Thomas Frederick William Stead Alban (1887-1978)

My grandfather and his only sibling migrated from England to Australia shortly after the 1914-1918 War. Their cousin, Thomas F W S Alban (1887-1979), was the only other relative in Australia I’d heard family speak of. Although I was unsure precisely how he was related, I had heard my father speak of Uncle Tom Alban and met him myself nearly 40 years ago.

Uncle Tom lived with his wife Betty in a modest fibro-cement house at Leura, a small town in the Blue Mountains 90km west of Sydney in pretty straightened financial circumstances. I spent a lovely afternoon with this elderly couple talking family and military history. Like my grandfather Uncle Tom and his wife both spoke with very English accents, so I assumed English birth or parentage. They had no children and both died in the late 1970s. 

As a child of the anti-war years of the 1960s and 70s I was not very interested in Uncle Tom’s military stories - unfortunately - for I’d now find them fascinating aspects of the family heritage.

Aunty Betty was then almost blind and storytelling was one of her favourite activities. She seemed particularly keen to share family history and secrets. At the time I was in my early twenties - as yet quite untouched by the family history bug. If only I’d recorded the stories she shared that afternoon! I recall that she said that one of Uncle Tom’s ancestors had been a spy. Although such an interesting occupation is unlikely to be listed on a census form, I really didn’t know who this might be until I made contact with a living Alban descendant in 2009. Until then I doubted that there were any at all. She has a brother and two cousins all born Albans, and they have children too. So this Alban line is not lost to family history.

There were a number of things about Uncle Tom’s family that made it easier to track than my own grandfather’s elusive family. Firstly, Alban was a rarer surname. I also expected that his birthplace in St Petersburg, Russia would jump out at me in English censuses. Likewise Uncle Tom’s long string of forenames. These are some of the features that make a genealogical researcher thank their lucky stars.

Thomas Frederick William Steel Alban was born in 1887 in St Petersburg, then the capital of Russia, to William Gore Alban (1860-1906) and Kate Newman (1863-1946), my great great aunt. Uncle Tom must spent his childhood overseas in Burma and India with his expatriate military family. He shows up in the English census in 1901 as a 14 year old scholar in Fleet, Hampshire. By 1911 his father had died, the family had moved to Reading and he was studying art.
 One of his paintings, “Mowgli”, was hung in the Royal Academy, London in 1914. (Mowgli was one of the characters in the Jungle Book. Its author, Rudyard Kipling, was born in India in 1865 of English parents, like many of Uncle Tom’s ancestors and cousins.)

Thomas F W S Alban saw service in the British Army during the 1914-18 War where he served in the British Royal Engineers and as acting Major in the 9th Battalion, Norfolk Regiment in France. He was awarded the usual World War 1 medals for service in a theatre of war as well as being Mentioned in Dispatches and receiving the Military Cross (gazetted 6 June 1916).

Moving to Australia after the war Thomas Alban spent 5 years in the Australian Army 1921-1926, taught art in Ballarat and Melbourne, Victoria and later lived in Queensland, Sydney and the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney.

He didn’t marry until 1937 when he was 50. His wife Christine Beatrice Shilcock (Betty) had migrated from England to Australia in 1923 and when she married Thomas Alban, her third husband, she was 45. One of the stories she shared with me in the early 1970s told of her life in Malaya with her second husband, British rubber planter Philip Kegan Paul and a hurried escape down river by boat.

Two years after Uncle Tom and Aunty Betty married, the Second World War broke out and, by 1942, was getting very close to Australian shores. Having served in the British Army during World War 1 and in the Australian Army after his arrival in Australia, Uncle Tom again joined up, using his artistic skills in military camouflage as Chief Instructor at Headquarters 1 Corps, Australian Army. The Australian War Memorial website shows a photo of him at work in Queensland. He remained in the Army until 1947 aged 60.

During the early 1950s - in his retirement - he continued his career as an artist in his own right, as well as working for Gordon and Irene Dunstan at Leura, painting designs on clayware, known as Essexware.  He is seen here in an Essexware staff photograph in the back row second from the left. A descendant of another Essexware staff member, Glynis, has recently published information and images from that period. Thank you to Glynis for this picture.

Many of these designs were appropriated from Aboriginal artists in the era before this was recognised as quite unacceptable. I saw an online advertisement recently for a vase signed by Tom Alban which depicted an Aboriginal man hunting a kangaroo. The asking price was AUD495. Some of these pieces have been acquired by Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum. A fine art gallery in Western Australia has advertised a Tom Alban painting of an Australian stockman riding a horse, for sale at AUD1,500.

In 1963 a stamp he designed was issued to commemorate 150 years since the crossing of the Blue Mountains in 1813 by Blaxland, Wentworth and Lawson, an important milestone in the white settlement of the colony of New South Wales - as countless Australian school children have learned. The same year he was a finalist in the Australian national portraiture prize the Archibald for his picture of Inspector Garlick.

My research has revealed that many of Uncle Tom’s male ancestors followed military careers. No wonder he loved to tell military stories!

Although his marriage certificate shows his name as Thomas Frederick William Steel Alban, on the baptismal and death records his fourth given name as Stead. I have been unsure which was correct until recently discovering that a great great uncle was named Richard Stead Alban. With so many given names resonating across the generations it would appear likely that Stead is correct.