Friday, 14 February 2014

Pitfalls of Research - or - Sometimes It Hurts to Uncover the Past

I first got interested in genealogy when I was twelve. Our Year 7 history teacher (whose name escapes me at the moment) set us an assignment to look into our family tree. It was tied in with more general concepts of history and was clearly designed to give us a sense of people as part of history. We had to do timelines with our own short life in there, along with our parents and grandparents and major events. It was a good idea and it really sparked my interest, but it also nearly ended it.

One of the things we were asked to do was, if possible, interview our grandparents. My mother's parents, Leslie Keith Ashton O'Toole and Eda Elecia Elizabeth ni Shoobridge, lived with us, so that was easy.

Leslie and Eda with granddaughter Joanne, Dee Why, 1967. Photo in private collection
Bear in mind I was twelve, and twelve year olds are not always known for their sensitivity and tact. Mum had over the years told us stories of her life and the lives of her parents and I assumed that, having not been told otherwise, all of this was fine to discuss.

It all started well. Nanna and Grandpop knew I had the assignment to do. They told me about going to school, some tales of their parents and of their lives growing up. They had some photos to show me (one of which has since vanished without trace – aaargh). They told me how they met in the tearooms up at Wentworth Falls and about my uncle Jack's birth, 9 months and 3 weeks after they were married and how Nanna prayed he wouldn't be early (a potential disaster in 1926). And then, because I had to fit them into the timeline, I asked about their lives during the Depression. It went very quiet. Grandpop looked away and Nanna got decidedly terse. I couldn't work out what was wrong, but plunged on regardless. “Mum said you were ill,” I said to my grandfather. “No,” said my grandmother, “she has got that wrong.” And that was that. Interview over. Bundled out.

I say in my grandparents' defence that this was very unusual behaviour. They were otherwise in the whole time I knew them sweet and loving. Nanna didn't take any crap from us, but she was never awful about it, just firm, and she would do anything for us. Grandpop made each of us feel like the centre of his world and he always made time to listen to us, or to go on walks with us. I wish I could find Steamroller sweets as he was always giving them to us. I still love strong mints to this day.

Allen's Steam Rollers "The Perfect Peppermint". From Power House Museum

Poor Mum was the meat in this debacle of a sandwich. She consoled me and said my grandparents were very sensitive about Grandpop's illness and he always felt it was his fault. The poor woman apologised for not telling me it was an issue. Then she went in to talk to her parents and soothe those troubled waters. All repaired, but I never dared talk to my grandparents about family history again, and I realize now how much I could have learnt. I have so many questions and I can't ask them.

So what did happen? Yes, Grandpop was sensitive about this, and some may think that I shouldn't raise this on such a public forum. But my grandfather always blamed himself and felt great shame, and I want the world to know IT WASN'T HIS FAULT.

The truth is Grandpop spent a large part of the Depression in the Queen Victoria Sanitarium in Wentworth Falls being treated for tuberculosis. He was only in his late 20s when he went in. My Uncle Jack was very young. Nanna went from having a comfortable family life (my grandfather was an accountant) to having no real means of support. Her parents lived next door and did what they could, but Nanna had to find work. She took in ironing, became a cleaner, did whatever it took. It must have been hard for her, but like many people of the time, she did what she had to do. Then Uncle Jack had a fall off the verandah on his trike and broke his hip. He was three at the time. He ended up in hospital down in Sydney. So now Nanna was visiting Grandpop in the Sanitarium down the road, travelling down to Sydney by train to be with her son and spending the rest of the time cleaning and ironing to make ends meet.

Grandpop took this very hard. He had gone from a breadwinner to a burden as he saw it.

Then the situation worsened. My grandfather responded well to treatment, but was in hospital for some years. In the meantime, Uncle Jack developed TB in the hip. He spent about three years in hospital (he told me he watched the Sydney Harbour Bridge being built) and when he was released he was left with one leg permanently shorter than the other, not that that ever stopped him doing anything he loved. He was always up to mischief, encouraging his cousins in all sorts of madness, became an avid hiker in the Blue Mountains in his late teens and early twenties, drove sports cars, and was golf mad, only getting himself a buggy in the last few years of his life.

Grandpop did not take such a light attitude. He blamed himself for my uncle's disability and for his lost childhood years in the hospital ward. No wonder my grandmother was terse that day I interviewed them both. She fully understood the hurt I was inadvertently causing and so she cut it short as quickly as she could.

It puzzled me over the years where Grandpop's TB had come from. Okay, it was more prevelant back then than it is now (Les was born in 1901), and treatment these days is more effective, but still I wondered. Then one day my mother and I went walking round Balmain, looking for the addresses where my great grandparents had lived and the places where my grandfather would have been as a boy. We went to Birchgrove Public School, where Grandpop and his siblings were first educated, and Mum pointed out the shiny new development next door, built over a coal mine. I was horrified. There had been a coal mine right next to a school. And I mean RIGHT next to it. No 2km set back here. Not even a 20m set back. RIGHT NEXT DOOR. Birchgrove Public School opened in 1885, the Balmain Colliery opened in 1897 and closed in 19451. It had “poor working conditions and suffered several disastrous accidents”2. It was the deepest mine ever worked in Australia and was not a commercial success. The mine extracted coal from under the harbour. All the sifting, sorting and loading was done, naturally enough, on the surface, and the surface workings were slap bang next to a primary school.

We have a good understanding these days of the effects of coal dust on humans, particularly the ultrafine particles that are inhaled and cause lung cancer and all sorts of other respiratory illnesses (and yet our pollies still think it is fine to subject people to this). Back then there wasn't as much known, but people still knew about lung diseases and the dangers of too much exposure to coal dust, and yet the mine was approved and went ahead. Next to a school.

I went looking for connections between the school and mine-related respiratory illnesses. There is a little bit on the adverse health outcomes for miners, but almost nothing about the rest of the population, as if the problem was restricted only to the mine. The Balmain Observer was very much supportive of the mine, frequently trumpeting its cause, but not, that I have found, mentioning its location in relation to the school. In 1903 a Mr Robert Hitchen complained to Balmain Council of disturbances from blasting during the driving of the second shaft and there were concerns from a number of residents about potential damage to property and anxiety caused by excessive noise and vibration from the blasting3 (we have seen from the Hunter Valley and elsewhere that blasting, vibration and dust go hand in hand). While a number of councillors, including the mayor, thought it appropriate to pursue the matter with Sydney Harbour Collieries Limited (the owner of the mine), Alderman Cox thought such action would interfere with “the progress of the district” and he thought “the trams, for instance” were a bigger nuisance4. Does any of this sound familiar?

Archie Jackson, famous Australian cricketer, attended Birchgrove Public School as a boy. He died of TB in 1939 aged 24. Dawn Fraser and her family lived in Birchgrove while the mine was still operational, and Dawn attended Birchgrove Public. She and her father both suffered from asthma. “When she was twelve it was so bad her parents thought she was suffering from tuberculosis”5

That's only a handful and doesn't prove anything, but it does raise suspicions. I would like to know if there were ever any studies done on the health of the children of the school, both during their time there and later in life. Did others have or contract respiratory illnesses.

Maybe the mine did cause my grandfather's TB, maybe it didn't. As I stated earlier, it was more prevelant in the C19th and first half of the C20th. Maybe Grandpop was just a victim of that fact, as were so many others. But I can't help thinking that living near and going to school next to a mine could well have been a major contributor, if not the cause. I just can't prove it. Maybe Uncle Jack got TB in his hip because Grandpop was ill, maybe he got the infection in hospital, maybe he just got it.

Regardless of any of that, this fact is clear:


1Lawrence, Joan and Warne, Catherine, “A Pictorial History of Balmain to Glebe”, Kingclear Books, Alexandria, 1995, p. 28

2Leichhardt Municipal Council Report, Corporate and Information Services, Item B17 – Balmain Colliery Plaque, 11 June 2013, p.161

3 "Balmain Coal Mine Explosions" The Evening News (New South Wales), 29 Oct 1903, p. 3, col. 4; digital images, Trove - Digitised newspapers and more ( : accessed 14 Feb 2014).

4 "Dangers of Blasting" The Eveing News (New South Wales), 14 Oct 1903, p. 2, col. 6; digital images, Trove - Digitised newspapers and more ( : accessed 14 Feb 2014).

5Macneall, Pippa “Dawn Fraser: 1964 Australian of the Year”,, p. 3


  1. Always enjoy your posts Megan. Worked out that Leslie O'Toole was a second cousin to my maternal grandfather. Glad to hear yours survived his ordeal and was able to enjoy his grandchildren. Mine never got to see his 24 grandchildren or even his own children grow up. Remember Allens steamrollers so well. Looks like the company has no intention of bringing them back!

    1. Sorry about your grandfather. That is really rough. I would love to know more about your O'Tooles and how we are connected. Please email me. Finding relatives of Laurence Snr is proving problematic for me. As to the Stearmrollers, no, Nestle bought Allens and just seem intent on killing the lines that don't fit their mulitnational product lines. Their website and the customer service operator I spoke to both say "XXXX Mints instead", which are not as good. Oh well. But it still remains, thinking of Steamrollers makes me think of my grandfather, and finding the image for the blog was a real blast from the past. Brought back all sorts of sensations. Just lovely.