Various lockdown hacks and escapes — 8 — tweak family history

You may recall that during NAIDOC Week I dealt with the question “Are you of Indigenous descent” by referring you to the story of my grandmother, Henrietta Whitfield (nee Bursill) 1874-1931.


Question: Am I of Aboriginal descent?

Answer: Possibly, even probably. And no, I have not had a DNA test. But the story is in a way simple. I have (as you do) eight great-grandparents. I can account for all but one of them. In the case of my grandmother’s parentage — and a fine woman but troubled she was by all accounts — the father is unknown. That is, my father’s mother’s father.

The story — which I heard from my father and mother themselves — is that this grandmother was the daughter of an Aboriginal man, probably Dharawal (or maybe Yuin). We know nothing much about him.

But it is enough to make me look at Merrigong from my window with different eyes. The story was enough for Aboriginal actress Kristina Nehm, knowing the story, to always introduce me to Aboriginal people thus: “This is Neil. He is family.”

This is apart from the story of my brother’s wife, who is a descendant of the family of Bennilong.

In the last week or two I had an email exchange with one Rowena Gough, who has for years been researching the Bursill family. A Google search had led her to my 2011 post Family history and mystery–the Indigenous connection. She quite rightly called me out on my speculative history of the Bursill family, and I have added her correction verbatim to that post.

Update 18 July 2021

An email from Rowena Gough clarifies and corrects some of the material above, especially on the early connections of the Bursill family. It looks well-researched to me, so thanks, Rowena!

Doing a google search on Bursill trees I’ve come across your website. I think that I can provide you with clearer family tree information for Henrietta Bursill (1874-1931).

She was the youngest child of Thomas Russell Bursill (1832-c.1870) and Henrietta Woodley (1837-1921), and named after her mother. Father Thos Edw was bapt. 1832 in Cambridge, Cambridgeshire, Eng, married Henrietta 7 June 1858 in Redfern, Sydney, and died c.1870 at Shellharbour, NSW. Mother Henrietta Woodley cme from a farming family, born 1837 Englefield, Berkshire and died 28 June 1921 Shellharbour, NSW.

Your Henrietta had 4 siblings.

My great grandfather Edward Bursill was the younger brother of Edward Russell Bursill and he emig to the Maryborough area of Victoria. The parents of Thomas and Edward were Thomas Bursill (1808-1846 and Elizabeth Russell (1812-1888).

I’ve spent anout 25 yrs on the family history and am quite sure that this is your family line. The William Busill (convict) line is not as yet, connected to our family, and were from London. Our line is from Cambridge, and Yorkshire. So at the moment the story on you blog re family tree probably needs to be reviewed.

Very interesting. We are still left with this birth certificate entry, however. And also — which coincides with what my mother and father told me — that c.1870 death date for Thomas Russell Bursill and the (agreed) 1874 birth date for my grandmother Henrietta was put this way: “Her alleged father died several years BEFORE her birth.”


See the additions at 13a — Whitfields 1880s-1930s. (I will add a reference there to these corrections.)

Thanks, Rowena! She added in a later email:

My notes for Henrietta Bursill:

The birth of Henrietta Bursill was registered in 1874, in Kiama District, mother Henrietta Bursill (NSW Birth Reg. No. 12644/1874). Her mother was one of the pioneers of Shellharbour area, who was a widow with dependants and managing a farm when her last child was born. Henrietta may have had an aboriginal father. According to family (from Charlie Bursill, an older brother of Henrietta) she “was born a long time after her father had died”. The birth registration confirms this. One Whitfield family tale tells that she was the illegitimate daughter of an aboriginal or part-aboriginal farm worker and a widow. Thomas R. Bursill had died by 1872, as the 1872 Greville’s Post Office Directory of Shell Harbour only lists a Mrs Bursill, as a farmer in Shell Harbour.

The marriage of Henrietta Bursell and Thomas Daniel Sweeney Whitfield was registered in 1892, in Kiama District (NSW Marriage Reg. No. 4444/1892). They had six children between 1893 and 1912, in Picton, Albion Park and Kiama. Three of those children died in 1906 and 1915.

The death of Henrietta Whitfield, parents Thomas and Henrietta, was registered in 1931, in Kiama District (NSW Death Reg. No. 6705/1931).

I had posted in 13 – 1885 – Whitfields, Bursills an account of the funeral of Henrietta’s mother, also Henrietta.

That Henrietta’s mother was also Henrietta, as I note in this 2013 post. Yet an obituary for Henrietta Senior dated 1921 – reproduced in that post – states that she was survived by two sons (including Charles) and ONE daughter “Elizabeth, Mrs. Whitfield.”  That of course should be “Henrietta”.  There is another obituary for Henrietta Senior in the Kiama Reporter and Illawarra Journal 6 July 1921.

On 28th June, 1921, at the residence of her daughter, Mrs. Thos. Whitfield,of Shellharbour, one of our best beloved and most highly esteemed residents passed quietly away to her rest in her 85th year. Mrs. Bursill was born at Bradfeld, England, in 1837, and at the age of 18 years took passage for Australia by the sailing ship “Asiatic,” and after sailing 97 days, entered Sydney Heads, 24th May, 1855. When 21 years of age she married Thomas Bursill, and they came to Illawarra in search of a new home. They settled on a small farm near Shellharbour over 62 years ago. Mr. Bursill passed away many years ago, leaving his partner the care of five children, three sons and two daughters. The two elder sons, Mr.E. Bursill, builder, of Robertson, and Mr. Chas. Bursill, builder, of Shellharbour, and are both highly esteemed and respected residents of both districts, the third son, George, passed away, from heart failure.It is safe to say we have never had  a resident more universally beloved and esteemed than was Mrs. Bursill,always bright and cheerful, and ready to help, going about doing good. The district is better for the lives and examples of such as she, and very much poorer for their loss.The Rev. Gallop, of Jamberoo, con-ducted the funeral service, at Shellharbour cemetery on 29th June, and spoke of the good she had done and of her kind way of doing, of a long life of usefulness, then entering into rest.

You may have noticed that the “two daughters” left when Thomas B died could not have included my grandmother Henrietta Jr. Do the Maths and study that birth certificate extract carefully.

George Bursill, by the way, died in the middle of a cricket match at Dunmore near Shellharbour in 1913.

None of which reflects on my grandmother’s character, of course. She did have severe mental health issues in the latter part of her life, however, but given the horrendous losses she had experienced, and the times, little wonder.

On who her father was I further said to Rowena:

My parents of course actually knew Charlie Bursill! What he said about Henrietta to my mother’s father, Roy Christison (headmaster of Shellharbout School in 1935), was the real starting point of my story.

She replied:

Back Again Neil,

Yes, thinking about it. He would have known as an older brother what was happening in his household. Father dead, and mother carrying a baby and then a new little one in the house. They live on a farm with livestock, so would have known what was going on.  And of course, the shame of an illegitimate child in those times, and the gossip of local people. Charlie might have had to keep quiet for a long time and then later in life, just needed to release the pressure, so talked to family members. Anyway, it’s Henrietta [senior] I admire, and she seemed to have been held in some esteem in the area after a long and hard-working life.

So just to confirm, there is no connection with the convict William Bursill from London. But quite possibly, if you go digging back on all lines in your tree, there’ll be someone in there.

Cheers, Rowena

I should have told Rowena more about the context of Charlie Bursill’s revelation. He was warning my grandfather Roy Christison against the proposed marriage of my mum and dad. I was told Grandpa Roy told him to take a flying leap into Lake Illawarra, or words to that effect. Proud of you, Grandpa!


Hi Rowena

“Touch of the tarbrush” were Charlie’s words, apparently. And yes, several convicts, most notably Jacob Whitfield, horse thief, life sentence, arrived 1822 on Isabella 1!

Thanks – and I have left the speculation on early Bursills up, but added your correction at the end of the post.

Neil W

Family history is kind of fun… In brief, Rowena’s information confirms the circumstantial details I had been told about my grandmother, excepting of course exactly who her father really was. But it does make my descent from the Dharawal or Yuin more probable.

And something just occurred to me — it is weird that it had not before! Charlie Bursill and my grandmother had the same mother (obviously) so he was my father’s uncle, and thus my great-uncle. Not some random dude…. Regardless of who my grandmother’s father was!