Family finally find answers

Surrounded by family members, three of the four remaining grandchildren of James Bowen Sim, Ron...
Surrounded by family members, three of the four remaining grandchildren of James Bowen Sim, Ron Sim (centre) next to twin sister Wendy McLeod (left) and cousin Evelyn Brenssell (right), sit on the memorial seat placed in the Blue Mountains to mark the life of their ancestor. Absent: Ivan Sim. PHOTOS: SUPPLIED 
A century ago,  James Bowen Sim disappeared into the Blue Mountains. Oamaru Mail reporter Jules Chin talks to his descendants about what happened to him.
The mystery of James Bowen Sim’s  disappearance in West Otago has been explored by his descendants who have pieced together what happened to the man, including the tale of a traumatic brain injury, hunters finding his remains and the silence surrounding depression.

Ron Sim, born and bred in Oamaru, a chiropractor of 59 years and now retired,  is one of James Sim’s remaining grandchildren. 

Last month, he attended a family tribute to mark the occasion of his grandfather’s disappearance.

Mr Sim gathered with grandchildren, great-grandchildren and other descendants at Black Gully, on the edge of the Blue Mountains on February 24 to commemorate his grandfather’s life, near the site where he went missing.

Mr Sim said to be together as a family, many of whom he was meeting for the first time, was rewarding.

"For me, as one of the last grandsons still alive, the occasion was — and I am sure for others who were present — a very special occasion.

"We all felt an emotional togetherness."

James Bowen Sim.
James Bowen Sim.
Born in 1865, James Bowen Sim was a farmer at  Ardle Bank, at Crookston in West Otago. He was married to Mary Jane (nee Fowler) and was the the father of Stuart, Alex, Minnie and Douglas.

On September 30, 1923, he disappeared.

Jocelyn Chalmers, a retired research librarian from Wellington, began researching  her great-grandfather’s disappearance last year, working closely with her cousin Garry Sim, of Alexandra, and going through files at Archives New Zealand.  

Ms Chalmers said on the day of her great-grandfather’s disappearance, her  great-grandmother, Mary,  heard him leave the house early, but could find no trace of him when she went out some time later.

"She says in the file that she did not expect to see him again," Ms Chalmers said. 

Extensive searches by family and friends went on for months. At one point, a search party found footsteps up the Blue Mountains, in a direct line up from Black Gully, which they followed before losing them, she said. 

The only belongings he had taken were his gold watch and chain, a pocket knife, pipe and tobacco, by which he was able to be identified when the remains of his body were finally found. 

In March 1976, 53 years after his disappearance, Mr Sim’s remains were found in the Blackcleugh region of the Blue Mountains by deerstalker  Ron Topping and a hunting companion. 

In 2022, Ms Chalmers and Garry Sim became interested in the story when they located the deerstalker who had found her great-grandfather’s remains in Mosgiel.

On the day of the memorial, Mr Topping was invited  to the family gathering to talk about the "discovery day" and brought maps to explain where the remains were found. 

Mr Sim said he appreciated the great-grandchildren showing "more interest" and "asking questions" and the day was "for us all, the answer to a lot of questions".

In her research, Ms Chalmers  discovered  three years before his disappearance,  her great-grandfather was fencing on the farm and was struck on the back of the head by a wire strainer, which caused traumatic brain damage. 

He was hospitalised for depression in 1923 but became increasingly withdrawn when he returned home. 

"The link between brain injury and depression is now well known, but perhaps not so well understood at the time," Ms Chalmers said.

Mr Sim believed the injury his grandfather suffered in the year of his disappearance did a lot of damage and "altered his personality".

"He had subsequent depression and I think it got to him," he said. 

Mr Sim said his immediate family, including his own father, Douglas, never discussed what had happened to his grandfather as he was growing up. 

"Dad never talked about granddad, his father, and grandma didn’t either, and we used to spend quite a bit of time down on the farm.

"I’ve talked to a few [people] about it and it seemed to be almost like they were ashamed, and there could be that.

"I suppose because I’m a chiropractor, I’ve been very interested in the effects of injuries to whatever part of the body. 

"It’s good that people are prepared to talk about it and say well there are people who do get injured and we have to accept the fact that, trauma, head trauma happens."

Mr Sim’s father died a year before the mystery of the disappearance of James Sim was solved, but for the remaining family, many questions have finally been answered.