What the heck …

… is this about? This letter (for a facsimile of the original, see here) was among some papers my auntie Gerry sent to my mum about twenty years ago:

(dated Sept 26th, M V Fairsea)
Dear Mr Fisher,
It was a great joy to me to read your aunt’s letter, this story would have been lost if you had not made the enquiries, and it must have given her great joy to find you were interested.
In fact she has given me a very vital clue, we acquired the surname Richardson from Leith, so your grandfather must have got to Australia with his cousin, and if only your Aunt could remember any relatives in Queensland, they are the very family who have been missing so long, and are entitled to a share of the estate in Durham,
All I need do is obtain death birth and marriage certificate copies to forward to England.
I know this story sounds fantastic but I know it can all be verified at Somerset House, as my father did when he was only 21 years old.
My father is 82 but his memory [fragment ends]

Well, the story was lost, but not without leaving a tantalizing mystery in the form of this fragmentary letter. It’s addressed to ‘Mr Fisher’, which must be Francis William Fisher (1894-1985), the son of Lala Fisher and grandson of Archibald Richardson.

The year the letter was written is uncertain, but it was probably some time during the 1950s. The MV Fairsea was originally a freighter built during the Second World War, was taken over by the US Navy and used as an aircraft carrier, and after the war as a troop carrier. In 1949 she was bought by the Italian Sitmar Line and was used as a passenger liner operating between England and Australia from 1950 to 1969. (See this page for a full history of the ship with pictures.)

The aunt the writer is referring to is almost certainly Elizabeth (known as Beta, or B) Richardson, Lala’s sister, who died in the early 1960s. But the words of the opening paragraph don’t make much sense. Why should B have been ‘given great joy’ by Willie Fisher enquiring into something?

As for the statement ‘we acquired the surname Richardson from Leith’, it would be reasonable to assume that the writer’s name is Richardson, and that passenger lists from the Fairsea might give a clue to the writer’s identity (although such passenger lists as I have found don’t actually seem to help much – no suitable Richardsons were travelling on the ship at the relevant time). On the other hand, if the writer was a woman, she may not have kept that name. In any case, the connection with Archibald Richardson, who was born in Leith, and his father, another Archibald, is clearly the crux of the whole matter.

On the face of it, it sounds as though the writer is a Richardson, related to Willie Fisher through his Richardson ancestors, and descended from Archibald Richardson senior. (There were no other related Richardsons in Leith – Archibald’s family came from Dumfries.) The writer refers to Archibald junior’s cousin and suggests they travelled to Australia together. But this cousin appears to come from some lost branch of the family, who stand to gain from an inheritance in Durham. This implies that the writer comes from a different branch of the family again, since he or she is clearly not a member of the lost branch.

Any cousin of Archibald junior with the surname Richardson would have to be the son or daughter of Archibald senior’s brother. In order for Archibald junior to have two different sets of cousins, Archibald senior would have to have at least two brothers. But he didn’t. He had only one, Gabriel, and as previously mentioned he came from Dumfries, not Leith. None of his children look likely candidates to travel to Australia with Archibald or to inherit property in Durham.

So a case of mistaken identity seems the most likely explanation. There were no doubt other Richardsons living in Leith, and the writer may have been descended from one of these.

It is curious, though, that the originator of the enquiries (what kind of enquiries, and prompted by what, we may never know) was apparently Willie, and not the letter writer. And the suggestion that Archibald travelled to Australia with his cousin is at least something that would be worth checking out. Unfortunately, I have not been able to trace any record of Archie’s voyage to or arrival in Australia.

And what, if anything, is the relevance of this advert, published in the Sydney Morning Herald on December 28, 1891:

Advert seeking Archibald Richardson

Crossover Creek is in Victoria. It’s in a goldmining area. They probably weren’t looking for Archibald Richardson, the surveyor and occasional prospector from Rockhampton … were they?

2 thoughts on “What the heck …”

  1. Interesting. I wouldn’t completely rule out the possibility of (our) Archibald being in Victoria at that time, although it seems fairly unlikely. However, i’ve got a vague memory of checking out passenger lists and finding an Archibald Richardson leaving from Melbourne to go to England at about the time that our Archibald should have been going to England. I dismissed it as unlikely to be the same person – but maybe it wasn’t. I doubt i’ve got a record of it and i can’t remember any details now.

    Maybe Archie was a mate of the guy who built the Bijou theatre!

  2. Do you mean ‘leaving from Melbourne to go to England at about the time that our Archibald should have been going to Australia’? He didn’t go back to England at all, did he, as far as we know?

    I’ve forgotten all that stuff about the Bijou theatre – we never got to the bottom of it did we? It was supposed to be Jennie Sarl’s father who built it?

    I suppose we could collate Archie’s known movements (from newspaper reports etc.) with the 1878 date given in the cutting. He might not have needed to be in Victoria precisely in 1878, though – it could be that he had been there some time before and left a forwarding address to which the letters were sent on. It probably is a different Archibald. But probably one with a similar interest in get-rich-quick mining schemes.

    If you ever leave the NT again you might want to poke around Yeppoon for the remains of the ‘Redwood Vineyard’ – purported in 1904 to be the ‘largest vineyard in central Queensland’. I can’t find any trace of it, but we owned it apparently. It must have been the vineyard referred to by John Norton in his letter to Lala. Could put that on here sometime I suppose, if you don’t object.

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