Saturday, March 5, 2011



To fully understand the many ups and downs of my Grandparents lives you really need to go back to the beginning, the first chapters dealing with my Ancestors and how they found their way to Oz.

Maggie and Chas’s story started with their forebears, way back in time, on a journey through England's history long before the age of steam; a journey taking in sea voyages across wild oceans by men and women fleeing religious and political persecution.  Theirs is the saga of the first Quakers to reach the Americas. 

For Maggie, the story touches on four sisters from Sussex who arrive in Australia during the gold rush; of one who makes her home in Fiji before it became a British colony,

But primarily it tells the story of two young lovers, Maggie and Charles who against all odds meet in Levuka, the one time capital of the Fiji Islands; of their colourful lives in the North and South  of New Zealand and eventual passage onto Australia. 

But the story of their life together is dogged by the secret of Grandfather’s double identity and his constant problems with the law.

For Maggie, peace in the Pacific is a bitter sweet victory.  Her husband is dead, the frantic pace of survival with a complex and devious husband is over.  A solitary future looms full of uncertainty.

She doesn't know that some 50 years later I will be gifted with a final vision of my darling Grandmother, a surprising visit from a loved one long dead.


Pix from Sydney Morning Herald

Peace in the Pacific. The end of WW2;  Sydney celebrated with wild abandon, crowds thronging the streets singing and dancing, emotions ran riot and I can imagine my teenage cousins, Leota and Gloria caught up in the fever and madness of pure unadulterated joy.

Grandfather died just a year too soon; How he would hate to have missed all the fun.


Try as I might though, I simply can’t place Grandmother Maggie in the first five years of my life before 1944, the year of Grandpa’s death.  She was always there, right beside him, the man she lived with for 44 years, but Charles Nelson Brown Parker was such a huge presence in my small, very small life that I virtually excluded everyone else.

Along with the peppermint bulls eyes lollies, and our one to one entertainment sessions I particularly remember the day he died.   Would it have been better if small me had never been told?  Perhaps,   I honestly don’t know. 

Five year olds don’t have a very large attention span so I imagine my pint size grief was short lived.  But the gap in my life was quickly filled by Maggie, my Grandmother, and to such an extent that we seemed virtually joined at the hip.  To put it simply almost overnight we became life long soul mates.

 But if my reaction to Grandfather’s death was heart rending, my little Grandmothers must have been in all honesty one of utter relief, though tempered with heartache.
I don’t mean that to sound harsh, of course she mourned him.  I know Maggie deeply loved her Chas, but those 44 years hadn’t exactly been a bed of roses.  It’s not difficult to pick the two photos in the collage above that were taken after Grandfather’s death.

 You have only to read the fifteen chapters of ChasBert’s life story, study the few photos we have of her taken in those years to see the despair on her face, even the one in the centre taken all those years ago in New Zealand.

Life with Chas had, after all, been one long roller coaster of occasional highs with increasingly frequent lows.



The war raged on through 1944.  I have faint memories of visits with my mother and aunts to the local movie theatre, viewing the latest Hollywood propaganda film, sitting amongst the hushed audience as they watched the Cinesound  logo appear with censored footage of jungle war fare and news from the front.

I knew better than to ask why people were snuffling into handkerchiefs, why everyone sat quiet and hushed.

Fiji was in the midst of the Pacific theatre of war, yet escaped occupation and enemy action.  These were worrying times for Maggie.  Her brothers and their families had their homes in the Fiji Islands.  News from home was scarce.

Grandmother’s brothers had always been caring of their sister.  They knew about her financial problems, knew she and Chas were leading a precarious existence and they often sent money ‘to tide her over’ what ever current emergency she was facing.

Over time she learnt to keep the gifts secret from Chas, going to unbelievable extremes to hide the money.  On one occasion  when she was rushed to hospital at death’s door she grabbed Chas’s hand and managed to blurt out the current stash was in their bedroom under the linoleum.

Chas and the boys searched that room and found nothing.  But when she recovered and came home she had to show him where the paper money was.  To this day no one can believe our tiny little Grandmother could move such heavy furniture and gingerly lift the lino to place the envelope in the dead centre of the room.  The possibility of fire obviously never entered her head.

With the war over, normal shipping in the Pacific recommenced and the McGowan brothers wasted no time sending Maggie the fare for her passage home.


Small me in my convent uniform 1946

By now my parents had relocated to Queensland.  Both were in ill health and I spent the next few years boarding in a Catholic convent.  When Gran sailed off to Fiji in 1946 she kept in touch with post cards.

Of course to my fellow boarders in the convent this association with the Pacific Islands bordered on the exotic.



I know so very little about Maggie’s actual voyage home to Fiji, I was far too young at the time to ask all the right questions.  The exact date of her departure for instance, the ship she sailed on.

By comparing my age in the convent I can narrow it down to 1946/47.  She may even have travelled on one of the War Bride ships taking Australian girls to America to join the Yankee sailors, soldiers or airmen they had fallen in love with during the war years.

I don’t even know how long she spent on that visit back to Fiji. I was too young to appreciate the grown up talk when Maggie returned to Australia, too young to understand the emotion of  reunion with brothers and their families after such a long separation. My only first hand memories are restricted to small Kodak box brownie photos and the gifts she brought back.

Exquisite sea shells, some I still treasure today, delicate and brightly patterned silk handkerchiefs I knew must never be used for the nose blowing job.  Fijian souvenirs.  Gifts to appeal to an eight year old.

Only six of those miniature snaps survived, enough to give me a glimpse of a happy Maggie surrounded by tanned brothers in their Sunday best tropical gear, of posed shots with favourite nieces, a dockside greeting, or was it a departure, a view of a ship but not its name, and brief backgrounds of a tropical island.

Not nearly enough to satisfy the later curiosity of a grown up me.


Obviously taken on a small box brownie camera

Caption read –Taken on picnic.  Don’t I look a fright!



I doubt my Grandmother Maggie knew a great deal about her parents history, Geraldine Sweeny the girl from Sussex and William McGowan the sailor from Scotland.

The few times I can remember asking about her mother’s origin she seemed vague.  She was a school teacher from Wales, was one story, her father’s family were lawyers in Scotland another.  But she never seemed sure of these facts, they seemed quite jumbled. 

 Later as I asked the same questions of cousins and aunts and eventually of newly found kin from those Fiji families, the stories became even wilder. 

William, the Scots grandfather for instance became a James and  even a Robert, the meeting and courtship of Maggies parents taking place in Scotland, in England or on a boat. The McGowan great grandfather traded in sandalwood, on one hand owned the boat or didn’t, died at sea or fell down the stairs at home.

It took me a long time to separate fact from fiction.  I’ve recounted their story in past episodes,  the story of Geraldine and William McGowan, two people from widely different backgrounds carving out a life against a tapestry of  raw Fijian history.  Click back through the Ancestor archives, their story is amazing.

But while Geraldine and William were battling to survive on a small Pacific Island her parents and siblings back in England were going through their own personal heartbreak and disaster.

Especially Geraldine’s youngest sister,  Constance Olivia Fleming who would die in London in 1901 leaving behind eight young orphans, one a mere babe in arms.



By the time Geraldine’s mother, my Great-great Grandmother Anna Sweeny gave birth to her sixteenth little Sweeny in a dingy Swansea housing block in Wales life had taken a nasty downturn.

Constance Olivia was born without the trappings of comfort and promise her older siblings had taken for granted.  For them a comfortable home by the sea in Worthing, Sussex, education and a father prominent in council affairs was a birthright.

But all that disappeared when their father Alfred blotted his copy book and was jailed for non payment of debts.  To make matters worse Alfred later abandoned his wife, entering into a bigamous relationship with a young woman who bore him a son he promptly named after a recently deceased lawful child.

Constance Olivia’s siblings could at least remember better times, but she herself barely remembered even the four sisters who sought a better life in far away Australia.

In time this last child met and married a train driver, George Fleming and they duly produced eight children.  But by 1901 the father has died in a work accident in London, a last infant has been born and then Constance Olivia herself has died leaving the eight orphaned youngsters in the care of her aged and senile mother Anna Sweeny.

At this point take special note of the Flemings third child, Francis Fleming born in 1888 in Greenwich, London.  Eleven years younger, he is a first cousin to Maggie, but I doubt at that stage she was even aware of his existence.

However by the time Maggie makes that last voyage home to Fiji, some 58 years later, Frank will have made his mark on the world, and though neither will be aware of this at the time, their eventual meeting in 1946 will be the catalyst that later introduces both Noel Coward and Amelia Earhart to this continuing story.


Gran returned from Fiji, happy to make contact again with her brothers.

Time passed,  I left the convent and  returned to live with Grandmother in Sydney for a year or two; magical years when I went to the convent school in Bondi, ran amuck with neighbourhood children on the beach and around the rocky cliffs of Bondi; spent quality time with cousins of all ages, most older, a few younger than me.  

Outings with Gran, Aunt May and Cousins

Maggie’s 90th Birthday

Then, before I barely had time to blink, I was grown up, married, had children of my own, a busy life and challenging career choices.

And all the time we kept closely in touch.  Birthdays came and passed, Maggie’s eightieth, my thirty first, my father’s death and her ninety sixth:  Until suddenly she too was dead and an era had come to an end.

But unknown to me it hadn’t really come to an end.  Like the treasure at the end of the rainbow, the gift of surprise was waiting, lying dormant and forgotten, patiently marking the passing years and decades,  gathering dust in a small box on a shelf in Fiji. 

Waiting to be found...



Ahead – Canton Island – Noel Coward – Fiji again.
 Further ahead - Maggie's smile.

Robyn Mortimer © 2011

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