Wednesday, March 9, 2011



Chance, serendipity, coincidence... there’s no denying luck does play a big part when you set out to explore your ancestors background.  

I started with virtually nothing, a few tattered letters and clippings, my grandmother’s maiden name, my grandfather’s alias, two small towns on a world map, Levuka in Fiji and Peru, Indiana and very little else. Then childhood memories kicked in, followed by search engines and the power and scope of the internet.

But it was surely ‘lady luck’ that placed me on an astonishing collision course for perhaps the most unlikely surprise of my life.






This is Frank Fleming’s story.  He is just one of many first cousins my Grandmother Maggie possibly never realised she had.  So far as I know she met this man for the first time on that trip home to Fiji at the end of WW2 when she was sixty nine and Frank was eleven years younger. 

My interest in this distant cousin was kindled in 2004 when I made a chance sighting of an error in an 1860 passenger list on New Zealand’s NZ Bound internet site. This led to an invitation to write a short account of the Sweeny family to accompany the correction.

I did and included a plea to anyone who might know how Geraldine Sweeny found her way to Fiji.  That little afterthought enabled five new modern day ‘cousins’ to find me. Two of them, in England, carried the name Fleming and both at the time had  only a vague idea a distant uncle once lived in Fiji.  

These Flemings were a father and son and one had written a remarkable and detailed book about the Sweeny’s but knew nothing about an Australian connection.  In turn I had amassed an amazing amount of information about those four Sweeny sisters from Sussex but really had no idea what prompted their exodus from England.

This joining of minds and clues would prove mutually beneficial.



Corrected passenger list NZ newspaper

How Grandmother met Grandfather was and still is the biggest mystery of this entire saga.  At the start of the search, maybe six or seven years ago I decided the only way to unravel this puzzle was to work back from Fiji, back through Grandmother Maggie’s own mother’s family. Maybe that way I could find out how Fiji entered the picture in the first place. 

Before long I started delving into Geraldine Sweeny’s fifteen brothers and sisters and their home town of Worthing in Sussex. At first I thought the parents of all these babies must be very kind people indeed, obviously a great number of the youngsters  just had to be foundlings, babies adopted out of the goodness of their heart.

Slowly I realised Anna Sweeny wasn’t an unusual mother for those times;  like Queen Victoria, none practiced any successful form of birth control and indeed, by some standards a family of 16 children wasn’t all that large.

The four story building to the left of the Steyne Hotel in the centre of this early photograph c1890-1900 is the old Steyne Library, where the Sweeny’s lived until their father’s downfall in 1859.  Madeline would have been the last child born into this comfort. Constance Olivia would know only poverty.

 The house was seized in 1860 and the family forced into penury.  Their lives would never be the same.

Then I uncovered shipping records for 1859 showing the family had taken ship to New Zealand, only eleven in total at this stage, yet a month after landing had returned to Liverpool on another sailing ship, the 986 tonne vessel, The Phoenix. A huge upheaval for such a short stay.

And this is where the luck element stepped in.  The passenger list for the Phoenix attached to the NZ Bound site had included all the Sweeny children’s Christian names but omitted to give their surname.

I skimmed through the list, failed to see Sweeny, did a double take and realised no one could possibly duplicate names that included, Alfred, Alice, Adeline, Geraldine, Bertha, Madeline, Ethelbert, Ernest and Evelyn. They just had to belong to the Sweeny family of Sussex.

Caught up in the improbability of it all I imagined all sorts of scenarios for this extremely long and hazardous sequence of sea voyages; a business trip, visiting relations, a quirky pleasure cruise.    Not for a moment did I think the family was running away, unsuccessfully as it turned out, from shame and poverty.

I’ve touched on the Sweeny story in the first of the Ancestor series, Four Sisters from Sussex and again in Suddenly in Fiji.  In those chapters though I barely mention Constance Olivia, the youngest of the Sweeny’s, Frank's mother. Maybe that’s because she didn’t appear in the Sweeny family until 1863, a good couple of years after the Phoenix episode.



A street in Deptford, London late 1890’s.

Constance was the last born of the Sweeny brood, she arrived after the exodus from Sussex and her father’s time in jail, after the birth and death of young brother Reginald. She met and married her locomotive driver husband in Swansea, Wales and they later moved to Greenwich the ship building area of London.

Constance’s mother Anna Sweeny had by now rather generously reconciled yet again with the errant father of her brood and they, and the growing Fleming family, shared accommodation in London. 

The Sweeny’s were elderly and not in good health with Grandfather Sweeny eventually consigned to a charitable Poor House.  Both young Fleming parents then died within a year of each other leaving their eight children, one a babe in arms in their now senile Grandmother Sweeny’s care.

The eldest, Bernard was able to care for himself finding work with an electrician, the baby was absorbed into a neighbouring family and the rest of the children were dispersed to orphanages.

Like me the present day Flemings who were descended from Constance Olivia’s third son Ernest Wilfred, had attempted to trace their family background, in the process uncovering a great deal about the ins and outs of the Sussex Sweeny’s.  But they came to a standstill with young Francis Ivor  Fleming who may, or may not  have found his way to the south Pacific and worked on a Fijian plantation.  



As with all family histories there are huge gaps, and Frank’s story is no exception. Actually, if it hadn’t been for his tenuous connection to Fiji I probably wouldn’t have explored his life and times as thoroughly as I did and I wouldn’t have found this gem of a story that touches on my own Grandmother.

The modern day Flemings father and son are now working on a comprehensive history of Frank’s life.

Through old letters and family hunches, it was thought Frank had somehow found his way to Fiji, probably when he was sixteen. 

Other tantalizing snippets came to light; he had attended a New Zealand high school, was working at the Union Gas Engine Company in San Francisco; all very vague and proving difficult to confirm.

At some time before 1915 Frank was living and working on an island in the Fiji group.  His cousin Gordon Goodenough McGowan, my Grandmother’s brother, married the daughter of another early settler in 1905.  Her name was Minnie Rosa and her father owned and worked a plantation on Laucala Island. This may have been the plantation where the Fleming family believed Frank once worked.  You've seen Gordon and Minnie in the previous chapter, photo taken on Suva wharf.

In 1915 a Fiji lawyer writes a letter of reference in Frank’s favour. War had been declared the previous year; there was a feverish rush to manufacture weapons, build tanks and design aeroplanes for warfare, and to recruit servicemen.  By 1916, Frank is back in England and, from Daimler Station in Coventry writes a letter of application to the newly formed Royal Flying Corps. Within a month he has joined the Special Reserve of Officers as a second lieutenant.  In August he is appointed an Examiner with the Royal Flying Corps and by the following November he is a Flying Officer on active service.

In November 1916 Frank is sent to France as a Flying Officer with number 34 Squadron.  Within three months his RE8 aircraft crashes at Villers-Bretonneux in France fracturing his left ankle and injuring his right shoulder. After a spell in a Brighton Hospital for Officers he is posted to the Wireless School at Hursley Park.


Two of his brothers, Ernest Wilfred and Bernard George are already fighting with army battalions in France and it is inconceivable to think Frank knew nothing of their whereabouts.

In February of 1918, Frank is attending the Officers Invaliding Board at Arkwright Road Hampstead, and living at 19 Powis Square, Brighton while working at the School of Military Aeronautics in Reading.  He lists his next of kin at the Brighton address as L.E. Fleming, sister. Bernard’s wife, Lucy Fleming’s middle name is Ellen.

In 1918 his brother Bernard instigates divorce proceedings against his wife of fourteen years, the former Lucy Penfold, naming his brother Francis as co-respondent.  Bernard however doesn’t proceed with the action.  The couple no longer live together, but legally Bernard and Lucy are still man and wife.

It appears Frank remained in England until 1921 when he and Lucy boarded the P&O vessel, ‘Borda’, departing London bound for Sydney.  They are listed as Mr and Mrs Fleming: which of course they were, just not married to each other.


They may have shipped with them on the Borda an aircraft in kit form, possibly a former WW1 plane because in the Fiji Times, June 3rd 1922 there is a paragraph with the heading...


...The pressmen who were interested in Mr Fleming and his aeroplane can hardly congratulate themselves on the treatment meted out to them by Mr Fleming.

Hearing that he was to make an attempt to fly the aeroplane which he has just completed, a representative of this paper motored out yesterday at 4.30 pm to the hangar, which has just been erected on Laucala Beach, a few yards past the racecourse...

The article then went on to castigate Frank for not allowing the press to stay and watch the maiden flight of his aircraft.  An angry Frank was quoted as saying, ‘It’s not a bob a head show for you lot to watch me break my neck!’

The reporter was sent away without his story and a little later Frank climbed into the cockpit, signalled to his helpers to turn the propeller, the engine caught, the plane moved off along the beach gathering speed, and then, before it had a chance to rise above the ground, the wheels sunk into the wet sand, and  the plane crashed.

The first ever flight by a pilot in Fiji had failed.

The aircraft was wrecked. Frank would no doubt have been both embarrassed and considerably out of pocket.  But what the gentlemen of the press had not reported was Frank Fleming’s impressive war record nor his connection to one of Fiji’s earliest European pioneering families.

But this may not have been entirely the Newspaper’s fault.  Frank was a private man and he and Lucy had reason to keep themselves very much to themselves. Divorce at that time  was not a subject for general discussion. But it was probably this essential trait of personal secrecy that made him the perfect choice for his future role in the lead up to World War 2.



By the mid to late 1930’s Frank is working for the British Government, establishing and manning a radio base and weather station on Canton Island, a tiny, desolate and uninhabited sand cay in the middle of the Pacific.

Canton Island, a tiny speck in the Pacific

Prior to 1936 the island had been considered a British dominion but with no strategic value.  By 1937 however world events had begun to show Canton in a new light, as a handy listening post and a midway point between Honolulu and New Zealand.

Britain quickly establishes residency with a modest base of shacks manned by a two man team of radio operators, one of which is Frank Fleming.  Almost in retaliation America lands four Chamorro or Hawaiian natives onto the island supposedly as settlers.

There is a great deal of discussion between the two Governments, Great Britain and the United States, regarding ownership.  Finally a sort of truce is called with the British maintaining their radio and weather base in crude jerry built housing, while the Americans establish, beside them, a Pan Am flying base complete with a luxury hotel. 

On the island their co-existence is friendly, in the high echelons of politics relations are guarded and frosty.

A house built from packing cases (as described by a NZ newspaper) is eventually built beside the crude British shacks and by 1940 Lucy joins Frank on the island where he has spent the past year alone with only a Gilbert Islander and his family as helpers, maintaining the island as a radio and weather base for Britain.  
Supplies and equipment are transported from Fiji by navy boats and passing ships. By this time there is a great deal of low key spying and counter spying going on with tabs being kept on Japanese movements in the Pacific.



In the years between 1937 and 1941 two people would have a fleeting influence on the Flemings lives.  The first person they would never meet, but the second would become a life long friend.  These two people were Amelia Earhart and Noel Coward.

By coincidence Frank happened to be working in the general vicinity where it was thought the American pilot disappeared though his name wouldn’t be associated with Earhart until 2003.  But following her plane crash and influenced by Japan’s increased interest in the Pacific region the United States establishes a flying boat base on Canton Island. 

Pan Am used the base as a half way point between New Zealand and Hawaii, building a luxury hotel for staff and passengers should aircraft need to make emergency landings.  The dual use of the island continued until the start of the war, with the Americans ostensibly running a commercial venture on one part of the island, and the British maintaining their own radio communications system on another.  It worked very well, even though the British sent much of their communiqués in code.

Noel Coward visiting troops WW2
From his book Future Indefinite
Noel Coward, the actor and playwright, was a man of many faces. An accomplished writer, actor, performer and unofficial British envoy,  he was also a delightful house guest: On a trip from Australia to Hawaii just before war in the Pacific was declared, he stayed for a month between flights at the Pan Am hotel on Canton Island. During this visit Noel established a rapport with Lucy and Frank, beginning a friendship that would continue until Frank’s death in 1968. 

Noel Coward later wrote in his book ‘Future Indefinite’...

The official British residents were a Mr and Mrs Fleming.  Frank Fleming had built the house, aided by some Chamarro boys virtually with his own hands.  He ran the radio office, raised the Union Jack solemnly every morning and lowered it every night. 

They were two very nice people.  I called on them after dinner and had drinks with them.  Typically English in the best possible sense, simple, unpretentious and getting on with the job.

They came here alone, before Pan American, from Fiji.  He built the house they live in and she joined him later.  They have relatives in London and Sussex and suffer occasionally from bad bouts of homesickness coupled with a certain irritation at the Americans who have so much luxury.’

Coward and Lucy may even have shared mutual friends.  Bernard, her husband, Frank’s brother, had been a variety artist and stage manager for one of London’s major theatres at a time when Coward himself would have been an aspiring young actor.

We’ve reached a half way point in Frank Fleming's story.  Ahead is the lead up to WW2 in the Pacific,  but only as it affected Canton Island and Fiji.  

 But surprisingly much of the action in Part 2 takes place in 2003.


 Again in this story we have reached 1942.  You’ve now met Frank and Lucy Fleming and you know something of their earlier life and times in Fiji. 

America has entered the world wide conflict and the Pacific is now a major theatre of war.  In Australia the Brown Parkers are experiencing the rationing and shortages of wartime.  Grandfather ChasBert has only a few years left to spend with his beloved Maggie.

I am barely four years old and have no idea  what lies ahead.  No idea that my Grandfather will soon die, no idea Maggie will reunite with her brothers in Fiji,  certainly no idea at all that a man called Frank Fleming will one day have an astonishing but posthumous affect on my life.


Ancestors 18 - continuing Frank Flemings story in Fiji 

Robyn Mortimer© 2011


  1. Constance Olivia Fleming (formally Sweeny) was my Grandmothers mother, my Grandmothers name was Camilla Maude Fleming, my nameis Linda Babiuk (formally ( Hogg )

  2. what an adventure, thankyou for sharing your journey putting the missing puzzles together. I can imagine how it can be overwhelming with the complexity of it all.

  3. Thanks for sharing your wonderful story ....I applaud your research and effort that you have put into it.

  4. Great story, I'm from Fiji and I loved your story.


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