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Henry Hadden's Eventful Life and Unusual Death

Shady Creek cemetery in 2009

Henry Hadden's gravestone in Shady Creek cemetery reserve in 2009
Photo courtesy Tamara Alink

Henry Hadden was Walhalla's first resident doctor.

Even so, we don't really know all that much about him. There are no known family likenesses of him that we can show you, and apparently there were none made after he arrived in Australia, and his family back home lost all sight of him. We know when he lived, and we certainly know when and where and how (if not exactly conclusively why) he died. Such details as are known about his life, however, deserve recording as an example of a pioneer doctor who came to Australia in search of a new life, only to fall foul of the law and his own personal demons before redeeming himself as Walhalla's first resident doctor, and in that role, saving the infant township from a pestilence that could easily have wiped it entirely off the map.

William Henry Hadden was born in Wexford, in SE Ireland in 1827 as the eighth-born and fifth son of 11 children who were born to John and Eleanor Hadden. At home, he was and to his family, still is known only as "William", or sometimes, "Poor William", but in Australia, apparently eager to distance himself from his earlier life, he preferred to be known as "Henry". His father, a Methodist minister, died in 1842, when Henry was 15 years old. .

By 1844, the family had moved on from Wexford, and Henry was learning medicine by serving an apprenticeship under his brother, David, an apothecary in Skibbereen, who himself had likewise previously served his own apprenticeship with their eldest brother, John. Apprenticeship as an apothecary, graduating as a "Licentiate of an Apothecary Hall" (LAH), was one of three common and equally well-respected routes into a medical career in the first half of the nineteenth century (the others were by serving a similar apprenticeship to a practising surgeon, or most expensively by graduating from a university as an M.D.). Henry's education took place during the depths of Ireland's catastrophic potato famine, in one of the worst-affected townships in the country, where in some parishes, it was estimated that in barely six months, the population declined by almost a quarter due to famine and resulting disease.

A new world

Like scores of thousands of others from all over the world, driven in equal measure by the need to flee from increasingly dire economic and political conditions at home, and no doubt attracted by the fabled promise of easy pickings in a distant el Dorado, he migrated to Melbourne in 1853, serving en route as assistant to the stand-in ship's surgeon when the ship's original surgeon was dismissed early in the voyage for drunken negligence.

And just like many others who made the voyage, he was possibly a victim of oversold (and seriously under-delivered) expectations, and as a result, didn't exactly hit the ground running on his arrival. He was unable to find work in Melbourne, where more than anything else, builders and labourers were in critically short supply; doctors and other skilled professionals, not so much. Housing was extremely limited and very expensive in the infant state capital, which had only been first settled barely 18 years earlier. This resulted in a vast "Canvastown" springing up just south of the present site of Prince's Bridge, accommodating itinerants of all nationalities on their way to try their luck on the goldfields. In a grimly ironic foretaste of what was to come, Henry Hadden tried his hand as a labourer on the Colony's new roads, but only lasted for a day, earning 10 shillings, and instead ended up practising medicine from a tent on the Mt Alexander goldfield.

He had travelled across the world in hopes of escaping from a serious problem with alcohol abuse, which perhaps inevitably caught up with him in the rough and tumble of the primitive diggings, where copious quantities of alcohol, mostly of very doubtful quality, was available from a multitude of sly-grog establishments. It led to a scandalous dereliction of his medical duty, resulting in the death at Castlemaine of a certain Mrs Ellen Kirkham in childbirth, and the loss of her newborn infant as well, in October, 1855. As a result of this, and with the popular press baying for his blood, he was charged with manslaughter through the fault of his drunken negligence, was quickly convicted, and was sentenced to three years on the roads, with hard labour.

Arrival in Walhalla

Following his release in April, 1857, he disappeared into obscurity in the alpine border area, and was next found to be working as a tutor to a grazier's family near Omeo in 1862, moving on to become an early citizen and the first resident doctor at Walhalla in early 1866, where he bought a property in the first land auction at Happy go Lucky in October, 1866.

A badly mis-diagnosed smallpox outbreak in Melbourne in late 1868 divided the medical fraternity there and resulted in the infection of 42 people, taking no fewer than nine lives across the metropolitan area before it was eventually declared to have been brought under control in May, 1869.

One of its last victims was 21-year-old Sarah Ann Jones, who had married William Hanks, a Walhalla miner, on Tuesday, February 16th, 1869, in Fitzroy. She was already ill when they arrived in Walhalla on Wednesday, March 10th, and stayed temporarily to enjoy wedding festivities at the Grand Junction Hotel, where on the strength of his experience in Skibbereen Henry Hadden immediately and unambiguously diagnosed the newlywed Mrs Hanks' ailment as smallpox, a diagnosis that was promptly confirmed by his recently-arrived American colleague, James Boone, M D.

The couple were immediately confined to the Grand Junction Hotel, scene of their wedding festivities, but a week later, in the dark of the night, Hanks spirited his wife out of the hotel window and away to his home a few hundred meters up the valley. An infuriated group of miners, rightly concerned for their own health and that of their families, were only with some difficulty dissuaded from burning the hotel down to punish the licensee for allowing his escape. In the interests of safeguarding public health, an ad-hoc committee of the town's leading citizens resolved to isolate Hadden and his wife in their home by building an 8 foot (2.5m) paling fence all the way around the allotment, with only Dr Hadden allowed to enter and leave, in order to monitor their condition and tend to the seriously ill Mrs Hanks.

In spite of his attentions, Sarah died less than a week later, on March 23rd and it was immediately decided to bury her body in the bush at the top of the hill behind their house. Her husband was moved into quarantine further up the valley and away from the town, and his house and all its contents, as well as the one behind and above it, were burnt to the ground.

In the following weeks, Hanks himself was eventually cleared from any suspicion of the dreaded disease, and was not heard from again until he appeared in the Sale General Sessions in September of 1870 defending the very serious charge of gold stealing. During his defence, he admitted to concealing gold assaying equipment when his house had been burned. Despite his discharge on a technicality, rather than acquittal, the very fact of being charged effectively ended his chances of ever again earning a living on a goldfield. He left Walhalla and was never heard from there again.

Death in the dark

But Henry Hadden had little opportunity to bask in the glory of his accomplishment in saving the town; around midnight on the night of May 29th, while returning to Walhalla from a trip to Melbourne on private business, between the Buneep (Bunyip) River and Crossover turnoff, northwest of Shady Creek, Henry Hadden was found to have died, presumably from alcohol poisoning, in the darkened coach in which he was travelling. His body was transported on to Shady Creek the following Tuesday by Mounted Constable William O'Brien Smyth, where it was buried at an ungazetted graveyard attached to the "Drover's Rest" Hotel, following a hastily-convened inquest under the direction of Coroner Henry Luke of Rosedale, and conducted before a jury of predominantly Walhalla and Happy-go-Lucky residents on Wednesday, June 2nd. The inquest found that he had died from unknown causes: "there was no evidence to show cause of death, and ... there were no marks of violence upon the body."

Published photos of Hadden's gravesite

Hadden's gravesite in earlier times
From [L] "Lonely Graves of the Gippsland Goldfields" (J G Rogers & N Hellyar, 1994), p 156 and
[R] "Walhalla Graveyard to Cemetery" (Y Reynolds, 2007), p 16 -- early 1900s, and 1986

Although it was a fairly well-known landmark to locals in earlier years, his grave-site is now on private property, and can only be accessed by arrangement with the owners of the property, who understandably take a dim view of unauthorised trespassers disturbing the cattle that graze there. The photos above are earlier pictures of his gravesite; the one below shows it more recently, behind the post-and-rail fence that the owners of the property have very graciously caused to have erected around the gravesite, to keep the cattle that are thought to have broken the headstone neatly in two from causing any further damage to it.

gravesite today

Preserved gravesite at Shady Creek
... on [decidedly] private property

The family in Ireland say that they never heard from Henry Hadden again after his first (and only) disappointed letter home, written very soon after his arrival in Australia in mid-1853, although later knowledge of his legal escapades could perhaps account for them speaking of him today as "poor William". His name appeared in "Doctors and Diggers of the Mount Alexander Goldfields", published in 1974 by K M Bowden. This publication resulted in an earlier visit by one of his great-grand-nieces with an interest in family history. The site was visited again in November, 2011 by her brother, the late Dr David Hadden and his wife, Diana.

Some suggested that his headstone was paid for by his grieving sisters back in Ireland, but the physical evidence supports the alternative explanation of a local attempt to honour his memory, because too much detail is simply wrong his family would surely have insisted on the headstone commemorating the brother they always knew as "William", rather than "Henry" (and in fact, William Henry, rather than Henry William, a mistake they certainly would not have made). Of all people, they would surely have known that he was not in fact an "M.D.", as explained above, but rather a "Lic. Apoth. Hall [Dubl]", or even just "LAH [Dub]". And finally, they would have known, of course, that he was born in 1827 and could therefore not possibly have died "aged 47 years" in 1869, although they might have been more readily forgiven for getting the exact date of his death (May 29th, and certainly not July 25th) so badly wrong.

Walhalla's improbable saviour, Doctor Henry Hadden, had himself never married, and as far as is known, never left any offspring.

If you came to this page recalling that it contained much more, you're not mistaken it used to be the first part of a multi-part series extending across a variety of related topics, but those pages have been temporarily withdrawn while we work them into a book that will eventually include all of the original story and more, which we hope to sell through the Corner Store in order to raise further funds for the Walhalla Heritage and Development League.


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This page was created on 27/3/18.