The first part of the following account is based exclusively on a series of articles that appeared in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative over the period late February to early March 1916. While relying so closely on newspaper articles calls into question the accuracy and scope of the evidence presented, it does at least position the modern reader as someone in the Shire of Alberton reading the same material 100 years ago.
Violet Freeman was a 19 yo working as a domestic (servant) for Mrs Ellen Barbara Alford of Commercial Street, Yarram. Violet’s step-father was Richard Cantwell, a farmer from Woodside. Violet had been working for Mrs Alford for ‘some three or four months’.
Violet was engaged to 21 yo Herbert Walter Tolhurst who had recently enlisted. The marriage had been organised for Monday 21 February (1916). Tolhurst was an English immigrant who had been working in the local area. He had met Violet when she was still living at Woodside and he had been working in the same area. It was suggested that Tolhurst … came from England for the purpose of gaining Colonial experience. His people are reputed to be well to do in the Old Country.
Tolhurst was to arrive at Yarram on the Saturday train (19/2/16) for the wedding on the following Monday (21/2/16) but he did not show. Nor was there any communication from him explaining his absence.
That Saturday evening, Violet left the Alford’s home at about 7 o’clock to meet friends. Mrs Alford saw that Violet was upset.
The next afternoon (Sunday 20/2/16), a group of children, down by Carpenter’s Bridge over the Tarra Creek, saw a body in the river. The police recovered Violet’s body from the creek at about 6.00pm that night. The body was found in shallow water. At the coronial inquiry held the very next day (21/2/16), Senior Constable McLeod stated that he
… could see no marks of violence, and from the appearance of the body she had evidently lay in the water and drowned. Her hands were clasped together. He was quite satisfied from the appearance of the body she had deliberately drowned herself. The body may have drifted to the shallower water. There was apparently no struggle, nor was the body in any way tied up.
In none of the reports was there any suggestion that any other person had been directly involved in Violet’s death. The focus was on the motivation for the suicide. There was no post-mortem carried out.
At the coronial inquiry, it emerged that … this was the second time he [Tolhurst] had disappointed the girl about marriage. The step-father claimed that he had not seen his daughter for about 4 weeks – when he had gone to Yarram to give his permission for the marriage – but he was aware that Violet was worried that Tolhurst would not marry her as promised. He stated that he believed Tolhurst’s rejection of his step-daughter was the cause of the suicide.
One of the articles, headed A Sad Case. Young Woman Commits Suicide. Disappointed By A Soldier, claimed that Violet had previously been to the camp at Seymour to confront Tolhurst over his true intentions, and that he had then promised to marry her. The same article attempted to sketch some picture of Violet’s disturbed state of mind on the Saturday after he failed to arrive. It noted that … On Saturday evening the young woman was seen outside the post office reading her Bible. The article concluded that that Tolhurst’s rejection of the planned marriage was the cause of Violet’s suicide:
The young woman had made arrangements for her marriage, having seen a clergyman and invited her friends. Keen disappointment had evidently driven her to the rash act. She is spoken of by those who knew her as a most determined girl, confiding in few, and keeping troubles to herself.
The coronial inquiry which sat on the Monday (21/2/16) – ironically, the day of the planned wedding – was adjourned for a week … in order to get Tolhurst interviews, also to ascertain if deceased had written to her relatives.
When the inquiry resumed (28/2/16), it was informed by Senior Constable McLeod that there was no evidence of any letter written to any relative. Additionally, the court heard that while Tolhurst had been given leave for Saturday 19 February, he had not reported back to the camp at Seymour and had been classed as ‘absent without leave’ since then. Therefore he could not be interviewed. The police constable who investigated Tolhurst’s movements at Seymour noted that the leave he had for Saturday 19 February did not extend beyond the week-end and that he … should have returned at latest Monday morning [21/2/16]. On this basis, Tolhurst did not in fact have leave to attend his wedding at Yarram on the morning of 21 February. The same police officer had also looked for but not found any letters for Tolhurst at the camp.
Faced with Tolhurst’s disappearance and no written communication, in any form, from Violet Freeman that could point to her motivation, the coronial inquiry closed and returned what amounted to an open finding.
To this point, all the articles were based on the open proceedings of the coronial inquiry, supported by witness statements from various locals who were directly involved. However, one week later (8/3/16), after the inquiry had closed, the paper published another story under the headline, Tarra Creek Suicide. Tolhurst’s Statement. Incredibly, this article was based on the witness statement that Tolhurst made to a police officer who interviewed him after he had been apprehended and returned to the Seymour camp (29/2/16). The statement would have been sent to Senior Constable Mcleod but, somehow or other, the editor ( A J Rossiter) of the local paper managed to obtain it and then reveal its contents in the paper. Perhaps Senior Constable Mcleod, even though the inquiry was closed, considered that it was in the local community’s best interest to learn about Tolhurst’s version of events; but it is hard to believe that he would have simply handed over the statement to the local press. Perhaps Rossiter was able to obtain the statement closer to its source at Seymour. The article in the paper is obviously based on the police report from Seymour:
I questioned him in reference to the suicide of Violet Freeman. Tolhurst was ignorant of the fact that the girl had taken her own life, and seemed terribly cut up when I made it known to him. He made the following statement, dated 29th Feb:- I broke camp at Seymour on 19th Feb. with the intention of going to Yarram to marry a girl named Violet Freeman. When I arrived in Melbourne I knocked about and spent about 10s or £1. I was robbed of the rest of the money I had, about 20s or £2. As I had no money I did not go to Yarram. I knocked about the city all last night, and had my meals at The Rest Rooms, St. Kilda Esplanade, and slept on the beach.
Anyone reading the above would form serious doubts about Tolhursts’s commitment to the marriage. Presumably, he kept ‘knocking about’ Melbourne until he was apprehended and returned to Seymour.
Tolhurst was also questioned about letters he received from Violet. The police would have been following up the issue of her motivation, keen to know if there was a final letter. Tolhurst’s comments point to Violet’s desperation for the wedding to occur:
The last letter I received from Violet Freeman was on the 17th inst. I also received a letter on the 15th inst. I received a letter about a month or six weeks ago, in which she said, “For God’s sake don’t slip me up.” She visited Seymour about a month ago. She had previously spoken of suicide.
In addition to the details presented in the local paper, people in the town would have also had background information on the couple. For example, it appears that Violet was Roman Catholic. At least her brother, Thomas Joseph Freeman, was. He enlisted just a few weeks after her death. Tolhurst, on the other hand, gave his religion, when he enlisted, as Church of England. Yet his name appears on the honor roll for the local Presbyterian Charge. Violet was buried in the Alberton cemetery by Rev. Frederick A Hagenauer, the Presbyterian minister. Possibly, Violet was going to marry Tolhurst in the Presbyterian Church. Nothing is certain here, but it does appear that locals would have been aware that there was a religious dimension to the tragedy.
Clearly, at the time there would have been much conjecture and talk about what drove Violet to suicide. Equally, people would have made judgements about her character and certainly they would have had strong opinions about Tolhurst’s commitment, and his character generally. The possibility that Violet was pregnant – there was no suggestion of this in the newspaper reports – would certainly have been raised. Some would have taken Violet’s side, others might have felt that she was trying to force Tolhurst into marriage.
But beyond the personal tragedy of Violet’s suicide, the manner of how the case was reported is revealing. The whole story is presented as something of a morality play or even a ‘lesson’ for the local community: a story of what happens when people behave recklessly or irresponsibly. It also stands as a warning to others, with a clear message about trusting too much in young men enlisting and heading off to war. In this sense, whether intended or not, it was an apt counter to all the sermons of Rev Cox and others that focused exclusively on the image of the young soldier as ‘a soldier of Christ’. Clearly, not every young soldier was heroic, selfless and loyal. Perhaps there was even a message there about the need to be particularly careful with young, itinerants who were working in the community but who might not share the same set of values that the local community espoused.
What the people of Yarram probably never knew of Tolhurst after this episode was that he deserted.
Tolhurst’s service file shows that he was born in Maidstone, England. His mother as next-of-kin was still living there. The file also shows that he had had 2 years service in the Officer training Corps at Maidstone Grammar School, which does suggest a comfortable, if not privileged, social background. He gave as his address on his application to enlist as F Growse, Yarram [John Frederick Growse, farmer, Yarram], and he passed his first medical at Yarram on 3/12/15. The oath was taken in Melbourne on 13/1/16. Otherwise his file is very scant. The last entry consists of the proceedings of a … standing Court of Inquiry’ held on 13 April 1916 ‘for the purpose of inquiring into the illegal absence of HERBERT WALTER TOLHURST 18th. Light Horse Reinforcements. The inquiry established that Tolhurst… had been absent without leave from 10/3/16 to the present date 13/4/16’. The finding was that ‘Private Herbert Walter Tolhurst is guilty of desertion from 10/4/16 and is indebted to the Government to amount of £10-1-10 for Kit issued and retained by him.
Like others, it is possible that Tolhurst re-enlisted under another name. It is also possible that he simply ‘disappeared’.
Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative