A series of coincidences led me to Sonogno, Switzerland in 2002. I set off to find out more about free market economic think tanks and ended up discovering the Tamo side of my family.
“A man is never more his single separate self than when he sets out on a journey.” John Dos Passos
Coincidence number 1
In 1982 I found myself simultaneously between marriages as well as careers. This provided me with an excellent opportunity to explore the world for three months.
My intention was to spend time visiting the free market economic think tanks which I’d been corresponding with for years. Two back-to-back economic conferences (in Zurich and Berlin) formed the commencement of this program. But a month before departure the Zurich conference was moved forward by one week. This proposed a challenge — I’d never been confronted with a “spare week”.
Talking to my travel agent Murray Quartermaine, I suggested flying to London for business. He laughed and asked if I had ever seen the Swiss countryside. Why not hire a car and just drive around? Didn’t I have a friend or relations to contact in Switzerland?
This started me thinking that I may have some long-lost relatives there. I recalled my mother telling me that her grandfather had come from Switzerland. A quick check in the family records unsurfaced the old family name of Tamo. They had lived in Sonogno, a village in the Ticino Canton of Southern Switzerland.
Coincidence number 2
Reading the Sunday Times the very next day, I saw an article on Alpine travel in Southern Switzerland. Accepting an invitation in the article, I phoned Claudia Furgler of the Swiss National Tourist office in Sydney and asked her if I had any Tamo relations in Sonogno.
In a classic example of how a potential tourist’s inquiry should be answered she said, “Give me your phone number and I’ll phone you tomorrow morning with an answer to your question.” That night she phoned Switzerland and the next morning I had a reply. “Although you don’t have any relations still in Sonogno,” she said, “the Tamo name is very well-known and the priest looks forward to meeting you on your arrival.”
Why the priest?
“Because the Church kept all records of those times and the priest was looking through the files,” she continued. “However, you should also write to the nearby Tourist Office in Tenero as they might also commence a search.”
I did obtain replies from both the priest and the Tourist Office. I’ve since been told it’s regarded as bad form to make inquiries from a distance like this without sending the equivalent of US$20 to cover search fees and postage.
Coincidence number 3
On my first night in Zurich I met a charming executive of a Swiss alloy-steel company. She was uneasy about my travelling to Sonogno on my own and felt I could be confronted with a language problem in my quest for knowledge. She was correct; there was not a single English-speaking person there. Nor was there anything resembling a photocopying machine.
When we arrived in Sonogno, I was greeted as something of a VIP. They had already assembled early records and related Tamo correspondence. After several days with the priest, Don Adelio Martinoli, the whole story was explained to me. My VIP status resulted from the fact that Pietro Tamo had built the Sonogno Church before he left for Australia in 1855, aged 19. He came from a famous family of artists, craftsmen and poets. I have since confirmed some dates and relationships in my letter to Don Adelio of November 8, 1982.
Pietro Tamo (born 1836) and his brother Stephen Tamo (born 1840) set out from Switzerland with other southern Swiss men to “the gold rush”. This was at a time of extreme economic depression in the south of Switzerland, compounded by a severe drought. It took him and his brother his brother almost a year to travel overland to Capetown. (There was no Suez Canal in those days).
It was in Cape Town that fate intervened, and Pietro’s brother got on the wrong ship. He simply asked if that ship was going to “the gold rush”. Perhaps he had no idea that the world had produced two simultaneous gold rushes, one in California and the other in Victoria, Australia. It seems that Stephen, after spending time in California, arrived in Australia two years after Pietro. From the death certificates I obtained, it seems Stephen’s time in Australia was filled with even less joy than Pietro’s.
The Sonogno priest showed me a letter from Pietro, which he had written to the village. Pietro was aware of the bad conditions in Switzerland at that time, but he urged that no Swiss people should come to Australia. He outlined the hardships experienced by those who had made the trip, such as the harsh, dry conditions. He was referring to the Victorian, Ballarat and Daylesford areas. I’m not sure what he would have thought of the Western Australian Goldfields.
An examination of the various death certificates of the Tamo family members showed their premature deaths. Pietro’s death at age 43, in particular, would explain his strong language in his letters back to Switzerland.
The Sonogno Church
There appears little doubt that Pietro Tamo was responsible for building the church. This was how I was introduced around Sonogno — as the direct descendent of Pietro Tamo, the man who built the church. I remember asking how someone that young (he was only 19 when he left) could have managed to build a church. It was explained that they started in their trade or profession at 10-12 years of age and most had managed to achieve much by the age of 19.
Apparently the church was something of an embarrassment to those responsible for it. It was built with great optimism, expecting as they did both great prosperity and a large population increase in the area. Neither ever did transpire. In fact, adverse conditions reduced the population quite sharply after the church was completed.
During the visit I was ceremonially presented with a book by Piero Tamo, an acclaimed Swiss artist and poet (1899-1966). He was a relative of great grandfather Pietro. In the church hangs a painting by Piero Tamo which was described by the priest as, “an original painting, but of a famous Swiss painting that has particular religious significance”.
So how did I get to be related to Pietro Tamo?
Pietro’s eldest son, William, later “followed the gold” to Kalgoorlie where he was working at the Paddington Mine (60 kilometres north of Kalgoorlie). He was working alongside my future grandfather, Jim “Pom Pom” Stevens. They were both in the local brass band.
William’s younger sister, Jessie, visited her brother William at Paddington and was subsequently introduced to Jim Stevens and circumstances and subsequent events produced several prolific goldfields families; Stevens; Sclanders; Ding, Keogh and Manners.