Travels with my Ancestors #7: From where the fleets sailedJune 5, 2023
This is the seventh in the Travels with my Ancestors series. You may wish to read the first post for context. You can find it here.
I’m at Portsmouth, in Hampshire on England’s south coast, at the mouth of the Solent River.
It was from here that the first three fleets of convict transportation ships left England in 1787, 1790 and 1791 respectively. The fleets were made up of ships carrying convicts, male and female; plus officers, marines to guard the prisoners, and ships’ crew; along with one or two supply ships. Surprisingly, there were ‘private’ passengers aboard as well: people chancing it in the unknown of the colony, hoping to make money, to find adventure or sometimes, seeking anonymity after scandal or disgrace at home.
After those initial three fleets, transport ships set sail independently, at different times and from a variety of ports. It was all systems go for the British authorities, who could not wait to rid their country of their undesirables, the so-called ‘criminal class.’
Five of my ancestors were on ships of the Second and Third Fleets.
They were Thomas Eather, William Roberts, Elizabeth Lee, William Eaton and Isaac Cornwell. You can read a little about those underlined by clicking the links on their names.
Life at sea in the eighteenth century was not for the faint-hearted. There was the ever-present risk of shipwrecks, generally resulting in terrible loss of life because most people could not swim.
Shipboard diseases and illnesses such as ‘ship fever’ (typhus), measles, influenza, scurvy, constipation or infection could bring death or disability.
It meant living for months in cramped spaces, sleeping in a hammock or uncomfortable narrow bunk, sharing those spaces with many others – with limited washing or laundering facilities and primitive toilets. Rations were monotonous at best, unless you were ship’s master or among the officers or upper-class passengers. Ship’s biscuit, salted beef or pork, rancid butter, hard cheese, and gruel or porridge, with a ration of ale, or spirits if you behaved yourself – and that was the lot of the crew and soldiers, who usually fared better than the prisoners.
For those travelling at His Majesty’s Pleasure below decks in the prisoners’ quarters, conditions were usually much worse.
Especially on the Second Fleet, the convicts’ lot was unspeakably bad. The British government made the mistake of paying the ships’ owners for every prisoner taken on board their ship – not the prisoners taken off at the other end. It’s obvious to see the problem here. Having pocketed the money for each convict shoved into the prisoner hold, the owners and captains had no financial incentive to ensure the wellbeing and safety of these men and women. In fact, there was a strong incentive NOT to do so. By skimping on rations, clothing, blankets, the captains could on-sell saved foods and other items when in port, at inflated prices.
One ship of the Second Fleet, the Neptune, was the worst of the fleet and later labelled the ‘death ship.’ The ship had been previously used as a slave ship, transporting enslaved people from West Africa to the Caribbean or the Americas. The ship’s master, Donald Traill, had captained the Neptune on those shameful voyages and proceeded to treat the new human cargo in the same way.
The end result was a shocking death toll, with many bodies jettisoned over the edge into the deep waters below. Those who did survive crawled, or had to be carried off, at Sydney Cove: emaciated, dressed in tattered rags, filthy, and covered in weeping sores.
Thomas Eather and WIlliam Roberts were among the survivors. One hundred and sixty years later, their descendants met and married: my father and mother. I am always in awe when I consider the odds against the possibility of such an outcome. Whatever their crimes that put them on that ship, those men were tough to have outlasted the months on the Neptune and then go on to prosper in the penal colony that was their new home.
The outcry about the conditions on the Second Fleet resulted in an improvement for subsequent transport ships, which meant that Elizabeth Lee and Isaac Cornwell had a somewhat better experience on the Third Fleet.
Having recently travelled back to Australia on an Airbus A380, I remember the feeling of being cramped in the small seats and worn out by the long flight. Then I remind myself to think of my convict ancestors. On the plane I was given a seat, was regularly fed, had clean toilets to use, fresh water to drink and cabin staff to bring me anything I needed. Apart from a few midair bumps and jolts, I did not suffer weeks of debilitating sickness due to the unaccustomed motion of the sea. I had no chores to do on the journey, nor did I have to worry about my fellow passengers’ emotional or violent outbursts or theft of my few, precious belongings from home.
So yes, I had it easy. Those people on the convict ships did not.
As I stand at the edge of the historic part of Portsmouth harbour, I look out at the blue-grey sea and sky, and down to the shingle on the beach below. There is a line of old buildings on one side of the harbour; small vessels dot the waters around the fully rigged ship on display. A fresh wind brings the tang of the sea as it blows across my face. How much of this did the convicts see or feel, once they had boarded their ship?
For those unfortunates on the Second Fleet vessels, the answer is not very much. Prisoners were kept below decks, chained together in twos or threes for most of the voyage, and I imagine that began as soon as they boarded, clanking along the deck in iron fetters.
For later voyages, prisoners were given regular time above deck, although with the risk of escape always foremost in the minds of authorities, that was often curtailed whilst in port.
As each ship drew anchor and slowly made its way out of the harbour, some would weep as the expanse of sea widened between them and their loved ones. Others remained dry-eyed as they had nothing to leave behind.
But for each and every convict, the thought that remained was this: What lay ahead at the end of this voyage?
I’m happy to know that for three of the four of my convict ancestors, what lay in store for them was a much better, healthier and more prosperous life in the colony.
Isaac Cornwell’s story did not have such a happy ending. On New Year’s Eve in 1810, he went to a celebration at the home of Patrick Hand at Richmond Hill (now called Agnes Banks.) Another local joined in the drinking until about 9 pm, when a violent argument broke out between the three men. Isaac was known for his hot temper, especially when drunk. One of the others armed himself with a musket. The night ended with Isaac lying dead with a musket ball in his head.
Which I think only goes to prove that alcohol and weapons are always a dangerous combination, no matter the era or the circumstances.
I am grateful that the other three survived and lived happier lives than they would have experienced had they remained in England. And very glad to have stood at the spot where those ships departed Portsmouth harbour, two hundred and thirty years ago.
One last thought: this monument, marking the sailing of the convict fleets from Portsmouth, makes me smile but also feel a wee bit astounded. It’s an ugly sculpture (in my humble opinion) but it is the wording on the plaque that stops me in my tracks.
This Monument commemorates the Sailing
from Spithead on the 13 May 1787
of the First Fleet Conveying Settlers to Australia
A Great Nation was Born
Where to begin with this one? Perhaps with the last line ‘A great nation was born.’ This ignores the fact that before English colonisation Australia was already home to several hundred First Nations. It reinforces the destructive legal fallacy of Australia being ‘terra nullius’ – empty land.
And ‘Settlers’? Yes, as mentioned above, there were some ‘free settlers’, voyaging to the colony of their own choosing. But the vast majority of those on board that First Fleet and all the transport ships that followed, were definitely not there from choice. Most of them did go on to settle in Australia once they had served their sentences, and they may well have been tempted to thumb their noses at the ‘mother country’ because their lives were a great deal better there than in England. Still. The choice of that single word – ‘settler’ – neatly obscures the suffering and trauma the convicts experienced. This is the power of language.
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All photos by the author.
A meander through love: ‘My Year of Living Vulnerably’ by Rick MortonBy Denise Newton / May 29, 2023 / 0 Comments
A follow up of sorts to Rick Morton’s earlier work One Hundred Years of Dirt, this book is a purposeful meander through life and what happened when he decided to allow love – in all its forms – into his life: to feel it, express it, talk about it. It’s not just about ‘romantic love’; the book touches on many things about the world, about living and being human, that he marvels at, has been touched by, or considers essential to life.
It’s a very personal book. Childhood trauma that changed him and his family forever are a constant backdrop, and he explores how the effects of this has lingered and how he set about to get better (not cured or fixed, just better.)
The topics traversed include touch, forgiveness, wonder, beauty, toxic gender norms, aloneness and loneliness, kindness and doubt. I was reminded, at times, of Julia Baird’s Phosphorescence, which similarly discusses some of the things that make life worth living and give meaning.
There is great beauty in the prose, verging on poetic at times, and also laughter-inducing moments, such as the hilarious description of cephalopods.
If you enjoy a book that invites you to think, and that remains with you long after you have read the final page, this would be a good one to add to your ‘TBR’ list. I’m now going to search out a copy of One Hundred Years of Dirt, wanting more of the Morton brand of philosophy, observation and wry humour.
My Year of Living Vulnerably was published by Fourth Estate in 2021.
Travels with my Ancestors #6: Kick-ass Jane-The Longhurst and Roberts familiesBy Denise Newton / May 19, 2023 / 0 Comments
Tiny Ewhurst, a village in a narrow parish in the south of Surrey, was almost left off the Travels with Ancestors itinerary. I had somehow forgotten to include this, the birthplace of Jane Longhurst, my 4 x great-grandmother, who I can only describe as my most ‘kick-ass’ ancestor. Fortunately my ever-patient husband and our travelling companion are willing to do a small detour on our way east, towards Kent.
We reach the village after navigating roads that steadily decrease in width, the closer we come to it. It takes a steady nerve to drive along England’s tiny rural lanes and byways, but Andy does a good job as tour driver.
Unlike many of my ancestors, as far as I can tell, Jane was not born into poverty. The Longhursts were an established family in the district; probably not wealthy, but her father may have owned some land, as he appeared on a voter registration list for Ewhurst. In the 1700’s only people who owned property were eligible to vote.
For whatever reason, Jane was tried and convicted of a crime that earned her the sentence of seven years’ transportation. Rather surprisingly, though there are records of her trial and sentence, details of her actual crime have not yet surfaced – but I live in hope of uncovering this one day.
She was born about 1783 in Ewhurst, and baptised at the church of St Peter and St Paul in the village. That is my first port of call, because it’s the one definite pinpoint in England that I have for her.
Before leaving Australia, I had made contact with many of the parish churches I hoped to visit, to check on opening hours and so on. I was put in touch with a local woman, Janet, an active member of the local historical society. She is kind enough to meet me at the church and show me around, giving so much rich detail about the village’s history in the process. Janet wrote the History Society’s Guide and History of St Peter & St Paul, so she is a perfect companion for this visit.
The oldest part of the church dates from Norman times, and Janet points out the distinctive Norman use of rough stone rubble and pieces of red Roman-era tile, that were frequently reused in later buildings. Other parts of the church were added, built or rebuilt over subsequent years, much of it after Jane’s time there. But I am able to photograph the church and its baptismal font, certain that baby Jane’s tiny head was wet with water from here at her baptism in March, 1783.
Out in the lush churchyard, Janet points out the ancient, spreading yew tree, sheltering a number of old headstones that are too weathered to read. A lower churchyard has at least 83 species of wildflowers, and grass cutting is carefully timed to allow different species the chance to set seeds and flower. A monument with stone wings seems to stand as guardian angel over the place.
Jane’s father and grandfather were likely buried in this churchyard, though possibly in different sections. Her grandfather, James, would have been laid to rest in the ‘respectable’ part of the churchyard, whereas her father John may have taken his own life. Records are a little confusing here, but if his death in around 1793 was a suicide, he would most likely have been buried away from the general burial ground , as suicide was regarded as a dreadful sin in the eighteenth century. Gazing over the beautiful grounds, I can only hope that he lies in peace, wherever that may be.
As we drive away from little Ewhurst, I am very grateful to Janet for all her information and help.
What happened to Jane after her trial and sentence?
She arrived in Sydney on the transport ship Glatton in 1803, and was assigned to labour for a master or mistress there. Seven years later, she’d completed her sentence and she married William Roberts, also an emancipated convict. They’d been living together before that date and had four sons together; then later two daughters and three more sons were born.
WIlliam had done rather well for himself. Through hard work, diligence and commitment, he had caught the eye of Governor Macquarie, becoming a sought-after road and bridge building supervisor. He was paid handsomely for this work, in land grants on Dharug country in the Hawkesbury Valley of NSW, plus cash and liquor – this was the era of the ‘Rum Corps’ and rum and other spirits had a stranglehold over the economy of the colony.
The family lived at Windsor and then in Sydney, at The King’s Arms, the public house they ran at Castlereagh and Hunter Streets.
When the Governor became disturbed at the rapidly increasing number of liquor establishments operating in the town, and the unruly behaviour of patrons, he issued a decree closing a great many of them. The Roberts’ hotel was one of those approved by Macquarie and allowed to keep trading.
Sadly for Jane, William died in 1819. For a widowed or single woman at that time, life was not easy. Even having money (which Jane now certainly did) was no guarantee of continued success. The male – and military – dominated colony held strict expectations of a woman’s place. It did not include the world of business or trade.
There were very few exceptions to this, and Jane became one of them. She wrote to the Governor, successfully requesting payment owed to her husband for work he had carried out before his death. She continued the hotel businesses that she and William had established. Later, another request to the Governor resulted in an allocation of land for grazing cattle. She became one a very small number of women who were early subscribers to the newly established colonial bank. Her name appears on the bank records alongside the likes of better-known colonial women such as fellow emancipist Mary Reiby, and the Governor’s wife, Elizabeth Macquarie.
She did this all while raising nine children into adulthood, many of whom went on to become successful business people and farmers themselves.
Jane remarried in 1825 and had eleven years with another William, also an emancipist: William Hutchinson. His story is also an interesting one. But this post is all about Jane – the girl from a tiny Surrey village whose 3 x great granddaughter was my mother, Doreen. She would have recognised something in Doreen, had they been able to meet – a quality of determination, a refusal to give up.
I can understand why Mum was always fascinated by Jane and her story. I’m delighted and grateful to have made the pilgrimage to Ewhurst, the birthplace of our kick-ass ancestor.
Travels with my Ancestors # 5: Kentish men and women – The Heather / Eather familyBy Denise Newton / May 16, 2023 / 0 Comments
I am in Kent, in the southeast of England. There are two villages and one town I’m here to see. All three places are related to the story of my Heather/ Eather ancestors, my paternal grandmother’s forebears, who lived in this little corner of England from the 1600’s.
Robert Heather and his wife Mary moved to the village of Chislehurst in about 1640. Together they had a daughter and five sons; each successive generation naming their eldest son Robert. For over twelve decades the Heathers were baptised, married and buried at St Nicholas’ church in the village.
Today that church stands sturdily, overlooking the expansive Chislehurst Common, a swathe of green within the suburban landscape of southeast London that has overlaid the village of yesteryear. The Common is threaded with quiet walking paths through stands of spreading oaks. Squirrels scamper up trees as I pass, a spring chorus of birds follows me through this timeless place.
A strange circular depression in the grass is a puzzle – a former pond? A bomb crater from the war? – until I see a small plaque labelling it as ‘Chislehurst Cockpit’. I have an awful feeling that I know what this was.
Later, I google it and my suspicion is confirmed – it is a leftover from the days when village pastimes were bloodier and more violent than today’s football or cricket matches. Cockfighting, single stick fighting and other such entertainments were pursued there until banned by more squeamish authorities in Victorian times.
Now to the church. St Nicholas has stood since the 15th century, though the site has seen worship for over a thousand years. The Norman font is still in use today: all those Heather babies baptised with water from its stone basin. When I look closer, I notice a very sweet modern addition: a garland of knitted babies’ booties and tiny socks around its base.
I stand at the altar, where I imagine successive Robert Heathers and their brides reciting their wedding vows. Were their eyes fixed on the embroidered tapestry or intricate carving behind the Reverend? Unable to read, they may have enjoyed the storytelling in these artworks.
The Heathers were not wealthy, too poor to have afforded a stone monument to mark the life and death of one of their number. Many Heather bones lie beneath the soil in the churchyard; if they once had a simple wooden cross to mark their places, they have long since rotted away. But the earth here has been enriched by the blood and bone of generations of the Heathers.
In Maidstone, I want to find the place where one of the Heather sons, Thomas, was tried, sentenced and imprisoned in 1788. I have researched the town’s history and learnt that the Court House and Gaol were once in what today is the Town Hall.
When I get there, I am disappointed to find the doors firmly closed and locked. This I had not anticipated. Then I notice a small old-fashioned doorbell with a sign above it that reads ‘Please ring.’ Should I? I decide that yes, I should: I am here for this one day; my only chance to see where these events played out. So I press the button. Nothing happens.
I swallow my disappointment and am about to turn away, when I notice a more modern-looking button. I press it. Long moments pass, before a young man pops his head around the door.
Quickly I say, ‘I’m from Australia, and an ancestor of mine was tried and imprisoned here. I was hoping to see the place where this happened.’
He hesitates, then smiles. ‘I was just about to do the fire drill, but I’ve got a few minutes. Come on in.’
Scarcely believing my luck, I follow him inside and up a flight of stairs to a large room where, he tells me, the local council meetings now take place. High on the wall at one end of the room is a plaque with the insignia of British justice, and the young man, whose name is Russell, tells me that it was here that judges meted out punishment to those who, like Thomas, had broken the law.
I can imagine it: Thomas in the dock, the bewigged judge stern-faced on a high bench above him. Thomas’ crime had not been a trivial one: he was accused of ‘Highway Robbery’, having stolen goods from a man on a road while brandishing a weapon – a hoe? A pick? Or even a musket or pistol? The place where this happened was very possibly a road near the same Chislehurst Common I recently walked across.
Whether he knew it or not, this was one of the many offences that attracted the Death penalty. Thomas would hang.
He was taken to a cell, which is where Russell and I now go. Up a flight of narrow stairs, through a heavy door with a small square peephole cut into its thickness. What was once a gaol cell is now an empty room. In places, letters and dates have been carved into the the bare walls and floor – this is Georgian-era graffiti by educated prisoners who could write.
I ask Russell how many prisoners would be accommodated in this room.
‘Up to sixty, at times,’ he tells me. ‘Men, women and children.’
Fortunately for Thomas (and his descendants) he did not hang. His death sentence was commuted to a term of transportation: fourteen years across the seas in the new penal colony of New South Wales. He spent a total of two years in that cell in Maidstone, before being transferred to one of the prison hulks on the Thames in London.
Then in 1789 he was on board the prison ship Neptune, bound for Sydney. He survived that voyage on the worst ship of the worst convict fleet to leave Britain – but that is a whole other story.
For now, I am grateful that he made it to Australia, and that I pressed that bell at the Maidstone Town Hall in order to see where these life changing events took place.
PS. If you are wondering how Thomas Heather became Thomas Eather, imagine this: You have just been disembarked at Sydney after a hellish voyage, and a pasty-faced clerk demands your name, quill poised over a ledger book. In your Kentish accent, you reply ‘Thomas Heather’, dropping the ‘h’ as you always do. What the clerk hears and records is ‘Thomas Eather.’ And so the Australian Eather family has his origins in a dropped ‘aitch.’
‘Don’t Hold Back’: a Mother’s Day messageBy Denise Newton / May 13, 2023 / 2 Comments
In Australia, Mother’s Day is celebrated in May. It’s a bittersweet day for me and for many people I know, as we remember our absent mothers (and stepmothers, grandmothers, and those special women who held a treasured place in our lives.)
I was recently brought to tears when listening to a song by Australian singer and song-writer Adrienne Coulter with the Nu Now, titled Don’t Hold Back. What brought me undone was the part in the song where she’d included the voice of her mother, who had died in the past year. You can listen to the song here.
Her mum had left a message on the singer’s phone, ‘just checking in’ as mothers do. It brought back to me the way my mum would answer a call from me with ‘Yes love, what can I do for you?’ Always looking to be helpful, to offer something, to give rather than take.
Listening to this lovely song I was mindful that I don’t have a recording of my mother’s voice. Why? With the voice and video recording options available on smartphones, why did I not create a memory of that voice for the future, when my mum was no longer with me?
At my dad’s funeral several years earlier, my son put together a beautiful photo and musical tribute to his beloved Grandpa, and right in the middle, there was my dad’s voice, recounting how he met my mother. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry – perhaps I did both.
So this Mother’s Day message is for those of you who still have that person in your life who you regard as ‘mum.’ Take the photo, make a short video or voice recording. Share a lovely lunch or outing, perhaps just for the two of you. Do those things while you can, because you can never know when the ability to do so will no longer be available.
And tell her that you love her. Do it on Mother’s Day and do it often.
Thanks to Adrienne Coulter for permission to link to her song.
Photo by Evie Schaffer at Pexels.
Travels with My Ancestors #4: People of the West Country – the NewtonsBy Denise Newton / May 9, 2023 / 0 Comments
This is the fourth in the ‘Travels with My Ancestors’ series. You may like to read the first in the series to provide context – you can find it here.
My little travel party drive out of Bath, Somerset’s – and arguably England’s – most beautiful city. The gracious buildings of smooth Bath stone carry echoes of Georgian prosperity and indulgence, while the Roman baths and statues and the soaring Abbey remind us that people have worshipped and socialised here for more than a millennia.
Now we venture into the unknown – rural Somerset. My father’s forebears hailed from a cluster of small villages that circle the Quantock Hills in the northwest of the county. As we leave the busyness of Bath behind us, the landscape changes almost immediately, from crowded streets and town houses to lush, green farmland blanketing gentle slopes. Black faced sheep and spring lambs are dotted across the fields, their woolly bodies a contrast beside the vivid yellow of canola crops.
The Somerset Newtons were not people of means. Most worked as labourers on the many farms of the district, though there were occasional tradesmen such as butcher or carpenter, skilled trades in demand everywhere. Farms and farming have changed and grown since the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but the soil the Newton men and women tilled and the animals they tended, are much the same today.
The villages connected with the Newtons and the families they married into have almost unbearably quaint names: Crowcombe, Combe Florey, Nether Stowey, Bradford on Tone, Dunster. From Australia I have been searching out these names on Google Maps, drilling down to Street view on Google Earth to glimpse the places the Newtons called home. I was delighted when thatched cottages, green fields and timbered woodlands appeared on my screen: many of these places were still small rural settlements; the years had not transformed them or carved multi-lane highways through their hearts.
Now, I am here in person, for real, to see and smell and hear these places I’d been learning and writing and dreaming about for the past three years.
I am excited, of course. Mixed in with that is a hard to define emotion. A sense of arriving at a place that some part of me recognised. Despite all my research, Googling and map reading, I had not really known what to expect. A backwater, left forlorn as other parts of the county progressed into the modern age? Tattered villages populated by elderly folk suspicious of ‘outsiders’?
Instead, what I find are stunning landscapes and well-preserved towns and hamlets. The pleasure and relief I feel is almost overwhelming, and surprising. I feel connected with this country in a visceral, unexpected way.
This is the West Country, the land of origin of my father’s people, and I am loving what I see.
Of all the villages, the one in which I will leave a little piece of my heart is Crowcombe. Here I visit the wonderfully named Church of the Holy Ghost, where I stand at the baptismal font where generations of Newton babies were welcomed into the community of the then Church of England, back to at least 1630.
Like pretty much all of the village and parish churches I’ve gazed at on this visit, the Norman era tower is very tall and square. Sometimes they look more suited to top a castle than a place of worship. Inside, though, it’s a different story.
This particular church is famous for its mediaeval intricately carved bench ends: the wooden partitions at the end of each pew. They break the mould of church decorative art, depicting among the Christian symbols an array of folk tales and pagan imagery. The most imaginative ones, in my opinion, are those that tell of the battle between two men and a giant and fearsome ‘Gurt worm’, a kind of dragon, which they cleave in two. The divided creature went on to form two local hills. As I snap photos of these vivid carvings, I imagine young Newton children endeavouring to sit still during Sunday service, being transported out of the church into a world of legends from Somerset’s past.
The Crowcombe pub, the Carew Arms, has been the village meeting and drinking place since the 1500’s, when it was known as the Lion, then the Three Lions. Many Newtons would have enjoyed an ale or a local Somerset cider there. Today the pub shows its venerable age: the flagged floor, low heavy beams along the ceiling, and the stables (the stalls now cleverly converted to booths.)
There remains a sense of community and connection in the village. The Carew family have lived in the manor house for centuries, and continue their time-honoured role of support for community projects and events. In the village I spot a lovely mural of tiles, a Covid lockdown initiative, in which residents were invited to decorate a tile. It now hangs proudly on the wall of the pub.
It is Coronation weekend when we visit (the May 2023 Coronation of King Charles III) and Crowcombe, along with most of the villages and towns we pass through, is celebrating with a village BYO picnic in the field of one resident. I’m an avowed Republican but I am moved at the level of community connection this event has inspired.
Coincidence? Or a new family mystery to investigate
In Nether Stowey’s Church of St Mary, my husband spots a plaque on the wall commemorating three members of the Buller family. Husband Robert Beadon Buller and his wife Ann, both of whom died and were buried in the churchyard in 1841. Their son, also Robert Beadon Buller, was also remembered there after his death in 1880.
Martha Buller married a Newton man in that church in 1798. Were the Buller family members on the plaque related to Martha? Looking at the birth and death dates, it seems possible that Martha and the elder Robert were siblings, cousins, or some other close family relationship.
The intriguing thing is that ‘Beadon’, the Buller father and son’s middle name, is a name that appears several times in the Newton family tree. I have always assumed that it was a Newton family tradition – but is it possible it came from the Buller family, brought with Martha to the Newton line when she married? If Robert Beadon turns out to be her relative, that theory might well hold water.
That same day, a Crowcombe local suggests we look at a house in the village Main Street, which has ‘Beadon’ on a name plate on its front fence. Then I turn around and – directly opposite – there is a house with the name Newton Cottage on its gate. A coincidence? The tingle in my fingers and toes suggests not. I learn that Newton Cottage was built in the 1870’s – after my Newtons had emigrated to Australia – but surely the people who built and lived in that cottage were part of the larger Newton clan in and around the village. And surely, Beadon could be connected somehow.
For now, I don’t know, but it’s a theory I will be exploring once I am back home in Australia. The tingling fingers and toes can’t be wrong. Or perhaps I will uncover some other previously unknown connection or branch of the family tree.
As we leave Somerset, I feel an invisible skein unravelling behind me, connecting me to this West Country, the land from where the Australian Newtons came, one hundred and eighty years ago. I take with me that connection, surprising but so very welcome, and I hope I will return one day.
All photos by the author
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Travels with my ancestors 3: Elizabeth Lee – Lancashire LassBy Denise Newton / May 2, 2023 / 0 Comments
This is the third post in the Travels With My Ancestors series. If you’ve not read the first post to give context to the series, you can find it here.
On a July morning in 1791, a signal went up on the south head of Sydney harbour, indicating that a sail had been sighted. People ran down to watch as the Mary Ann berthed in Sydney Cove. The signal created great excitement because the new arrival promised more supplies to hold off food shortages in the faltering penal colony of New South Wales, Australia. Mary Ann was the first to arrive of the eleven ships of the Third Fleet that set sail from England for the colony. Along with provisions such as barrels of flour, beef, and pork, she carried convicts: 141 women and 6 children.
Elizabeth Lee was among those on board. Born and raised in Lancashire, she’d worked for a woman named Elizabeth Buckley in Manchester, either as a domestic servant or shop assistant.
In 1789 things went badly wrong for her when she stole a grey cloak valued at sixpence from her mistress. If she’d hoped to sell it for coin, luck was not with her. She was caught, and in January the following year, she pleaded guilty at the Manchester Epiphany Quarter sessions, at the Royal Cotton Exchange building at St Ann’s Square.
Her sentence was transportation for seven years to ‘some parts beyond the seas.’ What did that mean? Where would she be taken? At just seventeen, she was friendless, facing an uncertain and frightening future.
Elizabeth was my 4 x great-grandmother.
In April 2023 I set off on a family history tour of England, accompanied by my husband Andy and our friend Anita. Manchester was the first place to explore: where Elizabeth had lived, work, and where she committed her crime.
I found the location where once stood the first iteration of the Royal Cotton Exchange, a grand building where the serious business of buying and selling cotton was done in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It also housed the court rooms where the equally serious business of dispensing British justice was conducted. Two years after Elizabeth’s trial, the original Cotton Exchange was demolished to make way for a new building. Today the building is the home of the Royal Exchange Theatre.
Gazing up at the imposing structure, it occurred to me that there was a relationship between the two purposes of the original Cotton Exchange. One was for wealthy merchants and traders to generate profit from the resources produced by the labour of enslaved people in the West Indies and America. The other was to punish those outside the system of capitalism that flourished alongside colonialism, the slave trade and the Industrial Revolution.
Poor people, young women such as Elizabeth, had no place in that system. They were despised, mistrusted by their social and economic ‘betters’, regarded as the criminal class by those in authority. Having stolen from her employer, she was in the court to have her position in the world firmly marked out for all to see.
I don’t know much about her family or her early life. If she had parents and siblings still alive, they would have been unable to see her again, because from Manchester she was taken north to Lancaster, where she spend a long year imprisoned in the Castle on the hill, overlooking the River Lune.
Approaching the forbidding dark walls of the Castle’s gate, she would have been gripped by a deep foreboding and a fear that she may never re-emerge from it.
The Castle operated as a prison until 2011. It is a melange of stone building styles from the eleventh and twelfth centuries to the Victorian era, during which parts were built, demolished, added or altered.
In Elizabeth’s time, the Castle prison was crowded, with poor hygiene and rations. Punishments for disobedience were harsh; sometimes involving pointless, soul-destroying labour such as the treadmill. The year she spent there dragged slowly, months feeling like decades.
At last, with February frosts nipping at fingers and toes, she was taken with other women from the Castle on a long journey south to London, to Gravesend on the Thames. Here she was rowed out to a sailing ship, the Mary Ann, where she had the first sight of the below-deck quarters where she would sleep, wash and eat, for however long it took to sail to that far-away place that would be her next prison.
When the Mary Ann shipped anchor, she thought this would be it: her last moments within sight of England. But no: they sailed out of the Thames, then south and west to Portsmouth, where the ships of the Third Fleet gathered in readiness.
The Mary Ann sailed from Portsmouth on 23 February 1791. Just two days out, Elizabeth and her companions experienced their first storm at sea. Women were washed out of their beds by the force of water that poured in between decks. Fully expecting to perish in the violence of the towering waves, frightened prisoners prayed amid the shrieks and wails of their companions. The howl of the gale outside echoed their despair. A full day and night later, the wind and rain eased and the voyage continued. [i]
Captained by Mark Munro, the ship battled through the difficulties of weather, long periods without supplies of fresh food, and all the other challenges of a lengthy voyage. She made good time, and when she berthed at Sydney Cove, only four of the convicts on board had died.
Several residents of Sydney Town, including Captain Watkin Tench of the marines, had rowed out excitedly to meet the ship before it entered the harbour. From their quarters, the convicts heard the shouts of the visitors climbing aboard the ship. Eager questioning turned to disappointment when they learned that not only had the vessel brought less food than hoped for and more mouths to feed, but that no one on board had thought to bring any mail, or newspapers, or a single magazine. [ii]
Most of the women waiting to see what this place would be like had little interest in newspapers. But they thought of the homes they had left, and the people and places they would never see again, and wept.
[i] Description of the storm from a letter written by convict Mary Talbot, published in The London Times on 15 Feb 1791.
[ii] Watkin Tench, ‘A Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson’ in 1788, Text Publishing, p205
Charm and crime: ‘A Deadly Covenant’ by Michael StanleyBy Denise Newton / May 1, 2023 / 0 Comments
Michael Stanley is the pen name for writing duo Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip. They were both born in South African and bring their considerable familiarity with the neighbouring country of Botswana to their series of crime novels. Featuring Botswana CID Detective Bengu (nicknamed ‘Kubu’ – the word for hippopotamus – because of his girth), A Deadly Covenant portrays Kubu as a rookie detective, still learning the art and craft of solving crime.
Author’s synopsis: While digging a trench for a new water project, a backhoe operator unearths the skeleton of a long dead Bushman. Kubu and Scottish pathologist, Ian MacGregor, are sent to sort out the formalities, but the situation rapidly gets out of hand. MacGregor discovers eight more skeletons—a massacre of Bushmen including women and children. However, the locals deny any knowledge of the event.
Several more murders in the district convince the pair that there is a link between that historic crime and current events nearby. Things get more complicated by the day, as what began as a simple pathology and administrative task becomes a dangerous venture into local politics, personalities and history.
There is much to like about this book. The setting is full of interest and complex characters. The protagonist Kubu and his other police colleagues work well together, with the expected tensions and hiccups along the way. Kubu himself is a delight: still with his ‘Learner’ plates on, I enjoyed seeing his uncertainty and self-doubt morph into something closer to confidence in his growing abilities and knowledge. So much of crime fiction features a detective at the top of his or her game: we rarely glimpse their early years on the job with all the mistakes and doubts that can appear.
I found the plot quite a complicated one and the pacing a little slow in parts. But – and this is a good test of crime fiction – I suspected, but was not certain, who the culprit was until towards the end.
A Deadly Covenant will be enjoyed by Australian readers who like crime fiction with interesting characters and different settings, and a dollop of charm mixed in with the crime.
A Deadly Covenant is published by White Sun Books in 2022.
My thanks to the author for an eBook version to review.
‘Becoming Mrs Mulberry’ by Jackie FrenchBy Denise Newton / April 24, 2023 / 0 Comments
Jackie French writes marvelous commercial historical fiction, with protagonists who are active participants in their lives and the world around them. Her stories always feature intriguing snippets from history:
The incidents in my books are based on actual people, historical events and attitudes that are often not widely known. That is why I write about them…Sometimes fiction is a gentler way of presenting those harder times of history, as well as celebrating the good.Author’s note, Becoming Mrs Mulberry
Becoming Mrs Mulberry is an example of the many reasons why Ms French is an Australian best-selling author. She has a way of imparting historical information in a way that illuminates rather than bogs down the story.
It’s a big book, with several big themes: Australia’s mixed record on dealing with issues such as gender equality, treatment of people with disabilities, and the sad fate of so many soldiers returning from WWI. It is also a plea for us to become more attuned to our natural environment, which is under such severe threat today.
The main protagonist, Agnes, is in the midst of medical studies at Edinburgh University, when the war and its aftermath requires her to put her dreams of becoming a doctor on hold. She experiences eye-watering levels of abuse and discrimination both during her studies (much of it meted out by male fellow students) and after it. Any so-called ‘post feminists’ should read this book.
Despairing of her ability to make a difference for the endless line of soldiers with horrifying injuries that she nurses during the war in Europe, she is given a sage piece of advice by her Matron:
Just do the next right thing, and then the next. Put a thousand crumbs together and you make a cake.Becoming Mrs Mulberry pp225-226
Straight after the war, her ‘next right thing’ sees her marrying the severely shell-shocked brother of her close friend, in order to rescue him from being declared mentally incompetent and being confined to an asylum. This is how she becomes the Mrs Mulberry of the novel’s title.
Her new husband is very wealthy and she uses this money to provide respite, care and refuge from some of society’s outcasts, suffering war injuries or disabilities from accidents or illnesses. Coincidentally, the place where she does this is on her husband’s Blue Mountains property, in a fictional location that the author placed not too far from my home.
Then she comes across a young child in a situation of terrible abuse and vulnerability – and her life develops an unexpected trajectory.
Through it all, there is a tender shoot of love and care which grows as the story progresses:
Her sense of loss seeped away under the hush of trees. Trees had patience and so must she, as their roots wound deep into the ground and their leaves slowly burgeoned to the sky. Here, on a highland ridge, she could see trees shaped by wind and snow, none of which was within their control, and yet they managed beauty nonetheless: even greater loveliness from fate’s twisting of their trunks and branches.Becoming Mrs Mulberry pp124-125
This is a sweeping, heartfelt story that will appeal to readers who love their historical fiction to actually mean something.
Becoming Mrs Mulberry is published by HQ Fiction in March 2023.
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
Picture book loveBy Denise Newton / April 17, 2023 / 0 Comments
Three new picture books from Harper Collins Children’s Books have hit the shelves in March, 2023. Two are perfect for reading around Mother’s Day (May, in Australia) and the third – well, it’s just perfect.
Amazing Mum by UK author and illustrator Alison Brown is a lovely celebration of mums, in all their beautiful diversity. There are applauding mums, never-let-you-down mums, double mums, bubble mums, sharing mums, repairing mums, and mums who drive a bus. And quite a few more.
The softly toned illustrations feature entirely cute animal mums and kids: mice, foxes, rabbits, even a dinosaur family. The pictures bring to life the message of the book: mums are amazing!
Well-known Aussie kid’s author and presenter, Andrew Daddo, has teamed up with illustrator Stephen Michael King to produce a sweet book all about the relationship between grandmas and kids. The grandma in the book is whimsical, arty, adventurous and fun. She and her grandchild share activities like dress ups, knitting, yoga, kite flying, painting…all the ‘old fashioned’ ways to have fun.
Whatever we do together, my grandma’s just happy.Grandma’s Guide to Happiness
Grandma says that even with all the new things, old-fashioned happy still feels pretty fantastic.
It’s a bit like a hot choccie.
It warms you from the inside out.
A.B. (Banjo) Paterson’s classic poem Mulga Bill’s Bicycle was first published as a children’s picture book in 1973. To celebrate its 50th year, Harper Collins have published a new version, illustrated by Deborah Niland along with original illustrations by Kilmeny Niland.
I remember this poem from my childhood; along with Paterson’s Clancy of the Overflow and The Man from Snowy River, and Henry Lawson’s The Loaded Dog, it’s an Australian classic that is timeless, and brings to life the language, sights and sounds from a past era.
Mulga Bill’s Bicycle pokes fun at a self-assured, pompous man with ambition greater than his skill – and don’t we all know people just like that? His antics as he attempts to ride a ‘new-fangled’ penny-farthing bicycle for the first time (while assuring everyone that he is an expert) are hilarious.
There’s a lot going on in each double-page spread as the bicycle gallops away, passing scenes from a bush and small-town landscape of yesteryear. The image of Bill himself, quite the dandy with his impressive handlebar moustaches, is perfect.
I’d recommend this one for all kids’ bookshelves and libraries.
Travels with my ancestors #2: Darkness and light in family historyBy Denise Newton / April 10, 2023 / 4 Comments
Every family history contains its shadows: people or events we might prefer to remain in the dark.
The problem with ignoring them is that we are only getting half a history: rather than the full story of our ancestors and the worlds they lived in, we get a trimmed, sanitised, unsatisfying narrative. We are no closer to understanding the context of our ancestors’ lives and the times in which they lived.
In my family history writing, I have chosen to incorporate information which can be confronting, because I want to present a richer, more truthful story of their lives.
I haven’t done this to make anyone feel guilty or resentful. We can only understand the wider history of this country and its people if we are mature enough to look at the darkness as well as the light.
There is the inevitable theme of ‘land grants’ given by colonial authorities to many of my ancestors, who came here either in chains or as free immigrants. It is important to remember that this land was taken by the British government as theirs to give: however, it was never ceded by those who came first—indigenous Australians. All land purchased by non-indigenous people since colonisation in 1788 is therefore based on the same error.
In writing about my ancestors, I have tried to refer to the places in which they lived by the original names, the ones used by the First Nations of Australia, as well as the names commonly used today. I have consulted maps and online sources for this: any errors are my own.
The so-called ‘frontier wars’ of the seventeenth, eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries (more accurately called the wars of resistance, or Australian wars) were widespread and prolonged. They were the result of First Nations people being forced off their lands, away from livelihoods, history and sacred places: the Country to which they had been deeply and profoundly linked for millennia. The wars featured horrible violence, massacres, and sickening atrocities. As with any war, violence was perpetrated on both sides.
I have no evidence that my family forebears were directly involved in such acts of violence. It is possible that some were. But what is undeniable is that by arriving here (willingly or unwillingly) and settling on land, building homes, fencing off land for livestock or crops, and changing the landscape, they contributed to the dispossession of First Nations people.
I believe it is possible to stay with the discomfort of simultaneously feeling proud of what our forebears endured and achieved, while recognising the part they played in this fracturing of ancient cultures and ways of being.
It’s all part of our real, collective Australian story. By acknowledging it, even if that is difficult, we can better understand our own place here. To feel truly Australian, we must connect with all parts of Australia’s past—even the darker ones.