Who told you

Our family legend stated that my grandfather, Francis Albert Stacey, was the 12th child of 12 children born to Peter and Ellen Stacey. Peter and Ellen had finally acquired their very own property out near Baringhup behind Mount Tarrengower in central Victoria when Peter was tragically killed in a ploughing accident leaving Ellen to raise 12 children on her own. The family would chuckle about how the 11th child was called Albert Francis Stacey, who I knew as Uncle Bert, and it seemed that, after 11 children, inspiration was wearing thin when the 12th came along therefore just switch the forenames around so my grandfather became Francis Albert.

Such is the stuff of family legends, in this case, mine, and remained so for over forty years for me. In the small town of Maldon where I was born and raised most families in the town had similar legends that were a synopsis of their family history. These were handed down through the generations like Moses tablets from the Mount, accepted without question. These legends were also mutually shared amongst many of the other families in town which added to the sense of community belonging and comfortable security that came with living in a small town such as this. You belonged here, you had a shared history that was generally accepted without judgement.

I was no different and accepted the legend as it was but in my forties, with my two sons growing up, I felt a need to flesh out more of the family history that I could hand on to them. In particular where did Peter Stacey come from? I knew a little about Ellen from my aunt Coral who remembered her from childhood as having even then a rich Irish brogue and it was generally assumed Ellen had migrated from county Limerick in Ireland, but did she? And Peter, where did he come from? And how did they meet up, and where? I expressed my interest in researching the family tree to Uncle Des Farley when I was on a visit to Maldon. Des wasn’t really my uncle, he was really a cousin to my Dad being the son of Ida, one of Peter and Ellen’s daughters but during my childhood it was polite for children to call any older people who were not my immediate family uncle or aunt as if they were related. In our small town more often than not they were some sort of relation anyway, albeit distant. Des quite happily encouraged me to do some digging because as I still remember him saying, curiously, “things aren’t necessarily as they seem”. He wouldn’t offer any further elaboration at that time despite all my urgings.

Well I love a good mystery and Des’ comment had made this a personal one which really whetted my appetite. Personal computers and the internet were still in their very infancy at that time so I turned to the NSW State Library and their microfiche records. I spent a number of studious afternoons poring through these records and managed to view all of the birth certificates for the first 10 children. The tenth, a girl, however presented a new piece of information, a new picture, in that her mother is listed as Ellen Cosgrove, Ellen’s maiden name, her father was unknown, unidentified, and certainly not the Peter Stacey on the other nine births. Poor Ellen was not so lonely in her widowhood apparently.

I could however find no trace of either Albert Francis or Francis Albert through the NSW Records. I had to resort to writing to the Victorian Registrar, with a fee, to obtain the birth certificate of Francis Albert, born 1891, at least. I received a certified copy of the page from the original handwritten schedule of births recorded for an Albert Francis born in 1885 to Ellen Stacey, father unknown. This was six years before my grandfathers birth date and presumably my “Uncle Bert” as I knew him, the 11th child. I immediately rang the Victorian Registrar’s office to complain that they had not sent me the one I was most interested in, Francis Albert, but the woman politely informed me that this was the closest they could find to my request.

Now my interest was well and truly piqued with the veracity of the family legend under threat.

I returned to the library to dig deeper. I tried the marriage certificates to at least confirm that I had the right spellings of my grandparents names. And there it was, under the “Parents” column, was “Fathers name unknown, Charlotte Stacey”. Now I knew what Des had meant by “things aren’t necessarily as they seem”. Charlotte was Ellen’s second daughter therefore Francis Albert wasn’t Ellen’s 12th son but rather her grandson. The family legend was out by a whole generation! I remember Auntie Charlotte Merlo when I was a child and have a photo of her. Nobody hinted to me that she was actually my great-grandmother.

I rang my father who was living in Maldon at the time to tell him of the outstanding news about his heritage. In his inimitable way he laughed uproariously and added comments like “the old devils keeping that secret”. I hope it didn’t influence it but he died peacefully in his sleep a week or so later. When I went to Maldon for his funeral I met up with a close cousin of mine, Jill, and told her the amazing news. Her completely unexpected response was simply “Who told you?“. It then dawned on me that everybody in the town probably knew but the immediate family of Francis Albert, an even bigger shock.

I recently tried again to locate the birth certificate of Francis Albert and eventually found it but under the name “Albert Francis” born on the right date at the Royal Womens Hospital in Carlton, not Maldon. Oh the shame that it must have been at the time, an unmarried mother of 17 that had to be taken to Melbourne for the birth. At some point it was obviously changed to Francis Albert to avoid confusion with his elder “brother” as they were all living together under Ellen’s roof at the time. On the birth certificate the mother’s name is “Charlotte Ann Crosgriff”. So there it was, confirmation that the family legend was destroyed! The Irish brogue played particular tricks with the spelling of Ellen’s maiden name, Cosgrove. Similarly on the birth records of Ellen’s children that I viewed Ellen’s maiden name is spelled variously as:

  • Cosgrave
  • Crosgrave
  • Crosgriff
  • Cosgraff
  • Crossglass
  • Crosgress

Amusingly, on Albert Francis’ birth certificate, in the column headed Informant, signature, description, address was written “Ellen Stacey”, “Da Mother“, “Parkins Reef, Maldon”, a very literal rendering of Ellen’s Irish brogue description written by the registrar as the handwriting is consistent across the page. I suspect Ellen could not write which was probably not unusual for a girl from County Limerick in Ireland in those days. Here is a copy of this section of the entry, what do you think?

P.S. Read my earlier tribute to the Francis Albert I knew and loved: click here

P.P.S A correction from Jill to my comment about Ellen Cosgrove’s education and ability to write. Ellen was well-educated and was a teacher for part of her life. We have to just put it down to mis-interpretation of the Irish brogue in a spoken transmission of details to the registrar.

1 Comment

  1. Interesting read. Strange things in family history. My younger sister has dug up a few including a coroner’s report on my great grandfather. Drunk and fell in a frozen creek

    Sent from my iPhone

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