While researching my family history I discovered that my great-uncle Arthur’s daughter Winifred (Winnie) Singleton died in 1937 at Victoria’s Sunbury Asylum, aged 19. I also came across a sad story that she had been admitted there after attacking her mother with a knife.

Winnie (left) and Emily Singleton
Winifred (left) and her sister Emily.

Winnie had been placed in a Tasmanian orphanage aged five, after a family breakdown. This was due in part to her father’s mental and physical disabilities following service at Gallipoli and in France during WWI.

Winnie's parents Arthur and Elizabeth Singleton

After leaving the orphanage at seventeen, Winnie and her younger sister had gone to live with their mother in Frankston Victoria, but the relationship between the pair had always been fraught. It appears the incident with the knife occurred within months. It’s a tragic, complicated story, but that’s the gist of it. Anyway, as family historian I wanted to know the truth, and/or the circumstances of the alleged attack. More importantly, I was anxious to find out what had happened to Winnie at Sunbury before her untimely death. Records can only be obtained though Freedom of Information, which required me to provide proof of family relationship.

Freedom of Information form

First of all I had to apply for my late father’s birth certificate. For this I had to provide several items as ‘proof of identity’; a council rates notice (for proof of address), driver’s licence, plus my own birth certificate. I only had a yellowing ‘extract’ of the latter, obtained when I married in 1977.

All documents had to be certified as correct copies of the originals by a Justice of the Peace.

A couple of weeks later the postman arrived with the precious, registered document. Wonderful; the final link back via my grandmother, aunt of Winnie. And then……shock, disbelief and hysterical laughter. Oh good grief, my poor Grandma;

Not the link to Winnie I was hoping for.

When I rang Births, Deaths and Marriages they were (quite naturally) mortified. Their explanation was that a staff member had misread the handwriting on the original registration. So the idea of SIMPLETON as a surname did not give anyone cause for thought??

They asked if I could please return the certificate so that it could be destroyed. Oh dear, must I? They promised to send a corrected version immediately, adding. ‘Of course you won’t have to pay for this one.‘ Well really? I was slightly miffed that they would even suggest such a thing.

Supposing I’d had no idea of my grandmother’s surname? I’d have had to accept that I was one of the Tasmanian Simpletons! (No sniggering please.) After all, we family historians assume that official birth certificates are irrefutable proof in such matters don’t we?


Another week went by. then up rode the poste with another registered letter…

Postie delivering  the second certificate.
Finally, my family link to Winnie.

I can only hope other members of my extended family have not received the ‘Simpleton’ certificate. Imagine if the name is circulating through sites such as Ancestry etc.

OK, onwards and upwards…….I’ll let you know how I get on. Don’t worry cousin Winnie, I will never give up.


  1. Thanks, a smile during your difficult search.

    • Pauline

      Thanks Simon, one certainly needs a sense of humour! Mind you, my grandmother didn’t have one and would have been so incensed and insulted.

  2. Great story, I love the importance placed on “certificates”. I found out early in my research that certificates are open to all sorts of issues. My grandfather, named Claude Frederick is shown as a female on the birth register. As he married and fathered 9 children I am fairly sure the register is incorrect.
    Another relative died 2 March according to the Register but the local newspaper announced his death and funeral in Mid February of the same year. Again clearly a mistake on the death register. These are just a couple of the examples I have found of mistakes, misspellings and downright lies perpetuated on civil registration records.

    • Pauline

      Thanks Karlena, yes….human nature creates problems on all such documents, especially the census. But in this case my shock was due to a staffing error which seemed to fly in the face of common sense! Oh well, at least it was funny.

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