It began at the convict brothel

WARNING – SOME DETAILS MAY BE DISTURBING. Van Diemen’s Land convicts are central in this tale of a riverside brothel and one family’s four generations in the Moreton Bay penal settlement. I told a version of this story on West Bremer Radio.

The brothel trade was at its peak in Ipswich in the colony of Queensland before the Ipswich-Brisbane railway line was opened in 1876. After that the steamer trade up the Bremer River dropped off and so did the number of convictions for prostitution.

I went to the spot on the northern bank of the Bremer where I was told that the riverside brothels boomed back in the day, hoping that maybe something was left behind, like loose change or whatever.

I swung my metal detector there, but found nothing.

Ipswich c1870 at around the time of the brothel

However, I also researched the archives and discovered that a brothel did operate just across the bridge from there on the south side of the Bremer on East Street near Bremer Street.

Even back in 1868 – which was fairly early in Ipswich history – the building in question was already a dilapidated house.

And that’s when three children – aged two, four and eight years old – were found by police to be living there under the care of an unrelated woman of bad character. Her name was Ellen Morris whose long string of convictions had started three years earlier. The young constable Michael McCarthy was given the job of gathering the required evidence. He had recently arrested a mad Irishman who had bitten off someone’s ear, but that’s another story.

The children were taken to the Industrial School in Brisbane, and that’s when this story of four generations connected to this brothel begins.

The father of the children was Samuel Thorpe who had arrived in Ipswich as a convict in 1841 when Moreton Bay was still a penal colony. He had deserted his wife and offspring years before the brothel rescue. Their mother was Jane Duff who was also an ex-convict from Van Diemen’s Land. She was working at the house as a prostitute, however, was killed in a disturbance there two weeks before police discovered her children. No one was willing to give evidence, and so no charges were ever laid.

Jane’s death ended her fifteen-year marriage to Samuel who had been convicted a number of times for violently assaulting her. At one stage it was even reported that he had used an axe to decapitate her in Dalby, but that proved to be false.

Now, their youngest child left at the brothel was two-year-old Isabella Thorpe – she got married when she was thirty but never had any children.

The middle child was four-year-old Fred Thorpe. Twenty years later, he died from tuberculosis at Woogaroo mental asylum at Wacol.

The oldest child was eight-year-old Frank Thorpe. He had six children and married well because his wife’s relatives included the likes of the Countess of Castle Gear and Lord Blayney – he was the Anglo-Irish peer who fought with distinction in the Napoleonic Wars. And Frank’s in-laws were leaders in the sewerage industry because they had the sanitary contracts for Bundaberg, Maryborough, Gympie, Townsville, and elsewhere in Queensland. Frank passed away in Rockhampton in 1942 aged eighty-three, but not before witnessing the tragic life unfold of his daughter Rebecca Thorpe.

Andrew Blayney, the 11th Baron Blayney

In 1918 Rebecca married a jockey Thomas Askew. Eight years later, Rebecca fired a revolver at him but hit someone else, however it was Rebecca who was hospitalised and her husband who was convicted of assault.

Rebecca was aged forty-five in 1939 when she had an argument with her daughter and then suicided by drinking cleaning fluid. She died in her daughter’s arms at her home in Brisbane’s West End.

The very next year, the daughter Petrova Maria ‘Mickey’ Askew married a mechanic Roy Shelley. His father was a First World War veteran who served at Gallipoli and was wounded in Belgium by seventy-three pieces of shrapnel, some of which remained in him for the rest of his life. His name was Gustav Schemalleck but he changed his name to Gus Shelley.

Mickey Askew leaving her mother’s inquest

Mickey’s husband passed away in 1958 and Mickey – the fourth generation from that dilapidated brothel in Ipswich – disappeared behind the cloak of history, however she quite likely has descendants living around Enoggera on Brisbane’s north side.

It was a simple question about the history of Ipswich brothels that led to one family and four fascinating, but sometimes tragic, very personal stories.


Photo credits:
Tasmanian Convicts website – faceebook eu layton
Early view of the city of Ipswich 1872 – State Library of Queensland
Andrew Blayney 11th Baron Blayney – Wikipedia commons
Petrova Mavis Askew – Truth Brisbane, 22 October 1939, page 19

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