Friday 31 March 2017

Secrets revealed by tragedy

E. Ernest Baker born 1861
As is often the case in family history, as you dig around to clarify one set of facts, you stumble upon something totally unexpected, leading you down a completely new route of enquiry. So it's proved while trying to establish what happened to the two elder sons of Charles Gabriel Baker who died so tragically in Australia in 1868.

If you've read the sad story (and if you haven't, click HERE to download the article in Family Tree Magazine), you'll know that when Charles's widow, Susan, returned home to England, their four sons were separated. Of the four, the two younger brothers kept in touch but the two elder brothers, Alfred and Ernest, seemed to vanish from the records.


However recently I was contacted by Kelli, a descendant of the elder brother, (Charles) Alfred, and it emerged that both brothers ended up in Australia. My post Another mystery unravelled, told Alfred's story. This post was to tell of Ernest's fate but the story has turned out to be more intriguing than it first appeared. I'm indebted to Kelli for her help in unpicking the threads of what happened.

Early years

Let's go back to the beginning. Ernest was born in London and baptised at St Stephen's in Hampstead, as Edward Ernest (pay attention – you'll need to remember this bit as we go along). When his father died in 1868 Ernest was sent to the London Orphan Asylum in Clapton. It was at this point that I lost track of him but Kelli explained that in 1880, at the age of 18, he had accompanied his brother, Alfred, to Australia as crew members aboard the Durham. This explained why they'd not appeared on the 1881 UK census.

A new life in Australia

By 1884, Ernest had married Mary Wallace in Essenden, Victoria. The marriage index lists him by his full name, Edward Ernest Baker but interestingly he seems also to have added Morris for good measure, his younger brother's middle name. A tinge of home sickness, perhaps? 

Sadly, Mary died only a year later. On her gravestone, she's remembered as Mary (nee Polly Wallace) Baker, dearly beloved wife of E. Ernest M. Baker.

A year after Mary's death, in 1886, Ernest married again, to Catherine Isabella Stewart. This time the records show his name the other way around, as Ernest Edward Morris Baker, reverting to Ernest as his first name, as he'd always been known within the family. The couple went on to have a son, George Norman, born in 1887.

Accidental death

It isn't until the discovery of Ernest's untimely death 28 years later that it becomes clear that Ernest's life up until that point hadn't taken the path one might have imagined. But before I get on to that, let me explain what happened to poor Ernest in October 1914. 

It was while on a fishing trip with friends at Berembed Weir in New South Wales, on the Murrumbridgee River, when disaster struck. Ernest went into the river to recover an oar but slipped and fell into deep water. He became entangled in his clothing and despite being a strong swimmer, he sadly drowned. His body was recovered a few days later and a subsequent inquest recorded his death as accidental. 

Newspaper reports

In the press at the time, it was mentioned that Ernest (referred to as Mr E E Baker) was a widower, of several years. But on further investigation, it was clear that his wife, Catherine, nee Stewart, was still very much alive. So what had happened? 

His death certificate showed that his "wife" was not Catherine but Georgina Lindsay. While no record has been found of their marriage (Georgina was widowed in 1885, having previously been Mrs George Whaley Miller) her death was recorded as Georgina Baker and she'd died in 1907. Other sections of Ernest's death certificate, such as parents' names and previous marriage, were filled in as "unknown". Whoever provided the information to the registrar genuinely didn't know or was keeping schtum about Ernest's past! 


Further delving into the archives revealed that in 1901, Ernest, an Insurance Agent at the time, was gaoled for 6 months for embezzlement. Had this dishonourable behaviour resulted in Ernest and his second wife separating? Apparently not. Ernest and Georgina were already together by then, having had three sons before this date, Sydney in 1890, Harry in 1893 and Frank in 1897 – Harry and Frank obviously named after Ernest's younger siblings. 

Other newspaper reports tell of Ernest being sent to court for obtaining money by false pretences (writing a cheque which bounced) and on another occasion, an Edward Ernest Baker (note the name order – could this also be our man?) being accused of stealing a bottle of whisky from a hotel bar, which subsequently turned up hidden in a nearby culvert – though, it appears, not before Edward/Ernest spent a Saturday night in the local police cell!


Ernest is recorded on the electoral roll of 1913 as being a journalist. We know he was an insurance agent in 1901 and the newspapers at the time of his death refer to him as an accountant. His death certificate states he was a labourer! He clearly had both a checkered life and a varied career.

I suspect there's still a lot more to unravel about the life of Edward Ernest Morris Baker. What did he do in England before he travelled to Australia? What happened between him and his second wife, Catherine? Was he really ever a journalist? Did he maintain contact with his family back in the UK? 

While there are some things we may yet discover, there are probably other questions for which we'll never know the answers. But, as ever, it's always fascinating following the trail.