Hail, Rain and Sunshine - part 2

Boy enjoying the flood waters, c.1950s, Copyright Beard Family, sourced from pictureaustralia


Melbourne is famous (or perhaps infamous?) for experiencing all four seasons in one day. As a born and bred Melburnian, it's something that I often joke about to tourists. We can go from a balmy 19 degrees one day, to a whopping 41 degrees Celsius the next (that's 105 Fahrenheit to you Northern folks!). In fact the highest temperature in Australia (ever recorded) was 50.7 degrees Celsius in Oodnadatta, South Australia in 1960.

So for part 2 of my 'ancestors and adverse weather' series (which I write from my comfortably air conditioned house), I will explore another heat wave in South Australia, and the devastating effects it had on one family. 


William Henry Shorten was the last child of Goymer and Jane Shorten (nee Duce). While his eight siblings were all born in the Longford / Launceston area of Tasmania, William was the first Shorten to be born in Victoria. 

The family had emigrated across the Bass Strait to Victoria sometime after their daughter Susan Hannah's (or Susannah) birth in 1874 but before William's birth on 1st June 1878, where they settled in Kensington, in the Borough of Essendon and Flemington.

In 1856, a Crown grant was made to the Melbourne City Council for cattle saleyards on the south side of Racecourse Road in Newmarket, and abattoirs adjoining the saleyard to the south-west. Buildings in the area were primitive and unhygienic with liquid waste being discharged into the Maribyrnong River.  Coupled with various factories along  the riverbank, including boiling-down, fellmongery, bone manure and glue, the area was permeated with a lot of noise and a very pungent odour. The proliferation of these new stockyards was more than likely the primary purpose of Goymer and his family relocating to this area, as Goymer was a dealer of horses and pigs, so this area would have proved lucrative for his business. Secondly, the establishment of the stockyards and abattoirs attracted many new jobs for labourers and skilled workers.


Aerial view of stock in pens, Newmarket Saleyards. Creator Laurie Richard Studios, Copyright Museums Victoria.

This increasingly industrialised area would have been an ideal place for a young man such as William to learn a trade - and learn a trade he did. According to the 1903 Electoral Rolls, William was working as a cooper, a profession that would require many years as an apprentice. What is a cooper you might ask, other than a trendy 21st century name?

A cooper is, in essence, a barrel-maker. There were four divisions in the cooper's craft ranging from "dry" or "slack" cooper made items which  would be used to ship dry goods, to "wet" or "tight" cooper made casks for long-term storage and transportation of liquids that could be even under pressure. Despite the lack of specifics in William's profession on the Electoral Rolls, I believe that he was trained to the highest order, to make "wet" or "tight" casks, given where he worked later in life.

But before we get to that, let's have a look at William's family life. He married Sarah Elizabeth Irons when he was 20 years old in 1898 and the couple welcomed their first child, Edward 'Eddy' Henry Shorten, shortly after. The following year the family settled in at 13 Bayswater Road in Kensington where they welcomed a sister for little Eddy, Ruby Verne Elizabeth Shorten. Federation in 1901 brought about a lot of changes for Australia and an another addition to the Shorten household with William or 'Willie' James entering the world. 

Their familial bliss was short-lived however as 1902 brought little but heartache for William Henry and Sarah Shorten. On 6th July, at her parents house, Ruby passed away aged 2 and a half years old. A mere two months later, on 9th September, Willie also died of broncho-pneumonia aged only 13 months old, "Gone to join his little sister" [source: The Age, Tue 9 Sept 1902, p1].

William and Sarah uprooted from Bayswater Road shortly after and settled in five minutes 'up the road' at 16 Glance Street. This address saw many Shorten's living under its roof over the course of  the next fifty years. A reprieve from their grief came in the form of another baby, Vera Irene, born in 1903. But once again, darkness descended on 14th March 1905 with her death, aged 2 years and 3 months. "A patient sufferer gone to rest" [source: The Age, Wed 15 March 1905, p1].

Later that year, William and Sarah welcomed Florence 'Florrie' Lilian Shorten into the world - their last child who, along with Edward, were the only two of five to survive infancy. 

1907 saw William, Sarah, Eddy and Florrie moving house again, this time to 6 Clarence Street, Flemington. This was the last house where they would live together as a family. 


6 Clarence Street, Flemington as it stands today. Copyright Google.

Sometime that year, possibly in October, William travelled from Melbourne to South Australia. Perhaps the booming wine and brewing business presented more financial opportunities for a cooper and William ventured ahead of his family with the intention of getting settled, or perhaps the loss of three children in as many years placed too much of a strain on his marriage, but for whatever reason William headed to Adelaide without Sarah and the children.

He rented a room in a boarding house run by Mrs Emily McConachy at 228 Hindley Street West, just down the road from Babidge's Cooperage where he was employed. Business was thriving for Babidge's Cooperage who dominated the beer cask market in South Australia. They were the exclusive cask makers for Cooper's Brewery and made the majority of casks for the South Australian Brewing Company. They also received much work from the wineries such as Hardy and sons, Seppelt and Sons, Reynell and Sons, Auldana Ltd, Basedows and Chateau Tanunda, as well as from the paint industry and from the Broken Hill Proprietary Company in Port Pirie. They also carried out repair work and had a government contract for the checking of export casks at the Port Adelaide wharves. The business had employed about 20 workers at this stage.


Interior of a workshop with men making barrels, c1918. Source: State Library of South Australia

The Summer of 1908, particularly in January, saw an epic heatwave spread throughout South Australia with record breaking temperatures including five consecutive days where the mercury stayed at about 43 degrees Celcius...in the shade [source: Chronicle, 25 January 1908, p.41]. 

While Babidges was highly mechanised, using American-made Holmes coopering machines, the very nature of the work was extremely physically demanding. If you can imagine toiling in such a workshop as the one pictured above, surrounded by noisy  machinery and having to lift heavy timber for eight hours a day with no air conditioning...it's no wonder that William complained to Mrs McConachy about the heat between 1 and 2pm on one particularly scorching Saturday afternoon, before retiring to his room.

After what we can assume was a uncomfortably hot and restless night, Mrs McConachy went to call on William at 9.50 that Sunday morning, the 19 January 1908. After receiving no answer in his room, she opened the door to reveal him lying undressed on the floor, dead. The police were called and the coroner concluded that his death was the result of heat apoplexy (or heat stroke) [source: The Express and Telegraph, Mon 20 Jan 1908, p3 and The Register, Mon 20 Jan 1908, p.4]. He was buried two days later at the West Terrace Cemetery in Adelaide. He was 29 and a half years old.

Sadly, it seems that word did not reach his wife and family until the following month. Thus the only opportunity for them to say their goodbyes was through the newspaper:

"Shorten - On the 19th January, at 228 Hindley-street, Adelaide, suddenly, William Henry, beloved husband of S. E. Shorten, Clarence - Street, Newmarket; father of Eddy, Florrie and the late Ruby, Vera and Willie; beloved youngest son of J. Shorten, Gower-street, Kensington, aged 29 years and 7 months. Adelaide papers please copy." 
"Shorten - On the 19th January, at Adelaide (suddenly), William Henry, the beloved youngest son of Jane Shorten and the late Goymer Shorten. 49 Gower-street, Kensington, and the beloved brother of Thomas Shorten, Mrs. J. Ellis, Mrs. A. Beever, Mrs. J. Smith, Mrs. J, Burgess, and uncle of Mrs. H. Currie, aged 29 years and 6 months" [source: The Age, Sat 15 Feb 1908, p.7].
"Shorten - In sad and loving remembrance of my dear son, William Henry, who died suddenly in Adelaide on the 19th January 1908.... - inserted by his loving mother, Jane Shorten." [Source: The Age, Tues 19 Jan 1909, p.1].

Thank you for joining me on this two part series. Don't forget to comment below on how adverse weather may have affected you or your ancestors. Next week I will be responding to Amy Johnson Crow's #52ancestors in 52 weeks challenge where the prompt is 'longevity.' I will be sharing a story of an ancestor who lived to be an amazing 98 years old! Feel free to follow along (in the sidebar on the main page) to receive notifications via email so you don't miss out on any new posts.

- Louise

My connection to William Henry Shorten, who is my 2nd great-granduncle.



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