Last year, in 2020, the world was, and still is, in the grip of the COVID-19 Pandemic. Melburnians were confined to a 5km zone from our house. As we could not travel beyond it without very specific reason, we became intimately more familiar with our local area, searching out and finding new places to explore. Cheltenham Pioneer Cemetery is within my zone. On one walk through the rather ramshackle and not very impressive, statuary-wise, cemetery (I am, by the way, the great grand-daughter of a monumental mason) I fell upon this headstone. Un-dated. A family who have experienced the most profound losses.
Who were the Keir family? and why did so many of their children die? Had there been pandemics, or epidemics other than the 1919 Spanish Flu, and now COVID, that had devastated communities? Yes, there have been. Many. As I set about researching the Keir family I stumbled upon the stories of a family, and my local area which absorbed my artistic and research attention for over a year. It raised questions around loss, and religion – can faith sustain a person in the face of this horrendous loss? I learned about disease, the enormous problems of dealing with human waste before the development of a sewerage system; market gardens, the rail system, property boom and fail, fires, religion, and travel, I discovered stories and images about the Indigenous people of this area, and the Aboriginal reserve; and found sketches of the flora and fauna that existed before development.
Catherine Small was 20 when she and 30 year old James Keir married; soon after they left Scotland for Australia. By then time she was 22 her first child, Elizabeth, had died in New South Wales. Australia was a new colony then, and records kept in churches rather than registered in the Department of Births Deaths and Marriages, the details of Elizabeth’s death remains an enigma to me. In her 1852 grief over the loss of her firstborn child, Catherine could not know that she would have to endure the deaths of seven more children, and at least ten grandchildren before she died in 1901.
Catherine and James were deeply religious. As Bretherens of Church of Christ, they hosted religious meetings in their home on the Point Nepean Road in the fledgling region of South Brighton (now Highett) before the church was built on Chesterville Road, Cheltenham. Church of Christ historical records note some of James’ favourite biblical sayings, through which we can get a bit of a picture of how he viewed the world. But more of that later.
Jane died of pneumonia and William died of ulceration to the throat, which I am guessing is another name for Diphtheria. In Melbourne at that time disease was rampant. Part of the problem was a lack of precise knowledge about the origin and means of transmission of disease. It was not until the 1870s that contagion and germ theory make headway in Melbourne medical circles. Streptococcal infections were endemic and scarlet fever and diphtheria were epidemic. There was also the problems of unclean water, poor housing, and poverty which claimed many lives at that time.
1855 would be a bitter sweet one for the family. Between Jean/Jane’s death in August 1855 and William’s in September 1855 Catherine gave birth to their 4th child, David. Hard to imagine the feelings, and coping mechanisms of these young parents where in the space of six weeks their family had changed so greatly. I wonder how baby David might have fared in the shadow of such grief.
In 1855 the Cheltenham cemetery did not exist. Instead, these two little children, aged 3 and 2 (and their brother Thomas who was yet to be born in 1855) are buried in the St Kilda cemetery, in an unmarked grave.
Jean/Jane. Records from this period were all hand-written, and it is not uncommon to find discrepancies in name spelling and other information. She is Jean on the headstone, and Jane on the death certificate. I am guessing Jean was the family’s name for her, as the headstone also uses a family name of Willie, for William. There were a number of Janes in future Keir births and also the same crossover between Jean and Jane was on the death of Catherine and James’ grandchild in 1892.
The two images above include the child’s death certificate, painted and sewn images of the disease with an image of a child. Many of the artworks I created for this project were also part of my project of creating an art work a day in 2020.