On Friday 30 May 1879 a five-year-old girl called Hannah Fish died at Lamplough, a small gold-mining town near Avoca in central Victoria.
Her death was sudden and unexpected, and a coronial inquest was held the next day.
Hannah was the child of an unmarried daughter of William Fish, a miner, who deposed that the thumb of her left hand had become inflamed a couple of weeks previously, that her grandmother had bathed and poulticed it, that within a few days she was retching, and that he had given her four teaspoons of fluid magnesia (magnesium hydroxide in suspension, a laxative and antacid) to settle her stomach. He did not call a doctor or take her to see one: ‘I did not have any medical attendance for her, but would have brought her to the doctor yesterday afternoon had she lived’.
An Avoca doctor called William Selwyn Morris stated that he had seen the body. He believed that the cause of death was ‘inflammation of the absorbent vessels’: her lymphatic system had been overwhelmed by the infection.
A paragraph in the Avoca Mail on the following Tuesday reporting the inquest added the information that there appeared to be severe ‘gathering’ (accumulation of pus) on one of Hannah’s fingers. This rapidly extended to the arm, then to the chest.
Morris offered the opinion that the wound may have been caused by a venomous insect and that he had no reason to believe that ‘violence or [deliberate] injury’ had caused Hannah’s death.
Fluid Magnesia or Magnesium Hydroxide was first patented in 1818. In 1879 it was advertised in many newspapers including the Avoca Mail.
Without knowing more about the circumstances it is impossible to say whether and to what extent Fish and his wife were responsible for the little girl’s death. Two teaspoons twice of a mild laxative seems a culpably inadequate treatment for a spreading suppurating wound, which would most certainly have produced a high fever and great agony. Even if she had been attended by a doctor, it was decades before antibiotic drugs were available and in common use, so the result may have been the same.
The blame for poor Hannah’s untimely death, if we can speak of blame, must be divided somehow between an indifferent universe, a cruel and incompetent God and, perhaps, her callous and careless family.
If William Fish did not do enough to save his dying granddaughter, it is satisfying to learn that in 1893, fourteen years later, a miner called William Fish from Lamplough was fossicking for gold in an old working, and
“… while below in a stooping position the earth above him
gave way and forced his head towards his feet, breaking his back and several of his ribs.”
It took him a day to die.
Hannah Fish (1874 – 1879) was the daughter of Hannah Fish (1856-1891) and was the niece of Alfred Fish (1860-1932), who later married Rachel Young (1865-1918) and also the niece of Alfred’s brother Thomas Fish (1872-1949) who married Rachel’s sister Alice Young (1859-1935).
- Inquest from Public Record Office Victoria: VPRS 24/ P0 unit 399, item 1879/202 Female
- Glossary of 19C medical terms at http://www.thornber.net/medicine/html/medgloss.html
- DISTRESSING FATAL ACCIDENT. (1893, April 14). The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 – 1954), p. 6. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article13904967