Delving into family past uncovers uncle's tale

Delving into family past uncovers uncle's tale

Gillian Steepe

Ernest and Janet Willis on their wedding day, December 22, 1949

Ernest’s parents Donald and Harriet Willis' celebrating their 60th wedding anniversary in the 1960s

Ernest and Janet Willis and family members celebrate Janet’s 80th birthday in about 1982

First published in News Oxford Mail: Photograph of the Author by

HANDING over your eight-year-old son, knowing you will probably never see him again, would be most parents’ nightmare.

But in 1913, when Donald and Harriet Willis of Cowley gave their son Ernest to the anthropologist Kingsley Fairbridge, they believed they were giving him the chance of a better life.

Now, almost 100 years later, the extraordinary tale of young Ernest has been revealed to his great-niece Gillian Steepe. Mrs Steepe, 56, works in the finance department at Helen & Douglas House Hospice in Oxford.

She said: “I always knew of uncle Ernie, but very little about why he was sent to Australia, until a researcher called Angela Sherry contacted me from the USA.

“I thought he was about 12 when he went, but he was only eight.

“I found it quite emotional reading about his life. It must have been very lonely and frightening for him initially – and he never saw his parents again.”

On July 3, 1913, a British ship docked in Fremantle, Western Australia. On board was a group of children destined for the Fairbridge Farm School at Pinjarra. Ernest Charles Donald Willis was born on December 17, 1904, at 7 Thompsons Yard, St Aldate’s, in Oxford.

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The large and very poor Willis family later moved to 30 Union Street, East Oxford. The phrase ‘Bricks for Empire Building’ was popular at that time and Oxford graduate Kingsley Fairbridge wanted to link the vast emptiness of the Empire to the many supposedly unwanted children in Britain.

On October 19, 1909, Mr Fairbridge addressed a meeting of 49 fellow undergraduates at Oxford’s Colonial Club. At the end of the meeting a motion was carried to form a Society for the Furtherance of Child Emigration to the Colonies, which would later become the Fairbridge Society.

Ernest Willis’s passage was £6 and was paid by the Western Australian government. The average age of the boys in his group was nine, and they slept in tents.

Life at the school was one of hard manual work mixed with schooling and tough discipline, but Ernest apparently bore no ill will either to his family or the Fairbridge organisation. After leaving Fairbridge Farm School at 16, he went to work at a farm near to the school.

Later he joined the postal service as a lineman and married Janet Frost, a widow, in 1949.

Angela Sherry said: “The first time Ernest saw a member of his family after leaving them behind in England in 1913 was when he met his sister, Pamela, when she moved to Australia in 1962. “Two additional sisters, Margaret and Fahie (Gillian Steepe’s mother), visited in 1985. He had not seen Margaret since she was about six, and he had never met Fahie because she was not born until 1921.

“He never saw his parents after leaving Oxford in 1913, but he did stay in contact through the occasional letter – and even had a lamb delivered to their address one Christmas!” His parents died in their late 80s. More schools were set up towards the end of the Second World War. But by the 1970s, only the original school at Pinjarra survived. And that closed in 1981.

Mrs Sherry continued: “Life turned out well for Ernest. He was happily married, a loving stepfather, and passed away at the grand old age of 90 on April, 5, 1994.” She added: “We do not know how life would have turned out for him had he remained in Oxford, but he certainly made a good life for himself in Australia. “Not all of the boys in his party were as fortunate.

At least three would die in state mental institutions before reaching the age of 50, another three died in accidents, and two were captured by the enemy during the Second World War and made prisoners of war. “Thankfully, Ernest’s story had a happy ending.”

If you want to discover more about your own family tree, get in touch with the Oxfordshire Family History Society. The society has a wealth of expert knowledge, including using local sources and the internet. Visit the website at ofhs.org.uk or call 01628 485013

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