The photo in the Historical Society reads: “Sarah Underwood. Born Carlisle, England, 14th October 1820. Died 8th September 1914. Broadford’s first midwife 1853 to 1898.”
But how true is it? Sarah Underwood was born Sarah Jackson, daughter of Thomas Jackson and Hannah Newton near Carlisle in England. At the age of 19, Sarah married a carpenter, Isaac Johnston and the couple proceeded to have 7 children. It appears that the family lived in a little town called Ainstable, several kilometers south-east of Carlisle.
Six of their children were born before the family emigrated to Australia on “Constance”, arriving in December 1854. The children were listed then, as Hannah Jane aged 11, William 9, Thomas 7, Isaac 6, Joseph 3 and Margaret only 1. The family settled in Broadford and a seventh child, Sarah Hannah, was born in Kilmore in 1857.
In 1861, Isaac aged 42 was killed in an accident, near the Telegraph Hotel, four miles north of Kilmore. This was only 7 years after arriving in Australia. At this stage they were living in McKenzie Street in Broadford. (The house has since been demolished.) Sarah, now aged 39, was left with six children aged between 8 and 18. Life must have been very difficult for her.
Five years later, at the age of 43, Sarah remarried. Her husband was Thomas Underwood, another carpenter, who came from Bristol and was living in Flowerdale. He was six years older than Sarah, being 50 at the time, but they soon produced another daughter, Mary Ann, in 1866. She died at the age of 5 months in Broadford.
From all of this we have no definite evidence of Sarah actually being a midwife. However the 1898-1901 Broadford Rate Book lists her as being a nurse. In those days home-births were the norm., and it was nothing for a midwife to travel many miles to assist with delivery, at all hours of the day or night. Sometimes they stayed over if there was a lot of travel involved. Sarah may well have been a midwife at this time but there are no records to confirm this fact.
Interestingly, Sarah’s third son Isaac married Agnes Parker and this couple had six sons. Husband, Isaac died around 1900, leaving Agnes with the young family. It was then that Agnes had the idea of starting a home for expectant mothers, so the midwifery link continued.
Sister Agnes Johnston operated from the house and shop at 107 High St.. For years it was the home of Fred Challis and family, and it now operates as an osteopath surgery. Agnes died at the age of 82, in 1940, after assisting in the birth of over 400 Broadford babies. It was only with the opening of the Bush Nursing Hospital in Broadford that she finally retired from her work. She is buried in the Broadford cemetery.