Monday, 7 November 2016

On weary waters gone to sleep

Is there a pre-ordained fate to tragedy within a family, or merely circumstance which congregates to leave survivors mindful of their responsibility to convey stories across generations? 

This story is a tragedy of water, perhaps inevitable around the big rivers of northern New South Wales. William and James Baker migrated separately to Australia in the 1850s, establishing a farm in the Grafton area. James met Mary Ann Webb and they married on 7 August 1860. Her parents were also migrants.
NSW Registry of Births Deaths and Marriages, Marriage Certificate 1860/1881A
One week short of nine months from his parents' marriage date, their first son Thomas, named for his paternal grandfather, arrived on 30 April 1861 at Carrs Creek. As a farmer, the lush landscape of the Clarence Valley may have initially appealed to James, but less than two years later Grafton experienced a devastating flood. 

EPITOME OF NEWS. (1863, March 7).
The Armidale Express and
New England General Advertiser
(NSW : 1856 - 1861; 1863 - 1889; 1891 - 1954)
, p. 2.
"The back water increased till Tuesday morning, though the river had been at its highest at an early hour on Monday morning, being about 24 feet above high water mark, and 2 feet higher than the great flood of 1857, reputed then as the greatest that had been known." 

(1876, July 25).
Clarence and Richmond Examiner
and New England Advertiser
(Grafton, NSW : 1859 - 1889)
, p. 3.

So devastating, it still made headlines years after the event.

"Mr James Baker is also a severe sufferer, not only from the damage done to his crops but by the loss of a good wife, consequent on her removal immediately after confinement..." 

Only three days earlier, on 11 February, Mary Ann gave birth to her second son. She did not know him for long. Mary Ann was one of nine people to die in the aftermath of the flood, the inquest considered several factors:

"Several farmers at Carr's Creek were flooded out..." However, Mary Ann was buried at South Grafton cemetery. 
NSW Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages Death Certificate #1863/3701
The baby was registered as unnamed by his maternal grandfather Samuel Webb. He was handed over to his Uncle William and Aunty Eliza Baker, who, in the absence of their own biological children, would raise the child as their own. The decision was made by both families to make their way to Tumbulgum, then known as The Junction. A private town built on the sugar cane industry, it was established on the banks of the Tweed River. The baby became known as James.  

In 1882, aged only 56 and having retained his status as a widower, James Baker died. He was buried at Murwillumbah General Cemetery. 

NSW Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages Death Certificate #1882/11895

Although James' will acknowledged his "eldest son" Thomas, there was no inheritance for James. Presumably he was expected to inherit from William and Eliza. It did not happen.
Less than four years later he too lost his life, in the Tweed River. His family's memory is that it happened at Chinderah, where the river is broad. In water cool and deep it is not difficult to imagine such a loss. The article suggests this is plausible - "being towed up" meant south towards Tumbulgum.

His death certificate says his body was not found, and the fortnight between his disappearance and the newspaper article on 30 January lends credence to this. 
NSW Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages Death Certificate #1886/13684

In 1974, the Murwillumbah General Cemetery and historical headstones were washed away in a flood, including that of James Baker.

A park remains to commemorate the existence of more than 2,000 locals. 

The Baker family was decimated by the force of water. But the circumstances of James' disappearance would not have carried across the decades without being wrenched back to the time of their occurrence by a digital process which was not imagined when this family struggled to survive. It is a reassuring closure. 

* The phrase 'On weary waters gone to sleep' was inspired by poet Eva Gore-Booth in her poem Weariness

"My weary soul cries out for peace,
Peace and the quietness of death;
The wash of waters deep and cool,
The wind too faint for any breath
To stir oblivion's silent pool,
When all who swim against the stream".