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Chance, serendipity, coincidence... there’s no denying luck does play a big part when you set out to explore your ancestors background.  


I started with virtually nothing, a few tattered letters and clippings, my grandmother’s maiden name, my grandfather’s alias, two small towns on a world map, Levuka in Fiji and Peru, Indiana and very little else. Then childhood memories kicked in, followed by search engines and the power and scope of the internet.


But it was surely ‘lady luck’ that placed me on an astonishing collision course for perhaps the most unlikely surprise of my life.


The occasion is my Grandmother's return to Fiji after the war, about 1946... Maggie Brown-Parker is in the middle, to the right her brother Gordon McGowan and his wife Minnie Rosa.  Next to Maggie is her brother William, and the gentleman to the far left is a mystery.  He might be their cousin Frank Fleming, or he could be their niece, Doris Leys husband.  Maybe you could solve the mystery for me.

Geraldine McGowan - my great Grandmother.  She married her Scots husband, William on Kadavu around 1872.  He died in 1880, and she then married Robert Foreman in Levuka.



This is Frank Fleming’s story.  He is just one of many first cousins my Grandmother Maggie possibly never realised she had.  So far as I know she met this man for the first time on her trip home to Fiji at the end of WW2, when she was sixty nine and Frank was eleven years younger. 


My interest in this distant cousin was kindled in 2004 when I made a chance sighting of an error in an 1860 passenger list on New Zealand’s NZ Bound internet site. This led to an invitation to write a short account of Gran’s mother’s Sweeny family to accompany the correction.


I did and included a plea to anyone who might know how Geraldine Sweeny found her way to Fiji and married William McGowan.  That little afterthought enabled five new modern day ‘cousins’ to find me. Two of them, in England, carried the name Fleming and both at the time had  only a vague idea a distant uncle once lived in Fiji. 


In finding the modern day cousins I also found Frank Fleming’s parents, his mother Constance Sweeny and her husband George Fleming, their deaths in London in 1900 and their orphaned children. 


Like me the present day Flemings who were descended from Constance Olivia’s third son Ernest Wilfred, had attempted to trace their family background, in the process uncovering a great deal about the ins and outs of the Sussex Sweeny’s.  But they came to a standstill with young Francis Ivor  Fleming who they thought may, or may not  have found his way to the south Pacific in the early 1900’s and worked on a Fijian plantation.  

At the time Andrew McGowan was conducting his business in Suva at a spot that would later be known as McGowan's Corner.



As with all family histories there are huge gaps, and Frank’s story is no exception. Actually, if it hadn’t been for his tenuous connection to Fiji I probably wouldn’t have explored his life and times as thoroughly as I did and I wouldn’t have found this gem of a story that touches on my own Grandmother.


Through old letters and family hunches, it was thought Frank had somehow found his way to Fiji, probably when he was sixteen. 


Other tantalizing snippets came to light; he had attended a New Zealand high school, was working at the Union Gas Engine Company in San Francisco; all very vague and proving difficult to confirm.


At some time before 1915 Frank was living and working on an island in the Fiji group.  His cousin Gordon Goodenough McGowan, my Grandmother’s brother, married the daughter of another early settler in 1905.  Her name was Minnie Rosa and her father owned and worked a plantation on Laucala Island. This may have been the plantation where the Fleming family believed Frank once worked. 

In 1915 a Fiji lawyer writes a letter of reference in Frank’s favour. War had been declared the previous year; there was a feverish rush to manufacture weapons, build tanks and design aeroplanes for warfare, and to recruit servicemen.  By 1916, Frank is back in England and, from Daimler Station in Coventry writes a letter of application to the newly formed Royal Flying Corps. Within a month he has joined the Special Reserve of Officers as a second lieutenant.  In August he is appointed an Examiner with the Royal Flying Corps and by the following November he is a Flying Officer on active service.

 In November 1916 Frank is sent to France as a Flying Officer with number 34 Squadron.  Within three months his RE8 aircraft crashes at Villers-Bretonneux in France fracturing his left ankle and injuring his right shoulder. After a spell in a Brighton Hospital for Officers he is posted to the Wireless School at Hursley Park.

Two of his brothers, Ernest Wilfred and Bernard George are already fighting with army battalions in France and it is inconceivable to think Frank knew nothing of their whereabouts.

 In February of 1918, Frank is attending the Officers Invaliding Board at Arkwright Road Hampstead, and living at 19 Powis Square, Brighton while working at the School of Military Aeronautics in Reading.  He lists his next of kin at the Brighton address as L.E. Fleming, sister. Bernard’s wife, Lucy Fleming’s middle name is Ellen.

In 1918 his brother Bernard instigates divorce proceedings against his wife of fourteen years, the former Lucy Penfold, naming his brother Francis as co-respondent.  Bernard however doesn’t proceed with the action.  The couple no longer live together, but legally Bernard and Lucy are still man and wife.

 It appears Frank remained in England until 1921 when he and Lucy boarded the P&O vessel, ‘Borda’, departing London bound for Sydney.  They are listed as Mr and Mrs Fleming: which of course they were, just not married to each other.

They may have shipped with them on the Borda an aircraft in kit form, possibly a former WW1 plane because in the Fiji Times, June 3rd 1922 there is a paragraph with the heading...


...The pressmen who were interested in Mr Fleming and his aeroplane can hardly congratulate themselves on the treatment meted out to them by Mr Fleming.

 Hearing that he was to make an attempt to fly the aeroplane which he has just completed, a representative of this paper motored out yesterday at 4.30 pm to the hangar, which has just been erected on Laucala Beach, a few yards past the racecourse...

 The article then went on to castigate Frank for not allowing the press to stay and watch the maiden flight of his aircraft.  An angry Frank was quoted as saying, ‘It’s not a bob a head show for you lot to watch me break my neck!’


The reporter was sent away without his story and a little later Frank climbed into the cockpit, signalled to his helpers to turn the propeller, the engine caught, the plane moved off along the beach gathering speed, and then, before it had a chance to rise above the ground, the wheels sunk into the wet sand, and  the plane crashed.

 The first ever flight by a pilot in Fiji had failed.

 The aircraft was wrecked. Frank would no doubt have been both embarrassed and considerably out of pocket.  But what the gentlemen of the press had not reported was Frank Fleming’s impressive war record nor his connection to one of Fiji’s earliest European pioneering families.

 But this may not have been entirely the Newspaper’s fault.  Frank was a private man and he and Lucy had reason to keep themselves very much to themselves. Divorce at that time  was not a subject for general discussion. But it was probably this essential trait of personal secrecy that made him the perfect choice for his future role in the lead up to World War 2.


 By the mid to late 1930’s Frank is working for the British Government, establishing and manning a radio base and weather station on Canton Island, a tiny, desolate and uninhabited sand cay in the middle of the Pacific.

 Prior to 1936 the island had been considered a British dominion but with no strategic value.  By 1937 however world events had begun to show Canton in a new light, as a handy listening post and a midway point between Honolulu and New Zealand.

 Britain quickly establishes residency with a modest base of shacks manned by a two man team of radio operators, one of which is Frank Fleming.  Almost in retaliation America lands four Chamorro or Hawaiian natives onto the island supposedly as settlers.

 There is a great deal of discussion between the two Governments, Great Britain and the United States, regarding ownership.  Finally a sort of truce is called with the British maintaining their radio and weather base in crude jerry built housing, while the Americans establish, beside them, a Pan Am flying base complete with a luxury hotel. 

 On the island their co-existence is friendly, in the high echelons of politics relations are guarded and frosty.

 A house built from packing cases (as described by a NZ newspaper) is eventually built beside the crude British shacks and by 1940 Lucy joins Frank on the island where he has spent the past year alone with only a Gilbert Islander and his family as helpers, maintaining the island as a radio and weather base for Britain.  

 Supplies and equipment are transported from Fiji by navy boats and passing ships. By this time there is a great deal of low key spying and counter spying going on with tabs being kept on Japanese movements in the Pacific.

I'll leave the story there for a BlogSpot story goes on to reveal the part Noel Coward and Amelia Earhart played in Frank's life.

 None of this though reveals the astounding surprise Frank Fleming unwittingly left behind for me to find, some fifty odd years after his death.

 To read the rest of the story you will need to read my Blog –

Views: 539

Comment by Robert F. Kay on February 16, 2012 at 11:17pm

Robyn, thanks for sharing this with us. You have me hooked.  Any chance of posting some photos of the characters?  Just a thought...vinaka!

Comment by Robyn Mortimer on February 17, 2012 at 12:08am

Thank you Robert, I did try to post my pix with the blog but found my software wasnt compatible ..I will try again... meanwhile you might want to try my blogs  google in Rainbow Robs Travels Fiji and up should  pop several stories about my McGowan relatives and their times.  Cheers, Robyn


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