Money in Matchsticks

The grave of George Johnson sits lonely under a row of pine trees in section B4 at Carr Villa Memorial Park. Not a skerrick of grass grows around it. Infact George’s grave is quite uninteresting… until you have a closer look. It’s a long story, but well worth the read.

George Johnson was a well known identity around Launceston. He was know by most as ‘Blind George’, because he was completely blind. He would spend most of his evenings singing to passers by on the streets of Launceston and selling matchsticks, hoping to collect whatever coins they could spare for him. People gave generously to George when they could, as everyone knew that George lived in poor circumstances.

In August 1912 George became gravely ill and passed away at the Launceston Hospital at around sixty years old, although nobody really knew how old he was. George died without a Will – after all, his wife had died many years before, he had no children and no other family that anyone knew of.

As was common in those days, it was he responsibility of the police to go into the home of a deceased person and seize anything of value. If there was no Will, as was the case with George, any items of value would be sold, and the money would go to the Government coffers.

Initially they found nothing of interest – his sparsely furnished room on Wellington Street had some old furniture, but nothing thought to be of any value. When they looked under his bed however, they found a locked chest that was so heavy they needed two policemen to carry it back to the station. The lock was picked, and inside they found packets and packets of coins wrapped up in paper – over 4000 coins – florins, crowns, shillings, six pence and gold. After many hours of counting, they came up with a total of over £600, which included some money in a bank account – an amount with the buying power of about $40,000 today.

The local charities in Launceston pleaded with the Government to donate the money to them, as it had been given as charity in the first place. The Government would not budge, they said that it had not been done before, and they would not start doing it now. They did agree however, to fund a modest funeral for George and to provide him with a headstone, which they did. The headstone however, had many mistakes. Some of George’s friends pooled their money together and paid for the headstone to be re-done on the other side, with corrections.

The headstone of George Johnson, provided by the Tasmanian Government
The reverse side of the headstone, re-done by his friends. Can you spot the differences?
A pen sketch of ‘Blind George’ appeared in the Launceston Examiner, 24 December, 1896.

Source: The Examiner, 6 August 1912

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