Our Annie

I was impatient to receive John Willis’s birth certificate once I’d sent for it. I had put the required details on the form – “as much as you know,” information garnered from his marriage certificate. He was born in Bowden about 1871 (at that time, a town two miles from Adelaide), father John Willis and mother, Ann Unknown.

If I was ordering the certificate today, I could get a copy emailed within days, but this was the early stages of my hobby of researching my family history.

Weeks later the expected mail arrived. My eyes scanned the document, picking out the relevant facts and mentally checking them off. John Willis, born in Bowden in 1869. The two year discrepancy in the birth date was acceptable. So far, so good. Father – George Gubbins, mother – Ann Willis.  No, that wasn’t right. I sent the certificate back, with a note telling the department they had provided the wrong one. No no, was the reply; this is the only one that fits the date you gave us, and the certificate winged its way back to North Queensland.  Oh, how could I have been so naive!

John Willis birth certificateBirth Certificate – John Willis

At the time, I was in contact with one of my Dad’s cousins, who was querying her elderly mother for information on the family. I don’t think she ever did tell Aunty Dulcie about our discovery, but we (Dad’s cousin, my brothers and I) revelled in the scandal.

This was my introduction to my 2x great grandmother, Ann Willis. I wondered – how many other children did Ann Willis have?

It appears John didn’t know his birth father, George Gubbins. George, a young Irish lad from Bowden, didn’t stay on the scene. He went off to Victoria, married a girl from Adelaide in 1875 and changed his name. George Gibbins of Footscray became a well-known manufacturer of farming implements and a holder of patents for innovative designs of farm machinery.[1] , [2]

Back to the hunt for Ann’s children. A little bit more information trickled in from Dulcie’s fading memory. John Willis (her father) had half siblings, Kate, Larry, and Jule. By this stage, I had interrogated the South Australian birth and marriage indexes on CD ROM, held at the library of the local family history association. I had previously found an 1887 marriage for an Ann Willis to William Shiels. What interested me most about this marriage was that both bride and groom lived in Bowden. I had filed the information away, in case I needed it one day. My search for children born to this couple around the time of the marriage had yielded no results.

But now, armed with children names, it was back to the library to cast the net wider. I soon found twins Lawrence and Julia Shiels born in Bowden to Ann Willis and William Shiels. Eureka, that was Larry and Jule! The twins were born in 1880, over 6 years before Ann married their father. No wonder I hadn’t found them before. A search for Kate only gave a Catherine Cox born to Ann Willis and Henry Cox in 1878, also in Bowden. Was this our Kate?

I sent for Ann and William’s marriage certificate. This gave me extra information that I could use to find Ann’s immigration. Knowing her father’s name (Thomas) and her approximate age from the certificate made it easier to locate the right family in the shipping records. I found that South Australian sponsors Philip Butler and Edward McEllister had enabled Thomas and Margaret Willis [3] and their family to emigrate from Galway in 1857, when Ann was about 13. Butler needed labourers to develop land he owned around Mallala, north of Adelaide. Later, Thomas and his sons were amongst those that opened up land for grazing even further north, at Terowie and Carrieton.

Ann, though, seemed to have stayed around Adelaide, or at least returned there before John Willis was born.

Another gem from Aunty Dulcie sent me back to the library – John Willis had a brother named Bill, and he was a real brother – I took that to mean his name was Willis. Was Bill Willis Ann’s first child? There were two Williams in the birth registry with an Ann Willis as mother that might fit what Dulcie had said, one born in 1862 and one in 1866. Both births were registered twice – under Willis and under the father’s surname, indicating unmarried parents. These boys leave no clues other than their births. And despite revisiting the Bill dilemma over the past 17 years, I am no closer to finding for certain this child of Ann.

So now I had 5 children for Ann – John Willis, Julia and Laurence Shiels, Kate Shiels (who seems to have Henry Cox as a father) and a Bill Willis, who couldn’t be found.

From about 1875, there were court proceedings reported in the papers when Ann Willis charged John McArdle with not paying child maintenance for their three-year-old daughter. This was a surprise – the birth wasn’t registered. It seems John McArdle had a sister who lived in Bowden, but when there were warrants out for his arrest, he worked away in other towns, sometimes under an assumed name. The charges and arrests continued until 1880 when his maintenance payments of 6 shillings a week were £22 in arrears.

One time when Ann was in court she admitted that she had three other children to different fathers, besides the daughter to John McArdle. John Willis would have been one of those, and perhaps the missing Bill. One child had died, although it is uncertain if that one was one of the three other children. I wonder why Ann didn’t take the other fathers to court. Perhaps they were more forthcoming with their money than John McArdle.

John McArdle - maintenance charge March 1875South Australian Register, 6 March 1875

The child count was now 7, maybe 8.

One year, while I was in Adelaide, I visited the State Archives. The records for the destitute asylum in 1883 revealed a pregnant, 20-year-old Margaret Willis from Carrieton. Margaret claimed that she had a “grandmother up north in poor circumstances” and that she “hadn’t seen her mother in about 10 years.”[4] Carrieton was where Ann’s family were living – very convincing evidence that Margaret was Ann’s daughter. Sadly, both Margaret and her baby died soon after the birth. Count – 8, maybe 9.

I hadn’t been in contact with any of Ann’s descendants, except of course those from her son John. I had, though, been in communication with two people from the Gubbins lineage, one who told me we weren’t connected. After some convincing evidence, he later agreed that we were related – due to ‘that unfortunate indiscretion,’ or similar words.

Then a phone call in 2007 heralded contact with a direct descendant of Ann Willis. Responding to some of my old requests on the internet, Ann’s great granddaughter had tracked me down via the electoral roll and white pages. Since then, Carol and I have talked on the phone, exchanged countless emails and family information and enjoyed researching together. We coined the term ‘our Annie,’ a facetious dig at Ann and her numerous children that we were finding, with their almost equally numerous fathers.

Jokes aside, I have great respect for Ann, trying to survive on her own, with all her children and uncertain support from the fathers.

Our Annie leaves us with a lot of questions. One is why she didn’t marry William Shiels until their children were six years old. Recent investigation has led me to what could be the answer to the late date of Ann and William’s marriage. The South Australian Destitute Persons Relief Act of 1866 details that a husband must maintain his wife’s children, legitimate or illegitimate until they are sixteen years old. Perhaps William was reluctant to do this and waited until John Willis and the McArdle girl (if she was still with the family) were no longer his responsibility. Katherine seems to have been accepted as she used the Shiels name.

At least eight or nine children had Ann Willis as their mother. Before the research, we thought that John Willis was the only one.

Ann Willis baptism 1840 Portumna Galway IrelandIn the absence of a photo of Ann, here is a record of her baptism in Portumna, Glaway, Ireland in 1841


1. Messrs George Gibbins and Co., Footscray. (1893, September 2). Weekly Times (Melbourne, Vic. : 1869 – 1954), , p. 19. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article221157041 [back]
2. A New Seven Furrow Plough. (1893, June 10). Weekly Times (Melbourne, Vic. : 1869 – 1954), , p. 27. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article221784536 [back]
3. The shipping list actually has the name Ann as Thomas Willis’s wife. However, my research of death certificates in South Australia shows that her name was Margaret. Recent research of the Catholic baptisms in Ireland shows baptisms for Ann and some of her siblings – children of Thomas Willis and Margaret Grealy in Portumna and Woodford, Galway.  [back]
4. Register of admissions to the Destitute Asylum, Adelaide (1870 – 1924), State Records of South Australia Series GRG28/5 [back]


Police Courts. (1875, March 6). South Australian Register (Adelaide, SA : 1839 – 1900), , p. 3. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article40086201

Genealogy Snapshot

Name: Ann Willis (abt 1840-1929)
Parents: Thomas Willis (abt 1821-1874) and Margaret Grealy (abt 1822-1904)
Spouse: George Gubbins (abt 1853-1933); William Shiels (abt 1853-1891)
Spouse’s Parents: George Gubbins (abt 1802-1873) and Alice Hughes (abt 1811-1866); John Shiels (abt 1825-bef 1871) and Julia Wall (abt 1825-1904)
Surnames: Willis, Gubbins, Hughes, Shiels, Wall, Grealy, Bennett
Relationship to Shelley: great, great, grandmother (2x great grandmother) Ann is Shelley’s 2x great grandmother

  1. Ann Willis (abt 1841-1929) great, great, grandmother (2x great grandmother)
  2. John Joseph Willis (1869-1926) (great grandfather)
  3. Olive Ann Willis (1896-1970) (grandmother)
  4. Father
  5. Shelley
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Skildergat (Peers) Cave

Victor and Bertie bent over their task, clearing away the sandy earth from their latest discovery. With each, painstaking brushstroke a blackened skull began to take shape.

Victor Peers stood up, and with hands on hips he pushed his shoulders back to relieve the aches. He walked over and looked out from Skildergat Cave. Grasses outside swayed under the north-westerly wind, but the sandstone shelter protected him and his family from the rain the wind brought. Victor could see Fish Hoek, nestled below in the sand hills. His lookout, more than 100 metres above, gave him the perfect vantage to view the panorama of the Atlantic Ocean in the west or across False Bay towards the Indian Ocean in the east. The sea (a bountiful supplier of fish, mussels, shellfish and crayfish collected by the cave’s ancient inhabitants) lapped the wind-swept valley of shifting sand dunes on two sides.

The voice of his son broke Victor’s reverie. Continue reading

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Doublegee Dan

Hannah could stand it no longer. She had placed the dough into the oven earlier, and now the smell of the freshly-cooked bread twisted her stomach into knots. Feeling ill and lightheaded, she raised her hand to knock. Her nerve weakened. She turned and walked back towards the kitchen. Again, as if dancing, she wheeled away from the cooked loaves she had turned out on the table. She advanced to the entrance of the room where her employer’s wife sat, concentrating on her baby on her lap. Hannah tapped with shaking hands beside the open doorway to get the attention of the woman within. Hannah bit her lip. With eyes to the floor and before she could change her mind, she blurted out her request.

“Mrs Phillips, could I please have some of that bread I’ve just baked?”

Mrs Phillips looked up at the slight figure of the young woman framed in the doorway, and then to her baby, which was about the same age as Hannah’s baby, John. Hannah needed strength to be able to work and feed her baby as well. Both of them were so thin.

“Hannah,” Mrs Phillips said, “you take half of one of those loaves for you and Daniel.”

Hannah could hardly contain herself. She ran over and hugged Mrs Phillips, who was taken aback at the show of affection. Then, it was back to the kitchen at almost a run. She bent down and kissed baby John, who was asleep in his basket in the corner. Hannah cut one of the loaves in two, and before wrapping one half in a cloth to take to Daniel, she broke a piece off. That bread appeased her ailment more than medicine, as she savoured the taste of each, small bite. Continue reading

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Murder at Meredith

A shot split the night, and William Purcell buckled at the knees and fell forward to the ground. He groaned momentarily, the charge from the gun shattering his heart. William Patrick Purcell, an Irish baby thirty-four years before, baptised in hope in Cork City, put into Grangegorman Prison, Dublin as a four-year-old with his mother, a thief, and transported for his mother’s crime across the seas to the Queen’s Orphan School in Hobart, Van Diemen’s Land. William Patrick Purcell, a young, itinerant saddler and harness maker, the profession of his step-father, who crossed the seas once again for a new life in the Victorian goldfields. Here he met the daughter of a Ballarat miner, and a new family was started. William Patrick Purcell lay there, his life expired. Dead, before his eighth child was born.

Saddler William M. Jackson with his display of saddlery and leather work in the pavillion at the Stanthorpe Agricultural Show, 1920 Saddler 1920
Item is held by John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Public Domain This work has been identified as being free of known restrictions under copyright law, including all related and neighboring rights.


 “Another drink, Will?” Continue reading

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The Burden Riflemen

It has been interesting to discover that some of the Burden ancestors of Chris were involved in volunteer military groups. The first part of this blog post is an imagined scene – but based on facts.

Philip Burden woke early on the Saturday in March 1863 that had been chosen for an intercolonial rifle match between New South Wales and South Australia in their respective capitals. He was eager to see what weather the new day had brought. The day before, when he had been participating in a competition between his club and the Adelaide Rifles, the wind had picked up in the afternoon, so that it was impossible to keep his rifle steady when he fired his 10 shots at 800 yards. He winced when he remembered how his score had fallen off badly as the distances and the wind increased in parallel.

Philip and Mary’s two boys raced into the bedroom. Continue reading

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Pryors from Gwennap

It’s time for one of Shelley’s mysteries, and by discussing it here I hope that I can produce an interesting read and possibly make contact with living descendants of those mentioned in this post.

Did William Pryor and Mary Hosking have more children than Joseph and John that most researchers of this family acknowledge?

Joseph Pryor and his wife Ann Hosking were my g g g grandparents (3x great). Their daughter married a son of Richard Grenfell and his wife Ann from Creek Street, Burra, whom I wrote about previously. The Pryor’s also came from Cornwall to Burra, South Australia. They had 12 children, so there are many Pryor descendants in Australia.

All Pryor researchers (that I can find) agree that Joseph’s parents were William Pryor, a blacksmith, and Mary Hosking, who were married in Redruth in 1804. They also had another son, John, baptised in 1805. Joseph was baptised in 1810. A search for information on John yields nothing. Continue reading

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The First Land League Cottage

District Inspector Pepper knew that something was brewing amongst the rural class in the Balla area of County Mayo, he just couldn’t quite put his finger on it. He crouched behind the stone wall, with his 50 constables, two miles from Balla. There were plenty of troublemakers in this area, and he was going to get the jump on them. Pepper shivered; there was a hint of snow. He could think of better things to do than be out here in the middle of winter. As the first glimpses of daylight appeared, so did two shadowy figures, and soon after, he heard muffled voices. He stood up and motioned for his men to follow. As they got closer, Inspector Pepper recognised the men as John Barrett and Tom Brennan, confirming his expectation of trouble. Both men were active members of the National Land League.

Continue reading

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Creek Street is Flooded

Men ran through the dark night along the banks of the Burra Creek in early June 1851 and shouted their frantic warning, “The bridge is gone; turn out, turn out.”[1]

The bridge over the creek leading to the copper smelting works could hold back the dammed debris no longer, and it came away with a watery gush of fences, drowned livestock and vegetation. A flood of the Burra Creek threatened the lives of the people such as Richard Grenfell and his family who lived not on, but in, the creek. [2]

Continue reading

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Burra Burrows

The following is a story I wrote for my grandsons.

I could hear voices on the other side of my tunnel. I reached through to widen the hole that I’d made in the soft clay, and suddenly a hand gripped mine.

“Oh, hello,” I said, the quaver in my voice revealing my fear, “who are you?”

“Richard,” the voice said, “Richard Grenfell. And what are you doing, tunnelling into my home?”

A wave of relief came over me. Richard Grenfell was my 3x great grandfather. It was 1849. After some hurried digging to enable me to crawl through, and brief introductions, Richard showed me around and told me the story of why he and the family had made their home there.

It was indeed a home, a dugout in the steep banks of the Burra Creek. Richard had excavated the clay to make two rooms where the family lived. A fireplace for cooking was hollowed out of one wall. A vertical shaft to the creek bank above, forming a chimney, and a doorway leading out to the dry creek bed were the only openings in the dwelling. Continue reading

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Oxfordshire to Yangedine (#3)

John Taylor set off from Caversham Rise into an area that was largely unexplored, probably wondering where the road would lead, in terms of his future. Thomas Brown, the man John worked for as an indentured labourer, had decided to purchase property over the Darling Ranges in the Avon Valley district of the 12 year-old Swan River Colony. This prime agricultural area, with its red and brown soils on fertile river flats, had been discovered quite early in the colony’s history and surveyed in 1830. The first settlers took 10 days from Guildford to reach the site of  the future York township in 1831. York itself began to develop five years later when town allotments were released. Even so, by 1841 there were very few settlers in the area and much of the land was still undeveloped.

Yangedine, the place that the Browns would use as a temporary home base, was occupied by Dr Samuel Viveash, a Wiltshire physician (a relative, by marriage, of William Tanner), who owned it with his brother Robert, and brother-in-law John Frederick Smith. Yangedine, the property that, within a few years, would be John Taylor’s home for the following 45. Continue reading

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