My great grandfather, Captain William John Spells, Master Mariner, was born in 1858 at Port Adelaide, a mere twenty years after South Australia was founded. Like his father before him, with saltwater in his veins, Will worked as a cabin boy for his father, Captain William Spells, who founded the Spells Shipping Company, running a small fleet of ketches around coastal South Australia.

anniewattmodel 1 - Questions I Wish I Could Ask My Great Grandparents

Not one of my ancestors’ boats, but a model of a ketch, the Annie Watts, a boat that worked out of Port Adelaide from the late 1800s.

Questions I’d loved to have the opportunity to ask him include:

  • “Great grandpapa, what cargoes were you carrying on such ketches as the ‘Adonis’ or the ‘Percy’ from Port Wakefield to the much larger port at Adelaide?
  • “Why did you establish a branch of the family shipping company at Port Wakefield?
  • “Were you ever ship wrecked or caught in a violent storm?”
  • “Why did you marry three times?”
  • “Why is my great grandmother, Margaret Anne Boyle, your second wife, buried in the Port Wakefield cemetery on the protestant side and not in the Catholic side with other family members?”

My great grandmother, Margaret Anne Boyle, born in Dumbarton, Scotland in 1870, married William John Spells in 1892 in Adelaide, South Australia, and immediately accepted his five children as her own. She went on to bear four children of her own, with only two surviving to adulthood (the eldest was my grandfather).

portpanorama hartsmill - Questions I Wish I Could Ask My Great Grandparents

Panorama of Port Adelaide, about 1879

Questions for her I wish I could have asked:

  • “Great Grandmamma, how old were you when you emigrated to Adelaide from Scotland and how long was the voyage?”
  • “Did the fact that your father taught at a school in Dumbarton help you to cope with your husband’s five existing children, the youngest of which were twins, when you married him?”
  • “What was my grandfather like as a youngster? He was a rather stern, remote man when I knew him.”
  • “Did you walk along the ‘widow’s walk’ built at the top of your Port Wakefield house, gazing out to see if any of the Spells’ ships were nearing port?”
  • “Losing your last two baby boys, one to measles and one to croup, during their first year must have broken your heart. How did you cope with their deaths, living so far away from family and medical support?”

While I have researched my Spells’ family tree and have set out the details in Family Group charts, Pedigree Charts and added their details to my personal family tree, I find I have a myriad of personal questions I’d love to ask my ancestors. Why did they come to South Australia? What were living conditions like in Port Misery (as the port of Adelaide was nick named)? How did young women cope with their husband’s away at sea? I’d always considered that William John remarried in ‘indecent haste’ after the death of his first wife, Mary Ann, but with five children at home and the need to keep six ketches at sea, maybe two months was necessary.

What questions would you ask?

Have you considered adding a simple pedigree chart to your clients’ book? Have you asked them what they can recall about their grandparents or great grandparents? Your client may be the only person alive with this intimate family knowledge. I believe that this personal information adds both flowers and foliage to the client’s often bare family tree, providing both depth and breadth to their own personal history.

And to those of you who are grandparents and great grandparents, don’t let future generations of your family only wish they had asked the important questions and collected stories from you. One day, your descendants will wonder about you and your life today.

A little more about my great-great grandfather: William John’s father, Captain William Spells, a Master Mariner, sailed from London to Montevideo, Uruguay, down around Cape Horn and up to Valparaiso, Chile to take on board a shipment of mules and muleteers for the Burra Burra copper mines in South Australia. The voyages on board the ‘Malacca’, a four masted barquentine, sailed through Drake’s passage at the bottom of Tierra Del Fuego – long considered the most dangerous water on earth. What a voyage! And he repeated it twice before finally going ashore to settle in Adelaide in 1852. Oh, the questions I would have for him!

Images from the South Australian Maritime Museum Collection

Annie Payne

Annie Payne

Annie Payne found her passion in 1988 when she began interviewing people about their life stories as part of an Australian Bicentennial project. She founded her company, History from the Heart, in 2006, the same year she joined APH. Annie spreads the word about personal history in Australia and New Zealand with frequent radio interviews and articles in Inside History, Australia's family history magazine.
Annie Payne

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