One Woman's Lot in the Early Days

By Norma King, Published in Colourful Tales of the WA Goldfields, 1980



Emma Jane Hancock, 1893

Recently I came across a sepia-tinted study of my grandmother taken when she was a young woman while looking through old family photos. This set me thinking about the early days and the hard life she led after arriving on the eastern goldfields of Western Australia.

The standard of living has advanced so greatly that it is hard to explain to her great-grandchildren that there was once a time without washing machines, steam irons, refrigerators, and the host of other conveniences that we all take for granted.


Emma Jane Hancock, with five of her six children, arrived in Boulder late in 1897. Her husband Albert had left Kapunda in South Australia a few months earlier with their eldest son. He had taken charge of the underground operations in one of the new mines on the Golden Mile. His wife and the rest of the family were on their way to join him when he was killed in a dynamite explosion.* Emma faced the daunting task of raising a family in a strange place with very little money.


Fortunately, she had a sister in Boulder, Mrs Rice, who ran a boarding house for the miners at Kamballie. Kamballie was a small 'suburb' east of Boulder and south of the Golden Mile. Emma was able to help her and so keep her children fed until she had time to work out her future.


There were no pensions or social services at that time and she knew that she had to rely on her own resources to keep her family together. She did not want to return to her husband's family in South Australia and live off their charity. She also thought that her children would have a chance of a better future in the West where the Golden Mile was beginning to live up to its name.


It was not long before she found a way to earn her living: by taking in laundry. There was plenty of this sort of work available as most of the miners on the goldfields were single men or married men who had not yet sent for their families and they wanted someone to take care of such tasks.


It was not an easy solution, however. The conditions under which she worked were primitive, to say the least. Her home in Kamballie was a small timber-framed, iron-roofed, hessian-walled structure, typical of houses in the area at the time. There was no provision for laundry or for bathing. A bench, or boxes, outside, near the back door, held her washtubs.


First, she hand­rubbed the clothes in one tub, with the help of soap and a scrubbing board, before boiling the colour-fast articles in a copper. They were then lifted out with a stick and drained, usually in a pine box with a few holes bored underneath and standing on a dish or bucket that caught the precious water. Clean water was then bailed out of a near-by tank or drum and poured into tubs - usually two, one for rinsing and the other for the final blue rinse.


Emma wasted very little water as she had to buy it from the condenser men at a cost of £1 for 450 litres. She and the children bathed in a washtub inside the house and it was often a case of cleanest in first, dirtiest last. Even then the water was not discarded as Emma used it to settle the dust around her door or to water a few struggling plants.


The dust was one of her worst enemies. When she arrived most of the natural vegetation of the area had disappeared. Many of the trees had been chopped down for fuel and the ground turned over by dryblowers and prospectors. Any wind or breeze lifted the soil into the air and deposited it on lines of wet washing and through every opening in the house. Emma, in company with all other housewives on the goldfields, waged constant war on the red dust.


While most of the women on the goldfields resigned themselves to the primitive conditions, a few could not cope. One was a girl called Annie. Like Emma, she was only seventeen when she came to Boulder from South Australia in 1897. She came with her widowed father and four brothers.


Her job was to housekeep for the five males. One day her father reprimanded her for not look­ing after the house properly and for reading too many penny-dreadfuls, so she decided to end it all. She scraped the heads from wax matches, mixed them with water, and drank the mixture. The attempt at suicide was unsuccessful but after her recovery in hospital, she appeared in court and was pronounced insane. She was then taken to the State's Lunatic Asylum (now Fremantle 's Maritime Museum), presumably to spend the rest of her days there.


Emma's life was a ceaseless round of washing, ironing, cleaning, and cooking. Ironing was a hot and tiresome task, as she stood for hours at the kitchen table ironing on her ironing blanket with flat-irons heated on the stove. Neighbours often saw the glimmer of her kerosene lamp in the kitchen late at night as she continued her work. It took a lot of washing and ironing to keep and feed a family of six children and to pay for the expensive water.


My mother, Kate, was the youngest child in the family and remembered well the struggle her mother had to make ends meet. There was a time when the young girl had only two decent dresses to wear: one was worn to school and the other kept for Sundays when the school dress was laundered. Emma gave her threepence a week for pocket money and a great deal of planning went into spending it. Kate usually settled for a pennyworth of boiled sweets, a pennyworth of 'specks' (marked fruit), and spent her last penny on broken biscuits.


As time went by and more of the children left school and began work, Emma moved into Boulder and gave up her laundry work. She cleaned out banks and offices and kept two or three boarders - young men who worked on the mines.


Sundays were days of rest and in common with most families, the Hancocks devoted much of their time to religion. Emma took her family to church and joined took part in its social functions. She particularly enjoyed singing. Most members of the family, including Emma, were good singers and some of the young boys and girls took part in local concerts and musicals.


When Kate was sixteen she appeared in the chorus of several of the Boulder Operatic Society's productions. One, The Pirates of Penzance, was taken on a tour in the metropolitan area in 1916.


Over the years Emma Hancock received letters giving news of her brothers-in-law in South Australia. One had become a master builder and another the mayor of Kapunda, where a fountain built in his honour still stands.


Another brother, G. A. Hancock, had gone to America and made his fortune there. In 1928 he financed Kingsford Smith's flight across the Pacific Ocean in the Southern Cross. Kingsford Smith and navigator Ulm needed $20,000 to clear their debts connected with the aircraft and to finance the trip from America to Australia. Hancock purchased the plane for that amount and asked the men to make the crossing in it. When the aviators arrived in Australia after completing the historical flight they were given the aircraft by their benefactor.


Every time Emma heard of the successes of her husband's brothers she must have thought how different her own life could have been had her husband lived and followed his mining career.


Emma Jane Hancock's story may lack excitement but it is a tribute to one of the many women who worked with untir­ing perseverance and devotion to rear a united family.


The Hancock Family, 1916. Emma is seated.

* Norma was too polite to go into the details of her grandfather's death. The following is a report on the Coroner's Inquiry into his death which suggests he was suffering depression after losing his supervisor's position at the mine.

Warning - graphic description of suicide included.


Kalgoorlie Miner, 26 August 1897, p2 (https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/87845208?searchTerm=albert%20hancock&searchLimits=l-state=Western+Australia|||l-title=342# )


The Suicide of an ex-Mine Manager.

CORONER'S INQUEST. VERDICT OF 'TEMPORARY INSANITY.'

A coroner's inquest was held yesterday before Mr F. Hare, R M., into the circumstances under which Albert James Hancock, whose remains wore found in the bush last Sunday, met his death.

The following Gentlemen acted on the jury Messrs M.' Baragwanath (foreman), Reginald K. McDonald, and G. A. Farr. The examination was conducted by Sub-Inspector Holmes.

Harry Plush was the first witness called. He deposed that he was by occupation a miner, and was employed at the Ivanhoe Consols Proprietary. He had known the deceased for fifteen or sixteen years, and while he was manager of the Ivanhoe Consols. The deceased was dismissed from the mine about three weeks ago. Witness came on to the lease about January I8. He saw the deceased on Tuesday, the 17th inst. He came past the dump where witness was working. After passing witness, the deceased returned and began to converse with him. He appeared to be very much depressed and was not talkative. The last he saw of him was on Wednesday morning. He was then going from his camp in the direction of the Lake View Hotel. This was between half-past 7 and 8 o'clock in the morning, and was the last he saw of him. He accompanied the police on the 22nd when the body of Hancock was found. He recognised the remains as those of Hancock. The dynamite was kept at the lease in a dugout. If the deceased wanted any dynamite or caps he would have to get it from there.

By the Coroner: The deceased had been away from the lease for about twelve days since his dismissal. The depression had come over him since he left managerial control. The last thing he would expect the deceased to do would be to take his own life.

By the Jury: He recognised the deceased by a ring he wore and by his clothes. He would know the ring again. The one produced was the same. Dr Love, who was the next witness, stated that he made a post mortem examination of the deceased on Monday, the 23rd inst. The upper part of his head and one hand had been blown off, probably by. some very strong explosive.

By the Coroner: When brought in the deceased had apparently not been dead more than 24 hours. William Francis slid he was a miner and was camped on the western part of the Ivanhoe Consols property. He had known Hancock for seven months. He last saw him alive on August 18, between 7 and 8 o'clock in the morning. He was walking towards the Lake View Hotel. He went up to an abandoned shaft and stood on top of the dump two or three minutes, leaning on the brace, Leaving the shaft he went in the direction of a bough shed and a few minutes later witness observed him walking in the direction of Mount Robinson. He had not seen the deceased since his discharge from the mine until the morning in question. He accompanied the police in their search for Hancock. He viewed the body found, but could not identify it as that of Hancock. Police-constable Daly spoke to receiving a report that a man was missing on the 20th inst, and he proceeded into the bush to search for him. At the deceased's camp his tracks were pointed out. He searched for 48 hours. The tracks went first towards the Lake View Hotel, and then round by Mount Robinson towards the Deborah leases. They lost the tracks on Saturday afternoon, but on Sunday morning they picked up the tracks again. They went for about five miles in a southerly direction about a quarter of a mile below the Deborah leases and then turned westward for about three miles. Before the body was found the tracks indicated that the deceased had walked up and down for a while, and then proceeded. The body when discovered was lying in a clump of trees about twelve miles from the deceased's camp. The deceased was lying on his back. His left hand was clutching a twig. The right arm was bent towards the head, and the right hand was blown off. The roof of the head was blown off, and he found parts of the shattered remains for a radius of four or five yards. There was no camp within miles of where the deceased was found. He found a razor in the left hand pocket of the deceased's trousers and fuse and cap in the right hand pocket. He had also a box of matches. He picked up pieces of tow several yards away from the body, which he had removed to the morgue.

By the Jury: He had had the deceased's camp searched, and nothing was found to indicate that Hancock had any idea of doing away with himself. Albert Ernest Hancock said that the deceased was his father. and some three weeks ago the latter mentioned about the necessity of looking after his clothes, as they would do for witness. He noticed a peculiarity in his father's manner on Tuesday.

This closed the evidence, and the Coroner, in addressing the jury, said they would have to consider

(1) whether the deceased was Albert James Hancock. Of that they would have little doubt. They would also have to say

(2) whether he committed suicide. On this point they would take the doctor's evidence, and they were asked to return a verdict as to

(3) whether the deceased was in his right mind when he committed the act.


The jury returned a verdict ' That the body found was that of Albert James Hancock, and that he committed suicide on August 22 by means of an explosive while in a state of temporary insanity. The jury added that they wished to commend Police Constable Daly for the vigilant manner in which he had conducted the search for the missing man.

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