Convict ancestors are a source of pride for Australians in our generation. The days when it was a boast to be descended from free settlers or assisted migrants are long gone. One of my great-grandfathers was sent out as a minister of the Presbyterian Church. I can hear the yawns.

But wait.

My Norwegian great-grandfather was a remittance man.

You don’t hear much about remittance men nowadays – those black sheep from respectable families who were paid a small allowance to stay away.

Enter Oscar Severin Wedel Jarlsberg.

Oscar Wedel Jarlsberg, remittance man, 1822-1909

Oscar came from a large, well-connected Norwegian family. His father Fritz was a customs official, and the family lived in a big farmhouse not far from Larvig. Oscar had six brothers and two sisters. His elder brothers Finn, Fritz and Ferdinand all entered the navy in their teens. His brother Hermann was a civil servant. His sister Louise died in agony of an internal obstruction at the age of eighteen.

Oscar received a bachelor’s degree from King Frederiks University, Christiania, now Oslo, in 1842, and then enrolled for a higher degree. His elder sister, Hildur, married a German official, Carl Marschalck von Bachtenbrock in 1844. Carl represented the Hanoverian King in Aurich, North Germany. Only two members of the family came from Norway for the wedding – Hildur’s father Fritz and her brother Oscar, “the student”. Fritz’s wife, known as Bolly, was not well enough to travel. In 1845 she died.

Oscar coached his brother Frithjof for his naval cadet’s exam, but unfortunately the boy died in 1847. It was a dark time for the family.

It is not clear what Oscar did in his late twenties, but one way or another he managed to infuriate his widowed father. Even his sister Hildur, always fond of him, wrote that she could see something must be done. Oscar would never finish his thesis. “But Australia!” she added with an exclamation point. That seemed extreme.

Oscar was 33 and, unlike his brothers, had no clear career path. There may have been some other scandal. Emigration seemed the only solution.

Under the alias “O. Ledew” (his surname backwards) he took a berth in steerage on a cargo ship, the Mary Ross, sailing from Hamburg on 8 October 1855 for Hobart Town and Sydney. His sister Hildur sent some clothes and cash to the ship.

Like thousands of other hopeful souls, Oscar made his way to the Victorian goldfields, mining and running small businesses in Ballarat and Gobur. He kept animals on a local common, was involved in various local disputes about fences and land use, and was elected, on his second attempt, to the school board. He married Irishwoman Mary Manning, a servant, born in Tipperary in 1838. She was 25; he was 42 but gave his age as 39. The couple had three daughters.

The family was never rich. Remittances from Europe arrived from time to time, obviously not huge sums. These may have represented income from some family estate. From Germany, Hildur wrote in English to her sister-in-law Mary, thanking her for being so faithful and loving to her “hardly proved brother”. My grandmother, Oscar and Mary’s third daughter, born in 1874, was named Hildur Marschalck after her aunt.

Oscar’s sister Hildur in old age

After moving around the goldfields for some years, the family returned to Ballarat. Hildur became a pupil teacher at the age of 12. Oscar’s wife Mary died in 1895, but he was to live well into the next century, dying in 1909 at the age of 87.

There is nothing distinguished about Oscar’s life in Australia, but nothing disgraceful either. He was a loyal family man and a hard worker. He made friends and retained a patriotic love for Norway.

But what went wrong in the years 1847 to 1855? I look at his face and wonder. Perhaps a depressive episode? A falling out with his thesis supervisor?



Gambling debts?

I have made inquiries in Norway, to no avail.

My best source for insights into Oscar, apart from Ron McNicoll’s family monograph, was the discovery of a book by his sister Hildur. This book, A Norwegian woman on the German shore, memoirs of Baroness Hildur Marschalck, born Wedel-Jarlsberg, was written in Norwegian in Hildur’s old age. Translated into German by her granddaughter Else von Hammerstein, it was published in Berlin in 1914. Despite being heavy going with its old-style Fraktur typeface, it gives a detailed account of life in a titled Norwegian family in the nineteenth century. It includes many letters and illustrations and – yes – every photograph is captioned.

Hildur Wedel Jarlsberg’s memoirs, published in Berlin in 1914

But Hildur leaves my big question unanswered. What went wrong for Oscar?

I see that something must be done. But Australia!


Families out of their trees

I suppose all families are interesting if one writes their details down. My recent reading has featured fictional families who show off the best and worst extremes of family relationships; but authors have the advantage of being able to press their characters into extremes of raw emotion, misunderstanding, rage, bliss and tension, aspects that I can’t say have been a feature of my life within my two immediate families.

I envy writers who have sheafs (sheaves?) of letters found in old suitcases in dusty attics but I have no such resources to help me, apart from a family history my father wrote for his grandchildren 35 years ago. There have also been a couple of letters from remote family members, most of whom I was unaware of, asking me to fill in gaps in their records. They told me much more than I was able to tell them.

On my paternal side, we are said to be related to Robert Bruce, one of whose daughters, perhaps, married an ancestor. My father had an aged family tree handwritten on what looked like vellum, that started with Robert Bruce – probably a bit of a brag. It reflected the desire to hold family lands together and featured entries such as “He was an idiot and bereft of lands and title from birth” or, more commonly “Died at birth”. The second probably reflected a degree of gender control as well as preservation of clan lands. A pharmacist with the same surname, who my father met during WWII, expressed an interest in the tree and my father, who was of a generation that saw no use in things like old family trees, posted it to him and we haven’t seen it since.

The first ancestor to come to Australia was a captain in Governor Macquarie’s regiment, the 17th Regiment of Foot. His career was undistinguished. According to my father, he received a land grant at the mouth of the Hunter River but spent his time whoring and gambling in Sydney and never visited his property. How different my life might have been if he had settled down and profited from the massive resources he had been given. But how unlikely that I should have even existed, let alone been his descendant.

My father’s mother was a Morris, a great niece of William of arts and crafts fame (we’re told.) Her father was an Anglican clergyman in Bundaberg who spent a lot of time helping Chinese workers on the Gympie goldfields. A group of them came to his door and asked for a photograph which they took to China, returning some months later with a large painting of him. He looks thin and quite stern, probably part of the job description for a clergyman in the middle of the nineteenth century.

My maternal grandmother’s family came from Latvia as Jewish refugees. My grandfather was a saddler in Boonah on the Darling Downs whose interests extended to playing the violin well enough to be a member of a Brisbane orchestra. He was the son of Brisbane’s third rabbi who also appears to have worked in the Bundaberg – Maryborough areas. There is no record of those two men of God ever meeting.

The descendants of one’s ancestors are an intriguing. mystery. My parents sometimes talked of cousins aunts and uncles who were parts of their lives but never of mine. I think of my grandchildren who may listen with equal incomprehension to stories of my relatives or even those of their own parents. Being unaware of one’s history may condemn one to repeat it. Perhaps one of the most important parental roles is to ensure for future generations that their history is worthy of repetition.