Family history and mystery–the Indigenous connection

Here is something new.


That’s a Welcome to Country in the Dharawal language and comes via Les Bursill and his associates. Now Les’s story is quite inspiring. If you have an hour to spare download the oral history project tape of Les from Sydney Institute of TAFE. I found it inspiring. He was, just coincidentally, born exactly where I was in Hurstville but a few years later on. He had a most unpromising start in his education – one school claimed he was virtually ineducable – but ended up, thanks to Armidale’s University of New England…

38 years old went to university as mature age student / loved university / studied Archaeology then Anthropology for Masters / fascinated by study of early human origins / Fisher Hunter Gatherer ecology / excellent results / started Doctorate but first wife Barbara died and Les suffered cancer so had to abandon studies / married to Barbara for 38 years / 3 children / married second wife, Robyn Archer at age 58 years

1989 joined Public Service / Probation and Parole Officer / Drug and Alcohol Court Assessment Program – Wollongong courts / Department of Corrective Services / state coordinator for Drug and Alcohol Programs for Drug and Alcohol affected inmates mainly of indigenous origin / Aboriginal Counselling/trained counsellors / employed aboriginal Corrective Services counsellors in NSW gaols / published support material for aboriginal people

Lecturer, Sydney University – Medical faculty / NSW Police Westmead – lecturer mainly senior officers / St George and Sutherland Regional College – anthropology / TAFE NSW Sutherland College – Child Studies / Charles Sturt University

Studies – finds examples of Aboriginal culture in Sydney Basin / artwork – Dreamings – history within art / PEDS – PAINTINGS, ENGRAVINGS, DRAWINGS, STENCILS / 2001 Centenary medal, aboriginal industry / Aboriginal sites in Sutherland Shire-300+ sites / Lionel Baker / 1995 wrote book on Dharawal nation with Mary Jacobs and co-authors / Aboriginal Land Council approved / publisher Doryanthes journal / Sutherland Shire virtual museum / 2009-Teaching/Heritage award / 2010-Order of Australia Medal…

Not bad by any measure.

And here he is being, apparently, controversial. (It is amazing what a minefield of conflicting sensitivities and, dare I say?, egos Aboriginal Studies can be.)

In his oral history interview Les has this to say:

My father married an aboriginal woman, my mother, and funny enough his sister, Valda, married an aboriginal man, George Holton. But George was very dark skinned. I remember as a young boy asking him why he was so dark and he said that he simply tanned well – but he was shiny black … He was of the Holtons of Armidale and my mother descends from … Dr Ellis, a witchdoctor who worked for the Macarthurs. The Macarthurs proclaimed him King of the Aboriginal people of the Illawarra so I’m actually descended from a convict and a king!

The convict is most likely this guy:

Hannah Smith was born on 14 Dec 1817 in Sydney.  She died on 27 Jul 1907 in Guildford, NSW.  She was buried on 28 Jul 1907 in Campbelltown Presbyterian Cemetery, NSW.  She married William Bursill on 17 Dec 1834 in Campbelltown, NSW, at St Peter’s C of E. William Bursill was born in 1803.  He died in 1872 in Redfern, NSW.  He was convicted of stealing a gold seal and ring on 20 June 1820 from one Edward Brennan.  At the time he was living in the parish of St George’s Hanover Square.  He was sentenced at The Old Bailey Sessions to transportation for life and arrived in Sydney on the ship Asia in 1820.  The ship left Sheerness on 3 September 1820.  He was working at Longbottom Farm in 1822 (ie Concord), for Samuel Terry in 1825 and for Thomas Galvin of Upper Minto, a farmer of 270 acres in 1828.  Children of Hannah Smith and William Bursill were:

+35 i.  Sarah Jane Bursill.
36 ii.  Frances Bursill was born on 22 Jun 1837 in Illawarra, NSW.  She
died on 22 Oct 1838 in Dapto, NSW.
+37 iii.  Charlotte Bursill.
+38 iv.  Elizabeth Bursill.
+39 v.  Hannah Bursill.
+40 vi.  Lydia Bursill.
+41 vii.  Martha Bursill.
+42 viii.  Samuel Bursill.
+43 ix.  Timothy Bursill.
+44 x.  Susan Bursill.
+45 xi.  Thomas Bursill.
46 xii.  John Bursill was born on 30 Dec 1860 in Campbelltown, NSW.  He  died on 4 Jan 1864 in Campbelltown, NSW.

And this is my grandmother:


Henrietta Bursill (Whitfield) 1874-1931

That’s my father’s mother, who had a very sad life. According to stories my father and mother told me it is through Henrietta that the family has some Aboriginal ancestry, as I noted back in 2000-2001:

Now Henrietta has been something of a family secret; one story, told me by my father and mother, says she was the illegitimate offspring of an Aboriginal (or part-Aboriginal) farm worker and a widow. You will note my father was nineteen or twenty when she died. My nephew Warren not long ago met a Tharawal Elder named Les Bursill at a gathering in Canberra; Henrietta was a Bursill (variant “Bursell” on some records). So it is possible they were all descendants of the First Australians… That’s Henrietta on the right. About Warren: my brother married his first wife Aileen, Warren’s mother, in 1955. It turns out she too was of Aboriginal descent. See Warren’s excellent account of that family in A Guringai Family’s Story.

There is no doubt about my sister-in-law’s descent from the family of Sophy Bungaree, that is of the family of Bungaree of considerable fame in early colonial history. But what about the Whitfields and the Bursills? I see that Henrietta’s birth certificate names no father, and if then the story I heard is true – and I am quite sure it is – then of course she wasn’t a Bursill at all, which does rather complicate matters. For the moment then we are all assuming Dharawal, but that father could have come from further afield. It is also worth noting that Les Bursill does not trace his Aboriginal roots through his father, but rather through his mother.

Possibly we’ll never know exactly where Henrietta’s natural father came from. The story about her birth was raised with my maternal grandfather, Roy Hampton Christison, when my mother and father became engaged. As my mother told the story, old Charlie  Bursill came and told grandfather Roy about the “touch of the tarbrush” via Henrietta. I do note that Grenville’s 1872 Post Office Directory lists a MRS Bursill as a farmer in Shellharbour. The story is that she had an Aboriginal assistant working for her, and that he, in 1874, was the actual father of Henrietta. He is said to have (wisely?) disappeared. Grandfather Christison told C Bursill to jump into Lake Illawarra, I believe, and of course the engagement and marriage went ahead in 1935.

What I do know is that as a kid I always sensed something as I wandered the bush around the Woronora valley, or on a hill in Sutherland West then known as The Devil’s Back but now just a mundane suburb. It was a presence that lived in the rock shelters and in high places with views of surrounding country. I can’t explain it. But I do know my nephews Jeffrey and Warren had the same feelings when they lived as kids at Bundeena, because Warren has told me that.

As for Les Bursill, see more of his work at the Sutherland Shire Virtual Museum, at The Archaeology of The Dharawal People of NSW and at Doryanthes.

And there’s also the music:

That’s “Sydney Region Choir performing at the Sydney Opera House 1 August 2010. The choir was performing MARLOO by Paul Jarman and Les Bursill, and the conductor was Deb Mulcair.”

Biddy Salmander  Broken Bay Tribe,  Bulkabra  Chief of Botany N.S. Wales, Gooseberry  Queen of Bu

Update 29 June 2013

See also What a treasury of family history! and Continuing my trawling through Trove and family history.

Update 18 July 2021

An email from Rowena Gough clarifies and corrects some of the material above, especially on the early connections of the Bursill family. It looks well-researched to me, so thanks, Rowena!

Doing a google search on Bursill trees I’ve come across your website. I think that I can provide you with clearer family tree information for Henrietta Bursill (1874-1931).

She was the youngest child of Thomas Russell Bursill (1832-c.1870) and Henrietta Woodley (1837-1921), and named after her mother. Father Thos Edw was bapt. 1832 in Cambridge, Cambridgeshire, Eng, married Henrietta 7 June 1858 in Redfern, Sydney, and died c.1870 at Shellharbour, NSW. Mother Henrietta Woodley cme from a farming family, born 1837 Englefield, Berkshire and died 28 June 1921 Shellharbour, NSW.

Your Henrietta had 4 siblings.

My great grandfather Edward Bursill was the younger brother of Edward Russell Bursill and he emig to the Maryborough area of Victoria. The parents of Thomas and Edward were Thomas Bursill (1808-1846 and Elizabeth Russell (1812-1888).

I’ve spent anout 25 yrs on the family history and am quite sure that this is your family line. The William Busill (convict) line is not as yet, connected to our family, and were from London. Our line is from Cambridge, and Yorkshire. So at the moment the story on you blog re family tree probably needs to be reviewed.

Very interesting. We are still left with this birth certificate entry, however. And also — which coincides with what my mother and father told me — that c.1870 death date for Thomas Russell Bursill and the (agreed) 1874 birth date for my grandmother Henrietta was put this way: “Her alleged father died several years BEFORE her birth.”


See the additions at 13a — Whitfields 1880s-1930s. (I will add a reference there to these corrections.)

3 thoughts on “Family history and mystery–the Indigenous connection

  1. Hi
    I have been reading your incredible family history.
    I was looking up some information on Bungaree, as I’m involved in an arts project collaborated by Uncle Djion Mundine and the Mosman arts council. I stumbled on this amazing piece of family history and your connection to Bungaree and Queen Matora.
    I would love to stay in touch, and with prmission would like to obtain some copies of family history and photos. If need be you can discuss this with Katrina Cashmen at the Mosman art Gallery.
    Being part of this project is very exciting, however I need as much information to help me to where I need to be with my art work in a respectful manner.
    I hope that you can help.
    Kind regards
    Caroline Oakley
    P.s I’m of Aboriginal descent. My tribe are Gamilaoi people from Moree and the other areas of the liverpool plains.

  2. Thanks, Caroline. That art project sounds very interesting, but there isn’t anything more I can tell that I haven’t told here. I am not myself connected to Bungaree. That comes through the family of my former sister-in-law. My nephew Warren’s account of that is mentioned in my post.

  3. Hi Neil,
    Sorry for getting back to you so late. I have just looked at this tonight.
    Thanks for getting back to me. I managed to find some interesting history for the exhition. The show finishes on the 25th of November 2012 at Mosman gallery. The exhibition will travel around Australia, where it will finally come to the Wollongong art gallery in 2015. I hope you will be able to see the show.
    Many thanks,

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