Many family historians collect the birth, death, and marriage certificates of their ancestors thinking that they tell the story of their lives. However I believe, that one document does not tell the story of an event.
We are also advised when writing up our family histories to allow the facts to speak for themselves and let the reader draw their own conclusions. Fifty years of experience has taught me not to always believe this is so.
Let us take the marriage certificate of my maternal grandparents Arthur and Harriet May Baxter (nee Bell). According to their marriage certificate,(a full copy of which I purchased from the Registrar of Births, Death and Marriages (Sydney), they married at St David’s, Thirroul on 27 January 1913.
Church of England images of Sydney Diocese, retrieved from ancestry.com website 1 April 2020
That is all fine until you know that their eldest child was born at the end of July. The first conclusion one might jump to was that he married her because she was pregnant to save her reputation. A reasonable assumption perhaps in Edwardian Society before World War I.
However, the true story of this couple’s marriage is much more interesting.
Arthur Baxter, the fourth son and sixth child of James and Margaret Baxter (nee Kennedy) was born in 1888 at Picton, New South Wales. His parents and grandparents were pioneers of the district.
Harriet May Bell, the fifth daughter, and sixth child of John and Alice Bell (nee Sherwood) was born in 1891 also at Picton. Her parents and grandparents were also pioneers of the district.
Both Arthur and Harriet May were baptized at St Mark’s Church of England, Picton.
Arthur Baxter grew up on the family dairy farm at Clifton near Picton and worked at farm chores from an early age with his father and brothers. He attended Clifton Provisional School which was situated on the Baxter property.
The farm at Clifton was run by his father with the help of his seven sons. It was likely that the elder sons might inherit the farm or at least have some pecuniary interest while the younger sons were expected to work for their ‘keep’ until they reached their majority of 21 years when they might expect to have some kind of monetary allowance for their work.
Arthur Baxter met May Bell at St Mark’s Annual Sunday School picnic about 1906 and fell in love with her. At the time he was about eighteen years of age, but with no prospects, and she nearly sixteen but not allowed to go out unchaperoned and certainly not with a farmer’s son.
Arthur suffered from asthma and it was believed to have been aggravated by working near cattle. The cold Picton winters did not allow his health to improve as the years went by.
Arthur knew if he was to have any chance of winning Miss May Bell he had to leave the farm and find employment to earn the money to make his own way in life.
Early in the 20th Century, Crown land was offered to selectors on the upper reaches of the Tweed River, in northern New South Wales, particularly at Chillingham on the North Arm and Kunghur on the South Arm. These land opportunities were advertised in various newspapers including ‘The Farmer and Settler’. It is believed this is how the young men in the Camden and Picton area knew of the land being offered for selection at Chillingham. A number of young men left the family farms and struck out on their own. If they had the money they took up their own block. The Doust brothers of Camden were ones that took up a selection there. Another family from the area was the Todd family. They were from Elderslie, Mt Hunter, and had grown up with the Baxter family. Those young men who didn’t have the money to select or buy went to find employment by assisting the selectors to clear these blocks for dairying, thereby gaining the money to buy their own farms. Arthur Baxter and his mate Lock Nicholson fell into this category.
Early in 1908 Arthur Baxter, Lock Nicholson, and several other young men from the Picton district went to the Tweed River. They caught the train to Sydney, where they boarded the coastal steamer, Orara. (Probably as steerage passengers to save money).The Orara left Sydney about 9 am on Saturday and arrived at Byron Bay early on the following Monday morning. They then caught the train to Murwillumbah.
Murwillumbah had been settled many years before and by 1907 was a bustling town with hotels, post office, courthouse, and numerous other shops, businesses, and houses. However on the 15 September tragedy struck the town, when it was virtually burned to the ground by a raging fire. By the time Arthur and his mates arrived early in 1908 the town was being rebuilt, and there was an air of optimism.
At Murwillumbah, the men hitched a ride with the mail-man who delivered to the district three days a week. Chillingham or Bean Tree as it was known, was a creek crossing on the road to the Queensland Border, which was a few miles away. Here the young men gained employment as planned by helping the selectors clear the heavy scrub so they could plant grasses for the grazing of dairy cattle. The surrounding farming district was known as Zara.
One of these selectors was William Growcock, an Irish immigrant who had arrived in Queensland in 1891. He was in the Chillingham area from about 1900, officially selecting in 1904 and adding to his block in 1907. He employed Arthur Baxter and his mate Lock Nicholson to clear fell the scrub on his second block.
[Spoiler alert- Forty years later Arthur Baxter’s daughter Margaret married William Growcock’s son, William. This couple were my parents].
Although hundreds of miles apart, Arthur Baxter and May Bell’s romance blossomed throughout 1908 as they corresponded regularly. In one of those letters, Arthur wrote to May and told her ‘the boys’ (Arthur and his friends) would be home for Christmas and asked her to meet the late train from Sydney at the Picton Railway Station, on a certain day, as it was very important. May asked her father to accompany her to the station, as it was late evening and she was only seventeen and wouldn’t be turning eighteen until the following month. Young ladies did not go out at night unchaperoned. When they met at the station, without a word Arthur grabbed May’s left hand and slipped a sapphire and diamond engagement ring on her finger. (She always maintained that Arthur may have asked her father for her hand in marriage, but he didn’t ask her). Arthur had just turned twenty-one years a couple of days before.
Picton Railway Station from State Rail Authority Archives Photographic Reference Print Collection, retrieved 1 April 2010
May Bell’s mother, Alice Bell, was not keen on the union because several of the Baxter boys had a ‘weakness in the chest’ (asthma) and she didn’t want another daughter saddled with an invalid husband as her second daughter, Alice had been with Amos Kiss.
However, her main objection was because of Arthur’s mother’s family- the Kennedy’s- ‘had madness in the family’. Arthur’s maternal grandfather, Gilbert Kennedy had been in Parramatta Asylum for the Insane for nearly thirty-six years when he died in 1903. His widow remained in the Picton area until her death in 1912, and everyone knew the family and their ‘troubles’.
May Bell’s mother refused to give her consent to the marriage, hoping she would find a ‘better match’. May’s father, John Bell, also had certain reservations as Arthur had not yet earned enough money to take up a selection of his own and build a home. The beautiful ring he had purchased in Sydney, had taken much of his hard-earned cash of the first year of scrub-clearing.
As May was still underage and needed her parent’s permission there way only one thing they could do. To wait until she was twenty-one. It was going to be a long engagement.