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A Winters Tale

A Winter's Tale - Searching for Sylvia

by Richard Harboard © All rights reserved
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My story starts a long time ago, but because it contains some people still alive today, I will avoid names if I can and hope it doesn't get too complicated. Also, unlike my wife, I am not a very good story writer, so this effort should not be marked on its literary style. I hope you will just enjoy it as the true record it is.

On the 8th June 1864 my great grandfather married his love and their marriage was blessed with three sons. In just four years from their marriage, his wife was dead, leaving him with three very small bays to bring up on his own.. The youngest boy was only two, so the trauma for the family was dire. The 1871 census shows them living with their grandparents.

However, he met another very nice young and they were married when she was only 21 years old.

She was to become my great grandmother, but to start with, she had a ready made family to look after and look after them she did, as I have seen a letter written by one of the sons, when in his adulthood, describing his stepmother as " wonderful to us waifs, treating us like her own".

Of her own children, she produced four - three boys and a girl; one of the boys becoming my grandfather.

In her stepsons, there was however, a restlessness brought on perhaps by the disruption to their childhood, and two of them decided to seek adventure in that exciting new world, Australia.

One of the two was particularly close to my Grandpa, and used to write more frequently than the other, though both did their share of enlightenment, first to my Grandpa, then, after his death, to my Mum. (I constantly thank the Gods who gave my Mum the "squirrel" instinct of hoarding everything, so now, after her death, I can sit and read firsthand about life in "Oz").

They both found girls to marry and settled down to life "down under" and in course of time both produced two fine boys. Of the sons of the half-brother closest to my Grandpa, one of them was lost bravely during World War II, whilst the other; a pilot; came to England to fly for the RAF, although by then his wife had produced (in 1939) a daughter.. Both wife and daughter were left in Australia, and one can only imagine the worry in their minds at husband and father fighting a war 12,000 miles away. Happily he survived the war and returned to his family in Australia. He remained close to my grandparents and subsequently to my mother and the letters back and fro continued up into the 1970s.

Just after the war, my parents were married, and in 1946 I was born. We lived in the country house my Grandpa had bought after the first World War. My parents were 40 years older than me, so the "generation gap" proved very wide indeed. My father often used to work away from home, so a summer holiday with just my Mum for company was not something unusual. It didn't therefore impinge my mind, in a world of my own, when my Mum announced that a cousin from Australia was travelling in Europe with a friend of hers and was coming to stay. The indifference changed quite dramatically when two lovely young women with exciting Australian accents arrived to stay for a week, before returning to Australia.

And that was that. Years went by; I got married and we had children and then grandchildren; my parents both died, my mother leaving me, her only child, with boxes and boxes of papers and photographs - all muddled up, so one piece was a clipping of the outbreak of WWII, the next about a kitten stuck up a tree in 1963 (my mother was mad about cats!). It was all too much for me. My wife was all for chucking the whole lot out, but I had inherited my mother's "squirrel" instinct and so the boxes and suitcases stayed in the loft and moved with us whenever we moved.

Retirement age came, and my wife gave me a "Family Tree Maker" package, with a trial month of Ancestry. At last I had the time to go through all the family documents and try to put them in order with the aid of some clever computer software.

One day a photograph fell out of a bundle of letters. It was of two young women sitting on a white wooden seat outside the front door of a house. I know that seat well. As I write, it sits outside our conservatory. It has been outside my family's house for nearly 100 years. It was a snapshot of my Australian "cousin" and her friend when they came to stay with us more than 50 years age.

Coincidently there was also in the bundle, a letter from her father (then living in Melbourne) to my mother saying how his daughter was now married with two sons and she was moving to WA, which he was upset about, as he would not see his grandkids much. Although I had written to him in Melbourne when my Mum died, I hadn't had a reply which didn't surprise me much as the address I had for him was years old and he had probably moved again, being throughout his life a "rolling stone".

Stimulated by the power of the computer and internet, I determined to track down my "cousin" if, that is, she was still alive. Now, there are two things the family tree software does NOT like, and they are; searching for live people, and searching for married women when you only know their maiden surname! Only determined persistence forced me to go on when I hit blank after blank. I resorted to Google and Bing (I find they give very different results, so worth trying both) and hit another snag. My cousin's maiden name is the same as that of a popular fictional character, so 99% of the "hits" were about this character. Of the other 1%, all of them were of rivers; roads; or whatever with same or similar names in Australia.

One day, after trying unsuccessfully once again with Google, My eye was caught by the phrase "Western Australia" "Western Australia Genealogy Society (WAGS) " it said. The WAGS made me smile a bit. WAGS in the UK means something very different. It stands for "Wives And GirlFriends", who are the young women who trail around after or marry footballers and pop stars.

I looked at the site. It had a forum where I could post "looking for" notices, so I joined.

I could not swear that it was THE best few dollars I'd ever spent, but it must be in the top three and I can't think of the other two.

Firstly (and sadly, but not surprisingly) one of the organisers found the cremation records for my cousin's parents. Both had died with three months of each other - IN WA! No wonder all my searching in Melbourne was futile. They had, of course, moved to be near their daughter, son-in-law, and grandchildren. Then nothing, although the organisers were unfailingly helpful with advice etc., still nothing. Why should there be. My cousin was married to a man who's name and occupation I didn't know. They might have moved anywhere in Australia, or even elsewhere in the world.

A big shock a little later though was an airmail package containing the WAGS magazine! I thought it extremely kind of them, considering the magazine is a thick A4 size glossy affair and airmail postage is not cheap!

There is an option in the forum on their website for postings to be emailed to me, which I had ticked. This didn't stop me, in the absence of any reports of my cousin, looking up the site each day for news. The number of "hits" were rising steadily, so people were reading my post; just not sending any vital information.

A little while ago, I picked up my daily pile of emails; Get the medicines you need; Please give me all your bank details so I can send you $50 million; etc. Re. your cousin !!!!! Wow!!

"Try this" it said and a link to somewhere. The link proved to be a recipe for lemon cake called "My Mum's recipe". Thinking the link to be an error, I all the same, scrolled down some more - and there it all was. The site was a blog site for my cousin's eldest son, describing a trip they had all been on, complete with picture of my cousin with married and maiden name. That the trip they were on was to visit my cousin's uncles grave (the one who died bravely in WWII) clinched it.

In complete delight I hit the "return" key and wrote effusive thanks to the lady who had sent it. Unfortunately this doesn't record on the WAGS site, so a few days later I got a gentle email from the organisers, pointing out that I hadn't visited the site for a few days and that there was a reply that might be of interest. Thoroughly chastened, I responded via the forum.They called it "a result"; I call it a miracle! Without them, my cousin and I would have probably gone to our graves without ever knowing what had become of the other. How many dollars is that worth? Priceless I would say. Their subscription is certainly a lot less that Ancestry which completely failed to find my cousin!

Oh, the outcome? I posted a message on the blog site, and after a little while, with comments about having to check his posts more frequently, came back a message from my cousin's son, copy to his Mum, and telling me that they are going to be in Europe next summer, so we're going to have a big get together. She has another cousin in the UK as well as me, so it should be a great party!

WAGS will be of course there in spirit, and I'm sure we'll raise a glass to the organisation that brought us together after 50 years and 12,000 miles. Thanks is such a little word, but it mean an awful lot, so THANKS WAGS!


Ed Note. Thank you for sharing this great story with us. It really goes to show that with perseverance, and a bit of luck, great success can be achieved.

Last Updated on Sunday, 06 October 2013 10:32

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