Trove Discoveries….Part 2: Little Girl Burnt to Death

Genealogy is more than just locating vital records to identify your ancestors.  This journey is also about bringing our ancestors to life through their stories, lifestyles, occupations, land and communities. 

For Australian genealogists, Trove, provides a valuable resource to uncover the stories of our ancestors.  This online platform has digitised archives from numerous sources, including newspaper articles, books and photographs.  As the name suggests, the more you trove through these archives, the more stories and records you can uncover, I call these little gems that without these, our ancestors just remain the vital events of their lives; births, deaths and marriages. and other online genealogical databases provide other records that can add more to your ancestors history, including immigration records, land titles, wills and probate records, criminal convictions, some family notices, and then there is the little gems that you find on other family trees with ancestors related to your own.

Ancestor Detective showcased the use of Trove while telling the life of Marwood Samuel Kingston Smith, you can read this narrative here.  While researching my 3rd great grandparents, William Slade and Sarah Lo’vanberyl, I came across some articles from Adelaide newspapers during the late 1880’s linked to their son, Thomas, and grand daughter, Elizabeth.  What you will read in this edition is not the gems you expect to find while delving into Trove, unfortunately they are not always good news stories, they are stories that despite being many years ago, will touch your heart and give you a different perspective on the lives your ancestors lived.  This was the case when I started reading about Thomas Slade and Mary Jane Talbot’s daughter Elizabeth.  These articles are not for the faint of heart, the details are somewhat gruesome, and you can only feel for young Elizabeth who suffered considerably in the lead up to her death.

Thomas Slade was born in about 1848, the third child of William Slade (1822 – 1880) and Sarah Lo’vanberyl (1825 – 1903) in Harrogate, South Australia.  In 1873, aged 25 years, Thomas married Mary Jane Talbot, aged 22 years, at Mount Pleasant in South Australia.  

Mary Jane Talbot (Reed) was baptised on 9 March 1851 in Kingsbury Epicoscopi in Somerset, England and was the daughter of Benjamin Talbot (1825 – 1901) and Delilah Reed (1829 – 1916).  Benjamin and Delilah immigrated to South Australia on 29 April 1855 on board the ship “Bermondsey” with their daughters Mary and Louisa.

On 25 December 1873, Mary Jane gave birth to a daughter, Martha at Tigers View in South Australia.  Two more daughters would follow; Elizabeth born 2 May 1875 and Hannah born 13 July 1876.  At the time of their births, Thomas was a farmer in Harrogate and by 1883 he was farming at Salt Creek near Monarto.  

On 31 May 1878, Mary Jane died at just 27 years of age leaving behind her young daughters aged 5, 3 and 2 years old.  Just one year later on 25 August 1879, Thomas married Mary Ann Dunn, aged 23 years, at her father’s home in Talunga, South Australia near Mount Torrens.  

Mary Ann Dunn was born on 15 October 1855, the daughter of George Dunn (abt. 1827 – 1906) and Mary Williams (abt. 1834 – 1915), in Adelaide, South Australia.  Step mother to Thomas’s three girls; Martha (1873 – 1959), Elizabeth (1875 – 1888) and Hannah (1876 – 1958), Mary Ann would give birth to three children; John (1881 – 1954), Ellen (1884 – 1965) and William (1886 – 1962).

Tragedy hits the Slade family

Nearly ten years after the death of her mother, Elizabeth was sent to the home of Wilhelm Kuchel and wife, Pauline, in Murray Bridge as a servant when her older sister Martha was unable to do so.  In May 1887, Elizabeth was in their home alone when her dress and undergarments caught fire while attending to the home’s fireplace.  Shortly after the fire started Mrs Kuchel returned to the home to find young Elizabeth’s clothes burning from the waist down, after rolling her in the sand outside, she placed Elizabeth on the couch and treated the burns with lard, starch and red precipitate powder. 

Despite pleas from Elizabeth to send for her father, the Kuchel family did not do so and it was not until Wilhelm passed Thomas on his farm on the 30 May that he mentioned that there was an accident and ‘clothes had caught fire’, but commented that she would be okay in a week or so.  Concerned for Elizabeth’s welfare Thomas and Mary Ann traveled to the Kuchel’s property in Murray Bridge and found Elizabeth lying on a couch with a cup of water beside her but out of reach of the young girl. 

Thomas and Mary Ann put Elizabeth in their cart and drove home to Mount Torrens where they removed the putrid bandages, which did not appear to have been changed since the 27 May.  They then telegraphed for Dr Esau who attended the following morning.  The doctor found Elizabeth to be in a ‘deplorable condition‘, with severe burns from the waist down and the start of gangrene on her back and abdomen ‘from being grossly neglected‘ and with no hope of recovery.   Elizabeth in incredible pain tragically died on 7 June, some ten days after the fire.

On the 8 June, an inquest began at the Mount Torrens Hotel before Mr Lauterbach, J.P and a jury who took statements from Thomas and Mary Ann Slade and Dr Esau.  The Kuchel family were called before the jury on the 13 June where they contradicted the statements of the family and doctor who attended to Elizabeth until her death.  They stated that Elizabeth was fine following the incident, did not require medical aid and was ‘walking about the house days after she was burnt‘ and denied that she had been neglected during that time and that they had treated her burns ‘as if they would treat their own child‘.  They also denied that they refused to send for Elizabeth’s father and that she had pleaded for them not to do so.

On the 13 June 1887, the jury found Mr Wilhelm Kuchel ‘guilty of gross and culpable neglect with respect to the treatment of the injuries‘.  Following the guilty verdict, pleas from jury members for Wilhelm’s actions to not go unpunished seemed to be ignored.  One juror stated in a letter to the editor of the local paper that “that for the honor of the community it is hoped that such another case may never be recorded.  With all expressing their sincere wish that the authorities will not allow the matter to pass without punishing those connected with such a piece of inhuman barbarity as the persons who had charge of the girl are guilt of“. 

Another member of the jury wrote “I trust in the interest of justice the papers relating to the above inquest will be carefully pursued by the authorities and not quietly shelved as there is reasons to believe is often done.  The evidence of the various witnessed under examination seems to me to have warranted a far strong verdict than that returned, and I am of opinion that just and humanity will not be satisfied if the Kuchel family are allowed to go scot-free owing to the many pressing questions engaging the attention of our public men at present“.  Despite this, it appears that no further action was taken and Wilhelm was allowed to continue living in the community. However, the family did sell their land and move to Dimboola where they went onto have six more children before moving to Murray Bridge.

Just a few months after Elizabeth’s death on 9 September 1888, the Slade family would again experience death when Thomas Slade would die from tuberculous.  Thomas would leave behind his wife, Mary Ann and their young family and a farm to operate.

As genealogists looking into the lives of our ancestors, we all recognise that the conditions in which they lived where hard times, often living in poverty and little access to medical help but we often do not expect to come across detailed accounts of how they died, particularly for children.  The circumstances leading to the death of Elizabeth Slade and the details written on the inquest proceedings into her death was hard to read and left me feeling sad for such a young girl who would have gone through incredible pain and for her family who would have felt helpless in seeing her dying in such an horrific way. 

It is these stories of our ancestors lives that move us, they certainly allow us to see our ancestors from a different perspective and while it is many years ago it still leaves you with a sense of loss and heartache.  While I do not know the circumstances for her father, Thomas’s death, I have no doubt that a broken heart after the death of Elizabeth contributed.

There are many newspaper articles on the inquest into Elizabeth Slade’s death that you may wish to read but they are hard to read, hence why some of the details have been left out of my account of what happened to little Elizabeth.


The Biographical Index of South Australians 1836-1885, Author: SA Genealogy & Heraldry Society, Year: (1986, 1990) 2007, Publisher: Archive Digital Books Australasia

Birth Index. Australia. South Australia. 1851.  SLADE, Thomas. Australia, Birth Index 1788 – 1922.

Somerset, England, Church of England Baptisms, 1813-1914. 1851.  TALBOT, Mary Jane. Somerset Heritage Service; Taunton, Somerset, England; Reference Number: D\P\K.EP/2/1/3

Marriage Index. Australia. South Australia. 1873.  SLADE, Thomas and TALBOT, Mary Jane. Australia, Marriage Index 1788 – 1950.

State Records Authority of New South Wales; Kingswood New South Wales, Australia; Persons on bounty ships (Agent’s Immigrant Lists); Series: 5316; Reel: 2137; Item: [4/4792]

Birth Index. Australia. South Australia. 1873.  SLADE, Martha. Australia, Birth Index 1788 – 1922.

Birth Index. Australia. South Australia. 1875.  SLADE, Elizabeth. Australia, Birth Index 1788 – 1922.

Birth Index. Australia. South Australia. 1876.  SLADE, Hannah. Australia, Birth Index 1788 – 1922.

Death Index. Australia. South Australia. 1878.  SLADE, Mary Jane. Australia, Death Index 1787 – 1985.

Marriage Index. Australia. South Australia. 1879.  SLADE, Thomas and Dunn, Mary Ann. Australia, Marriage Index 1788 – 1950.

Birth Index. Australia. South Australia. 1855.  DUNN, Mary Ann. Australia, Birth Index 1788 – 1922.

Birth Index. Australia. South Australia. 1881.  SLADE, John. Australia, Birth Index 1788 – 1922.

Birth Index. Australia. South Australia. 1884.  SLADE, Ellen. Australia, Birth Index 1788 – 1922.

Birth Index. Australia. South Australia. 1886.  SLADE, William. Australia, Birth Index 1788 – 1922.

Mount Barker Courier and Onkaparinga and Gumeracha Advertiser. (1887, June 17). Girl Burnt to Death. Mount Barker, South Australia, Australia. (SA : 1880 – 1954), Friday 17 June 1887, page 3.

South Australian Register (Adelaide, SA : 1839 – 1900), The recent Inquest at Mount Torrens on the body of Elizabeth Slade. To the Editor. Saturday 18 June 1887, page 6.

Express and Telegraph (Adelaide, SA : 1867 – 1922), General News, Saturday 18 June 1887, page 2.

Death Index. Australia. South Australia. 1888.  SLADE, Thomas. Australia, Death Index 1787 – 1985.

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With a love of genealogy and research, I started my blog Ancestor Detective. My passion for this field continues to grow and I am starting to pursue a part time career in delving into the lives of other peoples ancestors.

3 thoughts on “Trove Discoveries….Part 2: Little Girl Burnt to Death”

  1. While it might have been an accident in the first instance it is still hard to believe that the lack of care and concern given to Elizabeth. Trove and PapersPast in NZ is a wonderful resource for finding out more about our ancestors’ lives and sad so many do not have a happy ending.


  2. Such tragedy, poor Elizabeth. It’s just terrible how some servants were treated!
    My grandfather had burn scars on his chest from trying to grab a pot of boiling water off the stove when he was little. He’s lucky that’s all he got!


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