On May 30 1912, The Northern Star newspaper announced that Dr Bracken of Bangalow had sold his practice to Scottish born Dr J.M.Y Stewart, late of Sydney and Melbourne. Dr and Mrs Stewart moved into the departing Dr Bracken’s old home. The couple settled in and were soon part of the community. In mid November they were guests of honour at a fundraising Presbyterian fair in a neighbouring town;
‘On the arrival of Dr. Stewart of Bangalow, the Rev. Mr Miller introduced him to the few present (chiefly workers) and in a neat little speech the genial doctor declared the Fair open. Mrs W. Gay, on behalf of the Ladies Guild, then presented Mrs Stewart with a handsome bouquet, as a memento of the occasion.’
Additionally, Dr Stewart provided a valuable service to the residents of Byron Bay, where there was no resident doctor.
All was going well, but two and a half years later things began to unravel. It turned out that Dr Stewart was actually from Perth, where he had been a highly respected gynaecologist. He was a founding member of the WA branch of the British Medical Association, a magistrate, and a member of the volunteer military forces. He was also a married man with a family, including two dependent children; Ian, aged 12 and Robin, just 7.
In 1911 he had met and fallen passionately in love with Muriel Meallin, an independent young woman who had graduated from a business college. She had been working in the city as a shorthand typist/telephonist and residing with her widowed mother. Early the following year he told his wife he was going to leave. Annie Stewart tried to change her husband’s mind, but on March 31 he disappeared.
Now here is a strange thing. Around the time Dr Stewart announced his intention to leave, Muriel’s mother sold all her furniture and household goods in Perth and went to live in Victoria. One item advertised in the auction was ‘a typewriting machine’, which had surely belonged her daughter. I suspect the idea of losing Muriel was too much for Stewart, prompting his decision to share his life with her, regardless of the cost.
The following information may have been inserted in the paper to put poor Annie off the trail!
SUNDAY TIMES (Perth) April 21 1912 – Dr. J.M.Y Stewart has gone to America. He left on the 6th, via Sydney.
The lovers had actually fled to New South Wales, establishing their new life together at Bangalow. Dr Stewart, now a general practitioner, supported his legal wife and family financially via his Sydney solicitors.
It appears that Muriel fulfilled her role of Doctor’s wife very well. The following tribute published in May 1914 specifically includes her;
Annie Stewart eventually discovered her errant husband’s whereabouts. A photo of her was sent to Bangalow solicitor Charles Adrian. When Mr Adrian confirmed the woman he knew as the local doctor’s wife looked nothing like the photo, divorce papers were served. 32 year old Muriel was cited as co-respondent. Dr Stewart had no choice but to admit guilt and from that moment on it was impossible for them remain in the town.
By this time war had been declared. It has to be said that the timing was convenient for Dr Stewart. He was a veteran of the Boer war, and re-enlisted on October 16, joining the medical corps with the rank of Major. He was on board the hospital ship Kyarra, which sailed from Melbourne on December 5 carrying staff and equipment for the field hospitals in Cairo.
Naturally it wasn’t long before details of the divorce proceedings came out. The whole story appeared in the Lismore Star on December 10. The newspaper was widely read in nearby Bangalow. Even if Mr Adrian the solicitor had been discreet, everyone now knew the whole truth behind Dr and Mrs Stewart’s unannounced departure. What a shock it must have been for friends, neighbours and patients.
Some accounts of the matter were more lurid than others, especially in Western Australia.
Sunday Times (Perth), December 13 1914 – The wife of Dr. J.M.Y Stewart has got a divorce in the New South Wales Court, When run to earth, the frail sawbones was living at a place called Bungalow [sic] with the buxom partner of his indiscretions, and he tacitly admitted the soft impeachment. He has since gone to the war. Where the Juno-figured damsel has gone to isn’t stated.
Like her defacto husband, the ‘damsel’ was at sea. On December 3 1914 she had embarked on the mail steamer Mongolia as Mrs Stewart, bound for England.
The Kyarra arrived in Alexandria on January 13.
The ship was due to return to Australia almost immediately, carrying several hundred sick and ‘undesirable’ servicemen. Major Stewart was appointed to act as the medical officer onboard, but with Muriel now in London this was not something he was happy about.
Shortly after arriving in Egypt, Major Stewart met Captain Victor Ratten, Regimental Medical Officer of the AIF’s 12th Battalion. Ratten had been in Cairo since December 10. He was bored, and fed up with the flies, mosquitoes and heat. At some point the two medicos came to a mutually satisfactory arrangement. On February 3, Major Stewart officially transferred to the 12th Battalion as RMO. Victor Ratten took Major Stewart’s place on the Kyarra,
Importantly, few people thought the war would last long. Many eager young Anzacs training in Egypt felt they would never see action. After demobilization Stewart planned to meet up with Muriel in London. And if he went to France with the 12th Battalion…..well there would be leave that could be spent with his beloved in London. As soon as his divorce became final the couple would be able to marry and to settle down a world away from the controversy their relationship had created back home.
But of course the war was not won quickly. And instead of the 12th Battalion proceeding to France, the men were sent to the Gallipoli Peninsular to secure the Dardenelles. At dawn on April 25, the middle aged Stewart found himself scrambling ashore at Anzac Cove under enemy fire.
FOR THE SECOND PART OF THIS STORY, CLICK HERE.