A Quick Glimpse: A Sad Departure

My Paternal Grandmother: Mary Agnes Macvean née Mercer.

Margaret Agnes Macvean nee Mercer (c)
(pictured with her daughters, Karen, directly in front and Jerroldine to her left. I think the other woman might be her sister-in-law, Marjorie Wilson, nee Macvean and her daughter, Gale.)
Figure 1: Courtesy of the Macvean Family Archives, generously shared by Greg Palmer (Cousin)

If you have read my previous post about my grandparent’s wedding, (Macvean Mercer Wedding) you will be aware that the details I know of their life are scarce. Certainly in comparison to my Nan and Pop, Kath & Norm, on my maternal line. My recent research on Margaret and John has certainly given me more than I had before I started following the details of their wedding notice in that post.

One of the details I was aware of before my research began, was that Margaret died at a very young age and that my Dad and his sisters were only teenagers when it happened.

I have no memory of ever speaking to my Dad about this or, in actual fact, anything about his life growing up. My memory is of my Mum telling me what she knew about Dad back then. On reflection, I think the very fact that my Mum did this, talking to me without Dad, I somehow picked up that I just shouldn’t ask him anything. It wasn’t just this action but coupled with many other things that she told me about my Dad that sealed this course of silence for me. (Details for another post)

I was probably about 10 or 11 years of age when Mum shared what happened to Margaret. She explained that my Dad was having some major difficulties at school, she never went into any details but said that school just wasn’t working for him. It got so bad for him that the family decided that he would go to his Uncle and Aunt’s property north of Sydney and Jackaroo for a time.

I don’t know how long dad was working at the property, but Mum said that the family had decided to travel up to visit Dad for his birthday and to spend Christmas with him and the family. It was 1957, Dad was 15 years old and about to turn 16 on the 25th of December.

Mum told me that my grandmother, Margaret, was a larger-sized lady and that the heat of the summer that year was extreme and that it had such a bad effect on her while she was there, that she died suddenly of heat exhaustion.

It is funny the things that stick in your mind as a child but I remember exactly how Mum explained the incident to me. She said that it was so hot that the Cockatoos that were sitting on the rim of the water tank were dying themselves from the heat and dropping into the water. For ages afterwards, I had it in my mind that my Grandmother had fallen into the water tank as well. I think it was probably just too much to take in at that age.

Fast forward a couple of decades, and I go searching for details of Margaret’s passing, and this amazing sliver of an article appears. It is the one and only mention that appears in any of the press of the day.

Figure 2: Courtesy of Trove, the National Library of Australia

How lucky, once again, to have access to this article and I am so grateful to that long-lost reporter or editor who thought it newsworthy to print.

We never knew which Uncle and Aunt it was that Dad was staying with and what property he was working on. Now, this article basically confirms all the details of what happened except for whether Margaret died as a result of heat exhaustion or not. No one has ever ordered a copy of her death registration so I don’t have a copy to confirm. It will be the next registration I order.

What hit me here was that line about the two Mrs Macveans training at the Coast hospital. If you read my previous post, you’ll know I mentioned that I had the Coast hospital in mind for my grandmother, and this is obviously where it came from. I had seen this many years ago before I started researching, and it had stuck. This gave me a good starting point to try and confirm where Dad was and what Aunt and Uncle he was with.

My Grandfather, John, only had one brother, Alexander Douglas Macvean, who was older by two years. This is the one and only photo I have of him.

Alexander Douglas Macvean
Figure 3: Courtesy of the Macvean Family Archives, generously shared by Greg Palmer (Cousin)

I knew from Ancestry.com that Alexander was married to Grace Stewart and I’m fairly sure I remember my Mum mentioning Aunty Grace, she lived until 1980. My wanderings on Trove also informed me that the Stewarts were another big pastoral name in Germanton (Holbrook) at the same time as the Macveans.

Remembering my luck with the nursing registration from my last post, when I went looking for my grandmother’s friends she trained with, I went back to those lists, and you wouldn’t believe what I found. On the very same registration that showed Nance Caldwell as one of those friends from the dinner at Hotel Kosciusko (checkout previous post again-Mercer Macvean Wedding) and who had trained with my Grandmother, look whose name appears.

Figure 4: Courtesy of Trove, the National Library of Australia

In the second last line of the article above, Grace Stewart, the future sister-in-law of Margaret, although the wedding to Alexander is another 13 years away at this stage. I love it when certain points of interest converge and you can confirm details.

Here is Margaret’s registration. She graduated six months earlier than Grace, but it confirms that over the four years of training, they were indeed at the Coast Hospital together.

Figure 5: Courtesy of Trove, the National Library of Australia

So I feel confident in saying that Grace and Alexander Macvean are the Aunt and Uncle that my Dad stayed with but now to link them to Beemery Station.

There is absolutely nothing out there, at this time, that I can find to link them with the station. I did find out a lot about the station. I’ll share a little below.

Beemery Station sits on the Kamilaroi Highway roughly halfway between Bourke, which is 40kms west and Brewarrina 50kms to the east, along the Bogan River. A quick search on Trove, on the National Library of Australia’s site and it revealed that it has been in existence for a long time. This is the earliest mention I can find of it to date.

Figure 6: Courtesy of Trove, the National Library of Australia

The 1950s provided a few articles on a manager of the station, named Geoff Bowden. Still no closer to whether he was managing for Grace and Alexander as the owners or perhaps he was the manager before their time.

Figure 7
Figure 8
Figure 9

Figure 7-9: Courtesy of Trove, National Library of Australia

Well if Geoff’s escapades are anything to go by, life for my dad, Alexander and Grace must have been interesting, to say the least in their time at Beemery.

No photos of the station have emerged as yet but I did manage to find a couple of aerial shots.

Beemery Station, Bourke, NSW
Figure 10: Courtesy of Aloeus Maps
Beemery Station, Bourke, NSW
Figure 11: Courtesy of Aloeus Maps

I can now confirm that this is indeed the place where my grandmother, Margaret died. The Electoral Rolls below, which are accessible on Ancestry.com just confirmed it.

Figure 12: Courtesy of Ancestry.com

I recall mum telling me that of course after Margaret’s passing my grandfather, John and presumably the rest of the family had to organise to get Margaret’s body back to Sydney. I imagine this would have been a huge ordeal. Google Maps today indicates that it is an 11 and a half hour journey from Bourke to Sydney today in 2023.

Imagine the shock of the family just losing their mother, wife, friend and sister-in-law (Margaret passed away on the 23rd of December), did they try to continue on with Christmas and my dad’s birthday or did they have to begin the journey back to Sydney straight away. The logistics that come to mind are numbing.

Did Margaret’s body have to stay at the property or did they need to move her to the mortuary in Bourke? Is there a Mortuary in Bourke? Imagine the trip back to Bourke from Beemery, it is a journey of approximately 45 km. I can’t imagine they were sealed roads back then and I’m sure there wouldn’t have been any air-conditioned vans. The heat would have been a real problem as well.

Another thing to consider was, as it was Christmas, were the trains running regularly back to Sydney at that time? The train service was still running then, in 1957/58. But then it ceased in the 1970s and was replaced by a coach service. It must have been so horrible for the family to deal with.

I can find no other mention of the family at this time, no other death notices or funeral notices. I discovered back in the early 2000s that Margaret and John were interred at the cemetery at Matraville in Sydney. A search of their website confirms Margaret’s funeral date and answers some of the questions above.

Figure 14: Courtesy of Southern Metropolitan Cemeteries NSW

So we can assume from this listing that my grandmother’s funeral was on the 27th of December 1957, just four days from her death and about 800kms from Beemery.

I, of course, went searching for Margaret’s resting place and it was actually a very bitter-sweet moment. Bitter because I was shocked to see that there was absolutely no headstone for her at all, in actual fact, it looked like the grave had been disturbed as there was a load of dried dirt in the top corner.

Figure 15: Courtesy of the Macvean Family Archives

I made contact with the crematorium office to ask what this might be about and they informed me that they have a real problem with rats and feral cats and that they dig into the open graves like this.

My grandmother was the first relative that I went searching for their burial place, so I had no idea not to expect a headstone, after all these years it has unfortunately become the norm.

I made enquiries about what needed to happen if we want to get a headstone installed and oh my god, the crematorium consultants described the most onerous-sounding process that started with trying to work out who had ownership over the site. I didn’t give up but it is just not something that I could take on at that moment.

The sweet part of the moment, apart from finding Margaret was actually finding out that she is buried with her Mum, Mary Agnes Mercer, nee Stapleton. I actually cried when I heard this. The poor woman working in the office, she didn’t know how to handle this hairy biker-looking character having a bit of a blub.

I decided that I needed to do something for them both so I put this in place. With Alex and the boys’ help of course.

Figure 16: Courtesy of the Macvean Family Archives

I know it will probably be removed but I will just replace it if I see it missing. Before Covid hit us at the beginning of 2020, I would visit them on each trip to Sydney, just to put some flowers on the grave. They also have a great little cafe on the other side of Margaret and Mary’s gravesite and they do a fantastic coffee and bacon and egg roll. So I grab one of those combinations and then just spend some time with my grandparents and my great-grandmother.

Figure 17: Courtesy of the Macvean Family Archives

Just to finish off, here is my grandad’s resting place. He is about 500 meters away from Margaret and Mary on the other side of this section of the park, so within walking distance which is great.

Figure 18: Courtesy of the Macvean Family Archives
Figure 19: Courtesy of the Macvean Family Archives