Finding Family

One woman's obsession with family history.

Nellie Clifton Hurst (my first cousin three times removed) lived during a time where circumstances meant everything. The circumstances of your birth; whether you were male or female; whether you had money. Society viewed such things as important and more often than not you would be judged because of them.

When she came into the world in 1879 at her grandparents’ house in Collie Bridge she was an innocent newborn who was completely unaware of her circumstances. Nellie was the illegitimate daughter of Anne Hurst and John Edward Martin Clifton (grandson of the well-known Marshall Waller Clifton). Her mother was only 19 when she was born but Nellie was one of the lucky ones. She was not given up for adoption or sent away and by all appearances her mother, grandparents and extended family were extremely loving and caring and treated her no differently.

Although initially registered as Nellie Clifton she eventually took her mother’s surname and went by the name Nellie Clifton Hurst. She kept Clifton as her middle name, perhaps as a sign to show the world who her father was.

Three years later Nellie was joined by a half sister, Norah Kathleen Hurst. Norah was the daughter of Anne Hurst (now aged 21) and Luke Crampton (Luke was Anne’s first cousin and was only 16 at the time). Like Nellie, Norah’s name was originally registered with the surname Crampton but she eventually ended up using the surname Hurst.

No action was taken against John Clifton under the Bastardy Act but Anne did however initiate proceedings against Luke.

Bastardy Act

The orders passed by the Court would’ve entitled Anne to receive a small amount of money from Luke in order to provide for both herself and Norah. It would not have been much however so it’s likely that Anne would also have had to work to support her family. If this was the case, where did Nellie and her sister live? Who cared for them? Though there’s no definitive answer, the vague evidence that’s available indicates that they certainly spent a lot of time with their grandparents, Basil and Maria Hurst.

Nellie’s life at her grandparents’ house near the beautiful Collie River would’ve been idyllic. Picnics and fishing were popular pastimes for residents of the area but as Nellie grew, school work (possibly conducted at home) and chores also would have become important.

She’s first mentioned in the Hurst Daybook on Friday, 15 March 1889. She was 10 years of age and in need of a new pair of boots which were brought back by her grandfather and her aunts.

Fine day. Father, Tilly, Belle went to Bunbury. Got 1 bag sugar, 4 yds Holland, six bars soap and 1 pair of boots from W Prossers for Nellie.

Two months later it was recorded that she went to her Aunt Bina’s house. Specific details aren’t noted in the Daybook so the best way to understand what’s going on within the Hurst family’s lives is to reconcile what’s written to other records that exist. Her return isn’t noted so it’s possible the visit was a lengthy one. Bina (Lavinia Gibbs nee Hurst) had one small child and a newborn who was only two months old. Perhaps Nellie visited in order to meet her new cousin or perhaps she visited in order to help her aunt out around the house.

On 21 March 1891, Nellie was about 12 years of age when she went with her grandparents to visit her Aunt Alice (Alice Ecclestone nee Hurst). Aunt Alice at this point in time had four children and gave birth to her fifth some time in 1891. Once again it’s possible that Nellie (accompanied by Basil and Maria) was visiting in order to meet the new child.

Three months later specific mention was made of her going to school.

Showery. Nellie went down to go to school.

The words “went down” indicate that she travelled south and this fact was further evidenced by an article printed in the Bunbury Herald on 28 December 1892. Nellie had been attending the Girls’ School in Bunbury which was run by Miss Mews. After the examinations she was presented a prize for second place in Standard V.


In 1893 Nellie would’ve been about 14 years old and despite her youth, schooling would’ve been completed. She was now at an age where she could start work. Occupations for a woman were extremely limited. Nellie could’ve gained employment as a governess or teacher (she seemed to have a decent grasp of schoolwork), a dressmaker (assuming she knew how to sew), a shop assistant or perhaps something in domestic service. Unfortunately what she did is unknown and if she was working it seems whatever she did afforded her an element of freedom. Nearly every weekend from 10 March 1893 until 30 July 1893 Nellie returned to Collie Bridge, arriving on Saturday and then going home on Sunday.

Then, on 11 August 1893:

Tom & Nellie came home

Whereas previously ‘home’ for Nellie was somewhere else (perhaps with an employer); ‘home’ now once again became Collie Bridge. What happened at this point in time? Why was she coming back home to Collie Bridge? If she was employed, did she lose her job?

Throughout September, October and November Nellie consistently travelled to Bunbury, sometimes several times within a week. Was she looking for work? Was she running errands on behalf of the Hurst family? Was there some other reason for her regular visits? Though she sometimes went alone, a lot of the time she was accompanied by her Uncle Tom or her grandfather.

On 20 November 1893 it was noted that: Father, Annie & Nellie went to Perth. There is no doubt that Basil Hurst (Father) was collecting his daughter, Mary Isabel Hurst who had been sent to Fremantle Asylum three months earlier, but why did Anne and Nellie (mother and daughter) go to Perth? Was it again a simple case of Nellie looking for work?

Nellie remained in Perth for nearly three weeks and eventually returned home on 11 December 1893. No further information as to what she was doing there was provided.

By early January she left Collie Bridge once again, this time travelling with her Aunt Tilly (my Great Great Grandmother, Matilda Maria Hurst) and the children to Tilly’s house which was located at Ironstone Gully near the Collie Coalfields. She stayed for a month and returned on 6 February 1894. Why did she go to Tilly’s house? Was it just a simple visit? Did she go there to help out around the house?

Eventually Nellie obtained new employment and on 26 February 1894 it was written in the Daybook that she went to Mrs Burcham. Subsequent research has found that Mrs Burcham was most likely Rhoda Jane Burcham (nee Hough) who was married to William Edward Carter Burcham (a photographer). Mrs Burcham placed an advertisement in the Bunbury Herald on 14 and 21 February 1894 and it seems Nellie responded and was lucky enough to obtain the position.


From this point on Nellie no longer appears in the Daybook (the last date in it is 8 April 1894). As ‘general help’ she would not have had very many days off and she may have also lived within the Burcham family home. This meant that visits back to Collie Bridge would’ve been few and far between. Her new home was now within the town of Bunbury.

As the main hub of the Southwest, Bunbury was all hustle and bustle. Despite her upbringing in quiet little Collie Bridge, Nellie had always been a regular in Bunbury so it’s doubtful she would’ve been overwhelmed. In fact she may have still been in Bunbury when the news of her little cousin’s (Thomas Lisle Crampton) disappearance and her Aunt Tilly’s mental illness became news. Speculation and gossip was most likely rife and it’s possible Nellie herself may have been on the receiving end of unwanted questions.

In 1895 Nellie was 16 when her mother, Anne was married. Anne was 34, a spinster (by the standards of the time) and most likely also labelled a fallen woman. It was because of her “indiscretions” that finding a husband would’ve become extremely difficult. When John Kirby came along and proposed marriage, it’s possible Anne said yes simply because, as harsh as it sounds, she may not have had a better offer.

What happened to Nellie after her mother married? Did she remain employed? Did she live with her mother and stepfather? Though these questions are unanswered it would seem however that Nellie, at the age of 17, started some sort of relationship with Charles McGrane. On 18 July 1896, her Aunt Tilly (from within Fremantle Asylum):

wrote to her sister Mrs C McGrane London Terrace Bunbury

Charles McGrane (who also occasionally used the alias surname Emmet) was nothing but trouble. He was constantly in the newspapers for stealing, disorderly conduct, using obscene language, violently resisting arrest, assault and escaping from gaol. A drunk, it was his love of alcohol which gave him his best defence (of not being able to remember anything) and his presence in the Bunbury Police Court soon became commonplace.

Sergeant Osborne handed in McGrane’s record in the police court here, but the Bench declined to see them, stating that the prisoner was well known to the court as a nuisance to the community since his arrival in Bunbury.

Then, also in 1896, the inevitable happened. Nellie (still in Bunbury) gave birth to twin daughters, Caroline and Sarah Hurst. She gave her name as the mother when registering the births but left the father’s name blank. Considering her relationship with Charles McGrane, I would not be surprised if he was the father.

Sadly, when Nellie registered the births, it’s possible she may have also had to register their deaths. Her two little girls only lived for one day.

In 1897 Nellie, aged 18, once again gave birth to an illegitimate child. Norman Douglas Hurst was born in Collie, most likely at the old home in Collie Bridge. Nellie gave her name as the mother but remained silent with respect to the name of the father. It could’ve been anyone but, timing suggests, she may still have been in a relationship with Charles and there was a strong likelihood that he was again the father.

In the 1890s the cry of ‘Gold!’ resounded around the state of Western Australia and this small family unit also appears to have wanted a piece of the pie. Though it’s unknown who went and when, it’s likely that also in 1897, Nellie, her baby son Norman, Charles McGrane, John Kirby, her mother Anne and sister Norah all moved to the goldfields.


Coolgardie in the 1890s or early 1900s

The move, essentially, was a disaster. On 18 October 1897, Nellie’s mother was admitted to Coolgardie Hospital suffering from cirrhosis of the brain. Cirrhosis itself is liver disease and when the toxins in the blood stream cannot be removed by the liver they can move into the brain and cause brain dysfunction. Anne would not get better. Ten days later it was recorded that she died in hospital. She was buried in Coolgardie Cemetery.


Nellie, Norman and Norah remained together and lived with John Kirby in one room in a shop on Ford Street in Coolgardie. It wasn’t long before they drew attention to themselves and were on the receiving end of public disapproval. On 7 March 1898 Norah brought charges against John Kirby for indecent assault.

Indecent Assault

John completely denied the charge and it was proven that there were several inconsistencies in Norah’s evidence. He was found not guilty and the chairman of the jury stated that the way they were living was worse than that of savages. I can’t help but wonder though, was there any truth to Norah’s claims? If she was lying, what purpose would it have served to bring charges against John?

About a month later it was Nellie’s turn to make the papers. She had still not shaken McGrane and he was getting frustrated. He wanted to marry her but she was having none of it. He’d brutally attacked her on more than one occasion and, though it’s not mentioned, alcohol was probably a major factor in his behaviour.

McGrane Assault

After all the abuse it was probably a relief to see McGrane locked away for twelve months. If Nellie felt any hope for the future, it was to be short lived. After her mother’s death, Norah’s assault and her own assault, the family’s run of bad luck was not yet over. On 25 October 1898, Nellie’s sister, Norah Kathleen Hurst, passed away.

No mention of Norah’s death was printed in the papers but the records state that she’d been living on Bayley Street in Coolgardie and had died from typhoid fever; a common cause of death on the goldfields due to a lack of fresh water. Like her mother, she was buried in Coolgardie Cemetery.

The year of 1899 finally brought some good news for Nellie. Still in Coolgardie, she gave birth to another child (albeit illegitimate) who she named Basil James Hurst. As per the other children’s births, no father was listed. Her choice of name was also interesting. Perhaps she was missing her home and family at Collie Bridge as young Basil was named after her grandfather.

There is no information available about where and how Nellie, Norman and little Basil lived. Assumptions can only be made. After the assault case against John Kirby it’s likely that they were not living with him. She could have been living with Charles McGrane but again, she may not have wanted anything to do with him considering his past actions. He also could’ve still been in prison. Nellie was an unmarried mother. If she had work it would’ve given her a meagre income and working meant she would’ve been unable to care for her children. Food would’ve been scarce and the possibility of the family going hungry would not surprise me.

A new century rolled around and the sadness came back with it. Basil lived longer than his twin sisters but the family’s quality of life was not of a good standard. He lived for eight months, passing away in Coolgardie on 5 May 1900 from marasmus (failure to thrive). He too was buried in Coolgardie Cemetery.

The next five years of Nellie’s life are unknown. It would seem however that the death of Basil and perhaps the constant struggle she was facing opened her eyes to the truth. Her only child, Norman Douglas Hurst, would’ve been under the age of ten when he was adopted into another family. I can’t see into Nellie’s head but I don’t believe this decision was made lightly. She’d had Norman for at least three years and perhaps she wanted to give him a better chance in life, one that she felt she couldn’t give him.

Nellie eventually left Coolgardie (a place filled with tragedy for her family) and made her way to Perth. She’d finally dropped Charles McGrane and began a relationship with a new man, James Allen. She never married him but went around styling herself as Mrs Allen (as she appears to have done with McGrane).

For a while they lived in East Perth at 44 Goderich Street and it was at this address on 22 March 1905 that Nellie passed away. She was only 25.

Death Notice Nellie

From the death notice it would appear that James loved Nellie. They weren’t married but he called her his ‘beloved wife’ and it was his surname that was printed in the paper. The surname given on the death register and recorded on the Metropolitan Cemeteries Board register however was Hurst.

The death register in particular also shows some interesting information. Nellie had not been with James for long and during that time the details of her life were probably vague. He tried his best but he may have been only able to recount what he had been told by her. She was born in Victoria, her mother was unknown and her father’s name was James. All incorrect. This fact alone also shows that it had probably been a while since she’d been in contact with the Hurst family.

Circumstances did not help Nellie. She may have been fully accepted by the Hurst family but did other families accept her and treat her as an equal? Did her treatment as a young girl shape her into the person she became? What was her relationship with her Aunt Tilly? Why, of all people, would Tilly write to Nellie from within the Asylum? Did she ever see the Hurst family again?

Most of the nitty gritty details about Nellie’s life are open to interpretation and I am left with far too many questions. There are many examples in this world where people rose above the circumstances they were born into but there are also many examples where people did not. Unfortunately it seems Nellie fell into the latter category. She certainly tried but no matter what she did she couldn’t quite get there and in the end she died much too young and without her children and family. Her life was not an easy one and I only hope that in her final years she had found some happiness and peace with James.

As stated above, Norman Douglas Hurst was adopted and survived well into adulthood. He took a new surname and though I do know the surname of his adoptive family I’ve chosen not to state it out of respect for his descendants who may not know the story of his life.


3 thoughts on “Nellie Clifton Hurst

  1. njsresearch6 says:

    Extraordinarily poignant Jess

    1. Jess says:

      Thank you Neville. It certainly is. Poor Nellie would’ve had a tough time throughout her life.

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