A SUICIDE PACT
When researched her mother-in-law’s family, she discovered a sad story of economic depression and its drastic impact, far away in Australia By Beverley Shipley
Beverley Shipley found a tragic story from Australia, when she researched her family history.
Every so often a piece of evidence arrives, out of the blue, that provides pivotal information in family research. This happened to me whilst looking at the life of Hugh McKee, my mother-in-law’s uncle.
Apart from some basic facts and family recollections, Hugh had been proving elusive. I had been told that Hugh had been a keen union man who had been blacklisted. He then left England for Australia, where he married, but life for he and his wife had become ‘intolerable’ – so much so that it was believed they may have committed suicide.
I had confirmed the basic facts – Hugh had been born in Liverpool, then in Lancashire, in 1883, to Sarah Ann and Robert Rawsthorn McKee. He was one of two boys and six girls. By 1891, the family had moved across the Mersey, to live in Birkenhead. Tragically, in 1915, Hugh’s brother, George, was killed in an accident, and, two years later, in 1917, his father died. So this left Hugh as ‘head of the household’.
But then six eloquently written letters came to light. They were dated between 18 January and 17 August 1932, and were sent from Australia – one addressed to ‘Mother’, and five to ‘Agnes’, Hugh’s youngest sister. All were signed ‘xxx Hughie xxx’. These letters, along with a search tool suggested by an article in Your Family History, enabled me to then untangle any fact from fiction in the life of Hugh McKee.
Armed with dates, and confirmation of life in Australia, I located immigration records that revealed that Hugh McKee arrived in Freemantle on 25 June 1920. But he had not travelled alone, as had been previously suggested – quite the contrary. On the journey with him was Miss Margaret Peace – his future wife.
Six years later, on 13 October 1926, the couple married, in Sydney. Both were employed – Hugh was a ‘seafarer’, and Margaret a shop assistant. They had made their home at 37 Curtis Road, Balmain, New South Wales – which was the address on the letters sent home to England.
By 1930, however, the tendrils of the Great Depression had arrived in Australia. This this caused not only mass unemployment, extreme hardship, destitution and starvation, but also a dramatic increase in suicide rates.
From left: Hugh's brother, George; Hugh's mother, Sarah Ann McKee, and Agnes, Hugh's sister