Saturday, April 25, 2015

Anzac Day Commemoration: Bert and Eric Wenban

In December 1915 two brothers from Millthorpe in New South Wales walked into the recruiting office the nearby town of Orange and enlisted to fight in the war.  The eldest of them, Bertram Aubrey Wenban (known as Bert) had been down to Sydney the previous month to see off some mates from his local area who had already gone to serve their country.  Bert was 25 and 10 months old, 5 foot 3⅞ inches tall, with blue eyes and brown hair. His occupation on his attestation papers was "Engineer and Mechanic", but this vague description referred to the fact that he was the local motor mechanic and ran a motor garage back in Millthorpe.  Bert was made a Private, and assigned the number 5105.

The younger son, Alpheus Eric Wenban (known, not surprisingly, as Eric - or Dick by his friends and family) was just 19 years and 9 months old. He was taller than his brother at 5 feet 7¼ inches tall and also had blue eyes but his hair was described as dark brown, not just brown.  Eric had spent 4 years in Cadets while at school.   Since then he had been working as a postal assistant and received high honours in the Postal and Telegraphic examination.  He was initially stationed in Millthorpe Post Office, but in Jun 1914 was transferred to Delungra in the Inverell district where he worked as a telegraph operator. As he was under 21 the consent of his parents was needed for him to enlist, and he was assigned the number 5106 – the one following that assigned to Bert.

Eric (left) and Bert (right) Wenban

The brothers were assigned to the 17th Battalion, 13th Reinforcements and sent to Lithgow (along with some other local boys) for training from 30 December 1915 until 18 January the following year. They were then transferred to Bathurst until 9 March 1916. Eric was made Acting Corporal (probably owing to his Cadet experience) while at Bathurst and Acting Lance Corporal the day after they left Bathurst. They were given final leave to visit their families in April 1916 and were each presented a "wristlet watch" (wrist watches were a new phenomenon at this time) by the local patriotic committee, (along with 3 other privates from the area).  Bert and Eric embarked on the HMAT Kyarra in Sydney on 3 June 1916 and set off two days later to do their bit.

Once in England they were sent to Salisbury Plain for further training, arriving there on 4 August.  The only incident where either of the brothers seemed to get into trouble took place during this period. Eric was Absent Without Leave from 2400 on the 11 September 1916 til 2400 of the following day and had to forfeit eight days pay.

On 30 September the brothers were transferred to the 33rd Battalion and less than two months later, on 21 November, they found themselves boarding a ship in Southampton for the voyage across the channel to France. This was in the middle of the winter that was notoriously the coldest one in a hundred years, when the pools of water froze, as did the men's wet boots, and the icicles hung from the roofs of buildings and dugouts alike.

For months the Germans had occupied a ridge south of Ypres which afforded them a good vantage point to pick off the Allied soldiers.  On 7 June 1917 the battle that became to be known as the Battle of Messines commenced with the detonation of 19 mines underneath Hill 60.

Bert was attached to a Lewis Machine Gun crew (he had been a noted marksman before the war and a crack shot in the Millthorpe Rifle Club) and he and three others were sent out that day to take up a position. The Germans located that position and dropped shells round them, the last one landing on top of them. Two of them were buried, and when dug out found to be unharmed, but Bert had had all bar two fingers blown off his left hand, an injury to his right arm, and a piece of shrapnel lodged in his head, just below the scalp. The right arm later had to be amputated, leaving only a stump two inches long.  The shrapnel was successfully removed.

After some time being treated and convalescing in England, Bert was sent home. He sailed on 15 February 1918 onboard the HT Llanstephen Castle. In the meantime, Eric had been formally made a Lance Corporal on 7 Aug 1917. He was granted two weeks leave in England in January 1918, during which time he visited his brother.
 
Sadly, while Bert was on his way home to Australia, his family received a cable saying that Eric had been killed. So the town, which otherwise would have put on a celebration for Bert's arrival back in Millthorpe on 19 April, was rather subdued in their welcome for him.

Leader (Orange, NSW), 22 Apr 1918

On 27 March 1918 the Germans attacked the ruined village of H├ębuterne, where Australian Forces had relieved the British the day before.  Fighting continued until 5 April in what became known as the Battle of H├ębuterne.

In the late afternoon of 30 March, during a counter-attack, Eric was near a Bosche trench in Hangard Wood when he was shot by a machine gun bullet. Some reports say the bullet hit him in the head, and others in the heart, but all say that he died instantly.  Pte M McLeod of the same division reported to the Red Cross that he was buried at the foot of hill between Villers-Bretonneux and Cachy, but if that is so then either his body has not been recovered or not identified, for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission state that he has no known grave.  He is commemorated at the National Australian Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux. Eric was just 22 years old.

Amongst his possessions supposed to be returned to Australia were a testament and a prayer book and a pipe.  They were on board the cargo ship Barunga on their way to Australian when she was torpedoed and sunk in the Atlantic Ocean.

After the war Bert ran a garage in Millthorpe, and later drove a taxi (despite the missing arm and fingers).  On Anzac Day 1925 Bert married Frances Emily Woodlawn Oldham at St Matthew's Church, Grahamstown. They had three children: Eric Henry Wenban (b1926), Dorothy Elizabeth Wenban (b1937) and Bertram Keith Wenban (b1940). By 1954 he was retired and living in Guildford, NSW, and by 1963 had moved to a home in Eastwood, where he died on 30 September 1967. His funeral service was held back in Millthorpe where he had grown up and spent so much of his life.


These two young men who gave so much were my second cousins, three times removed.


Tuesday, April 7, 2015

AFFHO Keynotes Days 3 and 4

Day three of the AFFHO conference started with Michael McKernan talking about the impact of the First World War on those at home in Australia.  To do this he focused on the experiences of the families of a couple of individuals, such as the family of Jack Fothergill of the 6th Battalion, who died on the first day of the landings at Gallipoli.  His parents put an In Memorium notice in the newspaper every year (except one) from the first anniversary of his death in 1916 until his mother died in 1948.  Each one contained a unique poem written in memory of their son Jack.  He also talked about the Whitelaw family, who had six sons who enlisted, of whom four died. One of those sons, Angus McSween Whitelaw, was only 16 when he enlisted, though said he was 18.  His mother found out and tracked him to his training camp and told him that if he didn't tell the authorities what his correct age was, then she would.  He told her that if she did that she would never see him again.  Torn between these two options, she said nothing and eighteen months later he was dead.

Michael McKernan
His talk was interesting, but considering he describes himself as a WWI historian and has led battlefield tours, I was very surprised when a question from the audience showed that he didn't know that the commemorative medallions given to the families of the deceased were known as a "Dead Man's Penny", and that he said they were not given to the families of Australian casualties, which is the not the case, and I have seen some examples of them.

The first Keynote of Day 4 was David Holman, whose talk was entitled Fascinating facts and figures from five centuries.  This is an amusing "after-dinner" type talk, with some interesting statistics about names and some very funny examples of marriages (e.g. William Axe marrying Mary Killer).  He had also given this as a Keynote talk in Adelaide at the previous congress, but it's amusing and a bit of light relief after three days of intensive learning.

David Holman

The final keynote of the conference was the only talk I attended that was given by Cora Num this time around.  She gave all her talks via video link, as she had injured her neck not long before the conference and was unable to travel.  This talk was Front page to back page – using online newspapers.  For most of us in Australia, using online newspapers is second nature. Trove has spoilt us, and we go out looking for additional "hits" of our favourite "drug", so most of us are familiar with the Gale offerings, the British Newspaper Archive, and New Zealand's "Papers Past".  Useful as this talk was as a compendium of the offerings available (and therefore even more useful in its full form in the Congress Proceedings), I'm not sure that this was what I'd have chosen as a conference keynote. 

Cora Num giving her keynote via video link

Sunday, April 5, 2015

AFFHO Day 2 Keynotes

The first Keynote speaker for day 2 of the AFFHO conference was Josh Taylor, talking about Connecting Across Past, Present and Future.  He was introduced by Jan Gow from New Zealand who quoted a Chinese proverb that I thought was very powerful 

"When the winds of change blow some people build walls. Others build windmills."

Josh told us how his grandmother got him interested in family history when he was ten years old.  As a child his holidays were spent accompanying his grandmother to cemeteries and family history societies, and he loved the experience.

Josh Taylor

These are the things he said he learnt from his Grandmother:
  • There is always another way to break down your brick walls
  • Cite your sources
  • Family history societies are an incredible resource (his grandma joined him up in every FHS they stopped at and renewed the memberships until he went to college)
  • You will never find everything (its ok if you can’t fill in every date and place)
  • Grandmothers are the best (his gave him $20 per month as photocopy money)
  • The past is full of adventure

He also showed us a graphic displaying the hierarchy of interest in family history:
  • not interested
  • curious
  • casual explorers
  • frequent explorers
  • addicted


Next were a few insights into his work on the Rob Lowe episode of Who Do You Think You Are? He spent an entire day looking through tax records for Philadelphia and it ended up as a 3 minute segment.  Similarly on the Genealogy Road Show he might spend 6 months researching a subject only to have it cut down to a 2 minute segment.

Finally he showed some fictional family trees - Donald Duck’s family, the people from the Harry Potter books, Star Wars characters & James Bond.

All in all an amusing Keynote speech.

The afternoon keynote speech was given by Richard Reid, whose talk was entitled If you ever go across the sea to Ireland: Realities of 19th century Ireland. It started off with Patrick Corr (I hope I have spelt his name correctly) who sang an acapella version of the Bing Crosby song Galway Bay. Richard then took to the stage.

Richard Reid and Patrick Corr
He stated that a lot of the information in his talk comes from his book Farewell my Children, so if anyone is interested in learning more about this you can consult a copy of that book.

He stated that although many people believe that assisted immigrants often lied about their age or occupation in order to qualify for the assisted passage, his finding contradict this.  He points out that the application form submitted to the Land and Emigration Commissioners had to be sworn in front of a clergyman – a disincentive to lie – and that his study of one Irish parish showed that 98% of the applications were correct.

He also provided some statistics on the type of Irish immigrants to NSW.  Of those travelling between 1848-1870 there were 12,0001 families, 1920 couples, 1068 married people with a spouse in the colony, 19,357 (which is 44%) were travelling alone, 2,451 (6%) were widows or widowers, and 7,391 (17%) had relatives in the colonies.

He also gave some advice on sources that might help find a person's place of origin in Ireland.  Headstones may have place of birth and death certificates (for place of birth & marriage).  Once you have found the townland of origin you should find out what is was like to live there.  Has anyone written about it?  All this will help you understand the motives for your ancestors' decision to emigrate. 

One source of information is the Irish Censuses.  Although the returns for early censuses were destroyed in 1922, the statistics compiled from those censuses were published in the British Parliamentary Papers.

Irish newspapers can also have lists of people evicted by landlords.


His take-away message was "look at everything - open the box and search out your ancestor."

Friday, March 27, 2015

AFFHO Day 1 - Some of the talks

Here are a few thoughts about the talks I attended on the first day of the AFFHO congress in Canberra.

The first talk I attended (after the morning's keynote) was by Simon Fowler, whose talk was entitled Shovelling out Paupers: Researching assisted emigration in English archives.  I was most remiss and didn't take a photo of Simon, as I was too busy taking notes based on the talk.

Simon's talk was predominantly about some of the non-official schemes that assisted or paid for emigration from the UK. Sadly, some recurring themes were that it was "difficult" and there "weren't many records", so people who were looking for a list of online sites to check were disappointed.

Nonetheless, I found it very interesting and also useful, in that it mentioned many charitable and other non-official schemes to assist people to emigrate from the UK.  The other value to me was that he mentioned lots of schemes that went to places other than Australia and New Zealand, reminding me that there were other places where assisted emigrants were sent.

Another talk I attended was Paul Milner's Buried Treasure: what's in the English Parish Chest.  This didn't really cover any ground that was new to me, but I enjoyed seeing the examples he showed.  His talk was restricted to the records found in the parish of Leeds in Kent (not the one in Yorkshire), which was a good way to approach the subject.

Paul Milner

The final talk I attended was Helen Smith's In the Workhouse: Caring for the Poor.  Helen started with an overview of the background to the provision of poor relief since the Dissolution of the monasteries and the introduction of the New Poor Law Act of 1834.  She then focused on the outcomes of that act, such as the establishment of the Poor Law Unions and the construction of the workhouses.

Helen Smith

She then went on to describe the workhouse system, what life was like in the workhouses and then how to identify and find people who had (or may have) been in a workhouse. Finally she talked about where to find any records that may survive relating to a workhouse.


In contrast to the of the day by Roger Kershaw (see here), Helen did not read out her talk, but spoke to the slides.  Her slides effectively illustrated what she was talking about, and she was animated and interesting - all in all a talk that was well worth attending.

AFFHO Congress - Day 1 Keynotes

The 14th Australasian Conference on Genealogy and History opened this morning.  This triennial event is in Canberra this time, and is being attended by about 550 people. This year, for the first time at one of these conferences, 40 librarians attended a "Librarian's Day" on the day before the conference opened. 

The proceedings commenced with Kerrie Gray, conference convener, welcoming the attendees. She then introduced the Immediate Past President of the Heraldry and Genealogy Society of Canberra (HAGSOC), Rosemary McKenzie, who told us all about the history of HAGSOC. Josh Taylor from Findmypast then told us about some of the recent and upcoming changes to Findmypast.  One of the exciting datasets that should be coming before the end of the year is the 1939 register from the UK, which was taken just before the outbreak of the second world war. As the 1931 census was destroyed in the bombing, and the 1941 census never took place due to the war, this is an important census substitute. This register is being indexed using "intelligent character recognition" which electronically "reads" the handwriting.

Josh Taylor from Findmypast

The keynote speaker, Dr Mathew Trinca, Director of the National Museum of Australia, then spoke on the importance of the stories of ourselves.  He himself was of Italian stock.  His mother was the Australian-born daughter of Italian migrants who arrived in the 1920s, and his father was a migrant himself who arrived shortly before the Second World War when he could see war looming on the horizon. These people's lives were their stories. They had both come from the same little town in the North of Italy near the Swiss border.  Matt's grandfather came out first to find a job and get settled, and then a few years later his mother and her children came out - later more children were born in Australia.

Dr Matt Trinca

Matt's father initially went to Melbourne, then worked in a gold mine in Kalgoorlie.  He kept a nugget of gold from that time and it is from that nugget that Matt's own wedding ring was made.

At university he started to think about his own story set against the past and his mixed Italian & Anglo-Celtic upbringing. He also started thinking about his father's story, and the hardships and prejudice he faced. He then highlighted two books written as migration memoirs.  The first, They're a weird mob by John O'Grady writing as Nino Cullota, approaches the subject from a humourous angel.  The other book he talked about, Romulus my Father by Raimond Gaita treats it in a more serious manner.

Matt made the point that all these stories, especially those about his parents' and grandparents' lives in Italy, help him make sense of who he is. He began to see his own family's past as connected to others. History is as much about the present conditions and preoccupations as it is about the past.  His own family history is closely connected to the pattern of Australia's past which is the history of a series of migrations, both before and after the Second World War.

Matt's Italian-Australian family

He then went onto talk about the "Defining Moments" project being run by the National Museum.  It encourages people to record the stories of people that connect them to the Museum's listed 100 defining moments in history, and acknowledges the connection between the history of a family and the history of the nation.

Strangely, since his talk was all about stories, he didn't encourage us to write down our own stories, or even to contribute to the web site, which would have been a logical conclusion to his talk.



The second Keynote of the day (during the immediate post-lunch session) was Roger Kershaw on Tracing Free Immigrants to Australia. I had attended a talk by Roger in Adelaide at the last AFFHO congress, which I thought was excellent, so had high expectations of this keynote speech.  Sadly I was rather disappointed. Firstly, Roger read the entire speech from notes. Most of the time his head was pointed down towards those notes, not looking at the audience. The keynote speaker in the morning had done the same thing, but his talk was captivating enough that we forgave that. Roger's talk was so full of important and interesting content that it was impossible to be able to write down all the notes I'd have liked to make - especially the references to certain document classes in the National Archives (those references weren't reflected on the slides, which would have made that task easier for me).  Disappointingly, his talk was also rather dry. While I was losing my place in the talk I was hoping that what he was reading was the contents of the paper he had submitted for the proceedings. However when I looked at my copy of the proceedings (on a USB drive) this was not the case.  I think I will probably be able to find the TNA references at least in that paper (which actually looks like it will be excellent and useful), but much of what he said is probably lost to me forever.


In summary, this was an important and interesting talk, that was let down by cramming too much information into a short time and by missing references to the sources of documents on the slides.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

A Visit to the Australian War Memorial


Today I visited the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. In exactly one month it will be 100 years since the ANZAC forces (and the English, French and other forces serving with the British) landed in the Dardanelles (i.e. Gallipoli).

I happened to arrive when a free guided tour was about to start.  As I had never been on one before I decided to join in.  It was supposed to last for 90 minutes, but it was closer to 2 hours by the time our guide finished.  At 11am the last post is sounded, which was 30 minutes into our tour, and I confess I got rather choked up.  The tour was excellent, and (as always) the war memorial was very moving.  Because we are going on a Western Front battlefields tour (where my grandfather served) in July, and because at the moment the focus is on Gallipoli and the First World War, I spent most of my time (after the tour) in the WW1 galleries.  These have been newly refurbished, but still feature the wonderful dioramas.

A picture speaks a thousand words, so I will fill this post with photos.

The Memorial Hall and Rolls of Honour Galleries

The WW1 Roll of Honour,
commemorating 62,000 Australian dead

The Unknown Soldier
"He is all of them. And he is one of us"

One of the boats from the Gallipoli landing

Lone Pine Diorama

Somme Winter Diorama

Somme Winter Diorama

Bullecourt Diorama

Ypres Diorama

When the Australians liberated Villiers-Bretonneux they
renamed all the German-named streets

Sunday, March 15, 2015

A Year of Anniversaries

This year is a significant anniversary of a number of major historical events.

It is 100 years since the Australian, New Zealand, British and assorted other allied forces landed at Gallipoli.  Australians tend to assume that only themselves and their Kiwi cousins were at the Dardanelles, but other forces were also present. Amongst them were the British army, and accompanying 11th Division of the British Army was the 34th Field Ambulance of the Royal Army Medical Corps. Amongst the members of that Field Ambulance was my son's great-great-grandfather, William Henry Bell.  William Bell had been born in 1880 in South Hetton, Co. Durham, and was working as a coal miner when war was declared. He enlisted early, and though his service records haven't survived, we know from his medal index card that he first served overseas in Egypt on 14 July 1915.  He was said to have enlisted at the same time as two of his brothers. Certainly his younger brother, George Robert Bell, has a regimental number two lower than William's, and their brother John James Bell also served in the first world war. The 34th Field Ambulance was not amongst the first landings at Gallipoli.  In fact they landed at Suvla Bay on 7 August 1915.  

In his book Great Britain's Great War Jeremy Paxman describes the chaos that surrounded their landing and their time in the Dardenelles. Unlike Paxman's Uncle Charlie, about whom he writes in the book, William Henry Bell did survive the Gallipoli campaign.  He was eventually sent to the Western Front, where he died on 25 April 1918, leaving a wife and three young children.
Private William Henry Bell on left. Some of the others in
the photo may be his brothers

It is also 200 years since the Battle of Waterloo.  My son also has an ancestor who was there. Thomas Fife was a gunner in Captain Mercer's "G" troop of the Royal Horse and Foot Artillery.  Sadly, as a member of the rank and file, there is little other information available about his involvement in the Napoleonic Wars. Thomas Fife also survived Waterloo (as he is known to have fathered children up to at least circa 1836, but when and where he did die is not known.

300 years ago the 1715 Jacobite Rebellion (known as "the Fifteen") took place. My son does have ancestors from Cowper in Fife (though I have been unable to trace them beyond the 19th century), so it's vaguely possible that he had an ancestor or relative involved in the Fifteen.

1415 is a date which is well known to lovers of Shakespeare. It was during that year that King Henry V defeated the French at the Battle of Agincourt.  I have no idea whether my son or I have any relatives who fought in that battle.


And finally, this year also marks the 800th anniversary of King John signing the Magna Carta.  I suspect if my son had any ancestors there, they were merely holding the horse for one of the Barons, or doing his laundry, so some other menial task.