William Ernest Morrison (1884 – 1951)

This post has been updated…

My grandfather William Ernest (Ernie) Morrison died when I was four years old and I had never met him because he and my grandmother had separated when my father was only twelve years old. Family members have indicated that he was a gentlemanly type who was generally well liked but because of such an early estrangement, little of the real details was known about him and his life. What we do know has been pieced together from oral history of family members and online records as more become available. My most recent discovery was a most exciting one, but before I get to that I will give a broad outline of his history.

We know he was born on the Isle of Man in 1884 and his father had become a gardener on the large estate of Kentraugh and then at Government House (see my previous post for John Morrison). The 1901 census shows the family living at Kentraugh: John and his wife Margaret (nee Christian) and children John James, William Ernest, Lydia Christian, Edith May and Thomas Henry. Ernie, aged 16 years was shown as also working as a gardener. The next record of Ernie was when he married my grandmother Elizabeth Caroline Marian Thomasina (Briscoe) Ramsden, known as Carrie, in 1912 at Campsie, New South Wales. How and when he arrived in Australia had always been unknown until this latest discovery.

William Ernest Morrison

Following the marriage the couple initially lived with Carrie’s widowed mother on her 13 acre farm at East Hills, near Bankstown some 20 kilometres southwest of Sydney. Ernie apparently worked on the property for a while, since his occupation was given as farmer when he married. There, the couple had two children, firstly Lydia Emily Christian and then my father Alfred Ernest, but shortly before his mother-in-law, Elizabeth Briscoe, died in 1917, the extended family had moved into town at Leonard Street, Bankstown. When Alfred was born Ernie was recorded as being a stonemason.

Ernie with young Alfie

By the early 1920s the family had moved again to a larger house in nearby Restwell Street, called Ellan Vannin (the Manx language name of the Isle of Man) but known as “The Ranch”. The large property included a tennis court where family and friends played and socialised. Also in this period Ernie established a fuel and produce business near the railway station in Bankstown with a succession of partners over several years, and there are a number of photographs of him and his delivery wagon. The business wasn’t to last more than a few years however and it has been suggested that Ernie was not a hard enough businessman, but somewhat of a “soft touch” in those difficult post-WW1 times, incurring too many bad debts to sustain the business. Whether this was a contributing factor is not known, but within a few years his marriage had failed and he had left Bankstown in 1926.

In 1923 The Sun newspaper had reported that fire had destroyed the Restwell Street home.

That family Christmas vacation does suggest that Ernie cared for the children. After the separation he also tried to meet and stay in contact with his children but this seems to have been denied by Carrie unbeknown to Lydia and Alfred although one remaining letter (March 1927) makes it clear that he missed his children but did not want to return to Bankstown.

Little is known of Ernie’s later life except that he worked at Sydney’s Central railway station as a “grill cook”, struggling financially and being unable to provide support for his children while living alone in a rented room in Riley Street, Sydney. In 1946 heart problems forced him to retire prematurely at 61 years old, and in 1951 he died at the age of 67. His cremation was apparently attended only by his landlady and a small memorial plaque can be found at the Eastern Suburbs Memorial Park.

Nowadays, among the advice given to family historians is the revisiting of sources periodically, and especially online resources the content of which is continually increasing. Also to break through a brick wall in the family tree it can help to “go around the wall” by researching other family members such as siblings. My discovery resulted from following these bits of advice.

By researching his older brother I found a John James Morrison who in 1902 had enlisted in the Manchester Regiment. His home address was shown and Kentraugh, his next of kin were parents John and Maggie Morrison, and was also his brother “Earnest”. This was definitely our John James. The surprise was that next the Ernie’s name was “Royal Marines”.

The next step was to look up the records at the UK National Archives where I found a page about William Ernest Morrison. He had enlisted in the Royal Marine Light Infantry, Portsmouth Division, in September 1901 only a couple of months after his seventeenth birthday. The records showed that he served seven years on a number of ships. Firstly, there was the HMS Majestic, a battleship stationed mainly in the Mediterranean Sea, next was the sister ship HMS Caesar which was the flagship of the Channel Fleet, and lastly the cruiser HMS Powerful. The most exciting news was that Powerful became the flagship of the Australia Station (prior to the formation of the Royal Australian Navy in 1911), stationed in Sydney.

HMS Powerful (circa 1905)

Ernie’s Service Record indicated that he had “Run” or deserted from H.M.S. Powerful at Sydney.

NSW Police Gazette of Friday 27 December 1907

The reasons for him deciding to jump ship in Sydney will never be known, but he must have seen a better future for himself in Australia than in the navy or his homeland. However, as it turned out Ernie’s life was not a very happy one.

Despite the inglorious end to his military service and his marital problems, I believe my grandfather was a decent person whom I would have liked to have known.

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