Saturday, November 6, 2010

Who are we and where do we come from?

Well, we've been travel planning. Hubby and I of course have our trip to the American West and South Dakota all lined up, but a casual remark to my brother has lead to a plan for He and I to visit the EU together, and with the fall out from planning that, I think my travel plans may be being turned on their head.

Brother has a burning desire to visit Paris... but the thing that attracts me most in France is battlefields - of course! I have a long standing interest in Military History and to me it is unthinkable to visit France and not pay my respects at Verdun at the very least, and of course as an Australian, to the significant Australian War Memorials and battle sites.

One of my life's defining moments occurred when I was 17. I went along to the movies, to the old movie theatre that used to be in Manly opposite the wharf to be precise, and saw Gallipoli, directed by Peter Weir. I was devastated by that movie. I remember going home to my mother's place and laying on the couch and weeping, really weeping, all afternoon. I have never been the same since. I started to read Australian military history books and have gradually expanded out to get perspectives from other angles. So yeah, there is NO way I will go to France and not tour the battlefields and pay my respects and remember the fallen - on all sides. And no doubt shed a bucket more of tears.

But it doesn't stop there. If you're heading over to the battlefields, makes sense to find out a bit more about the service of your own family members doesn't it. So there it starts. I know of some of my grandparents brothers who served but perhaps there's more. Maybe someone died and is buried over there. Most of my grandparents came from large families. Well, from that line of thought the rest is history, haha, quite literally. To find military service, you need to know the details of all your family members don't you. So here we are on a geneological research campaign.

It's amazing what you can discover online these days. Truly amazing. Within an hour of starting I made contact with a cousin of my father I've never met, whose wife is also researching. Now I am anticipating receiving digital copies of photographs of my great grandmothers and great great grandmother and others, which is simply fantastic!!

The records and network of family geneologists online is brilliant. In just a couple of weeks I have learned a vast amount about my family, including some unexpected surprises. Drum roll please.... turns out one of our mob was a convict!! For an Australian that is like winning the geneological lottery!  Better still, there is a clear record that he's our bloke. No uncertainty whatsoever, which apparently is often not the case. Although others in the family have traced the line, it seems no one had checked to see how the various lines arrived and when.  In my solitary zeal I did a quick search and bingo!! Eureka! I can't quite compete with my friend who has three convicts in her background, including first fleeter and a negro convict to boot, as well as whopping great land grants around Sydney; or my brother in law who turns out to be descended from Billy Blue;  but hey, I'm walking on air!

Earlier this year, my dad died. We held a wake of course. Looking back over photos of his life, I was talking family with Dad's sister and a couple of his cousins he was close to.  My Aunty piped up with a saying people had when she was growing up.  In an adopted English country accent she pipes up "Aren't you glad your grandfather stole that dook!" (... that's a duck that is referred to by the way!).  I would interpret the saying as a universal statement of love for Australia and a deep sense of gratitude to be living in this beautiful, free, land.

So.. back to the family tree.  We're making pretty good progress on my side of the family. On several fronts we're back to the mid 1700s.  Potential on one line (if it can be confirmed with reasonable documentation), that we link into a tree that has been researched back to about 1200. That's as it may be. I'd like to see the documentary evidence.... For me I am finding it extremely interesting just to see where the family came from immediately preceding their migration and putting together the puzzle of extended family here at home.

The first of my forebears to arrive in Australia was one Josiah Williams a shipwright. He and his wife and first child were bounty immigrants who, with a loan of twenty pounds, packed their worldly goods and departed their home in Stepney to sail for a new life in a new, but ancient, land in 1832. Predicably, they lived at first in Sydney, where the next generation towards me, one Margaret Hannah Williams was born in 1836. Margaret is my paternal grandfather's paternal grandmother.  Subsequently the family seems to have scattered to the four winds across the country, including Adelaide, but Margaret and her descendants - at least down the line that leads to me, remained in Sydney. Making me the 5th generation to be born in Sydney since 1832.

Our convict seems to have been another of the first family members to hit Australia of course. 1838 - ie before the discovery of gold brought all and sundry to our sunny shores. Harry the housebreaker was apparently from Kent, and he was convicted in the Kent Assizes. Harry's parents were both born in Speldhurst, Kent.  Harry was my mother's great grandfather. He must have been a bad boy at some stage as a convict because he was sent to Moreton Bay. Turns out we have pioneer Queenslanders all over the place up there... I may be a Sydneysider, but I've also got a pretty darn impressive Qld pedigree too!
Dad's paternal line was from Kent also. Most recently from Chatham where they appear to have worked at the Historic Dockyard. My great great grandfather first turns up in Sydney getting married in 1853 to Margaret, the first of my forebears born here. Some years later his brother came out and married Margaret's sister. This proved very useful to me because my great great grandfather was the informant on his brother's death and gave details of his family back in Kent.

Harry the housebreaker's wife Jane Kirkwood (pictured above) was not a convict or born of a convict. I am told this is unusual. Usually if you have one convict you have more because they tended to marry other convicts or the children of convicts. In Harry the housebreaker's case he married an Irish Orphan who came out under the Earl Grey scheme. This scheme caused such community outrage and prejudice that it was abandoned after a couple of years. The young women were selected from workhouses at the time of the famines. Most were orphans. Most were catholic. My "orphan" had a living mother in Belfast and was CofE. There is a memorial to the Irish Orphan girls at Hyde Park Barracks in Sydney which is where they were processed. It is astonishing the things we all don't know about our own families.

Below we have a photo of convict Harry and Jane's daughter Fanny and her family. My grandfather is the boy sitting in the front. He was a bit of a wild child by all accounts.  I am proud to say that the main man in the photo (my great grandfather) is reported to have been a good friend to the Chinese community in Townsville and very popular with them. He and his son Joe after him (also pictured - the male furthest on the right) did a lot for the Chinese community, though perhaps this is offset by my grandfather, a young larrikin, who would tease the Chinese men and push their baskets as they carried them on their long poles. My older relatives shake their heads and say that if grandfather had found out he would have really copped a hiding.

Next to leave their home country, my father's maternal grandmothers line - the Russells, set off from Auchinleck, Scotland, for Dunedin New Zealand which was a Scottish settlement. Dunedin is of course the Scottish Gaelic name for Edinburgh. This must have been in the early-mid 1860's when the Otago region was in the midst of a gold rush. They seem to have lived there for about a decade at least before moving to Sydney following the death of my great great grandfather, who is buried in Dunedin.

My great great grandmother Susan Russell (pictured above) and the (surviving) children moved to St Leonards in Sydney. There's an intriguing mystery in there somewhere and some tragedy too. The youngest daughter committed suicide at age 16 by drinking carbolic.... and though my great grandmother Jessie Russell had 6 sons and named most after family members.. not one is named for her own deceased father James! There has simply GOT to be a reason for that!
It turns out that great great grandfather Russell had at least two brothers who also emigrated to Dunedin and we have heaps of kiwi relatives! Through I am now in touch with my distant cousin in NZ who has been displaced by the earthquake she contacted me to tell me where my great great grandfather is buried. If we follow the Russells forebears back we get to a lead miner from Wanlockhead, Ayrshire, Scotland. The lead mine is now a museum and you can visit it. How cool would that be, to visit the very place where your ancestor worked 250 odd years ago.

1879, sees the other of my father's mothers lines upping sticks from Norfolk, England and being assisted to move a great slice of the family to Australia. Charles Barber and Sarah Ann Barber (nee Spink) (pictured below) came out to join Charles's step father's sister Ann in Sydney. More of the family followed a couple of years later.

Having lived for generations in Norfolk this line of the family fell victim to the industrial revolution and in large numbers first migrated to Durham in the north where they lived for several years before emigrating.  I have learned that in that period Norfolk suffered a severe depression and the population dropped by more than half. There must be many more out there like us, whose parents pretty much had to come out here to survive. Like the Russells, on arrival in Australia, they settled in the St Leonards area on the north shore of Sydney harbour where my own paternal line was also busily creating a vast infestation.

This is a photo of the home of Charles and Sarah's son William Barber, one of the kids they brought with them, and his wife Jesse Russell who was born in Dunedin. It is in Rhodes Ave Naremburn and this is where my grandmother was born, and indeed I believe my father was also born in this house.

My paternal grandfather was one of thirteen... and his father - was likewise of a large family and they also all lived in St Leonards for registration purposes! Birthed in St Leonards, Married in St Leonards. Died in St Leonards. It is proving unusual to find a family member who moved away from the lower north shore in those generations that qualify as historical records!  And who could blame them. It is and was a supremely beautiful area, especially years ago when it was less developed.

Through newly found cousins I have acquired photographs of my grandfather and all his many siblings and their wives and children laughing and healthy and happy looking like they are having a ball in their old fashioned swimwear and fashions. By the look of my grandfather I'd guess this photo is from the 1920's or very early 1930s.  I also found an online image of the headstone of Margaret Townsend (nee Williams) the first of us all to be born in Australia, back in 1836. Unfortunately the headstone was destroyed when that cemetary was converted to a "rest park". I'm grateful they at least took photographs before trying to move things.

There's lots of origins to be identified when your family has been in Australia for so long, and it seems we are doing a pretty solid job of dotting ourselves all around the UK.

There are some more locations steeped in family.  So far, Aberdeenshire is up there. On my maternal grandmother's paternal line it's Aberdeenshire in every branch and twig until George Donald and Mary Dey set sail with their young family for Australia in 1883 arriving directly into Townsville. Townsville and Charters Towers feature strongly in their Australian story with many of their descendants still living in far north Queensland.

Around 1870 my mothers paternal grandfather - Jesse Popham (pictured above) arrived in Moreton Bay (Brisbane) from Mark, Somerset. Jesse was a carpenter who was recruited in England to work in the Queensland timber industry. He migrated on his own, but it appears his sister had emigrated earlier and was settled in Rockhampton - where her descendants still live. Jesse was here for about 10 years before he married the daughter of our convict in the Brisbane area, had a couple of kids there and then moved to Townsville and had a bunch more.  They lived in Ipswich during the great flood and the family has handed down stories about cleaning the mud of the ceiling of the second story of their house. I guess you can imagine that our family wasn't much surprised by the recent Brisbane flooding over the area where Jesse and the family lived back in the late 1800s.  There was no natural disaster assistance in those days.

It is no wonder my father was so obsessed with the ocean. His grandfather Wark was a marine engineer from Glasgow, and he just might have been a bigamist! But I'm not certain about that.

Eadley's (blacksmiths) and Bonnells (agricultural labourers) from Shropshire and Staffordshire. Despite some tricky tangles with common names and such, on the whole the available public documentation relating to my family is astonishing.

On my hubby's side it is a much much murkier picture. Neither of my husband's parents were born in Australia and were not British.

My mother in law was born in Rabaul, New Guinea. Her father (above) was from Ambon, Indonesia and was speared in 1942 and died. This and the war prompted a move for the widow and children to Sydney and safety.  They were non -white aliens, so that cannot have been pleasant. As far as the records show the Australian government confiscated my hubby's grandfathers assets in the war and they were never compensated. We know there are still family in New Guinea, but at this stage we do not know much, and frankly hubby is not much interested in finding out. ... but I wonder, who are these people? We believe they are family of hubby's maternal grandmother.

My father in law's story has been a revelation. After his death some details started to emerge when his partner of 28 years finally felt able to tell hubby what little she knew. Immigration records from the 1950s are openly available. Though we didn't know until I started digging in the archives, it turns out he was born in Yugoslavia. An ethnicity known as Donauschwabians. Volksdeutsche. Most of his family were wiped out in a round of ethnic cleansing after the end of WWII. The village where he lived was converted to a concentration camp. The adult men and women were taken as forced labour to Russia. The elderly and the children were held in starvation conditions created to inflict an eye or an eye revenge on anyone of ethnic German ancestry.  Accordingly there were rapes and beatings and murders. It was simply horrendous and in the shock and anger over the holocaust, it seems no-one among the world community much cared. They say about 6 million ethnic Germans died including my father-in-law's grandparents and Joe was left alone from about the age of 8 or 9 yrs to survive as best he could. All Joe's siblings died, some of scarlet fever but we don't know when. It may have been before 1944 or they may have died weakened by conditions in the camp. No wonder Joe never spoke of his family or life before Australia.
There are some pretty noisy rattling skeletons in there which we will unravel some day. I want to know about my Joe's father's war record. There's a very good chance it isn't going to be a pretty story. We know he didn't come back and apparently was conscripted and had no choice (which fits with what the history texts are saying) but what did he and his unit get up to? Apparently the volksdeutsche were not eligible to serve in the Wehrmacht which means any service had to be in the Waffen SS.  How responsible was he for the war crimes committed by the Waffen SS??  Perhaps there is a reason, beyond his traumatic experiences, why Joe went out of his way to deny my husband any connection to, or knowledge of his family.. or maybe he was trying to protect hubby from racist attitudes.  Joe passionately adopted his nationality as an Australian and he didn't like to look back.
When I started looking at the German side of things a colleague who is of German ancestry with post-war migration cautioned me. Were we sure we wanted to know what was hiding back there?  What scars we carry without even knowing where they came from.

In the course of trying to understand our own stories, there are lots more villages and regions around the world to get along to and see what we can see.  This personal relationship with distant places and times provides an interesting texture to our travels.  Events that we felt distant from are sometimes a lot closer than we realise. A shared humanity has to mean that they cannot be held aloof. Must not be held aloof.

And what about the Military Service that started this quest?  Well, I have yet to really decipher much on my relatives service records received to date, but so far, my family seem to have been "deep thinkers":

My mother's Uncle Ben served in France, in the 42nd Battalion and was apparently an invalid who died very young as a result of it. But at least he came home. The battle honours of the 42nd are not shabby. Not shabby at all! My aunty tells me that Uncle Ben was a bugler and in a gas attack he stayed up bugling to raise the alarm and copped a nasty dose of gas. Apparently this was the source of his chronic ill health. Ben's wife didn't have an easy run of things as you can well imagine.

Dad's Uncle Andrew served with 17th Battalion marching in as a reinforcement in November 1916 he was captured at Lagnicourt on the 15th April 1917, a date specifically mentioned in the AWM unit profile that I have linked. He was at first listed missing, and there are reports from others who last saw him of what was going down before he went missing. He was later notified as a POW. Uncle Andrew never married and lived with my grandparents when I was very small. My eldest sister remembers him well. I was a bit young for any but vague memories of Uncle Andrew.

Dad's Uncle Harry served in the 13th Battalion. Having joined up on 16 August 1915, he was not with them when they landed at Gallipoli.  He was awarded the Military Medal for his gallantry during a patrol near Broodseinde in October 1917 and was again recommended for the MM for action near Le Verguier on 18 September 1918.  

Remarkably, all three came home. One of my treasures is Uncle Andrew's discharge papers, which were given to me when I was quite young. They sit where they were when I received them, quite damaged and stored in the wallet that Andrew bought in London while serving.

Then there's quite a few of the younger Uncles served in WW2, usually in supporting roles due to their advanced age - what being at least in their thirties and in some cases skilled tradesmen.  Some cousins of my parents also served. Mum's cousins: Uncle Ben's sons for example- one of whom was a choco in New Guinea who later transferred to the AIF.  Again, so far as I have found, all these also returned home. Amazing  in such a large family to have had noone killed.  Plenty to research about what precise activity all these guys were involved in. I'm still not certain who sent the souvenir book of pressed wildflowers home from the Holy Land endorsing it To Dear Mum and Dad from Peter 29/9/41. This is another of the family treasures I have inherited and an enticing mystery to unravel.

... our research continues. When the time comes the UK has a pretty well established tourism industry focussed on people heading over to check out where their forebears came from.  I can hardly wait to explore these locations after I have done an appropriate level of research to make the most of the trip.

I don't think travel research has ever been so absorbing as this before!