Sean Williams

sins of the great-great-uncle

posted on 20 Jul 2006 at 9:29 pm

The wonderful Amanda Nettelbeck and colleague Rob Foster are just about to release their latest book, Writing William Willshire: Race, Nationalism and Frontier Violence in Late Colonial Australia, due out any day now from Wakefield Press. It’s an account of one of Australia’s most notorious colonial figures, one of only two white policemen arrested for murder of indigenous people.

Research for a related paper saw Amanda and I recently heading to and from picturesque Port Lincoln on the South Australian coast. The trip was long but entertaining, around 1500km in 48 hours. On the way back, I took the chance to visit my grandmother in Cowell, where she still lives in her own house at 94 years of age. Cowell is the first major town north of Pt Lincoln, a couple of hours’ drive away. I spent a lot of time there as a young lad and remember it with great fondness and pride. The Stone Mage & the Sea is set near there. My grandfather, Harry Schiller, had a farm not far away (Mount Ghearty, now run by my uncle and cousin) where he discovered one of the world’s largest deposits of nephrite jade. It’s also a fine fishing area, if you go for that sort of thing; Franklin Harbour oysters are to die for.

Anyway, Cowell’s other claim to fame (or infamy, perhaps) is that William Willshire was posted there for a couple of years after his arrest and trial in Alice Springs. He married a local girl called Nell Howell before moving to Adelaide.

During conversation with my grandmother, it emerged that Nell Howell was her aunt–making Willshire my great-great-uncle.


I hope I don’t offend any of WW’s descendants by saying that I’m glad my relation to him is by marriage only. What a person does is more important than the genetic material tooling away in their cells, of course, but while I’m keen to be involved in my partner’s work, that could be taking things a little too far…

PS. I learned today that Willshire’s lawyer when he was tried for murder in Alice Springs was none other than Sir John Downer, ancestor of another infamous South Australian, Alexander Downer. Of course.