This week’s topic in Family Tree Frog’s NFHM Blog Challenge is All the Rivers Run. Australia alternates between extremes of weather as illustrated by the famous poem by Dorothea Mackellar: My Country[i].
I love a sunburnt country
A land of sweeping plains
Of rugged mountain ranges
And drought and flooding rains.
This is just one story of my ancestors’ experience with the dramas and dangers of flooded rivers. Some resulted in fatalities, others in property losses, but this is the most well-covered in the newspapers, and also a story lost (or hidden?) by the family.
On 22 January 1887, the Queensland town of Ipswich was deluged by a severe flood. Some said it was the worst in European memory, others that it was only exceeded by the 1864 flood. The newspapers document that it had also passed the level of the 1841 flood[ii]. It would not be the last time the town was hit, as even in recent years Ipswich has been inundated by enormous flooding.
At the time of the 1887 flood, my ancestor, Stephen Gillespie Melvin, had a confectionery store in Ipswich as well as various other business interests. He had worked hard to establish himself after the tragedy which accompanied his arrival in the colony when his first wife, Janet Peterkin Melvin had died in quarantine on arrival. He had won prizes at the local Agricultural Show[iii] and established a surprising portfolio of property…almost certainly to the overall detriment of his balance sheet.
The 1887 flood came powering in just days after the 10th anniversary of Stephen’s arrival on 18 January 1877, not exactly an auspicious anniversary. Perhaps he was already feeling down, remembering his young wife’s death, or perhaps he was increasingly aware of his precarious financial position.
It was through news stories about the Royal Humane Society Awards that I became aware of Stephen’s near-tragedy. Trove documents that “The (Bremer) River was in flood, and Melvin, who had been assisting to remove goods from a store (his?) which was surrounded by water, got into the vortex on the edge of the roaring current. Livermore swam out at great risk, took Melvin by the collar, and brought him back to the building in safety. The current was running very strong. Awarded a bronze medal.”
Stephen’s courageous rescuer was Thomas Shadrach Livermore, a 26 year old blacksmiths’ labourer[iv]. (Following his entries in Queensland Births, Deaths and Marriages it appears his correct name was Thomas Shedrick Livermore). The stories place Stephen’s age as 45 years but this overstates his age, as he was born in 1854 in Leith, Scotland.
Naturally I returned to Trove to search newspaper dates closer to the event to see if I could find the rescue mentioned. None seemed to match the award details exactly, however this one stood out for me:
We have heard of some acts of recklessness and even foolhardiness-in fact, one was so glaring, on Saturday last (22nd January), in Bremer-street, that many persons who were witnesses of the scene thought the man referred to was trying to commit suicide, and said it was not worthwhile venturing their lives to save his. However, two men went into the river after him, and dragged him out of the water, and thus saved him from drowning, though he almost drowned one of his rescuers in the struggle.[v]
Perhaps I’m misjudging my ancestor, though while there are anomalies in the report, it fits with other factors affecting him at the time. Perhaps it really was an accident and he got caught in the vortex, which makes sense if he was trying to evacuate his store. In his earlier life he had been a merchant seaman, and it was common for them not to be able to swim.
Only a few months later in 1887, Stephen’s estate had gone into liquidation, as detailed in a news story[vi]. He specifically cites the impact of the flood on his business[vii]. I’ve also referred to the Insolvency files at Queensland State Archives, and Stephen’s holdings of property were quite amazing for a relatively recent immigrant. It’s also interesting to see that his father-in-law, William Partridge, was one of his creditors. These events were not to be the end of Stephen’s annus horribilis but those stories will keep for another day.
There was much made about the proposed presentation of the medal to Thomas Livermore including a description of the medal.
On the obverse of the medal is depicted a female figure, representing Australasia, in the act of placing a wreath on the head of one deemed worthy of honour, while around is stamped the motto, ” Virtute paratum.” The Southern Cross above fixes the locality as being in the Southern Hemisphere. On the reverse is the name, date, etc., and a wreath supposed to be composed of eucalyptus and laurel leaves. The Police Magistrate is directed to present the medal and certificate to Mr. Livermore in as public a manner as possible; but he has not yet fixed a date for this ceremony…[viii]
Personally, I owe an enormous debt of gratitude to Thomas Shedrick Livermore. Had he not saved my great-grandfather from the flooded river, my grandmother, mother and I would not have been here, nor would seven other branches of Emily Partridge and Stephen Gillespie Melvin’s family.
I certainly hope that the medal has been preserved in the Livermore family, along with the story of their ancestor’s bravery. The presentation was held on Tuesday 6 September 1887[ix] and the Police Magistrate Mr Yaldwyn rightly summed up Mr Livermore’s courage when awarding the medal[x].
[iv] Queensland Births
|1862||C385||Thomas Shedrick||Livermore||George||Mary Ann Haydon|
[viii] 1887 ‘LOCAL AND GENERAL NEWS.’, Queensland Times, Ipswich Herald and General Advertiser (Qld. : 1861 – 1908), 3 September, p. 5. , viewed 18 Aug 2017, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article122820644
[ix] LOCAL AND GENERAL NEWS. (1887, September 6). Queensland Times, Ipswich Herald and General Advertiser (Qld. : 1861 – 1908), p. 5. Retrieved August 18, 2017, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article122821625