A Tombstone for a Hearth

In September 1930, plumber John Cumming was employed to carry out drainage works along Post Office Lane in Geraldton. He had excavated eighteen inches below the surface when he came across part of a tombstone – the rounded upper portion and half of the right side.

The inscription on it was legible, but missing parts of the tombstone meant that the writing was fragmented. Piecing together the words, it was assumed to read:

Sacred to the memory of Caroline Dow, born November 16, 1861, died (date missing) 1863, only child of her parents.

Geraldton Guardian and Express (WA : 1929 – 1947); 20 September 1930; Page 2; An Old Tombstone

It was a mystery why there was a tombstone in the middle of town. In the 1860s, the European population of Geraldton was small. Most people could only speculate as to how it got there. Some wondered if a cemetery once existed in the area while others thought the headstone was carted and dumped there years ago.

The story was printed in the Geraldton Guardian and Express, and they ended it with a call out to older residents, hoping they might have some answers to their questions. They didn’t have to wait long. Metropolitan newspapers printed articles about the tombstone, which caught the attention of Hugh Dow, who, at the time, was living at 89 Smith Street in Perth. He provided more details a few weeks later.

Hugh’s parents were Hugh Dow and Annie Solomon. His grandparents were James Dow and Bridget Toohey. It was his grandparents who owned property in Geraldton and lived in a house near Post Office Lane. Hugh recalled that his mother often talked about the house and that it had a room with a tombstone for a hearth. She also quoted the inscription, the same as what was printed in the paper.

Caroline Dow was the second child of James and Bridget. Her birth was registered in Geraldton in 1862 under the name of Agnes Caroline Dow. She died on 22 June 1863 and was buried in Geraldton Cemetery, which is today the Apex Pioneer Memorial Park.

James Dow was a convict who was born in approximately 1824. He was convicted in Scotland in 1848 for theft, and in 1851 was transported to Western Australia, aboard the Pyrenees. He received a Ticket of Leave the same year he arrived, which allowed him to seek his own work. By the mid-1850s he moved to the Geraldton district. In 1856 he and Bridget Toohey married. They had four children, two of whom died in infancy. One of those children was Agnes Caroline Dow.

James established a boarding house and was a shopkeeper in Geraldton. In 1861 he moved into larger premises and placed an advertisement in the newspaper. He thanked the public for their support and reassured them that he intended to sell “the best articles at the most reasonable prices…

Small profits and quick returns will be the plan of operations adopted by him. Grain of the forthcoming crop, and all kinds of colonial produce taken in barter. Saddle horses always on hire.

The Inquirer and Commercial News (Perth, WA : 1855 – 1901); 10 September 1862; Page 2; Advertising

While the mystery of the tombstone, the name on it, and why it was in the area was solved, no one could explain why it was used as a hearth. It is possible grief played a part in their decision. It was constructed for Caroline after she died, but then, a little over a year later, their third child, Walter, died.

James was also suffering from poor health. Two years after Caroline’s death, he advertised that he would be retiring from business solely due to his ill health. He appears to have started back up in late 1866 and early 1867, but his health problems continued. He died on 28 November 1869, at age 45 “after a long period of suffering.” He too was buried in Geraldton Cemetery, which today is the Apex Park.

After James’s death, Bridget ran the businesses until her death on 29 July 1893. She was likewise buried in Geraldton Cemetery (Apex Park). While the cemetery is now a park, some tombstones have survived and were relocated to a separate area. Among the records of those tombstones, there does not appear to be one for the Dow family. Of course, that doesn’t mean one didn’t exist at some point.

Apex Pioneer Memorial Park courtesy of Google.

While we can only speculate as to why the tombstone was not used for its intended purpose, we have a clearer idea as to how it came to be in Post Office Lane. It was presumed to have remained within the house as a hearth right up until the house was demolished. It was then simply buried amongst the rubble until John Cumming dug it up.

This story originally featured on ABC Mid West and Wheatbelt’s Saturday Breakfast with Nat on 27 June 2020. You can listen to that episode via the following link: https://ab.co/2C67gqO

Sources:

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