m told his father tended to favour him above his other children – hardly surprising under the circumstances. My family descends from Stephen’s second wife Emily nee Partridge.

Julia Kunkel nee Gavin

Julia Kunkel saw more of life perhaps than young Janet but she also died young, at only 42, in what I feel was a particularly gruesome way. This was her obituary:

OBITUARY: Darling Downs Gazette 21 November 1901

We sincerely regret to have to record the death of Mrs George Kunkel, wife of the respected railway ganger of Geham, and daughter of Mr Denis Gavan (sic), of this town. The deceased was born in Dalby and was 42 years of age, and leaves a husband and 10 children to mourn the loss of a good wife and mother. Deceased, who had been ailing for some time, came in about a week ago to consult Dr McDonnell, who found her to be suffering from a serious internal disorder and at once pronounced the case to be hopeless. On account of the weak state of her heart, the doctors could not administer chloroform and had to perform an operation without its aid. Although the operation was a success, the patient’s constitution was too weak to make the recovery and she gradually sank and expired at 3.45 on Wednesday morning. The husband is at present also in a poor state of health.  Deceased throughout her life has been a particularly devout adherent of the Roman Catholic Church.  The deepest sympathy is felt for the bereaved husband and children in their terrible loss. The funeral leaves Mr D Gavin’s residence off Seaton St at 2 o’clock this afternoon.

Each time I read this I am horrified anew at the prospect of her being operated on without anaesthetic because she had a weak heart. Her husband died only five weeks later on Christmas Day 1901 leaving their children orphaned.

The impact on the family was significant because while some were old enough to be self-sufficient, they took on some responsibility for the younger ones. Over the years the siblings became alienated for different reasons and the younger ones in particular seemed to suffer the loss of their parents the most. I often wonder if my grandfather’s marriage at a rather late age wasn’t influenced by seeing what happened to his mother.

Julia Kunkel was laid to rest with her mother in the Drayton and Toowoomba cemetery on 21 November 1901. The full story of Julia and George Michael Kunkel is told in Grassroots Queenslanders: the Kunkel family.

Tomorrow I’ll be visiting her grave site, so the timing of this post is particularly apt. One of my family history “bucket list” items is to put a grave stone on her grave which she shares with her mother and a friend.

Women’s History month – women in the paid workforce – some thoughts

At the conclusion of Women’s History Month I have been thinking about personal history and in particular women’s history month which led me to reflect on how much has changed in the world of women’s public work. Of course the simple fact is that whether our female ancestors were in paid employment or not, they were invariably significant contributors to their family’s economic activity. They made clothes, sold eggs, grew fruit, milked cows, were railway gatekeepers etc etc: inevitably a vital part of what made our ancestral families effective, not to mention their contributions to community organisations of all sorts.

Over the past few decades there have been so many changes which have made it “easier” for women in the paid workforce, without denying there is still plenty of opportunity for improvement.

My reflections brought up a few things which have improved over the past forty years or so:

  1. Most women were required, not just expected, to resign from work as soon as they married.
  2. My mother-in-law worked for 25 years in Papua New Guinea as a teacher. Throughout that time she remained a casual employee with no leave or superannuation benefits –entirely due to the fact that she was married.
  3. When I was engaged and not far off finishing uni, I applied for a job with a large multi-national company. During the interview, and once they knew I was getting married, I was told that I couldn’t have the job “because married women get, ah, pregnant or…”… something I hadn’t realised was peculiar to those who married.
  4. There was no maternity leave even after married women continued to work. If you were pregnant, you either took leave without pay (if the employer was accommodating) or resigned your position.
  5. If your children were sick, you were reluctant to admit this for fear of a negative impact on your job and had to find strategies to look after your children. You could not use your own leave, or take carer’s leave, to cover days off to mind sick children even though you took as few as possible personal sick days “just in case”. If you were lucky and working after the advent of flexitime you could stockpile some hours to cover you when your children were sick.
  6. Workplaces were predominantly male and offices were generally less welcoming and more structured.
  7. Child-care centres were few and far between.
  8. Superannuation entitlements for women employees had significantly different benefits than those for men even those contributions were the same.
  9. Salaries for women weren’t the same as those for men, except in some industries.

These are significant changes to many women’s day-to-day working conditions over a very short period of time, barely even one generation, and I’m sure others would come up with different points. Not everyone will agree that it is a good thing for women with children to be in the paid workforce but for those who choose to do so, their work-family balance is a little easier to maintain. From my own point of view I’m pleased that my daughters have more flexibility and opportunity than was possible only a few decades ago.

Women’s History: Emmeline Pankhurst -British Suffragette

As this is women’s history month, as well as yesterday’s centenary of International Women’s Day, I thought it appropriate to include some photos I took during a recent trip to London. We came across the statue by chance while walking from Vauxhall to Westminster. Emmeline Pankhurst was a key figure in the Suffragette movement in England. New Zealand and Australian women had already been granted the right to vote.  You can read a little more about her on this BBC site: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/pankhurst_emmeline.shtml

International Women’s Day – Ellen Gavin, Julia Kunkel and Johanna Gavan

This is possibly George & Julia Kunkel on their wedding day  Today is the centenary of International Women’s Day and an appropriate day to honour our female ancestors. I have chosen to highlight the lives of my great-great-grandmother Ellen (Murphy) Gavin and great-grandmother Julia (Gavin) Kunkel as well as an unrelated friend.  Their lives were so much harder, and stoic, than ours and I thank them for their contribution to our family and our country.

Among the unmarked graves in the Old Roman Catholic section of the Drayton and Toowoomba cemetery is one where my women ancestors from the Gavin family are buried: Ellen Gavin and her daughter Julia Kunkel née Gavin. Also buried with them is an unrelated friend, Johanna Gavin (aka Gavan)[1]. Despite the sacrifices they made for their families and the roles they played in the development of their new country, their lives have passed unremarked by posterity.

 Ellen Gavin, with her husband Denis Gavin, and daughter Mary Gavin aged 2, arrived in Moreton Bay on the Fortune on 18 December 1855 having left Liverpool on 3 September 1855. Eleanor (aka Ellen) Gavin was 24, a Catholic whose native place was Wicklow. Her parents were James and Annie Murphy. Her father was dead but her mother was living in Wicklow. Her husband Denis was a farm labourer, aged 23 and a Catholic. His native place was Kildare, where his mother was still living. His parents were Denis and Mary Gavin.  Ellen could read but Denis was illiterate. Information on her death certificate indicates she was born in Davidstown, County Kildare.  Their daughter Mary Gavin, born in Dublin, was two years old. From her husband’s obituary and her first child’s birth, it is believed that Denis, and probably Ellen, were employed to work for Mr Gordon at Wallumbilla station out near Roma. In 1855 this area was near the edge of European settlement so the isolation must have been quite a shock to the new immigrants. Denis was employed as a carrier travelling between Wallumbilla and Ipswich so he would have been away for many weeks at a time. Unless Ellen was able to travel with him on his journeys, a rough and demanding life, it is likely that she was often left alone on the property to take care of the children, and possibly had responsibilities to the station owner. Their first Australian-born child, James, was born at Binbian Downs station on 3 June 1857 and baptised by Father McGinty in Dalby in 1858.

 The family must have moved into Dalby soon after this, probably when his employment contract finished, as Denis’s name appears there on various records. Denis continued to work as a carrier while they were in Dalby and their second daughter Julia Gavin was born there on 15 November 1859. Another daughter Rosanna Ellen Gavin was born 20 December 1864 and died 27 March 1865. Like many of our women ancestors, Ellen’s life is not visible in official records. Throughout she would have supported her husband and children, helping to establish a family life for them in their new home while reconciling herself to her infant’s death. As her children were devout Catholics it must be assumed that their mother played an important part in their religious training.

The family were living in Toowoomba by 1876 and Denis worked for a while as a gardener. On 28 March 1896, Ellen Gavin died at her residence in Seaton Street, Toowoomba. The death notice refers to her as the “beloved wife of Denis Gavin” and “mother of Mr James Gavin of Pechey and Mrs Kunkel of Jimboomba”. She was 74 years old and “formerly an old and respected resident of Dalby”.[2] Her death certificate indicates that she had given birth to 2 males and 5 female children, although we know only of the son and 3 daughters. Ellen was buried in the Drayton and Toowoomba cemetery on 29 March 1896.

Julia Gavin, Ellen and Denis’s daughter, was baptised in Dalby by Father McGinty on 25 June 1860 in front of witnesses John Healey and Barbara Ross. She married George Michael Kunkel at St Joseph’s Catholic Church, Dalby on 17 August 1879. George had commenced employment with Queensland Railways as a ganger in August 1878. Throughout their married life they moved around southern Queensland, working on the railway line near Dalby, Beaudesert (1896), Jimboomba, Highfields (1899), Grantham and Geham (1901). Julia and George had eleven children whose birth places reflect the family’s railway postings. My grandfather, Denis Joseph Kunkel, the couple’s eldest child, was born at the Forty Mile Camp near Dalby in 1883. His birth in a railway camp highlights the huge challenges and risks that our women ancestors faced in delivering their children and caring for their families. As time progressed Julia also worked as a gate-keeper for the railway at Gowrie (1886) and at the 27 Mile on the Beaudesert line (1890).[3] 

Julia Kunkel  nee Gavin died from post-natal complications of puerperal fever and a septic embolism. Her obituary reports that she had been operated on without anaesthetic because she had a weak heart, a terrifying and horrendous situation. The doctors deemed her operation a success but her family would disagree.[4] She died aged only 42 years, on 20 November 1901, leaving behind her husband, George Michael Kunkel, and ten children ranging in age from 21 down to 2.  (Julia’s obituary is included at the end of this story). Only a month later the children were orphaned when their father also died suddenly, on Christmas Day 1901. Julia Kunkel was buried from her father’s residence in Seaton Street, Toowoomba and laid to rest with her mother in the Drayton and Toowoomba cemetery on 21 November 1901. The full story of Julia and George Michael Kunkel is told in Grassroots Queenslanders: the Kunkel family.

Ellen and Julia are among the many unacknowledged women pioneers of Queensland whose lives have largely passed unnoticed. However their social contribution has not been insignificant with many descendants living in Queensland or around Australia, including some high profile achievers. There is no known photograph of Ellen. The photograph included may be Julia and her husband George, a conclusion based on various factors.

Buried with Ellen and Julia is another unrelated Gavin (or Gavan) woman, Johanna Gavin. Years of research have established no genetic relationship between the women so it must be assumed that there was a link of friendship as they had lived in the same area for many years. Perhaps sharing a surname was a further link. Johanna Gavin nee Mackin or Macken was the estranged wife of Stephen Gavin, son of Mark Gavan, a convict from Galway. Johanna Mackin sailed on the Southesk which departed London on 17 March 1877 and arrived at Moreton Bay on 4 June 1877. She was a single woman of 22, who had paid her own fare and so was classified as “free” not “assisted”. It is unlikely Stephen had paid her fare as Johanna came from Tipperary while Stephen was from Galway. Stephen and Johanna’s marriage does not appear in the indexes but as their children’s births record both parents’ names it is assumed they were married. Their children were Peter Michael Gavin (b 1880), Johanna Gavin (b 1881), Bridget Gavin (b 1884 d 1885) and John Gavin (b 1890). The family were living at Fairy Land, Maida Hill in 1890 but by 1895 when Stephen applied to be admitted to Dunwich Benevolent Asylum, the couple were living apart. Johanna Gavin worked as a cook at the Commercial Hotel in Allora and later in Ruthven Street, Toowoomba, possibly at the Shamrock Hotel. Johanna Gavin died on 17 May 1913, aged 54 years. Her husband Stephen was still alive at the time. Perhaps it was an act of charity that Denis Gavin permitted her to be buried with his wife, Ellen Gavin and daughter Julia Kunkel.

OBITUARY: Darling Downs Gazette 21 November 1901

We sincerely regret to have to record the death of Mrs George Kunkel, wife of the respected railway ganger of Geham, and daughter of Mr Denis Gavan (sic), of this town. The deceased was born in Dalby and was 42 years of age, and leaves a husband and 10 children to mourn the loss of a good wife and mother. Deceased, who had been ailing for some time, came in about a week ago to consult Dr McDonnell, who found her to be suffering from a serious internal disorder and at once pronounced the case to be hopeless. On account of the weak state of her heart, the doctors could not administer chloroform and had to perform an operation without its aid. Although the operation was a success, the patient’s constitution was too weak to make the recovery and she gradually sank and expired at 3.45 on Wednesday morning. The husband is at present also in a poor state of health.  Deceased throughout her life has been a particularly devout adherent of the Roman Catholic Church.  The deepest sympathy is felt for the bereaved husband and children in their terrible loss. The funeral leaves Mr D Gavin’s residence off Seaton St at 2 o’clock this afternoon.


[1] Roman Catholic section 1, block 16, allotments 18 and 19.

[2] The Chronicle, Death notices, 4 April 1896.

[3] Queensland Government Railways: index to staff employed in various departments and stations 1889-1912, Caloundra Family History Research Inc., Caloundra, 2007.

[4] Darling Downs Gazette, 21 November 1901.

[5] Cass, P. Grassroots Queenslanders: the Kunkel family, Darwin, 2003.