The great-great grandson of one of Canberra’s pioneers has uncovered and told the true story of his ancestors in a book that exposes family secrets, affairs and hidden identities.
FORMER secretary of the Department of Defence, senior public servant and diplomat, Dr Allan Hawke AC has had an illustrious career, and his family history is just as notable.
A descendant of the Blundell family, Hawke’s family tree reads like a “Who’s Who” of early pioneer settlers.
His newly launched book – “Calamity and Conquest” – tells the story of Joseph Blundell, a convict who came to the Limestone Plains in 1842 as a pioneer settler with his common-law wife Susan Osborne, and their infant son John.
Hawke’s book – 40 years in the making – reveals untold family secrets about Joseph’s convict origins and Susan’s desertion of her husband and young family.
The pair – who had 11 children – never married and Susan Osborne was a fake name, Hawke says.
“Susan Osborne’s entire history was fictitious, and she and Joseph never told anybody… never,” Hawke said.
“Joseph was a convict and Susan didn’t want people to know who she really was because she was already married and had five other children.”
Susan Osborne’s real name was Mercy Balcombe, she was married to Robert Blanch and given assisted passage to the colony of NSW in 1838 to work for a family near Newcastle.
In 1842, she adopted her alias and ran away with Joseph Blundell, leaving four of her children behind.
“She absconded with Joseph from a place called Ash Island near Newcastle, and they came to the end of the known civilization at the time in the 1840s, which was called the Limestone Plains… what is now known as Canberra, the national capital,” says Hawke.
“Susan must have known in her mind that the fifth baby belonged to Joseph and not her husband so once the baby was born, they took off.
“I found this out about 20 years ago, I thought well that’s interesting, but how are we ever going to know who the father was. Then along comes DNA testing and it’s crystal clear that the child was absolutely Joseph’s.
“They made up lots of stories and they used coincidences like they were living in a place called the Liverpool Plains, so the family folklore was that the baby (John) was born in Liverpool while they were on their way down here to work for the Campbell’s at Duntroon.
“None of that is true, not a single word of it but the family believed it.
“They also thought that Joseph built his house where the Canadian flagpole is at Regatta Point, well that’s not true either. Most of the stuff in the family folklore is not true.”
Hawke, who spent time as former Prime Minister Paul Keating’s chief of staff, has relentlessly pursued the Blundell family past since the 1980s.
He says, “not much” is written by Australians about convict ancestry, finding the opportunity to delve into it ‘challenging’: ‘time consuming’ but equally ‘fascinating’.
“It’s addictive,” Hawke admits.
“Finding out real things about them has been fascinating.
“I’ve made some pretty amazing discoveries… there would be very few Canberrans who’ve got my lineage dating back from 1842, on my mum’s side.”
Hawke’s great grandmother Rosanna was Joseph and Susan’s 10th child.
Blundell’s Cottage – one of Canberra’s oldest and smallest homes, built on the shores of Lake Burley Griffin – is named after Rosanna’s brother George Blundell, the third child of Joseph and Susan.
George was a long-term resident of the cottage, living there for more than 50 years.
Hawke, who grew up in Queanbeyan, recalls stories told by great Aunty Violet – his grandmother’s – who lived for a time at Blundell’s Cottage.
“Aunty Vi took a bit of a shine to me when I was young, so I went to live with her for a few years,” Hawke said.
“Aunty Vi would often talk about the family and my ears would prick up… I didn’t ask her much at the time about it, it never occurred to me I would be doing this many years later.
“She was known throughout Queanbeyan as Aunty Vi, she went everywhere on her bike and everyone called her Aunty Vi, she was a great character.
“Aunty Vi once said to me when I was going on about some achievement I was proud of: ‘Allan don’t go outside, or the wind will blow the tickets away’.”
Such advice served one of Queanbeyan’s favourite sons well. The first of his extended family to finish high school, Hawke’s wide ranging and successful career includes stints as secretary of Veterans’ Affairs, Transport and Regional Services, High Commissioner of NZ, chancellor of the ANU and currently Canberra Raiders chairman.
“I’ve had a most fortunate life, with opportunities to serve Australia’s national interests in ways that I could never have imagined,” Hawke said.
“My father once told me to put my arm in a bucket of water and then remove it: “That’s the impression on life that most people make, son.”
Hawke is four chapters into writing his second book – “Tragedies and Triumphs” – which tells the stories of Joseph and Susan’s 11 children, 75 grandchildren and more than 270 great grandchildren. The book, expected to be finished next year, exposes more family secrets.
“John Blundell, the first son, married Sarah Anne MacKenzie from Lanyon and he had 11 children with her,” explained Hawke.
“The fascinating story, which I haven’t proven yet, is that John’s younger brother Abraham fell off the steeple at St John’s, broke his back and was bed ridden until he died.
“John used to go and visit his younger brother Abraham and his wife Phoebe. Incredibly, John had six children with Phoebe.
“Sometime after Abraham died, John moved Phoebe and the children into his house with his wife and other children. His wife took exception to it and moved out.
“That would have been a huge sensation at the time.
“Family histories are incredible things to do, you just have to be prepared for the secrets you will uncover.”
“Calamity and Conquest” ($30) via email to firstname.lastname@example.org