The Forgotten Islands and Albert Boyes Kay

Today I am reposting a post from my earlier website, from 9 October 2011.

It’s grey and overcast in Canberra today with occasional rain; not what I had in mind for the long weekend in the middle of the school holidays.  At least it has given me an excuse to curl up with a book for a little while.  I’m enjoying Michael Veitch’s The Forgotten Islands and now I’ve even come across a family connection, albeit a little remote and not entirely proven.  As I’ve mentioned on other pages, I have yet to prove where James Henry Coventry fits into the north-west coast’s Coventry family, but wherever it is, there’s at least some connection to Circular Head’s Kay family.  I have long thought that James was the son of William James Coventry and Ann Lucas, but increasingly I wonder whether he is the James Daniel Coventry registered to William’s brother John Francis and his wife, Rachel Ward, in 1849.  In any event the Coventry, Lucas and Kay families are connected in various ways.

William Coventry and Ann Lucas’s daughter Elizabeth married George Kay, son of Robert Kay and Elizabeth (nee Couper), in 1855.  George’s brother, James, married William and Ann’s niece, Susan Lucas, and his sister Alice Elizabeth Kay married William and Ann’s son John Francis Coventry.  George, James and Alice Kay were three children born to Scottish immigrants, Robert and Elizabeth Kay.  The story in Veitch’s book is about the tragic death of another of the Kay’s children, Albert Boyes Kay, in 1895.

Albert and Maria Kay

From The Forgotten Islands

In the old photograph, a young Maria Kay has a sweet, rather timeless face standing next to her husband, Albert Kay, dressed in his finest suit, waistcoat and watch chain.  Only the severity of his wife’s parted hair and their rock-like postures makes the idea of them existing in any epoch but the Victorian quite unimaginable.  

How the people of these times found time do anything besides breed is bewildering, but the Kays with their typical family of eight children also ran sheep on Trefoil Island even though they could only visit the place occasionally for working parties. It was whilst on one such trip in the spring of 1895 that Maria, expecting her ninth child, suddenly required medical attention.

Their only means back across the water to Woolnorth on Tasmania’s north coast was in a small, flat-bottomed dinghy, requiring a good hour of hard rowing, and to that end Albert took along his eldest, sixteen-year-old Walter Robert, as well as Sara Virginia, nearly four, and for safekeeping, little Robert Latimer Kay, just twenty-two months old.  Perhaps Maria had a premonition; perhaps she could see the notoriously difficult tide swirling around the various shoals and reefs that dotted their passage, but at the last moment, she handed little Robert back to the safety of his siblings, who stood anxiously on the beach watching their departure.

Albert intended to return as soon as possible with Walter to collect his remaining family.  With a wife in distress and two children on his small boat, he pushed away from the sand into the current. 

They seemed to make headway at first, Albert manoeuvring the dinghy through the current as best he could, but, not far from the shore, a sudden wave rose as if from nowhere, lifting the hopelessly inadequate boat like a paper toy.  As the watching children later described, the boat seemed to rise up, throwing the four of them into the sea. Their father Albert could swim but was hampered by a badly set broken leg.  In any case, against the furious, swirling rip-tide, even the strongest of swimmers was doomed. 

The last the children remember seeing of their father was his desperate attempts to hold up the youngest, Sara Virginia.  Then, in an instant, all of them vanished forever.  Belinda Maud, Lydia May, Albert Boys, Jane Georgiana, Wintena Alberta and little Robert, having just witnessed the death of their parents and two siblings, were now entirely alone on an inhospitable island, without a soul knowing of their plight.  The eldest, Belinda, was just thirteen and a half. 

In one of those tales of fortitude that was held up to exemplify the pioneering spirit, and which delighted the romantic press of the day, the six Kay children, under the guidance of the remarkable Belinda Maud, survived alone and unassisted on Trefoil Island for six weeks. 

They organised food and shelter, undertook daily patrols of the beaches looking for the remains of their parents and siblings and lit signal fires that were never allowed to go out.  They food they had carried over soon ran out so Albert Boys, aged ten, would kill the occasional sheep to provide fresh meat. 

Finally, the fire was spotted by one James Parker of the May Queen, and the starving and bedraggled children were rescued and placed in the care of astonished relatives.  Their names would become legendary throughout the district for generations.  (The May Queen herself survives to this day and, now restored, adorns Hobart’s Constitution Dock.)

The children never found the remains of their parents or siblings.  Instead, a plaque in their memory was placed in the little cemetery at Stanley for Albert Kay, fifty-three, his wife Maria, thirty-seven, and their two children. …

Trefoil Island

News reports

Contemporary news reports can be found on TROVE:

An Awful Domestic Calamity‘, The Mercury, 29 November 1895, p. 3

Terrible Boating Fatality‘, Launceston Examiner, 30 November, p. 7

A Sad Drowning Story‘, Wellington Times and Agricultural and Mining Gazette, 30 November, p. 2

A Tasmanian Tragedy‘, Australian Town and Country Journal, 7 December 1895

Marooned for Six Weeks‘, The North Western Advocate and the Emu Bay Times, 15 March, p. 8

The Pathetic Fate of the Kay Family‘, Zeehan and Dundas Herald, 3 December, p. 3


Photograph of Albert and Maria Kay courtesy of Forty Degrees South


Life in Blackfriars Wynd

Blackfriars Wynd

The records of Janet Robertson’s early life tell us that she lived in the dirty, densely populated tenements of Edinburgh’s slum district. Edinburgh suffered the effects of rapid population growth and industrialisation during the years leading up to Janet’s expulsion in 1841.  When just a child, Janet would have witnessed a dreadful epidemic of cholera that swept through the city.  It was most virulent in the overcrowded areas that housed those fleeing rural poverty for the city’s Old Town.  Typhus and other diseases swept through the appallingly dark, damp and unhygienic tenements and alleys.  An influx of Irish migrants seeking refuge from the potato famine added to the population pressure.

Blackfriars Wynd, Edinburgh, c 1825

With new building activity concentrated in the New Town, the growing population of poverty-stricken crowded into the old tenements that were subdivided to house whole families in single rooms.  In the 1840s Edinburgh’s Old Town reportedly had the most unsanitary living conditions of any other city in Britain at the time.

Some, however, would argue that Glasgow might equally claim that title.  Quite by coincidence, I have in the last couple of days started reading Deborah Swiss’s book The Tin Ticket – The Heroic Journey of Australia’s Convict Women.  Her first story is about the young Glaswegian Agnes McMillan, abandoned to the wynds of Glasgow’s slums.  These extracts paint something too of the life Janet Robertson would have faced as a young girl in Edinburgh’s slums.

Agnes saw a world of cobblestone and brick, full of misery and manure.  Coal particles stung her eyes at every blink.  Each sip of water she drank from the brackish public well carried the risk of dysentry or typhoid fever.  She and everyone else who lived near the mills coughed out pieces of black grit breathed in from Glasgow’s raging industrial fires.  Neighbours overhead tossed their garbage out the windows onto the walkway.  Most had witnessed some unfortunate soul drop dead in the street or on the job. The grey-eyed five-year-old had already proven to be lucky, since half the Scottish children born in 1820 had already been laid in the ground by their parents.  In the slums, dunghills and raw sewage blanketed the crowded space with a sticky black glaze.  This was Agnes’ playground and schoolyard. 

Children dashed around the wynds playing tag, hide-and-seek, and peever —the Scottish version of hopscotch. Boys picked up sticks to bat whatever they could hit in the air.  An old barrel hoop started a contest for who could spin it the farthest.  Street waste offered an abundance of possibilities for games and entertainment. 

…. Among the labouring class, a child’s role included the duty of earning a living.  By age seven, Agnes would have been expected to contribute to the McMillan household income.  Every penny mattered.  Children her age, and younger, worked full time as chimney sweeps or factory workers, hired for the ability to reach small crevices and machine parts. 

Sadly, Janet was to loose five of her own children in childhood but those who survived certainly had a better start in life than she had.