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The Accident that changed their lives

The following story is from my Writing Family History assignment this year. I have edited it a little now. It tells the story of my Great Great Grandmother Catherine Grayson and her older sister Agnes.  A tragic turn of events lead to their entry into an industrial school (children’s/orphan’s home). 

The coffin of twenty-five-year-old Agnes McKenzie Grayson was lowered into the earth at the Eastern Cemetery, Geelong only a day after she died. It was the 29th of June 1895.  Attending the funeral were the Girls Friendly Society and her sister Catherine, no doubt in shock over Agnes’s sudden death from Peritonitis.

Agnes McKenzie Grayson

Agnes had been working for a Mrs Douglass of Geelong, as a domestic servant at the time of her illness. Employment as a domestic servant for a young unmarried woman was common during the 19th century, however, the circumstances behind why she was there at all, goes back to when she was just eight years old.

Standing before a jury assembled at the Melbourne hospital, Agnes was called upon to tell her version of the events that preceded the death of her 13-month-old brother John.  She spoke of being left in charge of her brother whilst her mother went out to wash. There was a little fire left in the kitchen grate, or fireplace, when baby John crawled into the fire and his clothes began to burn. Agnes was playing outside the front door when she heard the baby screaming and rushed in trying to pull him away from the fire.  “Mrs Griffiths came in and took out the baby, I ran for mother”, she says in her deposition.

Mrs Ellen Griffiths, the neighbour next door to the Grayson’s, confirmed this and stated that she saw that the child had been burned and took him to the chemists. “Mrs Grayson had to support her family of five children” she stated, “There was no person in the home but the children”.

The statement made by Mrs Griffiths was in fact the reason why Glasgow born Margaret Lonie Grayson, the children’s mother, had left her young girls in charge of the baby. Her husband, John Robert Griffiths Grayson, had left the family home in Gipps street Collingwood, leaving his wife and children destitute. In September 1875, he was charged with violent assault against Margaret, and sentenced to one month’s hard labour in prison. John Grayson was born in Liverpool to an English father and Scottish mother. He had changed jobs and moved several times since landing in Port Melbourne.

Margaret stated at the inquest, that she had left her daughters, Agnes aged 8 and Catherine, aged 6 with her thirteen-month-old son John.  She said, “I was away for about two minutes” when her eldest came to her while she was washing, and she ran home to see what had happened. When she arrived, she found that her injured son had been taken to a chemist and then transported to the Melbourne hospital, where she saw him later. Sadly, baby John died from his injuries the next day. The jury agreed that the cause of death was from the injuries John had sustained from being burnt.

grayson son death

Unfortunately, little John’s death did not bring the family back together.  John Grayson Snr stayed away, and just a few months after the inquest, Margaret went into hospital, leaving the two girls to fend for themselves.  Found on the streets, with dirty and torn clothes, Agnes and Catherine were brought before the Mayor in Collingwood and “charged” with being neglected children.

The Mercury and Weekly Courier stated that “Two little Children named Grayson, the mother was in the hospital and the father had deserted them”.  They were sent to the Royal Park Industrial School for preparation to be “boarded out”.    It was inevitable that problems arose from the large number of children sent to Institutions and Benevolent Asylums.  Problems such as overcrowding, and lack of hygiene caused outbreaks of disease that led to many deaths. In the 1870’s “boarding out” became the alternative. Families who chose to house these unfortunates from society were paid an allowance. For some it may have been a way of getting cheap labour, while others may have been striving to do their bit for Christian charity.

On Agnes and Catherine’s Institutional paperwork, a description of their father was scribbled; “John Griffiths Grayson, a labourer, poor, in the immigrant’s home. He was turned out of his home in which he lived by the landlord and is little better than a loafer”.

Whilst Agnes and Catherine were vaccinated for smallpox, schooled in domestic duties and sent out to various foster homes in Geelong, their mother Margaret moved around Melbourne more than twenty times. It is unclear how she made a living.

In the probate application to Agnes’s meager earnings after dying intestate, Catherine stated that she had not seen her mother in many years and that Margaret was a “confirmed drunkard”. Her sister Agnes had not been contacted by her mother until she had turned eighteen, and even then, would not let Margaret know where she and Catherine had been living in fear of her “pestering them, and we would lose our good positions”.

Agnes and Catherine Grayson
Agnes and Catherine Grayson c1890?

Both Catherine and Agnes spent their last years in care with Mrs Douglass, who must have been fond of them.  She kept them on as paid domestics, even after their term of wardship had expired.

A Sepia faded photograph of Mrs Douglass was found in Catherine’s collection after she had passed away at the grand old age of ninety-five.

Mrs Douglass



Advocate (Melbourne, Vic. : 1868 – 1954) Saturday 9 August 1879 p 9 Article Inquests.

Collection of Kim Nissen (formerly in the ownership of Mrs Catherine Archer – nee Grayson), Photograph of Mrs Douglass.

Dugan, Michael, Australia’s Children – The Golden Years 1850-1890, Macmillan Education Australia, 1997, pp. 13-39.

Geelong Advertiser (Vic. : 1859 – 1929) Saturday 29 June 1895 p 1 Article Family Notices.

Geelong Advertiser (Vic.: 1859 – 1926) Thursday 11 July 1895 p 4 Article Geelong Hospital.

Mercury and Weekly Courier (Vic.: 1878 – 1903) Saturday 8 November 1879 p 3 Article Police – Collingwood Friday October 31st.

Mercury and Weekly Courier (Vic.: 1878 – 1903) Saturday 1 November 1879 p 2 Article Collingwood – Tuesday.

Public Record Office of Victoria, Probate and Administration Files, Masters of the Supreme court, VPRS 28/ P0  unit 750,  item 58/860,  VPRS 28/ P2  unit 415,  item 58/860 Agnes McK GRAYSON Date of grant: 04 Oct 1895; Date of death: 28 Jun 1895; Occupation: Servant; Residence: Geelong.

Public Record Office of Victoria, Ward Registers (known as Children’s Registers 1864 – 1887) item VPRS 4527/ P2, Book 9, record page 478 bottom Grayson, Agnes [Reg. no. 11792] 31/10/1879.

Public Record Office of Victoria, Ward Registers (known as Children’s Registers 1864 – 1887) Item VPRS 4527/ P151, Girls Book Vol G3, Grayson, Agnes [Reg. no. 11792], 31/10/1879.

Public Record Office of Victoria, Ward Registers (known as Children’s Registers 1864 – 1887) item VPRS 4527/P2 Item book 9, record page 479, Grayson, Catherine (Reg. no.111793), 31/10/1879.

The Age (Melbourne, Vic.: 1854 – 1954) Saturday 9 August 1879 p 6 Article Accidentally Burned.

The Argus (Melbourne, Vic.: 1848 – 1957), p. 6. Article Inquests.

The Record and Emerald Hill and Sandridge Advertiser (Vic.: 1872 – 1881) Friday 10 September 1875 p 3 Article TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 7, 1875.

Record and Emerald Hill and Sandridge Advertiser (Vic. : 1872 – 1881), Friday 10 September 1875, page 3 Article WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 1, 1875.



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