I have been wanting to write something for Women’s History Month. The Australian theme for 2013 is Finding Founding Mothers—looking at women involved in shaping the new nation in the fields of political, social, medical and educational reform. The women at the heart of my research don’t obviously fit with this theme—so instead of profiling an ‘important’ figure in the struggle for women’s rights from Federation, I’d like to tell the story of a woman whose life and death are an example of why those reforms, particularly those around health care and reproductive rights, have been so important.
Louisa Elizabeth Nichols was 32 years old when, on 24 July 1901, she took her husband’s revolver, walked outside her family’s home at Tarlo, near Goulburn, and shot herself in the head. Watching was her 11-year-old daughter, Lily, together with her other six children: Ruby (10), Ronald (9), Hilton (6), Elsie (4), Louisa (2) and baby Edith. That morning, Louisa had been up early feeding four-week-old Edith. When Lily got up, she helped her mother get her other siblings washed and dressed and ready for school. Louisa then asked Lily to take out a piece of paper to write something down, but Lily refused—her mother already had hold of the revolver and Lily knew what she was intending to do with it. Louisa kissed the children, then went out into the yard and killed herself. Young Lily called out to her father, who was sick in bed, and then ran to her neighbour for help. On hearing the shots, Charlie Ah Chong got out of bed, finding his wife dead and the children crying. When the neighbours arrived ten minutes later, there was nothing to be done.
Louisa and Charlie had been together for thirteen years, living first on Charlie’s garden in Goulburn itself and then, from about 1894, at Tarlo, just north of the town, where there were significant market gardens run by Chinese. Around the time of their move Louisa had ‘complained of her head’ and then two years before her death she had ‘taken bad again’—this timing perhaps coinciding with the birth of daughter Louisa in 1899. Louisa used to talk strangely and seemed to believe that people hung about the place. Neighbour James Willis described her as eccentric, saying he believed that ‘she was wrong in her head’. He also often heard Louisa say that ‘she thought she would go mad on account of the way she was living’. Although the only person Charlie had spoken to about her condition was the local police, Louisa and Charlie seem to have been an amiable couple, never quarelling, even though they lived in hard conditions.
The coronial inquiry into Louisa’s death concluded that it was the result of a wound self-inflicted while temporarily insane. Reporting the case the Goulburn Herald noted that ‘There is nothing to show why the deed was committed’, but in retrospect it seems very likely that Louisa was suffering, and had previously suffered, from post-natal depression, or from some other form of mental illness. From the age of 21, Louisa’s life would have been almost completely consumed with child-bearing and mothering. Giving birth to seven children over 11 years, she would have been in a constant cycle of pregnancy and nursing, pregnancy and nursing, until she could cope no more.
There is one final, heart-breaking part of the story of Louisa’s death, which tells of how important Louisa was to her young family. For without her, they weren’t permitted to remain a family:
A pathetic scene, in connection with the recent suicide at Tarlo, was enacted in Sloane-street [Goulburn] this morning. Mrs Chong, the victim of this domestic tragedy, left behind her a family of seven young children, the eldest being a girl of 11 years, and the authorities deemed it wise on the ground of morality to place the children under State protection. They were brought into town to-day and despatched to Sydney by the 11.20 train. Quite a touching scene was witnessed on their removal from the police station to the railway station. The children, who are all very small, did not appear to realize why they were being taken away from their home, and their infantile struggles with two stalwart policemen attracted quite a number of people to the spot. The sight of the little ones holding on to their father’s coat and legs while the constables endeavoured with the greatest gentleness to disengage them was pathetic in the extreme. The distressed father showed a deep affection for his children, and was visibly affected. (Goulburn Evening Penny Post, 10 August 1901)
‘Suicide at Tarlo‘, Goulburn Herald, 24 July 1901, p. 3
‘Sad case of suicide at Tarlo‘, Goulburn Evening Penny Post, 25 July 1901, p. 2
‘A pathetic scene‘, Goulburn Evening Penny Post, 10 August 1901, p. 2
NSW birth registrations: 14112/1890, 14459/1891, 14848/1893, 22459/1895, 21813/1897, 21084/1899, 22239/1901 (Note: the children’s births were registered under the surnames Nichols, Nicholls and Nicholson)