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Crimean War veteran and New Zealand medal-winner James Joseph Ovenden, a HMCSS Victoria veteran of the First Taranaki War, died in October 1886 in unusual circumstances. He was then 55 years of age and a petty officer on HMVS Nelson. The death certificate showed that Ovenden died as a result of "accidental poisoning with carbolic acid".
PO JAMES OVENDEN
Evidence given at his inquest showed he had drunk carbolic acid mistaking it for a bottle of bitters. He was sober at the time.
Private speculation indicated that Ovenden was prone to an occasional `snifter', and that someone, either as a joke or for a sinister reason, had substituted poison for Ovenden's usual `refreshment'.
More than a century later, a descendant has speculated about the mystery. Utilising James Ovenden's diary entries leading up to his death and considering various strands of evidence, the descendant's interim conclusions can be seen below.
ADDITIONAL INFORMATION PROVIDED (on 12 February 1998) BY `DEFENDING VICTORIA' WEBSITE VISITOR, FRANK NOONAN: [From Williamstown Advertiser, 9 October 1886, p.2] A sad death occured on Wednesday last, Joseph Overdon, Boatswain's Mate on HMCS Nelson, while on board the ship on Tuesday, took a bottle of carbolic acid from his cabin in mistake for beer, a bottle of which was close by, and drank it. An emetic was promptly applied by the dispenser, but Overdon became unconcious and died at two o'clock on Wednesday morning . . .
[From Williamstown Chronicle, 9 October 1886, p.2] A very distressing occurrence took place on Wednesday last, on board HMCS Nelson when the boatswains's mate, Joseph Overdon, died from the effects of swallowing, by mistake, a quantity of carbolic acid. It appears that he had several beer bottles in a locker in his room, in one of which was some beer, while another contained about an equal quantity of carbolic acid, there being no mark or label to distinguish one form the other. About two o'clock on Tuesday afternoon he took a bottle from the locker, and, raising it to his lips took a draught therefrom thinking it was beer, but he soon found he had swallowed carbolic acid instead. He at once, went to the ship's chemist, and informed him of what he had taken . . .
A descendant has added family details (April 2000) and corrected some errors in the newspaper accounts. James Ovenden was born at Folkestone but in 1831. Consecutively, he served on HM Ships Stromboli, Geyser and Fury, being wounded during the seige of Sebastopol and was evacuated to South Malta Hospital. He was awarded the Turkish Khedives 'La Crimea' medal and British Crimea medal with Sebastopol clasp. The other medals shown in the photograph (above) are the New Zealand medal and the Victoria Long Service Medal for 25 years service to the Victorian Navy. Treasured by the family are his snuffbox and bosun's whistle.
Victorian Navy officers and personnel of last century took exceptional pride in the Service and its vessels. This pride, still evident in their descendents today, made accidents the more embarrassing when they occured.
HMCSS Victoria was nearly scuttled by accident when the ship was being fitted out and loaded with stores at Deptford in London on 24 November 1855. An inquiry found that donkey valves had been left open. As the ship settled down with coal and provisions, she had begun to fill. Prompt action by labourers, police and engineers saved the day.
In the end, the only naval shell ever to land on Melbourne came not from a foreign raider but from the guns of HMVS Nelson during gunnery practice. An organ workshop in St. Kilda was badly damaged by the practice shell, and damage was done to a neighbouring house. Luckily no-one was killed. The Victorian Navy was unable to adequately explain the `accident'. Other than a paragraph here and there, the incident was kept out of the newspapers . . .
The Cerberus Accident in 1881
While the band of
HMVS Cerberus entertained a crowd at Queenscliff on the afternoon of
a selection of tunes from `HMS Pinafore' was interrupted by a loud explosion from the Bay.
OFFICIAL HISTORY OF WW1
penned in Melbourne
Photograph in UK Intelligence Corps Museum
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