Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Discoveries in Adelaide (part 1)

Who would have thought that the word "English", written in faded ink on yellowing paper could make my heart sink. But it did.

South Australia's magnificent State Library.
The Spence Wing is in a modern building behind this one.
Last week I spent a few days in Adelaide, looking for information about the Mason family, while my husband attended a conference. Although I'd been to Adelaide before, this was the first time I'd been there since I discovered that my father's forebears had once lived there. I had a wonderful time exploring the city on foot, and using the Spence wing of the State Library to check out some original documents and records that aren't available on-line.

One of the first things I wanted to see was the minutes book of the Destitute Board. As I've mentioned previously, the local newspapers reported that Catherine Mason applied to the Board for relief several times, both before and after her husband John died in 1857. The Board minutes seemed the most likely place to find more information about the family and their circumstances.

Unfortunately there is a gap in the records between 1857 and 1869. But I found the entry for Friday November 21, 1856, a couple of months before John died, in the big tattered ledger. The record was in John's name rather than Catherine's.

Cottages in North St, off Currie St.
Most of Currie St is now taken up by
businesses and warehouses.
It stated, in a neat copperplate hand, that "Jno. Mason" lived in Currie St (no number given), had 4 children under the age of 7 and 4 over 7, that he arrived in Adelaide on the Dorset 12 years prior, and that he was a labourer. His application was recommended by Dr Shole.

Under "Circumstances" it said "Has been ill, unable to work since last Christmas." Type of relief provided was "outdoors", that is, provision of rations rather than "indoors", admission to the Destitute Asylum. All this confirmed what the newspaper report had said. In fact, one of the things I discovered on this trip was that the newspaper reports at the time were remarkably detailed and accurate.

The only new information, apart from Dr Shole's name, was the comment in the last column . Whoever wrote the minutes felt that it was important to record the nationality of the applicants, even though it wasn't required. In most cases they also recorded the religious denomination, though it was omitted in John Mason's case. But there was that word:  "English". Drat!

The Edinburgh Castle Hotel, Currie St,
one of the oldest pubs in Adelaide.
The Ship Inn, frequented by the Masons,
no longer exists.
For some reason, the entry for John in the Destitute Board minutes was duplicated a few lines down, on the same date, but with a minor correction to the ages of the children. Perhaps this entry was made after the information had been checked by the Relieving Officer, as the newspaper reporter indicated was going to happen. But that word English was 'dittoed'. No correction there.

After all the research I'd done trying to discover where John Mason came from, before he married Catherine Murphy in Sydney in 1841, that word "English" was depressing. By a long process of eliminating every other John Mason I could find, I'd come to the conclusion that he was probably the young convict of that name who arrived in New South Wales on the Parmelia in 1834. And that John Mason was an Irishman from Limerick.

The most obvious explanation is that I've got the wrong John Mason. After all, I have no proof that the convict on the Parmelia was the one who married Catherine Murphy. But so much that I know about John and Catherine suggests they were Irish. Almost everyone associated with them - the witnesses at their wedding, the sponsors at their children's baptisms, the person who registered John's death - was Irish. So I've been trying to think of some other possible explanations.

We know from the newspaper report that it was Catherine, not John, who fronted up to the Board to ask for relief, so the recorder didn't actually meet John on that occasion. Did he know the family? Where did the information come from?

If John had arrived in Australia as a teenager in 1834 and he had lived in Australia for 22 years, perhaps he had lost his accent. Or perhaps he lived and worked in Ireland but originally came from England, though convicts' records usually recorded where they were born. Maybe Catherine sounded, looked, or claimed to be English.

Or perhaps, just maybe, the recorder made a clerical error. My faith in official records was rattled when I found a couple of entries in 1882 for Harriet Whybrew, when she was admitted to the Industrial School at the age of 15 for stealing a watch. One entry mentioned that her parents were in England, but both entries said that her uncle, David Whybrew, a turner, lived in Adelaide.

Part of one of the records for Harriet Whybrew.
(Taken with a phone camera from a microfilm,
so not great quality. Click to enlarge.)

In fact, David Whybrew was her father, a soldier who was living in England with his wife Susan Mason and their other children at the time. Harriet's uncle Henry Atkin, husband of Mary Ann Mason, was a wood turner living in Adelaide. (More on this later.)

Since I've been home I've been going back over my previous research, looking for an English John Mason that I might have overlooked before. So far I haven't found one that wasn't dead or married by 1841 or still in Sydney after 1845. I'll keep looking.

As a footnote, I still don't know why John was bed-bound for twelve months before he died. While I was at the library I checked the Adelaide Hospital admissions records for 1855-1857, but didn't find any of the Mason family mentioned. Never mind - it was great fun and fascinating looking at original records from 160 years ago. The library and State Records people were all very helpful. I just wish Adelaide wasn't quite so far away.