Wednesday, January 21, 2009


In a simple timber home near the North Pine River, in the Colony of Queensland, Angelina gave birth to her little boy, who she named Ben. Her friend Mrs Fogg, whose husband owned the general store in Petrie town had come to help her; the older children were being cared for by a neighbour. It was mid-December, and the frequent storms and hot, humid weather had sapped her of her energy. She had felt the pressure of this pregnancy for many weeks now, as her body sagged under the strain of too many babies.

Mrs Fogg was not a midwife, but was a sensible woman who was trusted in the district. Her own child had died very young, and she had had several miscarriages, years ago. There was a midwife and even a doctor in Caboolture, or Redcliffe, but the distances were too great for most ordinary folks to contemplate.

For a couple of days after the birth Angelina had rested in bed, waiting for her strength to return. Mrs Fogg stayed with her, and brought food, and helped her wash. The baby was often fretful, and Angelina patiently nursed him at her breast. She remembered the early days after each of her births, as the babies eagerly took what they could. Then the milk came in, and a peaceful hush settled on the child and the home.

A few more days passed, and rather than feeling stronger Angelina became feverish, and was in pain. Her lochia had developed an offensive odour, obvious to anyone entering the room. The milk that had come in, dried up, and baby Ben became more demanding and unsettled. It was thought best that he be nursed by a young mother from the Church, whose own baby was a few months old. Angelina had encouraged her as she had faced her own challenges, and she was more than willing to do what she could.

By seven days Angelina was barely aware of what anyone said. Her husband James knew they faced a critical situation, and his heart was heavy as he went about his work on the farm each day, with the help of the older boys. He had watched this woman, his beloved wife of sixteen years, and had admired her strength and wisdom. He saddled his horse and rode several hours to find the doctor, who gave him some powders for the fever and pain, and promised to come as soon as he could.

It was Christmas eve, two weeks after the birth, when Angelina experienced a severe secondary haemorrhage. In her already weakened state, her gentle face was listless and ghostly pale. They had tried all the remedies and treatments available. As each minute, each hour passed, those who knew her prayed for her recovery. Two days later, as she ceased to breathe, her stricken husband gathered the children around him, and committed her spirit to their loving Heavenly father.

The Reverend C Clarke from the Presbyterian Church officiated at Angelina's burial the next day at the North Pine Cemetery. Other witnesses are recorded as John Todd, Archibald Hamilton, and Joseph Slater.

Several weeks later James again saddled his horse and returned to Caboolture with the documents, so that he could register her death. The cause of death was recorded as 'in child bed'. 'None' was recorded against the question 'Medical attendant by whom certified'.

Angelina's children's names are listed on her death certificate, and their ages: 14, 12, 11, 10, 8, 6, 5, 4, 2, 1 and 16 days. My grandfather, Frank White, was her four-year old son.

We don't know much about Angelina - most of the detail in this brief note is from her death certificate. It seems right to record the names of those who shared this journey with my great grandfather, my grandfather, and his brothers and sister. I don't know who attended to Angelina's needs in her last days: the role Mrs Fogg played is fictional.

The only photo we have of Angelina shows a strong young woman, dressed handsomely, next to a piano. Angelina, who was born to Samuel and Elizabeth Smith in London, probably came with her family to Queensland in the early 1860s.

In telling Angelina's story I want to value her as a mother; and as one whose mother-love and strength of character was passed on to her children's children, in spite of her too-early death.


Sif said...

Joy, that was beautifully written!

I was just thinking about the "nature" of birth and death (and other milestones in life) the other day, and how far departed we are from those things these days, how little of nature and it's cycle we accept these days because we don't HAVE to accept it. In a way, we also don't honour that cycle because we write it all off as "needless tragedy" if it isn't to our liking.

I'm sorry your father lost his mother at such a young age, it sounds like she lived a very full life to the point of her death, that is something to admire!

Joy Johnston said...

Thankyou for these comments Sif. You are right - we don't have to accept those parts of nature for which we have developed ways of circumvention. It was only 1847 that Semmelweis identified surgeons’ hands as the route of spread of puerperal infection, and in 1865 Lister developed his system of hand washing and asepsis. Angelina died in 1883, and it is likely that the 'modern' ideas about germs and asepsis were not even known in the young colony.

Working in harmony with the natural processes today has very clear boundaries which would probably protect Angelina from the dangerous outcomes of post-birth infection, haemorrhage, and the whole large family scenario.

The knowledge of my great grandmother's life and death, and what I know of my mother, and grandmothers, has been significant in my personal development as a woman, a mother, and a midwife.

Helen Barrington said...

wow Joy what a lovely yet so sad story/life. She was SO needed by all those children and yet she was taken!! wow.
My Great Grandmother was a Midwife in Tasmania. l have photos of her, she was very stern looking, not sure l would have wanted her at my births ?? She rode horse back to births and carried with her a kerosine latern !! Far cry from my hikers head torch !! And my speedy Commodore !! We have a lot to learn dont we ?