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March 2013


Has it ever struck you that, in doing family history research, someone else always seems to have the more interesting stuff happening in their family lines, rather than your own? That the grass is, after all, always greener on the other side of the genealogical fence? After watching the seemingly endless array of Who Do You Think You Are? episodes now available, I am more than ever convinced that all the exciting family history really does happen to someone else, not me. It is all rather depressing. I have no convicts, murderers, embezzlers, thieves, adventurers, explorers, celebrities, politicians or military heroes in my family lines – just dull, ordinary people. So I have resolved this problem – I now research other people's more interesting families!

This was not a deliberate decision on my part however, but one that was arrived at quite by accident. Also, I do not specifically select a particular family for my extra-curricular research activities – they have always come to me via other research I have been engaged in at the time. Let me explain with three examples ...

Firstly, about a decade or so ago, when I was doing research for my honours thesis on the disciplinary performance of Australian soldiers involved in the Boer War, I went to Canberra to have a look at the records at the War Memorial’s research centre. I turned up first thing on a Monday morning at the Memorial, only to be told that the research centre was closed, that it had actually closed that very morning, and would be so for the next six months as it was being refurbished! Horror! That forced me to drastically revise my research effort on the spot, and saw me heading over to the National Archives office to try my luck there. I hadn’t originally planned to spend much time there as Boer War records are mostly held in Melbourne. But I was lucky.

While desultorily rolling through some microfilm records and not finding much, I let my ears flap a little and was listening to one of the staff members explain what sort of records the Archives held to a female visitor. This woman stated that she was visiting from Brisbane, and was only in town for that one day, and that her greatgrandfather had served in the Boer War. I perked up a bit. She then went on to say that he had written a lot of letters home and that she had every one of them. I really sat up when I heard that! Then she said that his parents and siblings had written many letters back to him at the front – and that she still had most of those as well! I was truly salivating by this stage – this was an historian’s dream come true, to have both sides of a letter conversation still in existence after more than a hundred years! I quickly made myself known to her, telling her what I was researching regarding the Boer War, and I have been lucky enough to have now obtained copies of all the letters concerned. Though her great-grandfather was in a Victorian contingent rather than a Queensland one, his story was still very interesting, and having the input of his immediate family makes it all the better. If I had been able to go to the War Memorial that day as I had planned to, I would never have met her. Isn’t coincidence a wonderful thing?

Secondly, I was again at the Canberra office of the National Archives a couple of years later when I came across two files concerning the same man. At first I thought the second file was the one I had already seen, because both files, apart from having the same name on the front, were of a similar size – about twenty pages each. On looking closer I saw that they were indeed different files, and that taken together, the second file helped to explain why the actions taken in the first file possibly occurred. Both files concern a certain James Alfred McGhie, who was an infantryman in the First Victorian Contingent sent to South Africa at the outset of the Boer War. Basically, McGhie deserted his unit after its first engagement with the Boers, which happened to be a fairly large one, and his unit suffered high casualties. This is a serious military crime, but after more than 100 years, there is not much to say about it other than it happened. It is what happened before and after the desertion, that might have contributed to the situation, that really makes McGhie’s story interesting.

McGhie was 41, old for a foot soldier, and working as a miner near Ballarat when the war started. He volunteered and sailed as an infantryman, but as soon as his unit arrived in South Africa the British gave them all horses, on the premise that Colonials could all ride. So now he had a horse to look after, as well as himself. Then an officer of the unit, for which there is evidence linking McGhie to serving as his batman, was killed in their first big battle. This might have unsettled McGhie, who may have about then started to think that war was a young fellow’s game. Soon afterwards he managed to talk himself onto the sick list using a somewhat suspicious tale about an injured wrist. How he came to be injured tends to morph a little each time he tells the tale at later dates. He manages to talk himself into the company of a Doctor Toll who was taking a party of injured soldiers to Capetown. No sooner do they reach Capetown than Toll boards a ship for Australia, leaving McGhie to his own devices. Still talking the talk, McGhie (yes, he is of Irish descent) manages to convince the Australian agent in Capetown to pay for his passage back to Australia.

On arrival in Melbourne – on a dark and stormy night, no less – McGhie promptly reports to military headquarters the very next day. Yes, I did say that he was of Irish descent, and apparently capable of talking the blarney very well, but he was possibly less smart in other areas, like common sense. The military authorities soon suspected that he might just be a deserter. In fact, McGhie was, and is, Australia’s first, most successful deserter, having managed to talk his way from the front, all the hundreds of miles overland back to Capetown, and thence all the thousands of sea miles back to Australia – and no-one has ever heard of him! The one man who was crucial to proving the truth or lie in McGhie’s tale, Doctor Toll, providentially died on the voyage home to Australia. McGhie apparently also had the luck of the Irish on his side as well. After several months of desultory evidence collection, during which time McGhie was collecting his military pay, the authorities decided that yes, he probably was a deserter, but that it would be too hard to get more evidence and witnesses from South Africa, and promptly discharged him! A lucky, lucky man, indeed. But, there’s more.

All the above was in the first file on McGhie. The second file concerned his wife, in Melbourne. Belinda McGhie wrote a series of letters to the Victorian Government after she saw a small newspaper article that described the collection for, and sending of, a large box of comforts from Ballarat to the troops in South Africa. The Ballarat Lady Mayoress had organised the whole thing, and there was a big send off for the box at the Ballarat train station. Apparently there was two pounds left over and the Mayoress gave the money to “the youngest child of Private James Alfred McGhie” who happened to be on the platform with its mother. Belinda knew that the only child she bore to James had died many years before, and it suddenly dawned on her that all the years that he had been working in Ballarat and “unable to support her” he had instead been supporting a younger woman and the several children she had born to him! She literally went off like a cracker! Each letter in the series is ever more strident than the last - she wanted McGhie’s military pay that was going to “that woman” in Ballarat, and she was going to sue McGhie for bigamy where-ever he might hide in the world. He was in deep trouble. To top all this off, his youngest child born in Ballarat, a son, died whilst he was in South Africa, and there is enough time for a letter informing him of this to have arrived in South Africa before he made off from the war. I think it is the circumstances of his wife finding out about his mistress and of his son’s death that may have pushed him to leave the war. He knew he had things to sort out at home, but that the military would not let him leave because of those reasons – so he just left anyway, and got home any way he could. If that was the case, you have to admire the man for his actions.

Thirdly, some years ago I was down at the Queensland State Archives doing research into the Queensland Bushman Contingents that were sent to the Boer War in South Africa, 1899-1902. I was working my way through endless packets of Premier’s Inwards Correspondence when I came upon the Dunn family file. This file was roughly an inch thick, containing about 100 pages, and also covered the same years as the war period. The item that piqued my interest was the top letter, which was from the British Consul in Mexico City. You just don’t see many letters from Consuls based in Mexico in the Queensland Archives. This had to be interesting! I photographed the entire file and took it home to read through. I am glad I did, for it was very interesting.

The Dunn family, parents and three children with a fourth child born here, arrived in Brisbane in mid to late 1899. Joseph Dunn was a civil engineer, with several patents to his name that concerned the sugar distillation process. He left his wife and children in Brisbane while he continued on to Bundaberg to do some work for a sugar mill there. All was well for a few months, until Mrs Dunn’s monthly allowance cheques from her husband stopped arriving. The very same day in November 1899 that she reported her concerns to police, her husband and the Bundaberg barmaid he had run away with were walking off a ship in San Francisco!

The majority of the Dunn file documents the steady social, physical and mental decline of Alexandrina Dunn as she battled to bring her husband to justice of some sort. Her youngest child died, and her other children all ended up in an orphanage, as she was unable to get regular work to support herself and them. She spent some time in the Dunwich Asylum, but didn’t endear herself to authorities there, as she accused the Matron of being a drunkard and even applied, unsuccessfully, for her job. Alexandrina’s file even contains an enquiry conducted into her time spent at Dunwich, and gives insight into the processes and inmates there. There is also a report from Scotland Yard in her file, as Joseph Dunn was thought to have property in England, which may have been able to support his wife and children. That line of enquiry came to nought. But wait, again there’s more.

The Dunn file also revealed that the couple was married in 1891 - in Costa Rica! This was getting interesting. I spent some time on FamilySearch and was able to find a digitised record of the original marriage – hat’s off to the Mormons. Unfortunately, it was all in Spanish. This occasioned buying a Spanish dictionary – a big Spanish dictionary. I learnt then that all parties to the marriage, parents included, were of Irish descent. Curiouser and curiouser – how, and why, did they all end up in Costa Rica? That is a question still to be answered.

Through a lot of detective work, and a bit of luck, I have been able to track the fleeing Joseph Dunn through Mexico, into Cuba, on to Philadelphia, and back to Melbourne, Australia in 1914! What a journey. I now have two branches of a family, with the same father, to track in Australia. What fun – much better than my own dull family, eh?

There you have it – my proof that other people’s family history is always more interesting. If you choose to follow  my path, just make sure that the family you choose has some Irish involvement somewhere – they just can't seem to help themselves in making things more interesting.

Geoff Doherty