In the early evening of 18 April 1898 a kerosene lamp exploded in the kitchen of a small cottage and workshop near the railway in Ballarat, Australia.
Not far away, an elderly army veteran was chatting to the gatehouse keeper, discussing the likelihood of war between America and Spain and perhaps his impending move to Western Australia when he heard the anguished cries of “Fire!” from his daughter, Margaret. Running back down Doveton Street to find his home and business in flames, John Foster dashed into the wooden structure to rescue some of his furniture, especially the sewing machine he used to eke out a living repairing the boots of the remaining local gold miners. Once too often he entered the burning building and consequently it was there he met his death.
John Foster had been born in Dromore, County Down on 26 November 1820 to Francis and Sarah. On 9 September 1839 John enlisted with the 86th Regiment of Foot at Dublin and served with the regiment, largely on garrison duty in places like Poona and Deesa, north west India, for the next 14 years finally being posted to Bombay in October 1853 and being discharged on 14 November 1853 with a good conduct badge, a pension and £12 gratuity.
John hopped on a transport bound for Australia, landing in Melbourne on 20 February 1854 where he sent word for his parents and brothers, Charles and Joseph, to join him. They arrived at Port Adelaide on 30 July 1855.
In 1858 he married Margaret Matilda Compton. She was from Armagh and had been abandoned while pregnant by a man called Kennedy, John raising her son Thomas as his own. The Victorian gold rush was well under way, almost over, when the family moved to Ballarat where John set up as a boot maker to supplement his pension. The couple had eight more children, two of whom died in infancy, before Matilda herself died on 30 May 1875 leaving John to raise their six surviving daughters, the youngest just nine months old.
John’s second youngest daughter was Mary Ann, who became a nurse, went to the Boer War, married John Leith and was my great grandmother.