The Truth about Aunty Ruby

Aunty Ruby was initially somewhat of a mysterious figure to the current generation, so uncovering details of her life and ancestry was a worthwhile challenge. She was a contemporary of great grandparents growing up with the Bruce family in the gold mining town of Hillgrove, 32 kms east of Armidale, in the Northern Tablelands of New South Wales. Oral history suggested that her father had murdered her mother and was hanged as a result, but her exact relationship to the Bruces was unclear.

She was a much loved figure and when she died in 1948 the following obituary appeared in Wollongong’s Illawarra Mercury newspaper:

Mrs. Ruby Amelia Grant, of 248 Lawrence Hargrave Drive, Thirroul, passed away suddenly at the Bulli Hospital last Thursday night, following a stroke which she suffered earlier in the day. The late Mrs. Grant, who was 54 years of age, was born at Petersham and was the only child of Mr. and Mrs. William J[ames] Dummer, both of whom predeceased her when she was seven years of age. Soon after her parents’ death, she went to live with her aunt, Mrs. Thomas Bruce, of Hillgrove, via Armidale and she was reared up as a sister to her cousin, Clyde Bruce. From her early childhood, the late Mrs. Grant studied the piano for 12 years, and between the years of 1907 and 1913 earned several honours certificates included in which were the Certificate of the Associated Board of the Royal Academy of Music and the Royal College of Music, and completed her studies of music by gaining honours in the London College of Music examination. Soon after gaining the latter certificate, she commenced teaching music and continued to do so until she married Mr. Bruce Boswell Grant at Perth Western Australia, in 1922. She had lived at Perth for seven years, between 1919 and 1926. Whilst a resident of Hillgrove, the late Mrs. Grant was organist at the Presbyterian and Methodist Churches. In 1926, with her husband, she came to live at Austinmer, later moving to Thirroul, where she had lived ever since. Up until a few years ago she was an active member of the Austinmer Parents & Citizens’ Association. Besides her husband, she is survived by three sons, Thomas David, Douglas Bruce and Kenneth William. Two sons, Allan and Robert John, predeceased her by 15 years and four years respectively. Following a service conducted by Rev. Harrison (Presbyterian) and Rev. Walker (Methodist) at her late home, on Saturday, the cortege moved to the Presbyterian portion of the Bulli general cemetery, where the remains were laid to rest beside those of her late son, Allan.

A young Ruby with Clyde and Thomas Bruce

Ruby’s aunt, Mrs. Thomas Bruce, was born Amelia Maud Roach, a younger sister of Ruby’s mother, Elizabeth Anne Roach (known as Annie) and one of the eleven Roach children from Rocky River, near Uralla. Both the Bruces and Roaches were miners attracted to the gold fields at Hillgrove and Rocky River respectively. Thomas and Amelia Bruce had only one child, Clyde Alexander, and he and Ruby became very close, such that Ruby was a bridesmaid when Clyde married Josephine Davies in December 1918. Clyde had gone into partnership in a motor garage in nearby Guyra for a number of years but after getting married and having their first child, the young family had moved to Austinmer south of Sydney by 1920. This was undoubtedly one of the reasons for Ruby and her husband moving to Austinmer on their return from Perth.

A hunting party near Hillgrove – Standing on the right, Amelia and Thomas Bruce and Ruby Dummer

But how exactly was Ruby orphaned and what was the truth about her parents’ deaths?

Her parents Elizabeth and William were married at Uralla in 1892 and Ruby Amelia was born nine months later. William was born in 1867, the oldest child of James Dummer and Amelia Frances Firth. He had a twin sister, Ada, and eight other siblings, so when Ruby was “orphaned” there must have been a good reason why she went to live with the Bruce family rather than one of her Dummer relatives.

Little is known about William and Elizabeth’s life other than what was subsequently published in newspapers. Some time after Ruby Amelia was born, in the Sydney suburb of Petersham, the family moved to the Newcastle. William earned a living as a boot salesman but was reputed to have “drifted into intemperate habits” while Elizabeth had apparently been conducting a boarding house. The couple apparently “did not live happily together and Dummer was seldom sober”.

An incident on September 14, 1900, changed all their lives when William was supposedly under the influence of alcohol. The Daily Telegraph reported that William claimed that although he had “never lifted his hand to her [Annie] before, but that on the evening”…“she tantalised me and struck me across the stomach with a broom” and said she was going away. He then apparently hit her on the head near her temple with a stove rake. Although not realised at the time, her skull had been fractured and the brain membrane damaged. Annie however “went about her usual business after meeting the injury”, and against advice, “neglected getting proper medical treatment until the evening of September 24” when she was admitted to Newcastle hospital. She died the following day and the post mortem identified an abscess on the brain that had burst as the ultimate cause of death.

The death (and subsequent trial) received widespread publicity in newspapers throughout Australia. William was arrested and stood trial for murder in the Central Criminal Court. William did not call any witness in his defence and stated “I have nothing to say, your Honour, with regard to the case. I know nothing about it.” He was found guilty of manslaughter on 29 November 1900 and sentenced to one year hard labour following a strong recommendation for mercy from the jury.

William Dummer’s Gaol Record (from Ancestry.com)

It is not known whether William had any further contact with his daughter, or what he did and where we went after his release from gaol. The Bruce family certainly appears to have lost contact with William after that, and Ruby went on to live a normal and presumably happy family life as described in her obituary.

The Ghost and the Bounty Hunter: A Review

I recently had the pleasure of firstly hearing a talk by Sydney-based writer and journalist, Adam Courtenay, about his latest book The Ghost and the Bounty Hunter, and then of reading it myself. This is a true story from colonial Australia relating to the birth of the city of Melbourne.

The Ghost and Bounty Hunter

The Ghost in the story is convict William Buckley, who having escaped from the short-lived penal colony near Sorrento at the entrance to Port Phillip Bay in 1803, spent some 32 years living with the Wadawurrung clan of the Kulin nation. During that time he had no contact with Europeans and was considered by the local indigenous people to be a reincarnated family member and was treated as such.

The Bounty Hunter was Tasmanian John Batman, who earned that description by his pursuit of bush rangers, and had “long held dreams of being a large landowner.” He saw that ambition being realised in the grazing land across Bass Strait around Port Phillip, and in 1835 organised the first free settlement in the area of what was to become the city of Melbourne.

The third “protagonist” in the story is the Kulin nation. Courtenay describes in some detail the life and customs of these people, the relationships developed with the settlers and the ultimate dispossession of their lands as the white population increased and hundreds of thousands of sheep are introduced.

In this era of “truth-telling” about Australian history, for me Courtenay’s book has made a real contribution to my understanding of how European settlement affected indigenous peoples. The story shows how the clash of cultures would inevitably lead to the “theft of Kulin country” and which was the case throughout Australia.

I would recommend The Ghost and the Bounty Hunter to anyone interested in Australia history.