A WWI soldier’s letter from France

Today (3 July 2016) marks 100 years since the death in France of Otha Everleigh Bassett, Keith’s great-uncle. Otha was a country lad, a share farmer from Condobolin in the very centre of New South Wales; he was 5 feet 11 inches tall with a dark complexion, grey eyes and black hair.

When he enlisted in Condobolin on 11 May 1915 he was 24 years and 7 months, and gave his father Alfred Bassett as his next of kin. He was shipped out of Sydney on the Orsova on 14 July 1915, and ‘taken on strength’ on 5 September 1915, joining a composite company attached to the 9th Battalion in Gallipoli as a temporary Corporal before joining the 3rd Battalion. After the evacuation from Gallipoli and training in Egypt he was sent to France in late March 1916.

On 16 June 1916 he wrote a letter home from France to his brother Percy in Condobolin, just over two weeks before his death. The letter was published in The Lachlander on Wednesday, August 23, 1916.

Otha's letter to PercyDear Brother,— I have just received your letter of 17th. May and I was pleased to hear from you, and to know that things are all right. The last I got from you was about two months ago. No, I have not been knocked yet though I may be before morning, for all I know. I can hear the guns roaring, and one might hit just here any minute, but I hope it doesn’t bother though. They throw a lot of iron rations about at times, issue them out pretty freely. It is mid-summer here now, and, about as hot as it is in winter in N.S.W. The days are very long, there are only five hours darkness. It is nearly always raining here and seems to be good seasons.
There is grass, wheat, and oats near the firing line (where there is no stock) three and four feet high around old broken up farm houses, which are all brick with tiled and thatched roofs. I am known in the company as tiny, the hun, the wirer. I have been putting out barbed-wire entanglements between the two firing lines at night which is not a very safe game, a couple of my mates were wounded pretty badly one night, I could tell you dozens of exciting personal experiences I have had, but they seem a bit too shaky, so I will leave them untold, in the hope that I get back to tell them.
I was nearly trapped by the huns once, that is why they call me the hun, they say I go out and have a yarn with them at night. This is a fine place, a great pity to see a war here breaking it up. I have seen places blown to pieces in less than two seconds. Buildings as big as Tasker’s Royal Hotel, Condo, about five or six high explosive shells drop on it at the same instant, and everything is down on the ground in a heap of debris. There is very fierce fighting going on in places at present. One that has not been here could not imagine what it is like, and it is more than I dare write about for it is not in the agreement. I suppose things are much in the same boat with the Germans by the number of shells that our artillery send over to them free of charge, they never say if they get them or not, but I expect they get some of them safely enough. I saw a few letters in the “Lachlander” by Percy Shephard.
Remember me to the folks at home.
Your loving brother,
France, 17-6-16.

Otha was killed in action on 3 July 1916, and is buried in the Rue-David Military Cemetery in Fleurbaix, a village about 5 kilometres south-west of Armentieres.

Otha Bassett headstone

Using newspaper notices to check death index entries

It is amazing how much information can be gained from newspaper family notices, and in particular funeral notices.

Here is an example from Trove in the Sydney Morning Herald of Tuesday 27 November 1900, on page 10:

SMH 27 Nov 1900 page 10 Funeral notices


I had been searching for the death of one Mary Nugent. What I can learn about this family from these three notices is that this Mary Nugent was the wife of Mr P. Nugent (perhaps Patrick?). They lived at 57 Balmain Road, Leichhardt, and their (surviving) children were James, Francis, Alfred, William and George. They also had a daughter, Mary, who married William Beardmore.

This is a lot of information about one family, and is especially useful where the surname is relatively common, such that a search in the NSW BDM indexes is inconclusive. It is even more useful if the children had been born after the 100 year cutoff for the NSW Birth Index (currently 1911), where I might otherwise have had to order a copy of the death registration to see who her children were.

Unfortunately this isn’t the Mary Nugent I was looking for, as she was a widow. If she had remarried, and she may have, her surname would be different. At least there is enough evidence in these funeral notices for me to discount this Mary without any further searching. And what a bonus it would have been if she was the Mary I was searching for!

Did your ancestor serve on the local council?

Peter Hannah Stewart

Peter Hannah Stewart

My grandmother was quite proud of her family, and when I started researching them I could see why. Both her grandfathers paid their own way here, and both made something of themselves once they arrived. Peter Hannah Stewart arrived during the Victorian Gold Rush, although that didn’t occur to me when I first found this out, as he had settled and died in Albury, on the New South Wales side of the border with Victoria.

I had found all the usual records that are now becoming more accessible – directories, electoral rolls, the birth registrations of all his children, and so on, and I thought I knew a bit about how he lived and what his life was like.

This obituary in the Albury Banner and Wodonga Express on Friday 17 February 1911 told me little I didn’t already know, except that he represented Indigo Riding in the Yackandandah Shire Council. This was news to me!

Albury Banner and Wodonga Express 19110217 Fri p31 Personal - Peter Hannah Stewart obit

Peter was declared insolvent in May 1881 at the Beechworth Courthouse. He claimed that the causes were ‘bad crops, want of employment for machine, and pressure of creditors’. He appears to have sold up and moved to Albury, New South Wales, around this time.

I suspect that his insolvency and move to Albury put an end to his Council adventures, but he involved himself in public life in other ways, in the local Presbyterian Church and the IOGT – the International Order of Good Templars. The Good Templars was, and still is, a temperance organisation promoting moderation or total abstinence in alcohol consumption. They no longer appear to be active in Australia but I imagine that their influence lived on in their descendants. My grandmother wouldn’t have had a drink to save her life.

The next step is to examine the records of the Yackandandah Shire Council, if they still exist – minutes of meetings, decisions taken, and so on. That will have to wait for another day.



National Library of Australia, Albury Banner and Wodonga Express, Friday 17 February 1911, p.31, ‘Personal’, obituary of Peter Hannah Stewart, accessed on Trove, 23 July 2013.

National Library of Australia, The Argus, Friday 6 May 1881, p.5, ‘New insolvents’, Peter Hannah Stewart, accessed on Trove, 16 May 2012.

Victoria Government Gazette, 1881, p.1243, ‘Insolvency Notices’, Peter Stewart.

Wikipedia, International Organisation of Good Templars,  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_Organisation_of_Good_Templars


Fijian savages in Sydney, 1847

Bell'sLife in Sydney 18471120 p1

Apparently the Fijian natives who were brought to Sydney in the 1840s as ships’ crew and so on made a nuisance of themselves once they were left to their own devices. This article shows the difference in the cultures of the Fijians and Europeans.

THESE fiendish looking cannibals have become a complete nuisance in the city. They enter without ceremony at everyopen door, and demand food, clothing, andmoney in a tone and manner at once impudent and threatening. Surely somemeans of subsistence and place of shelter ought to be furnished these unfortunate wretches by their importers, or is it the intention of these gentlemen that Government shall be at the expense of re-shipping them for the Islands? Why do not thepolice interfere to prevent their intrusion into the residences of the citizens? When our christian paupers are interdicted from the solicitation of public charity, is that privilege to be accorded to a horde of anthropophagi, who have been introduced into the country at the instance of a private individual? Or is it because the object for which they were seduced from their native wilds has failed, that they are now mercilessly left to their fate by their self-created masters, and that the citizens are subjected to insult and outragefrom a mob of starving, and consequently, desperate intruders?

Bell’s Life in Sydney and Sporting Reviewer, Saturday 20 November 1847, page 1.

The Bell’s Life in Sydney and Sporting Reviewer was publishedfrom 1845 to 1860, and was not afraid to make the opinion of its editors’ known.

General information of the Feejee Islands, 1847

Sydney Chronicle 23Jun1847 page2The Sydney Chronicle, an early Sydney newspaper, was published from 1846 to 1848. The following article about Fiji was published for the interest of readers. Despite the unusual spelling it gives a good picture of life at that time.

THE FEEJEE ISLANDS. We have been favoured with some general information relative to these Islands, which will, no doubt be found interesting to most of our readers. We have, therefore, appended it in a concise form.

EXTENT AND POPULATION.–The group contains upwards of fifty inhabited Islands, besides a considerable number of islets. Of these Islands, the largest is Vanaulever (or Big Island), which is about three hundred and sixty miles in circumference, andcontains a population of nearly 40,000. The next in size is Vitilevu, which is three hundred miles in circumference, and contains a population of from 20,000 to 30,000. The remaining Islands are of various sizes down to ten miles only in circumference, with an average population of from 80 to 100 persons to the square mile. The Island of Ovalau, mentioned in the narrative which appeared in our number of the 16th, is thirty miles in circumference, and contains a population of about 3000. It is impossible to make any accurate estimate as to the entire population of the group, but it must be immense.

CLIMATE AND PRODUCTIONS.—The climate of this group is particularly healthful, extremes of heat and cold being never felt, and besides the ordinary productions of the South Sea Islands, such as yams, taro, arrowroot, sweet potatoe, &c., the Islands produce coffee, sugar-cane, and cotton. No European fruits have been tried there except the grape, and the few vines which have been planted have been found to succeed particularly well. Pigs are numerous, but there is yet but few cattle. The basis of all the Islands is coral, and there are many of them mountainous, but there is an abundance of level land for agricultural purposes, and the forests yield an inexhaustible supply of timber adapted for ship building. The principal articles of export are beche le mer, cocoa nut oil, and tortoise shell.

HABITS AND DISPOSITIONS OF THE FEJEANS. The Fejeans are an intelligent race, although not so keen as the New Zealanders and some other of the Polynesian tribes; they are however, very industrious, being in this respect superior to any of these races. They cultivate the earth and rear abundance of provisions not only for their own consumption but for sale; so that it is not the want of provisions but their depraved appetite which induces them to indulge in cannibalism. Their fondness for war is the chief curse of the race, and prevents them from enjoying that happiness which their beautiful and fruitful country would otherwise afford them. To strangers they are exceedingly hospitable, and willshare with them to the last morsel of provisions. Of their warlike propensities and the efforts which are made to attain conquest, a sufficient proof is afforded by the fact that in the last expedition undertaken by Saru, the chief of Bow, no less than 15,000 lighting men were engaged. The Fejeans have double war canoes, capable in some instances, of carrying about 300 men. The dress of these islanders is composed of Tapa, a cloth made from the Inner bark of a tree in the same manner as that worn by the other natives of the South Sea Islands, although the fashion of wearing it is different. Their original arms were bows and arrows, spears and clubs, but firearms are now superseding these weapons. RELIGION.- The Fejeans aire heathens but not idolaters, and have a numerous priesthood. The priests are called Nambattas, and there are man houses where the spirits of the Gods they worship are said to dwell. A house of this kind is called Boura, and besides its sacred character as a resting place for the Fejean deities, it is a species of Town Hall where all strangers come to relate their business, and where all public matters are discussed. In these houses strangers are also lodged. The Wesleyan missionaries who are numerous, have made a good many converts, and there are two French priests at Lakambo, who have made some progress. The principal station of the Wesleyans is at Vava, where they have a printing press. The natives, after their conversion to Christianity, be-come exceedingly docile.

CIVIL GOVERNMENT AND GRADES IN SOCIETY. The government of the Fejees is an absolute monarchy. Saru, the Chief of Bow, having become, by the success of his late expedition, Tua Viti or king of Fejee (Fejee, we may here remark, is an European misnomer, the name of the islands and nation, according to the native tongue, being Viti,) has an immense revenue, tribute being paid to him in kind, by all his dependants; and, so great is his power, that he has only to demand and to receive. His Majesty is treated with great respect by his subjects, who approach him on their hands and knees whenever they have occasion to address him. Next to the Tua or king, there are a class of sovereign chiefs called Turanga Koro, who are the heads of subordinate districts or states, and over whom the supreme chief has but a mere feudal superiority. The next grade in society is that of the Matanafan[?] or owner of the land. These “lords of the manor”  receive no particular rent for their patrimony, but possess great influence, antd are generally about the persons of the chiefs. Every old man can make   seunet- every woman can make the tapa, or cloth with which the people are clothed, and every one can cultivate the ground ; but there are a few trades which are exclusively practised in particular fami- lies, being in fact hereditary. These are the mataso[?] or carpenter, the kiwi or fisherman, the mati-na- kouro or manufacturer of earthenware, and the mati-na-emba or mat maker; the last are principally women. Besides the persons in authority above named, every district or state sends to the neigh- bouring states an officer, called a matacambon whose situation and privileges are precisely analagous to those of the European ambassador, his person being sacred from violence during the more turbulent times. The great bulk of the population consists of the kassi, or poor people, who cultivate the ground; but there is a still lower class – the Barnboola, these are the slaves who have been taken in war, and may be killed and eaten by their captors at pleasure. The law of inheritance is very different here from what it is at most of the other South Sea Islands, nobility, and property being inherited by the male instead of the female line.

EUROPEAN SETTLERS.- The European and American settlers are about sixty in number, and are for the most part married to native wives. The number of half caste children is very great, and at the town of Soalevir, which is the principal settlement of the Europeans, there are no less than 96. These enterprising men are of a superior class to those who are found at most of the other islands in the South Seas, and are employed in ship building, as pilots or as traders among the various islands of the group. They possess among them no less than eleven small vessels, all decked, varying in size from six to thirty tons, which are all armed with swivels. No opposition is offered by the chiefs to Europeansettlements, and a new settler is readily allowed sufficient land for a house and garden. Provisions are plentiful and cheap, being procured by barter for the ordinary articles of trade – arms, ammunition, hardware, &c., but as these articles are only to be procured from the vessels which call there for supplies, the settlers have generally to pay a high price for them.

HARBOURS. – The group abounds with harbours and good anchorage may be found anywhere among the Islands, with a muddy bottom, at from thirty to five fathoms. There are, however, many coral reefs, but as competent European pilots can at all times be procured, the trade among these islands may be pursued without danger.

* The above particulars were communicated by a person who has been for seventeen years a resident on the Islands, and may, therefore, be relied upon as accurate. The only inaccuracies worthy of note in the narrative which appeared in a previous number are in the names of the principal chief and of two Europeans. The chief who was called Sam in our last, is the before mentioned Saru, King of Feejee.The man whose murder was mentioned in the fourth paragraph, was named Wilson, instead of Nelson, and he whose life was so much sought after by Saru  was named Pickering, instead of Tickay. This man was a native of Sydney, and has a mother still living in this city.

Source – Sydney Chronicle, Wednesday 23rd June 1847, page 2. Accessed on Trove 29 April 2012.

Gazetteer of Central Polynesia, 1857

A gazetteer of Central Polynesia was published in the Sydney Morning Herald over some months in 1857. Included were placenames in Fiji, Samoa and Tonga.

It can be seen that the spelling is not what we know today, so be mindful of this when you search.

I have added the articles making up the gazetteer into a list called ‘Fiji gazetteer’ on the Trove website at http://trove.nla.gov.au/list?id=13361

Here is an example from Friday 3rd July 1857, covering the first half of the listing for places beginning with N.

SMH 1857 Gazetteer Central Polynesia N detail

If you come across a placename in an old book or document that you can’t recognise, perhaps it is listed here with a spelling that you wouldn’t have suspected.


Australian Newspapers Digitisation Project

Sydney Gazette first issue

The Australian Newspapers project coordinated by the National Library of Australia in conjunction with Australian State and Territory libraries was initiated to digitise early out-of-copyright newspapers. To complement this process an online service was planned to provide access to these images free of charge.

At least one newspaper was chosen for each state, including the earliest one for each state. New South Wales newspapers selected are:

The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser 1803-1842

The Sydney Herald 1831-1842 (became The Sydney Morning Herald in 1842)

The Sydney Morning Herald 1842-1954

The Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser 1843-1893

Digitising began in July 2007. Scanning has been been completed for these newspapers and the process of putting them online has begun. The Vincent Fairfax Family Foundation has donated $1 million to enable the digitisation of the Sydney Morning Herald to 1954.

Last month a beta version of the service was released. For New South Wales the Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser is available from the first issue in March 1803 up to the end of 1815 and the Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser for the 1840s, early 1850s and early 1880s. This represents a total of nearly 13,000 pages, or roughly 5% of the total. Click here to see the latest statistics.

The website is terrific. It shows you the whole page and shows a transcript of each article on the side. You can enlarge each article individually and turn the whole page into a PDF file or image to be downloaded. A warning – the transcripts have been created using OCR, or Optical Character Recognition. The quality of the printing is highly variable and quite often the characters are mistaken by this automated process and so you see things like “V oTi.cK” instead of “Notice”. We can see by looking at the text that it is “Notice” but computers are not that smart yet.

Another thing to watch out for is the old use of the letter “f” instead of “s” so the word might say “reforted” instead of “resorted”.

There is advanced searching capability which is necessarily dependent on the OCR.

You can add tags and comments to articles, and you can correct the text that was generated automatically. If every one does this when they find an article it will be a great website very quickly, and much easier to search.

If you sign in you can add your own private comments and tags to articles. This is very useful for your own research – you can add tags for the name of your ancestor and the type of article.

The National Library and everyone involved are to be congratulated for getting this project off to such a great start.