Michael Stapleton- An Ancestor with a Wooden Leg – Was he a Pirate?

When my mother-in-law died suddenly many years ago, my father-in-law came to live with us, as he didn’t want to live on his own. He lived with us for over four years. First sharing a bedroom with our son and then, when we moved onto a small property out of town, in a small purpose built unit near our home. Most days he had his evening meal with us, and afterward, the conversation often turned to family history, when I quizzed him on what he knew of his ancestors.

His mother had been Honorah Stapleton before her marriage to his father, James Mackey. My father-in-law spent many of his childhood school holidays with his Stapleton grandparents at Billinugil, where his grandfather was responsible for the ‘tick-gate’.

One afternoon while discussing the lives of these grandparents, it was revealed that grandfather Stapleton had a wooden leg. One of the children immediately spoke up, and asked in all innocence, “Was he a pirate?” Of course, everyone equated a ‘wooden leg with a pirate’, especially as many children’s books, particularly the ‘classics’, in which most pirates had a wooden leg, or a hook arm, as in Walt Disney’s character ‘Hook’ in Peter Pan.

My father-in-law didn’t really know how he came to have a wooden leg but believed it was from an accident. He didn’t know when but said he always remembered his grandfather having the wooden leg.

We had no contact with other members of the Stapleton family at that time, so until we could get some idea of when and where ‘the accident’ happened, it was to remain a mystery.

When the National Library of Australia launched their on-line newspaper resources on TROVE, I was keen to try it out. In the early stages it was only the large national newspapers, but as time went on the country newspapers were added. It was then that the mystery was solved.

The ‘Northern Star’ (Lismore, 1876-1954) had the following article in 1905.

Yesterday afternoon a serious accident occurred at Messrs Hollingworth and Mallett’s sawmill at Mullumbimby. The information at the time of writing is somewhat meagre, but so far as can be ascertained it appears that an employee at the mill named Michael Stapleton, aged 46, by some means came in contact with one of the revolving saws, with the result, that his left foot was entirely severed from the leg and he also sustained serious injuries about the body. He was brought to Lismore under the care of Mr. Mallett on last nights train, and on arrival was removed from the railway station to the hospital in an ambulance. He was admitted for treatment by Dr. Duka, but at the time of writing particulars as to his condition can not be obtained.

[Ref:1905 Serious Sawmill Accident’, Northern Star (Lismore, 1876-1954), 16 September 1905, p5, retrieved 20 May 2013, http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/71839298 ]

In another newspaper more than 100 miles away:-

Michael Stapleton, whilst engaged packing up a revolving circular saw in Hollingworth and Mallet’s saw mill, Mullumbimby, on Friday, jambed his thumb, and in endeavouring to release it his shirt sleeve was caught in the teeth of the saw. He slipped onto the saw and was thrown eight feet away. When picked up by his work- mates, it was found that his left foot had been completely severed from the heel to the instep and that his right arm had been badly injured. He was taken to the Lismore Hospital.

[Ref: 1905 Clarence and Richmond Examiner (Grafton, 1889-1915), 19 September 1905, p8, retrieved 19 August 2013, http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/61424904%5D

As we know there was no government help such as ‘Medicare’ in those days and everyone needed to pay for the services of the doctor and the hospital and staff in such emergencies. How did a labourer with a large family (there were nine children and two adults by 1905) pay for these services?
This question was answered by a further article in the newspaper.

The usual monthly meeting of the committee of the Lismore Hospital was held at the School of Arts on Tuesday last. ….The correspondence included the following letter- From the Secretary of the Grand United Order of Oddfellows, Mullumbimby  thanking the medical and nursing staff for the treatment that had been given their brother, Mr. Stapleton, while in the hospital as the result of a serious accident and referring in eulogical terms the marvellous care which had been effected in his case- Received.

[Ref: 1905 Hospital Committee, Northern Star (Lismore, 1876-1954), 11 December 1905, p2, retrieved 20 May 2013, http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/71841325 ]

I thought it very interesting that even though the family income was very low, they still were members of the Grand United Order of Oddfellows, Mullumbimby, and paid into the lodge sick and funeral fund.

However, this would have only paid the basic medical expenses, and there would have been the loss of income and many other expenses at such times. Although Michael (Jr) and Andrew would have been working and would have been expected to contribute to the household, there were eleven mouths to feed, and the home must have been busting at the seams. The Brunswick and Mullumbimby community, although probably quite small at the time, rallied around the family and the following short reference was found in the newspaper.

Mullumbimby…The concert to be held on the 8th December in aid of Michael Stapleton, who was severely injured at the sawmills here some time ago, promises to be very successful.

[Ref:1905 District News, Northern Star (Lismore, 1876-1954), 25 November 1905, p5, retrieved 20 May 2013, http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/71841038]

The local newspaper, the Mullumbimby Star did not start publication until 1906.

Michael Stapleton was fitted with a prosthesis or artificial leg and returned to work in the mill, as he gave evidence to the Sawmiller’s Wages Board in 1909.

M Stapleton, tailor out at the Canadian bench at Hollingworth and Mallett’s mill at 6s a day, said an experienced man was required for this work, and 7s 6d should be the lowest pay. He considered the work dangerous.

Ref: 1909, Industrial Disputes Act-Sawmillers Wages Board, Northern Star (Lismore, 1876-1954), 11 October 1909,p2, retrieved 20 May 2013, http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/72228381]

 During the First World War, he took the position of ‘gateman’ on the Billinugil Tickgate, where he worked for many years. He retired in 1932.

So, although Michael Stapleton had a wooden leg, he was not a pirate, much to the disappointment of our children, but what a wonderful story to find out about. With a little thought and patience, many of these family puzzles can be solved in this way.