13 – 1885 – Whitfields, Bursills

Posted originally on January 27, 2015 by Neil

This series of posts is the most comprehensive I have done on family history. I am doing them backwards here so that in due course they will appear sequentially.

According to the older version of the Whitfield family tree prepared by Bob Starling that I have on my computer, my grandfather Thomas Daniel Sweeney Whitfield (1866-1948) married Henrietta Bursill (1874-1931) on 9 November 1892. Now that makes sense when you realise Henrietta must have been 18. But there is this curious item I just found on Trove:


That is from the Kiama Independent of 15 November 1882. I know for sure that Henrietta Bursill was born in 1874:

The chances of her being the “Ettie Bursill” in that 1882 story are thus very remote: 8 years old?  That Henrietta’s mother was also Henrietta, as I note in this 2013 post. Yet an obituary for Henrietta Senior dated 1921 – reproduced in that post – states that she was survived by two sons (including Charles) and ONE daughter “Elizabeth, Mrs. Whitfield.”  That of course should be “Henrietta”.  There is another obituary for Henrietta Senior in the Kiama Reporter and Illawarra Journal 6 July 1921.

On 28th June, 1921, at the residence of her daughter, Mrs. Thos. Whitfield,of Shellharbour, one of our best beloved and most highly esteemed residents passed quietly away to her rest in her 85th year. Mrs. Bursill was born at Bradfeld, England, in 1837, and at the age of 18 years took passage for Australia by the sailing ship “Asiatic,” and after sailing 97 days, entered Sydney Heads, 24th May, 1855. When 21 years of age she married Thomas Bursill, and they came to Illawarra in search of a new home. They settled on a small farm near Shellharbour over 62 years ago. Mr. Bursill passed away many years ago, leaving his partner the care of five children, three sons and two daughters. The two elder sons, Mr.E. Bursill, builder, of Robertson, and Mr. Chas. Bursill, builder, of Shellharbour, and are both highly esteemed and respected residents of both districts, the third son, George, passed away, from heart failure.It is safe to say we have never had  a resident more universally beloved and esteemed than was Mrs. Bursill,always bright and cheerful, and ready to help, going about doing good. The district is better for the lives and examples of such as she, and very much poorer for their loss.The Rev. Gallop, of Jamberoo, con-ducted the funeral service, at Shellharbour cemetery on 29th June, and spoke of the good she had done and of her kind way of doing, of a long life of usefulness, then entering into rest.

You may have noticed that the “two daughters” left when Thomas B died could not have included my grandmother Henrietta Jr. Do the Maths and study that birth certificate extract carefully.

George Bursill, by the way, died in the middle of a cricket match at Dunmore near Shellharbour in 1913.

So I am just puzzled. My initial thought that the wedding I was reading about was my grandfather’s (with a typo of F for T in his initial) can’t be right then, but Thirlmere is certainly family territory. Who were “F. Whitfield” and “Ettie Bursill” of that 1882 wedding? I am not sure.


I read in the Sydney Evening News for 10 November 1899:

The marriage of Mr. W. Whitfield, of Thirlmere, to Miss Eliza Wilkinson, of Bargo, was solemnised on Tuesday evening, 31st ultimo, at the residence tit. the bride’s mother, the Rev. D. H. Dillon officiating. The bride was attended by her two sisters as bridesmaids,and was given away by her brother, Mr. Geo. Wilkinson. Mr. Geo. Whitfield, brother to the bridegroom, acted as best man. A large gathering of friends assembled to witness the ceremony. After the wedding breakfast was partaken of, dancing was kept up with vigor until morning. Mr. and Mrs. Whitfield were the recipients of many congratulations.

That is my dad’s Uncle Bill, and I remember him well and their house in Upper Picton. Cheese and tomato on Sao biscuits in a gorgeous old country kitchen.


Cedar Creek, Thirlmere, New South Wales, 18 September 1887, Robert Hunt, Albumen print.

UPDATE 28 January:

Mystery solved: the true date at the top of that Kiama Independent story (“Wedding Bells”) is 15 November 1892!  So it is an account of my grandfather’s wedding!

13a — Whitfields 1880s-1930s

This post fills in background in preparation for the next going back through my family story to 1885. Consider these reposts. Apologies for a degree of repetition from posts here recently:

Wollongong High’s centenary, my family history, WW1

In December is the 100th birthday of what is now Wollongong High School of the Performing Arts….

I taught there 1975-1980, with a hiatus for secondment to Sydney University 1977-1978. My Uncle Keith Christison and Aunt Beth Christison (Heard) went to WHS in the 1930s. I had an Uncle, Colin Whitfield, who was part of the founding intake. He was born in 1901, but I never met him.  This may be seen in Shellharbour Cemetery:


For the sad story behind these see Neil’s personal decades: 20 – Shellharbour Whitfields 1905 and Neil’s personal decades 26: Whitfields, Christisons, and more — 1915.

Family history and mystery–the Indigenous connection

…And this is my grandmother:


Henrietta Bursill (Whitfield) 1874-1931

That’s my father’s mother, who had a very sad life. According to stories my father and mother told me it is through Henrietta that the family has some Aboriginal ancestry, as I noted back in 2000-2001:

Now Henrietta has been something of a family secret; one story, told me by my father and mother, says she was the illegitimate offspring of an Aboriginal (or part-Aboriginal) farm worker and a widow. You will note my father was nineteen or twenty when she died. My nephew Warren not long ago met a Tharawal Elder named Les Bursill at a gathering in Canberra; Henrietta was a Bursill (variant “Bursell” on some records). So it is possible they were all descendants of the First Australians… That’s Henrietta on the right. About Warren: my brother married his first wife Aileen, Warren’s mother, in 1955. It turns out she too was of Aboriginal descent. See Warren’s excellent account of that family in A Guringai Family’s Story.

There is no doubt about my sister-in-law’s descent from the family of Sophy Bungaree, that is of the family of Bungaree of considerable fame in early colonial history. But what about the Whitfields and the Bursills? I see that Henrietta’s birth certificate names no father, and if then the story I heard is true – and I am quite sure it is – then of course she wasn’t a Bursill at all, which does rather complicate matters. For the moment then we are all assuming Dharawal, but that father could have come from further afield…

Possibly we’ll never know exactly where Henrietta’s natural father came from. The story about her birth was raised with my maternal grandfather, Roy Hampton Christison, when my mother and father became engaged. As my mother told the story, old Charlie  Bursill came and told grandfather Roy about the “touch of the tarbrush” via Henrietta. I do note that Grenville’s 1872 Post Office Directory lists a MRS Bursill as a farmer in Shellharbour. The story is that she had an Aboriginal assistant working for her, and that he, in 1874, was the actual father of Henrietta. He is said to have (wisely?) disappeared. Grandfather Christison told C Bursill to jump into Lake Illawarra, I believe, and of course the engagement and marriage went ahead in 1935.

What I do know is that as a kid I always sensed something as I wandered the bush around the Woronora valley, or on a hill in Sutherland West then known as The Devil’s Back but now just a mundane suburb. It was a presence that lived in the rock shelters and in high places with views of surrounding country. I can’t explain it…

Update 18 July 2021

There are significant additions and corrections to Henrietta’s story at Family history and mystery–the Indigenous connection.

What a treasury of family history!

For the first time I have been over the last few days trawling through the recently digitised Kiama Independent on Trove checking Whitfield and Christison and other family-related names. I have far from finished my trawl, but what treasures I have already found!


That’s my grandfather, Thomas Daniel Sweeney Whitfield, born in Picton NSW in 1867 (or 21 December 1866) and died in 1948. I can just remember him. By the way, he always dropped or denied the “Sweeney” bit as having “Daniel Sweeney” in his name was a rather too poignant reminder of the family’s origins.  When I wrote that some years ago I was still venting my anger with some aspects of old Tom’s treatment of my father in the past, even if the old Tom I remember vaguely was a fairly benign deaf octogenarian with white hair…

And here is something about Tom’s mother-in-law:


…her daughter, Henrietta, was Tom’s first wife. She had a hard life.



See also an account I gave some years back, one element of which is contradicted by the newspaper record. It seems Henrietta II died at home in Shellharbour.

There were five sons in my father’s family, and a daughter, Ella. The oldest son, Aubry (or Aubrey), died in 1906 at the age of twelve. Then another brother, Colin, died probably around 1915 at the age of about fourteen; I have heard this story, but am not sure of dates; I know when I was at school I used an algebra book belonging to Colin from around 1914 at Wollongong High. Information provided by Bob Starling in April 2005 has clarified this.

  • WHITFIELD Aubrey R 1893-1906 (13)
  • WHITFIELD Thomas W L (1906-1906)
  • WHITFIELD Colin C 1901-1915 (14)

So one died in infancy, and another accidentally. A third son died as a teenager nine years later. I was told one died in a riding accident, the other in a shooting accident. Certainly, my grandmother Henrietta went mad, and, among other things, chased my father round with an axe at one time, and another time tried to burn the house down. She died in Parramatta Asylum in 1931. Curiously, I was able to ascertain in the 1970s that she had died of tertiary syphilis, of GPI (General Paralysis of the Insane) as it was then called; my father was in the 1970s being checked for Huntington’s Chorea, an hereditary form of dementia, and this fact came to light. Fortunately it was also established that my father did not have this problem. Evidence for all this came from the specialist at Prince Henry Hospital who actually tracked down the doctor, still alive at the time, who had signed my grandmother’s death certificate.

It appears, from what I have been told, that my grandfather tended to blame his wife for the death of the first-born son, and that this compounded with the death of the second. Her decline into madness coincided with my father’s childhood and adolescence, but was not his only problem. My father was apparently quite a talented artist, and I have seen evidence of this from World War II, when he sent a number of sketches home from Papua. One was of a Scotch thistle and was drawn especially for my sister. There was a colony of well- known Sydney artists who frequented Shellharbour at that time and they encouraged his talent, and indeed wanted him to go back to Sydney with them. Well, his father was having none of that, and demanded that he destroy all his artworks and paraphernalia. He in fact hid a lot of it in a cave on Native Dog Hill (now Mount Warrigal), where it may well be to this day. He was also taken out of school at the minimum age, and apprenticed to his father. My father told me these stories at various times.

My mother tells me that even after she and my father married in 1935, my father had one day made a set of window frames involving some very fine finishing work. He was very proud of them and showed them to old Tom, who promptly told him they were shit, smashed them, and got him to start over. Later my mother, who refused to be cowed by the old man, said to Tom that they seemed good to her. “They were,” old Tom said. “They were fine, nothing wrong with them, but I don’t want him getting a big head.”

So after such childhood experiences, after such a family, after the Depression and the struggle to establish himself, after the Second World War, my father’s dreams in some ways died in the grave with my sister.

The stories there in the main came from my father and mother.


* Or was she? This whole Bursill business is getting complicated.  Until 28 June that is! Another newspaper, the Kiama Reporter and Illawarra Journal, has more detail in its obituary on Mrs Henrietta Bursill (Senior).


Certainly my grandfather Thomas was married to Hetty/Henrietta Bursill/Bursell who was born in the Kiama District in 1874 and died in 1931.  So Henrietta I (died 1921) is definitely my great-grandmother. I have also ascertained that she was married to Thomas R Bursill in Chippendale in 1858 and that her maiden name was Henrietta Woodley.

But is the story my mother and father told me true: that Henrietta II was born rather a long time after Thomas R Bursill died? Is this what Charlie Bursill apparently told my mother’s father Roy Christison around 1934-5, only to be rebuked good and proper by Roy H? (Think “tarbrush”.) The articles are vague, and openly available material online has not helped me out. I can’t find a year of death for Thomas R Bursill yet, but I do note that in 1872 Greville’s Post Office Directory of Shell Harbour only lists a Mrs Bursill as a farmer in Shell Harbour.  But this may be the clincher:


When you think about it, especially given the rather wonderful obituary Henrietta I scored in the Kiama Reporter, it is rather touching that she named this, her last and probably unexpected, child after herself. She seems to have been quite a woman!


Charles Bursill’s place in Shellharbour in 1895

“’Seaside’ was the home of the Bursill Family. Charles Bursill was the first and last harbour master at Shellharbour. He was a builder, carpenter, undertaker and Sunday school teacher actively involved with St Paul’s Church of England. The house site was formerly owned by Captain William Wilson. It was demolished and replaced by the Ocean Beach Hotel which opened in 1929.” – Shellharbour Images

But meanwhile I have found a nice court case from 1897. Henrietta II  is “Betty” there but that is obviously wrong. It concerns the proprietor of the Steam Packet Hotel**, Abraham Winsor, who was accused of shooting at James Dennis Condon with intent to murder. Henrietta was a witness.


** “Campbell Mercer built the Steam Packet Hotel in 1855 on land purchased from T A Reddall. Mercer leased the building to David Moon who obtained a Publican’s License and opened the Steam Packet Hotel in April 1856. The hotel was sold to Thomas Cosgrove in 1861 and was known locally as Cosgrove’s Inn. The hotel was a centre for social life and public meetings, as well as a base for travellers. The Condon Family owned the hotel from 1868 until the 1880s. The hotel continued under a succession of licensees until the early 1900s when it became Beazley’s General Store, followed by the Gethings Store. The building was demolished in the late 1970s.” – Shellharbour Images  I remember it as a store; almost certainly bought ice creams and soft drinks there! Seems, reading between the lines, there may have been reasons for a Condon to be shooting in the general direction of the proprietor of the Steam Packet in 1897!


The Steam Packet