Last week, 23 January, was my mother’s birthday, or at least it would have been was she still alive. Mum died in 1999 on August 28. We were living in Sweden at the time, our twins, Hanna and Samuel were not yet two years old, and Isak, our youngest, was not even born. Our return to Australia was planned for October or November, when my brother Peter and his wife Sarah, then living in England, were also planning to move to Australia. When Dad phoned us to tell of Mum’s illness, an aggressive pneumonia which progressed rapidly to septicaemia, Peter and I immediately booked flights, arriving in Tamworth, Australia almost simultaneously a few days later. Mum died the night after we arrived, plunging our family into a dark time of shock and sadness.
That was over 14 years ago and as always, life goes on, despite the hole that is left by the passing on of a loved one. There is still a deep sadness that comes over me at times, at birthdays and anniversaries especially. I was thinking about Mum the other day and her life, and her background, which of course I would love to know more of. I get so annoyed that I cannot ask her about how things were, though of course I heard much of her life when she was here to tell us. And Mum was a great teller of stories.
What I don’t think I ever realised properly was that Mum was only first generation Australian. Her father was English, growing up in the west of London, migrating to Australia in the twenties when he was 18 years old. His parents, the grandparents Mum never met, were both English, though his mother was born in South Africa for reasons I have not yet been able to ascertain. Mum’s mother was Australian born, but both of her parents, Mum’s maternal grandparents, were Irish, having migrated to Australia when they were young. The circumstances of these migrations I have yet to discover, though doubtless Mum could tell me if she was here. So Mum’s grandparents were English and Irish.
Mum’s English grandfather, George Simmonds (previously George Lilley), was in the British army in WW1, as I have written about previously. Her Irish grandfather, George Byrne, who lived in Australia, was born in 1861, and was therefore 53 years of age at the outbreak of war 100 years ago, too old to serve. However, Mum had one uncle on her mother’s side, Uncle William Byrne, who was born in 1895, and was therefore 19 at the outbreak of WW1. He served in the war too, but the details of his war service I have also yet to discover. I would also love to know more of how Mum’s mother, my grandmother Gertrude, and her four sisters, experienced the First World War, since it must have had a profound effect on their early lives. Three of those sisters, Kathleen, Frances and Isobel, never married. I have wondered if part of the reason could have been the lack of young men at that time, so many having embarked for Europe never to return?
Mum’s grandparents, George Byrne and Susan Hickson, were both born in County Kerry, Ireland, in the 1860s. How they came to Australia and when I have yet to discover, but they met and married there, and raised a family of five girls and a son. That son was the WW1 veteran, William. Three of their daughters, as mentioned, died as spinsters. I remember visiting them in the Blue Mountains when I was a child. They all lived together at that time, and I remember thinking how polite and fragile and odd they all were. We had tea in their living room, in a little cottage in Springwood, if I remember correctly. It never occurred to me at that time that they had once been young and vibrant and full of life and dreams. For children, old people have always and only been old.
I don’t remember ever meeting Uncle William, so perhaps he died before I was born. I believe he married but never had any children. And thus that branch of the Byrne name was lost. Gertrude Byrne, my grandmother, became a Simmonds when she married, but her three surviving children were girls. Mum became a Holford, Auntie Dorothy a Murdoch, and Auntie Joyce never married. So the Simmonds name in my family has also passed into history, only two generations after my great grandfather chose it. My grandfather had three brothers, all SImmonds, but as far as I am aware none of them had any sons to carry on the family name.
Mum’s English grandparents were George Simmonds (originally Lilley) from Surrey, and Mabel Butler from Bristol, and her Irish grandparents were George Byrne and Susan Hickson, both from County Kerry. I have pieced together Mabel’s life more than any other. I am getting to know George Simmonds, bit by bit. George Byrne and Susan Hickson, the Irish, are complete strangers to me. Perhaps I can become acquainted with them too in the years ahead.
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