The Grass is Greener on the other side of the Family History Fence!
My name is Geoff Doherty and I have been asked to be the guest blogger for this extra 5th Monday in May. I am an Historian (got the degree), a Family Historian (20+ years of experience), and I am the current President of the Genealogical Society of Queensland (8 months, and counting). So I have a bit of an interest in Family History, per se.
But not so much in my own family history. It is dead boring. That is because my ancestors are all dead – a given in this game – and that they are, quite frankly, all boring! Boring, boring, boring. Not a murderer, convict, war hero, industrialist, scientist, explorer… in fact, anyone of the slightest bit of interest whatsoever amongst the lot of them. It is a bit of a damning indictment, isn’t it? I started out with great hopes of finding someone really interesting in my family tree. Sadly, I’m still looking. My lot all seem to be farmers or lower, labourers, or seamen – that’s about it. And even as lowly underlings they weren’t engaged in any of the great events of history. They seemed to have managed to steer clear of the great upheavals of the past – which probably explains why I am here today. So I can’t really complain about that I suppose. But still, is it too much to ask for just a little bit of “colourful history” in the family? Apparently, it is.
That is why I find researching other people’s families so much more interesting! The grass really is greener on the other side of – my – family history fence! I have to qualify that statement with another: It is because I get to “choose” the families I am researching. Even more specifically, they are chosen for me because I have happened to stumble across these interesting families while I have been doing other research.
That other research that I have been doing, basically for the past 20 years, is to do with the Boer War. That war that happened in South Africa 12 years before the start of the First World War, the centenary of which we are about halfway through commemorating now. As an aside, we now are getting to experience just how long WW1 war actually was, how it seemed to drag on and on. I mean no disrespect here, but this commemorative period does allow us, in the present, to at least experience how the civilian population “at home” during that horrendous time may have thought about the war – “is it ever going to end?”
My Boer War research has thrown up three really interesting families, whose stories far outshine any in my own family. The interesting thing about them all is that I did not expect to find these sorts of family stories while doing straight military history research. But as historians we should all know that we cannot know exactly what we will find when conducting research.
The first two interesting families surfaced because of a mistake I made. Yes, I can make mistakes, I’m human you know. Anyway, the mistake I made was not to check a website, before I visited a repository. Many years ago, whilst in the throes of my BA degree, I visited Canberra for a week of research at the Australian War Memorial (AWM). I turned up at the Memorial at 9:00am on the Monday morning and said to the first staff member I came across, “I’m here to do a week of research in the Research Centre, where do I go?”
“No you’re not.” He said. “Why not?” I replied.
“The Research Centre is closed as of this morning – for a six-month refurbishment!” Well, you can imagine what I said to that! Who would expect that the Memorial’s Research Centre would ever be closed? I certainly didn’t, though apparently it had been advised on their website for quite some time. I just never thought to look.
Well, this forced a drastic change of plans. If I couldn’t go to the AWM, I would have to spend my time at the National Archives (NA) Canberra office. This is actually less than exciting for Boer War research as nearly all the records that the NA holds are in Melbourne. This is because Melbourne was the national capital from 1901 until Canberra was designated, and all the Boer War records have simply been left there.
So there I was, several days later (I say this because I can’t remember what day it actually was) slowly going through some microfilmed records, which, as we all are aware, are nowhere near as good as original records, when I overheard a woman who had come in talking to one of the research officers. She said she was in Canberra for only one day, and wanted to do some Boer War research. My ear pricked up. She said she was visiting from Brisbane and that she had some original letters from her ancestor who had served in the war in an Australian unit. My other ear pricked up and I stopped all pretence of doing any research. She then went on to say that not only did she have her ancestor’s letters, she also had all the letters that the rest of the family had sent to him during the war! I simply got up and went over and barged in on the conversation! This was a gold mine I had to be part of – because original letters home from the war are extremely hard to come by (this was pre-Trove days, and they still are hard to find in quantity), and letters from the family TO serving soldiers simply do not exist anymore!
Because of my error in not checking about the AWM Research Centre, I was able to obtain copies of all these letters to enhance my research. Lucky me.
On another day while in Canberra, I came across a couple of small files that dealt with the case of a Victorian soldier who was accused of being absent without leave from the war in South Africa. But he was back in Melbourne when this happened! He had managed to talk his way back from the front – then located around Bloemfontein in 1900 – all the way back to Cape Town and then onto a ship to Australia. He was, in effect, Australia’s first, most successful military deserter, yet completely unknown to history! The other file was about the efforts of wife in Melbourne, to gain access to his wages which he had allotted to his de-facto wife in Ballarat! The wife did not “know” of the girl friend until a small news article appeared in the local Ballarat newspaper. Somehow she had been shown the article, and all hell was let loose on this man! Why do you think he thought he may have needed to return home, whether the military allowed it or not? To fix things, perhaps?
The most interesting family I have ever found by mistake, however, comes from the records of Queensland State Archives (QSA). Again I was conducting Boer War research, trolling through the Chief Secretary’s Inwards Correspondence – none of which is indexed. You simply have to look. (Hmmm, where have I heard that before?) I came across a very thick file, over 100 pages, and as the top letters concerned correspondence from the British Consul in Mexico City, I turned it over and went on as it clearly did not concern the Boer War. But something niggled away in the back of my mind. Just how often would you see letters from Mexico in Queensland Chief Secretary’s correspondence in 1902, eh? So I went back and photographed the whole file to read at my leisure later. Just as well I did, because an obsession was born that day. This file was the greenest of green grass!
It concerned a fellow who had arrived in Brisbane in 1899, with his wife and three children. He was a civil engineer who had been engaged by a sugar company in Bundaberg to install some new distillation equipment. It was cutting edge technology and this chap had the patents to prove it. He was at the peak of his career. But he threw it all away! Because as soon as he got up to Bundaberg, he met a barmaid there and fell in lust with her. So much so, that he ran away with her – to the U.S.A and Mexico, leaving his wife and now four children behind in Brisbane. His new girlfriend left her three children behind also, so they made a good pair apparently.
As I looked into the family a little more, I found that this fellow and his wife had been married in Costa Rica, in Central America, some eight years previously. If that wasn’t strange enough, all were of Irish descent! I found that his new girlfriend was born in Western Australia, and I eventually found that they travelled from San Francisco in 1900, to Mexico 1900-01, to Cuba in 1902, to Philadelphia in USA by 1910, and were back in Australia, in Melbourne by 1914! They truly were world travellers in those very early years of the 20thcentury. And this is just a small part of their story.
My family has nothing to match this. I am so jealous – but I will keep researching this family. And those others as well. The grass really is greener on the other side of the family history fence.