Friday, 26 July 2019

Ellen Skierys

One of the earliest Australian Lithuanian women we have any details about was Ellen Petraitis/Peterson Skierys. My thanks to her niece Rosemary Petraitis/Peterson Mitchell for the following biographical outline.

Ellen was born around 1892 in Manchester, England, to a Lithuanian family. Her elder sister Mary had been born in Lithuania only a year earlier, so we can assume the family were very recent immigrants. Her parents Alexandra and Izidorius Petraitis - later known as John Peterson - went on to have another 10 or 11 children in Manchester, but only 7 of their offspring survived to adulthood.

Izidorius Petraitis/John Peterson was a successful tailor who operated his own business in central Manchester until the depression years of the 1930s forced him to close. Not only was the business profitable for Izidorius but it also provided a solid start in life for most of his children who were employed there at one time or another. It also appears he travelled back to Lithuania, at least in the late 1890s, on business matters: earlier posts here and here have recorded the stories of Australian Lithuanians Jonas Vedrinaitis and Ksaveras Skierys and how they seem to have been recruited by Petraitis as apprentices.
Ksaveras (also known as Alexander) Skierys lived with the Petraitis family in Manchester for some time, as well as working further afield, including Scotland and Ireland. However in 1911 he departed for Australia, settling in Sydney where he found work as a tailor.  Ellen, who had fallen in love with him in Manchester, decided to follow him. So, at the age of 21 she boarded the 'Irishman' in Liverpool on 20 March 1913 for the two month voyage to Sydney.  There she worked for a tailoring firm in Surrey Hills until she and Ksaveras/Alexander married in 1916.

Ellen and Ksaveras Skierys had three children: Alexander, Nelly and William (Bill). They were active members of the Lithuanian community in Sydney and Nelly, at least, continued the family tradition of entering the tailoring trade, initially indentured to her father.

Ellen and Alexander Skierys, with Nellie (born 1919) and Alexander (born 1917)

Forty years after leaving Manchester Ellen travelled back to revisit England and spend time with her relatives; she returned to Sydney in 1955 with her younger sister Nellie (Angela) who stayed for 18 months.

Ellen died in 1975, Ksaveras in 1961. They are buried at the Woronora cemetery (Sydney) together with two of their children, Nellie and Bill.   


Friday, 12 July 2019

"A 100 year old Lithuanian in New Zealand"

This was the title of a newspaper article published in 1950 by prof. Mykolas Biržiška about Jurgis Šeižys, probably the first Lithuanian to have settled in New Zealand. Here is my abridged version.

The story begins around 1850 when Jurgis Šeižys was born in the village of Šiukštoniai, in the parish of Joniškelis in northern Lithuania. Around 1875 he left his home village and settled in Riga, Latvia, where he found work in a large tobacco factory. After 12 years at the tobacco factory Jurgis began to complain of chest pains; the doctors couldn't help him except to recommend a change of employment, preferably in a fresh air environment. He then decided to set out on a long journey, first to Belgium and Holland, then London and finally to New Zealand, arriving there around 1888.

In New Zealand Jurgis Šeižys became known as George Scheigis and tried his hand at several occupations before settling down. He married a local Maori girl but after 4 years was left a widower with a young son. By 1900, having established himself as a successful sheep farmer with a few other business interests he decided to return to Lithuania to find a wife. However, without a passport he only got as far as London. Fortunately, while there he was able to make contact with his sister and nephew in Riga who were able to travel to London to meet him and spend a few weeks together.

Jurgis returned to New Zealand and married a local englishwoman with whom he had more children. His relatives in Europe lost touch with him after the First World War and it was only after the Second World War that his nephew, by then a displaced person in Germany (living in the USA from 1950), managed to make contact again. By that time Jurgis was around 100 years old. 

Source: The article appeared in Australijos Lietuvis (the Australian Lithuanian) on 6 February 1950, pp 8-10 and was based on information supplied to Biržiška by fellow academic prof. Jonas Šimoliunas, the nephew of Jurgis Šeižys. My thanks to Dana Grigonis, a volunteer with the Australian Lithuanian Community Archives, for providing me with scans of the newpaper and links to the above images. 

  1. Jurgis may not in fact have reached 100 years of age in 1950; other online sources (Geni, Ancestry, MyHeritage, the NZ Government's BDM online) suggest his date of birth may have been more like 1860, or even 1865;
  2. He settled in the far north of the North Island, living at Rangiputa and Rangaunu, and was buried at Kaitaia in 1950. His story has also been recorded by at least one local historian in New Zealand and his name is commemorated by Scheigis Rock in Rangaunu harbour;
  3. Jurgis' first wife was Ani Mihaka, the second was Elizabeth Read;
  4. The first son, Henry Scheigis (1896-1965) served in both World Wars (WW1 - Maori Pioneer Battalion; WW2 - 28th Maori Battalion);
  5. A greatgreat neice, presumably from the USA, visited the Schengis family sites in the North Island in 2000-01 (see images above);
  6. There are suggestions, so far unverified, that Jurgis Šeižys was not the only early (pre-WW2) Lithuanian to settle in New Zealand. Other surnames to research include Vasiliūnas and Raudonis.