Saturday, 4 January 2014

Lost to the sea

It is nice in the surf

While I was thinking about the ways in which the First World War influenced our emergence as a nation, I came across this recruitment poster and it reminded me that even though we might think of the surfie as a much later creation, the sea has always been a major part of Australian culture. After all, apart from Canberra, which is a fairly recent (and artificial) creation, all our capital cities are on the coast. 

It is nice in the surf, but what about the men in the trenches? Lithograph printed in colour on paper, c. 1915. Artist: David Henry Souter. Published by the Win the War League. 
Image courtesy AWM. Image ARTV00141.

The poster also reminded me of the role the sea played in the deaths of two Coburg recruits who never did make it to the battlefields of France. They were cousins William Geddes and William Henry McKay, whose attestation papers comment that they died in a boating accident on 30 July 1917 at Anderson Inlet while on final leave, on the day before they were due to enter camp.

Anderson Inlet, Inverloch, South Gippsland. 143 kilometres (89 miles) from Melbourne. Today’s tourists go for its swimming, sailing, fishing, windsurfing and surfing opportunities. This photo does not even hint at the treachery of the stormy winter sea that would have faced William Geddes and William Henry McKay. 

The accident

On the afternoon of the accident, 18 year old William Geddes and his 28 year old cousin William Henry McKay were in Gippsland helping their uncle Thomas Hilliar who was moving building materials across the inlet. The uncle, who had been a Coburg labourer, had recently acquired land at Point Smythe from the Closer Settlement Board. He’d already fenced off his property and had built a three roomed weatherboard house on his land and on this trip he and his nephews were moving timber across ready for more construction. According to newspaper reports, the boat was ‘bottle shaped’, loaded with too much timber on top, and came to grief somewhere near the jetty at Point Smythe.
When the party had failed to land by 10pm, the inlet was dragged. The boat was found floating bottom upwards but there was no sign of the men. Only a few sticks of timber came ashore and it was two days before Hilliar’s body was found. One newspaper reported that he had ‘made desperate efforts to save himself from drowning, as he had taken off two coats, removed the lace out of one boot, and partly unlaced the other.’  
At the time of the accident, no mention was made of the recovery of William McKay’s body and I have been unable to locate a death notice or find him in the Victorian Death Index. A newspaper report ten months later says that he was found the same day as his uncle, but I suspect that his body was never found. Although he is listed on his parents’ headstone at Coburg Cemetery, the register of burials for Coburg Cemetery does not list him. It is likely that he shared the fate of so many young men who were killed in action in France and whose bodies were never found.
Amazingly, William Geddes’ body was found ten months after the accident. It had been buried in sand, having been washed high up on the beach some time before and ‘had lain there buried until the sand which covered it was removed by heavy seas’. He was identified by the military buttons on his clothes. His remains were brought to Melbourne by train and he was buried in the Baptist section of Coburg Cemetery (Compartment P, Grave 416) with his aunt and uncle, Fanny and John McKay.

Geddes-McKay grave in foreground. Thanks to David Down of the Friends of Coburg Cemetery for confirming that William Geddes was buried with the McKays and for providing me with the location of the grave.

Some family background

William Geddes

By the time he enlisted on 14 July 1917, both of William Geddes’ parents were dead, his father William in 1906 and his mother Ruth Annie (nee Hilliar) in 1909 (when he was 10). Only one child from his father’s first marriage was living at the time of William junior’s death, the much older Agnes who married William Boldman of Emerald in 1902 and had four children of her own, born between 1903 and 1910. It was his mother’s famliy who provided William with a home and family support. On his enlistment, he named his cousin Mary Elizabeth Jackson, daughter of his mother’s oldest sister, as his next of kin. At the outbreak of war she lived at 462 Sydney Road, Coburg, also the address of Thomas Hilliar and it is likely that the young William Geddes lived there with them, as he attended Coburg State School.

William Henry McKay

William Henry McKay was the eldest of nine children born to Scot John McKay and his wife Fanny Caroline Hilliar (sister of Ruth Annie Geddes and Thomas Hilliar). Like his siblings, William was born in Coburg. William attended Coburg State School and is featured in the school’s World War One Soldiers Book, although, unlike so many others, his entry does not include a photograph.

Image courtesy Coburg Historical Society.

This was an enterprising family. The McKay family were well known dairy farmers who had properties in Newlands Road, Coburg until the 1960s. Like her sister Ruth, William’s mother Fanny McKay died young, in 1912. Interestingly, we know from her probate papers that between 1897 and 1911 she had bought three lots of land totalling 26 acres with her own money, all in Newlands Road, Coburg, land which she left to her husband on her death. Probate papers reveal that at the time of his death, 28 year old William Henry McKay was well on the way to establishing himself. He had bought 17 acres of land in the Parish of Keelbundora valued at £350. He had 4 cows, 4 heifers, 2 horses and 10 hives of bees. He also had over £200 in the bank. Alan, the youngest son of the family, owned 200 acres of land which he sold to Kodak and to the owners of the Coburg Drive-In in the 1960s. Even then he continued on leased land along Edgars Creek until 1976 when the McKay’s long association with Coburg’s dairy industry ended.

The Hilliar family

As I researched this story, I became aware of a wide-reaching and loving family network based around the Hilliar family.
Henry Hilliar and his wife Sarah Beaton had seven children born in Brighton between 1856 and 1867. Two died young, but several played a supportive role in the lives of young William Geddes.
Eldest daughter Mary Elizabeth married Joseph Jackson in 1877 and it was her daughter, also Mary Elizabeth, who lived for a time in Coburg and is listed as William Geddes’ next of kin.
Thomas Hilliar, born in 1861, died with William Geddes and William McKay on 30 July 1917. He was the father of six, including a son Henry, who had enlisted in Western Australia in August 1914 and was killed in action in France on 30 May 1916. The family lived with Mary Jackson at 462 Sydney Road, Coburg in the early days of the war, so the cousins would have known each other well.

Neither William Geddes nor William McKay got the chance to fight for their country, but they are still remembered amongst Coburg’s war dead, not in the Memorial Avenue of Trees at Lake Reserve but in the Memorial Garden planted to the south of Coburg State School’s Infant School. William Geddes’ was tree number 33 and William McKay’s was tree number 8.
The trees no longer exist, but it is hoped that some form of additional commemoration will take place during the next four years. Your suggestions on how this might be done are welcome.
Image courtesy Coburg Historical Society.

A note on sources

I pieced together this story using many different sources, which I’ve listed below. I was amazed at how many interstate and country newspapers covered the boating accident story and it’s a reminder that it’s always worth looking at them all as I often found a little bit of extra information to add to the overall story by looking beyond the obvious sources. The newspaper reports were found in the National Library of Australia’s TROVE. I also found the Victorian Wills and Probate papers extremely useful. They’re freely available online through the Public Record Office of Victoria website. By locating William Geddes’ father’s will, for example, I discovered that William Geddes, the soldier, was the only child of his father’s second marriage. I also discovered the names of his half siblings, whom I had not been able to locate until then. I used Ancestry to get birth, death and marriage information. Even if you don’t have your own subscription, don’t forget to ask at your local library, because many libraries provide Ancestry. My final source was the Coburg Historical Society collection and in particular the Coburg State School Soldiers Book. The original of this can be found at the Society’s museum (Bluestone Cottage, 82 Bell Street, Coburg). There is an index and a fascimile of the book available for use at the Cottage during its opening times (1st Sunday of each month, 2 to 4.30).


Argus, 1 August 1917; Broken Hill Barrier Miner, 1 August 1917; Brisbane Courier, 1 August 1917; Powlett Express and Victorian State Coalfields Advertiser, 3 August 1917; The West Australian, 18 August 1917; Western Mail, 24 August 1917; Zeehan and Dundas Herald, 25 August 1917; Pakenham Gazette and Berwick Shire News, 17 May 1918; Adelaide Daily Herald, 17 May 1918; Adelaide Advertiser, 17 May 1918. Victorian Birth, Death, Marriage indexes (accessed via Ancestry); Victorian electoral rolls (accessed via Ancestry); Probate and Will of Thomas Hilliar, PROV, VPRS28/P3/748 and VPRS7591/P2/567; Probate and Will of William Geddes, PROV, VPRS28/P/1272, VPRS 28/P2/755, VPRS7591/P2/388; Probate and Will of Fanny Caroline McKay, PROV, VPRS28/P3/306; VPRS7591/P2/482; Probate and Will of William Henry McKay, PROV, VPRS28/P3/769, VPRS7591/P2/572; AIF attestation papers for 67879 Private William Geddes, Private William Henry McKay, 522 Sergeant Henry Hilliar, 11th Infantry Battalion; Coburg Historical Society collection; Richard Broome, Coburg Between Two Creeks.

1 comment:

  1. hi My name is Kylie McKay I'm part of Lancefield romseys historical society. And have been doing some research into the Hilliar- McKay family. My nan and Pop, ( Marjorie and Gordan) before they died have me a folder of family history, wondering how I would go about getting in contact, to possibly swap information. My email is
    Regards Kylie McKay