This week is the finale in Family Tree Frog’s NFHM blog challenge and the theme is “Power without Glory”. Sadly, my family branches are singularly lacking in powerful people – at least beyond their own kin. So let me tell you another story about last week’s ancestor, Stephen Gillespie Melvin, and the events that would turn 1887 into his family’s annus horibilis.
In last week’s post we saw how Stephen had been rescued from the flooded Bremer River in Ipswich on 22 January 1887 by Thomas Shedrick Livermore. We also learned that by mid-year his business was in liquidation. What came between those two events and indeed what followed?
In September 1886 Stephen G Melvin had instructed Elias Harding Jnr to offer the contents of his confectionery plant and sawmill for sale[i], due to the expiry of his lease. Was he already feeling a financial pinch? Had he over-extended himself? How would he continue his business without these assets? It doesn’t quite make sense.
Stephen meanwhile advertised a property for rent[ii] and his wife Emily advertised for a general housekeeper[iii]. Perhaps the family was living beyond their means and SGM (as I call him) had over-extended himself financially.
By March 1887, the case of Hunter v Melvin and Finch[iv] was about to be heard in civil sittings of the Queensland Supreme Court on a claim “that partnership accounts be taken”. This case was to be heard by His Honour Sir Charles Lilley. Little did SGM realise that he was now on a very slippery downward legal slope.
The proceedings of the court case were extensively reported in the newspapers – one of the benefits of reporting on legal matters is that the journalist has to record accurate details. The jury found in favour of the plaintiff, J Hunter. Based on the decision and the testimony heard, Justice Lilley declared “he was strongly disposed to exercise my summary power by committing them for perjury – very strongly indeed.”[v]
The “them” to whom the judge referred were all those who had sworn to their testimony, now found to be invalid: the defendants Samuel Finch and Stephen Gillespie Melvin and witnesses Harry Jackson, Stephen Wilson and Susan Wallace. They were bound over on recognizance of £100 to appear in court the next day on a charge of perjury. The ground must have felt like it moved under their feet, and perhaps SGM felt he was back in the maelstrom of a flood, though this time is was a flood of legal issues.
The perjury case became a cause célèbre, widely reported in newspapers around the country. It was interesting that it was in Ipswich that those charged seemed to have a lot of support.
The individual cases were heard in the Supreme Court in September 1887[vi]. I was particularly interested that Melvin’s barrister, Mr Lilley (not the judge) had submitted testimonials from 13 ships from when Stephen first went to sea at age 16, until he came to Ipswich. These testified to Stephen’s good character – how I wish I could see those documents but they don’t appear to have been retained by the court. Lilley also stated that he had been requested by those who knew the prisoner to extend to Melvin, and one other prisoner, the provisions of the Offenders’ Probation Act[vii]. Notwithstanding this, at the completion of the trials His Honour, Mr Justice Harding, passed the following sentences: Finch five years, Melvin five years and six months, and Jackson three years. Wilson and Wallace had been found not guilty[viii].
As you might imagine, at this point I was thinking “but what on earth happened?” Within that sentence period of 5.5 years Stephen Melvin’s wife had four children including my own grandmother. Something must have transpired as I also knew he’d been in Charters Towers within that time frame, so I kept hunting.
No sooner had the judge’s sentence been passed than a petition was circulated in Ipswich to gain a remission of the sentences[ix]. This arose because there were jury members common to the cases, who believed that they had been provided with different testimony across the five trials. Ultimately the petition went to the Queensland Executive Council[x].
And then on 12 December 1887, the judgement was passed: After a careful consideration of the petition praying for a remission of the sentences on Melvin, Finch and Jackson, recently convicted of perjury, the Governor in Council yesterday decided to accede to the prayer of the petition. The prisoners will therefore be released forthwith[xi]. The prisoners were then brought up from St Helena prison and released. St Helena is an island in Moreton Bay, a short distance from Peel Island where Stephen’s first wife, Janet Peterkin Melvin had died on arrival in 1877. As best as I can ascertain, the remission of their sentences did not come with the overturning of the guilty verdict, which must have been a difficult shame to carry, but at least Stephen was free and could go home.
What a Christmas present that must have been for all the Melvin family! The arrival of my grandmother, Laura, nine months later is probably a clue <smile>. It had been a torrid year for the family and I’m sure a lot of pressure fell on the shoulders of Stephen’s wife Emily with the support of her father, William Partridge: parallel to the trials, they were dealing with liquidation of the business and the award of the bronze medal to Mr Livermore.
The legal process of sorting out contracts continued progressively through 1888[xii]. William Partridge provided financial support to the family as evidenced in news reports.
A further by-product of the trial was the amendment of legislation….now if only I could locate my notes. While I have used newspaper articles to tell this story, I have also traced the clues through a myriad archival sources at Queensland State Archives. Although I reviewed these documents with an open mind, I felt the initial case seemed very much a case of “he said, she said” so I can only assume there was some non-verbal indications of guilt. How I sometimes long for an Aussie Legal Genealogist to demystify the legalese.
A family case of minimal power and no glory at all.