Tuesday, 2 January 2018

Thomas Probert: The Ultimate Sacrifice

In April 1874, a regrettable accident took place in Windsor NSW. Two young boys went with Thomas Probert for an afternoon swim, on the outskirts of the town. The boys were Albert Edward Horatio Fitzpatrick aged eleven years, and his brother, Ossory Arthur Stanton aged about nine.

The boys were the sons of John James Fitzpatrick and Elizabeth nee Lucas. The couple married in 1861 at Deniliquin and had five sons and three daughters, listed at the end of this post.

Fitzpatrick was a police officer and had worked his way up through the ranks as Sergeant, Snr Sergeant. (He later became sub-inspector of NSW police, Justice of the Peace and an Alderman of Windsor Council). Born in Co Cavan, Ireland he arrived in Australia in the early 1850s and went directly to the Ballarat goldfields. He spent the early part of his career in southern NSW in places such as Wagga, Deniliquin, Moama and then Mudgee before being stationed in Windsor since the early 1870s. 

On Tuesday, 8 April 1874 about 5.30pm, Ossory Fitzpatrick “went for a bathe” accompanied by his brother Albert and Mr Thomas Probert, in the Hawkesbury River near the mouth of South Creek. 

Thomas Henry Probert was the first editor of one of the earliest newspapers published in the district, the Hawkesbury Times. The paper had originated in the early 1870s and was started by a local company and according to the local critics, the paper was well-written. Thomas was born in about 1813 and was formerly of Newport, Essex, England. According to other reports, Probert had resided in Windsor “for upwards of three years.” The report continued, “Since his sojourn amongst us he had gained the respect and esteem of all with whom he came in contact, either commercially or socially, and was evidently a person of considerable literary merit.”  It is not known why he accompanied the boys; perhaps he was a neighbour or a family friend.

Mr Probert, who was aged sixty-one at the time, advised the boys he would check to see if the water was deep however Albert “went into the shallow water” but thought “it was too shallow.” Thomas told Albert “not to go into the deep part” yet “he went into the deep water and was trying to swim.” Thomas, obviously concerned, “took off his coat and waistcoat and jumped in after” Albert. He managed to get a hold of him but then his “face went under the water” and he was swept away. Albert tried to keep on the surface but he was only a modest swimmer, and after a short time sank in the middle of the creek. Meanwhile Thomas drifted downstream.

Ossory had to provide evidence at the Inquest, which was held the following day before the district Coroner, J. B. Johnstone. Ossory stated that he “was in the water, but where he was the current was not strong when he saw his brother go under he ran home and told his mother.” Ossory stated “Mr Probert could swim he had seen him swimming in deep water.” 

John James Fitzpatrick, Windsor’s senior Sergeant of Police and also Albert and Ossory’s father, also had to give evidence at the inquest. His testimony was reported in The Australian, Windsor, Richmond, & Hawkesbury Advertiser :

John James Fitzpatrick stated…on Tuesday evening between 4 and 5 o'clock the deceased, Albert Edward Horatio Fitzpatrick his son came and asked him where his mother was; he told him he did not know; but that he had better go and see if she was in the front bedroom; he saw no more of him; his son Ossory the last witness came to him about 5 o'clock on the same evening, and said that Mr. Probert and Albert were drowned in South Creek; he went to the place where his son said they were drowned, and when he got there he saw the body of Mr. Probert floating towards the Pitt Town side of South Creek; there were some men on the spot who at the request of; witness, took the body of Mr. Probert out of the water; after that they dragged for the body of his son and searched until dark without finding it; between one and two o'clock on Wednesday morning the search was renewed, and with the assistance of senior constable Bertleman and the Rev. Mr. Garnsey, they recovered the body about 3 o'clock; the bodies were removed to the Police Station, and are the same which have been viewed by the Coroner and jury; they are the bodies of his son Albert and Mr. Probert; when they were taken out of the water life was extinct.

Some confusion arose to the exact cause of death of Thomas Probert and medical advice was sought. 
John Selkirk a duly qualified medical practitioner residing in Windsor said that he had seen the body of Thomas Henry Probert and from the bloated and congested appearance of the face and head of deceased, coupled with the fact that the body was taken out of the water, he is of opinion that deceased met his death from asphyxia (drowning).

The Jury had struggled with coming to an understanding of the situation. However a compromise was eventually reached and the newspaper reported:
The Jury had some difficulty in arriving at a verdict; but after some deliberation found that the death of Albert Fitzpatrick was accidentally caused by drowning whilst bathing, and that of Thomas Henry Probert by asphyxia, by drowning whilst endeavouring to save the aforesaid Albert Fitzpatrick. Upon the suggestion of Sergeant Fitzpatrick the jury further agreed to, and signed a document, expressing their approbation of the conduct of those who had searched for and recovered the bodies. 
 Final resting place of Thomas Probert and Albert Fitzpatrick. They lie together in the one grave
at St Matthew’s Anglican cemetery - the one leaning to the right.
Picture: Michelle Nichols

Both funerals took place on the 9 April, at St. Matthew’s Church of England and the service was conducted by Rev Charles Garnsey. The minister who was involved in the search was the person who found the body of Albert a few days earlier. Thomas Henry Probert who had paid the ultimate sacrifice trying to rescue a boy from drowning, was buried at St. Matthew’s Church of England Cemetery in Windsor. The boy, Albert Fitzpatrick, was buried alongside Thomas although the family were traditionally Catholic. 

Several years after the tragedy, the eldest son of John James and Elizabeth Fitzpatrick, John Charles Lucas Fitzpatrick 1862-1932  became a journalist. In 1888 he established the Windsor & Richmond Gazette , later known as the Hawkesbury Gazette newspaper and operated it until 1899. In 1895 he entered politics and had a thirty-five-year long career.

An abbreviated version of this story appeared in the Hawkesbury Gazette in 2016, compiled by the author.

Death of Herbert Fitzpatrick
Sadly, tragedy struck the Fitzpatrick family again when Herbert died in Suva in 1896. He was reported as “an exceptionally smart young fellow, who died at Fiji from fever. Herbert was fast making his mark as a writer, both political and descriptive, and he certainly promised to be the brightest of a bright family.” Herbert died 28 February 1896 from typhoid fever and his obituary records why he was in Fiji in the first place.

The deceased was 27 years of age, and had been tor some months dispensing chemist on the Holmhurst Estate at Fiji. He served his apprenticeship to Mr. R. A. Pye, of Windsor, and some short time after the expiration of his connection with that gentleman's establishment he went to Sydney, where he was employed for a consider able period by Messrs Elliott Bros. Later on he went to Kempsey, on the Macleay, and also visited Tasmania, Victoria, South and Western Australia. After managing Messrs Pollard and Green's branch business at Coonamble for some months, he accepted an engagement to go to Fiji, where he was employed as analytical chemist on the Holmhurst Sugar Plantation. Six weeks or more ago he was attacked by typhoid fever, and was removed to the Colonial Hospital at Suva, where he received the utmost care and attention at the hands of the medical staff and Matron Beale, all of whom were most careful and kind towards their patient. His illness was one of the most intense and prolonged the Matron had ever seen, and he succumbed to it on the 28th February. The interment took place on the same day, and notwithstanding the fact that the deceased was a stranger to Suva residents, a large number of wreaths were sent by those with sympathised with his loneliness during illness, and the sad demise of a promising young man. Thus, though his remains rest in a land far away from old Windsor, he is not forgotten, for by kindly hands his humble grave adorned, by strangers honored(sic) and by strangers mourned. The relatives and friends of Mr H. Fitzpatrick desire to sincerely thank Matron S. Beale, and the medical staff of the Colonial Hospital at Suva, and all those residents of Fiji who displayed so much kindness towards him during his illness. His death came as a shock to those who knew him. He was regarded as one who had a bright career before him, for whatever may have been his faults; he was a generous and kind-hearted young Australian. 

Herbert’s death is recorded on his father’s headstone in the Windsor Catholic Cemetery. Patriarch of the family, John James Fitzpatrick died 26 November 1899 aged sixty-nine years, and his story is an article in its own right. His obituary appeared in the Windsor & Richmond Gazette in December 1899.  

Issue of John James Fitzpatrick and his wife, Elizabeth nee Lucas, who married in 1861 at Deniliquin, NSW:
  • John Charles Lucas b 1862 Moama & d 1932 Chatswood 
  • Albert E H b 1863 Wagga Wagga & d 1874 Windsor     
  • Ossory A S b 1865 Mudgee & d 1933 North Sydney   
  • Gertrude A b 1867 Mudgee married 1894 Wallace Harrison, Sydney   
  • Herbert J Keppie b 1869 Mudgee & d 1896 Fiji  
  • Milfred H M born 1872 Windsor & d 1872 Windsor   
  • Florence Mary b 1873 Windsor unmarried  
  • Frederick Arthur b 1873 Windsor & d 1958 Taree  
INQUEST. (1874, April 11). The Australian, Windsor, Richmond, and Hawkesbury Advertiser (NSW : 1873 - 1899), p. 2. Retrieved January 2, 2018