Moreover, my ancestors' souls are sustained by the atmosphere of the house, since I answer for them the questions that their lives once left behind. I carve out rough answers as best I can. I have even drawn them on the walls. It is as if a silent, greater family, stretching down the centuries, were peopling the house.

Carl Jung (1875 - 1961)

Monday, 1 July 2013

Elizabeth's son, William Napoleon - a sad tale

Portion of the death certificate of William Napoleon Ralph
William Napoleon Ralph died on the 25th March 1855 at Creswick, a gold mining town in Victoria, Australia. According to the certificate, he was 'accidentally drowned' and an inquiry was held. This was not an inquest - nothing in the newspaper and I suspect that an 'inquiry' was held when the cause of sudden death was deemed an accident, with no suspicious circumstances. However at two years and nine months in 1855, this places William's birth prior to Elizabeth and James' marriage in 1854. Not unheard of, but the place of his birth stated on this certificate is 'at sea, between New Zealand and Victoria'. At once, my assumption that Elizabeth stayed in Australia and married James starts to have a flaw. What was she doing - travelling back and forth between New Zealand and Australia? If this little boy's birth was at sea, then the circumstances may not come to light. Although usually noted in the ship's log, births and deaths at sea are notoriously hard to trace unless there is a set of ships' papers found for the voyage or in a newspaper reference. One thing (from a research point of view) is that his name was unusual. With partial  search terms, I easily found a birth record for William Napoleon, right mother, on board the 'Napoleon' but his surname  was 'Read'. Then all of the information on this birth registration starts to look like a blend of  fact and fiction. Elizabeth claims to have married in 1850 in New Zealand, and details James Read, a carpenter, as the father. She puts her age as 20, which was incorrect  in 1852 (the child's birth) but correct at the time of this registration June 21 1854, three weeks after her marriage to James Ralph. There is a witness name, but no witness's signature. And in the same curly writing as James Ralph, informant on the death registration, is her name, 'Elizabeth Margaret Ralph, late Read' - and a squiggle which could be an abbreviated 'widow'. All this at odds with her marriage certificate only weeks before where she was a spinster. In addition, the column with the marriage date also notes 'one child living' as a children of the marriage, meaning 'how many children do you already have besides this one?' Did she have another child? No birth record if so. If this was James Ralph's biological child, he would have little reason for belatedly registering the child as another man's son after their marriage. James Read (Carpenter) and James Ralph (Sawyer). Were they the same man? More research needed


  1. In reading this I think I understand that littl William Napoleon was born at sea and died at sea? Is it possible that his mother worked on ships such as a cook or laundress? Or maybe she had family she was visiting in New Zealand? If she was illiterate, it's possible that the person writing the information down wrote the wrong last name down. Or maybe she was married to a James Read and he died and she married a James Ralph? I know you said it was just a matter of weeks... Just throwing some "maybe's" out there.

  2. Hello Sharon, and thankyou for being my very first reader and commenter! At this point in my research (I think you understand that this particular journey finding Elizabeth is retrospective)I understood that William Napoleon was born at sea and his death certificate indicates that he died in Creswick, Victoria. He is buried there too, one of the first burials in the old cemetery which was later removed. You are quite right with those speculations on James Read and James Ralph. What I HAD checked was any marriages for her in NZ and there were none. I even checked the 'intention to marry' database and got a member of the GSNZ research team to check THEIR early index to find out if an entry had not made it into the official BDM database, and there was nothing. I am reasonably sure that Elizabeth did not marry at that time in NZ. But she was pregnant, and about 18, and comming up with a cover story would help her save face. In fact, if she had been left behind when the rest of the family went to Australia - say, put to board with friends or in service, then she may well have lived with James Read/Reed and considered herself married (and away from the parental eye!)She would have needed parental permission to marry as she was a minor, too. Best Wishes!