War Depression War sample




The Wilsons move to Sydney

WHAT FASCINATED me while writing Prison Hulk to Redemption was the emergence of flesh and blood individuals from the dry historical documents I had unearthed. In the Old Bailey court records, for example, James Joseph Wilson was an 18-year-old sentenced to death for burglary in 1827. The sentence was commuted, and he was dispatched to the Australian colonies. The Colony needed boots on the ground for work and community growth. From a mere name in the records, James Joseph grew into a personable young rascal who cheekily defied the authorities. He languished for some time in a prison hulk on the Thames before arriving in Sydney Cove in September 1827. From there, he took advantage of his second chance. Still showing an appeal that won hearts, he developed a sense of responsibility and an understanding of farming. From jostling people and wading through the dirt and stench of Spitalfields market in central London, he ended up on the back of a horse, expertly herding sheep and cattle. He settled in the Mudgee area, 164 miles northwest of Sydney, and married 15-year-old Jane Harris, the daughter of free settlers from Wiltshire. Jane and James Joseph had four children before tragedy struck.

Factory boy Michael Jones, at 16 years, robbed a poor silk weaver from Chadderton of his fortnightly wages. Chadderton was about six miles out of Manchester. He was a part of a heartless gang preying on defenceless people in the streets of Manchester. Barely escaping the noose, he was shipped to the colonies, arriving in Sydney in December 1828. Like James Joseph, with whom he became great mates, he took advantage of his opportunities, showing even more than James Joseph a talent for farming and managing his life. He married Elizabeth Harris, the older sister of Jane Harris. Something mysteries happened in this tight little group. Under the influence of a young Irish priest who visited the Rylstone area, north-west of Sydney, where the Harrises had their farm, Jane Harris became a Catholic just before she married James Joseph. Fr Dunphy baptized their first child, James Patrick. Six months later, Fr Dunphy drowned while attempting to cross the flooded Cudgegong River.

The conversion is mysterious because the Harris family were Baptist-style Protestants, James Joseph nominally Church of England, and Michael nominally Catholic. The Baptists in those days were less than favorable towards Catholics. Jane’s conversion would influence the Wilson and Jones families through to the 1960s. The two couples (great-great-grandparents) set up successful farming enterprises outside of Coonamble, 325 miles northwest of Sydney. Then tragedy shattered their lives. Jane died at twenty-four. There is no record of the cause of death, but one presumes she died in childbirth. It was a crushing blow for the former burglar, for whom everything until then had cooperated.

It took longer for tragedy to touch Michael and Elizabeth Jones’s family. After his successful farming venture in Coonamble, Michael moved his family down south to Muswellbrook, where he began to diversify his wealth. In January 1860, a debilitating brain disease dissipated all Michael’s vigor and enterprise. He died at forty-nine, leaving his much younger wife vulnerable to the flattery of a smooth-talking Irishman. Despite warnings from her sober-minded daughter, Mary Jane, Elizabeth married Luke Conroy. Conroy abused her and squandered her fortune.

James Patrick Wilson and Mary Jane Jones were first cousins. They had grown up together in the Coonamble area before James Patrick set out on his own farming venture and Mary Jane moved with her family to Muswellbrook. They married in 1866 and settled in the Muswellbrook district. In 1878, they packed up and moved to their newly acquired selection (land) in Tallawang, 17 miles north of Gulgong. Their children numbered five—Thomas 12, Lily 10, Michael 8, Percy 5, and Bert 3 years. Three more children followed at Tallawang, Jennie in 1878, Elizabeth in 1882, and Leo in 1884. Life was hard, but they were happy and fruitful. We know about this period because Percy wrote a memoir, Bits and Pieces, his efforts now a Wilson family treasure. Percy and his younger brother Bert (Bernard) were close mates, so Percy’s narrative, reminiscent of Steele Rudd’s popular On Our Selection, includes Bert. Bert was my grandfather. In Prison Hulk to Redemption, I included an edited version of Percy’s memoir to the time James Patrick and Mary Jane decided to sell the farm and live in Sydney. The decision came after a visit to one of Mary Jane’s sisters in 1901.

For a long time during my research, I thought the crippling drought and recession of the 1890s were the reasons James Patrick and Mary Jane were in Sydney by 1906. The only record I had was for 1906. It’s likely the drought and recession were important considerations together with James Patrick’s advancing age when they finally decided. But not solely. James was fifty-five in 1900, and the demanding life on the land would have taken its toll, as it did with Michael Jones. He and sensible Mary Jane had surely been talking about a time after the farm. But it was a visit to Sydney in 1901, recounted by Percy in his memoir, that gave the final impetus—and resolved once and for all why and when life in Tallawang ended. Percy writes:

‘Between Christmas Day and New Year’s Day of 1901, when the Commonwealth celebrations were held, Dad and I took a trip to the city to see the celebrations. We stayed with an aunt on the North Shore [of Sydney Harbour] but spent most of our time in the city. We would have our lunch in town. We found an eating-house in King Street. We had a plate of ham, bread and butter, and a pot of tea for the large sum of 4d [four pence]. What struck me most was the coal arch in Macquarie Street and the fine horsemanship of the Indians.’

Percy is talking about the celebrations to establish the Commonwealth of Australia, the legal agreement of the existing self-governing colonies to become a federation with a national government. The many decorations around the city and the Indians’ horsemanship were part of those celebrations. Percy could not help having a bit of fun with his father, as he had done throughout his memoir.

‘One day Dad was in the city by himself. When he got home to the aunt’s place, he was highly pleased with himself. He was sporting a gold ring he had got for five shillings. He said he was walking along the street when a well-dressed man made his acquaintance. They were walking together when the man made a grab at something on the ground. He picked it up and said as they were both together, he would share the find. He told Dad he could have the ring for 5/- [five shillings]. It was an old trick that was played on folk from the country. No doubt he could smell the gum leaves on Dad.’

However strong the lingering smell of gum leaves and however silly James Patrick must have felt at falling for an obvious con trick, he soon put it behind him. He had made a momentous decision. The Gulgong Advertiser announced early in 1901:

Auction sale. A.W. Wood has received instructions from Mr. JAMES WILSON of Tallawang to hold a clearing sale on his property on 7 February, as he is leaving the district.

Percy explains:

‘The outcome of our visit to the city through talks with several relations of the Mater [mother] was that we were living on the North Shore in the following March [1901]. Dad was told there was plenty of work for carriers in tile and brickworks, and as the Mater’s sisters were all living on the North Shore, she was only too pleased to come to the city. Dad sold out and took up residence on the North Shore of Sydney. [They] moved into a cottage near the [Northbridge] suspension bridge.’

Percy writes matter-of-factly about the move, but the decision to leave what he had described as a ‘paradise’ and a ‘land of milk and honey’ must have been a violent rupture for James Patrick and Mary Jane and the children who accompanied them—Bert, Leo and Elizabeth. Percy followed shortly after. It was true that Mary Jane was joining her much-loved sisters, Elizabeth Linton, Caroline Dorney, and Annie Jane Laffan. They had moved down to Sydney not long after marrying and had kept close contact with her. But she was also leaving behind brothers and other Jones and Harris relations who had been just as close. She could not stop herself from visiting them in the years following the move. Considering the signs and what followed, she saw no other alternative. It was worse for James Patrick. He was not joining close relations in Sydney, apart from his sister Mary Ann, and we don’t know how close he was to her, but he was leaving his brother, Charles, and all the Jones and Harris cousins and nephews who, by 1901, had swelled the populations of Tallawang, Coonamble, and Muswellbrook.

Cherished memories of Tallawang and his upbringing there never left Percy. Often his memories are full of nostalgia while he bemoans the changes creeping over Tallawang and Gulgong. Life had been hard and primitive compared to the comfort of later life, but it was carefree, idyllic, and of a child-like freshness. Visits to the district in later years were bound to disappoint:

‘About twenty-six years ago [in 1930], I visited the locality where I went to school. I was just in time to see the last of the school being carted away. It had been sold to a farmer. There was no further use for it. Most of the settlers had died, and the majority of my schoolmates had left the district. At the moment, I can count about ten living about the suburbs here near the city [on the North Shore]. A few that I know have died here. I often meet folk that I knew years ago in the back country. Only this week I met a man and his wife that have been living within a stone’s throw of my home. They were members of a family I knew as a boy. I have seen a great change in the country near my old home. I saw few birds. The paddocks were bare. The only green trees I saw were in the lanes that separated the holdings. What wasn’t cleared was nothing but dry trunk and branches—skeletons as far as I could see. After fifty-four years, one must expect changes. The changes I saw weren’t for the better.’

‘Here is a short article copied from the Sydney Morning Herald dated 21 September 1930, Gulgong: The continued drift to the city was deplored by Mr. A.L. Anderson at a public farewell to Mr. and Mrs. I.P. Gormly who were going to live in Lane Cove. ‘There is something very much amiss with our system,’ he said, ‘when we see old residents of country towns and young people, too, drifting to the city.’ In the early part of the year [1956], the wife, daughter, and a son and I took a run up to Gulgong. When we arrived there, I felt a stranger in a strange land. I never met man woman or child that I knew years ago …’

Percy could mourn the fading or disintegration that the passing of time brings to the objects of one’s childhood and youth. But he should not forget that James Joseph and Jane Wilson’s eldest son and Michael and Elizabeth Jones’s daughter had come a long way with their family since those dark lonely nights when James Joseph, fresh from the convict ship The Prince Regent, and as Robert Lowe’s hutkeeper, kept vigil over the flocks in the unfenced fields of an unimaginably immense land. The dirty teeming crime-ridden capital of England and the poverty of Manchester streets were far behind, far more so than the circumstances of a happy childhood, sadly disappearing into the nation’s forgetfulness. The open fields and happy, carefree days of Tallawang might have gone, but the manly virtue—the honesty, the fair-go, the decency, and their simple faith—remained. It was the heritage the Wilson brothers unconsciously carried.

Percy does not speak about Sydney with the opened-mouth wonder that one would expect from a country hick, exhaling the odour of gum leaves, which leaves me to think he and his brothers had been there on and off through the years. The house he and his father stayed at during the 1901 visit would undoubtedly have been Caroline and Stephen Dorney’s at 30 Bellevue Street, North Sydney, where the Jones sisters’ mother, Elizabeth Jones/Conroy, long separated from Luke Conroy, died in 1896. It would have been a casual walk from Bellevue Street to catch the ferry at Milsons Point across to the other side of the harbour where Percy and his father enjoyed their ham sandwiches and a pot of tea. With their adult children, James Patrick and Mary Jane moved to a cottage in Northbridge close by the Dorney household. Percy continues, providing valuable information about the times as well as the whereabouts of the family:

‘My parents moved into a cottage near the Suspension Bridge [Northbridge]. The bridge was closed at the time. An old lady by the name of Johnson had the keys of the gate leading onto the bridge. Anyone wanting to go on the bridge was charged 3d [threepence]. We learned a man named Armstrong lost a fortune when the company failed. You could walk across from the bridge to where the tram now goes to Crows Nest without seeing a cottage. Where Cammeray is now, there were only one or two cottages. At the time, there was no Crows Nest as we know it today. Over the bridge on the north side, there was nothing but scrub.’

‘At the time my parents moved to Sydney, I had a fairly large block of land about two miles from Peak Hill [about 40 miles south of Dubbo], and until I sold it, I made several trips to the city. Not long after my parents came to the city, and I was down for a spell from Peak Hill, I saw the fire that ruined Anthony Horden’s department store [10 July 1901]. I went over a few days later to have a look at the ruins …’

‘I sold my property at Peak Hill a little later and came to the city. I think the population then was about four hundred thousand. The shops kept open till ten o’clock at night. Gas lit up the streets. At night, a man would go around with a rod that had a small hook on the end. He would hook it to a small chain that was attached to the pilot light and pull. The principal entertainment at night was the theatre at the time when actor and entrepreneur Bland Holt was popular …’

‘After remaining on the shore for about 2 years, we bought a cottage in Nelson Street, Chatswood. Another brother [Tom], Bert, and I went into the building trade [ca 1903]. The first job I had was with a German. He had bought a block of land between Boundary Street, Roseville, and Chatswood. He intended building two cottages … We finished the two small cottages, and they still stand there today, and I often pass by them. They bring back memories of fifty years ago.’

‘Bert and I branched out on our own, and we built many cottages between Artarmon and Hornsby. Land was cheap, also bricks and timber.’

The cluster of adjacent suburbs that Percy writes about was the geographical backdrop of my childhood: Chatswood, Lane Cove, Roseville, and Artarmon. You can add Willoughby, which merges into Chatswood. They were on Sydney’s North Shore, that part of Sydney beginning directly across the harbour from Sydney Cove and running north. In 1903, when James Patrick and Mary Jane moved with their family to Nelson Street, close by the railway and Lane Cove Road, Chatswood was well-established. Abel and Mary Baldry, arriving with their family from London in 1857, were the first to settle there. Cutting timber gave them a living. They laid Chatswood’s main road, Victoria Avenue, which ran west from Lane Cove Road (later the Pacific Highway) over the railway east to Penshurst Street, Willoughby’s main thoroughfare.

In 1903, Chatswood was still semi-rural. Gas lamps, turned on at dusk and extinguished early morning, lit the streets, which were kept neat and clean. Shops catering to the full needs of settlers were along Victoria Avenue, most concentrated near the railway station. Dairies also operated. Cows were sometimes found wandering the streets at night. One old-timer relates how they had to kick the cows away from their front gates on returning home after a night out. The dairy farmers, trudging the streets daily, sold their milk from tanks mounted on a horse-drawn cart. The people brought their billy cans, pots, saucepans, and other containers to be filled from taps at the back of the tanks. Some cheeky boys succeeded now and then in opening the taps when the vendor was distracted. They got more than a boot up the backside if caught. Businesses delivered everything to one’s home—eggs, butter, bread, meat, soft drinks, ice, and so on. There was pocket money to be earned by enterprising youngsters willing to help.

Besides the railway line, which ran from Milsons Point on the harbour to Pearce’s Corner at Wahroonga, about 14 miles north, trams were available from Crows Nest to Chatswood station. Despite the advances in transport, Hansom Cabs continued to wait outside the railway stations for the ease of customers unwilling to walk the distance home. The development of the railways brought a sharp increase in the North Shore population. In 1891, there 3,411 people. By 1911, the number had swelled to 13,000, and between 1915 and 1916, it skyrocketed to 24,835. Most of the increase was in Chatswood. The Wilsons had chosen their place of work and abode well. The postman came twice a day, blowing his whistle to announce his deliveries. The mail was so efficient that a postcard or letter posted in the city during the morning would arrive at Chatswood in the afternoon. One businessman used the mail to tell his wife if he knew in the morning he would be home late.

The major business in Chatswood was Mashman’s pottery factory. The Mashman brothers, William and Henry, whose father had trained at the Royal Doulton factory, Lambeth (UK), opened their works in Victoria Avenue in 1892. Tanneries and brickworks were in Willoughby and Artarmon. A significant feature of the Chatswood-Willoughby area was the many Chinese gardens. They were beyond the bottom of Victoria Avenue and Penshurst Street, along Eastern Valley Way towards Middle Harbour. I remember my father talking about them. Some called the area China Town. Although the Chinese kept to themselves, preserving their traditions, they were quite approachable, especially for the children to whom they gave sweets during the Chinese New Year celebrations. As housing and other building increased, the Chinese gardeners left the district. By 1930, they were all gone.

The best day of the year for children was Empire Day on 24 May. One old-timer says they went to school, but there were no lessons. The school gave them ‘a corn beef sandwich, a rock cake or jam tart, warm red cordial, and a twist of lollies’ after which they processed to the nearby picture theatre where they suffered the boring speeches of ‘dignitaries’ and ‘sang patriotic songs.’ The biggest thrill, as it was for me as a kid, was the fireworks at night.


IN A STRANGE coincidence, James Joseph’s grandson Bert (my grandfather) would marry a girl from Petersham seventeen years after James Joseph died at 2 Merton Street, Petersham. Amy Gertrude Bugden was born in Grove Street, Petersham (now Marrickville) in 1887, within walking distance of Merton Street. When eighteen-year-old Amy married thirty-year-old Bert, she lived with her parents in Willoughby, on the other side of the harbour. Her father worked at one of the tanneries while Bert still lived with his parents in Chatswood. It is perhaps an even stranger coincidence that Amy Bugden descended from Thomas and Elizabeth Bugden (her grandparents), who came from Donhead St Mary in Wiltshire, a little hamlet just a few miles south of Semley where Jane and Elizabeth Harris were born.

I cannot conceive that the Bugdens were not acquainted with the Harrises before breaking their ancestral connection with those Wiltshire villages. While grazier Charles Marsden contracted the Harrises to come out to Australia, Catholics Thomas and Elizabeth Bugden were brought out on an assisted passage by William Macarthur, son of John Macarthur, and one of the finest sheep breeders in the Colony. Perhaps they responded to the same call for labour in the Colony that did the rounds of the poor farm laborers of Wiltshire and even discussed the venture they were contemplating.

Thomas was a labourer and Elizabeth a servant, both able to read and write, which is surprising. They disembarked in Sydney Cove a year after the Harrises in 1838 and went to William Macarthur’s property near Taralga, north of Goulburn, about 130 miles south-west of Sydney. They left the Macarthurs to strike out on their own as independent farmers, and by 1853 they were settled in Camden, a historic town near Campbelltown, south-west of Sydney and now just outside the metropolitan area. Thomas died in 1898 and Elizabeth in 1889, the same year as James Joseph. Among my father’s research papers, there was a letter from a great-grandson x 3 of Thomas and Elizabeth’s. In addition to the above information, he wrote the following:

‘Family stories I have heard say that Thomas was a very serious and religious man. He frowned upon dancing and music (Elizabeth loved dancing and music). During his life, he claimed to have seen the Blessed Virgin twice, once while working in the fields and the second time on his death bed.’

Albert Stephen Bugden, Thomas and Elizabeth’s second youngest son (of fourteen children) was Amy’s father. Her mother was Sarah Jane Burgess, daughter of Joseph Burgess and Anne Whitehill, my great-great-grandparents. Joseph Burgess was born in Essex in 1811. He was convicted for poaching and sentenced to seven years transportation. Anne Whitehill was born in 1821 in Belfast to William Whitehill and Julia Walsh, my great-grandparents x 3. William was convicted in County Louth for ‘cow stealing’ and sentenced to transportation for life. I had always thought, whatever my family background, most of my ancestors were Catholic. I was surprised enough to find James Joseph was Protestant, and then more than a little bemused to learn that on my grandmother Wilson’s side, it was only the Bugdens who were Catholic. The Essex Burgesses were Protestant. Even the Irish Whitehills were Protestant. So, it seems that the papist farm labourers and the converted Baptists from that little out-of-the-way corner of Wiltshire were mostly responsible for the potent strain of popery in our family.

Albert Bugden was born at Mount Hunter, near Camden. Mount Hunter is today a small settlement not far from Camden. Albert married Sarah Jane Burgess at Ashfield in 1886. They had only three children, Amy Gertrude, Arthur, and Lucy Maud. It is curious that Arthur, the second of the three children, was born at Goulburn in 1888 while his older and younger sisters were born at Petersham. The 1891 Census, however, has them living at Fairfield in western Sydney. By the early 1900s, they were living at Willoughby.

On 2 August 1905, Bert Wilson, having long given up roaming carefree in the Tallawang bush with Percy and their pack of ‘poodles’ (mongrel dogs), left the family home in Nelson Street, Chatswood, to marry Amy in nearby Our Lady of Dolours church. The marriage certificate says that Bernard Charles Wilson was thirty and a carpenter, while his bride is a mere eighteen years. Her parents had to give their permission for their teenage daughter, still living with them, to marry Bert. Bert’s father, James Patrick Wilson, is listed as a farmer. The transition from farming to a trade has taken place in the third generation of Wilsons. Percy James Wilson and Lucy Maud Bugden are the witnesses. Bert and Amy both sign their names in full, and in a neat, confident hand. I remark again that the Wilson and Jones family members, despite their humble rank in society, showed an admirable level of literacy.

Amy’s father, Albert, died at forty-five on 3 April 1906. It seems from the death certificate that Albert had a drinking problem. He died suddenly in the Royal North Shore Hospital from a gastrointestinal hemorrhage. He suffered from cirrhosis of the liver. Alcoholism probably played a role in his 1894 bankruptcy, which was officially due ‘to sickness and loss of business.’ It must have been a shock for eighteen-year-old Amy only eight months after marrying Bert. She could at least be happy that her father, of whose habits she was undoubtedly aware, had been at her wedding. The informant of the death is listed as Bernard Charles Wilson, ‘son-in-law’, now living with his young bride in Hampden Road, Artarmon. He is also listed as one of the two witnesses at the burial at Gore Hill Catholic cemetery.

Just four months later, Bert’s father passed away on 8 December 1906 at sixty-two years. According to his death certificate, he had been ailing for two years and died of ‘senile decay’. James Jr had not done nearly so well as his tough eighty-one-year-old father. He was buried from the Nelson Street home. Percy is listed as the informant, also resident at Nelson Street. The witnesses were the two close brothers, Percy and Bert. The year 1906 had been a bittersweet year for Bert and Amy Wilson. At the time of their father’s death, Percy, Elizabeth, and Leo were still in Nelson Street with their mother, Mary Jane. Not long after, they and their mother moved in with Bert and Amy. Elizabeth, known as ‘Dollie’, married Arthur Green in 1908 and moved with him to Arthur’s property north of Muswellbrook.

Among the six or seven family letters Leo kept is one from his mother in Tallawang in 1910. She was probably staying with her brother John Jones. Leo was in Dubbo. It’s the only time we hear her voice:


24.4.10 [Sunday]

Dear Leo,

I am sending a line with Charley as he is going to Dubbo. I thought to have gone on this morning but find it not practicable as there is a church dance tonight and most of the young people are going so I can’t get in. So I must wait for Friday. If Charley comes home tomorrow, give him a pound for me. But if he does not come home, post it to Sydney for me as I will be practically penniless. My money is a fortnight overdue in Sydney, and I may have a little bother over it. I only intended to stop 2 weeks when I came up, but man proposes, and God disposes. Poor [illegible] is very ill, no hopes of her being any better. If you give Charley that, be sure and ask him to give it to me on Thursday night as I will leave early on Friday. I have no time to add any more.

Love from


Only the year before, our independent-minded great-grandmother Mary Jane had been at Percy’s wedding to Jennie Campbell, an English girl in Australia on an assisted passage that required her to stay for two years. She acted as midwife for Percy and Jennie’s first child, Phyllis, born on 25 February 1910. Now, in April 1910, she was preparing to end her visit to family in Tallawang and return to Sydney. She was alone, an old age pensioner, and hard up, so hard up she had to appeal to her youngest son Leo for money. The letter has a tone of weary resignation. Most likely, she sensed what lay ahead.

We have one photo of James Patrick and Mary Jane together. They are with son Tom’s wife Edith and other family, women and girls, no longer identifiable. They appear to be daughters-in-law with their daughters. The photo was taken most likely after they had taken up residence in Nelson Street. They are on the patio of a brick house which suggests Sydney. In Tallawang, they lived in wooden houses that James had built. James is dressed smartly in a suit and a bowtie. He is thin and worn and standing behind Mary Jane, who is sitting in a cane easy chair. Mary Jane wears a severe expression, even unsympathetic. There is another photo of Mary Jane in which she looks similarly unsympathetic. She is alone in the same cane easy chair in the backyard of the same house. These photos were taken before Percy and Jennie’s wedding.

There is a third photo in which Mary Jane appears. It is a studio photo of Mary Jane, Percy, and Jennie with their newborn daughter, Phyllis. Mary Jane is now completely grey and beautifully groomed in a long dark white spotted dress. A scarf fixed with a pin is around her neck. On 3 October 1910, just six months after the Tallawang trouble, she died of ‘stomach cancer and exhaustion’. One can understand why her expression was severe. Her address is Albert Ave, Chatswood, down the street and around the corner from Nelson Street, where her husband had died four years earlier. She was only sixty-three. The informant was her son Michael Henry Wilson of Blackheath and the witnesses Arthur Green (daughter Elizabeth’s husband) and my grandfather, Bert. Leo is just twenty-five and the only one of the children to stay single. He has lost both parents. It was a sad, premature end to someone who was a strong get-up-and-go woman fully behind her husband’s farming ambitions, ambitions thwarted by events of nature they could not control.


JUST AS the Wilson and Jones family maintained close contacts on the land—mainly in the Gulgong-Tallawang district—so did the family members who moved down to the city. It appears that the Dorney sisters, living in a little cottage at 30 Bellevue Street, North Sydney (later Cammeray), became the rallying point. Stephen John and Caroline Theresa (nee Jones) Dorney bought the property and moved there with their seven children in 1891. It is significant that Elizabeth Jones (nee Harris and later marrying the ‘dreadful’ Conroy) chose her daughter Caroline’s home to go to from Muswellbrook to live out her last days. Stephen, the oldest child of Stephen and Caroline Dorney, and known as ‘Will’, married in 1902. The third child Bertha also married in 1902. Both lived in the area until their deaths. With their father Stephen passing away in 1900, that left Elizabeth (known as ‘Cissie’), Minnie (known as ‘Una’), Caroline (known as ‘Mary’), Sarah (known as ‘Ida’), and Leo (known as ‘Roger’) living with their mother, Caroline Dorney. The next to marry was Una (Minnie), but that was not until 1922. Roger (Leo) married in 1923. Cissie, Ida, and Mary never married. A household of talkative, sociable women lived in that little cottage.

Jean and Margaret Wilson (Percy and Jennie’s daughters and my father’s first cousins) told me of happy gatherings at Bellevue Street where many members of the extended Wilson/Jones family met, always in a joyous atmosphere. When I asked ninety-year-old cousin Jean to tell me more about the Dorney sisters and the atmosphere in their house, she said:

‘Cissy and Ida ran a ballet school, and Cissy played the piano. She played the piano very well. Ida did a lot of the dressmaking for the costuming and that sort of thing. They did all this in the little cottage they lived in, in North Sydney. It was then North Sydney, but later became Cammeray. They lived there all their lives until the government decided to put the [Warringah] freeway through to the bridge, and they had to move in 1962. They then went to live in East Roseville. Cissy, Mary and Ida lived there all their lives.’

‘For a while, we lived at Cammeray – two or three years. And we used to have musical evenings at one another’s homes. We were very fond of the Dorneys, very close to them. Cissy and Ida were still alive when they had to move to East Roseville. Mary had died in 1935. We were very close to the Dorneys in friendship as well as in [family] relationship.’

‘The Dorney sisters were lovely people. They were charming, that’s all you could say—kind, too. Ida reared a daughter of Sarah Smith, her cousin. Sarah died shortly after giving birth to the girl named Ida, who they later called Girlie. When Bertha’s husband died, the Dorneys looked after one of the boys. Leon, it was. They reared Leon. The place at Cammeray was not all that big, but all these people lived in it. All these people lived in this house. Girlie’s father, Will Smith, also lived there. They all lived in this house together. How they all fitted in, I don’t know.’

Jean also confirmed that my grandparents, Bert and Amy, were in frequent contact with the Dorney sisters. Fortunately, several postcards have survived as proof of the close contact. The earliest postcard is from September 1905. Postcards were a much used means of communication between people before telephones were cheap enough for everyone to have one. My grandmother Amy addresses the card to Una Dorney. Her brief message is: ‘I will be down on Monday to see you. From Amy. Hoping you are better.’ The card is sent just a month after Amy’s wedding. The familiar tone would suggest that Amy and the Dorney sisters were well acquainted by this time. There is another card with a similar message, but this time signed by Amy from Artarmon. Bert sent a card in 1907 to Ida for her birthday. The card reads: ‘Miss Ida Dorney. Many happy returns of the day. Bert. Many thanks for Post Card.’

I have no indication as to how long Bert knew Amy before they married. Because Amy was eighteen when they married, Bert probably got to know her by way of friends or family. Willoughby is next door to Cammeray. I cannot imagine that a man in his late twenties would have had free contact with a seventeen-year-old girl—certainly not in the Wilson family I was born into. Most likely, Bert and Amy got to know each other through their friendship with the Dorney sisters. The third postcard from Amy, stamped ‘13 March 1907’, addressed to ‘Miss Cissie Dorney, No.30 Belvue Street [sic], North Sydney’ reads:

‘Dear Cissie,

Would you do baby’s dress for me by Sunday, as I want to take her out—very particular? If you would post it to me, I will pay for the postage. And you can say what price it will be. Hoping you will do it for me. Write and let me know.

From Amy’

The baby Amy is talking about is Bert and Amy’s first child, Alberta Mary, born on 29 October 1906. It comes as a surprise that a short, ordinary message like this reveals so much more about my grandmother than I knew of her while she lived. She was nineteen, hardly more than a girl, when she wrote this card. My grandmother, who died in 1964, always looked an old woman to me and my brothers and sisters. It takes an effort to picture the person writing this family message as a nineteen-year-old with a six-month-old baby.

Another everyday item has survived to show that the relations between the extended family were close. Jean and Margaret Wilson had some miscellaneous papers of the Dorney sisters given to them after the Dorney sisters had passed away. Chris Holden (nee Wilson), Percy’s granddaughter, found a little book among them to record the birthdays of family and friends. It is a bit worn now, but it would have been a handsome book in its time with its burgundy cover and gold embossed title, Grains of Gold. The page ends are also gilded. As the book evidently belonged to my grandfather Bert, Chris handed it on to me.

The book contains only names, many in Bert’s handwriting, which adds proof to its ownership. There are around forty names written neatly beside their birth date and an uplifting quotation from all manner of famous people. The worth now is that it provides valuable corroboration of how close the extended family was. Most of the names are related to the original Wilson, Harris, and Jones ancestors. There are Wilsons, Joneses, Dorneys, Davises, Keeches, and Gouldings, the latter three connected to Thomas and Patience Harris. It is sad, even tragic, that these connections had faded and dissolved by my generation.

Among the letters that Chris’s aunts Jean and Margaret gave to her were four, giving an affecting picture of the Jones-Harris family’s joys and trials. The Dorney sisters’ brother Will and his wife Kit were on a trip to the Rylestone-Tallawang district to visit family. They had their four-year-old son Joe with them. Will was not at all well. Indeed, he was gravely ill. Chris learned from one of the Dorney descendants that Will and Kit had nowhere to live, and they were travelling from family to family looking for accommodation. That might explain the rebuttals they spoke about.

The first letter was written by Will from Ginghi, north of Rylestone, to his sister Mary at Cammeray. Mary was looking after their other children, Alma, Noel, and Leon. Will did not say whose place they are staying at, but it was most likely the property of John Davis and Eliza Harris, sister to Jane and Elizabeth Harris, my great-great-grandmothers. He wrote about a trip to John and Emily Walker’s property not far away. Emily was the daughter of John and Eliza Davis. The Mary, who is taking them to Emily’s, is surely Mary Davis, another daughter.

‘Ginghi, 21.4.1912.

Dear Mary,

‘Your letter to hand. We just happened to be going down to Emily Davis’s place as the mail arrived at Ginghi, so we had not time to write before. Of all the wild places in creation, that is one of them. The Gulf [a narrow pass in the hills] is a fool to it for wildness and narrowness of track. It is so narrow that it is not possible for two traps to pass one another. Mary drove us to Emily’s place, but when we got to this gap, we had to get out of the trap and lead the horse down, but when we came back, I had to drive up. I could not walk the distance. My feet have been playing up with me this last week, and I have not had much peace. I do not know how much longer they will be bad. My chest keeps pretty fair, but I have my ups and downs with it. I cannot do a long drive without feeling deadbeat afterward. It takes me a couple of days to get over it.’

‘Em Davis (or Mrs. Walker, I should say) said to tell the Mater [Caroline Dorney] to come up and have a stay with her. She is the picture of old Aunt Mary Harris and makes you very welcome. We had all kinds of luxuries down there. A big fat turkey killed for dinner, but I don’t care for poultry. Em wanted to give us a turkey to send to you, but there was no chance of sending it. Too far from the railway. The country is in a very bad state for the want of rain, as dry as a chip. It looks like as if it will never rain again. All the stock is off the place, and they have given up milking for cream now. In fact, everyone has had to give up and turn their cows out. Joe is getting as fat as a pig. Kit and I weigh 9 stone [57 kilos]. Kit weighed Joe the other day, he went close on to 4 stone. I cannot keep a hat on Joe’s head. He is always out without one.’

‘I have not had any word from the Keech’s yet—looks like as if they don’t want us. [William Keech married Martha Harris sister of Jane and Elizabeth Harris.] I suppose old Johnnie [Jones] won’t want us either if Lizzie’s kids are sick and at his place. I wish you would send me a bottle of ‘phosphorus Pilules’ by post. It will cost a penny stamp to send them. I could do with Belladonna, too, but send the Phosphorus. I am glad to know that things have turned out well for you down there and that the kids are doing so well. Whatever you do for my kids will be returned to you a hundredfold. This is all for the present.’

Your Affectionate Brother W. Dorney’

Kit, Will’s wife, follows with a letter to Mary at Cammeray:

‘My Dear Mary,

I suppose you would be disappointed not hearing from us on Friday. Will told you about our drive to Emm’s, so it’s no use me going over it again, but he did not tell you Jack Walker killed a suckling pig for us to bring back. So we had it for dinner today, it was very nice. Joe would not look at it, and he wouldn’t eat any turkey, and he don’t like the bread here. He pretty well lives on cakes and milk. Mary, did Ali tell you how she got the boarders? They never told us how they came. And, Mary, I think you will find out that man that Lurline [probably daughter Alma] calls Uncle Tom is Tom Maloney, the baker. I suppose Nana has made Lurline pretty quiet. I was pleased to hear Alma got off to school alright I suppose she was a bit backward being away so long. And baby has no teeth yet. He is slow. Well, Mary, I am glad you are being good luck up [sic] to some of the family to have good luck. I don’t know when our luck will change. I get the blues and wonder when it will all end. Sunday is a bad day for letter writing—too gloomy. I will wind up with love to all and kisses for Alma, Noel, and Leon. Poor old Noel, I can always picture his soft eyes.


The next letter is from Will to his sister Mary, a month later. He wrote from his Uncle John Jones’s house in Tallawang. John Jones was his mother’s brother. Will vividly describes the horrors of their trip from Ginghi, north of Rylestone, to Uncle Johnny’s at Tallawang. The letter suggests further that ‘Old Uncle Davis’ was John Davis at whose place (Ginghi) they were staying.

‘Tallawang via Mudgee,


Dear Mary,

‘I am at Tallawang after one of the cruellest—most cruel—journey. I am dead from it. We left Ginghi on Friday morning at about six o’clock, driving through a most bitter frosty wind, my hands being quite devoid of feeling, and I think the chill struck me.’

‘I drove up the Gulf, Kit, and Belle [Isabelle Davis] walking. Kit saw the hands in the Rock. Old Uncle Davis looked quite miserable because Joe was leaving. He said Joe was the only bit of life and amusement there. Well, we arrived in Rylstone and went to Aunt Dinah’s [Dinah Harris married to Charles Davis], and we were not welcome there. Lil Davis [Dinah’s daughter] was there with her kids and was going to be laid up. Martha Moggs [related through the Keeches to the Harrises] was there, but she went to Ginghi with Belle. My hands are shaking, so if this is a scratch, you will know what is the matter.’

‘Well, Evelyn [Davis] told me there was no room, so I said we would wait on the station. I did not have the money to take on a pub. They told me that a train went this way to Dunedoo about five o’clock that evening. Well, we went to the station. Aunt Dinah came and carried a few parcels. She waited till the train came, then left. I got our tickets thinking it was a through train. But when we got to Mudgee, I found out our mistake. We are bundled out of the train and told that there was no train till Monday. Well, this was Friday night, and me with only a few shillings in my pocket. How were we to exist till Monday?’

‘I wanted to send a telegram asking you to telegraph me some money at once, but Kit would not hear of it, as she said the Mater would reckon that I was sick and put off the train at Mudgee and want to come after me. Well, I made inquiries and could not get much satisfaction. The station-master told me that there might be a goods train going in the morning, but he did not know for certain. He told me to be on the station at five-thirty in the morning, and if a train came through, we would be able to go by it.’

‘Kit said she was not going to sit all night on the station, and besides, poor old Joe was nearly dead with sleep. We picked up our traps and started to look for a pub. We found one not far from the station. I asked the publican if he could give us a room for the night. He said he was full up, but he would see if he could not get us put up somewhere else. So off he goes and was away about ten minutes. Then he came back and told us that a new boarding house had just opened down the street and would give us a room. So he sent this little girl with us, and she took us to a lovely place and so nice and clean.’

‘They called us at five o’clock in the morning and gave us a cup of tea, toast, and eggs. But Joe would not eat anything. We went to bed hungry the night before. Anyhow the tucker was acceptable. They only charged me two shillings. Off to the station, we went before sunrise, and I made inquiries off the night officer if he had a goods train going to Tallawang. He said one was going to the iron mines, and if the guard would take us, we could go. I saw the guard, tipped him, and asked if he would take us. He said yes, and he was a very decent fellow. He put us in the brake van, and there we were behind a train that looked nearly a mile long. We had to wait in Gulgong for nearly two hours for the Sydney mail as we had to take their engine. We were starved by this time, and I felt nearly dead. I was licking brandy all the way. Poor old Joe never asked for a bite of food. He is a grand kid. He was too much taken up by the train. Well, we started again and were eventually dropped off at Hoskins siding. That is the iron mine.’

‘We were nearly two miles from Tallawang siding, and the guard told us he could not take us any further. He told us to walk along the line to Tallawang. We started with our bundles … not the trunk that will come along later … I just felt about dead. The line was perfectly flat here, so we went. We walked a part of the way and met a fettler. He had a double railway bicycle with him, so he said he would take us to Tallawang. He put me in front on the seat and Kit and Joe behind him, and our bundles on another part of the machine. Of course, Joe was delighted at the idea of having such a novel ride. So away we went working the machine for all she was worth.’

‘We reached Tallawang Road and pulled up. Kit and Joe got off. I went to the siding left our parcels there and rode back to the road. Of course, there was no one there to meet us as no one expected a train. They thought I had made a mistake and would come on Monday’s train as the trains only run three times a week. I offered the fettler some money, and he would not take it. He said, “Can’t I do you a good turn without you wanting to pay me for it?” He said, “You go down the road for two miles, and you will see the pub.” He said, “The publican will drive you to where you want to go.” So we went.’

‘I did about a mile of walking and had a good many sit-downs. I was pumped out. What with starvation, want of sleep and rest … Kit and I could not sleep in Mudgee. When Joe woke up in the morning, he said, ‘I had a good sleep, Mum.’ I was pegged out. Kit was going to walk to the pub and let them come for me. Well, anyhow, we saw some dust in the distance and a man and a boy in a trap driving the way we wanted to go. So, I said to Kit I would give this chap five shillings to drive us to Uncle Johnny’s. So, I stopped him and was talking to him. I thought I had seen the chap’s face before … he was a rabbiter, so I thought … I looked at him and then I knew him. I said to Kit he is the very man we want. I asked if he was not Mick Jones, and he denied it and said he did not know the Joneses. He had me by the leg. Then he laughed and shook hands with me and told us to get up into the trap.’

‘It was Mick … He had been to the siding with a load of rabbits and was coming home again. Then my troubles were over. We drove to the pub and had a drink, and he got Joe some biscuits. Of course, Joe was happy. That was the first food he had since dinner time the day before. No one expected us here, and it was a surprise for them when Mick drove up with us … we were not wanted elsewhere. They are trying to kill us with kindness here. Clorrie Dixon is here, too, ready to give someone a job in the not distant future. She is very kind to me and looks after me well. And the girls, too, want to know if they cannot be always feeding me. Well, I was bad when I came here, and the girls were frightened, but I told them I would be all right in a few days. I am sleeping out on the veranda here, and I am very comfortable. My hand was that shaky that I could not write today but am all right now. I nearly went off my onion in Mudgee.’

‘Writing now about the mischief … I was going to live for three days on ten shillings. Everyone was too far away from me, and I could not get any assistance. Well, all is well that ends well. Kit swears that she will never travel on this line anymore after all she went through. The welcome we got here has made her think better of it. I cannot promise you with any regularity here. We have to go for the mail, and it only comes three times a week. There is tons more stuff I could tell you, but it will have to keep. I think I have done very well. Uncle Johnny is waiting for me to finish this letter so he can jam with me. But I am too short in the wind yet for talk.’

‘Good Bye, and with love to all the kids,

Yours, etc. W. Dorney.’

Kit writes at the same time, explaining the desperate circumstances they had endured, Will’s state of health, and the relief to be among their own.

‘Tallawang via Mudgee 19.5.1912

‘Dear Mary,

‘Well, here we are in the good old Catholic home once more. It’s a much poorer and not so comfortable home as Davis. But, Mary, there’s the richness and warmth of the good old Catholic home. Nothing like it. I hardly can keep from tears with the kindness to poor Will. The girls gave Will his tea inside tonight so uncle would not be able to talk to him. He was just gasping last night. They are so thoughtful. I can assure you, Mary, I had a trying trip over here. It took me all my time to keep bright for Will’s sake. It will take him a few weeks to get over it. I said to Will that I guessed, all right, Uncle Johnny has been sick, too, but is all right now and seems quite anxious to have a yarn with Will about Lourdes Water.’

‘Mary, I wish you could get me a nice picture of Our Lady of Lourdes and have it blessed at the mission. They are going to get the priest to come to Will, so that will be nice. They are very short of water here, and we are longing for a nice drink. Mary, there’s no doubt … but Joe is a good child for travelling not a word out of him all through. Well, Mary, I will say Goodbye, and God Bless you all.

‘From your loving sister Kit.

‘How is Alma and Noel, and Leon? Ciss was telling me you had him sitting up on the floor. Oh, Mary, she is a picture of you. I can assure you it’s quite a treat to see refined faces once more. I can’t help looking at the girls here. I even saw nice faces in my sleep last night.


Mick Jones is most likely John Jones’s (Uncle Johnny) son, and the girls are his younger sisters. These four moving letters are rich in information about the extended family, their circumstances and way of life. Not only do we have confirmation of the enduring relationship between the original Harris, Wilson, and Jones families, we also have a close-up of the family spirit. There is by now a familiar, ethical outlook harmonizing with religious belief.

Poor Will Dorney was slowly dying. But no matter how much pain his dying body gave him, he maintained a humble acceptance of his fate, always conscious of the burden he was to his wife and child. There was no anger or resentment when the family rejected him and Kit. One can feel the tender care of the Jones girls (Catherine, 21, and Christine, 18) bringing a tear to his eye. Will died two months later, on 11 July 1912. It was no wonder his wife Kit talked about calling a priest. She saw the need for the last sacraments. The death certificate says he died of tuberculosis and asthenia (a lack of strength and energy) and that he was a compositor. With the number of newspapers and printers in Sydney—the printed word being the primary mode of public communication—a compositor in good health must have had ample opportunities to work. Will was too sick to work. His last employer had sacked him.

There is no definite indication in these letters about why Will and Kit were on this long, almost nomadic trip with their four-year-old son Joe, leaving their other children behind with Will’s mother, Caroline Dorney. Perhaps it was an attempt to restore Will’s health through rest and exposure to healthy country air. But if it is true Will and Kit were driven from the Bellevue Street home through lack of room and forced to seek shelter with family, some reluctant to take them in, then one can hardly conceive of anything more helplessly tragic, especially when Will was dying. No wonder Kit spoke so glowingly of the warm welcome and ‘refined faces’ at Uncle Johnnie Jones’s at Tallawang.



The McGroders and Steeles

NONE OF MY colonial ancestors had such a spectacular rise in social status as John McGroder, son of convicts Bryan McGroder and Elizabeth Ford. Bryan McGroder was shipped from County Monaghan, Ireland, for stealing a ‘heifer.’ He was barely literate, but in all else he undertook on having a second and third chance in Australia, he much improved—enough to conduct a successful farming business. I say second and third chance because he was convicted for a second time at Parramatta for stealing baby clothes, just at the point when everything seemed to be going swimmingly for him. I make the case in Prison Hulk to Redemption that enterprising Bryan took the rap for the misdeeds of his sticky-fingered wife, Elizabeth Ford, who was pregnant or at least yearning for a baby.

Elizabeth Ford and her sister Hannah were transported for sneaking into the kitchen of a London house while the cook wasn’t looking and trying to scurry away with some silver cutlery. Elizabeth and her sister were children of travelling peddlers who left their daughters to themselves. And being left to themselves, the girls embarked on a career of thievery. The Old Bailey judge thought they were given enough chances and sentenced 16-year-old Hannah and 19-year-old Elizabeth to death. But they were lucky. The Colony in New South Wales needed fertile young women. In her early days in the Colony, Elizabeth could not shake off her habits and suffered penalties for drunkenness and neglect of duty. The penalty for such misdemeanors was a stay in the less than salubrious comfort of the Female Factory at Parramatta. Even her favorable marriage to upwardly mobile Bryan McGroder did not deter her. She settled down when Bryan returned from his three-year stint at the penal colony of Port Macquarie. She never learned to read or write.

Bryan and Elizabeth had seven children, five of whom led unremarkable lives. Kate, the second youngest, stepped up several social grades by engaging the interest of John Francis Wynne, a successful businessman, farmer, and racehorse owner. He was closely connected with Molong’s administration, serving a term as mayor. Photos of Kate McGroder show her as a handsome, elegant woman. John Wynne’s photo suggests her acceptance of his proposal could not have been for his good looks. But John McGroder, the youngest of the children, outdid his older sister. He married bright, capable Ellen Burgess, daughter of Scottish John Burgess, who came to Australia with his free settler parents in 1838. The Burgesses were literate people with strict ideas about behavior that were an influence down the family line. In the 1928 celebrations, ‘Back to Molong’, the organizers paid this marvelous tribute to John McGroder in their official souvenir booklet. It is a worthy summary of the great-great-grandfather I wrote about in Prison Hulk to Redemption:

THE LATE JOHN MCGRODER—A stalwart in the early days of Molong was Mr. John McGroder. Public spirited in every way, he was at the foundation of all movements for the betterment of Molong and district. Born at Kite’s Swamp, Molong, now known as ‘Erambie,’ in the year 1844, in his younger days, he followed the avocation of shearer, and was a champion with the blades, his record tally at the Gamboola Shed, now owned by Mr. W. Glasson, standing unbeaten for many years. Later he was engaged in carrying between Rydal and Bourke on the old Western Road. Subsequently, he opened a butchering business and large produce store in Bank Street, on that site now occupied by Messrs. Ross and Blackadder. Disposing of the butchering business, he afterward opened the Court House Hotel at the corner of Riddell and Gidley Streets. After conducting this for many years, he devoted all his time to farming and grazing pursuits, now known here and elsewhere as Foy’s Stud Farm, West Molong.

He was mayor of Molong on seven occasions, and an alderman for 33 years. During one term of his Mayoralty, the Town Hall was erected, a tablet commemorating this occasion being placed on the hall with his name inscribed thereon. Amongst others, he filled the position of president of the Molong Cottage Hospital, the president of the Molong P. & A. Association, and president of the Molong Jockey Club. Big in stature (he was 6ft, 2in.), and big in ideas, he passed away, remembered for his patriotic and progressive actions to further the town, where he was born, where he lived, and where he died.

When Ellen McGroder (Granny McGroder to her grandchildren) passed away in Molong, fourteen years later, the Molong Argus (April 1934) was just as fulsome. In part, they said:

Another of our old and most highly respected residents, one who could with justice claim to be one of the most energetic pioneers of our town and district, has gone to the bourne whence no traveler returns… Like her husband, she took a keen interest in the affairs of the town and the district [taking] an active part in the establishment of Molong College Hospital, and it was she who, as Mayoress of Molong, prepared the banquet at which the late Sir Henry Parkes was entertained when he laid the foundation stone of the hospital. For many years, she conducted a maternity hospital here… and it was her proud boast that during her twenty years’ practice, she did not lose one case.

One of nature’s gentlewomen, the late Mrs. McGroder was loved by all who knew her. Hospitable almost to a fault, [she was] ever ready to assist those in trouble or distress… By her passing, Molong has lost one of its noblest and most lovable women…

The Dubbo Western Age added (4 May 1934):

[She] was actively associated with the earlier life of Molong in its public and social phases… Her husband was Mayor of Molong on seven occasions, and in his wife, he had an encouraging and sympathetic Mayoress in all matters pertaining to the welfare of the town.

It is not, however, in this regard that Mrs. McGroder is best remembered, but it was for her motherly care and devotion to the sick. In times of sickness, she was the first to help in every practical way, and for her kindness and womanly touch, her name is enshrined in the memories of earlier residents of Molong and district… There was no place like Molong as far as Mrs. McGroder was concerned, and she preferred to live in the town she loved so well.

It was a great shame Bryan and Elizabeth McGroder did not live long enough to have a glimpse of what their youngest son would achieve. Equally, John McGroder had every reason to be grateful to his parents. Not only had they given him a material start in life, unimaginable in the countries of their birth, they had also imbued him with habits of mind that saw him rise to the first rank of country society, no doubt under the influence of his well-bred wife.

John and Ellen McGroder had fourteen children, the second youngest of whom was Ellen Maria McGroder, my grandmother. The upbringing of the McGroder children glows in a collection of photos that have survived the Molong period. It was not an ordinary photo album. Cushioned embossed leather covers secured with an ornate brass clasp contained thick cardboard display pages, all lushly decorated in floral illustrations and pastel patterns. The cardboard pages had different shapes cut out of them, and into these spaces were slotted studio shots. By the time I saw the album, it was quite worn, giving only a hint of its former ornate state. The untitled studio photographs were in keeping with the class of the album.

Why an album containing photos of the Molong McGroders and Burgesses came to Maria Ellen McGroder is not evident. The album is surely the work of Ellen’s mother. You would think others among the McGroder and Burgess children had a prior claim. I also found it curious that my grandmother had given it to her daughter, my mother. This is the same Ellen Maria McGroder who regularly succumbed to past-destroying flurries in later life, during which she callously tossed precious family memories into the nearest wastepaper basket. My mother had no idea why her mother had this precious heirloom with photos stretching back to the 1870s and why she kept it unaltered and uncensored. We will never know now.

Most of the photos were taken in studios in Orange, others in Sydney. I have pored long over these photos of fashionable women in their expensive finery, most of whom are handsome young women, including my grandmother, and of equally smart, handsome, masculine men. The photos show people of the first rank of country society, a society that put a high value on manners, decorum, elegance, and self-respect. There is a studio photo of Nellie (as young Ellen Maria was called) at around nine years, and another of her with her younger sister Heather, taken at the same time. They are pretty girls dressed in white and enjoying the admiration and loving attention of their older sisters and brothers. That Nellie was accustomed to being treated like a princess—and expected it—would become apparent over the years. A young beau she would come across fifteen years later in Temora would reinforce that expectation.

Another studio photo shows Nell, as she came to be called, in a long white dress, at around twenty years. It was taken at Orange, a major country town south of Molong. We see a handsome young woman of breeding, though with an uncertain look in her eyes. Her attractiveness and the shy glance of fragility won the heart of Clarence Joseph Steele when he met her for the first time at a mutual friend’s place in Temora, about 190 miles south of Molong. We see in a studio photo that Clarence was not a bad-looking bloke and as decorous as Granny McGroder could expect of a young man courting one of her attractive daughters. In fact, Clarence turned out to be rather proper and strict about behavior, especially that of children. I know from experience.

Clarence Joseph Steele, my mother’s father, was from a line that went back to free settler Frederick Meredith, who arrived on the First Fleet in 1788, and convict Sarah Mason who arrived in 1793 on the Bellona. I begin this section, however, with Ann Meredith, Frederick Meredith’s granddaughter and Frederick Jr’s daughter. Like his father, Frederick Jr had reached the respected position of Liverpool’s Chief Constable. Ann, as the saying goes, had great expectations. The Chief Constable’s daughter could have been picky among the Colony’s youth. But at sixteen, she chose 29-year-old John Gibbins. John Gibbins was Clarence Joseph’s grandfather. I imagine Clarrie, as family and friends called him, would rather not have known the full story of his vanished grandfather when he had reached the age of reason.

In a scenario from Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist, sixteen-year-old ‘butcher boy,’ John Gibbins, was nabbed in Chiswell Street central London, winding in true Artful Dodger-style a handkerchief from a gentleman’s pocket. For the trouble of stealing a handkerchief to the value of two shillings and sixpence, little butcher boy Johnny Gibbins (he was 5 feet and half an inch) found himself on a ship heading to Sydney for a stay of fourteen years. He was assigned to property holders in the Liverpool area where his conduct was unimpeachable, at least in the records. The occasion arose for him to put the question to the Chief Constable’s daughter. She blushingly accepted. It’s a tribute to the former pickpocket and butcher boy that the Chief Constable gave his permission. John and Ann married in 1840. From that point, John embarked on a career of wheeling and dealing, buying and selling property, and opening businesses, most of which were successful.

Among his acquisitions were properties in the town of Yass in southern New South Wales. He is on the record as ‘Yass-Butcher’ and owning the Commercial Hotel. By 1848, he and Ann had three children, the second of whom was Sarah Ann, to be Clarrie’s grandmother. In 1850, John shot through to Sydney with Ann’s cousin Sarah Burrows, leaving 27-year-old Ann and her three children (John 9, Sarah Ann 7, and Mary Jane 4 years) to fend for themselves. I’ll leave John Gibbins here, only noting that he continued his wheeling and dealing, ending up with an estate of over three thousand pounds. A lengthy account of this most intriguing ancestor is in Prison Hulk to Redemption.

In 1863, Ann Gibbins left her three children in Yass to marry Edwin William Roberts. She passed herself off as a widow. They settled in the Wagga Wagga area. In 1861, Sarah Ann Gibbins moved alone to Galong, around 30 miles west of Yass, which suggests her mother Ann had long left Yass. She proceeded to have four children out of wedlock: Laurance (later Lawrence) in 1862, Sidney Alexander in 1865, Mary Jane in 1867, and Annie in 1871. In January 1873, Sarah Ann married Protestant William Steele from County Donegal in Ireland. Information about William remains elusive, but we know he was in Galong by 1864 working as a ‘carpenter and glass cutter’ on wealthy squatter Ned Ryan’s ‘Galong Castle.’ For a long time, I was left to speculate about the children’s paternity. One can’t dispute that Lawrence Treacy, a son of Irish free settlers in nearby Binalong, was Lawrence’s father. Newspaper reports of Lawrence’s tragic death on the railway in 1897 referred to him as Lawrence Treacy son of Sarah Ann Steele. That left the other three.

Lawrence Treacy ditched Sarah Ann and married Johanna O’Brien in 1863. Did he continue to have a relationship with Sarah Ann—could not help coming back to the willing Sarah? I figured William Steele, a sober, responsible Irish Protestant, would do the right thing and marry Sarah Ann instead of leading her on for his pleasure. My decision came down on the side of Lawrence Treacy enjoying himself with Sarah Ann, but I admitted only a DNA test would solve the question. That seemed unlikely. The unlikely happened. I did a DNA test, and in 2017 I received notice of a match with Vicki Paul (nee Steele). She was the granddaughter of William Steele, son of William and Sarah Ann Steele, and brother of Sidney Alexander Steele, Clarrie’s father, and my great-grandfather. I wonder why William waited until 1973 to marry Sarah Ann. Was it because Sarah Ann was flirting with Catholicism under the influence of the super-papists in fortified Galong Castle, a flirtation unacceptable to the stolid Protestant of Northern Ireland? Perhaps. Their marriage did not dull Sarah Ann and William’s appetite for children. Another five children followed, the last being Ada, who turned out to be my mother’s favorite (grand) aunt.


THE FIRST child of William Steele and Sarah Ann, Sidney Alexander, was like his father—solid, upright, well-organized and reliable. The first record I have of him is his marriage certificate. Sidney of Henty married Henrietta Doubleday of Howlong in Culcairn on 7 July 1891 in a ceremony conducted by Presbyterian minister Scott Whittier. Henty was around ten miles from Culcairn on the Victoria/New South Wales border where the ceremony took place. Henrietta was eighteen and thus needed the consent of her parents. John Carr of Culcairn, Henrietta’s guardian, gave his consent. A guardian in place of a parent might point to the resolution Henrietta’s background.

I, nor my mother before, could discover where Henrietta’s parents, James and Jane (nee Henry) Doubleday, came from or where they went. We can be confident, though not sure, that James was the son of Bligh Doubleday, a convict transported in 1829 and settled in the Albury area. My mother thought (heard somewhere) that James Doubleday was related to the Doubledays of the American publishers. It is possible James and Jane Doubleday left for America to join the family there, leaving their daughter behind to marry Sidney Steele. I discovered a couple, James and Jane Doubleday, resident in England around the same time whose details suggested they could have Henrietta Doubleday’s parents. But all this is speculation.

The marriage certificate records Sidney’s occupation as a railway fettler, one who manages and repairs railway tracks and equipment. Sidney was destined for a rising career path in the New South Wales Railways, leading to the revered position of Railways Inspector. A year later, in Henty, Hettie, as she was called, gave birth to Percy Sidney on 15 April 1892. Two years later, in Galong, she gave birth to Clarence Joseph on 5 August 1894. For some reason, Sidney, though still with NSW Railways, gave his occupation as ‘grazier’ on Clarrie’s birth certificate. He was back in the town of his birth, where his extended family lived. Perhaps he was running a flock on the side and thought grazier sounded more imposing than railways fettler. There was an enduring strain of snobbery in the Steele and McGroder lines. Nineteen years later, in 1913, we find Sidney and Hettie resident in Vesper Street, Temora, about 90 miles north-east of Henty. We can assume Sidney had long left the tracks to fill one or other clerical position with NSW Railways leading eventually to Inspector. It is likely during those years that Sidney’s family had been elsewhere, as the routine of the NSW Railways was to move their employees around the state. Clarrie’s known activities around this time give perhaps a hint.

Clarrie, according to my mother, attended school until fifteen (1909). But this cannot be right. In 1911, we find that Clarrie had been working in the grocery trade in Goulburn for three years, putting his starting year as 1908 when he was fourteen. He received references praising his eagerness, his quickness to learn, and his ‘thoroughly honest and straightforward’ character. The first was from the manager of The Goulburn Co-operative Society Ltd.

Goulburn, 2 May 1911

This is to certify that the bearer Clarence Steele has been in our employ for about three years. Clarence has a good knowledge of the grocery trade and provisions, quick at getting up orders and serving customers, thoroughly honest and straightforward. I have much pleasure in recommending him to any grocer, either city or country. And wishing him every success,

Manager (signature illegible)

Clarrie had resigned his position at the Cooperative to go with his parents to Temora, where he worked at Fullarton Bros, Bakers and General Merchants. His job there was ‘assistant grocer,’ which appears to have been a step up. Unfortunately, though ‘giving every satisfaction’ he was retrenched in November that same year ‘owing to business alterations.’ Clarrie stepped immediately from Fullarton Bros to Stockman & Kleinig, Hay & Chaff Merchants, Temora. He received a glowing reference when he resigned four months later:


The bearer, Clarence Steele, has been in our employ as carter for the last four months, and we have pleasure in stating that during that time, he gave us every satisfaction. We found him truthful, obliging, and honest. We wish him every success.

It seems Clarrie was looking for as much support as he could find. He requested and received a reference from Wally Kelly, proprietor of The Arcadia Stationery Hall, Temora, on 7 March 1912:

The bearer had been well and favorably known to me for a number of years, and anyone requiring a good man I feel I cannot too highly recommend him. I am confident that he will fill any position offered with credit to himself and to the satisfaction of his employers.

Finally, Rev. Bryant, the Rector of The School, St Paul’s Rectory, Temora, contributed on 9 March 1912:

I have pleasure in stating that I know Clarence Joseph Steele and his parents, who are members of my church. I believe him to be a straightforward, honest, upright, respectable young man worthy of confidence.

Not long after, he joined the New South Wales Railways in a clerical position, which, we can assume, was his aim, given the position of his father (and later his older brother). We have a delightful photo of Clarrie with a group of fettlers and railway staff standing next to a steam engine. Clarrie in his dusty hat, shirt and tie, trousers, vest and coat, and with a watch chain hanging from a pocket, looks a callow youth among these hardened railway workers. At hardly more than seventeen, holding a sheet of paper and lounging against the coal wagon, he already appears to be filling a clerical position. A studio photo of him is in the McGroder album, perhaps a year or two older, dressed very smartly in a three-piece suit with a half-length jacket. He cuts a handsome figure, a figure that was to capture the heart of gorgeous Ellen Maria McGroder when they met at a mutual friend’s place, provoking a white-hot correspondence, some in the form of birthday and Christmas cards.

Three cards have miraculously survived. One is a Christmas card from Nell, inside of which is ‘Hearty Greeting and all Good Wishes for a Happy Christmas. Nell’. On the facing page is a rhyme, the last verse of which reads,

Though I sent my card today

Its words can never tell

The wishes of this throbbing heart

That loves you, dear, so well.

On the front in full color on plastic material in relief is a floral tribute and a banjo over which is FORGET ME NOT. Another is a postcard from Clarrie, on the front of which are two white pigeons with movable wings, kissing, in full colour on the same plastic material. Clarrie wrote, ‘Wishing you a happy new year, Clarrie.’ The third is from Nell. It is a full-colour card with a pastoral scene on the front surrounded by a garland of purple flowers under which is ‘With My Love’ all in relief on the same plastic. On the inside is: ‘To Dearest Clarrie From Yours lovingly, Nell, 5 August 1915.’ This was love.

Clarrie, though embarrassingly three years younger, was forever smitten with his Molong princess. He would be forever a slave to all the whims and wishes of his temperamental love goddess. With that degree of love burning the mid-region of New South Wales, the conflagration could only be extinguished by Clarrie marrying his princess. Those brilliant nuptials took place in Cootamundra on 11 September 1916. One imagines heavenly music filling the air of Cootamundra’s dark misty night while love smouldered in a sequestered lovers’ bower. Whatever the period of honeymoon bliss, Clarrie returned to his job as a railway clerk with NSW Railways with a smile on his face and a spring in his step.


THIRTY-THREE miles south of Cootamundra, in Junee, in 1913, 21-year-old Percy Sidney Steele, ‘clerk,’ was working for the NSW Railways. We can assume that competent Percy has been with the Railways for some years. Three years later, he made a life-changing decision. He and a bunch of mates enlisted in the A.I.F., the Australian Imperial Force, to fight in the war, begun in 1914. It was the First World War, the war to end all wars’. The place was Cootamundra, and the date 27 April 1916. Although the location of enlistment is Cootamundra, Percy gives ‘Iona,’ Vesper Street, Temora, as his address. Percy is described as fair, with fair hair and hazel eyes. He is 5 feet 10½ inches and weighs 167 lbs (just short of 12 stone). His ‘calling’ is ‘clerk and typist NSW Railways.’ Some confusion followed, which gives an insight into Percy Steele’s character.

After completing enlistment at Victoria Barracks in Sydney, he was sent to the Warwick Farm base. This did not suit Percy because his ‘comrades’ had gone to the Holdsworthy camp. He asked and received his discharge. A period of bemused correspondence followed whose outcome is not recorded. In any case, on 7 October 1916, Percy ‘embarked for active service abroad,’ arriving in Plymouth on 21 November. From there, he was shipped to the Etaples Army Base at the mouth of the River Canche in the region of Pas de Calais in Picardy. Etaples, taking its name from the adjacent French fishing town, was a vast base servicing the war effort. It was also a training base. It seems on all the stops along the way, the soldiers underwent further training. On 7 January 1917, Percy sent a chatty, reassuring card to his parents. The front included a piece of muslin on which was embroidered in blue cotton TO MY DEAR MOTHER. Like his parents, he had beautiful handwriting, writing his words at an angle, perfectly spaced, across the card:

To Mrs. S Steele


France 17.1.17

Dear Mum and Dad

Just to say I’m quite well and still in bright hopes for the future.

Love from Perce

5894 17th Battn. AIF

Met Dave Cox here on Wednesday last.

In early 1917, the 17th Battalion was engaged in fierce fighting with the German forces retreating to the Hindenburg Line. The battalion would take part in the fierce battle of Pozieres in July. The soldiers fought in charges through shredding machine gunfire and thunderous artillery pulverizing young bodies and green meadows. Two months later, on 15 April, whatever luck Percy had, ran out. He was ‘wounded in action’ and rushed to the field hospital with ‘G.S.W. (severe)’—severe gunshot wounds to the back. Percy was in a bad way.

He was transferred to the hospital in Rouen and, on 13 May, shipped to England, where he was admitted to the First Southern General Hospital in Birmingham. His wounds were again described as severe. Three and a half months later, he received leave with the instruction to report to the Weymouth No.2 Command Depot on 13 September. The Weymouth depot was a base on the beautiful Dorset coast for Australian and New Zealand soldiers discharged from hospital and in need of convalescence and further training. As instructed, Percy reported back to Weymouth. On 9 October, he was ‘temporarily attached for duty from the 17th Battalion to the Australian Army Pay Corps’ in London. Percy must have shown he was more than a mere clerk pushing a pen. Four months later, on 1 February, he was ‘detached from duty,’ receiving a movement order for return to Australia ‘on special Finance Duty.’ For the occasion, he was bumped up to ‘Acting Sergeant.’ He departed on the Balmoral Castle, arriving in Melbourne three weeks later for transfer to Sydney. On 2 August 1918, he received his discharge from the AIF, unfit and still suffering from his wounds.

Little is now known in the family about Percy Steele. Most of us (Wilson children) knew nothing about him until years later. I only became aware of his existence when I began research for my family history series. No doubt Mum and her parents mentioned his name in conversations, but it was so rare as to go over our heads. Mum certainly knew who he was. When I paged through the family photo album with her to identify the people in her later years, she struggled to recognize some. Not with Percy Sidney Steele. When she came to a photo of a man in a First World War soldier’s uniform, a man I had no clue about, she immediately identified him. But all she said was that he was her father’s brother. She added no more, and I did not think to question her further. We had a lot of photos to look at, and her energy levels were low.

I regret not investigating Percy Steele when I had the chance, late though it was. Mum’s brother, Sidney Clarence, was already dead, too. I found Percy Sidney Steele intriguing. When I came, at last, to search for whatever details existed, I had a closer look at the photo. I could see the resemblance between Clarrie and his older brother in the photos of Clarrie at around the same age. But there was a difference in the personality reflected. Clarrie was like his father—upright, strait-laced, conscious of manners, and dignified in his behavior. In the studio photo of Percy, we see a man relaxed, though his stance is elegant in the old way. His expression is warm, particularly in the eyes. Percy’s card of short but comforting reassurance to his mother is consistent with that warmth. There’s no pride. We see a man accepting the world on its own terms.

Percy is taken with one of his close mates, who stands bolt-upright with an expression of bravado. That mate was going to give it to the Hun when he got the chance. There was another contrast with his mate. His mate’s uniform is neat and freshly pressed, while Percy’s is a little untidy, as if the soldier-thing was no big deal. There are two other photos of Percy, family photos, which my mother also identified. They are both taken with his grandmother, Sarah Ann Steele. Unfortunately, they are unclear, probably taken with a box brownie. Percy is standing beside his grandmother with the same stance as in the military photo. In one, his grandmother is holding Lorna Coffey, a granddaughter and daughter of Ada Coffey, Percy’s father’s youngest sister. Lorna is no more than three. That puts the year at around 1922, and the place Galong. Percy was on a visit to Galong.

It is an irony of sorts that most of what I learned about Percy Sidney Steele came from official documents. We know he worked for the NSW Railways in a clerical position around the Cootamundra-Junee-Temora area before the War. The war record gives a picture of a man with ability and diligence. It was not for nothing that he was assigned to special finance duty and promoted to acting sergeant. But what happened after he left the army, declared unfit? He rejoined the NSW Railways, but in Sydney. In 1925, at thirty-three, he married 26-year-old Dorothy Elizabeth Croydon. Tragically, ten years later, he was dead at forty-three. He and Dorothy had no children. They lived at 51 Francis Street, Manly, up on the hill overlooking Manly Golf Course and a 20 to 30-minute walk to Manly Beach. Dorothy placed a loving notice in the Sydney Morning Herald:

STEELE. 13 May, 1935. at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, Percy Sidney Steele, dearly-beloved husband of Dorothy Elizabeth Steele, aged 42 years [sic].

His death certificate says he died of ‘Broncho pneumonia’ and ‘a Cerebral tumor.’ Poor Percy. He did not have much luck. He was cremated two days later (15 May) at the Northern Suburbs Crematorium. The notice in the Goulburn Evening Penny Post, Friday 17 May 1935, provides more information.

MR. P. S. STEELE. The death occurred on Monday last at Prince Alfred Hospital, Sydney, of Mr. Percy Sidney Steele, aged 43 years. He had suffered six weeks illness. The late Mr. Steele, who was the elder son of ex-Ald. S. A. Steele and the late Mrs. Steele, of 41 Auburn Street, had had 28 years railway service, being stationed for the most part in the Chief Traffic Manager’s Office Sydney. He enlisted with the A.I.F. and served for three years in France during the Great War. Besides his widow, who resides at Manly, he is survived by his father and brother, Mr. C J Steele, of the Railway District Superintendent’s office, Goulburn.

Percy’s entire working life was with the NSW Railways, starting at thirteen or fourteen. In 1935 he was in a key clerical position in the Chief Traffic Manager’s Office. At forty-three, he had his best working years ahead of him. Who knows how far an able, intelligent, diligent man like Percy would have gone? Eight years later, Dorothy remarried. It appears there was also no issue in the union.



Going to War

FOLLOWING ALBERTA’S birth in 1906, Bert and Amy had their second child, a son, John Bede, born at Chatswood on 18 May 1908. Elsie May, their third child, was born on 5 October 1911 at Katoomba in the Blue Mountains, almost a year to the day after her Grandmother Wilson’s death at Chatswood. Where were Bert and Amy before the move to Katoomba, and what was the reason for the move?

In 1909 and 1910, we find that Mrs. S Bugden and Mrs. B C Wilson are living at ‘Brixton’ Baldry Street, Chatswood. In those days, houses had no numbers. I note that Amy’s mother, Sarah Bugden (nee Burgess) is living with her and Bert, which is not surprising. Sometime between 1906 and 1908, when he and Amy were in Hampden Road Artarmon, Bert had responded to one of the many auctions for land in the new streets leading off Victoria Avenue. He snapped up a block in Baldry Street, close to the corner with Victoria Avenue. There he built his first (and last) house. The different auctioneers were lavish about the benefits of living in Chatswood. Richardson and Wrench, who handled the Baldry Estate, claimed the benefits included an ample supply of city water, the nearest highland suburb to Sydney, the place for businesspeople, the place for people of small means, and a special service of trains. The year 1909 is the first mention of the Bert Wilsons taking advantage of these impressive benefits.

From 1911 until 1915, only Great-Grandmother Sarah Bugden lived at ‘Brixton’ Baldry Street. During that time, Bert and Amy were at Blackheath together with Bert’s older brothers Mike, Tom, and Percy. Jennie is listed with Percy, but Tom seems to be alone. His wife Edith does not appear on the same list. The three brothers who began a building business on the North Shore had now reassembled in Blackheath. On the electoral roll for 1913, Tom is named as a laborer, Percy as a builder and Bert as a carpenter. There is no confirmation Bert and Tom worked with Percy to clear land at Shipley for an orchard for which Percy was contracted. It does appear likely, though. It seems sure, however, that they ran a building business together from at least 1913 until Bert and Amy returned to Baldry Street in 1915. Tom was back in Sydney by 1918 for the birth of his son Norman at North Sydney, where his wife had been living. From 1930 onwards, Tom lived in Blackheath.


A STORY of someone coming into the world in difficult circumstances and going out of it in a tragic way is the stuff of family folklore. So it was with Rowland John Wilson, who was born out of wedlock to Lillie Wilson, Percy and Bert’s older sister. In those days, society was tough on those flouting the rules about bringing children into the world. What the circumstances were, is not known. Rowland was born in Gulgong, which means Lillie likely got up to mischief with a neighborhood boy in Tallawang, where the family farm was. I’ve found no record of the father’s name. James Patrick and Mary Jane Wilson resolved the problem by raising Rowland as a brother of Percy, Bert, and Leo. Rolly, as he was known, was seven years younger than Leo. So, the age difference with his younger uncles would not have readily revealed the cover-up. In 1915, Rolly lived with Percy and Jennie in Queens Street, Lawson, also in the Blue Mountains. In November that year, Rolly made a fateful decision.

At that time, the army and private groups organized recruiting rallies to encourage young men of military age to join the brave men fighting the Germans. One of the best-known recruiting actions was the Coo-ee Gilgandra March. Gilgandra was 340 miles from Sydney, the march’s destination. Newspapers reported the progress along the way. The residents of the towns the march passed through welcomed the marchers with cheers, decorations, processions, and lavish afternoon teas. In the evenings, homage to the brave lads continued with concerts, sing-songs, and speeches by dignitaries. The festivities were repeated at each stop of the growing Coo-ee march. The Blue Mountain Echo reported (12 November 1915) the progress of the march through Lawson. I include much of the report to convey a feeling of the loaded atmosphere to which 24-year-old Rolly Wilson succumbed:


‘Give the boys a good time’ was the keynote of Lawson’s welcome to the ‘Coo-ees,’ and that note was sustained from their first approach to the town on Saturday afternoon until they were farewelled, about halfway to Hazelbrook. Half a dozen gaily-decorated motor cars, with a full complement of fair passengers, the Public School children, and half the population of Lawson, the President of the Shire Council (Cr. J. T. Wall), with Councillors Geggie and Staples and the members of the Recruiting Association, met the little army on Vickery’s Hill…

[The Coo-ees] were formally welcomed by President Wall to the Blue Mountains Shire, after which a procession was formed, headed by the Recruiting Association and the Leura Brass Band, with the motor cars bringing up the rear.

On their arrival at Bellevue Hill Park, each was presented with a packet of cigarettes from the students of Stratford School for Girls. Cr. Geggie, as the oldest resident, extended a welcome to Major Wynne, Capt. Eade, other officers, and men. The formal reception over, the men at once availed themselves of the opportunity for a swim…

The ladies of Lawson and Hazelbrook, in the meantime, had all preparations made for a rush on the tea tables, but there was enough and to spare, and both officers and men expressed themselves as delighted with the meal provided.

In the evening, a recruiting meeting was held in front of the post office; and, in view of the fact that so many men have already enlisted from this town, it was a surprise to find six more who were ready to serve their King and Country.

Sunday morning was a surprise packet. It was known that Colonel Ramacciotti would probably be up to inspect the troops. The Colonel arrived about 11 o’clock, and soon after the Governor-General arrived, accompanied by Capt. Hosketh-Smith, of the naval establishment at Garden Island. His Excellency has evinced the keenest interest in the march, and inspected the contingent when it was much smaller, at Geurie and Dripstone…

His Excellency, addressing the men, referred to the pleasure he had already had in meeting those who had first joined… [He said] they had not only shown endurance but military virtues on the march. They had shown their initiative in being able to provide for themselves. Self-help was the greatest of all military virtues on the battlefield. He hoped that when in camp they would show the same high standard of excellence. The movement had created a great interest throughout Australia and the Empire. He would have pleasure in reporting it to his Majesty.

Colonel Ramacciotti said they had put up a record of which they all might be proud. They had to live up to it and let nothing tarnish it. He intended to put them into a battalion formed of country men—and the men in it had to be the best.

On Sunday afternoon, a united religious service was held in the Bellevue Hill Park. There was a great muster of residents and visitors from all the towns, from Katoomba to Springwood. Addresses were delivered by the local clergymen. In the evening, a song service was held in the Institute hall. A united choir from all the churches occupied the stage, and rendered the anthem, ‘King of Kings,’ and members of the choir rendered quartettes, duets, and solos.

The hall was packed with men of the ‘Coo-ees’ and residents. Cr. W. G. Staples presided, and, in his opening remarks, stated that the service had been arranged for the men of the ‘Coo-ees,’ and that doubtless many of them had often gathered round the piano in the old home and had a ‘sing-song,’ and he wanted the men to realize that the meeting was for them. Right heartily they followed the conductor, Mr. T. Savage, who had the men and the audience singing the old Gospel hymns and choruses as they had never sung them before.

A big gathering assembled to bid farewell to the boys on Monday morning. Prior to their departure, Mr. W. Lowden expressed the satisfaction of the residents on the excellent conduct of the men during Sunday. Cheers were given for the people of Lawson, for the ‘Coo-ees’, and the Lawson recruits. The officers were entertained by Miss Barlow, of the Grand Hotel, to dinner on Sunday, a hospitality which was much appreciated.

According to his war record, Rolly enlisted on 7 November 1915, the day the Coo-ee March passed through Lawson. I can see Percy and Jennie, and perhaps Tom, proudly waving him off after the enlistment procedure. Rolly was 24 years, 5 foot and 6 inches, 10 stone and 6 lbs [66.2 Kilos], complexion fair, eyes grey, and hair brown. He gave Percy’s address in Queen Street as his address and nominated Percy, ‘his brother,’ as next of kin. The indications are that Rolly did not know otherwise. On the 15th, he was passed fit to fight and assigned to the 13th Battalion. The Daily Telegraph, Wednesday 24 November 1915, reported the ‘Coo-ees’ arrival in Sydney:


Probably no aspect of recruiting in the early days of the 1914-18 war so stirred the imagination of the people of Australia than the march of the Gilgandra ‘Coo-ees’.

The Gilgandra contingent left on Sunday, 10 October 1915, on an epoch making march of 330 miles…

Commencing just 35 strong, they arrived at Liverpool camp on 12 November. 277- strong. They left for the front on 8 March 1916.

Enlistments in the various towns were as follows: Gilgandra 35, Dubbo 13, Wongarbon 12, Geurie 6, Wellington 31, Stuart Town 1. Euchareena 1, Molong 4, Parkes 5, Orange 19, Millthorpe 2, Blayney 11, Bathurst 17, Glannire 1, Yetholme 1, Wallerawang 3, Lithgow 19, Blackheath 2, Katoomba 11, Leura 1, Lawson 11, Springwood 5, Penrith 4, Parramatta 41, Ashfield 22, Total, 263.

On 8 March 1916, Rolly and the 13th Battalion set sail on the Star of England, arriving in Egypt on 11 April 1916. At Tel-el-Tebir, on 19 April, he was transferred to the 45th Battalion, the same Battalion Percy Steele joined nearly a year later. The newly formed 45th Battalion was part of the 12th Brigade of the 4th Australian Division. It was made up of experienced soldiers from the 13th Battalion in Gallipoli and men just arrived from Australia. Rolly and his mates trained for several months in the Sinai Desert, manning the defenses against Turkish troops. On 2 June, they boarded the H.T. Kinfauns Castle for the trip to Marseilles. They had a pleasurable train trip to northern France, admiring the towns, its countryside, and its appealing women who plowed the fields, unloaded trucks, and cleaned engines. Letters from some men spoke rapturously of the women, declaring the vision of them gave them courage. This pleasure was small compensation for what followed.

On July 4, the 45th Battalion pushed through to the frontline at Fleurbaix. The Battle of Fleurbaix, later called the Battle of Fromelles, was on some reports the fiercest Australians endured during the War, but the 45th Battalion remained at the edges. It was enough to give country-bred young Australians like Rolly a taste of the incessant artillery fire, trench warfare, mortar bombs, and rats. I imagine the experience, testing though it was, still did not prepare them for the horror of the Battle of Pozieres, their first major battle.

Pozieres was a small village occupying a strategic position on a ridge in the Somme Valley. Its capture was vital. The 1st and 2nd Divisions struggled against the Germans, with the battle going back and forth. The unending bombardment and the shredding gunfire caused terrible casualties. The 2nd Division, which had relieved the 1st Division, gained and secured ground, but it was spent, its losses huge. The 4th Division of which Rolly’s 45th Battalion was a part, was thrown into the action. Despite the deafening artillery bombardment through the night, the 4th Division secured the advantage by the 7th, with the 45th Battalion beating off German counter-attacks. Between noon on 7 August and noon on 8 August, when the battle was wrapping up, Rolly Wilson was killed ‘in action’—‘killed in the field.’ What’s left of his exploded body is now mingled with the farmland dirt somewhere between the villages of Pozieres and Martinpuich, barely a mile dividing them. Here are the entries for those horrific days in the official War Diary of the Australian Imperial Force Unit Diaries 1914-18 War.

45th Battalion

1 August 1916 —Marched from Vandencourt Wood to Albert and bivouacked at Brickfields.

2 August 1916 —The whole Battalion being prepared for its turn in the offensive.

3 August 1916 —The final preparations being made, the men are now fully equipped.

4 August 1916 —Marched through ALBERT to TARA HILL and there bivouacked on the ground formerly occupied by the 26th Battalion.

5 August 1916 —Relieved the 17th, 18th and 19th Battalions from their portion of the front line, map reference MARTINPUICH 1:120000. Took over the front line… This took place under very heavy hostile artillery fire. A British regiment, the Yorkshires, were on our right and the 48th Battalion AIF on our left.

6 August 1916 —The enemy maintained a heavy artillery fire, both HE and shrapnel during the night. About 4.30 am he delivered a weak counter-attack which was easily repulsed. Several prisoners were taken.

Casualties to noon: Major D.K. Chapman, 2/Lt C.M. Draper, and 30 other ranks. Wounded —70 other ranks.

On afternoon of 6th, ‘B’ Company assisted the British in their attack on MUNSTER ALLEY. The operation was successful, about 30 prisoners being taken. In the evening the enemy’s fire was very severe.

7 August 1916 —About 4.30 am the enemy attempted another weak counter-attack which was easily repulsed. Several prisoners were taken. The two Companies ‘C’ and ‘D’ on the left were relieved by ‘A’ Company.

Casualties to noon: Killed —Officers —NIL, Other ranks 21. Wounded —3 Officers, Capt. R.T. Tarrant, 2/Lt E. Cornish, 2/Lt S.V. Dolton. Other ranks 67.

8 August 1916 —Relieved by the 46th Battalion and went into support trenches on strong points. Whilst in support supplied all fatigues and working parties.

Casualties to 12 noon —Killed 1 officer 2/Lt E.V. Steele, other ranks 83.

Rolly was one of the 83 killed, one report saying he died during the night of the 7th and 8th. It was 10 months since he, bubbling with enthusiasm, joined his mates on the recruiting march to Sydney.

When the AIF administration learned that Rolly’s natural mother was still alive and resident in the Gulgong-Mudgee area (she was forty-eight in 1916), some perplexed correspondence passed between Percy Wilson (in reality Rolly’s uncle) and the AIF over just who Rolly’s legal next of kin was. The AIF, understanding the need for discretion, sorted out it eventually. Rolly’s effects sent from London amounted to an ‘Identity Disc. Metal chain’. Percy thought this odd. ‘I feel sure’, he wrote to the AIF, ‘there should be other trinkets. He had a wristlet watch presented to him when leaving Lawson, and it seems strange that it should be overlooked.’ It is sad to read this now. Percy, and most of the Australian population, had no idea of what the diggers in Belgium and France were going through. Percy imagined Rolly fell in battle, struck down by a bullet, and his body was recovered. The horror of blasted bodies forever sucked into the mud of the battlefields was beyond their comprehension. By 1923, Percy, as Rolly’s guardian and next of kin, had received all due to Rolly—war gratuity and medals.


LEO JOSEPH Wilson followed his nephew Rolly into the AIF. Leo’s war record is very different from Rolly’s, which covered basic information and a few entries about his placement leading to his death. Leo’s is full of entries detailing movements in and out of numerous placements. But I can abbreviate it.

On 23 March 1916, Leo signed on around the time Rolly was sailing to Egypt. He is 31 years and 5 months, height 5 feet 7½ inches, weighing 122 lbs, complexion dark, eyes blue, and hair dark brown. He gave his brother Bert as his next of kin. I am surprised to see his complexion described as dark and his weight at a very slight 8 stone 10 lbs for his height. We saw a lot of Granduncle Leo through the years, and I would not have described his complexion as dark—perhaps a little suntanned through his work outdoors. Leo was taken on as a sapper and assigned to the 9th Field Company, Engineers, AIF. A sapper is a soldier responsible for such tasks as building roads and bridges and preparing defenses.

On 5 July, after training, Leo left on the Ajana, arriving in Plymouth on 31 August. On 22 November, he was sent to France after more training. At this point, I imagine Leo was putting himself in a frame of mind for military action. With no sign he had been doing the work of a sapper, he was taken from the field on 3 March 1917, diagnosed with ‘phthisis’ or tuberculosis. He was shuttled around several casualty clearing stations and hospitals in France before being sent back to England. On 17 March, he found himself in the Chatham Military Hospital in Kent, now diagnosed with bronchitis. He was dispatched back to France on the 26th but ended up in the hospital in Wimereux, still with bronchitis. Then it was back to England, to the 3rd Australian Military Hospital at Dartford. His bronchitis must have been serious. Indeed, the authorities might have been wary of anything looking like influenza. If so, they were justified. A year later, an influenza epidemic swept the world, killing about 50 million people. World War I claimed an estimated 16 million. Leo was given leave on 23 April with instructions to report to Perham Down training camp on 14 May 1917.

Over the next five months, he moved through training camps in southern England and was reassigned from the 9th FCE to the 17th Field Company Engineers, and later to the 1st Army Company Engineers on 11 October 1917. Leo’s head must have been spinning. Or he might have been enjoying his tour of southern England, despite the bronchitis. He was declared fit for duty and was shipped from Southampton to France on 11 November. On 30 December 1917, he was ‘attached for duty.’ His superior officers took one look at skinny Leo with months of bronchitis behind him, and they rejected him forthwith, sending him to hospital. He again did a tour of hospitals in France before being diagnosed with ‘tachy cardia’ (valvular disease of the heart) on 15 March 1918. Back he went to England to the hospital at Colchester on 24 March.

On 18 May 1918, Leo’s brother Bert received a letter from a Base Records Major saying, ‘I regret to advise you that cabled information has been received that Sapper L.J. Wilson, 1st Army Troops Company, late of 9th Company Engineers, was admitted to Military Hospital, Colchester, England, on 24/3/18, suffering heart trouble.’ No doubt that news sent thrills of apprehension through Bert and Amy. Ten days later, on 28 May, Bert received a letter saying, ‘unofficial information has been received at this office to the effect that the above soldier’s [Leo’s] condition has greatly improved and his illness is not organic.’ I imagine the sight of the second letter sent even more thrills of fear through Bert and Amy. Anyway, it was good of the AIF to inform them of Leo’s condition. But no mention of tuberculosis or bronchitis.

Over the next six months, Sapper L.J. Wilson moved between training/convalescent camps at Weymouth in Dorset and Hurdcott in Wiltshire until the military authorities gave up hope of Leo being fit for service. On 16 September, he received the order to return to Australia because of a ‘disordered action of the heart’ (DAH). Leo arrived back in Australia on HMAT Sardinia on 27 December 1918. He was discharged on 13 February 1919. What an adventure.

Here I can relate a charming but, in one way, sad story. Many years ago, in the mid-1960s, when I was busy being an obnoxious youth, Dad’s older sister Elsie was detailed to look after me at home while the rest of the family departed on their annual holidays to Burleigh Heads on Queensland’s Gold Coast. This measure was necessary because I had not behaved the previous year when left alone. Auntie Elsie came across as an irritating grouch to us boys when we were young. I remember her tearing strips off cousins Robert and Bernard Lott (Dad’s sister Vera’s boys), who saw more of her than us Wilson kids because she lived closer. But as I got older, I began to see a warm heart under that superficial grouchiness, which was a sharp peremptory manner of speaking rather than grouchiness. Grandma Wilson was like that, too. During that holiday stay to supervise me, I got to know and like her very much.

She often talked about herself and the family, much of which, alas, I have forgotten. She especially showed great affection and admiration for Dad, who was always there to help her during her difficult times. On one of the many occasions when we were sitting at the breakfast table, deep in conversation, she told me the Wilsons ‘never forgot their first love.’ I have now forgotten the impulse for this claim, but looking back, it must have flowed from talk about her own circumstances. Her husband Harry had died of a rare heart condition at thirty years of age. She had never remarried, bringing up her two daughters, Maureen and Patty, on her own. To illustrate this, until then never heard of Wilson trait, she offered what was to become the mysterious case of Leo’s unrequited love.

Leo, Elsie claimed, was smitten with a lovely girl sometime before the First World War, when in his late twenties. Leo imagined a future of sunny days, gamboling with his true love in green pastures spotted with white daisies and yellow daffodils. He gave her a ring as a testimony and seal of his undying love. The war broke out, and Leo responded to the patriotic call leaving behind his beloved. He was up to his knees in the mud and slush of the Belgian trenches facing the ferocious Hun (as we then imagined) when he received a letter from Australia. In that letter, his heart’s first companion informed him she loved another. The ring was in the envelope. It was the only bullet of the First World War that pierced his heart. Heartbroken, Leo put the ring on his little finger, and there it remained. Cherishing a love that was never to be extinguished, he never married. Elsie invited me to have a look at Uncle Leo’s left hand when I next saw him. There I would see confirmation.

I did look the next time but did not see the ring. Nor did I ever see it. I was not inclined to doubt Auntie Elsie’s tender story. She seemed so convinced of what she was saying. I asked Dad later if he knew anything about Leo’s unrequited First World War love. He knew nothing. Nobody else did at the time. Through the years, the story came from the files at the back of my mind when conversation about the family arose among my brothers and sisters. I offered it as corroboration of Uncle Leo’s romantic character, content to repeat it without the need to look further for confirmation. Leo was given to fantasy. Then unexpectedly, while I was writing, my brother Michael told me he did remember seeing Uncle Leo occasionally wearing a gold ring on his little finger. Elsie’s story now had support within our family.

At my first meeting in 2010 with Percy’s daughters Jean and Margaret, the conversation alighted on Leo and his romantic nature. After laughing (with affectionate remembrance) about Leo’s more fanciful stories, including the Blaxland, Lawson, and ‘Wilson’ one (see part one), cousin Jean told me with a smile that Leo once brought a special girl home to introduce to his mother who, they said, was living in Hampden Road, Artarmon. The name of this fresh-faced girl with a blush on her fair English cheeks was Jennie Campbell. Jennie and her best friend, Lilly Cooper, had come to Australia on the adventure of a lifetime. Jennie was a nanny, and she soon had work. Where she and Leo met, Jean and Margaret did not say. Leo was not bad looking in his early twenties, and if he had the same manner at twenty-three as he had at seventy-three years of age, then I can imagine he was intriguing enough for a quiet English girl to strike up a friendship with.

That friendship must have developed because Leo felt confident enough to take her home to show to his mother. A fatal mistake when there’s an older, more mature brother hanging around. Jennie and Percy ‘took one look at each other, and the sparks began to fly,’ said Jean. Poor Leo. What chance did he have against a confident brother eleven years older? The sparks kept on flying, and before Leo knew it, he was the best man at Percy and Jennie’s wedding on 28 April 1909. The cousins gave me a wedding photo of Leo dressed formally, a straw boater atop a clean-shaven youthful face, standing with bridesmaid Lilly Cooper behind the seated newlywed couple. Poor Leo. He looks a mixture of bemusement and forlornness. An amusing story, but was it the foundation of Elsie’s story? Did I see feelings in the photo that weren’t there?

All of us Wilsons are given to embellishing our stories for one purpose or another, or even to filling in the blanks of a story to suit our tastes. Though amused by Auntie Elsie’s story, Jean and Margaret did not know if Leo’s disappointment with Jennie was the foundation of the fanciful episode of Elsie’s—nor had they ever had a hint of such a story. Their cousin Elsie was a good deal older and had not much to do with them. For my part, I suspect it was the impetus. There could have been, of course, another girl who broke Leo’s heart—if indeed his heart had been broken, indeed if any part of the story had been true. Percy and Jennie married in 1909, still time for Leo to fall in love before going off to war. There are some letters and expressions of affections from girlfriends among Leo’s ragged moth-bitten papers. But these don’t fit the picture in my view. Is there any existing evidence for Elsie’s story, no matter how tenuous—apart from Michael’s verification that Leo occasionally wore a gold ring on his little finger? There is, though very tenuous—and entertaining.

Among Leo’s papers, there is a letter from him to Leslie Wilson, Tom Wilson’s son. The letter is dated 10 July 1918 and is written from ‘No.3 Depot, Salisbury Plains’. That would be Hurdcott. Leslie would have been nineteen in 1918. In it, Leo says, ‘I stayed at Mrs. Campbell’s, Percy’s mother-in-law, and had a good though quiet time. Hurdcott is a pretty place, but very quiet. There is nowhere to go’. Further on, he says, ‘I have had a letter from Percy in which he says the copper mine shows great promise. He also sent me a photo of the works and some of the copper they produced. It looks a going concern. I also got one of Percy’s patent cigarette makers. It does not seem a bad sort of affair, but I am blowed if I could make a smoke out of it.’

It is not much, perhaps. But there is an ongoing relationship with his older brother’s wife. After all, he took the trouble to visit and stay with his sister-in-law’s family in England. It is odd that this letter was among Leo’s papers. It appears that it was never sent—or it was a copy. There is another letter, though, a far more interesting letter, one that makes the connection with the Percy Wilsons much closer. The letter is from Jennie to Leo, dated Friday 18th 1919, and sent from Lawson, where Leo was a regular visitor. The subject is Jennie’s sister’s return to England. Here it is in full:

‘Dear Leo,

‘No doubt you will be surprised at getting a letter from me but am really writing for Annie. In all mother’s letters lately, she seems to think that Annie is making all preparations for going home [to England], and, of course, has told Annie all about your offer, etc. Well now, Leo, Annie has sent for full particulars regarding fares, etc. and finds she can get home for £41 and what she would like to know is if you are not prepared to go that much, if you would give her some idea as to how much you will put in it. She will set to work and try and get some herself as she feels for Mother’s sake, she must try and let her know something definite. We were wondering whether you would be coming down for the holidays. It’s so much easier to talk than to write about such matters, but I hope you will understand.’

‘Trusting you are well and that you’ll let us have an answer as soon as you can so that Annie can let Mother know. We are all fairly well. None of us got the flu yet. Hope it will keep clear of Lawson. Fred is always talking about that bicycle Uncle Leo is going to make. Now will close.’

‘Love from All’


What are we to make of this? Nothing—and I should not read too much into it? Let’s read what’s there. Leo receives a rare letter from his sister-in-law, which says she wrote on behalf of her sister, desperate to get home to England and her mother. (Don’t get any ideas, Leo.) An Australian soldier had jilted Annie. Now, why would Leo offer to pay for Annie’s fare back to England when there was nothing between them? Disappointment in love was the reason Annie was pining for her home in England. So it was hardly credible that feelings had flared between her and Leo. Perhaps that’s the clue. Leo was empathizing with someone suffering from a recognizable malady of the heart. But if against the evidence, there was something, it was a funny way for Annie to express the sudden twist in her feelings. If that funny way was genuine, why not ask Leo herself? Surely no need to go through her sister. And it is too much to think a romantic like Leo would finance the departure of someone he had unexpectedly given his heart to.

No, the obvious answer is that Jennie was asked to approach Leo because the close family knew she had some weight with him and that she was the reason Leo had made the offer. Of course, it could have been from pure generosity that Leo, with admirable (but unconvincing) disinterest, appeared ready to pay someone’s fare from Australia to the UK. But I don’t think so. I remember Dad saying in later life (long after Percy had passed away) that Leo was irritatingly frugal. Finally, is it not telling that Jennie’s letter was among the ten or so family letters he kept until he died in 1974? Annie did go home to England where, according to Jean and Margaret, she had an unhappy life. 

Whatever the truth or otherwise of Elsie’s story, it is charming, quite suited to the romantic daydreaming granduncle Michael and I knew and regularly saw in his later years. There is, however, evidence that seems to contradict the scenario I have spun about sister-in-law Jennie Campbell being the focus of Leo’s unrequited love. On 24 October 1913, Leo wrote in one of the notebooks he carried around with him:

‘Well, I have just passed my 29th birthday, and I must say this year just passed has been the one most full of pleasure and pain to me. But it is gone, and God save me from such another.’

This is a desperate cry from the heart in burning words that could not be clearer. Someone or some experience had caused overwhelming joy, and someone or some experience had caused overwhelming suffering. Are the pleasure and pain from the same source? He does not say. It may be, and it may not be. But if so, is that source a person? Again, there is nothing explicit. If a person, was it a female in an issue of love, which is perhaps what one may think? He does not say. But immediately after that desperate cry, he wrote these verses:

Her brow was as white as the fleecy clouds

Her eyes were as bright as the flashing meteors

Her footsteps light as the hunting panther

And her heart as cold as the depth of winter

Nicely put. Impressive poetic outburst which seems to point to love betrayed. These are not the only verses Leo scribbled in his notebook—and not the only verses about female beauty and failed love. Leo’s notebooks and many scribbled scraps of paper show that the youngest child of farmers, James Patrick and Mary Jane, a carpenter by trade, was given to literary outbursts. Those notebooks and scraps of paper, spotted and brown after laying a hundred years unread, are now being deciphered. But I need a separate chapter to give a glimpse of Leo’s literary inclination and to test Elsie’s story that a failed love was determining in Leo’s life.

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Writer … and still in the fifties