Today I have been thinking about my paternal grandmother Mona May Holbeck and her family. Mona May was born on 30 October 1904. Mona grew up and married my grandfather, Jack, in 1930. My father, William John, was the eldest of their four sons. I was fortunate enough to know both grandparents. I thought about Mona and about some of her siblings who never had the chance to achieve their potential. The ones who never grew up. The ones whose place in time will always remain as a child or an infant. Those who research their family history know very well the tragedies that befall families. They have in the past and will continue in the present and into the future. We can’t change that.
I want to provide some background to the family in Australia so we will wind back the clock, just a little. James Louis Holbeck, was Mona May’s father. He was the son of Charles Alfred Holbeck, who, as a 12 year old, had sailed from England with his father James Holbeck in 1859 aboard the vessel Lloyds. It appears they left England following the death of Charles’ mother, Mary Ann Wood in 1858. They, like so many others were seeking a new start in a new land – Queensland, Australia. Charles Alfred grew up and married Jane Ruddy, an Irish immigrant, in 1865. By 1866 their first child, James Louis (my great grandfather) was born. Another seven children would follow. In 1889, aged 23, James Louis Holbeck married Annie Sixsmith. They were to have 10 children between 1890 and 1914.
Like many families, not only in the beginning of the 20th century but also in the 21st century, the Holbecks were not unfamiliar with grief and loss. On 15 January 1903, Annie Holbeck (nee Sixsmith) gave birth to twin boys Stanley Edgar and Leslie William. However, in less than six months, on 1 June that year, baby Leslie had passed away. Infant mortality was common. Too common. On 25th February 1914, at aged 45, Annie gave birth to her tenth child, Arthur Edward. But by 28 February 1914, just three days later, he was gone. My family history, as with most people, is littered with stories of children who died at birth or shortly after. While the loss of infants is tragic enough, dealing with the death of a child who has seemingly survived infancy is probably even more so.
Emily (Emma) Agnes Holbeck was born on 9 November 1899, the fifth child and second daughter of James Louis and Annie. Emma lived in Maud Street, Newstead, Brisbane with her parents and her siblings. She attended Breakfast Creek School and by all accounts was an excellent student. Her handwriting was good and her books were kept clean and neat. I have three of her school books and in her “General” exercise book dated September 6th 1910 is the start of a Parsing exercise. Some of you will know what that means. For those who don’t, parsing involves breaking down a text into its component parts of speech with an explanation of the form, function, and syntactic relationship of each part. I am not sure, but I don’t believe that it is taught in the school curriculum anymore. But remember it was 1910.
So, on the afternoon of 6th September 1910 Emma went home from school. I have been told that shortly after that Emma fell ill and never recovered. Great aunt Emma died at her parents’ residence on 12 September 1910, aged 11 years and 10 months. The child who had written so beautifully in her books and had taken such care with her school work was gone. The Death Notice was very precise about Emma’s age as were the Memorial Notices that were placed in the newspapers in the following years.
Interestingly, the death notices of 17 September 1910 mention two other children who passed away that week. As I read these newspaper notices, it was a stark reminder that all those children were real people who lived real lives. Children who loved and laughed and were sometimes naughty. Children who played with their siblings and friends. Went to school, studied hard, or not. They were real and their deaths devastated their families. While we understand that child mortality was greater in the 1910s than in the 21st century, it did not make them immune to grief and pain. I know the Holbeck family carried the grief of the loss of Emma their whole lives. They never got over it. And here I am, more than 100 years after Emma’s death, still wondering what might have been. Would she have married and had children? Would she have had a job or a career? So many questions that don’t have answers. A life cut short. Potential not achieved. A life not lived…