When re­searched her mother-in-law’s fam­ily, she dis­cov­ered a sad story of eco­nomic de­pres­sion and its dras­tic im­pact, far away in Aus­tralia By Bev­er­ley Ship­ley

Your Family History - - Contents -

Bev­er­ley Ship­ley found a tragic story from Aus­tralia, when she re­searched her fam­ily his­tory.

Ev­ery so of­ten a piece of ev­i­dence ar­rives, out of the blue, that pro­vides piv­otal in­for­ma­tion in fam­ily re­search. This hap­pened to me whilst look­ing at the life of Hugh McKee, my mother-in-law’s un­cle.

Apart from some ba­sic facts and fam­ily rec­ol­lec­tions, Hugh had been prov­ing elu­sive. I had been told that Hugh had been a keen union man who had been black­listed. He then left Eng­land for Aus­tralia, where he mar­ried, but life for he and his wife had be­come ‘in­tol­er­a­ble’ – so much so that it was be­lieved they may have com­mit­ted sui­cide.

I had con­firmed the ba­sic facts – Hugh had been born in Liver­pool, then in Lan­cashire, in 1883, to Sarah Ann and Robert Raw­sthorn McKee. He was one of two boys and six girls. By 1891, the fam­ily had moved across the Mersey, to live in Birken­head. Trag­i­cally, in 1915, Hugh’s brother, Ge­orge, was killed in an ac­ci­dent, and, two years later, in 1917, his fa­ther died. So this left Hugh as ‘head of the house­hold’.

But then six elo­quently writ­ten let­ters came to light. They were dated be­tween 18 Jan­uary and 17 Au­gust 1932, and were sent from Aus­tralia – one ad­dressed to ‘Mother’, and five to ‘Agnes’, Hugh’s youngest sis­ter. All were signed ‘xxx Hughie xxx’. These let­ters, along with a search tool sug­gested by an ar­ti­cle in Your Fam­ily His­tory, en­abled me to then un­tan­gle any fact from fic­tion in the life of Hugh McKee.

Armed with dates, and con­fir­ma­tion of life in Aus­tralia, I lo­cated im­mi­gra­tion records that re­vealed that Hugh McKee ar­rived in Free­man­tle on 25 June 1920. But he had not trav­elled alone, as had been pre­vi­ously sug­gested – quite the con­trary. On the jour­ney with him was Miss Mar­garet Peace – his fu­ture wife.

Six years later, on 13 Oc­to­ber 1926, the cou­ple mar­ried, in Syd­ney. Both were em­ployed – Hugh was a ‘sea­farer’, and Mar­garet a shop as­sis­tant. They had made their home at 37 Cur­tis Road, Bal­main, New South Wales – which was the ad­dress on the let­ters sent home to Eng­land.

By 1930, how­ever, the ten­drils of the Great De­pres­sion had ar­rived in Aus­tralia. This this caused not only mass un­em­ploy­ment, ex­treme hard­ship, des­ti­tu­tion and star­va­tion, but also a dra­matic in­crease in sui­cide rates.

From left: Hugh's brother, Ge­orge; Hugh's mother, Sarah Ann McKee, and Agnes, Hugh's sis­ter

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