Saturday, 20 March 2010

It's the little things, often not crucial to the core of the research, which bring the past alive.

Amongst the photos which Cousin Spike has sent to me is one of the headstone on the grave of Charles Harold Simper, the first husband of my paternal grandmother, Hilda Rose (Jones) Ross. Charles Harold was born at Drouin, Victoria in 1885 and married Hilda Rose at the Christian Chapel, Grote Street in Adelaide on September 11, 1912.

What struck me, looking at the photo, was that there were two engravings on the tombstone. The top recorded the death of Charles Harold and the bottom engraving recorded that his brother-in-law, Robert Jones Jr. had been buried with him. Charles died on October 2, 1914 at the age of 28 and young Robert died of cancer some three years later on August 8, 1917 at the age of fifteen years and nine months.

It was, at the time that I pondered this, yet another diversion amongst many on the path but it seemed odd that the two of them should be buried together and curiosity got the better of me. My assumption, there we go again, assumptions, assumptions, assumptions was that perhaps Charles Simper died in the early years of the First World War but research quickly revealed it was unlikely because the first Australian soldiers joined up in August of 1914 and the fighting did not begin until 1915.

Once again it has been Cousin Spike to the rescue. I queried the headstone and he sent me an extract he had found in the Adelaide newspaper, The Advertiser:


On Friday afternoon Mr H. Bell of the General Havelock Hotel, hutt Street, notified the police that Mr Harold Simper, 28 years of age, residing at Keswick, had dropped dead in the yard of the hotel while conversing with residents of the hotel. He was employed at Messrs. Humphris & Co., cordial factory, in Carrington street. He had had lunch at the residence of his father (Mr Samuel Simper) Carrington Street, and had then walked to the General Havelock Hotel to meet some friends. Dr. Brown of Hutt Street, pronounced life to be extinct. The City Coroner considered an inquest unnecessary.

So, my grandmother was a widow with a small son at the age of 21. By the time that her young brother died, nearly three years later she was just three weeks away from marrying Charles Vangelios Ross. One assumes, and this is probably a safe assumption, that she had purchased a gravesite for Charles Simper which would have room for herself when the time came. But circumstances change and with her life set to begin with another Charles and a new husband, she chose to give the place to her parents to use for their teenage son. No doubt it saved them money and made use of a burial place for which Hilda Rose Jones Simper, about to be Ross, had no use. Another, more poignant fact which came up, was that Robert Jones Jnr. died the day Charles Harold and Hilda Rose’s son, Laurence Gordon Murray Simper, turned four.

I could not help but think how traumatic that first loss must have been for her. We don’t expect young men in the prime of life to drop dead, but clearly they do. She had been married at 19 and barely two years and one month later she was a widow with a 14-month-old son to raise. No doubt she would have had the support of her large family but that too is an assumption.

And she must have grieved, for it was three years before she married again. Then again, I have no idea when she met Charles Vangelios, although given the times, I doubt that any serious relationship would have gone on for too long before marriage. In those days a ‘widow’ would quickly gain a bad reputation if she spent time with a single man. I am guessing that she grieved for more than two years and fell in love sometime in 1917.

But with her young brother Robert seriously ill, who can say how long it was that she and Charles Vangelios knew and loved each other? She married my grandfather a few weeks after Robert Jones Jnr died so perhaps they had known each other for many months. I doubt she would have given away her place with Charles Simper without thinking about it long and hard.

I still think she must have loved Charles Simper deeply. To all intents and purposes, from what I have been told, Charles Vangelios raised Laurie as his own son and the two had a deep and loving bond .... but Laurie retained his father’s name. It would have been easy enough for his step-father to have adopted him, given how young he was when his mother remarried. Perhaps Hilda Rose was determined that Laurie would remain a Simper in honour of his father.

Another possibility is that the Simpers of Carrington Street were much wealthier than Hilda Rose .... mind you, they wouldn't need much money to be 'much wealthier'.... and they helped to support her and her son as long as he remained a Simper. There is no doubt that the headstone erected for Charles Harold, the third-born son of Samuel and Caroline Maria (Bennett) Simper was impressive, and no doubt expensive, for the times.

Or perhaps Hilda Rose felt guilty marrying again. After all, she had buried her first husband in a double grave and must, at the time, have loved him enough to want to be buried with him.

I remember my grandmother as a strong woman with a forceful personality. These were traits which, if they did not come naturally, she would have had to learn at a very young age. Clearly she was strong enough to raise a child alone for three years in a time when women were expected to be dependent upon their husbands or their family.

When Charles Vangelios died in 1955 at the age of 63, Hilda Rose said to her daughter Jessie: ‘Death is just so final!’ Three years later, at the age of 66, she also took that very final step.

It is the small, sad stories which bring the dead to life. Needless to say, I ended up close to tears after this exercise in trawling the realms of the dead. Perhaps photographs of gravestones, particularly neglected ones, are a sharp reminder of the impermanence and unpredictability of life. And whether or not it is the ‘good who die young’ I think we are all touched more powerfully by the death of the young.

Then again, I am 60 and I certainly do not feel old, but my grandmother seemed so very, very old when she died at the age of 66. Although, when you are nine, everyone over the age of 20 seems very, very old. Although I would have to ask a nine-year old today if that remains true. Perhaps in those days people ‘got older’ faster or acted older sooner? I like the story about the people on a Japanese island who are not allowed to say they are old until they are in their 90’s and where people regularly live a decade or more beyond 100 years. We are what we think and the stories that we tell ourselves will create who we are and how we live.

Not that I have much of an idea of stories which Hilda Rose may have told herself. I remember my grandmother reasonably well because we lived with her for three years after she became a widow for the second time but it is only in tracing the ephemeral threads of the story of her life that I can understand her in any way, and by extension, my family.

But it is hard enough to gather stories about my grandparents let alone my great-grandparents. Perhaps it is enough to simply try. In this enormous jigsaw puzzle which is ancestry research there will always be shadowy ‘holes’ but hopefully, when it is completed, enough of a ‘picture’ to stand as a recognisable image.

And connections are made which are interesting. Pondering it all later, it occurred to me that my family has a long lineage of step-children. For instance, Mary’s Ross’s father, Edward Atkins married Elizabeth (Mashford) Lewis who had been previously married and who had a son, George; Mary's two sons, Charles Vangelios and Chrysantheous Christus both married women who already had a child; my brother Ken has a step-daughter; my nephew Scott has a step-daughter ; my daughter, Morgan has a step-daughter and my grandmother, Hilda Rose had a half-sister. Her mother, Florina Muirhead, had a six-month-old daughter, when she married Robert Jones in the Registry Office in Adelaide. Robert adopted Euphemia Isabell May (Adams) shortly after the marriage. I also have a vague recollection that one or more of my cousins married partners who already had a child and there were a few rumours, from the more distant past, that marriages had taken place because an aunt or great-aunt was pregnant to someone else.

It does not mean anything of great import but in four out of the past five generations of my family there have been step-children. These days step-children are fairly common and perhaps what this connection teaches is that they always have been. Although in the past the cause would have been death rather than divorce and occasionally, an unexpected pregnancy and an accommodating suitor.

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