52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks: Week 9 Women – females – Helen carnegie

26 March 2022

I am participating in Amy Johnson Crow’s genealogy blog challenge – 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks. A bit behind but a weekly blog challenge is hard when we have jobs, families and everything else. The important thing is to keep going because eventually you will have 52 ancestors’ stories. See my previous weeks here.

March is Women’s History Month, so it is only appropriate we focus on our female ancestors who are often harder to trace.

My GG grandmother was Helen Carnegie, and she was born in Montrose, Scotland in 1862. She came out to Queensland with her parents John and Helen Carnegie and her younger brother John on board the Sunda in 1865. They lived in Brisbane where young John died, and a sister Georgina was born. The family moved to Grafton in New South Wales where another sister, Clara Stanley was born. Then it was another move back to Queensland to settle at remote Toorbul on Pumicestone Passage north of Brisbane.

 The Sunda, image courtesy State Library of Queensland

That brief background was just to set the scene for Helen growing up in an isolated area of Queensland which was only accessible by boat. There were a few other families around but as oyster farmers, the men and boys would have been busy working their leases. The women would have been growing fruit and vegetables and keeping chooks to help feed the family.

There was no school and I don’t know if the children in the area got together or were they too busy helping around the farms. In 1879 when Helen Carnegie was just 17 years old, she became pregnant with my great grandfather James Carnegie born in 1880. As the name suggests, she did not marry the father of her child.

Why? More to the point, how did she meet him? Was he a local or what? Were her parents against a marriage or his parents? Helen kept her baby and young James was raised by his grandparents. I am descended from James and without Helen and the unknown father of her child, the many Carnegie descendants would not be here today. I am hoping that DNA matches may point the way to who he was but that will be yet another story.

Toorbul, Pumicestone Passage, map via Queensland State Archives

A few years after James’ birth, Helen Carnegie married a jeweller from Thargomindah, an opal mining area in far west Queensland. If Helen thought Toorbul was isolated, a mining area was far worse and often not a place for women. Alexander and Helen did not have children.

At some point Helen left her husband for unknown reasons. But in colonial Queensland a woman on her own with no means of support soon found herself in trouble. Helen also had an alcohol problem and to get the money for drink, she turned to prostitution. Over the next few years Helen was in and out of gaols and prisons in a repeat pattern of the same crimes.


Main street Thargomindah ca 1904, image courtesy State Library of Queensland

In 1900 she left Boggo Road Gaol and I had trouble finding her again until a charge for vagrancy in Barcaldine in 1904 under the alias of Helen Chick. With this new name I was able to establish her relationship with Charles Wademore Chick who she eventually married once her first husband Alexander Miller Ferguson was deceased.

From that point Helen and Charles were a respectable married couple who lived in Sydney, New South Wales. Their days as opal and gem miners were behind them. Charles died in 1929 and was buried in Rookwood cemetery in Sydney. Helen erected a headstone to his memory.

After Charles’ death, Helen returned to Toorbul and lived with her sister Clara Stanley Bishop, previously Davis and Carnegie.

She died in 1946 and was buried in Toowong cemetery in a single grave. There is no headstone. It seems sad that no one erected a headstone to her memory as she did for her husband Charles. Her sister Clara organised the funeral and burial. Was her death mourned by her son, or any of her grandchildren and great children. Were they embarrassed by her past or did they even know her?


Distance between Toorbul just north of Brisbane and Thargomindah, map via Google Maps

Back in the late 1970s I met as many living descendants as I could and asked about Helen, their grandmother. Sadly no one even knew the surname Chick or any other information about her. I would love to find evidence of any interactions between James and his mother Helen. He must have known her, either as his mother or his supposed aunt.

Helen’s story reflects the lives of many young women who either found themselves with child or abandoned by a husband with no means of support. There was no social security and not many job opportunities for women to support themselves. A look at prison records reveals this story repeatedly.

Females usually had few choices and they made the best of what they had. We should be forever grateful to all the females in our ancestral lines because possibly none of them had an easy time. Without them we would not be here enjoying our more carefree and independent lives.

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  1. Oh my goodness, that is a rather sad story but Helen’s resilience shines through. I was heartened to see that she did end up with a happier ending than I thought was in store for her.

  2. A gentle and empathic post about the troubled life of an ancestor Shauna. Women had it tough on so many levels didn’t they? They still do I guess.

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