Family Names

Thursday, 20 April 2017

A to Z Challenge - Q is for Quarrelsome

Snippets from the life of Martha Sarah Ellis.

Quarrelsome can be defined as “inclined to quarrel or disagree; belligerent”[1]

Some might describe Martha as quarrelsome based on her appearances in local newspaper articles.

As a genealogist I look for evidence and facts as a family historian I look for meaning and patterns.

During the course of my research concerning Martha I found evidence pointing to a new aspect of Martha’s personality that I had not seen before.

In 1915 Martha was a witness to documents relating to the marriage of Mary Ellen Basterfield and Leslie Boyd.  

The document reads
Marriage Act 1890
Mary Ellen Basterfield  of Windsor the daughter of Murial Matilda Basterfield I hereby consent to her marriage of Leslie Boyde of Windsor there being no father or guardian appointed by him in Victoria capable of giving consent.
Date 1st July 1915
Signature of mother
Witness signature of Martha Todman 360 Chapel St, S. Yarra, wife.”[2]

When I found the above document I began to re-assess what conclusions that I had previously drawn perhaps Martha had not such a rebel or as quarrelsome as I had previously thought.
Several things struck me.  Martha was not belligerent; she obviously stood up for what she believed to be right.  It would be easy to read the newspapers, gather the reports and think of her as a tear away always getting herself into trouble. 

So with this in mind, I decided to re-examine the evidence that I had found in the newspapers and look at those reports with different eyes. The results of my efforts are below and I would be interested in the thoughts of others as to my conclusions.

In 1890 she was involved in a fight – possibly not her fault but she was involved.
To quote the papers of the day:
“Martha Ellis and Sarah Jackson, two young domestic servants of respectable appearance, and John Hayes, a young man, were charged with assaulting and beating Ellen Carey, also a domestic servant.”[3]

Both girls were found guilty but John was let off scot free.

Perception 1 – Martha was a girl of loose morals who had tendencies towards violence

Perception 2 – Martha appeared to be a forth right character that faced her problems head on, and in doing so often she got caught up in events.

Context - The law courts frowned on young women being out and about particularly in the evening.  As a reflection of these values one of her male co-accused although admitting to technical assault was judged as innocent.  Martha in contrast who had not been witnessed actually participating in the fight was found guilty.

To read more about this case click here

In 1891 the Matron of the hospital where Martha had worked as a nurse was accused of stealing linen.  In her defence, during the court case, the Matron made accusations about Martha and cast aspersions on Martha’s reputation.  

To quote the papers of the day:
“Mr. Parker [lawyer representing the Matron] submitted that it was quite possible that out of revenge the girl Ellis might have put these things in, the accused's box”. [It had already been established during the proceedings that the accused and Martha did not get along, and the] “accused was constantly making complaints against this nurse.”[4]

Perception 1 – Martha was a malicious troublemaker

Perception 2 – Martha was standing up for her rights, or the rights of others

Context –the nurses worked in dreadful conditions.  
One of the witnesses in the case testified that she “left the hospital of her own accord because they were starved because they were starved, and there were always rows among the nurses”.[5]

Perhaps after Martha’s conviction of assault employment opportunities had been limited.  Working at the hospital may have been her only option, despite the conditions.

To read more abut this case click here.

Then Martha left Western Australia and moved to Victoria where she got married.

In 1895 she appears again in the newspapers this time taking her husband to court for an allowance to help pay for the upkeep children as she intends to leave him.  

To quote the papers of the day:
“In support of her case Mrs. Todman said that on the 3rd inst. her husband had turned her out of her house after slapping her face. She had to take a poker to defend herself, and when she did so he struck her so hard that he knocked her flat on a fender. He had also nailed up the doors so that she could not enter the house.”[6]

Perception 1 – Martha is a violent and unpredictable woman.

Perception 2 – This incident occurred not long after the birth of her 3rd child. Martha takes her made “mad inventor” husband to court saying she can no longer live with him and intends to leave.  She won the case but she did not leave her husband.  Did she really intend on leaving him, or was this a cry for help?  Was she trying to assert herself to ensure that she and the children were taken care of?  Perhaps she had been suffering from postnatal depression. 

Context – To read more click here here.

In 1901 she is back in court and the following was reported:-
“Mrs Henry swore that Mrs Todman rushed into her shop and struck her (Mrs Henry) on the face with her hand, and also threw a wooden mallet at her and struck her on the back.”[7]

Their accounts differed, Martha’s version of events went along these lines:-
[Martha stated that she] “went into Mrs. Henry's for an explanation [her children through dirt on her washing] when Mrs Henry then called her a foul name. Mrs. Todman retaliated by slapping her in the face.  Mrs. Henry, then picked up the mallet and threw it at her. “[8]

Perception 1 – Martha is a violent and unpredictable woman and sometimes acts in an irrational manner, in an inappropriate way.

Perception 2 – Throwing dirt at her washing could have been seen as retaliation by the neighbours for her reporting them to the authorities, or simply a case of uncontrolled/unruly children.  Once again we see Martha standing up for herself and her family.

Context - Martha reported the stench coming from the Henry’s house next door. The authorities after doing their inspection agreed. Mrs Henry asked had who had reported her and was informed that it was her neighbours, this set off a neighbourhood feud that lasted the whole year until the Henry family moved away.

The case was thrown out of court. Click here to read more 

In contrast to all of the above incidents in 1915 we find Martha helping a single mum organise the paperwork for her underage daughter to get married, this is not the action of someone who values their station in life over the needs of others, but would appear to show that she may have been a tough woman who would not allow others to take advantage of others or for that matter herself.

And so the search for more clues as to who the real Martha continues ...   but of course finding the clues is only part of the equation, the next part is to try and understand them.

To Read more about Martha's life for articles previously posted for the A to Z Challenges click the Letters below:-

A  B  C  D  E  F  G  H  I  J  K  L  M  N  O  P  Q  R  S  T  U  V  W  X  Y  Z

[i] quarrelsome. Unabridged. Random House, Inc. (accessed: April 18, 2017).
[ii] Permission to Marry form for Mary Ellen Basterfield of Windsor, singed 1st july 1915, Church Christ, South Yarra Records, 1854-1967, Australian manuscriptions Collection, State Library of Victoria MS11250
[iii] Anon, "NEWS AND NOTES," The West Australian, May 20 1890, p. 3, col. 1; digital images, TROVE ( : accessed 26 Jan 2017), Digitised Newspapers.
[iv] CHARGES AGAINST THE LATE MATRON OF THE COLONIAL HOSPITAL. (1891, March 3). The West Australian (Perth, WA : 1879 - 1954), p. 4. Retrieved January 26, 2016, from;
CHARGES AGAINST THE LATE MATRON OF THE COLONIAL HOSPITAL. (1891, March 7). Western Mail (Perth, WA : 1885 - 1954), p. 13. Retrieved January 26, 2016, from
[v] CHARGES AGAINST THE LATE MATRON OF THE COLONIAL HOSPITAL. (1891, March 7). Western Mail (Perth, WA : 1885 - 1954), p. 13. Retrieved January 26, 2016, from
[vi] PRAHRAN POLICE COURT. (1895, December 14). The Prahran Telegraph (Vic. : 1889 - 1930), p. 5. Retrieved November 25, 2015, from
[vii] Prahran Police Court. (1901, January 12). Prahran Chronicle (Vic. : 1894 - 1906; 1914 - 1918), p. 4. Retrieved December 2, 2015, from
[viii] PRAHRAN POLICE COURT. (1901, January 12). The Prahran Telegraph (Vic. : 1889 - 1930), p. 5. Retrieved October 5, 2015, from


  1. Martha sounds like quite a character, one that seems to get a questionable reputation. It is an interesting point though about the time period and what that looks like for women (especially one with a voice and opinion) as well as the source of the information (newspapers need a story that sells). Great post.

    Stopping by from A to Z: Q for Quiet. Not in my house!

  2. In some of these reports, people seem to have been casting Martha in the role of aggressor or thief when she wasn't actually doing what they accused her of.
    Finding Eliza

    1. I'm sure that she wasn't completely innocent, but perhaps if she had been born in a more modern time she wouldn't have got into so much trouble. sometimes I get the feeling that she might have gone along with things or acted on impulse perhaps regretting her decisions afterwards.

  3. She could have been a wild and unpredictable woman, but it does sound more like she was standing up for herself (granted, with ready fists).

    Her Grace, Heidi from Romance Spinners

    1. She was definitely feisty. Thanks for dropping by Heidi.


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