Tuesday, 5 June 2018

Who can I believe?

Thomas Bryce, the son of David Bryce Esq, was at his father's home in Glasgow on Sunday 7 April 1861 (census night)1. And he was definitely in Brisbane, Queensland on Tuesday 18 September 18662 (the day of his wedding with Janet Menzies). The timing and method by which he was transported between these two points in space-time are less clear.

There is no entry in the QSA Immigration Indices that might plausibly describe his journey. That is not really surprising because the period 1860-67 is almost certainly the one with the least complete coverage of immigration records.

The report of Thomas's death in The Brisbane Courier of 8 January 19123 is quite definite concerning his entry into Queensland. "He started his career as an accountant in his native city, but left there in 1862 in the ship Golden City, and came to Queensland in search of health." Murphy's Law would have predicted as much because the Golden City is fabled among researchers for its association with missing records. (Can't find your ancestor's arrival in the 1860s, put down "via the Golden City".)

Fortunately, although not recorded at QSA, the 1862-63 voyage of the Golden City was the subject of one of the series of booklets They Came Direct compiled by Eileen Johnson4. But that transcription contains no reference to Thomas Bryce, 20-year-old accountant from Glasgow. On the other hand, there is an entry for a 20-year-old Scottish labourer who apparently joined the vessel at Queenstown (the port in Cork, Ireland) named Thomas Boyce. The full transcription of the passenger list also includes a Mrs Boyce and two (unnamed) infant children travelling in the cabin.

Could there be a family connection between these passengers that has nothing to do with "my" Thomas? Or having encountered the name Boyce at the top of the list, were the transcribers predisposed to interpret a later, similar but indistinct name as being the same? If the male passenger was actually Thomas Bryce, why would an accountant travel to Ireland (rather than London) to join the ship and then list his occupation as "labourer".

The Queensland Family History Society has recently completed an extensive project to transcribe passenger lists held by the National Archives for which there is no corresponding Queensland State Archives record. They are published on CD as the Queensland Customs House Shipping lists. And the arrival of the Golden City is included in the volume covering 1852-18855.

That (independent) QFHS transcription includes an entry for Thomas Bryce 20-year-old Scottish labourer who boarded the vessel in London. Clearly, this reading is closer to what I was expecting but the discrepancy concerning his occupation remains. I really have no basis to decide that one or the other is correct, particularly given the conflict over where he boarded the ship.

The original paper record that underpins both transcriptions was held in the Brisbane collection of the National Archives of Australia and formed part of the set of early shipping records in delicate condition transferred to microfilm for ease of public access. But the passage of time saw that base film stock subject to "vinegary decay" and this required a further transfer of the information to a stable format. Roll 1 of Series J715 is now an enormous file of 1327 digital "frames" that can be viewed online6. There is no index but the images are arranged approximately in date order of departure from the UK.

The voyage of the Golden City (departing London on 3 December 1862 and then Queenstown on 13 December 1862, arriving in Moreton Bay 5 March 1863) is recorded in frames 314 to 328. On frame 318, can be seen a passenger name B?yce that has apparently been over-written at some point. I cannot determine if a letter "o" has been replaced with an "r" or vice versa. I cannot even definitively rule out some other combinations.

If a reader was expecting "Boyce", she would find it. On the other hand, someone expecting the name "Bryce" would certainly recognise that. This clearly is the entry of interest.

Upon a wider examination, it is plain that Thomas's occupation was not actually recorded as "labourer". A ditto mark was placed against his name, apparently referencing the last full word recorded above, which was "labourer". However, it is possible that when more than dozen young single men boarded in quick succession and the first few were labourers, the shipping clerk recorded them all as the same. It is not necessarily true that Thomas claimed to be a labourer, he may have simply failed to correct an error (if he was aware of it).

Which leaves the question of where he boarded the vessel. The people around Thomas in the list are all of Irish nationality but their names are on the document created in London on 3 December. Those people who did board in Queenstown (a week later) were recorded on a separate paper form with a different heading and distinct signature block.

The claim that Boyce/Bryce boarded in Ireland apparently arises from a marginal notation (Queenstown) added in another hand beside the the names of the group of Irish nationals (and Thomas). Perhaps a later user of the list assumed that the original was incorrect and that the Irishmen "must" have been listed on the wrong page. However, the statistical summary made on the last page at the time the list was created shows that there were a small number of Irish citizens boarded at the first port (London) before the much larger group a week later.

So when it comes to deciding how Thomas Bryce travelled to Queensland, who can I believe. My conclusion is that the reporter for the Courier got it absolutely right (which is not a claim that I would make lightly today). He got his information from the best available source and there is nothing in the (extant copies of the) original documents to contradict what he was told.

Transcription is not a straight-forward task. Every line interpreted involves dozens of decisions based not only on the marks on the paper but also the context in which they were originally made and then read. I can take issue with the interpretations made in the case of one man about whom I had additional information not available to the previous transcribers. There were hundreds of other passengers on that voyage for whom I have no basis to disagree with the published transcript. The overall value of the transcriptions should not be questioned.

Respect the work of transcribers but trust the evidence of your own eyes informed by all the background you have on the individual you are researching. Ask yourself, not only is that reading possible but also is it plausible given everything else I know about the person concerned.


  1. 1861 Census of Scotland, Glasgow, enumeration district (ED) 52, page 28, Thomas Bryce; digital images, Scotlands People.
  2. "Family Notices" The Brisbane Courier 20 September 1866: 4. {http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article1274492}
  3. "PERSONAL." The Brisbane Courier 8 January 1912: 9. {http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article19724675}
  4. Johnson, Eileen Golden City", 1863: Immigration vessels to Queensland Self published 2003 ISBN 1 875790 63 2
  5. QFHS Queensland Customs House Shipping 1852-1885: Passengers and Crew Published 2014 ISBN 978-1-921171-32-1
  6. Ships passengers lists - Brisbane - inwards - 4 August 1852 to 13 December 1870 NAA: J715, ROLL 1 Item barcode 32722213

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