Unfinished business

Many years ago, I published a short story called Lessons in Genealogy that drew partly on my father’s and my experience of researching our family’s Irish connections. The story was about the elusiveness of the past and its refusal to give up its secrets through traditional documentary avenues. In some ways, it was an argument against empiricism.

Family history is always unfinished business. Dad and I started researching the Davison line in the mid nineteen-eighties with a view to answering some questions about his grandfather, John Sinclair Davison.

Apart from the inherent interest in him as our forebear, he was also the key to the family’s Irish and supposed Catholic heritage. Given that it was a common enough practice in Irish migrant communities for people to ‘turn’, I was interested to know which side of the sectarian divide the family fell on back in Ireland. In particular, I was interested to learn whether the Davison family (a common Protestant settler surname in the north of England and Ireland) had a Catholic heritage that pre-dated the marriage of John Sinclair Davison’s second son (my Grandfather, John Francis Davison), to Irene Margaret Fay at St Patricks’ Cathedral, Ballarat in 1923.

Pat, Frank and Kevin Davison

John Patrick, Francis Gerald and Kevin Leo Davison

Before starting the research, I had somehow picked up a romanticised tale of three Catholic brothers chartering a ship from Ireland and heading out to Australia in the 1880s. I don’t know where it came from, but the story had an immediate appeal, not least because the three brothers motif was replicated in the next two generations. The story had become for me something of an unquestioned imaginative, if not historical, truth.

Imaginative appeal aside, there is no basis to it.

Davison family headstone

The Davison Family headstone in Portadown, Co Armagh

John Sinclair Davison, though, carries a more interesting story of his own that poses as many questions as it answers and throws many of my assumptions about our family into doubt. He is elusive to say the least. There is no firm record of either his arrival in Australia or his departure from it and no certainty about his actual identity. The person who most closely fits his historical profile was dead four years before his appearance in Australia.

The family comes from Ardress House, near Portadown in the Protestant stronghold of Loughall, county Armagh, Northern Ireland, but John Sinclair Davison appears to have come from nowhere and to have vanished into thin air.

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Gaps in the records

Our research was time consuming and often frustrating despite the pleasures of a shared pursuit. We started with a degree of seriousness in 1985 and Dad (John Patrick Davison) was still in correspondence with Ireland when he passed away on 1 September 1998, less than twelve months before my own visit to Portadown.

Starting with what we knew, we worked through all the necessary searches and surveys struggling to find a way in to what proved to be a resistant and unyielding past. Dad was the more dogged and determinedly methodical researcher. He had more time on his hands but I think, also, there was something in his nature that suited him to the task.

He had the patience and attention to detail that I lacked and there were times when he kept worrying away at a gap or seeming inconsistency in the records long after I had abandoned it and moved on. It was the same perseverance that had set us apart all those years ago working on bikes and later, cars, late into the nights in his garage in Margaretta Street.

We had been led to believe that John Sinclair Davison had been a doctor. While it proved to be at least partially true, I can’t say  where the information came from but assume it was from the birth certificate of my grandfather, John Francis Davison.

Over the years, Dad and I made several visits, separately and together to the LaTrobe and Genealogical Society libraries in Melbourne, and to the cavernous warehouse that is the Public Records Office in Laverton. We searched the Births, Deaths and Marriages registries, Shipping Registers and newspaper archives. We wrote countless letters to historical societies, shire clerks, medical boards and parish priests here and in Ireland to find some detail about John Sinclair Davison’s arrival and movements in Australia.

There were plenty of references to Davisons, but little to indicate which of them may have been the man we were looking for.

In mid 1986, two pieces of information came to light that opened a small way in. In June, we heard from the Australian Medical Association that, while there was never a John Sinclair Davison practicing as a doctor in Victoria, there was a James Davison registered with the Medical Board of Victoria on March 6, 1885. He was listed as a Licentiate of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland and his address was given as ‘Tatura”. He disappeared from the register in 1894.

Tatura Herald Notice
Tatura Herald

 

The following month, we heard from the Shire of Rodney about a book entitled “Tatura and the Shire of Rodney” that made passing reference to Dr J Davison, “a smart young Irishman” who commenced practice at Tatura in July 1884 and married the postmistress, Miss Friedlieb. A search of the newspaper archives quickly delivered notices and reports of Dr Davison’s impressive testimonials from eminent medical men in Ireland and his winning the hearts and minds of the people of Tatura as both a skilful doctor and President of the local cricket club.

 

Tatura Herald Article 1884

Tatura Herald, August 1 1884

 

Tatura Herald Sept 12 1884
Tatura Herald Sept 12 1884

Further research revealed that Doctor J Davison continued to practice in Tatura until July 1886 and that he did, in fact, marry the postmistress Miss Marie Friedlieb on 4 July, 1885 at the Church of England in Shepparton.

Interestingly, Dr Davison lists his name on the marriage certificate as John whereas it was a Dr James Davison of Tatura who had registered with the Medical Board of Victoria four months earlier. He lists his birthplace as County Armagh, Ireland and parents’ names as James Davison (Solicitor) and Lydia Sinclair.

Despite the discrepancy in the names, it appeared we had moved closer to a reliable, documented trail of our forebear’s personal history. As it turned out, the information raised more questions than it answered.

Which doctor?

We contacted the Royal College of Physicians, Dublin, expecting the discrepancy to be resolved and the pieces to fall into place. It wasn’t until April 1988 that they informed us that they had no record of Dr James Davison ever going to Australia.

In the same letter, they rather cryptically relayed the following from the General Medical Council in London:

“However, another doctor of the same name did emigrate to Victoria, Australia around 1880/81 but his name was erased from the Register in Aug 1881 following advice of his death.”

Needless to say, we were more than interested in this ‘other doctor of the same name’, especially since the advice of his death pre-dated our own Dr Davison’s setting up practice in Tatura in 1884. Initial requests to the General Medical Council in London for further information proved unfruitful until we pointed out the anomaly we were trying to unravel.

In early 1989, the General Medical Council eventually confirmed the erasure of Dr Davison’s name from the register in 1881 due to notification of his death and indicated that there was no further detail in his file, apart from the one piece of information that proved vital to our research: the address that was given at the time of the notification of his death.

It was Ardress House, Loughgall, Co Armagh

General Medical Council Register entry
Extract from The Medical Register 1881

We now had not one, but three possible Dr Davisons: a James who had died in 1881, a James who was registered with the Medical Board of Victoria in 1884, and a John Sinclair Davison who had practiced in Tatura and married the postmistress in 1885.

The link, of course, was the address in Ireland, an address that took us to the heartland of Irish Protestantism and sat more than comfortably with the fact that Dr Davison had married Marie Friedlieb in the Shepparton Church of England. That Marie Friedlieb died an abandoned wife and divorcee in Perth in 1931 and was buried in the Catholic cemetery, Karakatta, following a full requiem Mass at St Mary’s cathedral celebrated by the Archbishop of Perth, only complicated matters further.

If the key to Dr Davison lay in Ireland, it seemed the family’s Catholic heritage may have come through the maternal line and not from Ireland at all. It wasn’t until December 1993, some five years later, that we pursued the issue further and made contact with the Davisons of Ardress House.

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