Ray Christison sends a welcome gift

I already knew that my cousin Ray Christison had published Shapeshifter: the strange life of John Hampton Christison, Professor of Dancing 1858-1923 (2017), in fact had read an earlier draft. In various places on my blogs, especially here, I had myself tackled the story. See also these posts. Over Christmas Ray got in touch and arranged to send me a copy — once I had told him my exact postal address! It arrived yesterday.


Merely as social history, even apart from the family connection — John was Ray’s and my great-grandfather, the book is well worth reading. Given that Ray is a trained historical archaeologist with a longstanding fascination with history Australian and Scottish and more, the book is very professional in presentation and in literary style. It is also very well illustrated, not least with photos of John, who would have had a whale of a time in the age of Instagram. Oddly though, this one is missing:


So here we have a man who may have danced before Queen Victoria at Balmoral, who once had a vineyard in the Hunter Valley next to the more famous Rosemount Estate, who was a bastard of a husband and father at times, more than a touch Byronic*,  but also apparently in later life a teetotaller, was a serial evader of debts, but who was wounded in action during the Boer War. Ray included a photo of his Boer War medal, now in Ray’s possession. Once when I was about 14 my grandfather Roy Hampton Christison started to tell me something of his father, who had died 20 years before my birth but was never spoken of anyway. My grandmother Ada put a stop to that with a pronouncement worthy of Queen Victoria: “There are some things that are better not talked of!”

  • *Euphemism alert!

Ray, fortunately, has not hesitated to talk of them. The result is the portrait of a complex, obviously very gifted and interesting character — who just happens to be our great-grandfather. Ray, being the historian he is, puts the story in historical context, both in Scotland and Australia. John’s career encompassed both countries. In Australia in his lifetime he was in Newcastle, in the Hunter region, in Sydney, in Mittagong, in Tasmania, in Melbourne, and indeed for a while was a station-master in Coolgardie WA! He taught dancing and organised highly praised parties all over the place. What a man!

Not so easy for my grandfather and his siblings though, or for my great-grandmother Sophia Jane, whom I actually remember! My one quibble, Ray, is that the photo of the family including her and my brother Ian on p.58 is said to be taken at Flora Street Sutherland during the 1940s. No, it was 61 Auburn Street — phone LB2271! (Fancy my remembering that last detail; perhaps I was made to learn it in case I ever wandered off and got lost!) Uncle Eric and Aunt Gwen — the former also in that photo — lived in Flora Street in the 1940s. By the way, despite the subsequent home-uniting of Sutherland both that Flora Street house and 61 Auburn Street are still alive and kicking!


Here is another of Sophia Jane (or Jean) Christison in her 90s. Apparently she decorated that cake herself!


If you are intrigued, Ray’s book is available here.

A letter from Sophia Jane, on the death in 1948 of my grandfather Thomas Daniel Sweeney Whitfield:



Oh and another thing. In listing instances of Christisons in Scotland’s past (p.7) Ray does not mention another John Christison who figured in the Scottish Reformation back in the days of Mary Queen of Scots. To quote Andrew Lang, John Knox and the Reformation (1905 and on Project Gutenberg):

But, sometime in April 1558 apparently, a poor priest of Forfarshire, Walter Myln, who had married and got into trouble under Cardinal Beaton, was tried for heresy, and, without sentence of a secular judge, it is said, was burned at St. Andrews, displaying serene courage, and hoping to be the last martyr in Scotland. Naturally there was much indignation; if the Lords and others were to keep their Band they must bestir themselves. They did bestir themselves in defence of their favourite preachers—Willock, Harlaw, Methuen; a ci-devant friar, Christison; and Douglas….

After Parliament was over, at the end of December 1558, the Archbishop of St. Andrews again summoned the preachers, Willock, Douglas, Harlaw, Methuen, and Friar John Christison to a “day of law” at St. Andrews, on February 2, 1559. The brethren then “caused inform the Queen Mother that the said preachers would appear with such multitude of men professing their doctrine, as was never seen before in such like cases in this country,” and kept their promise. The system of overawing justice by such gatherings was usual, as we have already seen; Knox, Bothwell, Lethington, and the Lord James Stewart all profited by the practice on various occasions.

Mary of Guise, “fearing some uproar or sedition,” bade the bishops put off the summons, and, in fact, the preachers never were summoned, finally, for any offences prior to this date.

Tram, Shakespeare and a pause in the bushfires

So yesterday I took the train to Sydney to have lunch with M in Surry Hills — and to ride the tram. I took with me for sentimental reasons this:


The last time I rode a tram through Surry Hills/Moore Park I may well have had that with me! Now, about the new tram — and here I am on board:


It is a tad slow, but that is probably better than running over people or crashing into cars. Indeed at one point yesterday a car came through an intersection as if the moving tram wasn’t there. The tram driver sounded his horn — not a bell, notice. However, while well aware of the costs that have been involved in the build, I give the tram the thumbs up! It isn’t the line to nowhere after all. Yesterday it delivered quite a few to the cricket — sorry about that, Kiwis! Then it has two well-placed stops for Randwick Race Course, ditto for the University of New South Wales, and the Randwick line ends right in the midst of the medical offices, cafes etc., that are part of the Prince of Wales Hospital precint. I can see a lot of use for the line as time goes on.

Mind you, it is true the bus is faster… But not as comfortable.

Then back to Surry Hills, and the glorious old Shakey — the Shakespeare Hotel of such happy memory. There I met M, who was in fine form. And the food was excellent — I had the Shakey Pie, a beef and vegetable job in a real home-made pie shell, not a lump of premade pastry on top of a ramekin. M had a steak; he said it was excellent. And price? Much the same as City Diggers in Wollongong — under $20 each dish. You could have had a chicken schnitzel special for $10! The drinks are on the dear side, but not outrageous.


And the Surry Hills tram stop is ideally placed for visiting the Shakey.


Picture by James O’Brien

Travelling in cooler weather yesterday to and from Sydney I closely observed the bush as we passed through. Tell you what, toss a match in there and all hell would break loose. Wollongong and the Royal National Park have truly been lucky so far — but there is very possibly two months to go. The heat returns at the end of this week. And as soon as I write that I know some are going to mutter “hazard reduction” and others will start muttering “Greens!” Yes, there are arguments worth having around all that, but to quote one expert: “It’s simply conspiracy stuff. It’s an obvious attempt to deflect the conversation away from climate change.”

On Sunday night I phoned my last remaining aunt, in Sutherland — she’s 82 — knowing that my cousins from Bundanoon were sheltering there, having evacuated. I spoke to one of those cousins. It seems that their Bundanoon house is safe, though covered in ash. That at least was all she knew on Sunday. We talked for some time. We haven’t talked for a very long time, in fact, using Facebook to keep tabs instead. We found ourselves on exactly the same page about climate change being the deep cause behind all the proximate causes (such as fuel loads) of this present fire season.

Wollongong rides its luck again!

Yesterday’s day from hell passed relatively quietly, but that was not true of so many places near here and further away. Fancy Penrith, west of Sydney, being the hottest place on earth at almost 49C!  Luckily West Wollongong reached just 35C.

Today I just want to illustrate some of the scope of these fires simply by sharing from my own relatives! I avoid full names for privacy reasons, and have also eschewed link addresses.  NOTE: if any of you want a photo or reference removed, please let me know.

First, my sister-in-law and a niece in Milton/Ulladulla NSW.  Here is a view from my sister-in-law’s home a few days ago:


The most recent post on Facebook: “M***** and her mum have been evacuated to mollymook beach, it got bad in uladulla, she is trying to reserve her battery on her phone.”

Now a cousin who, interestingly, I have only just become aware of through the internet, though we are the same age. James lives in Tahmoor. This photo — and he is an excellent photographer — was taken at little place called Balmoral which was virtually wiped out just before Christmas.


Finally, two cousins — sisters — L and H, who live at Bundanoon. A few days ago L posted: “What does a tired RFS Deputy Captain do when he finally has some off truck time? Well if it is Tim ******** he drives down to the Southern Highlands and spends four exhausting hours in the heat on the roof of his aunts’ house clearing gutters and cutting back overhanging branches to make us safer as fires move closer. You are a legend Tim and we love you heaps. xx”

Sadly, just in the last day Bundanoon has been hit. Eleven hours ago H posted: “My little town of Bundanoon is on fire, houses are being lost right now. We are safe at mums with our animals but our hearts are breaking. Simply devastated.”


I am planning to go to Sydney for lunch tomorrow, to Surry Hills in fact. I will have in my backpack — as indeed I do now — this computer, its charger, my phone charger, and all my medication. Why? Wollongong has been lucky. We all know very well that Wollongong has been cut off from Sydney by fire before today!

See my post of August 16 2019, at the very beginning of this long bushfire season.  Complacency is not an option.

Again from October 2013, from my window:


Blogging the 2010s — 12 — January 2019

Australia Day at Mount Kembla — different!

So, as I said the other day, “This year I will be reprising a pleasant day at Mount Kembla with my cousin Helen and her husband Jim. See the 2016 version at Australia Day at Mount Kembla.” And do read that link too for a history of the pub — which may go back to the 1870s — and the connection to my grandfather, Tom Whitfield. And here, photo by Pieter Homburg, is the delightful pub.


So we arrived at around 11.30, and soon were eating our lunch and chatting as one does with a cousin.  Some time around 12.30 something odd started happening. What seemed like hundreds of somewhat scary people in leathers arriving, and the roar of myriad Harley Davidsons! OMG — bikies! These are from video posted on Facebook of  Australia Day 2019 at Mount Kembla Pub!

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Yes indeed, there were lots of them — and not a woman in sight! But on closer inspection not all was as it seemed at first. In fact this was a gathering from as far away as Mildura of Longriders! Yes, lots of them: see Facebook:


Read Biker Church: An unconventional house of God.

Helen, Jim and I did reflect on “judging books by their covers” — but we also left as the pub, which is not very big, was quite overcrowded! But not before we had finished lunch and chatted to a few of the bikers…

Blogging the 2010s — 8 — January 2017

Just a 2019 note: the heatwave returns Sunday and Monday — so bushfire watch resumes.

My Scottish great-grandfather

My cousin Ray Christison has posted this on Facebook.


January 25 was Burns Night (the night on which Scots celebrate the birthday of the poet Rabbie Burns). This has hit a chord with me this January as I have been busy editing the draft artwork for my biography of my enigmatic and shapeshifting great-grandfather John Hampton Christison. I know that this book has been eagerly awaited by my relatives and by Australian dance historians, and hopefully it will be published very soon.

His is a fascinating story. See many entries, including Neil’s personal decades: 1 — 1815, following on also from my Australia Day post:

I have decided to start a series going back through my “personal” decades – that is mentioning things from family history – starting with 1815, when most of my family connections were elsewhere. One exception — my former sister-in-law’s family: see Family stories 4 — A Guringai Family Story — Warren Whitfield. My former sister-in-law is a descendant of the family of Bungaree.

Sydney was a tad different c.1815:

C 359 Joseph Lycett's painting of Natives and the North Shore of Sydney Harbour, courtesy of Mitchell Library.lightbox


Jane Brooks writes of how Koorie people live in the Domain ‘in their gunyahs made of bushes.’ She also remembers seeing ‘the very tiny canoes with a gin (Koorie woman) fishing in them, quite alone, sometimes with a streak of smoke from it, and we supposed she was cooking.’ (Karskens, p. 209)

See also Bungaree and the George’s Head Settlement: 31 January 1815

On my mother’s side of my family – the Christisons – I note my great-great-great-grandfather David was a teenager in 1815, having been born in 1799 in Fettercairn, Kincardine. Seems the poor old sod died in the poorhouse July 21, 1860 of chronic bronchitis. His wife had also died July 2, 1859 in Poorhouse, Luthermuir, Marykirk, Kincardine.  That I’d never known before. Note Poorhouses in Scotland “provided medical and nursing care of the elderly and the sick, at a time when there were few hospitals and private medical treatment was beyond the means of the poor.”

David’s son, also David (b May 1828), ended up in Australia when his son, John Hampton Christison, brought him here from Brechin in Scotland. Or did he? Is this Brechin David the same as Fettercairn David? The family pictured below are definitely my ancestors and in the later 19th century for sure they were in Brechin. That is surely J H Christison’s parents and siblings.


David Hampton Christison, father of of my grandfather John, in Scotland. Exactly when and where  was he born?

The photo is from Arbroath near Brechin.

Fettercairn David Senior married a Hampton or Hanton; this suggests that they are my maternal family: the Hampton name persists to this day.   The date on David Junior’s gravestone is one year out though. So I am left wondering if we have two families here…  Mind you, Fettercairn and Brechin are not all that far apart. That poorhouse is halfway between. Perhaps the family just moved a bit south…

See also Fascinated still by (family) history (November 2013) and My great-grandfather: “morally dubious to say the least.”(October 2013).

Then see Neil’s personal decades: 14 – 1885 — Christisons and Neil’s personal decades: 19 – Christisons 1895. If you want more see the tag Christison.

The following was taken about 74 years ago at 61 Auburn Street Sutherland.  L-R: John H Christison Jr, Eric, John’s father, Sophia Jane Christison (my great-grandmother), Roy Christison Senior, and finally my brother Ian Whitfield.


I note that CNN reports that “half of Donald Trump’s DNA is Scottish. His late mother, Mary Anne MacLeod, was born and raised on the remote and beautiful Scottish Isle of Lewis, before leaving as a 17-year-old for the United States to work as a domestic servant in 1930.” That is the nearest I get to having anything in common with Donald J Tweet, who gets worse and worse as the days go on… See for example Days Into Trump’s Presidency, The Doomsday Clock Ticks 30 Seconds Closer to Midnight.