convict

The Little Digger

Anzacday_2013_webheaderKai (9) and Taj (6) Stitt had something really special for ANZAC parade at South Kolan State School.  Each of them was going to honour a great great grandfather who served Australia in World War 2.  Kai was honouring Bert Wight who served in the RAAF and Taj was honouring Keith Conroy.  What made it special was that they were able wear replicas of Bert and Keith’s medals and what made it even more special was Taj was wearing one of Keith genuine medals.  It was awarded to him posthumously.

Keith Conroy with his daughter Valerie in Hyde Park, Sydney in 1943 while on leave.

The Little Digger.  Keith Conroy with his daughter Valerie in Hyde Park, Sydney in 1943 while on leave. He had just had all of his teeth removed according to standard army procedure.

Grandmother Johanne Stitt had gone to the war service record office to find what each grandfather had been awarded.  She wanted to buy replicas for Kai and Taj for South Kolan School’s ANZAC parade.  She wanted to also order the equivalent of the medals in ribbons for  Charlee and Billy Ironside to wear at their ANZAC parade in Townsville.

However, Johanne discovered an omission from the record.  After a lot of digging and a lot of help from the records office, she uncovered that Keith Conroy had never received one of his awards and so it was awarded to him posthumously.  That meant that Taj was going to  South Kolan State School ANZAC parade wearing an original medal.

Keith Conroy joined the army in Sydney and was fortunate enough to serve around Sydney during the whole of WW2.  He was honoured this ANZAC day by Ashley in Brisbane, Taj in South Kolan and Billy in Townsville.  They all wore his medals.  Little diggers honouring their own Little Digger.

Taj at his school's ANZAC parade with Grandpa Keith Conroy's original medal.

Taj at his school’s ANZAC parade with Grandpa Keith Conroy’s original medal. The medal on the left is the original and the others are replicas.

Keith staying around Sydney was very fortunate for his family, who lived in Paddington in Sydney’s eastern suburbs.  He would come home on leave and would light the copper, cut the wood and do a whole lot of things around the house that were difficult for the woman.  Keith’s wife Isobel lived with her grandmother Elizabeth Brown (who was the daughter of 2 convicts) and their little girl Valerie.  Isobel had cerebral palsy from a birth injury and required a lot of help around the house.

Valerie, who is the great grandmother of Kai, Taj, Charlee, Billy, Maddie and Ashley was just 6 years old and she went to school at Darlinghurst Primary School.

Things were very challenging for children during the war.  They had to have ration tickets as well as money for almost everything they wanted to buy.  They could almost never have sweets because everything was in short supply.

The Kuttabul was sunk with loss of life in Sydney Harbour.

The Kuttabul was sunk with loss of life in Sydney Harbour.

Children and their families lived in constant fear of being invaded by the Japanese.  It became more of a real threat after 2 miniature submarines infiltrated Sydney Harbour, sunk some shipping and took some lives.

The thing the Japanese were really trying to do was to have the population living in fear of attack and they succeeded very well at this.

The submarine for sinking shipping in Sydney Harbour.

The submarine reponsible for sinking shipping in Sydney Harbour.

Schools had air-raid drills, so that children knew what to do if there was ever an air-raid.  The school-yard had deep trenches with concrete walls.  There were seats for the children to sit on along the walls of the trenches.  Wardens who wore gas masks and had metal helmets supervised the drills.

Sydney lived in real fear of air-raids, not just during the day, but also at night.  When the air-raid siren sounded at night, everybody had to reduce their lighting to at absolute minimum and draw their curtains, so that there was no light visible from outside.

Coastal cities like Sydney and Newcastle ran low lights at night.

Coastal cities like Sydney and Newcastle ran low lights at night.

If any light was visible from your house, wardens would bang on your door and demand that you turned down the lights and seal your curtains properly.

The fears about attack were very real as submarines were on the East Coast of Australia.

The fears about attack were very real as submarines were off the East Coast of Australia.

Just to ensure that the population was kept in a constant state of anxiety, the Japanese would occasionally shell the major cities like Sydney and Newcastle from submarines.  These tactics would inflict little real damage, but proved that the Japanese could get through defenses.

Manly Beach in Sydney with barbed wire defences. during WW2.

Manly Beach in Sydney with barbed wire defences during WW2.

The level of anxiety in Sydney was very visible at the beach.  Iconic beaches like Manly Beach had barbed-wire barricades.  This was intended to slow down the enemy coming from the sea.  The war was a real threat to civilians, it wasn’t faced only by the troops.  The war was right in Sydney and that is why it was important to have people like Keith serving in Australia.

Valerie was a lucky girl because she saw her Dad quite often, other children didn’t see their dad for years and very sadly, some children never saw their dad again after he left on a troop ship.

While Keith was working hard to make sure that Sydney was defended and Australia was working well with its new United States allies, the other grandpa,  Bert Wight was in service in the RAAF in the Northern Territory.

CAC produced the Wirraway which was designed as a trainer but pulled in to active service

CAC produced the Wirraway which was designed as a trainer but taken into combat service.

Before joining up, Bert Wight worked at the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation (CAC) at Fisherman’s Bend in Melbourne.  He was engaged in what was termed an ‘essential service’ and was therefore exempted from military service.  However, when Bert had a major argument with wife Dorrie and she kicked him out, he was really angry and in a fit of pique joined the RAAF.  He was posted to Batchelor Air-base in the Northern Territory, which is around 100km south of Darwin.  Batchelor became a major air-base and was home to a joint Dutch East Indies Air Force and the US Air-Force as well as the RAAF.

The Dutch had been overrun in Indonesia (Netherland East Indies) by the Japanese and in Holland by the Germans.  A special joint squadron was formed with the RAAF.  The Dutch war-time parliament ran in exile from Brussels.

The American Mitchell B25 Bomber operated out of Batchelor Airbase.

The American B25-Mitchell Bomber operated out of Batchelor Airbase.

Batchelor became a centre of the Dutch world-wide intelligence radio network.  The Dutch had predicted the rise of the Japanese through their intelligence network in the early 1930’s.  The No 18 NEI (Netherlands East Indies) Squadron of the RAAF flew B25-Mitchell bombers.  It was on one of these planes the Bert flew over NEI as an observer.

Kai with Bert Wight's medals on his chest at the South Kolan State School ANZAC parade.

Kai with Bert Wight’s medals on his chest at the South Kolan State School ANZAC parade.

Kai wore Bert’s medals to the ANZAC parade.  He was very proud of his great great grandfather whose original medals are still in the family.

In the meantime, up in Townsville, Charlee and Billy were attending their own ANZAC service.

Charlee and Billy Ironside wearing the ribbons for Bert Wight and Keith Conroy.

Charlee and Billy Ironside wearing the ribbons for Bert Wight and Keith Conroy. One is each side of their mother Joleen.

Life in Townsville was very much effected by World War 2.   There were multiple bombing raids on this northern outpost by the Japanese.  It was Queensland’s most northern centre of significant resistance to the Japanese advance.

Townsville Sound Detectors

Special set-up to ‘listen’ for Japanese aircraft in Townsville in WW2.

Townsville was geographically closer to where Bert served, than distant Melbourne, where his family lived during the war.  Families had to live together during the war to try to get by.  Bert’s aged father lived with Dorrie and his 2 boys, Bill and Jim.

Bert with Yankee boss at Batchelor Airbase which is about 100 km south on Darwin.

Bert with his Yankee boss at Batchelor Airbase which is about 100 km south of Darwin.

Bert served as a dornier and this meant that he carried intelligence on his American Air-Force Harley Davidson (or Indian) motorcycle.  He was honoured by Madelyn in Brisbane, Kai in South Kolan and Charlee in Townsville.  They wore his medals this ANZAC day.

A Glimpse at Grangegorman Female Depot

In October, 2011, Val, Bill and Lynette travelled around the globe as detectives seeking clues to give us a better picture of where the people who became our forebears came from.  First, there was a whistlestop tour of Fredericton in Canada where William Johnston (WJ) deserted the British army.  Then there was Crosscanonby in Cumbria to the church where WJ was baptised.  Crossing the Irish Sea we discovered Ballymena, the home of Irish-Scottish McClintocks and Fivemiletown where James Carey stole a cow and then Roscommon on the trail of Ann Carey who stole to be with her husband in Tasmania.

We found little in Roscommon to connect with Ann Carey, but we knew that she spent time in the Grangegorman Female Depot in Dublin and that the buildings were still in existence. We were fortunate enough to have a copy of her record page at the prison thanks to some good investigation by Thelma McKay in Hobart.

From Rosscomon to Dublin

So instead of having our customary drink and toast in Roscommon, we made straight for Dublin because we needed to visit Ireland oldest pub and then find Grangegorman Female Depot before darkness overtook us. With a flight already booked, we had to fly back to London the next day and we hadn’t seen enough of Ballymena to get a feel of where the McClintocks came from.

Ann Carey spent 3 months in that dreary prison in 1847, after being convicted of larceny in Omagh in County Tyrone. She was awaiting the SV Waverley, which was to transport her to Van Diemen’s Land on its third voyage to Hobart Town.

Our first stop in Dublin was the Brazen Head which claims to Ireland oldest and pub and that was the appropriate place to drink the health of our little Irish grandmother who was all of 4 foot 11 inches, feisty and quite prepared to tell you to ‘feck off’. In fact, she was charged with doing just that in Hobart Town on 20th January, 1852.   That information comes from her Convict Conduct Record.  Some of the family stories are even more interesting.   One is that she smoked a pipe stoked with the tobacco from cigarette butts off railway workers.  That’s right – my fifth great grandmother smoked a pipe! But as far as I am aware, she did not wear army boots.

The Brazen Head - Ireland Oldest Pub

The Brazen Head was the favourite drinking place for novelist James Joyce and I still remember his depressing descriptions of grey Dublin days. A year before this visit, our son  Andrew and wife Megan had taken us to this pub for the Sunday Singing Session. It was grand!! We listened and joined in with singing sad ballads about life and trouble with a room crowded with morbid melody.  A fitting place to toast Ann Carey. We did so with Guinness, because we knew that it is good for your health and enhances your intelligence.  The ads told us so.

Lack of preparation plagued us in the execution of the quest to find Grangegorman Female Depot. Doesn’t even sound like a prison does it? Well, nobody knew anything about it because it wasn’t a prison any longer. Fortunately, Lynette had brought backup of our home server and I had copied an article on the prison. We pulled up the copy on my PC and found that it was in Stoneybatter, Dublin 7. What did our Irish GPS think about that?

Well that was quite OK for the GPS, we got to Stoneybatter just fine but right on peak hour traffic. But that just wasn’t close to anything that looked for a former prison. If only I had looked at the article more closely, as it had one piece of vital information we needed to find our prison. We didn’t have the name of the street, did we? A suburb name just wasn’t near enough.

Grangegorman Entrance in 1996

We drove up some torturous narrow little streets using the random drive approach and asked some construction workers.  Their directions got us to the current men’s prison. Nope – that’s not it. So we went into a road that led to bus depot with a security gate. An inquiry there got us directions to the Grangegorman Hospital. All this at peak hour!!

While I was summoning up the courage to break back into the traffic to go to the Grangegorman Hospital which was nearly but not quite there, I thought I would have one more look at the internet article item that I had copied. Great day in the morning!  It had the street name further down in the article. Rathdowney Road. That was what we needed. We tapped this into our trusty little GPS and off we went.

After 3 wrong turns we were in the right street. Now all we had to do was drive the street and hope that the prison was going to a big complex that we just couldn’t miss. Well it almost was. We took pictures of a depressing front entrance and didn’t know we had found IT for sure until we arrived back in Oz and found an article on the prison.

Entrance to Grangegorman in 2011

Just like some depressing description out of James Joyce before imbibing at the Brazen Head, it was grey, it was dreary and my heart ached for poor Ann having to endure this sad place with harsh grey stone walls. She so deserved the payoff of eventually finding true love for enduring this place.

I like to think she did find true love with WJ, but that wasn’t until 1854 after a couple of false starts. She had to tell a few to ‘feck off’ and then one, John Hambrook, saw her off and she was sentenced to 6 months hard labour for her trouble and a pregnant with a little girl by the name of Mary Ann Carey.

But for all that, there was a happy ending with WJ and some absolutely grand descendants. She possibly reached a point in her life of thanking Judge Torrens for giving her the transportation sentence that she wanted on the 8th March 1847 in the County Tyrone Quarter Sessions.

The best perspective we could get was the rear of Grangegorman Female Depot from Fitzgerald St. It was high multistorey walls with missing windows that had incarceration written all over it.

Derelict remains of Grangegorman Womans Prison

Traversing the cavernous doors at the front entrance on Rathdowny Rd would make you feel like you had passed out of life into darkness. The steel doors present in a 1969 photo where not there in 2011. But it still looked daunting.

The stone walls of the outer the perimeter from Rathdowny Road looks like they hide another world.

It was easier for Ann than the long term residents.  She was there for 3 months to give her some fundamental training before going to Van Diemen’s Land. The Convict Department in Tasmania were trying to get better outcomes from female convicts who were not hired by settlers because they had no skills. She was actually fortunate to be here, as dreary as it looked.

We managed to see as much as we could of a former prison from the outside and then headed north for the Holiday Inn Express in Antrim for our last night in Ireland.

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