52 Ancestors …. Week 13.

This week’s theme is Light A Candle.

Light a candle in memory of …. whom? Just about any and all my ancestors … No, no, that would be rather too many (!)

So I chose to interpret the theme as something which any one of my Great Grandparents would most likely have said many, many times in those pre-electricity days. Something which we say occasionally even now when wanting to create a romantic atmosphere … or perhaps when the mosquitoes and sandflies become annoying.

Consulting Mrs. Google:
“Artificial light in the 1800s changed concepts of time, work, leisure activities, and consumption. Lighting systems shifted from candles, to whale and other oils, to coal gas…The first electric light used in a home in England was in Swan’s electrical workshop in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1881.”

And .. “Before gas or electric lighting were invented, the greatest light source indoors usually came from the fixed fire in the grate. Home activities revolved around the hearth, with candlelight or oil lamps providing dim (but mobile) light around the home. Move an arm’s length from the candle, however, and you couldn’t read, draw or mend.”

And …“While the rich used candles (probably made from beeswax or spermaceti wax extracted from the head of the sperm whale), others were not so fortunate. The less wealthy commonly lit their houses with stinking, smoky, dripping tallow candles which gave out very little light. The poor mostly used even feebler and fast-burning rushlights, usually dipped in smelly animal fat. The average 40cm rushlight only burned for about an hour. “

So what did my Great Grandparents use? Fortunately most of them came from homes where their father had a trade or profession – my paternal GGGFs were a shoemaker, a schoolteacher, a doctor, a merchant tailor, a shopkeeper, another schoolteacher, a Welsh farmer and one mysterious very wealthy young man who turned up in Australia in 1840 and became a grazier (wealthy land and stock owner). Apart from the Welsh farmer, all would have received a regular income and most likely have been able to afford reasonable candles which burnt for long hours.

Nowadays we just flick a switch, or when there is a power outage use a generator or resort to battery-fed torches or LEDlights. I wonder what my ancestors would think of me in our modern caravan with lights fed by solar panels, and bottled gas to cook by. Come to think of it we do still carry candles – the small round insect-repelling sort.

52 Ancestors in 52 weeks – Week 12.

Theme for this week: Membership.

My first foray into genealogical research in the 1990s was at a local Family History society where I was amazed at the number of old records still existing (or so I thought), but when computers and then the internet and email became available the scope exploded. Eventually I discovered e-mail lists and the Rootsweb lists in particular, wonderful international communities of like-minded people all focussed on a particular area or subject, eager to help with research enquiries, happy to discuss theories, and keen to gossip about aspects of life within those areas. The Lanark-List in particular – and best of all Membership was free. The only limit on the number of Lists I could join was the amount of time I had available. This was of course before Ancestry and MyHeritage and ScotlandsPeople, when parish registers and Census records were difficult to access unless one went to the local LDS Centre or joined a family history society. I shall never forget the camaraderie of those early Rootsweb lists, and also of a private group for people with cochlear implants – which eventually led to me meeting my husband – but that is another story.

52 Ancestors ….. Week 11.

The theme for this week is LUCKY.

My Great Uncle George Johnston 1855-1885 was born in Launceston, Tasmania a few weeks after his Glasgow-born emigrant parents arrived on the “Storm Cloud” in 1855 after a voyage of 71 days through the stormiest seas in the world. Perhaps that is why the sea fascinated him. He became a merchant sailor at an early age, the first seaman in the extended Johnston family for generations. He spent many years on cargo and passenger boats, both sail and stream, plying between the Far East, the UK, The Americas, New Zealand and Australia.

George loved his family and wrote frequent letters home, of which about 20 survive. In January 1877 he was visiting his uncle and family in London and wrote of a walk to the docks with his cousin and how he was lucky to secure a late berth on the 3-masted “Loch Ard”. He was still on that boat in November 1877 from Shanghai en route to Sydney then going on to Twatow and Amoy, and wrote of how they were lucky to evade a typhoon and how “the other ship which I at one time thought of shipping in came up 4 days ago with her topgallant masts gone – she lost them in a typhoon.”

Again luck favoured him and he did not remain on the “Loch Ard” much longer, as seven months later she was wrecked off Cape Otway on a voyage from London to Melbourne with the loss of 52 lives in a total of 54 passengers and crew.

George obtained his First Mate’s ticket on 25 October 1883 in London. Perhaps he decided then that he was tired of sailing the world and wanted to be closer to home and his family. He signed on with the SS “Cahors”, a new powerful screw steamer which carried about 200 passengers and cargo between Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane, making several record-breaking runs. In 1884 George became the Second Officer.

His family in Tasmania were doubtless happy to know he was relatively closer to home and no longer subject to the perils of the open sea.

But on 10 June 1885 George’s luck ran out. The “Cahors” ran onto a reef just 13 miles out of land, in a relatively calm sea. As reported in the Launceston Daily Telegraph some months later:

“ Mr. Johnston and the crew worked all night, aiding the passengers, who were at last transhipped to the steamer “Burwah” and landed safely. He was lightly clad in his under-clothing, wet and exhausted from over-exertion, but he went ashore in charge of the mails, which he landed safely at Clarence Head, and remained there during the night. Next day, the 12th of June, he was going back in a launch to the captain and part of the crew who remained in charge of the wreck, when a heavy sea struck the launch and she nearly foundered. Mr. Johnston was washed overboard, and as the launch could not be brought to or turned, he perished in sight of those who admired his gallantry and unselfish labours to save others, and who were most anxious to rescue him. The launch had, in fact, put out contrary to law, as the danger flag was flying at Clarence Head at the time.”

Photo: It is thought that the young man sitting in the foreground was George Johnston.

A fuller version of George’s story is at www.nancyvada.me/George-Johnston-sailor-boy

52 Ancestors – Week 10.

This week’s theme is ‘Translation’.

I have a mysterious Great great grandfather named Thomas Darchy who was born in Augsburg, Bavaria in 1820 but lived the first eleven or so years of his life with a Prussian-born guardian in Neuchatel, Switzlerland. When he was aged 10 the guardian received a letter from someone apparently connected with Thomas’ mother’s family, saying the boy was to be collected and taken …. where? The guardian was most upset and drafted a reply in archaic French – not his native language – full of crossed-out words and other words added above and below – and by the greatest good fortune that draft has been was found in the Neuchatel archives, along with some other legal papers.

Over the years several translations have been made by a variety of people, including me using an on-line translator. Not all agree. The general consensus is that the distraught guardian wrote, in part:

“And what do you want to do with him? Send him to boarding school? Or in other words, abandon him, because you do not want to look after him and his mother will continue to watch him from a distance at her pleasure”. … “Regarding the rest, I do not understand how Madam L. was able so easily to consent to this arrangement, which is precisely the opposite of what she told me two years ago in Geneva, when she seemed to fear his presence in England (deleted…. and assured me she wanted to leave him here for better hiding him). She said in her own words that he would never know his mother and that the mother’s family would forever ignore his existence. She told me her final wish for her son, and she gave me her express wish, to raise him entirely as Swiss.” … “ I would like to remind you that this child is here under the protection of the government and that I am his guarantor…”

“ Personally, I am deeply worried about the consequences that this change will have for my dear child, for who shall he count on in the future. On you? Alas! You live with 200-300 livres of him, you are married, a public servant. (deleted …and you have no interest to see him prosper and to make his way). Or his mother? Much less than on you, because she doesn’t want him and as she says, she cannot look after him. Thus, he will be abandoned and alone, continually in boarding schools and he will become what he can.”

We do not know for certain what happened during the next ten years, but in 1840 Thomas turned up on a ship in Australian waters, a wealthy young man aged just 20. He went on to found an Australian grazing empire – at one stage the family owned or leased vast tracts of sheep and cattle pasturage. Sadly much was lost in the depression of the 1890s. Most of his sons including my own great grandfather became drovers. One became an outback postman.

But nobody has ever managed to discover just who he was!! We have a baptismal certificate from Augsburg but it is suspected that his parents’ names were falsified. Family stories abound – he was the illegitimate son of a French noblewoman emigree and a Scottish nobleman, or a Prussian princess, or an Englishwoman who was one of George IV’s mistresses …. So the draft letter in the Neuchatel archives is important since it mentions his mother but does not of course give her name apart from referring to her as “Madame L”.

A much fuller account of Thomas’ early years is at https://nancyvada.me/the-mysterious-advent-of-thomas-darchy/