Beltana, Copper mining town
Beltana, South Australia
Anne Johnson and Children.
Anne Johnson and four of her children died in a fire on 15 December 1881. The headstone was erected by a T. Pearce as a mark of respect, but who T. Pearce was, is not known.
The South Australian Register of Monday, 19 December 1881, carried a report of the inquest with the headline: A Sad Case of Burning.
The inquest was held in the afternoon of December 15th, the day of the fire. Presiding was Mr T. J. C. Hantke, JP. The foreman of the jury was Mr J. Furnace. As is often the case there are small discrepancies between the accounts of the various witnesses, but the underlying story is the same.
The Johnson's house was built with a tarpaulin for a roof and bags (hessian sacks) stretched over a timber frame for the walls. It was divided into two rooms with a similar bag partition. The kitchen section included a fireplace, it could have been stone or possibly corrugated iron. The door was sited at the side of the fireplace. That was the only entrance. A second fireplace was outside the house, about twenty yards (20m) to the east of the building.
Mr James Hencher reported that at about seven o'clock that morning he thought he saw Mrs Johnson some twenty yards from her house trying to light a fire. Shortly afterwards his wife called to him that Mrs Johnson's place was on fire. When he rushed over the house was in flames with two females outside. Mr Peter Doig was also there, but the two men were unable to do anything to save the house. At the back of the house the Johnsons had a small out house and the men salvaged what they could from that. The two men then returned to the front of the main house from where, as the wind had changed, they could see the bodies of three children on the floor, but could do nothing to help them. Mr Doig reported the fire to the police and Sergeant Dunn arrived to supervise the removal of the bodies. Mrs Johnson's body was amongst them.
Peter Doig, a blacksmith at Beltana, then gave evidence which corroborated that of James Hencher.
Mrs Alvina Pittelkow was the next witness. Louise Johnson, eleven years old, woke her by crying out "Fire". She hurried across and joined Mrs Johnson at the door. She gave her baby to Louise Johnson to care for and went through to the bedroom with Mrs Johnson. However, the flames were too intense and she was unable to do anything but retreat. Once clear of the flames she dashed round to the side of the house, she called it a tent, hoping to tear the bags from the bedroom wall. A fire was burning in the fireplace outside, but the wind was blowing the flames away from the house. Mrs Pittelkow did not see Mrs Johnson make any effort to escape from the house.
Eleven year old Louise Johnson, Mrs Johnson's daughter, then gave her evidence. When she got out of bed her mother was taking a small fire on a shovel to the fireplace outside. Her mother had lit the fire on the shovel inside the house because it was too windy outside. She thought that as her mother took the fire out it must have ignited some of the material because a short time later she saw the house was burning in a corner near the door and called out. Her mother ran inside with Mrs Pittelkow. After a few moments Mrs Pittelkow came out again and gave her baby to her to hold, but she never saw her mother again.
The jury returned the following verdict: "The deceased persons, Mrs Johnson, and her four children, were accidentally burnt to death in their tent, but there is no direct evidence to show how the fire originated, and no blame is attached to anyone. The jury beg to express their deep sympathy with the bereaved husband in his dire distress."
William Johnson was a teamster and away from home at the time of the fire.
The inscription on the headstone is;
DEARLY BELOVED WIFE OF W. JOHNSON
AGED 32 YEARS
AGED 7 YEARS AND 5 MONTHS
ANNE JOHNSON AGED
5 YEARS AND 5 MONTHS
AGED 3 YEARS AND 6 MONTHS
AGNES JOHNSON AGED
2 MONTHS AND 2 WEEKS
WHO WERE ALL ACCIDENTALLY BURNED
TO DEATH ON 15 DECEMBER 1881
MAY THEIR SOULS REST IN PEACE
SINCE WE CANNOT TELL TODAY
WHAT TOMORROW'S DAWN MAY BRING,
SAVIOUR DRAW OUR HEARTS AWAY,
FAR FROM EVERY EARTHLY THING;
MAKE US IN THY SERVICE STEADY
ALWAYS FOR THY COMING READY
ERECTED AS A MARK OF RESPECT
BY T. PEARCE
© Jim Ditchfiled 2017