A dreadful tragedy: Part Two

Trefoil Island and the channel in which the event occurred. Image: State Library of Tasmania

Their parents and two siblings drowned before their eyes, marooned on Trefoil Island off the isolated far North West tip of Tasmania, the surviving children of the Kay family, the eldest a lass barely pubescent, needed to be resourceful to remain alive. In descending order of age, they were Belinda, Lydia, Albert, Jane, Alberta (known to her family as Wintena, her second name), and baby Robert.

Read more: A dreadful tragedy: Part One

Fortunately their mother, Maria, maintained a good stock of essentials and there was a plentiful supply of water, but without knowing how long their isolation would last, how long before rescue came, their food could not be squandered.

But first, because they had no means of communication, no hope of people in the outside world knowing their predicament, the children built and lit signal fires at two locations on the island. These were maintained, day and night, for the period of their isolation, the purpose of the pyres being to alert any passing vessel to their plight. In the event, despite the island being away from a regular shipping route, the fires succeeded, but it would be six weeks hence.

Belinda, as the eldest and potentially most capable, assumed the role of parent and keeper, a role she would fairly certainly have shared in normal times with her mother, Maria, helping maintain the growing family. It was a substantial undertaking for a lass aged just 13 years and five months, although it must be assumed she had help from Lydia (almost 12) and Albert (nearing 10 years).  What is known is that Albert helped eke out the children’s food needs by slaying and butchering at least one sheep, and perhaps more, thus providing them fresh protein.

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A report from the Tasmanian of  7 December 1895 says, “(Belinda) worked heroically during that period, cooking, washing and taking the part of her mother and father to her little brothers and sisters. I am pleased to correct an impression that their stock of provisions was exhausted. They had another two months’ supply of everything other than meat.”

One especially heartbreaking circumstance was the children’s belief that, after nine days, the sea would give up the bodies of those drowned. On the morning of the ninth day, they took boxes to act as coffins, and sheets for shrouds, spending the day on the shore in the forlorn hope their family would be returned to them. It was not to be. Beyond it being a fallacy, although unknown to them, the tidal current through the passage can be as much as six knots. From a report in the Shoalhaven Telegraph of 30 November 1895, “…the channel, on account of the strong tides and currents, and the foul bottom, is very dangerous. The tide at times runs more strongly than any whirlpool.”

There are a number of variations about the ketch May Queen going to the island to rescue the remaining family. It was certainly on a supply run and may well have been due to call at Trefoil as frequently chronicled. A number of reports, such as this from the Tasmanian, report that, “Fred Burgess, a boatman from Stanley, who was down on one of the neighbouring islands, saw (a signal pyre). Putting off at once, he met James Parker (master of the May Queen), a fellow boatman and also from Stanley, then on his way to Trefoil under charter to Mr Kay, with shearers on board. Parker returned at once with all the children to Duck River (Smithton).”

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The words “…under charter to Mr Kay, with shearers on board…” appear to be a clarification of earlier supposition about the need for the Kay’s boat trip across to Woolnorth.

There would have been a mixture of joy and sadness in the close, isolated community, gratification at the children being saved, overcome by sorrow at the loss of four members of such a well-known and well-respected family.

In the short term, the children were taken in by family friends, Mr and Mrs Grey, but sadly, now orphaned, they would soon be separated. Belinda went to an aunt at Forest, pleading not to be separated from her baby brother Bobby. Her wish was granted and they remained together. Other children went to family at Smithton and Montagu.

There are many sad aspects to the Kay story: parents lost, children deserted and then separated, but perhaps the saddest is the understanding, passed on by my friend, that her great aunt, Belinda, ended going to Lachlan Park, the mental health facility at New Norfolk. How tragic that the young woman who did so much for her siblings and held everything together for so long should end up suffering for her good deeds. Vale, brave Belinda.

The baby, Robert, died of heart disease in Melbourne in 1955, eleven days short of his 62nd birthday.

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My friend is Robert’s granddaughter.


Sincere thanks as ever to that invaluable NLA site, Trove, for its almost endless font of information on this and so many other areas of Australian history.