Friday, February 14, 2014

15 and going to War

My great uncle, Keith Davey Ferguson, was under age when he enlisted in the AMF under his elder brother's name on 8 June 1940. It's unclear what motivated Keith to join the services but he was accepted and was known as "Geoffrey Charles Ferguson" until 4 November 1940 when the records were changed to reflect his true identity. 

His attestation form lists him as a bootmaker, single, born in Melbourne but living at 46 Camden Street Fairfield, New South Wales.

His initial posting was to the 6th Infantry based a Parramatta before moving to Tamworth to under go training. On 2 February, 1941, he embarked at Sydney on the HT "QX" for Singapore where he arrived on the 18th.

At some point his parents learned of his enlistment and contacted the army to attempt to have him returned as he was only 15 and 8 months of age when he enlisted and not the 20.5 to which he had attested. However, the army assured them that he was going to be nice and safe in Fortress Singapore. 

Well we all know how that worked out. Singapore fell on 15 February, 1942. Keith had been stationed out of Singapore during the Malay campaign at Port Dickson, in modern day Malaysia. By this stage he had been promoted to Acting Corporal, not that he was going to enjoy the privileges of rank for very long.

Initially listed as missing, it is probable that Keith was taken prisoner on Singapore as part of the general surrender. However, his records show a significant lapse in time between the fall and him being listed as a POW (17 November 1943), but this may just be the natural lag due to capitulation. In any event it must have been torture for his parents.
PoW Notice
When he made it to Sandakan is not clear but by 8 July 1942, transport of prisoners for their 10 day journey had commenced. Official records list him being interned at the camp by 16 October, 1944. As many prisoners were held in Changi before being moved to Borneo, it's possible that this is what happened to Keith.

Keith was able to survive as a POW in some of the worst conditions of the war until just weeks before it ended. The official records list his death occurring on 14 July, 1945. The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were less than a month a way, and with them the end of the war on 15 August. 

I've found no records that report on Keith's experiences as a Prisoner of War. He was allowed to send the occasional card but these were more like form letters, with boxes to tick but no room (or opportunity) to report on what was really happening. 

However, as a prisoner at Sandakan and a victim of the notorious death marches (as a participant or one left behind), there are lots of records from war crime trials that give some inkling to the horrors he witnessed and experienced.

An interview of L/Bdr Moxham, one of the few survivors of Sandakan, gave the following description of conditions. He was reporting on another POW, W.O. John Kinder:

"In February, 1945, 470 prisoners were marched from Sandakan to Puginatang, the march lasting 19 days. After approximately one month at Puginatang the prisoners were marched to Ranau, arriving there early in April. John Kinder was then in reasonably good health. He was in charge of the party during the marches and at Ranau. He did a good job right through and got several bashings from the Japs. for protesting about ill-treatment of them men.

"About 15th April Kinder became sick with dysentery. He recovered but was in low condition. Later he suffered from malaria and subsequently with dysentery again. Whilst suffering from both diseases he died on June 10th. I was with him when he died and buried him myself. I put a cross on his grave and marked his name on it.

"When Kinder died there were only 35 survivors of the original party of 470. We all suffered from malnutrition and bad treatment generally. Only one other man and myself survived ultimately." [NAA: A705, 166/22/357]

There were two Sandakan Marches that resulted in the deaths of over 2300 Allied prisoners of war, including Keith Davey Ferguson. Given the date of his death, it appears Keith perished following the final march to Ranau that had begun on 9 June, 1945. 

"Approximately 250 people were left at Sandakan after the second march departed. Most prisoners were so ill that the Japanese initially intended to let them starve to death. However on 9 June 1945 it was decided to send another group of 75 men on a final march. The remaining men were so weak that none survived beyond 50 kilometres (31 mi). As each man collapsed from exhaustion, that man was shot by a Japanese guard. All remaining prisoners left at Sandakan who could not walk either were killed or died from a combination of starvation and sickness before the Japanese surrender on 15 August 1945." [Wikipedia]

The rationale for the marches were to move supplies but also to evacuate before the Allied landings.

"First reason was because of the war conditions on the east of Borneo namely Morotai, Celebes and Leyte. Also, we knew that the Allied air force were gathering numerous plans at Morotai in preparation and also the operations at Leyte were becoming worse and Australian troops had landed at Tarakan; besides this the Otsuka Unit informed us that the Allies were probably going to land at Sandakan and from other intelligence reports we decided to move the PW. The second reason was that the Japanese strength at Sandakan at that time was about 1,5000 and as their line of defence was very long we did not have enough troops to cover all that area and should the PW be left in Sandakan they would become troublesome and endangered. Third reason. The food supply position had become difficult..." [Testimony of Iwahashi Manabu from "Loss of Australian PoW in death march from Sandakan to Ranau" National Australian Archives: MP742/1, 51/1/269]

On 1st June, 1946, the Federal Executive of "The Returned Sailors', Soldiers' and Airmen's Imperial League of Australia", wrote to the Secretary to the Department of the Army,  F. R. Sinclair, requesting "any information ... on the loss of some two thousand Australian Prisoners of War in the death march from Sandakan to Ranau, North Borneo between August 1943 and August 1945."

The testimonies and interrogations of Lt Horikawa Koichi, Cpt Yamamoto Shoichi, [ibid] sheds some light on the second death march:

Koichi - 

"Before my group left Sandakan there were other instructions from Army HQ concerning the march. It was about 2 or 3 days after Capt Yamamoto left that a telegram from Army HQ came stating

  1. The March should be hastened.
  2. Report the number of parties departed on the march.
  3. If possible organise the party of the strongest and march as soon as possible.

Cross-Examined by Prosecuting Officer

Q. Did Capt Yamamoto reprimand you for leaving 9 prisoners at Boto.
A. No I was not reprimanded.

Q. How many of the POW in your party were wearing boots when you took them over at Sandakan.
A. I do not remember exactly but I think around 40% of the total were wearing leather boots. 

Questions by Court

Q. Do you know what happened to the POW which you left at Boto
A. Yes

Q. What happened to them.
A. I started back from Toran and on the way I met the Japanese soldier whom I had left behind and I heard the position from them and at Paginetan I met for POWs that had caught up. I heard their story and from there I went back to Boto, and I made sure of their story.

Shoichi - 

Q. How many prisoners died on the march?
A. I do not know the exact figures but I think more than 100 died on the march.

Q. What did they die of?
A. They died of malaria, beri beri, and blood poisoning from infected wounds and scratches. The latter I believe was caused because the prisoners march bare-footed.

Q. Did you know they were bare-footed when they started to march?
A. About the middle of Jan I received orders from Army HQ to send 400 POW to Tuaran which is 23 miles from Jesselton. The purposes of sending these prisoners was to make them carry ammunition and equipment require at Jesselton. I myself decided that the prisoners were not fit to carry ammunition and equipment, but my orders were to march the prisoners to Tuaran. I did not give the prisoners shoes because I had not enough to supply them, and as soon as the orders for marching came I had to carry them out, and had not time to do anything about the shoes.
Q. What happened to prisoners who got too tired to walk?
A. Those that could not walk the other prisoners helped along.

Q. What happened when they could not go any further?
A. The soldiers watched over them and if any fell out they guarded them?

Q. What happened to them?
A. The soldiers would take them to the next camp later. I put out an order not to harm the prisoners but whether they were beaten I do not know.

Q. Did you put the order out because you knew the soldiers were harming the prisoners?
A. I did not see such things. I put the order out because I thought it was right according to the Prisoners of War Regulations.

Q. Did any of the prisoners die on the track or at the staging points?
A. Some died in the camps and some on the way.

Q. How many were shot?
A. Some were shot but I do not know the exact number...

Q. Were prisoners left to die when they fell out?
A. Those who could not work I abandoned.

Perhaps the most understated piece of testimony during the inquiry comes from the questioning of Col. Takayama Hikoichi, Chief of Staff of the 37th Army:

Q. It is said that of over 2,000 prisoners at Sandakan, six are now alive; As a senior staff officer what have you to say about that?
A. I think that is a very regrettable business.

Although the deaths in Sandakan ran into the thousands, it was the execution of Captain L. C. Matthews that was a focal point for war crimes' trials after the war. As a prisoner in Sandakan he was part of a group, betrayed by a local, who were communicating with the outside world. He kept notes in a small diary listing people, arms, and ammunition that was subsequently discovered. He and his co-conspirators were interrogated at Sandakan before being moved to Kuching. 

Matthews was found guilty of plotting a mutiny and executed. His final words, spoken to Lt Wells, before being driven off for the firing squad were, "Please tell my wife that I always love her, and tell my sons to fight until we have victory".  His co-defendants were imprisoned - but not at Sandakan - and many managed to survive the war and testify at the subsequent war crimes' trial. The witness statements run to over 340 pages and make compelling yet disturbing reading. (The reference number is NAA: MP742/1, 336/1/1854.)

The testimony of Lt. Alexander Gordon Weyton of Castelmaine Victoria paints a vivid and horrifying picture of the treatment of the prisoners at Sandakan.

"... are two photographs endorsed NB115. I recognise this Japanese as Warrant Officer [Kesao] Ehara [referred to as "The Bulldog" or "The Bully"]. This Japanese was a member of the Sandakan Kempei Tai. Ehara carried out some of the interrogation of me at Sandakan. On one occasion Sapper E. J. Keating, who was also a prisoner of the Kempei Tai, passed me a note and was caught doing so. Ehara brutally flogged Keating for this. Spr Keating was very ill with dysentry and he had a large ulcer on his right leg; he subsequently died at Kuching in February 1944 before the trial. One day in September 1943 I saw Ehara brutally beat an Indian, Ojuga Singh, breaking his jaw. Singh's injury was left unattended and remained until he was executed in March 1944. I also saw Ehara beat Mrs Mavor and Mrs Taylor, wife of Dr Taylor.
"This Japanese [another identified by Weyton] carried a whip with which he used to flog prisoners. He flogged me with this whip and also Mrs Mavor and Mrs Taylor. On one occasion I saw this Japanese brutally beat the late Capt Matthews who was executed at Kuching on 2 March 1944, with wooden clogs about the face and head. At the end of this beating Capt Matthews' face was covered in blood. This Japanese frequently used ju jitsu on prisoners." ["War Crimes Borneo Ill-treatment of Prisoners of War by Kemkei-Tai at Sandakan", NAA: MP897/1, 156/19/152]

Lt-General Baba was convicted of war crimes and sentenced to death for ordering the Sandakan-Ranau death march.

Keith's death certificate is clinical and clerical. There's no hint at the life that had been led and lost in the service of his country.

The local community of Fairfield honoured Keith and the other fallen of the area by creating a "Honour Avenue" in the main park. A small plaque placed on an individual stone monument, each associated with its own native tree lined each side of the road into the park.
Obituary from "The Biz" 8 Nov, 1945

Keith's elder brother, from whom he borrowed his name to enlist, also joined the Army and ended up stationed in Borneo as a commando. He returned home safely in 1947.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

When New Technologies Emerge

This is not another family history article, but as someone whose work life has been spent dealing with new technologies, it is of historical interest to me.

Whenever a new technology emerges there is often a reaction to the effect that "it's a fad" or "it will never replace xxxx". Sometimes, this is correct, but many times it's not. The opposite reaction is also seen by those early adopters who champion the cause. Again, sometimes the technology succeeds and other times it disappears into the aether. 

Here are two articles from the turn of the last century which appeal to me. One is fairly defensive in tone about an existing technology, whereas the second exudes an optimism for the future of a new technology.

In a search of the truly wonderful Trove website, I came across this first article from 30 December, 1910 issue of "The Sydney Wool and Stock Journal" entitled "The Horse".

"An American writer says: The automobile enthusiasts are still dreaming, talking, and writing of "the horseless ages", "For a clean city," this has been the burden of their song for ten years, and horses have increased 6,000,000 head and we now have 31,000,000 farm and city horses, with a £700.000,000 valuation higher prices than ever before £10 to £100 for good draught horses, and several £200 teams are in our cities. The automobile or mechanical traction has rather helped nor hurt the horse. The railroads and every form of machinery have called for more horses to do the increasing work, and when the horse is banish'd from the streets of our cities the great volume of business must cease and the freight trains will rust on the side tracks. Statistics show that only 80,000 automobiles and mechanical traction cars were made in the United States in 1909, and perhaps 100,000 for 1910, which at £200 a car is only £20,000.000.

"France makes about 50,000 cars; Great Britain, 60,000 cars; Germany, 25,000 cars; United States, 100,000 cars; total cars for 1910, 235,000; total valuation, £47,000.000.  

"The 2,000,000 horses in Illinois alone are value at £51,200,000, which is more than all of the automobiles in the world. Horse breeding is the most important and most profitable industry of Illinois, and the nation and the farmers cannot supply the increasing demand for more horses and better horses, regardless of price, for our American city markets; and a great export trade for all Europe eager for good American horses. Think of the American horse industry of £700,000,000. or £200,000,000 more than all the cattle, sheep, and hogs, and £100,000,000 more than all the cereal crops. There is no comparison at all with the £20,000,000 automobile industry. The great horses increased in value last year over £70,000,000, three times the value of all the automobiles made in America. American railroads are using £2,180,000 freight cars, which must be loaded and unloaded chiefly by good draught horses. The auto trucks would be welcomed to carry part of this burden that is increasing faster than horses can be produced to handle it, but they give practically no help to overburdened horses, and the automobile doesn't handle freight, so it is up to the farmers to raise more horses, and to raise larger and better horses."

Contrast that article with the following entitled "Airships" from the 12 February, 1910 edition of Adelaide's "The Register".

 "The exhibition in Adelaide of a Bleriot monoplane will stimulate public curiosity concerning the special merits of this type of flying machine relatively to its various rivals now in use. A cable message in The Register on Friday gave particulars of a new Zeppelin airship, which, if the inventor's expectations should be realized, will place Germany far in advance of any other nation in the application of aeronautical science to commercial requirements. The passenger accommodation attached to this huge gas-inflated aerial liner will more nearly resemble that of a small steamship or a cruising yacht than the orthodox 'car' of an ordinary balloon. At present there are no indications of similar improvements in aeroplanes, but most aviators cling tenaciously to the theoretical conviction that ultimately the supremacy of heavier-than-air gliding machines will be established. Certainly there are substantial reasons for assuming that the best existing types of aeroplanes will be greatly improved as a result of experimental work being done in France and elsewhere by many expert investigators. In estimating the present utility of monoplanes and biplanes it is necessary to remember that less than two years ago a flight of a few hundred yards
was considered a marvellous achievement. Even now there is diversity of opinion concerning such apparently simple problems as the relative merits of wood, steel, and aluminium for propeller blades; and further elaborate tests will be required to settle the supremely important question of distributing the weight of engines and human freight so as to adjust the centre of gravity with scientific precision. Another example of the rapidity with which constructional advances are being made is the fact that, with two exceptions, all the successful aeroplanes that participated in the great carnival at Betheny last August were propelled by motors invented or adapted to the new conditions of locomotion within the preceding nine months.

"There is still a conflict of opinion on the question whether water-jacket motors are so superior to air-cooled engines as to warrant the retention of the extra weight which the use of the former involves; but since M. Bleriot crossed the English Channel, and Mr. Farman established a three hours' record without the aid of water-cooling mechanism, the popularity of the lighter type of motor has increased. If this modification of expert prejudice should
become permanent it may prove an influential factor in directing future mechanical progress. Up to a certain point the distinctive characteristics of the monoplane appear to be conducive to its ultimate supremacy, but its utility will probably be restricted owing to the technical difficulties of giving stability to the wide spread of 'wings' necessary to secure great lifting power. 'The elegant bird-like monoplane,' remarks a writer in The Times, 'will be employed to carry only a pilot and one or two passengers at most; while biplanes, tripianes, and multiplanes will be the family coaches and the public omnibuses of aerial locomotion.' The problem of increasing the stability of airships is still one of the most perplexing aspects of aviation, especially in relation to the control of large aeroplanes. Experience has proved that the art of balancing a small flying machine can be easily acquired. Some authorities state that under competent tuition a pupil of average capabilities should be able to pilot a Bleriot machine in six weeks, and that some biplanes might be more rapidly mastered; but the skill to keep a flying machine stead differs from that which bicycle riding develops. 'No movement of the pilot's body, as such will lift a Bleriot or steer
an Antoinette. The process is far more subtle. He must learn to feel the coming of the wind, to set his planes at the right angle to make use of it, to move his levers and his pedals just enough, and no more — just quickly enough, and not too soon. He must be come an etherealized bicyclist, a transcendental sculler.'

"Evidently flying is a fascinating avocation when the initial nervousness in cidental to most novel sensations has been overcome; and it is not surprising that Paris firms which make a speciality of aeroplane construction have on their books more orders than they can deal with. Under present conditions the personal qualities of a pilot are among the prime factors of safety in aviation: and chief of his in dispensable qualifications are quickness of perception, strong nerve, and coolness in emergencies. In some quarters especially among military authorities fears have been expressed that difficulty would be experienced in obtain ing an adequate supply of men possessing those attributes. Similar pessimism was common during the early stages of automobile development, but the motor industry has never suffered from a dearth of skilful drivers. Only a few exceptionally clever novices however, are likely to challenge the sovereignty of such 'kings of the air' as the Wright brothers, Latham, Farman, Bleriot, or Santos Dumont, all of whom have been compelled to take risks not now unavoidable. 'Fly low and do not attempt long trips.' These are golden rules which every 'prentice aviator should observe if he desires to make safe progress. Experience has shown that, although a flying machine may be wrecked by falling from 20 to 50 ft., its pilot generally escapes uninjured in such circumstances. Under experienced guidance aeroplanes travel most securely at an altitude of 60 ft. to 100 ft, because in the event of a motor breaking down the impetus of the longer drop can be utilized to make the machine glide towards a safe landing place and, by a slanting impact, modify the jarring effects of the fall."

Monday, February 10, 2014

Coming home to Leesburg

I hesitate to publish this story as so much of the information uncovered needs authentication. Most comes from multiple sources but sometimes we find that multiple sources come from an original single source. Just because ten people say the same thing doesn't necessarily make a thing true. All it takes is a single mistake in a relationship or an incorrect name to bring down the entire house of cards. However, it's an interesting yarn and if it's not true then I'll not be too disturbed as doing the research has been its own reward.

As I mentioned in an earlier blog entry, my wife's ancestry has been easier to trace than my own. This seems to be especially true of one line as it derives from people with title, land and money. (Unfortunately, that was several generations ago so all that "good stuff" had run out by the time she came on the scene!)

My wife's maternal grandmother's line were the Rummery family. Her 4th great grandfather Stephen (1810-1865) of the Salehurst area of Sussex, was married to Eliza Farley. From that point upwards, a wealth of family lines opened up that took me back many many generations.

The upshot to all this tracing leads me to believing that one branch of my wife's line married into the Lee family. One side of this family migrated to Massachusetts in the late 1600s with some moving to the Nashua area of New York. This same Lee family were cousins of Thomas Lee, after whom Leesburg, Virginia is named and to where we moved from Sydney, Australia. Thomas was the great grand uncle of Robert E. Lee. 

The Lee connection came through the Marvin and Brown[e] families:

William Lee (1650 - 1698)
husband of 2nd cousin 10x removed of wife
wife of William Lee
mother of Mary Marvin
mother of Mary Hyde Browne
father of Jane Burgess Mills
son of Thomas Mills
son of George Mills
daughter of George Mills
son of Mary Mills
daughter of Henry Cruttenden
daughter of Elizabeth Cruttenden
daughter of Elizabeth Sorell
son of Eliza Farley

Which makes William's children 3rd cousins 9 times removed of my wife. If memory serves me correctly, third cousins share about 0.8% of their DNA. However, being 9 times removed dilutes that considerably, so the blood link is tenuous but still not zero.

Helen also has a couple of soldiers in her line who fought in the Revolutionary War, including her 5th cousin 10x removed (I told you think links were tenuous!), Philip Fowler, who was killed at Bunker Hill:

In the case of Corporal Philip Fowler of Tewksbury besides the affidavit in the Coat Rolls Memorial volume p 112 which termed Fowler as "taken or killed in the fight at Bunker Hill," I note in the same papers the application of his widow Esther Fowler for the coat or money due her "late husband," and the statement of a selectman of Tewksbury that Philip Fowler left no estate worth administering on. Moreover I have been furnished by Rev EW Pride of Tewksbury with a copy of the contemporaneous entry of deaths in Tewksbury made by Rev Sampson Spaulding : "Philip Fowler's son dyed June 17 1775 perhaps silver Cord Broke sud'n." This allusion to a sudden death warrants us in believing that Fowler was killed in the battle and justifies us in placing his name as has been done upon the tablet Memorial volume p 133. 

As in the previous ease of Lieutenant Benjamin West City Doc 54 of 1890 I transmit to your Honor the papers herein cited in order that they may be preserved in the city archives. 

Very respectfully 
Chairman Record Comissioners 
[Documents of the City of Boston, Volume 4] 

If the family history I've discovered on holds up to scrutiny (my tree is private at the moment as there is so much that needs additional verification that I cannot in good conscience publish it), my wife's family line reaches back to her 55th great grandfather Valaravaus de Ostrogoths. How this can be truly verified is beyond me, but it does make a great conversation piece! (Of course, the seemingly obligatory relationship to Charlamagne is there too!)

The next step is a DNA sample for my wife so that we can start verifying these connections. I had my DNA sequenced a couple of years ago and it revealed possible cousins in the USA as well, but nothing as dramatic as the Lee family, but the range of ethnicities is quite interesting:

Region %
Asia East <1%
Ireland 43%
Great Britain 42%
Europe East 6%
European Jewish 2%
Italy/Greece 2%
Finland/Northwest Russia <1%
Iberian Peninsula <1%
Europe West <1%
Scandinavia <1%
West Asia <1%
Caucasus <1%

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Family Secrets

I've been having much more luck following my wife's lines than my own. Her ancestors are primarily from England and Scotland. It also turns out some of the parts of England where she is from have better records than others. Dorset, in particular, has been a goldmine of records for the King family. (Helen has a boatload of glove making ancestors from that region.)

Scottish records are also very good, allowing me to track down her paternal grandmother's lineage. Mary Hay Murray, was born in 1902 in Fyvie near Aberdeen, to James and Helen Murray (nee Morrison). She was the youngest of 11 children, the eldest of whom was born in 1882. The family's ancestors appear to have lived in the Fyvie, Auchertless, and Inverurie areas around Aberdeen. 
Birth Certificate
Headstone in Auchterless
War Memorial in Inverurie
Evidence of the Morrison family may be found in Inverurie and Auchterless today.

While she was alive Helen's grandmother claimed she had been forced to come to Australia as a result of being done out of an inheritance from her wealthy and land-owning family. However, whenever one of the family would seek details in order to visit the scenes of her youth, she would become quite vague. She did not like being pressed for information. 

Using what I knew of her: her family name "Murray" and the general location from where the family originated (Aberdeen and Fyvie), I was able to locate images of census records that established details about her parents, siblings, and grandparents. I also came across a coroner's report on her father and found that he had committed suicide shortly after leaving the Aberdeen asylum. This was turning out to be an interesting family!

Aberdeen Asylum
I wrote to the archivist of the asylum who was generous enough to send me a copy of his file. It showed that he had been at the asylum a number of times. The diagnosis appears to have been a brain tumour located directly behind one eye that was causing his symptoms. These included being picked up by the local constabulary as he was raiding the clothesline of a neighbour's house. It also appears that each time he got out of the establishment and went home he'd get his wife pregnant. The asylum is still on the grounds of the Aberdeen hospital but it is fenced off as it is undergoing demolition/restoration.

River Don just outside Inverurie
Tragically, his wife died of "malignant disease of stomach, liver and right lung" that she had endured for 9 months, on 9 November 1912, leaving Mary in the care of her older siblings. Her father was released from the asylum in 1913. Upon learning of his wife's death he threw himself in the River Don, just outside the town of Inverurie, on 20 September 1913. I was able to locate the approximate location of his death based on the coroner's notes which stated he was found just down from a mill. The mill building is still standing but in terrible disrepair.

South Lodge of Fyvie Castle
Fyvie Castle
As for where Mary was born, her birth certificate records it as being South Lodge, Kinbroon, Fyvie. Now there are a couple of South Lodges that I can locate in the area. One is just outside the grounds of Fyvie castle and was used by one of the groundskeepers/tradesmen tending the castle. The birth certificate of Mary lists James' occupation as gardner's labourer: not exactly an occupation to warrant the lodge. The other is a stone building close to the Redhill area near Auctherless. I suspect it is the latter, but am happy to allow Mary her one connection to the gentry.
8 Keithhall Rd, Inverurie

Far from being the landed-gentry, the Murray family was living close to the edge of poverty and was now without its matriarch and patriarch. The 1911 census shows them living in 8 Keithhall Road, Inverurie. It was a multi-tenant building not far from the centre of town. The building still stands today and appears to continue to house multiple residents in two self-contained flats (apartments). I was able to take a picture of the building during our visit to the area in July, 2013.

Mary was then raised by her elder siblings. One can imagine angst and resentment on both sides. This tension probably led to Mary taking up a "bounty immigration" opportunity and leave for Sydney on the "Esperance Bay" on 28 August, 1923.

Esperance Bay Ship's Register

After arriving in Australia, her age seems to have dropped by a couple of years as what she reported to family and what is documented do not agree! Just another one of her family secrets. Nevertheless, she was to become the matriarch of her own clan: marrying Albert King in 1928, bearing four children, and living until 14 September, 1988.

Monday, February 3, 2014

A Century of Reminiscences

My grandmother, Helen Mary Ferguson (nee Kobaroff), was born on 5th May, 1911, in Toowong Queensland. She was the second to be born to Adam Gosh Nicolavich Kobaroff and Helen Mitcheson Kobaroff (nee Bloomfield). She lived through the two world wars, the depression, the Melbourne and Sydney Olympics, Vietnam and the start of a new millennium. 

Towards the end of her life she had a conversation with my cousin where she talked about various events and memories from her long life. My cousin was smart enough to write things down as she spoke. She didn't cover her life in depth but what she did say shed light on many parts of her long life. I've attempted to organize them into subject areas and provide some context. 

Some background information on the family is useful to help make the content of her reminisces easier to understand.  Nan had 9 siblings (and a half-sister whom I introduce later):

Victor Nicholas1908Splinter
Emma Victoria1912Emsaney
John Adam1914Count
Joseph Alexander1916Froggy
Adam James1917Titchy
Robert Edward1919
Thelma Grace1920Old Duck
Ada Florence1924Nick
Dorothy Jean (Terry)1924Snotter

Nan had the nickname of "pelter" or "stones" as boys used to throw stones at them and Nan would throw them back at them.

Early Years

Sometime between May 1911 and November 1912, the family of four moved to New South Wales where they initially settled in Lidcombe before moving to west Cabramatta in 1916. 

"I was only 5 when I came from Lidcombe. We were on Lidcombe station, I can see it as plainly as anything, a soldier patted me on the head and said what a good girl carrying that case. We lived in a big tin shed. Dadda built the other place out of galvanized iron. We had to stay home sometimes so our clothes could get washed out."

Life out in the sticks

Helen, and her older brother Victor, were joined by a sister Emma Victoria on 12 November, 1912. Along with her younger brothers, she became a constant playmate. Nan recalls:

"Em and I would go into the bush and pretend we had a palace and a ship would take us to foreign countries. We'd have names for all the bush tracks: "bush all green"; "clear a big patch"; "mush out all the rooms". The boys would make a brick fire and would have some jam tins. They would come home and pinch a potato and some flour and make dampers. We'd pretend it was a palace. Em and I would wave from our imaginary boat, going overseas. We'd make peg dolls. We used to eat wattle blossom gum on the trees. We were only 10 years old, we didn't have the twins to play with."

"It was innocent fun, nothing horrible in a world of imagination. Never a fear in the world."

"Over the hill the Reads had cows. They used to give us cows milk to bring home."

Below are two aerial pictures of the house: one taken in 1943 and the other in 2012. As you can see even in 1943, there was plenty of bush in which nan and her sibling could play and also that there was no one else around. Apparently most of the land around them was theirs. Compare this to the typical Sydney suburban scene below it.

"Dadda owned several blocks of land but had to sell some of them for $30 for a wheelchair when he broke his leg."

As I described in "Coming to Australia" finding work during the years of World War 1 was hard for a "foreigner".

"Dad cut baker's wood and sell it at Canley Vale. We'd go down, Vick and I, we'd have to cut the wood. Sometimes it was 7pm when we got home. We'd eat bread and golden syrup."

"By the time Thelma was born [1920] the times were getting better. There were frocks on the line. Mum had to wash other people's clothes to get money to live."


Nan had a half-sister, Gladys, who was born in 1899. There is no record of who the father was and she and her mother were to disappear back to the mother land for a couple of years to avoid the stigma. Coincidentally, her grandmother, Emma Lucy Bloomfield, was unmarried when she had twins Helen and Florence (who died only a few months after birth).

Aunty Glad (or Gladdy as nan called her) was a lovely woman: gently spoken and just plain nice. It's no wonder nan got on so well with her. (Just to be complete, Gladys' nickname was "Glad Arse".)

"When I was 7 years old, Gladdy worked as a cleaner at the Richardson Hotel in Castlereagh Street Sydney. She had this lovely job. She'd come up and get me and we'd go stop for a week. I can remember the big dining room where she'd polish the plants (aspidistras). I'd go to bed and she'd bring me milk and biscuits. I only liked milk that was scalded so would throw it out the window. Gladdy loved me. She was 13 years older and had a different father. She said that mumma got all dressed up to see a family - a chemist. Maybe the father was there somewhere."

Lessons in Empathy

One of my grandmother's earliest memories is a painful one that occurred at school and it was to shape her life. Despite having a mother whose name goes back to medieval England but due to her surname of Kobaroff she encountered a lot of racial prejudice. She clearly recalls being 5 or 6 and asking another girl in class whether she'd be friends only to be rejected because of her ancestry. She says from that point onwards she always had empathy for others.  

"You have had to live in that time to understand how hard we lived with Dad being a foreigner. He learned English from dictionaries. He was an intelligent man. It taught me to understand people and not have a bad thought for anyone."


"Dadda used to say he was married twice in Russia. He said his mother was Swedish and that I had a sister who was the image of me. Dad's father was Russian [a soldier in the Russian army stationed in Varnya Bulgaria]. Dad told us they had wealth, a house, and vineyards.

When my father came from Brisbane from Russia [after jumping ship in Melbourne in 1902] all his papers and money were stolen: everything he had was taken."

"Mumma came from wealthy people in England. It is a long way for me to go back. I can only tell you parts of it. We didn't know much about our family."

Before her death I was able to fill in quite a bit about this side of her family.


She talked about some of her school life:

"We went to school at St Johns Park. Vick used to make us wag school - he'd threaten us so we did it. Mumma would come along and we'd run behind the sulky and mumma didn't know why the sulky slowed down: we'd be hanging on the back of it. Mumma was told 'Nell, Emma, and Vick didn't go to school.' She said 'Oh no, they go to school'. Mumma told Dadda, he reprimanded us and gave Vick a hiding."

"I was a good scholar at school. Every time Mumma had a baby I had to stop school. I was good with figures. I was 12 when I finally left school. My teacher patted my head and he said it was such a shame as I was such a good student. I got on okay after school: I was able to get jobs. I have no regrets."

The Depression

"During the depression Dadda was out of work and Mumma had to go to the minister (Stimson) to get food. In the worst of times, we would only get a pot of soup with soup bones. Dadda cooked - I hated him for making me cook but then I was glad because I got my best jobs as a cook. Mum made date pudding, I couldn't eat it as there were duck eggs in the puddings. The thought of them made me sick.

"Vick and I were only young we would have to get the wood. After dad cut the wood we'd load up the baker's cart and we would to to the bakery. Dad made a baking oven and baked our own bread. Jonesy reported dad for cooking his own bread.

"Dad was strict with me but kind to Emmy. He made me wash the floors. I looked after Bob, mum and dadda.

"I had one dress, no shoes. The clothes I liked were streamlined: no frills. I paid a lovely little suit off, put it on the counter and left it behind. It was stolen. I saved up again and got a dress." Shown in this picture:

Food Glorious Food

Nan was a wizard in the kitchen. Her menus were varied and delicious: trifles, roast dinners, home made chips, you name it. Her scones were legendary. 

"I used to cook on a fuel stove. Dadda taught me to cook. I'd curse because everyone else could play, but I enjoyed cooking. I worked hard at the golf club. Dadda was a first class cook on the ships. He was working on a ship in Brisbane. He was going to go on the ship but it was cancelled. It ended up sinking but he wasn't on the ship. We had a big soup ladle he owned from the ship with his name on it."



Sift flour. Use fingers and let air circulate. Add a tablespoon of margarine or butter. Add 2 eggs. Knife and whisk lightly and mix. Knead in flour.

Creamed Rice

Boil rice and wash. Add milk. Cook slow until all the milk is absorbed, adding slowly. Add a bit of sugar and cream as well.

Stewed Apple

Stew apple, mash, add sugar with small amount of water. Put on lid and cook slowly. Put 2 cloves in pot.

Braised Chops

Lamb in three quarter chops. Boils chops on a plate with the juice. Draw fat and put onions, carrots, celery, parsnip,potato, chicken or beef stock, some salt, thyme, basil, curry and thicken with a bit of gravox.

Baked Custard / Bread and Butter Custard

Put a half-litre of milk in a pyrex dish. Beat eggs and add to mile. Add a teaspoon of vanilla essence, a tablespoon of sugar, a "good bit" of coconut and a lump of butter on top. Stand in a baking dish of water. Cook in over and wait until the top is nice and brown. For bread and butter custard, add bread a jam to same mixture before cooking.


The period from 1916 through to the outbreak of World War 2 was a constant struggle for the family. Any job that could earn the family money was undertaken, no matter how old the worker was.

"Dad cut baker's wood and sell it at Canley Vale [a nearby suburb a few km away]. We'd go down, Vick and I, we'd have to cut the wood. Sometimes it was 7pm when we got home. We'd eat bread and golden syrup."

"The first job I had was when I was 14 at Ford Sherrington's in Bourke Street Sydney, it was a belt place. One day I had thrupence (three pence) in my purse which somebody stole. I was given a penny to get the tram. Next I went to work at the oatmeal place in Warwick Farm where I did housework. My favourite job was when I worked in a grocery store and Anthony Horden's."

"I worked at the Orange Grove Golf Club where I cooked on a great big fuel stove. They wanted me to be head caterer. I did over 35 steaks, onions, and did dishes of apple pie. I couldn't stay because I was so ill. I had to have a hysterectomy after mum died. It was a bad experience.

"Then I went to Meals on Wheels in Fairfield, but after some years there I had other responsibilities in the afternoon, so I was going to give my notice. Meals on Wheels said no, we will organize a taxi to get you there. And they did, so I stayed."

In addition to the above, nan also had the following jobs:

  • Worked in a grocer ship in Cambridge Street Canley Heights where she did the books
  • Kodak - photograph printing with sister-in-law Daphne (nee Cranch)
  • Cook at Lansvale Hospital

The House on Boyd Street

"Ferg and I lived in Canley Vale. We had rubberoid ceilings in this place. We had an old fuel, chip heater. In a storm, the roof came down. We had to start to rebuild the house, then they fixed the old fuel heater. We could have a had a war service house but we had to come up here to look after mum and dad.

"While Pop was away [during world war 2], mum got cancer. Terry, Nicky had their boyfriends and would be away. Mum would cry out for help. A community nurse would come to catheterize mum as she had problems with her bladder. The nurse used to come everyday. One day she couldn't make it. Gladdy couldn't come to do it, so Em and I did and drained 3 pints of fluid. Then it came easy to me so everyday I would put the catheter in. Many years later I learned to inject Pop. I practiced on an orange, and I got it in as easy as anything.

"I used to sit in Dadda's room until 5 in the morning and then I sent everyone to work. I'd shine the brass, we'd go over in the bush, and cut out fancy newspaper and make runners for the cupboards when they were cleaned.

"One day Jack came up, dad fell out of bed, struggling to pick him up he said he didn't realize how tough I had it."

Nan's mother died of cancer in 1945:

"My mother died in 1945 when Ferg was away in the war. It was only Glady and I here at the time. We didn't know what to do with Mumma. We tried another doctor but he wouldn't give her morphine despite the pain she was in. When she went to a nursing home in Petersham she was not properly tended to. She was only there a week. We were in no position to look after her at home. We fought for her to get into Parramatta Hospital. Dadda was bedridden at this stage. Dr Kinsella at St Vincent's came out to see Dadda and put him in Hornsby Hospital to put a pin in his hip. He was then able to walk. I ran from home to Parramatta Hospital to see Mumma. After 5 minutes she said 'I have been waiting for you', then she died.

"When we were married with Max and Barry, Dadda slept in the front room, he had dropsy and had to get rid of fluid. I'd sit in the wheelchair all night. I had to get breakfast for them all, as well clean and polish. There was no washing machine. Things eventually started to get better. Ferg and I, we'd pay off a sheet of fibro bit by bit, made all the cupboards, then fence, and then a gate.

"Mumma left the house to Bobby and me. I was looking after Bobby. Mumma wanted to gave us the house so I could look after Bobby." 

Nan's father died in 1951.

"The solicitor who buried Dad said he left the house to me and Bobby. He said the best thing is that since Bobby had no next of kin and so the trustees would take all Bobby's money, was for Bobby to sign the house to me."

Bobby suffered from a rheumatic heart condition that took his life in 1956.

Courtship and Married Life

My cousin asked "Where did you meet pop?"  (Pop was Geoffrey Ferguson aka Ferg):

"I was introduced by Auggie [husband of sister Thelma] in a crowd at Fairfield. I had to
meet Ferg on the train. I was working and had bought a nice dress. I met him on the train. He started to drink and didn't look very smart. I had made the effort to get dressed nicely. I was in the train but he wasn't in the mood for talking. It ended up so I didn't bother to see him again. I went to another dance, he kept asking Auggie where I was. From then on we started going together. Pop had a beautiful bunch of flowers which he gave to me and apologized to me for having drunk too much previously. Then we never left each other.

"My mother loved Ferg and he loved her. Ferg said the only love he was show was from her. We married and the rest is history. I never regretted anything from that day until the day pop died.

"Pop had a number of jobs during his life, including:

  • First job at the time of his marriage was on the trams with Auggie
  • Water Board
  • Baker's Cart after World War 2
  • Moorebank Army Camp: He came home with huge vehicles, trailers, army trucks. He was a champion driver. He pedaled a bike from here to Moorebank for 12 years until he got the car.
  • Worked underground at the Snowy River in Cooma

"He bought a car [a Holden FX or FJ]: he loved Holdens [the Australian arm of General Motors]. It was stolen. He then got a Station Wagon [an EK?] which lasted many years until he sold it in the late 1970's. He then bought a sedan [an EH?] which he then for years. He understood Holdens from top to bottom. [I recall him changing engines and doing nearly all maintenance himself - his garage had a number of grease guns.] He never had an accident [until the mid 1990's]. It was so old he couldn't get any parts. He then bought a hatchback."

"Pop was away for 2.5 years during World War 2 serving in the Pacific. He had compassionate leave when I had to have a big operation. We lived in Premier Street. The twins used to work in town and come home to Cabramatta with Mumma. 

"At Premier Street, Max was 5 and Ferg adopted him. He was wonderful. 

"Barry used to run in the  poppies and hide (where the train lines were). Mr Cole Dury used to look for him. We'd worry that he'd be on the train line. The lady over the road used to idolize him. Ferg would get the milk from the milkman. This morning Ferg went out and Barry would have some of his boiled egg. I said "Where's Barry?". We couldn't find him and everyone was crying looking for him in the dam. Returning home, there he was in the lounge room. He had this fascination with starched shirts, he liked to pull the pockets away from the shirts. He always did it. Everyone was crying when we found him, they thought he had drowned. 

"Next morning he went missing. Recently, Ferg had been teaching him to swim. Ferg ran to the river, saw Barry going down to the water "for a 'wim". He would have drowned if we didn't see him with his little snowy head bobbing up and down in the bush."

Pop died in 2003 after a long decline. Nan was there when he drew his last breath. She stayed on for another few years but her health, and her legs in particular, led to her having to go into a nursing home where she died in 2010.