Trans Tasman ANZAC Day Blog Challenge 2014 – The Story Behind Jack Russell

April 23rd, 2014

Each year Kintalk (Auckland Libraries) issues their Trans Tasman ANZAC Day blog challenge and I always take the opportunity to participate and tell the story of one of my military ancestors. This year my military ancestor is Jack Russell but there are no Russell’s in the family. How and why are two questions that leap to mind and there is a simple answer – Jack Russell was a pseudonym that our ancestor used to join the AIF in WW1. He was underage but the truth was only revealed towards the end of the war.

Thomas Henry Alphonsus Spencer was born in Brisbane in 1899 but moved with his family to South Australia. In 1914 he was in the employ of Messrs Simpson and Son as a tinsmith at Gawler Place, Adelaide and was living with a Mr Boase in Adelaide while his parents (father and step mother) were living at Laura. Thomas ran away from the Boase family on 25 May with another boy leaving a letter indicating that they were heading for Queensland. An inquiry from his father Henry Spencer, in the South Australian Police Gazette, describes Thomas as 15 years old, 5 ft 5 ins tall, thin build, fair complexion, brown hair, grey eyes, medium nose and stoops slightly when walking. Towards the end of Jun 1914 there is a follow up notice saying that Henry had heard from his son.

We catch up with Thomas the following year when he enlisted in the AIF on 22 Apr 1915 in Keswick, South Australia as Jack Russell. In Nov 1915 he was sent to Gallipoli, then a year later on to France  in Nov 1916. By 1918 the army had become aware of the real identity of Jack Russell. In Feb 1918 his father Henry Spencer was asked to send a copy of Thomas’ birth certificate. Henry also advised that he had tried to find Thomas but did not know what name he had enlisted under. He knew from a Chaplain McKenzie that Thomas had gone to Egypt. Henry said that he would have willingly let him enlist had he known and he hoped that everything would turn out alright.

To confirm Thomas’ real identity, Henry Spencer had to sign a statutory declaration confirming that the correct name of Trooper Jack Russell, No 1275, 9th/3rd Light Horse was his son Thomas Henry Adolphus Spencer born in 1899 in Queensland. Henry also declared that his son had run away from his apprenticeship and he supposed Thomas had enlisted under the assumed name so that he could not trace him. There was also a statutory declaration from Thomas’ landlord, John Boase stating that Thomas had made his home with him for some years owing to the fact that there were differences between father and son and that Thomas’ mother was deceased. Boase also stated he was receiving a pay allotment of 4/- per diem from Jack Russell and he asked to be kept informed about what was happening to Thomas.

A court martial in London followed in May 1918 and Jack Russell/Thomas Henry Adolphus Spencer was sentenced to 14 days field punishment. A statutory declaration was also signed by Thomas stating that he was indeed Jack Russell and that he had enlisted on 22 Apr 1915 and that he gave his age as 19 instead of his real age of 16 years. He then went back to France and returned to Australia in 1919.

As a veteran of WW1, Thomas obviously felt the need to serve his country again in WW2. This time he enlisted in Maryborough, QLD under the name of Alfred (previously Alphonsus) Thomas Henry Spencer on 28 May 1940 and served in the AIF until 27 Feb 1942. The following day he joined the CMF and served between 28 Feb 1942 and 11 Jan 1946 with 163 days overseas and the remainder of the time in Australia. He had been wounded in action in the Middle East in Apr 1941 with gun shot wounds to both ankles and this probably explains his medically unfit discharge from the AIF and his reenlistment in the CMF in 1942.

For his service in WW1 Thomas received the 1914/15 Star, the British War Medal and the Victory Medal. For his service in WW2 he received the 1939/45 Star, the Africa Star, the Pacific Star, the Defence Medal and the 1939/45 War Medal . Personal correspondence on his attestation file/s indicates that he also received medals from France and Spain. On one of his attestation forms he put that he had seen foreign service in Spanish Morocco. His file/s have been combined and digitised by the National Archives of Australia.

After WW2 he seems to have preferred to use the name Alfred Spencer but his various names do not take away from the fact that he served in both World Wars. I do not know how many soldiers did this but it can not have been many. His half brother Charles Douglas Spencer (the subject of my ANZAC Day blog in 2011) won the Military Medal in WW2 and his story appears here. Due to family issues, it is unlikely that the two half brothers knew each other but I can not help wondering if perhaps they did meet up in Libya where they both saw action. More research might answer that question in the future. Until then, lest we forget.


52 Weeks of Genealogical Records in 2014 – Week 5 Family Stories

February 3rd, 2014

This blog challenge is to stimulate my own genealogy blogging efforts in 2014 by focussing on a different kind of genealogical record each week. I wanted a challenge that reflected my own archival background as well as my own genealogy interests and there are probably lots of other records that I could have included. The challenge has an Australian focus but most of these records will be found just about anywhere in the genealogy world.

The 52 different types of genealogical records I finally decided on are listed in no particular order (each week will be a random surprise). Anyone is welcome to do all or part of this blogging challenge.  Let me know if you are participating and I will put a link to your post under each week’s challenge.

So far I know of five bloggers who are taking up the challenge and I have put links to their individual entries at the end of each week’s blog if they have submitted something for that week. Thanks Judy WebsterSharn WhiteCassmob, Anne and Sharon for participating and encouraging me to keep up the blog challenge myself!

Also participating in this blog challenge:

Anne Week 5 Family Stories

Sharon Week 5 Family Stories

Links to Week 1 Military Medals Week 2 Internal Migration Week 3 Probates (wills and administrations) Week 4 Memorial Cards

Week 5 Family Stories

One of the first things I did after getting hooked on genealogy back in the late 70s, was to visit as many of my elderly relatives as I could. I jotted down the bits and pieces of information they gave me, copied photographs and documents and filed it all away in my manilla folders in my filing cabinets. Now as I work my way through the dozens and dozens of folders, weeding and scanning to reduce the size of my family history records and also to make backup copies and to more easily pass the information on to other family members, I realise that I probably should have asked more and different questions and I should have made more fulsome notes. But that is nearly 40 years of hindsight and we quite often cannot go back to revisit those interviews.

Even after all that time, there are some family stories that I can remember easily. My grandfather’s cousin was Doris Eileen Manville nee Maher and everyone called her Aunty Dorrie. She was good friends with my grandmother Kathleen May Gunderson nee Carnegie so we saw a lot of Aunty Dorrie and her husband Stan Manville. When I started researching she was 71 years old with a good memory and she lived to 99 years. It was from her that I learnt most about my Gunderson and Johnston families .

Her best family story was regarding my great great grandfather Adam Johnston. His wife was Maria Jeffers who was Dorrie’s much loved grandmother. While Dorrie could tell me about Maria, she was always reluctant to talk about Adam but she did tell me that he had simply disappeared having been taken by a crocodile in Oxley Creek which runs into the Brisbane River. I had been having trouble finding a death certificate for Adam but I did not really think it was because of a crocodile. Still I looked into it and there was no inquest and without an exact date it was not possible to check newspapers back then. I even investigated crocodiles in the Brisbane area but could not come up with any evidence of any in the river.

So I guessed that Adam had deserted Maria at some point and had subsequently been dropped from the family history. It was not until 1987 that I stumbled across a reference to Adam in Brisbane prison records and found out that he had deserted the family and failed to pay maintenance and was subsequently sentenced to gaol time. Local court records gave me lots of information on Adam and Maria and some of their public fights and I could see why Dorrie’s generation did not want to talk about it and would have preferred to keep it secret from the next generations. Family stories often have some truth in them and it is a matter of working out the relevant pieces of information.

On my mother’s side of the family there is the story of how her father Henry Price participated in the capture of German New Guinea in World War One. I sent away for Henry’s army record and after a lengthy (9 months) wait I eventually received a two page letter outlining his brief military service. I have previously written about Henry Price’s military service (read it here) but briefly he was part of the Kennedy Regiment that was sent to New Guinea at the start of the war. He was on board the Kanowna whose crew mutinied and they were all eventually sent back to Townsville.  Most of the Kennedy Regiment reenlisted and were sent to Gallipoli but Henry decided he had had enough of military service and stayed on in Townsville. Again there was an element of truth in the family story but not the complete story.

Sometimes family stories can have you looking in all the wrong places. Max’s grandfather Henry Spencer was older than his wife Ada Barwick nee Jarvis and the family story was that he had had another family in England before he came out to Australia. Ada and Henry separated when Max’s father was young and the family lost contact with him and no one knew when or where he had died. The family had lived in Tasmania and South Australia and we looked in both those places and Victoria for Henry’s death without any success. We wondered if he had gone back to England and we also tried to find the family that he was supposed to have had over there.

The truth was that Henry had come out to Queensland as a single man, married twice in Queensland with families to both women and after the death of his second wife moved to Tasmania where he met Ada, a young widow with two children. I had not thought to look for him in Queensland and only stumbled on his death in Ancestry when they listed BDM indexes for the various states. These days it is easier to accidentally find people by simply searching huge databases for them. Once we had his death certificate we could then trace all the step siblings but for a while we were looking for him in all the wrong places because of the family story.

It is definitely worth contacting older relatives and noting any family stories and anecdotes but like any resource, family stories need to be checked and proven against other records. In Adam and Maria’s case it led to a wealth of information in court and prison records which gave me details not found elsewhere. Military records may be quite different from what the family remembers and all too often, those who returned home from war were reluctant to talk about it so a more complete picture may be in the official record. Certificates are probably the records that surprise us most often, revealing unknown marriages or children not to mention incorrect parents names on death certificates and so on. If you still have some elderly relatives out there, now is the time to have a chat and capture those family stories!


Charles Douglas Spencer – Military Medal for Bravery

April 18th, 2011

Charles Douglas Spencer

Charles Douglas Spencer

Charles Douglas Spencer

This ANZAC day I want to commemorate Charles Douglas Spencer, and other Spencer family members who have all been involved in the defence services for over four generations.

Charles Douglas Spencer (SX 428), or Doug as he was more commonly known, enlisted in the Australian Army in World War II on 20 October 1939 at Keswick, South Australia. He was 20 years old. We have a copy of his army dossier from the National Archives of Australia which outlines all his activities during the war. He was discharged on 26 September 1945 and at the time was a Sergeant with the HQ SIGS 1 Australian Corps.

Of more interest to us as a family, we have Doug’s own memoirs which he wrote out for his sons Noel who served in the Australian Army for 20 years and Max who served in the Australian Army for 6 years and then transferred to the RAAF for a further 20 years.

Doug’s memoirs start with his leaving Australia, his training camps, and places such as Egypt, Libya, Greece as well as North Queensland in 1943 and Papua New Guinea. It’s only a half dozen pages of typescript but in it he gives personal stories of his army adventures that otherwise would have been lost to history.

We are even more fortunate to have a photocopy of a letter written by then Lt Col R Kendall, at AIF Headquarters in the Middle East on 21 September 1941. In that letter Kendall outlines why he nominated Doug for the Military Medal.

Dear Spencer

As your Commanding Officer during the campaign in Greece, I am delighted to learn that you have received an ‘immediate’ award of the Military Medal. Please accept my very hearty congratulations.

The Act for which I recommended you for the MM took place near the VEVADIA railway station in Greece on 20th April 1941, when three trains of petrol, gun ammunition and explosives were set alight by intensive bombing and machine gun attacks by enemy aircraft. You were engaged in jointing and repairing the wires of a vital telephone route. In spite of the great risk to your own life and despite terrific heat, exploding shells and bursting petrol tins in the very near vicinity you continued jointing and repairing telephone lines throughout the bombing raid. As a result vital communications were quickly re-established.

Your act and its recognition add to the pride I feel in having commanded 1st Aust Corps Signals.

Yours sincerely

R Kendall

In 1979 Doug also received from the Minister of National Defence, Hellenic Republic (Greece) the Commemorative Medal of the Campaign 1940-1941. In 1980 he was invited to attend the anniversary of the Battle of Mainland Greece and Crete but he was unable to attend.

As well as the Military Medal and the Greek Commemorative Medal, Doug was also awarded the 1939-45 Star, the African Star, the Pacific Star, the Defence Medal, the 1939-45 War Medal  and the Australian Service Medal.

A very modest man, Doug was persuaded for ANZAC day 1993 to be interviewed by The Murray Pioneer, a newspaper in South Australia. The article, published on 28 April 1993, focussed on Doug and his sons Noel and Max – all Sergeants in the Defence Forces and gives a brief outline of how they all became involved with a military life and what they had been doing since leaving the Defence Forces. The newspaper article does have a few inaccuracies but it also provides more information on the Spencer family’s military traditions.

Only one of Doug’s grandsons followed the family tradition and that was one of Max’s sons who spent 5 years in the Australian Army and is still with the Army Reserve. Recently we learnt that Doug’s father Henry Spencer had also spent time with the Royal Horse Artillery in the UK before he immigrated to Queensland in 1882.

Doug’s original medals are with his eldest son Noel and Max has made copies for himself, his Army son and Max’s grandchildren and all attend ANZAC Day ceremonies in their various home towns each year. The Spencer military tradition continues.

Lest we forget.


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