Monday, 16 May 2016

A Lithuanian old-timer in Far North Queensland

A few days ago I came across this story:
In 1948 the first post-war Lithuanians, working as sugar cane cutters in Far North Queensland, met a bearded and white-haired 83 year old man at Redlynch, near Cairns. His name was Aleksiunas, and he came from Rusonų village in Žiežmarių county [central Lithuania, between Vilnius and Kaunas]. He had left his father's home when he was 15 years old because of a wicked stepmother, secretly crossed the German border, and strayed into the wide world beyond. Having over many years sailed all the oceans of the world, he eventually grew tired of the seaman's life and started looking for somewhere to settle.  He chose Australia and stopped here, at 63 years of age.  He bought a chicken farm and only sold it when he became quite aged, supporting himself through basket weaving.  [By 1948] he remembered only his prayers in Lithuanian, and no longer understood the meaning of the words. But he loved the newly-arrived Lithuanians and stayed close to them.  He died 8-9 years ago (Metrastis No 1 (1961) p 183, my translation).

A preliminary internet search for someone called ALEKSIUNAS who was born around 1860, lived in Queensland during the 1930s and 1940s and died there in the early 1950s, failed to provide any corroborating matches. That is, until my research associate (my wife Phyllis) got to work on this and uncovered the outlines of his life.

Harold (Harry) ALEXIS seems to be the name that this man consistently used through a long maritime career and also while living in Queensland.  He comes up on's shipping lists many times over as a crew member on sailings from Europe or North America to Australia as well as on Australian coastal shipping, particularly in the period 1913 to 1922 (see for example the listings for H Alexis in the NSW Australia Unassisted Immigrant Passenger Lists 1862-1922 on

  • Harry's country of birth is variously given as Russia, Sweden or Poland.  He was born in the days of the Russian Empire so it is not surprising that he recorded Russia as his country of birth. He may have lived or been based in Sweden, and certainly sailed with Swedish crews, so he may at times have chosen to denote Sweden as his country of birth for convenience.  After the collapse of the Russian empire he appears to have preferred to denote his place of birth as Poland (his place of birth was by the Lithuanian-Polish border during the interwar years, during which Poland dominated the Vilnius region);
  • his maritime occupation was shown as fireman, trimmer or able bodied seaman;
  • he appears to have often understated his age by up to a decade.

In 1947 The Cairns Post carried the following naturalisation notice, indicating that Harry Alexis had been born at Vilnius (or in the region of Vilnius) on 18 March 1861 and had been resident in Australia for 34 years:

Advertising (1947, June 7). Cairns Post (Qld. : 1909 - 1954), , p. 10.
Retrieved May 14, 2016, from 

At that time Harry states he was living at Wright's Creek, near Yungaburra.  He died in May 1950 and was buried at nearby Atherton in June 1950.

Monday, 9 May 2016

Ship deserters

Desertion by crew members was not uncommon in the nineteenth or early twentieth centuries.  My wife's English grandfather, Felix Arthur Burns, was one such example, having parted company with the barque Elizabeth Dougall after sailing from France to Sydney as a cabin boy in 1879.

There were probably tens of thousands of crew members who left their ships for a variety of reasons once they made landfall in Australia.  They usually departed individually, although in some cases entire crews deserted.  An index of ship deserters at Queensland ports for the 50 year period 1862 to 1911, for example, lists 3,800 individuals who deserted.

The earliest record of a Lithuanian-born deserter we have found so far is that of Stanislav STANKEVITCH (Stasys Stankevičius would be the modern Lithuanian version of his name) from Vilnius who absconded from the Russian ship Kreiser in Hobart in 1823 (Govor, E., Australia in the Russian Mirror; changing perceptions 1770-1919, Melbourne, Melbourne University Press, 1997, p8).

At least one of the men who served in the First AIF was a ship deserter.  John BRENKA is listed as having deserted from the Ajana at Port Adelaide on 30 September 1914.  He went on to serve Australia in the Gallipoli campaign (10th Battalion) and then on the Western Front (50th Battalion) where he died on 23 August 1916.

Desertion was less common in the twentieth century, with stricter controls and perhaps better conditions for crews, which makes the motives behind the following stories more intruiging:

  • Max LIPSSCHUS is featured in the New South Wales Police Gazette of 2 April 1924 with the following text: 'Sydney - the above is a photograph of Max Lipsschus, who deserted from the s.s. Hanau, at Sydney, on the 21st ultimo.  Offender is a seaman, 30 years of age, .. a native of Russia, and a prohibited immigrant.' (source:  This story seems to have ended well, as in 1939 a Max Lipschus, living at King street, Newtown (Sydney), placed a notice of intention to apply for naturalisation in the Sydney Morning Herald stating that he had been born in Kretinga (Lithuania), was of Lithuanian nationality, and had been living in Australia for 15 years. Max went on to play a brief role on the committee of the Australian Lithuanian Society in the late 1940s.  
  • On the other hand we don't know the outcome of this story, which may not have had such a happy ending:
Deserter Captured (1936, March 20). Port Lincoln Times (SA : 1927 - 1954)  p. 5. Retrieved May 1, 2016, from