Mystery object

This object came to light recently when my mother was packing up her house to move.  It has probably been passed on a few times when houses were packed up because I don’t think it has been in use for a long time and I don’t know who the original owner was.  Suffice to say that many women in 19th and early 20th century Australia would have owned such a device.

Mystery object

Mystery object

JG IngramIt was manufactured by JG Ingram and Sons, London, a company which operated from 1847 until at least 1961.

It’s a pump for expressing breast milk, very different in appearance from the modern version.

My first thought on realising what it was:

What would a 19th century woman want with a breast pump? Women in the 19th century Australia didn’t go out to work, leaving their babies with carers. They certainly worked and maybe they left the baby at the house with big sisters or grandmothers while they went out to milk cows, tend crops or work in the family business but they wouldn’t have gone far enough away from their babies to need to express milk.

Of course there are other reasons for expressing milk, just as there are today. Illnesses like mastitis or milk fever were common enough, babies don’t always attach well, cracked nipples are painful but the short and sad answer is that babies died.

More babies died at or soon after birth than is common in developed countries today.  It’s a tragedy when any baby dies but it wouldn’t have been the absolutely shocking and unexpected event that it is today.

Just to give an idea of statistics, my great-grandmother Mary Ann Smith was one of 14 children.

The eldest sibling (a boy) died as a baby.  Ellen died aged 3. Mary Ann (Annie) had 7 surviving sisters. There is no evidence of children born to her sisters, Agnes, Henrietta, Emma or Louisa dying young but:

  • Rose lost Victor E A Headrick (1907-1908)
  • Matilda lost Mary J Ford (1915-1916)
  • Phyllis lost Lucy Eliza Elliott (1905-1906)
  • And Annie herself lost Maude Ellen Payne (1895-1895), Percival Edward Payne (1913-1913) and Charles Ernest Payne (1915-1915).
  • There is also a family story that Annie gave birth to another stillborn baby whose birth and death were not registered.In Australia in 1901, 103.6 out of every 1000 babies died within the first year of life.  Lack of medical knowledge, distance from medical assistance, and spread of infection through lack of hygiene all played a part.
Matilda Ford (nee Smith) (1878-1921)

Matilda Ford (nee Smith)

Phyllis Elliott nee Smith) 1886-1956)

Phyllis Elliott (nee Smith)

Rose Headrick nee Smith) 1873-1962)

Rose Headrick (nee Smith)

Mary Ann Payne (nee Smith) (1871-1962)

Mary Ann Payne (nee Smith) (1871-1962)

Baby Donald Mulcahy's death certificate 1879

Baby Donald Mulcahy’s death certificate 1879

Figures from Australians: historical statistics, Broadway, 1987, p58, and the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

Disproving family stories

Disproved family story 1.

My grandmother’s brother, her closest sibling in age, died of appendicitis.  It was actually meningitis and he died in the same epidemic which claimed the lives of a brother and a sister and almost took another brother and a niece.

Disproved family story 2.

May Payne (1895-1925)

May Payne (1895-1925)

Two other sisters – twins – were blue babies.  This medical term refers to a blueish tinge to the skin caused by either a congenital cyanotic heart defect or the ingestion of water with a high level of nitrate contamination.  One of the twins, Maude, died at three months of inflammation of the lungs so it’s possible that she had some sort of heart condition.  The other twin, May, died at the age of 29 of Bright’s Disease.  This was a term used to cover a variety of kidney diseases which are now referred to separately.


The death of May Payne, 1925

The death of May Payne, 1925







While I’m talking about historic medical terms, I would love to know what it was that the grandmother of these twins died of, a condition named as “tetere grave” on her death certificate.

 Disproved family story 3.

John Mulcahy (1849-1879)

John Mulcahy (1849-1879)

My great-grandfather John Mulcahy died in a mining accident when a tiny rock fell down into the shaft and hit him on the head.  He did die in a mineshaft but his death was caused by him falling into the 40-foot shaft.  His death came two months after the death of his third son and the birth of his fourth.  The family story goes on to say that the third son, Donald, died of whooping cough and that his mother was also very ill.  That can’t be proven or disproved now because Donald’s death certificate is very short on detail.

The best story I’ve disproved so far involved a bushranger, a fire and a betrayal.