Breamlea, Victoria

Breamlea, Victoria

Saturday, 1 October 2016

Rescue boat Alwyn Tamo

Today I went to Hastings, Victoria and accidentally stumbled upon a piece of my family history.

I had been told that there was a rescue boat named after Alwyn Tamo, one of the people in my family tree.  But I hadn't registered the fact that Hastings was the place where the boat was usually docked. I got such a delightful surprise walking in the salty sea air. There was the Alwyn Tamo right in front of me!

The Alwyn Tamo at Hastings
Alwyn Tamo married the grandson of Ellen Tamo nee Clarke, whose death and burial records still elude our family historians. Ellen was the sister of my great great grandfather Patrick Clarke.  Ellen had a son called Joseph Tamo. Joseph's son, William Tamo married Alwyn. Her maiden name was Templeton.

I believe William Tamo and Alwyn Templeton married later in life and lived in nearby Warneet.

Look on the black windows for the name.
The $300,000 rescue boat was named after Alwyn Tamo because she monitored  the Westernport Safety Council radio for 20 years. The christening of the catamaran was reported in a local newspaper, the Mornington News in March 2011. The boat was christened with champagne in Hastings by local MPs and water police.

For all of you who want a detailed description of the boat, head to the Volunteer Marine Rescue Mornington website:

A wonderful surprise for me.

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

James Salter Armstrong - my article in Ancestor magazine

I am proud to announce that the Genealogical Society of Victoria has published an an article of mine in their June 2016 quarterly journal "Ancestor". The article is called "I am known as Snowy" and relates the life story of my great great uncle, James Salter Armstrong. He was an amazing character who survived his ship being torpedoed on the way to Gallipoli, and a long sojourn at the Western Front during WW1. Although I have only conveyed a fraction of his life experiences, I hope I have done him some justice.

I would like to thank Hugh Williams, who helped me research the 21st Battalion. We found out Hugh's father and Snowy Armstrong probably stood 10 ft away from each other when they enlisted. I am in awe of Hugh's military knowledge and his passion which shows in his wonderful museum.
My thanks also go to Edie Wandin from the Kerang Historical Society, who helped me research Snowy's life in Kerang.
Thanks also to Colin Heggen, who researched Snowy as obsessively as I did, in order to publish his book "Kerang Soldiers of the Queen". Colin unselfishly shared his research with me and we solved a few mysteries for each other.
Finally, I would love to thank my family, who put up with reading endless rewrites, verbal brainstorming, and many "isn't this interesting?" moments when it probably wasn't. I love you all and thank you.

Saturday, 16 April 2016

57 Fyans Street, Chilwell - our family's heritage

After a hundred years on this planet, my mother’s childhood home is being moved to a new location. So I thought I would put down a few of my memories that were created there, at 57 Fyans Street, Chilwell, (now Newtown in Geelong). My Grampa bought the property from his brother and lived there from the 1940s until he died in 1978.

57 Fyans Street Chilwell
In the Lounge room was an old brick fireplace with a gas heater put in.  The ceilings were incredibly tall and the walls had a high picture rail, from which hung heavy etched mirrors on chains.

Grampa had painted the doors and walls of the house many times over. He was at one stage a painter by trade. However due to his dislike of removing paint, he always simply added the new layer without taking off the old.  Consequently, the lounge room door and door jambs were so thick with glossy layers of lead paint, that you could easily press a fingernail into it and leave a quarter inch deep fingernail imprint.  The doors simply could not close properly because of the paint thickness. However, you could achieve a complete vacuum seal of the room if you wished. You simply jammed the two paint layers together, and the door would stick fast. In fact, separating the door from the door jamb was a problem for me as a child, as I wasn’t strong enough to break the paint vacuum seal. It was stronger than Tupperware. Stronger than Superglue.  When you finally broke the seal, the paint made the loudest squeaky sucking noise in protest. If you were so unfortunate as to have to break the seal and go out of the Lounge room, the blast of artic air rushing down the hallway was enough to rocket you to wherever you were going. In a hurry.

Grampa also applied his "never mind the old stuff" theory to carpet.  Many layers of carpet were installed over top of each other. There were family rumours that Grampa had planted cash between the layers, and also behind the fireplace. After he died, there were searches conducted.

In the corner of the Lounge room beside the sticky door was the black and white tv set, and in front of Grampa’s chair was the pouffe ball that my Mum had bought him as a footrest.  It was made of gray vinyl with a burgundy top, on which was printed in white names of popular tv shows of the time, such as Bonanza, Gunsmoke and 77 Sunset Strip. The pouffe ball was always referred to as “the poof” and I always wondered why the grownups snickered whenever it was mentioned.

One memorable evening in the late 1960’s, with my brothers and me in our pyjamas and dressing gowns, we were sat in front of the old black and white with a small bag of Twisties each, the most delicious thing I had ever tasted. I sat on the pouffe ball. We watched Johnny Farnham singing live “Sadie the Cleaning Lady”.  We also watched John Williamson sing “Old Man Emu”.  It was cutting edge stuff and according to the host, who may have been Bert Newton, just so indicative of how Australian performers could be as good as their counterparts from overseas. This was revelatory, apparently. However, my childish self couldn’t see why we shouldn’t be as good as overseas entertainers. At that point we were still suffering from the cultural cringe. Convict hangover I suppose. Paul Hogan hadn’t come along yet to teach us that Aussies were okay just as they were. And Twisties don’t taste as good now as they did then either. Times move on.

I have lots more memories of 57 Fyans Street Chilwell.  My Mum can tell you about the ghostly hand that appeared and crossed that very same Lounge Room in front of many witnesses.  I lived in that house several times during my lifetime.  I will never think of that place without remembering my dear wonderful Grampa.

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Cobram and the Man with Two Names Part Two

Me at the gates of Cobram cemetery - January 2016.

Cobram and the man with two names

While searching for the siblings of my gg grandmother Louisa Clarke, I finally lucked onto the burial of her brother JOHN in Cobram, Victoria in 1931. 

I have had some success in finding Louisa's brother Robert and his descendants who moved to Queensland from Victoria. As the eldest of five children, Robert must have been a father-figure for his younger siblings. I have found Robert mentioned as parent a few times, including on Louisa's marriage certificate.

The youngest of the five siblings, JOHN was born in Chewton, Victoria in 1875.  John's birth details list Elizabeth Armstrong as his mother. John was named after his maternal grandfather, who is the John Armstrong I wrote about in my recent blog; the black African man who came to Adelaide in the late 1840's. 

During their lifetimes, all of the siblings of this family changed their surnames to some form of either Armstrong or Salter (both being their mother Elizabeth's maiden names.  Armstrong is her birth name and Salter is her step-father's name. Elizabeth used the surname Salter primarily until the day she died.)
John's death details lists his mother as Elizabeth Salter (still correctly) and his father as Robert Armstrong (actually his brother who moved to Queensland.) John's age is listed as 54 but he would have been nearer 56. The Death Place was Cobram in 1931. The name as shown is JOHN ARMSTRONG.

Cobram Cemetery gates
JOHN's burial in 1931 at Cobram Cemetery was under two names, John Armstrong and George Saulter. Both names are listed under the same burial registration. Until we found this burial record we had no idea that John also used the name George Salter. 

Unfortunately there is no record of exactly where JOHN aka George is buried within the Cobram Cemetery. The plot is unknown, the section is unknown and there is no headstone.

This is all the information I have for John.  He was born in Chewton and died and was buried in Cobram.  What happened in between? 

Somewhere around here, John Armstrong aka George Salter is buried.

Cobram Cemetery.

Friday, 15 January 2016

Thursday, 7 January 2016

John Armstrong - It don't matter

When I say the name "JOHN ARMSTRONG" to you, what kind of image of the man does it conjure up? For me the name Armstrong is Scottish.  Now add in that he was born in 1800, and died in 1850 in Adelaide, South Australia.  You could surmise that he was a traveller, an adventurer, perhaps drawn to the gold rush in that area when the state was very young. His occupation was a stoker, perhaps on the very ship in which he travelled to Australia. We know that many crew members jumped ship at locations where gold was found. What is your picture of John Armstrong so far?

SLSA: B 1134
Adelaide ca. 1850.  Drawing by Samuel Calvert. State Library of South Australia.

Now add to your picture that he married a young Scottish widow with an infant daughter in 1842. How do you picture him now? Finally, add in your picture that he was buried in Adelaide by the government in 1850.  We could surmise that he didn't "strike it rich" if his wife couldn't afford his burial. Now add in that he was a black African man. Wait, what?

Pre-conceptions. Mine. Armstrong = Scottish = white. I had lived with my preconceptions of a Scottish John Armstrong for a long time. As you research a person in your family tree, you can live with your own preconceived ideas for years sometimes. I got the shock of my life when I was proved so unutterably wrong.  John Armstrong was a black African man, and our family had inherited his black skin.

Previous generations of our family had very dark skin, so we have always known that there was black ancestry somewhere back in the mists of time.  We knew, for example, that John Armstrong's daughter Elizabeth had married an African man, (the elusive Sims Cummis that I have written about so many times on this blog). We have a photograph of one of Elizabeth and Sim’s children, who I discovered had the nickname “Snowy” because of his beautiful chocolatey dark skin.  Their daughter was nicknamed "Blossom" for the same reason (she was my great great grandmother). We had all presumed our family’s dark skin came from their father, Sims.  But we have no absolute proof that Sims was dark-skinned. All we know about Sims for sure is that he too was born in Africa. That fact by itself doesn’t prove that our family’s dark skin was inherited from him.

Fast forward now until I discovered a John Armstrong mentioned in an Adelaide newspaper dated 1841, describing John and his mate as "two African blacks".  I was astonished. Could this be my John Armstrong? The chances of him being my John Armstrong were good, as the population of South Australia was exploding but still only about 10,000 at the time.  John Armstrong is a common name though, and there was one other John Armstrong in Adelaide at the time.  I discovered him again in another newspaper article, this time, described as "a man of colour". Further investigation proved that yes, this particular John Armstrong was indeed my 4x great grandfather. I had made a massive, incorrect, culturally stereotyped assumption about the name Armstrong.

Although I hate the racist description in the newspaper, I am in some ways grateful for it.  It is a reflection of its own time. Without that description “two African blacks” I never would have gotten the whole clear picture of John Armstrong.  Without it, I would never have understood the full implication of the harsh realities that John Armstrong encountered over his lifetime. And the newspaper descriptions are proof enough that our family’s dark skin was inherited from Snowy’s maternal grandfather, the black African John Armstrong. (Whether his father Sims had dark skin too is yet to be verified, although it does seem likely.)

But this whole incident taught me the hardest lesson any genealogist can learn.

Keep clear what are facts in your research and only work from there.  Never make the arrogant mistake of assumption. Be on the lookout for your cultural stereotypes that are so insidious, you don’t even know that they exist. Our ancestors were individuals, and they made unique choices, so every research option must be explored in order to honour their individuality. 

Next week, John Armstrong makes his choices in Adelaide in 1840.

Historically yours,
Valerius Copernicus

PS. Recent DNA evidence shows that our African roots stem from Mali, Benin/Togo, and Senegal.

 Image from State Library of South Australia: B1134