Posted by on June 25, 2013 in Australia

From Brad Argent, Content Director,

The internet is a great way to get started on your family history, and nothing beats digging up the evidence of your ancestors from the comfort of your own home.  However the past is huge and there is much of it that will never grace the pages of the web.

I’ve been doing family history for about 10 years ­- still an apprentice by most standards – and whilst some branches of my tree have been easy to trace online, others (often the more mysterious ones) have proven more difficult. Enter Robert Keene (Junior), my 2 X Great Grandfather.

Robert died about 60 years before I was born and those who knew him when he was alive are all resting peacefully (or otherwise) on the other side of death.  Collectively we know little about Robert; his marriage and death certificates suggest he was born in a place called Comberton Grange (just south of Nowra, NSW) but no birth record can be found. This is not uncommon as he was born at a time prior to the government recording of Birth, Marriage and Death events (1852 -­ civil registration didn’t occur until 1856).

There was some speculation that Robert Keene was of indigenous extraction. Certain idiosyncratic facial characteristics of his daughter (Annie – the old woman pictured in the photo above) seem to support this story. However, I’ve spent enough time around seasoned genealogists to know that speculation and photographic suggestion are not enough ­- you need record based evidence.  And so, I began to look.

Robert’s parents were Sarah Hall and Robert Keene (Senior) – let’s call him ‘Bob’.  I could assume that they were in the Nowra region in the 1850’s as this is where Robert was born, but I could find little evidence (online) to support their existence at all, let alone their existence at that place, at that point in history.

But as luck would have it, my travels found me down Nowra way at the Shoalhaven Family History Society.  The Society is located in the old school house at Pyree and whilst there I asked if they had any info on the Keene family. One of their volunteers Wayne jumped up, dived into a card catalogue and said “Yeah there’s a record here [on the card] of a Robert Keene mentioned in the Bench Books”.

Bench Books are, broadly speaking, magistrates notes. Often written with some speed and little care for legibility, they are a challenging record to review, but I was fortunate enough a few years ago to gain access to the material out at the State Records of NSW (Kingswood).  The bench books made mention of Bob and there were several references to him as “old white headed Bob”.  His son Robert Keene was also mentioned. Tantalising information but not the smoking gun I was looking for and speculation within the family continued unabated.

Fast forward to June 2013. Once again I found myself down in Nowra attending the Shoalhaven History Fair.  I brought up the subject of Bob with the Shoalhaven Family History Society once again and this time they directed me to the Shoalhaven Historical Society, specifically the genius of Alan Clark.  I had a brief conversation with Alan and told him what little I knew of Bob and the Keenes. Alan said the name was familiar and said he’d look into it for me.  About an hour later Alan drops off a few papers and says something like “Robert (Bob) Keene was very well known in the area at the time and something of a troublemaker”. He smiled and then left me to read the contents of the documents.

In the lead up to the first ever royal visit to Australia in 1868, Bob was invited to a meeting at the Pyree Mutual Improvement Society to debate the best way to spend 5000 pounds that had been allocated to the preparation of a reception for the Duke of Edinburgh. Whilst not necessarily important in itself – these meetings were more for entertainment and the joy of debate rather than to have any real impact on policy in the colony – this particular meeting would become every important when Henry James O’Farrell attempted to assassinate the Duke on March 12, 1868, some weeks after the meeting at Pyree.

According to numerous accounts, Bob – also known as “Gabbling Bob” –  told a newspaperman after the assassination attempt that the meeting at Pyree was run by Fenians (an Irish Republican group who O’Farrell claimed connect to – a claim he later withdrew). Bob went on to claim that an individual at the meeting stated a “person could be found to carry out an assassination!”.  As you can imagine these allegations did not sit well with the residents of Shoalhaven – to be implicated in the unpurgeable shame of bringing harm to the royal family turned everyone against Bob, and with good cause. Refutations abounded, Parliamentary committees were convened. Bob was shamed and seems to have faded from history.

So, rather than any link to the indigenous inhabitants of this country, I now find myself connected to a 19th century ‘story teller’ and social pariah. Whilst my 2 X Great Grandfather’s early life is still shrouded in some mystery, the fascinating details of his father’s “Gabbling Bob” infamy helps explain the silence in the family history. It’s amazing what you can find offline.

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