My ‘elusive’ grandfather – George Frederick Davies

I started my own family history research some 25 years ago.  At the time, I was the Historical and Genealogical Officer with the New South Wales Land Titles Office, and had been assisting the general public for many years, through early land records research.  I only ever knew one grandparent, my maternal grandmother, Anna Davies (nee Wilson), who I adored, the others having died long before my birth.  I was one of her favorites.


I grew up amongst my mother’s large family here in Cairns, and we were all very close, so that is where I decided to start.  My mother was the second youngest of eight surviving children and all of my aunts and uncles were still alive so I set about recording all that I already knew and started to work backwards.  Grandma’s family was relatively easy.  They were Swedish immigrants and their history had been passed on to us all in bits and pieces.


Left to Right – Dorothy Davies (my mother), Shirley Davies (behind) Albert Edward Davies, Anna Davies (nee Wilson) Maternal Grandmother & George Frederick Davies (birthname Jacka) Maternal Grandfather

Left to Right – Dorothy Davies (my mother), Shirley Davies (behind), Albert Edward Davies, Anna Davies (nee Wilson) Maternal Grandmother & George Frederick Davies (birthname Jacka) Maternal Grandfather


My maternal grandfather was another story.  Mum and all of my aunts and uncles had always told me that they knew nothing much about Grandad’s family; as he would never talk about it and when questioned they were always told it was a taboo subject.


George Frederick Davies

George Frederick Davies Cairns, 27 Oct 1934

This intrigued me straight away, so I decided that I had to find out.  He had always told his children that he was born in Hotham in Victoria on 8-2-1882 and been a baker as a young man; a trade which he certainly never pursued after his marriage, to my knowledge.  He always had bronchial problems, and said it was from breathing in flour dust when he was a young man.  I knew that my grandparents were married here in Cairns on 14th March, 1912, so I ordered their marriage certificate.


The certificate listed his age as 30 years and showed his mothers maiden name as Mary Fitzgerald, his father as Fredrick George Davies, father’s occupation as Cabinetmaker, and birthplace as Ottham, Victoria.  So far so good.  How hard can this be, I thought.


Armed with this information, I ordered his birth certificate and eagerly awaited its return.  Two weeks later I received a “No Record” result from the Victorian  BD&M.  No birth of a person by that name to those parents between 1-1-1836 and 31-12-1888.  I had hit my first brick wall.  I searched forward another 15 years – nothing.  I tried any variation that seemed that might fit – nothing.  I searched the NSW and Qld records – nothing that seemed to fit.  He had hidden his past well, I thought.  What could have been the problem?  My imagination went off on all sorts of tangents trying everything I could think of over the next few years.  During this time my mother, three aunts and both uncles had died, without me finding the answer.


I decided to post my problem on a genealogy internet newsgroup with all of the information I thought to be true.  I thought that his birthday (at least day and month) was probably correct and hopefully his mothers maiden name.  I received many helpful replies with creative suggestions from other researchers.


Then came an email from a lady in Victoria : “There was a George Frederick Jacka, born 1884 to Frederick George Jacka and Mary Fitzgerald in Hotham.  Frederick George died in 1885.  Just a thought that your George might have been fostered out to a family by the name of Davies”.  I had tried everything else so I ordered the birth certificate.


Back it came.  This George Frederick Jacka was born on the 8th February, 1884.  Same day and month, different year.  His mothers name was indeed Mary Fitzgerald.  His fathers name was Frederick George and his occupation was listed as Chair Maker.  Promising I thought, so I decided to follow the line for a little bit and see what happened.  I found a female child born to those parents on 5-6-1882 by the name of Amelia Ann Mary.  She had died at 7 months old.  My oldest aunt’s Christian names were Mary Amelia.  I was getting excited.  Searching back further, I found he had an Aunt who had died at 11 months old named Isabella Lucy.  I had an aunt with the Christian names Alma Isabella.


George Frederick & Anna Davies (nee Wilson) circa 1940 – Maternal Grandparents

George Frederick & Anna Davies (nee Wilson) circa 1940 – Maternal Grandparents


I decided that this George Frederick Jacka might, indeed, be my maternal grandfather; but proving it was not going to be easy.  His father had shared the same birthday but had died on 19-12-1885 when George was not quite two.  A member of our local family history society suggested that if his father died when he was so young, his mother may have been destitute, and maybe he had been made a Ward of the State.


“We have a copy of the Victorian Ward of the Sate records here in our rooms.  Lets have a look” said the assistant. Sure enough, there he was in the Victorian records at age 7 being placed in care.


A trip to Melbourne was in order, so off I went.  At the Victorian Archives I obtained a copy of his “Ward of the State” papers.  Another surprise – Mother – Mary Jacka, Prostitute, HM Goal, Melbourne. Cause of commitment – neglect.


No wonder he changed his name and wouldn’t talk about his family.


The paperwork gave me a lot of information.  Amongst other information it recorded – Absconded about 1-1-1898.  At 14 years old he had run away.  He disappears after that and I can find nothing about him anywhere until he marries my grandmother in 1912 in Cairns Qld under the surname Davies.  I can find absolutely no evidence of a change of name being registered, or any connection whatsoever to the surname “Davies”.  Nor have I been able to find any recorded evidence that he was apprenticed, or worked as a baker.


Wedding photo of George Frederick Davies (birth name Jacka) to Annie Wilson – Maternal Grandparents, 1912

Marriage of George Frederick Davies (birth name Jacka) to Annie Wilson – Maternal Grandparents. Dated 14-3-1912.
Left to Right: Standing at Back: Carl (Charlie Olson; husband of Bertha Christina Wilson, Brides sister), Gunn (friend), Carl Wilson (Maternal Great Grandfather), Annie Wilson (Maternal Grandmother), Ethel Ivy Wilson (sister of Bride).
Middle Row: Sitting: Bertha Christina Olson (nee Wilson; Brides sister), Daisy Wilson (Brides sister), George Frederick Davies (birthname Jacka; Maternal Grandfather), Anna Petronella Wilson (nee Gronlund; Maternal great Grandmother).
Front: Albert Carl (Oscar) Olson (son of Bertha and Carl), Alma Givenda Wilson (Brides sister), and Anna Christina Andretta Wennersten (Daughter of Eda and Carl Wennersten; sister and brother-in-law of Bride).
Photograph taken in Cairns, North Qld.   [Click on photo to enlarge].


I obtained my great grandmother’s prison records.  They mention nothing about prostitution.  She had been in trouble with the police three times.  The first was on 15-5-1888 –  “drunk”, for which she received three days imprisonment.  The second was on 4-9-1888 – “idle and disorderly”, for which she received 6 months imprisonment in Melbourne Goal.  The third was on 2-9-1891 – “vagrancy” for which she received 12 months with hard labour.  How sad.  It was a man’s world, and she was poor.  Maybe she had resorted to prostitution to feed her young son.


On her release from prison in 1893 she married a widower, John Christian Dell, who already had ten children.  He probably would not have wanted another mouth to feed.  George Frederick’s ward of the state records show he was released into the care of his new stepfather but was returned to the home after only three months.  The final notation on George Fredericks “Ward of the State” papers says “Police have not heard anything of Mrs. Jacka since her discharge from prison”


Mary (Jacka) Dell died on 24-8-1907 at age 46 in Melbourne Hospital of Carcinoma of the Rectum.  Interestingly enough, Mary Dell is buried in the Melbourne General Cemetery in an unmarked grave, not with John Christian Dell, but with Frederick George Jacka.  I have traced both the Jacka and Fitzgerald families back to their arrival in Australia and beyond, and every branch forward as far as I am able.  Still no connection to the surname Davies.


I know in my heart that this is my grandfather and his family.  Maybe one day I will find that “Davies” link which proves it.


Grave of George Frederick Davies – Martyn Street Cemetery – Died 16-9-1947

Grave of George Frederick Davies – Martyn Street Cemetery – Died 16-9-1947


I have two pairs of beautiful rose gold cuff links and some gold collar studs which belonged to my grandfather.  These were given to me by Grandma when I was only a little boy.  I treasure them.  My grandparents rest together in the same grave, here in Cairns in the Martyn St. Cemetery.


If only I could talk to him.




5 Responses to My ‘elusive’ grandfather – George Frederick Davies

  • Great story! The photographs are stunning.

  • Great story. I am inspired not to give up on my brickwalls.

  • Thank you for sharing your story. My grandmother’s family are “complicated” too, so I enjoyed your strategies for working around problems. Terrible thing poverty. Thanks for the tips.

  • Hi Rob,

    A fascinating story indeed which has enlightened me no end in my hunt for information on the history of Mary Ellen Dell aka Jacka. Mary Ellen has always been an enigma to my family, none of my elderly relatives could give me any information about her. It is only recently that I have become aware she had children prior to marrying my Great Grandfather, Johan Christian Dell born Schafer. However no real trace of them came to light UNTIL I read your story.
    I guess George may not be an actual part of my family as such, but he is certainly a part of my families history. I would be very interested in recording your story in my family history website, with your permission of course. Send me an email if that would be ok.

  • Hi Robert, my mother is that little girl in your grandparents’ wedding photo. Anna Christina Andretta Wennersten. Her married name was O’Keeffe and I am her youngest child Annette. It is amazing when you see the families and connection. I remember your grandmother, Aunty Annie. She came down and stayed with Aunty Ethel and Uncle Bob in Coorparoo, Brisbane. We lived there too. I think I would have been around 5 or 6 years old. Like you with the mystery of your grandfather, we have a mystery about my dad and his family. I would love to have a yarn via email if you are interested.

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