The following story is about my great-uncle Arthur, who I never met and barely knew existed during my childhood. This was despite the fact that my father had been named in his honour. Arthur died when I was fifteen. He was buried in our local cemetery, but although my father attended the funeral it was not spoken of at the time. To read part one of the story, CLICK HERE.
SINGLETON FAMILY BREAK-DOWN
In 1923, suffering from shellshock and other war injuries, WWI veteran Arthur Singleton found he was unable to care for his two young daughters. His wife Elizabeth (Lizzie) had deserted him and the girls were living with their Singleton relatives.
Unfortunately this situation did not last very long. The girls’ aunt sat down and wrote to an orphanage in Launceston.
5th February 1924
To the President of Girls Home
I am seeking admission for two little girls aged 3 & 5 respectively to your Home.
The case is as follows:-
Their mother has twice been proved in courts of law to be guilty of adultery & of desertion.
Their father is mentally weak & is very unreasonable – even at his best. He speaks of building a bark hut in the bush for them & of caring for them himself. He was shell shocked at the war.
The pension authorities will not grant them a pension until a permanent home is assured. This would be payable to the home.
The father, Arthur Singleton, would like to be assured that they are well treated before consenting to their going.
We are working people & have already kept Joyce, the younger, for 3 months. Previous to that my father, Mr John Singleton kept both the girls and their father. He still has father & older girl. We have a family of our own & cannot keep Joyce any longer.
Father is too old to rear these children. His housekeeper is leaving unless the children are settled elsewhere.
If your committee will consider their admission I’d be pleased if you would write me a letter assuring me of their good treatment, as I’d like to show it to their father.
Please let me know as soon as convenient.
It is an articulate, reasonably well written letter, but at no point does it express any affection for the little girls or sympathy for their situation. It appears the request for an assurance they would be well treated was simply to convince their troubled father to give them up. I was touched that, in desperation, Arthur had suggested caring for his little girls himself in the bush.
I have often wondered why no-one else came forward to take the children. However, if the mother’s conduct was as bad as claimed, she may well have been estranged from her own family.
The police at Ulverstone were asked to look into the case and in a report dated February 23rd the investigating officer confirmed the aunt’s account of the situation;
I have made enquiries regarding the children herein referred to and find that the particulars are as stated ….. The father of these children (A.W. Singleton) is also as stated ………and when first interviewed, objected to the children being committed to the home, and requested that he be given time to enable him to endeavor to procure a permanent home for them, which was done; but on the 22nd instant [of February] he informed me that he had been unable to secure a home for them, and consented to their being committed to the home at Launceston.
The children were made wards of the state.
Not surprisingly, a relentlessly positive image of the institution was portrayed in the press. It is highly likely that the Singleton sisters are among the girls pictured below.
The girls were trained to become domestics, and received only a basic level of education. Years later, Joyce would tell a close friend that she felt she was disliked by the matron and never understood why. Her instinct was correct. Records of the institution reveal it was because, despite everything, she was a confident child and precociously bright. Her older sister Winifred was ‘slow’ and more amenable. It seems the matron had a soft spot for Winnie.
During the girls’ stay their grandfather John Singleton died. Owing to some failure in communication, the staff thought it was the Singleton girls’ father who had passed away. Whether they were given the news is not recorded. In fact, Arthur Singleton had been admitted to The New Norfolk Asylum after his mental health deteriorated to the point that he tried to kill a neighbour.
Lizzie Singleton was now living in Sydney. She reappeared in 1928 and attempted to regain custody of her daughters. This was denied, because investigations revealed she could not offer them a suitable home.
In 1934 Lizzie made another application, though initially only in regard to Joyce. She had never liked Winnie, who she said; ‘Was too much like her father’. Lizzie was now in a stable de-facto relationship, and running a small boarding house in Melbourne. Presumably she felt Joyce would be able to assist at the boarding house. However, she finally agreed to take both girls. The following is from the records of the Girls’ Home;
The Committee had not thought of discharging Joyce until she turns sixteen at the end of August next. Do you wish her to be discharged at once? Strangely enough I was able to place Winifred a week or two before Xmas in a temporary position from which she has not yet returned, so I suppose it will not matter if she does not go for a week or two. I will wait to hear what you have to say about Joyce. If she is to be discharged now will the Department pay her fare? Winnie has enough in the bank to pay hers.
Winnie was now 18 and really too old to be at the Home. She was regularly sent out as a domestic servant, but had never been able to maintain a permanent position. She was inclined to neglect her work, preferring to play with the children of the various households. Then, just as her release to her mother was being considered a letter was received from Miss Ivy Haley, postmistress at rural Pyengana.
November 26th, 1934
I am writing in reference to a girl my sister Mrs Coombe made inquiry of while in Launceston. But I understand Mrs Coombe was told she would have to have someone to recommend her & I thought of writing you to explain matters. From the enclosed letter you will see they are afraid to allow a girl to come away so far. However, she would be well cared for & my sister made inquiries regarding a girl called Winnie who has a temporary position at Trevallyn but she is fond of the country & of children which my sister requires as she has 2 little children.
Would you kindly do us the favour of helping us to obtain this particular girl .
Thanking you & trusting you will grant us this favour.
Tragically, it was decided that the location was too remote. Instead, Winne was sent off with Joyce to their mother, paying her own fare from money accumulated during previous periods of employment. The girls left Tasmania on February 15 1936.
Only months after arriving in Melbourne Winnie tried to stab her mother during an argument, and ended up in Sunbury Mental Asylum.
Winnie died at the istitution from bronchial pneumonia on November 3 1937, aged 19. The coronial inquest states, ‘Next of Kin – Unknown’ This makes no sense to me. Surely they knew who admitted her? Unfortunately the asylum records cannot be accessed without an involved Freedom of Information process. Nor have I been able to find her grave. There is a memorial to those buried at Sunbury Asylum, but strangely, the name Winifred Singleton does not appear. RIP Winnie. I will never give up trying to find your resting place.
A LITTLE JOY
Thankfully there would be a better future for her younger sister. Joyce (who became known as Joy) became a registered nurse and would later serve in the Womens’ Australian Air Force. She travelled the world, but always loved Tasmania. Sadly, her efforts to reconnect with Singleton family members in the 1950s were rebuffed.
Her father was still in the asylum at the time, and his incarceration was viewed with shame. He was still seeking to be released, which terrified his relatives. Below is a response from his sister Amy in June 1950 after she was approached to provide a home for him;
‘I am very sorry I am unable to take care and be responsible for him. I am not in very good health & the worry would be too much for me. If he had a bad turn while with me I would not be able to do anything with him. I feel sure you will understand my position. PS – Please do not discharge him unless someone will be responsible for him. We are afraid of what he might do.’
One of the last letters Arthur wrote was to Amy. He had given up hoping for release, and simply longed for visitors;
There is no record of a response, and his file does not record any visits. I make no judgements about all this. It was a dreadfully difficult situation at a time when effective treatment for mental illness was almost non-existent. Over the years. various members of the family (including my widowed grandmother) had taken Arthur in, with disastrous results.
I’m not even sure whether Joyce knew her father was alive. Arthur Singleton died at the asylum in May 1966. Not long before he passed away he was interviewed by a member of the hospital staff. He had been no threat to society for a long time, but was institutionalized, and showing signs of dementia. He explained that he had been shell shocked in the war and added, ‘I have two little girls. They visit me sometimes.’ I was completely heartbroken to read this, yet grateful that his confused mind had provided him with some level of comfort. He spoke constantly of ‘home’ and his longing to go fishing.
I treasure Joy’s passport, and the school Merit Certificate she received while at the Launceston Girls’ Home. Along with the rest of her papers, they were passed into my keeping by her close friend Mary Morgan, who knew her from the time she arrived at the boarding house in Melbourne. I did manage to trace Joy about 10 years ago, but she had died a few months earlier, on August 13 2009. I would not have been able to talk to her anyway, because she had been in a nursing home for several years, also suffering from dementia. Mary and her husband Peter supported Joy throughout her life. They respected her wish that no death notice was to be published until after her cremation, and that no-one was to attend. Her ashes were to be simply scattered in the grounds of the crematorium.
SINGLETON, Emily Joyce (Joy)
On August 13 2009
Served her country for 5 years in the RAAF Nursing Service. A contributor to Neighbourhood Watch for 6 years (Award of Honour) Great friend of Mary and Peter Morgan, Walter, Mac and Helen Jones, Louise (dec) Fiona and Fred Wallace, and Margaret Aisbett (dec)
Joy never married, but she led a fulfilling and productive life.
This has been a very brief account of the lives of Arthur Singleton and his children. I attempted to write a full account, but put the manuscript aside when it became too overwhelming. I hope to finish it one day. Rest in peace Private Arthur William Singleton, 12th Battalion AIF., and your beloved daughters.
NOTE – When Arthur returned to his Tasmanian rural community in October 1917 his proud friends and neighbours presented him with a medal. They treated him as a hero, which he certainly was.
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