Lost in the Bush

Fine day. Tilly had a little son. Rossie called.

With these few words one of the Hurst brothers (either Abraham, Thomas or John) announced, on 11 September 1891, that Thomas Lisle Crampton had come into the world. Born in Collie to Thomas Crampton and Matilda Maria Hurst (my Great Great Grandparents) it’s likely that the Collie in question was actually Collie Bridge – the Hurst family farm which was located on the banks of the Collie River near the actual Collie bridge (now known as Eaton).

One month later, on 11th October, all seemed to be going well with the newborn. Matilda (known to everyone as Tilly) took her little son to Bunbury and he was Christened. Her parents (who had come to Bunbury the day before to drop off some butter at Spencer’s) may have also attended the ceremony. After the Christening Tilly remained in town for three more days and on the 14th the new mother and her baby travelled back to her parents’ house at Collie Bridge.

It seems that a rest was now in order. Tilly and little Thomas remained with her parents for two more weeks. Throughout this time the weather was mostly fine. The Christy Minstrels were in town on the 21st October and the current writer of the Daybook recorded that he went to watch them perform.  A well known blackface group, they provided entertainment in celebration of Proclamation Day. Though it’s doubtful Tilly would’ve attended I’m sure the visits by her Uncle Thomas Chapman on the 22nd, Archie (possibly Archie Fowler) on the 24th and then her sister Minnie on the 25th would’ve been a great source of amusement and welcome chances to show off her new bundle of joy.

On 28 October 1891, Tilly left her parent’s house and started home where her husband, Tom and daughter, Daisy were probably waiting for her. Home, at this point in time, was most likely in Wokalup where Tom had built a house in early 1888 with the help of his brothers and nephews.

Little Thomas’s only job was simply to be a baby and to slowly grow. As time went by he would’ve become more familiar with the faces of his father, mother, sister, grandparents and aunts and uncles. Tilly also often visited her parents and travelled to Bunbury. It’s likely that Daisy and Thomas accompanied her on such trips as these.

Ultimately, much of how little Thomas fared as a child is (and most likely always will be) unknown.

Two years later, on 24 December 1893, Tom and Tilly arrived at Tilly’s parents’ house. Given the date we can be sure that they were there to celebrate Christmas and certainly would’ve had Daisy and little Thomas with them. Presents may have been exchanged and a special dinner may have been prepared. Christmas cakes had been baked five days earlier so it was a certainty that they would’ve also been consumed.

They remained at Tilly’s parents’ house throughout the New Year. On 2 January 1894 Tom and Tilly went to Bunbury and the next day…

Tilly Nillie & the children went home.

‘Nillie’ was almost certainly Tilly’s niece, Nellie Clifton Hurst. It is assumed ‘the children’ refers to Daisy and Thomas Junior. Interestingly, at this point in time, Tilly was actually pregnant with my Great Grandmother. Six days later, on 9 January 1894, she gave birth to a little girl (named Matilda Maria Crampton) in Collie. What puzzles me however is that the birth of Matilda is conspicuously absent from the Daybook. Why is this the case? Is there some unknown reason for why the Hurst brothers chose not to record her birth? Was it simply a lapse and they forgot to write it in? And, if my Great Grandmother was born in Collie wouldn’t the brothers have noted Tilly’s arrival in the Daybook?

Tom, Tilly and the family no longer appear in the Daybook after the early January entries. It appears that from this point onwards Tilly was starting to become mentally unstable. Little Thomas was only two and half years of age but it’s still possible he may have been acutely aware that something wasn’t quite right with his mother.

Some time within the next nine months, Tom, Tilly, Daisy, Thomas Junior and baby Matilda moved to West Collie (today known as Allanson) which was about five or six miles from the town of Collie. They were surrounded by the forest and probably lived close by to a smaller branch of the Collie River. Why they moved to such a remote location away from family and friends is a mystery. Could Tilly’s behaviour have been the catalyst for such a drastic move?

The coalfields and the town of Collie itself was barely in existence. The small family was overwhelmingly isolated. If Tilly was already unwell I highly doubt being cut off from society would’ve helped much.

On 11 September 1894 little Thomas turned three. He was probably talking and was starting to have conversations. He was at the age of curiosity and the world around him would’ve been one of endless fascination. This curiosity coupled with a distracted, mentally unstable mother was a disaster waiting to happen. On Sunday, 16 September, five days after his birthday, he wandered off into the bush and completely disappeared.

When Tom and Tilly realised that little Thomas was missing they immediately made a search for him but were unsuccessful. The Crampton family needed help. Word was sent out and reached Bunbury the next day. By noon Sub-Inspector Clifton (Marshall Waller Clifton) of the Bunbury police station had received notice that the child was missing and immediately set off to help. On Tuesday he was joined by Sergeant Houlahan (Thomas Houlahan) and Constable Buck.

The search party also consisted of many of the settlers of the area who were well known bushmen as well as relatives of Tom’s and Tilly’s. They included: the Messrs W. Smith; J. Marsh; Thomas Hurst (Tilly’s brother); J. Ecclestone (most likely James Henry Ecclestone – Tilly’s brother-in-law); C. Gardiner (most likely Charles Gardiner – Tilly’s cousin); Archie Fowler; Jack Gibbs and John Gibbs (who was the leader of the party).

One of the most important members of the search party was an Aboriginal tracker. Sadly, the newspapers of the time did not print his name and he is currently unknown. Aboriginals are renowned for their tracking skills which are developed from a young age and stem from their ‘hunter and gather’ life. They know the tracks of different animals and may even be able to tell how old it was and whether it was male or female. Their tracking skills are phenomenal and, in the past, they often helped find people who had gone missing in the bush. If little Thomas had left tracks there is no doubt in my mind that the Aboriginal tracker would’ve spotted them.

For five days the group searched on horseback for miles in a circle around the Crampton family’s home but no trace of Thomas could be found. It was September and the bush was not completely dry but despite this, Thomas appeared to have left no tracks. On Thursday, 20 September 1894 the search was abandoned as it was assumed that it was now very unlikely that little Thomas would be found alive.

A few people continued searching and the next day a dog that Tom had recently purchased, and had gone missing at the same time, returned home. Thinking that perhaps the dog had gone off with little Thomas, the party tried to induce him to lead them to him. It was all to no avail. The dog would only follow and not lead.

While Tom continued to search tirelessly for any sign of his missing son it was noted in the Bunbury Herald that Tilly had been “mentally affected for some time” and was now living with her parents.

Tom refused to give up. In late September or early October he made a visit to Bunbury and invited the settlers to once again search for his son. The settlers agreed to help and it was noted that the police were also going to be involved. Concern amongst the people now seemed to have given way to suspicion as the Bunbury Herald noted:

There is a mystery about this disappearance which needs clearing up if possible.

The second search yielded nothing. Little Thomas had completely disappeared and Tom had no other option; he had to give up. He next turned his attention to Tilly. Found by the local Doctor to be mentally insane; she was soon sent to Fremantle Asylum. Her story was written in two earlier posts: Matilda Maria Hurst and The Secrets of Matilda Maria Hurst.

Not the slightest trace of him was discovered, he disappeared as completely as if the earth had opened and swallowed him up.

So what did happen to little Thomas? There were no tracks. There was no evidence of blood. The bush didn’t look as if it had been disturbed and there were no broken branches. This means we can discount Thomas being taken by a wild animal as it’s likely evidence would’ve been left behind. It can be assumed that he didn’t fall into a nearby well (if there was one at all) as that would’ve been the first place the search party would’ve looked. I also believe we can discount Tilly being involved in the disappearance. Yes, she was mentally unwell but I don’t believe she was capable of killing her son and then hiding his body without leaving a trace or even tracks.

Ignoring the lack of evidence and tracks, it’s also assumed that the search party would’ve been calling for him. If this was the case, why didn’t Thomas respond?

Some other theories of mine are that perhaps Thomas wandered off and was drowned in the nearby Collie River or perhaps he wandered off and fell into a hidden cave. Certainly logical but still, why didn’t he leave any tracks? It may be a little far fetched, but is it possible he could have been kidnapped by someone who knew how to not leave tracks?

I constantly ponder over the mystery of Thomas’s disappearance and often wonder what happened to him. To be honest, I simply have no idea and to this day he has not been found. Even though I wasn’t involved I do know however that his story will always remain with me as it did with Archie Fowler (one of the search party). Archie’s comments were printed 46 years later and offer valuable insight into the thoughts of those who were searching for little Thomas.

What became of him no one knows to this day. He just vanished. It was a strange thing and it caused a lot of speculation at the time. We could never understand what happened to the boy. He was only a toddler, and the search party was out not long after he was missed. All through the years I have pondered over the fate of that youngster without ever being able to even guess what became of him.

This is a mystery I would love to solve. Please contact me (findingfamily@hotmail.com.au) or leave a comment if you know of the whereabouts of the historical Bunbury Police Records or have your own family records (such as journals or oral history) that contain details about this tragedy. This year marks 120 years since Thomas’s disappearance. Any new facts or information (no matter how small) would be greatly appreciated.

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