Sunday, December 9, 2012

Who Am I?

 Well, my name is Malcolm Thomas Alfred Smith, as this is what I looked like the day before I turned 40. Since then, I have acquired a few grey hairs, some wrinkles, and a pair of spectacles.
I was born on 6th May 1949 in Sydney, N.S.W., the first of two sons to Sydney George Smith and Margaret Clare Smith née Dennis. However, I have spent most of my life in Brisbane, Queensland.
      According to accepted definition, a "nerd" is someone combining high intellectual development with low development of the social skills. At school, I was the class nerd, before the term was even invented. Moving on to the University of Queensland, I gained a B.Sc. in zoology then, for my M.Sc. thesis, performed groundbreaking research into the behaviour of koalas. It is my sole claim to academic fame, so I have written about it in another blog.
      How matters would have turned out if I had been able to follow my chosen career is anyone's guess. Alas, only one in 20 zoology graduates ended up with a placing, and I was one of the other 19. So, in 1978, while waiting for a real job to come along, I decided to sit for the public service exam, and found myself in the Department of Veterans' Affairs.
     That took care of the next 30 years. By the time I received a voluntary redundancy in 2008, I was acting as an advocate for the department before the Administrative Appeals Tribunal - a pretend barrister in front of a pretend court. When I had been recording the scratches and squabbles of koalas, that was one thing which never entered my mind!
    Although zoology was neither my first, nor my only, love, I did keep up with it to some extent. I was a member of the now defunct International Society for Cryptozoology, and I wrote a book on the subject, Bunyips and Bigfoots.
     Also, safely ensconced in a government job, I found myself free to use my annual leave to travel the world - to 83 different countries, as far afield as Greenland, Madagascar, and Easter Island (twice). I have walked among gorillas, hunted with pygmies, and stood, barefoot and shivering, in the Yukon rapt in gaze at the northern lights. I have been places millionaires never visit.
      Then, in 2000, everything changed. To the complete surprise of everyone who knew me, I got married - to Esther Philippi, a pastor's daughter 8 years my junior, born and bred in New Guinea - and lived happily ever after.
       Life has not turned out as I planned it - whose does? - but it has turned out well. I now live in retirement, with leisure, affluence, health, memories, and someone I love. In this life, a man is blessed if he can achieve any combination of the above.
Surely goodness and mercy have followed me all the days of my life,
And I expect to dwell in the house of the LORD forever.
      I have a very wide range of interests, and over the coming months and years, will endeavour to share them with you in a wide range of blogs, which will be listed below.

29 going on 30

      HUMOUR  This pretty much speaks for itself.

      CRYPTOZOOLOGY This involves research into animals not yet officially recognized by science. Initially, I shall be translating foreign articles, but later will move onto actual sightings in Australia.
(There is an article about me on another cryptozoological website here.)

      ANOMALIES UFOs, apparitions, the paranormal, and much more. Essentially, this covers all manner of things which don't fit into the scientific paradigm.

    REPAT RACKET. The book I wrote on the workings of Veterans' Affairs legislation has now been put on the web.

    STRANGE BUT TRUE. Quirky stories which I come across, and which just beg to be preserved and shared.

    RIVERINA GIRL. These are the stories by mother told me of growing up on a farm in the years 1909 - 1930.

    A ZOOLOGIST LOOKS AT SCIENCE FICTION. In which I explain how science fiction writers' ignorance of zoology affects their work.

    MISCELLANEOUS Anything that does not fit into the other blogs: history, science, religion, politics, literature, languge - you name it; there will be something for everybody.

A Skeleton in the Family Closet

     It doesn't do for an Australian to dig around the roots of his family tree if he is afraid of what might be unearthed.
     When my paternal grandparents, H. F. Smith and Amelia Skelson were married, the bride's father was recorded as Samuel Skelson, miller. Since the wedding took place in 1890, the assumption might be that, like my maternal great-grandparents, they arrived during the great migration boom in the middle of the nineteenth century. But assumptions can be - well - presumptuous. It turned out that my grandmother never actually knew her father, as she was the daughter of his (relative) old age, and she was still only a baby when he died.
     Samuel Skelson was born in Loughborough, Leicestershire in England in 1816, and in 1839 married Elizabeth Robson (b 1814) at St Margaret's Church, Leicestershire. Their daughter, Mary Ann was born the following year. He was a Protestant, a stocking maker by trade, and able to read and write.
     Then, in 1841, he and his 19-year-old accomplice, Joseph Hurst were brought up before the Leicestershire Quarter Sessions and found guilty of highway robbery, with the theft of a 5 shilling pocket book and pen knife. Sentence: 15 years' transportation.
     Fifteen years for stealing five shillings! The law was tough in those days. Even 100 years ago, you would still go straight to gaol for crimes which would most likely lead to being "bound over" these days. Perhaps we have gone too far in the opposite direction. But let's apply a bit of perspective. The classic pay for a soldier used to be "a shilling a day". Five shillings used to buy more than 50c does today. But, in any case, it was highway robbery. Assailing people on the Queen's highway and demanding money with menaces is not a mere peccadillo, no matter how slight the pickings. However, it does illustrate something which is still true today: crime is a mug's game - in economic terms, a high risk, low yield venture. Not long ago it was reported that only one in six house break-ins in Brisbane were solved. This, I'll agree, is pretty tough on the victims. But look at it from the point of view of the thief: he has one chance in six of being caught every time he does a "job" - and anything he gets must be "fenced" at a fraction of its real price. He'd be better off getting a proper job.
     But to return to the story: after the chaos of the First Fleet, transportation was normally restricted to repeat offenders. British justice operated a two-strikes-and-you're-out policy; first offence: you went to gaol at home, second offence: you joined the great colonial empire-building program on an involuntary basis. In this case, Mr Hurst had received his first strike when he stole a pork pie. Great-grandfather Skelson had already notched up a month for a misdemeanour, another month for assault, and two or three fines for other assaults. It is a telling record. Stealing a pocket book might have been an act of desperation, but assault? He was clearly on the road to a life of petty crime, if he hadn't already reached the destination.
     On 6 April, 1841 he departed from Sheerness on the Layton II, along with other 249 involuntary colonisers. Past Tenerife, and around the Cape of Good Hope they sailed, arriving at Van Diemen's Land on 6 December, 1841. The ship's surgeon recorded his height as 5ft 5½ inches, and his character as "good". In a double tragedy, his little daughter, born the previous year, passed away the same year of his conviction. It was also effectively the end of the Skelson marriage; husband and wife never saw each other again. Elizabeth remained in England, neither widow, mother, nor maid, until her early death in 1854 - two lives ruined by a thoughtless deed.
     The prison system in Van Diemen's Land, and in Australia in general, was brutal, but also efficient and fair. As Coultman Smith (no relation) pointed out in Shadow Over Tasmania, it formed one of the world's great criminal rehabilitation programs. If you bucked the system, you went down - to the whipping post, the chain gang, the outer hells of Port Arthur and Macquarie Harbour, and finally the gallows. But if you behaved yourself, you went up - to lighter work, ticket of leave (ie parole), early release, and finally a chance to either return home or (more likely) to start a new life in a new land far away from the slums and evil influences that originally led you there.
     Sam Skelson obviously decided on the second course, because on 3 November 1849 ie just over halfway through his sentence, he was granted ticket of leave. He could now seek work, or start his own business, in the colony, under certain restrictions. And on  28 August 1852, with four years of his sentence still to run, he was recommended for a conditional pardon.
     Then, on 25 February 1853, he applied for permission to marry another convict, one Mary Donavan of the ship Maria. However, no more is heard of her, so we can deduce what happened next. It was quite common in those days to obtain a "geographic divorce" ie not tell anybody that you were still legally married to someone else on the other side of the world. However, when it came to seeking permission through official channels, the powers that be almost certainly looked up their documentation, and found that he was recorded as being married. Without any evidence of his wife's death, they would have had no option but to decline the request.
       1855 found him in Sydney. As this was the height of the gold rush, no doubt he decided that was the best place to go, even if he declined to join the rush himself. Also, by then he must have been notified about the death of his wife, because in 1856 he remarried.
     Ann ("Annie") Lownds was 13 years younger than Sam, having been born at Pitterton, Cheshire on 2 October 1829. In 1854 she had arrived in Sydney aboard the Plantaganet with her husband, Edward Prosser (b 1830) and their two children, Maryanne (b 1849) and George (b 22 December 1850). Then disaster struck. The following year, her husband died, leaving her widowed and stranded in a strange country with two very small children.
     The very next year, she and Samuel Skelson were married. There were obvious advantages on both sides. The widow now had a breadwinner, and a father for her two children. The rehabilitated convict, pushing middle age, and with life passing him by, now had a young wife and a ready-made family. They went on to add two daughters of their own: Eliza ("Beth") on 19 February 1861 and Amelia on 5 November 1867.
     Then, on Friday 28 August 1868, the Sydney Morning Herald carried the following item:
SUDDEN DEATH. - An inquest was held on Thursday, this instant, at the residence of Mr. P. Bale, Cornwall St., before Mr. Alfred Lardner, J. P., coroner, and a jury of twelve, touching the case of the death of one Samuel Skelson, who had expired suddenly the day previous. The finding, as reported in the Clarence Examiner, is as follows: - John Govett Smith deposed: He was a legally skilled medical practitioner residing at Grafton; he knew the deceased, but he had not been under his medical treatment, though he had supplied him with a box or two of ... pills; he was sent for to see the deceased today, who he was informed had dropped dead; upon his arrival at the deceased's residence, he found life extinct; the circles of the body quite warm and resilient, and lividity of the countenance; from the evidence he had heard, and the appearance of the body, he could be of no opinion as to the cause of death. Mrs. Bale stated that she shent for Dr. Croft yesterday, at the request of Mrs. Skelson, but not being at home, Dr. Smith was summoned, he at once attended, but deceased had expired before he had reached the place. Ann Skelson deposed that her husband told her that when consulting Dr. Purdle, some time back, he (Dr. Purdle) had informed him that he thought his (Skelson's) heart was touched but with care, he might live for years, but that deceased should not undertake hard work, or any heavy lifting, nor had he done any work for that day. Dr. Smith said that the latter evidence went only to show that deceased was troubled with disease of the heart. The jury, without retiring, found - "That the deceased, Samuel Skelson, had died from natural causes, probably heart disease."
     He was only 52 years old, Amelia just 9½ months. And for the second time, Great-grandmother Ann found herself a widow with young children. Fortunately, her son, George was almost a man, and was probably already earning a living. She appears to have taken in washing, because she is described as a laundress in 1871, when she gave evidence at a trial. Finally, after weathering 41 years of widowhood, and almost attaining her 80th birthday, she passed away on 19 July 1909.
     So, what does it mean to find a convict in the family? Not much. For some it is a blemish on their escutcheon; others regard it with a species of pride, as something linking them more closely to the country's history. Perhaps I am in the second boat, or I would not have published this post for the world to see. But ultimately, both pride of ancestry and shame of ancestry are conceits, for you are neither a better nor worse person for either.
     My thanks are extended to my cousins, Nev Robertson and Christine Downie, who provided this information. (Christine also has forebears who arrived on convict ships, but they were administrators.)