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!

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.”

The day after Anzac Day 2021

Which in fact is a public holiday, Anzac Day having this year fallen on a Sunday. As I said I would I passed the day at home, particularly using Facebook to be my form of observance of the day. For starters, as did many others, I changed my profile picture to remember a veteran in the family, in this case my father for his service in the RAAF during World War 2.

CORRECTION: Not a public holiday in NSW apparently! Thanks, Bruce Part for the heads up. It was in Queensland. See ANZAC Day public holiday 2021 – are you getting Monday off?

I had done the same in 2020 as a matter of fact, and wrote the following accompanying text. However, it turns out that a few of my Friends had not seen that then.

My father, Jeffrey Whitfield, during WWII. Looking back now I appreciate what a fantastic Dad he really was. These days I know much better what he stood for, where he came from. His life path was not always smooth, but his byword was always “integrity”. He passed away in 1989, just one year older than I am now. I had the privilege of being able to tell him I loved him as he was dying, and to hear him say he loved me too.

Except that in 2021 I should have said “the same age as I am now.” I also referred in a supplementary comment to the letter my father wrote to my mother from Port Moresby in February 1945. You can find the full letter and more here.

14390 Cpl. Whitfield J. N.
Group 833

My Darling Wife

I came to work this morning thinking it was just another day, another hot steaming day, after a terrific thunderstorm last night. About nine o’clock a chap came in with some demands that had to be attended to and on dating them the realisation struck me, this was no ordinary day to me, but a very special one, the anniversary of the day when I made my very bestest pal in all the world mine for keeps, for worse or better. You notice I put the “worse” first, because I am sure many, many happy days lie ahead for us. Yes, we have had more than our share of worries & I have at times very selfishly added to them, sometimes quite unintentionally, because there really wasn’t any need for you to worry at all. I’m a bit of a tease really.

Anyway I promise you darling that I will try to make you just as happy as ever I can. I only hope that I am able to maintain a decent living standard for you & the kids. You are entitled to the best of everything by virtue of the fact that you have always been such a loyal pal always to me. If I can I will try to get some other sort of business going as well as the building so that we will be secure in our old age. Anyway dearest one I will try to do as you wish me to in everything. I have caused you enough heartaches. I can’t always help this of course, but I fully intend to try and make up for any short comings I may have. I can never repay the debt I owe you for giving me three such lovely children. I love them very dearly, and am exceedingly proud of their nice appearance & manner….

In the evening I added another memory of my father in relation to a photo (I think from the 1940s) of the War Memorial in Sutherland, where I lived for the first 20+ years of my life.

Here is a photo of Sutherland’s War Memorial which stood in the intersection of Eton Street and the Princes Highway. It has since been moved and rededicated, and the link on this post gives details of what is on it. It was more elaborate in its setting in the old days, as this photo shows.

Aside from seeing it so often in my first 21 years, I particularly recall it is the place where I first went to an Anzac Day Dawn Service, in the company of my father. I am not sure when, but it would have been before 1955-6. I was so proud! There was Dad with all his medals — a hero!

Afterwards we marched to the traditional RSL Breakfast, which I recall was held in a hall at Loftus, somewhere down the Mad Mile. I was so careful to keep in step with the marchers!

When you think about it, WW2 was probably less than ten years over at the time — and the talk and camaraderie at that Breakfast made me almost think I had entered a Biggles book — which I was rather a fan of in those days….

During the day I shared a video from the local newspaper, The Illawarra Mercury, of the Wollongong Anzac Day March, which the paper had live-streamed. A still showing Navy personnel leading the marchers, after a fleet of vintage cars carrying older veterans had passed by. (The Australian Hydrographic Office is in Wollongong.)

I mentioned that in the past I had marched myself: Anzac Day in Wollongong: honouring my father 1911-1989. One photo I took from within the march in 2012:


Many other items I posted, finishing with a World War 1 classic song from a great Australian singer, Peter Dawson (1882-1961) — a song I remember hearing often on the radio in my own childhood — probably on Anzac Days!


I forgot to include a post from a Dawn Service in Anzac Parade near my alma mater and former workplace, Sydney Boys High School. Anzac Parade is the school’s eastern boundary and many a cigarette did I smoke beside it between classes, I’m afraid to say.

I can’t recall, though there always has been an Anzac Day assembly within the school as with all state schools as far as I know, the memorial entry to Anzac Parade being utilised in this way. What a great idea!

I invited my Facebook friends to study the faces of 2021’s young Australia!

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