An Interview with my Great Grandfathers

Every family historian‘s dream is for a time machine to enable them to meet their ancestors.  Here is an idea of how such a meeting could proceed.


Edwin Hunt, 1837-1895, Headmaster of Reading Berkshire and Sydney,  b. Reading Berks, died Sydney.

Frederick Wentworth Wade 1838 – 1912, Barrister and ‘City Father’ of Invercargill NZ, b. Co, Meath, died NZ.

Alexander Johnston, 1829 – 1906, Librarian of Launceston Tasmania, b. Glasgow, died Launceston.

Frank d’Archy, 1854 – 1925, Station owner & drover, of Wilcannia, b. “Gelam” on the Murrumbidgee, died Sydney.

Nancy Vada Johnston (Gibb), Great Granddaughter of the above.

Nancy:  Good morning, it is a tremendous honour to be able to talk to you, my four great grandfathers. You or your families all came to Australia from different parts of the world and led very different lives. You’ve all contributed to the person I am.

You must be curious about me – I’m a retired medical research scientist.  I love the outdoors, and also enjoy reading, writing and artistic pursuits.  I’ve always been adventurous – I lived on a boat for 10 years and sailed around Australia, and have travelled overseas to Great Britain, Europe, America and Easter Island. Although my parents were city people, I spent many of my school holidays on country properties riding horses and working with sheep and cattle.

DSC04583_2Frank, one of your sons, my maternal grandfather Thomas Eccaboon d’Archy, was always known as Dick. It’s curious that his middle name was that of a neighbouring sheep property. He was a station manager in north western Queensland when he married Edwin’s youngest daughter Lily Hunt in 1908. Were you present at that marriage?

Frank d’Archy: Regrettably no, I was droving in western NSW at the time and my wife Margaret was keeping a boarding house in Hay. I would have liked to have seen Dick’s shy young English bride.

Edwin Hunt, fixedEdwin Hunt:  What was my youngest daughter doing so far north in such wild country?  We lived a respectable English-style life in Sydney. Tea was always served from a silver teapot on a starched embroidered tablecloth. Proper customs were observed!

Nancy: Those customs were continued by your granddaughters, and I now treasure the teapot and table linen. After your death Edwin and the marriage of your three sons, the rest of the family moved to FANNY hUNTToowoomba where your brilliant eldest daughter Fanny Hunt had opened another school – as you know she was the first woman Bachelor of Science graduate from the University of Sydney, and was the first headmistress of Ipswich Girls’ Grammar School with her sister Maggie assisting her as matron. Your daughter Florence had earlier married Jack Haly and lived in Cloncurry, and Lily was visiting when she met Dick, the manager of Headingly Station near Cloncurry. Lily and Dick were married in the school grounds.

Frank d’Archy: Hmmm – Lily must have been from tough stock – the trip back to ‘Headingly’ would have been by wagon and horseback and taken at least a week depending on the road and weather – and the Wet would have set in soon after and isolated them for months.

Nancy: Yes – and my mother Vada was born there in 1913. Lily’s sister Flo Haly was living in Cloncurry and must have been a great comfort. You and your brothers were well known in the outback, Frank – the d’Archy Brothers – it must have been a terrible time when the Banks foreclosed in the 1890’s drought and depression and many family-owned or managed stations were lost, including your “Cuthowarra”. You held the mail run from Camooweal to Anthony’s Lagoon in the Northern Territory didn’t you.  Your brother Louis also became a drover, having in an earlier affluent time toured the Continent in style and been presented to the Queen, together with his sisters Susan and Rose.

Dick & Lily, Betty & VadaFrank d’Archy: And my sons lost their land too – although Dick soon became a station manager.  But then the Great War started and Dick enlisted in the Light Horse and became a Quartermaster Sergeant.  His brother FritzEdward and cousins Thomas d’Archy and Jack Wreford d’Archy all served on the Somme and all came home at the end of the war.  It was said the d’Archy boys led charmed lives.

Nancy: But Dick never saw fighting because on the troop ship taking them from Egypt to France he badly damaged an already tricky knee during deck sports.  He was invalided back home after months in hospital in France and England.  There is an apocryphal family story that Dick was promoted to the rank of Brigadier for a day so that he could arrest an obnoxious Colonel!

Frank d’Archy: That could well have been true. He spent some time at the Light Horse headquarters in London.  But what happened to his family? He was very restless when he returned to Australia.

Edwin Hunt: My Margaret would have ensured her family stayed together.

Vada & BettyNancy: She did. When Dick enlisted the whole family moved to Toowoomba – they had a big house on top of the range where Lily’s girls Betty and Vada led a wonderful carefree life.  Later they moved to a large house at Rose Bay in Sydney, which they also called ‘Redmarley’ after the Hunt ancestral village in England. Edwin, your sister Mary Ann’s descendants in Sydney also called some of their homes ‘Redmarley’ – at one time, together with Betty d’Archy’s home at Beecroft, there were four of them.

Mary AnnEdwin Hunt: So Mary Ann’s girls must have settled down and made advantageous marriages – at first I had little hope for them, such wild young ladies with unsuitable educations.  When my dear sister Elizabeth died in Sydney I made sure her sister Emma in England only received her inheritance in instalments.  Females have no head for money!

Nancy: Mary Ann’s descendants did not keep in contact with your family – there was a row about money, I’m told. (Edwin: Hmmph!) Neither did Dick d’Archy who resumed his former lifestyle and rarely saw them, including Betty, by then a nurse – she became a matron, very formidable! Betty about 1960– or Vada, a delightful and lively city stenographer.  He was a countryman through and through.  He went droving for the Kidmans, sometimes with his brother ‘Son’ (FritzEdward), and later managed various sheep and cattle stations, including Victoria River Downs in the Queensland Gulf country and Macarthur River Station in the Northern Territory. In 1938 he and two of his stockmen caught what was probably typhoid and were airlifted by the brand new flying doctor service to Katherine, but he died a few days later.  ‘Son’ also worked on various outback stations until his death in 1947, it was said from the effects of gassing during the war.

Edwin Hunt:  And what of my other children? Eight of them came to Australia with us in 1879.  We had quite a fast, comfortable trip in the saloon on the SS ‘Aconcagua’, nothing like my sisters’ emigration on the ‘Sultana’ in 1864, when they were becalmed in the Indian Ocean for 6 weeks. Elizabeth was the ship’s Matron and wrote some rather alarming stories home.

Margaret Morgan Hunt ca 1910Nancy:  You would be proud of your children, no doubt due to the education you and your Welsh schoolteacher wife Margaret Morgan provided – it must have been unusual in those days for her to leave her Welsh farming family to teach in Berkshire, coincidentally at the same school where you were headmaster. And your own mother Nancy Welding was a governess. I have often wondered if her subtle influence resulted in me being called Nancy, although my mother told me it was simply a name they liked.

Your son Edwin Herbert Hunt became a Bank Manager, and in turn fathered a large family. Your other sons also married well, and Maggie married a wealthy grazier and made many trips overseas. The family remained close-knit in Sydney. Aunt Mag and Geo Griffiths, FolkestoneFanny, Maggie, Lily and her girls, and several other aunts and uncles, all made a 2 year pilgrimage to Europe in the 1920’s – so the sense of adventure you passed on was still strong.  You and your sister Mary Ann Boshier have about 100 descendants scattered all over Australia.

alexander (2(Turning) As have you, Alexander – and an even larger number of relatives left behind in Glasgow. I wonder why you and your wife Margaret Lyle and little son Charles emigrated to Tasmania. The position of precentor (choir leader) at St. Andrew’s in Launceston and the assurance of regular cabinetmaking work must have been compelling inducements.

AlexanderJohnston: We sought a better life.  It was a difficult time for my Margaret – she had lost her mother the previous year, and was expecting her second child George who arrived two weeks after the end of the voyage. She was greatly comforted by the arrival of her sister Marionne Lyle, and then the excitement of Marionne’s marriage to Edward Baker at our residence in 1861. Margaret or Charotte_2

Nancy: Sadly, your son George Johnston lost his life to the sea in 1885. Yet the sea retained its fascination for your youngest child Alex, and his son Warwick, and then me and my brother Barry.

Alexander Johnston: Ah yes, my George. Although it was an honour to receive his posthumous medal from the Royal Shipwreck Humane Society, nothing could make amends for our loss. He had been a sailor from a young age and made many trips around the world, including passing through the newly built Suez Canal. He brought back wonderful news of my dear brothers and their families in Glasgow, and my brother John Johnston the Congregationalist Minister in Stoke Newington, London.  I was horrified to learn that John had been imprisoned twice for refusing to pay the so-called education tax which provided money for certain schools but none fMedal1or the school associated with his church, or some others.  He was not a young man then either, and he suffered grievously in losing two sons in their youthful prime.

Nancy: Would it surprise you to know that Marionne’s great granddaughter Tina Curtis and I met a few years ago, and also your eldest son Charles’ grandchild Gwen and her brother Ken’s widowed wife Patricia Johnston. Gwen and Pat have a veritable treasure chest holding a wonderful collection of George’s letters home, indeed it was through them that I have been able to trace all your Glasgow family. Their treasure chest also includes papers and books once belonging to Margaret’s father Dr. Thomas Lyle of Glasgow, and the very old Cochrane-Lyle family bible which enabled me to trace the family history back to 1733. Dr. Lyle wrote the well-known Scottish ballad “Kelvin Grove” …..

Frederick Wade (interrupting): I too lost sons and daughters, but to Australia.  What is the attraction of that country?  Why did they not remain in New Zealand, the home of their birth?

Nancy: Perhaps the boys at least were not at ease with your second wife Ada Macloskey, who was your first wife’s niece and took over 4 children aged between 11 and 3. Your eldest daughter Annie Teresa Wentworth Wade worked in your solicitor’s office for some time didn’t she – long enough to sign the first NZ Womens’ Emancipist bill in 1893.  One of the staff of Southland Girls’ High School reminiscenced that “Annie visited us once, she was a hard case who had lived in Australia, worn jodhpurs and ridden camels!”  Perhaps she had been visiting her brother Frederick in Perth. Your wife Ada is remembered at the school with much affection.

Frederick Wade: My boys – what became of them?  I was very disappointed that neither showed an aptitude for the legal profession, but took off for Western Australia.

Robert W Wade aged 13Nancy: Robert returned to New Zealand, became an accountant, and at 54 married Edith Sarah Sturgeon.  She may have been his nurse.  They had a daughter Helen Wentworth Wade, who started school in Invercargill in 1931 not long before your second wife Ada died.  Robert’s brother Frederick did not remain a gold miner in Kalgoorlie for long.  He married an Irishwoman Alice May Ryan in Perth in 1905; by then he was a poultry farmer. They had two children who grew up in Sydney but I don’t think they knew about their Aunt Bertha who also lived there. There are now a number of great grandchildren.

Alexander Johnston:  My youngest son Alexander Johnston was also in Western Australia for a time, working as a journalist for the ‘Coolgardie Miner’. He seemed to take after his brother George, always travelling the high seas – he sent letters from exotic places like Colombo, Aden, Hong Kong and Shanghai and made more than one voyage around the Far East.

Fremantle 1904 Sicawei nr Shanghai 1899   Swan R WAust`1894Nancy:  I treasure the little scrap of paper I found between the pages of one of his books.  It was a cutting from the Sydney Bulletin dated 24 June 1899 and says “Alec Johnston late of (the) Coolgardie Miner is running (the) Shanghai Daily Press, a mostly scissors 8pp. print.  Johnston plays the violin like a young Joachim and played himself into Shanghai “sassiety” within two weeks.”  Mia 'Tokyo 1904(Joseph Joachim 1831-1907 was a Hungarian violinist and composer.)  He was the Bulletin’s correspondent during the Boxer Rebellion.  He wrote entertaining illustrated articles for a Sydney weekly magazine in the Twenties. I also have his watercolour sketchbooks from that period – a wonderful record of early steamship travel in the Orient with gentlemen in tropical whites, and life in Shanghai and also Japan with ladies in brilliantly patterned obis and wooden clogs.

Frederick Wade (musing): So my son Frederick was on the Western Australian goldfields about the same time as Alexander’s son Alexander – I wonder if their paths ever crossed.

Nancy: And was it just a coincidence that over 10 years later the younger Alexander, by then 42, married your daughter Bertha in Melbourne? Perhaps she had been visiting her sister Adela Wade, who was the Matron at Geelong Grammar School for many years and is still fondly remembered by many of her ‘boys’, who are now in their eighties.  One of them told me she used to invite 4 of them to tea once a week; they played bridge and the more games she won, the better the repast – which the boys were not slow to capitalise upon.

Frederick Wade: So it seems nursing became quite a respectable profession for young ladies, hmph!

Nancy:  It was also professed by Edwin’s and Frank’s granddaughter Betty d’Archy, and possibly Frederick’s last child Fonna Wade, who married a Christchurch farmer Frederick Charles Beere.

Fonna BeereBoth Betty and Fonna loved travelling too; I remember Fonna visiting us in Sydney.  Betty went to England several times, including a visit to Arran to meet a relative of Frank’s wife Margaret’s first husband; and she visited Fonna in New Zealand.  Family was everything, even family by marriage!


101_1108.fixedFonna had no children and bequeathed several memorials to you Frederick and your second wife Ada, including a garden at St. John’s  Invercargill; and also a school bursary in memory of her sister Annie Teresa.  She left my father Warwick Johnston 500 pounds. I wonder if that sum paid for the one overseas trip which my adventurous mother Vada persuaded my father to take! Warwick was quiet like you, Alexander, but he did love sailing and spent much of his youth in a small boat on Sydney Harbour.

Frederick Wade:  In my younger days I was a Midshipman.  Do you think you received some of your sailing genes from me as well as Alexander?

Nancy: Definitely! I wish I knew why you forsook your large Dublin family for the sea – was it due to the hardships of the Irish famine?  Your brother Robert also emigrated to New Zealand but settled in Hokitika where he was the mayor for a few years. As an Anglo-Irish family yours would not have been as affected as the poorer folk – like Frank’s wife Margaret Prendergast from Tuam in County Galway.

Margaret, from JamesFrank d’Archy: Yes, my wife Margaret had an interesting early life.  She told me about her family’s voyage to South Australia on the ‘Pestonjee Bomanjee’ in 1854 when she was 8 years old, followed by more travelling to “Canally” near Banranald on the Murrumbidgee, where her father worked as a shearer, stockman or drover and the family lived in a rough hut on one of the d’Archy properties. Our marriage was not approved of in some quarters.

(Photo right – Margaret Prendergast; below: Margaret and her family in later years.)

Gran mgt and FamilyNancy: It is fascinating how some common themes run through your families, contributing to the literary and artistic qualities I have inherited. Great Grandfather Frederick, perhaps reflecting the influence of your schoolteacher father, you were instrumental in establishing many institutions in Invercargill including the Athenaeum, which would now be called a Library.  Great Grandfather Alexander, you were originally a cabinetmaker in Glasgow but became the Librarian at the Mechanics Institute in Launceston and remained there for over 40 years. Your son Alexander was a well-known journalist in Sydney, it was said he set the literary standard for front-page news in the Sydney Morning Herald. He also published two books under the nom de plume ‘Spartacus Smith’. Great Grandfather Frank, wasn’t your sister Susan d’Archy born 1854, also a journalist?

London lectures.6 COVERFrank d’Archy: Indeed. An extraordinary woman. She travelled to Europe many times, and gave illustrated talks in London which were mentioned in The Times Court News. She had charge of the social and fashion columns of the Daily Telegraph and also wrote for several country newspapers, contributed to a Paris daily newspaper and sent a colonial letter periodically to the Sketch, an illustrated London journal.

Nancy:  It is said that on one memorable occasion in 1885 she represented NSW and indeed the whole of Australia at the Court of Queen Victoria, temporarily at Aix-le-Bain – Susan and one of her brothers were staying at the resort and the Queen invited them to be received by her and made a ‘happy little speech’ in which she thanked NSW for sending aid to the Imperial troops in the Sudan.

Frederick Wade: Have any of our mutual descendants embraced the legal profession?

Nancy:  No, it appears you were the only one.  But you had some interesting cases didn’t you. As a barrister you defended the notorious Waikawa wife murderer of 1878, who is still remembered. They made a film about the murder a few years ago, called “Foul Play”. It is said you defended James Walsh very ably, but it was a hopeless case.

Frank d’Archy:  That’s all very well but what does he know about sheep and cattle and the harsh life of the Australian outback??

Edwin Hunt:  And what do you know about the rigors of schoolteaching? I was a pupil teacher at 14, and a headmaster at 21, in 1858.

Alexander Johnston (tetchily):  And what do you know about libraries?  I had my own system at Launceston, but they made me change to a new-fangled system and allow free access to everyone – before then I was in charge and would decide who could or couldn’t read certain books!

Nancy (soothingly): In 1914 the history of the Mechanics Institute was published, and they said that you had been a ‘careful, methodical and intelligent manager.’  There is a large portrait of you in the current Library. Your grandson my father Warwick could have posed for it, at least if he had grown your beard and whiskers!  (Turning) I have been unable to find a portrait of you, Frederick.  Surely with all your involvement in public organisations there must be one somewhere.  I am curious as to what you and your brother Robert the Mayor of Hokitika looked like. Edwin, your descendants have a wonderful photographic record of you and your family, and in particular I treasure the precious little portrait of your mother Nancy Welding.  Likewise, Frank – including portraits of your parents and some of your siblings.

How I wish I could show you all some of the things we take for granted in our modern life.  Only you, Frank, would have seen an aeroplane. Your granddaughter Vada went for a short flight in a very famous aeroplane, the ‘Southern Cross’, which made the first flight between England and Australia.  She also drove one of the early cars in Sydney.  She was her father’s daughter even if she barely knew Dick.

It is time to go.  Thank you, my wonderful great grandparents, for all the good genes you have passed on, particularly the adventurous ones!  It is good to know that you and your wives all seemed to die of old age, not horrible diseases like cancer.  Alexander’s wife Margaret Lyle lived to be 98, and many others lived well into their 80’s, so I can surely expect to live a long life. Hopefully there will be time to visit or revisit all the places from which you came, and to discover more about your lives and families.

Published in the magazine of the New Zealand Society of Genealogists,  2012.

Photo below: 3 generations. Nancy Johnston, Vada d’Archy, Lily Hunt

3 generations Nancy, Vada, Lily

4 thoughts on “An Interview with my Great Grandfathers

  1. I have read this article with great pleasure. What a wonderful way to pull one’s family history together. I am related through marriage, my great Aunt, Edith Sarah Sturgeon married Robert Wentworth Wade.
    I was sad when the end came, I could have gone on reading for hours.

    • Thank you, Isobel.It was fun writing that article, I’d like to do one of the Great Grandmothers too but sadly very little is known about most of them. Re your great aunt, are you in contact with Gordon Ritchie?

  2. Nancy, I am related via Alex Johnstone. His older sister Margaret married my Great grandfather, FJA Huxtable. We are related as 2nd cousins once removed, I believe. I live in Sumner, and my brother in Sydney, has tasked me to contact you to talk, if possible, about the Lyle Family tree…can you assist? Myke Wymer,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.