Finding Ada Ellen

Apart from the six weekly (250 word) stories we had a final assignment of between 750-1000 words.  I chose to write about Finding Ada Ellen as I knew I would definitely be able to find enough words to make it to the word target!

I received a mark of 73% and together with my 100% for the six weekly stories my overall score was 87%. Not bad for my first Uni unit ever!   

Finding Ada Ellen

The words, “My grandmother is in an unmarked grave” casually uttered by my mum, Maureen, in July 2009 changed my life forever.  It sparked an obsession that still burns brightly today.

Growing up, I had only ever known my Nanna Cook (Muriel) and Great Nanna Snowdo (Lillian) on my mother’s side. Her father, Jack, had died of a sudden heart attack in 1968 (a year before I was born) and her grandfather Stanley had died in 1967.  I had never thought to ask about any of their parents.

When questioned, mum remembered that her grandmothers’ name was either Ada Ellen or Ellen Ada and her maiden name had been McEwan. She had died young of tuberculosis when her father was only two years old and there had been five other children.  Her husband Sam remarried, had another eight children, and was buried with his second wife which was why her grandmother was alone.

My growing excitement was further boosted when she said she was pretty sure her cousin, David, had a picture of Ada.  A quick phone call confirmed this suspicion along with the promise that we would come for a visit. The decision was made to go in two days time.

With the arrangements set, it was time to do some serious detective work.  Who was Ada Ellen or Ellen Ada McEwan?  What we needed was her birth or death certificate.   A Google search of the internet led me straight to the Victorian Births, Deaths and Marriages website.

Imagine my surprise when I read the words “Historical certificates are available as instantly downloadable PDF images”. Surely it couldn’t be that easy.  I opened up the family history search page and entered McEwan and Ada and nervously clicked search.  The next screen opened revealing that there were two matches and it would cost 99 cents to look at the results page. Little did I know I was about to spend a lot more than 99 cents!

With my payment authorised the results page finally opened showing two lines of information.  The second line giving us the answer we were looking for and much to our surprise the names of her parents.  With lightning speed we added her historical birth image to the shopping cart and paid. Although it was only seconds it felt like an eternity as we waited for the certificate to open.

Although the image appeared to be full of illegible hand-written scribble, the first entry, line 114, held the key to unlocking the mystery that was our ancestor Ada Ellen McEwan.  Together mum and I endeavoured to decipher the beautiful but scrolling penmanship of the late 19th century.

Ada Ellen McEwan was born on the 13th of February 1893 in Lake Tyers within the Shire of Orbost and County of Tambo.  Her father was Peter McEwan a 28 year old labourer born in Heyfield, Victoria.  Her mother was Ellen Catherine McEwan nee McCausland, who was 23 years old and born in Haddon, Victoria.  They were married in Sale on the 12th of August 1886 and already had three children.  Catherine was six, Margaret Selina was 4 and David was 2 years old. The informant was J Murray, uncle, and the witness a Mrs Dyke.  The birth was registered in Cunninghame on the 3rd of April 1893 by registrar, James Stuart Lester.

I spent the rest of that afternoon and most of the next day researching Ada and her McEwan family.  Apart from becoming very proficient at advanced searching techniques to save money, I was able to trace the family back a few more generations.  Ada’s grandfather, also named Peter like her father, came to Australia from County Antrim, Ireland with siblings James and Mary in 1854.

As much as the information was very interesting and informative, it was a relief when the day came to leave on our road trip.  Mum and I were joined in our fact finding mission by her older sister Eileen and my daughter Tahlia. Four hours later we arrived in mums’ hometown of Maffra in the Gippsland region of South Eastern Victoria.

Our first port of call the next morning was cousin David’s house.  Once hellos and introductions were made, David retrieved the picture we had driven 300 kilometres to see. Expecting a photo we were overjoyed to see a large hand-coloured painting.  Through a vale of tears, I looked at mum and my aunty.  They, too were misty eyed which turned to laughter as mum commented that we now knew how our family had inherited their red hair!

Finally here was Ada Ellen; young, absolutely beautiful and red haired.  The added bonus being that it was her wedding portrait, so also pictured was her equally young and handsome husband Arthur James better known as Sam. Eighteen year old Ada is adorned in a white ruffled high necked dress with pleated bodice while twenty-four year old Sam is wearing a black suit with vest and tie.  They were married at St Mary’s Cathedral in Sale on the 31st of May 1911.

Leaving David’s we made a quick stop at the local funeral home, then headed to Maffra Cemetery.  It was time to see the final resting place of our beautiful Ada Ellen.  The local undertaker had kindly offered to mark the location with a stone.  To our complete surprise there was not just one stone, but three in a row.  Peter McEwan lay between his children, with Ada on the left and Morris on the right.  All unmarked!

There and then, mum, Eileen and I made a vow to Ada Ellen that her grave would no longer be unmarked.  Today when you visit Maffra Cemetery instead of barren ground there is a cement block holding a black plaque with gold writing proclaiming that here lies;

  • 1922 – AGED 29 YEARS
Maffra 2009
Main Street of Maffra – Belinda, Tahlia, Maureen & Eileen (standing).

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I have been researching my family history since 2009. I am interested it the family names Shingles, McEwan, Snowdon & Witt around Gippsland and Wodonga areas of Victoria, Australia

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