MORS JANUA VITAE “Death is the Door of Life” — an Adoption Genealogy Story
Adoption was prevalent in Australia & NZ in the late 1960s and early 1970s, peaking in 1971–72. I am one of 10,000 babies ‘given up’ as a ‘closed adoption’ in 1971. Our identities were removed and birth parents concealed under legislation that was repealed in Queensland in 1991.
As an adoptee, your time starts …NOW!
As an adoptee you do not know your ethnicity, ancestral bloodlines or the associated stories that families share down generations. There are stories told of how you were ‘chosen’ or ‘saved’ or adopted into ‘a better life’ but no stories of the blood coursing through your veins, of the grandmothers and grandfathers and their mothers and fathers and their mothers and fathers.
I always knew I was adopted and in a naïve way was taught to appropriate the family history of my adopted family of origin — Swiss/German, Irish/Dutch — the migrant stories of the ‘new Australians’ that arrived in the 1900s. That was the way it was and therefore the way it shall be for you, now. I learnt about the violent colonisation of ‘so-called’ Australia, Terra-Nullius, convicts and free settlers’ histories but at home was told to never ask ‘where did I come from’ for fear of upsetting the status quo of my adopted parent’s ‘new’ story for me.
The emotional trauma of the rupture of the primary relationship of a baby and its birth mother also causes a disruption to history. A closed adoptee’s identity is an empty page, constructed blindly over years.
Somewhere between nature and nurture, trauma and healing my search for meaning and identity was driven by a profound yearning to know who and what came before the day of my birth. Along the way there were scant clues to my genealogy — I am white, odds are I am descended from colonisers, and I have hemochromatosis — a genetic condition often nicknamed the ‘Celtic Curse.’
With legislative reform adoptees and birth parents were legally allowed to supply their ‘identifying information.’ Pre internet this was an analogue process of letter writing and phone calls and I reconnected with my birth mother, grandmother and grandfather after 24 years.
In the 2000s DNA testing became accessible and has fueled a market for DNA databases to access individuals’ genealogy and ethnicity. My birth mother and I consensually did Ancestry.com DNA testing years ago to establish if my father’s identity may one day reveal itself to us. (Read the “Looking for Steve” story here.)
It was a curious exercise. I would advise any adoptee to only take very small steps at a pace that you feel emotionally prepared for. At the time I only gave the results a cursory glance and they have been refined over the years by the platform. I now know my ethnicity is 44% England mostly from Devon and Cornwall; 17% Ireland; 16 % Wales ; 15 % Scotland and 8% a mix from Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Northern Italy. My birth mother has spent years researching and documenting her side of my family tree, I am deeply grateful for her work and the hidden histories now revealed to me.
In April 2022 I travelled to England for a holiday. I decided to revisit the detail in the Ancestry family tree and was intrigued by the Cornish bloodline as I was visiting North Cornwall for the 5th (!) time in my life. I had an opportunity to connect, reclaim and understand more about myself than I ever believed possible growing up in suburban Brisbane, Australia in the 1970s and 80s.
A magical, mystery tour of my ancestors began revealing some fascinating history and understanding of my bloodline and myself.
The mythical legend of King Arthur has him conceived at Tintagel Castle, the son of Igerne and Uther. At birth Merlin advised that baby Arthur would be safer being raised elsewhere. Arrangements were made and he was secretly handed over to Sir Ector.
“The King commanded two knights and two ladies to take the child, bound in cloth of gold, and deliver him to what poor man [Merlin] they met at the postern gate of the castle.”
King Arthur was adopted, literally a hundred metres from the first place I was to visit!
John Hawke (b. 1685 d. 1789) married Phillippa Jane Symons (b. 1679 d. 1770) at St Marteriana Church, Tintagel on 27 April 1709.
This floored me. Tintagel — the acme historical centre of North Cornwall that I first visited in 1995 — I have never been anywhere else in the UK outside of London except this region : Boscastle; Tintagel; Trebarwith; Crackington Haven; Bude; Padstow and surrounding areas. Ancient places inhabited since the Bronze and Iron Ages. Home to Celts and Normans all with divergent spiritual practices over millennia including Paganism, Pantheism, Catholicism and Protestant Christianity.
I had visited St Marteriana Church twice before without knowing my ancestral connection — this time I gasped with visceral recognition. Not only what I could see but how the place made me feel. The earth, the misty rain, the wind — the power of the place.
It is thought the present building was built on the site of an ancient Celtic oratory around 500AD, it was cared for by monks from Minster Church, near Boscastle. The present building is a cruciform shape and was constructed between 1080–1150. The interior has changed slightly over the years but mostly it is the original design.
A funeral was about to take place and it made the experience more real — for centuries this place has held space for its community. Baptisms, marriages and funerals for generations. Who may be buried here that came before me I wondered?
I felt intensely alive and breathed deeply — nothing had changed but everything had. I had a living history and a bloody long one at that!
Phillipa’s father and grandfather were from Tintagel and her mother was from St Columb Major, where her new husband John Hawke was born. John Hawke’s father was William Hawke, his grandfather Richard Hawke and back it goes another two generations of Richard Hawkes, and two more generations of John Hawke (Hawkey) until the records stop with William Hawkey (b.1480 d.1553) and his wife Nance Hawkey (Hawke) (b.1482 d.1557).
I pinch myself that this is real, a through-line to the early modern era. A time when, in 1497 the Cornish Rebelists (miners) rose up in opposition to King Henry VII raising taxes to fight Scotland. In 1549 the Cornish population revolted against the English Reformation during the Prayer Book Rebellion.
John and Phillippa Hawke moved to St Columb Major and six years into their long life together could have been present at the 1715 Jacobite uprising in Cornwall that was led by James Paynter.
I was REALLY curious now. What is this town St Columb Major like then and now? What is its history? What about the name ‘Hawke’? Were they miners? Were they cunning folk and conjurors? My grandmother’s maiden name is Hawke — how, when, and why did their descendants come to the colony of Australia?
The magical mysteries of history had only just begun to reveal themselves.
The name Hawke comes from the Old English personal name Hafoc, which means hawk. But, the surname also evolved from a nickname, for someone with a Hawk-like, or “wild” disposition. It may also be an occupational surname given to a “hawker” or someone who held land in exchange for providing hawks to a lord. Lastly, the surname Hawke may be a local surname given to someone who lived in a nook or corner.
<<<Reflects on self — am I hawk-like ? Do I have a “wild” disposition? More likely that than having provided a hawk to a lord in 2022 and do not live in a nook, but am partial to one. >>>
I drove south from Tintagel down the A39 to explore St Columb Major, keeping an eye out for other villages that appear in the family tree : St Merryn, St Mawgan, St Issey, St Enoder, St Austell, St Allen, St Eval, St Laurence, St Anthony, St Dennis, Truro and Treneglos.
I closed my eyes and imagined the newly weds with horse and cart trundling along the ancient road with their ‘wild dispositions’ to resettle and raise their family in a nook or corner of this beautiful part of the world.
We passed a place called “Hawkefield” and my skin prickled.
Approaching St Columb Major we missed the turn only to realise with a shock we had turned ‘accidently’ in to Trekenning Road — the road name on old parish records where subsequent generations of Hawke’s lived.
I walked around the cemetery, one of the few remaining cemeteries in the UK that features two stone chapels — where non-conformists and dissenters were buried outside of consecrated church grounds. Were my ancestors resting here and their small Celtic cross headstones disintegrated I wondered?
I picked up a small white feather and the rain eased.
We headed into the town centre. It was a Sunday, and the midday bells of St Columb Church were being rung.
I stopped to notice the Latin inscription above the church gate MORS JANUA VITAE “Death is the Door of Life.” I was later to learn it is a Rosicrucian saying from the secretive 17–18th Century society devoted to the study of metaphysical, mystical, and alchemical lore. Self-directed, I have studied alchemical texts, imagery, and symbolism since I acquired Robert M Place’s Alchemical Tarot deck when I first visited North Cornwall in the mid-1990s. Uncanny.
Inside the church old painted, wooden carvings of parish and family crests were on display. Many featured arrangements of swords and keys — symbols for justice and service. Tattoos of a sword and a key grace my right forearm. Uncanny.
Practicing ‘psychogeography’ — noticing the effect of geography on emotions and behaviour — I wandered the town centre of St Columb Major. It felt peaceful and looked beautiful. A strong sense of business and commerce revealed itself as an old bank and ‘bonds’ buildings came into view. Drawn down behind the library I walked across ‘Union Square’ and imagined the raised voices, in thick Cornish accents, of the Jacobite and miner protestors this place had hosted over hundreds of years.
From the research and the available records we can deduce the Hawke’s would have been workers, miners and/or famers. I was curious about their wives, mothers, and daughters — the women in my bloodline. I had read about the “not uncommon” practice of Cornish famers’ and miners’ wives to charge a service fee to remove malevolent witchcraft, practice divination, fortune telling and herbalism and create textual and symbolic amulets. Were they such women ?
Emigration to Australia
My great, great, great grandfather with his wife, two small children and his younger sister emigrated from Plymouth aboard the ship “City of Edinburgh” arriving in NSW on 31st August 1837.
Robert John Hawke’s arrival card describes him as a “Quarrier” and his sister Mary Hawke as a “Dressmaker.”
Married to Robert in St Austell, Honoria Warren Philips (b. 1815 Falmouth Cornwall) and had two sons before emigrating as a family at 21 years old.
Robert died in Minmi, Newcastle NSW in 1866, Honoria died in Gunnedah NSW in 1887 and Mary died at Wallaroo Mines, South Australia in 1891.
They were only a handful of thousands of Cornish men, women and children who emigrated to Australia, New Zealand and North America from the 1840s.
I wonder if it was Mr Latimer’s marketing campaign that lured them ?
In a twist of fate I share my 13th February birthday with my Great Great Grandfather, George Warren Hawke. Born in Maitland in 1843 he died in Boggabri in 1899. His son, David William Hawke (b. 1897 d. 1958) moved to Coffs Harbour NSW and had a family, that included my grandmother, with Lily May Bilby, the daughter of Welsh immigrants. More Celtic ancestry to explore!
There it is, a straight line all the way back — from my Cornish ancestors William Hawkey (b. 1480 d. 1553) and Nance Hawke/Hawkey (b. 1482 d. 1557) through to a baby processed as a ‘closed adoption’ in Bundaberg, Queensland in 1971!
Historian Patricia Lay wrote in her book “One and All, the Cornish in New South Wales” (1998) of the Cornish temperament in Australia …
“characteristics included independence and initiative, adaptability, stubbornness and determination and a natural dignity. Some Cornish people exhibited a combination of total trust (sometimes wrongly seen by others as naivete) and stubborn determination, which turned to fury and betrayal if that trust was abused.” (p. 113)
From all the hidden histories revealed so far, it is this quote that provides me the clearest roadmap to self-understanding. More than any self-help book or therapy has achieved in 50+ years.
My research and quest to understand more about myself, the role of Cornish settlers in colonisation, their interactions with Aboriginal people and the lives of Cornish women and girls will continue.
Whatever remains to be revealed I am more whole for the reclamation of my bloodline with all its pain, hardship, love and loss.
Higgins, D. (2012). Past and present adoptions in Australia. (Facts Sheet). Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies.
“The Symbolic Meaning of the Story of King Arthur” Published at King Arthurs’ Hall Tintagel, Billing and Sons Limited., Guilford and Esher. No Date.
Payton, Phillip J. (1984). “The Cornish Miner in Australia, Cousin Jack Down Under”. Published by Dyllansow Truran Trewolsta, Trewirgie, Kernow [Cornwall].
Lay, Patricia. (1998). “ONE AND ALL The Cornish in New South Wales” Published by Heritage 2000 Plus.