The body of a 69-year-old man was found by a fisherman on the western breakwater of Townsville’s waterfront. It was Thursday 15 June 1916, when Don Ingham, deep in thought about hooks and bait, nearly fell over a dark shape sprawled across the stony path on the way to his favourite fishing spot. As evening light fell on the becalmed water, this was when Don loved to fish, an incoming tide, a quiet reprieve after the day’s work: but not this day.
The thickset man pushing towards old age in crumpled clothes lay on his back. One foot minus a shoe hung over the low wall, dangling above the water line. His other leg, bent at the knees like a chicken wing, splayed out at an awkward angle. Arms outstretched, the man’s face, or what was left of it, was framed by open eyes, that even in death, held a startled gaze. The lower half of a face weathered by the sun and lines foretelling an uneasy life, was dominated by a gruesome gaping hole like a volcanic eruption. Forced to look away, Don noticed a revolver just beyond the reach of the dead man’s right hand. Don took a second look. Even as the body lay broken, he could not help but notice the man’s hands and fingers—they were impressive. This was not a man who wielded power in wealth and social stature, but rather this was (once) a man of considerable physical strength who worked with his hands. On the ground a little ways further, a dusty velour hat lay where it landed, tipped up, likely after flying off the man’s head during his final jerk backwards.
The police found four empty bullet cartridges near the revolver, three of which were discharged in the mouth. As the man’s naturalisation papers were found folded in one of his coat pockets, along with £1-10s in cash, it was concluded the body was that of the 69-year-old German immigrant, Claus AKA Charlie Heinrich Sturwohld, who was naturalised in Mackay in 1885. Three days later the newspapers provided a brief eight-line notice of Sturwohld’s suicide. Seems the police saw it as an open and shut case with the emphasis being on ‘shut’, case closed.
By 10 August 1914, Germans living in Australia had to report to the nearest police station and register their personal details, amidst a climate of widespread anti-German sentiment around the country. Alien residents had to advise the local police immediately of a change of address or report daily or weekly. Police kept their own records determining whether the said alien was likely to be anti-British or if they “consorted with persons believed to be of enemy origin.” This explains why Charlie Sturwohld’s naturalisation papers were in his coat pocket. He couldn’t go anywhere without them.
Born in Kiel, Germany, in 1847, Claus Sturwohld arrived in Maryborough, on the Humboldt, on 29 October 1873. According to the passenger manifest, Claus, along with the Andersen family were among 302 adult passengers travelling to Queensland on an assisted passage. Ten days after the Humboldt docked, Claus and the sixteen-year-old Anna Andersen married in Maryborough. Whatever happened to Anna Andersen Sturwohld after that is a complete mystery, as are the next 12 years of Claus (Charlie) Sturwohld’s life.
By early 1885, Charlie was living in Mackay where he met a young English woman, Adelaide (Ada) Isabella Mary Benke (nee Baker). Ada’s marriage to Charles Benke, also a German immigrant and a blacksmith, ended in Brisbane after bearing Benke three children, two having died within months of each other in 1884. Was it a coincidence that Ada partnered with two Germans in the same trade? Did they know each other?
Given Ada and Charlie had both been married, and in the absence of a divorce record for either, we may assume this is why they never formalised their union in marriage, despite having four children together. Charlie and Ada’s first child, Annie, born on 16 August 1885 was my great-grandmother.
By the mid-1880s, Charlie Sturwohld had established a blacksmith and wheelwright business at Hill End, Mackay. Eighteen eighty-five was a good year for Charlie, he was granted Australian Naturalisation in January and became a father in August. Charlie Sturwohld was industrious and good at what he did, leading to him inventing and patenting a new kind of tip wagon in 1892, for which he received a prize at one of the State’s agricultural shows. He built buggies and wagons of all kinds, drays, carts, plough harrows and scufflers (for ploughing).
In 1887, the Sturwohlds added to their family with the birth of Claus Henry, known as Henry. Sadly, Henry died in his third year. Cecilia followed two years later, then Edith in 1891. Hans Sturwohld, born on 16 September 1895 was the last born and only male child to carry on the Sturwohld name. All the children were baptised in the Church of England in Mackay likely due to Ada’s heritage. The four Sturwohld children lived to a good age, Hans ended his days in Townsville having lived to his ‘80s. Han’s son, Neville Sturwohld, gave my aunt a photo of his father, describing him as “a kindly old fellow and quite a musician”.
The twentieth century signalled a change of fortune for the Sturwohlds. By October 1914, Australia was at war with Germany for two months, and Charlie Sturwohld was on his own in the western Queensland town of Cloncurry. We know this because on 20 October he applied for another copy of his naturalisation paper, the reason being “it was worn out in my pocket”. Ada was long gone, as following the death of Charles Benke, her first husband in 1906, she married John Jessop, an Englishman, in 1907.
Annie, Charlie and Ada’s eldest, was going through hard times herself. In 1911, her husband Thomas (Nugget) Lewis, had deserted to parts unknown leaving Annie and their four children destitute. After taking in laundry, she found work cooking in hotels from Winton to Ayr. Taking the children with her was not possible, and in 1914, Annie put her children into the Townsville orphanage: “Just until I get on my feet!” she vowed to the inspector of the Children’s Department in Townsville.
Charlie Sturwohld’s death two years later left a gaping hole in the family. He might have been despondent over losing his wife’s affection to another man, an Englishman no less, but he still had four adult children and grandchildren who loved and needed him. Having just been awarded a pension, Charlie could reflect on his working life and contribution to his new country with pride. At this time especially, Annie needed her father’s support more than ever. So why did he put a gun in his mouth to end it all? And how does one manage to shoot themselves in the mouth three times? And how could a blacksmith make such a grisly mess of things?
Our family never accepted the police findings, and it doesn’t take much exploring through Trove and other records to see how many Germans in Australia around this time died in mysterious circumstances. Delving into family history can raise more questions than answers, but for me, what is more important than finding all the answers, is getting to know our ancestors as people. After all, a part of them lingers in each of us.