Charles William Gordon CONROY
Eyes grey, Hair brown, Complexion fair
A researcher’s journey of discovery
As is common practice for the Fromelles Association of Australia, the file for Private Charles William Gordon Conroy 4460 was allocated to a volunteer to research and to discover his personal story. The researcher, Gloria, started with records from the Australian War Memorial, the National Archives of Australia, the AIF Project and moved on to other genealogical resources, newspaper archives and, of course, Google.
Gloria accumulated some basic details – Charles Conroy was a 41-year-old married chemist, born in Thames, New Zealand and living in Orange, New South Wales. He named his next of kin as his wife, Mary Jane Conroy, and Gloria quickly located a marriage to a Mary J. Pendergast in 1909 in Orange. A 1913 electoral roll shows Charles William and Mary Jane Conroy living at Godfrey’s Creek less than 150 kilometres from Orange with occupations listed as labourer and domestic duties respectively. All was going to plan.
But from there, the information dried up. New Zealand records showed nothing for a Charles Conroy so, in the hope of finding more clues, Gloria ordered the Marriage Certificate.
There was now more information to work with – and a different place of birth, London, England. But trying all information combinations still did not help Gloria to find either Charles or his parents in official records in Australia, New Zealand or England.
Nothing, that is, until she looked more closely at the name given for his mother, Cecilia Hollis and found that an Agnes Cecilia Hollis married a Charles Gemming in New Zealand in 1878 – definitely a possibility!
After locating newspaper records showing that the Gemming family lived in Thames, New Zealand – the place of birth nominated on Charles Conroy’s enlistment papers – and that they had a son fighting with the Australian Forces, the ‘possibility’ had graduated to a working hypothesis. Charles Conroy might really be Charles Gemming!
And yes, there on the New Zealand birth records, Gloria found a Charles William Graham Gemming born in 1882 in Thames, New Zealand - suspiciously close in details provided by our Private Charles William Gordon Conroy.
Two articles about the Gemming Family from New Zealand.
Charles – Gemming v Conroy?
To recap on the comparisons between Charles W. G. Conroy and Charles W. G. Gemming
Christian names - both use Charles William but Conroy adds Gordon (marriage certificate; AIF records) while Gemming adds Graham (birth record)
Year of birth - Conroy gives approximate years 1876 (marriage certificate) and 1874 (AIF records). Gemming’s birth record shows 1882. Gloria wonders if marrying a 34-year-old bride may have prompted Conroy to add six years to lessen the age gap.
Place of birth - Conroy claims London, England on marriage but then claims Thames, New Zealand on enlistment. Gemming’s birth is registered at Thames, New Zealand.
Father - Conroy names his father as physician, Charles William Gordon Conroy (marriage) and Gemming’s father is recorded as miner, Charles William Graham Gemmings (birth and electoral records)
Mother - Cecilia Hollis is named by Conroy (marriage) while Agnes Cecilia Hollis is recorded for Gemming (birth)
Occupation - Conroy is a labourer (marriage) and chemist by trade, apprenticed to F. J. Ray in Thames NZ for 6 years (AIF). Mr Frederick James Ray was indeed a Chemist in Thames, but there is no formal record of Charles being a chemist in New Zealand. The claim is plausible but not currently provable – and it does provide coincidental links between Conroy and the New Zealand town of Thames where Gemming was born.
In searching, New Zealand records Gloria could only identify one family by the name of Gemming(s). Note too that records generally use Gemming but sometimes Gemmings is used. So, when she stumbled across the following entry relating to a paternity claim in the police gazette in 1906 she wondered if this was Charles.
The name is not identical but similar, the age is right, the place is right and the physical description aligns with the AIF record on enlistment. It is not definitive proof one way or the other but it is a possible motive for a fresh start in a new country with a new name.
By the by, Eileen had a daughter, Frances Mary Boyle, in early 1907 with no father listed on the birth registration. Gloria could find no further information on Eileen or Frances.
A search of immigration and shipping records did not identify when Charles came to Australia from New Zealand, either as Conroy or Gemming. On balance, the evidence seemed to be weighing in favour of Charles Conroy and Charles Gemming being one and the same person.
A little background about the Gemming family
The Gemming family, originally from German and Scottish origins, moved from Victoria to New Zealand in about the late 1850s.
Charles’ father was born Charles Bernhard Gemming in 1855. He was an infant when the family left Australia and is believed to have been an only child. Charles senior became a miner, like his father before him, and it seems that he dropped the Bernhard name and was listed in many records as Charles William Graham Gemming. The similarities to our soldier’s name gave Gloria hope that she was on to something.
After marrying in 1878, Charles senior and Agnes (known often as “Cecilia”) had 10 children - Agnes, Aileen, Charles, Coralie, Frederick, Nita, Thomas, Theophilus, Vera and Edna. Charles was the eldest of their four sons, all of whom fought in World War 1. Three sons were killed – a very high price to pay and one cannot imagine the loss and heartache they must have felt.
Going back to the Charles Conroy story – Coo-ee!!
Conroy’s attestation papers have a note on page 2 – “Gilgandra Recruits”. This refers to what became known as the Coo-ee recruiting march – a name which seems to have originated from its use on many recruiting posters of the time.
In 1915, local Gilgandra plumber, Bill Hitchen, began a route march from Gilgandra to Sydney, stopping at small towns en route to rally new recruits for the AIF. The march began on 10 October 1915 and its route included Orange where Conroy enlisted on 25 October. By the time the march reached Sydney a month later, more than 500 kilometres from Gilgandra, the recruits totalled 263.
After months of training at the Liverpool camp, the majority of the Coo-ees embarked for Egypt and later for France. Private Conroy was reported missing after the Battle of Fromelles and was later found to have been killed in action on 19th/20th July 1916. He has no known grave.
Charles’ widow, Mary Jane, received his war medals and lived out her life in Orange, dying there in 1951. She did not re-marry and there were no children to the Conroy marriage.
The family in New Zealand
Whilst Charles was fighting in WW1, his family in New Zealand knew very little but it seems that they did know he was serving with the Australian forces. The first article below (left) appeared a day or two after Charles Conroy left Australia with the 13th Battalion. The second is the obituary for Charles Gemming senior in 1932 which refers to the deaths of three sons in the war which must include Charles – if our hypothesis is correct.
While the family clearly knew eventually that Charles was serving with the AIF and that he had been killed, it is unclear when and how they discovered this news as he was certainly not serving under the Gemming name. Family members have in their possession a letter written to Charles’ sister Agnes (known as Cis) and her husband Tom in November 1916 saying:
Cis, I wonder if Nita ever told you what we found out about your brother Charlie going under an assumed name and that he was far from dead then, that was in Egypt about 8 months, but do not know how he is getting on at all now. Have you heard at all?
Nita is another of the Gemming sisters and the letter was written by her husband. It is clear the family did not have definite details about Charles and a number of theories were explored with some family believing that Charles was killed in France on 26 March 1917.
It is likely that his immediate family never knew Charles’ fate but later generations have never forgotten and continue to seek the truth.
Charles Gemming’s name does not appear on the War Memorial in New Zealand and nor is it included on the Australian War Memorial although, if Gloria’s conclusions are correct, he may eventually be commemorated in Australia and at Fromelles under the name Conroy.
In relation to the three younger Gemming brothers who served with the New Zealand forces, their details are as follows
Frederick Effrice Gemming 1887-1941
Name: Frederick Effrice GEMMING
Service No: 12/4309
Rank: Sergeant Major
Enlisted: 26 October 1915 – aged 28
Embarked: 1 April 1916
Unit: 2nd Battalion, Auckland Infantry Regiment
War Service: Egypt, Western Europe
~ ~ ~
Discharged: 23 November 1918
Family: Married Maggie Smith (1917), Alexandra Bishoprick (1920) – 4 sons, 1 daughter
Died: 1 November 1941, Te Puke, NZ – aged 54
Buried: Old Te Puke Cemetery, New Zealand
Thomas Alfred Clare Gemming 1891-1917
Name: Thomas (Tom) Alfred Clare GEMMING
Service No: 12/359
Enlisted: 14 August 1914 – aged 23
Embarked: 26 October 1914
Unit: Auckland Regiment 6 (Hauraki Company)
War Service: Egypt, Gallipoli
~ ~ ~
Fate: Wounded in action, Gallipoli; evacuated home to NZ medically unfit May 1916
Died: 26 April 1917, Thames, NZ – aged 26
Buried: Thames (Shortland) Public Cemetery, NZ - Plot 3641
Theophilus John Gemming 1893-1915
Name: Theophilus (Jack) John GEMMING
Occupation: School teacher
Service No: 12/1956
Enlisted: 18 January 1915 – aged 21
Embarked: 17 April 1915
Unit: Auckland Regiment 6 (Hauraki Company)
War Service: Egypt, Gallipoli
~ ~ ~
Fate: Killed in action 8 August 1915, Gallipoli, 22
Place of burial: No known grave
Commemorated: Chunuk Bair (New Zealand) Memorial, Turkey – cemetery ref. 10
So, it appears that if the Gemming-Conroy theory is correct, three of the four sons of Charles and Agnes Gemming were killed during the Great War with two lying in unknown graves on the other side of the world – one in Turkey and one in France.
Not forgetting the Gemming daughters who were:
- Agnes Cecilia Gemming (1879-1934) – married in 1910 to Thomas F. Chambers
- Aileen Isabel Gemming (1881-1956) – married in 1906 to Richard G. Hosking
- Coralie Mary Josephine Gemming (1885-1932) – married in 1915 to Frank L. Jenner
- Nita Pearl Gemming (1889-1965) – married in 1915 to Cyril G. Mellor
- Vera Muriel Gemming (1896-1897) – died aged six months
- Edna Doreen Gemming (1901-1971) – married in 1924 to Selwyn E. Hall.
Seeking confirmation and identification
Having found so many pieces of the jigsaw and seeing a picture emerge – a picture somewhat different to the one she expected - Gloria has continued her research and has identified members of the Gemming family who are willing to donate DNA to hopefully identify Charles.
Though still awaiting testing results, all concerned remain hopeful that they may now know what happened to their great-uncle Charles who left New Zealand to fight with the Australians and was never seen again. But he was never forgotten.
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