A blog about the frustrations, adventures, brickwalls and ultimately rewards of someone searching for their origins. Some Irish (Shamrocks), Scottish (Shortbread) and Shenanigans (English) all mixed into one!

Monday, 7 May 2012

Souls of St. Helena

I’m a huge history buff. American Civil War sites, Lincoln’s tomb, his home prior to the Presidency, Washington; all thrilled me during my travels abroad. Thanks to my passion for family history, I have also visited several historic sites in Brisbane, especially cemeteries and ancestral homes of my family.

I’m a Brisbane girl, born and bred. Perhaps this is why I began asking myself last Saturday night, “Why I haven’t experienced more of Brisbane’s historic past? Why do I travel tens of thousands of kilometres to visit other historic sites and ignore the treasures in my own back yard?”
Full moon at Manly Jetty

These questions came to me as I began a moonlight tour of St. Helena Island, a 15-minute boat ride from the Brisbane suburb of Manly. I have seen tours advertised for St. Helena before, but due to work shift commitments I have never participated. Last Saturday however, my shifts were completed, and so I decided to treat myself to a belated (by 2 days) birthday present of a St. Helena Island tour. I had also transcribed over a decade of Qld Police Gazettes for the Qld Family History Society. All these Gazettes had a fortnightly list of prisoners about to be discharged from St. Helena, including their age, nationality, physical description, and crimes committed. My interest in St. Helena had a solid base.

St. Helena Island was a penal establishment which ran between 1867 and 1932. It was not a convict prison. Convicts had ceased being transported from Britain by then (the early 1850’s to be precise). It was made up of ‘home grown’ prisoners, those who mostly were born in Australia and committed crimes in Queensland. The mix mostly included whites, Aboriginals, British, Chinese, and Europeans. Being an island (think Alcatraz) there was no means of escape, lest a prisoner attempt to swim to the mainland in shark-infested waters. It was also a hard labour prison, so the inmates were mostly incarcerated for serious crimes.

I didn’t know what to expect as I waited at the jetty. Was it an excitement-packed fun tour, with actors and spooky stories to entertain us? The kind of tour that is usually light on historic facts (after all, we all know how truth gets in the way of a good story)?

May I say, here and now, if you want to experience the kind of tour that I have just alluded to, this is NOT the tour for you. The tour guide, Lauren Penny, has over 20 years experience in St. Helena Island history. She has also written a book, titled “St. Helena Island Moreton Bay, An Historic Account”. St. Helena is her passion, and it showed during the tour. She has a reverence for the island.

On arrival on St. Helena, Lauren explained the Aboriginal historical connection, which I found fascinating, as the Aboriginal people have laid no claim to the island. They have laid claim to nearby Peel Island, however (another fascinating place, as it was the leper colony of Brisbane for many years).

Lauren on a moonlit night
Torches were not required as the moon was spectacular, and perfectly set the mood for the evening. We toured areas such as the storehouse, the newly-renovated museum, the bakery, blacksmith shop, with Lauren providing commentary along the way. The museum is a treasure trove of St. Helena artefacts, including prisoner uniforms, work tools, descriptions of their daily lives, and also descriptions of punishments given for various infringements of the rules. I found the most amusing punishment to be the banning of tobacco rations for some infringements! Tobacco must have played a very important part of their lives for it to be used as a punishment tool.

For me, the cruellest punishment, had I been a prisoner, would have been to look out over to the mainland of Brisbane, never knowing if I was going to set foot on its soil again. The mainland looks so close, but it would have been so far for those inmates.

There were two re-enactments during the tour. The first was a monologue from a ‘prisoner’, detailing how he murdered a warder (unfortunately, it wasn’t the warder he intended murdering, but murder one he did, nevertheless) and his punishment for the crime. The other monologue was from the ‘warder’ murdered by the prisoner, describing how he was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and how his death affected his family. Both re-enactments emphasised the human aspect of the prison. The tour guide, Lauren, also stressed several times that this was the home for many people, both prisoners and warders. People who had friends, family, loved ones; people who were missed; people who mattered.

The tour ended at the St. Helena cemetery, which was gloriously moonlit. Again, Lauren recalled a few stories of men who ended their days on the island. To my great surprise, one of the stories concerned a relative of mine (related by marriage to my maternal Aunt). I had known of his crime, and had searched his burial place for several years, to no avail. I was shocked to find that he was buried on St. Helena, but in finding out such information, I can now put his death “to rest”, so to speak!
 The stories that Lauren recalled were not high-suspense, scandal-filled tomes. They portrayed the prisoners and warders and normal people who, had fate dealt them a different hand, may have never set foot on the island.

I have toured some areas in the past that have left me feeling spooked or uneasy, but I didn’t have this feeling when visiting St. Helena. I did feel a sense of sadness, but I strongly felt peace all over the island. I wasn’t expecting that. Tours through Port Arthur left with me physical feelings of depression, but St. Helena did not have this affect on me.

I will have to re-visit St. Helena for a day tour, so as to put all the buildings into daylight perspective. The moonlight tour was thoroughly enjoyable, and I recommend anyone who is interested in visiting St. Helena to do this tour. The numbers were intimate and personal (about 12 visitors in all), the guide, Lauren, was extremely knowledgeable, and could answer any query thrown at her. I purchased her book and look forward to reading it during the cold nights ahead.

For further details of this great tour, email Lauren Penny at qppha@bigpond.com

For details of Lauren’s book, go to http://www.facebook.com/home.php?#!/prisonstory and http://www.sthelenaisland.net/

Don’t think about it, like I had my whole life. Do it!

St Helena Island National Park Historic Area
St. Helena today (by Dr. M Pearson, from Picture Australia website)


Sunday, 31 July 2011

Who Do I Think I Am?

Oh Great Grandfather, how you taunt me so. I know you existed because I now exist. Where did you come from? Why did you decide to live in Brisbane, Queensland, Australia? When did you arrive in my homeland?

Who were you?

My great-grandfather, James Arthur, is not my brick wall; he’s my Alcatraz, my Holloway, my Boggo Road.  My gaol who keeps me imprisoned wondering who he was, and in turn, keeps me wondering who I am.

James is an enigma.  The first proof of his existence was from the birth certificate of my grandfather, William Arthur. But James Arthur was killed in 1901 when William was only 5 years old, so he had no memory of him.

James Arthur “Facts” (or are they?)

One of James' letters to his wife

I do know that James Arthur married my great grandmother, Catherine Alice Gibbons, in St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, Gympie, Queensland, in September 1885. 

I have seen the original marriage certificate, which is kept at the State Library of Queensland (a late night random search of his name at this library provided a collection called “The James Arthur Papers”. Someone had the wisdom to donate a collection of documents pertaining to James’ employment and correspondence to his wife).

On James’ marriage certificate, he listed the following information:
Section of the 1885 Marriage Certificate

·                   He was 30 years of age at the time of his marriage (September 1885);
·                   He was employed at the time as a Sawyer;
·                   He was living at Tewantin, Queensland, at the time of his marriage;
·                   He was a bachelor;
·                   He married in a Catholic Church;
·                   He was born in Liverpool, Lancashire;
·                   His parent’s names were John Arthur and Ellen Torpey;
·                   His father (John’s) occupation was merchant;
·                   His wife to be, Catherine Alice Gibbons, was from Tipperary, Ireland;
·                   Catherine’s parents were Thomas Gibbons and Honora Murphy;
·                   Catherine was illiterate (she marked an ‘X’ for her signature);
·                   James was literate (he signed his name).

An in-depth look into the documents in The James Arthur Papers also revealed the following information:

·                   James was employed as a seaman for the last years of his life, working as a Black Labour Recruiter, travelling to the Solomon Islands from Queensland to recruit;
·                   He wrote many letters home to his wife while at sea;
·                   His letters were grammatically correct, his English perfect, spelling exact, not American English;
·                   He always signed his letters to his wife “James Arthur”. No middle initial.
·                   His employer was Thomas Brown & Sons, Brisbane;
·                   His Certificates of Discharge from ships all noted his conduct as ‘very good’;
·                   He was murdered in the Solomon Islands (shot by Islanders) on April 19, 1901 (the boat he was working on at the time, The Fearless, is the background of my blog page);
·                   He was buried either at sea or on the beach on an island in the Solomons.

Family information known about James is:

               His children’s names were (in birth order) Catherine, “Nellie” (Mary Ellen), James, John, William, and Alice;
·                   None of his children were given middle names (my grandfather William used to joke that they were ‘too poor to afford middle names’!);
·                   When my grandfather William had children, he named his first child James, and my father was told that he should have named HIS first child James as that was the “Arthur tradition” (my father didn’t go with the flow on this one!);
·                   My father told me he thought James was from Manchester; however my oldest brother thought that grandfather William had told him that James was from Sheffield. Liverpool? Manchester? Sheffield? All very close to one another.

So, with all this information, I was sure I would find SOME proof of James’ existence before his 1885 appearance in Gympie, Australia.

I thought wrongly…….

Over the years (and paid subscriptions to sites) I have found NO evidence of James Arthur’s existence prior to 1885. Records I have researched through include:

·                   BMD for England and Wales (there is no record of his birth in the official registers);
·                   BMD for an entry under the surname of “Torpey” and variants;
·                   BMD for “Arthur James” and variants;
·                   Lancashire and Cheshire parish records;
·                   UK / Scotland Censuses for 1851, 1861, 1871 or 1881. Searched for him, his parents, any family with names similar to those he called his own children. Also using his name backwards, using the Torpey name, the name McArthur.  Ignored information about birth in Liverpool, and searched everywhere. Nothing found;
·                   Irish BMD’s available from paid Irish sites, for information on James, John or Ellen Torpey;
·                   Irish Census 1901 & 1911 for possible information on his parents, if still alive, or siblings;
·                   Directories searching for a John Arthur, merchant;
·                   World wide newspapers (I found several articles on his murder in the Solomon Islands, but none other than this);
·                   Army records from the UK;
·                   Old
Bailey Court
·                   Immigration records for all states in Australia;
·                   Extensive searches on Ancestry.com, Findmypast.com, Familysearch.com., Rootsweb.com;
·                   Extensive enquiries on many different genealogy mailing lists;
·                   Death records in 1901 – 1910 for all Australian States, New Zealand, UK (I have not been able to find out who was responsible for recording Solomon Island deaths in 1901). No death record was issued, no mention in Police Gazettes, Government Gazettes;
·                   UK & Australian Wills from 1901;
·                   Irish newspapers for mention of his 1901 death;
·                   BMD registers in Australia for any record of any other person with parent’s names of Arthur and Torpey;
·                   All State Archives in Australia, National Archives of Australia, New Zealand and UK;
·                   School registers in the UK.

I have found not ONE piece of evidence in any of these records of James, his parents’ marriage, death, census, working life.

James' only evidence of his death?

James MUST have been educated as he was perfectly literate. What kind of person was educated in the late 1800’s? I would have thought that those from a more privileged background would have been afforded this opportunity. Whey then is there not one scrap of a trail left on his existence?

I am most certain that James will be the reason for my eventual insanity. He has made me an insomniac, a cynic (many nights I have lay awake, thinking he must have been an axe murderer who had to change his name to escape England!).

If you have read this far, I hope you have felt some of my frustration and pain!

If you can SOLVE this mystery of who I am, then I’ll give you my sanity. On a silver platter.

Oh James Arthur, you taunt me so….

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Some Of The Shortbread In My Tree (Scotch Finger, anyone?)

If it wasn't for the Scottish, I may have never existed....

McDonald Headstone, Kyneton Cemetery
Pretty big statement, I know, but the Scottish brought Catholicism to my mother's line, and without that, she never would have married my father!

My maternal great great grandmother was Mary McDonald. Anyone who has studied Scottish family history would know that this name is an extremely common one, so I had to retrace my line using Australian BDM certificates to ensure that I was researching the correct Mary.

Mary McDonald, then aged 15 years of age,  arrived in Hobson's Bay, Victoria, Australia, on 20 September, 1852, on the ship "Marco Polo", with her family (father Angus, mother Marjory, and siblings Ann, Flora, Sarah, Catherine, and Roderick). A brother, Ronald, who sailed with them, died on route to Australia. The Victorian shipping list notes that none of the family could write, and only two could read. Mary could do neither. They were not indentured to anyone for paying their fare - the shipping record notes under the heading "By Whom Engaged" the statement "On own account to Melbourne."
Mum (Vera Arthur) with her g-g grandparent's headstone,
 Kyneton Cemetery

The McDonalds originated from Moidart, Inverness-shire, Scotland. Their reason for migration is unknown, but my research has found that nearly 25% of the population migrated from their homeland in the mid 1800's. The Catholic Church in Australia appears to have played a large part in the mass migration of the Scottish to Australia.

I am unsure of the McDonalds' early years in Australia, but they eventually settled in Spring Creek, just outside of Kyneton, Victoria. Angus was a farmer at Spring Creek.

A McPherson Gravestone marker in Kyneton Cemetery

I found it interesting that two of the McDonald sisters, Sarah and Flora, married two McPherson brothers (Sarah married  John and Flora married Archibald).  The McPhersons, who also originated from Inverness-shire, Scotland, lived in the Kyneton District, and like Angus McDonald, were also farmers.

Mary met her husband John Burton, an Englishman, in the late 1850's (John had migrated with his brother, Richard, in December 1854) and married on 28 May, 1860. The McDonalds were Catholic; John Burton was Methodist, a successful merchant  (he owned the Hepburn Springs Hotel near Old Racecourse Road, as well as performing duties as a Daylesford councillor and Justice of the Peace). I have no idea how they would have met, but the Burton children that resulted from that marriage were raised Catholic.

Old Racecourse Road, Hepburn Springs, today.

After several unsuccessful business ventures and personal tragedies (John's brother, Richard Burton, killed himself in John's house in December, 1866), the Burtons moved to Brisbane, Queensland. They were residing in Queensland by 1870.

John and Mary's granddaughter, Flora Burton (my grandmother) met and fell in love with John Wesley Oxford, in Brisbane. As John's name indicates, he was not Catholic! Another chance for me not to exist! He did, however, agree to raise any children as Catholics, so he and Flora wed in 1919. This caused much concern amongst his siblings, who were most upset at him marrying a Catholic. John's siblings, with the exception of brother, Will, continued with the Methodist faith, and I have found several distant cousins who belong to this faith.

As for my Scottish ancestry, my mother fondly remembers her Auntie Elsie baking delicious shortbread every New Year. I must admit, however, that I do not like shortbread!

Daylesford Historical Society
I have visited the Daylesford Historical Society to research my family, as well as travelling to Hepburn Springs, Kyneton, Spring Creek, and local cemeteries to find my ancestors memorials. The Daylesford Historical Society holds hundreds of newspaper articles of  John Burton, as he was a prominent resident in the day. There are also many references to McDonalds, but I did not have enough time to research each one to be able to confirm if they related to my line. This trip was so meaningful to me and my mother, and I would love to visit Inverness-shire one day to look over the ground my ancestors lived, loved and had to leave. 

A toast to Scotland!

(You can have the shortbread)

Monday, 25 April 2011

Anzac Pride

My memories of Anzac Day as a child were nothing of note. I was told that my brother used to join my grandfather in Brisbane town for the Anzac Day march. Granddad had been in both World Wars, but never spoke of them and never, ever marched. So what was the big deal, I thought?

As I've delved into my family history, I've found that Anzac pride is a HUGE deal. The more I research, the prouder I become of my ancestors and their contributions to this great country, Australia. I have many ancestors on both my paternal and maternal side, but I will focus on one, my grandfather.


William's WW2 Photo
William was my paternal grandfather. He had a very hard life, losing his father in 1901 when he was just 6 years old, and had very little education, yet he successfully married and raised five children. Born in June, 1896, he was not yet of age when he enlisted for WW1. I have not been able to find any record of his WW1 enlistment, as he admitted later in life that he altered his age and name in order to be accepted. His reason for enlistment was typical of Australian men of the day - many of them saw it as an opportunity to see the world, a world they couldn't possibly experience in their lifetime with their limited education and income. Later in life, my grandfather made one comment about this war - that he remembered it "raining bullets for days and days" in the trenches.

I have searched for years for his WW1 record, sadly to no avail. Methods I have used include:

* Reversing his name (using Arthur William /Williams)
* Searching under his older brothers' names of John and James, neither of whom served
* Reversing his brothers'names (Arthur John/Johns and Arthur James)
* Using his mother's maiden name of Gibbons
* Using his married sister's surname of Gough
* Using his married sister's child's name, which was also his only nephew (William Thomas Gough)
* Using his grandmother's maiden name of Torpey, and variants
* Using the name 'Sebastian'. For some unknown reason, William gave his middle name of Sebastian when he married in 1923. However, neither he nor his siblings had middle names (he used to joke to my father that his family was so poor that they couldn't afford middle names!)

None of these methods have been fruitful, unfortunately.

William's Christmas greeting to his wife
William was considered too old when he enlisted for WW2, so once again he adjusted his age, shaving 10 years off his year of birth (if only it was that easy!) Fortunately, his records are held in the National Archives of Australia. He enlisted in Brisbane as a Private, and joined the No.3 Rly C. Coy 2nd AIF on 3 April, 1940. His wife was then pregnant with their fifth child, so it must have been difficult for him to leave for an uncertain future.

He had his share of larrikinism, being fined 10/- for drunkedness while training as a Sapper in Perth! From what I remember of him, I was surprised that this was the only time he was caught!

William was deployed to Gaza Ridge, but underwent an appendectomy only months after his arrival. By March, 1941, he was discharged as medically unfit for duty, and returned to Australia on the Queen Mary. This luxury ship had been refitted for use in the war, and it shipped thousands of servicemen during WW2.

My grandmother always said that William was a Rat of Tobruk. I have researched this, and found that the Rats' seige began in April, 1941, by which time my grandfather was returning to Australia. His unit, however, did play a major role in assisting the Rats during and after the seige. Knowing my grandmother's love of a good story, it did not surprise me that our grandfather was not directly involved in the Rats' experience!

William demobbed at the Exhibition Grounds in Brisbane and was discharged on 3 July 1941. On his return, he met his newborn son, my Uncle Vincent, for the first time. They were featured in a Brisbane newspaper, William in uniform, with baby Vince on his knee. A clipping of this article hung in my grandparent's house for years but was subsequently lost, and I have not been able to find it on microfilm at the Qld State Library. This facility has all Brisbane newspapers of the time, including the several issues of newspapers published on the same day, but I haven't been able to locate it.

For the rest of his life, William quietly acknowledged Anzac Day by attending the Brisbane march and having a drink with mates (he loved his rum!) at the Gaythorne RSL. His name is engraved on a plaque outside the RSL, with all other diggers from that area. Although he did acknowledge the day, he always refused to march, saying that he wasn't interested in being the focus of attention. He did, however, enjoy attending the march and honouring those who fought and died.

My father wearing William's slouch hat, 1941

William died in 1972, and is buried in a military grave at Nudgee Cemetery in Brisbane. I visit him from time to time, sitting with him and my grandmother and thinking of when I was younger and spent time with them. I was only 8 years of age when he died, and I feel like I know him more now than I ever could. He has gone from memories of being a jolly old man to a man of great guts and determination, one who lied to enable enrolment in WW1 so he could see the world, and lied again in WW2 and left his family in order to earn a secure income for them.

He was no war hero, but he was MY war hero.

God Bless you, granddad.

Lest We Forget.

Monday, 18 April 2011

Using the Local Library

So, I had been bitten by the Genie bug, thanks to my friend Lyn and the LDS volunteers.

Where to go from there, though?

I now had some idea of what I was doing, but still had no real idea of how to get there. I had birth and some death dates of my grandparents, but due to time constraints (and the feeling that my head was exploding with questions) I had left it at that when I left the LDS centre.

Lyn suggested that my next step should be the local library. I wasn't sure why - I had visited the library many times (I'm a bookworm) but had not seen much by way of genealogy books.

I discovered on my next visit that there had been a whole ROOM in the library dedicated to local family history, yet I had never even noticed it! It's interesting that when you see the same old surrounding with fresh eyes, resources jump out at you and slap you in the face. Since that time, I have found that most libraries have what I'd call a "base set" of resources (ie, resources that you will probably find in most libraries wherever you go), and then, depending on the size of the library, may also have a much larger collection of records.

Sunday, 10 April 2011

Where To Start Looking

As Maria said in The Sound Of Music, "Let's start at the very beginning, a very good place to start"...

My very first brush with genealogy came by way of my work colleague Lyn (now retired). She was going to visit the local LDS (Latter Day Saints) Family History Centre to continue her own research, of which she had spent many years. Did I want to tag along? Well, why would I? She wasn't in the LDS Church - why was she going to visit them and use their resources? Was I going to be pressured by the Centre to join the Church if I went along? Would they even admit me to the Centre if they found out I wasn't LDS?

I Dream of (Being A) Genie

You don't have to be mad to get into family history, but it helps!

Hello, and welcome to my first family history blog. I have begun this in order to share my experiences researching the origins of my main family lines, namely Arthur, Oxford, McNally, Doherty, Burton, McDonald, and Manson, and their migration to Australia in the 1800's.

What made me get into this hobby for the insane? For years, I had heard tales of my grandfather's involvement in 2 World Wars; how my great-grandfather was a sea Captain, who was murdered in the South Pacific; how I was "just like Aunt Nelly"; how my mother was terrified of dying of the same condition as her mother; how we came from Irish wealth and were disinherited, and so the stories continued. 

After hearing these stories over the years, my curiosity grew until I decided to do something about it. Seven years ago, I made the decision to find out who I really was. Many hundreds, if not thousands of hours later, I have a much greater understanding of my family's journey, whilst some areas are just as murky as they were when I began.

I chose the title of my blog due to my three main areas of research, namely all of Ireland, Scotland, and several counties in England.

I intend to write about my family, how I discovered information through various sources, and what is still continuing to baffle me. 

I hope that you enjoy reading of my experiences, and I truely welcome your suggestions and comments.

My next blog will focus on how I began my family tree.

Till next time!