There is a small isolated community set high in the hills near Mt. Baw Baw called Fumina. The bush in this part of Gippsland can be cruel – numerous bushfires have wiped out the settlement and in winter the snows can cover the ground. It takes a particular breed of people to live and flourish in these environs and that is what this story is all about, some very remarkable people. I cannot take credit for much of the background in this article, I found the bare bones while trolling through court cases but it was on Ancestry.com that the story gained it’s human touch. Alan Beale wrote a wonderful article from family reminiscences about what he called the Fumina Incident. Some of the background, particularly personal impressions, has come from his article.
On the evening of Friday the 25th of February 1921, a young man armed with a shotgun broke into the local post office in Fumina and shot the postmistress and her young step-daughter, Amy and Edith Beale. The women were in the residence connected to the post office when the gunman entered and shot them with a borrowed gun. This area is so isolated that it took nearly 24 hours to get a message through and arrange a car to take the injured women down the mountain to Warragul Hospital to seek medical help.
The man wanted in connection with the shootings was a neighbor and friend called Conrad Vincent Ballantyne. Both Conrad’s family and the Beale family were amongst the first non-indigenous settlers in the area. Conrad’s father was a well liked and respected man by the name of Albert Adolphus Ballantyne. He was a native of St. Vincent, a small island nation located in the Carribean. In the newspaper reports, Conrad is referred to as a half- caste aboriginal which is incorrect – his dark skin would have come from his father’s African/Carribean blood lines. Albert Adolphus arrived in Australia as a crewman on board the Sophocles in 1888. In 1892 he married a dutch girl by the name of Wilhelmena Rieke. When the Ballantynes took up a selection in Fumina in 1909 they had two children, Irena and Conrad. By 1915 they had built a small house and had cleared enough land to support themselves. Albert Adolphus was obviously a well educated and liked man. He became the spokesperson for the progress association and wrote numerous letters to the local shire regarding civic matters for the little community. If you travel up that way today, you will come across Ballantynes Road, named after Conrad’s parents.
The Beale family lived nearby. They had been in the area since 1903 and had finished building a small house when fire ripped through the district, destroying their home in 1906. Slowly Edwin Beale rebuilt the house, working long hours and continuing to work his farm while also using a horse and cart to take produce down to Moe for the local farmers. On his return journey he would bring back mail and supplies for his neighbors and so their house became an unofficial post office. But their bad luck continued when in 1912 one of the children accidently set fire to the house destroying everything. The rebuilding began again. This time the house was bigger and better and attached to the house was a room which was to become the official post office and community meeting place. But bad luck was to dog this family for years. In 1915 Edwin’s wife, Ellen, died from tuberculosis leaving the young family without a wife or mother.
And now we add into this story the Yates family. They also took up a selection in the Fumina district and brought with them their seven children, the eldest of which was a girl named Amy. After the death of Ellen Beale, a friendship arose between 42 year old Edwin and 24 year old Amy Yates. In 1915 they married and this was to become a long and happy marriage. About this time Amy’s brothers John and Penn Yates were sent overseas to fight in WW1. They became expert marksmen and when they returned in 1918 they used their prowess on the district’s rabbit population. Young Conrad Ballantyne tagged along with the boys. An introverted young man, the Yates brothers spent time teaching him the basics of gun use and allowed him to borrow one of their guns. This wasn’t without problems because in late April 1920, the boys took Conrad on a shooting expedition north of Fumina. Conrad became separated and spent 14 days lost in the bush. He survived without food and weathered two snow storms. The Yates boys and other locals searched continuously for him until May 13th when he was found starving and delusional and was carried back to his home. When asked about the time when he was lost he stated that he remembered nothing.
Nearly one year later, on the night of February 25th 1921, Conrad, in what a court would later say was a a state of delusion, entered the Beale household and shot Edith Beale and her stepmother Amy with the borrowed gun. It seems that Conrad’s unusual manner and temperament was more than just that of a sullen youth. When the case went to court, Conrad was proven to be mentally unsound and was sent off to the Ararat Lunatic Asylum. It seems that Conrad believed that he was a bushranger and wanted to be famous. The gun that he used belonged to Penn Yates, who blamed himself for many years afterwards. Edith and Amy spent months in the Warragul Hospital but both survived the ordeal although they carried the scars for the rest of their lives. Four years later, young Edith married Penn Yates, the brother of her stepmother and the man who owned the gun that shot her.
Conrad Ballantyne died in 1928 at just 25 years old at the Ararat facility. Irena Ballantyne, Conrad’s only sibling had spent her youth wanting to be a nurse. After the shootings she put her career on hold. This stigma of having a family member with a metal illness and the publicity that the court case had caused made it impossible for her to work in the health industry. Fortunately in 1926 she went back to nursing, a career that lasted 52 years. In 1978 her service to the nursing profession was recognized and she received an MBE (Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire).
This story is not just about the shooting, it is about people of a small community surviving a horrendous event. The amazing part of this story is that the three families, the Yates, the Beales and the Ballantynes, continued to be firm friends. Albert Arnoldus Ballantynes’ ethnicity could have been enough to ostracize him from his neighbors but it didn’t. The shooting incident would have many neighbors warring, but it didn’t. Mental illness could have made many people afraid but it didn’t. This small community looked beyond the obvious and continued to support each other – and that is what makes this such a wonderful story.