Digging up Mrs Williams 2: a skeleton in the closet or just in an unmarked grave?

In a previous blog, ‘Digging up Mrs Williams, or the phantom of the Heemskirk tin boom’, I pondered Con Curtain’s story of a woman who died at the Orient Tin Mine on Tasmania’s West Coast in 1882.1 Who was she? Where was she buried? Did she even exist? No one besides Curtain ever mentioned Mrs Williams’ death.

Topographic base map from thelist©state of Tasmania



Thanks to the kind intervention of Adrian Fairfield, and with Ian Hayes’ on-ground forensics, Mrs Williams’ existence has been confirmed and her resting place identified. I can’t say as much for her Christian name, maiden name, nationality, native place or character. None of that is emblazoned on her headstone, since she doesn’t have one. Nor is it recorded on a death certificate that was never issued.




What I can say is that ‘Mrs John Williams’, whoever she was, lies beneath the brow of a small rise at the Orient. The grave wouldn’t have been visible from the track to the main Orient workings or the group of huts that included the manager’s house. Out of sight and out of mind? It seems a peculiar location given the nineteenth-century penchant for burying people high on hillsides, as if that brought them closer to God. Perhaps mine manager John Williams, her presumptive husband, was too overwhelmed by grief to supervise an appropriate burial and commemoration—or perhaps another factor was at work.

The 1894 mining lease survey showing the position of the grave, with crop of same at right. Thanks to Adrian Fairfield.

Was the Williams partnership too shameful for a newspaper audience?

Suppose Mrs Williams wasn’t Mrs Williams at all, but John Williams’ mistress or de facto partner. Would that stigmatise her death to the point of silence about it? The Mercury’s roving reporter Theophilus Jones made no mention of Mrs Williams’ grave or demise when he accompanied a ministerial party to the Orient in 1883. We will never know if he simply didn’t see the picket-fenced plot under the brow of the hill or declined to mention it. In 1884 Jones visited the cottage of the Van Diemen’s Land Company’s Woolnorth manager James Wilson—who was shacked up with de facto partner Marion Washington.2 Jones only mentioned the latter as cook and widow, not as Wilson’s unmarried partner. He didn’t mention the couple’s ten-month-old child. Yet Wilson and Washington may have felt some heat from the newspaper report, because they hotfooted it to a visiting minister, legitimising Adeline Rose Wilson.3

De facto marriages appear to have been common in the late nineteenth century. They were possibly the norm for the lower echelons of society, in particular. Adultery was a different thing again. In 1868 Archbishop Thomas Reibey, Tasmania’s first native-born bishop, was accused of trying to seduce one of his married parishioners. Reibey sued for libel, lost the case and defrocked himself. Six years later he was premier of Tasmania.4 However, while adultery might have been a leg-up into politics, it may not have been approved for lowly Heemskirk mine managers.

Mrs Williams’ unmarked grave site at the Orient Tin Mine, West Coast, Tasmania. Left photo looking north towards Mount Agnew; right photo looking south. Nic Haygarth photos.











Considering a Chewton connection

The mistress/de facto hypothesis brings us no closer to identifying the lady known as Mrs Williams, but it possibly brings us closer to finding her partner. Con Curtain told us that John Williams was a Cornishman with a four-year-old daughter called Elsie.5 Consider candidate John Williams (1839–1910) of Chewton (formerly Forest Creek), an old Victorian goldfield. Born at St Keverin in Cornwall,6 he married Scarborough, Yorkshire-born Jane or Janet Reid (c1839–81) at Castlemaine, Victoria, in 1857.7  As with many Cornish miners he struggled to make ends meet in Australia. When declared insolvent in 1863, John blamed his embarrassment on illness, loss of his business and the cost of burying two of his children.8  The mining work he gained must have been barely enough to sustain his large family. By 1870 John and Jane had produced six children, three of whom were already deceased.9 A fourth child died in 1872.10 To make things far worse for the Williams family, Jane Williams née Reid died at Chewton in 1881, aged about 41 years.11

In 1882 her widower John Williams would have had three children in his care, ranging from five to fourteen years, including a potential Elsie Williams—nine-year-old Elizabeth Emily Reid Williams.12 (Con Curtain said Elsie was four years old, but he probably guessed her age years after the fact. We don’t know if he ever laid eyes on her.) To take on employment at remote Heemskirk—if indeed he did—John may have wanted a helpmate/mother figure for his children either at home or with him on the job. That lady could now be six feet under at the Orient.

It would be easy to speculate further about potential scenarios for Mrs Williams’ burial, but there is no evidence that her death resulted from anything more than a short illness in the absence of medical treatment.13 In 1883 when third Orient manager Thomas Williams and his sons built a chapel/reading room near the mine, they placed it not with Mrs Williams’ grave but on top of the rise where it was visible for a distance. There was no shortage of timber for the job, with boards sawn in a sawpit, shingles split for the roof and a blackwood interior adorned with a chandelier.14 Mrs Williams’ grave is said to have had been surrounded by a picket fence.15 Perhaps that and a cross or timber headstone perished in a bushfire that sealed her identity beneath the Heemskirk humus.

Nic Haygarth copyright 2024

1 ‘Our Own Correspondent’ (Con Henry Curtain), ‘Mount Heemskirk’, Mercury, 14 June 1882, p.3.
2 ‘Our Special Correspondent’ (Theophilus Jones), ‘Through Tasmania: no.34’, Tasmanian Mail, 26 April 1884, p.29; ‘Through Tasmania: no.35’, Mercury, 26 April 1884, supplement p.1.
3 James Thomas Wilson married Marion Washington by Anglican rites on 29 June 1884, marriage record no.502/1884, registered at Horton (Stanley), RGD37/1/43 (TA), https://librariestas.ent.sirsidynix.net.au/client/en_AU/names/search/results?qu=washington&qf=NI_INDEX%09Record+type%09Marriages%09Marriages, accessed 14 September 2020.
4 Peter Bolger, ‘Thomas Reibey (1821–1912)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol.6, 1976, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/reibey-thomas-4463, accessed 25 April 2024.
5 Con Henry Curtain, ‘West Coast history’, Zeehan and Dundas Herald, 25 December 1896, supplement, p.1.
6 Information from the birth certificate for Ishmael Buck Williams, shared on Ancestry.com.
7 Information from the birth certificate for Ishmael Buck Williams; England and Wales, Civil Registration Birth Index, 1837–1915, vol.24, pp.441 and 460.
8 ‘New insolvents’, Ballarat Star, 21 May 1863, p.3.
9 Birth certificate for Ishmael Buck Williams, birth registration no.14552/1870, Victoria.
10 ‘Funeral notice’, Mount Alexander Mail, 22 June 1872, p.3.
11 Death registration no.6951/1881, Victoria.
12 Alfred William Williams: birth registration no.1557/1868; Janet Watson Williams: birth registration no.1468/1877, Victoria.
13 ‘Our Own Correspondent’ (Con Henry Curtain), ‘Mount Heemskirk’, Mercury, 14 June 1882, p.3.
14  ‘Our Special Reporter’ (Theophilus Jones), ‘The west coast tin mines’, Mercury, 28 May 1883, p.3. The chapel was dismantled and removed years later when the Heemskirk Tin Field was abandoned.
15 Con Henry Curtain, ‘West Coast history’, Zeehan and Dundas Herald, 25 December 1896, supplement, p.1; Con Henry Curtain, ‘Old times: Heemskirk and Remine: no.23’, Examiner, 11 February 1928, p.6.

Leave a comment