31 December, 2017

Thomas and Ellen

The starting point in researching my previous post about 'Ingleby' was Thomas Armytage, the eldest son of George Armytage and Elizabeth Peters of Bagdad, Tasmania. Thomas was born at Hobart on 17th January, 1820 and baptised just over two months later on 20th March (Register of Baptisms in Tasmania). 
Baptismal record of Thomas Armytage taken from the Register of Baptisms in
He spent his early years in Tasmania - or Van Diemen's Land as it was then known - but in May, 1836 he and his father were amongst the earliest settlers to land at Point Gellibrand (Williamstown) with sheep, intending to establish a squatting run in the Port Phillip District. Following the abandonment of an earlier settlement at Mt Cottrell the Armytage sheep were moved to the banks of the Barwon where they were put in the care of John Charles Darke who held land in the Barrabool Hills. As mentioned in my previous post, when the explorers Joseph Tice Gellibrand and George Hesse went missing somewhere along the upper reaches of the Barwon early in 1837, Thomas Armytage was one of a number of settlers to mount a search party to look for the men. It was during the course of their search that Thomas first saw the land - not far from the present day town of Winchelsea - which he would occupy as a squatting run on his father's behalf.
By 1838, Thomas was advertising for shepherds willing to travel to Port Phillip to tend his flock on the newly established run, giving his address as Bagdad (The Austral-Asiatic Review. Tasmanian and Australian Advertiser, 16th July, 1838). Two years later in mid-1840 Thomas was advertising once again, this time seeking general staff to work on his grazing run (The Hobart Town Courier and Van Diemen's Land Gazette, 10th April, 1840) and in July he was granted an official licence by the government to depasture his stock (Port Phillip Gazette, 29th July, 1840).
During this time as he established his base, Thomas travelled between the station and his father's property at Bagdad. It was presumably during one such visit that he made the acquaintance of a widow by the name of Ellen Richardson. Ellen was an English immigrant who had arrived in the colony on the 9th March, 1841 aboard the ship Laura. It was later stated that her late husband was a businessman who had died, leaving her impoverished and with no option but to take a post as a governess and it was in this role that she accompanied the merchant George Borrodaile and his family to Van Diemen's Land. (Note: whilst I have seen no suggestion of a relationship to the Borrodaile family, I did discover that this family were related to Richardsons through a maternal line.)
Soon after her arrival, Ellen was employed by George Armytage at Bagdad as governess to his younger children and it was during this time she met Thomas (Colonial Times, 19th June, 1844). By all accounts, Ellen was an attractive woman - a point which was mentioned many times in the media - and despite an age disparity of perhaps 10 years or more - Thomas being around 20 and she possibly in her 30s - the couple undertook a secret affair. It was later revealed that a number of "letters" passed between the pair, arranging assignations in the garden or for Thomas to slip up to Ellen's room ("mind the stairs do not creek"(sic)) whilst the rest of his family were still in bed.
Whilst it later transpired that some servants were aware of the liaison, it is not clear whether Thomas approached his father or the other way around, but he soon made it clear to his parents that he wanted to marry Ellen. Unsurprisingly perhaps, George Sr did not view the match favourably. Ellen was significantly older than his son and a widow of limited means; not an appropriate match for the son of a man who no doubt saw himself as a gentleman of note (his own convict ancestry notwithstanding). Eventually however, he agreed to the match, with several conditions.
George Armytage Sr. Image held by the University of
Melbourne Archives
Firstly, Thomas would to return to Port Phillip as planned and if upon his return to Van Diemen's Land, they still wished to marry, then they could do so. Even this stipulation however was conditional upon "satisfactory answers [being] returned to some letters which Mrs. Richardson had sent home to England" (Colonial Times, 19th June, 1844). Presumably the letters would confirm her widowed status and good character.
Lastly, George Sr stipulated that Thomas and Ellen were not to correspond whilst Thomas was away. This last condition, the couple ignored. And so after staying several months, Thomas returned to Port Phillip to tend his flocks. In the meantime, Ellen who had decided even prior to Thomas' arrival to leave George Sr's employment, branched out on her own and established a boarding school for young ladies.
Despite leaving his service, George Sr was impressed enough by Ellen's teaching skills, that he assisted her by providing a house from which she operated her school, known as 'Eleanora Cottage'. The syllabus included English and French, music, dancing, geography, history, writing, arithmetic, the use of globes and instruction in both plain and fancy needlework. Drawing, singing and Italian could be taken as extracurricular subjects. The cost per student was £50 per annum including washing (Colonial Times, 16th November, 1841).
At first, all was well and the school flourished. With George Sr's patronage and his glowing endorsements that she was "very clever, and fit to teach the Queen's children in the palace (The Port Phillip Patriot and Morning Advertiser, 21st April, 1846) a number of notable citizens sent their children to be educated.
Meanwhile at Port Phillip, Thomas continued to establish his property which included around 3,000 acres adjoined by a sheep run. His home station consisted of a fenced 5 acre garden with a further 50 acres under cultivation and his stock included 10,000 sheep, 100 cattle and 10 horses as well as working bullocks (Colonial Times, 22nd November, 1842).
Life however, was far from easy as Thomas had to battle not only the elements and the isolation, but also disease and by June, 1842 he was struggling to control an outbreak of "scab" in his flock.
Scab in sheep flocks was the scourge of the Australian wool industry during the 19th century. It occurs when the animals become infested with the sheep scab mite which feeds on dead skin cells, causing intense irritation of the skin - dermatitis - which results in loss of fleece and the appearance of yellow scabs on the skin. It can cause death if left untreated. Strict control measures were introduced to stop the spread of scab and infected animals were treated by dipping in a sulphur and lime solution or some other compound which killed the mites. A second dipping was then required to kill any eggs which subsequently hatched.
Whilst not on the Barwon, this sheep wash on the Goulburn River gives an idea
of what was involved (1857). Image held by the National Library of Australia
Other control methods involved restricting the movement of animals between properties and on 11th July, 1842 Thomas posted a notice in the Geelong Advertiser warning others against driving scab-infested sheep across his property.
Sadly, it may have been this attempt to rid his flock of disease which resulted in Thomas' untimely death at the age of only 22 on 12th September, 1842 from what was described as 'typhus fever'. His final illness was indicated as being about ten days duration and later newspaper reports indicate that Thomas "died from going into water from sheep-washing after taking Calomel" (Cornwall Chronical, 29th June, 1844). Thomas was buried at the Eastern Cemetery in Geelong on the following day, the first burial in the austere Armytage-Hopkins family mausoleum. Later events reveal that upon receiving the news of Thomas' death, Ellen accompanied the family to church the following Sunday to mourn their loss (The Port Phillip Patriot and Morning Advertiser, 21st April, 1846).
The Armytage-Hopkins mausoleum at the Eastern Cemetery, Geelong,
November, 2017
Following his son's death, George Sr travelled to the property which, under the name of 'Glenmore' (the name 'Ingleby' is not mentioned prior to 1848), was advertised for sale or lease in the Colonial Times on 22nd November, 1842. Despite this, history shows that the property remained in the Armytage family with Thomas' younger brother George Jr taking up the reins.
One consequence of Thomas' death was a flurry of correspondence between various parties in Van Diemen's Land and the Port Phillip District. Firstly, in the course of winding up his son's affairs, George Sr wrote to his overseer Edward Stockdale requesting that he forward Thomas' correspondence to him at Bagdad. Before Stockdale could do this however, he received a letter from George Jr instructing him to forward only those letters which were of a business nature, keeping aside personal correspondence which "might hurt his [George Jr's] father's mind" and specifically that from Ellen (Geelong Advertiser, 9th April, 1845). This Stockdale did and after reading portions of Ellen's letters, he put them in a box.
 Ellen, meantime was well aware that the letters she had written to Thomas may fall into the hands of her hitherto generous benefactor and former employer George Armytage Sr with whom she had had a falling out over upkeep of the cottage in which she ran her school (The Colonial Times, 19th June, 1844). Concerned no doubt for her reputation and that of her school, Ellen wrote a number of letters; one to Mr Harrison (presumably James Harrison, editor of the Geelong Advertiser), another to a Mr Lloyd, a third to Edward Stockdale and a fourth to Solomon Austin, whom she knew from her voyage to Australia.
She requested that Stockdale collect a letter from the Geelong Post Office which she had mailed on the very day news of Thomas' death arrived, however Stockdale discovered upon enquiry that Lloyd had already collected the letter. She also asked that Solomon write to his brother Josiah at Port Phillip where the Austins were neighbours of the Armytages and request that Josiah retrieve any correspondence Ellen had sent to Thomas from his personal effects.
And this presumably should have been an end to it, however whilst Stockdale passed most of the letters on to the servant of Josiah Austin, he held several back, placing them in a wooden box. Then, some 17 months after Thomas' death, whilst George Jr was in Port Phillip, Stockdale rediscovered the remaining letters whilst searching through boxes and handed them to George who in turn handed them, unread by him, to his parents (The Austral-Asiatic Review. Tasmanian and Australian Advertiser, 29th June, 1844). It was claimed by Stockdale that he retained the letters for his own amusement because he considered them "curious".
Reading between the lines however, the "missing" letters were just the beginning of Ellen's problems. By October, 1843 it seems that rumours were circulating about her character, many of them it was later alleged, traceable to George Armytage Sr. With the arrival of the letters carried by George Jr in February, 1844, his father perhaps felt justified in the claims he was making and spoke to a number of the parents whose children attended Ellen's school, which by this time she had moved to the town of Brighton. As a result of so much rumour swirling around the small community, unsurprisingly, Ellen's student numbers began to decline rapidly. George removed his own children during 1843 and by May 1844 the last of the students departed and what had been a thriving school closed finally in September, 1844 (The Port Phillip Patriot and Morning Advertiser, 21st April, 1846).
By this time however, Ellen had been pushed too far and felt the time had come to take measures to obtain compensation for her loss of income. To that end, she took George Armytage Sr to court, suing him on eight different counts. Amongst the statements attributed to Armytage were comments such as [he] "could tell [witness] something about Mrs. Richardson...which would make her cap rise from her head", that Ellen was a "vile woman", that he had in his possession letters written by Ellen which "would be a disgrace to any woman upon earth" and that "the commonest prostitute would never have written such letters". He was also alleged to have shown the letters to a school parent saying "I hope that (meaning the letter) will convince you of the character of the woman" whom he claimed was "diabolical".
Most damaging perhaps to Ellen's reputation was the allegation attributed to George's wife Elizabeth, that "we lost our son through her". During a conversation it was indicated that Thomas died "from going into water in sheep-washing after taking Calomel". "Yes" replied Mrs Armytage "but it was she caused him to take the medicine" (Cornwall Chronicle, 29th June, 1844). What is perhaps not clear now, but was common knowledge in the 19th century was that "Calomel" was a mercury-based compound used to treat syphilis.
Elizabeth Armytage, mother of Thomas and wife
of George Sr. Image held by the University of
Melbourne Archives
As mentioned earlier however, newspaper reports at the time of his death indicate that Thomas died of Typhus, a bacterial infection spread by the bite of some species of ticks, fleas, mites and lice, some of which may perhaps have been present on the sheep he was dipping/washing in the Barwon to treat the scab mite in his flock. Also unheard of now and perhaps not so well-known then is that Calomel was used in some cases to treat Typhus. Is it perhaps possible then that Thomas either contracted the typhus whilst dipping sheep, took Calomel and continued working, or (perhaps more likely) developed symptoms whilst working the sheep then went to Geelong where he was treated with Calomel for his typhus? I guess we'll never know, but after an illness of around ten days duration Thomas died at Geelong.
A bottle of Calomel
Finally on 17th June, 1844, over a year and a half after Thomas' death, the Court hearing got underway. It ran for three days, with multiple witnesses called for both sides and involved much convoluted legal argument, contradictory witness statements and much impassioned speech. In the lead up to the case however, things had turned nasty. On 5th June, notice of Ellen's death late the previous month, appeared in the Launceston Advertiser. It was of course false. At the same time, threatening letters were sent to some of the witnesses due to give evidence. The case attracted huge public interest and newspapers around the country were of course, keen to provide every sordid detail. It was the civil case of its time.
From their numerous accounts of proceedings it appears that Ellen's legal council - Mr Macdowell - gave a performance worthy of the best modern barristers, questioning motives, casting doubt upon defence testimony, inveigling information from witnesses and defending his client's reputation. It was suggested that Solomon Austin had been intimate with Mrs Richardson during the voyage from England, he later making offers of marriage which it was alleged Thomas had dismissed with a sneer saying that "he [Solomon] could not succeed while such a man as himself was in the way" (Cornwall Chronicle, 29th June, 1844).
Ultimately it was found that the infamous "creeking" letter (alluded to above) was not written by Ellen, but was rather a forgery perpetrated by George Armytage Jr. The jury found for the plaintiff (Ellen) on six of the eight counts and awarded her £1,250 damages. Armytage was ordered to pay costs.
Undeterred however, Armytage moved for a mistrial and a second hearing was set down for 19th March, 1845. Further evidence in the form of more letters (possibly those retained by Stockdale for "his own amusement") was presented and under cross-questioning by Macdowell, George Armytage Jr broke down on the witness stand and had to be taken from the court. Once again, the jury found in favour of the plaintiff, however damages were reduced to the much smaller total of £300 and it was found that the letter in question was not a forgery but was written by the plaintiff herself. By August, the matter remained unresolved and this time it was Ellen's council who moved for a third trial on the basis that the verdict was defective on several points. It was also alleged during the course of the trial that one of the jurors had expressed biased views prior to the case commencing (The Tasmanian and Austral-Asiatic Review, 22nd May, 1845).
The third hearing finally concluded on 20th March, 1846 with two counts found in favour of the defendant but a further three in favour of the plaintiff with Armytage required to pay damages of £500 and there, finally, the matter rested (The Observer, 24th March, 1846).
It would be tempting at this point to imagine that Ellen Richardson was able to salvage her reputation and her career, settling down to a life without further controversy, however this was far from reality. Whilst she did once again establish a seminary for young ladies in Hobart Town, in 1848 she was once again in the papers when she and an auctioneer by the name of John Charles Stracey (with whom she had stayed during her previous court appearances) absconded to Sydney under false names. Posing as man and wife they boarded a ship for London. They were apprehended at the last minute and Stracey was charged with attempting to abscond with £6,000 - the proceeds of sales. Ellen was also arrested and in true form, once released had the arresting officer charged with false imprisonment (The Britannia and Trades' Advocate, 16th March, 1848).
Whilst her companion was deported back to Hobart to face charges (and his deserted wife), Ellen appears to have remained in Sydney where she continued to pursue various legal matters before - as far a I can tell - disappearing from the record by 1849. Whilst there was no happy ending to this tale, it is tempting to wonder what might have ensued had Thomas lived to old age.


  1. Hi Jo - another magnificent blog - you should be writing novels. Great writing and great research - enthralling.

  2. A fascinating account of a time in Tasmanian history that I found quite by accident. One of my stories is set in Tasmania in the 1840s. I shall be back to read more!

  3. Thanks Beth! This was one of my favourite posts to write. Possibly not surprisingly most of my favourites have revolved around women in difficult circumstances. On a side note, Ingleby is currently for sale if you have a spare few million $$ or so...