The unfortunate gentleman had expired

…and some ethical dilemmas

In my last two posts I introduced you to my explorer great-grandfather, Victor Streich, on whose life story I am working, and I described my growing interest in the amateur online genealogy craze.  This third and final post about Victor explains exactly how he got me hooked…

The Streichs were already more “real” to me, more three-dimensional, than other branches of my family tree because I had grown up amongst them. I already had some first-hand family stories, even if very few of them concerned Victor. 

When I decided that afternoon to see what else I could find about my Streich ancestors, I started with Victor because he was the shadowiest of the figures I knew about.  And because he was “famous”, I simply banged his name into Google.  That took me straight to the Australian National Library’s massive Trove project, and their digitized newspaper collections, which I hadn’t known about till then.  The first thing I read that afternoon was a newspaper account of Victor’s death.  (So many good stories start with a death!)

Kalgoorlie Western Argus, Tuesday 21 March 1905. On Saturday afternoon arrived in Coolgardie by express from Perth Mr. Victor Streich, accompanied by Mr. C. Collins. Mr Streich had been in Perth for some days and had placed himself under the care of Dr. Leschan, as he was suffering from nervous prostration. His business calling him to the fields, Dr. Leschan arranged that Mr C. Collins should accompany him as he was a man manifestly unfit to take care of himself.  During the train journey Mr. Streich suffered much and it was found needful from the first to supply him with stimulant at short intervals. On arrival in Coolgardie Mr. Streich and Mr. Collins drove at once to the Royal Hotel and Mr. Streich immediately went to bed.

He was supplied with some nourishment which he refused, but asked for a glass of  shandy”. This was given him and he apparently went to sleep. Every precaution was taken to ensure quietness, and although he was evidently sick and very weak it was not deemed requisite to call medical aid. At about 3.30 pm Mr. Collins went upstairs to see how Mr. Streich was faring, and found that he was, if not dead, at the last gasp. Dr. OMeara was at once sent for, but before he arrived the unfortunate gentleman had expired. The body was at once moved to the morgue, and instructions given for a post-mortem examination to be held, as a result of which the cause of death was ascribed to heart failure. Mr. Streich was only 41 years old.

Then there was a brief history of his life and career as a geologist and mineralogist since arriving in Australia from Stuttgart in 1889, and an explanation that Victor was in Coolgardie to return to a mining claim he’d staked the previous year for the Western Exploration Company.   

The find which he named Darna Varna was said to be of exceptional quality, and after securing reward leases etc., Mr. Streich, and the company he represented, put it into shares and steps were taken for working the property. The present journey was with the object of going out with camels to see if water was available, and Mr. Streich had arranged to go to Burbanks today to obtain four government camels and others he had left there last year…Mr. Streich was a man of much repute in the mining and scientific world…and of high attainments. He leaves a wife and three children in Adelaide who are said to be fairly well provided for. 

So – some new facts. How he died. It was dramatic and, satisfyingly, newsworthy. And so sad. I was captivated by the historical reportage. I read it over and over again. The unfortunate gentleman had expired. And I was a bit outraged that the writer had seen fit to report on the material fortunes of Clara and their children!

But most of all, I loved how easy it had been to find. Here was information I would until recently have had to travel across Australia, to several libraries, town halls, museums and graveyards, to find. What else was there in that treasure, Trove?

Well, there was plenty. The more I read, the more questions I had, and I suddenly saw that the writing project I had been looking for was now staring me in the face.  Victor, his life, and the things that impacted on him, had become irresistible. 

Partly this was because I was also growing uneasy; some of the things I was reading didn’t sit at all squarely with the family stories.  Victor’s professional life seemed to be mired in controversy and conflict, and I was discovering that his reputation was not universally positive.  Was I beginning to stumble on things that no one in the family had known? Did the digitization of all those newspapers mean something that my great-grandfather, and perhaps those closest to him, had kept concealed was now being exposed?

Victor Streich, standing, centre, and some of his Elder Expedition colleagues, 1891

I was beginning to wonder whether Victor was all I had been told he was, or whether he was just a bit flawed.  I liked to think he was a man of deep professional honour, highly competent, a great scientist, and I wanted to defend him. But if he was those things, did they have a flip side? Was he also arrogant? Intractable?  Irascible? Difficult, in the tough conditions that demanded so much of explorers already?  

And what had been the effect of all of this on Clara and his children?  

And what about the wider picture? How did Victor’s life reflect the social history of the time, including indigenous affairs and the story of early German settlement?

And if my delving didn’t turn out well, what would I do?  Keep my discoveries to myself?  Debunk him? And how would I square all this with my siblings and cousins?

Dilemmas!  All I knew was that I needed to push on and see where Victor led me…

The red suitcase

Family history becomes family stories…

In my last post I introduced my great-grandfather, Victor Streich, a not-very-well-developed figure in my childhood, who nevertheless was someone I knew I was supposed to feel proud of simply because my mother and grandmother told me he had been famous.

Having realised in adulthood that I had been an uninquiring child, and having finally acquired some curiosity about the world and the people around me, I developed an interest in my family history. At first, before the advent of the internet, I revisited the small red suitcase in my mother’s wardrobe, in which were the photographs I had often seen as a child. Back then, I had only been interested in the photographs of people I recognised – my parents, my aunts and uncles and cousins, and my grandparents-as-adults. But now, I discovered all sorts of treasures: sepia photographs mounted on board, taken in studios at the turn of the 19th-into-the-20th century, of women with impossibly small waists standing stiffly in set-piece gardens; I began to ask my mother who these people were. She didn’t always know.

And there was my grandmother, not as the adult I had known, but as a young girl, with her brothers, on donkeys on a beach, with a grim-faced woman standing beside them in the most extraordinary confection of headwear.

The Cawkell family – Jack, Charles, Kitty (my maternal grandmother who married into the Streich family) and their mother Charlotte (nee Rochford)

At this stage I was simply gathering facts. Who was who, who was related to whom, what were their salient ages? How did they die?  I started drawing up crude family trees – did I have a photo of everyone?  I was collecting The Set, still obsessively gathering information; I loved the photographs as objects but I still wasn’t curious about the subjects – their stories, or how they lived their lives.

But, slowly, I found myself working my way up the knowledge hierarchy. Facts became information, information became knowledge, the knowledge made me want to understand some more, and with some understanding came the glimmerings of insight. And real curiosity. I began reading the letters, trawling through old passports, sifting through various bits of memorabilia that had, till now, lain ignored at the bottom the The Red Suitcase, under the photographs. Slowly, the sepia figures stepped out of their frames. I talked to my mother about the Streichs but she didn’t have much to impart about Victor, other than that he had been “the geologist on the Elder Expedition”.  There was a story about him having found a seam of gold, and refusing to tell anyone where it was because he was a principled man; he had found it for someone else and he wasn’t going to do anything that might lead to other people stealing it. I found that a bit thrilling, but had no idea how important that fragment was to become to me, and how it would inform a fundamental research question into Victor’s character for the biography I was going to attempt decades later.

I also talked to her about her mother’s families, the Rochfords and the Cawkells, and the family she had married into, the Wrights.

By the early noughties I was doing basic research on-line as historic collections became digitised. I was part of the amateur genealogy craze. I was buying magazines called things like Discover Your Family’s History (still not “stories”, I now see) and I was learning how unreliable and misleading and incomplete the official records were. I was turning detective, tussling away for hours at some problem set of dates, or missing information. I started guessing at what was going on in the gaps. I started wondering whether people had been happy, or unhappy, thinking about them against the social and political background of the times they lived in; reading bald documents like census records or BDM certificates as a basis for bigger stories.

Something was happening in the collision between my developing interest in where I had come from, the explosion of interest in genealogy that was happening around me, and the emergence of digital online resources.

Actually, I wasn’t working particularly hard on the Streichs. I thought I knew them. My mother had fled the marriage she should never have made in England, and gone home to Australia to her mother and the house she had grown up in, her three young children in tow. I had grown up surrounded by my Streich cousins, in the family home, surrounded by their things. I thought I was steeped in all things Streich.

One day I hit a genealogy brick wall. I had gone as far as I could, for the moment, with the Rochfords and Cawkells. The Luton hat-manufacturing Wrights seemed a bit too dry and dusty that afternoon.  I thought I might as well tool around for a couple of hours seeing if there was anything more to be discovered about the Streichs, and sort what material I had into some kind of order. I approached it as an exercise rather than a something I really wanted to do.

I didn’t know that Victor was waiting for me.

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