Memories of war – Anzac Day 2012

Noel Farmer,
19 May 1944

For this year’s Anzac Day blog post, I thought I would share some extracts from a memoir written by my father-in-law, Noel Edward Farmer (1923 – 1999). In December 1941, after waiting impatiently for three months for the Navy to find a slot for a seaman who “knew how to handle boats”, Noel wrote to the Navy to ask if they were aware that Japan had entered the war. A month later a slot at Flinders Naval Depot was found. He was soon appointed a midshipman, although he rose to Lieutenant by the end of the war, and to Captain in the Naval Reserve.

The following extract describes an incident in 1942, when Noel was just 19.

‘Westralia’ went to Brisbane after Aitapee to pick up air force stores. When leaving the Brisbane River the gyro compass system broke down and the Navigator, running along the upper deck to the gyro room, fell over a deck bolt and was badly concussed. Young Farmer, despite or because of his lack of knowledge/experience at that time, was training as Navigator’s assistant and was promptly propelled into the top job – and hence the immediate task of taking a 14,000 ton vessel drawing 30′ through the Barrier Reef and Torres Strait to Darwin with only a magnetic compass. All Navy captains may, and all merchant masters must, unless they have specially qualified for an exemption, take on board a Torres Strait Pilot when making this trip of some 2,000 km – but not my Captain. I had a canvas deck chair placed on the port side of the bridge and spent the next five days there except for toilet visits below. The Captain did somewhat similar and about six days later Westralia berthed safely in Darwin. After about three months, and to my great surprise, the Captain’s secretary handed over a cheque in favour of Midshipman N E Farmer from the Navy in Canberra for about 14 pounds, with a chit attached saying “Pilotage – 1100 nautical miles at 3d per mile”.

This next extract describes a day in 1944, when Noel was aged 20.

It was a grisly day. … The 7th Fleet had a policy that any enemy soldier taken alive in a landing be sent promptly to a designated ship for interrogation. After replacing the originals on our ill fated southern beach with reserve troops I agreed to take two prisoners in my boat to be interrogated. When the prisoners were dragged to the beach they were young, hurt, shell-shocked and stark naked. My boat was beached, bow on, about ten feet from the water’s edge so that anyone boarding had to walk out into water at least one foot deep. The prisoners were in no condition to walk. Their escorts informed me that they were not intending to carry the cretins aboard and began to swing the first by hands and feet to throw him about fifteen feet on to the steel deck.

“Not on,” I said. “Carry them aboard or take them back to your own medics for treatment.” It was the only argument I ever won with a revolver and a threat to shoot US servicemen, if they threw the prisoner aboard – I’ll never know if I would have shot them. For their part they were young, scared, had seen many of their buddies killed and were fearful of their short term future when darkness fell on a slaughterhouse beach.

When hoisted back aboard ‘Westralia’ on conclusion of that eventful day I was told to report to the Captain. He sat me down and handed me a signal from the Navy saying that brother Charles had died.

The final extract describes a time in January 1945, when Noel was 21.

When we entered Lingayen Gulf air attacks increased in fury and desperation. Every second plane seemed to be Kamikaze and after dropping its bomb load headed for its selection of target and tried to crash on its bridge. … As in Hollandia and Leyte, I led the first wave boats to our allotted beach. We kept on unloading troops, equipment and stores forever it seemed from all variety of ships. Our boats crews tried to ignore the fear and death around them – and tried to conceal their own gut feelings from the green troops we carried.

We fed off the land – that is, we broached the stores we carried to meet our needs – and that day I first saw and ate canned grapefruit pieces. I liked them and ate a lot. The US knew how to feed its front line troops. Here we were in Lingayen on day one with guns and bombs going bang, Kamikazes having a suicide picnic and death all about – cruising slowly towards a beach carrying tons of grapefruit pieces for those who survived to eat them.

Lest we forget.

25 April, 2012 at 11:56 am 2 comments

Visit to Adelaide and Congress 2012

I’ve just returned from the 13th Australasian Congress on Genealogy & Heraldry Adelaide 2012, where I delivered one talk (on ‘Which Genealogy Program?‘) and attended more than 20 others. I thoroughly recommend attending genealogy conferences – they provide access to a wide variety of speakers, with the opportunity to ask questions and discuss particular issues in my own family history. Websites are changing daily, and as more information is published online, conferences such as these allow attendees to learn about what is available and what is coming.

In addition there is the ‘buzz’ of spending days with others who share my passion for family history research, often also learning from discussions with other conference attendees. Genealogists are generous with their knowledge and usually keen to support other enthusiasts. Once you start attending conferences, your circle of genealogy friends and contacts grows. A highlight for me at this Congress was meeting up with friends from around Australia and some internationals – some friends I had previously only ‘met’ online.

Morning and afternoon teas, lunches and dinners were all busy times. In addition to looking at the offerings of the exhibitors (purchasing books, trying out websites, asking questions of librarians and society members) I enjoyed catching up with genealogy friends and swapping contact details with ‘new friends’.

So many genealogists gathering in one place provides the opportunity for meetings with some groups, sometimes over a lunch or dinner. I am proud to be a member of ‘Genealogists for Families’, whose motto is “We care about families (past, present and future)”. Through Kiva (a non-profit organisation) genealogists worldwide (and their non-genealogist relatives and friends) are working as a team to help less fortunate families. Kiva’s motto is “empower people around the world by making a $25 loan”. When many $25 loans are combined, borrowers without access to traditional banks can expand their business or support their families, and work towards raising themselves out of poverty. When the loan is repaid we can withdraw the money or lend it again.

Some of the ‘Genealogists for Families’ group in Adelaide met for dinner on the Wednesday (first) night of Congress. The dinner was an enjoyable time, with good food, chatting and much laughter, and when we passed around a collection box for spare coins, enough money was raised for 2 more Kiva loans.

Other nights were busy too: the (Tuesday) night before Congress was a Congress Welcome, Wednesday was the above Kiva dinner, Thursday night was a Lord Mayor of Adelaide’s function for speakers and exhibitors at Congress, and Friday night was the official Congress dinner.

Taking advantage of the trip to Adelaide, I flew over several days earlier in order to have some research time. Arriving on the Saturday afternoon before Congress, I spent Sunday and Monday researching in the State Library of South Australia and Tuesday at State Records South Australia. In addition I made brief visits to the Adelaide City Council Archives, to the Probate Registry – and also to photograph an old house in Norwood where my Grubb family ancestors made soft drinks in the late 19th century (F. C. Grubb soft drinks).

If you’re interested in family history and have any occasion to travel to where ancestors lived, prepare as much as possible before you travel. The time flies when you are actually in that library or archive office. You can be much more efficient if you have already searched online catalogues, and come prepared with references for books, microfiche, microfilms or computer files that you want to check. I had my netbook with my family history database, but I also had prepared reports of all those I knew were in South Australia at some time, so that I could quickly check whether accidental discoveries were likely to be my ancestors or not.

A digital camera is a great asset in libraries and archives offices, to quickly capture images of records found. A USB flash drive is also useful, as sometimes you can scan a document directly to a file. I had my new Flip-pal portable scanner with me (only owned for a week). Although scanning is slower than taking digital photographs, the Flip-pal did an excellent job of scanning & stitching documents and even screen images from microfiche or microfilm seen in the State Library. I was not allowed to use it in the State Archives.

So I’ve returned from a week in Adelaide with many books purchased, records scanned and photographed, pages and pages of lecture notes with clues to follow up for my family history – and also a backlog of emails and work that built up while I was away. One week in Adelaide is going to take me a lot longer than that to process! But it was a most enjoyable time and an experience I would heartily recommend.

2 April, 2012 at 4:11 pm Leave a comment

The future of genealogy

There are many excited genealogists at present, partly because of the huge RootsTech conference currently running in Salt Lake City. I could not join the 3,000 people attending RootsTech live, but I can still benefit by downloading the syllabi (handouts from the talks) and also by joining the many thousands more, listening over the internet to some sessions being broadcast live.

However this set me thinking about the changes that have already happened in genealogy during my lifetime, and wondering what will happen in the future?

Marian Pierre-Louis wrote a great blog post entitled ‘Top 3 changes in genealogy‘. According to Marian, those ‘top 3 changes’ are:

  • Increased visibility, due to eg the increasing popularity of television shows like Who do you think you are? I would add to that – the online advertising of Ancestry.com tells people how easy it is to find your ancestors and that you don’t need to be an expert. (For my views on such advertising, see my earlier post ‘You only have to look‘.)
  • Education and outreach, including courses for amateurs and professionals, some face-to-face but many now available over the internet.
  • Technology – including blogging, social media like Facebook and the digitisation of records.

When I started my family history research, access to records meant either visiting libraries, archives and genealogy societies in person, or writing letters. It was the sort of ‘hobby’ mainly undertaken by retirees with time on their hands.

Now technology brings access to digitised records and indexes, but also to opportunities to learn from others, even experts in the fields – (almost) wherever in the world you and they might be. Only a few years ago I could not have sat at my desk here in Australia and listened to a lecture being delivered in Salt Lake City.

But the changes in technology bring dangers too:

  • Not everybody is able (or willing) to embrace technology, and that will leave behind some people, as more information becomes almost only available online.
  • Just as information is made readily available online, so errors are broadcast more widely too.
  • Many seem to expect to find all information easily available online, so traditional sources that require more time to explore are being ignored (or at least until they are digitised!)
  • Because some questions are answered easily and quickly, many no longer see the need for education and learning ‘how to do research’. So they don’t learn that the first apparently matching record found might not be the right answer. The preferred solution becomes ‘whatever is quickest and easiest’ – and that could well be adopting somebody else’s family tree – warts and all.

So back to my original question – what of the future? Can the number researching their family trees continue to grow at the current rate? Is there a limit?

The average age of genealogists seems to be getting younger and perhaps that is partly because of the attractions of technology and ‘saving time’. Can the current trends continue?

More than one website has attempted to ‘stitch together’ family trees, aiming at one world-wide family tree. Mostly that has been fraught with errors – there are too many coincidentally similar people’s names, dates and places. Considered weighing of evidence and acknowledging that some conclusions are at best unreliable is needed in our own trees, and so I wonder how could any computer program reliably make that decision for us? Apparently there is already one family tree for everyone in Iceland, could that eventually be true for the rest of us?

Is DNA the answer? Certainly DNA tests can already predict the probability that we share a common ancestor with someone, but cannot tell us precisely who that common ancestor must be. More traditional methods of genealogical research are needed in conjunction with the tools provided by DNA.

So – what of the future? Technology will continue to race ahead – that is probably the only thing that is certain. It will become easier, perhaps more fun, to find more records and publish our conclusions. Will those family trees  be any more accurate than now?

What do you think? Can you make any predictions for 20 years? 50 or 100?

3 February, 2012 at 5:32 pm 5 comments

Commercial Travellers

Tomorrow is Australia Day and to mark the occasion, Twigs of Yore issued a blog challenge inspired by a line from Australia’s National Anthem, Advance Australia Fair. That third line (“We’ve golden soil and wealth for toil”) inspired Shelley to suggest that we write about the occupation of an Australian ancestor.

Many of my ancestors were salesmen, and while few of them made much ‘wealth’, there was certainly plenty of ‘toil’. My grandfather was born Cyril Leslie Etherington – but he hated the name Cyril, so everyone called him Mick. He was a salesman for much of his working life but in the 1930s and 1940s he travelled around country NSW as a commercial traveller. Carrying sample bags of confectionery, he visited shops and businesses, taking orders for the White Signet Company .

In earlier days peddlers travelled the countryside, carting goods to individuals and businesses, enduring the hardships caused by long lonely journeys, great distances and poor country roads. By the twentieth century many country travellers travelled by rail when possible. The small town of Werris Creek became an important centre for country salesmen because it was located on a railway junction. Stories and songs were written and shared amongst the country travellers, and Werris Creek, All Tickets Please is one.

My grandfather was a great story teller and I still remember songs and poems he taught me as a child, about his life as a commercial traveller. (I wonder what people thought when a 4-year-old girl broke into song with “Just an old beer bottle, washed up by the sea”!)

Away from their homes and families for so much of the time, friendships (as well as rivalries) bonded the CTs (commercial travellers).  My grandfather joined the Commercial Travellers’ Masonic Lodge and attended meetings at Werris Creek. He also joined the Commercial Travellers Association.

Country Travellers ParadeThe “country travellers” worked together for charity as well. From 1906 various “cot funds” were set up to  raise money for sick children, to fund beds in hospitals. (In 1923 the many cots that had been provided by the CT’s to Sydney’s Westmead Hospital  were placed together in one ward, called the “Commercial Travellers’ Ward”.) Around country towns the commercial travellers held fund-raising events, with floats and parades, accompanied by “chocolate wheels” and raffles.

 In the 1930s my grandfather bought a Reo Flying Cloud for some of his travels. On dirt roads, the car often bogged and had to be pushed out.

Very occasionally, as a treat for my grandmother, my grandfather took her with him on one of his trips. But mostly it was lonely for both of them. After a fire at their home in 1946, my grandmother asked him to stay at home more, so he left country travelling and returned to working in the city.

The Commercial Traveller
Who are those with anxious faces, in the towns and busy places,
Journeying with weary paces, carrying attache cases?
Some are short, and some are tall, some have big bags, others small,
Some are dressed in style (Ye gods!) others down at heel (poor sods).

Tell us pray what is their mission, these who go with such precision –
Who are these poor hapless guys? Listen I’ll put you wise.
These (let me inform you sirs) are Commercial Travellers,
And their mission (it transpires) is pursuing men called buyers,
Who (although not blind at all) cannot see them when they call.
So they go with anxious faces, in the town and busy places,
Journeying with weary paces, carrying their attache cases.

Pity not their lot, my brothers, their reward is not as others.
When they’ve finished this life’s mission, they don’t go down to Perdition.
That’s a fate reserved for liars, thieves, Sales Managers and Buyers,
No, their path on earth was rough, and they were punished quite enough,
As they went with anxious faces, in the towns and busy places,
Journeying with weary paces, carrying their attache cases.

When these poor be-knighted mortals, knock at the Celestial Portals,
Show their card and tell their story, OPEN FLY THE GATES OF GLORY!
They have paid for their transgression, so they have a grand procession,
Led by angels playing lyres, last of all ten thousand buyers,
All by forcible persuasion brought from Hell for the occasion,
March behind them several paces, CARRYING THEIR ATTACHE CASES.

(Author unknown)

25 January, 2012 at 2:42 pm 8 comments

Check multiple names and also multiple indexes

I’ve written before about indexes whose titles suggest they are accessing the same records but in fact yield different results (see ‘Multiple indexes are not all the same‘).

However, competition between subscription websites as well as freely available material means that sometimes we now have the luxury of choosing between more than one index to the same information. Especially when those indexes are separately created and not just duplicated, we have an increased chance of actually finding the record we are looking for.

I transcribed some of the 1901 London census and I am well aware how difficult it can be to read the writing. Sometimes I am almost surprised at the amount the indexers seem to have correct! Plus I hope that when researchers find an indexing error they will take the trouble to notify the webmaster (or database or index owner), so a correction can be made, and the general accuracy of the indexes will increase.

I had a reminder this week of the usefulness of multiple indexes. Dr Landsborough took a local census of the inhabitants of Stevenston in Ayrshire (Scotland) in 1819. (A version of this index can be seen on the ThreeTowners website).

We all know that Bill could be William. In Scotland Jessie was interchangeable with Jean, Jane or Janet. Morag becomes Sarah, and Donald could be Daniel.

A Scottish ancestor of mine was Grizel McKENZIE. Over the years I’ve looked for spelling variations of Grizel, but until this week I hadn’t tried looking for the English version of the name ‘Grizel’ – which is ‘Grace’. So the Grizel McKENZIE I was looking for seems to be the Grace McKENZIE who married Andrew SILLARS in Stevenston (Ayrshire) in 1833.

SILLARS is a name that seems to beg mis-spelling – SILLERS and SILAS are common, so when searching an online index I was trying SIL*S. The wildcard * (asterisk) can substitute for none, 1 or more characters. That picked up a number of spelling variations but not all.

That’s when multiple indexes came in handy. For English censuses I might check both FindMyPast.co.uk as well as Ancestry.co.uk but for Scottish censuses I was looking at Ancestry as well as ScotlandsPeople. (You can do a fair bit of searching on ScotlandsPeople before you have to pay). Ancestry only has transcriptions of the Scottish censuses, rather than the full images of the records on ScotlandsPeople, but I have a subscription for Ancestry and so did not have to pay more to search. (Ancestry.com is also generally freely available at libraries.) 

In the 1841 census on Ancestry I found my couple as ‘Andrew and Gaiyle SILLARS’ – I thought that Gaiyle might be a mis-reading of Grizle. But although knowing they were likely there somewhere, I could not find the same couple on ScotlandsPeople – I tried putting a wildcard on the *front* of the name and even that did not find them. In the end I abandoned looking for the surname at all. Fortunately their first names were uncommon so I tried looking for them by first name only, coupled with age and place – and finally I found them – as Andrew and Grizle LILLAY!

So ‘Andrew and Gaiyle SILLARS’ in one index were ‘Andrew and Grizle LILLAY’ in another. Here’s a copy of the image – what do you think?

Andrew and Grizle SILLARS

Andrew and Grizel (Grizle / Grace) SILLARS

15 July, 2011 at 5:36 pm 6 comments

Attitude to convicts (1937)

Another historic newspaper report, this time in response to the Celebration Committee’s plans for the 150-year anniversary celebrations of the landing of the First Fleet in Sydney. The Committee decided that for the re-enactment of the landing, and the subsequent parade of floats, there would be no convicts!

THEY PLAYED THEIR PART.

The Celebrations Committee has …decided to ban the birthstain, so far as next year’s pageantry is concerned. No convicts will disembark at Farm Cove, nor in the subsequent procession will there be the slightest reminder that there would have been no Landing except for the need to find a new home for Britain’s surplus prison population. This impressive feat in the bowdlerisation of history has been greeted with varying degrees of derision by correspondent s of the “Herald” and others. Mr. H. J Rumsey, who has boldly called his roll-call of the First Fleet “The Pioneers of Sydney Cove,” suggests that the representation of the settlement without mention of the two thirds who involuntarily participated in it is comparable to the story of Hamlet without the Prince.

…”Conspicuous by their absence,” indeed, will be the “true patriots” who, if they left their country for their country’s good, did a vast amount of good work in the land of their enforced adoption. By discreetly leaving this family skeleton in the cupboard the committee has ensured its attendance at the feast.

…The morals of some of the convicts were in as poor case as their garments. No amount of sentimental whitewashing, by way of reaction to the excessive fastidiousness of the Celebrations Committee can disguise the fact that the convict pioneers included a number of “complete villains,” as even Phillip, who was a humane man for his times and wished to befriend his charges, was forced to admit.

…He [Phillip] pronounced the great body of them “quiet and contented,” and Hunter was able to say in 1812 that “there are many men who have been convicts, and are now settlers, who are as respectable as any people who have gone from this country.” It is a curious commentary on the present ban that convicts were permitted to join in public celebrations from the earliest times, and themselves staged a dramatic performance as early as 1789; 

…The truth is that, not merely was Australia founded on account of the convicts, but that it would have made scant progress in its first 50 years without them. We have, perhaps, more to be ashamed of in our treatment of the aborigines, some of whose pathetic remnants, will stage a corroboree at Farm Cove, than of the penal origins of our country. The brutal transportation system reflected at least as much discredit upon its authors and some of its operators as upon the majority of its victims. It belongs to the old unhappy, far-off things of another age. Yet, as Dr. John Dunmore Lang, whose words are recalled by a correspondent today, wrote in 1875, it is a great historical fact which cannot be ignored. The effort to do so is likely to provoke more ridicule than a candid recognition of circumstances, which, so far from being discreditable to Australia, emphasise the magnitude of our achievement in building up a vigorous, independent, and freedom-loving nation from such unlikely beginnings at Sydney Cove. It would be the poorest sort of snobbery to deny that many men and women who were brought to this country under degrading conditions rose superior to their misdoings and misfortunes, and played their part in laying the foundations of the Commonwealth.

THEY PLAYED THEIR PART. (1937, December 11). The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842-1954), p. 10. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article17435749

9 June, 2011 at 4:45 pm 1 comment

Attitude to convicts (1891)

Why is it that we are now proud to claim convict ancestors? I was looking in historic newspapers for evidence of earlier views about convict heritage. I found the following remarkable piece in The Queenslander of 7 March 1891:

Whatever changes may be introduced by the advance of Social Democracy, it is doubtful whether pride of birth will ever be eliminated from human nature. There is no sign of it disappearing now at any rate. In Republican France it is just as strong as it was before the Revolution. In America, where there is no titled aristocracy, people are as proud of being descended from somebody who came over in the Mayflower as the Beauforts are of having come over, in the person of an ancestor, with William the Conqueror. In Australia folks have not yet begun to boast of the fact that their forebears came over with the Sirius, or in one of the transports that accompanied that epoch-making vessel. But I have no doubt that will come in time. Most noble origins, from the founding of Rome to the Norman conquest, start from violence and crime, and in a couple of hundred years the convict taint will be blue blood. 

 

8 June, 2011 at 8:56 am 1 comment

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