Family stories

It’s 160 years since my maternal great great grandfather Isaac Thompson and his wife Elizabeth sailed from the UK to Port Adelaide. They initially settled land at Huntley, north of Bendigo, and started producing what would be a substantial family.

Last weekend, Isaac and Elizabeth’s descendants gathered for a reunion. Printed out, the family tree spread its branches across two entire walls of the Huntley hall. I’d known Isaac and Elizabeth had a big brood but hadn’t ever considered just how many relatives that could mean in Australia. Apparently the answer is around 6000 people!

I’m yet to properly explore the stories of this family line but I did notice one of my great uncles died in the Kew Asylum in Melbourne. He was a single man, a farmer, and was pictured wearing some sort of ceremonial sash. So how did he end up in an asylum?

Mandi, one of the lead researchers behind this epic family history project, told me this great uncle had severe epilepsy. In the absence of medication, he was probably placed in the asylum so staff could restrain him and reduce the risk of injury when he was fitting. I wonder what life in the asylum would have been like for someone with no other known mental or physical illness.

And I also wonder at the coincidence that saw me campaigning for better conditions at what used to be the Kew Asylum, during my time in newspaper journalism. Sometimes the world is smaller than we realise.

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