The Next Chapter

I’m suspicious that some scandal happened and she changed her name when she married. I can’t find any evidence of this, but I haven’t finished searching yet.

Nothing ever works out the way you think it will (or at least that’s my perception). The above quote is where I left off talking about Johanna (Mary Joan/Jean) Smirk last week. I was right about the scandal, although I’m not sure that I’d call it that exactly, but not about her name. I haven’t been able to find any reason why she would change her name. She didn’t do it for her marriage because she was calling herself Johanna at least twelve years before that. Maybe she just preferred it?

I did discover, however, that at age 29 she had a son, Robert Joseph (later to call himself Robert Richard or Richard Robert), to a man called William McCall and to whom she was not married. William McCall married someone else in the 1920s and didn’t have any more children and doesn’t seem to have had any role in his son’s life. Robert used his mother’s surname, Cavanagh (always spelled with a ‘C’ even though Johanna used ‘K’) and must have been about 12 when she married William Smirk. I suppose all three  lived together in the cottage that is now part of the museum and this certainly explains the addition of the second bedroom which is clearly a very old.

This is taken from the front verandah and shows that there is an addition to the original building but that it is built in the same way as the main building. This always intrigued me – why would William Smirk have built the building then made the addition, especially as they had no children together?

It seems, however, that Robert was a lot like his grandfather – Johanna’s father, Thomas Kavanagh. Thomas Kavanagh was Irish. He was arrested, changed and convicted of highway robbery in 1850. He received a sentence of 10 years and was transported to the Swan River Colony, arriving in 1853. He was described as a labourer and was married with four children. I’m yet to do a proper search of the convict records for Thomas in order to find out where he worked and when he received his Ticket of Leave, but by 1860 he was shacked up with Ann(e) Malone and they had a daughter, Mary Joan(Jean/Johanna) the following year. He never married Ann, even though they had at least nine children together. I think he also had a child with another woman during this time too. Of Thomas and Anne’s children only four survived childhood. I’d like to guess that Johanna was a twin and had a brother named Richard who died at age four, but I’m waiting for her birth certificate to confirm this.

Thomas seemed to have been unreliable at best. He is caught stealing in 1900. Then in 1906 he was involved in a escape that seems to have gripped Perth for a few days. He had been arrested for stealing about nine months earlier and sentenced to two year imprisonment on Rottnest Island. One night a fellow prisoner called Slee somehow got his gaol cell open then opened the doors for Thomas and another man, McCarthy. I’ll let the West Australian take up the story:

The three men then took possession of the Harbour Trust’s dinghy, and proceeded to the mainland. A strong body of police was immediately detailed to search for the absconders, and ultimately McCarthy was arrested in the city. Though the vigilance of the detectives and police had not been relaxed, yet all attempts to discover the whereabouts of the other fugitives proved unavailaing until yesterday, when Slee and Cavanagh were arrested at Bunbury.

I need to do more research on what ultimately happened to Thomas, but this very same year, 1906, his grandson, Robert pops up in the newspaper’s police reports and in the police gazette. He was charged with stealing three Gladstone bags from a F.J. Simple. He told the magistrate he was sixteen years old (which, incidentally, is how I found out Johanna had had a child at all) and he was released as a first offender. This experience didn’t seem to have troubled young Robert. While I haven’t found any evidence that he continued in this vein in Western Australia, he next pops up in New South Wales.

In late 1914 World War One began. By November, Robert Cavanagh had signed up in Liverpool, NSW. He lists his mother as his next of kin, Mrs Smirk. In early February of the next year, before he’d even been shipped overseas, Robert failed to produce a pass, was drunk and disorderly, using obscene language and finally threatened a Commanding Officer. He was booted out of the service four days later.

Not to be disheartened, however, Robert travelled to Queensland, changed his date of birth (making himself four years older) and his name (to Richard Robert Smirk) and, just eight days later joined up again. The only thing he leaves the same is his next of kin: Mrs Smirk (although he changes her address from Rockingham to Mandurah, which would later make her difficult for the AIF to find.) This time he makes it through training and is sent of to Europe. Robert is sent straight to Gallipoli and spends fourteen weeks there, then sent to France where he is involved in at the Battle of Pozieres. There is a very clear correlation between his experiences in these two extremely bloody theatres of war and what happens next. After July 1916 Robert’s military record becomes littered with changes of being drunk, fighting, stealing and disobedience. He does various stints of prison for these charges.

In 1917 he is found guilty of desertion – a far more serious offence – and sentenced to life in prison. He serves just one month of this sentence before it is commuted to two years then just days later it is suspended altogether. One can only imagine that they needed the men at the front, not lying about in prison. Two months later he is found guilty of being AWL (absent without leave) and sent back to prison for 28 days, but somehow he is still in action a few days later and is wounded. He stays in hospital for a month or so before being marched back to his unit and then immediately absconds again. This time he is sent to prison to serve the rest of his previous sentence of two years hard labour but just six months later the war is over, his sentence is remitted and he is released and demobilised back to Queensland where his is formally discharged from the AIF.

His war record is almost entirely from the military’s point of view, but we do hear Robert’s words just once (albeit reported by a CO). In 1917 during his trial for his first desertion offence, Lieut. H.J. Ryan, Robert’s commanding officer during the battle at Zonnebreke, finds him in the town of Ypres rather than with his unit. Ryan says:

I interrogated him and asked him why he left the front line, and he said I could not stand shell fire, as I’ve got no guts.

While I have no illusions about Robert Cavanagh – he was a hard man, was raised in less than ideal circumstances and probably left WA to escape some sort of criminal activity, I cannot help but feel immense sympathy for him having experienced the worst of war and finding himself unable to cope with it. His military record shows quite clearly that he needed help and he needed to get away from everything that had caused his behaviour in the first place.

When Robert arrives back in Queensland he disappears from the records. He is listed in the Cairns area on the electoral rolls for the 1930s and 40s and in 1959 – he is 69 – he writes to the military requesting his discharge papers. He gives his address as Cairns. He doesn’t marry or have children. I can’t find any death recorded. It seems he never returned to Western Australia. There are  more records to check, but I have to send away for them. I can assume he dies after 1964 as the Qld online records finish then, but I can’t find him at any cemeteries. I wonder what he did during WWII. I wonder if he knew his mother died in 1945. I wonder what his life was like, was he a man broken by his wartime experiences who continued to be arrested and spend time in prison or did he just lead a quiet life?

Of course, I can’t leave these questions unanswered. More research is required – again! What a pity ;).

5 Responses to “The Next Chapter”
  1. Tony Cocks says:

    Hello Jen,

    I am a mature Postgraduate at Southampton University in the UK researching for a PhD on penal reform in early Victorian England. This is very much centred on Parkhurst Prison 1838-1864, creating Biographies for the 4,000 juvenile offenders who passed through the prison over that period, especially the 2,000 transported to Australia/NZ.

    Thomas SMIRK was one of those 2,000 and I have managed to glean a reasonable amount of information for him. However, having discovered Smirk’s Cottage I would really like to add something of a postscript about the cottage, together with a decent black and white photograph. I wonder if you could in any way help.

    I am more than happy to share my information with anyone similarly interested, especially in the “Parkhurst Boys” themselves, and would add that I have appeared 3 times on Steve Gordon’s “The Way We Were” on 6PR!!

    For the moment

    Tony Cocks

    • Ian Armitt says:

      My mother in Law is a SMIRK She is Thomas Smirk, the prisoners Great Grand daughter. The family tree has been researched a fair bit and have come to several dead ends. I always listen to Steve Gordon on 6PR but have never heard anything on the Smirks.
      You say you have researched Thomas smirk, but did you research him in England prior to his transportation to Australia. This is the part I am interested in.
      His (Thomas Smirk) mother was Sarah and I believe he was born out of wedlock and she mainly used the name SMYRK, with the Y. She was possibly married twice, the first time to Owens or Ovens and the second time to Wolstonecroft. This has also been spelt Wollstencroft, but research always ended up in a dead end..
      Have you information you can share with me


      • Tony Cocks says:

        Hello Ian,

        I am totally unsure of how this particular website works but hopefully you will get to read this and are able to contact me. Certainly I am more than happy to let you have a copy of my Biography for Thomas SMIRK which contains some hstory of his family background……not a lot!!

        For the moment

        Tony Cocks

  2. Heather Yates says:

    Hi Tony
    found you here! Have sent info to you re: JohnYates (my gg grandfather) sent to Van Diemens Land ( have you been to Port Arthur? a very dismal and unhappy place!!)
    Look forward to hearing from you

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  1. […] Found Photo is the mug shot of Robert Kavanagh (alias Cavanagh, alias Smirk). This is Johanna Smirk’s son when he was about 20 years old and arrested the first time of many for stealing, drunkenness and […]

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