1900-1910. A coffin is supported above a freshly dug grave, while two children look on. Photo source: Negative - Coffin in Cemetery, Irymple (?), Victoria (?). Museums Victoria. Public domain.
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1900-1910. A coffin is supported above a freshly dug grave, while two children look on. Photo source: Negative – Coffin in Cemetery, Irymple (?), Victoria (?). Museums Victoria. Public domain.

In Victoria between 1907 and 1923, four, possibly five, of the six siblings of the Lowe Family died after contracting tuberculous. All were young adults, in the prime of their lives. The first, in 1907, was a female, 23. The second, a male, 30, died three years later. The third and fourth siblings, both males, died in 1912, within two months of each other. One was 30, the other 24. The fifth sibling, a female, married and mother of two, died in 1923, after a gap of 11 years. She was 37. Only one sibling escaped the deadly disease and survived to old age. She was my grandmother.

Tuberculosis: A dreaded disease

At the beginning of the 1900s, tuberculosis ranked first among females and second among males as the major cause of death in Australia. The disease was much feared, as there was no vaccine and no cure. Tuberculosis could strike anyone, any family, and the infection could last for years. Like the Lowe Family siblings, many young adults were victims of the disease. That some people survived while others died could not be explained.

Tuberculosis, also known as consumption or phthisis, is caused by the tubercle bacillus, Mycobacterium tuberculosis. It is a highly contagious infectious disease. The bacteria are transmitted from person to person through the air via coughing, sneezing or spitting. Inhalation of just a few microorganisms can cause infection. Not everyone who is infected shows symptoms. Latent tuberculosis infection is an asymptomatic condition that may progress to active tuberculosis, sometimes decades after exposure.

For those who show symptoms, the infection typically affects the lungs, although it can also affect the blood and lymphatic systems, and the brain (causing meningitis). Sufferers of active lung infection commonly develop a cough with sputum and (sometimes) blood, fever-like symptoms, night sweating, chest pains, weakness, and (in the worst cases) gradual wasting away of body and mind, and finally death.  

In Victoria, the number of cases of tuberculosis rose in the final decades of the 19th century and remained high in the early part of the 20th century. In 1902, one in nine deaths in Victoria was due to tuberculosis. The only treatments for sufferers were bed rest and fresh air and (where possible) isolation to prevent spread of the disease.

In the early 1900s, special facilities (sanatoria) were set up in Victoria at Macedon and Echuca for isolation and care of tuberculosis sufferers. Unfortunately, these facilities received limited government funding. In May 1905, the Victorian government opened the Greenvale Sanatorium (“The Sanatorium for Consumptives, Greenvale”), the first purpose-built government facility for managing the tuberculosis epidemic. It was built in a remote location, northwest of the city of Melbourne (today, the site is near Melbourne’s Tullamarine Airport).

It was around this time that the first of the Lowe Family siblings, Jessie Ethel, contracted tuberculosis.

NOTE: A list of references I used in preparing this story is found at the end of the post. Specific references are numbered and noted throughout the text in brackets, thus: [X].

Elsie Antonia Proposch (nee Lowe)

Up until a year ago, I knew very little about my paternal grandmother, Elsie Antonia Proposch (nee Lowe). I knew even less about her parents and five siblings.

You may not be aware, but Elsie Antonia Proposch is the subject of Nana in Melbourne: Joy and a joy-giver (September 5, 2015), the first story I published on this site. Furthermore, Elsie’s wartime diary and the relationship she had with her sons inspired the title of my website and is the subject of A mother’s love (and a little black diary) (October 24, 2015).

My brother and I pictured with our parents and our Melbourne grandparents, during their visit to Queensland in the 1950s.
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My brother and I pictured with our parents and grandparents, during our Melbourne grandparents’ visit to Queensland in the 1950s. This was the only time I met my “Nana in Melbourne”. Photo source: Proposch Family archives.

What I already knew about my grandmother

Elsie Antonia Lowe was born on 3 October 1891 at Riddell’s Creek, on the southern foothills of the Macedon Ranges, central Victoria. In 1914 she married William “Charles” Proposch. Charles and Elsie made their home in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs. They had three sons, Eric (born 1916), William (born 1919) and Wesley (born 1923). Elsie died on 12 July 1963, of heart disease, having suffered from angina for a number of years.

1940s. Elsie and Charles Proposch, Melbourne.
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1940s. Elsie and Charles Proposch, Melbourne. Photo source: Proposch Family archives.

What I have since learnt about my grandmother, her parents and siblings

Last year I began to investigate my grandmother’s birth family. As I followed up leads provided by three different family connections, I was shocked and deeply saddened by what I discovered. The lives of my grandmother, her parents and siblings appear to have been full of pain and sorrow. This is their story.

The Lowe Family

Elsie’s parents, James Samuel Lowe and Margaret Antonia Neilson, married at Wedderburn, a rural town about 216 kilometres (134 miles) northwest of Melbourne, on June 27, 1878. James was 25, Margaret 20. Both James and Margaret were schoolteachers, as were Margaret’s parents. James had just been appointed head teacher, Kurting State School (Hope Creek, near Inglewood) and Margaret’s parents, William and Jessie Neilson, head teacher and assistant teacher respectively, Wedderburn State School. [1, 2, 3] James’ school was about 20 minutes’ drive from Wedderburn.

James and Margaret Lowe went on to have six children in 11 years, between 1880 and 1891. James Albert (“Bert”) was born in 1880, William Ferguson in 1882, Jessie Ethel in 1884, Winnifred May in 1886, Ernest Arthur in 1888 and last (but not least) Elsie Antonia in 1891.

The Lowe Family moved several times, as James took up appointments at schools in various locations in rural Victoria. Following their marriage, Margaret assisted James as “work mistress” at the schools where James was head teacher. She continued in this role from 1878 until her resignation from the Education Department in 1888. [4] From 1880, Margaret juggled motherhood and her teaching duties.

The spectre of suffering

Illness plagued the Lowe Family from the beginning. In October 1878, just four months after James and Margaret married, Margaret was quite ill and unable to attend school. Two years later, the couple’s first-born, James Albert (“Bert”), in his first year of life, contracted whooping cough, a notifiable disease in Australia. Whooping cough is a highly contagious bacterial infection caused by Bordetella pertussis.  

In 1882, a member of James’ and Margaret’s extended family fell victim to complications from tuberculosis. On 10 January 1882, John Robert Neilson, Margaret’s brother, died of “phthisis pulmonalis haemoptysis” (pulmonary tuberculosis with bleeding). John, a clerk, 21, was two years Margaret’s junior. I believe he was the first of James’ and Margaret’s birth families to die from tuberculosis.

Little did James and Margaret realize just how much suffering the dreaded disease would cause them and their loved ones in the years ahead.   

James and Margaret moved again at the end of 1881, as James took up the appointment of head teacher, Yandoit Hills State School (about 130 kilometres or 80 miles northwest of Melbourne). The family lived there for about 18 months, before another move, in May 1883, to Parkes Plains near Rochester (about 180 kilometres or 112 miles north of Melbourne). For the next five years, James served as head teacher and Margaret assistant teacher at Parkes Plains State School. [5]

Margaret gave birth to William Ferguson in 1882 and Jessie Ethel in 1884. In 1885, while still toddlers, William and Jessie came down with ophthalmia (a serious eye infection). At the same time, Margaret herself battled ophthalmia (untreated, it could result in permanent blindness). A year later (1886), three of the couple’s (then) four children contracted chicken pox. Clearly, illness constantly menaced the Lowe Family home.

Pain, the great Teacher

In June 1886, one month after Margaret gave birth to the couple’s fourth child (Winifred May), James’ mother died. For James, it was a cruel blow. James’ mother, another Margaret Lowe (born Margaret Ferguson), was only 52. Margaret Lowe (nee Ferguson) was a schoolteacher in her later years (1872-1878) and the daughter of a schoolteacher. [6]

John Blair Ferguson (Margaret’s father and James’ grandfather) was head teacher, Templestowe Presbyterian School, a private school that opened around 1850. John’s wife, Christina, worked as his assistant. After establishment of the Victorian Board of Education, the school merged with another denominational school at Templestowe to become Templestowe State School. John Blair Ferguson was appointed head teacher, Templestowe State School, a position he held from 1855 to 1872. (Templestowe is located in Melbourne’s northeast, about 16 kilometres from Melbourne’s central business district.) [7, 8, 9]

Ferguson's Templestowe School.
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Undated. Drawing of John Blair Ferguson’s Templestowe School, c. 1850. Source: Doncaster Templestowe Historical Society and Susanne Lowe.

James Samuel Lowe was the eldest of eight children. At the time of his mother’s death, he was 33. It appears that James’ father may have deserted his wife, leaving James’ mother to fend for herself and the children. Perhaps this explains why Margaret (James’ mother) took up teaching in later life. It also appears that James was his mother’s primary carer. At the time of her death, Margaret’s youngest child was 16. James’ mother died after a long illness. The cause of death? According to Margaret’s death certificate: “phthisis” (tuberculosis) and “asthenia” (wasting away).

I believe James’ mother was the first of James’ birth family to die after contracting tuberculosis.  

A move to Riddell’s Creek

In May 1888, James and Margaret Lowe and their four children moved to Riddell’s Creek, where James took up the position of head teacher, Riddell’s Creek State School. [10] Here, two more children were born: Ernest Arthur in 1888 and Elsie Antonia in 1891. At Riddell’s Creek the Lowe Family settled, and remained, until November 1897.

While James and Margaret lived at Riddell’s Creek, a second member of James’ birth family died of “pulmonary consumption” (tuberculosis). This time it was one of James’ brothers. William Arthur Lowe, 7 years James’ junior, died on 31 October 1896 after a 5-month battle with the disease. William, a blacksmith by trade, was 36 years old, in the prime of life, and married with two children, aged 9 and 7.

Other extended family deaths occurred during the 1890s. In 1892 and 1898 respectively, Margaret’s father William Neilson (73) and mother Jessie Dickie Neilson (66) died. Both died of heart disease. Margaret’s parents were not poor and, following her mother’s death, Margaret inherited her share (one-fifth) of her late mother’s estate (in 1898 worth £1357 18s 8d). I’m sure that must have given the family a financial lifeline (given what lay ahead for James and Margaret). [10]

William Neilson (1817-1892)
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William Neilson (1817-1892), my great-great-grandfather. Photo source: Susanne Lowe (Lowe Family tree).

A tainted heritage?

By 1897, James had completed 22 years of service with the Victorian Education Department and nearly 10 years at Riddell’s Creek State School. He and Margaret were in their 40s, had six children (including two teenagers), with James (now) the family’s sole breadwinner.

School inspector reports from 1895 and 1896 indicate that James was performing satisfactorily as head teacher, Riddell’s Creek State School. He achieved consistent ratings of 74% and 75%, accompanied by comments such as “Smart enough: Does good work. Could do very good work if he tried” (Senior Inspector James Holland, 1/04/1896) and “A capable teacher of only fair energy” (Holland, 22/09/1896). [11]

1896-1897. Inspector reports of James Samuel Lowe, Head Teacher, Riddell's Creek State School.
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1896-1897. Inspector reports of James Samuel Lowe, Head Teacher, Riddell’s Creek State School. Source: PROV, VA 713 Board of Education, VPRS 13579/P0001, Teacher Record No. 6701-7000, James Samuel Lowe.

By 1897, it seems, James was not coping – at home and at work. James struggled with chronic insomnia and neuralgia (nervous debility), took to drinking spirits at home after work and from time to time used bad language (at home but not in public). How do I know this? James said so himself (it’s on the public record).

1897 was possibly the worst year of James’ teaching career. In March 1897 Senior Inspector James Holland noticed a deterioration in James’ work and gave him a 64% (“fair”) rating. In October 1897, Holland undertook an investigation after several parents of the school community made complaints about James’ conduct. [12] The charges were as follows:

  1. Using language of a foul and indecent character on the night of Thursday 7 October 1897; and on other occasions during the last 12 months.
  2. Being under the influence of intoxicating liquors during school hours on several occasions during the last 12 months.
  3. In writing in a dishonest manner at the result exam in March 1897 by endeavouring to assist some of the pupils at their work.

I’ve examined the report of the investigation of the allegations against James. They are on the public record (Victoria Public Records Office). James denied the charges made against him. He admitted to using bad language at home (but not of the nature stated by the complainants, and never in public), drinking alcohol at home after work, suffering from chronic insomnia and neuralgia, and during the result exam in question inadvertently writing an answer on the blackboard but immediately erasing it.

Having perused the witness statements (for and against the charges), I can’t help but think some parents (and their children) exaggerated and/or contrived James’ misdemeanours in a campaign to “get rid of him”. I say this with a degree of insight, having been employed for a time as a senior investigator, Ethics Unit, Queensland Department of Employment and Training. There, I investigated allegations of possible official misconduct by employees of the department (including teachers).

In James’ case, the Public Service Board accepted that the three charges against him were proved. The result? The Board dismissed James Samuel Lowe on 29 November 1897. James was 45 years of age.

Another move and a new start

At the time James lost his job, Elsie Antonia, James’ and Margaret’s youngest child (later, my grandmother) was 6 years old. I doubt she would have understood the enormity of what had happened in the lives of her parents. The family of eight relocated to Melbourne.

I do not know what James did for work during the next four years. However, in November 1901, he gained a temporary head teacher position with the Victorian Board of Education. Clearly, James was a schoolteacher at heart. Over the next 18 years, James took up successive temporary head teacher appointments (ranging from a few weeks through to three years) at small schools throughout country Victoria. [13]

Margaret and the children (now young adults) stayed in Melbourne. Margaret and family lived first at 20 McKean Street, North Fitzroy, then at 3 Cunningham Street, Northcote, finally at 92 Dennis Street, Northcote. This period must have been an incredibly testing time for the Lowe Family, especially James and Margaret, who spent most of the latter part of their married lives living apart.

1900-1913. Unidentified laneway in a suburb of Melbourne. The Lowe Family lived in Melbourne from the late 1890s.
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1900-1913. Unidentified laneway in a suburb of Melbourne. Photo source: State Library of Victoria. Public domain.

But much worse was to come. The spectre of illness and death shrouded the Lowe Family. Between 1907 and 1923, of James’ and Margaret’s six (now young adult) children, four (most likely five) would die as a result of contracting tuberculosis.

Helpless helpers: The death of Jessie Ethel Lowe, 23

In 1907, James’ and Margaret’s much-loved eldest daughter, Jessie Ethel, took ill. She was still living at home, in Melbourne, with her mother. James was living and working far away, at Antwerp, in Victoria’s northwest, 356 kilometres (221 miles) from Melbourne. James held the position of temporary head teacher, Antwerp State School, from 28/02/1907 to 31/08/1908. [14]

c. 1920. Antwerp State School, No. 3104.
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c. 1920. Antwerp State School, No. 3104. Photo source: State Library of Victoria. Public domain.

At 23, Jessie was young, beautiful, and (it seemed) had her whole life ahead of her. She had established a close friendship with a young man, Frank Glenwright. Perhaps they planned to marry. But that was not to be. Frank and Jessie’s mother and siblings watched helplessly as Jessie battled the dreaded disease. She died on 30 December 1907 of “asthenia and acute tuberculosis”, aged 23 years and 9 months. The family’s death notice read: “In sadness we watched the last lingering breath. Till she lay like a lily, so lovely in death.”

Fortunately, James’ next teaching appointment brought him closer to Melbourne, Margaret and the family. Between 24/10/1908 and 31/07/1911, James was temporary head teacher, Tooberac State School. [15] (Tooberac is about 93 kilometres, or 58 miles, north of Melbourne). Sadly, it was during this time that another one of James’ and Margaret’s adult children fell victim to tuberculosis.

Joy and sorrow: Births, marriages and another death

James Albert, the oldest of the six Lowe Family siblings, was the first to marry. He married Ethel Louisa Eva Jones, at her family home at Talbot, rural Victoria, on 17 February 1909. James worked as a clerk in Melbourne, so the newlyweds began their new life as a couple at 419 High Street, Northcote.

c. 1920. High Street, Northcote, Victoria.  The home of one of the Lowe Family members and his wife.
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The young couple made their home in this street – High Street, Northcote. Photo source: State Library of Victoria. Public domain.

But the young couple’s hopes and plans soon evaporated, and their joy turned to sorrow, as James Albert succumbed to tuberculous. He fought the disease for seven months, slipping away on 11 April 1910. His death certificate gave “pulmonary consumption and asthenia” as the cause of death. He was 30 years of age and had been married for just 14 months. James (junior) was the second of the Lowe Family siblings to die after contracting tuberculosis.

Winifred May (or May Winifred as it seems she was called), 23, was the second of the Lowe Family siblings to marry. She wed Thomas Skipwith Reilly, 26, on 25 March 1910. Thomas came from a well-to-do family, of substantial means (in contrast to May’s family, whom I believe struggled to make ends meet). The marriage ceremony took place just over two weeks before the death of May’s brother James Albert.

Thomas and May made their home in the beachside suburb of Mordialloc, 24 kilometres (15 miles) southeast of Melbourne’s central business district. The couple went on to have two sons, William John Langtree (born 1912) and Thomas Bernard (born 1913).

Descent into darkness: Two more Lowe Family deaths

The year 1912 brought the Lowe Family blessing but also more grief. The birth of May’s first child, William John Langtree Reilly, gave James and Margaret (now grandparents) a reason to rejoice. However, in 1912, two more of James’ and Margaret’s six adult children died.

At this time, James was living and working at Chillingollah, in far north-western Victoria, near Swan Hill. Here, from 1/10/1911 to 31/12/1913, James was employed as temporary head teacher, Chillingollah State School. It was a long way from Melbourne. I doubt he saw much of his wife and family. [16]

William Ferguson Lowe, James’ and Margaret’s second son, worked as a hairdresser at Broadmeadows, 16 kilometres (10 miles) north of Melbourne’s central business district. He was 30 years of age and single. I do not know how long he was ill (I assume with tuberculosis), but he died on 3 September 1912. (Unfortunately, I have not been able to obtain a copy of William’s death certificate to confirm or deny that he died of tuberculosis.)

Following William’s death, James applied to the Supreme Court of Victoria for Letters of Administration of his son William’s estate. William died intestate, leaving no debts and £184 9s 2d (equivalent to $23,086.21 today) in his bank account. [17] Living so far away from Melbourne, James couldn’t deal with the matter in person. Hence, he relied on written communication. In one letter, dated 11 November 1912, James wrote, “We have lost recently 3 of our family, and are hourly expecting the death of a fourth.” This was an incredibly stressful and painful time for James and the family.

1912. J S Lowe letter to the Commissioner of Taxes, Victoria.
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1912. J S Lowe letter to the Commissioner of Taxes, Melbourne, Victoria. Photo source: PROV, VPRS 28/P0003, 159/833, James S Lowe: Grant of Administration.

James’ and Margaret’s youngest son, Ernest Arthur, battled tuberculosis for “years”. Ernest lived at home with his mother and, because of his illness, was unable to work. Over time, Ernest experienced considerable weight loss due to cachexia – loss of skeletal and adipose tissue. He died on 29 November 1912, less than three months after the death of his brother William. Ernest’s death certificate states “pulmonary tuberculosis, cachexia and heart failure” as the cause(s) of death. He was 24 years old.

Stepping out of the darkness: Elsie Antonia Lowe

On 3 October 1912, the youngest member of the Lowe Family, Elsie Antonia, turned 21. It was just one month after her brother William’s death, so I doubt she had much of a celebration. Then, seven weeks after her birthday, her brother Ernest died. In her brief lifetime, Elsie had witnessed the death of four of her five siblings. I can’t help but wonder: Did she fear she would be the next victim of the dreaded disease?

Meanwhile, Elsie met William “Charles” Proposch, the man she was destined to marry. I do not know how and when they met, but I do know that prior to their marriage they both lived in the Melbourne suburb of Northcote. Charles was an artist, Elsie a saleswoman. The couple married at the Presbyterian Church Manse, Northcote, on 2 December 1914. Charles was 26, Elsie 23.

Charles and Elsie made their home in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs. Elsie gave birth to their first child (a boy, Eric Charles) on 10 January 1916, 13 months after their marriage. For James and Margaret Lowe (Elsie’s parents), the birth of Eric Charles, their third grandchild, must have brought some joy into their otherwise bleak lives.  

A lonely death: James Samuel Lowe

James (Elsie’s father) continued to take up temporary head teacher appointments at small schools in rural Victoria. Margaret (Elsie’s mother) lived alone in Melbourne. In 1918, James was living in the schoolhouse attached to Black Range State School, where he had been employed as temporary head teacher since 1/01/1917. Black Range State School was a small one-teacher school, located about 11 kilometres (7 miles) south of Stawell, a rural centre about 240 kilometres (150 miles) west northwest of Melbourne. [18]

1922. Black Range State School, Victoria. Photo by Bill Boyd.
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1922. Black Range State School, Victoria. Photo by Bill Boyd. Source: Museums Victoria. Public domain.
2020. Black Range State School site - marker plaque.
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2020. Black Range State School site – marker plaque. Photo source: Tony Ward.
2020. All that remains of the former Black Range State School - relic of the schoolhouse stove and chimney.
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2020. All that remains of the former Black Range State School – relic of the schoolhouse stove chimney. Photo source: Tony Ward.

By 1918, James was in his 60s. He was approaching the end of his working life and (sadly) a somewhat tainted teaching career. However, school inspector reports for the time he worked at Black Range State School were perhaps the most favourable of his entire teaching career. For the four reports spanning 1917-1918, he obtained grades of 75%, 78%, 79% and 79%. Inspector Russell wrote [1/11/1917]: “A good teacher. Has a good grip on his school, organized on good lines.”

James Samuel Lowe (my great-grandfather) did not live to see his 66th birthday. He died on 27 August 1918, alone, far from home, his wife and family. The following report, which appeared in the Stawell News and Pleasant Creek Chronicle on 31 August 1918 [19], provides an account of his final hours:

The death of Mr James Samuel Lowe, head teacher of the Black Range State School, took place on Tuesday evening. The deceased gentleman was found lying unconscious in his residence, attached to the school, on Monday evening last and was removed into the Stawell Hospital. He had not been in good health for some time. He was a married man and 64 [sic.] years of age, his wife residing in Melbourne. The remains of the deceased were taken to Melbourne for interment.

James’ funeral took place on 30 August 1918, after his body was transported by rail from Stawell to Melbourne. His remains were interred at the Melbourne General Cemetery, in the same plot as his mother (died 1886), infant nephew John (aged 2, died 1897), and daughter Jessie Ethel (died 1907). 

The grave of my great-grandfather, James Samuel Lowe, Presbyterian L Section, Plot 1245, Melbourne General Cemetery.
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The unmarked grave of my great-grandfather, James Samuel Lowe, Presbyterian L Section, Plot 1245, Melbourne General Cemetery. Photo source: Moira Vosper.

James died alone and intestate. At the time of his death, he had just £69 14s 3d in his savings bank account. I wonder if this amount (equivalent to about $6,500 today) would have covered, at the very least, his funeral expenses. [20]

Running out of tears: Two more family deaths

James did not have to experience the loss of yet another one of his six adult children. But his long-suffering wife Margaret did. She lived long enough to witness the death of two more family members: her son-in-law Thomas and her second daughter, May.

On 8 April 1919, about eight months after James’ death, May’s husband, Thomas Skipwith Reilly, died suddenly. According to his death certificate, he died of “pneumonic influenza, exhaustion and heart failure”, an illness of five days’ duration. (I assume Thomas was a victim of the Spanish ‘Flu pandemic, 1918-1920.) Thomas was 35. He left behind his wife of 9 years, May, and their two little boys.

But worse was yet to come. Not long after her husband’s death, May began her battle with tuberculosis. She fought the infection for three years, but in vain. May Winifred Reilly (nee Lowe) died on 14 February 1923 of “pulmonary tuberculosis and asthenia”. She was 37 years of age. Her sons were aged 11 and 9.  

Reilly Family grave, Brighton General Cemetery, Victoria.
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Reilly Family grave, Brighton General Cemetery, Victoria. Photo source: Brighton Cemetorians.
Thomas Skipwith Reilly and his wife May Winifred Reilly (nee Lowe) grave monument.
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Monument on the graves of Thomas Skipwith Reilly and his wife May Winifred Reilly (nee Lowe), Brighton General Cemetery, Victoria. Photo source: Brighton Cemetorians.

No more tears: The death of Margaret Antonia Lowe

Margaret Antonia Lowe survived her husband James by 12 years. She died on 16 September 1930, after a long illness (not tuberculosis). She was 72. The day after her death, Margaret’s mortal remains were interred at the Coburg Cemetery, in the same plot as her two sons, William Ferguson and Ernest Arthur. Their graves bear no markers, no monument. There is no memorial, just bare ground. It’s symbolic of the paucity and pain that marked the lives of the Lowe Family.

2021. Coburg Pine Ridge Cemetery, Presbyterian Section, Plot 521 (unmarked).
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2021. Coburg Pine Ridge Cemetery, Presbyterian Section, Plot 521 (unmarked). Photo source: Moira Vosper.
2021. Coburg Cemetery Presbyterian Section Plots 520, 521, 522 (unmarked).
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2021. Coburg Cemetery Presbyterian Section Plots 520, 521, 522 (unmarked). Photo source: Moira Vosper.

My great-grandmother, Margaret Antonia Lowe, and her daughter Elsie Antonia Proposch (nee Lowe), my grandmother, experienced incredible family loss during their lifetimes. The main cause? Tuberculosis. Margaret lost four, possibly five, of her six adult children to tuberculosis; Elsie lost four, most likely all five, of her siblings to tuberculosis. At least James, my great-grandfather, did not live to see yet another one of his adult children (May Winifred) succumb to the deadly disease.   

If only my grandmother were alive today…there is so much more I would like to know and understand about her life and birth family. I have so many unanswered questions. Sadly, my “Nana in Melbourne” died in 1963, when I was still a child. If only I had known then, what I know now. Perhaps I would have appreciated and respected her even more than I did.  

FOR REFLECTION

Pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.

― C. S. Lewis (1898-1963) in The Problem of Pain (1940).

When pain and suffering come upon us, we finally see not only that we are not in control of our lives but that we never were.

― Timothy Keller (b. 1950) in Walking with God through Pain and Suffering (2013).

Show me, Lord, my life’s end and the number of my days; let me know how fleeting my life is.

― Psalm 39:4 (A psalm of David) in The Holy Bible (New International Version).

EPILOGUE

It wasn’t until the 1940s that efforts to control the incidence of tuberculosis in Australia began in earnest. In 1945, an Australian bacteriologist produced the first Australian-made Bacille Calmette-Guérin (BCG) vaccine, later manufactured on a large scale and made available to the general public. Between 1948 and 1976, in accord with the Australian Government’s Tuberculosis Act 1948, state governments offered their citizens free diagnostic chest X-rays, medical treatment and support.

1953. George Ramsden being x-rayed as part of the State wide screening for tuberculosis.
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1953. George Ramsden being x-rayed as part of the State wide screening for tuberculosis. Photo source: State Library of Victoria. Public domain.

From the mid-1940s, the Victorian Government introduced free X-rays for the diagnosis of tuberculosis. Citizens could go to fixed X-ray units at Prahan, Melbourne Town Hall, Coburg, Williamstown and Geelong or make use of mobile X-ray vans that visited large factories, institutions and public spaces. The Victorian Government also required all immigrants to be tested for tuberculosis (a practice that continues in all Australian states to this day).

c. 1950s. Poster, Victorian Tuberculosis Association. Source: Museums Victoria. Public domain.
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1950s. Poster, The Victorian Tuberculosis Association. Source: Museums Victoria. Public domain.
1950s. Poster, Victorian Tuberculosis Association.
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1950s. Poster, The Victorian Tuberculosis Association. Source: Museums Victoria. Public domain.

Between 1963 and 1976, all Australian states made X-rays for the detection of tuberculosis in the adult population compulsory. School-based programs required young adolescents to be tested using the tuberculin skin test (Mantoux test) and those with no reaction received the BCG vaccine. (I was one of those school children.) The school-based vaccination program continued until 1985.

Tuberculosis: Still a deadly disease

Today, Australia has one of the lowest tuberculosis incidence rates in the world (5-6 cases per 100,000 population). In 2020, Australia recorded 1,612 new cases, mostly amongst immigrants from southeast Asia and the Pacific region and people who have visited these and other regions where tuberculosis remains a significant public health risk. The incidence of tuberculosis in the general population in Australia today is almost negligible.

Compared with a death rate from tuberculosis of 108.5 per 100,000 in 1907, the age-standardised death rate from tuberculosis in Australia today is approximately 0.3 per 100,000 population.

However, despite Australia’s good record since the 1980s, in 2021 tuberculosis continues to be a major cause of death worldwide. In 2019, for example, an estimated 10 million people fell ill with the disease and there were 1.4 million deaths. Put another way, worldwide, nearly 4500 people die each day and approximately 30,000 people fall ill as a result of contracting tuberculosis.

Tuberculosis remains one of the world’s deadliest infectious diseases. The World Health Organisation, in conjunction with the United Nations Organisation, aims to end the global tuberculosis epidemic by the year 2030.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

I am truly grateful to the following individuals who assisted me in carrying out the research for this story:

Tony Ward – for the detailed research he conducted in collaboration with Ian Rees (Wimmera Association for Genealogy), the numerous archival documents he sent to me, and (especially) for visiting and photographing the site of the former Black Range State School where my great-grandfather spent his last hours.

Susanne Lowe – for providing me access to her extensive research and documentation of the Lowe Family and the Lowe Family tree (Ancestry.com.au).

The late Bob Proposch – for writing to me and providing a summary of what he had discovered over time concerning the Proposch and Lowe families.

Moira Vosper – for seeking out and providing photographs of the Lowe Family gravesites at the Coburg Pine Ridge Cemetery and Melbourne General Cemetery.

Trudy Smith – for providing information about the Reilly Family grave, Brighton General Cemetery.

Lois Comeadow – for providing photographs of the Reilly Family grave, Brighton General Cemetery.

REFERENCES

World Health Organization (WHO). (2021). Tuberculosis. Online: Accessed on 14 June 2020.

World Health Organization. (WHO). (2020). Global Tuberculosis Report 2020. Accessed on 27 September 2021. 

Ralph, A. & Lowbridge, C. (2020). History of Tuberculosis Control in Australia: an NHMRC case study. Online: Accessed on 5 June 2021.

Wittner Tayor, J., Curtis, N. & Denholm, J. (2020). BCG vaccination: An update on current Australian practices. In Australian Journal of General Practice, Vol. 49, No. 10, October 2020. Online: Accessed on 9 October 2021.

Department of Health and Human Services, State of Victoria. (2016). Greenvale Sanatorium. Online: Accessed on 19 September 2021.

Births Deaths and Marriages Victoria. Victoria State Government. Website: https://www.bdm.vic.gov.au/  [Copies of birth, death and marriage certificates]

SPECIFIC REFERENCES

  1. PROV, VA 713 Board of Education, VPRS 13579/P0001, Teacher Record No. 6701-7000, James Samuel Lowe. Online: https://prov.vic.gov.au/archive/3ACA962E-F7E4-11E9-AE98-73329D295379   
  2. PROV, VA 713 Board of Education, VPRS 13579/P0001, Teacher Record No. 2502-2800, William Neilson. Online: https://prov.vic.gov.au/archive/3DA2E2C7-F7E4-11E9-AE98-05713133B4AC     
  3. PROV, VA 713 Board of Education, VPRS 13579/P0001, Teacher Record No. 2501-2800, Jessie Dickie Neilson. Online: https://prov.vic.gov.au/archive/3DA2E2C7-F7E4-11E9-AE98-05713133B4AC  
  4. PROV, VA 713 Board of Education, VPRS 13579/P0001, Teacher Record No. 4601-4900A, Margaret Antonia Neilson (now Lowe). Online: https://prov.vic.gov.au/archive/3AB18FDB-F7E4-11E9-AE98-3949F656C097     
  5. PROV, VA 713 Board of Education, VPRS 13579/P0001, Teacher Record No. 6701-7000, James Samuel Lowe. Online: https://prov.vic.gov.au/archive/3ACA962E-F7E4-11E9-AE98-73329D295379   
  6. PROV, VA 713 Board of Education, VPRS 13579/P0001, Teacher Record No. 5201-5500, Mrs Margaret Lowe. Online: https://prov.vic.gov.au/archive/3AC20AA8-F7E4-11E9-AE98-71D3BD0BC023   
  7. PROV, VA 713 Board of Education, VPRS 13579/P0001, Teacher Record No. 601-1000A, John Ferguson. Online: https://prov.vic.gov.au/archive/3AD4CF65-F7E4-11E9-AE98-6517940DFA17   
  8. Leaney, Judith. (1997). Templestowe Primary School. First published in Doncaster Templestowe Historical Society Newsletter, 1997, Volume 12. Online: Doncaster Templestowe Historical Society.
  9. Doncaster Templestowe Historical Society. (2017). John Blair Ferguson. Online: Doncaster Templestowe Historical Society.
  10. PROV, VA 713 Board of Education, VPRS 13579/P0001, Teacher Record No. 6701-7000, James Samuel Lowe. Online: https://prov.vic.gov.au/archive/3ACA962E-F7E4-11E9-AE98-73329D295379   
  11. PROV, VPRS 7591/P0002, 69/832, Jessie D Neilson: Will; Grant of Probate. Online: https://prov.vic.gov.au/archive/F3804720-F536-11E9-AE98-BF55BD90D53B
  12. PROV, VA 713 Board of Education, VPRS 892/P000, 1071, Complaints against Head Teacher; James S Lowe Inspector Holland Board of Enquiry Witness Statement, 528.
  13. PROV, VA 713 Board of Education, VPRS 13579/P0001, Teacher Record No. 6701-7000, James Samuel Lowe. Online: https://prov.vic.gov.au/archive/3ACA962E-F7E4-11E9-AE98-73329D295379   
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Ibid.
  17. PROV, VPRS 28/P0003, 127/214, William F Lowe: Grant of Administration. Online: https://prov.vic.gov.au/archive/B0FC3766-F208-11E9-AE98-E1BE349CB144
  18. PROV, VA 713 Board of Education, VPRS 13579/P0001, Teacher Record No. 6701-7000, James Samuel Lowe. Online: https://prov.vic.gov.au/archive/3ACA962E-F7E4-11E9-AE98-73329D295379
  19. PERSONAL. (1918, August 31). Stawell News and Pleasant Creek Chronicle (Vic. : 1914 – 1918), p. 2. Retrieved August 19, 2019, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article120964750  
  20. PROV, VPRS 28/P0003, 159/833, James S Lowe: Grant of Administration. Online: https://prov.vic.gov.au/archive/76F02049-F229-11E9-AE98-43FB30A965B9
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Judith Salecich

Writer, researcher, former secondary and tertiary teacher and public servant, wife, mother, grandmother, child of God, photography enthusiast, lover of life, history, food and all things creative.

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13 thoughts on “Four of six Lowe Family siblings fall victim to tuberculosis”

  1. Yes Judith, this is a very sad story of one family’s battle with an insidious disease. My family escaped it, possibly because almost all members lived in country areas of Victoria and New South Wales at the time — both sides moved to Queensland about 1910, and again lived in the country. I do know that members of my husband’s family here in Adelaide, battled TB. At least one woman lived in a tent in the backyard, to ‘get fresh air’. She did not survive, and I believe, one of her sons also died. But I haven’t researched the family in detail.

    I’m glad to see you back writing again. At the moment, my interests are centred in the 1950s. I wonder if you have seen my blogs on my website?
    Barbara

    Reply
    • Barbara, thank you for taking the time to read my story and leave a reply. I’m so pleased to read that your immediate family escaped the disease, but a pity about your husband’s family. Thanks for your encourgement re my writing – yes, it’s good to be back. Yes, I have visited your website and read some of your stories. Congratulations on publishing your book. It sounds great. I must purchase a copy. Best wishes, Judy.

  2. I contracted TB at the beginning of 1963.I was 11 years old & had a very swollen & painful left side of my face.After going to the dentist for X-rays on my teeth & going to doctor nothing could be found.I would go to school each day & would be permitted to have warm water on a cloth to put on my face to try & soothe the pain which was unrelenting .It helped for a short time.I was sent to a specialist who thought it was a cyst but only when I was in surgery did he know it was TB in Mt left lymph gland.It was a shock to everyone.How,where,what my parents were stunned to say the least.After this my family had to be tested but I was not to have the testing.After this, I was taking 20 + tablets everyday & every 3 months for a few years I had to have an X-ray.In the beginning mum would take me into Melbourne CBD but then the clinic in Coburg opened & I was transferred there.As the years went by my daily tablet dose eventually started to decrease as did my time between X-rays,going to 6 months the 12 months & then 2 years.I was in my 20’s when I was finally given the all clear & didn’t need to attend the clinic any more or take tablets.I was told at the time I had less chance of contracting TB than others did for the next 20 years!Although it was in my face I was told that it could show up as a scar on my lungs but no it hasn’t.It wasn’t a fun time for an11yo but I survived & at that time that was the way it was done

    Reply
    • Dear Barbara. Thank you for sharing with me and my readers about your experience of contracting tuberculosis. It is most enlightening to read what you went through and how the infection affected you. Clearly, it was a very difficult time for you as a child…and it lasted for years! You must have been very brave. ❤ Praise God that you survived and can now share your experience with others. Kind regards, Judy.

    • Thanks, Chris. Yes, it’s a heartbreaking tale. Like you, I wonder how they coped with so much pain and suffering. A lifetime of sorrow. Thanks for including my story in “Interesting Blogs in Friday Fossicking”. Much appreciated. Kind regards, Judy.

    • Dear Gwen. I’m so pleased you found my story interesting and inspiring. I think we have so much to learn from our forebears, although most of the time we are quite unaware of their circumstances. If only we knew…we might think differently about them and appreciate our own circumstances more. Love, Judy.

  3. I was very impressed with the amount of work you put into your story.It is an eye opener at how hard some people have in their lives. I remember getting the tb jab in my senior year at school. We were tested at college and my vaccination was questioned. It didn’t work as well as it should have. I did not realise how much of a problem it still is in world health. Thank you for another interesting story although it was so sad.

    Reply
    • Dear Lorna. Thank you for your encouraging feedback. I’m glad you found my story interesting and an “eye opener”. Yes, some people have very difficult lives. Clearly, my story brought back for you memories of the tuberculosis vaccination program when you were a student, then a student-teacher. Yes, sadly, tuberculosis remains a major problem today in some parts of the world. Love, Judy.

  4. Tuberculous certainly devastated that Family Judith.It was such a serious disease. Back in time it was well known around the Country. I can recall it being mentioned up here in Queensland on numerous occasions. My Dad was thought to have had Tuberculous (TB) at one stage when we were young but they worked out that it was not that .I can remember hearing of some people dying from it. Credit to you Judith for the research you have put in to produce this story.

    Reply
    • Dear Maurie. Thanks for taking the time to read my story about the Lowe Family, and tuberculosis (TB), and to provide feedback on my blog. I’m so glad your father didn’t contract TB. In those days, it would have meant he had to go away from the family home for months, until the symptoms went away. Not a nice prospect. You may recall that there were a number of sanatoriums in Queensland – I know for sure there was a big one at Westwood, outside of Rockhampton. 
      Best wishes, Judy.

  5. Thank you Judith for your wonderful story. Such an unbelievably sad and tragic life for your poor Grandmother’s family. My Maternal Great Grandfather died of tuberculosis at the age of 48 years, leaving his wife and five children. He had emigrated from England in 1884 with his brother and sister-in-law because he suffered with chest problems and thought the warmer climate of Australia would help his condition. His brother lost his wife and new baby girl soon after they arrived in Brisbane, from cholera. A terrible start for the two brothers. Their family in England and my Grandfather’s family always kept in touch and we are still keeping in touch today, four generations later. I did not know that tuberculosis was still such a major cause of death worldwide. I thought it was all but eradicated, but only in some countries it seems. I was tested like every schoolchild back in the day, and my test came back positive so I was hauled off to Brisbane for an x-ray, which, thankfully, proved negative. My parents were told I had a natural immunity to the disease. Thank you Judith again, for your interesting writing. Lyn

    Reply

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Short stories from the heart...about life, family and local history, people, places and food.

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