I have a passion for unravelling histories. As a boy, two old oil portraits of strangers hung in my room. They went to an uncle when my paternal grandmother died. Thirty years later, photos of the paintings arrived in the mail triggering memories of my grandmother’s musings and her notes: about a box with a tale and a body – the last of his family line – on the banks of the Brisbane River in 1898. I sensed old heirlooms had entered my life along with a curse.
I crossed continents in search of answers, dug through vaults, court documents, national archives and conducted web searches, compared scraps of diaries with long-lost relatives to gather 200 years of history. See the lessons I learned about genealogical research here.
From Skene, Aberdeenshire in Scotland to the West Indies, 18th and 19th century battles in the old and new world, and a punt for prosperity via the goldfields of Australia, how and why had the family lost everything? What happened in Brisbane in 1898? Why did my family have their heirlooms?
My first book, The Mole Called ‘Night’-is the result of this quest for answers.
In my day-life I am a software developer. By night and during my spare time I am a collector, researcher and author. I’m in the process of completing my second book.
You can follow my continuing Adventures in Provenance here.
1898. A body lies unclaimed on the banks of the Brisbane River. The end of a family line.
Fifty-five years later an old lady bribes her grandsons with 10-shilling notes and snippets of fanciful stories.
Stories of a young bride, awaiting her never-to-arrive bridegroom.
Tales of a box, and a necklace, its beads so fine, its craftsmanship a lost art form.
When one of those boys, Peter, grows up he cannot shake off the stories, and allure of an unsolved mystery: why the body in the Brisbane River and why do the remnants of that lost family now rest with his family?
The box whispers a haunting secret, but will Peter listen? Will he follow where it leads?
The Mole Called ‘Night’ is the story of a family and its journey from prosperity to ignominy – face down on the banks of a river. And how Peter, laced with the stories of his grandmother, the possession of a few precious objects, went on a journey around the world, spending 13 years unraveling a chilling mystery, and uncovering the buried story of that family’s fate.
Seminal Drift examines the origins, lives and relationship between two people selected for characters in Charles Dickens’ much-loved novel set in London and Paris, A Tale of Two Cities (1859). It examines the probable source of the end he chose for one of them.
The manuscript plays out their real lives, post publication, paralleling the tale and fact.
A professor of English commenting on Peter’s research:
“What terrific material! … Many, many thanks for sharing what is truly a great story, obviously one with implications far beyond Stryver & Carton.”
Seminal Drift may open a new chapter on Dickens’ inspiration for his 1859 novel, the real lives of those beyond the book’s pages.
Lieutenant Perry’s Summer covers the Windsor (UK) dual court-martial of a British army officer.
The case goes to the heart of maintaining the old order and discrimination between officers – those who bought their commissions and those who obtained them without purchase.
The War Office – under siege over the case – did everything to prevent the truth surfacing and to maintain the status quo, including dispatching witnesses to overseas posts.
The book covers the incident, evidence, media and public indignation, the result, the man behind the uniform – Lieutenant Perry – and how little life has changed since 1854.
What are you doing here?
Henry Pymm and his etchings of Lambeth, London were lost to all who might have known of him. Until one day Peter Gill happened upon a folder wrapped in pink ribbon at a clearance sale. Read more »
I took an interest in Laurence (c 1873) when my brother moved out of home and I scored his room. I corroborated the artist, researched his life, the provenance of the unsigned work, and how Laurence came to me. Read more »
Through the valleys and byways of the Scottish Borders the autumn of 1842 verged on an outpouring of colour. Walter Gill could feel it on the breeze that ran into the town of Galashiels on past where he stood. Read more »
I came across the cased portrait of Christina MacBain at an auction viewing in early September 2007. I thought: What are you doing here? Read more »
Learn how to gift back an item’s history.
When starting on your provenance research – whether family or someone else’s history – you need to see context as a river flowing through a project. Every level, every element has context. If you don’t define your context you can miss information and/or meaning.
When I started researching my grandmother’s tales it seemed a good idea at the time. Document some provenance and move on. Doomed to fail, if not simply waste time. The saving grace was the lack of desktop research facilities in 1994–99 compared to 2017. How much would I have achieved anyway? In retrospect, a lot. If I had defined my context earlier I would have been more insightful with material I already held, and then planned accessing other material as it became available (such as digitised Australian newspapers).
Finally, common sense kicked in; albeit inspired by frustration!
Here are the lessons I learned. It’s important you set the river’s path by establishing and assigning context elements following these steps.