Monday, June 11, 2018

William Norris and daughter Nellie Norris - Update

Be patient - the 'juicy bits' of this story come later in this post.

Subsequent to the publication in August 2012 of my prize-winning book about the life of Charles Homer Martin, Ann Forrester and their children, Southwark Luck, many more newspapers have been digitised by the National Library of Australia, with their content accessible via that marvellous online resource Trove - so aptly named, being every researcher's treasure trove.

This meant I was able to confirm certain matters about Susannah Martin's husband William Norris, published in a blog story on 13 June 2013. This new post updates that original post.

In the five years since then, one of William's distant relatives by marriage, Carol Roberts of Windsor, has come into possession of an old family photo album. In November 1916 we met at Windsor and discussed the photos therein and, now that identities have been sorted out,  I'm happy to publish this photo of William Norris, 1840-1887, by courtesy of Carol Roberts.

The obituary for William & Susannah's daughter Nellie (Windsor & Richmond Gazette, Fri 16 Mar 1928, p 3, col b) states that her father was licensee of the Railway Hotel in Windsor for a period. Therefore the William Norris life events I described on pages 282-285 of my book Southwark Luck definitely applied to Nellie's father and not a different man by that name.

Finding Nellie's published obituary also allowed me to correct the details about her date of death, as published on page 292 of Southwark Luck. She died on 9 March 1928, as Nellie Dowling. Her new name points to a much more important aspect of Nellie's life and times. Please read on.

She was Nellie Dowling because two years earlier, on 27 February 1926, at St Mary Immaculate Church in the Sydney suburb of Manly where her new mother-in-law lived, Nellie had married Charles Edward Dowling. He'd gone to war in 1916 over-stating his age and claiming to be a 21-year-old farmer, but his marriage record ten years later declared his true age (28 years) and gave his occupation as linesman.

Pianist Nellie, on the other hand, was now 46 years old but she stated her age as 31 years. It was true, she looked youthful in her photo (taken at an unknown date) but it's often hard for women to disguise their age to that extent.

Why did she do this? Did Charles know, or ever learn, the truth? By all accounts the Dowlings were a devoted couple during their short married life, and young Charles mourned the loss of his wife. He honoured her with 'In Memoriam' notices in 1929 and 1930 before his own death in Queensland in 1935.

Carol Roberts of Windsor has also recently discovered a wonderful photograph of Nellie, taken in Sydney much later in her life. Despite the poor quality of this old photo, Nellie did look much younger than her age! 

Later press coverage suggests that no-one from Windsor was present at the 1926 wedding ceremony - the witnesses were young Manly-based friends of the groom (William Patrick Daley and his brother Fred). If deliberate deception was intended, the marriage venue and choice of witnesses might have suited Nellie very well, as Windsor-ites might have let slip that she'd 'been around' for many years. But the groom no doubt knew this, as he'd been living locally, at Pitt Town, prior to the marriage.

There's a hint that community disapproval was behind Nellie's startling claim - definitely at Windsor (as will be seen), but possibly also among the groom's young friends. Maybe as a couple the Dowlings decided to maintain this public image, to avoid being objects of ridicule, because they immediately moved to live 'out west', far from both Windsor and Manly.

Let's step back to Nellie's character. Her photos do not suggest a flamboyant, 'Auntie Mame' type of personality, trying to be 'mutton dressed up as lamb', as that old saying goes. Indeed, she looks rather earnest, prim and proper in her younger photo and rather intelligent and thoughtful in the second photo, which probably indicates the way she presented herself to the world as a professional singer. And on page 288 of Southwark Luck I did not do her justice in describing her selfless community-mindedness, an attitude apparently absorbed from her mother. I'll redeem myself by re-publishing her obituary (Windsor & Richmond Gazette, Fri 16 Mar 1928, p 3, col b), which tells Nellie's story very well:

The Hawkesbury district was shocked on Friday last when the news became known that Mrs. Charles Dowling (nee Miss Nellie Norris) had passed away in Jenner Private Hospital, Sydney, after a short illness. The deceased was well-known throughout the district, where she did wonderful philanthropic work for many years. She was an accomplished pianiste, and. as Nellie Norris, as she was always affectionately called, carried on the profession of a musician in Windsor from girlhood. A wonderful organiser, she was one of the foremost workers at the farewell and welcome home functions to the soldiers during the war. She also arranged numerous entertainments for the District Hospital, and other local institutions, and with the tact and ability she displayed they were always a huge success.

Deceased was a native of Windsor, a daughter of the late William Norris, who was a successful farmer at Cornwallis for a number of years, and later the licensee of the Railway Hotel, Windsor. After the death of her parents, the subject of this notice lived with her brother-in-law, Mr. John Lamond, senr., the well-known Windsor hairdresser. About two years ago she married Mr. Charles Dowling, of Pitt Town Bottoms, and the couple subsequently took over the license of the Coolabah Hotel, at Coolabah, where they met with outstanding success. The late Mrs. Dowling continued her charitable work in the Nyngan district, and she and her husband, to whom she was greatly attached, became popular residents.

She had, however, not been in the best of health for some time past, and about a month ago entered Nyngan Hospital suffering from internal trouble. About a fort night ago she was brought to Sydney for treatment, but the case was a hopeless one and she passed away on Friday. At the time of death she was 48 years of age. The funeral took place on Saturday afternoon, the remains being laid to rest in St. Matthew's Catholic cemetery, Windsor, Rev. Father McNally performing the last sad rites.

Nellie's unconventional marriage must have shocked the citizens of her home town because two weeks after her death a local resident complained of the districts' ingratitude for Nellie's decades of community service and the show of indifference at her passing:

Being one who frequently admired the public spirit and charitable disposition of the late Mrs. Dowling (nee Nellie Norris), I was somewhat surprised that a public farewell was not tendered to her on the occasion of her marriage and departure from Windsor two years ago. For a period of about 35 years the deceased figured prominently at numerous entertainments in the old town, which never could claim a musician of a higher standard. I am led to believe that upon one occasion about £30 was raised from her own efforts in aid of the Windsor District Hospital, and with the Government subsidy that institution received approximately £60.

At all the functions in honor of 'The Boys' who went to the war, or returned home, Nellie Norris did her part and did it well. At different times her talents, her time, were freely given for the benefit of anyone or any public body that needed assistance yet when the time came for her to leave the old town where she had spent so many years of her life for the benefit of others, she was allowed to go without even the slightest recognition for all the valuable assistance so freely given. Surely she was worthy of some kind of testimonial of public farewell, just to show that her many years of service were valued and appreciated. Should not the hospital committee of the day and the general public hang their heads in shame!

This was not all. When the news filtered through the town and district that the Grim Reaper had claimed her as a victim in the noon day of her life, under circumstances both sudden and sad, what respect did Windsor public show when her remains were brought to her native town for burial? One could almost count on their finger tips the number who joined in that sad cortege at the graveyard. Should not the public of Windsor be doubly ashamed for the cold indifference manifested towards one of the finest musicians and citizens the town ever possessed?

It would have been only a fitting tribute of respect to her memory had all the public institutions flown flap [sic] at half mast high, and the public joined in hundreds at the graveside in loving memory of one who did so much for the slow, sleepy old town of Windsor. (Windsor & Richmond Gazette, Fri 30 Mar 1928, p 6, col a)

A subsequent article suggested that ‘it is not too late to perpetuate her memory by obtaining a life-size portrait and have same nicely framed, suitably inscribed, and hung, in some public place’. (Windsor & Richmond Gazette, Fri 20 Apr 1928, p 12, col d)

Nearly a century later, the above-mentioned Carol Roberts, whose short article about Nellie was published in the Hawkesbury Gazette on 29 May 2013, thinks it's possible that a plaque was eventually dedicated to Nellie's memory.

Today, nothing is known of either a portrait or a plaque honouring one of Windsor's premier, if unconventional, female citizens. At least we now have this second picture of Nellie. The story reminds us that back then, and often today, it's acceptable for a man to marry a woman many years younger than himself, but not vice-versa.


  1. Hi Louise, I hadn't seen this post previously. Nellie apparently had a very successful career in the Hawkesbury as a singer, pianist and teacher. I will be contributing another story to the Hawkesbury Gazette about Nellie later in the year. Thanks for the mention, best wishes, Carol Roberts.

    1. Apologies for my belated reply here, Carol. I think I may have emailed you about this. It was fun sorting out some of your Norris family photos when I visited Windsor a few months ago. All the best, Louise

  2. Interesting article Louise. Amazing how stories can be enhanced with more material being digitised.

    1. Thanks Michelle. Yes, as one of my earlier blog posts was headed, 'By Jove, Love that Trove.' The advent of Trove has made a huge difference to our stories.