Family Names

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

A to Z Challenge - V is for the Vicissitudes of Martha

Snippets from the life of Martha Sarah Ellis.

Martha’s life was certainly an interesting one, full of vicissitudes, to get a sense of this I have outlined some of the pivotal events of her life, highlighting her constant struggle in changing circumstances,

 Photographer unknown, Studio portrait in England of Martha Sarah Ellis, circa 1875?, Neil Carmody's Private Photo Collection [T197]
Born in 1870 into a working-class family living on the then outskirts of London in Camberwell, with the surname Ellis, she and the rest of the family were known by the name Lee.  However after her mother died in 1880, they all returned to using the surname Ellis
She leaves England in 1890 to forge a better life, perhaps grow a career or a family depending on where destiny takes her. The world is full of possibilities.

Photographer J. Latimer, Studio portrait of Martha Sarah Ellis possibly taken circa 1891 in Western Australia, digital image,  Jim Bennett's Private Photo  Collection currently held by Dorothy Bennett [T059]
She begins her working life in Australia as a domestic but finds herself entangled in a court case accused of assault involving herself and three others.  The men involved somehow avoid any penalties but the girls are not so lucky.

With a conviction against her name, she loses her position as a domestic.  We find her working at the less than salubrious Colonial Hospital where she is described as a troublemaker.  It would appear that her nursing career is shortly lived. 

Photographer unknown, Studio portrait of a young lady thought to be Martha Sarah Ellis possibly taken circa 1892 in Victoria or just before leaving WA, digital image,  Jim Bennett's Private Photo  Collection currently held by Dorothy Bennett [T065 - edited]
Wanting a fresh start she moves far away to the opposite side of Australia (but not as far as her first move from England, the opposite side of the world).  A year after arriving in Victoria she finds love and gets married in 1892.  But marriage isn’t as wonderful as she had been lead to believe and by 1895 she takes her husband to court, this time the case is found in her favour.  However, loves appears to win the day and she does not leave her husband and they go on to have more children.

Things settle down but the poverty is grinding and times are hard.  Her husband Walter appears to be successful but many sacrifices are being made behind the scenes.  The last straw, however, is when the neighbour's washing water is left to long in the copper and the unpleasant stench seeps in over the fence.  Back in court again, neighbours suing and counter-suing each other.  The case was dismissed.

Life moves on and more children are added to the brood.  Walter expands his premises and incorporates another workshop within walking distance to the one they live behind.  Tragedy strikes and they lose their 5-week old daughter, Charlotte to whooping cough, Martha is heartbroken. But life moves on and Martha goes on to have one last child Alma who becomes her rock later in life.  A year after Alma is born a terrible storm hits Melbourne and havoc reigns, they are all ok but Walter’s new workshop has a huge plate glass window blown out shattering glass everywhere and with it their future financial security.  Walter declares bankruptcy a year later in 1910.

Martha and Walter are made of tough stuff so they begin again, and in two years they are building up another workshop at 3 Cato St, Prahran.  The family and the business begin to thrive again.  Walter also buys property in the outer Melbourne suburbs as an investment to help ensure that they never fall on such hard times again.  It seems that all is going well. Then in 1925 Walter decides to retire and sell up his business he hasn’t been feeling too well, nothing too specific just worn out from the years of hard work.  He sells up the business.

The Model Studios, Studio portrait of Martha Sarah Todman nee Ellis, date 1926, Jim Bennett's Private Photo  Collection currently held by Dorothy Bennett [T034]

By 1928 he becomes bored and advertises for work in the country, it would be another new beginning for them.  Martha is both excited and terrified by the prospect.
Walter Todman, 'Advertising', The Age, 9 August 1928, p. 4. , viewed 26 Apr 2017,
 Three years later Martha and Walter are still living in Prahran but Walter has died of a sudden heart attack.

Photographer unknown, Backyard standing portrait of Martha Simpson outside, later in life,  Jim Bennett's Private Photo  Collection currently held by Dorothy Bennett

And so the story goes on ... still a work in progress but  click here to read more

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 


  1. Hello fellow A-to-Zer! I like Martha; she seems spirited. I wonder about the trouble she allegedly caused.
    Melanie Atherton Allen

  2. This is an excellent recap of Martha's life -- and those photos are to die for. Such an impressive collection, and equally impressive research on your part to piece together her story.

  3. Vicissitudes is a great word. I am glad Martha survived but it must have felt difficult some times. You have some terrific photos of her. V is for Valleyfield in Van Diemen's Land

    Anne Young

    Anne's family history


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