Friday, 9 June 2017

Draig Goch or not Draig Goch? That Was the Question

Family Stories. We all have them. Sometimes they are spot on. Sometimes they are so far off the mark it's not funny, and cause a lot of confusion. Sometimes they are a strange variation of the truth and when you burrow down you can see how the version you have came about. Regardless, it's up to us, as family historians to set the record straight if we can.

Setting the record straight is not without its pitfalls. People can get quite attached to history as they think they know it. Then there's finding out that an illustrious ancestor isn't - as in either isn't your ancestor (same name, but not your relative) or isn't illustrious. Or is notorious, or odious, or whatever. We have to take the good with the bad and let everyone else sort out their own feelings on the matter.

There was a BIG family story that my father told us - many, many times. I can't remember when it wasn't told. And it can be summed up in four words - "our proud Welsh heritage". Drummed into us all from birth. I and the elder of my two brothers have Welsh first names. My eldest sister has a Welsh middle name. The younger three are not so burdened, possibly because Mum said, "Enough!"

A lot was made of the Welsh connection and Dad always valued it very highly, especially in light of Mum's Irish heritage (her maiden name is O'Toole. If you want to see my attempts to trace the O'Toole line, use the labels on the right to find my posts on the name).

The family story went like this: My grandmother's grandfather was an artist called William Davies. He was born in Hunters Hill "on the wrong side of the blanket" (I remember having to ask what that meant), and was abandoned at a very young age. His father was Edwin Amos Davies, a wealthy merchant and artist who had come out to Australia from Wales. He had a ship named the Johanna, after his wife, and traded into the South Pacific.

Around 1988 my grandmother asked Dad to look into her family. The bicentenary of white settlement had just been marked and someone in my grandfather's family had put out a book on the Ellems in Australia, traced from a First Fleeter forward (shocking book, full of errors and bias). I think Nanna wanted to find out more about her own family.

Her mother was a Manion, who I distinctly remember being told was descended from the Manions mentioned in the "Timeless Land" books (spoiler - no, she wasn't, but the real story is interesting. I'll have to write that up sometime). I suspect that may have been wishful thinking, having another early convict in the family (which wasn't going to work, as the "Timeless Land" Manion was a fictional character).

We all knew about Nanna's grandfather Davies - William, who was an artist and died "in the gutter" in Leichhardt. He certainly died of cyrrhosis of the liver from alcoholism. Nanna had been brought up by her aunts and by William's wife, Eliza,her grandmother, and seems to have asked questions about her grandfather. There are also a number of his artworks floating around the family. I have a landscape. I know Dad has a self-portrait, although I haven't seen it in years. Various cousins have sketches and such.

Dad went looking. I don't know where he looked. I don't know what he looked at, but he turned up something. Edwin had left Wales from a particular village (which I think Dad visited at some later point), leaving behind a wife and family, came out here and married without divorce or death to end the earlier union, and had a sizable family.

Nanna was not impressed. Actually, that's putting it mildly. She "went off", as the saying goes. If that was the sort of information Dad was going to turn up, that her whole Davies line was illegitimate as a result of bigamy, she didn't want to know any more. All research was to stop there and then. Which it did. I mean, where's the sense in this? William was illegitimate either way. But bigamy was obviously more shocking, so the matter was left.

On and off over the years I have gone on my own hunt for Edwin Amos Davies. The research trail has never made it out of Australia as I have never been able to find any record of him. I asked Dad where he got the name from. "William's death certificate". My priority had been and still is Mum's side of the family (there's a lot to be written up on that. I'll get to it), so I didn't get around to ordering the death certificate to check. I would occasionally do a search on Trove, or on Ancestry if I was at Family History Group or the Library, but nothing ever came up and there were always other names to chase. I looked for ships, I looked for ship owners, I did a search for houses in Hunters Hill. Never any joy, and frankly, due to the frustration involved I didn't put in a lot of effort. What I did do, however, was come to the conclusion that someone, somewhere, had got the story wrong (or at least the name) or was telling a lie to cover something else.

Eighteen months ago I did a course on convicts through the University of Tasmania. Turns out the wife of one of my cousins was also doing the course. We had to submit a list of known convicts in our family, with any details, so that everyone could see who was who, if there were ones in common, and those with no convict ancestors could pick someone to research for assignments. Jodi and I had a few in common (which was how we twigged that we were somehow related - she also had a name from Mum's side, which I still want to chase the connection. That could be interesting). She also had a name that peaked my interest - Thomas Davies, aka Edward Davies. A quick personal message on Facebook confirmed that this was, indeed, William Davies' long-lost dad. And where did Jodi find this man? On William's death certificate. She sent me a transcript (thank you, Jodi 😃), but nothing beats the original, so it's on the "to be ordered" list (I'd have ordered it last year, but in everything that has been going on I forgot. Sue me).

So what's the real story?

I'll give you the quick-ish version here and then write up bits and pieces as the mood takes me and time allows.

William was the legitimate son of Thomas Davis and Johanna Deasy. He was born in Newcastle, NSW in 1830, nowhere near Hunters Hill. Thomas and Johanna had a very large family, fourteen children in all, most of whom lived to adult-hood. Thomas had arrived in Australia in 1819, at the age of seventeen, an apprentice watch-gear maker convicted of passing forged notes. By 1828 he was working as a policeman in Newcastle and had received a grant of land, even though his sentence of fourteen years had not been fully worked out. By 1835 he was up in Maitland, right on the Hunter River and had begun trading up and down the NSW coast, and was going by the name of Edward Davies. Around 1840, Edward (as he was now exclusively known) and Johanna moved to Sydney and leased a wharf in Pyrmont, running several ships. Edward died in 1863 in Pyrmont, having never lived in Hunters Hill or anywhere near it. Johanna took over the business and ran it very successfully and it was she who ran ships into the South Pacific. After Edward's death Johanna moved to Balmain (not Hunters Hill).

I cannot find any evidence that Thomas was an artist (although there is a painting I want to ask my uncle about). As for Wales... Ha ha. No. Thomas was from Liverpool, although he was in London when he was caught and convicted. There is no Welsh heritage.

I believe Thomas changed his name to escape his convict past. It was seen as a great shame, certainly without the cache it has now. It was evidence of a prison sentence, a criminal history, and attracted a great deal of prejudice. William Redfern was the best doctor in the colony by many people's reckoning, yet he was never appointed principal surgeon specifically because he had been a convict1. There were very vocal campaigns against the promotion of anyone with a convict past (keeping the power concentrated in a very small circle, which would have been part of the idea). Having been a convict was not a good thing and could seriously impact on your life, long after your sentence was served. Thomas wanted a legitimate business and fair treatment, so he changed his name.

I can't prove it, but I don't believe Thomas/Edward passed himself off as Welsh. On his death certificate his place of birth is listed as London. His son, Frederic, was the informant, and my suspicion is that he really thought his dad was born in London. Fred was born in 1842 and may not even have known that his father had another name. I don't know who knew the truth in the family, beyond Johanna and the children born while Thomas was still serving his sentence. I doubt that Eliza King, William's wife, knew Edward's little secret. She married William seven years after Edward died. But she would have known William's mother and at least some of his siblings, as one of them was the informant on William's death certificate. So the Welsh thing probably didn't come from her.

The fact is, however, that someone in the family, at some time (possibly among Thomas/Edward's grandchildren), decided that the Davies were Welsh, and that decision stuck. And a story got passed down that had fragments of the truth in it but not much else. I wouldn't be surprised if other branches of the family had slightly different versions, or even something very close to the actual truth. I've encountered that sort of discrepency before. But I certainly know that my Dad and his siblings thought the Davies were Welsh. Sorry, everyone. Not so.

Regardless, I now have the real story, as much as one can at this remove, and while my grandmother and I didn't see eye to eye, I'm sorry I can't tell her the real history of her grandfather's parents. I think she would have found it all quite interesting and much more palatable.

1 Australian Dictionary of Biography, William Redfern,


  1. Hunter River / Hunters Hill maybe something changed in the telling over the generations, not necessarily deliberately. I really enjoyed your reselling of your pursuit of your family's genealogy. I think the truth is almost always more interesting than fiction.

    1. Good point, but no, it was always Hunters Hill, and I have worked out where that came from, which I'll keep for another post. There were other family members, from Eliza King's branch, living there, which is how I think it got mixed in. It makes sense in a broader context, and fits with the story of Edwin Amos being successful, but Edward/Thomas? Never there. And I agree, the truth is almost always more interesting. Unless you're Michael Parkinson.