The Mystery, Lauren Ford

It was simple enough: click on the link, pay the money, and wait for the package to arrive. There was mild suspense: what would the documents reveal? What deep, dark secrets was the government releasing? Would I finally discover that my grandfather was a post-World War II Soviet spy who had generously been given asylum in this distant, exotic, desert land?

One week passed and my suspense waned with the days, but my imagination scuttled under the dull, energy-efficient light of my slapdash dining table desk. I was picturing an awkward, middle-aged, cardigan-wearing government employee slowly foraging through a large X-Files warehouse of boxed files.

Weeks meandered by, and I had almost forgotten about the whole order until a deadline popped up on my screen reminding me to submit my latest poetry drafts to my supervisor. I had nothing more to write; my poetry was merely outlining the mundane, predictable details of my grandfather’s blotchy journey through Europe in the late 40s before suddenly disembarking a boat in Sydney in 1950. There was no depth, conflict, intrigue. Maybe I had to make it all up; it was only poetry, after all.

Now I was torn between fantasy and bureaucratic reality: were they debating whether these files were safe enough to be dispersed into the public netherworld? Or was it simply a matter of my order (which email confirmations and bank debits assured me had been received), sitting somewhere in the midst of a pile on some underpaid employee’s—or worse still, work experience teen’s—cheap Office Works desk tray.

The former was undoubtedly more glamorous, but I had to admit that the latter was a whole lot more realistic. So, I continued to wait, trudging on through the muddy waters of my grandfather’s story and producing substandard poetry about this mysterious, unknown figure.

And then finally, the documents arrived. There were four in total, which confused me somewhat, since I had only ordered two, but I quickly realised they had sent each email twice. It was unromantic, really, to receive the secrets as a set of auto-generated, accidentally duplicated emails.

The first set was uninspiring: his arrival date, boring employment papers, and a mildly thrilling passing reference to him breaching some regulation by not telling the government in a timely enough manner when he married my grandmother. I couldn’t think why this could possibly have been sealed for so long.

The second set began with an official letter stating they were sensitive regarding the security of the Commonwealth. My excitement burned as I wriggled further into my cold, metal, pale green IKEA chair and readied myself for the Great Revelation.

It started harmlessly enough: a letter from my grandfather requesting his naturalisation certificate. And then nothing. Thirty pages of documents about another Romanian-Hungarian with exactly the same name, who had arrived in Sydney 5 months earlier and ended up at the same migrant hostel in Orange, before settling in Queensland. I sighed. This journey through history was taking me backwards.

Rip the Stitches, Jacqueline Bunn

The crowd was all scraps of unfamiliar skin and dark clothing; black dresses and suits circling her in the church foyer. The chatter faded and swelled like an unrelenting tide and Lorraine, pulled to and fro by murmurs of sympathy, let herself be swept away.

What all these people had in common with Sally, Lorraine had no idea. But, she thought, people just show up at funerals. They were like weddings that way – disguised in the right attire and disposition, anyone could consider themselves welcome. Offering their condolences filled attendees with a calming sense of having done their bit, and what’s more, that evening they could turn to their spouse over the dishes and say, ‘Well, darling, I went to so-and-so’s funeral today. It was a lovely service.’ Then their spouse could ask who preached and whether the sermon was any good, and perhaps for a moment or two they both might feel very sad about the idea of death, but eventually they would wipe down the sink and watch some television and forget about it all.

Standing behind the kitchen servery window, a woman with long hair pinned into a perfect bun was explaining to Lorraine how very much her sister would be missed on the morning tea roster. Apparently no one had been quite as good as her at mixing the cordial the way the kids liked it. Incapable of really listening, Lorraine could only wonder at how early poor Susan was going grey. She herself was nearly seventy-two, and only just now starting to gain silver threads around her ears.

Realising how few nods and ‘hmms’ were required for Sue to continue in her reminiscences, Lorraine allowed herself the freedom of gazing through the grubby glass of the door behind her. Outside, the grey November sky was falling down in rivulets, dripping through the shadesail and flooding the lawn.

Not for the first time since her sister’s death, Lorraine found her thoughts taking her back to Papua New Guinea.

In the Papua New Guinean ‘dry season’ it had rained every second day. In the wet season, the downpours became so frequent that twenty-four rainless hours seemed unnatural. Mostly the deluges would arrive in the afternoon, right in time to drench her young sons’ games of tag at the Ukarumpa International School. These didn’t bother her, so long as she got her washing off the line in time. When the rain came in the morning, though, she would wake up cold to the wind and the melancholy patter on the corrugated iron roof. Her husband James would often be long gone, the ghost of a kiss pressed to her cheek as he left to drive to the villages that kept him away from her for days at a time.

Her favourite storms by far, though, would arrive angry in the evenings, coming in clouds that pulled the dark with them, swallowing up the town in starless black until the sky ruptured, dividing, dividing, and dividing again with eerie streaks of white that lit the world for tiny, staggering moments. In the early years, those were the times she had been most thankful that her older sister had joined them on the mission field. The locals were used to such displays – even the expats who had been there a little longer than them (like that irritable American schoolteacher, Judy) weren’t particularly impressed. Only Sally shared her delight. When it rained at night Lorraine would ask James to puff up some popcorn on the stove, or she would make something else special, like vegemite on toast, the salty taste a reminder of home. Then she, her boys, and Sally would sit out in the screened verandah watching the ‘lightning show’ being put on just for them.

Sipping at her mug of weak, church-kitchen tea, Lorraine brought herself back to the present with some exertion.

‘Sue,’ she said, keeping her voice as polite as she could. ‘I’m just going to duck to the ladies, if you don’t mind.’


Natalie had cried. She hadn’t expected to. It wasn’t that Sally wasn’t worth crying for; Natalie just didn’t cry a whole lot.

Standing in the back pew, though, the organ echoing out the melody of ‘When We All Get to Heaven, Heaven,’ she had been swept back to her last morning at school in Hong Kong. Ten years old, walking dry-eyed up the stairs to her classroom, praying to Jesus would he please, please, please let her cry? You couldn’t leave your home and your friends, forever maybe, without crying. It wasn’t right.

As it had turned out she needn’t have worried. Her teacher had given her a scrapbook with photos and farewell messages from the whole class, and Natalie was choking on the sobs before she realised they’d begun. Her best friend, Ling, had drawn flowers around her goodbye note.

‘Niu,’ it said – for that had been her name back then – ‘we’ll always be best friends. I’ll see you again when I’m rich enough to fly to Australia or else in heaven maybe.’

Twelve years later, they hadn’t seen each other since. As the music had faded to a final, hollow note, Natalie thought she might have been crying for Ling as much as Sally. Both of them were gone, were no longer her friends but memories instead, to be enclosed in photo albums and pocketed away until she needed to cry again.

It was after the service, when Natalie was reaching to dab at her eyes with a scrap of paper towel in the bathroom, that the seam under the sleeve of her dress split neatly down to the strap of her bra. It was the only black dress she owned that fit the occasion, and apparently she’d bought it a little too long ago, as it no longer fit her. Hearing the noise as it tore, like the slow undoing of a zipper, she swore under her breath. Remembering immediately that she was in church, she flinched, lamenting the dirty habit that high school had taught her. Closing her eyes, she silently apologised to God and held her breath, hoping that whoever was in the occupied stall behind her hadn’t heard.

She heard a flush, and the lock clicked open.

Natalie watched in the mirror as the occupant of the stall exited behind her, and cringed at God’s sick sense of humour. She recognised the woman, of course, The black gored skirt, the neat court shoes, the fragile skin worn down from its years of devoted service to the Lord – it was the same woman who’d given the eulogy not half an hour ago. This was Sally’s sister, and here she was, caught with a foul mouth and her underarm on display.

‘You wouldn’t happen to have a safety pin, would you?’

It wasn’t the most refined way to introduce herself, Natalie knew, but ‘I’m sorry for your loss’ when your not-so-recently-shaved underarm was making a bid for freedom from your dress didn’t seem appropriate either.

The woman mumbled something about a sewing kit somewhere, reached into her bag and began to rummage. Natalie felt for a moment like she was watching Sally again, digging through her ridiculous knitted bag before scripture class on a Friday morning for her lipstick, her pen, or the bag of lollies she brought along to reward the gremlins for correct answers. She smiled at the memory as the woman pulled a small purple case out from the depths of her handbag. ‘Sally had a Mary Poppins bag too.’

Sally’s sister – Lorraine was it? – studied Natalie. ‘You knew her.’

It was an accusation, Natalie just couldn’t figure out what of.

‘I did, yeah. We taught scripture together. She was a great lady. All the kids loved her.’

Lorraine pulled a needle from the case and began to unravel a small bobbin of black thread. ‘What’s your name?’ She asked, snipping the thread with a pair of nail scissors.


‘I can sew this up for you, Natalie.’


Lorraine’s new acquaintance stood patiently, one arm in her dress, the other slid out as the older woman worked.

Sew it shut, sew it shut. The mantra hummed in Lorraine’s mind as she stitched the cheap cotton together under the fluorescent bathroom light, her hands not quite as steady as she had expected.

Sew it shut – and the slice of the needle seemed to be her only defense against the memories that threatened to gush free and swallow her.

Sew it shut – but it was too late, already she was back in Papua New Guinea, careening past mudslides and over rickety bridges in the backseat of the jeep, tears clogging her throat, clutching a cloth around her son’s finger as the pain dragged him into unconsciousness.

The whole damn thing was pulling open now, coming back no matter how hard she fought it.

They had been on a village trip some six hours drive from Ukarumpa. James was to work with a local translator while Lorraine visited families in the village with Dean and her younger son, Harry. Harry in her arms, she was in the middle of a halting Pidgin conversation with the matriarch of a household, when she heard Dean scream.

A teenager carried him from the courtyard where he had been playing into the thatched room. A crowd of bodies, of men with pierced noses, of women with their bare breasts dangling to their stomachs, gathered outside the door, yelling words so fast that she struggled to comprehend. ‘Pen bilong em han!’ Dutifully, she looked to her son’s hand and saw the blood that dripped from his index finger to the dusty floor. It was mangled, crushed to the bone, torn and bleeding profusely.

‘Maritaman – bilong mi maritaman!’

‘My husband, my husband.’ It was all she could piece together at the time, but before she had even tried to get any further, two men came running from the other side of the village, hauling James along with them. Lorraine pulled off her cardigan and bundled it around Dean’s hand before James could see the injury. He tended to pass out at the sight of blood, and she needed him alert to navigate the hairpin turns down the mountains as they drove.

They made it back to Ukarumpa in the darkest hours of the morning. James carried Dean, floppy and feverish in his arms, from the car to Sally’s door, kicking at it with his boot, bellowing, ‘Sally, wake up! Dean’s done his finger!’

Her sister, the quintessential nurse, was the kind of person that the missionary kids ran to when they grazed their knees and wanted sympathy that their parents wouldn’t give them. Opening her door to Lorraine’s family that night, her purple dressing gown cinched at her waist, she had hustled them quietly inside the moment she realised Dean was hurt.

‘Sally, can you fix it? Can you sew it up?’ Lorraine knew she sounded hysterical, but she needed to know, she needed to be sure that her sister could make this okay.

‘What happened?’ Sally’s voice was measured and kind, and Lorraine felt herself begin to breathe again.

Here, it was James who spoke. ‘Kid stuck his finger in a coffee grinder.’

Lorraine thought she saw a rare flicker of disquiet cross her sister’s face, but it was gone as quick as it came, and soon they had Dean across the road in Sally’s little two-room clinic (the best hospital they had, at that point) and they were ready to operate. Even though she shuddered with every one of her son’s anguished cries, Lorraine watched her sister close his wound from a chair by his bedside, and felt safe. James had taken Harry back to their house; it was just the three of them in the room. With no diesel on hand to turn the generator on, Sally worked in total silence under the flicker of two gas lanterns, squinting at the little hand splayed out in front of her, sewing it up stitch by painful stitch. For that long hour, the sisters could have been in a world entirely their own, wrapped up in the pale blue walls of the clinic, and Lorraine allowed herself to be enveloped in the comfortable familiarity of the moment.

The next morning, though, it was raining.

Sally came over to their house early to check on Dean, and Lorraine realised quickly that something had changed.

‘Now the stitches will have to come out in about three weeks, alright?’ Sally told her. ‘And you’ll have to do it, I’m afraid. I’m booking to fly back home about then.’

‘What – already?’

‘Well, you knew it was going to be soon. Ukarumpa’s just – well, I’m not sure this is where God wants me right now. But don’t worry, you’ll be fine, won’t you Lor?’

And she had been, Lorraine thought as she stitched. She and her family had called that place home for fifteen years without Sally. But when they returned she had folded up the memories and stored them away from her sister, cramming them into boxes in the garage. She’d sewn her past up neatly and got on with her life, but now, in the ladies bathroom of St Mark’s Anglican Church, Sally had torn everything open again.


Natalie gingerly lifted her arm to inspect Lorraine’s handiwork in the mirror. It wasn’t as good as new, but it would get her through the rest of the afternoon tea without embarrassment. ‘Thanks,’ she said.

Lorraine nodded, but was quiet, her hands trembling slightly as she put away her needle. A pregnant pause had Natalie wondering if she should just go ahead and leave the bathroom when the older woman turned to her and asked in an odd voice, ‘Did my sister – that is – did Sally ever talk to you about her missionary work?’

Surprised, she replied that yes, she had often heard Sally talk about Papua New Guinea. ‘We used to debate the differences between Papua New Guinean churches, Chinese churches, and Australian churches. Actually – I think she was the one who convinced me leave the Cantonese service for the evening one I’m at now! I remember her saying something about how the church was a delicious soup with all different flavours and ingredients blended together, and that I couldn’t always hide myself away in a safe little clump of noodles, I should get out there and make the soup as tasty as I could.’

Natalie smiled at the memory of the conversation. ‘She could be a real nurse sometimes. Great with the kids, a little pushy with adults.’

Lorraine softened, and looked ready to agree, but then before she could a careful but firm knock sounded on the bathroom door. ‘Excuse me – is Lorraine in there? It’s James.’

Lorraine’s voice was steady. ‘I’m sorry love, I’m coming.’

Leaving the safety of the bathroom behind them, Natalie and Lorraine ventured back into the fray of mourners. After a cordial farewell, both women pocketed away the memory of each other, but perhaps, they decided, not quite as deep as usual.


Download a pdf of ‘Rip the Stitches’

To Live in the Memory, Lynda A. Calder

‘It is better to live in the memory of two or three than to be mourned & forgotten by all the world. Remembrance is a golden chain time tries to break.’

— Recorded in the back of Illuminated Scripture Text Book
belonging to Ada Bladwell (nee Mitchell)


At the front of a sandstone Gothic church in Newtown named for St Stephen, the first Martyr of Christianity, is an ornately carved wooden Roll of Honour: ‘To the glory of God and the perpetual memory of the following men who made the supreme sacrifice at the call of duty in the Great War.’ It is framed by two aging flags, the Australian flag on the left and the Union Jack on the right. Almost in the centre of this Roll, on a shiny brass plate, is the name ‘H. Mitchell’. The parishioners of St Stephens are researching the names on this Roll of Honour and, as the centenary of ANZAC approaches, I can imagine many churches, villages and families are also researching their links to the Great War. I am no different. I have been sent the spreadsheet of their research and next to the name ‘H. Mitchell’ it reads ‘Can’t find him’. Only a week before, I would have said the same because I had no idea that H. Mitchell was a member of my family tree. Learning the identity of H. Mitchell was a journey of surprise discoveries and remembrance of forgotten relatives.

In 2005, for the commemoration of the ninetieth anniversary of ANZAC, I was writing a short, one-hundred word piece, for a local newspaper’s competition. I used my father’s maternal grandfather’s war diary as source material. Albert Joseph Hancock had been a Sapper in the 5th and 59th Broadgauge Railway Operating Company. His diary was a small, thin, black affair, with yellowing pages filled with pencil scrawl recording the daily weather, ‘Fritz’ dropping bombs nearby from their ‘Taubes’, some close calls with shrapnel and shells, the ‘big push’ (my research at the time revealed this was in Ypres, since Joseph never elaborated on locations), a visit to the King of Belgium’s country residence and, towards the end, whether or not he had a ‘good night’ or not with the continual bombardment. On the last two pages there are double entries for certain days. My Dad always maintained that this showed signs of shell-shock, especially since he had been ‘gassed’. This was the reason Joseph had given his family for being discharged ‘medically unfit’. In 2005 I discovered the Australian War Memorial’s online war service records and learnt that he was admitted to the Syphilis ward. He had never been ‘gassed’. No one knew.

What an ignominious link to the ‘war to end all wars’ and, at that time, our family’s only known link to World War One. No other family member had served in the armed forces until World War Two when my paternal grandfather, Alfred Frederick Mitchell, enlisted into the Army and then transferred to the Air Force.

Grandpa died in 1987 and all his papers were bundled into a box then stowed and forgotten under Mum and Dad’s house. In the intervening ten years my Dad has been through these papers. Why it took Dad so long to go through them I doubt even he knows, but it was probably prompted by Mum’s ‘clean under the house drive’ to farm out all the boxes of stuff belonging to my brother and me — both of us married and no longer living at home. The clutter under there had become a nest for cockroaches and mice and a potential fire hazard.

Among Grandpa’s papers, Dad found a folder of tantalising letters, which had belonged to my great grandfather’s cousin: Ada May Mitchell. There were two sets of letters: one from Servicemen at the end of World War 1, sending thanks to Ada and ‘The Girls of the St Stephen’s Patriotic Club Newtown’, and the other set were personal letters from Henry Lachlan Cyrus Hailey, who signs off as ‘Lock’. All are written by hand, some in ink, some in pencil, and all on fragile sheets of paper. Most of the paper is plain and faintly lined, but a letter from Private Cecil Rhodes MM comes on stationery from The Salvation Army, especially prepared for servicemen ‘With the Australian Expeditionary Forces’. Some thank you notes come from Newtown local boys. Some are short, expressing heartfelt thanks for care packages that finally arrived, but others go for a few pages describing how the packages were appreciated and how they were looking forward to coming home. Lock’s letters, however, are crammed between the lines of ruled note paper and onto note cards recounting his war exploits, injuries, and giving replies to Ada’s many letters.

Dad handed these letters over to me, the family historian and an author. ‘You should write their stories, if you have nothing else to do.’

I identified all the servicemen using the Australian War Memorial’s Record Search. Some had received the Military Medal, many had been punished for turning up to muster late. The citations for the Military Medals are harrowing such as this one for Private Atal Norman Spencer Elphinston.

On the 3rd October, 1918, during the attack on the BEAUREVOIR SYSTEM, near the village of BEAUREVOIR, East of PERONNE, when his Platoon was held up by a strong enemy machine gun post, Private ELPHINSTONE worked round the position, bombed it, jumped in and killed five of the enemy and took 1 Sergeant Major and 10 other Ranks prisoners. This enabled the platoon to come up into line with the remainder of the advancing Company. Later under extremely heavy machine gun fire this soldier worked untiringly for three hours bringing in wounded from in front on our position when the Battalion had withdrawn to a defensive position.

It makes me wonder what extraordinary feats were worthy of the more prestigious Victorian Cross.

And then there was Lock. Why were there so many letters back and forth between Ada and this man? Had they been in love? Yet Ada remained unmarried. Had Lock been killed in action, then? No, his service record showed a safe return to Australia. Was this a forgotten relative?

Henry Lachlan Cyrus Hailey signs off from his first few letters as ‘Your old friend Lock’. The first letter is dated 16th March 1917 and Lock is sending a ‘short note’ to let Ada know his change of address because he is ‘going back to France for another go’. Lock Hailey was in ‘C’ company of the 20th Infantry Battalion. After enlisting in August of 1915, he found himself in Alexandria and then on the Gallipoli Peninsula on 11th November 1915. His Battalion was involved with the effective retreat from Gallipoli. On 19th and 20th December troops moved from Gallipoli to Mudros maintaining the appearance of normality to fool the enemy into thinking the trenches continued at full strength. There was to be no lights and no smoking. Orders were given in undertones and the word ‘retire’ could not be used. Socks were drawn over boots, bayonets were removed and rifles carried ‘on the trail or over the shoulder’ but ‘not sloped’ so as not to show over the trench tops. Mess tins and other equipment had to be arranged so there was ‘no rattling or shining surfaces’. Reportedly the retreat resulted in only one casualty.

Lock’s first deployment to France, in 1916, was during the Battle of the Somme and the Pozieres Offensive and during his second deployment he was promoted to 2nd Lieutenant and then Lieutenant. Lock’s letters give a stark insight into the life lived by many soldiers in the trenches on the Western Front and also their confusion at the lack of support from home.


12th November, 1917

Had a very rough time during the last few months and what with continual small doses of gas and continual wettings and exposure fairly flattened me. I left the front trenches or rather shell holes on the night of the 5th instant after four days toil without food or sleep. I had a rough time as the Germans kept coming over on to our line and as I was second in command of my company I had to take out fighting patrols all night to keep them from finding out where we were situated. And I can confidently assure you crawling about in no mans [sic] land in the shells full of mud & water looking for fight for a sick man was no bon. After doing four lovely days of this I was relieved just when I got to the “couldn’t stand” stage and taken out & hunted before the doctor who gave me a terrific gravelling for not reporting before and sent me right off.


2nd February 1918

One gets use to hard knocks & bruises and I can assure you they take it very well. One of our Officers was shot through the thigh and kept going thinking he was the only Officer left. Until one the Sergts said to him “You had better go out as old Hailey’s bound to be all right” and at that minute I came on him. One of my lads had just blown a German’s brains out all over me & of course I was covered with gore & dirt. When I came on the scene the chaps & the wounded officer actually laughed, as they made sure I was hit at last’…’I tell you when I see my men lying all round I see red.


26th December 1917

What do you think of the Referendum regular fall through was it not and I expect the next thing we will all be attached to British Regiments as we have no men and no chance of getting any more for quite a long time.

 24th Feb 1918

I wonder why the Catholics are so against conscription, they must surely see we must all go down together if we do not win.

Lock talks much about his ‘debility’, convalescence in Scotland, a trip to London, Medical Board after Medical Board to determine if he was fit for service and his work at Camp Weymouth to return injured serviceman ‘with arms and legs off and every other ailment’ to Australia.

Lock returned to Melbourne in June 1918 and his last letter is sent on 17th July, 1918 from his home town, Yarra, just south of Goulburn (New South Wales): ‘No doubt you will wonder what has become of me these days but the fact is I am giving up single blessedness on 23rd July.’

Henry Lachlan Cyrus Hailey married Sarah Jane Ward in Goulburn on that date. The ‘matrimonial rush’ was because he could be sent back into action.

Goulburn is certainly the link between Lock and Ada, but as friends, not relatives. Ada had many Mitchell Aunts, Uncles and cousins. All of them originated in Goulburn where her Uncle, Alfred Arthur Mitchell, was a respected member of the community and Grand Master of the Manchester United Oddfellows Lodge. There is a large and imposing black obelisk in the Goulburn general cemetery that marks Alfred’s grave.

There was a small clue in Lock’s letter dated 18th April 1918 that furthered my journey of discovery. Lock writes, ‘Have not had the good fortune to run against Harry Nott so far and there are very few of the old Goulburn boys left.’ Nott was a familiar family surname and Harry, or Henry William Nott, was one of Ada’s many cousins, son of her Aunt Esther (nee Mitchell). All we knew of Henry was his birthday – 16th April, 1889 – and date of death – 22nd August, 1918. Why had we not connected this date to World War One?

Henry Nott was in the 55th Battalion which advanced on Albert in the Somme late in the night on 21st August. Henry Nott was killed in action on 22nd August 1918, aged twenty-nine years; one of five from his Battalion who died at the height of the battle to retake Albert. Henry is now buried in Plot I, Row A, Grave Number 341 in French soil at Cerisy-Gailly Military Cemetery.

I delved more into the life of Ada May Mitchell hoping to find more clues. She had been named after her aunt, Ada Bladwell (nee Mitchell), known as Aunt Sis. Ada May remained a spinster who lived her whole life with her parents and likely cared for them into old age. She died alone in 1978 in her family home from atrial fibrillation suffering from senility. Only two black and white photos survive of Ada May. One shows a chubby faced cherub of, presumably, four years old in a white pinafore arranged for a formal photograph standing with legs crossed, an elbow leaning on a book with her other hand holding a little bouquet of ferns and flowers. Her shoulder length hair and short fringe has been curled in rags. Her face is wide. She has the distinctive Mitchell button nose and thick Mitchell bottom lip which shows the hint of a smile. The other photo is from a street photographer. Cut down the middle, it removes the person standing to her right. Ada May is on the left edge of the photo, grim-faced, caught unaware, older, maybe in her 50s or 60s. She is dressed in all black: black dress, a small necklace and something pinned to her left breast, a jacket draped over the hand carrying a handbag, and a stylish brimmed black hat with veiling. She still has the broad face, button nose and thick bottom lip but now carries the marks of age around her neck and jowls.

There is no one left who knew Ada. My Dad may have met her when he was young, but he doesn’t remember. We do know she served over fifty years on staff as a Clerk at Grace Bros and carried herself with ‘dignity and aplomb’. Dad has the impression that she was possibly like Mrs Slocombe from the British TV comedy Are You Being Served with a severe personality, tinted hair and finding solace in a cat or two. Ada and her parents lived at 3 King Street, Newtown, next door to modern day Moore Theological College and, later, 50 Wemyss Street, Newtown. Both are not far from St Stephen’s Anglican Church in Newtown where she attended and was Secretary of the St Stephens Patriotic Club during World War One. The Patriotic Clubs raised funds to support the war effort and sent care packages to local boys serving at the front. So, I contacted St Stephens in Newtown. Did they have any records of parishioners or the Patriotic Club? An answer was slow in arriving but would arrive eventually, but not yet.

During this period of research my Dad found a small blue notebook with gold embossed writing on the cover: ‘The Illuminated Scripture Text Book for every day — 365 coloured illustrations with interleaved memoranda’. The spine is held together with aging sticky-tape, the cover is barely holding onto its contents and the pages are yellowing and rigid with age. The front inscription, in hardly legible ink script, reads:

“Love your Enemies”
To Ada Mitchell
With best love & ??? wishes
From E. ??Thompson??
St Saviours Finishing School
April 1879

Ada May Mitchell was born in 1891, therefore this notebook had to belong to Aunt Sis, Ada Bladwell (nee Mitchell). Inside she has recorded the birth dates of friends and relatives, her wedding anniversary and the death of her husband, William Henry Bladwell. Also noted was the death ‘killed at war’ of Harry Nott on 22nd August 1918 and another name, an unfamiliar name, that had no place, yet, on the family tree: ‘Harry G Mitchell killed at war 29th May 1917’.

Another discovery. Although, on reflection, I recall walking along the Roll of Honour at the Australian War Memorial in 2012 past the M’s and noting the name Henry George Mitchell. Both Henry and George are common family Christian names (although, likely common in the Victorian era). I was almost certain this person could be a relative. I always read Rolls of Honour on church walls and obelisks in country towns; I wonder if there is not some long lost relative listed there.

Henry George Mitchell came up on the war records search; Service Number 159. On his enlistment attestation, Henry recorded his mother’s name as Mrs Will Mitchell, with ‘Will’ crossed out and ‘Martha Edith Lily’ written above it. On another copy of this attestation his father’s name was written in red ink: W.M. Mitchell. The family tree held William Milton Mitchell, brother to Ada Bladwell and Uncle to Ada May Mitchell. His wife was Martha Edith Lily Morgan but the names of his children were unknown and listed only as Child One, Child Two, Child Three, Child Four, Child Five, Child Six.

Henry George Mitchell had been in the 25th Battalion and likely died in the trenches in France during a ‘quiet period’. His Battalion has no War Diary on record for the period he served and the 35th did not even enter its first major battle, at Messines, until early June 1917. He died on 29th May, 1917, and is buried in Belgium: Plot I, Row D, Grave Number 11, Strand Military Cemetery, Ploegsteert.

Finally I received an answer from St Stephens in Newtown. They had never heard of the Patriotic Club and had no parishioner records from the early 1900s but they mentioned the Roll of Honour and sent me the spreadsheet of their research. Could my Henry George Mitchell be the H. Mitchell on the St Stephens Rolls of Honour?

Henry joined the 35th Battalion (Newcastle’s Own) in Islington Newcastle. In Henry’s service record is a letter from his father reporting the family’s move from Newcastle to 42 Bucknell Street, Newtown; not far from Ada Mitchell and her parents. It would be safe to assume the families attended church together at St Stephens and, therefore, not a great leap to link H. Mitchell with Henry George Mitchell.

Family tree research is like having the pieces of a larger jigsaw and working out where they fit in the greater whole without the help of the picture on the box. I have consequently discovered many other relatives and more who served in World War One: Henry Mitchell’s brother William Leslie who also enlisted in the 35th battalion at only age seventeen; Arthur Edwin Bladwell, Ada Bladwell’s nephew, who received the Military Medal for gallant service in May 1915; John Digby Nott (Harry Nott’s brother) who has a plaque commemorating his life on a wall at Lithgow Hospital in the Blue Mountains and Eric Henry Mitchell, son of Uncle Edward Mitchell, who was gassed and returned to Australia.

One hundred years ago, these men and women did their small part in that greater conflict. As a nation we remember the World War One every ANZAC Day, but it is up to families to remember the individuals who died or returned injured, ill or safe, or served from home. Yet, those who had no children, like Henry, Harry and Ada, where the golden chain of remembrance has been broken, become forgotten Uncles and Aunts. I wonder if anyone has sat by the grave of Henry William Nott in France or Henry George Mitchell in Belgium to consider their service, sacrifice and the circumstances of their deaths. I wonder if anyone else has thought about the contribution Ada May Mitchell and the girls of the Patriotic Club made to the war effort from home. I found Ada’s grave in Rookwood Cemetery in Lidcombe and was moved to tears to find her buried with both parents: Ernest Henry and Harriet Mitchell.

H. Mitchell is listed on the St Stephens Roll of Honour and he will be remembered and spoken about as tours are conducted to mark the centenary of his ultimate sacrifice. But now, with the centenary of ANZAC the Mitchell family will be able to remember their contribution to World War I with greater pride and personal interest. Sacrifices and lives will live on in the memory of two or three (or more) and not be forgotten by time.




Download a pdf of ‘To Live in the Memory’.


Revelations from my German Woman’s Household Manual, Kerry Behrendt

Rapünzchen, a diminutive of Rapunzel, is a German name for lamb’s lettuce or field salad, a common winter green in Europe, but rare in Australia. I love it. It has a nutty, tangy, very distinct flavour. The leaves of baby spinach look somewhat similar, but the flavour is quite different and their relationship as salad greens is probably not close. Rapünzchen is the first alphabetical entry in my German woman’s household manual, volume eight. It is the only volume bequeathed to me by my ancestors. The last entry is Schuhwichse (shoe polish).

The manual was published 176 years ago, in 1839. It is not easy for us now to imagine what life might have been like then, particularly for women. To get a better feel for this I thought I might investigate what was happening in the world around this time. The quickest way was trawling through the internet since I am quite experienced with this due to researching my family history. And so I found that Queen Victoria had ascended to the British throne just two years before this manual was published, and had not married yet. There was no German nation as we know it now, but only a loose confederation of thirty-nine German states. This came about through the upheavals caused by Napoleon. As for Australia, where I live now, it was a British colony of course and still had convict transports coming in. There were eighteen shiploads full in 1839, nine each to New South Wales and to Tasmania, which was still called Van Diemen’s Land. When I looked at specific historical events of the year 1839, there was of course no mention of anything that women had accomplished, but plenty concerning men’s achievements, such as British capture Hong Kong from China, or Charles Darwin elected Fellow of the Royal Society. There were few ‘world events’ that may have been of interest to the women of the day. Tea from India (not China) 1st arrives in UK (thereby making it more affordable), or Prussian government limits work week for children to 51 hours might have been the most likely.

I was curious also whether there were any household manuals for women in the English speaking world. The best match that I came across was Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management which is still very popular today and is considered a ‘classic’ of its type. It is available online in full content, with an emphasis on food and recipes, but also contains a thorough guide for dealing with domestic help. Mrs Beeton’s book was published in 1861, twenty-two years after my manual, but unlike mine, is not forgotten. As for Australia, there was no similar publication. The Country Women’s Association of Australia, which might have published such a manual, was only founded in 1922.

I discovered that there were actually twelve volumes of this German woman’s household manual. But getting hold of any of them proved just about impossible. For one, the publisher, Lewents of Berlin, had closed its doors long ago. At best, I could imagine there might be other copies of this manual still hidden somewhere in an attic, or maybe lost on the dusty shelf of an antiquarian bookshop. But it seems rather likely that I will be stuck with my lonely copy of volume eight.

The old manual is not very large, about the size of a small paperback, a bit thicker than the average, but still handy for easy use. There are some signs of wear and tear, particularly on the hard cover; the pages though are only slightly yellowed. I had a thought to check for fingerprints, and other spots like food stains to see which entries were of most interest to the users of this manual. But I could find no clue to this. Only the index pages in the back seemed marked by heavier use, which would make sense, of course. They were a little darker. The cover design in light and dark brown shades reminded me of soap bubbles or a boiling broth, but this surely must be coincidental. There is no title, and no author listed on the outside, just a small light green square on the spine. This square shows some faint traces of lettering but is so faded it cannot be deciphered.

I decided to take a closer look at what the contents might reveal. This is the layout of the title page:



Most obvious to me was that the input of the ‘experienced Women’ appears to be less important than that of the ‘learned Men’. As if those men knew much about a woman’s business in the first place. And in particular in 1839, when women’s business was strictly segregated from the much more important affairs of the men. This was confirmed to me by yet another rather interesting discovery. My research on the internet produced a website which featured a repository, or listing, of all known historic reference books published in German, an Encyclopaedia of Historic References. This website provided me with the confirmation that there were twelve volumes of my manual and that it was an important publication of its time. And what is more, it listed a men’s version of my manual, produced by the same publisher:











Unfortunately my information did not mention the learned persons who gave input to this manual, such as whether any ‘experienced Women’ were consulted, but I believed that rather doubtful. In my representation of the title page here, I have used the same layout as for the woman’s manual, since this was not provided. There are some obvious differences: reference to ‘the Man’ versus ‘the female Gender’ which might confirm the lesser standing of the women of the time. And there is the obvious difference concerning expectations about each gender’s place in life and in society as well. The man had a profession and was active in society outside the home, whereas the woman’s place was strictly within the home with responsibilities as a wife and mother and, quite interestingly, in charge of the domestic help. While the men had responsibilities regarding the education of their children, there is no mention as to their responsibilities as a husband. All of this makes me so glad that I live now. While our current society is far from perfect, life has certainly improved, especially for women, who, in the western world at least are not confined to house and hearth, have opportunities for a profession and have the same responsibilities concerning their children’s education. Full equality, alas, is still a dream.

My thoughts then turned to the intriguing question about the owners of this manual among my ancestors. Two four-leaf clover stalks (very dried) between pages 298 and 299 and the word ‘Volz’ scribbled on the title page inside were the only personal hints regarding the ownership of this book. The handwritten word in ink meant nothing to me. I assumed it was a surname, since I did not recognise it as a common word of the German language or a first name. Nobody with that name is known to me amongst my ancestors. As for the four-leafed clover stalks, was somebody just pressing them and had forgotten they were there, or were they put deliberately in this book, between those pages? They are in the middle of a rather confusing five page explanation of Schachspiel (chess).

My search for clues of ownership had to continue then. As this manual was clearly meant for the mistress in charge of a well-to-do household that most likely included domestic staff, I would expect that it came from a household of some means and standing. From what I knew about my ancestors, based on old documents I’d found and what my family had told me, I had to say that most of them would not have been in a position to acquire twelve volume household manuals or any other books for that matter, with the exception of my paternal ancestors, the Schmiedebergs. They very likely had the monetary means and the status that would allow them to contemplate just such an acquisition. The head of this household, my paternal great-great-grandfather Karl Schmiedeberg was a master furrier and the mayor of the town, and therefore in good standing. Although my father was reluctant to talk about his ancestors, he proudly mentioned on occasion that his great-grandfather had been a mayor. I was able to confirm this from the information in my father’s Ahnenpass, the ancestry passport that was a required document for every German during the Nazi years. This was to prove your racial purity and had to include details down to your great-grandparents, including occupation.

As I confirmed from my research, the ownership of books was definitely an important status symbol, a sign of learning and sophistication, but also of a certain wealth. My maternal grandfather was living proof of this; although the household manual could not have come from his collection, his lifetime was much later and he marked all his literary acquisitions with his initials and a date. But nonetheless, I found it fascinating that family lore states that my Grandpa Fritz, who came from very dire circumstances, was keen to acquire books as soon as he could manage to afford them as he rose in the public service; and he made sure that they were noticed, although there is considerable doubt whether he actually read them. I still remember two locked cabinets full of books, visible through the glass panes. All these were packed away into the attic when he had passed away and the cabinets were used for other storage. The attic was a dusty, narrow space in the top of our gabled roof. One naked light bulb and two tiny windows at both ends was all there was for a light source. The only way to get up there was by pulling down a trapdoor in the ceiling of the corridor with a hooked broomstick. The trapdoor had a ladder attached that had to be pulled out and extended to the floor. One needed strength to manage this and a good reason to proceed up to this musty, dusty place, so naturally we were not up there very often.

Since I left home to go to university and then on to Australia, I had forgotten about the books until we needed to move my mother from the family home to my brother’s place, because she could not stay all by herself any more. This was in 2010. We cleaned the attic and the cellar too, and all these books now came to light and all were fairly well preserved. No mould or funny smells. Most came from Gandpa Fritz’s collection but there were others too, from who knows where, and one of them was volume eight of a German woman’s household manual. I picked this one and took it with me to Australia, because it was by far the oldest book that I had come across. I found it in one of the large cardboard boxes full of books; but there were letters too and documents and photographs, containing much of the life stories of my ancestors. All this is waiting for me to explore in detail, whenever I can make my way to Germany.

Back in Australia now, I took a closer look at all this household wisdom in my manual from 1839. The index in the back showed 326 entries in 504 pages of very tight script. Some entries were very short and there were pages with up to three. To find what must have been considered the most vital and detailed knowledge required of the discerning mistress of a household of this time, I decided to take a look at those entries with the most pages first.

I found, to my astonishment, that Schatzkästlein (little treasure trove) was the longest by far with no less than 25 pages. The next one down was Schnellräucherungsmethode (quick smoking, as in curing, method) with 20 pages, thence Rindfleisch (beef) with 18 pages, Sauce (sauce) with 16 pages, Rofe (rose) with 15 pages, Reinette (apple variety) with 12 pages and Schinken (ham) at 10 pages. Obviously, most entries refer to preparation and preservation of food except for Schatzkästlein and Rofe. The book has an unusual typeface where the ‘s’ looks like an ‘f’. It is one of the more obvious differences when it comes to the old-fashioned German font style used in this manual. It can be difficult to decipher, but thanks to my family research I had learned to read it well enough. As to the entry of the Rofe, the first part is all about planting and successfully growing roses in all their varieties, and horse manure is highly recommended. This is followed by the usefulness of rose products: rose water, rose honey, rose jam, rose vinegar, rose wine and more. At least that part is also food related. But of course the well-known and beloved perfume of the rose and its applications are certainly discussed as well.

I finally decided to take a look at what kind of treasure the Schatzkästlein, the ‘little treasure trove’ was hiding. I found a metaphoric use of ‘treasure trove’ both in the German and the English language. But I was still unprepared for what came next. I started reading and found the first words puzzling: ‘Franklin has provided rules for living…’ Franklin? Yes, this referred indeed to Benjamin Franklin, one of the famous Founding Fathers of the United States and author, statesman, scientist and inventor. After a few lines of introduction, followed Franklin’s own words in translation on his well documented ‘thirteen virtues’, with some additional explanations from one or more of the ‘learned Men’ presumably. Franklin devised this list of virtues to enable him and others to live a proper, honourable, dignified and upstanding life. Here, in my little manual were those thirteen virtues which Franklin exhorted us all to live by, painstakingly describing his own attempts and not denying that he too fell short on occasion: Temperance, Silence, Order, Resolution, Frugality, Industry, Sincerity, Justice, Moderation, Cleanliness, Tranquillity, Chastity and Humility.

And then I discovered that my household manual had expanded this to fourteen virtues. I searched for explanations of this discrepancy but could not find any further hint in regards to the additional virtue of Menschenliebe (humanity, humanism, literally: love of the human) in reference to Franklin’s virtues. So where did this fourteenth virtue come from and why was it added here? I found some clues: a Christian version of seven divine and seven worldly virtues and another set of virtues ascribed to Aristotle. But the most likely source and inspiration for the inclusion of those virtues into my household manual were probably the fourteen virtues of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. Humanitas was one of his virtues and explained the extra virtue of humanity. Either the learned gent who wrote this entry made a genuine mistake or maybe this was added quite deliberately. Menschenliebe is certainly discussed within the ‘treasure trove’ and it does fit in very well with the whole concept.

Of course, those virtues were established by a man, aimed at the men folk of the day, presumably, so I did wonder why they were given so much prominence in this household manual for women. Part of the answer might be that ‘learned Men’ were foremost in the input to this manual. Of course, the serious application to those virtues by their wives would certainly be most desirable for all the men folk. What did occur to me is that the women who read this would have to be well educated in humanistic thought and values to even understand its concepts. And there is further evidence that a certain level of sophistication was expected of the female readers of this manual: the entry schön (beautiful). This entry starts with an elaborate explanation of ‘beauty’ and its perception that can be quickly summarised as ‘Beauty is in the eye of the Beholder’. There is also mention of an inner beauty, a beauty of the senses, the idea of beauty and the like.

And then I paused for thought. How could this be compared with such down to earth information on Scheuern (scrubbing), for example? This entry describes the correct method for scrubbing and scouring one’s pots and pans with special regard to tin plates and also wooden floors. There is a strong emphasis on the good housewife and host who would gain the utmost respect by having a properly scrubbed home. Or Säugen (breastfeeding): besides the insistence that mother’s milk is best for your child, there is a warning as to the length of time breastfeeding is to continue, a stern admonition that longer than 18 to 24 months runs the very serious risk of having your child die of water-on-the-brain. Then there is Schnellräucherungsmethode (quick smoking method), an entry emphasising the usefulness of well cured meat ‘when under siege’, your city or your town, that is. Or maybe Rothkehlchen (robin, the song bird). After two pages of almost lovingly describing how to capture, tame and keep a robin, the last sentence says, ‘Its meat is quite tasty and also good for your health.’ And the extermination methods concerning Ratten (rats) are truly awesome: drowning, poisoning, coating the live rat with a mixture of rancid cod liver oil and tar, and if that does not deter them, feed them bits of sponge fried in salted butter. Provide lots of water as well, because the salt will make them thirsty. When they drink, the sponge will soak up the water, expand and — bang! The rat explodes. I can hardly wait now to explore this manual’s suggestions concerning the elimination of Schaben (cockroaches) and Schnecken (snails) or Schildläuse (scale bugs)!

These latter entries in the manual seemed to be a world away from philosophical discussions on beauty or a virtuous life, although much closer to what I had expected to find in such a household manual. I have only read a small number of the entries so far, the ones that looked most fascinating, and further exploration begs. I can already see exciting promise in such captivating information as Rauch aus dem Zimmer zu vertilgen (remove smoke from room), or Regen (rain), and Schnee (snow), or Säure im Magen (acid in the stomach), or Sachen (things?), or Schreien (scream) or Schnürbrust (literally: tied breast, an early version of a corset).

When looking at this book I had never imagined that a woman’s household manual from 1839 could be so fascinating, so illuminating about a woman’s everyday life as it was 176 years ago, and by association a man’s life too, of course. And then there are those mysteries as well: who of my ancestors did own this manual and who was ‘Volz’? Whatever happened to the other eleven volumes? Why is the largest entry a treatise about the thirteen virtues of Benjamin Franklin, and what about the fourteenth virtue? Why did the authors of this manual include such sophisticated concepts in a household manual for women? I doubt that I will ever find the answers to all these questions, but my investigation so far has been highly fascinating and quite revealing and it goes hand in hand with my research on family history.

I must also mention yet another aspect of my investigation: I found much information on household manuals from 19th century Britain and the US, and other German publications too. I knew it would be fascinating to compare them all and I could not resist a quick perusal and found at least one unique difference to my own manual: no hint of such sophisticated concepts on beauty and a virtuous life. This made me truly regret that my unique manual has completely disappeared from view, and that I will most likely forever be deprived of its particular household wisdom except for what is found in volume eight: the entries of Rapünzchen (salad green) to Schuhwichse (shoe polish).


Download a pdf of ‘Revelations from my German Woman’s Household Manual’.