It’s been on the To Do list for quite some time now, paying visits to the towns Douglas was last known to be living in the late nineties. Life gets busy though and the reality of this search is that it is rather emotionally taxing. I had to be 100% switched on for this visit and I am glad I waited until yesterday to make the trip.
So, armed with my photos of Douglas and all the information I have to date, off I went. First stop was Appin. One of the known addresses I have for Douglas is in Appin, known to have last been active in 1994, possibly later than that even. It’s disconcerting to think that I have driven past this address before, having photographed weddings out in Appin over the years. Crazy to think about how details such as these can re-contextualise your entire outlook on a particular place. What if I had known what I knew now, back then?
No, I didn’t attend the address that I was given by H. Bit of a risky move, being alone. Then there’s also the issue of it not exactly existing anymore. I will circle back to that. My first stop in Appin was one of the local cafes. It being a Saturday and all, I figured there’d be regulars stopping in and whatnot. Being the awkward human I am, I blurted out my reasons for being there to the barista taking my order virtually straight away.
“How long has this cafe been open for?”
“Have you lived in the area long?”
These were the first questions out of my mouth. I got my answers, both were to the effect of “not long”…as in, chances of knowing Douglas weren’t that big. This lead to quizzical looks from the two guys behind the counter and the standard “Why are you asking these questions?” type response. I explained myself and was met with curiosity–so much so, that the both of them began asking the rest of their customers about how long they had lived in the area and mentioning that I was looking for my biological grandfather! I met a couple who had been in the area for as long as Douglas would have been, I showed them the photos, told them his name. The name seemed familiar to them, they told me he even looked a bit familiar. They looked rather interested especially once I gave them the address I had for him. Despite the information and the vague familiarity, they couldn’t tell me where Douglas is/was. I spoke to another pair who, despite not having lived in the area long, knew of people who had lived in the area for a very long time. They took my details, promising me that they would pass them along to these long term residents.
I could only remain in this cafe for so long before it became awkward (I mean, honestly!), so I wandered down the street a bit, ducking into a few other shops. Most were either under new management or completely new to the area. Next on the list of places to visit were the two cemeteries in the town: the Catholic cemetery and the Anglican one. Now, given that NSW Births, Deaths and Marriages have confirmed that there are no deaths registered to a Douglas Purcill/Purcell, it would mean that burial is honestly out of the question. Can’t help but wonder though, what if the true meaning of that statement is “He’s been registered as dead under another name”? That has been a nagging thought of late. So it’s not completely impossible that he IS in one of the local cemeteries…I just would have no idea. I can’t begin to explain the frustration that comes with that train of thought.
I wandered through both cemeteries, which were extremely small. They contain mostly very old headstones. The surnames in both are recurring, with only a handful of headstones displaying surnames that show no familial link to other burials in either place. Interesting. The next thing to look at was the date of death and age at that time. The pool of names narrowed down further, with maybe one or two headstones displaying a surname that was random, with a date of death being after 1999 and their age at that time being close to what Douglas’ would have been. I’m not sure if I am explaining this properly…but there are some things you come to learn as a genealogist:
Families, often for several generations tend to have common burial places. Especially in small towns. Walk into a small town cemetery, you will see the same surnames show up over and over. And, they can be verified with basic genealogical searches. Obituaries, birth/death records, existing family trees. You will be able to learn whatever you like from the details you pull off a headstone.
Finding random, singularly occurring surnames in a small town can be a bit of an anomaly. Of course it happens! This can often be looked into and verified using all the family history based research options we have available these days. What if…you can’t find ANY information on a name you find on a headstone? No indication of parentage, anywhere?
I’ll just let that sink in. It’s one hell of a stretch. But after all this time and considering how unusual this whole situation is turning out to be, it’s something to be considered. One can change their name legally, but fabricating a paper trail of family lineage on top of that seems highly unlikely.
I left the cemeteries feeling not exactly relieved. Just plain frustrated.
It was time for a break before looking into my final destination in Appin–the local pub. Let it be known that taking a break IN that final destination was probably not the best choice for relaxing as such. I was immediately on edge when I went in, with the intention of getting a drink and just having a moment before launching into my standard enquiry spiel. This wasn’t because of the place itself, I was on edge simply because I knew what I had to do and no, it doesn’t get easier. You have to prepare for all sorts of possible outcomes. I was also very clearly not from the area and that was immediately recognised by those within the pub. I acquired my drink, sat down and got half way through it before deciding to just approach the bar and get it over with. I asked for the owner, who, luckily for me was actually there. He came out and thankfully was very receptive to my enquiry–whilst he himself didn’t recognise Douglas, he asked some of the older men in the pub if they knew of him. They looked at the photos I had, pondered over his name…and a few even got on their phones and began making enquiries for me with other residents in the area! Nobody in the pub seemed to recognise Douglas, though the name was again vaguely familiar to some. The phone calls made did turn up some other possible leads, with someone offering to look further into the address I have for Douglas. After thanking everyone for their help, it was onwards to Picton.
There was only one place in Picton I wanted to visit. The Picton Hotel, where Douglas was known to have lived at another stage in the nineties. I headed there, despite knowing that the place is under new management. Worth a try still. I spoke to the manager on duty, who directed me to a patron who had been in the area for ages. “He knows everyone in the area” she told me confidently. Challenge accepted, sweetheart. I produced the photos and again I was met with vague recognition of both Douglas’ name and appearance. The man thought long and hard, giving me the name of another man who may know of Douglas, who I do intend on following up with soon. His main frustration was that the men he did know of who would have known Douglas for certain have long since passed. What would have happened if I had began this search even a year earlier?? We’ll never know. I left a copy of the photos, with all the details I have, the manager and the man I spoke to promised to pass it around to other patrons during the week.
I set off for home after this visit, arriving home to a phone call from that same man from Picton Hotel, who had thought of another possibility for me. I won’t be saying much on that front yet, but it is definitely something I will be looking into as well! Despite the frustrating dead ends we are experiencing, I am so appreciative of how friendly and helpful people have been so far. There will be no giving up here.