Friday, August 4, 2017

Minding other people’s children — Samuel Albert Nelmes

It started with a phone call from someone who wanted to know where her great-grandfather Samuel Albert Nelmes had lived in Avondale, in the 1890s. I’ve had a number of such enquiries over the years; unless the person owned land here, usually from the time of the 1880s subdivisions on Rosebank and in the Roberton area, it can be next-to-impossible to determine where someone was within the old Avondale Road Board area, in the days before even the Wises Directories bothered to recognise we have streets here, and simply listed those who lived here in columns that provided no guide as to address. 

Still, I said I’d have a look, and his descendant contacted me by email a little later with further information. As it turned out, there were some leads. Nelmes advertised in 1891 that he had a Hereford bull for sale, “near Avondale Railway Station.” In 1896, he advertised for “grazers” (those willing to pay a fee to graze their animals on his property), again “near” the station. Then, I noticed he was registered under the Infant Life Protection Act, as a caregiver for other people’s children. Something he had trouble with the law over in 1899. Immediately afterward, Elizabeth Stallard advertised that she was willing to look after children under the same regulation (she had been doing this off and on at least from 1895), and George Stallard was advertising “7 acres and a cottage, close to Avondale Station, to let.” The same George Stallard who, in 1890, just before Nelmes appeared in Avondale according to the newspapers, advertised “11 acres, with cottage and outbuildings, to let, at Avondale, close to the station.” 

The descendant contacted me just before I was heading down to Wellington this year to do research on the Ligar Canal down Queen Street. I offered to add on to my list of files to request down at Wellington Archives NZ some held there on Samuel Nelmes, and his wife Anne. These were files related to their licenses to look after other people’s children under the Act, both here in Avondale and also near Royal Oak. The Avondale property was confirmed as being 11 acres in extent. This matches only one available site in Avondale, “near” the Avondale Station, in the 1890s — James P Sinclair’s farm, now Himikera Avenue and surrounds. Which means Sinclair probably leased the land and house to Stallard, who in turn sub-leased to Nelmes. The house they used may also still be in existence — at 100 Blockhouse Bay Road. 

The story behind the name, though, was even more interesting. 

Samuel Albert Nelmes (1843-1903) was born in Gloucestershire, the son of Thomas Nelmes who was an “oil and colourman” in the 1861 Bristol census. Samuel married Anne Jessop Hadley in 1869, and by 1871 seems to have taken on his father's business on Thomas’ retirement, employing five men and a boy in the wholesale and retail oil and colour trade. He even seems to have taken on the hobby of writing music, his compositions being sold at sheet music sellers in Bath. Then, in August 1874, his world crashed around him, when he was committed to the Brislington Asylum. He was discharged in December that year, but wound up in care yet again at Laverstock Asylum, February to August 1876. According to what Anne later (in 1899) told Avondale police constable Patrick Crean, at some point around that time of Nelmes’ committals to insane asylums, he had attempted to commit suicide by choking himself with his garter, but his mother saved his life. 

The result was that he left the family business, and took his wife and children to live in Australia, possibly for the sake of his mental health. He had developed something of a paranoid mania, however - constantly imagining that he was being followed, that unseen forces were conspiring against him. More bad news came from England: his father died in June 1877, and the estate was auctioned and sold, including the business. Samuel returned briefly to England in 1885, sold off his remaining property, made it clear in public notices that he had no part in the business of T Nelmes & Son that was still continuing, and then left once again, this time for New Zealand, in 1886. 

For a time, the Nelmes family stayed at “Brightside”, a farm near Manurewa’s railway station. Then, as we’ve seen, Samuel brought his family to Avondale in 1891. 

According to a letter Nelmes wrote to police Inspector Hickson in October 1894, “owing to a twitch in some English business” he and his wife had taken in two children as their paid caregivers, and planned to take in a third but only as “a temporary arrangement for a livelihood,” and, “we don’t profess to be Baby Farmers.” 

Now, there’s an emotive term. “Baby farming” was something that had been talked about in scandalised and appalled tones in the newspapers since the late 1860s — the practice of (usually) women taking in the illegitimate children of the working class, ostensibly to raise and then possibly arrange to adopt out, but in some dreadful cases either ill-cared for or outright murdered, so that the “baby farmer” could pass on to the next paying proposition. In this country, baby farming will always be associated with Minnie Dean from Winton, the only woman hanged for the deaths of some of her charges, and within the same decade as the Nelmeses started their income side-line, although a few years later. 

The Nelmeses certainly were not baby farmers in the negative sense. None of their charges came to any harm under their care, so the records show. They simply appear to have started out with an employment agent named Mrs Lockley of Queen Street recommending to the women who approached her for jobs that the Nelmeses would be good at caring for their children. They charged the mothers 26/- per month. Samuel and Anne applied for and received their official licence in November 1894. 

Every child the Nelmeses took in had to be registered with the authorities under the Infant Life Protection Act, so the police kept a close eye on how many children, including three of Samuel and Ann’s own, were in the Avondale house at any one time. In 1895, Samuel Nelmes came under investigation when one child was apparently uplifted by its mother and taken “somewhere in the Waikato” — the Act made it mandatory that the child’s destination had to be precisely noted, so he was up for a possible fine and imprisonment. The stress of the situation seems to have rekindled some of Nelmes’ earlier eccentric mania from the 1870s. The official files in Wellington are full of his correspondence, neatly written missives on paper folded in half lengthwise, and written on both sides. At this point, he claimed that he had been forced to leave the Manurewa farm owing to some kind of financial “reversion” linked to a “life interest.” (At the time, Anne Nelmes was borrowing money to keep the family going from a Mr John Abbott, the collateral being her likely interest in her parent’s estate once they had passed away.) Samuel proclaimed himself an intellectual man and a inventor who was in correspondence with the British War Office and even Thomas Alva Edison. He didn’t want the stain of a prison sentence on his reputation, which he valued at £5000. He wrote of “hideous cowards” out to injure his name some years before, and brought up his “inflammation of the brain” from the 1870s brought on, he said, by “unceasing attention to business and a hobby or two going.” Nelmes ended up being fined 20s, the authorities not realising that, in amongst the correspondence, Nelmes had revealed his ongoing mental condition. 

For the next nearly four years, things proceeded normally. Samuel was supported by the likes of Amos Eyes, the local stationmaster, and John Bollard for references when he renewed his licence each year. Locals knew he was a bit eccentric in his ways, but seemed well enough to get on with. Children were registered as entering and leaving their care; there was one brief time when Samuel Nelmes tried taking in a fourth child when he was only licensed for three, but this was sorted amicably. But Nelmes wanted more income, and that meant taking in more babies. The Avondale house wasn’t big enough, so he simply left Avondale, and shifted to a larger house near Royal Oak on Manukau Road, and took in a fourth child. This, however, was illegal. Under the regulations, he couldn’t just simply transfer his house license to another house, and then just add another child, and Constable Crean (on inspecting the new house) told him this. He was fined £2 this time — and his licence was cancelled. 

He put pen to paper and wrote to the newspapers, describing the situation as a “reign of terror on a small scale” and an “uncalled-for prosecution.” At the heart of the matter, though, was Nelmes’ revealing his state of mind in some over-the-top correspondence to the police during the issue over the licence (including his description of being persecuted by a secret society). This triggered an order for Constable Crean to go out and tactfully make enquiries as to Nelmes’ state of mental health, which in turn led Anne’s confession to Constable Crean, in Samuel’s presence, that he had attempted suicide all those years ago. 

Suddenly, the authorities viewed his prolific protestations by correspondence and their content not just as the writings of someone with eccentricities. A man with a record of mental health problems was not someone deemed fit to look after other people’s babies, especially not after the Minnie Dean case. It was felt that his state of mind could worsen, and he could become a risk. His licence was therefore cancelled. Nelmes’ worst enemy wasn’t some “secret society” — it was from within. 

The authorities didn’t tell Nelmes that he had lost his licence not because of a failure to dot i’s and cross t’s, but because of his state of mind. So he continued writing, protesting to the Minister of Justice and even to the Premier, Richard Seddon, but all to no avail. 

Samuel and Anne Nelmes left New Zealand in 1900 and settled near Melbourne. There, he continued to have the impression that someone, somewhere, was out to stymie his every attempt at success in life. He died in 1903; Anne lived on and returned eventually to New Zealand, dying here in 1918. 

How much of her inheritance from England was left for her to enjoy is unknown.

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