The flat four lanes of the highway head west from the city. On this side of Melbourne the land is dry and the grass brown and withered from the hot summer sun. After fifty kilometres the road splits from the highway and we drop down into the rich fertile market gardens that surround Bacchus Marsh.
This is the same road the gold-miners would have traveled in 1850. Down here was water from the Lerderderg River for their horses and the bullocks that pulled their drays. And there was little water afterwards until they got to the diggings in Ballarat. Here in the flat land between the Werribee and the Lerderderg the aborigines met for corroboree. As the miners passed the sight of the aborigine was being lost and only ghosts survived.
Captain Bacchus late of the 2nd Royal Surrey Militia and Kenneth Clarke from Sutherland, Scotland settled in 1836 to start farming and thirty years later only thirty of the original inhabitants survived, pushed from their hunting grounds and dying from smallpox and starvation.
On the road we drive in there is an avenue of Canadian Elm Trees to honour men from this town who serve in the Great War. And on one tree is my Grandfather’s name – William Johnston. And next to his name is a small cross, for my grandfather did not come back from the war. That was 1915.
But lets go back to 1882 when my grand-father was nine years old. William had a brother Sam and Sam was fifteen. One can only imagine how boys this age would have played. So this is the story of Uncle Sam.
There was a school in Bacchus Marsh and Sam would have gone there. There are no family records of this but there are reports in local newspapers that concern the school and my uncle Sam so I will stop telling the story and I will hand over to the local journalists and court reporters.
Sam was a fighting, scrapping, swearing, strong fifteen year old boy. At school at Bacchus Marsh he didn’t give his teachers any trouble, or so they said. But he certainly did like fighting.
Some fights were just two little billy goats butting heads together to see who was who. Some were more serious. A couple of times it was over rabbit traps. The boys would go out setting traps and now and then one boy might ‘accidentally’ take a couple home that weren’t his.
“You nicked three of my traps.”
“Did so. You just wait ‘til after school an’ I’ll hammer ya.”
“Yeah? You couldn’t fight yourself out of a wet paper bag.”
“Wait an’ see.”
This happened a couple of times and there once was a real fight with fists and with coats off. Proper fighting. Some would call it sparring.
He did have a proper sparring match with Robert Alford. But never a quarrel. There is a bit of a dispute about this one. Robert Alford doesn’t think he actually knocked Sam down but young Johnny Lyle reckons he did.
I never had a fight with Sam. I had a sparring match with him about five months ago but it was not a quarrel. I never knocked him into a bush. (coroner’s report)
Anyway, more about fighting in a minute. Sam was also a bit of an athlete. Or he saw himself as one. He would often jump over the front fence and liked climbing trees and doing what his father called ‘gymnastic exercises’. Once he fell out of the tree and hit his head.
This is his father talking :
About October last Samuel fell off a sapling, about seven feet from the ground, upon which he was carrying out some gymnastic exercises. I brought him home unconscious. He remained that way for about a quarter of an hour. He was in bed for a fortnight or three weeks, and was attended by Dr. Roche. He recovered, but every night he seemed giddy, as though half drunk. He did not complain of pain. He went away for the good of his health for about six weeks. I noticed that he was still giddy.(coroner’s report)
This happened about eight months before. It’s quite important.
Sam’s mother didn’t like him jumping the fence. Poor lady, she had lost one daughter six years earlier. But now she had lost a son. She said,
“For the last five or six months Sam was liable to trip when walking, and seemed unsteady in his gait.”(coroner’s report)
Now back to all this talk about fighting. Young Johnny Lyle says he saw Sam fight with Harry Heath but we don’t know what Harry says because he isn’t here. For a nine year old, Johnny has quite a way with words.
“I saw John Luscombe go and hide behind a log and then rush out with a big stick and hit Sam on the head. John started to swear at Sam and Sam hit him. John then hit Sam with a round stick, on the head. I was about twenty yards away.
I’ve seen Sam fighting before this, near the school, with Harry Heath and I saw him fight with Robert Alford about nine weeks ago. Robert knocked him down in some bushes. This was a fight with their coats off. Robert hit Sam on the temple. It was a more severe blow than the one with John Luscombe. The fight with Harry was a week before that with Robert. Sam got the best of the fights. He was rather given to fighting. Have never heard that he was hurt in any way.”(coroner’s report)
It does seem that Sam likes to fight and I think we should have a bit more of a look at this John Luscombe fight. That was the one I mentioned at the beginning about rabbit traps.
David Robertson lived near Sam and they often went home together. All three that is – David, John and Sam. David is two year younger than the other two but I don’t know if that is important, although it might be. David remembers the “Rabbit Trap” fight.
“I remember going home with him about six weeks ago. John was hiding behind a log and he came out in a hurry–rushed out, and hit Sam on the head with half a rake handle. There was no quarrel. There was only one blow. Sam hit him back with his fist then we both went home. Sam did not complain. He never complained of that blow. He did not fall after John hit him. He only rubbed his head a little bit. They were both swearing at each other. I have never seen Sam fighting.”(coroner’s report)
It is rather interesting that everyone knows that Sam has had a few fights. All except David!
And then Sam dies.
So what was it? Obviously we want to know if all this fighting is the cause. There are a number of fights but two stand out. There is the proper, decent coats off sparring match when Robert Alford hit him a fine blow to the temple. Was that the one?
Or was it the leap out from behind a log with a stick and whack him on the head blow?
But lots of people say Sam never complained about either of these blows.
And his teacher says he is a very good boy and very amenable to correction. But then he would say that. He wouldn’t say that he had no control over the boys who fight, now would he?
So what was Sam like before he died? I think we should hear from Sam’s mother.
Samuel became more irritable this last month, and complained about three weeks ago of pain in his head and left ear. He also said he thought he had a splinter in his throat through falling when he had a piece of stick in his mouth. I told him to go to the Doctor. He told me he went, but the Doctor wasn’t at home. He said there were noises in his ears, and he asked me if there were bees about. Last Thursday he wasn’t well. He didn’t eat anything and I sent him to school, but he didn’t go that day or the next. I don’t know where he was. He looked wild like, and cross. He said he had been to school.
On Saturday he got up and started vomiting. He wanted to go ferreting. I wanted him to go to bed. But he went out. I went into town and when I got back about four my children told me that their brother was lying at the creek and could not walk home. I went down and found him sitting by a stump. He was quite giddy, could hardly speak, and was vomiting but he walked home with help from his brother and sister. I got him to bed and sent for the doctor, who came next morning.
He was delirious as soon as he was got to bed and it required several people to keep him in bed. He stayed like that until he died.(coroner’s report)
Sam’s father says much the same. So we had better call in the expert.
Dr William Rae goes into a lot of detail which says simply that Sam’s injury, caused by the fall from the tree, made him susceptible to injury from a blow to the head caused by fighting. It wouldn’t take much. And it obviously didn’t because he says that the blows Sam received from the two fights he had were not very severe.
Finding: “That the deceased died of inflammation of the brain, ending in suppuration, and that there is nothing to show that the death of deceased was accelerated by any of the schoolfellows with whom he had been accustomed to quarrel.” (coroner’s report)
There is a slight anomaly in the finding of the Magistrate and the opinion of the doctor but all that was over one hundred and thirty years ago and we can’t put anyone back on the stand so we’ll just have to leave it. But it was a bit of a shame, don’t you think!