~ david coombe history

Mostly Coombe in Australia &

Coumbe in North Hill, Cornwall

Family History & Genealogy

Mostly CoombeMigrants - James Coombe (Killed on Ajax Reef 1862)


James Coombe - A Mystery Solved


Note that the newspaper report incorrectly referred to James as ‘John’, but death certificate and inquest record correctly has ‘James’.


MAN KILLED ON THE AJAX REEF. — An inquest was held yesterday on the body of a miner, named John Coombes, aged twenty eight years, who was killed the preceding day whilst engaged at work. Deceased was at work on the Ajax Reef, at a depth of 160 feet. After a shot had been fired, deceased, with a miner named Scantlebury, went to clear out the stuff. Deceased sat at the back of Scantlebury, as the drive was narrow; and, whilst they were at work, a shell of rock fell, clearing the latter, but falling on deceased, and covering him completely all but his head. Scantling [sic.] called to his mates, who came at once. The debris was moved off at once, but deceased never spoke or moved, only groaning slightly afterwards. He was perfectly sober when the accident occurred. He has left a widow and one child. Dr. Gow was called in directly, but life was extinct long before his arrival. It did not appear that the accident had occurred through any carelessness, and the medical evidence showed that death had been occasioned from injuries received and the shock to the system. A verdict of accidental death was returned. The police constable who took charge of the body found in the trousers pocket the sum of ₤51 3s. 9d.” Mount Alexander Mail, 27 August 1862.


At the time of the accident, the claim was being worked by James Coombes, Richard Scantlebury and Henry Bishop - all from Cornwall.


“The Late Fatal Accident. — On Wednesday the funeral of poor Coombs, killed on Monday in the Ajax mine, by a heavy block of sandstone falling on him, took place at the Campbell's Creek Cemetery. His remains were followed to the grave by a large number of friends, and nearly all the quartz miners on the creek. His death is the second that has occurred on the reef within four years, the previous one being that of an Italian, who lost his hold while descending a shaft, and was dreadfully shattered by the fall. The life of a quartz miner, with the utmost care is very hazardous, and many hair-breadth escapes are made for every casualty that happens. Those who may sometimes feel inclined to envy the prizes drawn by the hardy reefer in the lottery of mining, should remember that he stands in jeopardy every hour he is under ground. The premature explosion of a shot, the snapping of a rope, the loosening of a fragment of rock, and many other events which no prescience can foresee, and no prudence avert, may at any moment add another victim to the long record of those who have been sacrificed in the pursuit of gold.”

Mount Alexander Mail, 29 Aug 1862


His grave, along with that of his infant son, is marked by an impressive headstone in Campbell’s Creek cemetery. A ghost story subsequently emerged, and that report also mentions that James was a shareholder in the Ajax claim, Bolivia Reef. Coombe's Gully is mentioned at the earlier date of 1860 in the Ballarat Star.


The Argus (Melbourne) of 19 September 1862 speaks of the great fortune that James and his mates would have had: “Wherever the system of ‘tribute’ has been introduced in the working of the quartz mines, so far as came under my observation, it has been profitable to the men engaged in it. The case of the Ajax Mine is, of course, an uncommon one, the richness of the stone the tributors discovered there having given them an annual return superior to the salaries of the judges of the local courts, and not inferior to those enjoyed by the permanent heads of departments in the State's service ! Few of the working clergy of the United Church of England and Irelandand none of the "placed" or "chosen" clergymen of Scotland enjoy a revenue equal to that of a tributor in the Ajax!”


The Ajax company was the first to introduce the tribute system and it became very popular with the miners. – Argus, 22 Sep 1862


Ajax Reef was “first known as the Specimen Hill, then as the Bolivia … In September 1859 the Bolivia Company as formed … sunk a shaft to 150 ft … for very little return. In January 1861, the mine and plant were purchased for $6000 (sic) by the Ajax Quartz Mining Association, and let on tribute. The tributors found rich gold by a short east crosscut to the footwall on the 150 foot level… Between 1861 and 1879, the Ajax Quartz Mining Association, including gold won by tributors obtained 40,929 ozs. 13 dwt. from 58,647 tons of ore.” Goldfields Reminiscences. Castlemaine’s Golden Era, first published 1884 by S. W. Jonnes, published in facsimile by S. J. Tingay, Castlemain, 1977. ISBN 0959672508.


James Coombe married Mary Gribbin in 1857. According to the marriage certificate of both Cornish miners, James, 23, was born to William Coombe and Mary Anne UNKNOWN and Mary, 22, was born to Edward Gribbions and Mary Anne Oates.


Mary Gribbin (the spelling varies Gribban, Gribben, Gribbin, Gribbions) married John Rule the year after James’ death. Mary’s parents Edward Gribbin and Mary Ann Oats were married 24 Jul 1834, Saint Agnes Near Truro, CON. (One researcher notes that Mary was born in 1837 and migrated to Australia on the Confiance in 1854.)


James’ identity was difficult to determine. The main reason is that James had two families. (This is the most likely explanation for the data.) The other family was the one he had with his first wife Jane Stevens in South Australia - see Princess Royal 1847 migrants. We have been unable to otherwise find a death for Jane Stevens or James or a Cornish origin for Mary Gribbin’s James. James Coombe’s estate was handled by his brother, William, after James’ widow Mary had given up right to it on behalf of herself and their daughter. In an estate worth a very large ₤1400, this approach makes most sense by realising that William would be better able to distribute assets to both families. William Coombe was described as a mason from Sandhurst (later known as Bendigo) - his signature appears below. It was not uncommon for miners to lead a double life and have a second family - official or otherwise - on the goldfields. (Source: "Digging for gold : a guide to researching family and local history in Victoria's central gold fields" by Helen Doxford Harris, 1988.) This situation also explains why James gave false information at his second marriage for his age and parentage and could not give a maiden name for his mother. In 1864, James’ first wife Jane Stevens, married again to Francis William WALSCH (Francis William WALSH), stating on the marriage certificate that her first husband had died in 1862.




How busy would James have been to father two families? Kapunda to Castlemaine was about 680km. Jane went to Victoria at least by 1864 when she married Walsch. What made her go to Victoria? Maybe for James’ funeral (unless her possible knowledge made that too embarrassing) - maybe earlier to be with James - maybe after his death. In South Australia, Jane would have become pregnant around 11 Mar 1857, James married Mary in VIC on 30 Mar (19 days gap), then there was a three year gap before Jane bore another child to James. The deaths of James’ South Australian children give him as the relative (presumably informing the registrar) which would place him in South Australia 29 Jul - 1 Aug 1858 when two children died in four days. These paternal visits are quite plausible.


The family is listed below.  The following abbreviations are used: ? = uncertain, NI = no issue, ... indicates known descendants, CON = Cornwall, VIC = Victoria.


James COOMBE, d. 25 Aug 1862 Ajax Reef, Castlemaine VIC

 + Mary GRIBBIN, b.c. 1834-35 CON, marr. 30 Mar 1857 at the School House in Castlemaine VIC

├── James COOMBE, b. 19 Apr 1857 Blanket Gully, Castlemaine VIC, died before second James born. NI.

├── James COOMBE, b. 8 Jul 1858 White Hills (Bendigo) VIC, d. 6 Apr 1859 Campbells Creek age 10m. NI.

└── Elizabeth Jane COOMBE, b. “Mary Jane” 5 May 1861 Campbells Creek (Castlemaine) VIC,

        marr. Oscar Henry OSBORNE 1880, d. 1941 St Kilda VIC ...


Special thank you to Kerry Finning for her research on this family.


To debate James’ identity, add, contribute or comment, contact: Kerry Finning and David Coombe


Updated: 7 Apr 2016.