Friday, 21 November 2014

Friday’s Faces from the Past: Peter Edward Radcliffe

Peter Edward Radcliffe (c.1863 – 1928)

Peter Edward Radcliffe is one of the more interesting Aussie ‘cousins’ identified during the course of my genealogy research.  He was the son of Thomas Radcliffe from Malahide, Co. Dublin and his wife Mary Minogue, and an elder brother of Tom and Joe, discussed previously in the post entitled ‘Murder in the family?’ Peter was born about 1863-64, presumably in Melbourne. He shared his name with his paternal grandfather  my fourth-great-grandfather – Peter Radcliffe from Malahide.

The first time I came across my first cousin four times removed was in an obituary for his father, Thomas Radcliffe, published in a Melbourne newspaper in June 1905. It listed ‘Peter Radcliffe, United States Navy’ as his eldest son.[1] Mary (Minogue) Radcliffe’s obituary, nearly twenty years later, claims she was the mother of ‘Lieutenant P. E. Radcliffe, (United States Navy)’.[2] When Peter’s death was registered with the authorities in Victoria, his parent’s names were again confirmed as Thos Radcliffe and Mary Minogue.[3] Thomas and Mary had married in Victoria in 1863, but, no record of the registration of Peter’s birth has so far been located.[4] 

Peter was, it might be said, a spirited child and it would seem he drove his parents to the end of their tether. On 13 February 1878, when he was thirteen years old, his father even went so far as to have him arrested and committed to a reformatory school. Peter, a native of Melbourne, was declared ‘uncontrollable’. His father Thomas was described as being ‘well off’, a plasterer and a publican by trade. Peter was to serve his sentence, with other ‘criminal and neglected children’ until he was sixteen years old, nearly three years later. This must have come as a major shock to the young teenager. However, after just one month, on 13 March 1878, he was discharged back into the care of his father, more than likely on the understanding that he behaved himself, or be recommitted. Talk about tough love![5]

On 9 April 1887, the steamship ‘Catalonia’ docked in Boston harbour, in the United States, having taken on passengers at Liverpool, England and Queenstown (now Cobh), Ireland. Peter Radcliffe, a twenty-four year old seaman from Australia was named in the passenger list.[6] Six months later, on 7 September 1887, Peter Edward Radcliffe, a mariner living in Philadelphia, joined the US Navy.[7] He gave his place of birth as San Francisco and his age as twenty-three years and nine months – making him a year older than the limited earlier evidence suggested. From then on, he consistently placed his birth in California, on or about 13 November 1863. But San Francisco! In 1863, his parents were in Melbourne, more than 7,500 miles away. At first, I thought there may have been two Peter Radcliffe's in the US Navy, but now, I am convinced all references are to my cousin. Claiming Californian birth may have been his attempt to bypass US citizenship controls or perhaps it was necessary for his promotion prospects in the Navy.

On 14 August 1903, when Peter E. Radcliffe was forty, he applied for a licence to marry Fannie A. Melvin, in the county of Solana, California.[8] They lived together in the San Francisco Bay area for twenty years and Peter continued his career as a boatswain in the US Navy. The couple do not appear to have had any children.[9] In 1913, they took a trip back to Australia, presumably to visit Peter’s mother and brother in Melbourne.[10] Sadly, ten years later, in July 1923, Fannie died of cancer.[11]

The following month Peter applied for his first US passport, with a view to spending a year in Australia. In his application, he ‘solemnly swore’ to a whole bunch of what I can only believe were untruths.[12]  Unfortunately, this casts doubts on the accuracy of all the fascinating information contained in his application. Peter produced no actual proof that he was born in the US, relying on the fact that he was a commissioned officer in the Navy as evidence of citizenship. He claimed his father came to the US from Ireland in 1847 and resided there continuously until 1873. This was certainly not entirely true; his father was documented as being in Melbourne, at least from 1863 onward and his obituary suggests he arrived in the town about 1855.

Peter E. Radcliffe, US passport application, 1924

Peter also swore he had never resided outside of the United States, except as an officer in the US Navy, undoubtedly, another untruth as there is documented evidence confirming him a native of Melbourne in 1878.

So, was his father Thomas ever in New York or California?

This is a most exciting prospect. Thomas arrived in Australia around the same time as his elder brother John, my third-great-grandfather, probably in the late 1850s. John Radcliffe married a woman named Mary, who gave birth to my great-great-grandmother, Anne, about 1849. Neither their marriage record, Anne’s birth/baptism record, nor Mary’s maiden name, have been found and apart from a potential sighting in Liverpool at the time of the 1851 census, they could have been anywhere. New York and California are new places to search – if only I could believe a word of Peter’s story.

During the Christmas holidays, in Australia visiting his brother, Peter Radcliffe, the retired lieutenant of the US Navy, was tragically killed in a car crash. The accident took place near Gisborne, on 16 January 1928, on route from his brother’s hotel in Baringhup to Melbourne. The car, in which he was a passenger, suffered a tyre blowout, skidded across the road, struck an embankment and overturned. Peter died instantly.[13]

In April 1929, the reading of his will caused some wonderment in the Australian press, specifically the clause: ‘I declare I have no children, but in the event that any claim to be such, I hereby give and devise to them, and each of them, the sum of one dollar.’[14] I wonder if Peter had any other Radcliffe relatives at the time of his death. As far as I know, his brother Tom was the very last of our Radcliffe lineage and he died in 1932.[15]  

Peter E. Radcliffe, Reading of will, 1929

[1] The Argus, 26 June 1905, p. 1, Trove.
[2] The Argus, 9 March 1925, p. 1, Trove.
[3] Australia Death Index, 1787-1985, Peter Edwd Radcliffe, 1928, Ancestry.
[4] Australia Marriage Index 1788-1950, Thomas Radcliffe, 1863, Ancestry.
[5] Ward Registers, no. 12, p. 384, Radcliffe, Peter [reg. no. 10622], Public Records Office Victoria
[6] Boston, Passenger and Crew Lists, 1820-1954, index and images, Peter Radcliffe, 1887, Ancestry.
[7] US Naval Enlistment Rendezvous, 1855-1891, index and images, Peter Edward Radcliffe, 1887, FamilySearch.
[8] California, County Marriages, 1850-1952, index and images, Peter E Radeliffe and Fannie A Melvin, 1903, FamilySearch.
[9] US Census, 1920," index and images, Peter E Radcliffe, FamilySearch.
[10] California, Passenger and Crew Lists, 1882-1957, index and images, Peter Radcliffe, 1913, Ancestry.
[11] California, Death Index, 1905-1939, images, Fannie Radcliffe, 1923, FamilySearch.
[12] US Passport Applications, 1795-1925, index and images, Peter Edward Radcliff, 1923, Ancestry.
[13] Chronicle, 21 January 1928, p. 49, Trove.
[14] Mirror, 20 April 1929, p.14, Trove.
[15] Australia Death Index, 1787-1985, Thos Ernt Radcliffe, 1932, Ancestry.
Photograph of Peter E. Radcliffe from 1924 passport application form.

© 2014 Black Raven Genealogy


  1. Dara, if Peter left property in California, might there be any probated record there? He certainly was a colorful character--especially that line about any claiming to be his children--but it seems he spent quite a bit of time in California.

    Because the state entered the union in 1850--but was so remotely situated as to the rest of the nation--it was a good choice for someone who wanted to cover his true identity back then, especially with the handicap of the era's slower methods of communication and verification.

    The good news now is that many California records and newspapers are now easily accessible on every site from and to the California DIgital Newspaper Collection(a free resource). Perhaps you can zero in on your Peter's daily life in the Golden State through sites like those.

  2. Thanks Jacqi, I’ll keep digging. I have a lead that just might result in a copy of his will from the Australian authorities and I’m really looking forward to checking out this newspaper archive – I had not come across it previously - much appreciated!

  3. Dara, Peter's colorful life makes him a very interesting person to read about but, I suspect, a difficult person to research.

    1. He certainly led an eventful life, Colleen, however, if I'm honest, he might have been more difficult to research had the family remained in Ireland, and only Irish sources were available.

  4. Hi Dara,

    I just stumbled across your blog, and am so happy I've done so. What an interesting read, and so much great information. I first found Lieut. Peter Radcliffe in the obituary of Mary Radciffe (nee Minogue), when I was trying to sort out the Irish Minogues - a tricky business from Melbourne Australia.
    My connection is through Mary, she being my gg grandfather John's sister. And after blank walls for a long time, this family is starting to open up to me again. (I'm trying to sort out my Radcliffe/Ratcliffe relatives, and just found - today- the report of the Tom & Joe incident. I'll go and read your report of that one next!)
    Do you have Peter Radcliffe's will yet? I could go and obtain a copy from the Victorian Public Records Office if you haven't yet had any luck.
    I've followed your facebook page, and look forward to reading your discoveries. Thank you for sharing them with us. Kerry

  5. Kerry, it's great to hear from you. I love blog post comments like this. I have done a little work on Thomas and Mary and have identified six of their children, but never managed to obtain a copy of Peter's will. The probate files for many of our Radcliffes downloaded, no problem, but for whatever reason my computer stalled when it came to the actual wills, so I'd be delighted if you would send me a copy. It would be great to swap information! I'd also be happy to help with any questions you might have on the Irish side. My email address is shown above.

    1. Dara, I think I've found your Ancestry entries (Ancestry pointed me your way!), and I had some of those children down as possibilities, but wasn't 100% sure. I'll get to the PROV as soon as possible (maybe next week), and see if I can get a copy of Peter's will for you. If there are any other wills you want, let me know- I may as well get a few of them while I'm there!

      You've given me some more leads to follow : I got Thomas's funeral details from the paper, and have emailed the cemetery to find out where he's buried and who with so I can follow that up. And I want to hunt down any reports on Peter's accident, and follow up on the Tom/Joseph reports too. Such an intriguing bunch! Thank you for your offer of help- I'm a bit overwhelmed trying to absorb all this new information, but when it's all clearer I'm sure I shall have questions.
      Back to reading! Cheers for now.

  6. Wow! thank you, Kerry. I checked my research log and I do have a list of wills I'd like (maybe too many for one visit, or maybe they charge for them??). Anyway, I'll list them in order: Peter-1928, Thomas-1932 (I think the name died out with him), Thomas-1905, Mary-1925, Joseph-1895 and Julia-1930. Never ask a genealogist if they want more - lol. And if you have already purchased the Radcliffe-Minogue marriage cert, I'd love to see a copy of that too. The Radcliffes are a most fun lineage - so sad their name seems to have died out. Wishing you every success in your search!

  7. Okay, will make a note of those names and see how I go. And will email you the Radcliffe-Minogue marriage certificate. More anon!


I look forward to reading your comments, even more especially if you're related to someone mentioned in this post.

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