A Suitcase Mystery

Unpacking a Rich Everyday History


Non-Fiction


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A Suitcase Mystery

Note: though all the people named in this story are deceased, surnames have been changed in the interests of anonymising descendants.

Today, suitcases are ubiquitous and unassuming. You’ll have some stuck away somewhere, nicked, scuffed, with a handle you have to extend just the right way or with those wheels that make you think you’re going to need a new one when the current pandemic abates enough for travel.

I’ve got those suitcases, gathering dust in a cupboard. I’ve also got a few more.

A couple years ago, I was in a fun situation: my partner and I had moved to a new home that was ours, and I had the snuggest room as my own little study. Excited, I drew up floorplans for this me-room; I surfed around online to find all the best deals on new and second hand items that were just the right fit.

 And in the midst of this labour of love (and faced with a storage problem) I had a grand idea: vintage suitcases.

Not picky about quality, I hunted for the right “look” – and I found it, a baker’s bunch of kilometres from my home in northern Sydney, Australia. A lengthy drive and an awkward meet-up with the seller in drenching rains later, I had 4 old, rather dilapidated and whiffy suitcases piled in the back of my car.

I tidied them up a bit, and they became home to my own memories: old uniforms, my scrapbooks and half-finished paintings, collections of cards, aged service medals, an ancestor’s stamp collection, those round-the-world dolls my parents brought back whenever they left us at home for travel adventures…

But I always wondered what memories that weren’t mine those old suitcases held. The seller I’d bought them from had known nothing of their original owners, having bought them herself from another person who, likewise, hadn’t been their original owner. But though it was an anonymous chain of hands that had passed them on to me, there were clues as to their origins.

Painted on one suitcase – a hefty khaki canvas-and-aluminium affair – is the name “G. E. PENDER”. Another, this one in hard-case navy, has not only “PENDER” hand-painted on it, it has very dated Qantas flight tags, complete with the names “Dr and Mrs H. Pender”; a half-blurred word that ends in “LULU”; and an address in Wahroonga, a suburb of northern Sydney.

I’m no historian, but I am a person who has faith in the information-finding capacity of the internet. And I’m a person who put meticulous effort into furnishing a study. 

Comparing streets on maps today with the faded wording on the tag, I hunted down the Wahroonga address. The house that’s there now is a new build, the old house knocked down about a decade ago. Real estate websites, however, have photos going back to 2007, where that old house can be seen in its for-sale glory. The place was a picture of a 60s home updated in piecemeal fashion over the years: an 80s boom box here, a pastel sofa there; those flaking brightly-coloured book bindings from the 70s next to a TV that should be in a museum. 

Yet, though on whim-in-vain after whim-in-vain I’d punched the Pender’s surname and initials into search engines, I’d come up repeatedly empty-handed. So, on an evening spent procrastinating work, I turned to the site Reddit. Emboldened by what I saw of the abilities of the many anonymous minds on the fantastically-named “Reddit Bureau of Investigation” page, I put my mystery up there, requesting assistance.

I hadn’t much to offer, particularly not in the way of dates. I had thought the navy case was plastic, and thus assumed it was from perhaps the 70s. The suitcase made of aluminium and firmly-adhered khaki fabric was one I assumed to be older, maybe the 40s, and therefore thought G. E. Pender was Dr Pender’s parent. Very unhelpfully, my partner assisted by repeatedly calling out “George Elliot!” to me from downstairs.

I was wrong. So was my partner, if anyone’s keeping score.

Shortly after posting my mystery, a Reddit user on the other side of the world got back to me, and, armed with a subscription to a genealogy website and learned skill, they’d found names. Dr Harry Pender, and Gaynor Eluned Pender – the two mysterious suitcase figures were (partially) found.

What followed was a rapid back-and-forth of passionate hunting shared over Reddit private messages, dozens of different browser tabs open and darted between, and deep-digging through archived records, old newspaper articles, and gravestones – all available online. It’s not easy to get your head around a family full of members you’ve only just heard of, and it’s harder to do when that Mr Harry Pender, found on a 1966 incoming passenger card digitised by the National Archives of Australia (a Harry who misspelled “Pensioner”, said his nationality was “Sydney”, and was widowed and had the wrong birthdate) could be responsible for a few false identifications of our Harry Pender.

Evening for me, morning for my search-buddy, we dug up a lot that… time of day. And then I started trying to piece it together, something that, in the end, had me caving and forking over the subscription fee to a genealogy website myself (the Tinsmuir family tree’s going marvellously, by the way).

But the digging has paid off. The tangible part of this bygone history, in the form of what’s now my attractive storage, has spilled its secrets in the pieced-together biography of a man born on the 18th of November, 1886, in Tumbarumba, NSW, Australia, to Constable Robert and Mrs Grace Pender. And, to start the start with an end, he was buried, with his 3 wives, in a cemetery in the farming village of Junee, today an hour and a half’s drive through dusty roads from the likewise small rural town of Harry’s birthplace.

Informed by an (unfortunately incomplete) timeline provided by a local university, these are the bare bones:

Harry Pender joined the military for active duty overseas in 1916 while in his last year of medical school, serving the war effort as a medical professional. At 32 years of age, he was married for the first time in December 1918, less than a month after World War 1 ended, in Somerset, England. By 1919, he was noted as a medical professional located in Crows Nest, a suburb near central Sydney. In 1941, he was married a second time. From 1951 to 1964, he lived first in England, then in Canada and the USA, before returning to Australia, where he died at Royal North Shore Hospital, not far from Crows Nest, on May 9th 1979, at the age of 92.

But fleshing out the man was, of course, far more interesting than the bare bones. We start with what certainly sounds like a wartime romance, though one with an odd and unfortunate ending.

A 32 year old army doctor, in England after the war… We don’t know when or where Harry met one Mabel Elizabeth Worthing, but at 27, in December 1918, she became the first to be named Mrs H. Pender. Mabel returned with Harry to Australia, and, by 1919, was living with him in Crows Nest at an address that’s now a multi-shop commercial building. Mabel and Harry had 6 children, though one died in infancy.

But this union lasted only 20 years, as there’s a coroner’s report dated 1938 for a Mabel Elizabeth Pender.

Reported in the papers, on April 1st 1938, 47 year old Mabel Pender died as a complication of an anaesthetic given to her by her husband Dr Harry Pender in their home in Crows Nest. She reportedly had a toe deformity, which was being operated on by Harry Pender himself. He dosed her with ethyl chloride in the bedroom. Ethyl chloride was used as an anaesthetic in the past, but can be toxic if given in anything other than low concentrations. Mabel was taken to Royal North Shore Hospital, where after ineffective resuscitation she was pronounced dead.

In the article that reports her death, Dr Pender is quoted as saying “I administered the anaesthetic myself. There was no particular reason, but, in view of what has happened, I do not think it is desirable”. A remarkable end to a wartime romance capped off by an odd statement.

For the coroner’s report… What’s written in it proved the biggest task of my week to decipher. Squinting, at length, at it, I managed to work out the nigh-illegible handwriting of the good coroner stated “failure of heart’s action while under anaesthetic for surgical operation” (as an aside, it seems someone else on that record died of “Lysol poisoning”, but that could be a misread). The coroner said he was sure the ethyl chloride had been properly administered, and found Dr Pender at no fault of the “unfortunate” happenstance.

Harry did, it’s worth pointing out, start an obstetrics prize in her name.

From the university timeline Harry was only married twice, ergo, this is where the confusion began. It is correct to say that he married G. E. Pender, from suitcase fame, in 1941. As I eventually deduced, it is also correct to say that he married G. E. Pender in 1956: there was not one, but two “G. E. PENDER”s.

Inside the khaki fabric-and-aluminium case is a label that marks it as a Tizlite brand suitcase from Harrods of London, the long-trading department store. On this same label is also a UK patent number I traced to 1945. This patent is about flanges and sturdiness, it’s very boring. But from what I can tell, this case was therefore manufactured between 1945 and the early 1950s, when the brand ceased production.

If Harry Pender was married again in 1941, it was to Gladys Elizabeth Cornell, then about 51 years old. She lived with him, at least initially, at the Crows Nest address, until her death at 64-65 years old on the 16th of February 1955. Gladys appears to have been Australian-born, and little else is known about her other than, here, the assumption that this suitcase was not the later G. E. Pender’s, but hers. She likely did use the suitcase at least once as she’s recorded as travelling with Harry aboard the good ship Himalaya in 1952, with that case touching ground in England and Sri Lanka.

The last Mrs Pender, and the second G. E. Pender, is, as mentioned above, Gaynor Eluned Jones, born 28th of April 1909 in south Wales, UK, and married to Harry at about 47 in 1956.

We know from an electoral roll from that year that by 1977, Gaynor (listed as doing “home duties”) was living with Harry (“medical practitioner”) at the Wahroonga address on the suitcase. There is also a flight manifest that records Dr Harry Pender as travelling from Sydney to Vancouver, Canada, via Honolulu, in 1954; arriving in Vancouver aboard Canada Pacific flight number 302.

And here’s where I did my nerd dance, because on that suitcase flight tag was the Wahroonga address, with Harry Pender’s name, and the word that ended in “LULU”.

I have lived between Vancouver and Sydney, and that journey, in modern times, is one I’ve done repeatedly. I’ve even had a cat, transported to Australia from Canada (expensive, fair waring), fly from Vancouver to Sydney via Honolulu. Mr Feline didn’t care much for the stopover (or the trip in general).

In 1954, that trip would have been enormously different. Then, it was by propeller plane – namely the DC-6 variant DC-6Bs used by Canada Pacific. This journey started in Sydney, stopped in Nadi, Fiji, then Honolulu, Hawaii, before arriving in Vancouver.

By the 1960s, we were in the golden age of jetliners. In the 1920s it was single-propeller biplanes; in the 30s we had flying boats and planes made out of corrugated metal that hopped shorter distances into longer ones; and in the 40s and up to 1954, it was passenger multi-propeller crafts that earned the staple of vomit-bags in the seat back in front of you.

But that’s the flight Dr Pender’s navy suitcase would have taken. I’d guessed plastic, and I’d guessed the 1970s. I was applying ignorance and modern focus on plastics. From spots of wear and tear, I can see now the “plastic” case is made of a fibrous material, peeking out of the treated exterior. It was a deep-dive into suitcase history and materials, but I can say now that case is made of vulcanised fibre, a cotton-made-gelatinous-pressed-together material, and of the Oriental Make brand. It dates to the 40s or 50s, and it very well made the same trip I have done in an era vastly different from the one I know.

Harry Pender died in 1979. His third wife Gaynor lived on to 2007. Typical records on those real estate sites go back into the 90s, yet there’s no record of a sale of the Wahroonga house until 2007. What I saw in those photos, a record of the slow progress of updating a 60s house, likely were photographs of her house, as she, born in 1909, left it.

The pre-jet age of flying is something I have a fascination in, as is the history of everyday objects. Though that spurred my curiosity, what I found by following that curiosity is a history as tangible as it is lost to time. As much as I can see how it lives on in photos and the suitcases next to me… a pre-war era, a trip across the ocean in a what was only a master-craft for its day, a time when toe surgery was done in your bedroom… is a struggle to imagine.

And though I’ve fleshed out a long-dead man, what do I not know? What experiences and memories did he have that no one else can see?

Today, this history holds objects that are my history. I find it fitting that the cycle goes on.


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