Monday, 19 February 2018

Damaged lives – the story of Alethea and Patrick Costello

In March 1922 Mr H. Oliver of 103 Munro Street, Coburg wrote to the head teacher of Coburg State School, William Dixon, complaining about the treatment of his sister’s child Mary (Madge) Costello:

‘This child is one whose father is an invalid through the Great War and I felt it my duty to notify the Secretary of the Returned Soldier’s League and ask them is this the proper treatment for their children who fought so bravely for King and Country.’ He claims that she was ‘dragged by the hair between the VII and VIII grade rooms. She is in VII class and her teacher is Miss McNally. The child is known in the family as Madge and she is 12 years old.’

A group of schoolboys playing in the grounds of Coburg State School, December 1923. Courtesy Coburg Historical Society.

Whatever the truth concerning Harold Oliver’s allegation of mistreatment by a teacher at Coburg State School, there is much to be told about Mary Costello’s ‘invalid’ father, who we are told fought ‘bravely for King and Country.’

Harold Oliver chose to shape the facts to suit his purpose. His brother-in-law Patrick John Costello was a violent bully whose wife Alethea (Harold’s sister) had lived in fear of her husband from the early days of their marriage, so much so that by the time Harold wrote his letter in March 1922, Madge and her brother John Oliver (Jack) had been living with Harold’s family in Coburg for at least six years – well away from their violent father.

Alethea Oliver married Patrick Joseph Costello, a New Zealand farmer, in 1907 and they settled at Ermedale, Fairfax on the South Island. Their three children were born there. Alethea took Jack and Madge to her family in Coburg in 1916 and on her return found that her husband was living with a young school teacher in Central Otago. She took out a maintenance and separation order, testifying that ‘he had thrashed her several times, and two months prior to her going to Australia had left her insensible for two hours.’  She was successful. He was ordered to pay her 30 shillings a week.

Costello found a way to avoid his responsibilities – he joined up. On 4 October 1916, around the same time as the court’s decision, he became 39175 Lance Coroporal Patrick John Costello, 9th Company, 2nd Battalion, Wellington Infantry Regiment. He served in France until 4 October 1917 when he was received a severe gunshot wound to his left knee and was hospitalised in England. He returned to New Zealand in February 1918 on account of that wounded knee. 

Details from Patrick Costello's Attestation Papers, courtesy Discovering Anzacs website.

So, in one sense Harold Oliver was right. His brother-in-law did serve in the war and he did return an invalid. Was he deserving of our sympathy, though? His behaviour after the war continued in the same vein as before he went away – he was a drunk, he was cruel and he continued to intimidate and abuse his wife (who was separated from him).

In July 1920, the New Zealand Truth delighted in exposing the Costellos’ story. The paper described her as a ‘demure, petite, much-bespectacled lady’ then told the rest, as they saw it:

‘Since he returned from the war he had been working in the country, while his wife continued to board in Christchurch. Frequently he came in to see her, and on such occasions he made himself a perfect nuisance at the boarding-house. His visits were often prolonged. He would arrive drunk; the next day he would be nearly full; on the succeeding days he would be absolutely full. Two years ago he got up at some unearthly hour in the morning sober, but in a fearful rage. He rampaged through the house like a madman and threatened to sever the gullets of Alethea and her little girl with a razor. On another occasion he boiled the “kittle” – as Alethea termed it – with a Bible that had been presented to her in her days of happy childhood, following this up, a few days afterwards, by beating her, knocking off her glasses and knocking her about generally.’


‘He got really annoyed… when Alethea added that a prohibition order had proved ineffective in keeping him on sobriety’s path… After the orders asked for had been made, and maintenance fixed at 30s a week, Patrick Joseph [sic] followed Alethea out of court, making tearful protestations to her to give him another chance. All his blubbering promises to be a good boy and not to do it again were of no avail; Alethea shook him from her and went on her emancipated way.’

Emancipated or not, from this point until 1928 Alethea seems to have gone underground. She is not listed in the New Zealand electoral rolls and does not appear in the Victorian rolls, either. Perhaps she assumed another name to hide from him? In 1928 she was living in Christchurch as Alethea Costello then moved from place to place around the South Island until her death in October 1960 aged 84.

He, too, disappeared from sight. At the time of the 1916 court case he was living under the assumed name of John Patrick, so perhaps he kept this name. His World War One papers reveal that he died in February 1964 in Auckland, so Alethea never did escape his shadow. For all her adult life she was described as married in the electoral rolls, so it seems they did not divorce, perhaps  because they were Catholics. Yet they had not lived together since 1916. She was bound to him legally until her death 46 years later.

Of one of their children, nothing has been found. But Madge, the girl who lived in fear of her violent father and who was spirited away to the safety of her mother’s family in Coburg and was ‘dragged by the hair’ between classrooms at Coburg State School, married in 1934. I can only hope that hers was a secure, happy married life.

Their son John Oliver (Jack) Costello lived in Munro Street, Coburg with his uncle Harold Oliver and his wife Margueretta (Rita). He remained there with Rita after Harold’s death in 1932. A mechanic by trade, he married Pearlie May Butler in 1941. They later lived at Clifton Hill, Montmorency and Reservoir. He died in 1986 aged 74.

Public Record Office of Victoria, VPRS 640/P1/1612, Central Inwards Correspondence, Primary Schools. Date range: 1921-23. Coburg State School, letter 1922/2615.
Victorian Birth, Death, Marriage Indexes
Victorian electoral rolls
Argus, 1 May 1915
Age, 6 Dec 1932
New Zealand Birth, Death, Marriage Indexes
New Zealand World War One Army Papers available online through the Discovering Anzacs website
New Zealand electoral rolls
Southland Times, 11 October 1916
Star, 22 June 1920
New Zealand Truth, 3 July 1920


  1. What a sad story. I wonder if Harold Oliver felt he had more leverage and social acceptance by saying Madge was the product of a returned soldier, rather than the victim of a violent father and broken home. A sorry time when domestic violence was minimised or swept under the carpet.

  2. I'm sure you're right about the leverage attached to presenting the father as a returned soldier, Jenny.

    To begin with, this was a tricky story to unravel.My initial assumption was that the father lived in Coburg and was a returned Aussie soldier but I could find no reference to him anywhere. I didn't even know the parents' names and I couldn't find a marriage in the Victorian indexes. I was on the verge of giving up when I decided to follow up on Harold Oliver's siblings. I found a death notice after his death that listed a sister Alethea (no surname given) in New Zealand so I checked the New Zealand newspapers and the story behind the incident at Coburg State School emerged.

    I was moved by this incredibly sad story of the escape of two of the children from domestic violence, but was left wondering what happened to the third child, the one who presumably stayed in New Zealand.

    I also wonder whether the child really was dragged by the hair by her teacher. I could see no further correspondence in the school files on the matter, but haven't looked at the Education Department's Special Case Files. It left me wondering what the girl had done to be punished in this way and whether she'd made a big deal of it to her uncle hoping for sympathy? These are imponderables, of course, but it's a reminder that violence of any sort against children is not a modern phenomena.