George, Elise and a mandarin: Identity in Early Australia by Terry Fewtrell

‘Every family has a story.’

This book is about two European emigrants to Australia in the 1870s: George Fewtrell and Elise Bresler.  While it is about their lives and achievements in Australia, it is also about why they came to Australia and how their lives were shaped by their origins.  George Fewtrell was from Shropshire in the UK, while Elise Bresler (née Rehder) migrated from Schleswig-Holstein, from Kellinghusen, a small town in the much fought over peninsula straddling Denmark and the German Confederation.  As Mr Fewtrell writes: ‘The flat terrain of Schleswig-Holstein differed greatly from the rolling hills and relative peace of the English countryside in the latter part of the 19th century.  Identity in Schleswig-Holstein was not fixed but fiercely contested.  It was based on an association with place and region.  […] Here identity was less certain, more ambiguous, perhaps conflicted and compromised.’

‘But identity has many layers.’

Mr Fewtrell writes of the separate journeys, to Queensland, of each of his great grandparents.  He writes how each of them endured tragedy: George was widowed with small children while Elise lost both husband and three small sons.  He writes of how, working together, they established a community (Palmwoods, 100 kms from Brisbane) and developed a citrus orchard.  It touches on the dispossession of the Indigenous peoples, which was already well under way when George Fewtrell was granted Homestead Selection 4171 in April 1889.

George Fewtrell died in 1914, Elise Fewtrell in 1919.  This book covers the period of their lives from the 1970s until the end of World War I.  And the mandarin? George Fewtrell developed the ‘Early Fewtrell’ mandarin which is still grown in India and Pakistan.

I was fortunate enough to hear Terry Fewtrell talk about this book and his great-grand parents’ history.  While reading the book, I was struck by the way in which we define our identity: the story of Elise Fewtrell toasting the Kaiser each night has its own (but different) parallel story in my own family history.  I was also struck by the difficulty Elise experienced in gaining access to George’s estate after his death.  This was because Elise could have been regarded as a German or Austro-Hungarian subject (and thus an enemy of the Crown). Probate was granted on 12 January 1915.

‘In the scope of history, George and Elise made their contributions to the Australian story and moved on.’

If you are interested in family history, colonial settlement in Australia, the mutable concept of identity amongst immigrants, you may find this book as interesting as I did.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

 

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