European Women on the Frontier: Mary Ann Armit

By Lynley Wallis and Heather Burke

As with much history, the stories of women are largely missing from histories of the Native Mounted Police (NMP). Yet despite this absence it’s clear that most NMP camps were also occupied by women, both Aboriginal and European. Like most colonial women, the European wives of NMP officers faced a life of hard work and high risk (Footnote 1).

It’s interesting to consider how much these women would have known about the activities of their husbands, and what they thought about them. There are no letters known from any of the European women in the NMP camps that discuss such things, but it is unlikely they remained oblivious. Perhaps they and their children told themselves a standard narrative about the braveness of their husbands and fathers, keeping the settlers on the frontier safe from marauding savages. While officers did not typically take part in the killings, and so would not have returned from patrols bloodied, the troopers did the dirty work. Often stripped down to nought but their distinctive red banded cap, it is hard to imagine them carrying out the killings they did without being bloodied in the process. Indeed, descriptions of two Cooktown troopers returning to their barracks in the centre of town descried them appearing

“in full daylight, and in a main street of Cooktown, … with their clothes in the same condition as those of a clumsy butcher’s apprentice fresh from the shambles” (Rockhampton Bulletin 2 February 1877, p3).

For a European woman residing in an NMP camp to be unaware of the oftentimes gruesome work of her husband would have required maintaining some level of wilful self-deception, given her own observations. Possibly they maintained the deception by contrasting the ‘semi-civilised’ Aboriginal people in the camps who had the ‘benefit’ of contact with white people, against the wild nature of the ‘myalls’ who were still living traditional lives in the bush.

In the post we consider the life of Mary Ann Armit (nee Barton), and the hardships and loneliness [link to loneliness post] she faced while her husband William Armit was employed as an NMP Sub-Inspector posted to remote parts of Qld.

The Life and Losses of Mary Ann Armit

On 22 September 1871 William married Mary Ann, then a housekeeper from Kilkenny in Ireland, in a Church of England ceremony at Bohle (near Townsville). We don’t know how old Mary Ann was at the time of her marriage, nor the circumstances of how she arrived in Qld from Ireland. Nevertheless, at the time of their marriage William was employed as a stockman at Dotswood station, west of Townsville (see Figure 1), and Mary Ann could have little anticipated what her future would hold. She might have contemplated a life working on pastoral stations, living perhaps at the head station but just as likely at a remote outpost with only her husband for company and the occasional excitement of the visit of a ration runner. While this was a life she would have been somewhat prepared for, and perhaps familiar with, William’s tenure as a stockman did not last long, and he was appointed an Acting Sub-Inspector of the NMP on 6 June 1872. Thereafter, the life Mary Ann actually experienced had some similarities with her previously imagined future, being a broken series of remote postings on the colonial frontier interspersed with apparently short periods in Sydney or Brisbane. However, when William embarked on his new career she could not possibly have held a detailed understanding of what it might mean to have a husband who would be regularly working with Aboriginal men carrying out the brutal work of quelling resistance on the frontier.

Figure 1 Bohle River area near Dotswood 1800s (courtesy Townsville City Library).

In 1872 the young family was sent to the NMP camp at Bellenden Plains, on the Murray River, 20 miles north of Cardwell. We know little about this initial period of William’s service, except that he would have been regularly away from the camp and Mary Ann, patrolling the coast and neighbouring islands on a vessel especially tasked for that purpose. Although there was a lot of cattle spearing going on in the region at the time, with constant complaints in the local press and presumably direct requests for the NMP to ‘do their job’, no specific records of extrajudicial killings in which William was involved have been located.

Mary Ann and William resided at Bellenden Plains through at least his initial year of service with the NMP, and their first child, John Lees Goldham Elphinstone Armit, was born in the camp on 12 April 1873. Although the births of many of their subsequent children were announced in national newspapers, this was not the case for John; it is likely that placing a notice from such a remote locality made the effort impractical. As documented in the District Register of Births maintained by local Police Magistrate Brinsley Sheridan, Bridget Fitzgerald was a witness at the birth. While we do not know anything more about Bridget, it seems probable she was a local European woman who served as mid-wife. Given the remote location, it was likely she and Mary Ann maintained a friendship as a small cohort of white women in similarly challenging circumstances away from society.

Tragedy struck the Armit family when John died at 9 months of age on 17 January 1874 while Mary Ann was in Sydney; by this time William had been transferred to the NMP camp at Cashmere (on the Upper Herbert River) and granted a promotion to second class Sub-Inspector. It is not clear whether Mary Ann was actually living in Sydney, or perhaps just visiting there when John died, but she was definitely pregnant with their second child.

Her second pregnancy resulted in another son, named William Robert Yeldham, whom she gave birth to on 28 May 1874 in Townsville. Perhaps a negative first experience, difficult pregnancy and/or lack of a mid-wife had led to Mary Ann to head to Townsville for this second birth. Any fears she may have had were realised when William survived just six days before he succumbed to ‘atrophy’; he was buried in the Townsville cemetery. Sometime afterwards Mary Ann returned from Townsville to join William at Cashmere. The posting at Cashmere was perhaps generally an especially unhappy one, with the couple losing virtually everything they owned in a flood in February 1875, for which securing compensation was a years’ long exercise. In William’s own words, this “almost ruined” him (QSA847000 4 May 1875). No doubt the emotional stress of losing two children in quick succession in the preceding years contributed to the sense of doom he expressed in his letter.

For Mary Ann, who was again pregnant and nearing the time of confinement, the flood on top of the deaths of her first two children probably cast a fearful shadow over her third pregnancy (Footnote 2), with an understandable fear that something might again go wrong. Furthermore, William described Mary Ann at this time as being “very ill”, which implies the pregnancy was problematic (QSA847000 14 February 1879).

On 7 April 1875, in the Cashmere camp, seemingly without a white woman or doctor to support her (or, at least without one being documented on the register of the birth), Mary Ann gave birth to their third child, a daughter, whom they named Elizabeth Euphemia Yeldham Armit. It is likely one of the Aboriginal women in the camp served as mid-wife, an apparently common practice in remote regions (Saunders and Spearritt 1991:70). Having lost two, possibly three sons, Mary Ann might have thought that the arrival of a daughter would bring better luck to her small family.

When William was transferred in the latter half of 1875, the Armit family moved to the larger camp of Dunrobin, on the outskirts of the bustling township of Georgetown in the Etheridge District. The discovery of gold in the District in 1869 had led to relatively large influx of miners, perhaps as many as 3000. While most of them were men, there would have been the occasional woman, and a township in close proximity that at least gave some semblance of not being entirely distant from civilisation. As such, life may have been somewhat less isolated and lonely for Mary Ann.

While there had been considerable conflict across the Etheridge District from 1869–1875 as Aboriginal people refused to cede their country to the usurpers without a fight, not long after Mary Ann and William arrived at Dunrobin, gold was discovered on the Palmer River to the northeast. Coupled with the fact that much of the easy gold had already been picked off the Etheridge field, the second half of the 1870s saw a massive decline in the population around Georgetown as people realised the Palmer was not just a ‘flash in the pan’ field and made for it in droves. As such, the Dunrobin posting became somewhat less dangerous for William, and Mary Ann possibly began to feel hopeful about their future. This feeling must have intensified when on 23 February 1877, she gave birth to a second daughter, named Emily Mary Yeldham, at the Dunrobin NMP camp. Again, the register of the birth gives no indication that there was a mid-wife or other witness in attendance, although it is entirely possible that an Aboriginal woman or women served in this role.

The happiness surrounding the arrival of their second daughter was short-lived; ten months later their older daughter Elizabeth died of inflammatory croup two months shy of her third birthday and just after Christmas, on 29 December 1877 (Brisbane Courier, 23 April 1877, p2; Brisbane Courier, 9 February 1878, p4). Archaeological survey of the Dunrobin camp in May 2017 revealed a probable gravestone (Figure 2), but as Elizabeth is buried in the cemetery at Georgetown, and as Eleanor died at Normanton (see below), it doesn’t appear likely the grave is theirs. Of course it is possible that the marker at Dunrobin was erected to give Mary Ann somewhere to visit to express her grief, and it might equally have been the grave of someone else.

Figure 2 Grave marker at the Dunrobin NMP camp.

When Mary Ann gave birth again on 6 February 1879 to Eleanor Euphemia Yeldham, she was not taking any chances, relocating to “her residence” in South Brisbane. William, meanwhile, had been transferred again and suffered a reduction in pay. His police staff file sheds little light on exactly what was behind these actions, but he was clearly agitated by them:

In July last I was suddenly transferred to Bynoe and my salary reduced to a second class sub Inspector and later I was still further reduced by one shilling per diem so that I am now actually in receipt of eighteen pounds per annum less than second class Sub Inspectors in this District who are several years my juniors in point of Rank & Service. In addition to this I had to sacrifice nearly all my furniture and pay passages & freight to Normanton. (QSA562917 1880 Letter from William Armit to Commissioner of Police 17 February, William E. Armit Police Staff file).

While Mary Ann had left north Qld and the hardships of bush life, the move south appears only to have been temporary, as in March the following year (1880) she was in Normanton, 300 km west of Georgetown and its nearest port. It was here, a month after her first birthday, that baby Eleanor passed away from “convulsions” on Good Friday, 26 March 1880, turning what should have been a happy Easter period into another one tempered by grief for the Armit family.

The death of four of his children was sufficiently significant for William to mention it to the Colonial Secretary when pleading his case for financial compensation for his losses at Cashmere:

I have been very unlucky, having at different times buried four of my little children in the North, and I now ask you for this sum to enable me to meet my engagements as I have never had even a chance since 1875 of saving ever so little. (QSA847000 1879 Letter from William Armit to Colonial Secretary 14 February, In letter 79/443, Mfilm 94583)

Mary Ann must have been beside herself; it seemed that every child she bore was destined to die young. And while high rates of child mortality were common in nineteenth century Australia, knowing that it was happening to other people would not have made the losses any easier for either Armit parent to bear.

Possibly coupled with a desire to self-medicate as a form of therapy for dealing with the emotional fall out of the work he was involved in, the heartache of losing so many children may have been a factor in William starting to drink heavily. He was dismissed from the NMP on disciplinary grounds for drunkenness on 15 July 1880, though was reappointed as a first-class sub-inspector 6 months later on 1 January 1881 following a reconsideration of his case. His second stint in the NMP lasted 16 months before he was dismissed due to disciplinary action in relation to financial irregularities on 14 April 1882.

The emotional stress of pregnancy and childbirth in a remote outpost, an often absent husband, and then the loss of a child would have weighed heavily on any woman. This must have been the case for Mary Ann, who had lost so much so often. The Armits eventually had four more children: Lionel Percy Barton Armit, born in 1884, Reginald Edgar Lees Armit, born in 1886, Ruby Pearl Armit, born in 1888, and Eleanor Euphemia Yeldham Armit, born in 1891. Mary Ann outlived William, who died in British New Guinea in 1901. While William was remembered variously as a collector, botanist, author, civil servant, magistrate and killer (Gibbney n.d.; Sinclair 1990), Mary Ann is largely a cipher. Her life had taken her from Ireland to outback Qld, to New Guinea and then to Sydney, What she imagined for her life on her marriage to William and what she felt looking back on it after his death is as mysterious as she is herself: we have no photographs of her or of any of the children, and her own voice is silent in historical documents.

References

Gibbney, H.J. n.d. Armit, William Edington (de Marguerites) (1848–1901). Australian Dictionary of Biography online.

Saunders, K. and K. Spearritt 1991 Is there life after birth? Childbirth, death and danger for settler women in colonial Queensland. Journal of Australian Studies 15(29):64–79.

Sinclair, J. 1990 To Find a Path: The Life and Times of the Royal Pacific Islands Regiment Volume 1 – YESTERDAY’S HEROES 1885 TO 1950. Brisbane: Boolarong Publications.

QSA847000 1875 Affidavit by William Armit 4 May, In letter 79/443, Mfilm 94583; see also QSA847000 1879 Letter from William Armit to Colonial Secretary 14 February, In letter 79/443, Mfilm 94583

QSA847000 1879 Letter from William Armit to Colonial Secretary 14 February, In letter 79/443, Mfilm 94583

QSA562917 1880 Letter from William Armit to Commissioner of Police 17 February, William E. Armit Police Staff file

Footnotes

  1. A particular health risk not faced by their husbands was childbirth, which was a major cause of female death in the nineteenth century. For instance, in Queensland in 1878 a pregnant woman had one chance in 21 of dying in labour (Saunders and Spearritt 1991:67).
  2. Interestingly, the birth certificates for Elizabeth and Emily indicate that Mary Ann and William had in fact three deceased male children rather than two. This suggests that Mary Ann may have lost a third male child late in pregnancy or at birth, the details of which were not recorded in any official registers.

 

2 thoughts on “European Women on the Frontier: Mary Ann Armit

  1. It is not possible to understand the past from the modern age and more so if we do not learn all we can about the culture and context of the times. It does not help to retrofit modern attitudes to the past because that betrays those who lived in the past.

    It is rare to lose a child today, in the 19th century and prior, particularly in testing colonies, it was common. Grief is as much about what we believe as it is about the loss. In those times many if not most were Christian and that supported in some small measure, the loss of children.

    Just as Aboriginal women would have had different reactions to the loss of their children, whether by chance because of the demands and primitive nature of life, or by design and necessity, infanticide, so too would European women of the colonial age.

    In the same way, it is not possible to understand the actions of some Native Police without understanding Aboriginal cultures and practices, Anglo-European cultures in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, and the environments in which these people lived. Aboriginal cultures practised vendettas without mercy against other tribes and clans and Europeans and Aboriginal peoples both lived in fear of the most merciless and bloodthirsty Aboriginal enemies. Context is all.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s