Twenty years ago, it was a surprise to learn of the existence of a diary written by my great-grandfather William White between 1894 – 1904. One of his grandsons, Alan kindly offered to loan the diary to me so that I could transcribe it and include this insight into their family life in my book on the White family. Many thanks for that Alan.
In transcribing the diary which is notated on 146 pages of an ordinary exercise book with a cardboard cover, I felt that I got to know William so much better. A hard-working man who endeavoured to provide for his family by keeping poultry and growing vegetables, he referred to his wife Euphemia Brown Webster throughout the book as ‘Amy’.
My journey through the maze of family history and the many twists and turns it takes keeps me well occupied. The journey is not just about names and dates, but so much more. What did they do, where did they come from, what type of life did they lead, what was their day-to-day routine like – this diary helps to conjure up a picture of life as it was at the end of the 1800’s and beginning of the 1900’s.
William was a reserve volunteer in the First Regiment Infantry which operated from 1878 to 1911, previously known as the Sydney Battalion from 1860 to 1878.& My research found that in 1878 a system of partial payment for volunteers was approved and the Sydney Battalion was absorbed into the First Regiment Infantry. It was the latter that William joined on an unknown date, certainly prior to 1895.
Growing up in rural New South Wales, he was very proficient with a rifle, and I imagine the ability to use this skill as well as receive a small additional income, would have been the impetus for him to join the reserves, they met frequently, seemingly at Victoria Barracks, which contained a 50 – 500 yard rifle range. As a co-incidence, after moving to Sydney many years ago, prior to having a family I was a member of the Woollahra Rifle Club and that was our home range so I spent many Saturday mornings competing there.
William spent his working life employed by the NSW State Railways as a Blacksmith at the Eveleigh Yard, which was very close to where the family initially lived in Wilson Street, Eveleigh / Redfern before moving to Bexley. Working there from 1 Jun 1884 to his retirement on 22 July 1920, it was hard, physical work which kept his tall frame in a trim state.
His Father-in-law, James Webster, lived at ‘Invergellie’ Harrow Road, Bexley in an area named Ocean View Estate by the developers in March 1883. It seems William & Euphemia purchased the allotment close to James in Harrow Road, not far from the train station. At that stage, it must have remained largely rural as William refers to it as ‘the farm’, his diary notates he had saved enough to build the first two rooms at 39 Harrow Road, Bexley by December 1898 when they moved there permanently. In the following March he built a kitchen 13′ square with a roof that was ‘not very high’, he also notated that the children loved being ‘up’ there as there was plenty of room to run about.
The following are small excerpts at random through the years from William’s diary, I have quote verbatim, but not totally, from random days and inserted some explanations in bracketed italics.
1895 Aug 27. Record day as regards work, hardest days work today I’ve done for years. 12 couplings bent five-man and put together in about 7 ½ hours soon be on peace work at that rate. Very warm again and windy done second days shooting last Saturday 500 21-18. 600 total.
1896 Feb 24. We had a fair march on Saturday from Victoria Barricks down Devonshire St to Government House grounds where we drilled for a time. General Huttons last appearance and a good job too, too much British soldier about him, he has cut down our pay all round, reduced nearly all hands except himself and now says he has increased Officers which is all rot, men in the ranks know better. (Author: It seems William didn’t hold back on his personal thoughts!)
1896 Aug 29. Weather a good deal warmer. Grass beginning to grow, eggs 7/0d Doz fowls are laying fairly well, got 5 hens and a rooster 4 are laying (Henry sold the eggs locally). Letter from River (Little River ie Mongarlow, near Braidwood – where his parents lived) yesterday Mother health failing, Father much better.
1897 Nov 11. Dry and windy was up at Braidwood from 5 inst to 9 inst a flying visit. Father & Mother’s Golden Wedding, on 7 inst. Henry White, Charley, Alice & myself there. Shot a few wallabys and birds, took Lil & Edith with me and they had a real good time of it, did not want to come home so soon.
1898 Aug 3. Showery had a lot of rain June and beginning July and started again last night. Got land fenced in at Bexley, gates up a little finishing off to do. Planted 9 trees, grape vines cutting etc started tree planting on 23 July put some in on 30 July. Old Mr Webster (his father-in-law) second marriage today 3 Aug 1898.
1898 Dec 5. Cloudy with S.E. wind blowing fairly strong. Was out shooting on 26 of Nov made 117 points first day shooting up to 500 yds with new Rifle, very good for shooting no recoil and very small cartridge. E (Ern) and Edith up at Rockdale (with their grandfather at Bexley) for a while till Mother (his wife) is better. Hope to have building started tomorrow, two rooms one 12 by 14 other 12 by 8 feet.
1899 Jan 22. Sunday afternoon, up at the Farm for good now been here since Dec 16 and all being well hope to make this our home now, been very busy lately, not much time for writing.
1899 Aug 28 Monday. Fruit trees beginning to bud now. Soon have spring here. Lil & Edith still go up to Grandfathers to sleep (nearby in Harrow Road).
1900 17 Jan. Second Contingent left by boat today. Lil & self went to see them off. Streets crowded, we got a good view and then went over near Ladies Baths and got a splendid view.
1900 Aug 30. Up to Barracks last night for a great Coat Drill on Saturday and then a few Saturdays off. I hope to do some fencing, all being well.
1901 Jan 1. Great day at Sydney. Commonwealth demonstration, great Military procession, English troops take part and all the other Coloneys. Grand sight, finest Sydney ever witnessed. We 1st Regt lined streets near tram terminus, very close muggy day were glad to fall out and go to Camping Ground Paddington old Rifle Range. Were dismissed about quarter 1 o’clock, home by 2 o’clock.
1901 Jan 23. Queen died, news received today of her death (ie Queen Victoria). Received a long letter from Father, 12 pages.
1901 April 13. Comet still visible, supposed to be 100,000,000 miles away. No drill lately, camp soon.
1901 – Oct 11. Home dinner time. Sad accident at our Shop, a workman Killed, got drawn in the belting & crushed terribly, knocked about. Died in a few minutes, caused quite a gloom in the Shop, all hands knocked off at twelve.
1902 – Jan 4. Arrived home from Braidwood today. Went up Xmas. Brought home a few cherries & apples, glad to get home once more, be it ever so humble, no place like home.
1902 – April 2. Nice day, very little rain. Went up to Cowra on 27, came over cold on that day. Had about 4 hours rain, was raining when we arrived at Cowra and real cold.
1902 – June 9. Cold windy day. Plenty of work. Had our final Parade last Saturday, had a good many this quarter £2/8/0 in drills alone, had a number of night drills. Lil started work today at Mrs. Arnolds, got a weekly ticket, 6d a week (Lil would have been 15 yrs old on 4 June 1902).
1903 – Sept 28. Did not go to parade last Saturday whole day Parade, missed four parades running now, don’t think I will go any more. Plenty to do at home.
1904 – May 3. Rain extending to country. No rabbits so far this week from Cowra.
The neatly written diary ended on 5 Oct 1904. Whilst the entries will not personally mean much to readers, it brings to mind his hard working life, his regular Reserves duty, his frequent trips to relatives and friends spread through the state and his love of his garden produce, whilst not forgetting the chooks (adult chickens to those non-Aussie readers). I wrote more about William’s life in my GSQ 5 August 2019 blog.
 3 Aug 1898 James Webster married Charlotte L. Wright (ms Vowles) at Rockdale Wesleyan Church. Regd: Rockdale Dist. Source: NSW BMD Historical Indexes. Marriages. 1898. Regn Dist: Rockdale. Ref: 6340/1898