A letter from a grieving father

I have previously written about the service file Douglas James Stewart (1899-1918), downloaded from the National Archives of Australia’s website. The file is 61 pages long, and I was unable to do it justice in a single post.

The file contains correspondence to and from Douglas’ father, James Simpson Stewart of Holbrook, New South Wales; a small town near Albury. Some of it has to do with the medals that his son was entitled to, and I have written about those in a previous post. Then there is the correspondence about Douglas’ grave.

Douglas was killed in action on 8 August 1918 in France. In October General Pau of the French Army visited Australia, and even visited Albury in southern New South Wales, by train, where he was “accorded a hearty welcome by several hundred representative residents” (Sydney Morning Herald, 12 Oct 1918, p13).

James, who was quite possibly one of those residents, was moved to write to the General:

NAA: Base Records Office Australian Imperial Force; B2455, First Australian Imperial Force Personnel Dossiers. 1914-1920; 3013311, Stewart Douglas James : SERN 3718. Letter from J.S. Stewart to General Pau.

He wanted a photo of the grave where his son was buried.

The joy to the Mother especially would be great were she to get a Carte of that Grave 12000 Miles away.

James says that he wears a ‘Reject Badge’. I had never heard of such a thing. A quick search in Google tells me that Reject Badges were issued to those who were rejected for military service on medical grounds, and perhaps other grounds as well. James himself was over 50 by this time, and his son was only 17 by the end of the War.

With my minimal knowledge of French I can only guess that this is a translation of James’ letter into French:

NAA: Base Records Office Australian Imperial Force; B2455, First Australian Imperial Force Personnel Dossiers. 1914-1920; 3013311, Stewart Douglas James : SERN 3718. French translation of letter from J.S. Stewart to General Pau.

The General replied through the AIF Base Office a few days later:

NAA: Base Records Office Australian Imperial Force; B2455, First Australian Imperial Force Personnel Dossiers. 1914-1920; 3013311, Stewart Douglas James : SERN 3718. Copy of reply to J.S. Stewart from General Pau.

The Base Office replied to James on 10 January 1919:

NAA: Base Records Office Australian Imperial Force; B2455, First Australian Imperial Force Personnel Dossiers. 1914-1920; 3013311, Stewart Douglas James : SERN 3718. Reply to J.S. Stewart on nehalf of General Pau.

Photographs were being taken of all graves “as rapidly as the conditions obtaining in the late theatre of war will admit.”

I can only assume that James was sent a photograph eventually. I have no knowledge of such a photograph being in the family, but then the descendants are my distant cousins. I can only try to imagine the feelings of the family when it arrived, showing a hastily-built grave with a cross stuck in the top in what had recently been a field of battle.

I do not know if anyone in this family ever travelled to France to see the grave. I imagine not – it was not easy in the years after the war, and not done lightly, as it is today.

Douglas is now recorded by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission as being buried in Heath Cemetery, Harbonnieres:

Commonwealth War Graves Commission

Harbonnieres was captured by French troops in the summer of 1916. It was retaken by the Germans on 27 April 1918, and regained by the Australian Corps on 8 August 1918. Heath Cemetery, so called from the wide expanse of open country on which it stands, was made after the Armistice, next to a French Military Cemetery, now removed. Graves were brought into it from the battlefields between Bray and Harbonnieres and from other burial grounds in the area…

– Commonwealth War Graves Commission, Heath Cemetery, Harbonnieres.

It looks a peaceful place now. It’s a shame that Douglas’ family couldn’t see what I am seeing now so easily on the internet.

Electoral rolls in New South Wales

Electoral rolls provide useful information about your ancestors’ residence and eligibility to vote. New South Wales electoral rolls are available from 1842 to 2009, although rolls were not updated every year, and some of the early ones have been lost.

Each listing includes name, address, and occupation (up to 1984). It is possible to see which family members were living in the same address, and so can be used instead of the censuses available in other countries to determine whereabouts and household composition.

If you do know that your ancestor moved from one place to another electoral rolls can give you an idea of when he or she moved. A search of the early rolls, when there was a property requirement, can tell you whether your ancestor was a freeholder or leaseholder, or just a resident.

Australian electoral rolls were published in books for distribution. Most of these have been microfilmed (in the 1800s) or on microfiche (1901 onwards) and are available in many libraries. Most libraries do not have all years, or all electorates. From 1990 onwards the microfiche are indexed across Australia.

Who had the vote?

The qualifications to vote in New South Wales elections has changed over time. This means that your ancestor may not have been entitled to vote in the period in which you are searching for him or her. Here is a brief timeline:

1843 Of the 36 members of the Legislative Council 24 were now elected by the colonists, provided they owned freehold property valued at £200 or more, or they leased property at £20 or more.

1851 Property value required reduced to £100 freehold or £10 leasehold.

1856 Responsible government introduced, with a Lower House elected by colonists. Occupiers of houses worth at least £10 per year included.

1858 All adult males could vote if they’d lived in the electorate for 6 months or had been naturalised and lived in the Colony for two years, except for paupers, prisoners, police and the armed forces. A man could vote in all the electorates in which he held property.

1893 The property and length of residence requirements were abolished, so that itinerant workers could vote.

1902 Following the federation of all the Colonies into the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901 women were given the vote in Commonwealth and New South Wales elections.

1925 First election in which voting was compulsory.

1934 The Legislative Council was replaced by a body that was indirectly elected by the Lower House.

1974 Voting age lowered to 18 years.

1978 Upper House elected along with Lower House in general elections.

Where can I find my ancestor?

1946 Electoral Roll for North Sydney Division

1946 Electoral Roll for North Sydney, Lane Cove Subdivision

Until 1990 Australian electoral rolls were published by division, so you need to know where the person is living to be able to find them. They are published on microfiche for the 1900s and early 2000s, the last one being 2009.

To find the electoral division you will need the atlas, which has maps of each capital city and each state that show the boundaries as they changed from 1902-

Very few New South Wales rolls have been digitised and indexed, although this situation is slowly changing:

Ancestry have digitised some rolls for New South Wales, for 1930, 1931-32, 1933, 1934-35, 1936-3719431949, and 1953-54. Those in bold text have been indexed.

Archive CD Books Australia, a subsidiary of Gould Genealogy, has started to scan and index New South Wales electoral rolls and publish them on CD. So far they have published the rolls for 1903 and 1913, with many others to follow. Check your library to see if they have the CDs.

See also:

State Records NSW Archives in Brief 5 – Electoral Rolls

State Records NSW Brief Guide No. 1 – Electoral Rolls

State Library NSW Instructions for searching the NSW Electoral Rolls 1903-1989

[Most of this post has been published previously at http://heritagegenealogy.com.au/research/electoral-rolls/]

Image scanned from microfiche.

A World War I soldier’s girlfriend?

I have previously written about the service file Douglas James Stewart (1899-1918), downloaded from the National Archives of Australia’s website. The file is 61 pages long, and I was unable to do it justice in a single post.

Most of the documents in the file are fairly self-explanatory. This one has a small mystery. Alongside the correspondence with Douglas’ father James Simpson Stewart, which I will cover in a future post, is this letter:

Letter from Miss J.M. Byrne dated 31 Dec 1918

NAA: Base Records Office Australian Imperial Force; B2455, First Australian Imperial Force Personnel Dossiers. 1914-1920; 3013311, Stewart Douglas James : SERN 3718. Letter from Miss JM Byrne dated 31 Dec 1918.

Miss J. M. Byrne lived in Glebe Point in inner Sydney, and on New Year’s Eve in the year that Douglas was killed she sat down with her patriotic notepaper to ask for more information about his death.

She knew to whom to write, she knew Douglas’ rank, serial number and battalion, and she knew the date that he was killed.

Who was she? Douglas had five sisters, that I can find, and none of them had the initials ‘JM’. The correspondent was a ‘Miss’, in any case, and not a ‘Miss Stewart’. Douglas’ mother’s maiden surname was Lawson, and I know little about her or her extended family. Perhaps Miss Byrne was a cousin on his mother’s side.

I must be a romantic though, because I prefer to think of Miss Byrne as a girlfriend or a potential girlfriend. She must have been so upset, imagining all the dreadful ways he could have been killed, to have written to request more information from the Base Records Office. She clearly wasn’t in a position to obtain news directly from the family, who could have been expected to have the earliest notification.

Before the war Douglas was an 18-year-old telegraph messenger and lived in Holbrook, a country town near Albury. How did Miss Byrne know him? How did they meet? Was she from Holbrook? Why was she in Sydney?

Two weeks later she received the following reply:

Reply to Miss JM Byrne dated 14 Jan 1919

She was told that there was no further information regarding ‘his regrettable loss’ than was contained in the ‘brief cable report “Killed in Action, 8/8/18″.’ When further information arrived by mail the next-of-kin would be informed. If she enquired again after this time these particulars would be forwarded to her also.

There is no subsequent correspondence from her.

I’ve searched the NSW Birth Death and Marriage index for the marriage of a J M Byrne, and there were a couple in the 1930s, an inconclusive result. I hope she had a happy life.