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My passion is genealogy and family history. I host a podcast about Australian family history, Genies Down Under. In my day job, I work as a lecturer and a researcher in higher education, teaching pre-service teachers.

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Sunday, 25 April 2010

Shakiest branch on the family tree - Walter William Northcote

More mystery than fact is associated with the records that remain of the life of Walter William Northcote. He is fondly called “the mystery man” in our family and one of the leaves on the “shakiest branch” of our family tree, as my father used to describe him. Although he used various first names (Walter, William, John, Henry, Montgomery, George Bede), his surname was always recorded the same, as “Northcote”. Although I’m not totally sure that this is his name, I will call him Walter William Northcote for now.

Birth and migration to Australia

Walter William Northcote was my paternal grandfather’s father, my great-grandfather. He was born in Exeter, Devonshire, England, around 1841-1843 and came to Australia around 1866. However, no records have yet been found of him entering the country. Perhaps, as he was in the custom of doing, he used a different first name. According to his death certificate, Walter was the son of William Northcote, a bookkeeper, but his mother was listed as “unknown”.

Wife, children and occupations

Walter met his wife, Margaret Ann Riley, around the late 1870s possibly in Bathurst, where Margaret was born, or Orange where her family lived for some time. Margaret was the eldest daughter of Thomas, an ex-convict from New Ross Ireland, and Harriet Riley, an Irish immigrant from Limerick in Ireland.

Margaret Ann Riley 

Throughout their life together, Walter and Margaret moved around frequently with their family, seeming to follow the construction of the railway line between Bathurst, Orange and Bourke during the middle 1870s to the late 1880s. They were known to have lived in many western NSW towns including Orange, Dubbo, Ravensworth, Girilambone, Wellington, Bondangara and Bourke.

Many of their children grew up or were born on the fettlers’ camps near railway towns in NSW. Walter was believed to have worked at times as a school teacher or a tutor to the railway camp workers’ children. Going by his sons’ birth certificates, he also worked as a farmer, a stockman, a storekeeper, a labourer and he was a draper at the time of his death in 1888. His wife, Margaret, was believed to have been a midwife to the many women who gave birth during the construction of this rail line.

In all, Walter William and Margaret had seven sons in various areas of western NSW from 1872 through to 1887, when my grandfather, Leo Bertie Bede Northcote was born:

1871 Walter John was born in Bondangara
1875 William Montgomery was born in Bondangara
1876 Alfred Joseph was born in Bondangara
1879 Aloysius “Carew” Standish was born in Warren
1881 Percival Phil Ernest was born in Dubbo
1884 Arthur Francis was born in Girilambone
1887 Leo Bertie Bede (George) was born in Tudor St, Bourke
Five of their seven sons were registered but each time their children’s births were officially documented, Walter William recorded the location and year of his marriage differently. As such, no official record of their marriage has yet been found.

Sons and brothers

Following are some photos of their sons over the years. Photos are included of all of the sons, except Arthur Francis, as I don’t yet have a photo of him. Although the seven brothers all lived in different places, including Sydney and country towns in NSW, they all seemed to keep in contact with each other, often having photos taken together of their visits to each others’ homes and towns.

Another small mystery surrounds the list of sons recorded by his wife under the “Children of marriage” column on his death certificate. Some of his seven sons born to him and Margaret were recorded, another was added and one was missing. Margaret had recorded “none died” at the end of the list, as follows:
"Children of marriage” column on death certificate transcribed, with explanations:
Thomas – Thomas is thought to have been one of Margaret’s two sons (Thomas and Henry) that she had with a previous husband or partner, Thomas or Henry Newton. I’m not sure why he would be listed as one of Walter William’s sons
Walter – their son, born in 1871
William – their son, born in 1875
Alfred A W C – Alfred born in 1876. His full name was Alfred Joseph, so I think the AWC might be a reference to the next son
[Aloysius Carew Standish was born in 1879 – the AWC may be a reference to him?]
Percy E – their son, born in 1881
Arthur F – their son born in 1884
George – their son, known as Leo, born in 1887
None died

Leader of the band

Although very few records have been found about Walter William’s life, the following photo is thought to be him, dressed in a military type band leader’s uniform in the 1870s or 1880s.

Walter William Northcote

Mystery of his name

Although his surname always seemed to remain constant, his first name was recorded quite differently throughout his life - as noted on various birth and death certificates that I've collected:
1876 William (on his son's birth cert)
1879 Walter Henry (on his son's birth cert)
1881 Walter Henry (on his son's birth cert)
1884 Walter (on his son's birth cert)
1887 George Bede (on his son's birth cert)
1888 William Walter (on his his death cert)
1927 William Walter John (on his wife's death cert)
1954 Walter John (on his son's death cert)
1970 William Walter (on his son's death cert)

As a result of these records, this man has at times been known as Walter William John Henry George Bede Montgomery Northcote.

A family secret never shared

Family verbal history reports claim that Walter William Northcote always promised that a secret would one day emerge about the family name and about his wealthy relatives in England. However, he died relatively early, not living long enough to tell anyone about this secret information, if in fact it ever existed. He apparently claimed descent from the Northcotes, the Earls of Iddlesleigh, from Exeter, Devon in England, and “Dukes and Earls in the old country”.

Remittance man?

Some people in the family believe that he was a "remittance man", having been sent out to Australia from England and paid to keep away, for some reason. Perhaps Walter had been in some form of trouble in England which the family was worried would become public. Perhaps he was purposely trying to hide his identity and did so by using so many different first names. Perhaps he was an illegitimate son. Perhaps this story about him being a remittance man wasn’t true at all.

Death and burial

Walter William Northcote died when he was 45 years of age on 10 February 1888 in Tudor St, Bourke where he and his family were living at the time. He had been sick for one week and died of “inflammation of the bowels” (NSW BDM Death Certificate no. 7339). His death was reported by his wife, Margaret Northcote (nee Riley) on 12 February 1888 in Bourke.

Although his wife was known to be a Roman Catholic, Walter William’s funeral was officiated by a Church of England minister, Reverend F. Clarke. He was buried on the day after his death, 11 February 1888, in the old section of the Bourke cemetery (grave no 1672) in the Church of England section. His grave has since been washed away by a flood but the records still remain at the cemetery.

After his death

After Walter died, his wife, Margaret, was left alone in Bourke with seven sons from her union with Walter, and two sons from her previous union with Newton. Her youngest son, Leo, had not even turned one at the time. By 1890, Margaret moved back to Orange with some of her children, leaving some of the older children behind living in the family home in Tudor Street Bourke.

In later years, according to one of Walter William’s grand-daughters (Irene), old Mrs Northcote (nee, Margaret Riley) “always had money” because the Northcotes in England had been sending Walter William Northcote money to keep him quiet for many years since he had arrived in Australia around 1866. The story goes that Margaret Riley continued collecting the remittance money after Walter William’s death in 1888, choosing not to tell Walter’s relatives in England that he had died. Other relatives explained that, despite having so many mouths to feed, “She had money until the day she died,” which was in 1927. However, these stories are unsubstantiated, and based only on the family’s verbal stories.

One of Walter’s great-grandchildren, Greta Sculthorpe, has collected information about him and recorded it in a book called Bathurst pioneers: A register of pioneer families of Bathurst NSW and district before 1900, published in 2007:

So much of Walter William’s life seems to be surrounded by hearsay. I would connect with anyone researching this family so that we may swap ideas and research in order to construct a clearer picture of the man.

- Written by Maria Northcote, with many of the words of Carew Northcote, her father (1932-2002)


  1. Great Post! But you might just want to try having irishfamily roots , it would be really interesting!

  2. Nice post. Do you have any information about immigration of Henry Northcote to Peru (emigrated from London) in The early 1900s, or where can I find that?

  3. Nice post. Do you have any information about immigration of Henry Northcote to Peru (emigrated from London) in The early 1900s, or where can I find that?