Family History as it is Really Done – William George Bowden alias Watson

What irritates me most intensely about family history are things like Ancestry ads and programs like Who Do You Think You Are? that make it all look so quick and easy. As anyone who is serious about tracing their family’s history knows, genealogy is a long, long game.

Over fifty years ago my mother started researching her family. She did it the hard way visiting libraries and archives, sending away for expensive certificates, writing letters to distant relatives and all sorts of historical societies. After she died, I inherited her papers and eventually took up where she left off. I cannot fault her research. Nothing I have now accessible at the click of a mouse has contradicted her basic research, though I have, in some instances, been able to add extra detail through newspaper reports and overseas archival material she had no access to.

Mum’s paternal grandparents were born in Ireland but her mother’s parents were both born in South Australia. William O’Connor, the son of Irish immigrants from Kerry, was born at Thebarton in 1847. His wife, Sarah Ann Watson was born at Robe in 1861. Sarah Ann’s mother was an Englishwoman from Middlesex and her father a Canadian seaman who gave his name as William George Watson and said he was from Montreal.

Despite years of searching, not one of us has been able to locate baptismal records for either Sarah Lancaster or William George Watson. Their marriage registration gives their fathers’ names as William and John respectively but nothing more. Had they married in Victoria, we would have known their mothers’ given and maiden names and their fathers’ occupations, but our forebears never gave a thought to the problems their decisions might give to us family snoops. Sarah Lancaster, an eighteen-year-old servant, arrived in 1859 on the David McIver. We have been unable to find any arrival details for William Watson but as he was a seaman, we have assumed he arrived as crew, but definitely not on the David McIver.

William and Sarah married at Robe on 22 Feb 1861 and a mere nine months later, Sarah Ann Watson was born and her sister, Elizabeth eleven months after that. On 8 Jan 1864 a brother was born and named William George Bowden Watson. The family then moved to Victoria to the area around Casterton with William working on a number of stations in the area as a labourer. Their first child born in Victoria, Ann Lancaster Watson, was born on 17 Sep 1865 at Nangeela Station. Her father registered her birth and while his name was inscribed by the Registrar as William George Boden Watson, William’s signature reads as William George Bowden Watson, the same as his son. The Registrar’s misspelling most likely is a reflection of William’s Canadian accent. William also registered the births of the next three children – John Joseph(1867), Edwin Henry(1879) and Albert Victor(1871) and gave his name on all occasions as William George Bowden Watson. The youngest Watson child, Charlotte Isabel, was born on 11 September 1872 and registered the following month by Sarah Lancaster who gave William’s name simply as William George Watson. The family story was that sometime after 1872 William, taking his eldest son with him, deserted Sarah and sailed for Canada; the ship they were travelling on went down at sea.

Sarah Lancaster (c1841-1925) and her second husband James Colin McLean (c.1832-1915)

On 9 Sep 1881 at Millicent, South Australia, Sarah married a second time to James Colin McLean. She had, by this time, already borne three more children – David on 15 June 1874 at Millicent as well as Jesse (1877) and Mary (1879). Sarah and James’ son James was born in 1882, after their marriage. My mother had collaborated in her research with her cousin Norma O’Connor and they were both puzzled by the fact that Sarah had produced these children so quickly after William’s disappearance and, law abiding women that they were, could not understand how, although she had waited more than seven years after William’s disappearance, she could have married without having applied to the courts to have him declared dead. (Mum had no idea of the disregard for marriage law shown by my father’s Tasmanian forebears and so many others.) The answer came through serendipity (if you can call it that in this instance). In the late 1980s, Norma was researching Wards of the State for someone else and discovered within the index to 19th century Wards the names of five of the Watson children. So once again with old fashioned legwork, she uncovered the story by visits to the archives and trawling through newspapers. The Register entries for each of the children were headed with the statement Father William George Watson committed by the Casterton bench 3/4/73 for 3 months as a vagrant, he appears able to work but will not. Mother eloped.’

More detail was revealed through the newspaper reports.
Hamilton Spectator Wednesday 2 April 1873
Wm George Watson charged with being drunk and disorderly and a vagrant.
Senior-Constable Tatlock informed the Bench that this was not an ordinary case. The prisoner came at seven o’clock on Tuesday evening last, to the police barracks, and when asked what he wanted, stated that he wished to give five children in charge of the police. The senior constable informed him that such a thing would not be done, inasmuch as prisoner was the father of the children, and apparently able-bodied, and the proper person to provide for the children. On being told to go about his business, the prisoner used bad language, and shewed fight, upon which the constable locked him up.
It appeared that the postmaster at Chetwynd had informed Senior-Constable Tatlock, about a fortnight since, that a collection of money, clothes, and provisions, had been made for the prisoner’s wife and children, and that as soon as the prisoner found that they were comfortable, he squatted with them, and stopped as long as there was anything for him to eat. The prisoner’s wife, then finding that she could not get her husband to work, left him and took the youngest child with her. The prisoner marched off to the Casterton police station, leaving six poor young children all huddled together on the road in the rain. Two of them are too young to speak, and the eldest about nine years of age. When the police went in search of the children, they were found housed and well-cared for by a kind-hearted woman – Mrs. Gelding, of Casterton.
The Bench granted a remand, to produce the postmaster of Chetwynd, and the Harrow police, who can prove the prisoner’s vagrant habits.
The sitting magistrates, and some persons in and about the Court, kindly gave the senior-constable the sum of two pounds towards the maintenance of the children, until they can be sent to the Industrial School.
The prisoner, who seemed to be in good bodily condition, and with tidy clothes, was not at all affected, and was then removed to the lock-up.
The court then adjourned.

Hamilton Spectator Saturday 5 April 1873
Wm George Watson was remanded on the last court day, was again brought up today, before Messers Gardner and Sprigg, and having been proved to be a vagrant, he was committed to Portland Gaol of 3 months.
Five of his children were sent to the Industrial School. The youngest child is with the mother over the border.

The five children placed in the Industrial School in were boarded out and licensed to various people, given a basic education and taught industrious habits until they were eighteen years old and considered old enough to fend for themselves.

As Mum and Norma researched the family further a number of stories floated to the surface, most I think are suppositions that, with some people, quickly became fact. One was that James McLean was a lodger at the boarding house Sarah ran, another that William came home to discover Sarah in bed with McLean – though how anyone would know the latter is beyond understanding. If it were true, I doubt that either Sarah or James McLean would have passed this information to any of their children and, as those children never spoke of their time ‘in care’, they are less than likely to have passed on such a story about their mother, given they were nine years of age or younger. At the time of the family break-up Sarah and her children were surviving on charity, something that would not have been needed had she been running a boarding house. Also, in those more judgemental times, if the local community had suspected that Sarah was involved with another man, they possibly would have been less forthcoming with their charity.

The eldest of William and Sarah’s children, Sarah Ann was also taken to South Australia, perhaps because she was old enough to help with the care of the baby, Charlotte Isabel. Sarah Ann lived with Sarah and James McLean in Millicent until she married in 1880. Neither Mum nor Norma could understand a woman deserting her children the way Sarah did but I suspect for Sarah Lancaster it was a case of go or go under. Had she stayed, there would have been more children, no doubt, and deeper poverty. Who knows, perhaps her children would have had far worse lives had she not walked away from them?

They all eventually made and kept in contact with each other and with their mother. All were married in their early twenties with the exception of Edwin who remained a bachelor. James McLean was a witness at the weddings of Elizabeth and Charlotte Isabel. I like to imagine they all had their share of joy as adults. Sarah and James McLean and their children, as well as John, Albert, Edwin and Elizabeth Watson, settled in the south-west of Western Australia in the late 1890s, though not all in the same area. Edwin was fondly remembered by Norma’s father as Uncle Ted Watson; he had stayed a number of times at the O’Connor farm at Valencia Creek, Victoria. There is another family story that at some stage Sarah Lancaster told her children that their father and brother had gone down at sea, even naming the ship. Ted Watson is supposed to have gone to the shipping office to investigate but could not find their names on the passenger list. As with many of these stories, their provenance is doubtful. It is impossible to determine whether they were known before any family researcher started digging and imagining, or if they are subsequent supposition that has been transformed by repetition into fact.

Edwin Henry ‘Ted’ Watson (1869-1960)

Sarah and William’s son, William George Bowden Watson may have been taken to South Australia as well. There is yet another story, this time from the McLean branch of the family, that he ran away as a teenager. He did move from South Australia to Broken Hill, New South Wales around 1884, when he was twenty. In 1890 he married a South Australian girl there, Ellen Bloomfield. He gave all his sons the name Bowden as a middle name. When he died in 1910, Sarah Lancaster was not listed as his mother on his death certificate but an Annie Baker. Various people have surmised that this was William Watson the elder’s mother’s name and many have entered this as fact on their Ancestry trees.

Sarah Ann Watson O’Connor (1861-1939) with her two eldest children Elizabeth and Mary O’Connor. Taken in the mid 1880s at Sale, Victoria.

Sarah Ann Watson married William O’Connor at Millicent in 1880. They moved to Victoria soon after their marriage and in 1886 Sarah Ann managed to have Albert, then aged 15, discharged into her custody from the Macedon Industrial School. Life for the boys at this place was dire – the dormitories were infested with bedbugs, there was no warm water for washing, the diet was mainly mutton and cabbages. The boys worked six days a week, mainly grubbing stumps, clearing, picking up sticks and hoeing. And in the cruel way fate works, in January 1916 Albert joined the AIF and was sent to France. On 3 September 1916 he was taken prisoner and spent the next two years as a Prisoner of War in Germany. He was repatriated in December 1918.

Albert Victor Watson (1871-1932).
A photograph sent to his sister Sarah Ann in 1916.

Sarah Ann had a happy marriage by all accounts. Mum remembers her as a warm woman with a great sense of humour and a love of cats. Mum’s mother said that Sarah Ann had no love of her own mother, Sarah Lancaster, and had said that her father was a lovely man but her step-father, James McLean, was ‘a brute’, whatever that means. It may have more to do with the fact that he was more of a disciplinarian than her own father whom she remembered with the affection of the eleven-year-old girl she was when he went out of their lives. In January 1887, Sarah Ann placed a series of advertizements in the Melbourne newspaper The Age.
William George Boden Watson or his son William. Good news for them at Thomson-street, Sale, or care of Mr. Buzagulo, Bell-street, Coburg.
At this time Sarah Ann and William O’Connor were living at Thompson Street, Sale. Frederick Buzaglo was the Mayor of Coburg; I am unsure if the advertisement refers to him or another member of his family. Both Edwin and Albert Watson had lived in Coburg up until 1884, though not with the Buzaglo family. And once again we hear William’s accent in the way Sarah Ann remembers his name.

In the early 1990s Mum discovered that William George Watson had been admitted to the Ballarat Base Hospital on 7 November 1872 under the name William George Bowden. He had described himself as being from Montreal and had arrived in Australia around 1859. He was suffering from amaurosis, a form of intermittent blindness that was not well understood in the 19th century. It could be fleeting but, less commonly, could eventually result in permanent blindness. William was discharged over a month later on 12 December but re-admitted two days on after a fall down an old mine shaft.

Ballarat Courier 14 Dec 1872 p.2, c3
A telegram was received by the city police yesterday afternoon, requiring them to await the arrival of the Smythes coach in the evening, by which a man would be forwarded for admission to the Hospital. Accordingly, Senior-constable Shine attended at Cobb’s Corner, and conveyed the injured man thence to the Hospital, where he gave the name of William G Bowden. All that we can learn is that Bowden (who was only recently discharged from the institution, and suffers from partial blindness and slight mental aberration) left town on Thursday to look for a job and when about eight miles from Ballarat, he camped out. During the night he got up to look for some water, when he fell down old shaft 35 feet deep, and received severe bruises to the back and shoulders. Bowden is a single man, thirty-five years of age, and (as stated in the Hospital record) ‘has no home’.

His slight ‘mental aberration’ may have been concussion or some other disorder we know nothing of. The amaurosis may also be the reason he was described in newspaper reports of the family breakup as being of vagrant habits and unwilling to work even though he appeared able-bodied. It appears he told no one of his problem. It must have been terrifying for him.

The last definite sighting we have of William George Bowden Watson is again at the Ballarat Base Hospital where he was admitted on 26 January 1874, again being treated for amaurosis. He was discharged on 2 February, no better. He said he was living at this time at Sailor’s Gully, not far from where he had been when he fell down the mine shaft. It is always possible that he was not living there at all but had chosen the place name as a dry joke of some sort.

While we have no photograph of him, we do have a detailed description from his prison record in 1873. At that time, he said he was 40 years old and from Montreal, Canada and that he had arrived in Australia on the David McIver in 1859. He was a labourer who could both read and write and his religion was Church of England. He was 5’8” tall, of medium build with a fair complexion but his skin was pock-pitted and he had scars on his right temple and on his forehead. He had blue eyes and brown hair and was bald on the top of his head. And he was tattooed with a man, woman, flag and anchor on his right arm and the name G Bowden on the left. He had a star and anchor on back of his left hand.

The G. Bowden was puzzling. It was suggested that he was tattooed with the name of a friend or perhaps it was his mother’s name but no one could find a Canadian marriage for a John Watson to a woman with the surname Bowden in the 1820s or 1830s, nor a birth in Montreal that we could be sure was him. And no one seemed to realize that seamen often had their own names tattooed so that they could be identified if they drowned.

Over the years, at various stages, Mum, Norma and I have looked at every William or George Bowden or Watson who died in Australia who fitted his age roughly from 1874 up to 1930. I have searched asylum and hospital records in Victoria as well as departing passenger lists (which are not comprehensive) for both surnames, all with no luck. This has been the situation now for twenty years. We had no idea who William George Bowden Watson was nor where he ended up.

About three years ago I had my DNA done and convinced my sisters to do the same. Over the past couple of years, I have noticed a number of matches with us and other Lancaster/Watson descendants to Canadians with connections to a family of Bowdens from Prince Edward Island. The connection wasn’t immediately obvious and I imagined would take a great deal of work to unravel. And with all my other projects, novel writing and publishing, blog posts as well as work and day to day family life taking up my time, I let it slide. About a month ago I decided it was time to sort it out. Some of the matches were quite high, up to 69 cM across four and five segments at the 4th cousin level. A number of these matches had decent publicly published family trees and all were descended from one couple – John Bowden, a baker originally from Stoke Damerel in Devon, and his wife Ann Bold, who had migrated to Prince Edward Island in the mid-1820s.

John and Ann Bowden had a son, George William Bowden, born at Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island on 4 August 1834. He was their third son and the sixth or seventh of their eight or nine children (still working on this one). On 8 August 1858 he married a Flora Beaton who was about three months pregnant. Their daughter Georgina Anne was born the following year on 28 February 1859 at Charlottetown but not baptized until 11 June 1860 at St Paul’s Anglican Church with John Bowden as her sponsor. William (I have little doubt it is the right man) had by this time made his way to South Australia and changed his name to Watson (his brother-in-law’s name coincidentally), possibly leaving Prince Edward Island even before Georgina was born.

DNA connects us strongly to descendants of his siblings and the records fit with what we know of William George Watson. The hints were there from the tattoo on his arm and his third ‘given name’ to his son’s death certificate and perhaps the echo of his place of birth in his youngest child’s name. William GB Watson the younger clearly didn’t tell his wife of his mother Sarah Lancaster but he must have mentioned something he had heard from his father of his family. The Annie Baker mentioned is, I suspect, a combination of William the younger’s grandmother’s name and his grandfather’s occupation. Not proof, not fact, just a heavy hint?

I still don’t know what became of William George Bowden alias Watson. I doubt he was fit to go to sea again; he had been nearly ten years away from the sea when he disappeared. Sudden blindness would be a dangerous thing for a seaman on a sailing ship. Because of his tattoo, I believe his death would be recorded as G Bowden. My suspicion is that he met with a similar accident to his fall down the discarded mine shaft in 1872. The Ballarat area is riddled with them. When I was a child growing up just outside Ballarat, there were occasional reports of mine shafts, described as bottomless, opening up in people’s back yards after heavy rain (and it could certainly rain in Ballarat). Some areas would have been hazardous at night to both the unwary and the blind. Wherever he ended up, despite his failings, I hope he too found peace.

And this is what real family research looks like – over fifty years and three people to uncover only half a story. And a story that is not of descent from royalty and privilege but the struggles, sufferings and survival of ordinary people who are just like us.

©Catherine Anne Merrick.
Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Catherine Anne Merrick and with appropriate and specific direction and links to the original content.

Image of Tall Ship by Greg Swanson from Pixabay
Image of Prince Edward Island by Brigitte Werner from Pixabay
All other photographs, with the exception of that of Charlotte Isabel which is a photocopy, are in the possession of the author.

3 thoughts on “Family History as it is Really Done – William George Bowden alias Watson

    • It was far easier, they weren’t as wedded to paper to prove things and if you put a bit of distance between yourself and your past you could pretty much be who you wanted to be. It was easier, of course, if you weren’t from the ‘respectable’ layers of society. Mum and Norma puzzled for years over how Sarah Lancaster could remarry without a bit of paper saying William was dead. After working on Dad’s tree, I soon realized that many did not even bother waiting seven years but once they were certain the other party wasn’t coming back, they said they were widowed and remarried. The one that amused me most (though probably not amusing to those involved) was my ggg grandfather’s sister. She applied for parish assistance in Tenbury, Worcestershire in 1837 as a widow. The Poor Law wardens investigated and discovered her husband living about ten miles away at Ludlow. The husband had remarried two years earlier and when first approached by the wardens had said he was willing to support both wives provided they would live under the same roof (in his dreams!). He was charged with bigamy but because of his ‘irreproachable character’ was only sentenced to three months. I can understand people losing track of each other in a country as large as Australia, but just over the county border?

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’m not sure how a bigamist can have an irreproachable character. I wonder what his second wife thought about the first, especially when she learned that he wanted them all to live together. I suspect he didn’t have an easy time when he got out of prison.

        Liked by 1 person

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