Monday, 29 August 2016

Love a sunburnt country?

It is a sad but inevitable fact that in a nation of immigrants, there will be some of us who are simply not genetically-predisposed to thrive in this wide brown land. When the head gardener sets me the task of arranging pot plants by their tolerance of heat and light, I always leave a space between dappled sunlight and full shade. I know my place.

Each summer in the 1950s, as my playmates progressed through the various shades of tanning that were assumed to signify glowing good health, I alternated between cooked crab cerise and peeled prawn pink. It is amazing how quickly a child can learn to ignore the question “Why are you so white?” Sometimes a helpful friend would offer the explanation. “He can’t help it. His father came from Scotland”.

two genIn fact he was wrong on two grounds. Dad was born in Northern Ireland, although the distinction is probably moot in this context. More significant is that my father displayed the phenotype combination known as black Irish (often incorrectly attributed to the impact of the  Spanish Armada). His hair and beard were jet, eyes dark, and the usual description of his complexion was swarthy.

My Belfast-born father had no trouble passing as a man of Mediterranean or even Middle Eastern heritage. It clearly ran in the family, because his Uncle Bill was much in demand when came time for first footing.

So I cannot blame my Celtic forebears. Which leaves the Germans to bear the responsibility for my integumentary mismatch. A photograph of my mother in her mid-teens with a thick blonde plait wound around her head above piercing blue eyes could have been the archetypal image of young Aryan womanhood. It seems that I have inherited many of the ancient north European adaptations to low light conditions for which I have no need. Thanks Mum.

I feel no shame in this ancestor-blaming, because of the certainty that in generations to come I will be subject to exactly the same. Fortunately, none of my children have been irredeemably freckled. The toddler much admired  for delicate copper ringlets falling across a forehead like the finest semi-translucent alabaster now sports a tangled mass of red curls flowing down to a spectacular full beard without any apparent psychological damage. But lurking in their genome is that 4% contribution from our Neanderthal forebears, ready to be passed on. I know that all of my descendants will need to be well acquainted with the notion of SPF.

Despite all this, I do have a special place in the Australian landscape. I love the experience of standing in a gully deep within a tropical rainforest.  Let the Blue Quandong and the Turpentine Tree soar upwards and jostle for the sunlight if they must, the ferns and I are perfectly happy down here where it is cool and moist and Shady!

Sunday, 21 August 2016

A battle with the AIF

The prompt for this (third) week of the NFHM Blogging Challenge refers to some of the significant battles of two World Wars that will be remembered during this month. But, not all of the battles that took place in 1916 and have shaped our family histories across generations were military actions. There were personal battles, bureaucratic battles and domestic battles taking place on the Home Front that were to prove equally influential.

On the 19th of August 1915, Recruiting Train 3 returned to Brisbane1 via the North Coast Line after a final major rally at Gympie intended to attract new recruits for the Expeditionary Force.

In the next few weeks, Queenslanders began to get an inkling of the tragedy occurring in Turkey. On 7 September, the Brisbane Courier carried a small item2 referring to heavy Australian losses that hinted at (what we now know as) the disastrous attack on Hill 60 (Kaiajik Aghala) without any explicit reference.

So it was not surprising that by the middle of September 1915 there would be a surge in the number of men presenting themselves at Victoria Barracks eager "to do their bit" One might not have expected to see Alfred Edward Noyes among them. He was no youthful bushman in search of adventure but a 33-year-old former timber-getter tending a small fruit farm at Palmwoods to support his wife Emily and their six surviving children.

Nevertheless, on 18 September 1915, Alfred swore that he would "well and truly serve our Sovereign Lord the King in the Australian Imperial Force from [that day] until the end of the war" and Dr. Cameron of the Army Medical Corp declared him fit do so (although he noted a "large scar on the front of his right leg"). The group of new recruits was assigned to A Company, 7th Depot Battalion at Enoggera for their basic training3.

Alfred's first few months in the Army must have been unexceptional. The only entry on his record concerns a 5/- fine for a bout of drunkenness to celebrate the New Year. The same period was much harder for Emily. As she wrote in a letter to confirm a meeting with an Army Chaplain, "all his interests on the farm are going to rack and ruin [...] the man he left to look after it has cleared out [...] I have five young children that prevents me from doing anything". She apparently felt it would be too much to add that the twins had celebrated their first birthday after Alfred enlisted and that Doreen (apparently not counted among the "young" children) was not yet 11.

On 20 January 1916, the recruits were deemed ready to be assigned to their eventual unit for final training before departure. Alfred was included in the 17th Reinforcements for the famed 9th Battalion with whom he moved to Exhibition Camp at Bowen Hills. Given the need to ensure that the available weapons and ammunition went to the troops at the Front, much of basic training in 1915 was undertaken with broomstick "rifles". At Exhibition Camp, Alfred was issued with a real SMLE service weapon which would reveal a flaw in his readiness for embarkation. Not only was Private Noyes unable to fire the rifle successfully, he could barely handle it. His difficulty was attributed to a "stiff wrist".

Meanwhile Emily was continuing her campaign to have her husband sent home. She wrote that "An examination of his arm and leg should convince anyone that he is not fit for active service". It seems that the interests of an angry wife and a frustrated company commander coincided and, on the 8th of February, a Medical Board was convened to determine whether Alfred should be discharged as medically unfit.

When questioned, he freely acknowledged that a log had fallen on him at Killarney in 1902 crushing his right side. He had since had two operations on his right arm but the wrist was still twisted. The official medical examination identified "atrophy of right forearm ... deformity of wrist ... loss of bone ... adhesions between ulna and radius preventing rotation". The professional opinion of the Board members was that this represented a 50% reduction in the man's capacity for earning a full livelihood in the general labour market.

On 21 February 1916, Alfred Noyes' war ended. He was discharged and caught a train back to Palmwoods to tend his pineapples (and to extend his family when young Edward Alfred was born in the following January).

It seems probable that even after her husband's return, Emily continued to be responsible for most of the heavy work. Eldest daughter Doreen had strong recollections of "looking after the little ones" while her mother undertook farm work that possibly contributed to her early death at just 39 years old in 1927.

It was not just on the Western Front, that there were extended battles from which no real winner would emerge.


  1. Queensland State Archives: Police Commissioner's Office; 16865 Correspondence 1861-1987; 2041776, Correspondence about advertising and arrangements for the Recruiting Train (1268M 50); digital image; ; accessed 19 August 2016
  2. 1915 'THE DARDANELLES.', The Brisbane Courier (Qld. : 1864 - 1933), 7 September, p. 7. , viewed 21 Aug 2016,
  3. National Archives of Australia: Australian Military Forces; B2455, First Australian Imperial Force Personnel Dossiers, 1914-1920; 7999844, NOYES ALFRED EDWARD; digital image; ; accessed 19 August 2016

Sunday, 14 August 2016

An uncommon working man

When the Shearer's Strike Monument was dedicated at Winton in August 1891, Thomas Henry Suddaby was beginning his last term at Bundaberg Central School. Many of his classmates must have been contemplating an uncertain future seeking employment in difficult economic times in Queensland, but Tom's path was to be different.

In January 1892, he would be one of just twenty privileged boys who began their secondary education at the Maryborough Grammar School. By the turn of the new century, his life showed many features one might expect of a stereotypical ex-grammar boy. He was an enthusiastic rugby player, a member of the Wide Bay Regiment, and a competitive shooter who had taken Supreme Court action to finalise the affairs of his late father and uncle.

But appearances can be deceiving. The property that had funded his schooling was gone and he was the father of a (growing) young family. Tom earned his living by hauling cargo in and out of the holds of ships on the Maryborough wharves.

One of the responses to the Shearers Strike had been a heightened understanding of the need for working men to organise and to bargain collectively. Wharf labourers were no exception to this trend and unions were formed in most major ports. Eadie's Illustrated Bundaberg Almanac of 1911 advised that the Waterside Workers Union met every second Thursday in their rooms in Targo Street (beside the Co-op Butchers). Among the office-bearers of the Union, T Suddaby is listed as both Vice-President and Auditor.

In that listing, the local union actually described itself as the Federated Waterside Workers' Union of Australia in recognition of an accelerating trend for site-based workers groups to join together in a single nation-wide body. That was formalised in October 1912 when W M Hughes organised the first Federal Conference of the WWF in Melbourne. The official photograph1 shows Hughes sitting in the centre beside the Prime Minister (Andrew Fisher) who had given a major address. Many of the other delegates are identified as Members of the House of Representatives or Senators, but there were a few active "wharf labourers" in the group. Sitting on the ground in front of Fisher was the Maryborough delegate, T H Suddaby (holding his panama hat).

In addition to his union positions, Tom had also been an office bearer in the local Labor Party Branch within the electorate held by Fisher. One can only speculate on the future career that he may have dreamed of. But circumstances were to change dramatically.

In the midst of the Galipolli Campaign (September 1915), Fisher suddenly resigned as Prime Minister and Hughes (by then his deputy) was chosen to replace him. Under the new leadership, the Labor Party continued what many ordinary members saw as the move away from some of the traditional principles espoused since 1891. The real value of wages (their purchasing power) had fallen by 10% in the first year of the war and that slide continued during 1916. Like most of his rank-and-file colleagues, Tom's commitment to the Empire had to be balanced against the need to support his family.

When every attempt to secure improved wages or to prevent the loss of existing conditions was described as "disloyalty" to the boys on the Western Front, it is little wonder that industrial disputation grew. Tensions between unionists and the men they had thought of as their "representatives" in Parliament were exacerbated when Hughes launched his long campaign to have conscripts sent to the battlefield to replace the terrible losses being suffered. After the first referendum was defeated amid tumult within the Labor party (particularly in Queensland), the Waterside Workers Federation expelled the Prime Minister from the very body whose formation he had overseen. Since he was then technically ineligible to serve as a Labor parliamentarian, Hughes led his followers from caucus in November 1916 to set up a “National Labor” government for a few months (before combining with the Liberal Party as the Nationalist Party).

That set the scene for a year of political and industrial turmoil in 1917 as a growing war-weariness, economic hardship, and opposition to conscription combined in a deep sense of frustration that often boiled over. Although it is common to refer to the industrial action in New South Wales (and then Victoria) in August and September of 1917 as The Great Strike, it was only the most obvious of very many actions that had begun with the rail workers in North Queensland at the beginning of the year.

The Waterside Workers were seen as key players in such an environment. Their central role in the movement of goods and their renowned discipline meant that they were frequently called upon to take action to support other embattled workers. Their own capacity to earn enough to keep their own families was often compromised by disputes in which they had no direct economic stake (other than solidarity).

We cannot know who (if anyone) stood beside Tom and Jane in Bundaberg Cemetery in April 1917, but he surely must have wondered what if anything had changed since 1891.

What price must the workers be prepared to pay in their struggle?

  1. Australian National University Open Research Library Waterside Workers Federation of Australia collection
  2. "Australia, Queensland Cemetery Records, 1802-1990," database with images, FamilySearch ( : 9 March 2015), Annie Suddaby, 21 Apr 1917; citing Burial, Bundaberg, Queensland, Australia, private collection of Jim and Alison Rogers, Bargara; FHL microfilm 1,514,762.

Monday, 8 August 2016

Desperately seeking Cornelia

The NFHM Blogging Challenge for the first week asked "What extraordinary things have you discovered about your family history in census records?"; but, as is so often the case, what we discover are more mysteries and challenges.

Mine seemed such a simple question: Where was Cornelia Wilkins (born Cornelia Medwell on 23 February 1877 in Glinton, Northants) on 2 April 1911? And the answer apparently flowing from the Census data was "Nowhere!"

In her 2014 book Vanishing for the Vote, Jill Liddington describes the campaign of civil disobedience advocated by some suffragettes who argued that if they were not permitted the vote, why should they submit to being counted. But the evidence that is revealed by the Census documents that I have located suggests that the reasons behind Cornelia's absence were more complex and more disturbing than political activism.

Cornelia Medwell had married Thomas Edward Wilkins in the second quarter of 1899 and they appear (as expected) in the 1901 Census1 as a new household residing at 12 Russell Street Peterborough. On that return, neither of them list an occupation although we know (from 1891) that Thomas was a woodworker and Cornelia had been a dressmaker before her marriage.

Russell Street c.1905
Looking towards the distant junction with Lincoln Road with cabinet makers “Whittle” operating from premises on the mid-left.

From collection Peterborough Images.

Believed to be copyright expired.

The couple had two sons John Haydn Wilkins (born 21 October 1905) and Leslie Medwell Wilkins (born 6 December 1907). So the little family should not prove difficult to locate in the 1911 census.

  • Thomas Wilkins was recorded as living with his mother and brother at 69 Russell Street2.
  • John Wilkins was living in the Farm Cottage of Thorpe Hall3 with his grandparents (Aurelius and Ann Medwell) and a female relative named Cornelia, not his mother but a cousin.
  • Leslie Wilkins is recorded as a "nurse child" in the household of Wallace and Margaret Cattell at nearby Northborough4 where Cornelia Medwell was a boarder. This is not the boys' mother but a grand-aunt (the sister of Aurelius).

Of 34-year-old Cornelia born in Gilston, there is simply no trace. She is apparently not living in another town (or county) nor confined in an institution, unless it is under a totally different persona. And, of course, no record of her death.

What makes this puzzle so infuriating (and intriguing) is that we know Cornelia Wilkins died here in Queensland in 1952 while living in the home of her son John.

In 1924, when John applied to migrate to Queensland as a "farm lad" to boost our agricultural workforce, he was living at Fig Tree Cottage at Dogsthorpe. Approval for him to travel (since he was not yet 21) was given by his mother of the same address (once again). A little more than a year later, John remitted the £20 fare to bring his mother to join him in Australia. She was still living at Fig Tree Cottage, listed her occupation as "housekeeper to parents, recently deceased" and her marital status as "married (widowed)".

While it was certainly true that Aurelius and Ann had passed away, Cornelia was a little premature with respect to her husband Thomas. His death in Peterborough was not recorded until the first quarter of 1948. In fact, the 1939 Register shows he was resident at 69 Russell Street; the same address as recorded in the 1911 Census.

The 1939 Register also shows his son Leslie resident in Peterborough in the same household as Wallace Cattell, but by that time he is listed as Leslie M W Cattell. It was the Cattell surname that Leslie used when he married in the next year and until his death in 1972.

One can only conclude that something happened between 1907 and 1911 that shattered the family of Thomas and Cornelia Wilkins with long-lasting consequences. The documents preserved in the 1911 Census provide tantalising glimpses but no definitive answers as to what happened.

Our grandmother (a daughter of John) lived in the same house as her grandmother throughout her teenage years. Audrey and her siblings knew their Nan well. But whatever had happened all those years ago was not something to be discussed in front of the children.

So we must look for more documents that may cast light on new questions concerning the whereabouts of Cornelia. When did she return to Peterborough? Where was she on 19 June 1921? How many sleeps till I can access that next Census ?

Census references

  1. (1901) RG13 Piece 1464 Folio 18 Page 27
  2. (1911) RG14PN8686 RG78PN450 RD170 SD2 ED20 SN122
  3. (1911) RG14PN8699 RG78PN450 RD170 SD2 ED33 SN9
  4. (1911) RG14PN8710 RG78PN451 RD170 SD3 ED4 SN45
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