Family ghosts

EVERYONE involved in family history knows the feeling when you come up against a brick wall because records either do not exist or are just wrong but in some cases, like the one described here, is caused by deliberate obfuscation (let's say avoidance of acknowledging the truth) and this leads to all sorts of red herrings.

My cousins and I don't know our grandfather, not because he died before we were born but because our mutual grandmother, and subsequently her children, our parents, refused to talk about him. What we do know about him, the folklore, is seriously intriguing and it is this story we'd like to share in the hope that someone who reads this can fill in some holes. What follows is a combination of probable facts from sleuthing the various records available based on knowledge and the family folklore and conjecture based on those same stories.

The scene is set in the early part of the 20th century in the bustling country town of Cooma. The players are a young girl of 14 years of age and a "dashing gentleman" who is of an age between 17 and about 35.

The young girl, Violet Caldwell, lives on a holding in the country outside Cooma and comes from a large family with 14 siblings; she is the fourth eldest of the family. She is an attractive girl, developing into a beautiful young woman.

She catches the eye of this dashing gentleman either when he visits her farm or when she is working in the town (most likely) possibly as a "chamber maid" at age 12 in a hotel/guest house in Berridale.

There is an attraction and, in the latter part of 1910, intimacy leading to pregnancy. Now this obviously causes issue as she is but 14 years of age at the time and her family is "outraged" that this has taken place.

Her child is born in Cooma when she is 15-years-old. One can only surmise what happened within the family in the early part of 1911 but we are led to believe that, sometime in the latter months of 1911 or during 1912, the family had the gentleman charged with the crime of having a sexual relationship with a minor and he was arraigned in court in Cooma to answer that charge. Given the dates involved, it is probable that the family were not aware she was pregnant until early 1911.

It seems that, according to folklore, under examination, Violet declared that "I misled him into believing that I was 16-years-of-age at the time. It is not his fault." or similar words. The gentleman apparently entered no plea nor made any statement that we are aware of at the hearing. Nor at any time did he apparently acknowledge paternity although from what we understand, he did not "dispute being misled" so in all probability he was the father.

The result was that the case was dismissed.

Family outrage overloaded at this and the child was taken from the mother by the family and fostered with relatives in a different part of the Cooma area. What happened to Violet is unknown but she is believed to have been shunned by her family from that time on.

Different descriptions of the "dashing gentleman" abound within the family but he is generally accepted as being of "influence" (or perhaps it was his family name instead) in the community. Descriptions range from:

- A person, not yet of the age of 18 years, who is desirous of becoming a police officer and so must be of "unsullied" character to be accepted into the force;

- An officer of the law serving in Cooma;

- A bank manager or a senior member of a bank in the town.

Then apparently during 1913 or 1914, the dashing gentleman moves or is transferred to Sydney, possibly in the Marrickville area. It is possible that either his family or his employer moved him to Sydney to remove him from the scene of the "scandal".

However, during the intervening period, Violet must have maintained some communication with the gentleman because she was aware that he had moved to Sydney and, in the middle of 1914, she followed him there.

It is also obvious that she knew where he could be contacted because sometime late in that year, at the age of 18, she met with him, "a one night stand" according to my mother, and once again fell pregnant.

In her diary in the next few weeks, since destroyed to remove "incriminating evidence" she records "Oh, Ray, I waited for you under our tree for ages but you never came." She gave birth to her second child in the latter part of 1915 in Marrickville, Sydney.

We know for certain that she worked as a nanny for a family in Sydney looking after several children from about 1916 and that, when the wife died, she married the widower in 1917 to whom she bore several more children.

Her second child was also fostered but this time close by with friends and did not re-join her mother until about the age of six, so roughly 1921-22. It was not until 1922 that she was aware that they had a full blood older sibling. The remainder of Violet's life is well documented.

We also know that, one day in, we think, 1917 while walking along a street in Cooma or in a town near Cooma, her first child was told by an uncle "Look, there goes your father." When asked "Can't we go and talk to him?" was told "No, he is too important and won't want to know you."

So at some stage between 1914 and 1917, the dashing gentleman returned to the Cooma area so it seems as if his trip to Sydney was transitory. Perhaps he did go to Police College for a year or two and was then transferred back home or perhaps the "community" had lost interest and he just came back, no one knows. As both Violet's two children to this man are now long dead, the trail has gone irrevocably cold.

And so the tale stops there but the questions remain:

Who was this dashing gentleman? Where did he live? Where did he meet Violet, was she a "servant" in his house? Where did he go when he came to Sydney? When and why did he return home?

These are just some of the many questions we would like answered but, most notably, "Who was this dashing gentleman who is our grandfather?" We hope someone out there can give us clues to the answer.

If you have any information that would be helpful, please contact the Managing Editor of the Cooma-Monaro Express on (02) 6452 1066 or email chris.reeves@fairfaxmedia.com.au

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