Tuesday, 18 November 2014

A widower decides to enlist: Hugh McLaughlin's story

Hugh McLaughlin was born in Monreagh, Ireland, but when he and his wife Bridget emigrated to Victoria, they did so from Scotland where their first four children were born. 

After their arrival in Melbourne, three more children were born. Sadly, one died young, then in July 1915 Bridget died, aged only 27, leaving Hugh to raise their six surviving children alone. Their eldest child was just seven years old and the youngest four months old.

In December 1916, when the family was living at 136 Barrow Street, Coburg, Hugh McLaughlin decided to enlist. His motivation for doing so is unclear, as to do so his children had to be placed in orphanages. 

Perhaps it was the regular income that motivated him? The Roll of Honour Circular gives his occupation as a 'bricklayer journeyman', suggesting that he did not have a steady source of income.

Mount Alexander Mail, 21 August 1917

After looking at this Ready Reckoner, I wonder what a widower with six children was paid per fortnight and whether that money was sent to the various institutions that were looking after his children.

Hugh McLaughlin left for the Western Front on 9 February 1917, giving his eldest son, William, of St Joseph's Orphanage, Surrey Hills, as his next of kin.

When he was killed in action in France on 9 August 1918, the news was sent to 10 year old William. Although I first read Hugh McLaughlin's file some time ago, it shocks me still that the wording of the correspondence to this child is in the officialese that went to all next-of-kin. There was no softening of words, so I only hope that one of the staff at St Joseph's Orphanage took pity on the young boy and broke the news gently.

Hugh McLaughlin is remembered in the Memorial Avenue of Trees at Lake Reserve, Coburg. His was the fourth tree planted on the day of the planting ceremony in 1919. Although his son William was invited to plant the tree in honour of his father, St Joseph's sent a letter saying he was too young to attend and the Mayor of the day, Mayor McAlpine, took his place.

The poignancy of the children's situation is brought home in the following letter that was in Hugh's attestation papers.

It is heartening to know that the children had some visitors, such as Mrs Brown, and that they were not completely forgotten. 

Some years later, William McLaughlin wrote from the Marist Brothers Juniorate, Our Lady of the Hermitage, Mittagong, NSW. William later enlisted in World War Two and was killed in action in Ambon in 1945.

I wondered what had become of the six children, orphaned at such a young age until I came across an elaborate and moving family grave at Coburg Cemetery. It's in the Roman Catholic section of the cemetery.

In this not very clear photo taken by me, the headstone makes it clear that the McLaughlin connection to Coburg was not severed with the death of Hugh and Bridget McLaughlin. The last surviving child of the family died in Coburg in 2005. 

The headstone also makes a proud statement about the McLaughlin family and there is a very strong suggestion that the children remained in contact and that they stood firm as a family. 

I hope so, anyway.


  1. Thanks for the post, there’s a few details in there I wasn’t aware of. Yes, the descendants remained at St Vincent’s orphanage South Melbourne. His son Bernard was killed in action in Ambon. He joined the army in world War one in order to make his way back to Island to convince his sister to come out to Australia to help raise the children. His son Hugh went on to play in the 1933 premiership for the South Melbourne. Two of the boys became Marist Brothers and taught in Sydney. While the rest of them enjoyed fruitful lives. All has since passed away. I’m a descendent of Hugh McLaughlin living in the area

  2. Thanks for taking the time to send in a comment. I often wondered what happened to the family and I'm glad to know that you found the entry of interest. It's a beautiful memorial!