Saturday, July 21, 2012



Cycling has come a long way since the 1890’s, or so I thought.  But then. looking back on the career of a young man from the ghost town of Hillgrove I found it hadn’t really changed at all...well not all that much.

William Davison and Cadel Evans

In a way this story touches on the careers of  two young Australians who lived almost a century and half apart.  Cadel Evans, the 2011 winner of the prestigious Tour de France, and William Davison an almost forgotten cycling hero of the 1890’s. The most obvious point of comparison between the two is that they both shared a love affair with a racing bike.
Evans splashed onto the world stage with the benefit of modern technology fuelled by the megabucks of 21st Century finance.  Davison rode to a financially tighter budget with limited horizons.  Both cycling heroes made the headlines of their day.
In my old age I’ve taken on two new vices.  I’ve  turned into a couch potato and become an avid sports fan.  Blame it on the northern hemisphere’s silly summer season of sport... Wimbledon, the British Open, lead up to the Olympics, and right at this moment the amazing Tour de France.

It’s the Tour though that really captures my imagination.  Surely no other sport involves such intense individual activity over such a long period of time. Three weeks of hard physical slog by the worlds elite two-wheel sportsmen, cycling endlessly through France’s beautiful and diverse countryside, up mountains and down dales, towns, villages, history slipping by.  A magnificent spectacle on a wide screen.

A view of the peloton we don’t often see.
 It took me a while to understand much less appreciate the more intricate tactics of the Tour.  The team effort needed to foist their leader onto the ultimate winner’s podium in Paris at Tours end; the strange idea of slip stream mechanism giving riders a chance to ease back on their efforts while the cyclist in front pulls them along behind.  I alternated between agonising at torturous attempts to climb alpine heights,  and  flinching at the frightening speed riders attained as they plunged down steep twisting inclines.

I marvelled at the very organisation of the various teams, at their bikes, designed and honed to scientific perfection;  the slick process of repairs and adjustments to breaks and gears with rider and race in situ, wheels spinning.  Medical attention on the run delivered by a doctor leaning out of a car.  Helicopters filming every twist and turn, close-ups and travelogue making the Tour de France such a colourful and absorbing spectacle.

Viewing the Tour’s slick presentation it becomes increasingly  obvious that cycling has come a long way since the novelty days of the mid 1800’s when the world swapped  penny farthings for  two wheel bi-cycles, or ‘safety bikes’ as they were then called.  But then, as I strolled down memory lane to a time when our grandparents were youngsters, I was surprised to find that over the years some things haven’t changed at all.

In the mid 1890’s the world whole heartedly embraced the new ‘safety cycle’, a marked improvement on the penny farthing. It didn’t seem to matter that this form of transport cost anything from a whopping £12.10.00 to nearly £30, men, women and young children everywhere were clambering to buy one.

Doesn’t seem all that expensive does it?  Not to us now, but back in the 1800’s  that was an unbelievable amount of money for anyone and beyond most people’s ability to fork out.  In fact a lot of ‘wannabees’  went to inventive extremes to grab hold of their own pair of wheels for a price that didn’t include a cash exchange.  An American newspaper of the time featured these items in their Wanted to Buy column.
·      Wanted a good second hand bicycle in exchange for dancing lessons.
·      A postage stamp collection for a first class wheel.
·      Have 800 second hand chairs in good order which I will give for two bicycles or one tandem.(surely a misprint)
·      I will give a calf bound ‘Encyclopaedia Britannica’ worth $150 for a high grade bicycle.
·      Wanted a bicycle in exchange for an organ for a museum.
·      Marine oil painting worth $100 for a bicycle.
·      A fine collection of Angora cats in exchange for a bicycle.

The cats and the 800 chairs really stumped me;  I wonder did either or all actually find a new home?
The cycling craze sped swiftly around the world. On one P&O liner bound for Bombay in 1890,  nine hundred bicycles were listed in the hold as cargo.  In Australia bike clubs opened all over the country attracting members of both sexes. Sunday cycling trips into the countryside became the vogue.
One article in a local paper quotes a reader complaining that lady cyclists were inviting ‘insulting remarks from men’, while in another article from Melbourne the Geelong Grammar School complained that ‘boys on bicycles are practically out of control in the school’.

Fashions changed to accommodate this new physical activity.  In fact it didn’t take long at all for the ladies to discover the comfort of riding in trousers instead of cumbersome long skirts that annoyingly kept getting caught in the spokes and the chain...

...and so ladies ‘bloomers for bikes’ were created.

Pedal power began to take the place of  horse and buggy especially in Australia. This sheep shearing team proudly posing beside their two wheeled transport have reached the South Australia town of Innamincka,  just about as far outback as one could wish to go...

Bicycle and riders even invaded the circus world, turning up on high wire acts, on merry-go-round rides for the kids,  and even thrilling the crowds at the Sydney Show Ground with a death defying leap into space.

1901 Circus Max Schreyer- Daredevil Ramp
 Frank Wilson's Bicycle Roundabout circa 1900.
                      This image is taken by Harold Dever whose full collection resides at Surrey History Centre.

The Ancillotti two man bicycle act appeared with the Barnum & Bailey Circus in 1905. Pfening Collection
1901 Circus Max Schreyer- Daredevil Ramp
And from Christchurch, New Zealand, a Band on wheels; though to believe it possible I would need to actually hear the brass section in action. 

With bicycles and cyclists flooding our streets and countryside and Australia at the time on the brink of Federation an illustrated article in the Melbourne Punch of 1896 even advocated a departure from tradition by suggesting that a bicycle should be part of the national coat of arms.

 The illustration in Punch featured at the centre a pneumatic tyre held up by a kangaroo and an emu, with the bicycle itself silhouetted against a rising sun.  A pity it was never adopted.
Such was the furore surrounding this new craze it didn’t take very long at all before cycling entered the realm of competition.  And that’s where William Davison enters the story.


In a previous story  I wrote about the town that disappeared*...  Hillgrove,  and the days my paternal grandparents lived there.  At the same time I uncovered stories about a local cycling hero, William Davison whose prowess and love affair with a bicycle brought him fame and publicity along much the same lines as Cadel Evans and the Tour de France cyclists of today.

In Australia in the years before the turn of the century cycling as a sport was just emerging.  Still in its infancy; but in a Sydney newspaper article from 1896    I found a curious parallel between William Davison and the riders of today’s Tour.
 ‘Walter Sanger, the crack American, is called the ‘Quad’ because he does all the donkey work in the races.  He sprints up to a field like a locomotive and generally takes some one up to him who beats him home.  Davison by somewhat similar tactics has in Sydney earned the sobriquet of the ‘Hillgrove Quad’.  
Inquirer and commercial news Perth fri 27 Nov 1896

Sounds familiar doesn’t it?  The same manoeuvre repeated constantly to great effect throughout today’s Tour.

William Davison was born in Armidale in1876 to a Scots father and an English mother, and moved to Hillgrove in his early teens to work in the Eleanora and Bakers Creek gold mines.  It was a fortuitous move for young William and though he found fame and prizes in southern cities he continued to call Hillgrove home for the next 30 years. 

The champion rider was a modest young man, he gave few interviews.  He loved riding bikes and for ten years or so archived newspaper clippings are all that really remain as evidence of his skill and success during those years. 

In a much later interview published in the Armidale Express in 1946 he told a reporter, “I did a lot of riding on the roads, we had no cars or motor bikes back then and we went everywhere by push bike.  Once when my wife was very sick and the coaches were late, I rode to Armidale and out again to Hillgrove with a 25 pound block of ice in 80 minutes.” 


A family story recalls a visiting  Sydney businessman was so impressed by the young man’s energetic work pushing the mine carts, that he financed the purchase of a racing bicycle.  That year 1895 saw the beginning of his cycling career.

Hillgrove was a booming centre at the time with a racing track and recreation grounds attracting regular crowds of 3000 patrons.  It wasn’t long before the young Hillgrove wheelman began competing in nearby towns, Glen Innes, Armidale, Tamworth and Emmaville.   When William won the complete programme of six events at Emmaville against strong fields he was urged to compete in national events in Sydney.

The Winter Race Meeting of the League of N.S.W. Wheelmen in Sydney  on the 15th of August 1896 saw the beginning of young William’s racing fame.  His name wasn’t mentioned in advertisements leading up to the meet, but by the end of the day his name would be flashed to newspapers throughout Australia and New Zealand.

A Sydney newspaper reported proceedings... ‘At about 3 o’clock Lord Hampden accompanied by two of his daughters and son, arrived on the grounds , was received by the President of the League, Mr T. Hassall M.L.A.  The Vice Regal party remained on the grounds for some time watching the race.
The rain, which had so persistently hung about all day broke during the running of the final of the Hampden Wheel Race, but not withstanding this the race proved a most interesting and exciting one, and the win of W. Davidson of Hillgrove was a deservedly popular one, the manner in which he wore the field out stamping him a superior rider.

In a New Zealand report on the race, the news item mentions the only win of the day by a countryman, Ken Lewis who won the Championship of New South Wales.  Lewis, the article reported also contested the Hampden Wheel but failed to ride a place in the event won by W. Davison.
Within a few days of his win, on the 21st August 1896,  William Davison’s name would join other crack cyclists... the American Martin, New Zealander Lewis, and Australians Meadham and Clinton... in advertising leading up to Sydney’s Grand International Cycling Carnival.
Davison went on to more wins and even more praise for his speed and riding skill.   At the Sydney Cricket ground he teamed up with the famous Wheelmen Ossie Prouse, Don Harvison, Fred Prouse and Don Mutton in a multicycle race they won with a world record time of 1.27 for the mile.  The multicycle was a novelty machine seating five riders who pedalled for their lives.

We rode the big machine in Sydney streets and got hooked up in traffic,’ he told reporters.

 Four and five man multi-cycles of the day
Around this time I was surprised to find a newspaper story with yet another Aussie parallel to the Tour de France.  Thumb tacks had been strewn across the road in the path of a Goulburn to Sydney road race.  The year was 1896.   Fast forward to the mayhem caused on the 2012 stage when the peloton in a great display of sportsmanship slowed their progress to allow cyclists to repair their bikes and continue the race.

It seemed such hooliganism has been around for a long, long, time.
In the 1946 interview in the Armidale Express William wouldn’t draw comparisons between riders of his day and those of the 20th century but he did say the old timers were handicapped by the heavier cycles and the low gear ratio. 

“We pushed the old machines with 60 to 70 gears, now they push a machine which is like a skeleton, no weight at all and their gears are over 100.  One thing I will say, I think the cyclists of today would do better if they trained on the roads on big heavy machines with the 60 to 70 gears.  Then when they went on to the track with the light machines, they would simply fly.”

The following years saw Davison featuring in and winning even more races.

A grudge match with a £100 purse was set up between him and long time rival R. Stanfield from Tamworth.  William won the race.  His name and reputation now featured as a major draw card at future carnivals. 
In 1898 William married his sweetheart May Edwards.  In the four years of their marriage they had three children before May died in 1902.  He opened a bike repair shop in Hillgrove about that time but gradually his name disappeared from major cycling events.

He continued to race in local and nearby events into the early 1900’s and in 1906 William Davison married Esther Day.

If William Davison were alive today I wonder how he would react to the hype and publicity surrounding the Tour de France, the constant travelling to other races in countries all over the world by modern day cycling stars; to the glory and hullaballoo and the huge prize money on offer...
...a world and a lifestyle away from Hillgrove ... and that 80 mile round bike trip to fetch a block of ice!

Robyn Mortimer ©2012


Sunday, July 8, 2012



Coincidence and re-appraisal plays a huge part in uncovering family history.

If you’ve come this far in the many stories about my Grandfather of the double identity and his Quaker ancestors you just might remember a certain Last Will and Testament* instructing an Executor to disperse a deceased’s estate between nine surviving nephews and nieces scattered all over the USA, and with just the one living in Australia.

Yes you guessed right, that Aussie beneficiary was my Grandpa, a man as far removed from the ideals of a Quaker as one could possibly be.

The finding of that Last Will and Testament made by Charlie Dennis Brown, Grandpa’s uncle in Indiana,  opened a number of puzzling doors, though not all, relating to my ChasBert’s almost Walter Mitty lifestyle.  But it took me a good few years to realise the hidden gem of identity that all those years had been staring me in the face.

The document popped up on the net some years ago during one of my periodic Google searches, but at the time I latched on to the names I knew and didn’t place any great importance on the names I didn’t.  Apart from Grandpa and his sister Leota I had no idea who the other recipients were.  I imagined that like me they were all descended from one or other of the Indiana Browns, but not to the family I was researching.

And that’s the way it stayed until I began putting together this story after resuming a lost correspondence with it’s catalyst Terri Porcelli... yet another treasured ‘cousin’ from long ago.


John E. Carey and his wife Ida A. Brown with their children Robert and Edna Estella.
This latest story in the life and times of my Quakers touches on Indiana in the 1860’s when  my great- great Grandfather Dennis Brown  faced the dilemma of civil conflict, upheaval of his religious and moral convictions against the need to protect his families future.

From the time of their marriage Dennis and his wife Hannah Burton  have been working a farm in Indian Creek Township on the banks of the Tippacanoe River, land given to him by his father Mercer. (There were Mercers galore in the nine generations of these Quakers)  In a sudden but brief change from farming Dennis suddenly uproots the family and moves to the larger town of Winamac to try his hand at running a business.

The  world of commerce  with its undercurrent of political discussion and economic change however is not to Dennis Brown’s liking and he soon moves the family back to the farm where he feels more at home.

But perhaps this move to urban surroundings some years earlier  in some way spawns Dennis’s enlistment a few years later in 1864, to D Company of Indiana’s 23rd Volunteer Infantry. North against South.  Cousin against cousin.

 It’s not long before the volunteers join General William Tecumseh Sherman’s army in the burning of Atlanta, and then to take part with the remainder of the General’s army in his victorious march to the sea.

When Dennis sailed off to war (literally, they were transported on river boats) he left  Hannah with a very young family to help run the farm, his daughters Eva Jane and Ida, with sons  Mercer Levi, and my great grandfather John William who was just six months short of his 14th birthday.  Younger brothers Van and Charlie wouldn’t arrive until their father returned from the war.

Dennis survived America’s  Civil War, two more sons were born, and the family resumed their everyday lives in Indiana’s Cass County.  In the goodness of time these younger sons Van and Charlie will unknowingly help me unravel my Grandfather’s dubious past, the same young nephew they grew up with and knew as Bertie Everett Brown.

But, enough of Grandpa,  we now follow his aunt, Ida Brown.
Seated in this very old photo taken about 1876 is my great grandfather John Brown’s 17 year old sister Ida. I suspect the older woman standing behind is their mother, the former Hannah Burton,  and the other young lady, her older sister Eva Jane.  Another daughter, Catherine died before the age of 2 years.

This precious photo belongs to Terri Porcelli, Ida Brown’s great grand-daughter.


 The piecing together of a family history requires constant revision.  New sources emerge, distant relations surface.  Always there is the thrill and anticipation of old photos, new cousins, a different slant to an established story... our Quaker tree is in constant flux.

My latest ‘cousin’ and the source for this chapter’s wonderful photos from the past, is Ida Brown’s great grand-daughter Terri Porcelli.  I can’t really claim Terri as a new contact, we were  briefly in touch many years ago but neither of us  at the time had reached the delving stage we are now at, and consequently lost contact.

In those intervening years librarian Terri retired from her work and moved to Connecticut, took up a new hobby, wood carving, and became a grandmother twice over.  Terri’s family history reaches back to Ida Brown Carey’s daughter Edna Estella Lembka, and on then to her daughter Harriet Grace White.

With Edna Estella’s family photos we see the same haunting beauty of her mother, Ida, the youngest in that first photo. In the beautifully posed portrait below, Ida's daughter Edna Estella was just 16 years of age and showing a great deal of self confidence.   In the absence of photos from my side of the family, John W. Brown’s, I can only hope the men were just as  handsome.


As it turned out great-uncle Charlie Brown in one way and another was to have a great influence on both Terri Porcelli and myself.   For me, his death provided the clues to chart my grandfather’s identity deception, though it was his brother Van Brown that I suspect my grandfather hero worshipped to such an extent he claimed his uncle’s war time experience in Mexico and the Philippines as his own.

While for Terri, Charlie and his wife Sibbie’s only child, their daughter Allie, was her grandmother Edna Estella’s close childhood companion.

 This photo shows Edna Estella, 3rd from right,  with her cousin Allie Brown, far right, on a camping trip in Montana with the Lembka family..

Just as their daughters were close friends, so too might have been their fathers, John Carey and Charlie Brown.  In the above photo, Terri’s great grand-father John E. Carey is standing on the right of the slightly smaller unnamed man sporting a neat moustache. Comparing this man with the later photo of a gentleman with his bicycle, I’m wondering if they are one and the same person...John Carey’s brother in law Charlie Brown.

Coming from a Quaker background its not  surprising that school teaching and education cropped up a number of times in connection with various male members of the Brown family.  For instance my ChasBert’s father John William at one time taught in the tiny Indian Creek School. 

His uncle,  William R. Brown, following his marriage to Azuba Washburn built Indian Creek’s first school house before taking off on a short unsuccessful mining expedition to California.

And much later, following in their footsteps, Terri Porcelli’s grandmother Edna Estella Carey, a slip of a girl,  taught mixed age groups in the tiny one roomed schoolhouse shown in the next two photos. 

Her mother Ida passed away when Ella was 17, not long after the portrait photographs were taken.  Edna Estella, called Lulabet by a loving grandchild, then supported herself with teaching jobs, working her way westward from town to town.  And no doubt met her husband, Louis August Lembka along the way.

Later Edna Estella travelled to California, received her Masters in Education and for many years taught English and History in the South Pasadena school system.  In 1944 her retirement from the South Pasadena Junior High School was marked by the installation of a work of art by Merrell Gage, Los Angeles sculptor, entitled ‘St Francis of Assisi’. Terri’s grandmother Lulabet had taught at the school from 1927, a period of seventeen years.

In yet another snap taken on the Montana camping trip, Terri isn’t sure who the three people are.   The woman on the left definitely featured in the earlier shot where both Edna and Allie were identified, and I would hazard a guess that the young woman on horseback to the right in this photo is Edna Estella.

Still enjoying the holiday in Montana, the lady holding the small baby is unknown, but the trio in the background is identified as Allie Brown, Lou Lembka, and his sweetheart Edna Estella, the school teacher; Terri Porcelli’s grandmother.


Back in the days of our earlier correspondence I knew nothing about the Lembka family that young Edna married into.   I knew only that her mother Ida had married into the Carey family.  Re-uniting with Terri the surname  cropped up for the first time.  Lembka.  Suddenly I knew I had seen that name before, and of course I had. 

Terri’s grandmother Edna Lembka, the beautiful young woman in the photo below, was one of the surviving nephews and nieces named as beneficiaries along with my grandfather ChasBert in their Uncle Charlie Dennis Brown’s last Will and Testament.

It’s curious how these hidden clues lay dormant for so many years, then suddenly emerge into the modern world with the speed of a Google g-mail.

Now it's time to introduce the gentleman whose Last Will and Testament connected, on paper at least,  the offspring of two of his siblings...

Be-whiskered and  proudly displaying his splendid bicycle is Edna Estella’s  uncle Charlie Dennis Brown, also my grandfather ChasBert’s uncle.   

When Charlie died in Indiana in the depression years  of the 1930’s he left behind his Will with legacies to be distributed by his only surviving brother Van; over $1300 to be dispersed to his only known surviving nieces and nephews....a welcome windfall in those days.

The names were...
·      Edna Carey Lembka,          niece living in California.
·      John Carey                         nephew living in Los Angeles
·      Edwin D. Brown                nephew living in Illinois
·      Milo Brown                       nephew living unknown
·      William R. Brown              nephew living Chicago
·      May Brown                        niece living Chicago
·      Pluma Brown                     niece living Indiana
·      Leota Brown                           niece living in Peru
·      Bert Brown alias Charles Brown Parker ..nephew living in Australia

The last two beneficiaries were my Grandfather ChasBert and  his sister Leota.

And there standing out so clearly at the top of the list, Edna Carey Lembka, living at the time in California and a name I failed then to recognise.

What a marvellous way to both prove and celebrate our family connection, Terri Porcelli,  Ida Brown’s great grand daughter,  and Robyn Mortimer, John W. Brown’s great grand daughter... bringing alive the memories of a brother and sister who lived through the years of America’s Civil War.

And all due to the chance cyber meeting so many years later of  their great grand-children living on opposite sides  of the world.

Robyn Mortimer ©2012