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An 1850s Christmas wedding with a tragic end

Posted 02/12/2018 in History

A grievous tale told by Ellen Clacy in her book A Lady's Visit to the Gold Diggings of Australia in 1852-53 describes the tragic demise of a woman who, set to marry her love on Christmas Day, was abandoned at the altar and left in disgrace. The short story tells of the woman's Christmas wedding betrayal, her subsequent fall into depression, her realization that she was pregnant, the death of her newborn child, and her own death shortly thereafter; all with the dramatic flair that stories tend to pick up as they are passed along from one person to another and another... 

The following tragic story was published in A Lady's Visit to the Gold Diggings of Australia in 1852-53 written by Ellen Clacy, 1853.

In describing the road from Melbourne to Geelong, I have made mention of the Broken River. A few weeks after my arrival in the colonies this river was the scene of a sad tragedy. 

I give the tale, much in the same words as it was given to me, because it was one out of many somewhat similar, and may serve to show the state of morality in Melbourne. 

The names of the parties are, of course, entirely fictitious. 

~ ~ ~

Prettiest among the pretty girls that stood upon the deck as the anchor of the Government immigrant ship 'Downshire' into Hobson's Bay, in August, 1851, was Mary H - - , the heroine of my story. No regret mingled with the satisfaction that beamed from her large dark eyes, as their gaze fell on the shores of her new country, for her orphan brother, the only relative she had left in their own dear Emerald Isle, was even then preparing to follow her. Nor could she feel sad and lonely whilst the rich Irish brogue, from a subdued but manly and well-loved voice. fell softly on her ear, and the gentle pressure of her hand continually reminded her that she was not alone. Shipboard is a rare place for match-making, and, somehow or another, Henry Stephens had contrived to steal away the heart of the 'Downshire' belle. Prudence, however, compelled our young people to postpone their marriage, and whilst the good housewife qualities of the one readily procured her a situation in a highly respectable family in Melbourne, Henry obtained an appointment in the police force of the same town. 

Their united savings soon mounted up, and in a few months the banns were published, and Christmas-Day fixed on for the wedding. Mary, at her lover's express desire, quitted her mistress's family to reside with a widow, a distant relative of his own, from whose house she was to be married. Delightful to the young people was this short period of leisure and uninterrupted intercourse, for the gold mania was now beginning to tell upon the excited imaginations of all, and Henry had already thrown up his situation; and it was settled their wedding trip should be to the golden gullies round Mount Buninyong. 

And now let me hasten over this portion of my narrative. It is sad to dwell upon the history of human frailty, or to relate the oft-told tale of passion and villainy triumphant over virtue. A few days before Christmas, when the marriage ceremony was to be performed, they unfortunately spent one evening together alone, and he left her - ruined. Repentance followed sin, and the intervening time was passed by Mary in a state of the greatest mental anguish. With what trembling eagerness did she now look forward to the day which should make her his lawful wife. 

It arrived. Mary and the friends of both stood beside the altar, whilst he, who should have been there to redeem his pledge and save his victim from open ruin and disgrace, was far away on the road to Ballarat. 

To describe her agony would be impossible. Day after day, week after week, and no tidings from him came; conscience too acutely accounting to her for his faithlessness. Then the horrible truth forced itself upon her, that its consequences would soon too plainly declare her sin before the world; that upon her innocent offspring would fall a portion of its mother's shame. 

Thus six months stole sorrowfully away, and as yet none had even conjectured the deep cause she had for misery. Her brother's nonarrival was also an unceasing source of anxiety, and almost daily might she have been seen at the Melbourne Post-office, each time to return more disappointed than before. At length the oft-repeated inquiry was answered in the affirmative, and eagerly she tore open the long-anticipated letter. It told her of an unexpected sum of money that had come into his hands - to them a small fortune - which had detained him in Ireland. This was read and almost immediately forgotten, as she learnt that he was arrived in Melbourne, and that only a few streets now separated them. 

She raised her face, flushed and radiant with joyful excitement - her eyes fell upon him who had so cruelly injured her. The scream that burst from her lips brought him involuntarily to her side. What will not a woman forgive where once her heart has been touched - in the double joy of the moment the past was almost forgotten - together they re-read the welcome letter, and again he wooed her for his bride. She consented, and he himself led her to her brother, confessed their mutual fault, and second preparations for an immediate marriage were hurriedly made. 

Once more at the altar of St. Peter's stood the bridal party, and again at the appointed hour Stephens was far gone on his second expedition to the diggings, after having increased (if that was possible) his previous villainy, by borrowing a large portion of the money before mentioned from his intended brother-in-law. It was pretty evident that the prospect of doing this had influenced him in his apparently honourable desire to atone to the poor girl, who, completely prostrated by this second blow, was laid on the bed of sickness. 

For some weeks she continued thus and her own sufferings were increased by the sight of her brother's fury, as, on her partial recovery, he quitted her in search of her seducer. 

During his absence Mary became a mother, and the little one that nestled in her bosom, made her half forgetful of her sorrows, and at times ready to embrace the delusive hope that some slight happiness in life was in store for her. But her bitter cup was not yet drained. Day by day, hour by hour, her little one pined away, until one dreary night she held within her arms only its tiny corpse. 

Not one sound of grief - not an outward sign to show how deeply the heart was touched - escaped her. The busy neighbours left her for awhile, glad though amazed at her wondrous calmness; when they returned to finish their preparations for committing the child to its last resting-place, the mother and her infant had disappeared.

Carrying the lifeless burden closely pressed against her bosom, as though the pelting rain and chilling air could harm it now, Mary rapidly left the town where she had experienced so much misery, on - on - towards Geelong, the route her seducer and his pursuer had taken - on - across Iett's Flat, until at length, weak and exhausted, she sank down on the barren plains beyond. 

Next morning the early dawn found her still plodding her weary way - her only refreshment being a dry crust and some water obtained at an halting-house on the road; and many a passer-by, attracted by the wildness of her eyes, her eager manner, and disordered dress, cast after her a curious wondering look. But she heeded them not - on - on she pursued her course towards the Broken River. 

Here she paused. The heavy winter rains had swollen the waters, which swept along, dashing over the irregular pieces of rock that formed the only means of crossing over. But danger was as nothing to her now - the first few steps were taken - the rapid stream was rushing wildly round her - a sensation of giddiness and exhaustion made her limbs tremble - her footing slipped on the wet and slimy stone - in another moment the ruthless waters carried her away. 

The morrow came, and the sun shone brightly upon the still swollen and rapid river. Two men stood beside it, both too annoyed at this impediment to their return to Melbourne to be in the slightest degree aware of their proximity to one another. A bonnet caught by a projecting fragment of rock simultaneously attracted their attention: both moved towards the spot, and thus brought into closer contact they recognized each other. Deadly foes though they were, not a word passed between them, and silently they dragged the body of the unhappy girl to land. In her cold and tightened grasp still lay the child. As they stood gazing on those injured ones, within one breast remorse and shame, in the other, hatred and revenge, were raging violently.

Each step on the road to Ballarat had increased her brother's desire for vengeance, and still further was this heightened on discovering that Stephens had already left the diggings to return to town. This disappointment maddened him; his whole energy was flung into tracing his foe, and in this he had succeeded so closely, that unknown to either, both had slept beneath the same roof at the inn beside the Broken River. 

The voices of some of the loungers there, who were coming down to the Creek to see what mischief had been done during the night, aroused him. He glanced upon his enemy, who pale and trembling, stood gazing on the wreck that he had made. Revenge at last was in his hands - not a moment was to be lost - with the yell of a maniac he sprang upon the powerless and conscious-stricken man - seized him in his arms - rushed to the river - and ere any could interpose, both had found a grave where but a few minutes before the bodies of Mary and her infant had reposed. 




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Hello! Your site has been extremely helpful! I'm wondering if you can tell me more about where the broken river where Mary died would be. The only one I can find on a map is Benalla. But the author describes it being near Melbourne (towards Geelong) thanks in advance :)