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The Pratt Family Tragedy in Australia, 1918 by Alan Clegg

Recorded by Alan Clegg 12 23

 

I remember my mother telling us about this tragedy which occurred in Australia in 1918. I recently came across some of the details while doing some family history research so for the sake of not losing the story I am recording all that I can remember and also from some recent research.

 The story revolves around an Irish family who were quite new to Australia, and in the meantime having moved from Gippsland to a new farm near Euroa in Victoria, Australia.    

 

My mother was born in 1914 so she probably would not have remembered the origin of the events which took place at that time, but she could subsequently remember hearing the story as a young child, and the sadness which it caused for the family in Ireland.

My mother’s maiden family name was Cole, but to the best of my knowledge I am fairly certain there is no blood relationship between the Cole’s and the Pratts. But they were close neighbours and friends  over the years in the parish of Aghancon in Co. Offaly, Ireland. While it is within the parish of Aghancon, the Pratt farm was and still is called Marymount, and it is situated directly across the road from Garryhill where my mother lived from the age of eight until she left when she married my father and went to live in Portlaoise aka Maryborough. My cousin Trevor Cole now owns part of the Pratt farm at Marymount.

I can well remember the last of that Pratt family living there, in fact their son Albert was only a few months older than myself, he passed away unmarried at the young age of 46 in 1992, so, in time that family died out.

The story revolves around William Pratt who was born in 1868 in Borris-in-Ossory, Queens County aka Co. Laois, Ireland and his wife Mary whose maiden name was also Pratt, she was born at Marymount, as above and adjacent to Knockarlow, which is the home of the Ardill family, also close friends. They were probably cousins because their places of origin were only about ten miles apart  as the crow flies, but I have not been able to verify this.

According to Ancestry records William Pratt was born near Borris-in-Ossory in 1868, he died at Longwood, Victoria, Australia  in 1951. His wife Sarah Jane Pratt (which was also her maiden name) was born in 1879 at Marymount and she also died at Longwood, in great tragedy of 1918.

The records also state that the family lived in various locations in the Irish midlands, including Cuffesborough, Aghaboe and Kilnamanagh, Co Kilkenny prior to emigration, he was listed as being a farmer. Their record on the 1911 census is here.

I have not been able to find the date of their emigration but six of their seven children were born in Ireland, the last in 1912, while their youngest child called Elizabeth was born in Australia in 1916, so they emigrated on a date between those dates. They are listed as being living in Gippsland, Australia shortly after they arrived, moving to the location where the tragedy occurred shortly before the event. I have made attachments to this document which briefly tells the story of how William Pratt left home one morning warning that his children were not to play on the dam, which was close to the house.

However, William Pratt could never have realised how that day would have transpired for him as he left by train from his farm to do some business in Melbourne.

Similar to many places around the world, Australia is a dry place with many areas relying almost totally on a small amount of rainfall each year. It is important that as much as possible of this surface rainwater is harvested and stored as effectively as possible, so nearly every property has at least one surface water storage facility. In Europe and elsewhere these would be called reservoirs, but in Australia and South Africa and elsewhere they are called dams.

By all accounts which I can recall, the kids had developed the habit of taking an old boat or tub out on the dam having fun, when their father was leaving for Melbourne that morning he taken an axe and smashed the tub to bits, in order to stop them risking their lives in such a makeshift play thing. But being kids and not having much to occupy themselves and being warm Mary Ann the eldest of the girls removed her other clothing and got an old pig feeding trough and endeavoured to use it as a boat, pushing it into the dam and jumped in. A pig trough is not designed to float on water, so the first thing it did was to turn over, Mary Ann fell into the water where she quickly got into trouble. Then her sister Sarah Jane jumped in to try to save her, but also got into trouble. Their young eight year old brother Jim (James Bennett Pratt) ran to call their mother who rushed out in panic fully clothed in her heavy long skirt and underwear and jumped in to try to save her daughters. At this point the Stephen who was the oldest of the family and at that time attending university to train as a lawyer returned having taken his father to the station, and seeing the situation he also rushed in to try to save his mother and siblings. Alas, they all drowned.

The specific details as recorded in a newspaper of the time are as follows:

DROWNED IN DAM. MOTHER AND THREE CHILDREN PERISH. EUROA.-

Mrs William Pratt and her three children lost their lives by drowning late on Tuesday afternoon at Pranjip, about eight miles from Euroa.

The only person left to tell the story is a little boy of seven, and what really happened can only be conjectured. It appears, however, that the boy and a girl, Susie, aged about 10, were playing about a dam. It was a hot day, and a paddle was suggested. The girl undressed and got into a tub, which was floating on the dam, and it evidently overturned, precipitating the girl into the water.

Another girl, Mary, aged about 12 years, was near, and, attracted by the sound of the boy’s frightened calling, she raced to the. scene, and in endeavoring to rescue her sister evidently fell down the steep sides of the dam. Seeing this girl also in the water, the boy raced to the house for the mother, who frantically went to the scene. It is apparent, that she also met the same fate, for the body was found later close to the edge. In the meantime, the eldest boy of the family, aged about 16, had just returned home from the Longwood railway station, to which he had driven his father to catch the train to Melbourne.

Being apprised of the terrible plight of his mother and sisters, he ran to the dam and slipped into a deep hole.

The little boy, having witnessed the deaths of his mother, sisters and brother, then went to the house of a neighbor, Mr. K. Cullen, about, two miles distant, and acquainted them of the disaster.

Mr. and Mrs. Cullen and their son, with Mr. Grosvenor, then went to the house, and the dam was dragged in the moon light. All the bodies were found. The first, that of a girl, was found naked and the others were fully dressed. The family are recent arrivals from South Gippsland. There was a family of seven, the youngest being aged, only about 20 months.”

According to the newspaper articles after the tragedy William Pratt was contacted by telephone in Melbourne and he returned by motorcar.

When I was in Australia in 1985 I asked my 2nd cousin John Whitten whose  father was born just a few miles from the Pratts in Ireland, if he knew any of that family in Australia, he said that he knew Jim, as mentioned above, the small boy who ran to call his mother and subsequently the neighbours. Jim was in his mid-seventies at the time I met him and John had known him for many years, but he had never heard of the drownings. We then went to visit Jim, and it was he who gave me some of the details above.

That is forty years ago and I have forgotten all the details of what happened, but I can remember that he told me that he could still see his mother’s heavy skirt floating on top of the dam. I don’t know where the other family members were, or what happened after that. Maybe there is someone out there who can add to this narrative.

Alan Clegg

 

Should anyone have further details on the above, please let Alan know via alanclegg10 at gmail.com  

 

Further Reading

 

 

With thanks to Belinda Evangelista.