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Shaking the Family Tree Competition

As part of Family History month we held a competition to hear about your ancestor or family tree discoveries.
Thank you to all entrants for sharing your dramatic, funny or strange unique stories in all their glory.

We are excited to share the winning stories below.

Major prize winner ($500 travel gift voucher for flights )

Louise-Anne Pilsbury

Imagine my excitement when I opened John Bufton’s book, Tasmanians in the Transvaal War, and on one of its then nearly ninety-year-old pages a photograph of my paternal great grandfather, William “Bill” George Pilsbury, stared back at me. My delight was doubled when I saw another great grandfather, from my mother’s side, Denis Gleeson, on another page. Astoundingly, they had served in the Boer War together, in the same contingent, the First Tasmanian Imperial Bushmen.

Once I discovered and further researched this coincidence, I could not stop imagining Bill and Denis sharing experiences. For instance, maybe they stood next to each other as the men crowded around the towering steamer Manhattan’s rails, on that late April morning, in 1900, before sailing for South Africa. As they did, they would have shared the same view, of Hobart’s decorated Dunn Street Pier and crowds of people, weeping and waving Union Jack flags and handkerchiefs. Plus, they would have heard the music, singing and roaring cheers and likely joined in. Perhaps they spoke to each other and became mates. The possibilities are endless! As there were only 122 men in their contingent, it is probable their paths crossed, in the nine months they served together, before Bill was invalided home.

I still marvel that as Bill and Denis departed Hobart, on 26 April 1900, they were unaware, nearly 66 years to the day, on 16 April 1966, they would have another connection, when their future grandchildren bonded them through marriage.

Runners up (Two-year subscription to Traces Magazine)

Dani Haski

My great grandfather, David Eizenberg, played violin for Dame Nellie Melba. This discovery, while known to some members of my family, was a huge surprise to me as I had grown up with the impression he’d been a simple shopkeeper. In uncovering his story I discovered that, in between a thriving mercantile career, he was an accomplished violinist, playing with the original Sydney Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Joseph Bradley and leading orchestras for impresarios J C Williamson and George Musgrove for light operas and musicals.

He held Dame Nellie Melba in the highest esteem and, in an interview with the Western Champion newspaper in 1930, said:

She was a mistress of stagecraft, producing and, in fact, anything connected with the stage. She could teach the stage manager his business and could even detect anyone singing out of tune in the chorus. On one occasion she asked me to take my instrument on to the stage to detect someone who was singing false notes in the chorus.

On the occasion of Melba's death in 1931 he penned a column for the Western Champion lamenting her loss and recollected more stories from his colourful career, which I have managed to verify from independent sources. These have painted a picture of a man confident in his abilities and how much he was worth. I think David would be thrilled to know that many of his descendants have inherited his musical ability. He was so much more than a mere merchant.

Phillip O'Brien

My wife's grandparents emigrated to Brazil from Japan in the 1920s. Her grandfather, Toshio Nambu, arrived in Sao Paulo with a letter of recommendation from his uncle Kaneo, a district prosecutor, full of ambition and determination. At this time, life in rural Japan was difficult and many people sought work on the coffee plantations of South America. Since slavery had ended in Brazil at the end of 19th century, Japan proved a valuable source of manual labour. Learning about their lives has been a fascinating journey. Their struggles to integrate, arduous work conditions and alienation, particularly during the 1940s, was a story shared by many Japanese migrant workers. With the outbreak of World War Two, any hopes they might have held of returning to Japan were extinguished. Investigating their roots prior to emigration have revealed amazing insights into life in Japan as it transformed from a feudal society to a modern nation and revealed a large extended family, some of whom accompanied the Japanese army into Manchuria and Korea as engineers and hospital workers, but later, facing frostbite and injury, needed to be repatriated after the end of the war by the American Forces. Toshio Nambu was born in Hiroshima in 1906. Through careful research, I was able to learn that his nephew, Noriyuki Nambu, witnessed the atomic bomb as a fourteen year-old; his testimony is recorded in the Memorial Museum there. One can only imagine Toshio's pain at learning of the bombing of his birthplace.

Anne Smith

5 February 2015 was the date all the branches fell off my family tree. At aged 70 I was shattered to find out I was adopted! My identity flew out of the window and I felt betrayed by my adored dad! To stem the horror I dived into finding my real origins. Much as I loved my adopted mother we had always been the antithesis of one another, whereas my biological mother and I are like clones. Even down to doing the same operetta at school! Sadly she is long gone but I have met all my first cousins in Tasmania, SA, WA and Vic, one of whom burst into tears when she saw me as she was very close to my mother and apparently I am the dead spit of her! I have also found my biological father who was not mentioned on my long buried birth certificate. And met one half-sister! I have great uncles buried at villers-brettoneux and Gallipoli. I wondered why I loved singing and pottery and discovered my father was a potter and an uncle a singer! My straight hair and brown eyes are now accounted for, along with every little question mark gene I have wondered about.

I doubt I will ever come to terms with the whys and hows, but I have a wonderful new extended family, most of whom will be guests at my forthcoming wedding for my very first biological family gathering...

Honourable mentions ($50 book gift voucher)

Margaret Hunter

As an only child of parents who were only children I began my search with little hope. How wrong can one be! Not only have I a large family tree but I have met my aunt and had my mum fly over from UK to Australia to meet her sister in law 30 years after dad died!

I have discovered my great grandmother was a tight rope walker and trapeze artist in the circus. Her uncle began the Punch and Judy show in Llandudno, which is still going after 150 plus years and is still run by family.

Another line of gypsies were horse dealers and muggers. No, they didn't hit old ladies over the head, they sold earthenware! They travelled the border between England and Scotland.

Then there was the Irish great-great-grandfather who ran away from Ireland and lost a leg under a train when preventing the train from derailing.

What a fascinating bunch I am derived from. Genealogy becomes very addictive. Never ever will I have an excuse to be bored for the rest of my days.

Bev Morritt

In 2008, I went to Ireland. The birthplace of my great grandmother was Enniskillen, county Fermanagh, c1855. I took with me a very old b&w photo, of a residence, Hamilton Lodge, written on it, found amongst my late father’s belongings. I’d prebooked two nights BnB accommodation. On arrival, I went the local library, they had a Family history section and a wonderful lady assisted me with some Irish records, and local history information. Before leaving, I showed her the photo, and asked if there was any remote chance this building was recognisable and where it may be located. She happily took it to a colleague for another opinion. On return, they suggested it could be a property on Irvinestone Road. I said that’s handy, I actually know where that road is, as it’s where my accommodation is. When they said the owner’s name, I was stunned! My BnB accommodation IS the property in the old photo. As the building now had extensions, a garden and adorned with a beautiful ivy creeper, I certainly did not recognise it as the same building. I spoke with the owner and I updated her with my discovery… she said “well, I have some news for you, ten days ago, the granddaughter of the original owner was staying here at the BnB.” Later that day I spoke with my new cousin and we were both in awe with this new connection. In 2012, I met my cousin.

Lisa Stebbing

A photograph of Mary Ann Chaston, from the late 1800s, shows her holding a crested cockatoo on the lap of her long, black dress. This was no eccentric choice of pet. Ellen Clacy, in her 1855 memoir of the Victorian Goldfields, described cockatoos kept as companions by women whose husbands were away working the diggings. Mary Ann’s life on the turbulent goldfields explains why a talking bird became a suitable friend.

After sailing to Melbourne and marrying Joseph Lewis in 1853 she frequently separated from him. Initially Joseph paid her one pound a week to ensure she stayed out of poverty. In 1858 he obtained a government position in the goldfields and naively took Mary Ann to distance her from the intoxicating vices of Melbourne he believed influenced her aversion to him. But by 1860 she was residing at the Royal Hotel in Castlemaine with a lover, having stated to her neighbour that Joseph was going to lose his position. The lover, Charles Topham, had form. In his native Yorkshire the legal clerk had been gaoled for forgery and uttering. In Australia he continued cashing forged cheques and landed in Pentridge Prison.

Joseph withdrew support and after being granted a divorce in 1862 was convicted of fraud. He was one of the first inmates to experience Castlemaine Gaol. Meanwhile Mary Ann had married a successful mining contractor who regularly worked on distant claims. Decades later they were photographed in front of a substantial Ballarat house with her loyal cockatoo.

Lesley Chennell

A very special display cabinet sits in my living room. It’s not filled with the usual family mementoes but contains a collection of weird and wonderful finds. Bits of old pottery, interesting rocks, rusty children’s toys and, the pride of my collection, a shelf full of fossils. I’ve always been fascinated by these relics of a bygone geological era.

Imagine the thrill of discovering, in my family tree, a link to Florentino Ameghino (1853 - 1911) eminent paleontologist, anthropologist and geologist who was considered to be the founding father of Argentinian palaeontology. Having migrated to Argentina as a child from Moneglia in Italy, Florentino was supported by his brother Carlos (1865 - 1936) in pioneering the study of evolutionary history in South America.

The Ameghino Crater on the Moon is named in his honour as well as a fossil bird and the palaeontology journal Ameghiniana. Several Argentine cities are named Florentino Ameghino as are number of educational institutions, libraries, museums, squares and parks.

My maternal grandmother’s Ameghino family from Moneglia, Genoa, Liguria, Italy has been traced as far back as 1580 with the birth of Jacobus Antonios Ameghino, my ninth time great grandfather.

Barbara Lomas

I began searching Trove for evidence of the family story that my great grandfather Thomas Lomas might have owned a part-share in a racehorse. While I did not find any proof of this rumour, I was shocked to find his name printed in black and white in the Melbourne Argus in April 1912 in connection to the death of a man as a result of a ‘fatal scuffle’.

Anxiously scouring Trove for more articles, I could scarcely breathe in case my great grandfather was proved to be a thug or a murderer! It couldn’t be! His son, my grandfather, had been the kindest, most law-abiding gentleman you could hope to meet.

A wealth of information unfolded in the Coroner’s Inquest: the professions of the men, addresses, wives, characters - it was family history gold.

The victim, Robert Scarlett, had been drinking on the afternoon of Good Friday. When he quarrelled with his wife Margaret and assaulted her, she ran next door to her sister Annie’s home for protection. Annie’s husband Thomas argued with his brother-in-law and in the ensuing scuffle, Robert fell to the ground knocking his head on the blue-stone curb of the lane at the back of their houses. He was taken to hospital but never regained consciousness. Thomas was arrested and charged with manslaughter.

At the inquest several witnesses corroborated Thomas’s story that he acted in self-defence. They testified that Thomas was “a quiet, well conducted man”. The verdict was established as ‘death by misadventure’.