Friday, 8 January 2021

Dr John James Helsham of Cranbourne

In 1866, James H. Watson, who later became the President of the Royal Australian Historical Society, spent some time on Quail Island, at the northern end of Western Port. You can read his account of his time, here. Of interest was that he described Cranboure at the time - Two or three small cottages, and the ruins of another with a big stone bush chimney still standing, completed the town of Cranbourne. The ruined cottage is mentioned because in it lived, or rather existed, the local doctor - a clever man, but one who had the habit that many an otherwise good man has fallen a victim to. The minister kept his books and instruments, and, for special cases, he was sobered up for a couple of days, the hotel being tabooed to him till he had completed the case in hand (1).

I have done some research and discovered that the local Doctor, who was sadly addicted to drink was John James Helsham.

Dr Helsham was born c. 1833 in Dublin in Ireland (2).  He was a Licentiate of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, 1857 (3). Family trees on Ancestry list his parents as Captain George Paul Helsham and Elizabeth Anne Conway, even though they do not list any sources. The trees list five or six other siblings including George Macklin Helsham (4). We know that George Macklin Helsham had a brother called John James Helsham. They both joined the Freemasons Lodge, No. 37 Kilkenny; George on January 4, 1853 and John on December 13, 1853 (5). Also, in 1875, John and George were listed in the Encumbered Estate (6) register as the sons of Captain George Paul Helsham. 


Encumbered Estates Registry, 1875 showing that there was a John James Helsham who was the son of Captain George Paul Helsham and the brother of George Macklin Helsham.
Ireland, Encumbered Estates, 1850-1885, Ancestry

George Macklin Helsham had also come to Australia and his 1870 Queensland Death Certificate lists his parents as George Paul and Elizabeth Ann Helsham (7).  The question is this - is Dr John James Helsham the same John James Helsham who was the son of Captain George Paul Helsham? There is every possibilty that there were two men of that name born around the same time in the same location; anyone who has done a lot of genealogical research would know that this occurs. However, I am leaning towards our Dr Helsham being the son of Captain Helsham and his wife Elizabeth Conway.

After our Doctor graduated he left Ireland for Victoria and the first account I can find of his life in Victoria was in November 1859 when Dr Helsham had a letter published in the Ovens and Murray Advertiser claiming that he had been libelled in another newspaper report concerning his treatment of a patient, John Bragg. In the letter he writes that  I took him from the wagon with the assistance of some friends, and carried him in, but medical assistance was of no avail. He never spoke one word, and was utterly unconscious until the time of his death, which occurred in less than half an hour, after reaching Longwood (8).  I don't have the full story, however it does place Dr Helsham in the Longwood area in 1859.


The Barkly Navarre Goldfield, c. 1861. This is a landscape that Dr Helsham would become familar with after his appointment to the area in 1860. 
The Barkly Navarre Goldfield. Photographer: Richard Daintree. 
State Library of Victoria Image  H9324

In 1860, he was appointed as the Public Vaccinator  for the district of Crowlands and Navarre (9).  The towns are both on the Ararat-St Araund Road. In August 1861, he performed a small operation on William Broadfoot who was suffering from varicose veins; he lanced an abcess on the man's leg  and apparently cut into a vein and Mr Broadfoot started bleeding. Helsham was called again and was satisfied with the patient's condition, however Mr Broadfoot later bled to death. An inquest was held into his death and in Mrs Broadfoot's evidence she said this about the doctor at the time I do not think Dr Helsham was sober. Another witness, William Smith, said on the second visit Dr. Helsham was tipsy (10).  The Ballarat Star in their report of the incident was quite scathing about Dr Helsham - this is how they reported the case - Unfortunately for him, some of his friends introduced, on Sunday last, a medical gentleman, from old Navarre, styling himself Dr Helsham. After manipulating the ailing limb of Mr Broadfoot, he expressed a most extraordinary surprise that another medical gentleman who had seen the swelling in the leg did not lance it at once. The bouncing charlatan tucked up the sleeves of his coat and commenced lancing what he deemed an abscess (11).

The Coroner ruled that the decased, William Broadfoot, came to his death having cut varicose veins and not taking proper precautions to stop the bleeding and he committed Dr Helsham for trial for manslaughter (12). The manslaughter trial was held at Ararat in October and the Doctor was acquitted (13).

The next two references I can find to Dr Helsham were both appointments as the Public Vaccinator in February 1862 to the district of Barkly (14) and then in May 1864 to the district of Dimboola (15). Two years later, according to James Watson's report of his trip to Quail Island, the Doctor had moved to Cranbourne. In March 1867, he held an inquest into the death of  a man found dead at Bass, a normal duty for  a country doctor to perform (16).  He was also the secretary of the local Court of Foresters Lodge (17) and in December 1867 was appointed the Public Vaccinator for the district of Berwick (18).

In July 1868 an inquest was held into the death of four year old Mary Mead, of Cranbourne, who was badly scalded when she accidently tipped a billy of hot water over herself. The Age reported that no doctor attended the child on the day of the occurrence, because the only practitioner in the neighborhood, Dr. Helsham, refused to come to see her. He, however, gave some dressing for her; and the resident surgeon at the hospital, where the child was removed the next day, deposed that medical aid would have been of no avail. A verdict of 'accidental death'  was recorded (19)

The Weekly Times reported on October 30, 1869 (20) that Dr Helsham had died of snake bite - this turned out to be untrue - he was bitten by a snake, but he did survive. The Herald of November 4, 1869 gave a report of the true version of events and it is worth repeating in full as an example of the medical treatments available at the time -
As a garbled account of this accident has found its way into print, a correspondent furnishes the following narrative: A very severe and almost fatal case of snake bite occurred at Tooradin, in Cranbourne district, on Wednesday, 27th October. The following are the facts as related by a young man who attended on the sufferer. As Dr. Helsham was out snipe shooting on the morning of the above day, his dog pointed to what he took to be a snipe, but on nearer approach found to be a black suake, about three feet long; he directly fired at the reptile, standing about a yard distance from it. The dog immediately rushed forward to seize the snake, which the doctor prevented, when the snake sprang up and bit him very severely on the second finger of the right hand. He then killed the snake, bound a ligature tightly round the finger, and walked to the homestead a distance of a mile, carrying the snake in his hand all the way. 

When he reached home, a young man on a visit to the place took him in hand, and first cut the piece out with a razor, and scored the finger to the bone from the root of the nail up to the second joint, and rubbed in some gunpowder. By this time, some brandy and ammonia, which had been sent for, had arrived. This was administered: half a tumbler full of brandy and ten drops of ammonia every half-hour. Within one hour of being bitten he became drowsy and insensible, and it took the united efforts of two men, slipping, pricking, pinching, and dragging him about to keep him awake. After a time, even these failed. After about two hours he became convulsed, frothing at the mouth very much; pulse became weak, almost ceased to beat; hands, face and lips turned black, extremities cold, and life almost despaired of. Ammonia was then applied to the wound, to his nostrils, and sprinkled over his face. This lasted for about half an hour, when he seemed to rally a little and breathe easier, and was allowed to sleep twenty minutes, and was afterwards only kept awake by the most severe treatment, being quite unable to walk and altogether paralysed. 

Towards four o'clock p.m., seeming a little better, he was taken to an hotel two miles distant. A medical man by this time having arrived, he continued the same treatment which had already been used. Between his removal to the hotel and two o'clock next morning he relapsed twice, both times his life being almost despaired of; but large doses of brandy and ammonia being given and vigorous efforts being used to keep him awake, he again rallied, and by four o'clock a.m., or eighteen hours after the accident, he had recovered sufficiently to walk about a mile to a friend's house, and was considered to be out of danger, although very weak and sick from the effects of the bite and the treatment (21)


Ammonia was a common cure for snake bite at the time and you could purchase special syringes to inject the liquid. Warning: Do not try this at home!

There are a few references in the newspapers to Dr Helsham after his recovery from snake bite - he conducted an inquest in 1874 (22) and was appointed Health Officer for the Shire of Cranbourne in 1876 (23).  He died suddenly at the age of 45 (24), on August 11, 1878 whilst at the Grantville Hotel, which was owned by John Payne.  This was a Sunday and evidence from the witness statements tell us what happened.  Dr Helsham had come to Grantville to examine James McMahon in the billiard room of the hotel. Afterwards, at around  6.00 p.m., he was having a meal with some others. Witnesses decribed him as his normal self, cheerful, pleasant and that he appeared sober. He was eating beef steak when he suddenly threw his head back made a choking sound and then he was dead. The Constable, George Ardill,  from Griffiths Point (San Remo) was called, and he took witness statements from Michael Richardson, James McMahon, Catherine Conner, Abram Field and John Payne. The information was passed onto the Coroner who decided than an Inquest was not necessary as there were no suspicious circumstances (25).  His death certificate says that Dr Helsham was buried on August 16, 1878 at the Grantville Cemetery; the undertaker was John Payne and that there was no minister of religion present but three witnesses - John Monk, James Cain and William Matthews.


Dr Helsham is in an unmarked grave at Grantville - the little marker on the right is his grave - it is row 31, plot 6. The Grantville Cemetery has a website, www.grantvillecemetery.org.au which has a list of those buried there. The grave in the photo belongs to the Sloss family, Margaret was buried there in 1891. The grave to the right with the wrought iron fencing, belongs to Isabella Jane Curr or Carr, who was buried in 1878. The next grave is George Casey, buried in 1880 and then Dr Helsham.

What was the reaction in Cranbourne to the death of their Doctor? The South Bourke & Mornington Journal reported that the sudden death of of Dr. Helsham at Grantville seems to have caused general regret in the Cranbourne district where he had so long resided, and dissatisfaction is expressed that a proper enquiry as to the cause of death was not instituted, it being believed by some that it may be possible he died from choking whilst eating. The supposition is that apoplexy was the cause (26). However for some there was no regret. At a Cranbourne Shire Council meeting discussing Helsham's replacement as the Shire Health officer,  Dr Phillips, who was addressing the meeting said that the late doctor was never fit for his duties (27). In response, Councillors Patterson and Poole spoke in favor of the late Dr Helsham, passed high eulogiums on the manner in which he had carried out his duties, and both very much regretted Dr Phillips remarks about him (28). 

It does appear that Dr Helsham had a drinking problem, he may even had been sent out to the Colonies  by his family for this reason either to make a fresh start or to rid them of an embarrassing problem. By 1861, when he was charged with manslaughter and he was only 28 he already had a reputation as a drunkard and a bouncing charlatan.  But in Cranbourne he still had friends, including the local Presbyterian Minister, the Reverend Alexander Duff (29), who looked after his books and instruments. I understand that Crabourne and other communties deserved a  better Doctor than Dr Helsham, but I can't condemn him completely and agree with James Watson's description of him as a clever man, but one who had the habit that many an otherwise good man has fallen a victim to.

Trove list
I have created a list of articles on Dr Helsham on Trove, access it here.

Footnotes
(1) On June 20, 1927, James H. Watson,  the President of the Royal Australian Historical Society, Sydney presented a paper to the Historical Society of Victoria - Personal Recollections of Melbourne in the 'Sixties. It was a look at various events and activities of the 1860s including this story - Dipping Sheep on Quail Island. The story was published in the Victorian Historical Magazine, v. 12, June 1928 available on-line at the State Library of Victoria https://www.slv.vic.gov.au/search-discover/popular-digitised-collections  Niel Gunson also quotes this account on page 68 of his book, The Good Country: Cranbourne Shire (Cheshire, 1968) which is where I first saw it.
(2) His death certificate said he was born in Dublin and and he was 45 years old when he died in 1878, which makes his birth date c. 1833, although a family tree on Ancestry lists the birth date was 1831, see footnote 4. 
(3) Licentiate of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, 1857 - that is how Dr Helsham is listed in the 1875 UK & Ireland, Medical Directory, which are available on Ancestry


1875 UK & Ireland, Medical Directory: Practioners resident abroad. 

(4)  From information on Ancestry - Captain George Paul Helsham (1802-1861) married Elizabeth Ann Conway (1809 - 1841) in 1830 in Paris. He is listed in various sources as belonging to the  Irish Militia, Kilenny Fusiliers or the  Royal Irish Fusiliers.  In 1829, whilst in France, he shot  a man dead in a duel. It was reported in the Australian papers The Colonial Times of Hobart, January 29, 1830, see here and then there was a subsequent murder trail reported in the same paper on February 18, 1831, see here. His great, grandson John George Douglas Helsham was killed at Gallipoli and his obituary in the Bendigo Independent said that Captain George Helsham was the recipient of an inscribed dagger from the hands of H.R.H. Prince Albert. Private Helsham, therefore, is of a fighting family, and it was his lot to inherit a gold repeating watch and a gold seal which had been handed down from generation to generation for many years (Bendigo Independent June 12, 1915, see here)  George and Elizabeth had six children - the birth dates are approximate - George Macklin (1830-1870), John James (1831 or 33 - 1878), Elizabeth Ann (1833 - 1872), Rebecca Blount (1834- 1900), Amelia (1835 - 1835) Paul (1836-1836).
(5) Ireland, Grand Lodge of Freemasons of Ireland Membership Registers, 1733-1923, available on Ancestry. Technically, the fact that they both joined the same Lodge does not prove they are brothers.
(6) Encumbered Estate - This definition is from Ancestry The Encumbered Estates' Court was established to facilitate the sale of Irish estates whose owners were unable to meet their obligations because of the Great Famine, regardless of whether the land was entailed. The need for the Court was caused by the impoverishment of many Irish tenant farmers during the 1840s famine, rendering it impossible for them to pay their rents to the landlord who in turn could not make his mortgage payments. Until this Court was established, the lending bank could not get a court order to sell the mortgaged land because of the entail.
(7) George was the Town Clerk of Dalby in Queensland. He died in tragic circumstances at the age of 39. He was rushing to help out at a fire and run into a tree stump and sustained internal injuries and not recover. He left a wife and four children. You can read accounts of the accident in the Darling Downs Gazette February 12, 1870, see here, and the Queensland Times of February 19, 1870, see here. It was George's grandson who was killed at Gallipoli, see footnote 4. 
(8) Ovens and Murray Advertiser, November 5, 1859, see here.
(9) The Age, August 4, 1860, see here.
(10) An account of the incident can be read in the Ballarat Star of August 22, 1861, see here. The two quotes about his sobriety are from the Maryborough and Dunolly Advertiser of August 28, 1861, see here.
(11)  Ballarat Star August 22, 1861, see here.
(12) Maryborough and Dunolly Advertiser, August 28, 1861, see here.
(13) Ballarat Star, October 19, 1861, see here.
(14) The Herald, February 19, 1862, see here.
(15) The Argus, May 27, 1864, see here.
(16) The Age, March 25, 1867, see here.
(17) The Leader, September 21, 1867, see here. The Court of Foresters was a Friendly Society, which were formed to help members pay for medical care. Read about Friendly Societies here   https://www.emelbourne.net.au/biogs/EM00614b.htm
(18) The Age, December 7, 1867, see here.
(19) The Age, July 29, 1868, see here.
(20) The Weekly Times, October 30, 1869, see here.
(21) The Herald, November 4, 1869, see here.
(22) The Argus, May 7, 1874, see here.
(23) The Argus, September 30, 1876, see here.
(24) He was listed as 45 years old on his death certificate.
(25) The information about his death comes from his Inquest record held at the Public Records Office of Victoria and which is also digitised on Ancestry.
(26) South Bourke & Mornington Journal, August 21, 1878, see here.
(27) South Bourke & Mornington Journal, October 2, 1878, see here.
(28) South Bourke & Mornington Journal, October 2, 1878, see here.
(29) Reverend Alexander Duff (1824 - 1890), read more here.

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