27 July 2015

What's in a name (and how I got it so, so wrong) !!!

Way back twenty or more years ago my family history research project was only just beginning to take shape. Most of my research was limited to what I could find at the local museum and research centre, or else what I could write away for. Online records as such were non-existent and my family tree was a bit small and spindly to look at with many branches either missing completely or with very little information on them.

When I got married and then came to be expecting my first child I put a lot of thought into the name I would give my child. I did not want to give them a name that was modern and trendy at the time and that every second kid in their class at school would end up with. And I did not want to give them a name that sounded like it belonged to a wee kid. I can remember my late grandmother always telling me that you name your baby son with a man’s name, not a little boy’s name. 

I wanted to give my child a name that held real meaning to me and was possibly reflective on my background and the lives of my ancestors. But twenty years ago the “old” names that are quite trendy now days such as Archie, Charlotte, Oliver, Lily, George, Isabella, Freddie, Scarlett, Charlie, Ruby, Oscar or Harriet were almost unheard of amongst anyone younger than 70 years old. I didn’t want to give my child a name that would be considered odd or unusual for the era so these old names from back in the last century weren’t even considered. Who was to know that they would ever become so popular again !!!

So when it became known that my husband and I were expecting a daughter I browsed back across my then somewhat-smaller family tree to see what names could be suitable. There was Elizabeth, Beverley, Mary, Maureen, Hanorah, Kathleen, Margaret, Helen, Mary-Jane and Janet, but none of those names appealed to me one little bit. They sounded so old-fashioned and the thought of giving one of them to my baby daughter didn’t sit well with me.

Bridget WALLIS (nee BROSNAN)

Then I came across a name on my tree that I instantly thought 'I could live with that'. And the more I thought about the name Bridget the more it appealed to me. My husband had no issues with it either and it got me out of the possibility of having to use the name that he had picked out for our precious daughter, ….. Heidi !!!   As a child I had a cat with that very name, and believe it or not it was a male cat but that’s another story for another day !!!. I’m afraid the name Heidi was a very long, long, LONG way down my list of suitable names for our daughter.

'Bridget, Bridget, Bridget', the more I said it the more I liked it. At that time I knew not very much about the Bridget on my family tree, but what I did know back then was that she was Bridget BROSNAN, born in the late 1860’s in Kerry, Ireland. I knew that as a teenager she had somehow travelled all the way across the world to New Zealand all by herself when the rest of her family went to the USA. She ended up in the small sea-side village of Riverton on the southern coast of New Zealand and there in late 1884 (approximately 18 months after she arrived in NZ) she gave birth to an illegitimate son who she named William. 

I knew little else about Bridget’s early days in New Zealand until she turned up in the small settlement of Waikaia in the late 1880’s and it was there that she eventually married and raised a family. Her daughter Mary Elizabeth WALLIS was my maternal great grandmother and I was always brought up to believe that William was Mary’s full brother. Right throughout my childhood, and even after I had started on my family history journey, despite there being older family members still alive, no one had ever told me any different about William. One day however it finally dawned on me that William was so much older than the rest of his siblings so I searched for and found his birth record in 1884 and there he was registered as William Stewart BROSNAN, illegitimate, no father listed.

'Bridget, you had a little secret' I thought to myself at the time, but then thought no more of it until many years later when I came across her name again on my family tree when I was looking to name my daughter. I guess I had less of an understanding back then as to what I do now as to how prevalent illegitimacy actually was way back in the 1800’s. At the time of finding William’s birth registration it surprised me that Bridget had actually kept him. Though looking back now at my thoughts back then I guess I’m not entirely sure what else I thought she would have done with him !!! 

Anyway, twenty years ago my main thoughts about Bridget were that she must have been an amazingly strong woman. It was the 1880’s and she was very young and all alone in New Zealand. And for six years she raised her son William all on her own before she found someone to marry. The strength that she displayed caught my attention and I immediately felt that perhaps this was an example of family strength, courage and devotion that I could look up to.

So when our beautiful little daughter arrived in late 1996, with much happiness and without any hesitation we named her Bridget. I knew of no other Bridget’s that were babies or children at that time, only a few that were adults my age or older. So I felt quite confident that my beautiful wee Bridget with her own unique name would most likely go through her school life as perhaps the only Bridget in her class. And I felt very comfortable with that and also for the fact that I had named her after her amazingly strong ancestor. Everything was perfect. Or so we thought !!!

Bridget WALLIS, date unknown
Roll on ten or fifteen years later to a time when online research had become quite the norm with more and more records available to be searched. I feel very fortunate to live in New Zealand and have available to me to research online, completely for free, a vast array of our country’s newspapers at ‘Papers Past’. Almost all of the early history from the time of first European settlement in New Zealand is able to be browsed or searched through. And it is within these fantastic newspaper archives that over the past few years I have been able to piece together more and more of Bridget’s story. And what a story it is !!!

It turns out that Bridget WALLIS (nee BROSNAN), my great great grandmother, lead quite an eventful life. But if I started writing here about all the times I have found her mentioned in the newspapers this story would be over 20,000 words long and you would still be here reading in three or four hours time. So for now I will give just a very brief overview of what I have found, and over the next year or so I will gradually tell more and more of Bridget’s story on this blog.

Fortunately newspapers from 100 years ago recorded so much more detail than is currently allowed to be put in print, often using descriptive words that they would never get away with now days. And it is from within these articles and descriptions that a clearer picture of Bridget’s life can be built up. 

The very first time that I find Bridget appearing in a newspaper is in April 1885, six months after the birth of her son William. It is a report of a Supreme Court hearing where Bridget is complaining under the ‘Destitute Persons Act 1877’ that “William Stewart, draper, Riverton, whom she alleged to be the father, had refused to provide for the support of her child”

'Fair enough Bridget, fair call', I found myself thinking but what I found next changed my attitude completely. 
From the Southland Times, 30 June 1885

Bridget must have found herself in quite a dilemma to have even contemplated leaving her son behind and fleeing 100 miles away. Why she did it we will never know. And what became of her after her return to Riverton and then her reappearance in court for this misdemeanour I have as yet been unable to find out. 

Bridget's first son,
William Stewart BROSNAN
The next mention I find of Bridget she is living with the Chinese gold-miners at Welshman’s Gully near Waikaia in Northern Southland. During this time she gave birth to another illegitimate baby, this time a daughter named Flora who sadly died at seven months of age. 

While living with the Chinese Bridget is involved in several ‘altercations’ that require court hearings. And the misdemeanours just kept on coming. And so it continued on and on, …… court appearance after court appearance, newspaper article after newspaper article, year after year. It got to the stage that nothing that I found surprised me anymore. 

In August 1890 Bridget married Joseph Thorley WALLIS (who was at least twenty years her senior) and as well as her son William they also raised a family of one daughter and four more sons. Joseph died in 1908 and right up until the time of her own death in 1918 aged 57 years, Bridget continued to be a regular in both the courts and the newspapers.

So my beautiful daughter Bridget, it looks like I should have done quite a bit more research as I perhaps made a rather bad decision when it came to choosing a name to honour you with. Here you are now, a kind, gentle, compassionate, very hard-working young lady, honest as the day is long, currently attending university and studying extremely hard to become the lawyer you always wanted to be. 

And then there is your namesake, a woman we now know so much more about and it turns out that she was perhaps everything that you hopefully WON’T be. She was a loud, strong-willed, at times foul-mouthed woman who spent most of her life pushing the boundaries between right and wrong. Unfortunately she must also have been a bit of a slow learner too as she went on to serve time in prison on at least five separate occasions. Times back then were very tough I know, but I think that’s still no excuse for the life she choose to live. Fortunately, between her and her husband Joseph, they made a good job of raising their children to “do as I say, not as I do”. As far as I am currently aware none of them were ever in any kind of trouble with the law.

Well Bridget, your 3x great grandmother, your namesake, was indeed the “strong woman” I thought she was, just in an entirely different way than I had assumed when I named you after her. But I'm not in any way bothered by the name I gave you as it is now your name and who cares who else has had it in the past. It belongs to you now, it suits you and there is nothing else I would rather you were called. And I know one thing for sure; that you and your namesake are going to lead two very different lives on completely different sides of the law. Perhaps if you’d been around 100 years ago 'old Bridget' could have come to you for a bit of help and guidance. 

Bridget with eldest son William, daughter Mary & three
young sons Ben, Teddy and Joe Jnr.   Possibly taken
around 1899 as youngest son Thorley is not yet born.

What follows here is a just a small selection of actual phrases that have appeared in the newspapers with regard to Bridget and her husband Joseph. At this stage I will elaborate no further on any of these other than to say that none of these incidents (other than the couple marked *) relate to Bridget and Joseph together, they all involve someone else. I will leave you guessing and in suspense until I write again about Bridget and Joseph at a later date.
  • ….. using a choice selection of bad language
  • ….. pulled her about and slapped her in the face
  • ….. threw a whitening pot at her and otherwise assaulted her
  • ….. assault and obscene language
  • ….. a loose character, Bridget Brosnan, alias Sullivan
  • ….. a month in Invercargill Gaol
  • ….. using obscene and provoking language
  • ….. facing two charges of perjury *
  • ….. making a false declaration under the marriage act *
  • ….. Mrs Wallis was invariably the aggressor
  • ….. alleged attempt at incendiarism and dog poisoning with phosphorus
  • ….. destroyed by fire *
  • ….. robbery at Riversdale
  • ….. caught him by the throat and threw him down
  • ….. profanity in a public place
  • ….. resisting the police in the execution of their duty
  • ….. used bad language and struck the constable with a bottle
  • ….. language deployed by the defendant is unfit for publication
  • ….. threatened to knock witnesses brains out
  • ….. hit him two or three times about the face
  • ….. used bad language to her daughter
  • ….. said she would smash any policeman who came near her place
  • ….. sly grog selling
  • ….. sentenced to three months imprisonment in Invercargill
  • ….. buried in her back garden
  • ….. three months imprisonment in Dunedin Gaol
  • ….. keep such premises as a place of resort for the consumption of intoxicating liquor
  • ….. fined £20 and costs 7s
  • ….. three months imprisonment at Dunedin Gaol
  • ….. did permit her house to be used as a place of resort for consumption of liquor
  • ….. sentenced to three months imprisonment

Bridget WALLIS & her six children, taken not long after the death of her husband Joseph in 1908.
Standing: William, Mary and Joseph              Sitting: Ben, Thorley and Teddy


  1. What a great story, I look forward to further instalments about your notorious Bridget. It is certainly the stories that bring our ancestors "to life".

    1. Thanks for your comments, and you're so right, it is indeed the stories that bring them to life. If it wasn't for Bridget's little misdemeanours then I wouldn't have found out anything more about her other than just the basic facts, and her personality would have remained unknown.

  2. Hello again Maria, I'm another far-flung namesake of the famous Bridget! We've been in touch a bit on genealogy sites, but I'm so glad to have just learned about your blog. Bridget Brosnan Wallis seems to have been quite the character indeed! I also found many of the news articles detailing her activities. My grandmother, Bridget (Bridie) Brosnan Cahill, was her niece (daughter of Bridget Wallis's brother Benjamin), who immigrated to Massachusetts, USA, in 1930, and even before the magic of the internet, our family knew the legends of Aunt Bridie who had gone off to New Zealand. :) I love my name, and you're absolutely right that our names belong to US now. Each generation builds their own history. Thank you for telling this story. I look forward to reading more on your blog!

    1. Hi Bridget, many thanks for your lovely message. I have noticed you in the past on some family history websites but since I wasn't a member of them I had no way to get in touch with you until now so thank you for commenting here on my blog. I would love to know how you actually found it :-). I have sent you a Facebook friend request so once you confirm it I will be able to contact you properly and we can then "compare notes" if you would like. It's so lovely to finally be in touch with you and look forward to hearing back from you.

  3. Miranda Barnes29 July 2015 at 19:28

    Fantastic and entertainingly written account Maria. What a wonderful gem you have created. Maybe your Bridget's determination to be a lawyer is the old one vowing to once and for all get the better of the courts! Bridget is one impressive young person and will of course achieve exactly what she sets out to.

    1. Thanks Miranda for you kind comments. I'm sure my Bridget is going to be every bit as strong as her namesake and hopefully make her own mark on the world. She is loving varsity and doing really well up there :-)