For many Australians, stumbling across a convict in your family tree is a joyous occasion; after all, convicts put their blood, sweat and the occasional tear into building this country.
However, we often gloss over the fact that many of these convicts were habitual or opportunistic criminals who found their way down under through a combination of (mis)fortune, and panic amongst the upper classes in England. Despite these dubious beginnings, they have become, as Jack Thompson so rightly stated, ‘Australian Royalty’.
I’ve always found it interesting that we tend to treat our wayward ancestors in a very different light – while a convict is considered a badge of honour, a criminal in the family is an ‘unpurgeable shame’. Yet the ‘bad fruit’ in our family tree shouldn’t be avoided. Their stories are often engrossing, and the records of their events voluminous; history remembers the naughty!
Take Campbell Naim Moir for example. Campbell was born in Hawthorn, Victoria in 1892 to William and Carol Matilda Moir (nee Carmichael). When Campbell was two years old, the family relocated to Sydney. Little is known of his early life, but 1911 was a big year for Moir with many incidents noted on record. In October, he married Aileen Agnes Burke in the Sydney suburb of Auburn. Both Moir and Burke were underage at the time, so Moir used the name of an older brother, Alexander, to ensure the ceremony went ahead.
In November 1911, just one month after getting married, and just two months after his 19th birthday, Moir was charged with the murder of Henry Trevascus, a dealer in precious metals in the Sydney suburb of Glebe.
As the case unfolded, Moir blamed the brutal murder on a ‘Russian’ with whom he had conspired to rob Trevascus. This mysterious other party was never located. It was also suggested the Moir had diminished responsibility due to possessing what was perceived to be a below normal ‘mentality’.
Moir was found guilty and sentenced to death on 30 January 1912, although this was commuted to life in prison some months later. His wife received a divorce (decree nisi) in 1916. At this point Moir’s story ends – what became of him is a story for his family to tell.
Consider Naomi Allingham. Born in South London in the autumn of 1892 (not 1890 as she later claimed), Naomi was one of several children belonging to farmers Walter and Grace Allingham.
It is unknown whether it was the opportunity to live in a new land, or the desire of her parents to calm her high spirits, but Naomi immigrated to Australia, arriving in December 1908 to work as a domestic servant.
Times must have been hard for Naomi as she was caught twice stealing from her employer. She ended up doing six months hard labour for the first offence and 12 months on the second.
But things turned around for Naomi not long after that. In 1911, she married Thomas Wong Shun and settled in Canterbury, New South Wales. She likely remained on the straight and narrow following her wedding as her fate after that remains a mystery.
Finding a Campbell or a Naomi in your family tree shouldn’t be thought of as an embarrassment of something to hide. We have a habit of sanctifying our ancestors, when in reality, they were just as flawed and fallible as we are. Perhaps we don’t all go to gaol, but we are the results of our ancestors’ tragedies as much as we are the results of their triumphs.
It is immaterial whether you feel, as Proust did, that ‘the dead annex the living’, and we have a familial obligation to record and remember them regardless of their indiscretions, or whether you feel that acknowledging the villains in your ancestry is just part of telling your own story – remember, ‘bad fruit’ makes for the sweetest jam.
Ancestry’s Brad Argent manages many projects in his role as International Senior Programming Director, but the best part of his job is helping people to discover their own stories.
This article originally appeared Baby Boomer Magazine.