Seek and Ye Shall Find! A Rabaul Riddle Solved

Seek and Ye Shall Find! A Rabaul Riddle Solved

By Robyn Watters

Seek and ye shall find! 

A long standing family mystery has been solved.  Last year in Una Voce I asked for help to find my Great Uncle Ted’s first wife – the Rabaul wife who he married in 1927 and then divorced in 1932.  All I had was a photo of a possible first wife (found in his Rabaul photo collection) and the exact date of divorce. Great Uncle Ted, a legend in our Melbourne family – attractive, adventurous, intelligent, interesting and interested –  was at last snared into marriage aged 37.  Who was she?  How did the marriage come adrift so soon?

First Wife – Found and then Lost Again

Her name was Ida Roslyn Bettes and she was known as Betty born in 1895 in Staffordshire.  In Rabaul, she became Mrs. Betty Brown, wife of Ted Brown (Edwin Tylor Brown), barrister and solicitor, former AN&MEF captain.

The marriage came adrift when Gregory Bateson, Cambridge anthropologist and Betty locked eyes across the dinner table of noted Papua and New Guinea diarist Sarah Chinnery.  An ominous entry for 6 February 1929 says that Mr. and Mrs. Brown came to dinner at her house which Gregory Bateson also attended.  In November 1932 Sarah notes that “Gregory Bateson is an awfully nice chap – 6’4” and very handsome”. (1)

Why is this significant?  The 1932 English divorce file of Ted and Betty lists Gregory Bateson as the co-respondent to Ted’s divorce proceedings against Betty.  Betty was unfaithful with Gregory.

Betty and Sarah though were not the only ones to find single Gregory Bateson attractive, so did Margaret Mead.  Sarah described the lead-up to that relationship in her May 22 1933 entry: “just before Christmas 1932, where Mead met Bateson”.  Mead later recounted in her autobiography “Greg and I were falling in love”.  Mead, her then husband Dr. Reo Fortune and Bateson all went their separate ways by the end of 1933 but Mead and Bateson later met up in the United States in 1935 and married the following year.

History accords not only Margaret Mead but both Gregory Bateson and his father William a special place in science.  Professor William Bateson was the first person to use the term ‘genetics’ to describe the study of heredity. His son Gregory also achieved lasting scientific prominence in anthropology and other fields of endeavour.  

The intellectual fire-power of the Bateson family could have intimidated a lesser man than Ted but Ted, ever the high-calibre barrister and solicitor, went to the English High Court of Justice and got an order that Gregory pay for his (Ted’s) costs of bringing the action.  Whether Gregory paid up is another matter.

First Wife’s Relationships

Betty continued the relationship with Gregory Bateson in London after the 1929 blossoming in the Rabaul dining room.  They travelled together to Brisbane in November 1931 as evidenced by the shipping record where Gregory and Betty were listed as students living at the same address – 105 King Henry’s Road, N. W. 3.   They were both 36 years of age.

Betty had met her future and third husband, Hugh Alexander MacKenzie in 1930, in Rabaul (2) and cemented this relationship when they married on 22 November 1932 in Marienburg, New Guinea after her divorce from Ted in September that year.  Hugh MacKenzie was a retired naval officer who had become a trader.  

Betty may have been dissatisfied with marriage to long-term bachelor Ted Brown, “popular” as he was. (3)  Or she could possibly have made a rebound marriage to Ted in 1927 after she’d been widowed in 1926 to first husband Harold Eric McLennan, former banana grower in Nambour, Queensland.  She may also have experienced a coup de foudre with Gregory Bateson and a slower burn relationship culminating in her third marriage to Hugh MacKenzie.   All conjecture.

Three marital and one de facto relationship within six years spanning three countries makes Betty an interesting woman.  All three living men – Ted, Gregory and Hugh – were tremendously attractive alpha males.  Colonial society is worthy of an anthropological study in itself.

What became of Hugh and Betty?

Hugh and Betty after some years operating the trading schooner Pato established Megigi and Matavulu plantations on the Hoskins Peninsula of New Britain.  During the war Hugh rejoined the Navy and served as a coastwatcher.  He rose to the rank of Lieutenant Commander and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his efforts.  For her part Betty worked in an armaments factory in Sydney.  In 1948 Hugh died in an accident, coincidentally his first wife Helena Stuke also died that same year.  Betty eventually retired to Queensland and died in 1975 aged 80. (2)

For a deeper look at their story, you’ll have to read the November 1916 publication of Australia’s Argonauts by retired RAN Vice Admiral Peter Jones to find out what happened to them.  Peter’s upcoming book tells the story of the first class of officers to join the Royal Australian Naval College.  This includes Hugh MacKenzie.

Ted – The Eternal Bachelor? 

Not really. Ted shut up legal shop at the end of 1930 in Rabaul.  After 13 years in Rabaul as a barrister and solicitor, he may have found it time to move on in any event coloured by his disastrous marriage.  Additionally, he had two elderly parents in Melbourne to look after.  This combination of factors may have pulled Ted back home to Melbourne.   Once again, conjecture.

He took off for Russia in 1931 and again in 1932 with visits in between to England to divorce.  He went back to England in 1934.  He became an author.  He then spent time in India in 1939 and eventually married his second wife in 1944.  Ted Brown married Miss Molly Jones, an Australian woman educated at the University of Oxford.  They travelled extensively in Western Europe, ultimately divorcing in 1956 with him passing in 1957.


I went down lots of blind alleys trying to find first wife Betty.  Marriage and divorce searches in every state and territory of Australia and NZ brought no joy.   Rabaul Anglican and Uniting church archives appeared to be non-existent as do Rabaul government records what with volcanic eruption, the Japanese invasion and weather disasters dogging good record keeping.   Fortunately on Ted’s divorce file, I found his Rabaul marriage certificate.

Finally, fellow PNGAA member Anne Peters gave me a lead I’d dismissed – that of the United Kingdom English National Archives divorce records.  I’d briefly searched there dismissing the relevant record due to slight name and date variations.  Anne persisted.   Thank you Anne.  Lesson learned, follow every thread.

She also pointed me towards two genealogy Profiles of Betty albeit only one with the surname of Brown and pointed out the subsequent third marriage in New Guinea which gave a clue as to where Betty had been living. 

To extract information, I’ve also badgered a range of people including historian Dr. Peter Cahill (University of Queensland) who is a regular contributor to Una Voce and writer of the history of the Chinese in Rabaul; Philip Selth, another fellow PNGAA member and barrister-tamer; retired RAN Vice Admiral Peter Jones, naval historian; various genealogy societies, PNG record keeping authorities, the legal fraternity in PNG and the principal, Sue McBeth, of Australia’s largest company of professional genealogists, MacBeth Genealogical Services who provide services to the legal profession.  Sue produced the DiggerTM genealogical tool.   

Further Work

I’m content for a while as I’ve now identified all 16 of my great-great grandparents.  It has been identity building.  Ted left no issue; his niece, my mother Dorothy Brown, received all the interesting PNG wares including many gifts from his Chinese clients.  I in turn, also a solicitor, am the keeper of all things Ted Brown.

My advice to fellow family genealogists is to keep on sleuthing with that family riddle.


(1)    Malaguna Road, The Papua and New Guinea Diaries of Sarah Chinnery (published by the National Library of Australia 1998, edited by Kate Fortune)

(2)    Peter Jones’ research

(3)    Rabaul Times 12 December 1930 description of Ted Brown

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