Joseph Watson


Doctor, Ships Surgeon, Drunkard, Australian Pioneer, Jailbird and my 2X great grandfather …

This is the story of my great great grandfather, Joseph Watson, whose colourful life history ignited my interest in genealogy.

It all stared when I read and old letter written by my GG Grandfather to his wife from Melbourne in 1847

My Dearest Wife,

Little did I think when we were married that I should be separated from you 16,000 miles but such is fate. …

When I first received an old box of family documents from my mother relating to her Watson family from Northumberland, it included the letter below and a roughly drawn family tree.  

This was all I knew about Joseph Watson when I started this journey into our family history.    There was a comment on the family tree that his place of death was Wollombi in Australia, but I did not attach any particular importance to it at the time, as I was more interested in finding out about Holy Island, where the family originated, in Northumberland.       Only when I migrated to Australia in 1999, did I decide to investigate further, as this indicated I may have had an antipodean connection, albeit slight in my family.

I tracked down the family’s records from the 1851 census in England, and from this he appeared to be doing well, as a medical officer for the Islandshire District, living in large house in Lowick, Northumberland, with his wife Bertha, and Elizabeth Starke, an 18 year old ‘house servant’.

Joseph Watson’s letter home from Melbourne in 1857

Aug 20th 1857

My Dearest Wife,

Little did I think when we were married that I should be separated from you 16,000 miles but such is fate.    I did not write by the first Mail as I was not sure whether I should return by the first ship or remain in the Colony.    I sent you newspapers which had the safe arrival of the ship in it.

We sailed from Liverpool on the 21st April and came in sight of land on 11th July.    We made the passage in 81 days – some that came after were 110.    We had a very pleasant passage and very little bad weather.    We had 470 on board with passengers and crew.    We had very little sickness and only two deaths – one a delicate young man who died on 7th May from inflammation and the other a young child died on the 7th of July.    They were both thrown overboard after the Service had been said over them, which was performed by Mr Manual, our Chaplain.    We had Divine Service every Sunday Morning when the weather permitted.

The conduct of the passengers and crew was most praiseworthy – we had a great many passengers from your parts mostly all pitmen from the neighbourhood of Bishop Auckland and Durham.    It is a very pleasant voyage to Australia.  I like it much better than going to America.  It is longer but I never was happier.    We had a band of music which played every night with dancing and singing.    We had beautiful weather, but it was very hot when we crossed the line.    It was a beautiful sight to see the flying fish playing in flocks around the ship when we came into the tropics and the large albatross and the sea birds which follow the ship nearly all the way.    It was nice watching some catching fish with long lines – the weather was delightful when off the coast of Madeira and Africa.   Just about the middle of June we came into winter again when it was very cold with heavy showers which the pitman and other passengers enjoyed very much in snowballing each other.    It was the middle of Winter when we arrived here but fine weather such as we have in England in May or June.    Now the spring has commenced the weather is getting very hot during the day but cold at night after the sun sets.    You would be surprised to see the houses here all built of wood and canvas tents in a sandy desert or in the brush surrounded by small trees.    The canvas tents in the brush which contains large families are not half the size of the room you live in.    House rent is very high here.   You cannot get a little wood cottage here under 15/ or 20/ a week and neither wind nor air tight.    I pay 25/ a week in Sandridge for board and lodging where I commenced practicing in partnership with another Medical man who came out four months before me as Surgeon in a ship.    I have done very well for the time we commenced a Medical Club and Sandridge and Emeralds Hill.  The latter place is about a mile from Sandridge.

How is my dear little Fanny and Georgy? Oh could I but see you all but for a minute – How are they all at the Island? I must now conclude and with every Blessing that God sees fit to grant you is the constant prayer of

Your faithful and affectionate husband

Melbourne in 1857

Melbourne 1857

One of the first things I did, was to order his death certificate from the NSW archives.   When it arrived, I was really puzzled.   It clearly stated that Joseph had been in Victoria for 2 years and a further 6 years in NSW.  This meant that at the time he wrote the letter from Melbourne, his wife would still have been pregnant with their 3rd child whom he would never meet, and neither would he would see his young family again.

Why did he not return to England, and decide to stay in Australia?  
This question was the spark that ignited my interest in genealogy and started me on this journey.


Joseph Watson’s
Death Certificate

From his death certificate, I obtained his exact date of death, as well as another clue as the cause of death was  “Natural causes, accelerated by drink”; and his death was reported by the Wollombi publican.    So, it seemed my grandfather may have been a drunken surgeon ……  I needed to find out more.

One of the first places to search was old newspapers to see if there were any obituaries, death notices or reports of his death.

NSW Death Certificate for Joseph Watson. Cause of death was reported as “Natural causes, accelerated by drink”

Using online databases, and visits to archives in Sydney, I was able to locate a report of his death from the Maitland Mercury from February 1864, which was genealogy gold …

“… The doctor it appears is in the habit of walking in his sleep, and his own bedroom at the Wollombi being on the ground floor, it had been his custom to walk in and out without hinderance. Fancying, in his sleep, that he was in his own house, the doctor seems to have got up and walked out of the window, which is some 12 to 14 feet from the ground …”

This set off 2 lines of enquiry about Joseph Watson

Firstly, as he had been resident as the local doctor in Wollombi for 6 years , were there any records or reports of his activities there?.   Once again, a search of local newspapers produced a swathe of stories of his service as the local medical man, including reports of him attending to a firearms accident, a boy after being kicked by a cow, a scalded baby, a man injured by a falling tree, a diptheria and whooping cough outbreak as well as an investigation into a local rape.

The second line of enquiry was to establish why he came to Australia in the first place, leaving his young family behind in England.

The first clue came from a search of English Newspapers, specifically this clip from the Berwick & Kelso Warder in Nov 1851.

From "The Berwick & Kelso Warder" 28 Nov 1851

So, it looked like Joseph Watson was employed by the Poor Law Board, which administered poor relief and oversaw workhouses in Victorian England.   Why was he forced to resign ?

Minutes of the Poor Law Guardians are available online from the UK National Archives, so this was the next investigation, which finally answered the question of why Joseph Watson left Northumberland and went to Australia

The archive contained records of an investigation into neglect of a patient by Joseph Watson, who was the Medical Officer for the Islandshire District in Northumberland.   The charges were concerning the death of a pauper, Elizabeth Allen who had fallen ill and requested the services of Dr Watson, who did not attend to her until 4 days after the request, and that when he did, he appeared to be “mortal drunk” and prescribed her “Whiskey & Broom”

All the minutes  and official correspondence in the 1850’s was hand-written, so this required some time in deciphering many styles of handwriting, but it was definitely worth it.

Copy of a section of the sworn statement to the Enquiry by Isabella Allen, daughter of Elaenor Allen, who died while under the care of Dr Joseph Watson.

… I then asked him how my mother was.  He said she would not live long, but was dying.    I said ‘do you say so’ – when I first went into the house I observed the shaking of the doctor’s head – for this reason & afterwards for giving an order for a bottle of whiskey & broom, I thought him ‘mortal drunk’.   I thought this also because he had foolish talk.  He said if my mother had the whiskey and Broom she would soon be set on her feet again.   He said it always did him good & therefore it would do my mother good. …

Joseph Watson fired as Medical Officer for Holy Island!

There are further reports of Dr Watson’s resignation in December 1851 and replacement by a new Medical Officer for the District.   This seems the likely reason, he left England to be come a Ships surgeon and travelled to Australia in 1857.

After 7 years in Australia, it appears he was contemplating returning to his family in England, presumably now that enough time had passed for the scandal not to be an issue any longer.

Poor Law Board
11 November 1851

Joseph Watson Esq.
Medical Officer of the Islandshire District of
the Berwick upon Tweed Union
Lowick, Berwick upon Tweed


I am directed by the Poor Law Board to inform you that they have received the report of their inspector, Mr Hurst upon the enquiry held on the 27 ultimo into the complaints preferred against you in the case of the late Eleanor Allen, a poor person formerly residing at Fenwick Steads in the Berwick upon Tweed Union.

It appears from the evidence given at the enquiry that Eleanor Allen was taken ill on Wednesday the 6th of August last; that on her becoming worse, her daughter Elizabeth applied on Friday the 8th of August to the Relieving Officer and obtained from him an order for your attendance upon her mother and that such an order was delivered to you personally at your own house about 9 o’clock in the morning of Saturday the 9th of August, by William Swanson, who deposes an oath that on your saying “that you could not at present come as you were waiting upon a woman” and that you were “not very sure whether you could come in the afternoon or not” that ” he told you to come as soon as possible as Eleanor Allen was very ill”.

It further appears that you did not visit Eleanor Allen on that day, and that on her becoming worse, her daughters Isabella and Elizabeth, on the morning of Sunday the 10th of August requested James Weir to call upon you and again to request your attendance upon their mother. 

James Weir deposed that he accordingly called at your house, shortly before 11 o’clock on the Sunday morning and that after asking you why you had not been to see Eleanor Allen, he told you that you “must come down” as Elizabeth Allen, one of the daughters, “had stated that her mother was worse”

The daughters of the poor woman having waited for your arrival until about 3 o’clock in the afternoon of that day sent a second time to your house at Lowick by John Dalgleish, who left a message to the effect that you must go immediately to Fenwick Steads, and that if you could not attend yourself you were to send somebody in your stead.

It further appears that you ultimately visited Eleanor Allen at about 4 o’clock in the afternoon of Sunday the 10th of August when you ordered her a bottle of “whiskey & Broom” but apparently gave no precise directions as to the mode or the quantities in which it was to be taken, and that you neither prescribed any other medicine, nor afterwards visited the poor woman, who died on the following Wednesday the 13th of August.

Your letter of the 4th of October to this Board contains an explanation in respect of the neglect charge, written previously to the enquiry, contains the only explanation which you have to offer, and is not only inconsistent in some important particulars with the evidence taken upon oath, and the facts elicited by the enquiry, but to the Board appears wholly insufficient satisfactorily to account for or to palliate your neglect in not either immediately yourself attending, or providing a substitute to attend for you in the case of Eleanor Allen.

On a careful review of all these painful circumstances, the Board although they feel justified in refraining from immediately acceding to the request of the Guardians for your dismissal, are of the opinion that they have good grounds for withdrawing their confidence from you, and that the Board must request that you will at once forward your resignation for the acceptance of the Guardians.

The conclusion at which the Board have arrived on the charge of neglect renders it unnecessary for them to enter into the question of the charge of intoxication, which formed the other subject of the enquiry held by their inspector on the 27th ultimo.

Joseph Watson in Prison

To add to Joseph Watson’s colourful life, I found a record of his being sent to prison in the Maitland Goal for one month between December 1860 and January 1861, before any other reports of his life in Wollombi. This report appeared to be consistent with what I already knew about Joseph …

Its gave details of his arrival in Australia in 1857, aboard the Sir William Eyre. I had no records of the ships’ name before this, but the dates and locations of arrival from shipping records corresponded with his letter to his wife when he arrived in Melbourne. It also stated that he was originally from Cumberland, was resident in Wollombi and was a Surgeon by trade, which was consistent with what I had already found out about him from other sources. So it is very likely that this record was from my 2Xgreat grandfather. My next quest was to locate prison records from the Maitland Goal to find out what he was charged with.

This record also gave some additional descriptions – his height 5 foot 6 1/4; Strong stature, with a sallow complexion a and small scar on the bridge of his nose.!

Imprisonment under the Petty Larceny Act

After some searching through newspaper archives, I finally found what I was looking for – confirmation that this was indeed my very own Joseph Watson. In the newspaper report below, the details of his offence and subsequent imprisonment are clearly described. This seems to have had its desired effect, as subsequent reports from Wollombi never mentioned his drinking problem again and were generally of a respected medical man serving the community in Wollombi.

Newspaper report on the imprisonment of Joseph Watson for one month for the theft of spirits from a pub, after the most inordinate career of drunkenness!