A Hemingway-esque short story

William, Mary Ellen (aka Dolly), Margaret & Walter Savage, Ballarat c. 1877

William, Mary Ellen (aka Dolly), Margaret & Walter Savage, Ballarat c. 1877

Tobias Savage family 2 ed

William, Dolly, Tobias and Walter Savage, Ballarat c. 1882

Legend has it Ernest Hemingway once won a bet by writing a story in just six words.

“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

Whether true or part of the myth surrounding the twentieth century American writer, the anecdote illustrates how much can be communicated in few words — something brought home to me recently when I unearthed a skeleton in the family closet.

The Savage family history resides the files of my late grandfather, Les Savage, a recipient of the Commonwealth Army’s Efficiency Decoration. Les combined scrupulous administrative skills with a passion for genealogy. Though he didn’t live long enough to experience the internet, he made the most of the technology available to him at the time: the photocopier. Documents are filed in duplicate, cross referenced, meticulously annotated in his distinctive and exquisite handwriting. Copies of outgoing correspondence are filed alongside responses. Photos are labelled and dated.

Relying largely on old-fashioned detective skills — library research, networking, personal ads — Les managed to compile a family tree of seven generations, identifying ancestors from England, Ireland and Germany who migrated to Australia in the 1850s.

My great-great grandfather Tobias Savage arrived from Liverpool in 1854 for the Victorian Gold Rush, becoming a shareholder in mines in Daylesford and Sebastopol. Irish-born Margaret Griffin was working as a barmaid in a shantytown pub on the goldfields when she and Tobias met. Les had it in his grandmother’s words that Tobias walked into the bar and said, ‘Lass, I’m going to marry you.’

Whether swept off her feet or simply grateful to put the life of a goldfields barmaid behind her, Margaret married Tobias in January 1864 in Ballarat, where they settled in Errard Street. Their son Walter John Savage was Les’ father. Margaret and Tobias lived to the ages of 89 and 90 respectively and are buried in the Old Cemetery in Ballarat.

I recently found a letter showing that in April 1982, my grandfather wrote to the Ballarat Cemeteries seeking information on the location of his grandparents’ burials. They came back with information pertaining not only to Margaret and Tobias Savage, but to a William Thomas Savage, who had predeceased them and was buried 18 October 1905 in the same plot. The cemetery register read:

“Aged 40 years of the Ararat Asylum.”

A Hemingway-esque story in six words and a number.

The Ararat Lunatic Asylum (later the Aradale Asylum) was one of three institutions of its kind in the colony of Victoria built to accommodate people with mental illness as well as conditions like epilepsy, autism and Downs Syndrome. Those deemed criminally insane were housed in horrific conditions in Ararat’s maximum security J Ward.

My grandfather was clearly reluctant to believe the implications of the letter from the Ballarat Cemeteries as he subsequently wrote to the Health Commission of Victoria asking for the date of entry to the Ararat Asylum of William Thomas Savage and the first name of his parents. The Commission’s response dated June 1982 advises that Mr Savage was admitted on 20 April 1896 and that his father’s name was Tobias.

That we had a relative confined to the Ararat Asylum was news to my family. My father Haydn said there was some family ‘scandal’ supposedly revealed among his father’s papers. Metal illness carries such stigma, even now as in the past, and I wondered whether great-uncle William of the Ararat Asylum qualified as said scandal.

At this point I noticed the anomaly in Les’ carefully constructed family tree. Despite listing all his distant ancestors’ known siblings, of Tobias and Margaret’s offspring he lists only his father Walter. There’s no mention of William nor of their sister, known as Dolly.

My grandfather was a good man and this omission saddens me. When my father reveals Les was taken regularly as a child to visit his older brother, also committed to an asylum, leaving the young Les traumatised and prone to stutter, I am sadder still.

‘Mental illness was something you didn’t talk about,’ my father says.

With 45% of Australians aged 16-85 years reporting in the 2007 census that they’d met the criteria for a diagnosis of a mental disorder at some point in their life, mental illness strikes me as something families have in common, rather than setting us apart.

I’d like to think Les would have felt less fearful of acknowledging his uncle if he’d been able to read the death notice from The Argus of 19 October 1905, which I found online:

SAVAGE. —On the 16th October, William Thomas,
the beloved eldest son of Tobias Savage, Errand-
street, her aged 40 years. (Interred at Ballarat Old
Cemetery 18th October.)

As my brother Luke remarked, ‘beloved eldest son’ doesn’t suggest William Savage was sent to Aradale to be forgotten.

And we won’t forget him. I’m updating the family tree to make sure of it.

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About Angela Savage

Angela Savage is a Melbourne-based crime writer, who has lived and travelled extensively in Asia. Her first novel, Behind the Night Bazaar won the 2004 Victorian Premier's Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript. She is a winner of the Scarlet Stiletto Award and has thrice been shortlisted for Ned Kelly awards. Her third novel, The Dying Beach, was also shortlisted for the 2014 Davitt Award. Angela teaches writing and is currently studying for her PhD in Creative Writing at Monash University.
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5 Responses to A Hemingway-esque short story

  1. Angela – What a lovely tribute not just to your grandfather but also to William Savage. I’m glad we live in a time now when mental illness is something that can be openly discussed and when those who need mental treatment are no longer simply shunted off and forgotten. Good on you to do your part and make sure your grand-grand (not sure how to say that) uncle isn’t forgotten. Oh, and what an interesting family history you have!

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  2. angelasavage says:

    Thanks Margot. I’m not sure we’ve arrived at a point yet where mental illness is something that can be openly discussed — certainly not the case in some countries — but I’d like to think things are better than when my great-great uncle William was alive.

    I have to say one of the most gratifying aspects of this research has been the detective work. When I finally figured out who was in the above photos — rarely for my grandfather’s records, they weren’t labelled — I was inordinately pleased with myself 😉

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  3. Danielle Burns says:

    Well done Angela, it’s amazing how many more facts can be uncovered by each generation in a family history once you start looking…could be the next episode of “Who do u think u are?”

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    • angelasavage says:

      Thanks Danielle. I suspect all families have secrets. A friend and I were comparing notes recently on what wasn’t talked about in Australian families and came up with mental illness, illegitimacy and Aboriginality. I’d like to think times have changed, but I’m not sure.

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  4. kathy d. says:

    You raise a good point. I found out last summer some things about a relative who had passed away before I was born and I never knew hm. My family never discussed him, other than to say he had TB, but I learned he also had suffered from mental illness, which I had never known.
    The Irish Catholic side of my family never discussed anything so there are many secrets and also just information that I would have liked to know and don’t. I could never compile a family tree like yours. I know only a few tidbits about my paternal grandparents and great-grandparents, i.e., their names and where they came from, and a bit more about my maternal ancestors.

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