Sunday, 27 November 2016

Wheeler Redux - Australia, Forever Changed

One-sixth of Australia's total pre-World War I population of 5 million was killed in action or wounded in the Middle East battles at Egypt or Gallipoli, in France or Belgium at Messines, Polygon Wood, Passchendaele. Survivors of these battles were discharged, repatriated to Australia, expected to take up their lives after what is today acknowledged as the most brutal war in living memory. Some managed to resume their pre-war lives, despite old wounds, amputations, painful memories of loss and sacrifice; some prospered, a testament to their strength of character and to the love and support they received from family and friends; perhaps simply a testament to luck. Their pain and sacrifice is commemorated every Armistice Day, 11th November. The red poppies of Flanders.  Australia, forever changed...more than one-sixth of the young adult population dead, or wounded in body and spirit.

Annie Wheeler's index of Queenslanders serving in the A.I.F. 1914-1918 opens for us the lives of the men and women who volunteered to defend an ideal. Wheeler's index gives us enough information to trace, through archival collections (National Archives of Australia, Queensland Justice Department) the pre- and post-war lives of these soldiers and nurses – their families, their military units, the actions in which they participated, individual acts of bravery or cowardice (those adjudged to be cowards were executed) and, perhaps most distressing, the injuries they suffered. Shell shock. Gassed.  Gunshot wounds (GSW - abbreviation litters these files). Shrapnel wounds. Disease. Captured and confined in enemy prison camps but not out of danger:  hungry, cold, alone.

For those killed on the battlefield, a file insert leaps out at the reader: a half-size caramel-coloured card with precise details of the date and place of the death, the location of the grave, correspondence to and from the next-of-kin.  Here are two of them, brothers, born near Rockhampton nine years apart, the sons of Patrick and Ellen Greevy:

Greevy, Thomas Fitzpatrick, Gunner 14th Field Artillery Brigade, died 9 March 1917 of wounds received in the battle for Bullecourt, buried in Flers Dressing Station Cemetery, 1/2 mile south of Flers, 2-1/2 miles north-west of Combles, France.  [For further information on the battle for Bullecourt, see]

Greevy, Robert Herbert, Private 42nd Battalion, died of wounds received in action 6 September 1918 France...

It is likely that Robert knows of his elder brother Thomas' death the previous year but not how he died, whether instantly or mortally wounded and in pain. Likely too that some of Robert's mates in the 42nd are wounded or dead. He thinks about the 'boys' own' adventure he anticipated, contrasts it with the bloodbath that confronts him. He thinks about his own mortality, wonders whether he is brave enough, strong enough to fight to the death as his brother Thomas did; self-doubt intrudes. Feelings of fear, anger, helplessness over his own inability to choose where he fights or when, powerless over his own destiny.  Possibly he despairs about the futility of war, plagued by vengeful thoughts, determined to seek retribution on the enemy. Robert thinks of his parents, his eldest brother John and sister Catherine grieving the loss of one brother and fearing for the life of another. Loving can be dangerous in time of war.  Like dots on a pointillist painting these thoughts take a toll on Robert. They change him forever in ways that can only be imagined. He dies in battle the following September.

Ordinary men and women who don't stand out in a pre-war crowd are changed by the uniform and taking the oath to serve their country.  The sacrifices they and their families make to honour that oath  upon them an indefinable quality:  resolute determination, a sense of destiny, captured by the camera. Here are some of them:

William Marshall Gerard, 1895-1952
Arthur Thomas Gibson, 1895-1962

2nd Lieut. Percy Ussher Gooch, 1887-1962

Lieut. Hereward Roderick Gower, 1893-1954

Driver Jack Graham, 1895-1971

2nd Air Mechanic Ronald Edwin Macaree, 1897-1973

Pte Gilbert Roland Shaw, 1895-1975

 PteWilliam Ernest Shaw, 1889-1917

and Gilbert's young brother William, enlisted 1914, fought at Gallipoli, wounded in France 1915, killed in Belgium  4 October 1917 -

Pte Alfred James Sidey, 1888-1979

 Pte Archer William Skewes, 1886-1964

Nursing Staff 13th Aus'n Hosp Enoggera -
Gertrude May Skyring 1880-1981

Pte George Roderick Skinner, 41st Battalion, killed in action 29 September 1918

Here is Edmund Atherton, whose story is told in Jane Bardsley's Outback Letterbook Across the Years 1896-1936 (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1987, reprinted in Australian Voices: Glimpses of our pioneering past through diaries, letters and recollections from the First Fleet to the Great War, Pier 9, Murdoch Books Pty Ltd, 2010).
 Pte Edmund Atherton, 1898-1977

Jane's letter, entitled "On no account let Edmund see me sad" recalls travelling to Brisbane to see her son Edmund off to war. Jane had another son in the A.I.F. whose whereabouts at the time were unknown, hence she was concerned not to let Edmund see her sorrow. Edmund, so young when he enlisted that he had to obtain his parents' consent, was granted permission to travel north to visit his family before leaving Australia for further training in the Middle East.  Not yet ready to take leave of her son, Jane took the reverse journey to see Edmund's ship leave the dock in Brisbane

Here is an unknown soldier, his image on file at the National Library of Victoria. He may be a Queenslander.  Someone reading this blog might know who he is. Please forward the link to anyone you know whose Australian ancestor served in World War I.  His story has yet to be told.

Geraldine Lee

Monday, 21 November 2016


I am sitting at my computer thinking about what to write this time. My research, in the last few months, has seemed aimless and disjointed and going off in all directions as I encounter one frustration after another. So, I asked myself who or what had been preoccupying me most, during that time. I realise that my thoughts keep coming back to Ireland and the Famine of 1846 – 1851. 

There is a reason for this. My biggest breakthrough this year was discovering that there is very strong evidence to suggest that my great-great grandmother was an Irish Famine Orphan. However, not having proved this to my full satisfaction I have continued looking for clues and evidence. In doing so I have come to recognise the complexity and tragedy of that era in Ireland’s history.
The Irish Famine, also known as The Great Hunger, came about because the potato, which was one of the main staples of the Irish diet, developed a fungal disease in 1845. This disease was Phytophthora infestans and was known as potato blight. This led to the potato crop failing in some years and giving very poor yields in other years. The result was poverty, starvation and disease in great numbers of the population. The suffering during this time was truly terrible particularly in the poorest agricultural areas. The population in those parts of Ireland was largely made up of peasant farmers who had small plots of land and large families to provide for, or who were landless labourers relying on income from farm work. Many people died from starvation but a greater proportion of the famine related deaths were from disease. Starvation weakened the body and so the weakened population was not able to withstand diseases such as cholera, typhus, dysentery and scurvy. It is estimated that the population of Ireland declined dramatically by 20 to 25 per cent during those years.

However, the decline was not only due to death from starvation and disease. During this time, some families or members of families were able to emigrate. These were people who were affected by the food shortages but who had the means to raise the money for their passage to another country. Many left their homes to look for a better life in Canada, America, New Zealand and, as we all know, Australia. Apart from my “famine orphan”, I have other Irish ancestors who came to Australia in the early 1850’s and I realise now that because they came from humble farming backgrounds they would have almost certainly experienced all the horrors and deprivations of that time. It makes me very sad to think of the hardships they suffered but I am also very proud of them and proud to be part of that heritage. They all lived long successful lives here in Australia. 

I have also learned that there were areas of Ireland that were largely unaffected. These were the industrial regions where people remained in employment and so had the means to buy other available food.

It is ironic, though, and tragic to know that during this time while people starved Ireland was exporting wheat, barley, oats, flax and butter. A significant proportion of Irish land was being farmed commercially to produce goods for export. I have read that in some cases goods were being shipped, under guard, from ports in famine stricken areas.    
In my search for information I have found a number of very interesting and helpful Irish history books, some with a chapter or two devoted to the famine and some entirely about the famine.
This is a list of a few of them:

“Black ’47 and Beyond. The Great Irish Famine in History, Economy and Memory” by Cormac
 O Grada
“Irish Women in Colonial History” edited by Trevor McClaughlin
“Barefoot and Pregnant? Irish Famine Orphans in Australia” by Trevor McClaughlin
“Dark Rosaleen. A Famine Novel” by Michael Nicholson   
“Irish History for Dummies” by Mike Cronin

Of course, the internet and google are a wonderful and seemingly endless source of information and a jumping off point for further and more detailed research. For example, I googled “County Cavan and the Irish Famine” because that is where two of my ancestors came from. I was rewarded with a wealth of information about County Cavan during the famine and its aftermath as well as the years leading up to that event. There is so much information out there that I began to feel that I could do a research thesis on the topic. Of course, I won’t. I am saving all my information for my family history when I finally write it.

In these past few months I have realised that even if you hit a brick wall and become frustrated in your search for hard core facts about a specific ancestor you can still move forward. You can use your time wisely and fruitfully by researching events and eras in history which would have influenced your ancestor’s life.

Monday, 14 November 2016

Family history revealed through death certificates

Many researchers consider it important to trace their ancestors from birth through marriage to eventual death and final resting place. My focus has been more on my ancestors’ birth, family, including parentage, and what they did during their life. As long as I have a date of death or burial, I haven’t always bought a death certificate to find out actual cause of death or sought out a final resting place; UK certificates are not as informative as Australian ones.

Recently, however, I watched a re-run of a Who Do You Think You Are? episode about the actor Martin Freeman. He was intrigued as to why so many children of one of his ancestors died when they were only young. Cause of death in most cases was ‘failure to thrive’ or equivalent. These ancestors in question were both blind. He sought advice from medical and other professionals and the most likely cause of the pattern of child deaths and the blindness was syphilis infection. The causes of death recorded on the death certificates and the pattern of deaths helped the professionals to reach this conclusion.

This started me thinking about whether there were any illnesses or other health issues that have been passed down through the generations in my own family. I hasten to add that I have no reason to believe that anyone in my family suffered from the same disease as those in Martin Freeman’s family. 

The medical condition which we think has come down my maternal line relates to blood group and the condition called Erythroblastosis Fetalis. My daughter wrote an article, published in GSQs Generation (Vol 33, September 2010), which explained that this condition was also referred to as ‘blue babies’. It can occur when a mother with an A-Rhesus Negative blood group has a baby with an A-Positive blood group. This would presumably happen when the father also had an A-Positive blood group. The results of this condition can vary from anaemia to jaundice, miscarriages or death and tend to affect second or subsequent children if they are also A-Positive. It appears that the mother’s system builds up antibodies from the first A-Positive child which can pass through the placenta and overwhelm the baby’s red blood cells. The condition is easily treated now after the birth of the first A-Positive child. The publication of this article sparked off correspondence with GSQ member and medical professional, Dr A.P. Joseph, UK Corresponding Member of the Australian Jewish Historical Society, who provided a much more scientific explanation of the condition. I am sure Helen Smith would also be able to explain the genetics behind this.

It affects me because my blood group is A-Rhesus Negative, while my daughter and her father were both A-Positive. I remember receiving a rather large injection in my rear-end after my daughter was born.  I’ve only had one child, so haven’t tested out the theory about blood group. I'm also not sure where this Rhesus negative factor entered my family's genetic pool, but looking at other females within my maternal family, I suspect that both my grandmother and possibly my great-grandmother were both Rhesus Negative. Both suffered multiple miscarriages, had stillborn children or children who died at a very young age. Neither my mother nor my sister is Rhesus Negative, but one of my nieces is and she suffered miscarriages after her first child was born.

I mentioned earlier that UK death certificates are not as informative as Australian certificates. In preparing for writing this blog I decided to look through the certificates that I do have to see if there were any other patterns. Several males probably died from occupation-related illnesses: it seems reasonable that a cotton framework knitter would have bronchial problems as they would be breathing in the fibres. Joseph Hall died, age 69 years of chronic bronchitis, asthma as well as senile decay.  George Paddock, a boot repairer, died aged 57 years in 1930 from myocarditis and congestion of lungs whereas Mary, his wife, died just 3 months later in 1931 from apoplexy, cardiac disease and myocarditis. This George’s father, another George who was also a boot repairer, had died in 1888 aged only 45 years, due to phthisis pulmonalis (tuberculosis). I wonder if all these causes of death affecting heart and lungs, were affected somehow by materials involved in repairing boots, or whether their environment contributed to their causes of death. I haven't reviewed my paternal line, but as many of the males were coalminers it is more than likely that pulmonary illnesses caused their deaths. Senile decay appears as cause of death on several certificates. I could understand this for an ancestor aged 86 years at death, whose secondary cause of death was exhaustion, but I wonder whether this was a catch-all phrase for someone suffering a multitude of health problems. 

My general advice to researchers has been to review the materials you have gathered. By looking at these certificates, I discovered that the informant to one death was the daughter of the deceased and gave her married name. I had not previously researched what happened to my great-grandmother's other children and so this provides useful information. In another case, the informant was the sister of the deceased (Ann Paddock nee Brewer). As this sister (Maria Brewer) was as yet unmarried, I had added confirmation of the maiden name of my ancestor. The informant of another great-grandmother’s death was her grand-daughter with the very Lancashire surname of Leatherbarrow. This opened up a line of research to find out how she was related. My grandparents both died in hospital; my grandmother in 1972 aged 78 years from breast cancer; my grandfather in 1977 aged 89 years of cardiac failure. The name and address of the respective hospital was provided on the death certificate.

The most interesting death certificate was that of George Paddock, the first of a trio of bootmakers in my direct line. He died in April 1865, in Colchester, Essex, aged 63 years. He was the husband of Ann Paddock, nee Brewer, mentioned above. Cause of death was "Accidental and instant death by being knocked down by a ballast waggon on Railway the wheels going over and crushing the person's abdomen and other parts of the body." The informant was the Coroner. No Coroner's report could be found, but the inquest was reported in great detail in the Essex Standard, a Colchester paper. Summaries were also found in several other papers. The inquest was interesting as the representative of the Railway company went to great lengths to exonerate the Company from any responsibility for the accident. 
Chelmsford Chronicle, 21 April 1865

Bury & Norwich Post, 18 April 1865
I'm sure we all accept that we are not just buying death certificates out of morbid curiosity, but as a way of understanding the health problems faced by our ancestors. These problems could potentially be gifted to us through the wonders of DNA. Death certificates can provide information and leads for other avenues of research, although it is generally accepted that they can be unreliable. After all, the person who knows whether the information given on the certificate is correct or not, is no longer there. 

Has information on a death or other certificate helped you to break down a brickwall, given you an interesting lead, or provided an explanation for something within your family? 

Thanks to Helen Smith for sharing last week’s post about the GRO adding extra details to their indexes for births and deaths. I’ve been able to correctly identify several births now the mother’s maiden name is included.

Until next time


Saturday, 5 November 2016

New Information on English and Welsh Indexes

The recent announcement (4 November 2016) by the General Register Office of England and Wales of the addition to their index information will make many genealogists rub their hands with glee especially those of us with common surnames.

Previously the site has been a bit clunky. We have generally gotten the index information from a variety of places (various pay sites, FreeBMD or even from microfiche or film) and entered them to order our certificates. When I have been in London years ago I even got my workout by lifting the heavy index volumes at St Catherine's House!

Civil registration in England and Wales started on the 1 July 1837.

For those of us used to Australian indexes the English/Welsh didn't provide a lot of detail. Prior to 1865 age at death was not listed and for the births mother's maiden name was not added until 1911.

I am guessing some re-indexing and adding of information has occurred as a result of the digitising of the volumes  but the good news is the site announced today that it now has the age at death listed in the indexes pre 1865 and also has the mother's maiden name listed for the births pre 1911. Hooray! This will really help when I am trying to sort out Smith entries!

The GRO are doing a trial session from the 9th November 2016 of digital downloads of certificates at six pounds each but it is being announced as a trial only for three weeks or the download of 45000 certificates so be very ready to take advantage.  Hopefully that will then show this is a winner for them.

Marriages are currently not listed and no information as to when they might be listed. The Birth index goes from 1837-1915 and the Deaths from 1837-1857.

To get onto the site to search the indexes you do have to register but it is easy.You do have to confirm your email by clicking on a link. If you have been registered and it has been a while since you were on the site you will also have to confirm your email. If you have previously registered but can't remember your password the site will send a link to set a new password.

Now the searching has a few quirks such as you have to define the gender of your search and you are also restricted to looking at a time frame of a specified year plus minus up to two years only (so really that means you can search within a 5 year time frame as a single search). You are restricted to 250 items being listed at 50 on a page. This will not be a problem for most people (unless you are doing Smith) and you can restrict it to searching just a year or even a quarter within a year to narrow down the results.

For those of us doing One Name Studies it is a simple matter of copying and pasting into Excel. It will need a little clean-up but quite doable.

You have to have a surname and you have three options for the search:
By Exact Match
By Phonetically Similar Variations (uses a metaphone algorithm)
By  Similar Sounding Variations (uses a soundex algorithm)

So in practise what does that mean?

For Smith exact match you get Smith, no surprise there.

For Smith by Metaphone search:
Smith, Samuell, Seaman, Simm, Sims, Smales, Simco, Small, Snaith Summer and the list goes on.

For Smith by Soundex search:
Smith, Smyth, Smythe, Smiddy, Schmidt, Sandey, Snaith, Synott, Snode Sinnett and it goes on.

For the first names you can also do a Search for records with a matching forename or derivative name (uses a thesaurus of common name variations such as alternate spellings or abbreviations). See the image for Alexander and the variations it will return.

You are able to enter a known index number to gain the further details and you are able to restrict searches by registration district. There is a handy PDF file of Registration Districts and their time frames.

Once you find the entry you want you can just click through to order the certificate which is sent via post at nine pounds 25 pence (postage included).

All in all this is a fantastic step forward and it is great to see this being done.

Do remember though that the age at death can be quite suspect as it depends on the informant  but being able to separate twenty Elizabeth Smith's in a district by being very young, not so young and elderly is a great step forward!

The other nice thing is that they ask you if you see a problem with the indexing to let them know so they can improve the data.

Sunday, 23 October 2016

The Wheeler Project

One hundred years ago the world was engulfed in conflict. Men and women from every nation were conscripted or volunteered to fight when hostilities broke out in Europe in August 1914. Some 416,809 Australian men and women enlisted in the First Australian Imperial Force (AIF), the main expeditionary force of the Australian Army.  By the end of the war, over 60,000 Australians had been killed and 156,000 wounded, gassed or taken prisoner.  

One central Queensland woman who found herself in England at the outbreak of war made a unique contribution to Australia's war effort. Her name was Annie Margaret Wheeler.  Born 1867 in Dingo, Queenland, the eldest surviving child of Alexander Stuart Somerville Laurie and his wife Margaret née Stevenson, Annie was educated in Rockhampton, married Henry Wheeler in 1896, widowed in 1903 and found herself in London in August 1914 working as a probationer nurse in a hospital east of London. Mrs Wheeler recognised the logistical difficulties facing servicemen and women and their families in central Queensland because of war-time press censorship (keeping casualty reports out of newspapers so as not to diminish the enlistment rate) and the unreliability of the mails (ocean-going vessels were being sunk at an alarming rate); she maintained contact with as many of them as she could, keeping a detailed card index on each, corresponding with soldiers and nurses on the battlefield; she liaised with their families, forwarded mail and parcels, supervised their care in hospital and provided financial assistance during their recuperation in England.

Mrs Wheeler's fortnightly letters to Queensland newspapers kept families in touch with their sons and daughters and siblings, and provided reliable information to the Australian public about the men and women in the trenches. Grateful families responded by establishing a fund to support her work. By war's end Mrs Wheeler's card index contained the name, rank, service number, military unit, next of kin and location of more than 2300 Queenslanders. In recognition of her efforts, the Australian Government provided ship's passage for her return to Australia in 1919. When her train arrived in Rockhampton in 1919 more than 50,000 people (many of them returned soldiers) cheered the arrival of Annie Wheeler, the 'Mother of Queenslanders'.

Volunteers of the Genealogical Society of Queensland are transcribing Mrs Wheeler's index cards, cross-checking the data against the files of the National Archives of Australia (NAA) and Queensland Justice Department to produce a 'snapshot' of Queenslanders who served in WWI.  Whether you have an ancestor who served in the A.I.F., or know someone who might, or are interested in perusing this important historical collection, you will soon have on-line access to the name, birthplace, vital dates (birth, marriage, death), military serial number, rank and unit of Queenslanders who served in the Australian Imperial Forces 1914-1918. The data set will be available via the GSQ website (; a name index will be included on the website of The State Library of Queensland (  Plans are in train to invite contributions from the public to augment the data with additional biographical details and photographs.

Working on the Wheeler Project is a visceral experience. The NAA files include enlistment documents that give a glimpse into the pre-war lives of Queenslanders – station-hands, shearers, railway porters, postal workers, nurses and doctors, cooks, solicitors, graziers. The NAA files also include poignant letters seeking information on the whereabouts of soldiers and nurses: “I have had no word from my son but Mrs Wheeler tells me that he is in [such and such a battalion] stationed in France...”.  Mrs Wheeler kept track of their whereabouts – where they were last known to have been stationed, their forwarding addresses, whether they were wounded or captured or killed in action, the names and addresses of their family members and friends.

One letter to Mrs Wheeler from an Australian prisoner of war in Germany speaks volumes not only about the deprivation, loneliness and despair experienced by those in captivity, but about the trust and confidence Mrs Wheeler inspired in members of the A.I.F. and their families:

Mrs Wheeler's index card for this man contains a notation that a parcel was despatched to him (and to his friend). The card also records his death the following year, still in captivity. His letter found its way into his NAA file, along with a letter to his mother from the representative of a society dedicated to maintaining the graves of Australian soldiers and describing the location of his resting place in a quiet wooded area on the outskirts of a German city.

Despite her best efforts, Mrs Wheeler was able to record only scant information about some individuals – a surname and military unit, or details of a serving family member (“brother Thomas, gunner, 4th Pioneers, France”); in such instances, filling the gaps presents challenges for GSQ volunteers and in the process reveals some harrowing details – families who lost two or three or more sons in the conflict, their names following one after the other in alphabetical order in the data set. Individual stories come to light: a machine gunner requesting early release from duty owing to the death of his wife, leaving no-one to care for his children; wives enquiring whether their soldier husbands are alive and seeking early release of their husbands on compassionate grounds to help care for their children; a soldier's request to his commanding officer for early discharge because his wife had died and he alone was left to care for their children. One file contains numerous letters from a woman trying to locate her wounded husband (spinal concussion and 'ricked nerves' – shellshock), asking whether he was still serving overseas, and the official response advising that he had been recuperated and returned to Australia in April 1919; it must have been a shock when she learned that he was home and that his application for a rail warrant to resettle her and the children in Rockhampton had been refused because he had already received the maximum allowance. His NAA file reveals that, as of 1922, the best efforts of the Army and the State Children's Department (Qld) had been unsuccessful in locating him. His injuries and post-war financial difficulties must have had a profound effect on him and on the fragile woman who was left to care for the children. Research suggests that he lived for a time with his parents in Sydney, and then all trace of him vanishes. Perhaps his quality of life was degraded not only by penury but by the physical and emotional effects of his war injuries and the distress caused by inability to reunite his family. Or, perhaps the devastation wrought by his circumstances so overwhelmed him that he drifted into obscurity and died alone; his date of death has not yet been confirmed.

The Wheeler Project is one of many GSQ initiatives aimed at documenting the lives of Queenslanders and making the information widely available. Indices and data sets they might be but behind raw data lies the life story of each individual, whose descendants will have the opportunity to discover details of the war-time experience of their ancestor and to supplement the record with additional information.

Geraldine Lee

Monday, 17 October 2016

An Unlucky Police Constable

 I would like to tell you a story about my paternal great grandfather who was a police constable in the far north eastern region of New South Wales from 1880 to 1916. In 1900 he fell victim to a slight misadventure which caused him some notoriety in the district. At the time, he was stationed in Casino, a small town about 30 or so miles inland from the coast. In September of that year he was escorting a prisoner from Lismore to the Casino Goal when the prisoner got away from him and escaped into the bush. This incident was widely reported in the newspapers both locally and further afield. It appears that it even prompted some amusement in the town. It was reported in one of the local newspapers that a cartoon depicting the event had been displayed in the front window of the local Town Hall. However, the incident was treated seriously by his superiors and he was charged with neglect of duty and required to appear in the Lismore Police Court to answer the charges. During the court proceedings the details of the incident were given. A prisoner, after his conviction of assault in the Lismore Court, was being escorted to Casino to serve his sentence. Halfway between Lismore and Casino the prisoner was handed over to the care of my great grandfather. During the journey, when they reached a place called Naughton's Gap on the Casino road, they turned down a short track. There was dense scrub along this track and when they got to the top of a small hill the prisoner rushed his horse in front of the constable. While trying to catch up, the constable's horse stumbled several times and the prisoner, taking advantage of this, jumped off his horse and escaped into the thick scrub. My great grandfather said he went into the scrub looking for the prisoner but was unable to find him.

My great grandfather was fined 2 pounds 4 shillings for this incident because the court said that the evidence showed neglect on his part. A number of factors went against him in the case. It was shown that he had not been using a halter and leading the prisoner's horse as was the usual procedure with prisoners who were considered troublesome. Also, he had failed to follow instructions. When the prisoner had been handed over to him he had been given instructions stating that as the prisoner was considered “crafty and treacherous” care should be taken with him. However, my great grand father was not completely disgraced by the incident because it was noted in the court that he was held in high esteem as a painstaking constable.

A number of years later in March 1906 my poor great grandfather was unfortunate enough to be involved in another prisoner escape. This time two prisoners escaped. My great grandfather was now working in Lismore and was the police constable in charge of the Lismore “lock up”. Two prisoners who had been charged with burglary were under his supervision in the “lock up”. They were in the exercise yard at 7pm when he checked on them but when he returned between 7.30pm and 7.45pm they were gone and one of the bars on the top of the yard had been bent so that they could slip through and escape. They were later arrested in the Lismore township and it was reported that upon their arrest they stated that it was Saturday night and they were just having a night out.

My great grandfather was again required to appear in court to answer a charge of neglect of duty. This time the case was dismissed because it was stated by the court that the bars through which the men escaped were hollow and could be prised apart in a minute and that also there should be a guard at all times over prisoners charged with serious offences. At the time that this incident occurred my great grandfather was often called away from the cells because his duties also included answering the telephone in other parts of the police station as well as doing the rounds of the town on “town duty”.

When I was a child I did hear my grandfather sometimes jokingly refer to a family member who was a policeman and had allowed a prisoner to escape, but there was never much detail given and I had no idea that he was referring to his own father, my great grandfather. However, many many years later when I became interested in my family history and began to do my research I discovered the wonders of Trove and was able to discover the real story behind the rather vague one that I had heard as a child. Just by typing my family surname into the Trove search page I was able to come up with a wealth of information about this story. Trove certainly enables us to bring our ancestors to life. I attended a seminar on Saturday on a completely different subject and one of the presenters kept reminding us that Trove is our friend. I couldn't agree with her more.

The seminar I refer to was organised by The Genealogical Society of Queensland and the topic was Ireland: Church, Famine and Immigration. My great grandfather, the police constable, was born in London in 1856 and came to Australia on the Ben Cruachan in 1878. His life was vastly different from the people we heard about at the seminar on Saturday. His father was a barrister and he was brought up in a fairly well to do family. It appears that he came to Australia for adventure rather than as a result of poverty, famine or criminal conviction. However, amongst my paternal ancestors who came to Australia, he is the exception rather than the rule because all the other ancestors were Irish and came to Australia as convicts and refugees from famine and poverty.

The seminar was extremely interesting and informative and gave me lots of clues for further research. I will let you know in future blogs of all the gems I am sure I will be able to find as a result of attending this seminar.

As for my great grandfather the police constable. If he had any other misadventures in his line of duty I am yet to discover them. He continued as a police constable in charge of the Lismore “lock up” until a few months before his death in 1916 at the relatively young age of 59.   

Monday, 10 October 2016

Where were you when .... ?

I’ve previously written about putting our ancestors’ lives in context so that they become more meaningful, especially when we’re writing a family history or a biography of a particular ancestor. The importance of context came home to me earlier this year when I read a book which focussed on events in a particular period. It caused me to think (yet again) about how to write up my research.

1960s montage
For instance, can you remember where you were, who you were with, and what you were doing, when significant events happened on a local, national or even global scale in your own lifetime and the impact they had on your life. As a baby boomer, I clearly remember the Beatles emerging on the pop scene in the 1960s and I can still sing along to many of their songs. The Apollo 11 moon landing in July 1969 was, depending upon your time zone, either on my birthday, the day before, or the day after. Martin Luther King's I have a dream speech on 28 August 1963 still sends shivers down my spine. President John F. Kennedy’s assassination on 22 November 1963 in Dallas shocked the world. From these events you can see that the 1960s was a significant period of time for me, as I moved through my teenage years, left home for college and eventually ended up living and working in London - a far cry from my semi-rural roots in the English Midlands. Pinning events in our lives to more widely reported occasions helps us create anchors not only for writing our own life story but also a family history.

Bill Bryson’s book, One Summer: America, 1927, describes  a huge number of momentous events that happened in just a few months in the middle of 1927, giving the background as well as the aftermath and subsequent impact on the future development of America. These included the competition to be the first person to fly non-stop from America to Paris, which was eventually achieved by Charles Lindbergh; the peak of Al Capone’s reign of terror in Chicago; the phenomenal success of baseballer Babe Ruth; the invention of television; the decisions that ultimately brought about the Great Depression. 

Bryson’s books are so rich in detail that I find it preferable to read them in small chunks. What set me thinking, though, was whether my ancestors, if they lived in New York in June 1927, trekked out to the airfield to see Charles Lindbergh take to the air? Would they be wondering if he would be successful and eventually return or would he be lost forever like many of his fellow aviators who attempted the crossing. If they lived in England or elsewhere in America, were they among the rapturous crowds who welcomed him home after his epic flight? You could create a timeline of your ancestors’ locations and see if they coincided with Lindbergh’s tours. 

Back to Bryson’s book, I was impressed by the number of notable events that happened in a short period of time in one year and the subsequent global impact of some of them. As the lives of most of our 19th century ancestors were probably fairly circumscribed by the rhythm of agricultural or industrial processes, it is possible that events such as wars, or the coming of the railways or the discovery of gold, could have thrown their lives into turmoil. Perhaps this explains many of their actions, such as leaving rural areas to work in the industrial centres, or migrating half-way across the world to start a new life. 

I have another Bryson book on my bookshelf, At home. A short history of private life. The blurb on the back cover says 

“The history of household life isn’t just a history of beds and sofas and kitchen stoves, as I had vaguely supposed it would be, but of scurvy and guano and the Eiffel Tower and bedbugs and body-snatching and just about everything else that has ever happened. Houses aren’t refuges from history. They are where history ends up.” 

In the book he takes a journey around his own house, an old rectory, wandering from room to room considering how the ordinary things in life came to be. Each chapter deals with a particular room and discusses the things in it, how they came into existence and when.

This picture of the original bark hut home
of Mr and Mrs Tucker is from State Library
of Queensland, 2172947
An old rectory in rural England is fertile ground for such investigation, but what if you had ancestors who arrived in the early years in Australia. How did they build their rough bark huts in the bush; what did they do for cooking, water and sanitation?  Many land grants were dependent upon erecting a dwelling, fencing the land, and producing crops, which proved to be too big a task for some migrants. 

So, rather than just saying where your ancestors lived, do some research on what the place would have been like in the 1800s. Also research the natural disasters that occurred while they were there, such as floods or bush fires, crop failures or pest invasions. See if you can find early newspaper reports or diaries of those who lived in the area. They all help you to build up a picture of what life would have been like. 

As you can see, I enjoy reading non-fiction and both of the books mentioned above came to me courtesy of my daughter. They were found on the non-fiction shelves in retail bookshops, which are so often crowded out by massed copies of the latest fiction blockbuster. So, don’t only rely on Google or Wikipedia for all your background information, take the time to visit your local bookshop or library and browse the non-fiction shelves for interesting reads; these can not only add to your understanding of your ancestors’ lives, but also generate ideas on how to write their story.

Until next time.