Searching for Ellen

In stark contrast to some of the impressive mausolea at Liverpool Cemetery (in Sydney’s west), my great-great grandmother, Ellen Lang is buried there in an unmarked “pauper’s grave” (as they were called then).

She died 15 years before I was even born, so I don’t know very much about her. I don’t even have a photograph of her. But her life story has fascinated me for a number of years, and so for at least ten or fifteen years now, I’ve been “Searching For Ellen”.

One of the most significant things you need to know is that she had a relationship with, but never married, her first cousin, William Rixon, and they are documented to have had at least two children together, more likely four. But eighteen months after the birth of their fourth child, William went off and married another woman, moved interstate, and had four more children. What happened in the intervening period is unclear, though it appears Ellen may have raised the children with the support of her extended family in the area around Eden, Bombala, Towamba and Rockton in Southern NSW.

Even though she never married William, throughout her life, Ellen continued to use the name Rixon, although her death certificate refers to her as Ellen Lang. Ellen also appears to have lived a somewhat mobile lifestyle, as the electoral rolls record her living in places such Bombala, Sydney, Lismore and Brisbane at various times. There is no evidence that she ever married, spending most of her adult life in the company of her daughter, Ruby, who was known in my family as Molly.

Ellen appears to have spent the last few months of her life at Newington State Hospital, which NSW State Records notes in these terms…

Although the residents of Newington Asylum were predominantly elderly, Newington and the other Government Asylums also assumed the functions of hospitals for the “ordinary pauper population” and for those with incurable conditions, or who required convalescent care, at one third of the cost to the Government compared to Hospital treatment.

Ellen died on June 16, 1950 (1950/009885) and was buried in a “paupers grave” in the Presbyterian section of Liverpool Cemetery. The death record notes she suffered with Chronic Myocarditis (an inflammation or degeneration of the heart muscle) and Rhuematoid Arthritis.

Death certificate of Ellen Laing (Lang), Sydney 1950

Not just physically, but emotionally, you have to wonder if she died from a broken heart? How could you have four children with a man (your first cousin), only to see him leave, move to another state, and have another family? There are so many questions I have about this relationship to which I’ll probably never know the answers. It’s all in the realm of long-lost verbal history now I suspect. When contact was made with the “other family” a few years ago, they were genuinely shocked, with no idea “our family” existed.

For many years, fellow researcher, Kerrie, and I searched in vain for details of Ellen’s death. It was complicated by the fact she used so many different names, and spelling variations of her name throughout her life. But a few years ago I searched around and found her death certificate. Even there, you have to wonder if the exact details of her life and death weren’t deliberately given to mislead. Or maybe her children just didn’t know because she didn’t talk about it?

So for a few years now I’ve known about the grave, but always thought Liverpool was such a long way to travel to visit. As I was in the area today, though, I decided I’d make an effort. Even though I had the details of where she was buried – Presbyterian Section 16 G K – it wasn’t nearly so straightforward trying to find an unmarked grave in a cemetery where so much has happened since 1950. Unfortunately the layout of the cemetery made it difficult today without someone with specialist knowledge of the layout, and sadly, the office there only operates Monday to Friday. I chatted on the phone to the local historical society, and they were very helpful, but I think I need to do some more solid research for the next time in my efforts to locate her final resting place.

Back in 1950, Liverpool was a sleepy little place a long way from the heart of Sydney. I can imagine the cemetery was tiny then with literally only dozens of graves. In stark contrast to the sheer size of the cemetery and the impressive mausolea now found there, you might imagine Liverpool Cemetery was just the place where someone with Ellen’s life story might have found a final resting place – in a pauper’s grave, a long way out of the public eye.

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