One hundred and ten years ago today — my mother

Here is Spencer, on the Hawkesbury River in NSW, in the early 20th century. In those days it was only accessible by boat. My mother’s mother, Ada, and father, Roy Hampton Christison, were living here in 1911, along with the first-born son, Eric.

My grandfather was the schoolmaster. My mother many years later wrote her account of the place.

Dad [Roy Christison Snr] completed his training at the age of 20 and his first school was then a very small place called Spencer on the Hawkesbury River. It was eleven miles down or up river from Brooklyn Railway Station. In those days it was only accessible by water so Dad was met at the station and rowed by the mother of a fisherman to his place of work.

He was perhaps one of the luckier ones because he had his mother who at a very young age had been left to shoulder the responsibility of bringing up her family alone. To do this she took in boarders and she herself, a very refined lady, went out to work starting at 3 am to scrub and clean office buildings in the city. With two of her children married and the youngest daughter able to stay with her married sister, Gran was left free to go with Dad to become his Housekeeper. He felt he owed her his help and care now he was in a position to give it to her. I think his wage was about nine pounds a month.

He was able to rent a sort of cottage — slab built — which had belonged to a fisherman or an orange orchardist who had found life just too hard. In front of the house was a bush track which led to the school building — also slab built; and here a very dedicated and ambitious young man started his career as a teacher.

The school had an enrolment of about 22; the knack with small school teaching was to divide it into sections: 1st & 2nd Class; 3rd & 4th Class; 5th & 6th Class. Preparation work was very much the order of the day. One composite class had only oral work while the others were given History, Geography, Reading, Maths or English which “Sir” had already given details of on the blackboard, times and classes being clearly indicated. Tables charts, charts for grammar, charts for important dates in history with emphasis on Australian History, maps of the various states of Australia and of the World, with occupations carried out in different countries both here and overseas, were all in places where the pupils could learn of the world at large besides being taught the Three R’s.

Most of the pupils at Spencer came from the families of orange orchardists or fishermen. I think 10 of the 22 pupils were from one family. Some of them were rowed across the river and some walked along rough bush tracks.

At the age of 22 Dad married a lass from Sydney [Ada Hunter] who had been to “Ladies College” and had no notion of life in the bush. Gran, after helping the bride to settle, returned to Sydney and made a home with her younger daughter.  Mother was a dainty little soul, brown-eyed and dark haired, with an hourglass figure. She was a delight to the older girls, to whom she taught sewing — that was part of the contract, that the teacher’s wife taught sewing. Looking back, I do not know how Mother adjusted to the rather primitive conditions. Her only shopping was done from the Trading Boat — a paddle-wheel steamer that came down from Wiseman’s Ferry once a month. Dad had bought a rowing boat and became quite an accomplished oarsman.

About this time my father sent his first he thought ready for a State Bursary and the honour of the first state bursary ever won by a small schools pupil went to this lad [Austin Woodbury 1899-1979] who later became one of the heads of the Marists in this country. When he died this year — 1979 — at Toongabbie NSW there was quite a bit about Dr Woodbury in the papers. Following Austin, State Bursaries came the way of several other pupils, two of these brothers and sons of fishermen who after an education at St Joseph’s College Hunters Hill and Sydney University became doctors. One had a distinguished career in Queensland and the other became a Macquarie Street specialist. Some of the girls became nuns and rose to Mother Superior in the different orders of the Roman Catholic Church. My father was the son of a Scotsman and a Presbyterian, so religion had no bias in those days. [For my grandfather at any rate, who was really an agnostic, if a conservative one.]

Life meantime had brought to my father and mother a son [Eric]. Mum was sent to Sydney in the company of Gran — Dad’s mother — and what a tower of strength she was then and in the years following. My brother was born at my other Gran’s home in Dulwich Hill and when Mum was well enough she returned to her duties as wife and now mother. Later she was to repeat the journey and I arrived in the world [1911] — again born at my Grandmother’s home, only I arrived the night Mum arrived in Sydney and caused complications which nearly cost my mother her life.

The Dulwich Hill family — where my mother was born. This is during WW1. Eric is the boy with the boat; on his left with crossed legs is my mother. The baby may be my Aunt Beth.

Dad meantime had become part of the community — playing Cricket with a local team which consisted of quite a few school boys; conducting a funeral service on a very wet day when the priest could not make the trip to say the last rites by the graveside. He had also become known as an expert with the mouth organ and the old squeeze box accordion and was much in demand to supply music for the local dances.

He always remembered his seven years and seven months at Spencer where he had toiled long and hard, but he felt he had done some of his best work for those pupils.

A letter my mother wrote from Braefield where they lived 1916-1923.
At my graduation, Sydney University 1965

My mother passed away at Annandale in March 1996.

NAIDOC Week 2021 — Healing Country — 6

My family on Gweagal land in Dharawal Country 1944-5 — I am front left, next to my sister Jeanette, my mother Jean, and on the right my brother Ian. In the back row are my Aunt Ruth, my Uncle Neil (born 6 July 1924) in RAAF uniform, and my Aunt Beth.

Yes, it is 9 July again. And that means I turn 78. Born far to the south in the same year, 1943, was this man:

What a great man he has become, and what a life he has had! Just this week his story was brought up to date by the TV program “Who Do You Think You Are?” on SBS.

The show is often emotional; delving into the past almost always is. But for an Aboriginal man, and moreover as a member of the Stolen Generations, that was especially true for Charles.

“(I’m feeling) overwrought, and a profound sense of loss. I’m really peeved,” he says. 

“It’s causing me to lose sleep. But that’s par for the course for a member of the Stolen Generation. If I didn’t have such a high profile, I would have never learned this, I would have remained in ignorance, that I was Wiradjuri man on my father’s side.”

Charles’ family story reveals a history of activism and resilience in the face of the brutalities of colonisation. But an unknown connection to the peoples of Tasmania on his mother’s side revealed a truly remarkable, and tragic family history. 

Charles is descended of an august line; his five-times great grandfather, Mannalargenna, was a highly respected Elder of his people, and acted as ambassador and emissary to surrounding clans.

Uncle Jack Charles — “Uncle” is a term of respect for an elder

Now a question I posed on Facebook earlier in the week:

Seems odd to say “way back in 2016” — but five years is five years, and I don’t get any younger. Well, five years ago I published the post linked to this, which in turn went back to five years earlier!

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.

Here is my story.

My grandmother, Henrietta Bursill.

And let’s finish with something we can all benefit from, speaking of healing — #NAIDOC 20121’s theme after all:


This effectively ends this series, having brought NAIDOC Week back home to my own life and family. Remember, the matter of our national truth and the absolute need seriously to consider the Uluru Statement from the Heart are matters for every week in this country.

Yes, we have learned, and are learning, much — but there are “miles to go before we sleep.”


My mother before her marriage was Jean Christison, her father Roy Hampton Christison Senior. There are many stories about these and other Christisons on my blogs, especially a systematic gathering of them here. My cousin Ray Hampton Christison has written an excellent biography of our colourful great-grandfather, John Hampton Christison, who was born in Scotland.

Just appearing in the Project Gutenberg list is this volume:

And were you to visit Old College in the University of Edinburgh you would find this impressive bust:

Sir Robert Christison, 1st Baronet (18 July 1797 – 27 January 1882)

Aside from his major work in toxicology — apparently he tested his ideas on poisons by administering doses to himself — he was President of the Royal College of Physicians in Edinburgh and also President of the British Medical Association. He was Physician to Queen Victoria in Scotland. He was a medical expert witness in the trial of the notorious purveyors of stolen corpses, Burke and Hare.

The Baronetcy passed on to three successors, the 4th Baronet dying at the age of 100 in 1993. The title is now extinct. That 4th Baronet was an important figure in World War 2.

From the Wikipedia biography:

During the Second Arakan Offensive in February 1944, XV Corps advanced southwards. A Japanese attempt to outflank and isolate elements of the Corps failed when the 7th Indian Infantry Division held off the attacks and the Corps’ administrative area–the “Admin Box”–successfully fought off attacks by the Japanese 55th Division (Battle of the Admin Box). This was the first time in the Second World War that a British army had defeated the Japanese in a land battle. XV Corps was withdrawn on 22 March to assist the allied defence of Imphal. In December 1944 Christison and his fellow corps commanders, Lieutenant-Generals Montagu Stopford and Geoffry Scoones, were knighted and invested as Knights Commander of the Order of the British Empire by the viceroy Lord Wavell at a ceremony at Imphal in front of the Scottish, Gurkha and Punjab regiments. Slim was knighted and invested as Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath at the same occasion.

In 1945, Christison assumed temporary command of the Fourteenth Army and also deputised for Slim as Commander of Allied Land Forces, South East Asia when Slim was on leave, reverting to XV Corps on Slim’s return. Christison led XV Corps into Rangoon in May of that year.

In September 1945 Christison deputised for Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten as commander of South East Asia Command, and took the surrender of the Japanese Seventh Area Army and Japanese South Sea Fleet at Singapore on 3 September. From 1946, Christison was Allied Commander of forces in Indonesia. In November, Christison’s troops were involved in a full-scale battle to suppress pro-Independence Indonesian soldiers and militia in Surabaya.

Well, that last bit… It has to be remembered in that context that pro-Independence Indonesian fighters (including Sukarno) had sided with the Japanese against the Dutch — not hard to see why of course. Christison in the 1950s and 1960s was Secretary of the Scottish Education Department.

Am I related to all these distinguished Christisons?

I do recall Grandpa Roy sometime in the late 50s or early 60s receiving an enquiry from Scotland relating to the Baronetcy, which was due to lapse on the 4th Baronet’s death — though as we have noted he put that event off for quite some time, outliving Grandpa Roy by 30 years! But no, as Ray so ably shows in his biography of John Hampton Christison, you need to go back to the 17th century before you find a connection. So yes, we are family, but no, our Christisons were much more humble.

A nephew of Sir Robert was a noted pastoralist pioneer in Queensland, somewhat in advance of many of his peers when it came to relations with Aboriginal people. See the National Museum’s account of Lammermoor Station.

Before they were forcibly removed from their country, Christison took a keen interest in the Yirandali, collecting cultural artefacts which he later donated to the British Museum. His wife, Mary, took numerous photographs of the Yirandali.

Christison’s daughter Mary Montgomerie Bennett, who became a writer and activist for Aboriginal rights, captioned the photographs and later gave these photos and other objects to the British Museum.

These objects and images are a link to a time when the Yirandali practised their culture on their own country. Today, although still denied access to parts of their homeland, they continue to practice their culture through hunting, fishing, art and storytelling.

See also the Australian Dictionary of Biography.

Christison’s treatment of the Dalleburra tribe in this region set an example for relations with Aboriginals that shines out of the past to his credit. From their ranks came his trusted companion, Barney. He acquired adjoining land and named it Cameron Downs. There he built a huge dam, Lake Cameron, on Landsborough Creek. The track he blazed over the ranges from Bowen to his holdings for wool teams to follow was known for a decade as ‘Christison’s Trail’. Floods and drought took their toll but in 1870 he overlanded 7000 sheep more than 1500 miles (2414 km) to Victoria where they sold for 6s. 9d. a head.

Replaying some of the colourisations from last May

Quickly checking how this month’s stats were going just now, I noticed again the big surge — well, big for this modest blog! — last April and May. One reason was my discovery, thanks to James O’Brien, of an easy method. As I said at the time:

James O’Brien is not only a fellow blogger (whom I have also met in real life) and Surry Hills person, he is also on the wireless! Do tune in if you are in range. His blog is responsible for my current addiction to colourising (I am a conservative speller) old photos. The results have pleased many friends and relations on Facebook, so I thought I would share a few today and maybe on Monday and Tuesday. Yes, I have been busy.

So here are a few of the most successful ones. First my great-grandmother Sophia Christison.

That is the most successful colourisation so far. My maternal great-grandmother, Sophia Jane (or Jean) Christison (nee Lillie 1858-1952). She was in her 90s and decorated this cake. And yes, I remember her.

And here is myself in my little RAAF uniform in Sydney in possibly 1945:

The colourisations sometimes did odd things to skin tones — my legs and left hand for example,
My grandfather Roy Hampton Christison, my grandmother Ada (nee Hunter) and my Uncle Roy Hampton Christison Jr. Wartime street photo.

And one more:

The Headmaster’s residence, Shellharbour in the early 1930s –Roy Christison and his wife Ada — my grandparents

Anzac Day 2021

I am staying at home. The Wollongong Dawn Service is indoors at City Diggers, and limited to Sub-Branch members and invited guests.

I have posted often on this, as Anzac Day reposts: 1 shows. In 2015 I posted:

In my Neil’s Decades series you will find much that is relevant.


And going back to the South African War I should add:

….pictures of the people – all relatives – mentioned in those posts…

John Hampton Christison in South Africa; David Christison, his son, a sapper on the Western Front in WW1; Keith Christison, my uncle, WW2

Neil Christison, my uncle, RAAF WW2; Jeff Whitfield, my father, RAAF WW2

Norman Harold Whitfield MC and bar, German New Guinea, Gallipoli, Western Front – from Wollongong; Kenneth Ross Whitfield, my uncle, from Shellharbour