TALK about six degrees separating all of us in life.
Some support the theory we’re only six introductions away from every person on the planet. Certainly we could all be connected locally, whether as a blood relative or being a friend, of a friend, of a friend and so on.
Six Degrees was once a popular parlour game, but one person who believes in the concept more than most is Stockton’s Tom Wynn.
To describe him as a keen family historian though is a massive understatement.
Wynn says his extended family is living proof he’s interconnected to just about every other family in NSW and even much further afield.
And by living in the Hunter Valley he believes the region is full of distant cousins “just waiting to be met”.
Thirty years of diligent family history research has expanded Tom Wynn’s family tree to produce links to families with names like Honeysett, Evans, Ahern, White, Russell, Hope, Hyland, Dann, Weston, Tester (as in Maitland’s Testers Hollow) Rope, Brooks, Edwards, Mitchell, McNulty, Pickering, Phillips and Stack, to name a few.
His efforts have culminated in an encyclopedic, 4000-page work spread over nine volumes embracing his links to 16 convict and early free settlers of NSW. The list includes the proud claim of having two First Fleeter ancestors on his family tree.
The exhaustive, self-published history of his extended family tree is now free online or to buy as individual sets of papers through Tom Wynn.
“The National Library of Australia is very interested in what my wife and I have done. They say they have never seen anything this big in family history terms and want to promote it,” Wynn says.
“My original idea was to only sell the volumes to family members should they want their own unbounded copy for future reference, but others can buy it, too.”
Titled ‘A journey for one in a state of cousins’, the nine box-set volumes were printed on special, long-life paper capable of lasting 200 years.
“But my printer says he’ll need a minimum of six customers at $360 a set to print more up,” Wynn says.
“You can’t believe everything you find online. I’ve discovered many errors. Family names get mixed up. That’s why my wife and I undertook two trips to England for six months and conducted thousands of interviews to personally verify every family detail.
“You have to go overseas to go through the church records and also examine the graveyard tombstones.”
The most famous members of his family tree, whose roots have been traced back to 1460, are Anthony Rope and Elizabeth Pulley, convicts of the First Fleet, who landed in Sydney Cove on January 26, 1788.
“There was then a famous ‘get-together’ that night after everyone came ashore to celebrate, and they had a baby nine months later,” he says.
“While others had children on board ship on the way out here, I believe Anthony and Elizabeth were the parents of the first European child conceived on mainland Australia.”
Another surprising facet of Wynn’s prolonged research in England was the revelation that some of Australia’s first free settlers were pushed overseas by their own church parishes.
“In Burwash in Sussex, England, we discovered the church there had sponsored whole families of poor parishioners out to Australia,” he says.
“It was cheaper that way because the parish couldn’t support them had they stayed during Britain’s Industrial Revolution (up to 1840).”
Wynn says the effects of this move were enormous, helping populate a new land where migrants seized opportunities. (Other families were sent to Canada for the same reason).
“One family had a quarry which supplied the stone for another family to build a lot of the Hunter Valley churches.
“Also, the ‘father of cricket’ in Maitland was once a Thomas Honeysett, my great, great, great grandfather.
“His cricket ground was at Pender Place, at the Woolworths site at the back of Maitland. His flour mill was in Elgin Street and then he started getting in pubs. The influence of these people was found everywhere in the Hunter Valley.
“The township of Weston, on the Coalfields, sprang up in 1903 on a portion of the 640-acre family estate of James Weston, a former convict, when a company wanted to develop the nearby Greta coal seam. It became Hebburn No.I Colliery.”
Wynn says the families of his distant cousins included some who ran a chocolate factory at Maitland, to Mary Jane Russell who married gardener Edmund Bull whose family created the famous 19th century botanic oasis in Bulls Garden Road, Whitebridge.
Then there are links with the once famous retail store chain of T.C.Frith and also with Simpson’s Cottage, Mayfield West’s sandstone landmark. Also linked are its first settler John Laurio Platt and Mayfield’s legendary ‘Folly’ with its later vineyards and even a mini zoo.
Wynn found he’s also related to the pioneering Herbert family who owned some of Newcastle’s first cinemas. Back in England, he claims he was also a distant, distant cousin to Princess Diana.
Tom Wynn, a retired infants schoolteacher, says he came into the family history late. Born in Rylstone, NSW, the son of Thomas Wynn and Dorothy Honeysett, he was astonished to finally learn in 1988 that his family had so many unknown relatives.
“Then I was watching TV recently and here was Harry Potter author J.K.Rowling talking about being inspired by reading the 1654 herbalist book by Nicholas Culpeper, the English botanist and physician. He’s a distant relative, as is the presenter of TV’s Pointless, Alexander Armstrong.”
Wynn said Thomas Stack Jnr, another distant relative, was a soldier who fought in the Battle of Vinegar Hill in 1803. He later left the army and ran a livery stable supplying goods to Blue Mountains explorers Blaxland, Lawson and Wentworth in 1813.
“They did well. Half of Sydney’s North Shore was then owned by the Stack family after a couple of generations,” he says.
The most surprising local link to Tom Wynn, however, came in September 2007 when the rusty remains (pictured) of the 150-ton, iron-hulled, paddlewheel steam tug SS Leo were found buried in sand down at Honeysuckle.
Wynn’s great grandfather George Phillips White was once master of the 1871-built tug which was later used by BHP, then retired in 1917.
“The tug Leo was his residence and he was even married onboard (in 1882). He and his wife had nine children,” Wynn says.
The family history buff now has a rusty piece of the tug’s boiler as a permanent memento of the tug’s family link.