21 June 2013

The short life of James Arthur Wilkey

James Arthur Wilkey was my great grandfather. He was born in Burwood, Sydney in 1877 to John and Mary Ann Wilkey. Comparatively little is known about my great grandfather, because he only lived to 30 years of age. For him there was no sitting around with the grandchildren, regaling them with stories of "When I was young...."

James Arthur, known just as "Arthur", was the seventh of nine children of John and Mary Ann Wilkey, though he only knew two of his older siblings because the others died in infancy or childhood.

James Arthur Wilkey on his wedding day.

The next event that history records in Arthur's life was his marriage, aged 25, to Ellen Paterson Macindoe in 1902, at Petersham, Sydney. They lived in a house in Wyatt Avenue, Burwood, and started a family - their first child, Helen Genevieve, was born in 1904. Arthur worked as a clerk. Then, in 1907, when Ellen, known as Nell, was newly pregnant with their second child, named James Arthur Macindoe Wilkey (known as Arthur, like his father), tragedy befell the family.

Evening News, 16 Sep 1907. Accessed via Trove on 21 Jun 2013. Note that Arthur's name is quoted incorrectly.

The accident occurred at about 8am on Monday 16 September. Nell sat up all Monday night, praying for her husband, with her mother, sister Maggie, brother Norman, and a few friends. I cannot begin to imagine her emotional state at the plight of her husband, especially in her pregnant condition, but her brother Norman described it thus in his diary: "Remained up all Tuesday night sharing Nell's heart agony, also portion of Wednesday night". Tragically, Arthur died the day after the accident at about 1pm. He was buried at Rookwood Cemetery on 19 September 1907.

Witnesses at the inquest into his death described how, after his train had left Burwood Station on its journey towards Sydney, as he stood on the platform of the train, his hat blew off when another train passed, and in a effort to catch it, he fell from the train. A verdict of accidental death was recorded.

Life for Nell after her husband's death was hard, though her family was there to help her. She gave birth to their son Arthur in the following April. Some of Nell's brothers took a particular interest in young Arthur as he grew up, to provide him with a father figure.

I've often wondered how the family survived financially after Arthur's death, as there was no longer a breadwinner in the family. This question was answered when I looked at Arthur's deceased estate papers at State Records: on the 31 Dec 1898 when he was 21, Arthur took out a £100 life insurance policy with the Australian Mutual Provident Society. When he died, the policy paid out £111. That would certainly have helped provide for the family.


  1. What a sad story, and all for a hat.

  2. I know Jill. When I think of Nell on that Monday night, pouring out her heart in prayer, its a little bit heart-breaking.