Serendipitous moment

A Serendipitous Moment and some Unconscious Bias

It was 2021, the year we were celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Colac & District Family History Group. Our guest speaker at the May General Meeting, past President Kevin Swanson, was reflecting on the early days of the group’s existence. He was discussing the initial major project that the volunteers had embarked on. It was in partnership with the Colac cemetery: the creation of a digital database of all of the burials there.

There are stories that the early records were lost in a fire. This has not been verified and no record of the event has ever been found in local newspapers or other publications. Nevertheless, an accurate record of burials in the Colac Cemetery did not exist – and both organisations wanted to rectify that.

Each person, whose burial place was known, had been allocated a location defined by:

While transcribing the information that the volunteers were collating, Kevin noticed that there were many burials with exactly the same location and he sought an explanation from the cemetery staff.

He learned that stillborn babies during seven decades from the early 1900s had been buried in this one location and was given details of how the burials were carried out, the tiny coffins, and with solemnity and respect.

 This was during a time when parents were not told what happened to their stillborn baby and were expected to “get on with their lives” while these details were taken care of.

Feeling a surge of anxiety about the sensitivity of the topic, I scanned the room to see if any of the women were affected, ready to try to steer Kevin to a less delicate topic if need be.

The audience was interested and empathetic towards parents who had gone through that experience. Fortunately, none of the women present appeared outwardly distressed by the talk.

Afternoon tea followed – along with a bombshell. While I had been concerned about the women in the audience, scanning the room repeatedly, I had completely missed the reaction of Bill, one of our male members.

Sixty years ago, Bill and his wife Margaret were a young married couple living in Colac, a country town where they had moved because of work. Their first child was due and it was at a time when the pregnant woman was dropped off at the hospital when “the time came” and the husband went home, or back to work and waited for the news.

In his inimitable story telling fashion, Bill related the events that followed; events that possibly hadn’t been revisited for decades. 

After dropping Margaret at the hospital, Bill had gone home and eventually got to sleep. In the middle of the night he heard a knocking sound and opened the door in his pyjamas to see the doctor, a very young Dr Frances Galvin, standing on the doorstep. He invited her in but she didn’t want to stay. The news was delivered. Margaret was all right, but the baby hadn’t survived. Bill could go up to the hospital at any time to see her.

At this stage it was difficult to imagine what must have been going through Bill’s mind. It certainly wouldn’t have been the news that he had been expecting or even had been considered.

Bill has provided this insight: “As I listened to Kevin Swanson’s talk, the words that staggered me were “you mightn’t know but down the back of the cemetery, out of sight and out of mind is a mass grave of stillborn babies”.

Arrangements for the baby girl were taken care of by the hospital and Bill and Margaret had no idea what became of their baby daughter. It was a revelation at the meeting that stillborn babies had been given a burial in a specific place in the local cemetery.

Bill didn’t go into depth about the emotions the couple experienced, but basically said that they “got on with their lives” which is what they were been advised to do. 

In the following years the experience was rarely mentioned and not all of Bill and Margaret’s children knew about their older sister.

As the story was being told, I was questioning myself. Why had I been concerned for only the women in the room that day?  Why had I assumed that only women would be affected by such a devastating experience? It was quite a lesson for me in unconscious bias.

This story has a happy ending. Anyone associated with family history research has had experience of serendipitous or coincidental events that sometimes cause goose bumps or shivers up the spine and this is one of them.

During the afternoon tea following the meeting, Bill had sought out the guest speaker to learn more about the babies’ burial place in the local cemetery and Kevin “sketched me out a plan of the location”.

He later went home and told his wife Margaret about what had happened that day. Cards and other items that had been stored away for sixty years were brought out and reread and memories rekindled.

Bill: “The next day, when Margaret and I went to the cemetery with the sketch plan, we were pleasantly surprised to find that the ‘out of sight, out of mind location’ is now in the new lawn and garden area and the ‘mass grave’ is clearly marked and well maintained. We have learned that it contains thirty-three little coffins placed in three layers”.

We helped Bill to find the notice that he had placed in the local paper at the time, which also brought back a flood of memories. The simple announcement had appeared in the Colac Herald the day following the birth and read: LEDIN – On the 22nd October at Colac to Margaret & Bill – a daughter (Stillborn).

We can only imagine how difficult it would have been to write that announcement.

Their four other children, now adults with families of their own, were told the story.

Bill and Margaret came to one of our usual working days at the history centre a couple of weeks after the meeting with a lovely morning tea as a thank you – and told the full story,  bringing us up to date with what had happened since the day of the talk by Kevin Swanson.

They had visited the cemetery and met with Leanne from the cemetery staff and located the grave.

On the 22nd October 2021, which would have been her sixtieth birthday, Bill and Margaret’s little daughter, Maree Ledin, their first born child, was remembered with a lovely plaque.

Installed on the concrete edging surrounding her resting place and the resting place of many other babies, the plaque gives her name, the date and the names of her parents and siblings.

“A mother’s touch” – forget-me-nots were included on the plaque at Margaret’s request.

The plaque sits alongside several others placed by families who possibly went through a similar experience. These babies have never been forgotten.

Final word from Bill. “The baby was whisked away before Margaret or I could see her and we were not given any further information. In those days that was what was done and we didn’t question. We were advised to treat this as a non event, to grieve in silence and quickly get on with life. Of course we had loving friends and family and we did quickly “get on with it”.

For sixty years Margaret and I never talked about it. I never had it in the forefront of my mind. Margaret of course says it has never really been out of her mind. Many things trigger memories and at that Family History Group meeting our stars aligned and that led to a wonderful discovery for all of our family, and we are all so grateful”.

And a revelation or confession maybe…

Bill told us that after opening an email reminder on the morning of the meeting, he had been encouraged to attend by Margaret, adding that there would be “a cup of tea and a nice bit of sponge to follow” –  (Which is as good a reason as any, given that we have some of the best sponge makers in the state) – and there had been sponge – and much, much more!

                                                                                                                                               Merrill O’Donnell