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My passion is genealogy and family history. I host a podcast about Australian family history, Genies Down Under. In my day job, I work as a lecturer and a researcher in higher education, teaching pre-service teachers.

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Saturday, 2 April 2016

The second step in my A-Z of quirky ancestor antics - B is for Bankruptcy in Bourke

This is the second step in my Blogging from A-Z Challenge (April 2016).

My ancestors weren't always that good at holding onto money, especially during the difficult days of economic crisis in the outback town of Bourke in NSW in the 1880s and 1890s. That's why I've chosen

B for Bankruptcy 

as the second step in my A-Z of quirky ancestor antics.

Ancestors from a few branches of my family tree, including some the NORTHCOTEs and RILEYs, lived in Bourke, NSW in the 1870s-1890s. It must have been a very remote, hot place to live in those days.

Source of map: Google Maps, 2016

In 1886, my great-grandfather, Walter Stafford NORTHCOTE (the name he was using at the time), was recorded as being bankrupt in Bourke, NSW. He attributed his insolvency to pressure by creditors and an inability to obtain permanent employment. He owed £77 and 10 shillings to various businesses in Bourke - mainly butchers, bakers and landlords.

Source: NSW Archives, Insolvency records, Date 4 June 1886, File no. 20814

Source: Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 5 June 1886 page 10

Only known photo of Walter NORTHCOTE, from Vivien NORTHCOTE's collection

He died two years later in 1888 in Bourke. Two years after his death, his wife found herself with nine sons to look after. While trying to support herself and her large family, she also went bankrupt. Her bankruptcy was reported in 1890. She owed £57 to her landlord and local shopkeepers. In the insolvency records, Margaret stated that "I am a boarding house keeper. I have not been in business before and have kept no books. I am a widow and have 9 nine children. It is my housekeeping expenses that have caused my bankruptcy at court."

Source: NSW Archives, Insolvency records, Date 12 November 1890, File no. 02899

Source: Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 22 November 1890, page 12

Margaret NORTHCOTE (nee RILEY), from Vivien NORTHCOTE's collection

When I visited Bourke a few years ago, I was recounting the story of my great-grandparents' money troubles to a local man. After explaining that they both went bankrupt - my great-grandfather in 1886 and my great-grandmother in 1890 - he replied, "Who didn't in those days?" It made me realise that it wasn't such an unusual experience back in the 1880s and 1890s in Bourke, especially since it was a time of high unemployment and economic crisis. It must have been a tough life for them back then.

Bourke Courthouse 2012, Photography: Maria Northcote

Inside Bourke Courthouse 2012, Photography: Maria Northcote

Bourke 2012, Photography: Maria Northcote

For related blogposts, see
Walking in their footsteps Part 5: Bourke
Getting my hands on original records
Great-great signatures


  1. The widespread depression in Australia in the 1890s caused mainly by the failure of the banking system, had many of our ancestral families in court for bankruptcy. Poor woman trying to support a large family by running a boarding house. Difficult times indeed.

  2. Thanks for your comment. What a hard life!

  3. It was a though time for many and bankruptcy was far from uncommon. Poor Maria, no husband, nine children and no experience at business.

  4. She must have had a hard time of it but ended up doing a bit of midwifery to pay the bills. Suppose she had enough experience of giving birth.

  5. Yes the 1890s were tough by all accounts...nine children to feed and clothe...sheesh!

  6. Hard to imagine! And with no aircon ...