A Wilson By Any Other Name Still Spells as Sweet
- By Peter Stewart-

No doubt every family researcher will discover at least one illusive ancestor during their research. Some may give up, others may eventually find that the missing piece of the puzzle. However my family ended up opening a real can of worms and discovering our link to convict ancestors when we uncovered my "real" Wilson connection.

Having only recently started researching my family, or indeed having any interest in family history, it was only a short time before I had most of my family traced back to arrival in Australia and from whence they came - a point at which I was satisfied. But there was one line that had me and others who were researching this family stumped. This was my Wilson family line.

In the beginning it was easy to trace back through my mother Patricia (nee Moe), to her mother Ethel (nee Wilson), to her parents James Wilson and Mary Agnes Best. This is where it came to an abrupt end. As we began to dig we soon learned that James and Mary had something to hide and had hidden it well.

It was common knowledge in my family that their firstborn, my grandmother Ethel, was illegitimate with her parents supposedly marrying sometime after. Ethel had made no secret of it, and told how she had been reminded of this by other family while growing up in Broken Hill. So this marriage and the birth of all 12 children seemed like a good place to start looking.

We began by getting the birth certificates for many of the children. On the certificate for the first child, Mary had used the false maiden name of Mitchell. The oral history in the family was that she had run away from home as a 19-year-old with James who was an older man, much to the disgust of her family. However using a false name on a birth certificate just because she had run away seemed extreme, given that she was already 19 years old. After the first child she reverted to her real maiden name of Best. It would seem that whatever the reason for her using a false name was no longer of concern. What could this be? This ignited the spark of suspicion in our minds.

The next curious twist revealed in these birth certificates was the marriage of James and Mary at Yarraville Victoria in 1895 or 1896, depending on which certificate, two or three years before the birth of their first child Ethel. Unfortunately there was no such certificate. What's more, there was no such record for James Wilson and Mary (by any name variant) having married … anywhere. So perhaps they weren't married at all?

Later evidence of this came in the form of James Wilson's probate. In it he says "I give devise and bequeath unto Mary Agnes Best known as Mary Agnes Wilson the whole of my estate…And I hereby appoint Mary Agnes Best Executrix of this my will". This suggests that there was no marriage, even if several photos of Mary showed her wearing a wedding ring. Although they had not married, they had tried very hard to have people believe otherwise. If they weren't married, why not? What possible reason would this couple have for not marrying?

Since we already had a fair knowledge (or as we thought) of Mary's side of the family, we decided to focus on James Wilson. His children's birth certificates and his death certificate all stated he was born in Wagga Wagga. There was little else to go on, even his age varied by about 10 years depending on where you read it. There were no parents' names listed for him anywhere, no knowledge of what date or month his birthday was on and no other known Wilson family relative we could trace him through.

Although James Wilson may be a fairly common name, we expected that there wouldn't have been many of them born close to Wagga Wagga around the 1860's. Unfortunately there were a number. Even worse the ones we felt were the most likely to be our James had almost nothing on their birth certificates. We tried to rule some out by finding marriages, deaths or children born to someone by that name, but this wasn't easy, often with not enough details to confirm or discount. This was going to be tough.

This is where we bring in the family oral history of the surname Sweet, just to add to the confusion. Up to this point we hadn't paid much attention to this name, because there hadn't been any indication of a connection. However while talking further to relatives about their memories of conversations with their parents, it became apparent there was a link.

First there was a vague story about one of James Wilson's children having a person in the street discretely identified as being a Sweet and being told that they were related. Next, a son of James and Mary shortly before he died had told his daughter that if she was looking for his father's mother, she should start with the name Sweet. In his family Bible the name of his father's mother was written as Emma. Then a photo surfaced of a headstone in Hawker South Australia of a James and Caroline Sweet. AHA! Finally a connection, or so we thought.

This photo took us on a long and wayward path of tracing this line of Sweets from Hawker, back to an Emma Sweet formerly Player (nee Nott) originally from Truro north of Adelaide. For the life of us we could not discover a connection or even see any possible link no matter what we imagined. We often gave up and put it aside until someone thought of another line of enquiry.

Finally after conceding defeat and deciding this all was a red herring we discounted researching this Emma and that line of Sweets all together. We then went in search for another Emma Sweet, not knowing if we were looking for a maiden or married surname. We didn't find any births or marriages for one, but we did find one having children in Adelaide to a John Joseph Sweet. Perhaps there was a connection? So now we began to look closely at this family. Interestingly they had a son named James Sweet. Although we couldn't find a birth for James Sweet anywhere, we did find a marriage for him. He was married to an Annie Bottomley and had six children leading right up to the year before James Wilson and Mary Best appeared in Broken Hill giving birth to my grandmother in 1897. From his certificate it showed he was born about 1865.

It was about now that it struck me. I realised I had an answer for the earlier questions of why James and Mary didn't marry and why she had used a false surname. Because James was already married, that's why! Perhaps they had run away from his marriage, and fearful of what might happen, had changed their surnames to Wilson and Mitchell. After some time looking for proof that James Wilson and James Sweet were one and the same we came across an entry in the police gazettes, and there in February 1897 was a James Sweet wanted for wife desertion. It gave a good description of him too, and a remarkable resemblance to our James Wilson.

James Wilson aged about 51

It read, "James Sweet, labourer and tanner, age 30 years, height 5ft. 8in, very slight build, fair complexion, black hair turning grey, sandy moustache (otherwise clean shaven), blue eyes, a small scar on the right side of his head, erect gait, and wore a blue serge sac suit, black hard felt hat, and has also with him a pair of grey trousers and a pair of white trousers and a vest, for deserting his wife, Annie Sweet, at Adelaide, on the 8th ultimo, offender left Adelaide for the north seeking work (C- 305)".

In 1899 Annie Sweet remarried so it would seem that the James Sweet mentioned in the police gazette did not return. Perhaps the reason Mary stopped using the false maiden name was they felt less need once Annie remarried. Although Annie had several children to her second husband, that marriage seemed to have ended some time later and she was again using the surname of Sweet till her death in 1929.

It was time to revisit the family of Mary for more proof. After all, this is a wild accusation to be making about one's ancestors. A few years after the death of her mother, Mary's family had moved to the country where the new Waikerie settlements were opening up. Records show that the Best family lived at Ramco from somewhere around 1894 to 1898. Then we discovered another piece of evidence tying in the two families. James Sweet was at Ramco at the very same time as the Bests. The Ramco settlement was only very small, a break away group from the original settlement of Gillen, so the two families would have known each other well. Mary was a young teenager at this time and although she did not spend all her time at Ramco, she would have had contact with James Sweet.

Next we discovered a letter from a son of James Wilson who had started to research his family up to sometime around the 1970's, and who had been the one who took the photo of the grave at Hawker. The letter described how he had interviewed his mother's sister Florence Eden (nee Best) who had told him that his father's mother was Emma Sweet. Now there were only two Emma Sweets in South Australia that could be the right age, the one at Hawker who we had already ruled out, and Emma Sweet wife of John Joseph Sweet in Adelaide.

The latter had to be the parents of our James Wilson. In the 1970's there would not have been a lot of available information about this Emma Sweet, given that she was not born in SA. It seems James Wilson's son had gone in search of the wrong Emma Sweet. As a side note to this, it is possible he eventually made the correct connection, as one family rumour was that he had found out things he didn't want to know, and stopped discussing his research with anyone. Perhaps like us he only discovered the second Emma Sweet after initially focussing on the one from Hawker.

If we really had found our James Wilson, where was this one born? Nowhere was there a birth record for him or a number of the other Sweet children, but we did find that he had two sisters born at Wentworth NSW. On the birth certificate of the first, it not only showed that Joseph Sweet came from Portsmouth England, but that Emma's maiden names was Cramp and they were married at Gundagai NSW in 1864 with 4 living issue, all male. By the birth of the next daughter the marriage year had changed to 1861 and one son must have died. At least now we had an idea of their origins.

A search for a marriage for them came up with a marriage for Emma Cramp alright, but not to John Joseph Sweet, but to James Sullivan in Gundagai in 1864! If things weren't confusing enough, now I had two fathers for my James. So now we looked for births to James Sullivan and Emma Cramp. We found James born July 1865 in Wagga Wagga. From his age on the marriage certificate to Annie Bottomley we had already narrowed his birth to within 1865 or 1866 so it seemed quite definite. Further confirmation came when we found the birth of his brother, whom we already knew as William Sweet, also listed as being born William Sullivan at the correct place and time in Deniliquin, south of Wagga Wagga. A further piece of evidence came from a record in the Deaths in Public Institutions list showing Emma Sweet had a son James in Broken Hill.

Finally it seemed we had found our illusive ancestor. What we hadn't counted on was the added prize of his mother Emma Cramp being the daughter of two convicts, Samuel Cramp and Margaret Murphy. However what was still missing was the connection between Wagga Wagga and Adelaide. Finding the book "Captain Sweet's Adelaide" by Philip Pike shed some light on the incredible journey and hardships the family endured. The story told how John Joseph (Jo) travelled along the river Murray all the way to Adelaide, stopping to have children along the way. How Emma went from her marriage to being with Jo and taking on the surname Sweet still isn't clear, but an entry in the 1866 Deniliquin Pastoral Times Newspaper showed a charge of wife desertion against a James Sullivan was dismissed. There was a seemingly genetic disposition for wife desertion in the family as son William also deserted his wife only months before his brother James in 1897.

So it's true, a Wilson by any other name still spells as Sweet.


SA, VIC & NSW Births, Deaths and Marriages
SA Police Gazettes - SAGHS
History of Waikerie, Gateway to the Riverland by Jean M Nunn - SAGHS
The Village Settlements on the River Murray in South Australia 1849-1909 by David Mack - SAGHS
Ramco the first 100 years - SAGHS
Captain Sweets Adelaide by Philip Pike
Isaac Pratten by Jocelyn Bakewell
South Australian Biographical Index - SAGHS
SA Directories - SAGHS & Mortlock Library SA
Deaths in Public Institutions, compiled by Jill Statton, Mortlock Library SA
NSW Probate Office
Deniliquin Pastoral Times
Tickets of Leave - Society of Australian Genealogists
Letters and voice recordings of Florence Eden (nee Best)
Letter from Stanley Wilson

Acknowledgements: For long hours of tireless research - Maryanne Bach, Bronwyn Batson and Anne Woodbury.
© Copyright Peter Stewart 2004