In an age before regular garbage collection services, mandatory labelling of products and the disposal of items after only one use, accidental death by poisoning was not uncommon. On the afternoon of 3 January 1887 fourteen-year-old Nellie Neely had a headache and drank the contents of a medicine bottle. What she swallowed was not Dinneford’s fluid magnesia as indicated by the label but a mixture of nitric acid and mercury.

Doctors McCormick, Service of Newtown, and John Walker Smith and William Annesley West of Glebe Rd were called to the bedside but Ellen Neely died that night. The circumstances leading to her death were revealed at the inquest held in the Currency Lass Hotel (on the corner of Glebe Rd and Mitchell St, now a supermarket). Two months earlier Ellen’s stepmother Elizabeth née Logan had
bought electro-plate cleaning acid (‘a prize winner at a London exhibition’) from a door-to-door hawker who dispensed it in bulk. Ellen was sent into the house to find an empty bottle. The filled container was then put on the mantelpiece with the family’s medicines, out of reach of the younger children, and forgotten. The recommendation of the jury at the inquest that hawkers be compelled to sell poison only in bottles so labelled was not taken up by the Attorney-General who decided that the substance in question did not fall within the meaning of the relevant Act.

Ellen Mary Neely lived her short life at 1 Catherine St, a combined grocery and greengrocery on the corner of Derwent St, a few doors away from another grocer Edward Horne and wholesale grocers W J Norris and Sons. Her father James had set up business there in 1871, shortly after moving from St John’s Rd. Her mother Isabella died in December 1879 leaving Ellen with four siblings: Annie, James Alexander, Isabella and William. In 1881 James senior remarried and had another son, Samuel (1883-1930). The Neelys remained at 1 Catherine St until 1895 when they moved to Kogarah where James died in 1910 and his widow in 1918. James’ first-born son returned to Glebe. Survived by Elizabeth née Bennett and their daughter Gladys, James Alexander Neely died at 172 St John’s Rd in May 1913.

NSW births, deaths, marriages registry; Sands directories; Sydney Morning Herald 7.1.1887, 3.1.1888.