Australia’s first big paternity case

This paternity case in 1851 caused a sensation around Australia. It was back when the present-day Queensland was still part of New South Wales and involved one of the colony’s richest and most eligible bachelors. It might even have included corruption and murder. I told a version of this story live on West Bremer Radio.

It’s about the unmarried Gammie Brothers – George and John Gammie from Aberdeen in Scotland. They were among the first squatters on the Darling Downs in Queensland in the 1840s.

Justice was sometimes a bit lax in colonial times. A freed convict who was working on John Gammie’s sheep station at Mount Flinders near Ipswich in 1848 was murdered with an axe through his head. The Ipswich chief constable made an arrest, but the jury in Sydney found the accused not guilty because he’d said the dead man had tripped and fallen on the axe himself.

The celebrated paternity case began in 1850 when the maid Esther Simmons took John Gammie to court for refusing to support his illegitimate child. Gammie admitted being the father and the Ipswich Court made an order for maintenance, but Gammie simply ignored it. So Esther took the case to the Brisbane court. Again he ignored it.

Ipswich courthouse

In desperation, the following year Esther took her claim to the Police Court in Sydney.

The thirty-two-year-old squatter John Gammie was very much a member of the Squattocracy, which was that fraternity of wealthy landowners. He was very rich and very eligible for marriage.

Once in Sydney, the saga attracted evocative newspaper headlines like, “He Loves and He Rides Away”. There was even a nineteen-verse ballad that was called, “Ye Squattere, and Ye Nut-brown Mayd.”  

At first the case was postponed for a month while they waited for the mail to arrive from Moreton Bay with a copy of the original court orders. Once the orders arrived, the judges refused to rule.

Almost a year after the story first entertained Sydney society, the judges themselves were being asked to show cause why a writ from the supreme court should not be issued to force a case of maintenance to be decided.

One of the two judges was Edward Flood. He was an alderman in Sydney’s first city council and later became mayor. In the year he was appointed a magistrate he was fined £50 for punching a man who had called all councillors ‘idiots’. Flood himself – just like John Gammie – was a father of a number of illegitimate children and had made his fortune as a squatter. So maybe that explains his reluctance to rule against Gammie.

Edward Flood

Eventually John Gammie was ordered to pay ten shillings a week for twelve months. There’s no evidence that any payment was ever made.

In any case, the Gammie Brothers became very wealthy – they were worth in the hundreds of millions of dollars in today’s money – and their stations on the Darling Downs were shearing in excess of sixty thousand sheep. An early homestead on their well-known Talgai Run is still there today.

But in May 1853, cracks appeared in their relationship when the partnership of Gammie Brothers was dissolved. Just ten weeks later John Gammie suddenly died at his lodgings in Ipswich. He was just thirty-four years old.

The ownership of all the runs were then transferred to his brother George Gammie. George sold the properties and returned to England.

There he purchased the Shotover Estate in Oxfordshire (see the picture at the top of the page.) The estate was huge with almost two thousand acres of the best English countryside. In recent times it was owned by friends of Queen Elizabeth who was a frequent visitor. Princess Anne was just fifteen-years-old when she suffered a broken nose falling of a horse while riding there.

Based on the orders issued by the court in Ipswich, John’s Gammie’s illegitimate daughter Emily was the sole heir of half of the rich Gammie Estate.

Emily’s descendants in Ipswich today may be entitled to half of that fabulous fortune. Emily’s birth was not registered, however a relationship now could be proven by DNA.

Except for one thing.

George Gammie lost the lot when he went bankrupt in 1871.

The famous paternity case of Esther Simmons versus John Gammie in 1851 gave hope to a share in a huge amount of money. But there’s no early Christmas present for the descendants here today unfortunately.


Photo credits:
Shotover House – Oxford Botanica, photo by Adam Hodge
Ipswich Courthouse c1860 – State Library of Queensland
Edward Flood 1805-1888 – NSW Parliamentary Archives Collection

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