RICHARD AND ELIZA?S DAUGHTERS (AND A GRANDDAUGHTER OR TWO)
Over a twenty two year period, Richard and Eliza Birch had twelve children, including six daughters, five of whom survived into adulthood. The lives of these women, and two of their daughters, were intertwined as they shared homes, holidays and ultimately, their final resting places.
The first born was Charlotte Maud (known as Maud) and she was born in Adelaide in 1866. At the time, her father was working for a pharmaceutical company to further his experience in his chosen profession of pharmacy. Richard had followed in the footsteps of his father Lewis and three of his older brothers, Lewis Jnr, Edmund and Vernon by learning the trade as an apprentice in Perth.
Maud, now with a younger brother, returned to Perth with her parents when she was two and Richard resumed working with his brother Edmund in his pharmacy in Hay Street, opposite the Town Hall. That is, until a terrible accident tore the business apart and changed the course of Richard and Eliza?s lives.
On a Saturday night just before the Christmas of 1874, Richard was working by candlelight in a back storeroom of the shop. He carefully decanted off some alcohol into a jar when he noticed a small flame in the funnel. He ran into the front room to get his brother Edmund, who quickly gathered up the cask of alcohol and attempted to carry it outside. Before he could take more than a few steps however, the cask exploded, throwing a burning Edmund out the door. As he writhed on the ground, covered in flames and with a badly fractured leg, a neighbour threw herself on Edmund in an attempt to subdue the flames. Others rushed to assist and the flames were eventually extinguished. Edmund was taken to hospital where he lived for four agonising weeks before succumbing to his terrible injuries.
The pharmacy shop was lucky to remain standing although the storeroom was burnt to the ground. Edmund?s widow Anne handed the running of the business to her brother, Sidney Hymus, leaving Richard unemployed. Richard saw an opportunity in the fledgling port town of the colony and so he packed up his wife and five young children and moved to Fremantle where he set up his own pharmacy in High Street.
It was here in Fremantle that their third daughter, Edith Hannah May was born in 1880. She was given the honour of sharing the same christian name as her older sister, Edith Jane, who had not survived infancy back in Perth. Three more daughters followed one after the other - Eliza Ruth (known as Ruth) in 1882, Blanche Evaline Vera (known as Vera) in 1886 and Corona Violet (known as Onie) in 1888.
For six years of the girls childhood, the Fremantle Casualty Ward was set up in the back room of the family home. At the time, Fremantle did not have a hospital and when the government finally agreed to provide some money for the establishment of such a facility, Richard was quick in volunteering his home and services. The children became accustomed to seeing seriously injured wharf, railway or quarry workers in great pain being carried through to the back room. They saw their parents carefully nurse the patients back to health or readied for transfer to Perth, under the watchful eye of the the Fremantle Medical Officer, the one-legged Dr Henry Barnett. The children, and patients, always knew when he was coming by the sound of his crutches on the wooden floors.
As the eldest child, and a female, Maud helped her mother with the nursing duties as well as the cooking and cleaning and tending to her younger siblings. Fremantle finally got its own hospital in 1888 and the Casualty Ward closed.
Richard and Eliza were upstanding and valuable members of the local community. Richard was a member of the Pharmaceutical Council of WA; he was a Hospital Sergeant in the Fremantle Rifle Volunteers; Secretary of the Fremantle Literary Institute; a member of the Fremantle Volunteer Fire Brigade; Secretary of a temperance group; a member of the Fremantle District Board of Education and a regular jury member for coronial inquests. Eliza and he were valued and contributing members to churches in Fremantle - Richard was the Superintendent of the Wesleyan Sabbath School for a time before the family joined Scot?s Presbyterian Church. Maud herself was a Sunday School teacher at the Wesleyan church. So when it was obvious that their twenty seven year old, unmarried eldest daughter was pregnant, she was sent far away from the close knit, gossiping community of Fremantle to await the birth of the baby.
Maud was sent to the small town of Greenough, over 400 kilometres from Fremantle, to live with her Uncle and Aunt Thomas and Elizabeth Wiley. Thomas and his sister Eliza (Maud?s mother) had fled Ireland alone during the disastrous potato famine, to join their sister Margaret but leaving behind their parents and other siblings. Maud?s baby, a boy, arrived safely on 27th October 1894 and Maud named him Percy Gordon Evans Birch. He then vanishes and no further records can be found of him - maybe he was adopted and his name changed. The identity of his father also remains a mystery but perhaps the use of ?Evans? as a middle name is a clue.
Maud returned to Fremantle to live with her parents but two years later, she was pregnant again. This time, she is allowed to stay in Fremantle for the birth and delivers a baby girl, Daisy Swan, at the family home in Ord Street, Fremantle. A close family member, Maud?s cousin Blanche Trease, was even present for the birth. Little Daisy only lived for seven and a half months. Unusually, given the families close association with Scot?s Presbyterian Church, she was buried in the Roman Catholic section of Fremantle Cemetery. Maud certainly wasn't afraid to defy the norm!
The pattern continued when Maud delivered her third illegitimate child, another boy, Edward Leslie, in the second month of the new century. He was the first baby to be born at the new Birch home of ?Glnynnlough? in Scott Street, Fremantle. Again, no father is named. This time the baby only survived for ten weeks and he was buried in the Church of England section of the local cemetery.
Maud was not done yet. Less than two years after the arrival of Edward, she had her fourth and final baby. Muriel Emily arrived on the first day of October 1901 at ?Glnynnlough?. No father is named on Muriel?s birth or death certificates so she probably went all her life not knowing who her father was.
?Glnynnlough? was a full family home by now. Muriel grew up there with her mother, grandparents, Aunts Edith, Ruth, Vera and Onie and Uncles Walter and Clement (before they were married). From an early age, the girls enjoyed doing things together. Edith and Ruth performed together at various local concerts, including the monthly concerts for the Fremantle Lunatic Asylum, and they helped their mother organise the ?Dolls and Toys? stall for the family church at the annual Fremantle Spring Fete and Exhibition.
In the winter of 1906, Edith, or Edie, became the first of the sisters to get married. She was 26 when she married a Liverpudlian, the purser of the S.S.Charon, Noel McKee in Scot?s Church. Her sister Ruth was the bridesmaid and wore a delicate cream crepe-de-chine dress, trimmed with lace. Younger sisters Vera (20) and Onie (18) wore attractive green dresses and many more family joined them for the celebration. Although happy for Edie, the younger girls would have been sad to lose their older sister from the family home.
Four years later, the family assembled again but this time for a funeral. Their beloved father Richard passed away in the family home, ?Glnynnlough?, in the June of 1910 aged 68. All of Richard?s ten living children attended the large funeral two days later and he was buried in the Presbyterian section of the Fremantle cemetery. With their loved father and husband gone, and the brothers married, there was now only women living at ?Glnynnlough? - Eliza, 64, Maud, 43, Ruth, 28, Vera, 24, Onie, 22 and Muriel, 8. With just Ruth having a regular income from her work as a clerk, things would not have been easy. The women managed to remain at ?Glnynnlough? for a further three and a half years before having to sell the treasured family home. They stayed in Fremantle moving to a place in South Street. It was here that oldest daughter, Maud, became gravely ill, developing double pneumonia. She died on the 2nd of June 1915, aged just 47. Her daughter Muriel was only 13 years old. After using both the Roman Catholic and Church of England sections of Fremantle cemetery for her infant children, Maud was buried with her father in the Presbyterian section of the cemetery.
With her father unknown to her, and now no mother, Muriel was effectively an orphan. She had always been close to her Aunt Ruth and so it was a natural progression for Ruth to become a mother figure to her. It was a relationship that lasted for the rest of their lives. Ruth and Muriel lived at South Street with the other women for about seven years before the group split up. Onie had been living with the married sister, Edie McKee and her young children Audrey, Reg and Doug, in Moss Street, East Fremantle and then John Street, Fremantle for some time. However, she eventually moved back in with her mother and sisters and added her wages as a telephonist to the family income. But when the group split up, Onie was torn, even though the homes were only four blocks apart. She first lived in Attfield Street with her mother and sister Vera and then moved to Solomon Street with Ruth and Muriel.
Three days after the Christmas of 1922, Vera, who was now 36 years of age, moved into the Home of Good Shepherd in Leederville. She had been the only daughter living with her mother in Attfield Street. It is thought that she had an ailment that had progressively got worse over the years. Her mother had cared for her as long as she could, but now 76 herself, it was time to find alternative accommodation for Vera. The Home of Good Shepherd in Leederville was opened in 1904, as a home for wayward young women, older women who hard fallen on hard times and women with medical conditions or disabilities. The Sisters referred to their charges as ?children? and provided Vera with a loving home for 13 years.
This left the elderly Eliza living on her own, which could obviously not continue. So the remaining women all moved back in together at a home at 35 Agnes Street in Beaconsfield. Eliza later spent some time at the home of her son Walter, his wife Ellen and their children.
With living arrangements settled for the time being, Ruth, 42, youngest sister Onie, 36, and niece Audrey, almost 17, enjoyed a cruise to Carnarvon aboard the S.S. Charon. Audrey?s father, Noel, was still the purser on the S.S. Charon at the time.
Onie solved her living arrangements for good by marrying Irishman Patrick Kelly in June 1928. Patrick started with the Western Australian Government Railways in Merredin as a Porter and moved to Perth just weeks before the wedding. Onie was soon pregnant and waited anxiously for the birth of her first child. Little Keith Richard arrived on 8th April 1929 at Nurse Ashton?s Hospital in Beaufort Street, Mt Lawley. Mother and baby were both well. So what happened twelve days later was a tragedy. The baby developed severe jaundice and the frantic parents took him to a private hospital in Mt Lawley. But there was nothing the doctors could do to save the small infant and he passed away on 20th April. His funeral was held two days later and he is buried in the Presbyterian section of Karrakatta cemetery.
Edie and Ruth tried to help their youngest sister through her grief but when a job as a Porter in Kalgoorlie came up, the grieving parents took it. Onie left her cherished sisters and elderly mother to set up home in the hot dry goldfields town, 600 kilometres from Perth. And despite the new start on life, the sorrow of losing their only child never eased and ?their darling baby? was ?longed for always?1.
With her health deteriorating, Eliza, the girls mother, moved into the Salvation Army Old Women?s Home in North Fremantle. She passed away there on 25 January 1931 aged 85. She is buried with her husband and eldest daughter in the Presbyterian section of the Fremantle cemetery. Eliza was survived by 8 of her children and at the time of her death had 23 grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren.
35 Agnes Street, Beaconsfield was now home to only Ruth, 48 and niece Muriel, 29. With just Ruth?s wage to live on, they could no longer afford to keep living there. Ruth shifted in with Marjorie and Ann Birks in Victoria Parade in Claremont while Muriel went to live with her Aunt Edie and cousins Audrey, Reg and Doug. Edie and husband Noel had been living separately for some time and so Muriel was welcome to join her Aunt?s household in Coghlan Road, Subiaco.
Unfortunately, Edie, or May as she was now known, began to feel very unwell and was eventually diagnosed as having hepatitis. It was time for Ruth and Muriel to make more permanent living arrangements together. Ruth secured a job with the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA) as a clerk and arranged for her and Muriel to live in the YWCA?s headquarters in St Georges Terrace in Perth. The building ?Gledwyn? had been used as a headquarters and hostel for some fifteen years and generally provided short term accommodation for young country girls coming to the city to study or work. Ruth, who was in her fifties when she moved in there and Muriel, who was in her thirties, were obviously exceptions to this rule. They remained living there for the next 26 years possibly in exchange for helping with the girls, doing night duty and assisting the warden with the general running of the hostel. After ten years or so living at the YWCA, Ruth?s occupation appeared as ?Housekeeper?.
Ruth and Muriel had only been at the YWCA for a few months, when their treasured sister and aunt, May, passed away. Her early death, at age 56, was a great loss for her sisters, brothers and three children. With the middle son Reg already married, Audrey and Doug had to leave the home in Coghlan Road and found a house to share in Walker Avenue, West Perth.
In the autumn of 1938, without her mother, Audrey, 31, was the chief organiser of a family afternoon tea in honour of her Aunt Blanche Sackett who was visiting from California. Blanche had been present at the birth of Maud?s second illegitmate child and had remained in close contact with her family despite the distance of miles between them. Audrey?s Aunts Ruth, Onie, Ellen (Walter?s wife), cousin Gwen and Blanche?s sister Juanita, were among the guests who enjoyed the music and chatter at the Aldephi Hotel.
Onie was back living in Perth now so she could enjoy attending family events such as the afternoon tea. She and sister Ruth also enjoyed a holiday together to visit relatives in the Murray river region of WA during the summer of 1941. The following year, Onie and husband Patrick moved into a home in Coghlan Road, Subiaco just two doors down from sister May?s former home.
Meanwhile, niece Audrey, a telephonist, lived with teacher Lizzie Hetherington in Maylands for a while after her brother Doug married, before moving to Kalgoorlie. When she returned to Perth, she lived with Doug and wife Edith for a time in Scarborough before she set off on an extended holiday to visit other relatives in Sydney and New Zealand. Perhaps it was on this trip that she met her future husband, Albert Jerkins. Albert was a plumber from Victoria and they were married in Perth in 1947. In the first years of their marriage, Audrey and Albert lived in various places in Victoria including Yallourn, Newborough and then Melbourne.
Audrey enjoyed visits back to her home state to visit family and enjoyed time with her father in March 1951 before once again boarding the train to head home. The marriage was faltering however and with no children and no family around her, Audrey moved back to Perth. Eventually, they were divorced and Albert married again.
The next sister to pass away was Vera. After 13 years living at the Home of Good Shepherd, she had moved into aged care at the age of 49. Her final years were spent at the government run Woodbridge House on the banks of the Swan River in Guildford. In the spring of 1948, Vera developed pneumonia and a kidney infection and had to be hospitalised. After suffering for over three weeks, she quietly passed away on 17 October 1948 aged 62. She was buried the following day in the Presbyterian section of Karrakatta Cemetery, alone in an unmarked grave.
After more than a quarter of a century at the YWCA, Ruth and Muriel had to leave when the YWCA finally closed the ageing ?Gledwyn? and opened brand new premises in Havelock Street, West Perth. They couldn't find suitable accommodation together so Ruth moved into Killara, a C Class Hospital in Outram Street, West Perth and Muriel moved to a Guest Home run by the Churches of Christ at 5 Osborne Street, Joondanna. Six years later, on a Thursday in August, Muriel suffered a major heart attack. An ambulance was called but Muriel did not last the journey into Royal Perth Hospital and passed away in the ambulance. She was 67. She was buried five days later in the Presbyterian section of Karrakatta Cemetery. Her Aunt Ruth was left to mourn the loss of her beloved niece and life long companion and so when she too died nearly five years later, aged 91, she was buried in the same plot as her niece.
Two years before Ruth?s death, the youngest sister, Onie had also passed away. Onie had never had any more children after the death of her son Keith and had lived with her husband Patrick in West Perth while he worked as a school cleaner and night watchman after retiring from the Government railways. The couples final home together was in a complex of flats in Subiaco called Wandana. They were living there when Patrick passed away in 1963.
Onie remained living at Wandana by herself as long for as she could before a move into a nursing home became necessary. She became a resident of the Santralia Nursing Home in Victoria Park and passed away there on 15th September 1972. In her will, Onie left all of her estate to her niece Audrey.
Audrey was the last woman remaining of this group of ordinary women living their lives together. She had suffered terribly from Rheumatoid Arthritis for many years and as her health declined, she became a resident of the Homes of Peace in Subiaco. It was here that she passed away in December 1981 aged 74. She is buried in the Presbyterian section of Karrakatta Cemetery with her Aunt Onie.
All the women, except Onie, died as single women. The love, support and friendship they gave each other through all the ups and downs of their lives, was enough to nurture and sustain them over the years.