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Reflections

From a young child, I grew up with the knowledge that my great-grandfather, William Eason, was a highly respected teacher committed to helping his students excel in examinations and earn scholarships to further education. The William Eason Memorial Gates at the Koo Wee Rup school entrance, erected by an appreciative community following his death in 1936, were a great source of family pride. However, I knew very little of my great-grandmother, Minnie. Dad told me that William and Minnie's young daughter, Norma, had died in a fire, a priest had blamed Minnie for her death because she married a non-Catholic and Minnie ended up in an asylum where she eventually died. Consequently, in 2011 my interest was aroused when reading a newspaper article concerning a patient’s mental health records being available 75 years after their death. I was curious to learn more about my great-grandmother's life and the circumstances surrounding her disappearance.

 

After accessing Minnie's Mental Hospitals' Records, I found them confronting and disturbing as I learned of her unimaginable suffering and torment, which she endured for over eleven years. Added to my anguish, I discovered that William had privately requested her committal. At this stage, despite feeling alarmed at the thought of a husband committing a wife, I remained open-minded regarding his actions. However, after absorbing the harrowing details of her asylum life, I didn't have the resolve or the courage to continue my research into the circumstances surrounding Minnie's committal.

 

It took a chance visit to the Rosedale Cemetery in 2014 to re-ignite my interest in Minnie and William's lives when I discovered that Minnie was buried in an unmarked grave. In stark contrast, William had a headstone in the Pakenham Cemetery and the Koo Wee Rup Memorial Gates as lasting legacies. I felt deeply troubled by such disparity.

 

The journey of researching Minnie and William's lives has been similar to solving a jigsaw puzzle without consulting the image on the box. During the following years, crucial facts emerged through official documents, newspaper articles and more hospital records. I started to piece together a framework of their married lives and the circumstances of Minnie’s committal. As newspaper articles mounted regarding William's community, church and club leadership positions he volunteered for, I wondered how his frequent absences from home would have impacted his young wife and family, raising doubt in my mind as to William's level of commitment to Minnie. Furthermore, after reading the Coroner's Inquest records concerning Norma's tragic death, I wondered how a couple could ever have recovered from such a devastating event, especially with Minnie being responsible for leaving little Norma temporarily unsupervised.

 

It is highly likely that as a result of the circumstances surrounding Norma's death, Minnie suffered from severe shock, profound grief and lasting guilt, which all contributed to her demise. Her chances of ever returning to a fulfilling, settled life were further diminished by many other risk factors in her life, including: her husband's priorities seemed to lie outside of his home, the Catholic Church had condemned mixed marriages and Freemasonry, doctors had little understanding of mental health and the brutal mental health system which existed at that time often incarcerated vulnerable people. I imagine Minnie's potentially fragile mental health eventually became a liability to her husband as he took on more prestigious roles in his community. Yet, just like a missing piece of jigsaw, we will never know with absolute certainty what led William to remove Minnie from her family home and children, leaving her to a life of abject misery and despair until her death.

 

I began to think less favourably of William after learning that his divorce petition omitted significant information and exaggerated Minnie's mental state. When I then discovered in the Receiving House Register of Patients book that William was the attested authority who committed Minnie, based on her supposed jealousy, I felt a strong sense of injustice, particularly given that Minnie's allegations of infidelity against William were quite plausible with his extracurricular activities requiring frequent absences from home. Furthermore, my suspicion that William did not truly care for his wife was validated when I realised that he never visited Minnie once he committed her.

 

As I discovered more critical information about Minnie's committal, the purpose of my investigations shifted to giving Minnie a voice. No one in her family or community would ever have read her Patient Clinical Notes or hospital records to understand how much she ultimately suffered from her husband’s actions. No one in William's family or community would ever have read his divorce petition, let alone reconciled its claims with Minnie's hospital records. I felt a responsibility to reveal the intolerable suffering that she must have endured as a result of the death of her child, an unhappy marriage and significantly, being an involuntary patient of three asylums for eleven years, in degrading, overcrowded conditions, vulnerable to violence and cruelty.

 

In my quest to understand the circumstances of Minnie's committal, I have unwittingly unearthed the chronically unstable childhood that my grandfather, Arnold Eason, experienced. After tragically losing his younger sister when he was six years old, he then witnessed the deterioration of his mother's mental health, his parents' struggling marriage and his mother's permanent removal from his life, all within five years. Eighteen months after his family unit was torn apart, Arnold had another upheaval moving from a rural town to board with a family in Melbourne for three years whilst attending Wesley College. Such severe emotional turmoil and sudden disruptions to his young life gives me a greater appreciation and understanding of his character and the fine and successful man that he became.

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Arnold Eason at my wedding, 1986

While there have been many times when my research has exposed shocking and upsetting facts, the actual process of locating information resulted in many treasured and sustained connections with both relatives and strangers. I shall remain forever grateful that so many kind people have generously shared their time and resources with such understanding.

 

I recently had an opportunity to visit St. Rose of Lima Church in Rosedale, Minnie’s special place of worship, for the first 27 years of her life. It was here that Minnie had been baptised as an infant, married, played the organ for services and also witnessed the baptisms of her two eldest children. I imagine that this tiny church had been a source of peace, fellowship and joyful celebrations for Minnie and provided a sense of rhythm in her life based on the Catholic Church seasons.

 

After contacting a parishioner via a phone number posted on the locked church door, I explained my great-grandmother's links to this church and inquired about the possibility of looking inside. As a result, Geraldine Smith kindly offered to show Brendon and me inside the church the following morning. Geraldine lives on a farm with her husband on the outskirts of Rosedale and has had a long association with the Rosedale parish.

 

Geraldine greeted us with a big, warm smile and had notes on the church's history tucked under her arm. Brendon and I followed her into the church's vestibule and I braced myself, knowing that I was entering Minnie's sacred place of worship from a happier chapter of her life. Yet, I was still unprepared for the overwhelming feeling of sadness that gripped me as I took in the beauty, charm and powerful aura of calmness within these walls of worship. This aura was in such stark contrast to the living hell inside an early 20th-century asylum that Minnie had entered eight years after leaving this parish.

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Inside St Rose of Lima, 2021

Sitting in the front pew, not far from where Minnie and William would have exchanged their wedding vows and where my grandfather was baptised at six weeks of age, I reflected on Minnie's life; I may have even been sitting in the same space where Minnie had once sat over one hundred years ago. I imagined Minnie as a little girl, sitting beside her twelve siblings across several pews in this church. I could picture her as a radiant, stunning bride, gracefully walking down the aisle holding onto the arm of her proud brother. I could also visualise an elegantly dressed Minnie as a new mother, lovingly cradling her infant, Arnold, at the baptismal font.

I thought too of a grieving, tormented woman abandoned by her husband and discarded into a merciless mental health system, totally powerless to change her harrowing situation that was devoid of any familiarity and purpose. I pondered over the thought that if Minnie had lived during my lifetime, how differently her life could have played out; importantly, she would have received the appropriate mental health treatment after witnessing the traumatic death of her child.

 

Poignantly, Geraldine pointed out the corner at the back of the church where Minnie once would have played the organ, although the organ no longer exists today. I instantly envisaged Minnie as a young woman enthusiastically running nimble fingers over the keys, immersed in her music.

 

Geraldine kindly invited Brendon and me to her home for morning tea. This thoughtful new acquaintance knew only a little of Minnie's story and she had generously and respectfully given us her time and willingly shared the church's history.

 

After meeting Geraldine's husband, Tony, I learned that his ancestors, Charles and Maria Smith, were married in Tarraville, Gippsland, about the same time Minnie's parents were married at Sale. Both couples selected land in the Rosedale district after the Victorian Land Act of 1865 was introduced, with their farms about five kilometres apart. Remarkably, both couples raised a family of fourteen children, including twins. The Smith twins, Amy and Catherine, were the youngest of the fourteen Smith children and were born the year before Minnie, in 1881. It follows that these families would have been well-known to each other in this small community.

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Geraldine Smith and Karen Collins at St.Rose of Lima Church, 2021

I wondered if five-year-old Minnie ever played with six-year-old Amy Smith before Amy died from extensive burns after her clothes caught fire when playing near a fire on the family farm in 1888. Furthermore, I wondered if 22-year-old Minnie and 23-year-old Catherine Smith had been friends in 1904 when Catherine died of liver disease at home in Blind Joe's Creek.

 

During my family history quest, I have met many wonderful people like Geraldine and Tony. In 2011, long before I knew of Minnie's unmarked grave, I began researching William Eason's mother's (Margaret Eason, nee Lewis) side of the family and discovered that a living descendant of Margaret Eason's brother, William Lewis, was still living on the original Lewis farm at Lewis Lane, Pootilla. After making contact with 85-year-old Bill Lewis, I learned that he was the grandson of William Lewis. (Interestingly, Bill's father was also named William Lewis.) Bill was thrilled to learn that the Lewis name had remained in my family as a middle name for five successive generations (now six) and kindly invited Brendon and me, as well as my brother, Andrew Lewis Eason, and his wife, Maree, to lunch one Sunday.

 

After driving 400 kilometres to meet our hosts, Brendon and I were warmly greeted by Bill, his sister and brother-in-law, Mary and Ron Davies, as well as Bill's daughter and son-in-law, Anne and Phil Ford. This lovely family not only welcomed four strangers into their home to share a delicious roast dinner but generously provided me with a comprehensive account of the Lewis family history and many copied photos of my ancestors. Included in this surprise package was the 1924 original photo of the Eason family, taken on the occasion of Margaret and Samuel Eason's golden wedding anniversary.

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Bill Lewis and his sister, Mary Davies

Since my visit to Pootilla, it would seem that in whatever direction I have turned for assistance during the research of Minnie and William, there has always been a kind stranger who has willingly offered their support, including the staff at PROV and particularly the volunteers from the Rosedale, Foster and Koo Wee Rup historical societies. Also, the current owners of the original Watts' homestead, Noel and Debbie Anderson (below) were exceptionally generous in welcoming Brendon and me into their home in March 2021, sharing their knowledge of the house and the Watts family and also allowing us to view the original rooms that Minnie and her family once occupied.

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Noel and Debbie Anderson

By writing this book, I hope that Minnie is now given the appropriate acknowledgement, respect, understanding, and compassion that she so rightly deserves in our family. However, a lovely surprise affirming Minnie's memory arrived in the Eason family on 12 January 2021, with the birth of Minnie Rose Doughton. Minnie Rose is the gr-gr-gr-granddaughter of Minnie Eason and the daughter of Minnie's gr-gr-granddaughter, Sophie Doughton (nee Eason). By naming their second child Minnie, Sophie and her husband, Allister Doughton, have honoured Minnie's rightful place in our family history. The name Minnie will now live on.

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Karen Collins with great-niece Minnie Doughton

Minnie Doughton's life is full of hope and promise and we lovingly welcome her into the family. She has been born in a time when women in Australia have achieved much in their fight for equal rights, socially, economically and politically, compared to Minnie Eason's lifetime. She will have the opportunity to be educated and pursue any career she wishes. She won't be reliant on a man for her livelihood and she will have freedom of choice in her relationships. Little Minnie will have options about raising a family and opportunities to work outside the home.

 

Also, Minnie Doughton has arrived during a time when mental health knowledge and treatment has undergone massive advancement since my great-grandmother first witnessed her toddler's death in 1912. The evolution of pharmacology and other treatments, such as psychological techniques, have enabled people to recover, improve or manage their mental illness symptoms. Importantly, the stigma attached to mental illness today has significantly decreased since Minnie Eason was a patient.

 

Minnie's life was finally acknowledged with the placement of a headstone (below) on her unmarked grave at the Rosedale Cemetery on 2 July, 2022. Various descendants of Minnie Eason and friends who have shared this journey with me attended to honour the memory of a life not forgotten. 

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Some Descendants of Minnie Eason

Back Row: Dan Collins (gr-gr-grandson), Stuart Eason (gr-grandson)

Front Row: Karen Collins (gr-granddaughter), Margaret Porter (granddaughter), Jill Eason (gr-granddaughter)

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