Mystery Monday: Hidden Clues in Discarded Documents

Family History involves a great deal of detective work which is both enjoyable and frustrating.

One tends to examine documents for the tiniest details and then put them to one side or, if you are really serious about your family research, file them away in the relevant family file.  Every so often they are pulled out to examine again and a real gem that hasn’t been noted previously may emerge.

Auckland Libraries have the most amazing Digital Library which includes library subscriptions to sites that I intend to personally subscribe to just as soon as I win lotto.  The websites that I use most often in the Digital Library are Ancestry and Findmypast but there are many others to be enjoyed.

In my search for Richard George Collins’ immigration to New Zealand circa 1880, several digital databases have provided the evidence I need to back up my hunches.

Long ago I downloaded a passenger list from Findmypast which I thought could possibly be “my” Richard:

Although the age was correct there were a couple of problems. Richard was never known as “Richard Collins” - from babyhood he had used his second name, George, as his given name.

The other problem was that the ship sailed a week after George’s wedding day and no wife was listed on the passenger list although it was clear from other records that she was in New Zealand at the end of that year.

So I filed away the passenger list because there was no conclusive proof that Richard Collins (with no second name recorded) travelling 3rd class from Plymouth England to Sydney Australia on the Chimborazo in January 1880 was my Richard George Collins.  Sigh.

Sometime later I thought it might be a good plan to see if there was anything about my man in Papers Past.  This website has digitised New Zealand newspapers covering the years 1839-1945.

My search turned up an article in the Auckland Star on 5 October 1897 with an interesting title – “Railway Disaster, the inquest”.  To my surprise Richard George Collins was a witness to a fatal accident between a train and a horse drawn bus. But it was the evidence of another witness which made my mind race:

Where had I seen the name “Maples” before?  Ah yes, that document that I had tucked away a few years back; the Chimborazo passenger list of 1880.  Just who was that person just above Richard Collins on the list?  It was Alfred Maples, the father of the bystander in the report above and also the uncle of Richard George Collins.  All of a sudden a document which had been a “maybe” suddenly became a “definite”.

Alfred William Maples senior, George’s companion on the Chimborazo was escaping England and deserting his wife in order to start a new life and a new family in Australia.  Young George was travelling with his uncle.

I was surprised to discover, when I went into another database in our Digital Library that the steamer Chimborazo’s voyage had been shorter than I thought it would be.  The British Newspaper Archive  is another site which is accessible free in the library, containing newspapers from 1603 to the present day.

The Chimborazo had a dreadful trip starting out on 08 February and striking a storm on 10 February.  Many newspapers in England, Australia and even New Zealand reported the tragedy that occurred – this account is from the Staffordshire Sentinel on 11 February:

After undergoing a refit she set off on her journey again on 16 February. One can only imagine how much courage it took for the passengers to re-board.

The following is a clip from the wonderfully named “Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate”:

Regardless of its false start, the steamer arrived in Sydney on 04 April having dropped passengers in Melbourne on the way – a total of just 47 days.  Not bad for 1880!

The Auckland Libraries Digital Library gives you lots of different options for “fleshing out” your ancestors without the need for expensive subscriptions.  Why not have a look?


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