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!

NAIDOC Week 2021 — Healing Country — 5

A little more about the country I am on right now, Dharawal Country. If you come in from The Shire via Heathcote you might see this sign:

Not there in my younger days — in fact living on Dharawal Country though I was, I knew absolutely nothing about it! How different it is today, as we see from this map provided by the local Catholic Education Authority:

The Shire is also part of Dharawal Country, though not on this map. It is north of Illawarra, on the other side of Port Hacking.

The clan of Dharawal in The Shire are the Gweagal.

And to the west:

NAIDOC Week 2021 — Healing Country — 3

My FaceBook profile picture this week. The Palm Cockatoo painting is by my sister-in-law Aileen, who is a descendant from the family of Bungaree.

Bungaree c.1775-1830

Now music today, I think. First, Mitch Tambo’s magnificent reworking of “You’re the Voice”, John Farnham’s anthemic hit from 1986. Mitch Tambo sings it in English and Gamilaraay, also known as Kamilaroi; the Indigenous singer a proud Gamilaraay and Birri Gubba man.

Here is Mitch Tambo sharing culture in Vietnam in 2019:

Mitch ran an amazing and student-friendly cultural workshop that included a Smoking Ceremony, face painting, dance and a Didgeridoo performance. The event was organised in cooperation with the Australian Embassy. Vientiane International School.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander visitors are advised that the following videos may have images and voices of people who have passed on.

Red Ochre Band are a country/blues/rock band formed in Geraldton, West Australia. Constantly touring and doing gigs for many years. Respected and talented Noongar Comunity musicians.
Wildflower is: Jean Burrunali (lead singer) Salome Nabarlam (keyboards) Vanessa Nabarlambarl (singer) Natasha Namundja (backing vocals) Quintina Nagarrgurrba (bass guitar) Dominic Narorrga (lead guitar) Jake Burrunali (drummer ) Dick Djoggiba (drummer, rhythm guitar player) Shaka Burrunali (guitarist,mentor). Elcho Island, known to its traditional owners as Galiwin’ku, is an island off the coast of Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, Australia. This song was recorded in 2009.

And the years remind me that I am of another time…

Willie again. My brother would have loved this, I suspect. Shocking really that I am new to this — I heard this song for the very first time just yesterday.

Indeed, with my laptop’s camera I captured myself in the very act of writing this post.

I had been reflecting lately on Facebook:

You may have observed that now and again here on FB in recent weeks I have shown my hand, you could say, rather more than I used to do. Observant ones will know what I mean, and I know some may not entirely like it. But expect this to continue, perhaps especially on the blog for which my posts here are sometimes drafts.

I am approaching 78 very soon. When my brother had passed his 78th (October 2013) a few months on, around Christmas, he commented in his dry way that he had outlived Dad. Yes, in 1989 Dad passed away — Boxing Day pretty much — just one month past his 78th. My brother made another 4 years. My mother went 7 years beyond hers — at least one year too long in my opinion as that year was pretty miserable.Just saying, folks. Not being morbid.But one effect is I don’t want to waste my time on bullshit. Know what I mean?

This song — brilliantly and subtly done by John Partridge — does apply, even if I have never been a drag queen….

Old comrade from teaching days back to the 1970s, Rowan Cahill, to my great pleasure commented, though we disagree on probably more than a few things, “Understood Neil…no problem with this.”

Typical of the kind of FB post I had alluded to is this one reflective of our current lockdown, and of much I had read on social media. I was commenting on this item:

The body of a man who died after testing positive for coronavirus lay in front of his house in North Jakarta for more than 12 hours before an ambulance responded.

A video of the 64-year-old’s dead body lying alone went viral on social media, raising alarm bells about the dire state of Indonesia’s healthcare system, which has been stretched to its limits by the pandemic.

Indonesian authorities reported a record daily increase in coronavirus cases on Saturday with 21,095 new infections and 358 new deaths.

More than 56,000 Indonesians have died from the disease….

My comment:

Yeah, lockdown does suck. In my case it removes most of my social interaction, which is a loss indeed. On the other hand I can bother people here on Facebook! But before we all start bitching, blaming and complaining, have another look at this story and be reminded what it is really all about….

And the Peruvian guy I spoke to a week or so ago at the club whose family in Peru had not been outside their house (essential shopping excepted) for over a year….

And I look at my blog post about our lockdown and there is Tikno in Indonesia giving me health advice!

I also rather pointedly posted this from Archbishop Desmond Tutu with the comment: “I hope this is a meme we all can share!”

I have more than once railed against what we might call the partisan bitching memes which even really intelligent people on social media fall back on too often. They are in many cases really crude sloganeering propaganda — true even if you agree with them. But not this one!

And even more pointedly perhaps I shared what really is one of my absolute favourite Billy Joel songs, saying “I have long loved this song — and can’t help thinking of it sometimes as I read social media… And that seems a good cue to tell you I am off to enjoy Jack Irish on ABC-TV. After which I will check State of Origin…” Which I did!

I believe I’ve passed the age
Of consciousness and righteous rage
I found that just surviving was a noble fight.
I once believed in causes too,
I had my pointless point of view,
And life went on no matter who was wrong or right.

So here I am, like Gerontion:

After such knowledge, what forgiveness? Think now
History has many cunning passages, contrived corridors
And issues, deceives with whispering ambitions,
Guides us by vanities.  Think now
She gives when our attention is distracted
And what she gives, gives with such supple confusions
That the giving famishes the craving.  Gives too late
What’s not believed in, or is still believed,
In memory only, reconsidered passion.  Gives too soon
Into weak hands, what’s thought can be dispensed with
Till the refusal propagates a fear.  Think
Neither fear nor courage saves us.  Unnatural vices
Are fathered by our heroism.  Virtues
Are forced upon us by our impudent crimes.
These tears are shaken from the wrath-bearing tree.

Yes, possible anti-Semitism there, T S Eliot — but it is of its time, and the offensive phrase is in the company of magical evocations of a Europe between the two wars, an age of decaying narratives, which disturbed the increasingly conservative Eliot…

Echoes of which no-one of my age can escape finding at times in their own hearts…

I an old man,
A dull head among windy spaces.


June 2006 really surprises me — 3

Believe it or not I do not spend all my days combing my archives, but with the new month I first checked that I did have a June 2006 archive and then, having found it, surprised myself! So this is the third of 3 reposts! I may add in some pics…

John Baker’s questions

If you are at all interested in writing, and enjoy good writing from a real writer, visit John Baker.

You may recall he asked five questions:

1. Why do you blog?

Because it is better than muttering to myself in the bathroom. Because I am addicted to teaching. Because I need to rant in Howard’s Australia. Because I have far too much time on my hands. Because writing is the best kind of thinking. Because “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” (That was E M Forster, I think.) Because “I blog, therefore I am.” See also Reasons to journal.

2. Which author and/or book has most influenced you?

See My canon. And it really probably is the Bible and Shakespeare. Sad, isn’t it?

3. Which three blogs do you most visit?


1. Thin Potations. It’s a habit, really. He’s been a bit slack lately though. [Since gone private.]
2. Ahmad Shuja: MyScribbles: Write-ups of an Afghan because he is refreshingly honest, amazing for a person of his age, and an Afghan, and can tell me about the Afghan cricket team.
3. Aluminium because she is an English teacher and used to be a Diary-X friend, oh for ages now it seems. (And she reads me too.)

Actually I visit all those blogs on my blogroll. Often. Including John Baker’s, obviously.

4. Why do you read fiction?

Some just for delight in plot, character and language. Some because they are more true than non-fiction. Some because they can take me into world-views and milieus I could never otherwise experience.

5. What makes you laugh?

Fawlty Towers, no matter how often I see it. The items in my Diversions links to the right. The fact that the majority of Australians still think John Howard is a really really good Prime Minister…

No, that last one makes me want to cry.

And speaking of history…

I approached this week’s Bulletin with due cynicism when I saw it featured The 100 most influential Australians. Oh yes, I thought, wank-time! But I was wrong. Panellists Julie McCrossin, Phillip Knightley and Michael Cathcart have done such a good job I have listed this among my Best Reads of 2006, as you can see. Of course we could all suggest others, and maybe want to scrap some, but what a good introduction it is to our shared past and present, and a great tool for teachers, I would have thought. I’ll certainly be alerting my coachees to it.

Yes, John Howard is of course there, but I loved the positioning that happens on his page: you’ll have to buy the magazine to see what I mean. He is kind of, well, “buried”. This is the content on JH:

John Howard, the most relentless politician in Australian public life, has transformed the way Australians view themselves and the way the international community views Australia in the first decade of the 21st century. A lifelong conservative, he began his prime ministership (now second only to that of Robert Menzies in duration) with a pledge to confront “political correctness”. The result has been the “history wars” that replaced Paul Keating’s big pictures on reconciliation, a republic and Asian engagement with a nationalist agenda. Many young Australians in particular have responded by draping themselves in the flag — complete with Union Jack in the corner — as they tramp the world. Howard redefined Liberalism with his 2001 vow that “we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come” underlining a willingness to confront a world awash with asylum-seekers in his quest for domestic votes, particularly those that were traditionally held by Labor. Howard’s defence and foreign policies have relied heavily on cementing the alliance with the United States. He has taken Australian troops to war in Iraq and Afghanistan in coalition with the US while also committing the military to neighbourhood trouble-spots, notably East Timor and the Solomon Islands. Howard has capitalised on a long period of economic prosperity by pursuing tough free-market reforms, introducing a GST, pursuing widespread privatisation of public assets, notably Telstra, and — having won power in both houses of parliament for the first time since the 1970s — moving the industrial relations balance from unions to business.

Very fair, I would have thought.

As you know, where JH sees “political correctness” I see “simple decency”, so naturally we differ. I am happy to see one of the most popular posts here in recent weeks has been PC but with a sense of humour. Go there to see where I stand: I think I am quite moderate, actually, and it is the current zeitgeist which is extreme, thanks to the Pauline Howard factor.

In the same issue, see also, speaking of zeitgeistGay but not happy, John.

Of course on the back page we have Tim B being the clown he usually is over those awfully funny “global warming” chappies and gals — funny to him, that is, but not to most reputable scientists, or even to most moderately well-informed general readers; but Tim can’t help himself, can he? It’s his party trick to be like this, after all. The mining and industrial sectors and their political puppets will as ever be well pleased with him, and his fans will wet themselves yet again. (*Stifles a yawn.*)

Excellent issue, nonetheless. But sadly irrecoverable in 2021!

Simon Schama on history

Thanks to the Arts & Letters Daily, I just read “The History Channeler” (sic) in the Washington Post.

In a 1991 New York Times piece headlined “Clio Has a Problem,” he savaged academic practices as stultifying, overspecialized and hopelessly biased against “dramatic immediacy.” And he satirized conventional historical argument in a passage that began:

“In 1968, Wendy F. Muggins published her seminal article on manorial social structure in 17th-century Fredonia. A decade later, this orthodoxy was substantially corrected by Cuthbert C. Buggins, based on a reading of Fredonian tax records. Unaccountably, neither Muggins nor Buggins consulted local manorial records . . .”

“Storytellers,” the storyteller lamented, had become “aggressively despised.”

History teaching that works, at school level anyway, is 90% story-telling at first, with a gradual increase in the critical and methodological emphasis — or should be. Once the story-telling element goes, so do most of the punters.

But “Empire of Good Intentions” is argument as well as story. It asks the question, Schama says, “about whether or not peoples other than yourself are better served by being run by you.” For the heartlessness of the ruling British, in the face of the potato famine, came in part from the imperial obsession with free trade.

“There was just one iron law: Let the market do its job,” the television Schama says. If the cost was a million dead, so be it.

It’s hard not to see lessons for the 21st century here, but the historian isn’t sanguine about them being heard. “In the halls of the energetic policymaker,” he says, history is viewed as “emasculating.” Thinking about the past, with all its unanticipated outcomes, is “such a bringer-down-to-earth exercise.” Abstract political theory is more attractive, because it frees you to act with optimism, to create “facts on the ground.”

But for Simon Schama, in the end, the lessons of history are not the point. The point is the continuous, interconnected drama of human lives.

The study of history is “a resistance against oblivion, against loss,” he says. “It tells you about what it was like to be a human being.”

Oh yes!

Music and memory

M left his collection of cassette tapes here, taking only his CDs. Today and tonight I have been playing some of them, and some of my own: there are quite a few!

Guess listening to the erhu on a winter night has brought this on. Naturally The “Butterfly Lovers” Violin Concerto is among the ones I have played; I love it. There are “oddities” too, like Beethoven’s Ninth performed by the Shanghai Symphony in Mandarin.

And I have been reading the most wonderful book. But I will tell you about that later.

Lord Malcolm has been in hospital again, but is out now. And I caught up with PK today, whose yachting adventures have been interesting to say the least. Without knowing the connection to M, he ended up spending a considerable period in Laurieton, where M is right now. We took a walk over to M’s Sydney address and watered the plants, a duty of mine while M is away.

And one more

From 14 June 2006

Listening to the erhu on a winter night

A warming vegetable and barley broth for dinner — lamb shanks at the Mountbatten Hotel after coaching last night — and a hot bath, then to the computer. On Classic FM they just played a Chinese piece, “Reflection of the Moon on Er Lake”. I have heard it many times before; anyone who has ever listened to Chinese music — and you really should — knows this sublime, haunting melody. It is also translated as “Moon Reflected on the Erquan Fountain”, as it is called in this program note.

The place is famous for the beautiful Fountain, and Hua Yanjun, an old, poor but talented folk musician, regularly played there. The listener was deeply moved by one of his sorrowful, beautiful melodies that depicts the scenery and the feeling it evokes. It also expresses a sense of beauty, peace and tranquility. The music is at times as quiet as still water in a lake and at other times as exciting as a gushing Fountain. It is as reflective as it is evocative and exhilarating. The listener is free to arrive at his [own] interpretation.

And the erhu is such a beautiful instrument. It goes back to the Tang Dynasty, a thousand years.

And speaking of Chinese, it is now fourteen years since M[ichael Xu] and I moved here to Surry Hills, sixteen since I met him soon. He is no longer here, of course, though well and truly around. I really owe him everything, you know. When I wrote the final version of that fiction story on the page tabbed at the head of this blog I was not yet fifty, and believed I would not live past fifty for very long. Perhaps I didn’t intend to. But here I still am, and my fiftieth birthday here in Surry Hills is a very happy memory.

Winter night thoughts.