Loss: Alzheimer’s

What must it feel like to lose yourself? Not just where you left your glasses or the name of a person or place but to gradually forget who and where you are. It might start with those minor irritations like losing your keys but then goes on to see your memories drift away piece by piece. To lose the people and places you know so well even those who you cherish and love the most. This is the beast that is Alzheimer’s, that irreversible brain disorder, that stealthy robber, going unnoticed until it has stripped the person bare.

Alzheimer’s was first identified in 1907 as a form of dementia. My granduncle, Charles Biggs, was committed to Callan Park and his death certificate in 1946 shows Alzheimer’s as his cause of death. My uncle, Stephen Biggs, also suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. Given the part that genetics play in so many diseases it should have been no surprise that my father, Charles Godfrey Biggs developed Alzheimer’s.  

Mum and Dad on their 60th wedding anniversay in 2001

Alzheimer’s is such a subtle disease, I am not sure when my father started to show signs of this disorder. By the time he was in his early seventies he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and was gradually slipping away. For the next twenty years, my father remained a sprightly, able-bodied older gentleman who continued to love and be loved by his wife, Hazel. He would be vague when it came to everyday conversations but at times would make us all laugh and his old self would shine through. He continued to enjoy working in the garden but many other routine tasks and activities were beyond him. By the time he was in his mid 80s he could no longer go for his daily walk unless he had company for fear he would get lost, so rather than his daughter, I became “that young girl who goes for a walk with me”.

My Dad meeting his new born granddaughter, Sarah, in 2005

On 12 June 2006 at the age of ninety, my father suffered a stroke and died shortly after. Those 20 years were a long goodbye, it was a difficult time but one I would not have wanted to miss or discard. He remained to the end a caring and very gentle man, and I smile when I think of him and me being “that young girl”.  

Fortune: How to use tea leaves to tell your fortune

I was only a young child but I clearly remember sitting around the kitchen table covered with a hand-embroidered tea cloth and the remainders of an afternoon tea. The tea set used was our good china and I think it was possibly the end of a Saturday afternoon tea with our Aunty Rose.

Attributed to Enoch Wood Perry
 (American, 1831–1915)

It was one of the few occasions when my mother shared her memories of her mother, my grandmother, Hazel Annie, and being curious about our family even at a young age my ears pricked up and I sat transfixed as Mum explained how she had been shown by her mother how to read the leaves.

It was a simple process, Make a pot of tea with proper tea leaves (no tea bags allowed) and let it steep, pour into a cup ( a china cup and saucer, not a mug) without straining, When finished with just a small amount left in the bottom, swirl the cup counterclockwise. Tip the cup upside down onto the saucer then turn it over and look at the pattern of the tea leaves. The pattern the leaves form will tell your fortune. Unfortunately, I couldn’t work out any patterns in the leaves as a child and have to admit it is a skill I certainly don’t have today. If you would like to try it yourself there are many websites and books as for me I would need the how to read tea leaves for dummies.

There is no doubt in my mind that my mother was just a little bit psychic and with her creamy coffee coloured skin, black hair and exotic looks she would have been a perfect gypsy.  That mother’s skill in knowing your children so well meant we rarely escaped from being found out when we had been up to mischief. Her skills extended further than just her family. She was open hearted offering a shoulder to cry on, a willingness to lend a friendly ear and provide comfort whatever the source of pain. Maybe she was not psychic and able to tell fortunes but those of a naturally skilled counselor.

My Mum, Hazel Edith Biggs (nee Doherty) in her early twenties

So now when I drink my morning cuppa, brewed with boiling water and real leaves I think of my Mum preparing a pot of tea in an age-old ritual that is involved in making the perfect brew. It makes me smile when I think about that chat over a cuppa and how maybe it was not just a friendly gesture but a little bit of magic.

Same Names: Monmouth

This colour wood engraving shows the crew of the American whaleship Monmouth sighting a whale as it sprays from its blowhole. This is the vessel that rescued my ancestors on their voyage to Australia.

I have not been able to find a passenger list for the Meridian, but I do know that my great, great grandfather, Thomas Henderson, his wife Margaret, and their eight children ( the oldest fifteen and the youngest less than two months embarked on Friday, 4 June 1853 on the Meridian for a journey to Australia to start a new life. I have also been contacted by the descendant of another passenger whose ancestors joined them on the same voyage. His name was William Guyton traveling with his wife Sophia, who was about five months pregnant, and their two children.

The voyage on the Meridian was not completed. On Aug. 23, the Meridian’s captain, suspecting an error in his calculations, sailed the ship in the direction of St. Paul’s islands in the far south of the Indian Ocean. Here he believed he would be able to make the necessary navigation corrections; however, the ship encountered a strong gale coming aground on the rocks of Amsterdam Island.

The story of the shipwreck is horrifying but Thomas and his family all survived as did William Guyton and his family including the infant, a girl, who was born on the Meridian shortly before the sinking. The full account of the voyage and shipwreck can be read by clicking here.

An American whaler, the Monmouth, in the charge of Captain Ludlow had not had much luck so far during the whaling season and the Captain decided to try his luck in the waters closer to Australia.  Rather than finding the sought-after whales what they did find was the wreck of the Meridian and 105 survivors. Captain Ludlow was determined to rescue everyone who was stranded there – at a considerable financial sacrifice to himself and his crew since he would be suspending normal operations at the height of the whaling season

All of the survivors were incredibly grateful to Captain Ludlow and the crew of the Monmouth for their rescue. So much so that the Guyton’s named their newly born daughter Florence Monmouth Guyton after their rescue ship.

As for the Hendersons, they too never forgot their rescuers.  They remained forever grateful to their deliverer, Captain Ludlow, and in his memory, a house they owned at 21 Albert Street, (renamed Philip Street) Burwood was named Monmouth. The property was purchased by the family around 1874. Like the Monmouth, it became a place of safety during the upheavals of their lives at this time. Betsy initially took up residence with her sister Janette after the failure of her marriage. Her father also lived there following a financial disaster, insolvency, and the failure of his second marriage

Albert Street, Burwood is in the top left corner and the place were the Hendersons owned the house they called Monmouth.

Without the Monmouth our family story would be very different. It would not surprise me if there were not other children or homes that carried this name in memory of the miraculous rescue. The family home named after the ship sadly no longer exists but we can still celebrate and remember the caring and brave crew who saved our ancestors.

Multiple Weddings: Why remarry?

There are many reasons why my ancestors remarried but the sadest story of multiple marriages belongs to my 3 times great grandfather Daniel Chisholm. His first wife Sarah was a fit young woman of 24 years and pregnant at the time of her marriage to Daniel in 1829. Women in this period saw childbearing as their fate and duty and as was expected she gave birth to eight children during her seventeen year marriage until her death from puerperal fever in 1846.

Left a widower with five surviving children Daniel remarried withing six months. His wife, Ann Bradshaw was 15 years younger than Daniel and 29 years of age at the time of their marriage, She had two children, the second child died when six months old and she died in the same quarter of the year. Her cause of death is unknown.

Once again Daniel remarried within six months to Martha Wilson (possibly a relative of his first wife). When they married in 1850 Daniel was 48 and Martha was twenty years younger. Their marriage lasted 17 years until her death in 1867. Martha had six children, dying following the birth of her last child Milton.

Daniel did not remarry. As well as losing his wives, it appears that only five of his children survived to adulthood. It is difficult to understand such a high mortality rate in this day and age. We have much to be thankful for where modern medicine is concerned. I am also extremely thankful that one of his surviving children was my 2 x great grandfather, Joseph Wilson Chisholm, who established the Chisholm line in New Zealand. Without him I would not be here today!

If you would like to read more about Daniel click here

Power: How much power did my female ancestors have?

They say that knowledge is power, and having read of a woman’s role in society in the 18th Century, I imagined that my female ancestors from this period were most likely illiterate and subsequently had little power. Checking back through the branches of my family tree, the Biggs family line appears to have recognised that women in the family should have basic literacy skills, and in reading further about the wives of farmers in this period, it is clear that they played a significant and essential role.

The Biggs men in the 18th Century were yeoman farmers, owning their land and regarded as upper-middle-class in English society. During this period, yeoman farmers were regarded as patriarchs, controlling the family, owning property. stock and other items of considerable monetary value. All valuables that might have come with a woman into her marriage became the property of the husband, she was restricted to “household” activities and expected to be submissive towards her husband. However, if a farm was to be successful, such as that owned by the Biggs family of Potterne, the wife needed to be a business partner with her husband, directing certain parts of the farm economy with ‘so large a portion of skill, of frugality, cleanliness, industry, and good management . . . that without them the farmer may be materially injured’ (J. C. Loudon, An encyclopaedia of agriculture (sec. edn, London, 1831), p. 1036.) 

In looking for women who would have undertaken similar roles and shared experiences in this period with Biggs women I came across Mary Bacon (1743-1818), an 18th Century farmer’s wife who lived in Hampshire. Her ledger provides information on recipes, cures, farming and account records etc as well as a list of books that provided insight into her reading habits. She had copied sections of loved Bible stories together with religious musings and hymns illustrating how important her religion was in her life. Based on this it would appear that having a wife who was literate would be of enormous value to her husband and family. Unfortunately, this book is no longer readily available and I have only been able to read exerts but I hope to be able to gain access to it in the National Library in Canberra in the not too distant future.

Mary’s ledger shows that for farmers’ wives to do their work effectively, literacy skills would be important. Examining signatures on marriage registers is used by historians as a legitimate means to estimate literacy (Schofields, R S, “Dimensions of Illiteracy in England1750-1850”). The Marriage Act of 1753 required couples to sign the marriage register, so I went back to marriage records to review if my female ancestors could write. While most women in each branch of my family tree were able to write their name by the 19th Century, this was not the case in the 18th Century except for my Biggs family line that shows the women were literate by the mid 18th Century.

Looking for the first female ancestor I could identify as literate I traced back to the daughters of James Biggs and Mary Miel (my 5xgreat grandparents) both of whom were illiterate. However, at the time their three daughters married; Grace married 1770; Ruth married 1781; Jane married 1780; they were able to sign their names . It is Grace’s signature on the marriage register that provides the earliest evidence of literacy among my female ancestors.

Marriage register from Church of England, Potterne, showing signature of Grace Biggs in 1770

An essay by Nicola Verdan ‘…subjects deserving of the highest praise’: farmers’ wives and the farm economy in England.”(https://www.bahs.org.uk/AGHR/ARTICLES/51n1a2.pdf). shows “Women were not narrowly confined to the farmhouse … those sections that ‘belonged’ to the house, and therefore the wife, included the kitchen garden, the dairy, and the farmyard. She would be responsible for pickling, preserving and cooking…, making wine, …. the manufacture of butter and cheeses in the dairy, and finally, rearing of pigs, hens and other poultry in the farmyard… She would have spent much of her day preparing provisions for the kitchen table, not only to feed the family but also any servants and labourers that were housed or fed on the farm.” The essay paints a powerful picture of these women who were the lynchpin of England’s strength and success.

Even more evidence of how highly the Biggs women were regarded is given when looking at the will of Thomas Purnell. He was Ruth’s husband and they had seven children, three sons, the eldest twenty-three and married at the time of his father’s death, and four daughters. It was normal practice for fathers to leave the majority of their estate to their eldest son. In acknowledgement of the love and partnership Ruth and her husband Thomas shared she was made sole executor and main beneficiary of her husband’s estate.

The will of Thomas Purnell, 1805 husband of Ruth (nee Bigg) Purnell

In my eyes, they are not only women of power but of love and commitment and I am so proud to share some of their DNA.

Unusual Sources

Exploring old records, data bases, books and archives is very addictive when it comes to family history. Every once in a while though an unusual source appears to add colour to the story or family line that I might be hunting. The most unusual for me was while I was enjoying a British TV series called Rev. A story about a Church of England priest and his life in an inner city parish in London. The fictional name of the church was “St Saviour in the Marshes” in Hackney, East London. It was in the film credits that I realised that the church was actually St Leonards, Stepney, my ancestors family church (Biggs family line from Henderson to Crosby).

The church as it stands today was built around 1740, replacing an earlier structure.

Church of St Leonards Shoreditch, 1827. ‘Plate 10: Church of St. Leonard, Shoreditch, views of exterior’, in Survey of London: Volume 8, Shoreditch, ed. James Bird (London, 1922), p. 10. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vol8/plate-10 [accessed 21 February 2021].

The first record I have I my ancestors involvement with the church is the marriage of Peter Crosby (4 x great grandfather) to Elizabeth Biggleton (4 x great grandmother) in 1782 at St Leonards, Shoreditch..

Marriage Bonds and Allegations. London, England: London Metropolitan Archives. Surrey Marriage Bonds and Allegations records held by the London Metropolitan Archives

It is then possible to trace the Crosby family through church records, with baptisms, marriages and burials until 1837 when Thomas Henderson married Margaret Crosby and became my immigrant ancestors to Australia.

Not only did I love the TV series but it also showed me the church interior and exterior from all angles. A very unexpected but welcome addition to my knowledge about the lives of my ancestors.

‘Plate 17: Church of St. Leonard, Shoreditch, interior views’, in Survey of London: Volume 8, Shoreditch, ed. James Bird (London, 1922), p. 17. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vol8/plate-17 [accessed 21 February 2021].


When my grandfather, Jack Doherty, met my grandmother, he was an itinerant worker and boarder in her mother’s home in Brisbane around 1913. He dearly loved her but she was separated from her husband, William Shute, who had returned to outback Australia so the relationship was not without problems. When Jack left to find work my grandmother Hazel Edith Shute (nee Chisholm) gave him “a photo in remembrance” of herself dated 2 November 1913.

On the back of the postcard/photo Hazel had written a poem that shows how deeply she had fallen in love with Jack.

Hazel Annie aged 19 years. Photo given to Jack Doherty with verse.
Hazel Annie aged 19 years. Photo given to Jack Doherty with verse about 1915.  Biggs family private collection. Original held by C M McGregor. Digital copy taken by C M McGregor, 2014

Think of me at morn
Think of me at night
Think of me when far away
And never forget to write

Think of me when you are happy
Think of me when you are sad
Think of the girl (Hazel) who dearly loves you
Perhaps the thought will make you glad
Eight little letters make three little words
Forget me not (I love you)

The old old story ever new I have told my love for thee in these lines would tell again how dear thou art to me.

Yours always Hazel

Attempts at reconciling with her husband, William Shute, failed during November and she once again remained in Brisbance while he returned to Outback Queensland.

It appears that Jack returned to celebrate Christmas with Hazel and her family and it was at this reunion that their relationship was cemented and was to become life long. My mother was conceived aound the 20th December and DNA tests have confirmed that Jack Doherty was her father. The life story of Hazel Annie Chisholm can be read by clicking here

In the Kitchen

When I think of home my first thoughts are always of Highgate Street, my childhood home in Bexley.

Our home in Highgate Street in the 1970s

Our house was something like the magical tents from Harry Potter charmed to be larger on the inside than it appears to be on the outside. The most magical part of our house was the kitchen and this was the heart of our home.

The house was built as a timber fellers cottage in the late 1800s and when my parents moved in it needed much work and although it had rooms added and updating done over the years the kitchen always remained roomy and quaint with a ceiling that always seemed to spring a leak when it rained and a sloping floor that was beyond correction but was great for rolling marbles.

No dishwasher in this kitchen … Mum and Dad doing the dishes around 1970

The kitchen accommodated everyone, friends, family, neighbours and those just popping in for a cuppa. As kids it was the centre of our universe, a place to do homework under our mother’s eagle eye, to play board games especially monopoly, for doing jigsaw puzzles on rainy days, for dress fittings for our mother’s creations and to talk, laugh and sometimes cry always knowing that it was a safe and caring place to be.

Most amazingly of all is the food that the kitchen produced. Under my mother’s magic touch it could be a warm nourishing soup to go with the heart to heart talk; a birthday party with all the neighbourhood kids (didn’t matter how many came there was always enough fairy bread, sausage rolls and cupcakes); Friday night take away fish and chips with any of the family that could be there; or a hearty meal appearing out of nowhere for friends that just happened to arrive unannounced at dinner time. But best of all were the wonderful Christmas dinners that will stay in my memory forever.

Christmas dinner in the kitchen about 1980

The big events in our family were celebrated in our home. Mum and Dad’s silver wedding was a big highlight as Mum saw it as a chance to make up for the formal wedding celebrations she missed due to the war. My engagement party was also huge and the guests spilled out from the kitchen to the backyard.

Raising a toast to John and I on our engagement in 1971 with Mum and Dad and John parent’s Bill and Margie in front.

Mum and Dad loved the sunny corner in the kitchen with an easy chair each. Dad to read with fingers in his ears, blocking out the ordered chaos that surrounded him. Mum in a chair beside the phone ready to lend an ear to whoever needed it while knitting away at a jumper or cardigan for whoever was next in line.

Mum with knitting basket and phone close at hand 1990s

When Grandkids arrived they were welcomed into loving arms and played happily in the kitchen, that sloping floor was also great for racing matchbox cars. One of my favourite photos was taken in the kitchen and is of Cameron discussing a newspaper article with his Poppy.

Cameron with his Poppy, Charles Biggs

Favourite Photo

These trigger words from “52 Ancestors” left me in a bit of a quandary as to what photo to choose. Should it be one of my treasured old photos of an ancestor, one of our big family celebrations, or maybe one of my family or friends that I hold dear to my heart.

John William McGregor at Bundeena Beach around 1947

My choice is actually my mother in law’s favourite photo of her son. My husband John thinks the photo was taken on the beach at Bundeena when he was about three or four years old. The reason I know his mother loved this photo is because she took it to an artist to have it made into a larger painting. I have to admit I actually prefer the little black and white photo as he looks more natural.

The other reason I chose this photo is because I can see some similarity with our granddaughter, Lani. I had always thought she was the spitting image of my son in laws family especially his niece, Matilda Potter. After looking at John’s photo I reckon there is a bit of Pappy in her as well …. just hope its not the naughty bit!


One of the joys of investigating family history is the passing down of names through the centuries. It is such a beautiful way to keep the memory of someone who is dearly loved alive as well as giving the bearer a strong family connection to the past.

Naming a child can be difficult. Ross, Gordon, 1873-1946, artist, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Initially I thought such tradition had bypassed my generation. My parents seemed to have chosen names that were popular at that time rather than hold to family traditions. However, it is our second names that we can find our link to our ancestors.

My oldest brother is Colin John, the John is definitely in honour of his grandfather Jack (John) Doherty and it is so lovely to know that Jack my brothers grandson also bears this name.

My grandfather Jack (John) Doherty strolling down the street with my mother, Hazel Edith c 1940s

Thanks to the British Royal family, my sister’s name of Margaret Rose, was also a popular choice for the period. It is in her second name of Rose that the connection is made to a very much loved member of the family (even if it is not biological), our Aunty Rose Margaret.

Aunty Rose

For me, Carolyn Mary, was again a popular choice. Mary is an acknowledgement of the importance of my Pop Doherty’s family in my life. His sister Aunty Mary (Doherty) and her husband Len Porter were very close to my mother Hazel especially following the death of her mother and grandmother. I have no photo of Aunty Mary but only a memory of visits to their home in Beverly Hills.

Finally the youngest in our family, Anthony Roy. While Anthony was and still is a popular name I think it was chosen by mother because of her strong Catholic faith and in particular devotion to St Anthony of Padua. As for the second name of Roy it is in honour of our Uncle Roy (Ernest Roy Biggs) who was killed in action during a bombing raid over Germany. Defnitely a wonderful name to carry through life.

Photo of Uncle Roy (Ernest Roy) Biggs

So if you have a baby in the family to name don’t forget to check out the family tree for inspiration. You are likely to find a meaningful name with a great story behind it.