Friday, March 18, 2011

The day my grandfather woke up in Australia

My grandfather Ernest Skyvington [1891-1985] once described to me his joy upon arriving in Sydney Harbour on the SS Marathon on Christmas Day 1908, where he was greeted by his London-born seafaring uncle William Mepham and his Australian-born wife Gertrude Driscoll, who lived at Rushcutters Bay.

The next day was important in 20th-century boxing history and, indeed, in world racial history, for Australian boxing enthusiasts would witness a match that had been unthinkable, in the Northern Hemisphere, up until that summer afternoon in Sydney. A black Texan, Jack Johnson [1878-1946], whose parents were former African slaves, would finally seize the world heavyweight championship from a white Canadian, Tommy Burns [1881-1955].

My grandfather, aged 17, spent the 26 December 1908 wandering around Rushcutters Bay, where he was impressed by the crowds who were gathering for the big match. He would tell me much later (with a hint of pride in his modest origins) that he obviously didn't have the necessary cash in his pocket to pay for a seat in the stadium.

Click the above image to see a panoramic photo—which I've only just just discovered—of the entire view of the Rushcutters Bay stadium on that famous afternoon.

Exactly 46 years later, my grandparents would take me to that same Sydney eastern-suburbs neighborhood to watch another great match: the Davis Cup tennis finals, described in my article of 27 December 2007 entitled Over half a century ago [display].

POST SCRIPTUM: A fascinating video summarizes the celebrated Johnson-Burns title fight of 1908 (which I recently heard described on French radio).

There's a terribly significant detail, which may or may not correspond to what we tend to imagine when we hear this story today. Finally, it was not the referee, but rather the Sydney police, in the 14th round, who intervened to halt this one-sided combat, which looked as if it might culminate in a fatal issue. But, before stepping in between the boxers, the police ordered the news filming to be stopped. Today, historians consider that the Sydney police had orders to do everything that they could to avoid the idea that the sporting archives might contain the terrible images of a black man hammering a white boxer to death. As you can see for yourselves in the video, the Sydney police did in fact succeed in this censuring mission.


  1. William, If you would be willing to complete a profile for I'd love to hear from you ( As an expat Aussie in France with an interest in genealogy no doubt you have a great story to tell.

  2. Dear "ancient Australian ancestor hunter":

    I'm not at ease when I find myself talking about genealogy to an anonymous individual. I've never been in favor of the habit (curiously widespread in Australia) of hiding one's identity, image and geographical locality behind an artificial Internet nom-de-plume.

    Thank you for suggesting that my genealogical profile might be included in your blog. It was kind of you to contact me in that perspective, and it would have been quite simple for me to submit brief answers to your questions. But I prefer not to disperse my genealogical preoccupations by taking part in terse surveys of this kind, which don't appear to serve any useful purpose… apart from maybe indicating one's existence to another group of readers. I already have a rich network of Internet contacts with genealogical researchers in Australia (often relatives), but they are generally highly targeted, in specific areas, and often rather personal (in the sense that we're interested in communicating about in-depth family-history questions, often in somewhat murky zones). So, the idea of a standard set of simple questions, such as yours, doesn't really correspond to the reality of my research activities.

    I'm sorry for reacting in this negative way, and maybe giving you the impression that I'm a fussy old bore. Incidentally, I am indeed finicky, in a way, concerning two curious terms that you use: "geniaus" and "genimates". Insofar as our underlying interest is genealogy (including, for me, ancestral genetics based upon DNA testing), I would have accepted naturally all kinds of neologisms based upon the root "gene", but your choice of "geni" strikes me as misleading and therefore unfortunate. As you surely realize, the latter four letters evoke the physiological term "genital", which has no direct association with family-history research… unless the researcher happens to be concerned by questions of inherited medical afflictions.

    I wish you all the best in your collection of profiles, and I regret that I have to be such an aging grizzly bear.

    William Skyvington