The orphaned Kunkel children

NFHM AlexIn Week 2 of Family Tree Frog’s NFHM Blogging Challenge, Alex asks us if there were secrets in our families, or were there tales of the Depression. However, as this week’s book, Careful He Might Hear You, focuses on an orphan and what happens when his aunt comes to take care of him, my thoughts immediately turned to my Kunkel orphans.

In November 1901, my great grandmother, Julia Celia Kunkel nee Gavin, died of a post-natal complication.  Just six weeks later, on Christmas Day 1901, her husband George Michael Kunkel died of a heart attack. All of a sudden their ten surviving children were left orphaned.

george & julia possiblyADJ

I believe this MAY be a photo of Julia Gavin and George Michael Kunkel, based on dress styles, family resemblances and that it was with a group of Kunkel family photos.

The children and their age at the time they were orphaned were:

Denis Joseph Kunkel born 23 September 1880 at the 40 Mile Camp, Dalby (my grandfather), 21 years

Mary Ellen Kunkel born 7 December 1881, 20 years

Julia Beatrice Kunkel born 9 July 1883, 18 years

George Michael Kunkel born 18 October 1884 died Jimboomba 1 May 1899

Bridget Rose Kunkel born 9 July 1886, 15 years

James Edward (Jim) Kunkel born 6 June 1889, 12 years

Elizabeth Ann (Lily) Kunkel baptised 26 January 1891, 10 years

William Thomas (Bill) Kunkel born 7 November 1892, 9 years

Matthew David John (John) Kunkel born 28 April 1894, 7 years

Kenneth Norman (Ken) Kunkel born 27 August 1896, 5 years

May Camellia Kunkel born 30 April 1899, 2 years.

The children were therefore split roughly into two groups, with the eldest three being of working age and the younger six ranging from toddlers to being almost of an age to work. There are some variations compared to the ages on the death certificate but that’s unsurprising given the level of stress and grief. What on earth happened to all these young children? Their father left an estate of £433, thanks largely to a life insurance policy, which must have helped a little.

dinny jim & friend

James (left), Denis (Centre) and unknown friend/relative c1917.

My grandfather Denis never talked about these horrible early days, though oral history from my parents said that he had contributed to the children’s upkeep (debated by others) and that he had maintained young Ken at a woman’s house next to the block of land Denis bought in Kelvin Grove. Ken’s descendant told me that she had treated Ken poorly and he’d run away. Having said that, I remember Ken visiting my grandfather in his old age – he would turn up in his van, covered in health food signage so he obviously still felt some affinity with his eldest brother.

What else could I learn? I turned to the school indexes prepared by Queensland Family History Society which are also available through Find My Past. While I had some of this information, even more is being indexed, which is very helpful when you haven’t a clue where the family might have gone. Even better, many of the school admission books are being digitised by the Queensland State Archives, as I’ve discovered today.

My earlier notes record that Jim Kunkel was enrolled at Wallumbilla State School[i] in January 1902 and left in Sept 1902. This suggests to me that he had been taken in by his aunts and uncles, either the Paterson or the Lee family who lived at Pickenjennie and Wallumbilla respectively. I’ve also been told that Jim worked for them on their farms as he would have done at home. Oral history revealed that Denis helped Jim get a position as a lad porter with the railway in 1911. Around the same time, Jim would become a part-time competitive boxer, before marrying and having a large family.

Julia Kunkel

Julia Kunkel

Mary Ellen Kunkel had married in June 1901, before her parents died. She had three children but the marriage was not a success.

Julia Kunkel worked as a domestic and in a hotel though she also lived with her grandparents at Murphy’s Creek for some time and her wedding reception was held there. I wonder whether some of the smaller children also lived there with them, at least some of the time. Unfortunately, the Murphy’s Creek School Admission Registers are only available from 1907 so we can’t know for sure. Julia married in 1910 and had a very large, happy family.

Although Bridget Kunkel was 15 when her parents died, she no doubt missed her mother’s guidance. She worked in hotels and sadly had two children out of wedlock, one of whom died in a baby farm at New Farm in Brisbane. Family secrets have a way of coming out when one visits the archives and explores the indexes for civil registrations.

While Bill Kunkel was enrolled, with his siblings, at the Geham State School in the final year of his parents’ life, there is no indication of whether he continued his education beyond 1901 and if so, where. Nor do we know with whom he lived until of age to go out to work. He too joined the railway (the family business), as a lad porter in Warwick in 1913, aged 21 (seems old?). He remained with the railway for the rest of his life, but tragedy struck when his son Robert (William Rudolph) Kunkel was reported Missing in Action in Korea in 1952. Bill and his wife Rosetta never got over their loss. Bill was one of the few siblings to stay in touch with brother Denis, who had some sort of falling out with the rest of them, reportedly over religion.

ken kunkel

Ken Kunkel

There is a mystery surrounding the younger children, Lily, John, Ken and May. Lily, John and Ken are enrolled at Laidley state school[ii] in 1902, but no family members are known to have lived there, and the registers didn’t enlighten me when I looked at them years ago. The only familiar name I could find was that of Elizabeth Marks, who had been named Executrix of their father’s will. Young May appears in the index of Laidley admissions in 1904 and John in 1906. Who were they living with? Time for some more research.

In between times May appears in the registers for Crow’s Nest[iii] school (1905 and 1908) and also Pechey[iv] school (1905). Lily also appears on the Crow’s Nest admissions register in 1902 and John at Geham[v] in 1903 and 1905. These seem more able to be explained. The children’s maternal grandfather, Denis Gavin, lived at Crow’s Nest around this time, and their uncle James Gavin, worked for the railway (yes, again!) in Pechey.

john kunkel off to war

John Kunkel

I have no record of where young Ken went to school though if the oral history is correct I would expect at least some of his education would have been at Kelvin Grove state school.

John’s daughter told me that her father hadn’t received “any” education and had no shoes until he was 14. John had been fostered out and worked hard as a dairyman for his foster parents, though we have no idea who they were.

Annie Kunkel, a younger cousin to all these Kunkel orphans, told me that Bill Kunkel had spent a “good bit of time with the grandparents” at the Fifteen Mile, Murphy’s Creek, and perhaps all of them came and went at some time.

Lily and May Kunkel

Lily and May Kunkel

May Kunkel would have been only 13 when she was enrolled at the Cooran state school[vi] near Pomona in 1912. Her guardian was a baker in Cooran and the only entry on the electoral rolls for a baker in Cooran is a James Hubert Jordan. This name means nothing to me in the broader family context so I’m left wondering if she had been sent to work there. At the time he would have been 66 years old and appears not to have had a wife living with him. A mystery indeed. May married at only 17 years old but her marriage failed fairly quickly…hardly surprising given the emotional turmoil she’d lived through at such a young age.

The death of their parents had a significant impact on these Kunkel orphans. The younger ones seemed to have been taken care of by relatives mostly but moved around regularly – hardly a settled life. Apparently the older ones survived with fewer emotional scars, but the younger group certainly did it tough. Ken and John remained good mates throughout their lives, enlisting in World War I together alongside their Gavin cousins.

[i] Queensland State Archives Item ID637218, Register – admissions, state school

[ii] Queensland State Archives Item ID635275, Register – admissions, state school

[iii] Queensland State Archives Item ID625192, Register – admissions, state school

[iv] Queensland State Archives Item ID639187, Register – admissions, state school

[v] Queensland State Archives, Digital Image ID 28004

[vi] Queensland State Archives Item ID639824, Register – admissions, state school