born 21 January 1877, died 12 March 1947
Emily Biggs was born on 21 January 1877 at St Leonards.1 She was the 8th child and youngest daughter of Stephen Biggs and Margaret Henderson.
Her early life was spent at home until the age of six. The Public Instruction Act of 1880 meant schooling was compulsory for all children between the ages of six and 14 years. By the time Emily had reached school age, Petersham Public School was most likely where Emily would have received a general education in reading writing and arithmetic as well as being given the all-important instruction in plain and fancy needlework. The type of education she received is described by an article on St Leonards Public School by The Australian Town and Country Journal (30 Nov1878) at the time of its opening in 1878, a single teacher with an assistant “has charge of the infant school, numbering 146; the discipline is good, indicating every fitness for the post on the part of the teacher”.
With limited employment opportunities for women and those being mainly in service, the girls’ education reflected the expectation, especially as they were from the middle class, that they would be fully engaged in marriage and motherhood. Emily, like all but one of her five sisters, Jessie, was a “spinster”. The reasons why Emily and most of her sisters did not marry can be traced to several events in the family history, death plays a significant role in all of them.
The first death that impacted the family occurred before Emily’s birth when her grandmother, Margaret Henderson, died in 1875. Following her death, it was expected that the family would remain in deep morning for a year. Her husband, Thomas, who was 60 years old, did not follow this custom and remarried within six months. This would have been acceptable if the marriage was to replace his children’s mother, but that was not the case as all of his children were adults. His actions would have scandalised society and been regarded as amoral. The scandal surrounding the family did not stop there as two years later he separated from his second wife and in 1878 he was forced into insolvency due in part to his wife’s lavish spending. The impact of his behaviour and the consequences would have humiliated the entire family causing them to withdraw from society.
As well as the family’s undoubted withdrawal from society’s there was also the impact of the deaths of thirteen close family members in the period between 1885, with the “passing” of two great aunts, to 1918, and with the death of their brother, a period when most young women would be in the marriage market. To refute any possible further slur on the family’s conduct the women of the Biggs family would have strictly adhered to strict mourning practices requiring them to remain at home as much as possible and minimising social interaction. By the time the social isolation caused by this string of deaths had concluded in 1918 Emily was 41 years old and well past the age to be considered marriageable.
Other factors also impacted on the lives of the women of the family. It was considered acceptable to remain a spinster if they clearly devoted themselves to caring for others such as doing housework, the raising of nieces and nephews and nursing of anyone in the family who was ill. Emily’s older sister Anna was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis and by the time Emily was ten years of age had become completely bedridden and required care for the next twenty years. The three unmarried sisters, Ellen, Alice and Emily would have assumed the role of carer and nurse as their mother was bearing a child every two years and would have been unable to cope with the large household without their assistance.
With the death of her parents in 1912 and her oldest sister, Ellen, in 1913, sisters Alice and Emily took on the role of housekeepers and carers for their two brothers that remained at home, Henry and Charles. Henry enlisted in 1915 and returned a shattered man requiring admission the Callan Park Mental Hospital where he stayed until he died. Yet another terrible mark as far as the society was concerned for the family to endure. Charles was single, he worked as an ironmonger and remained with his sisters most of his life until he too was admitted to Callan Park. He had developed Alzheimer’s in his late 60s.
Their strict observance of mourning is evidenced by the picture of Emily. The photo was probably taken around the time of her parents’ death in 1912 and complies with societies rule that women were to be dressed entirely in black mourning attire including every conceivable article of clothing as well as hair accessories, umbrellas, and purses.
Dressed in black from head to two the photo of Emily makes her look the part of stern “maiden aunt” but this was not the case although they did remain very Victorian and strict Church of England in their attitudes.
When I look at her face in the picture, I see a strong woman with a slight smile and a twinkle in her eye that makes me think there was a bit of fun hidden behind that facade.
In 1929 Alice and Emily’s lives were turned around when their youngest brother Francis turned to them for help. His wife had a mental illness and was admitted to Callan Park where she was to remain for the rest of her life. Two of his sons, Charles, my father, who was 13 and Frederick 10, needed a stable home life, so they assumed the care of their two nephews. Charles was my father, and he always spoke of them with respect and gratitude for their care during his childhood.
After a life of caring for her extended family and living according to the rules of society and the church, Aunty Em, as she was always called by my Dad, died on 10 March 1947, at the Walwayne Private Hospital, Liverpool Road, Croydon..2 She suffered from arteriosclerosis and had a cerebral thrombosis. She is buried at St Thomas Church of England Cemetery, Enfield.
- Birth Certificate for Emily Biggs, 21 January 1877, Registration No. 1877/00358, Registry of Births Deaths and Marriages, New South Wales. Certified copy in possession of author.
- Death Certificate for Emily Biggs, 10 March 1947, Registration No. 1947/006298, Registry of Births Deaths and Marriages, New South Wales. Certified copy in possession of author.