PURTAB SINGH – Henty New South Wales

PURTAB SINGH – Henty New South Wales

Purtab Singh grave marker at Henty Cemetery NSW. Photo: Crystal Jordan

Purtab Singh grave marker at Henty Cemetery NSW. Photo: Crystal Jordan

Purtab was an itinerant hawker in Victoria and New South Wales. When he retired from hawking Purtab settled in Henty, New South Wales and lived in a shed behind the saleyards. He was a picturesque figure in Henty and remembered for his long whiskers, which he usually twisted and tied across his head. He became known as Cheap Jack Charley, old Purtab Singh, it was claimed, would buy and resell anything that stood, or even leaned, on four legs. He was also a successful horse dealer

Rule Singh, Rutten Singh, Sunda Singh, Currum Singh, Gharne Singh and Harman Singh worked in the Henty district and were friends with Purtab. He was often called upon to perform the last rites at the cremation of his Indians countrymen.

Purtab Singh committed suicide and his body was found on the 30th September 1951 in his bush hut, which he had set on fire. After a careful examination, the police stated that his heart had split as a result of internal combustion. It appears that Purtab had set fire to his hut before he slit his own throat.

Purtab was a wealthy man. He owned two houses and had almost £1,000 ($2,000) in the Bank. He had lived in the Henty District for approximately fifty years. His nephew, New Patapa Singh of Myrtleford, Victoria identified fragments of a book in the ashes, as the Sri Guru Granth Sahib. He explained to the Coroner that the Akandh Path is read at cremations and at other times.[1] The reason for his apparent suicide was that Purtab had asked New Patapa to travel to India with him. He refused and as result of the refusal Purtab became depressed.[2]

When Patapa refused to accompany his friend to India, he may have disappointed him, but under normal circumstances, this would not cause a normal healthy person to take his own life. The true cause of his suicide would have been an underlying problem with Purtab’s mental health.

A large number of rural workers suffered from depression; this was the result of living hard and lonely lives. The incidents of rural suicides in the Sikh community (and possibly in other migrant communities) were higher than in the rural Australian community.

To say that Purtab Singh committed suicide because his nephew would not accompany him to India is too simplistic. If Purtab had wanted to go to India that badly he could have accompanied someone else, or returned to India on his own.

In any case, Purtab must have suffered a painful, mental and physical death. To prepare for his death by reading his own Akhand Path (funeral service), if that is what he did, and then to endure the pain of cutting his own throat and, while bleeding to death, set fire to his house to ensure that his body was cremated is difficult to comprehend.

This behaviour suggests that it is the result of deeper issues in Purtab’s mental health. But, it is a good example of the difficult lifestyle that the Sikh hawkers and rural workers endured, during this time.

Purtab Singh was buried in a neutral zone in the Henty cemetery, in an unmarked grave in the presence of four police officers, the gravedigger and undertaker.

Purtab’s grave has been restored and a marker with his name installed on it due to the efforts of Funeral Director, Edward Dale, who ensured that unmarked graves that could be identified in the Henty Cemetery were restored and markers with names were placed on them.

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© Len Kenna 28.11.2015

[1] Note: It is most likely that the remains of the Holy Book were wrongly identified by Patapa Singh, or wrongly reported in the newspaper. The remains were more likely to be of a smaller Holy Book called the Gutka and not the Sri Guru Granth Sahib. This assumption is made because Sikh religious practice requires that if, a Sri Guru Granth Sahib is kept in a private home it must be kept in a special room, which is kept solely to house the Sri Guru Granth Sahib. This would not have been possible as Purtab Singh was living in a small tin hut. A tin hut is not a respectable place to keep the Sri Guru Granth Sahib.

[2] Hawker’s Death was Suicide. The Canberra Times, ACT, Saturday 6th October 1951, p, 3.