What a treasury of family history!

For the first time I have been over the last few days trawling through the recently digitised Kiama Independent on Trove checking Whitfield and Christison and other family-related names. I have far from finished my trawl, but what treasures I have already found!


That’s my grandfather, Thomas Daniel Sweeney Whitfield, born in Picton NSW in 1867 (or 21 December 1866) and died in 1948. I can just remember him. By the way, he always dropped or denied the “Sweeney” bit as having “Daniel Sweeney” in his name was a rather too poignant reminder of the family’s origins.  When I wrote that some years ago I was still venting my anger with some aspects of old Tom’s treatment of my father in the past, even if the old Tom I remember vaguely was a fairly benign deaf octogenarian with white hair.

One of the greatest treasures I have unearthed on Trove, however, is this:


Published in the year of my birth!

There is hardly a significant building between Wollongong and Kiama that old Tom seems not to have had a hand in! For example:

“I took a contract in conjunction with my late brother-in-law, George Bursill, to build a brick residence for the late John Russell, of Albion Park.From that, time, I have constructed all classes of buildings, including Public Schools, Police Department work, Church work, hotels, garages,etc. I built a convent school at Dapto for the Rev. W. Haydon., over forty years ago, and for him’ I also did many church jobs, including church furniture and fittings. I hold his commendations, also those from the church committee for satisfactory work. I also built the Rectory at Dapto, with Mr. Cyril Blackett as the architect, and the Rectory at Jamberoo to plans drawn by Budden and Mackey, well known Sydney architects. For both these jobs I was congratulated ‘by the church committee for work well done. For many of my’ public school jobs I got testimony of appreciation from the architects, and in one particular case, the architect told the late Mr. Bell, a teacher, of Marshall Mount. that he would pass my work in Sydney.

“I also did many jobs in the district for the Police Department, and also railway construction work, always with the same harmony. With regard to hotels, I repaired Tory’s Hotel in Kiama after it had been severely damaged by the great fire which swept Terralong Street in 1899. right down to Shoalhaven Street and, when the hotel itself was only saved after a tremendous battle. I also painted and repaired the old Freemasons’ Hotel at Wollongong, and the Mount Kembla Hotel about the same time. I put four or five rooms and balconies on to Mr.  Raftery’s Hotel at Albion Park and carried out  repairs there. At the old Shellharbour Hotel at the time when Mr. Clay was the owner, I did extensive repairs and painting and had just completed the work when a cyclone swept the roof and balcony  off. I was told to go on again without an estimate. Indeed,the repairs had not been estimated, and they cost some hundreds of pounds…

And that’s not to mention bridges and jetties and God knows what!


Shellharbour Church of England – 1930s?

My father pointed out some fine work in cedar done by his father, Tom.

And here is something about Tom’s mother-in-law*:



That’s her daughter, Henrietta, Tom’s first wife. She had a hard life.



See also an account I gave some years back, one element of which is contradicted by the newspaper record. It seems Henrietta II died at home in Shellharbour.

There were five sons in my father’s family, and a daughter, Ella. The oldest son, Aubry (or Aubrey), died in 1906 at the age of twelve. Then another brother, Colin, died probably around 1915 at the age of about fourteen; I have heard this story, but am not sure of dates; I know when I was at school I used an algebra book belonging to Colin from around 1914 at Wollongong High. Information provided by Bob Starling in April 2005 has clarified this.

  • WHITFIELD Aubrey R 1893-1906 (13)
  • WHITFIELD Thomas W L (1906-1906)
  • WHITFIELD Colin C 1901-1915 (14)

So one died in infancy, and another accidentally. A third son died as a teenager nine years later. I was told one died in a riding accident, the other in a shooting accident. Certainly, my grandmother Henrietta went mad, and, among other things, chased my father round with an axe at one time, and another time tried to burn the house down. She died in Parramatta Asylum in 1931. Curiously, I was able to ascertain in the 1970s that she had died of tertiary syphilis, of GPI (General Paralysis of the Insane) as it was then called; my father was in the 1970s being checked for Huntington’s Chorea, an hereditary form of dementia, and this fact came to light. Fortunately it was also established that my father did not have this problem. Evidence for all this came from the specialist at Prince Henry Hospital who actually tracked down the doctor, still alive at the time, who had signed my grandmother’s death certificate.

It appears, from what I have been told, that my grandfather tended to blame his wife for the death of the first-born son, and that this compounded with the death of the second. Her decline into madness coincided with my father’s childhood and adolescence, but was not his only problem. My father was apparently quite a talented artist, and I have seen evidence of this from World War II, when he sent a number of sketches home from Papua. One was of a Scotch thistle and was drawn especially for my sister. There was a colony of well- known Sydney artists who frequented Shellharbour at that time and they encouraged his talent, and indeed wanted him to go back to Sydney with them. Well, his father was having none of that, and demanded that he destroy all his artworks and paraphernalia. He in fact hid a lot of it in a cave on Native Dog Hill (now Mount Warrigal), where it may well be to this day. He was also taken out of school at the minimum age, and apprenticed to his father. My father told me these stories at various times.

My mother tells me that even after she and my father married in 1935, my father had one day made a set of window frames involving some very fine finishing work. He was very proud of them and showed them to old Tom, who promptly told him they were shit, smashed them, and got him to start over. Later my mother, who refused to be cowed by the old man, said to Tom that they seemed good to her. “They were,” old Tom said. “They were fine, nothing wrong with them, but I don’t want him getting a big head.”

So after such childhood experiences, after such a family, after the Depression and the struggle to establish himself, after the Second World War, my father’s dreams in some ways died in the grave with my sister.

The stories there in the main came from my father and mother.


* Or was she? This whole Bursill business is getting complicated.  Until 28 June that is! Another newspaper, the Kiama Reporter and Illawarra Journal, has more detail in its obituary on Mrs Henrietta Bursill (Senior).


Certainly my grandfather Thomas was married to Hetty/Henrietta Bursill/Bursell who was born in the Kiama District in 1874 and died in 1931.  So Henrietta I (died 1921) is definitely my great-grandmother. I have also ascertained that she was married to Thomas R Bursill in Chippendale in 1858 and that her maiden name was Henrietta Woodley.

But is the story my mother and father told me true: that Henrietta II was born rather a long time after Thomas R Bursill died? Is this what Charlie Bursill apparently told my mother’s father Roy Christison around 1934-5, only to be rebuked good and proper by Roy H? (Think “tarbrush”.) The articles are vague, and openly available material online has not helped me out. I can’t find a year of death for Thomas R Bursill yet, but I do note that in 1872 Greville’s Post Office Directory of Shell Harbour only lists a Mrs Bursill as a farmer in Shell Harbour.  But this may be the clincher:


When you think about it, especially given the rather wonderful obituary Henrietta I scored in the Kiama Reporter, it is rather touching that she named this, her last and probably unexpected, child after herself. She seems to have been quite a woman!


Charles Bursill’s place in Shellharbour in 1895

“’Seaside’ was the home of the Bursill Family. Charles Bursill was the first and last harbour master at Shellharbour. He was a builder, carpenter, undertaker and Sunday school teacher actively involved with St Paul’s Church of England. The house site was formerly owned by Captain William Wilson. It was demolished and replaced by the Ocean Beach Hotel which opened in 1929.” – Shellharbour Images

But meanwhile I have found a nice court case from 1897. Henrietta II  is “Betty” there but that is obviously wrong. It concerns the proprietor of the Steam Packet Hotel**, Abraham Winsor, who was accused of shooting at James Dennis Condon with intent to murder. Henrietta was a witness.


** “Campbell Mercer built the Steam Packet Hotel in 1855 on land purchased from T A Reddall. Mercer leased the building to David Moon who obtained a Publican’s License and opened the Steam Packet Hotel in April 1856. The hotel was sold to Thomas Cosgrove in 1861 and was known locally as Cosgrove’s Inn. The hotel was a centre for social life and public meetings, as well as a base for travellers. The Condon Family owned the hotel from 1868 until the 1880s. The hotel continued under a succession of licensees until the early 1900s when it became Beazley’s General Store, followed by the Gethings Store. The building was demolished in the late 1970s.” – Shellharbour Images  I remember it as a store; almost certainly bought ice creams and soft drinks there! Seems, reading between the lines, there may have been reasons for a Condon to be shooting in the general direction of the proprietor of the Steam Packet in 1897!


The Steam Packet