A Victorian family, tragedies and farce

It's surprising the stories that can be discovered from a random image. This one comes from the Facebook and Instagram pages of Tansley & Co., vintage merchants in Maldon, Victoria, Australia.

It is a prize presentation plate in a book entitled "Heroines of the Household" * given by the Ladies' School of Fitzroy (Melbourne) to a Miss J. Gillett for "General Improvement", and dated is Christmas 1869.

Jane Gillett was born in Melbourne on 5 October 1853, and baptised at St Peter's Church, Eastern Hill, on 12 March 1854. That record shows that her father, Edward, had the occupation of "Land Owner" and her mother was Eliza.  The family's address was Napier Street, Collingwood. Further research shows the family continued to live in Napier Street for many more years and that it was later incorporated into the suburb of Fitzroy.

Edward Gillett is often simply described as "Gentleman" in various records. He was born in 1809 in Waterford, Ireland, and Eliza Hemsley was born in Sussex in 1822. From online family trees, it is apparent that Jane's parents already had seven children together prior to their marriage in Melbourne in 1863, with another two born after that.

Jane's father, Edward ("Ed") Gillett, 1872
State Library of Victoria

The Probate records for Edward's estate are highly detailed and show the extent of his assets and liabilities, right down to the "fender and irons" and "butcher's bill". His major asset was a block of valuable real estate in one of booming Melbourne's main streets, Elizabeth Street, as well as Napier Street, properties that he may have purchased prior to the great Gold Rush, an astute move indeed.

Jane herself would marry George Alexander Knipe (b. 1856) in 1877. George was the son of John Hanlon Knipe, a former London silversmith turned successful auctioneer, stockbroker, and land speculator. He also owned stores and gold mines at Bendigo and a house once known as "Knipe's Castle", long since demolished.

"Knipe's Castle", Sandhurst (now Bendigo).
Built for Jane's father-in-law, John Hanlon Knipe, c. 1861

Although Edward Gillett does not warrant any entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, his name is found linked with that of John Hanlon Knipe in joint property ownership at 9-11 Napier Street, Fitzroy. (It is presumed these buildings no longer exist as, like the nearby Ladies' School in Regent Street, they were in the area that now encompasses the extensive modern St. Vincent's Hospital and medical precinct.)

Jane's mother Eliza came to an awful and tragic end, cutting her own throat "while of unsound mind" after the death of another daughter, Eleanor Sarah Gillett. Suicides were regularly reported in the newspapers of those days and here is the report in The Age of 18 July 1874. [Edward incorrectly shown as Edmund.] What a dreadful legacy for her family.

(Note the gentle cover-up of the fact that Eliza and Edward had only been officially married around 11 years whereas in the last paragraph it says they had been married over 30 years.)

The year before Eliza's suicide, Arthur Britton Knipe, a sibling of Jane's husband, George, drowned while swimming in the Yarra River at Hawthorn, although a friend did his best to save him.  The inquest put forward the recommendation that the Borough of Hawthorn should provide a proper swimming place to avoid this happening in the future.

few years later, the Gillett name again surfaced in connection with a grisly matter, the alleged murder of Jane's brother, William Edward Gillett, by a Mrs Margaret Spann. This generated a great deal of newsprint and was referred to as "The Gillett Poisoning Case".

The whole process can be followed through the newspapers of the day, but basically the bizarre, and at times unintentionally hilarious case, goes something like this ...

Jane and William's father, Edward Gillett, had died in 1886, intestate. As often happens with estates where there is no Will, it would have taken some time to research and value Edward's assets. As the Probate documents show, frail and ailing spinster Alice Gillett, (b. 1869) and a younger sister of our Jane, was living in Sydney and granted a Power of Attorney to a legal firm to act on her behalf in obtaining Letters of Administration to her father's estate. (Why the fragile single woman Alice was the child chosen to handle her father's estate begs a few questions on the capacity and abilities - or lack thereof - of the other surviving children of Edward, in particular the men!)

William Edward's share of the estate was estimated between £3,000-£4,000. Apparently, he was a raging alcoholic and suffered from depression and "a hereditary trait of insanity". At some stage while in an inebriated state he made out a Will, "in violet ink on a brown paper fruit bag", bequeathing all his money to a Mrs Margaret Spann, "a portly woman of about fifty years of age", who ran a cafe or restaurant in Bourke Street.

One dark - and perhaps stormy - afternoon, William Edward required emergency medical attention after Mrs Spann administered him with liquid from bottle containing  glacial acetic acid instead of a sleeping draught. 

It follows that nobody in their right mind would swallow a corrosive substance "24 times the strength of normal acetic acid" that would "destroy all it touched", and Mrs Spann was naturally accused of plotting to do away with William so she could claim the inheritance. She denied any such intention, said she had no idea why William was carrying a bottle of glacial acetic acid in his pocket the first place, but possibly he was suffering from "suicidal mania", and he had deliberately switched bottles himself before handing it to her to administer to him.

(Copyright unknown)

Apparently Jane and her siblings had all had problems with William's alcoholism, that he had become an unreliable drifter and no doubt cause of much family friction. One of his brothers-in-law said he had been in the habit previously of writing up new Wills whenever he was under the influence.

If it wasn't such a tragic event, it borders on Monty Python combined with Gilbert & Sullivan's Trial by Jury. 

Just one example is this reporting from the initial inquest in the Melbourne Herald of 16 May 1888. It is worth reading in full for its acerbic legal quips and Mrs Spann's tendency to "hold forth on beef tea, banging of doors and bobbies" ... so sad - yet also funny.

After the trial on 4 July, a jury found Mrs Spann not guilty, accepting the defence argument that she did everything she could to help poor William when she discovered what had happened; took him to the chemist and doctor and finally stayed with him while he was in hospital. Were these the actions of a murderer? Probably not ... but then so much about this curious case is unbelievable, so who knows? Margaret's name pops up occasionally after that, she is listed in local Melbourne street directories and was cited in a case for slander brought by her daughter-in-law in 1891.

You can follow the legal procedures in greater detail through many newspaper reports that feature a strange array of witnesses and other weird and wonderful information  - it seems glacial acetic acid can be used to remove corns from your feet or to make imitation bridal cakes!

18 May 1888
8 June 1888
2 July 1888
3 July 1888
4 July 1888

Jane had two daughters, Mabel Beatrice (b. 1879) and Beatrice Lillian (b. 1883). Mabel married a Herbert Percival Sperring, but died just four years after her mother, in 1946. No further record of Beatrice Lillian has been found.

Jane's husband, George Knipe, died in 1916 but she lived on until 1942, her address in the Australian Electoral Rolls given as 15 Darling Street, South Yarra. Both Jane and George are buried in the Brighton General Cemetery - their headstone sadly in disrepair. Perhaps there are no descendants left around to care and explains why the prize book has found its way via estate clearances to the shelves of Tansley & Co.

Grave of Jane and George Knipe, Brighton General Cemetery (Billion Graves Project)

As to the headmistress of the Ladies' School of Regent Street and without any first name, there is very little to be found on Miss Dowdle, apart from regular small advertisements placed in the local newspapers for her school during the 1860s-70s. 

(All newspapers courtesy of TROVE, genealogical information via Ancestry, FindMyPast, Billion Graves and other archival information in State Library of Victoria, Public Record Office of Victoria.)

*  Written by Reverend William Wilson, first published by the appropriately named Virtue Publishing in the year that Jane was given her prize (1869) this book is described in the preface as being about some of the "noblest specimens of Christian womanhood" or a "Gallery of Good Women" from history, all of whom are virtually unknown today.


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