A couple of years ago while watching the late news one evening I caught the TV spot for Ancestry.com’s free trial membership. Having had more than just a passing interest in my genealogy and heredity since doing a high-school research project on my family tree, I decided to sign up and look into it. Little did I know an amazing journey into my family history was awaiting me.
In my mid twenties I had spent considerable time reading about the history of my Scottish ancestry through my father’s side. I knew that my paternal grandfather Robert Hay along with his siblings had come from the Portobello area of Edinburgh and had migrated to Australia with their father in 1926. I also knew that my maternal grandfather Roy Dowsett and his brother Doug had served for Australia in World War II. Beyond that, I knew nothing substantive about either side of my family.
Since being married and seeing the meticulous detail which my wife’s grandmother had applied to recording and collecting the histories of her own and her husband’s family, I had been inspired to make a similar effort in tracing my own ancestral roots and hopefully unearthing and saving something interesting for posterity.
As the information relating to my father’s side was so readily available, I began by entering as many names and dates as I could on my own. On a subsequent visit to dad’s place one Sunday afternoon, I took along my tablet PC and we spent a couple of hours digging through his memory banks and photo albums. Within a few weeks I had built a genealogical tree on Ancestry for his side of the family that went all the way back to 1750, uncovering interesting people and stories along the way. As it turns out, the Hays of Portobello had been potters and had at one stage owned and operated the well-regarded Rosebank Pottery of Edinburgh in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
Part of my research about 10 years earlier had involved ordering physical copies of Roy and Doug Dowsett’s Australian Army service records. These had already made fascinating reading, particularly on Doug’s part; he had been captured by the Japanese in New Guinea in 1941 and was held as a Prisoner of War until after their surrender in 1945 when he was returned to the Australian Imperial Forces (AIF). The records were vague in that they did not specify exactly where he had been help prisoner, but family legend had it that it had been the notorious Changi concentration camp.
A few months after filling out dad’s side of the tree somewhat, I turned my attention to my maternal side – the Dowsetts. On catching up with my mother at this time, I asked if she wouldn’t mind coming over with a few photos and do the same thing I’d done with dad. I knew, of course, about Doug and Roy in the war. Mum brought some photos of Roy, including a beautiful portrait in uniform from 1942 and some newspaper clippings from his marriage to Phyllis Anderson. Just before she left, mum mentioned that she remembered hearing that perhaps Roy’s father had served in the Boer War. The prospect of another generation of Dowsetts serving in the same force and uncovering the story had me intrigued immediately.
Meanwhile, as I began to collate and organise the wartime history of Roy and Doug Dowsett, I had become quite proficient at using the online resources at the Australian National Archives and the Australian War Memorial. I realised that amongst Doug’s files was a printed index card, stamped and handwritten in Japanese. After initially assuming it was merely an unimportant part of the documents relating to his handover to the AIF after the war ended, I decided to take another look. Searching online for Japanese POW index cards gave me the next step. The Japanese had been meticulous with their record keeping and had standardised a system across their POW facilities, with a list of codes denoting the locations. I found the translated location code information and found where Doug had been. It was Changi, at the notorious Shimo Sonkurai – Hellfire Pass.