Secrets of the housekeeper

It was about 8pm on Sunday 17 December 1922 and an 18 year old Ruby Anderson had been screaming out in pain for about an hour. Her father, Thomas, no doubt worried, went to fetch the horse and trap from the paddock to take Ruby into Geelong Hospital. As it was a Sunday, there would be no doctor available for a house call, especially at this late hour.

Thomas was a widower, his wife Sophia had died three years earlier. He was now alone and was left caring for his two daughters – Ruby and twelve year old Violet – his eldest son Leslie lived close by with his wife. Thomas was a farmer at Sparrowvale, about five miles from Geelong; a large acreage that was the original Geelong Racecourse and location for the early Marshall Railway. Thomas and his daughters would likely have occupied one of the purpose built employees cottages on the land leased by the Geelong Harbour Trust for the purpose of land cultivation, irrigation and running stock.

Ruby had been the housekeeper for her father for six years. She would cook and clean and her father would allow her out to spend time with her lady friends a few nights a week, often returning home after 11pm. Thomas had no reason to believe that his eldest daughter was hiding anything from him and she had not once indicated that she had been feeling unwell. But on that Sunday night when her father was racing to get the horse he was stopped before he could get far out the door. Violet yelled for her father to ‘come quick…Ruby got a baby’. Thomas ran straight back into the house and moved Ruby to his bed. Meanwhile, Ruby had asked her old brother Leslie to find some castor oil for the pain. As he left the house he heard the ‘squeal of a youngster…it sounded like a baby’s cry’. Confused, he rushed back into the bedroom where Ruby was, thinking that’s where the cry had come from. Upon re-entering the bedroom Leslie saw ‘blood all over the floor and a baby underneath the bed’. An almost identical depiction of what Thomas has seen when he rushed into Ruby’s room. Leslie ‘struck a match and saw the baby under the bed…the baby had its throat cut’.
Separately, both men asked Ruby what she had done. She told her father she had no idea what had happened and looked at him as if she had no idea who he was. What is possible Ruby was mentally unstable and had no recollection of what she had done to her newborn son?

Detective Sickerdick's interview notes from VPRS 30/P0, Unit 1994, Item 53.

Detective Sickerdick's interview notes from VPRS 30/P0, Unit 1994, Item 53.

Soon after the discovery of the newborn baby boy, Thomas alerted the police. Detective Frederick Sickerdick from Geelong arrived at the house two hours after the events took place and saw the horrific, bloody scene. The child with afterbirth still attached was lying on the floor and he noticed a knife covered in blood was placed on a shelf above the bed. Detective Sickerdick questioned Ruby about her memories of the events which had obviously recently taken place in the bedroom and made notes about his findings. The Detective’s impressions of the house in which Thomas and his two daughters were residing painted a sad picture when he stated that it ‘was in a frightfully filthy condition consisting of very little furniture and no home comforts’. He also noted that Thomas had no control over his eldest daughter who ‘visited Geelong 3 or 4 nights during a week and her company whilst in Geelong were girls who have a bad reputation, she would walk home and arrive there at all hours’. Asked who the father of the baby was, Ruby’s story changed when initially she told the Detective that ‘some elderly man was responsible for her trouble, she did not know his name nor did she know where he lived’. Although, further into her interview she told Detective Sickerdick ‘that a youth named Russell who [was] 18 years of age resided at Barramunga [was] the father of her child’.

Two months later, in February 1923, Ruby May Anderson was to stand trial in Geelong on the charge of murder. Her father, brother and sister all made statements about the unknown pregnancy and subsequent cold-blooded murder of a newborn baby, only a few minutes old. Doctor Frederick Wallace, a resident surgeon at the Geelong Hospital undertook the post-mortem and testified that the cause of death for the newborn male child was ‘caused by haemorrhage and shock’, that there was an ‘extensive incision transversely across the front of the neck’. There was conjecture about whether the birth had affected Ruby’s mental condition, which was Doctor Wallace said was, ‘very frequent in females at that particular time…the mind might possibly take some time to become normal [after birth]’. Asked at the end of the trial if Ruby wanted to make a statement about the events, to which she bluntly answered, ‘I have nothing to say’.

Ruby was initially sent to Geelong Gaol before being transferred to Coburg’s Female Prison and finally ending up at the Melbourne Gaol. After spending less than two months behind prison walls, Ruby Anderson was released to freedom ‘by special authority’.

Phoebe, May 2018

Ruby Anderson prisoner photo, c1923

Ruby Anderson prisoner photo, c1923



PROV, VPRS 30/P0, Unit 1994, Item 53

PROV, VPRS 516/P2, Unit 14, Prisoner no. 7492

Geelong Advertiser

Heritage Council Victoria, Victorian Heritage Database


Floating body of evidence

***WARNING: this post contains confronting and/or upsetting themes***

‘The nails and cuticles were coming off. The hair loose from the scalp, patches of greenish brown all over the body…the string of her nightcap was tied round her throat tolerably tight’. This was how Catherine Lyfield was found when her body was exhumed from the Merri River near Dennington, south-west Victoria. Lying in the outhouse of the Shamrock Hotel in Port Fairy where the inquest was held, the middle aged woman was severely decomposed with a number of loose teeth and a damaged skull.   

Henry Lyfield was a dairy farmer from Rosebrook, about five kilometres north-east of the seaside town of Port Fairy. Henry’s first wife Sarah had died in 1864 at the age of 43 years old; their eldest living child was sixteen and their youngest child was just a year old. Three months later the 36 year old father of eight re-married. His second wife was Catherine Harper, a nineteen year old servant girl.

'Articles found on body'. VPRS 30/P0, Crimal Trial Brief, Unit 1121, Item 619.

'Articles found on body'. VPRS 30/P0, Crimal Trial Brief, Unit 1121, Item 619.

Caroline Snell was Henry’s third child and had moved back into the family home with her father and stepmother after her husband Williams’ death. Caroline and her thirteen year old daughter Elizabeth joined her older sister Jane back at the family dairy farm. The three would often overhear Henry and Catherine fighting, with it frequently becoming violent. At least once Henry began hitting his wife to the ground, choking her and threatening to kill her.

One evening in mid-October 1896, Caroline, Elizabeth and Jane were all in bed by 8 o’clock; the three sharing a room next door to Henry and Catherine. In the early hours of the following morning the women were woken by the sounds of low screams. Thirteen year old Elizabeth, ‘heard the sound once, like something hitting against the [adjoining] wall…a noise like somebody having a struggle’, shortly followed by the sounds of heavy footsteps. By 5 o’clock that morning the three women and Henry went about work as normal milking the cows, upon their return to the house Henry handed a bundle of soiled clothes to Caroline to wash, stating that, ‘here are the clothes, she will never want them again’.
Peering into the other bedroom at the front of the house, usually shared by the couple, Elizabeth spotted Catherine lying on the floor, covered up, unmoving.

The following evening Caroline was awoken by the sound of footsteps in the front room. Claiming that she ‘heard a noise like someone dragging a heavy thing about the floor towards the front outside door’, she went to inspect that morning to no avail. Walking in to the shed the next day to collect some potatoes for the family’s next meal, Caroline noticed ‘something covered over with straw and two bags…and saw a part of the face of a human being’. Caroline had uncovered the body of her stepmother Catherine.  

Meanwhile, Henry was going about his daily life, telling people that his wife had walked out on him and he’d not heard a word from her.
By 26 October 1896, friends and peers were having to identify the remains of Catherine and a post-mortem examination was being undertaken on her mangled and decomposing remains.

In February the following year the case had to be moved from the local county court in Warrnambool to the Supreme Court in Melbourne. Henry Lyfield and his daughter Caroline Snell had been charged with the murder of Catherine Lyfield and had both pleaded insanity. Caroline had confessed to assisting her father in murdering her stepmother after he threatened her. Henry was said to have been annoyed at his wife for keeping a strict eye on him and his movements with his daughter. Whilst beside her bed praying, Henry moved behind his wife and ‘threw a string round her neck. She struggled and screamed’ and Caroline ‘struck her with a hammer’. Killed, she was then taken to the Merri River and her body dumped.
Catherine’s need to keep a close eye on his husband was not because she was a possessive wife, it was because she was aware of the incestuous relationship that was going on between father and daughter.
During the proceedings much more came to light than domestic violence and the murder of Henry’s second wife, Catherine.  Journalists, sitting in on court proceedings reported that ‘Lyfield, according to the testimony of his own daughter and granddaughter, [was] a triple murderer, and [had] habitually been on terms of criminal relations first with one and subsequently with both of them…two children [had been] born as the result of the incestuous intercourse with the daughter [and] the inhuman father is alleged to have killed them in cold blood and buried them on this farm’, the third and only surviving child grew up believing her father was William Snell.

Henry Lyfields mugshot, 1897. VPRS 516/P1, Unit 51.

Henry Lyfields mugshot, 1897. VPRS 516/P1, Unit 51.

On 15 February 1897, Henry Lyfield was found ‘not guilty on the grounds of insanity’. He died in 1901 at the age of 71 years old of natural causes in Melbourne Gaol.
Caroline Snell was ‘unable to plead on grounds of insanity’, and in March 1917, twenty years after first stepping into the Melbourne Gaol Female Prison, she was transferred to Melbourne Benevolent Asylum.

Caroline Snell's mugshot, 1897. VPRS 516/P2, Unit 12

Caroline Snell's mugshot, 1897. VPRS 516/P2, Unit 12

Phoebe, April 2018


PROV, VPRS 30/P0, Unit 1121, Item 619

PROV, VPRS 515/P1, Unit 51, Henry Lyfield, Prisoner no. 27794

PROV, VPRS 516/P2, Unit 12, Caroline Snell, Prison no. 6495

Evening News (NSW)

Western Champion and General Advertiser for the Central-Western Districts (Queensland)

Horsham Times (Victoria)

Maryborough Chronicle, Wide Bay and Burnett Advertiser (Queensland)

National Advocate (NSW)

Adelaide Observer (SA)

Ballarat Star (Victoria)

South Australia Register (SA)

Drug dens and "boring" family trees

I was tasked with a project from my grandmother; “I know nothing about my fathers’ side of the family”. This was not a statement, but a not so subtle quest for her genealogist granddaughter to undertake. She wanted me to get a move on with my own family tree.

My grandmother hails from South Australia and made the move to Victoria in the 1950s, met my grandfather and never left. All of her family stayed dotted around South Australia and no one had really had the inclination to be the keeper of the family history – until me!

My grandmother tells stories of her crotchety old grandmother, Penelope. A forceful woman whose domineering presence was felt, and who strictly enforced the ‘children should be seen and not heard’ rule. She remembers Sunday’s after church, spent in her grandparents’ stately home, where no fun, laughter or joy was to be shared on the holiest day of the week. Her grandfather, Henry, was a well-respected bank manager, who she fondly remembers as a state class, rifle-shooting gentleman. He died suddenly and unexpectedly when she was only 5 years old.

This was as far as my grandmother knew of her paternal side of the family. And for all intents and purposes the rest of the family was fairly benign and there was nothing worth noting in the family history…or so she thought.

After a brief search I was able to fill in some blanks. There was nothing remarkable, nothing that made any dramatic ripples. That was until I was researching my grandmother’s great grandfather – my great great great grandfather – Alfred Hughes. The year following the death of Alfred’s first wife, Mary Anne – my ancestor – he re-married Roseanna. Three years later, in 1879 Roseanna was attending the inquest into her husbands’ suspicious death at the King’s Head Hotel in Adelaide. Before his death, Alfred had been under the care of Dr Sprod who had been treating him for ‘low spirits and weakness’. The day before his death he went about his day as normal but appeared drowsy and ‘down-hearted’ on his return from lunch. Later in the day, Alfred took another turn and when his colour changed the doctor was summoned. Dr Gardner arrived in a few short minutes and believed that the patient ‘was suffering from apoplexy’. After further medical advice from Dr Corbin the pair ‘put mustard poultices on [Alfred] but he continued insensible, and died shortly after 7 o’clock pm’.

A local chemist assistant, Mr Robert Beddome, testified that for the two to three months prior to Alfred’s death, he remembered him frequenting the shop to purchase laudanum. The morning before his death he asked Mr Beddome for some laudanum ‘to send to the country for some friends’ – a common practice, and one which was not questioned at the time. Mr Beddome packaged the opiate into the requested three one-ounce bottles for Alfred to allegedly send on to his country customers. Laudanum, was an opiate which was commonly used for pain relief and was readily acquired without a prescription, or directions for use.

An Opium Den, 1881.  Image courtesy of SLV.

An Opium Den, 1881. Image courtesy of SLV.

Whilst the foreman stated that there was no sign of a missing bottle, the jury returned with their verdict of his death being ‘caused by deceased drinking the contents of a one-ounce bottle of laudanum while in a state of temporary insanity…’. The coroner agreed and declared Alfred’s death as an accidental opium overdose. Not uncommon, yet no less tragic end to a life for the father of five.

During the nineteenth century, the use of ‘therapeutic’ opiates remained largely unregulated and recreational use was quite common. Up until the 1880s the practice of importing opium was ‘widely accepted due to the revenue derived from taxation duties’. In Victoria, opium was deemed illegal in 1905, however there is evidence of opium den’s operating in Melbourne up until the late-1950s.

So, the bland family history that my grandmother guaranteed me of, was in fact a little off the mark and not to my disappointment (in the least morbid way).

And, just for the record, she was thrilled with the discovery!

Phoebe, April 2018


Returning to the South Australian roots on a family holiday, c1970. Image courtesy of Phoebe's private collection.

Returning to the South Australian roots on a family holiday, c1970. Image courtesy of Phoebe's private collection.


South Australian Register (Adelaide), 8 December 1879, p. 6.

Evening Journal (South Australia), 8 December 1879, p. 3.

Burt, Daniel, ‘The History of Melbourne’s opium dens and their continuation into the 1950s’, ABC News,, accessed 26 March 2018.

Rowe, James, ‘Pure Politics: A Historical Look at Australian Drug Policy’, Alternative Law Journal, vol. 26, no. 3, 2001.

Prostitutes and vagabonds

Prostitution. Vagrancy. Insufficient means. Just a few of the punishable crimes Phoebe Harris was imprisoned for in her short life.

Phoebe Harris’ story is not an unusual one for the time. That doesn’t mean it is any less sad. Born somewhere between 1862 and 1865 in England, by the time she was in her early-twenties, Phoebe was charged with her first offence and sentenced to two months of hard labour. Four months after that first charge, she was again sentenced to two months hard labour. In fact, Phoebe’s prison record is a large and varied list of her movements between police stations, court houses and gaol’s over almost forty years. 

Phoebe Harris' mug shot. Image from female prison register, PROV, VPRS 516/P2, Unit 9, p. 226.

Phoebe Harris' mug shot. Image from female prison register, PROV, VPRS 516/P2, Unit 9, p. 226.

In 1885 Phoebe found herself locked up in the Horsham police station for using ‘obscene language’. By 6 o’clock the next morning, only an hour after being checked on, Phoebe was missing from the lock up yard where the ‘staple of the door having been wrenched off by the means of an iron bar’. Her husband, Abraham had been seen loitering around the yards. Phoebe was found and re-arrested three hours later and sentenced to two months for obscene language and a further six months for escaping.

After this, Phoebe’s register is a litany of offences. Crimes which held terms of anywhere from one month and a fine of a few pounds for soliciting prostitution, to six months for ‘invisible’ or ‘insufficient means’, to twelve months of hard labour for larceny. She frequented the pages of the Victorian government police gazettes and newspapers for these offences, which were always followed by the words – ‘repeatedly convicted’. A known criminal around Melbourne, who spent her whole adult life being so poor that she was continually charged with having no money to live by and thus turning to prostitution to survive and then being charged for that.

In August 1915 the Truth reported that ‘Harris, who has an impediment in her speech was once a tailoress, but now she is known in official circles as “Big Phoebe”, one of Fitzroy’s many frail flossies’ was charged with having insufficient means and was known ‘to be a common prostitute’.

Victorian government gazette, 19 September 1908.

Victorian government gazette, 19 September 1908.

On paper Phoebe led a sad life of imprisonment, which was an eternal cycle that continued to put her in gaol. The one consistency in her life at least gave her a place to sleep and food to eat, although not desirable.

In April 1921, Phoebe was sentenced to a further twelve months imprisonment in the female prison in Coburg (Pentridge). Less than seven months later in early November 1921, Phoebe Harris, the brown-eyed brunette and former tailoress and prison laundry attendant was finally set free from gaol when she collapsed after a ‘fainting fit’ and was carried to the hospital. After not regaining consciousness for four days, Phoebe eventually died of advanced kidney disease at the age of 53 years on 6 November.

Do you have a criminal in your family tree that you would like to learn more about? Contact us today to see how we can help you!



  • Phoebe Harris (AKA Phoebe Josephs) prison register, No. 5190 - PROV, VPRS 516/P2, Vol. 9, Pg. 226
  • Phoebe Harris inquest - PROV, VPRS 24/P0, Unit 1014, Item 1921/1140
  • Victorian police gazette
  • The Herald (Melbourne), 22 June 1909, p. 5
  • Truth (Melbourne), 21 August 1915, p. 3
  • Argus (Melbourne), 19 December 1908, p. 20
  • The Age (Melbourne), 19 December 1908, p. 16
  • Argus (Melbourne), 3 January 1885, p. 12

All is not as it seems: family trees and lore

Every family tree is made up of many branches; each ancestor holds their own timeline and individual story. Sometimes these stories, or part thereof, can be uncovered and we can put ‘flesh on the bones’ of an ancestor. Sometimes the stories we’re presented with when beginning a family tree can be sad, traumatic and downright confusing. But what we need to try and heed is that these stories need to be understood in context to the era and the circumstances surrounding an ancestor.

Recently we were presented with the (little) known facts about an ancestor – name, wife’s name and date of death – as well as the family lore that he was ‘not a very nice man’. A story that was kept in the back of our minds, but something we believed to be irrelevant to the overall family tree. After some thorough research we were able to form more of a story about this man who had left an impression of impending doom on his family.

In July 1940, Phillip Bourke enlisted in the Second Australian Imperial Forces (2nd AIF) after the declaration of war ten months earlier. Two months after enlisting, Private Bourke departed from Melbourne and found himself disembarking in Palestine where he was eventually stationed in Dimra, a mere 10km north-east of Gaza City. Just over a month after his arrival, Private Bourke was evacuated and admitted to the General Hospital for what was to be the first of several visits. After this first visit he was diagnosed with a post-concussion headache and sent to re-join his unit. Less than twelve months later he was re-admitted to hospital with further head injuries before eventually being assessed as ‘fit for duties other than active service…’ No doubt a disheartening experience for someone who had lied about his age on to join the Australian armed forces.
By January 1942 Private Bourke was again admitted to hospital, and this time the diagnosis was neurosis. Bourke was then classified as permanently medically unfit for service by the medical board and shortly after boarded a ship to return to Australia. Immediately upon his arrival to Melbourne he was transferred to 115 General Hospital Heidelberg and diagnosed with ‘anxiety neuroses’. More than two months later, Private Bourke was transferred to Caulfield Hospital before being discharged permanently.
The impact of warfare on servicemen and women could be detrimental to an individuals’ physical and mental health, which could, if untreated, impact upon family, friends, peers, colleagues and loved ones’ on their return home. We now know that Private Phillip Bourke’s diagnosis of ‘anxiety neuroses’ would be today classified as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and treated accordingly; at that time, it would have been known as ‘burnt-out soldier’ syndrome.

The family story of a father, grandfather and great grandfather being an angry man may have in fact been true, but the story behind that man was very different. The circumstances behind his demeanour, fits of temper and general cloudy nature had a reason, one which was likely never spoken of or explained and was also quite common for returned servicemen (and women).

Warfare varied for every participant and effected each person in differing ways, whether they be on active service or on the home front, or whether they were injured physically, mentally or remained without a scratch the effects were irreversible.

Sometimes we can’t believe everything we are told. Sometimes we can’t just judge a book by its cover.

Is there a mysterious ancestor in your tree that you would like to find out more about? Contact us today to see how we can help.


Enjoying the sunshine from one of the top verandahs at Heidelberg Repatriation Hospital, c1940-46. Image courtesy  SLV

Enjoying the sunshine from one of the top verandahs at Heidelberg Repatriation Hospital, c1940-46. Image courtesy SLV

Truth or Dare: Desertion and Divorce in one family tree

Nothing screamed ‘scandal’ like an article in Truth – a sensational and melodramatic tabloid which specialised in the reporting of scandalous events around Australia.

In 1916 desertion, perceived adultery and eventual divorce was just the story to be featured in the Melbourne publication of Truth, particularly if there were titbits of disgrace for either or both parties.

In May 1916, after almost 15 years of marriage Thomas Spry petitioned for divorce from his wife Everes, fifteen years his junior. The couple and their three children had moved between farming pursuits in New South Wales to Victoria and back again. After nearly twelve years of marriage, Thomas declared that Everes had ‘willfully deserted’ him and no longer performed her wifely duties out of, and particularly inside the bedroom. This, of course, was the type of scandal that Truth just loved to report about. Snippets of the trial appeared in the newspaper, reporting that Thomas had continually and lovingly provided for his wife before she, on several occasions ‘took ill’ and was hospitalised at Royal Park for a nervous breakdown (on more than one occasion). What Thomas failed to mention in his written divorce petition before the courts, but was thoroughly reported about in the newspaper was the fact that his wife had discovered a prescription which was to assist with ‘certain diseases’, he claims, he was afflicted with, prior to their marriage. Everes finding the prescription, which Thomas claimed had been written almost 30 years earlier – and which he had for reasons unknown kept – asked her doctor what it was for. Yet, Thomas didn’t believe that it was an issues, he passed the blame to his estranged wife and stated that, ‘the only conclusion I can come to is that when the money was done love was too’.

Truth,  13 May 1916, p. 3.

Truth, 13 May 1916, p. 3.

Everes did not fight Thomas’ claim, she did not write to the court of her response to the claims of desertion nor appeared in person to have her voice heard. Eliza, her mother, did appear and claimed that all the blame could not be attributed to her daughter and her mental state. Eliza believed that Thomas was ‘rather sweet on a servant girl’ and had partly attributed Everes’ reasons for not sleeping with her husband because ‘his breath was so strong with rum and tobacco that she could not sleep with him’.

Briefly, Thomas was questioned about whether his intent to divorce was because he had the desire to marry again. He denied that he had neither a prospective new wife nor the inclination to find someone. That same year – within 6 months – Thomas did indeed marry again.


Do you want us to uncover the scandal in your family tree, or get to the bottom of a family mystery? Contact us today to see how we can help you.


Studio portrait of unidentified married woman face obliterated, c1880-90. Image courtesy  SLV

Studio portrait of unidentified married woman face obliterated, c1880-90. Image courtesy SLV


Truth (Melbourne), 13 May 1916, p. 3.

PROV, VPRS 283/P0, Unit 240, Item 1916/15.

Family trees and Google mysteries

The internet is a great and powerful tool. Google answers any and all of our questions, from determining the currency of Ghana to advice on how long to cook the Christmas turkey. However, there are pitfalls to the electronic encyclopaedia that many of us use on a daily basis: you can’t believe everything you read online!

Someone came to us with a quandary; they had just started the exciting journey of researching their family history online. They had found their ancestor who, in 1882 had passed away in a fairly large Victorian metropolis; they had also found this same ancestor buried in Adelaide over twenty years later in 1903. They had told us that their ancestor was married twice and had 20 children. Now, large families were not unusual in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century, although 20 was an extraordinarily large number of children for one woman to birth in a fairly short period of time. And dying in one location and being buried in another several decades later was a very unusual concept for that time.

With some thorough research using primary sources, such as births, deaths and marriage records, wills and probate records and census records, we were able to establish that there were two women with the same maiden name – one having children with one man in Victoria and another marrying and having children in South Australia. The women’s timelines are similar and potentially could have been the same woman, except for a few pieces of vital information – the Victorian couple were married in the UK and migrated to Australia a decade after the South Australian couple were married and the women had several of their children at the same time – in two different states!

So, while we love the internet and what it allows us to do in our everyday lives, and in our research pursuits, you need to make sure you take it all with a grain of salt. There are many records available online which are digested copies of original, primary records and sources, these are a great source of information and can assist with research if used in the right way. However, it is also very easy to get one ancestor confused with another which may have the same name and this can be seen through the likes of sites such as Whilst it is a great resource there is no regulation on what information can be uploaded and shared between ‘trees’; there is no requirement for sources for where information has been obtained.

Just don’t believe everything you read on the internet!

If you have a funny looking branch in your tree, or just a question about an elusive ancestor, contact us today to see how we can help.