The Next Genealogy Journey – Discovering an Adventurer.
For years I had been darting from one family member or ancestor to another belonging to my late wife, Helen, gathering the usual dates and places of birth, marriage and death. But that strategy had to change if I was to find how these people lived. Following the advice of seasoned genealogists at talks and conferences, often with their own website, blog or Facebook page, I needed to focus on one ancestor at a time. Who might be a likely candidate?
A few adventurous stories might be found researching Helen’s father, who was a former policeman on Thursday Island and later in Birdsville. Helen’s mother, born on Thursday Island to a soldier and a Scottish lass, had a very different childhood from children on the mainland. A paternal great grandfather, Albert August Bahlow and his family came out to Maryborough, Queensland from Prussia in the 1870s and a maternal great grandfather William Gilchrist Lambert, a reporter, might have a story or two. But for this episode, I chose a different maternal great grandfather, David Brown, a Scotsman.
After confirming the basic data of whom he was and his relationship to Helen, I wanted to delve deeper into his life. Many subscription sites merely have indexes or transcriptions of original records. These often omit useful information like a full address or an occupation, so it was necessary to use Scotlands People to view the original National Records of Scotland images for confirmation. Scotlands People permits one to search for free but pay an affordable amount to view a specific original record. Once paid, that record remains available to view whenever returning to the site. Accessing newspapers is also very worthwhile. The Findmypast subscription site includes access to worldwide newspapers while the National Australian Archives (NAA) provides free access to Australian newspapers via Trove. What I found was unbelievable.
During a voyage of the sailing schooner, Elibank Castle, in January 1885, ten crew members had been murdered on shore by local Solomon Islands inhabitants. They were trading for copra in the South Sea Islands. The remaining crew, including seaman David Brown, could only look on in horror from the ship. They managed to slip away and return to Australia. On the 17th or 18th of May 1885, the owner of the vessel, Captain Rousch, made the trip himself and David was again a crew member. Solomon Island natives had been invited on board to trade, as the Captain had done on other occasions. But without warning, the natives suddenly turned on the crew with their tomahawks and spears. The crew were fighting for their lives.
In a story that sounds like a Boys Own adventure, David and another seaman, Hugh Gildie, were forced to withdraw to another part of the ship. In subsequent fighting, Hugh and David were both injured in the face by tomahawks and David was shot through the hand as his gun discharged during a struggle. Next morning, realising they were the only two still alive, they sailed from the island and buried their comrades at sea. Their ordeal was not over yet!
The ship began to leak after they struck a reef off New Guinea. Removing the ship’s papers, provisions and water to the ship’s long boat, they scurried off the sinking ship and sailed and drifted, carried by whatever wind they could catch. Hugh was knocked overboard into the heavy sea during a violent storm. Unsuccessful in his efforts to save him, David was now alone. After some forty-eight days drifting, he arrived at a native village in New Guinea. From there, he was led to a Dutch settlement nearby and taken by a Dutch mail boat to Singapore. A Chinese steamer brought him from there to Cooktown, from whence he was transhipped to Brisbane. In concluding his narrative to the authorities, David explained that he ‘had eight months wages owing to him’ and he had ‘a wife and family totally unprovided for in Greenock, Scotland’. But David Brown is a common name. Was this the right one?
The evidence was circumstantial, but after extensive searching in newspapers, subscription sites (Ancestry, Findmypast and MyHeritage), Scotland’s People, Google and Queensland State Archives, I could find no other David Brown who was both a seaman and had a wife and family in Greenock, Scotland around that time. Helen’s great grandfather was born in Greenock in 1851. When he married there in 1872, he was already a seaman. He and his wife, Matilda, had three children in Greenock. His family was there when those awful events were happening in the Solomon Islands. In both the 1881 and the 1891 Census of Scotland, Matilda was raising the family in Greenock while he, presumably, was at sea. There was still reasonable doubt.
In 1900, David was appointed as attendant at the lazaret (leper hospital) and the caretaker of the quarantine station on Friday Island in the Torres Strait. His family were now living nearby on Thursday Island. The lazaret was eventually closed and the quarantine station relocated closer to Brisbane. In 1907, he was appointed as caretaker of the lazaret on Peel Island in Moreton Bay and Matilda was appointed as Matron there. So anyone (or their descendants) who passed through the Friday Island Quarantine Station or was treated at the Friday Island or Peel Island lazarets could have observed those scars from David’s injuries…if this was the same David Brown.
Frustrated, I left the research for a couple of weeks then decided to make one final effort to confirm David Brown’s identity before moving on to research a different ancestor. Trove had provided much of the relevant information so far so I tried a different combination of search words – “David Brown” AND “Greenock”. It produced 203 results from all over Australia, many obviously not relevant. They were not the same time period or the same David Brown. Finally, the exact confirmation I needed was in the Tasmanian News, 16 March 1886. It began, ‘Mrs David Brown, 3 Broomhill street, Greenock, wife of the sole survivor of the crew who were massacred by the natives of the Solomon Island’.
Where would we be without newspapers to help us discover what happens in the dash of our ancestors’ lives? That dash is the important little punctuation mark between their birth year and their death year on our family tree, the time during which their life happens. Now I’m ready to tackle Helen’s other maternal great grandfather, William Gilchrist Lambert.
 ‘Murders at the Solomon Islands’, Brisbane Courier, 21 Feb 1885, p. 5, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article3439379
‘The Elibank Castle Massacre’, Brisbane Courier, 5 Dec 1885, p. 5, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article3453927.
 ‘The Elibank Castle Massacre’.
 Birth of David BROWN, East Parish, Greenock, to William BROWN and Jean LOGAN, Scotland, Select Births and Baptisms, 1564-1950, Ancestry.com.au, accessed 20 Sep 2022.
 Marriage of David BROWN and Matilda RICHMOND, 2 Apr 1872, West Parish, Greenock, Statutory Marriages 564/03 0096
 Birth of Emily Richmond BROWN, 23 Crescent Street, Greenock, National Records of Scotland, Statutory Births 564/02 0233; Birth of Jeannie Logan BROWN, 3 Broomhill Street, Greenock, National Records of Scotland, Statutory Births 564/03 0203; Birth of Matilda Richmond BROWN, 28 Sep 1882, 66 Ann Street, Greenock, National Records of Scotland, Statutory Births 564/03 0884.
 Census record for Matilda BROWN, aged 29, and family, Broomhill Street, Greenock, 1881 Scotland Census, 564/3 42/9, p. 9, National Records of Scotland; Census record for Matilda BROWN, aged 38, and family, Broomhill Street, Greenock, 1891 Scotland Census, 564/2 46/23, p. 23, National Records of Scotland.
 ‘Friday Island Lazarette’, Telegraph, 28 Nov 1900, p. 1, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article172985757.
 ‘Official Notifications, Home Secretary’s Department’, Telegraph, 15 Aug 1907, p. 2, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article174928344.
Massacre of the Crew of the Elibank’, Tasmanian News, 16 Mar 1886, p. 4, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article162978754.
Great story. I always think there are so many fascinating stories in our ancestors’ lives provided we can track them down as you have painstakingly done. You often don’t know where their story will lead until you get there.
So true, Sue. I also think that David’s wife, Matilda, must have been an amazing woman, too. She was raising the children alone most of the time, it seemed. Then to have been matron at the lazaret on Peel Island would not have been an easy job.
As well as sharing an extraordinary story you have given us a useful lesson on how to research, the vast amount of information to be found in newspaper archives, and shown that persistence reaps great rewards. Thank you for a great story.
Thank you, Rosemary. I’m new to blogging so am thankful for this opportunity through GSQ. My aim in my series of blogs is not only to tell a story but also to show how I acquired and confirmed the relevant information. I want to share my mistakes and my successes for the benefit of my readers.
Thanks Ross, I thoroughly enjoyed this story. Who would have thought that a newspaper from Tasmania would complete your research of family at the top end of Australia!
I really enjoyed your story Ross and how you were able to confirm the people and events. I travelled a lot through the Solomons and am interested in the black birding history of South Sea Islanders so reading about what happened to the copra traders was also very interesting
A brilliant blog Ross. I enjoyed tracing the steps in your research and as for the story…what a nightmare! I can imagine your delight when you discovered the final proof of identity. After all that’s the wonder of family history research. I look forward to reading your next blog.