Friday, 12 August 2016

Grahamstown Gazette: Love Thy Neighbour

Every month I write a local heritage-themed column, on behalf of The Treasury, for the Grahamstown Gazette. Here's my piece for the August edition.

From The Treasury:

Local and General - Miss N. Thorburn desires to thank the fire brigade for their promptness, and the neighbours and others who so ably assisted in averting the total destruction of the house at yesterday's fire - Thames Star, 4 December 1917, Page 2.

I’d been playing the old game of ‘type your name into Papers Past and see what comes up,’ but I hadn’t expected to find something quite so specific, or so local. The Thorburn family – not my direct ancestors, but a branch of the same group who came to New Zealand from Scotland – were among the original Thames pioneers. Early editions of the Thames Star are littered with references to William and Mary Thorburn, and their prolific offspring. But who was Miss N. Thorburn? And why was the house on fire? 

Elsewhere in the same issue of the Thames Star were details about the fire itself: Yesterday afternoon about 5.20 p.m. the Thames Fire Brigade received a call to an outbreak of fire in a temporarily occupied furnished house of Mr J. Thorburn, Pollen St. The fire apparently originated in the kitchen and scullery, and this portion of the house is partially destroyed. The fire brigade were promptly on the spot and extinguished the fire before it did further damage. As no fire had been lit in the house for some days the cause of the outbreak is unknown. The house is insured in the Victoria for £200, Mr Bruce being the local agent.

If Miss N. Thorburn was unmarried, it’s fairly safe to assume Mr J. Thorburn, the owner of the house, was her father. I searched the Births, Deaths and Marriages website to track down children born in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries whose father was a J. Thorburn. This was how I found Nellie Thorburn, a daughter of James Thorburn and Lucy Chambers; one of William and Mary Thorburn’s granddaughters. She would have been about nineteen at the time of the fire. 

The name Lucy Thorburn – Nellie’s mother - rang a bell, so I check my existing family history research against Births, Deaths and Marriages’ list of James and Lucy’s children. Nellie had an older brother, Charles, who had been in the army for about eighteen months at the time of the fire, and was stationed somewhere in France. Discovering Nellie and Charles were siblings was a huge help, as Charles’ military records are available through Auckland Museum’s Online Cenotaph project. In them, Charles had listed his mother, Lucy, as his next of kin, including her address. When he’d enlisted, she lived at 9 Martha Street.

Maybe this is why the house on Pollen St was temporarily occupied – were the Thorburns in the process of moving house at the time? Earlier in 1917, much of Grahamstown had flooded; it’s plausible the family were on the move after a previous disaster. Charles’ military records show Lucy was living in Hamilton after Charles was killed in action in early 1918. Maybe the house fire was the latest in a long string of awful luck for the Thorburn family.

Back in the present day, next stop for me will be to search for the Thorburns’ properties on Quickmap – the historic property mapping software available at The Treasury.  Maybe then I’ll be a step closer to one last mystery – who were Nellie’s quick-thinking neighbours!

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