southern (hemisphere) stories
Stories Grandpa Didn’t Tell Me
Grandpa was not a storyteller. It was only later, when Grandma wasn’t around, that he told me a few stories about his life and parents. He never talked about the hard times during the Great Depression, but he said enough to encourage me in later life to research his family history. When he died all of Grandma’s and Grandpa’s personal things, letters and photographs were given to my older cousin because she was the only granddaughter. By the time I became interested in our family history everything had been thrown away except some old photographs. I started the long and frustrating task of tracing the family and trying to verify the many stories that had been passed down through generations. I would only accept stories that could be verified with facts, and questioned the accuracy of many of the official documents like birth, marriage and death certificates. Place of birth on the certificate often meant the place where the birth was registered which could have been far away and several years after the actual birth. Often the date of birth was the date of baptism. Details on a death certificate came from surviving family members who may not have known all of the facts or didn’t want to reveal some of the more sordid things in their loved one’s life. The person who knew the truth was dead. Convict ancestors and illegitimate children were rarely mentioned and some stories about the gallantry and sacrifice of an ancestor who went to war often were just stories. As individual war service and medical records became available I discovered that venereal disease was a common war service injury. Some of my relatives were not happy when I told them their ancestor was not actually wounded in the Battle of Fromelles but was still at sea on the ship or in hospital recovering from VD.
Grandpa did tell me that his parents came from Cambridgeshire in England on a sailing ship but he didn’t know when they arrived. Information from death certificates narrowed down the years to about 1854-56 and birth certificates of the children born shortly after arrival suggested the port. A search of the ships arriving in those years showed only the names of families traveling as passengers, not individuals traveling alone. After days of searching the passenger list of each ship I discovered that Grandpa’s parents, my great grandparents, arrived on the Asiatic with two children aged 6 and 3 years on May 23, 1855. The ships’ log recorded that his father was 31 years old when he arrived in the colony, a farm laborer and could not read or write. His mother was 28 years old and the ship’s log declared she could read and write. A later search of birth certificates of children born after arrival showed she signed her name with an “X”. The ship’s log also recorded that both parents of Grandpa’s father were dead and one female child was deceased. They were from Waterbeach, a small village and parish on the Cam River in Cambridgeshire, East Anglia, about 5½ miles north-east of Cambridge and 62 miles from London. The records at the local parish church, St John the Evangelist, later became a major source of information for me. Curious I checked the parish records and discovered that Grandpa’s parents were married in 1844 and the deceased child was a little girl born two years earlier when Grandpa’s father was 17 and mother 15 years old. Not an uncommon event but probably something you didn’t tell your children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.
In the two years after arriving in the colony Grandpa’s mother gave birth to two more children and in 1860 produced twins, a boy and a girl. Tragically the girl died from dysentery when she was only five months old and her twin brother died the following year from “a cough”. The deaths highlighted the harsh conditions of early life in the colony. When Grandpa was born in 1866 his birth certificate said there were six children alive and five deceased. If correct I have not been able to find records of the deaths of two other girls.
In 1867, before Grandpa was two years old his father moved the family, then seven children, by open wagon 300 miles to the place that was to become their home. The journey took several days and they slept each night beside the dirt track. The land he had selected covered about 160 acres in an area with the interesting name Gobbagombalin, a Wiradjuri Aboriginal word that meant “plenty of fish”. The first white settlers in the area were illegal squatters with convict backgrounds who had moved inland about 1830-31. The Wiradjuri people resented the intrusion of the squatters on their favorite fishing and camping ground so their battles were fierce and frequent. By 1867 the frontier battles were over and many more settlers had moved into the farming areas along the river, including Grandma’s family who arrived in 1864 and settled near a place called Wantabadgery, the Wiradjuri word for “fighting place”.
In 1870 Grandpa’s father acquired a further 160 acres of adjacent land to enlarge his farm and when he died in 1902 he left Grandpa to work the farm of 382 acres with Grandma and two boys aged 10 and 5 years. My father was born the following year. One of the first things Grandpa had to do was call in a local German-born builder to help him build a mud brick house for the family. The boys went to a small one-teacher school and the older one helped out on the farm until 1916 when he enlisted in the army and was sent to the Western Front. He returned at the end of the war in 1919, suffering from the effects of mustard and chlorine gas, and moved to his own farm some 50 miles away. The second son remained on the farm at Windy Hill which, by 1924, had grown to over 822 acres through acquisition of nearby properties. My father, then 21 years old, also worked on the farm.
Grandpa’s second son continued to work on the farm until 1929 when he decided to buy his own property. Grandpa had mortgaged Windy Hill to buy more land and in 1929 increased the mortgage to help finance his son’s acquisition. The timing could not have been worse as that year was the start of the Great Depression and neither Grandpa nor his son could meet the mortgage payments. Windy Hill was taken over by the banks and sold in 1932 with a lease extended to Papa until 1935. In April 1934, the second son accidentally drowned on the farm and two months later his four year old son also drowned there. It was a terrible year for the family. In 1935, after being forced off the farm at Windy Hill, Grandpa and Grandma moved to a 2½ acre piece of land just outside the nearest town to begin a new life. Six years later during World War II when Grandma was 80 and Grandpa 75 they were asked to raise two young boys, my brother and me, a task they willingly took on.