Third Annual Great Genealogy Poetry Challenge to honour my father: The Trains by Judith Wright

Geniaus has brought to my attention, the Third Annual Great Genealogy Poetry Challenge initiated by Bill West. Bill has challenged genealogists world-wide to source a poem or music which is relevant to their family’s history as follows:

1. Find a poem by a local poet, famous or obscure, from the region one of your ancestors lived in. It can be about an historical event, a legend, a person, or even about some place (like a river)or a local animal. It can even be a poem you or one of your ancestors have written! Or if you prefer, post the lyrics of a song or a link to a video of someone performing the song.

2. Post the poem or song to your blog (remembering to cite the source where you found it.)

3. Tell us how the subject of the poem or song relates to your ancestor’s home or life.

My immediate thought was how much the song Danny Boy, my father’s favourite, bridged my Scottish and Irish ancestry. But I really wanted to find something more unusual so I turned to the bookshelves and my collection of high school poetry books. I found several that tempted me and related to various aspects of family history such as Old House or Bullocky by Judith Wright or The Teams by Henry Lawson (for my Gavin ancestor who drove bullock teams). Men in Green by David Campbell has meaning for me in relation to the history of war in Papua New Guinea, where I once lived, but was too recent.  I laughed out loud once more at On the Queensland Railway Lines evoking memories of my Melvin, McSherry and Kunkel families.

Negative number: 73715 State Library of Queensland, copyright expired. Trainee soldiers at Roma Street Station Brisbane waiting to embark on a train to Caloundra Camp during World War II 1940

But then I was stopped in my tracks by Judith Wright’s poem The Trains which relates to the railway bringing guns to northern Australia during the War in the Pacific. Throughout World War II, my father was a number-taker with Queensland Railways, a protected occupation as men with railway expertise were required on the home front to ensure the efficient movement of men, armoury and supplies. My father was one of the unsung, unacknowledged men who ensured this was achieved. He worked in the goods yard at Roma Street station nearly all his life and his war service became simply part of his duties. His day-to-day responsibilities were to ensure the goods wagons were loaded in the correct order in terms of offloading and delivery and to ensure the safe distribution of freight across the wagons. With heavy armament, guns and weaponry, the importance of this is evident. All this while working long hours in a goods yard with trains all around: highly dangerous day-to-day. He also told me a few years before he died that he had supervised Italian internees loading freight at one of Brisbane’s other shunting yards during the War: the Italians liked to take the early shift, work like navvies and get the job done before the heat of the day. The reference to orchards is also, for me, a nod to his German-born great-grandfather, George Kunkel with his fruit orchards at Murphys Creek.

This poem is for my father, to recognise the service to his country that he, and no doubt his colleagues, never received.

The Trains by Judith Wright (from my Year 11 poetry book The Poet’s World published by Heinemann, 1964)

Tunnelling through the night, the trains pass

in a splendour of power, with a sound like thunder

shaking the orchards, waking

the young from a dream, scattering like glass

the old men’s sleep; laying

a black trail over the still bloom of the orchards.

The trains go north with guns.
Strange primitive piece of flesh, the heart laid quiet

hearing their cry pierce through its thin-walled cave

recalls the forgotten tiger,

and leaps awake in its old panic riot;

and how shall mind be sober,

since blood’s red thread binds us fast in history?

Tiger, you walk through all our past and future,

Troubling the children’s sleep; laying

A reeking trail across our dreams of orchards.

Racing on iron errands, the trains go by,

and over the white acres of our orchards

hurl their wild summoning cry, their animal cry…

the trains go north with guns.

Personalising electoral roll searches: surprises found and caution needed

Shelley over at Twigs of Yore blog has recently posted about Ancestry’s expanded Australian electoral rolls. Her points made me sit up and think, because frankly I’ve not bothered to look for the people for whom I “know” the details (including myself). This has been a bit silly given I’ve posted about the great uses of electoral rolls in relation to the street where I grew up here and here, though for those posts I was using Findmypast and World Vital Records.

We do tend to think that our ancestors’ electoral details are correct…even if we know we might not be so attentive ourselves. Why do we expect something different from our ancestors? The joy of looking at the microfilms of the original Queensland rolls, for example, is that they are annotated when someone’s residence is challenged, or they move to another electorate or die.

Personalising my search revealed some interesting anomalies likely to cause future descendants and family historians to scratch their hands in puzzlement.

Example 1:

My parents-in-law appear in rural Victoria in 1949, rural NSW in 1954 then reappear in 1980 in Rockhampton Queensland. In another 50 or 100 years will anyone know where those missing years were spent?

Even if they know the family were in Papua New Guinea, they won’t find them in the Genealogical index to Australians and other expatriates in Papua New Guinea 1888-1975 because I’ve been unable to find any reference there, even though I know there were BDM notices in the papers. Which reminds me: I want to suggest to the Trove people that the Post Courier newspaper be digitised given just how many Australians had links there.

Nor will they know that my mother-in-law was a teacher almost all her life, because on the early rolls her occupation is shown as “home duties” and in the 1980 roll she was a teacher’s aide (being then largely in retirement).

Example 2:

My father lived on the same block of land all his life, but soon after I was born the land was sub-divided and another house built. The electoral rolls continue to show my parents at my grandparents’ address more than five years after they’d moved into their own home.

My father’s occupation throughout his entire presence on the electoral rolls remains the same. While he remained with the Railways all his life, his actual job changed. Descendants in years to come will have no idea what he really did, or that his occupation (numbertaker, not undertaker) was actually quite hazardous.

Have you ever thought to change your occupation if your address remains unchanged? Would the Electoral Office even modify it if you asked?

Example 3:

My own presence on the roll, like that of my husband and in-laws is delayed by living in Papua New Guinea for a number of years. If descendants don’t get my birth or marriage certificate they are likely to think I’m much younger than I am…perhaps not a bad thing J

My husband’s bland “admin officer” occupation camouflages his real skills and work experience: much depends on what mind-set we’re in when we fill out the form. Do you descendants a favour, and give a precise title.

As with my mother-in-law, my occupation reflects a particular point of my life and disguises entirely that I was in paid employment most of my adult life. However, that might be remedied on later rolls because we’ve moved around a bit. I wonder what I put down when we’d just moved to Darwin? I just might have to visit the Darwin Electoral Office to look at the online rolls.

Perhaps these findings will give you food for thought too, and make you, and me, be a little less confident about some of the details we find on the electoral rolls, especially if they contradict other sources. This is one case where we should be looking to the future as well as the past… and yet another good reason for writing our family stories. Thanks Shelley for triggering off this train of thought!