John McNamee reports
WHEN you’re an expert genealogist and local historian, there’s always a danger, when you’re digging into your own family history, of finding the skeleton in the closet.
An that’s exactly what happened to Gregory Ross.
But it can also have its advantages such as finding a link to a person famous in Australian history.
“I remember my grandmother telling me when I was about 11 that my great-great-great grandfather was William Lawson, who discovered the trail over the Blue Mountains with Blaxland and Wentworth,” Greg told Go55s.
“But as I became further interested in family history I also discovered that one of my grandmother’s eight brothers was a real black sheep,” he said.
Greg, a retired schoolteacher, has for the past 20 years been a leading member of the Friends of Waverley Cemetery (FOWC) historical group and conducts regular guided tours of the famous burial grounds situated along the spectacular coast in Sydney’s eastern suburbs.
And ironically he discovered that the family “black sheep” is buried there.
“His name was Herbert Lionel Cousins and he came to a very sticky end. My grandmother revealed to us back then that poor great-uncle Herbert was an alcoholic.
“Henry was arrested and charged with passing dud cheques at Coolamon in rural NSW in 1920 and at the age of 37 finished up dying in the police lock-up.
“A coroner’s inquest found that death was caused by caused by severe heart failure brought on by excessive alcohol consumption.
“He used to drink three bottles of whisky a day,” Greg says. “I like to include his grave in one of my tours now to highlight some of the more personal and ordinary stories attached to family life,” he said.
Greg, who is currently president and secretary of FOWC, these days spends most of his time researching and chronicling the fascinating background stories of many of the people buried there.
Greg also has a diploma in family historical studies from the Society of Australian Genealogists and has a great affinity with Waverley Cemetery with at least three direct branches of his family interred there.
His current project involves a former British World War 1 Royal Flying Corps hero, Captain Henry Ryder Hawkins, who lies in an unmarked grave.
Hawkins is credited with shooting down 17 German aircraft over France during the fierce fighting over France in the early days of the war and also with having been involved in aerial battles with German ace, The Red Baron, Manfred von Richthofen.
“We know that due to his wartime exploits he was awarded the Military Cross for bravery along with the French honour, the Croix de Guerre.
“He came on a visit to Australia between the wars, loved the place and started up his own aviation business in Gloucester, northern NSW.
“Sadly, he was killed in June 1921 when the plane he was piloting crashed.
“He was still only 24 years old. We know he left a widow and an infant son, but we can’t find any trace of them,” Greg said.
But there are also the not-so-famous heroes and characters of our colourful past that keep fascinating Greg.
For example, there’s the story of Thomas Clayton, (1882-1909) who was the first jockey to win the Caulfield Cup-Melbourne Cup doubles.
The highly-respected rider died from his severe injuries received in a fall from his mount All Blue at a notorious turn at Rosehill Racecourse. Several years later another jockey William Smith died in a fall at the same turn.
Another great discovery of Greg and his team was the grave of boxer John “Jack” Joseph Bede Clune (1895-1919).
Clune fought 32 bouts in Australia and the USA between 1913 and 1916 with 18 wins, 13 losses and a no-contest. A report at the time states that at the Melbourne Stadium “he nearly knocked out Hughie Mehegan with probably the cleanest punch the former Australian champion ever received.”
The clever lightweight also won and lost to champion Tommy Uren in 1915 and defeated another local hero, Jimmy Hill.
In June 1916, at the age of 21, Clune enlisted into the AIF and embarked to France as a sergeant with the 9th Machine Gun Section but received a heavy head wound in a shipboard accident which eventually led to his discharge following early onset dementia.
He died in the Coast Hospital, Little Bay, in March 1919.
Greg also recounts the story of the grand martial procession that wound its way from Bondi Junction to the Waverley Cemetery honouring the death of bandmaster John Pryce Jones who died in 1900 aged 44.
“Pryce Jones had served for about 12 years with the Royal Engineers in Chatham, Kent before coming to Australia joining up with the Royal Australian Artillery and taking charge of the regimental band.
“A magnificent carving of an ornate regimental harp adorns his grave here,” he said.
Another colourful character “unearthed” during Greg’s research was Oscar Eliason (1869-1899), the first magician to use the title Dante.
An American Mormon born in Salt Lake City, he toured throughout the USA, Canada and Mexico in the 1890s before sailing to Australia where he impressed audiences throughout the country and New Zealand.
Sadly enough, his flourishing career came to a tragic end when he was accidentally shot while n a rabbit hunting party in Dubbo.
“Three days later he reportedly asked for a glass of champagne, told his fellow performers to carry on and died of his injuries,” Greg recounts.
“I know some people think cemeteries are creepy spooky places but I don’t find them like that at all.
“As far as I’m concerned they are places of great fascination, great beauty, of great cultural and historical value with absolutely stunning architecture,’ Greg said.
“Back in the early days when the cemetery fist opened in 1877, there were very few public parks for people to enjoy so having a stroll around such a breathtaking place as this, proved very popular.
“Of course, many of the headstones and particularly the mausoleums are copied from the grand cemeteries of Europe and have a splendour all of their own.
“I admit I haven’t even scratched the surface of what wealth of history lies beneath all these tombs, graves and simple burial sites.
“We have our famous sports people, cricketers such as Victor Trumper and Jack Fingleton, poets such as Dorothea Mackellar and Henry Lawson, politicians, lawyers, bushrangers, but it’s the ordinary people who tell the most heart-warming stories. We have our criminal element as well and I always like to include at least one murder victim in my tours.”
This tireless researcher has set himself another mighty project…to chronicle the history of the cemetery, including all its staff and stone masons who were involved in the cemetery’s long history.
“That should take me at least another six years, “Greg laughs.
A monumental task indeed!
*For more information, and to arrange tours, email firstname.lastname@example.org
Main picture: Historian and family ancestry expert Gregory Ross in his favourite “hunting ground” Waverley Cemetery.