Case Study – The Truth Behind Family Stories

By Judy Purkiss MAAGRA

Family stories are passed down over time and details change! Facts either aren’t heard properly, not all details are passed down, misinterpreted, embellished or softened depending upon the story.

There is usually an element of the truth in the stories, though occasionally, that’s not the case. The challenge for the genealogist / family historian is to find the facts to verify what the truth is.

We will look at the case of Albert Purkiss who travelled from South Australia to Western Australia in the late 1890’s.

Albert’s story came up when researching his brother Alfred’s history for the Purkiss line. Alfred was the director ancestor of the family being researched and when speaking with family, I noted that it had been recorded that Alfred and Albert were both policeman in the Western Australian country towns in the 1890’s. I was given a copy of the Coolgardie Cemetery Listing that showed that Albert was buried on the 25 March 1895 and that the cemetery index stated he was 28 years and that his occupation was listed as “Police Constable”. Family stories indicated that he’d gone to the Southern Cross Goldfields and that it was thought that he died of pleurisy and was transported by train from Southern Cross to Coolgardie train station and then by spring cart from the train station to the cemetery. As there is a history of service in the police force in the family, they were looking for more details on his career and this had been difficult to find.

The next step was to research records that are available to find the facts. I was fairly confident that his police record would be relatively easy to locate in the records.

Here’s what was found:

• Searched the police applications. Located Alfred’s police application but no record of Albert’s.
• Searched TROVE (online newspapers) – no record of Albert and any police duties.
• Searched the Australian Electoral Rolls and no entries for Albert in Western Australia.
• Searched the “Index to Policemen in WA” by Brian Purdee – located Albert in the listing but it was just a listing with no further details.
• Ordered his death certificate, this listed him as “Prospector” and that he died of “Fever and Meningitis”.
• Contacted the WA Police Historical Society who did an extensive search and couldn’t find any records relating to Albert Purkiss.
• Searched the Coolgardie Police Occurrence Books at the time of Alberts death. No mention of Albert. However it did show that Alfred was at work on the day his brother died as he had gone on Gold Escort Duty and was away the next two days. (Gold Escort Duty entailed following the gold cart to Perth to ensure it’s safe delivery and then returning). Therefore we aren’t really sure when Alfred found out his brother Albert had died.
The next step was to consider “what if Albert wasn’t a policeman?” Searched the following records:
• Passenger Lists on for Western Australia 1852-1930 show that Albert left Adelaide and arrived in Fremantle in Jan 1895 on the SS Gabo. (This meant he was only in WA two months before he died).
• Searched TROVE for death notices and located one in The Advertiser (Adelaide) on 29 Mar 1895. This is a week after Alberts death. As Alfred was on Gold Duty when his brother died, it may have been a few days before he knew and was then able to inform his parents who were living in a different state. The death notice stated he died of typhoid and was “The late partner of Jones, Purkiss & Co, Adelaide.”
• The 1895 South Australian Directory by Sands & McDougall list this company as “Produce Merchants”.

• Searched TROVE again regarding fever around this time and found that Southern Cross and Coolgardie had an outbreak of Typhoid Fever in that area at the time. This is likely the fever listed on Albert’s death certificate.

From the information located, it appears that Albert was not a policeman but a businessman. It appears he came to WA to see his brother and do some prospecting as Coolgardie and the areas around it were in the gold rush. It appears he died of typhoid fever & meningitis. Burials were happening quickly at this time to reduce spread of infection, so it would seem that Albert being listed as a policeman was an error, perhaps they thought he was his brother Alfred. I also think his name being on Brian Purdee’s list of policemen is an error, probably because he was listed as a policeman on the cemetery listing so that is likely where the information initiated.

One further piece of information was located later that also fit with evidence previously located. While researching one of Alfred’s daughters, I located an “oral hi