Saturday, 28 September 2019

National Police Remembrance Day 2019

September 29th, the Feast of St. Michael the Archangel, is also National Police Remembrance Day in Australia, commemorating the lives of officers who died in the line of duty. I have a few police in my family, most notably Thomas Skermer, International Man of Chicanery. Thankfully, the rest were nothing like that at all, and today always makes me think of one of the 'good guys', Walter John Wissell.

Walter Wissell was my 1st cousin 3x removed. He was born on 11 Apr 1881 in Echunga, the area where most of his family lived including poor dear Nellie Cunningham who was Wissell's first cousin. His father James had a dashing backstory, as he is believed to have served in the US Civil War before starting a career in whaling and jumping ship in Australia. James married the young widow Janet Brown nee Gall in 1867 and the couple had 7 children in addition to Janet's existing two from her first marriage.

Walter was a policeman. Given he was not a mounted trooper, his duties were very different to those of Thomas Skermer. He was mostly focused on all the normal duties which still make up much of police work now - detecting and apprehending criminals. While stationed in Kadina, he was given the job of arresting a particularly violent criminal, and he was fatally injured in the process. The SA Police History group described it as follows: "He had approached William Dibballs, a 39-year-old labourer whose behaviour in Graves St had become somewhat raucous on a Saturday evening in February, 1919. The patient police officer reasoned with Dibballs, whom he asked to behave and head for home. But the troublemaker, rather than co-operate, struck Wissell with a forceful punch to the face. Each man then struggled to overpower the other, until Wissell was able to bring Dibballs under control and arrest him... Wissell became gravely ill with pneumonia soon after the attack.  Although he received frequent medical treatment, the husband and father of four died in Kadina."

Details about Walter Wissell's death reported in The Observer and The Register

During his time in the police force, Walter had been an active member of the South Australian Police Association, a group which had been formed in 1911 and which today still carries out the mission of representing the members of SAPOL on all industrial matters. The Association believes that Walter was transferred to Kadina as a direct result of his involvement in a pay dispute and that as such his death was a direct result of his involvement in the union. As part of their centenary commemorations, the Association organised to have Walter's grave at West Terrace Cemetery refurbished, and a service was held by his grave to acknowledge his contributions to keeping South Australians safe, as well as helping his fellow police officers.

The refurbished grave of Walter Wissell at West Terrace Cemetery

Walter's grave lies in one of the many less-maintained sections of the cemetery, and so his grave stands out among the others. It's great to see an organisation value their pioneers and heritage in such a visible way.

Walter John Wissell

Sunday, 1 September 2019

Why you should order certificates - employment information

I've mentioned previously that I have some rather significant brick walls with my mother-in-law's family. That's right, the woman whose grandparents are surnamed possibly James, unknown, unknown and Smith. Her paternal grandmother, possibly surnamed James, married William Taylor (who was definitely NOT her grandfather), and then Walter Herbert Russell, who I mentioned I'd had no joy tracking down.

When doing family history on a budget, it's easy to omit ordering certificates. The information such as names, dates and places can sometimes be located elsewhere, so all you're finding is detail, right? Well, on Elsie and Walter's wedding certificate, one of the details I had discovered about him was that he was working as a Ganger, which could mean 'a foreman of a group of labourers', or possibly a rail track worker.

Join GenealogySA to access low cost transcriptions... especially compared to the cost of SA certificates!

Now, many of the details on that certificate are inaccurate, as it common to any document linked to Elsie (or, as I prefer to think of her, liar-liar-pants-on-fire.) However, I was working from the assumption the employment was accurate, having been provided by Walter rather than Elsie. This lead me to consider he might be a match for an electoral record on Ancestry for a Ganger living in Rodinga, NT in 1937. I'd always suspected the marriage had collapsed, but had been searching for him in NSW where Elsie had briefly lived. This prompted me to turn my attention to other states and the NT.

While I couldn't locate him in any other NT records, I did find a WA record for a Walter H Russell who died in 1945. There was no evidence to particularly suggest it might be him, but there were no other records even close to matching so I thought 'what the hell?' and sent away for the certificate. This is what came back.

That's a whole lotta 'unknowns' right there...

A funny thing: I've never received a certificate with more unknowns, yet this has told me exactly the bits I needed to know. He was 56 and born in Anna Creek, so definitely my guy! It also tells me all the things I didn't already know, his illness, death, and burial which was witnessed by local Kimberleys identity Robert Rowell. It also explains why nobody seemed to know what had happened. Even now, that is a very remote part of Australia, let alone in 1945! Having been born in Anna Creek, a highly remote part of SA, Walter probably felt right at home, but it sure makes a man hard to find!

Cockatoo Island, death place of Walter Herbert Russell. I'd tell you how far that is from Anna Creek, but Google won't calculate it because it's apparently just too off-grid!! Maybe 2400kms/1490mi?

So, there you go, order those certificates and find answers in the obscure details. One slight obscure-detail question though... two children, one deceased? I only know about one of those! More questions!!!

Thursday, 7 June 2018

FOI, not FFS.

As a hobby genealogist, I probably spend as much time developing my three key networks as I do actually researching. They are:

1) The wider family and local history community,
2) The cousins, especially those who research our family,
3) My online genealogy networks (eg Twitter).

Yes, this takes away a lot of research time, but it leads to much better research.

Exhibit A:

Recently of course it was May, and in South Australia that means one magnificent thing: History Month and the History Festival. It's hard to juggle the events with the little twigs and work, but I get to as much as I can. One of the things I did this year was go to the Open Day at State Records, an experience I highly recommend. I got to tour the Archives, hear about some of the items, and get some research assistance. It was also a chance to mourn the decision made by the Chief Archivist during one of the wars to pulp most of the inquest records to retrieve paper... Why... why...

Or in this case, I don't always pulp records, but when I do they're the most interesting ones...

Only a few weeks before I'd done some research with State Records on my Lavis History Mystery. Using the indexes available online, I had discovered that Albert Sydney Lavis, Louisa Ellen Lavis and Lucy Jane Lavis had been boarded out and had ordered the records detailing this. These records told me four really important things:

1) That they'd been turned in by their only-slightly-older sister Amelia*. Amelia had escaped the family dysfunction by marrying at 14. She gave birth to her first child just before her 16th birthday, took on the care of her three younger siblings who had been abandoned by their mother Ellen, and then had her first child die. I can well understand it got a bit much.

2) That the children were fostered out to their childless aunt, Asenath Bacon.

3) That a few years later they had been removed from Asenath and sent to Solomon Wiseman.

4) That State Records' copying service is really, really cheap.

Says it all, really

The records referred to item #3 as being referenced in a set of Minutes, the problem being the Minutes are part of a government record series which is sealed as it contains details of adoptions which took place less than 100 years ago.

The lovely people from State Records helped me get all the information I needed to lodge a Freedom of Information request for the minutes. They tell me that, given the age of the records I'm after, I'll certainly be granted permission to access that section of the record series, and while there's no telling what I'll find, it's probably the only possibility of a definitive answer to the Family History Mystery of how the children of Walter Lavis (impoverished bigamist at large and former inmate of Adelaide Gaol) ended up inheriting thousands of pounds from Solomon Wiseman when there was no apparent connection between the families at all.


I emailed my relatives on that side of the family to update them with my findings. All of us have been working on cracking this one for years. We have notes from 30 odd years ago where family are pondering over theories on what happened. One of my relatives said she also had an update for me, and let me know that Ellen had remarried (possibly bigamously) to James Pitt in Jamestown in 1884. However, and more interestingly, in between her second and third marriages she had a child named Edith May Norbury. Poor Edith was not blessed with long life, and passed away in Yancowinna Station, Silverton, in 1885.

What's interesting about that?

A little google of my DLF Solomon Wiseman once lead me to the piece of information that, before becoming a grazier and even before becoming one of the original BHP share-holders he was, of all the unexpected things, a rabbit inspector.

You have to start somewhere, even if your grandfather is King of the Hawkesbury

Armed with that information I consulted the ever-reliable and constantly surprising Trove, where I found out that...
I see you, you wascally wabbits

In 1885, Solomon Wiseman was in Silverton on at least two occasions.

Now, I know that's not evidence of anything, but by working with some of the fantastic networks out there I have placed Ellen Pitt nee Clifford nee Lavis nee Maynard and Solomon Wiseman in the same town in the same year, not two years before her children were moved to his care. Coinkydink? Possibly not! At the time the population of Silverton was at its peak, roughly 3000, which is still quite small enough for them to have met, especially since Ellen was at a Station and Wiseman is described as visiting Stations.

Now to wait for the results of the FOI request! Hopefully they add more detail than Nellie Smith's death certificate which turned out to be a dead-end of 'unknowns'. Watch this space!!

*Amelia went on to ditch her own family of 8. She fled to WA, had another 7 to someone else, and lived to the grand old age of 94.

Saturday, 28 April 2018

Heirloom Hand-over

A while back I alluded to the fact I'd received a mysterious comment on Ancestry. Someone had commented on the image of my great-grandparent's marriage certificate that they had the original. That line of my family is very small, so I was pretty surprised to say the least. After quite a few delays, I met up with the lovely woman who commented and she handed me over two items she found while cleaning out her shed. It turns out her husband's grandfather married my great-grandmother, which goes to show that you never know who will still have items of interest to your family!

1) A picture of my great-aunt Annie

This is quite unusual. It's made almost like a badge is, with the back pressed into the picture. It's a photo I already had, but it's very special to own the one which actually belonged to my great-grandmother and was probably on display in her house.

2) The marriage certificate

Obviously I had applied quite some time ago to get a copy of this, and so had all the relevant information already. You'll see it points out things like the occupation of the participants' fathers, their current residence, age at marriage etc.

One of the things this shows is that Margaret said she was 21, the legal age to marry without her parents' consent. A year later when Annie was born she was recorded as being 19. On the original you may notice a teeny tiny difference...

You can actually see where someone (lookin' at YOU here, Margaret) has changed the year so that it shows how old she really was. And this people, is why you want to get original certificates where-ever possible.

A slightly old meme, I know, but I couldn't resist...

Friday, 20 April 2018

The Benefit of Re-Visiting Sources

I know it's generally an impossible challenge to get through your genealogy to-do list (and by 'yours' I mean 'mine'). I look on with envy at people who have dipped into land records, published their book, made their scrapbook or whatever. Somehow between work and the little twigs I never seem to get that far! However, there's one thing I always make time for: regularly revisiting sources I've already looked at to see if there's anything new which can help with my brick walls. In the past month or so I've had a couple of great successes.

1) You may recall me bemoaning that MIL claimed she didn't know where her grandmother (the infamous Nellie Smith) was buried. Well, after searching for years, I've made the discovery in some updated tombstones available via Gravesecrets. Faithe was very excited for me that the headstone included names of children and grandchildren, but I knew those already. What I was excited about was that it gave me a date of death! I've now been able to order her death certificate, just in case it contains any details about her mysterious past.

It's in SA though, so this could take a while...

2) I've been regularly checking Ancestry for clues on all my brick walls, and was delighted recently to discover a descendant of Susanne Lotz had posted her tree. She's quite a distant cousin, descended from the branch of the family who emigrated to the US. However, she had done a great deal of research, including into Susanne's French ancestry which was absolutely fascinating. It appears as though the family were part of the French upper classes who fled to Germany during the Revolution... the second French Revolution connection in that branch of the family.

This also helped clear up a question I've always had: given Harriet Meyer's parents had emigrated from Germany, had her four sons been shooting at their cousins on the Western Front? Well, I still don't know if any of Franz Meyer's nephews fought for Germany, but it appears the closest relatives in the Lotz family had all emigrated to the US prior to the outbreak of the war, so the McPhersons' cousins on the Lotz side joined the US army.

So, it's going to take me forever, but at least it will be really thorough!

Sunday, 11 June 2017

Why is it always you, Jimmy?

So, recently I've been lucky enough to go to France and Belgium again for work. (The struggle is real, people. The struggle is real.) This time I was in charge of putting together the itinerary, and while I was the soul of restraint and did NOT stuff it full of things about my family, I did squeeze one significant one in. We visited the Passchendaele Archives/Musee de Passchendaele in Zonnebeke, which in itself is a great experience which I recommend to you. From there, we set off on foot to our next destination, Tyne Cot Cemetery, which has always been visited on our trip but usually by bus. The walk to Tyne Cot is not as pretty as many which surround the museum, but it's highly significant: the walkway used to be the railway line along which troops marched to notable skirmishes such as the Battle of Broodseinde. I know from his war record that James Arthur Pearson White spent the last day of his life marching along that exact path: the noise, the smells, the devastated landscape, the fear...

Sign at the start of the walkway to Tyne Cot

Along the walkway are plenty of remnants from the war, although there are also fields being ploughed, birds singing and other pilgrims walking back in the other direction. It's hard to imagine what it must have been like 99.5 years ago when Jim took this same route to his final resting place.

Some of the remnants of war alongside the path

As I have previously mentioned, the archivist had supplied me with a modern map showing the field (and it is literally a field) in which Jim was killed by a shell, either while nursing a wound or just suddenly. I don't know that I'll ever have the opportunity to visit that field again, but for ten minutes on a sunny but chilly afternoon in April, a descendant of Ben and Lydia White was able to stand at the spot in which their son lost his life, on behalf of all those who remembered and loved Our Jim but lived out their lives a world away in Australia.

The field in which James Arthur Pearson White was killed outright by a German shell

While Jim's remains have never been identified, it's very likely that after the war they were discovered and removed to the Tyne Cot cemetery, the Commonwealth War Cemetery in the world. However, with so many graves the experience is quite different to visiting one individual soldier from the family. This makes my second Tyne Cot visit, and I feel far more as though I have had the chance to pay my respects to Jim in the field than in the Cemetery where he probably lies, unknown but not unloved.

Tyne Cot Cemetery

Of course the day concluded with a visit to the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing and attendance at the Last Post Ceremony, and on this occasion someone was flying in a hot air balloon, high above the arch where we stood paying our respects to Jim and to all of those men missing in Flanders Fields.

Fly free, Jim xxx

For Lydia. For Ben. For Florence. For Elsie. For Diana. For all of us.

Lest we forget.

Monday, 8 August 2016

James Arthur Pearson White: An Update

One of the great delights of my family research in recent months has been discovering, via this blog, many White relations who share my interest in James Arthur Pearson White. Through the very kind sharing of many of these relations I've discovered a few things which have brought me much joy:

1) That James' daughter did know she was his daughter, and grew up hearing his stories. I'm so happy to think he wasn't forgotten by the most special person in his world.

2) That Elsie did go on and find happiness in her life after the tragedy which befell her during the war.

3) That items such as James' Dead Man's Penny survive and are cherished by relations to this very day.

Given it's other people's information I'm not sure how much I'm at liberty to share, but more letters, photos and records of his survive than I had thought possible.

Jim died, but he lives on in the memories of many, both here and in England.

Sign at the Musée de la Battaile de Fromelles