10 minute read
Who doesn’t love a good mystery? I know I certainly do and for much of my teenage and early adult years, one mystery loomed large on my horizon; the disappearance of my grandmother Connie’s father William Duck and his first family. It’s one of the reasons I got into family history and here I am, 30 years later, still trying to solve stubborn family mysteries! But for all the frustrations, there has also been great success and none greater than helping Connie find her father and her half siblings. Connie spoke openly to me of the curiosity she felt in not knowing this part of her family and ultimately, of herself. All she knew was what her mother had told her about her father; a man who said he loved both his wives and his seven children but then left them all without support in Australia, whilst he sailed back to England, never to be seen again. Or so she thought!
Fast forward to 2001 and Connie celebrated her 88th birthday. She had already lived a remarkable life; living in both Australia and England, surviving the Blitz during WW2, having a successful career as a bookkeeper, marrying and producing five healthy children. But there was still a part of her missing and she yearned to solve the mystery of what happened to the father she never met. All we had to go on was pretty much the 1913 newspaper article from The Truth; a paper notorious for publishing the intimate and scandalous details of the lives of ordinary citizens. A few years prior, my mother and I, long before newspapers were digitised, had gone to the State Library of NSW, pulled up the microfilm of that newspaper and trawled through until we found the article that Connie said would be there. The article had been a source of great shame for her mother Ada, who had been in court with William’s first wife Minnie when the bigamy charge was successfully prosecuted. The story was sensationalised by the paper with the headline screaming ‘Duck and his duckies; all live together beneath the same roof!’ This article, along with Connie’s birth certificate that listed her eldest half-sister, a mistake her father made, gave me the clues I needed to dig deeper. I did not know if Connie’s half siblings had gone to Adelaide with their mother, where she had a sister. Or whether they had sailed right back to England after the court case. But I was desperate to find out. So, as was my usual custom, back before the internet and digitised records were available, I headed one Saturday to the NSW State Library to trawl through the records again. I was doing a bit of research that day for various ancestors and I just happened to think I should look at the births for 1913 to see Connie’s registration, on a gut feeling.
And as I scrolled through, something remarkable caught my eye. Sadie Duck, born in Sydney in 1913 to William R Duck and Minnie. What? Who was this Sadie? And why did her parents have the same name as Connie’s half siblings parents? I quickly changed tact and looked for a marriage record for Sadie to see what had happened to her. All I could find was a Miriam Sadie Duck who had married an Arthur Sutton. So I searched for Sadie and Arthur. I could not find a current electoral roll listing for Sadie, however I did find Arthur, still in Sydney. Jeez I thought, he must be old by now, as old as Connie at least. I checked the address in the phone book and got his number. I rang the number from outside the library but no-one answered. I got home and later that night, I rang the number again. ‘Hello’, a man’s voice answered. ‘Oh’ I said, ‘I’m looking for Sadie Sutton?’ The voice, this time quite gruff, replied, ‘And who wants to know?’ I explained as nicely as I could that Sadie had a half-sister who was still alive and wanting to make contact. He told me he never spoke to Sadie anymore but he did know the story of their father having two families. It turned out that Arthur had divorced Sadie many years previously. Damn! But then he said he still kept in touch with her sister Ivy. There was more amusement on my end, as I quickly calculated how old she would be. Turns out she was 95 years young! He told me she still lived on her own. And here’s her phone number, he said! Get out of town! After all these years, it was that easy!
A little old lady’s voice answered minutes later when I rang the number Arthur had given me. I explained who I was and asked if she knew what I was referring to, as delicately as I could. Yes, she confirmed, she knew about her father’s second family. I could not believe my luck! I was about to reunite two sisters, born 95 and 88 years ago! Old Willie would be turning in his grave. I visited Ivy soon after at her flat in northern Sydney that she had lived in for decades. I found her to be a very lovely, sweet lady who was very generous when it came to answering my many questions about her family. She was rather frail but could still get around her flat by herself and her memories of her childhood were very clear. A few months later my mother brought Connie down to Sydney and we all went to Ivy’s flat so the sisters could meet for the first time. It was a surreal experience for me, having never imagined I would find any living relatives for Connie before she passed. Ivy was able to fill in the gaps for Connie and tell her about their father and what she knew of him. Ivy last saw him as a 10 year old child and whilst her three siblings wanted nothing to do with him, Ivy had a great curiosity and a generosity of spirit that saw her seek out her father when she was in her 60s. William was in his 90s when Ivy met up with him in England and she was able to ask him all the important questions that had haunted her since her childhood.
I visited Ivy a few more times and we talked of many things, including how proud she was to be descended from women who took up the suffragette movement. She gave me two photographs of her father; one in his ship uniform and the other, a poignant family photograph of her parents, herself and her siblings, taken during the First World War, not long before her father disappeared from her life. I was able to pass the photographs onto Connie so she could see her father for the first time at 88 years old, just in time before her eyesight deteriorated to the point when she could no longer see fine detail. Her father also lost his eyesight in the years before he died. It was one of the few things the two of them had in common. As a result of finding Ivy, my family was introduced to many other members of the extended Duck clan; William’s other descendants and those of his brother and sisters. They live all over the world, including Sydney, Adelaide, England and France. They, alongside myself, often shake our heads at the chaos Old Willie left behind and I often wonder what he would have thought about his children finally finding each other after more than eight decades apart. William died in 1975 aged 93 years. His side of the family lived long lives and his children inherited those genes as well. Ivy died in 2007, aged 100 years. In an eerie coincidence, her only daughter Bettine died the same day, in another part of Sydney. My grandmother Connie died three years later, aged 96 years.
The moral of Ivy and Connie’s story is this; it is never too late to solve that mystery. It is never too late to find long lost members of your family. Of course, not all cases will have the same successful or happy outcome. But it may just put ghosts to rest, as well as long held shame.
For more information about William Duck’s story, click here: