Blog post

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Australia Day 2011: Was my first Ancestor in Australia John Lee?

26 January is Australia Day. In recognition of the day I set myself the following task, and invited anyone who wished to to join in. The task is:
Find the earliest piece of documentation you have about an ancestor in Australia. If you don't have an Australian ancestor, then choose the earliest piece of documentation you have for a relative in Australia.
  1. What is the document? 
  2. Do you remember the research process that lead you to it? How and where did you find it?
  3. Tell us the story(ies) of the document. You may like to consider the nature of the document, the people mentioned, the place and the time. Be as long or short, broad or narrow in your story telling as you like! 
 My responses

 1. What is the document?
The document is an church register showing the marriage of my ancestor, John Lee, to Sarah Thomas at Geelong, Victoria in 1849.

2. Do you remember the research process that lead you to it? How and where did you find it? 
I knew of the marriage early on in my genealogical journey. John Lee's second spouse, Susanna Baker, was my ancestor. Their marriage certificate stated that he was a widower, and gave the date of death for Sarah but no name. His death certificate provided her name, and his age when he married her. 

Although this is a church record I obtained it through the Victorian registry of births, deaths and marriages which has a searchable index and instant download of images, for a fee. When civil registration was introduced in Victoria in 1853, the government asked for early church registers (althought not all were provided). The registers provided have been indexed along with the civil records.

3. Tell us the story(ies) of the document.

My first sighting of John Lee (1822-1905) in Australia is his marriage to Sarah Thomas at Geelong on 11 July 1849. The church register provides limited information compared to a post 1853 Victorian birth certificate:

No.90 John Lee of the Parish of Geelong, bachelor and
Sarah Thomas of the Parish of Geelong, spinster were
married in this Church by Banns with consent of Parents
this eleventh day of July in the year 1849
By me S[?] Collins
This marriage was solemnized between us
    John Lee
    Sarah Thomas
In the Presence of Stephen Thomas
There are no ages, occupations, or names identified as parents names. Fortunately, I know this information from other documents.

Sarah Thomas, the daughter of Stephen Thomas (a stonemason) and Anne, was born in about 1831 in Hampshire, England. The Thomas family had arrived at Port Phillip onboard the 'Royal Consort' on 18 February 1844.

John Lee was born in 1822, the son of Joseph Lee, a mariner, and Jane King. His arrival in Australia is less certain than that of his young bride. According to his death certificate, he arrived in Victoria in about 1846. If this is correct, it makes him the first of my ancestors to settle in Australia. 

Family legend has it that John was a ships officer but it is not known why he left the ship. 

An alternative theory, put to me by another researcher many years ago, is that John was an "Exile" - a convict who was pardoned and given a job on arrival in Australia, but could not return to England. The details of the Exile John Lee who arrive on board the 'Joseph Somes' in 1847 almost fits my ancestor John Lee... but I am not convinced. I find the ship's crew (if not officer) theory more convincing given that his father, brother and brother-in-law were all shipwrights or mariners. In checking details for this post, I found (at long last) the 1841 census entry for John 'Lea' where he is listed as an apprentice shipwright.

While the details of his arrival in Victoria are not known, one thing we do know is that John did not come to Australia in pursuit of gold, which wasn't discovered in Victoria until 1851. He and Sarah lived in the south west Victoria area around Geelong, John working as a grocer and storekeeper.

John and Sarah had eight children.
  1. Richard Brush Lee (c1851-1865)
  2. Stephen Thomas Lee (1851-1916)
  3. John Lee (1853-1905)
  4. Sarah Anne Lee (1856-?)
  5. Joseph Lee (1858-1861)
  6. George King Lee (1861-1881)
  7. Henry Lee (1863-1943)
  8. Frederick Seth Lee (1864-1871)
In 1866 Sarah Thomas died at age 35 of an abscess of the liver. Four years later John was still living in Modewarre, working as a shopkeeper, when he married my ancestor Susanna Baker (1840-1899) - but that is the story of another document.

Information presented is a work in progress. Additions or corrections are appreciated. Source information available on request
If you are connected to this family, please get in touch, I would love to hear from you!


  1. I've created a "roll up" of all the Australia Day 2011 posts from members of GeneaBloggers:

    Congratulations on a great job of organizing this!

  2. Shelley, thanks for organising this interesting theme. On the subject of church records... I think some people forget that they can be useful even when certificates are available. For example: I have 2 NSW marriage certificates (proper certificates, after the commencement of civil registration) with blanks instead of the names of the couple's parents. In each case I was able to obtain that information from the church register. In my English research, I have an official marriage certificate and a parish register entry that give significantly different information.

  3. Further to Judy's comment, I've had the same good luck with Queensland church registers so worth a try.
    Re John Lee, have you tried the Geelong Heritage Centre - they have some interesting local indexes.

  4. Thanks Shelley.
    I am so glad the Church records pre-Civil Registration in Victoria have been preserved.
    Thanks again for your Australia Day blogging idea!

  5. Thank you Thomas and Aillin for your kind comments.

    I'm hoping that parish registers will have my great-grandfather's birth (different line to this post) in 1864 as I haven't been able to track it down in the civil registration system. If I find it I'll definitely be looking up his siblings as well. It might start me on a parish register spree!

    Thanks for the link. I found those indexes while I was preparing my post and have made notes on things I want to follow up on. eg he may have gone to court after a punch up at some stage. One item I've arranged to see could give me the name of the ship if I'm lucky. That will definitely rate a blog post if it does! I really need to take some time to wander around Victoria from archive to archive but unfortunately can't see that happening in the next several years!