John was also known as Jack in Scotland or Jock in Australia. This was to avoid confusion with his own father in Scotland also called John, and his eldest son, my father in Melbourne christened John but always called Jack.
Since I caught the family history bug in 2004 I have found out a few things. Somehow in my earlier life I must have sensed the importance of keeping documents. Last night while going through all my papers looking for information about grandad I found the envelope from 1988 that my Auntie Margaret sent to me with copies of her father John’s birth certificate and marriage certificate.
That envelope has been through five household moves in both Brisbane and Sydney since I received it. At the time I was planning a trip to England and wanted to claim British citizenship as you could back then if you had a grandparent born in Britain. I didn’t end up going and then the rules changed. But I kept the paperwork through all those years and moves!
How valuable now in trying to piece together the life of my grandfather as a young man. This is a very personal journey for me and I want to try and knit the threads of his early life and WWI service together.
Through contact with dad’s cousin Wallace in Scotland, son of grandad’s sister Margaret, I have a few more very important snippets. So here goes. Let’s try and imagine my grandfather’s journey.
Born on 12 May 1898 in their home at 25 High Street, Perth, Scotland young John was the eldest of seven children – his siblings Archie, Arthur, Margaret, Grace, Isabell and Alexander. Wallace told me their mother died in 1914 when John was only 16.
John’s father was a platelayer according to his marriage certificate and the family were relatively poor. As he couldn’t look after his young family of seven when their mother died, the family was split up and he put some of his children into the care of an orphanage. John’s father eventually got remarried and my auntie said that times were very hard for them, she also said John didn’t get on with “Steppie” as his stepmother was called.
The war had started and young John joins the Royal Scottish Regiment as a Private. He served with the Royal Army Service Corp, Motor Transport in France. I don’t know when he enlisted or how long he served. With the destruction of 60% of WWI British records during WWII bombing I may never find out. What I do know is John was wounded during active service, losing his left middle finger and part of his thumb. When the war finished he was just twenty.
After returning to Scotland I don’t know whether it was because times were very tough with work being scarce, or maybe the estrangement from his father and stepmother, or perhaps because of his experiences in France, but young John takes an enormous step.
The British Government had offered ex-servicemen free passage to one of their dominions or colonies. After the war 17,000 arrived in Australia, source Wikipedia. One of those was my grandfather who arrived in Melbourne in 1922 aged 24. He didn’t bring his service medals with him, didn’t speak much of his service and never saw any of his family again!
He married my grandmother Elsie Holden Simmill in 1925. Auntie Margaret remembered that he had a couple of telephone calls with his brother Archie when she was very young. This was a really big event in the 1930s. You had to book a “trunk” call through the operator ahead of time.
In his spare time John coached third grade football for Oakleigh and players were sometimes recruited into the St Kilda first grade team. He never forgot his Scottish heritage. My dad and his siblings all wore kilts at various times in their youth and I still have my grandmother’s kilt pin. The Mitchell family are part of Clan Innes. I know that whenever I hear the bagpipes my Scottish blood starts stirring.
John went on to enlist in WWII in 1939 as a driver with the rank of Staff Sergeant. He died an invalid aged 59 in 1957 when I was two. I wish I’d known you grandad.
L to R: John's birth & marriage certificates, John with Elsie in Scottish dress, John back row far left with his footie team and John as a child in Scottish dress, the kilt pin Elsie is wearing in the photo and the envelope from 1988.