Tag Archives: William Williamson

Seeking my Stowaway

This is another post to document my research journey with my great-great-grandfather William Williamson. This week’s research has presented me with two stumbling blocks, which I’m yet to resolve, but they’ve also exposed significant gaps in the academic literature. So if anyone out there is looking for juicy research topics, keep reading!

Stumbling block No.1 must be a familiar one to genealogists—the stowaway. The story which has been passed down through my family is that William stowed away on the Norfolk, thinking it was bound for America. It turns out the ship travelled to Australia, where he arrived in Melbourne in 1862.  The steamship Norfolk travelled from London to Melbourne twice in 1862, but William does not appear on the passenger list for either journey. I wonder whether if he really did stow away on the Norfolk, would he have been converted to crew once discovered? The Public Record Office of Victoria keeps hard copies of the Mercantile Marine Office Release Books. After each voyage the discharge and release of the crew was recorded—the master and crew signed to release the ship owner from any future claims for wages etc in relation to the voyage. I’d be interested to know whether stowaways appeared on these documents.

And what happened to stowaways on arrival in Victoria? He could have been very young, either 10 or 15—if he was 10, would charities have taken any interest in his life? Would this be recorded anywhere? This relates to stumbling block No.2— I cannot establish exactly how old William was when he arrived in Victoria. Some family researchers place his birthdate at 1847, and some at 1852. Both are plausible on the basis of birth and census records. But if he was born in 1852, he would have been only 10 when he stowed away. If the 1852 birthdate belongs to my ancestor, then it’s likely he was the 9 year old “ragged scholar” at the All Saints Charity School in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, recorded on the 1861 census.  From my preliminary reading on ragged schools, the students tended to ‘graduate’ at about 10 years of age, so he would have been let loose in 1862… did he then journey down to Plymouth alone, to the Plymouth Export Depot to get on a boat?

Some exciting historical questions are starting to emerge as I research William’s life. My list of areas to investigate is rapidly expanding—a quick search has revealed that very little has been written about stowaways, or the Ragged Schools movement in England. Life at the heaving Plymouth Export Depot also sounds fascinating, and understudied. The possibility that William arrived in Melbourne in 1862 as a 10 year old also reminded me of a fascinating seminar I attended at Macqurie Uni this year with Simon Sleight about young people and urban life in Melbourne (see his book: Young People and the Shaping of Public Space in Melbourne, 1870—1914 (Farnham & Burlington: Ashgate, 2013).

My immediate task is to try to pin down William’s timeline, but I would love to hear from anyone who has met similar challenges in their family or academic research, or with an interest in Ragged Schools, Plymouth in the 1860s, or stowaways.

 

Criminal Pasts: Family History

Brickey Gaol

I’ve spent most of this week trying to trace the trail left by my Great Great Grandfather on the legal record of 1870s Victoria. In the past, I’ve considered this to be a family history project, but I’m beginning to realise it is also (or instead?) a biographical project—the protagonist just happens to be an ancestor of mine, who has been of interest to many people throughout my extended family. I’ve been researching his life off and on for the past couple of years, but with some more solid research experience behind me, I feel better equipped to know where to look for information, and to understand what I find.

William Williamson, alias Brickey, appears in most of the books about the Kelly Outbreak in North-Eastern Victoria. (note – I’ve been selective about what I’ve read, there are way too many Ned Kelly books out there!) He was implicated in the events of the evening in April 1878 when Ned Kelly allegedly shot Constable Fitzpatrick in the wrist. Brickey was arrested the following day, along with Ned Kelly’s mother and brother-in-law. They were convicted of aiding and abetting the attempted murder of Fitzpatrick. The men were sentenced to 6 years with hard labour; Mrs Kelly got 3. The sentences were considered severe, and had no small part to play in Ned’s anger with the authorities. The presiding judge at the Beechworth Assizes was Judge Redmond Barry, who was to sentence Ned to death a few years later.

I’ve been keen to find the documentary evidence for Brickey’s criminal record. Family stories abound about how and why he was involved. Understandably, the books which have covered the Fitzpatrick affair have focused on Ned and his mother’s role, with Brickey mentioned only as an aside. My aim is to uncover as much of the “truth” as I can about Brickey’s involvement, so that I can consider it in the context of his long and otherwise peaceful life. I was surprised and gratified then, when I opened the (huge) book of the Minutes of Evidence taken in the 1881 Royal Commission into the Police Force of Victoria, to find that the very first witness—the Chief Commissioner of Police—discussed Brickey’s role in detail from the outset.  Brickey was not just a neighbour, he was very well-acquainted with the Kellys and their associates.

As well as wondering how well he knew the Kellys, I’ve also wondered how involved Brickey was in the general lawlessness of the North-Eastern region in the 1870s. His prison record—which I managed to download from the PROV— confirms (as I suspected) that he was known to the police, and had already spent time in Beechworth Gaol before the Constable Fitzpatrick affair. Finding the prison records was surprisingly easy—I’m sure last time I looked (a couple of years ago)—I’d decided that I’d need to go to Melbourne to see a hard-copy file. I wanted to know whether Brickey was in gaol at the same time as Ned, Dan or Jim Kelly, or their various uncles and other associates, to confirm my hunch that they had all had lots of time together. They did have time inside together, in Beechworth and Pentridge.

The next task is to try to get hold of the court files for Brickey’s trials, as I don’t think the cases were formally reported. I’ve seen the prosecutor’s file, which suggests that the Fitzpatrick case was handled perfunctorily, but I’d like to find out more. I’m trying not to give away too much of the story here as I hope to write a biography of sorts. But any clues, questions, or suggestions for researching criminal activities of the 1870s would be most welcome.

The photograph above is from Brickey’s prison file, presumably taken when he first entered the system at 25 years of age.

Ned Kelly Interviewed

My first #TroveTuesday post…and I’m sticking to family history.

I’ve been researching the life and times of my great-great-grandfather—nicknamed Brickie—on and off for a few years now. It’s been a somewhat frustrating search, as most of the narrative I’ve found leads back to a setting-the-record-straight-letter Brickie himself wrote to J.J.Kenneally, author of The Complete Inner History of the Kelly Gang and Their Pursuers (1929). Being a lover of evidence to back up a story and an argument, I want more than his word for it.

The official record tells us virtually nothing about Brickie’s early life, but he burst onto the public scene in spectacular fashion in 1878 when he was arrested and charged—along with Ellen Kelly—with the attempted murder of Constable Fitzpatrick. The events of that night, confused as they were, snowballed and lead ultimately to Ned’s famous last stand. Was Brickie just in the wrong place at the wrong time? Or was he close to the Kelly family?  My Trove search tonight dug up an interview with Ned Kelly from 1880 which I hadn’t seen before: http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article70946696 I loved hearing Ned’s voice; the Q&A format gives the interview an aura of authenticity, leaving little room for journalistic interpretation. Ned described Brickie as “not related to us; he occupied land at Greta.”   Maybe Ned was just trying to do Brickie a good turn by dissociating him from the Kelly family,  but it strikes me as a dismissive assessment of Brickie’s role. But that’s my interpretation, isn’t it?!

Like most families, mine has a few skeletons in the closet. Finding those skeletons has made me question whether I should really be digging up and exposing episodes in my ancestors’ lives that they most likely wanted to keep private, even secret. Is it really fair to their memory? I think the answer lies in what I do with the information. In Brickie’s case, I know that he was ultimately pardoned, so I want to finish the job and put the events of 1878 in context by finding out all I can.

P.S. Trove also pointed me to the fact that the proceedings of the Royal Commission into the Victorian Police Force which ultimately granted Brickie his pardon are available at the State Library of NSW—easier (but much less fun) than the trip to the PROV in Melbourne I thought I’d have to make!