Sunday, 14 February 2010

A journey begins with the first step


As you set out for Ithaca

hope your road is a long one,

full of adventure, full of discovery.

Laistrygonians, Cyclops,

don't be afraid of them:

you'll never find things like that on your way

as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,

as long as a rare excitement

stirs your spirit and your body

Laistrygonians, cyclops

wild Poseidon--you won't encounter them

unless you bring them along inside your soul,

unless your soul sets them up in front of you

Hope your road is a long one.

May there be many summer mornings when,

with what pleasure, what joy,

you enter harbours you are seeing for the first time;

may you stop at Phoenician trading stations to buy fine things.

Mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,

sensual perfume of every kind-

as many sensual perfumes as you can;

and may you visit many Egyptian cities to learn and go on learning from their scholars.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.

Arriving there is what you're destined for,

but don't hurry the journey at all,

better if it lasts for years,

so you're old by the time you reach the island,

wealthy with all you've gained on the way,

not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.

Without her you wouldn't have set out.

She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won't have fooled you.

Wise as you will have become,

so full of experience,

you'll have understood by then

what these Ithakas mean.

C. P. Cavafy

The Ancient Greek aphorism Know thyself, ( γνῶθι σεαυτόν gnōthi seauton) , was inscribed in the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi.

It was considered to be the most important goal that anyone could pursue. Tracing your family history is a part of knowing yourself and perhaps a far more important part than any of us realise. You are the end result of dozens, if not hundreds of people and their experiences, beliefs and stories.

You have emerged from that cellular cauldron, bringing with you, the ‘flavour’ of that past to greater and lesser degrees. It may be in the genes; it may be in your cellular memory; it may be in your akashic inheritance; it may be in your astrological programming; it may be in your astral body, which some believe creates the physical body; it may be in your upbringing; it may be in your cultural, social or religious environment, but, whatever the source, or whatever your belief, without a doubt, you have within you the traces of your ancestors.

In short, the more that you know about them, the more you may know about yourself.

The other thing that you need is curiosity and while it may have killed a cat or two, it is crucial for anyone who decides to trace their family history. Slow, unsteady, erratic, unpredictable, diverging and painstaking is this path but the rewards are great.

Why does it matter who our ancestors were , many might ask? It’s a good question and in truth for a lot of people it does not matter and never did and never would. But for most, and increasingly in recent years no doubt because of the invaluable support of the internet, it is something that they will do at some time.

In many cultures of course the ‘stories’ of the ancestors are never lost and throughout history and throughout cultures the stories of the ancestors have been valued. It is probably only in our highly developed world of the past 100 years that many people have lost touch with their family history or never been told the family ‘stories’ which contribute to who they are.

And yet, as our lives get busier and busier, there is a growing urge it seems for people to want to know from whence they came and how their ancestors lived and died. Drawing together the threads of the past helps us to weave ourselves into a pattern which encompasses both past and present and which can even help us understand the future as we look at our children and grandchildren.

The older we get the more interested we become in finding out more about our ancestry. Perhaps it is because we have the time or perhaps in youth we are more inclined to focus on the future instead of the past.

Standing midway, we are more likely to look in both directions. Whatever the reason I found myself curious about my paternal great-grandfather, Charles Ross. Perhaps the curiosity was greater because that was not really his name, but an anglicised version of the Greek original. Behind that name is a yawning void.

The family ‘stories’ were brief. He travelled to Australia on his ‘uncle’s ship’ and jumped ship in Port Pirie. He married Mary (Polly )Atkins in Gladstone in 1888 and worked there as a fishmonger until his death in 1907. He was born in Ithaca, Greece and spoke five languages including a heavily accented English. And that’s it! End of story. My father and my aunt knew no more and this is where I begin my search for Charlie Ross or Carolus Rossolimos.

Ithaca with a population around 3,500, is the second smallest inhabited island of the Ionian Islands group (Heptanese) and is situated in the Ionian Sea, located between Greece and Italy. Ithaca can trace its history back some 6,000 years but its greatest fame is of course, as the kingdom of King Odysseus, the hero of Troy who took 20 years to return to Ithaca and was immortalised in Homer's epic ‘The Odyssey’. During its long history, a series of conquerors (Roman, Byzantine, Norman, Venetian, French, Russian, Turkish, English) left their mark on the history and culture of Ithaca.

The capital of Ithaca is Vathy and there are fourteen villages scattered around the island. Today, these quaint little villages are sparsely populated with many Ithacans migrating to the four corners of the globe, just like my great-grandfather. I have no idea which village he would have called home.

Ithacans have always been a seafaring people and like their famous ancestor, fond of travelling. Australia was a favourite destination and two of the first Ithacans to migrate here were Georgios Morfesis (in 1840) and Andreas Lekatsas from Exoghi (in 1845). The latter took part in Australia’s brief and fateful uprising, the Eureka Stockade. Life for Charlie Ross however, was going to be much quieter.

I have no photographs of him but his grand-daughter, my Aunt Jessie, who was born long after he died, said her sister, Flora, three years her senior, was said to be the spitting image of her paternal grandfather. Flora was short, stockily built with a round, handsome face and thick, black, curly hair.

If I am looking at a photographs of Flora, who died some years ago, I am looking at Charlie Ross! I shall have to find one.

I have no idea where Ross came from although the closest I have come, given that he is said to have been born on the island of Ithaca, is Rossolimos, or Rosylimos. Was his birth name Charles? I don’t know. He passed it on to his third born child, my grandfather, Charles Vangelios Ross and the name continued with my father, Sydney Charles Ross and with my eldest brother, Wayne Charles Ross. So perhaps his Christian name really was Charles, or Carolus in Greek.

His death certificate shows that he died at the age of 59 and was buried on September 10, 1907. This means he was born in 1848 and was 40 when he married in Gladstone, South Australia. Given Greek culture, it is highly likely that he left a wife and family back in Greece although this was never talked about in the family and he may well have just been a ‘late developer’.

An email enquiry to Ithaca brought the following: There are records on Ithaca , in the capital of of Vathy, but that would require a search from yourself. Records are not online. The name Ross probably comes from Rossolymos. Families with this name are in Raxi in the north of ithaca and Vathy in the south. Rosstopoulos and rossopoulos are a bit out there and very unlikely. In order to trace roots here you would need to know name of grandfather, his fathers name and mothers name. So for instance Christos Rossolymos with father ? and mother ? Sorry I can't help more.

Having begun this quest in 2009 I have made some general progress but it becomes clearer and clearer that I need to go to Ithaca if I am to have any hope of tracing my great-grandfather’s family. It is also becoming clearer and clearer that I really need to learn some Greek. I have passable French and Portugese and learned to read some Cyrillic while living in Russia so I have reasonable hopes of attaining some basic competence in Greek.

The Hellenic Community in Perth holds Greek classes and that will be the first task for 2010.

I am looking again at the marriage and death certificates. The death certificate shows him 58 at the time of death in 1907 but the marriage certificate shows him as 36 at the time of his marriage in 1888. The first would have him born in 1849 and the second in 1852.

Is the lie more likely to be found on the marriage certificate where he may want to appear younger or on the death certificate, some 19 years later? I think the former. I will take 1849 as his birth year.

His signature shows errors in the surname, but not the Christian name, which makes me think his Christian name was Charles or close. The R has been changed from what looks like the Greek P, the second letter is clearly an O which is accurate in Greek and English; the third letter is a Greek S and the fourth letter is an English S.

This suggests that the original Greek surname began with Ros if not Ross.

They were married on December 26,1888 in St. Alban’s Church, Gladstone. The witnesses are George Lewis, a boundary rider from Laura and Mate Clavin. (Later information says that Mate is Kate. It is a very strange K with curls at the top and it looks like an M but K it must be. Kate Clavin was the sister-in-law of Mary's brother James Haynes Atkins who married Annie Clavin.) George Lewis must be Mary’s half brother since her mother, Elizabeth Mashford who was born in 1819, was married to Peter Lewis before marrying Edward Atkins. Elizabeth and Edward married at St. Mark’s Penwortham, South Australia in 1857 when she would have been 38. It was her second marriage and her three children arrived over a five year period so she was 43 when her son James was born.

There are Mashfords listed as passengers on the Princess Royal in 1846 which sailed from London, via Plymouth and arrived at Port Adelaide on March 16, 1847. There is an Elizabeth Mashford listed and she would have been 28 at the time, along with a John Mashford. Her father’s name is listed as John so this may well be my Elizabeth, my great-great grandmother. However, the Christian names are so common for this period that it is more guess than given. Then again, there are two Mary Mashfords listed on the ship’s list and Elizabeth called her second daughter Mary so it’s all possible.

And here the trail diverts briefly to the Wirrabarra Forest, an area I know from the years when we lived in Port Pirie and where we frequently took our young children for picnics. I drove all over this country as a journalist, little realising that I was criss-crossing the paths of Charlie and Mary (Polly) Ross. But then in one’s twenties one is less interested in the past and perhaps that is as it should be.

In a quick search I find ‘faces’ in the distant gloom in a historical record of Wirrabarra. ‘The Wirrabara Forest, previously known as Whites Forest, on the eastern slopes and foothills of the southern Flinders Ranges soon attracted the attention of timber cutters. During the early 1850s the trees were cut for use as fence posts, building material and firewood. However it also was used at the nearby Charlton mine and Burra mine further south. ‘ And the Charlton Mine was where Mary’s brother James was born in 1862.

The report goes on to say: ‘Charles Crew, born in London in 1820 claimed to be the first man to live in the forest. On 5 December 1855 he married Catherine Hennessy, aged 20, from County Clare, Ireland. Their first child, William was born in 1857 at Crystal Brook but their second child, Charles, was born in the forest in 1862.’

And then we have: ‘On 22 November 1857 blacksmith Edward Atkins and his wife Elizabeth, nee Marshford (or Mashford) had a daughter, Elizabeth followed two years later by another daughter, Mary , my great-grandmother,on 8 December 1859. So, Mary, or Polly as she was known, the daughter of a blacksmith was to marry a Greek sailor, who jumped ship to make a new life in Australia as a fish-seller.

Life was hard and conditions very primitive. Although the forest was drained by three creeks, White, Crews and the Ippinitchie which eventually become the Rocky River, water was often in short supply. Apart from the water, fresh meat was also expensive and hard to come by. Several of the early timber splitters regularly hunted kangaroos or possums to solve this problem. One keen splitter tried to catch a possum by climbing a tree. Unfortunately he lost his footing, fell and broke his neck. He was buried on 24 May 1863 at what later became known as the Wirrabara Forest Pioneer Cemetery. It was used until 1877.

A few years later many small children died from an epidemic and were also buried at this cemetery. In these early years at the forest it was Claus Bathern who made the coffins, read the burial service, inscribed and erected the red gum ‘headstones’, made by William Dansie, and finally registered the deaths at Burra. Among those buried are members of the Harris, Bear, Carn, Gardiner, James, McCann, Payne, Creamer, Heggit, Irlam, Julian, Ham, Pickford, Talbot, Slade, Cox and Robinson families.

But not the Atkins family. Life might have been hard but they survived. Tough genes,or good luck, or both. Elizabeth Atkins would die in Gladstone at the age of 89, just five months after her son-in-law, Charlie Ross. Mary Ross would survive her husband by 30 years, also dying in Gladstone, aged 78. Mary’s sister, Elizabeth would make it to 86 and like her sister, did not move far from the place of her birth, dying at Terowie in 1943. James Haynes Atkins, would die in Jamestown, the same year as Mary Ross, at the age of 45. The women, it seems, were stronger than the men. This is hardly a surprising fact. What is interesting is why it should be so given the greater physical demands made upon women in terms of childbirth and child-rearing. Life was never easy.

Or perhaps the gruelling physical labour to which so many of the men were forced, combined with meagre diet, took its toll. Life in the forest was hard work. It provided a large amount of timber for station buildings, fences, homesteads, shearing sheds, cottages, and mines such as the Charlton, Moonta, Wallaroo and the Burra. In 1880 William Eldridge called tenders for carting 80,000 sleepers to Gladstone Railway Station. Wirrabara timber was also used for poles for the Overland Telegraph line, railway sleepers for the Pichi Richi, Petersburg-Silverton, The Great Northern Railway and Terowie lines.

Labour was also provided by inmates from the Gladstone Gaol, where my grandfather would work many years later. In their distinctly marked uniforms male inmates often worked in the Wirrabara forest cutting fire wood and hauling it back to Gladstone for the locals. Firewood and timber for construction were in short supply in Gladstone and most of the carting was done during the autumn when the dirt roads were hard and dry.

When the Broken Hill mines started it was the Wirrabara forest that supplied the charcoal. The piles and planking for South Australia’s longest jetty at Port Germein, where Charlie is said to have jumped ship, were supplied from the same source. The jetty was started in 1880 and Wishart, the contractor, employed 30 men, six of them to cart the native Sugar Gum from the Wirrabara Forest.

By 1870 George W. Goyder became aware of the rapid depletion of South Australia’s native forests and recommended the provision for forest reserves. On 7 September 1870 F.E.H.W. Krichauff moved in the House of Assembly 'as to what is the best size of reserves for forest purposes and where they are to be made'. In 1873 Goyder repeated his former warnings and said, ‘I am of the opinion that the cultivation of forest trees throughout the entire province is urgently required, as in whatever direction my duty takes me, the rapid decrease in forest trees is painfully and prominently before me’.

In 1873 an Act was passed to 'Encourage the planting of Forest Trees'. Under its provisions any person planting not less than 5 acres with forest trees was entitled to a Land Order of £2 for each acre established. Only four applications were ever received.

With the help of Scottish nurseryman Edwin Smith, Goyder carried out a survey for possible sites. Dr R.Schomburgh, who had as early as 1866 introduced the Radiata pine from Monterey in California, recommended Wirrabara as a suitable site.

Between the 1880s and the 1920s some major updates and expansions were accomplished. There were four sawmills operating cutting sleepers. The air must have been thick with dust and the smell of freshly sawn wood. For the Petersburg (Peterborough) Silverton line 200,000 sleepers were cut and more than 500,000 for the Great Northern Railway. By 1887 as many as 22 sawpits were being used and several charcoal burning pits were supplying the Broken Hill mines.

In another unexpected link, we bought a large table some years ago for our verandah. It is long enough to sit ten on either side and is an old fettler’s workbench from Peterborough. The timber may well have come from Wirrabarra Forest. I like to think it did.

In all these years of Mary’s growing up, when there was a substantial population living in the forest, most of the children went without schooling. It was not surprising that Mary could barely sign her own name. It was not until 1881, when she was 22 and far too old to go to school, that ,through the efforts of Henry Copas, and his committee, a school was finally opened.

‘Wiry and tough’ was how my aunt described her grandmother. ‘Quiet, placid, but capable of saying what needed to be said when it needed to be said.’ Mary’s life as a child was not easy and neither, probably, was her life as an adult. She was 29 when she married and five children and nineteen years later she was a widow. She died in 1937, some thirty years after Charlie and my aunt remembers how each year she would whitewash the hessian walls of her small house. She also remembers the bird cages which lined the fences on either side of the small garden. Polly’s passion was birds it seems.

But all of this is far into the future. On the marriage certificate, Mary Atkins, who signs very poorly, has herself down as a spinster and Charles is registered as a bachelor and fish seller and his signature looks shaky but is well formed. He has given his father’s name as Christie although it almost looks like the priest began to write Charles. Could his father’s name have been Charles?

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