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.


World War I Family Heroes – The Stapleton Boys

At this time of year, many of us remember all those ancestors and family members, who served in theatres of war, particularly in World War I.

In my husband’s ancestry, as well as my own, we have many family members involved in this terrible conflict.

As family historians our ultimate aim is to trace a life story from birth to death of each individual on our ‘family tree’. We use many sources to accomplish this, including archival records held in many places, and in many forms. It requires careful detective work as you follow up clues and leads revealed in the documents. This work is very necessary, and although time consuming, it is never boring.


This year I have been working on the history of our Stapleton family. Michael Stapleton of County Tipperary, Ireland, immigrated to Queensland in 1875. In 1883 he married in Townsville, Rosanna Kane, who had immigrated from County Armagh Ireland, some time before. Over the next twenty years or so they had six sons and four daughters. When war broke out in 1914, most of the family were living at Mullumbimby, in northern New South Wales. Three of these sons enlisted in the army.


Next year we will be celebrating 100 years since the beginning of World War I. So much has been done by Governmental Departments and other groups to help us get the most out of the available sources, by making them available on the Internet.


When we think of Australia’s involvement in war and conflict, we usually think of the Australian War Memorial. Their website can be found at http://www.awm.gov.au

Links from this website led me to National Archives of Australia, at http://www.naa.gov.au, for the Personal Service Record of each soldier and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, at http://www.cwgc.org/ concerning the deaths if those who died during the war, and those who died from the effects of the war.


I was able to find lots of records on these websites to put together the life story of these three Stapleton brothers.


The first to enlist in the Australian Infantry Forces was Daniel Patrick Stapleton, known as ‘Dan’. He was born in 1896, and was the third son, and sixth child, of Michael and Rose Stapleton, of Mullumbimby.


Dan was working as a labourer when he enlisted on 10 June 1915. He went into training and embarked for active duty overseas in August the same year. He was serving in the trenches of the Western Front in France, when he was severely wounded in the chest and head on 19 August 1916.His Casualty Service Form told the story of how he was transported from field station to various hospitals over the next few weeks and then was deemed unfit to return to his unit. He was finally returned to Australia in May 1917 and then discharged on 21 June 1917. Although he married and had a number of children, Dan’s war experiences and wounds were to dominate his life until his death in 1946. Much of this is revealed in his Personal Service Records on-line at http://www.naa.gov.au.

The second son to enlist was James Joseph Stapleton, the fourth son and seventh child of Michael and Rose Stapleton, known as ‘Jim’. He was born in 1899, but claimed to be 18 years and 1 month when he enlisted on 2 November 1915 less than five months after his elder brother.

His Service and Casualty Forms reveal a very colourful character, who was well thought of by his men. He is listed as a Gunner in the mortars in October 1916, and rose to the rank of Corporal in June 1917. He saw fighting throughout the Western Front during the worst period. He was killed in action on the Somme, just over two months before the cessation of the war. To find his full story I needed to visit the three above mentioned websites.


However, even more of the story was revealed by tracking down the newspapers of the time. The Northern Star (Lismore) has been digitized and is available on-line at the National Library of Australia website,at http://trove.nla.gov.au/ . There I found a newspaper article referring to James Joseph Stapleton, and how and when his parents had been advised of his death. In a later issue was a copy of a beautifully written and comforting letter from one of Jim’s comrades, telling his parents how their son was actually killed, and where and when he was buried. The Australian War Memorial also has a photograph of this serviceman on their website.


The third of the Stapleton brothers to enlist, was Michael. He was the eldest son and child of Michael and Rose Stapleton. He was born in Townsville in 1884, and was working as a railway fettler when he joined up in June 1917, a few days before his brother Dan arrived home. Originally he was in the 4th Pioneers, and was involved in building medical field stations and hospitals and was later transferred to the Army Medical Corps at the beginning of 1918.. He spent much of his time in England. When his brother Jim was listed as missing in action he wrote to the authorities and the Red Cross trying to get details for his parents. While he was stationed at Weymouth he met Eva Margaret Gardiner, a young English woman from Frome. They were married in March 1919.

At the end of 1918 and early 1919 Michael had bouts of illness and was hospitalized for a number of weeks each time. He finally returned to Australia in September 1919. His wife Eva Margaret Stapleton followed soon afterwards.


The Military service of the Stapleton family did not stop there. William Thomas Stapleton, the tenth and youngest child of Michael and Rose Stapleton was born in 1907. He grew up with the stories of his older brothers in World War I. He was only ten when his brother Jim was killed. Bill, as he was known, enlisted in the Australian Army in World War II, on the 7 July 1941. He served in New Guinea before he fell seriously ill and was returned to Australia in April 1942. He was admitted to the Tweed District Hospital where he died in September 1942.

The above mentioned records have been valuable in putting together the Life Story of each of these Stapleton family members. However, where most family historians with the above information on these men, would believe the research is now complete, for me it is not. I will now search h the archives of the local newspapers for ‘send-offs’ and ‘welcome home’ functions as well as other bits of information I might be able to find. I will be seeking photographs of the families, as well as hoping to make contact with descendants and other interested family members. Family history is never complete. There is always more.