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!
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.
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. , 
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  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.
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.” 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.
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