My great grandfather was a Danish sailor who jumped ship in Sydney during the 1850s Gold Rushes, anglicized his name and married an Irish famine orphan, Mary Riordan, from Limerick, who came to Australia aged 16 years.
Born in 1942, I spent my early years in the then isolated farming community of East Wardell (far north coast of New South Wales), and was known as ‘Peter’ as a child. My father, Edwin James (‘Tidge’) Wilson, was a ‘tractor driver’ who’d been working on the construction of the airport at Evans Head, and had died before I was born.
We’d moved to Mullumbimby in 1948, where I developed an interest in the orchids that grew in the surrounding rainforests. At about age 10 I’d overheard the aunties saying Tidge had fathered an illegitimate child and committed suicide, which was later denied, but these events, more than any other, pushed me towards a greater world and ultimately shaped my destiny. Just prior to commencing High School I was told my name wasn’t Peter, but Edwin James, which was quite destabilizing, but I liked learning, and a bursary enabled me to continue on at school. We moved to Tweed Heads (in early 1959), when I attended Murwillumbah High School for my last year.
A scholarship to Armidale Teachers’ College provided an escape from rural poverty (as outlined in my memoirs, book one, The Mullumbimby Kid: a Portrait of the Poet as a Child). This can be downloaded from here.
In 1962 I was appointed as a junior secondary science teacher (The Forest High School, Frenchs Forest), and studied part-time at the University of New South Wales (graduating BSc in Chemisty and Botany in 1968).
On completing my studies I married Margaret Macintyre, and lectured at Armidale Teachers’ College (1968 – 1972). Here I developed an interest in family history, and planted two Lord Howe Island banyan trees at East Wardell (between the river and the road). This turbulent period is covered in my second book of memoirs, The Melancholy Dane: a Portrait of the Poet as a Young Man).
I’d returned to Sydney on my own in 1972, and obtained employment as an Education Officer at the Australian Museum (Sydney). The child of that doomed marriage was accidentally killed in a traffic accident in 1975, after which I married Cheryl Turnham, and moved to Longueville. Cheryl and I downsized to Crows Nest when the first of our three children went overseas for a gap year.
From 1980 I’d worked in Community Relations at the Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney. On my retirement from paid work at the end of 2002 (as an Hon. Research Associate at the Gardens), I worked with Phil Spence on a breeding program for cold-tolerance in show bench quality dendrobiums, using hybrids of high-altitude New Guinea ‘Latoria’ species.
On having a story published in The Northern Star (1st November 2003, on the centenary of Tidge Wilson’s birth), I received a mysterious phone call. My older half-brother, born 1939, was on the line. Incredibly he’d been christened Edwin James as well, but called himself Jim Onslow, having been adopted by William Onslow in 1942. Some of the mysteries of our respective childhoods were at last explained, including the ‘Peter’ business, which precipitated the final writing of The Melancholy Dane.
Jim was a retired builder and self-made man, having had a more disrupted early life than mine (as he’d been to thirteen different schools). Our bond was immediate and very strong. Jim and I had five good years getting to know each other (and exploring the nature/nurture quandary) until his death (from cancer, in 2008). Both The Melancholy Dane and My Brother Jim (poems) were dedicated to his memory.