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Phoebe just adored children. Her whole life had been spent surrounded by siblings. She knew all about them, from top to messy bottom; everything but one very important thing – she hadn’t had any of her own.

Phoebe was just fourteen and already had the child-bearing instinct. Her whole body had been molded for pregnancy, big boned, wide hipped, Phoebe was an ample kind of lass, a Mum in the making; rosy cheeks, breasts just ready to nuzzle children – she seemed ready to burst out of her skin. She gave out affection in a whole-hearted blousy fashion and welcomed it back with equal enthusiasm. Simultaneously bossy, ignorant and wise the young girl managed to clear a way through the crowds of relatives by sheer force of personality alone. She was no shrinking violet, not our Phoebe, just burning youthful energy biding her time. Soon all that would be channeled into her real purpose in life – she was to have hundreds of babies and love them till she died. She’d always known this, since before she could tie her shoe, Phoebe was meant to be a mother, would be a mother and was going to be – as soon as possible.

She was visibly blossoming. The sheen on her skin was like a magnet for the local lads and soon there began to be more than the occasional lone rider out to the property. Smiling, oozing an amiable availability she would entertain these young lads down by the river, reveling in their eagerness to please. They were like little puppy dogs and she was their Queen. Phoebe was only young and prone to flights of fancy.

The world of the Derwent Valley, such as it was, opened up as she reached a certain age. There were social gatherings, regattas, even the occasional dance. She was much in demand.  The young Lotharios flocked around her, attracted to her combination of nascent sensuality  and lively temperament. She left none of them in any doubt as to her availability but the smarter ones knew to stay away. Here was a woman on a mission, trouble on a platter.

But Phoebe found her man without trouble, and he took her without a fight. They were intertwined in an instant. His name was John Jillett and he was a most handsome beau in her eyes. Others may have found him a touch on the side of the weasel, but for Phoebe he had the smell, the chemistry she knew she needed.

John Jillett was an overly endowed young man with a hearty laugh and a huge appetite for life. He took on Phoebe wholeheartedly and together they rutted aggressively at every opportunity. Her parents were blissfully unaware of their daughter’s extra farmyard tasks but were not overly surprised when she made the inevitable announcement.

It was 1839 and Phoebe was just fifteen by the time she’d managed to get herself in the family way and with the customary last minute flourish the wedding bans were called.  The Jilletts and the Triffitts were called to order, plans were made. All parties agreed wholeheartedly that this was an ideal combination and drank and danced their success at the wedding with great abandon. It was done – Phoebe had herself a husband.

She was pregnant and enjoying her life hugely. All her dreams had come true. John was twenty, a solid five years older but the difference in their ages wasn’t an issue. He had one sole function in Phoebe’s eyes and that was to spawn as many of her children as he could manage. The two unlikely lovers headed off into the sunset.

Phoebe took to having babies with a natural ease. She loved it and eased Robert Alfred Jillett into the world with the minimum of fuss not all that long after the wedding. She placed him on her breast and took up mothering as a profession. The marriage was a surprising success. The two lovebirds got on like a house on fire.

Before long the second child was announced and with a sheepish grin John welcomed his first born son into the world, John Thomas, on April 26th 1842 in New Norfolk. The couple were fertile, functioning and for this brief period in the sun – they were happy.

But John Thomas Jillett apparently didn’t care too much for his parents or indeed, life in general because, at the age of seven sad months, he returned from whence he  came, dying abruptly of scarlet fever on the 15th of December that same year. It could, of course, have been almost anything. Medical knowledge was rudimentary in New Norfolk in 1842. Death in childhood was normal. Everyone around her seemed hardened to the topic but Phoebe was new to the theme. She grieved with a vengeance in public but not, apparently in the bedroom, because a replacement John Jillett was conceived in February the following year. He arrived healthy on October 1st 1843  and was the beginning of a run of children for John and Phoebe. Elizabeth appeared first in 1846, then William Henry on the 25th of May in 1848 in Back River – the house was filling up.

It was time for a change.

In 1850 the family made what would prove to be a very bad decision and moved to York Plains, just outside Oatlands, to join John’s older brother Thomas and his growing family. Father Jillett was there too, as well as some of John’s other siblings and their wives and children. Thomas was about to buy the mill and was becoming man of much standing in the district. It was time to join the clan and accept all the benefits of the expanded family in the Midlands.

Phoebe was much loved by the expanded Jillett family. She slid into their embrace with a loud bray of pleasure and proceeded to join a baby club of some magnificence. There was breeding going on everywhere on an epic scale. She felt absolutely at home. Her big wide hips ached for more.

When Emma Louisa arrived on the 27th June in 1851 there was much clucking and peering and general love from the many aunts who came to visit. Giving birth was a much more pleasant experience in Oatlands, tended, as she was, by the baby club, taking it in turns to shuffle and whisper and fetch. It was an accepted part of the family routine – just as the men gathered to harvest each other’s fields in turn, so the ladies attended their private harvest several times a year.

Scarlet fever broke into the family circle just six months later.

Phoebe knew what to do to protect the rest of the children but lacked the skill to save her baby. Doctor Willis rumbled by too late and too complacent to do anything. Emma Louisa Jillett was simply taken away in a tiny box, buried with minor ceremony and life went on. The baby club were sympathetic, even tearful, but they knew that a quarter of their children would die before they were five. It was normal. Phoebe was running slightly ahead of average. The art of it, of course, was to have as many children as possible to give the odds a better chance. Something was built in to these people, an instinct to survive, to expand and grow – some piece of family wisdom had decreed they must reproduce.

Phoebe was the high princess of this philosophy. She was driven to reproduction by forces far beyond her understanding. She approached the bed with an enthusiasm that sometimes startled John Jillett, but the two of them had travelled so far in that very bed together he had learnt to accept the invitation to complete licence she offered. She was sensational, if somewhat noisy, in the sack.

In rapid succession five healthy children tumbled out those child-bearing hips in five years. They settled into a routine of pregnancy, birth, breast-feeding, the making of babies, pregnancy, birth; Phoebe grew and shrank every fifteen months for years, kids hung off every trailing part of her when she moved, she was blissfully happy and busier than any woman had ever been. She just took it all as it unfolded as a willing participant. There was no thought of choice or lifestyle, just a bovine acceptance that this was her fate. She saw no need to alter it.

So, between 1853 and 1858 five children appeared. Frederickwas first in 1853, Chester came next the following year, Edwin took his first breath in 1856, Louisa in ’57 and Emily in 1858. The odds were stacked up in her favor. She’d had ten children, lost two to the fever, she was way ahead of par. Family Christmas in 1858 was a joyous, raucous affair as they all sat back and rejoiced in the sheer bedlam of it all.

Then, just after the New Year, as summer came in earnest, the horror began.


Freddy was a popular child, full of energy and childish grace. Phoebe loved him no more or no less than all the others, but secretly saw herself in him and gave him wise indulgence at strategic times. He was six years old that January, running and leaping around his brothers and sisters with a ferocious abandon. She looked out the window and smiled. Freddy was organising those children into teams, bossing them about with a natural authority, but he was a bit of a sook. Still, he was only a child.

When he complained of a sore throat she thought nothing of it for an afternoon but after he came back flushed and feverish she began to get worried. This was such a perfect time of year. Things couldn’t be better, she thought as she held one hand to his forehead and felt the fever grow. Scarlet Fever was the first thing she considered – he had all the signs. The thought of young Freddy going the way of his brother and sister had Phoebe sending for the doctor before tea.

Dr. Willis arrived, somewhat the worse for wear. He cast one look at the child and declared it was Scarlet Fever. Phoebe went cold, but in his next breath he espoused wonderful new treatments for said disease, a miracle, really, have no fear. So she calmed down a little and attended to the boy.

She was so busy with Freddy and the other children she barely noticed her husband when he told her he’d heard of other illness in the district as well. She was efficiently spreading Freddy’s disease right through the house, from child to child in turn with not the faintest idea of what she was doing. She was in war mode. One of her brood was sick.

The next morning Freddy complained of something clogging up his throat. His glands were swollen too. The sore throat had worsened and Phoebe racked her brains trying to think of smooth easy things that he could eat. He wasn’t very hungry. This was serious, not some little boy complaining, Phoebe sent again for the doctor.

This time Dr. Willis looked gravely at Phoebe.

‘Your lad has the Scarlet Fever, Mrs. Jillett, from which he may not recover.’

He bustled over the sick boy then retired to the parlour.

‘Medicine. Medicine is the only hope. Medicine and prayer.’

Stupid old fool, she thought as his carriage rolled away down the track.Frederick was getting weaker by the minute. She turned away and nearly ran over Chester, standing alone in the doorway.

‘My throat hurts, Mummy.’

Chester was only four.

‘Am I going to die?’

She laughed and gathered him up into her bosom. He cried a little tear and opened his mouth. She peered in and gasped at the redness. His whole throat was raw. She forced a smile back onto her face and told him it was not too bad and took him straight to bed. Now she was really worried. It was January 15.

Freddy steadily got worse, followed relentlessly by Chester. The little one was less advanced in the disease than Freddy, but things went the same way. Sore throat, fever, this clagging goo in their throats. They grew weaker, more poisoned, lay there, cried.

On the 18th of February Freddy suddenly stopped breathing. His little eyes opened wide as his lungs ceased their function. He was conscious and he was suffocating. Phoebe and John were by his side and watched in horror as his eyes darted around the room searching for air. They grew wider and his swollen face a little redder then, with not a sound, just a look of rage, he died.

Phoebe’s grief was huge. Her shoulders fell and she sobbed bitter tears in her husband’s arms. The other children crowded round the doorway. She ushered them and showed them their dead brother and they silently kissed his forehead one last time.

Chester took the Scarlet Fever medicines with a grimace and continued to get worse. Just four days after Freddy, little Chester went to God. His end was no less relentless, but kinder in its way. Chester’s heart stopped beating when his Mother looked away. She turned back to find him lifeless, sleeping peacefully in his bed. Her grief was quieter this time. She sat and pondered his swollen little head and wondered what might have been. Then she broke out in a gutteral sob that brought her husband running. The boy was dead.

John had been attending to the baby. Emily was five months old and had been crying. For a moment Phoebe froze, but she could not take in the information. She had little Chester’s hand in hers and thought that she would break.

John brought news of Thomas. His brother’s much cherished son was dead. Young Frank Powell had succumbed to the Fever just the day before. Phoebe looked stricken. Frank was the same age as Freddy. They had played together over New Year, spent days together till Freddy got sick. Not a word was spoken between them about what both were thinking. Emily’s cry lifted John from his thoughts and he got up slowly to attend to her. He heard his older children hurrying to her side. He sighed and sat down again to stare for a while into Chester’s lifeless face and try to sear the image into his brain. He was cold with sorrow.

Emily’s death was more wrenching, if possible, that the boys.

As a baby she had no way of explaining what was happening to her, sank into the deep and distressing torpor then convulsed her way to the other world with heart-stopping drama. Phoebe and John were worn out. Doctor Willis dropped by regularly now, with news that the Fever was sweeping the district. Amelia, Thomas’ four year old second child was poorly, showing all the signs of the disease, Phoebe was rigid with despair.

They stumbled through a week in February without more disaster then Amelia, their niece  was dead. Thomas lost her just twenty-three days after his son. He was inconsolable when he came round to visit. He hugged the two littlest children and sobbed over their shoulders. Phoebe and John knew exactly how he felt.

Louisa succumbed next. She was two and went to her maker quietly and without fuss. She was sick for a week and a half then died abruptly in her older sister’s arms, her head lolling, eyes staring vacantly at the floor. The child carried her silently into her mother and laid her down on the bed.

‘Louisa’s died Mummy.’

The mattress shook with Mother’s sobs.

Edwin took ten days to die and with his passing something of Phoebe’s spirit finally fled her. She was exhausted, she had no more tears left. She looked at John and felt him draw closer and hold her shoulders, looked away when she saw he was going to cry.

The great Scarlet Fever Epidemic was over, dead children lay piled in the churchyard but the full story was yet to be told. Thomas turned his grief into action and turned detective. He followed his trail through relatives to New Norfolk where a similar epidemic had broken out. There were 276 cases in the district but the local G.P., Dr. Moore had done an autopsy after the second death and discovered the real culprit was Diphtheria. The correct medication was applied and only six children in the district died.

Thomas had found the culprit.

Doctor Willis had killed their children as sure as Diphtheria. He’s been treating them for the wrong disease all along. All those deaths were preventable – that made it even harder to bear. Phoebe consoled herself by getting pregnant twice more immediately but the thrill was missing. She never really got over that summer in 1859. The waste of it. The unnecessary cruelty.



I beg to enclose a prescription for diphtheria, and a few remarks respecting that disease, as follows: – Unfortunately my brother’s family was the first attacked in Tasmania, February, 1859.  He and I lost seven children in seven weeks.  I lost my children in 23 days.  The doctor (Dr. Willis) did not know what the complaint really was, and I believe treated it for scarlet fever, with an ulcerated throat, through which many lives were lost… 

‘The late Dr. Moore of New Norfolk, Tasmania, had cases, and lost two patients, on one of which he held a post mortem examination, and discovered it was diphtheria.  He had 276 cases at that time, and only lost six.  The remainder of my time in Tasmania after 1859, I always kept the remedy in the house, and saved the lives of many children. One of my daughters had a very bad attack some time after this  I called on Dr. Willis of Oatlands, who merely saw me apply the remedy, and she made a speedy cure.  The enclosed prescription is a true copy of the one I received from Dr. Moore personally. Fumigate the house with sulphur three or four times a week.’ 

Yours faithfully, Thomas Jillett,

Moonee Ponds, Melbourne, April 21. 1880


Diphtheria is a very contagious and potentially life-threatening infection that usually  attacks the throat and nose. In more serious cases, it can attack the nerves and heart. Diphtheria is caused by Corynebacterium diphtheriae, a bacterium. The bacterium produces a toxin (poison) that is carried in the bloodstream. Diphtheria bacteria live in the mouth, nose, throat, or skin of infected persons. Diphtheria spreads from person to person very easily. People get diphtheria by breathing in diphtheria bacteria after  an infected person has coughed or sneezed. People also get diphtheria from close contact with discharges from an infected person’s mouth, nose, throat, or skin. Usually, diphtheria develops in the throat. Early symptoms are a sore throat and mild  fever. A membrane that forms over the throat and tonsils can make it hard to  swallow. The infection also causes the lymph glands and tissue on both sides of the neck to swell to an unusually large size. Some people can be infected but not appear ill. They can also spread the infection. Symptoms usually appear 2 to 4 days after infection.

Diphtheria is most common in areas where people live in crowded conditions with poor sanitation.If diphtheria is not properly treated, or not treated in time, the bacteria can produce a powerful toxin (poison). This poison can spread through the body and cause serious, often life-threatening complications. The diphtheria toxin can damage the heart muscles and cause heart failure or paralyze the breathing muscles. The membrane that forms over the tonsils can also move deeper into the throat and block the airway. Diphtheria is a medical emergency. A delay in treatment can result in death or long-term heart disease. A person with diphtheria should be hospitalized until fully recovered. Diphtheria was once one of the most common causes of death in children.

She had just settled back to enjoy the marriage of her elder children when John fell gravely ill while on a trip to Hobart. There was typhoid about. Phoebe rushed to his side but on the 20th November 1868 he died in a blistering fever that quite took her breath away. She caught the disease whilst nursing him and fell seriously ill when she returned home to York Plains. The hated Dr. Willis was at her bedside when she died a month later on the 19th December. It was a sad Christmas in Oatlands that year.

They left behind three  orphan daughters, Alice just  turned nine, Helen, seven and little Amelia – only four. They lie side by side in St. Peters Anglican Church in Oatlands, their headstones still visible to this day.

I  must pay a visit to sad Phoebe, lay a flower on her grave. The woman who loved children still needs affection. It’s her due.




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