Ernest William BURGESS
Eyes grey, Hair brown, Complexion medium
Ernests War service
With onset of war in August 1914 Ernest was living in Medlow Bath near Katoomba in New South Wales and on the 23 August 1915, he made the trip west to Lithgow to sign up. This was his second attempt, first failing due to poor eyesight. Passed fit under revised recruitment standards, Ernest was assigned to the 1st Battalion 13th reinforcements and departed Sydney on board the HMAS Aeneas on the 20 December 1915.
On arrival in Egypt, Ernest was transferred to the 54th Battalion in Tel-el-Kabir during the reorganisation of the AIF after the Gallipoli campaign. This combined new recruits from Australia with the more experienced men from the 1st Division. After training the group took up duties along the Suez Canal and then, on 19 June 1916, they left for the Western Front arriving at Marseilles in France on June 29th 1916.
Ernest was listed as missing in France on 19-20 July 1916 and was pronounced Killed in Action after a field enquiry on 4 August 1917.
Early Life in England
Ernest William Burgess was born into humble beginnings on the 8th December 1885, the youngest of four children. His mother, Annie, died the following month leaving his father, Thomas, a publican and ginger beer maker, with four young children to rear. Thomas re-married in December 1887 and later had another daughter.
The family lived initially at 213 Brick Lane, Bethnal Green in London. However, times were tough and, when his father lost his business in 1895, Ernest’s stepmother and sisters moved to the workhouse. Ernest, then aged 9, is likely to have spent time in the workhouse with his father until his father died two years later after struggling with illness. Orphaned at 11, Ernest was placed in Pelham House, a facility for homeless boys.
In 1906, Ernest became a licenced victualler and went into business with his older brother, Thomas, running a pub called the Old Welsh Harp in Hendon in outer London. Unfortunately, the brothers had a run in with the law in 1909, as a result of which, both men spent some months in prison for fraud related offences. Seeking a fresh start, Ernest sailed for Hobart in 1911 giving his occupation as barman, staying true to his family publican background. His family would never see him again.
Life in Australia
Ernest moved from Hobart to eventually spend time in Newcastle employed as a steward at the Newcastle Club. Later, he resided at Medlow Bath in the Blue Mountains where he purchased a block of land, perhaps with some intention of settling down eventually. It seems his ties with Newcastle were strong as he had invested in shares in established Newcastle businesses and went to the effort of placing a newspaper advertisement in the local newspaper to give his new address after enlistment and to:
thank the people of Newcastle for their kindness while living in Newcastle; also before going away, and the kindness while on my final leave.
In July 1916, Ernest was reported as missing and his sister Maud received the telegram as his listed next of kin. On his army records it seems there was initially some confusion and it was stated that he may have been wounded and sent back to England; however, it soon became clear that the soldier in hospital in England was a different Private Burgess. If the family was aware of this mix up it would have caused great distress. It also seems that friends in Newcastle may not have been notified directly but relied on newspaper reports of those listed as missing or killed in action.
Ernest’s last will and testament written prior to embarkation gave the executor as Henry Oakes Johnston of Medlow Bath in New South Wales. He left his watch and gold chain to Frank Graham (stepson of Henry Johnston) and a parcel of land in Medlow Bath to Lily Butterworth of Newcastle, possibly a girlfriend. In 1950 she still held title to the land however defaulted on council rates. He left his shares to his two sisters, Julia and Maud, and to a Mrs Shillateer in London. The residue of his estate was left to Annie Johnston, wife of the executor.
Family memories of Ernest a century later
The closest living family of Ernest Burgess were aware of his war service and great nephew, Peter, is in possession of his service medals which were found after the death of Peter’s mother. She had never talked about Ernest but the medals prompted Peter to find out more about his great-uncle. After some initial research, Peter made the emotional trip to Fromelles and he later wrote in an email, “We found it really moving and are very proud of his commitment to serve.”
As a result of assisting in locating an appropriate DNA donor, great nephew Peter has reconnected with cousins not seen for 25 years and has organised a face to face reunion. It appears that the search for Ernest has reunited his family.
Ken, also a great nephew, had heard a story from his grandmother who had been known to say:
Your uncle Ernest was led astray by his big brother and his saving grace was joining the army in Australia which changed him beyond belief from a lost individual to a very brave and determined individual who lost his life in Flanders.
Ken reports a general sense of pride “that he died doing what he’d wanted to do in fighting for justice with his adopted military in association with the country he and his family were born in.”
Still waiting for confirmation and for closure
Coincidences in Researching
As researchers, the story of Private Burgess was a fascinating one and full of coincidences. Firstly, just prior to being asked to search for Ernest’s family, one researcher was holidaying very close to where Ernest lived in New South Wales and visited the town of Lithgow where he enlisted.
The second coincidence occurred when two members of the research team (previously unknown to each other) found a DNA connection between their own families, some of whom lived just a few streets away. What are the odds of that?
The search for a male DNA line was made easy, firstly, by the research already undertaken by Peter and then by the willing generosity of Peter, Ken and other cousins to assist and to locate likely donors. To date, one Y DNA donor has been confirmed and the outcome of another test is pending.
The search for mitochondrial DNA donors has been challenging for the researcher. No likely candidates have been identified as yet - but work continues.
To date, the search for Private Ernest Burgess has been a rewarding and emotional journey both for researchers and the families. Whether or not Ernest’s remains are found, the search for DNA donors has resulted in reuniting lost relatives which, in itself, makes it all worthwhile.
The ongoing search for mt DNA
The search for a female line mitochondrial DNA donor goes on. Despite Ernest having two sisters who both married and had families, so far, no female descendants have been found. There are possible lines springing from Ernest's maternal grandmother's family – details below.
DNA is still being sought for family connections on the female line
|Soldier||Ernest BURGESS 1885-1916|
|Parents||Thomas Jones Charles Frederick BURGESS 1846-97|
|and Ann Allen OAKLEY 1843-86 - Both died in Surrey, England|
|Maternal||John Allen OAKLEY and Elizabeth LANGTON - lived in the Hackney area, Middlesex, England)|
|Maternal Siblings||Ann’s 3 sisters|
|Mary Ann Allen OAKLEY (born 1830)|
|Elizabeth Allen OAKLEY (1833-1905)|
|Ellen Allen OAKLEY (born 1851)|
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