My start line was solely a 10-minute stroll from the place I reside within the leafy suburb of Camberwell: the home of my great-grandfather, a 10-roomed, double-storey Victorian property named “Eelundie”, commissioned in 1884 when Will, as he was identified, was 30.
It’s nonetheless standing regally, framed by intricate cast-iron lacework made at a foundry in Edinburgh, a becoming standing image for a person identified to his friends as a “great grafter”.
Emigrating from Scotland, Will turned a business traveller, a so-called “knight of the highway”, venturing by rail and horse and buggy so far as Western Australia, north Queensland and Tasmania, promoting tea and different necessities.
To his employer, fellow Scot James Service, head of probably the most revered mercantile companies in Australia, my great-grandfather was ‘Ten Ton’ Williams on account of the huge volumes he shifted.
Success as a salesman supplied the funds to purchase Eelundie, set on a double allotment in one of many new “land growth” subdivisions, far faraway from the ills of the internal metropolis.
As soon as established, and solely then, did he ask permission to wed his sweetheart, Gertrude Adams, whose father was a pillar of the Primitive Methodist Church and an avowed teetotaller.
Will was 32 after they married; collectively they made Eelundie their haven – an idyllic white-picket paradise to lift six youngsters (a seventh died at 20 days).
With a prodigious work ethic and a household to assist (his spouse’s sister and their father additionally lived with them), Will was unstinting. “He by no means spared himself the place enterprise was to be carried out,” his employers later famous.
A treasured photograph reveals him setting off on considered one of his journeys: he at all times took a leather-based suitcase for his garments and a Gladstone bag stuffed with samples; he would don a greatcoat buttoned to the collar, and put on a Homburg as popularised by the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII), however for added heat he slung a inexperienced tartan rug over his shoulder that will change into a household heirloom.
When Will’s son, my grandfather Roy, was wounded on the Battle of Passchendaele in 1917, he was evacuated to England. He returned residence at warfare’s finish with a 20-year-old English bride to reside together with his dad and mom at Eelundie, the place quickly a 3rd era started.
In 1922 my mom was born beneath the identical roof. She by no means knew her grandfather however instructed me Will had proven unfailing kindness to her younger mom so removed from her residence.
The final hyperlink with our Scottish homeland was severed when Will died, aged 66.
For a lot of the final century, Shetland remained nearly legendary to us. With out names, addresses or pictures there was no solution to join the 2 worlds.
Our Shetland story may need ended there, however my spouse and I made a decision to take a bucket-list cruise from Bergen to London within the northern summer time of 2019. On Day 10 we have been scheduled to cease in Lerwick.
This prodigal Shetlander hoped to be taught extra concerning the isles the place the roots of the Williamson and Pole clans are deeply planted.
Days earlier than I left Australia my cousin, historian Dr Katti Williams, supplied a important lead. She found that our great-great-grandmother, Janet Pole Williamson, was buried within the Knab Street Cemetery.
There have been two addresses for the household: No. 2 Thatch Lane, the place Janet lived with husband James, a draper-tailor, in 1851, and No. 1 Pilot Lane in 1866, the 12 months Janet died.
Two skilled guides I attempted to have interaction have been absolutely booked however referred me to the Shetland Household Historical past Society.
Whereas crusing by means of Norwegian waters I made contact with their chairwoman, Susan Cooper.
We solely had a window of 4 hours earlier than the Viking Sea sailed. May the society assist me find my ancestor’s grave and the 2 addresses in The Lanes of Lerwick?
Susan’s response was overwhelming.
On Saturday July 27, in wonderful sunshine, Elizabeth Angus, a SFHS stalwart, greeted us beneath the ‘Welcome to Shetland’ signal on the high of Victoria Pier.
From the primary glimpse of Bressay Lighthouse, shimmering white within the early solar, to the stone homes that rise out of Lerwick harbour, I had a deepening sense of coming “residence”.
Elizabeth took us the brief distance to the 2 addresses we had supplied: each in steep, slim lanes which might be a part of the material of Lerwick.
Separately we squeezed alongside Pilot Lane and climbed to the highest of what was Thatch Lane, now known as Again Charlotte Road, in search of the home by which Will was born.
The buildings that line the lanes have been conserved however within the 1850s and ’60s, with lots of of occupants crammed into the identical quarters, residing situations have been grim.
An image was rising. Eelundie, with its sun-drenched orchard and a verdant backyard stuffed with unique crops Will gathered on his travels to the Outback and tropics, was the antithesis of all this.
Elizabeth walked us up the hill to the previous cemetery.
I requested her: “Have you learnt the place my great-great-grandmother is buried?”
“Oh, sure,” she replied reassuringly in a delicate, lilting voice.
As she pushed open the gate I realised how lucky we have been. Within the time we had, we’d by no means have discovered the grave with out help.
Elizabeth took us straight to Janet’s remaining resting place, shaded by a tree on a grassy slope going through the ocean; the gravestone propped up by a picket body to cease it crumbling.
As I touched the weathered stone I felt an overwhelming surge of emotion: I used to be, to my data, the primary Australian descendant in 153 years to face on this floor.
The phrases “Janet Pole Williamson” have been faintly discernible, however the the rest of the transcription was illegible. But Elizabeth had painstakingly transcribed all the textual content:
“Erected by JAMES WILLIAMSON in reminiscence of his dearly beloved spouse and 4 youngsters JANET POLE died 2 Octr 1866 aged 53 years ANN ELDER died eight Septr 1855 aged 9 years BRUCE POLE died 6 Septr 1852 aged 1 12 months & 9 months Additionally two toddler sons These beautiful flowers right here withered lies has gone to bloom in paradise”
4 of Will’s seven siblings died prematurely. They have been buried with their mom. I by no means knew this.
Again at Elizabeth’s residence she handed over a file, a kind of momentous reveals you see within the TV collection Who Do You Assume You Are?
Jasmine Moncrieff, the SFHS’ researcher, had diligently woven collectively the lives of the Pole-Williamson clans, reaching again generations to the 1600s.
To know the identities of every of the Williamson youngsters and their lineage was a revelation – however one other secret was unlocked that day.
Janet had been considered one of eight Pole youngsters born in Shetland, three of whom emigrated to Australia and New Zealand. Two of her brothers – Will’s uncles – have been in enterprise in Melbourne.
Out of the blue one other dimension was added, one other path to discover.
Steve Foley was editor of The Sunday Age from 1999 to 2002. This text initially appeared in Coontin Kin, the quarterly journal of the Shetland Household Historical past Society.