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!

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….


  1. Loved it Maureen. It's def an interesting mystery, one I hope that you find the answer to one day soon. xxx

    1. Margaret (Máiread)19 April 2012 at 02:25

      Maureen, really enjoyed reading your family history. When I read your GGGrandmother's name Ellen Torpey and the trouble you have had in locating information my immediate thought was the name Tarpey. I am researching a local tragedy from 1873 and it involved a Matt Tarpey who was from County Mayo. Between the Australian, English and Irish accents you know how spelling can evolve into something quite interesting. Also Arthur was a Limerick name. Have no idea if your family was originally from Ireland but think it might be a possibility. McLysaght's Surnames of Ireland lists (O)Torpey - see Tarpey.

      Just checked the Griffith's Valuation index and there are a lot of Arthurs throughout Ireland but all the James Arthurs are from the Province of Ulster. Since you have searched so many variations and locations I wasn't sure if you looked at Tarpey in Ireland. The Griffith's shows all the Tarpey/Tarpys from the Province of Connacht with a few from Dublin and one from Wicklow. Hope this might help.
      Beannachtai (Blessings)

  2. Sean Here. A newspaper report of James Arthur's death may be found in "Trove". See http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/35400559?searchTerm=&searchLimits=l-publictag=ARTHUR+James

  3. Hi Sean, yes it was me who tagged all those Trove articles under ARTHUR James. I suggest you also have a look at the ARTHUR Alice, there's some interesting reading there, too!