Births & Deaths

bearing of children & disposal of the dead; initial & final stages of life

The practices of the Gringai people regarding birth and death are largely lost to us now. A Gringai name for what is now Jerusalem Creek was Munduk, meaning fertility, and a large pool with a shallow ledge on this creek may have been used as a birthing pool. Burial grounds associated with the Gringai are mentioned but with no details of associated practices.[1]

Despite the inescapability of birth and death, much has changed in the manner in which these two phases of life have been dealt with since European settlement began, on both an individual and community level. Births have gone from home affairs with at best a neighbour as midwife, to hospital based procedures with a doctor in attendance. As well, the support given and expected during the early years of childhood has greatly increased. Death and its attendant practices have perhaps changed less, though aged care facilities and services have significantly altered the quality of the final stages of life for many. The ceremonies surrounding death have become less formal and are more often performed outside Church ceremonials.

For the new European settlers, births and deaths were largely family affairs, with both usually taking place at home. For those who had the choice, a pregnant woman might go to a larger centre such as Maitland or Sydney with its access perhaps to wider family and greater medical support, staying there for many weeks or months both before and after the birth.[2] Burials for those on the land would often take place near the home, though at least one general burial ground seems to have existed on the edge of Dungog before the present general cemetery was established.

Both births and deaths were registered at one’s church if available, and although official registration was also required through local magistrates acting as registrars, this system only gradually became standard.

Midwives were commonly used, but their training and knowledge was a matter of experience and on-the-job training with little known of how a ‘good’ midwife was chosen, or what impact they had upon the birth itself, or the rate of infant mortality. That infant mortality was high is well known and was generally accepted throughout the 19th century as inevitable.

Also inevitable, but not always so accepted, was that births would take place outside marriage. When the Dungog community established what was called a cottage hospital in 1892, it was intended to assist those who could not afford medical help, including those giving birth. However, at one point this community run institution declared that only married women were allowed to use the hospital for ‘lying in’.

As gradually the intervention of a doctor in births became more common, doctors attached themselves to private hospitals. These were usually large houses owned and run by trained nurses. While many procedures took place at these hospitals, maternity was perhaps their main role. Women would typically remain in these hospitals for many days or even weeks after a birth. Two major ones in Dungog town were Keba and Oomabah, and in Gresford, Kalala and Clevedon House, which operated from the 1920s until the 1950s.[3] In 1958, a specialist maternity ward was added to Dungog Hospital to replace the now out of favour private hospitals. With the centralisation of medical resources that took place in the 1970s and 1980s, even the maternity functions of local hospitals were eliminated, and for births in a hospital, women of the Williams Valley are now required to travel to Maitland or Newcastle.

In addition to doctors and maternity wards, greater support for mothers, parents and children in the early years of childhood also became seen to be necessary in order to both assist young mothers and to lower infant mortality.[4] For this, Baby Health Centres were seen as essential and the money for establishing these was taken up as a fundraising priority in the 1940s through to the 1960s by the Country Women’s Association (CWA), in particular. In more recent times the need for such specific centres has again declined.

At the other end of the spectrum, as infant mortality declined so too has life expectancy increased. Nevertheless, death arrives eventually and for this each locality established a general cemetery. A general cemetery was early planned at Dungog and was the first such cemetery in NSW. It was laid out by the Surveyor General in 1848 and, as befitting a plan originating in a distant capital, it was provided with and still has, a section reserved for ‘Jews’ that has yet to find a resident.[5] Original markers were generally simple and made of wood, with only gradually more elaborate family and individual plots being raised in stone. In recent times, many family plots have been renewed. General cemeteries are found throughout the Williams Valley including at Bandon Grove, and Clarence Town. Many, though not all, of the individual churches also have their own cemeteries. In addition private cemeteries were established, and many of these are now abandoned as families have died out or sold the land and moved on.[6]

Clarence Town Cemetery contains a number of old, as well as historically significant graves; William Lowe, the builder of Australia’s first steamship is buried here for example. At first under the control of trustees, by 1967 all public cemeteries were under the control of the Dungog Shire Council. Such control has not guaranteed preservation, such as in the 1970s when, after a period of flooding, the middle section of Clarence Town Cemetery was reputedly bulldozed and many of the grave markers in this section destroyed, much to the distress of local descendants.[7] After the 2007 floods, more graves were damaged, including wrought iron railings washed into the river. The Clarence Town Lions Club and community groups were refused permission to restore the damage and no restoration work has been carried out to date.[8]

While ministers and priests of the various denominations usually carried out the ceremonies associated with death, funeral parlours also became established businesses. These were usually associated with furniture making and until recent times these two businesses were often carried on together. Fry Brothers, who also ran the coach connections through Paterson, also operated as funeral directors for the Paterson and Allyn valleys.

Death comes in many forms, including in childbirth, but its coming in the form of accident or suicide was more likely to be noted. It is difficult to say if accidental death was more common in years past but certainly the nature of some of the accidents reported over time has changed. Death from falling trees, by fire, by drowning and by bullock are all commonly reported in this largely agricultural and timber district. In more recent times, 12 people died when a hostel they were living in caught fire at Main Creek. Also widely recorded are the accidental deaths of children by fire, as well as through the taking of poisonous substances. Car accidents begin to be reported in the 1920s and have since over taken most other reasons for accidental death.

Outside of the cemeteries and honour rolls associated with war, there are few memorials to any deaths within the Williams Valley district; an exception being the Dave Sands Memorial erected in 1972 by Dungog Apex at the site of his death in 1952 in a motor vehicle accident near the Bandon Grove Bridge.

Death by suicide was also widely reported. Depression, particularly post natal, and the general lack of support for mental problems would have greatly contributed to this. An early example was the suicide of a trooper after being reported for misconduct:

John Stephens, put an end to his life by shooting himself with a pistol. The ball entered just below the stomach, passed downwards, and came out close to the spine ….[9]

Natural disasters such as bushfires and floods were also the cause of many deaths, such as the drowning of the entire Ross family during a flood on the Williams River on the Melbee Estate in 1857 just to the south of Dungog town.[10]

Epidemics of diphtheria, cholera and other diseases were common as the towns expanded but did not improve their sanitary systems. Dungog town’s debates on the controversial issue of town sewerage in the 1930s hinged on the perceived health benefits of this versus of course the cost, to be borne at that time by property owners only.[11]

For many to whom death came at the end of a reasonable span, an important aspect of their death was the bequest. It was common for those with some resources to make a bequest to a hospital or Church or even a park resulting in a memorial to their name. The rest of the estate would go to children, often in the form of annuities. For those with land to pass on, it was not uncommon to divide the land among their sons while providing for daughters with annuities or perhaps a house from which they could derive rents. This last method was common within the Mackay family of Dungog for example.[12] Similarly, Christopher Lean left enough in his estate to cover several £500 annuities for his daughters and to leave farms to a number of sons – some 700 acres in total.[13]

For most people, death comes in old age with the quality of this final phase of life dependent on health and family or community support. In the early period, large families and few community resources meant that the elderly relied on their children to assist them in old age. However, if their health was poor, the quality of this assistance could be variable. For those without family, old age could be a time of isolation and hardship unless supplemented by financial resources.

As health and life spans have improved, more people are living to a more advanced age, and this, combined with smaller families and a tendency for many children to establish themselves away from where they grew up, has resulted in a shift to community supported aged care. This aged care ranges from home-based services such as meal-on-wheels to planned elderly accommodation facilities such as Ironwood and Dungog Nursing Home. The community erected accommodation for nurses at Dungog Hospital, built in the 1940s, has now been converted into offices for the many aged care services that operate through the Dungog Shire district. Palliative care has also been established at Dungog hospital.

Heritage Survivals

  • Burial grounds (Aboriginal, private, public)

  • Church registrars

  • Private hospitals

  • Dave Sands Memorial

  • Significant graves – William Lowe, Stephen Dark, Dr McKinlay

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1.  Maitland Mercury, 19/3/1870, p.3.
  2. Dent, A Brief History of Health in the Gresford District (n.p.).
  3. Williams, Ah, Dungog, pp.71-72.
  4. O’Connor, A History of 75 Years of Baby Health Services in NSW, passim.
  5. Murray, God’s Acre, p.11.
  6. See Cemeteries.
  7. Ian Lyall, interviewed 28/3/2012.
  8. Diane Ellis, interviewed 28/3/2012.
  9.  Maitland Mercury, 28/10/1843, p.3.
  10.  Maitland Mercury, 3/9/1857, p.2.
  11.  Dungog Chronicle, 13/8/1937, p.4.
  12. Williams, Ah, Dungog, p.51.
  13. Lean, The Lean Family History, pp.70-73.