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


Tuncurry Afforestation Camp

I’ve been researching the great-uncle of a client. We started off with a notice in the NSW Police Gazette that he had been arrested for stealing money from the Government Savings Bank. A Sydney Morning Herald report of the trial at the Sydney Quarter Sessions showed that he had worked for the bank for 17 years and was sentenced to two years hard labour in Goulburn Gaol ‘to be made an example of’ (Sydney Morning Herald, 22 Aug 1925, p.12).

For more information I needed a trip out to State Records NSW at Kingswood.

The Goulburn Gaol Entrance Book [7/13506] is an enormous volume requiring three pillows to support it. The Entrance Book gives:

  • Entrance date
  • Entrance number
  • Name
  • Gaol Number
  • When, where and by whom committed
  • Offence
  • Sentence
  • Where born (with date of birth in this case)
  • Ship and Year if born out of the colonies (it’s an old book)
  • Religion
  • Trade
  • Age
  • Height in feet and inches
  • Colour of hair and eyes
  • Education
  • Remarks, which appeared to indicate whether this was a first imprisonment
  • How and when disposed.

Our former bank employee was admitted to the prison on 10 September, along with some other prisoners. He’d been a bank manager, aged 36, with brown hair and blue eyes. He was disposed ‘To Tuncurry’ on 4 November 1925.

Tuncurry? I hadn’t realised there was a gaol at Tuncurry.

It turns out that Tuncurry hosted the first ‘Afforestation Camp’ in New South Wales. Tuncurry Afforestation Camp was a 6,000 acre property where prisoners were provided with ‘a modified form of prison life and the opportunity to acquire skills which could be used on release’. It makes sense – he was never going to be a bank manager again.

There are a number of volumes generated by the camp in its history from 1913 to 1938. The Entrance book shows some of the same information as the Goulburn book, without the physical description or birth date, and the final column shows that he was disposed ‘On license’ on Christmas Eve 1926. I imagine this was an early release for good behaviour, since his two years wasn’t up yet.

Entrance book [Tuncurry Afforestation Camp] 1913-1937, [5/1617]
Entrance book [Tuncurry Afforestation Camp] 1913-1937, [5/1617]

I had high hopes for the Visitors Book [5/1620] but I guess Tuncurry is a long way for family members to travel. Visitors weren’t as common as they are now. Few of the pages were actually used and the visitors were usually chaplains and surgeons, although there was a visit from the Governor of New South Wales and his entourage during my bank manager’s inprisonment. What a day that must have been!

Visitors book [Tuncurry Afforestation Camp] 1913-1938 [5/1620]

I would love to know how this ex-bank manager got on after his year of planting trees. I do, however, know what happened to the prison camp:

Sydney Morning Herald Tue 29 March 1938, p.8
Sydney Morning Herald Tue 29 March 1938, p.8


Government Gazettes and Police Gazettes

Government Gazettes and Police Gazettes are an enormously rich source of information for family historians. They can be useful for filling in some of the detail about the lives of our ancestors, and in many cases can solve mysteries.

NSW Government Gazettes

Government gazettes contained all the administrative detail that affected the lives of ordinary citizens going about their daily lives – such as laws and regulations, licenses, land auctions and sales, unclaimed mail, and much, much more. Records of convict assignments and absconding may appear nowhere else but here. Sailors who deserted their ships are listed, as are government employees. Court notices of probate and bankruptcies, livestock brands, and petitions.

Your ancestor should be in a government gazette if he or she:

  • leased, purchased, forfeited land
  • worked for the government
  • tendered for public works
  • died
  • went bankrupt or insolvent
  • had unclaimed mail
  • was a convict
  • was assigned a convict
  • had a livestock brand
  • had a license to run a pub, sell liquor, cut timber
  • signed a petition

Notices of this type were published in the local colonial newspaper until a regular government publication was established:

  • New South Wales – 1832
  • Tasmania – 1825
  • Victoria – 1843 (Port Phillip)
  • Queensland – 1859
  • South Australia – 1839
  • Western Australia – 1836
  • Northern Territory – 1927
  • Commonwealth – 1901

All are still published today, although mostly online rather than printed, and with much less of interest to family historians.

Police gazettes are where the juicy stuff was going on. They were published weekly and distributed to police stations for the information of the local constabulary in order to help them with their work – describing offenders, listing licensees, and so on. Later gazettes in the early-to-mid twentieth century contain lists of known offenders with photographs, for the information of police who may come across them.

In many States publication ceased in the 1980s, as methods of electronic distribution of information became available. Some States publish them to this day, but access is still restricted.

The contents of police gazettes vary slightly by state, but they contain most of the following:

  • Warrants for arrest and details of crimes
  • Arrests, convictions, discharged prisoners
  • Property stolen and recovered
  • Stolen cattle and horses, including brands
  • Escaped prisoners, ship’s deserters
  • Missing friends
  • Deaths reported to police
  • Police appointments, instructions, lists
  • Magistrates, Justices of the Peace
  • Licensed sellers of liquor, wine and tobacco
Police Gazettes were published in the following years:
  • New South Wales – 1862-1982
  • Tasmania – 1861-1933
  • Victoria – 1853-1994
  • Queensland – 1864-1982
  • South Australia – 1862-present
  • Western Australia – 1876-present (restricted)
  • Northern Territory – 1900-present (restricted)
  • Commonwealth – 1 January 1901-present?

It is important to look for your ancestor in other colonies/states, as people travelled over the borders as easily as we do today, particularly if they didn’t want to be found.

Photo of NSW Government Gazettes from the 1850s taken by the author at the Society of Australian Genealogists headquarters in Kent Street, Sydney.

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.

Five essential websites for NSW genealogy

Today I want to discuss websites that I find to be essential for researching family history in New South Wales. Genealogy has come a very long way in the last few years, with so many government repositories and others putting indexes, and even images of the actual records, online. Here are the websites that I use most often.

1. NSW Registry of Births Deaths and Marriages Historical Index Search is a necessary first step for anyone starting on their family history. Starting with the people you know – your parents and their parents, you can then start putting the meat on the bones – the hard evidence of birth, death, and marriage registrations. The index allows searching for births from 1788 to 1906 by name and/or parents’ names; deaths from 1788 to 1976 by name or parents’ names; and marriages from 1788 to 1956 by either or both parties’ names. The upper search limit increases each year by one year. Once an entry is found the certificate can be ordered and paid for online. Current cost for a certificate is $25.00.

2. NSW State Records was previously names the Archives Office of NSW. Their indexes online has many useful indexes including some censuses; Colonial Secretary Correspondence; Convicts; Court, Police and Prison records such as civil and criminal cases, divorces, gaol photographs, police service records, and some early probate records; Deceased Estate files of the Stamp Duties Office; Education and Child Welfare; Immigration and Shipping; Indigenous Australians; Insolvencies; Land records and Naturalization. Additional records and series are added to as indexing progresses. The Convict and Immigration indexes are essential resources for finding out how your ancestor arrived in Australia. Some indexes are held on the websites of other organisations.

3. Society of Australian Genealogists is based in Sydney and is a marvelous resource for Australian research and NSW research in particular. Their research guides are enormously helpful – factual and very informative. Online databases include Convicts’ Tickets of Leave, Electoral districts for Sydney Streets, Soldiers and Marines from 1787 to 1830, and NSW Ships Musters 1816-1825. The catalogue shows what resources are available when you visit the library and is being added to all the time.

4. State Library of NSW has many resources that are also available in other repositories such as State Records NSW. I always check their catalogue to see if it is worthwhile to visit for records on microfilm or microfiche, both Australian and from the UK. They also have some records for other states. Mitchell Library and the William Dixson Library in particular specialise in Australian and New Zealand books and manuscripts. The State Library also has a vast collection of maps and plans, pictures, photographs and newspapers.

5. NSW Department of Lands is not an immediately obvious source for family history, and it does allow some limited property searches here. What I use it for most often is its Historical Parish Maps, which can be viewed in small sections from here. It may be useful before doing a map search to find the correct parish using the search at the Geographical Names Board. All the existing parish maps that have been superceded by more recent versions have been digitised and put online. Towns are included to the street level, and portions of land have the names of the original purchaser. Hours can be spent looking at these maps. CDs of the maps are also available from the Department.

6. I know I said there would be five websites, but I think the State Records NSW website must be mentioned again apart from its online indexes. This is the place to find out whether the records you want actually exist and have been archived. As the progressive indexing of their holding continues more and more records can be found by searching in Archives Investigator, their catalogue search facility. For example, probate files can be found by searching for the name and the word “death” as keywords (and using “All Words” not “Exact Phrase”). Their Archives in Brief series are very useful guides to the records they hold and are available online or in hardcopy in State Records Reading Rooms.

These are the NSW sites that I use most often in my research for myself and others. I would be very interested to hear from others if they disagree with anything on my list, or have others they would like to share.

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