On the wall of my grandparents’ lounge room was a large hand coloured photograph of an old man and his dog taken outside of a small cottage. I wondered who he was. Was he a real person or was it just a piece of décor?
Many years later I learnt that he was my great grandfather. His name was Billy Mercer; he died before I was born and had lived forty four years in one century and forty four in another. I learnt that he had run away from his family and hid at Berridale down in the Snowy Mountains. My mother said that his first wife had died and that he had remarried a German woman,( Emma Lydia Lather ) and with the coming of World War 1 he was so embarrassed he ran away. She also said that he was spotted by a man from Roma who happened to be down there buying cattle and who returned home and put him in to the wife he had deserted. This is most unlikely but makes for a good story. In actual fact he was growing old and wrote to his daughter, Marguerite to re-establish contact.
My grandmother and her brother, Arthur then journeyed to Berridale to bring him back.
There were photographs taken of the occasion. They journeyed to the top of Mount Kosciusko. There was one matter that had me intrigued; why Berridale? One could understand a man fleeing his wife but it was most unlikely for someone from Roma to travel a thousand miles to a small town. Normally people hide in cities like Brisbane where no-one notices and no questions are asked. Small towns ask too many questions.
It seemed that everyone knew him but knew little of him. My brother thought that he was employed on the property as a gardener and wasn’t related. My sister said that he drank tea from a saucer and was deaf.
A break through came when I found out that he had lived under the alias “West” in a cottage called “Bo Peep” and so I stated to investigate a Mr West who had lived in Berridale from about 1913 to about 1934. I wrote to the local historical society and my letter and photographs were displayed at a meeting. They came to the attention of an elderly gentleman by the name of Ellis Atchison who, as a small boy had lived next door and who used to take him dinner every night.
Some seventy five years after Billy West left Berridale I travelled there and met Ellis.
He is in his eighties but remembered my ancestor well but not as “Billy Mercer”; he remembered him as “Brickie West” because that was what he did; he was an itinerant brick maker. He knew the photographs well; they had been taken by his sister who also had to give up her bed for my grandmother. They travelled to the top of Mount Kosciusko with Harry and Kate Scarlett, Uncle and Aunt of Ellis. The dog was named “Nip” who howled at the sound of music.
He could tell me all about where he made bricks and how he hunted rabbits and prospected for gold with his Dad, Dan Aitchison. He mentioned that he was a keen gardener and grew English flowers like Sweet Peas. A passing lady complimented him on them and asked if he might spare some. His reply was “You can have three”.
Still even though I knew more of the man I could not understand why he went to Berridale. It was while Ellis ran through the names of the people that Brickie knew that he mentioned a fellow who lived across the road in “The Gardens”; his name was Edward Austin Tritton commonly known as “Ned Tritton” and he was the publican. Immediately I knew why he went to Berridale. I did not know the relationship but I did know that the first wife was Lydia Tritton and he was obviously family. He turned out to be a distant cousin to Bill’s first wife. Billy apparently knew him but not Emma Lather. Who better to hide a runaway than a publican? I can imagine it “Gentlemen, let me introduce a mate of mine from the old country; Billy West”. No more questions asked.
“Bo Peep” no longer exists. The land passed into the ownership of Ellis’s mother, Vera Aitchison, some thirteen acres on the edge of Berridale and she sold on five acres. The cottage was demolished to make way for a caravan park in the sixties. The “Southern Cross Motel” now dominates the site. Ellis still owns the remaining eight acres.
So it was that I was able to spend a night on the site of “Bo Peep” if not actually in the cottage itself.
I then travelled to the old “Pine Valley Hotel” that stands near the Adaminaby turn off between Cooma and Berridale. Many years have passed since it was last a hotel. It is now a craft shop where Jenny purchased some items for her embroidery.
I now understood much about Berridale but still could not pin down the circumstances as to why he left Roma in the first place. My cousin, Margaret Ball’s husband Brian Johnston had researched William Mercer and found that he had married Lydia Tritton in St Mary Chapel, Hastings East Sussex in 1884. The marriage produced three children all of whom died as infants. The couple were advised to travel to a better climate and so in 1885 they set off for Brisbane on the “Bulima”.
They then had three children; William Jnr, Marguerite and Arthur.
At one stage it was believed that she was the daughter of a Dean of Westminster Abby and a great granddaughter of the Governor of India. None of this was true. She was the daughter of a laundress and he the son of a brickmaker/labourer though he does appear to have been involved with the army. The military buttons from his old greatcoat ended up as the eyes on Alice’s teddy bear. This is currently (March 2009) being investigated.
Lydia Mercer died on the twenty second of December 1890 aged thirty two leaving Billy with three small children. William Jnr born eighteenth of February 1886, Marguerite born twenty seventh of July 1888 and Arthur born twenty third of September 1890. He was unable to care for them in the economic depression so they were admitted on the eighteenth of November 1891 to the Diamantina Orphanage in South Brisbane. William Jnr and Marguerite were fostered with Mrs Boyd that day and Arthur was fostered with Mr Laing on the 23rd of January 1892. On the 16th of August 1892 he married Emma Lydia Lather who had two illegitimate children, one of whom had died. The day he married her he reclaimed his children. I see that it was a marriage of necessity.
The second marriage produced four children born between 1897 and 1907 though it was not apparently a happy marriage. Emma Lather favoured her own children and Marguerite left home at the age of thirteen, never to return.
In 1910 William Jnr was killed. He was a policeman and fell from his horse. This must have affected Billy. His first family was grown and had left home. At the same time Ned Tritton’s wife, Bethell Jane died at the age of thirty six so there came to be two men who were bound not only by family ties but by loss. Simply Billy had had enough and walked out the door and went to Berridale.
In 2007 I returned to Hastings and visited Cliff Cottage where Billy was born. It still exists high on a cliff overlooking the English Channel.
In those days it would have been at least a mile from the town but Hastings has grown and it is surrounded by later houses.
St Mary Chapel is now derelict and marked for redevelopment.
I thought about all that had happened. Nowadays it would have been so different. It would be most unusual to lose three babies. They would most probably have not migrated. Lydia Tritton most probably would not have died and so on it goes but all those things did happen. I believe that he was a good man.
Billy Mercer spent perhaps the past ten years of his life on the farm at Fernside. In 1942 my grandfather received a phone call saying that Emma had passed away. Billy did not look up from his meal; he simply said “That’s one less wife I have”.
Article by Terry Hicks January 2009