• History,  Travel

    Travels with my ancestors #14: Robert Eather & Mary Lynch part 1

    This is the continuing story of my ancestors Thomas Eather & Elizabeth Lee, and their descendants.
    You can read the beginning of Thomas’ story here, part two of his story here, Elizabeth’s here, chapter three (where Thomas and Elizabeth meet and marry) here, and the final stages of their lives.

    Now we are moving on to the next generation of the Eather family: eldest son Robert and his wife Mary. They were of the generation of colonial-era white Australians known as ‘currency lads and lasses’: the first to be born in the colony.

    NB: For ease of reading online, I have omitted my references and footnotes. If you are interested in seeing the sources I have relied on for this story, please let me know via the contact form on this website and I’ll be happy to share them with you.

    ROBERT EATHER (1795-1881)
    AND MARY LYNCH (1802/1803? -1853)

    Currency lad
    In the autumn of 1795 in a tiny, dark hut at Parramatta convict camp, Elizabeth Eather gave birth to her second child and first-born son, Robert. As she cradled her baby, she wondered what his future would hold. What kind of life would he live, here in this place of transported prisoners and their guards?


    The boy’s earliest memories were not of Parramatta, because when he was two, the family moved to take up a land grant along the Hawkesbury (Dyarubbin) river. Robert’s childhood and youth were spent here on his parents’ farm. He learned how to clear and fence land; plough the soil and sow seed; care for cattle and pigs. His father had worked on farms all his life and taught his children about livestock and crops.

    His memories included multiple floods that ripped through the valley. The waters left behind sodden, stinking clothes and bedding and ruined crops—but also a thick layer of silty, fertile soil on which new crops could grow. The river flowed in Robert’s blood. He was planted in Hawkesbury soil and he thrived there, along with the maize and barley.

    View of the River Hawkesbury – above Raymonds Terrace, above Windsor and part of the Blue Mountains. New South Wales c1822-23 by Joseph Lycett.
    From State Library NSW [DG D 1,11]

    It was inevitable that this ‘currency lad’ would follow in his father’s footsteps.  In 1818 while in his early twenties, it was his turn to receive a grant of land from the Governor, Lachlan Macquarie.

    The sixty acre allotment was at Mittagong in the southern highlands of NSW. This was the land of the Gundungurra and Tharawal peoples, with no permanent European settlement as yet established in the district. It was too far from the lushness of the valley he knew; too unfamiliar; too wild.

    He never took up this grant, exchanging it for cattle. He farmed instead on leased land at Cornwallis lowlands on the edge of Windsor, and built a cottage on George Street, alongside his parents’ home. The Hawkesbury was where he’d been raised and where he’d establish his base. Over time, visions of open land on which to graze more livestock crept in, but he would seek them out while keeping one foot firmly in Dyarubbin soil.

    Currency lass
    On a Tuesday morning in April 1824, twenty-year-old Mary Lynch approached St Matthew’s Church of England at Windsor, all rosy brick in the morning light. How stately it was, how elegant, despite being one of the first churches built in this penal settlement of sinners. Perhaps that was the point. Perhaps its imposing presence was supposed to impress them all into godly obedience.

    St Matthews Windsor
    Picture from
     Discover the Hawkesbury

    If that didn’t work, there was the minister, Reverend Samuel Marsden, with his beady eyes, pursed lips and glare of disapproval. The ‘flogging parson,’ he was nicknamed, a man who preached the love of God but relished the power of the lash. She hoped he wouldn’t notice the three young children clutching at her hands, or her rounded belly pushing against her gown. She didn’t need his condemnation on this day of all days. There were plenty like her and her common-law husband Robert, too impatient to wait for the next visit by the clergyman to wed and begin a family. On this day, she and Robert were legalising their union, legitimising their children: they were getting married.

    Robert’s brother, Thomas Eather, was joining them in a double ceremony with his bride, Sarah McAlpin. At least Sarah’s loose gown hid her own expectant state.

    Autumn breezes cooled the faces of those gathered in the churchyard. Her parents, Thomas and Celia, were among them – staunch Catholics attending a wedding in this Church of England, but there was no church in the Hawkesbury to meet their own religious needs. Roman Catholicism itself had only been officially recognised in the settlement a few years previously with the arrival of two Irish priests, who occasionally travelled to the rural districts. But Mary’s husband-to-be was not Catholic, so it was easier to marry in a Church of England ceremony, even if it meant facing the derision in the vicar’s eyes.

    The couples were blessed and Mary could breathe a sigh of relief. As the group left the church to enjoy a wedding breakfast together, kookaburras caroled them from the trees, as if to join in the celebration.


    Like her husband, Mary was ‘native born,’ (as it was called then – somewhat strangely, given that the land was already occupied by peoples who had been native born for countless generations.) Like many her age, she was the child of both a soldier and a convict.

    Her father hailed from Dublin. He told many tales of his soldiering career, having served over thirty years in different regiments. He’d joined the NSW Corps in 1796, and spent two years overseeing convicts on the rotting Thames hulks. In this thankless work he directed the daily movements of convicts just like his daughter’s future father-in-law—and his own future wife.

    Perhaps this experience gave him some insight into the grim world of prisoners, knowledge that he would draw upon during the next stage of his career.

    In August 1799, an opportunity arose to try something completely different. The transport ship Minerva was in Cork harbour, being loaded with twenty-six female and one hundred and sixty-two male convicts, bound for New South Wales. He made sure to be among the thirty-two soldiers assigned to the voyage.

    During nearly five months at sea from Cork to Sydney, Celia (Catherine) Daley, caught his eye. She’d been sentenced that same year to seven years transportation. They both knew that liaisons between crew, the military and convicts were officially frowned upon, but they found ways to carry on their relationship regardless.

    Their romance was not a fleeting shipboard one. After the Minerva anchored at Sydney Cove in January 1800, they lived together as couple. Mary was born within three years. On the 1806 Muster, Thomas had Celia recorded as his wife. They spent some time at Parramatta before moving to Windsor.

    Twenty years later, when Celia died aged fifty-eight, her husband was on his own and retired from the military. To stave off loneliness, he moved to join his daughter and son-in-law on George Street. There he was surrounded by family, with five young grandchildren to keep him company.

    Due to his long military career, Thomas was made a grant of 100 acres of land. He tried first for land in the new wine producing area of the Hunter Valley, the land of the Darkinjung and Wonnarua peoples, and then in Dharug country, at Kurrajong in the Hawkesbury hills. Both times he was disappointed, as the land he’d selected had already been taken up by another. He died before he could finalise his claim. Undeterred, Mary wrote to Governor Ralph Darling that same year, requesting transfer of her late father’s grant to her. She was allocated land in the district of the Field of Mars (near today’s Anderson Street, Westmead.)

    A colonial brood

    Over the next two decades, Mary gave birth to another eight babies: twelve children in all by 1843, from when she was barely seventeen to age forty. They were years of absolute exhaustion from almost continual pregnancies, childbearing, and breast-feeding. There was no avoiding the never-ending work that needed to be done, and no reliable way of preventing pregnancy. Twice she stood with aching heart by the tiny grave of an infant son, wondering which of her children she’d have to bury next.

    Despite these challenges, their farm’s productivity grew, along with the family. They now owned cows, five horses, and eighty hogs. The wheat, maize, barley, and potatoes they planted bore good harvests and by 1822 they were supplying wheat to the Government stores, to the value of over two hundred pounds. Gradually their herds increased until they had over one hundred head of cattle. They were building on the solid foundation of his parents.

    When they thought about their future together, their hopes centered around providing for their growing family. But there may also have been ambition—to rival the prosperity of settlers or the military who’d arrived free to the colony and saw themselves as superior. Calling themselves the ‘exclusives,’ they looked down on those whose parents had come on a transport ship—people like the Eathers. The accusation of ‘convict stain’ stung; Robert and his family wanted to prove themselves the equals of any.

    Land, land and more land

    Land was the way to do it. Like his father before him, Robert was busy leasing, buying and selling property. He knew he had to have more acres on which to graze his growing herds of cattle and sheep. In 1829 he petitioned Governor Darling for an additional grant, stating his case in positive terms:

    Your Memorialist therefore for the sake of his rising family for whose future prospects he is naturally anxious, entreats Your Excellency to lend a favourable ear to his prayer by including him among those to whom it is Your Excellency’s intention to confer a Grant of Land, your Memorialist flattering himself that his character being generally known to be that of an industrious and striving Man, will be of some avail in Your Excellency’s estimation…

    He was by now a respected figure in the Hawkesbury community, appearing on potential jury lists for the Windsor Court sessions. Mary was proud to see him appear alongside leading men of the district, such as William Faithful, John Grono, John Ezzy. What a turnaround: the son of two convicts now sitting in judgement on the legal affairs of the district! Perhaps that was what this place was all about: turning the old way of doing things on its head.

    In the 1828 Census he gave his occupation as butcher; one that went well with his other preoccupation—grazing sheep and cattle.

    Robert began to venture out beyond the Hawkesbury. He needed land: the best way to prosperity and security.

    It was a desire shared by his siblings.  In the 1820’s he’d farewelled his brother Thomas who set off north along the Putty Road, trudging through Colo, the rugged Howes Valley and the Wollombi range, to reach Bulga on the western side of the Hunter Valley. Accompanying Thomas were his wife Sarah’s sixteen-year-old brother Will McAlpin, and an Aboriginal manwho guided them through the difficult terrain to more open country. They travelled on foot with a bullock to carry supplies.

    Later that year Thomas returned to Bulga, with Will and another youngster, several Aboriginal men— and Sarah. His Scottish-born wife rode on the back of a bullock with her first child, eighteen-month-old baby Thomas, balanced on her lap. Her pluck became part of family and Hawkesbury legend, which held that she was the first white woman to cross the mountains from the Hawkesbury into the Hunter Valley.

    They chose a spot at the foot of the mountain near Bulga alongside a tributary of Wollombi Brook. It was open, grassy land of tall trees and sparse undergrowth—no doubt the result of successful traditional land management such as ‘firestick burning’ practiced by the Wonnarua people there for generations.

    Here they built a bark hut, later replaced by a bigger slab house, and named their property Richmond, in honour of their Hawkesbury home. A few years later, Thomas applied to Governor Darling for a land grant, and in 1831 he received 100 acres at Bulga. He called the property Meerea, ** reputedly a word from the local Aboriginal language for one of the nearby mountains.

    Location of Bulga outlined in red, with two Eather properties: ‘Meerea’ and ‘Richmond’ near the village. Source: Google maps

    The Wonnarua people fought back against the disappearance of their traditional territory into settlers’ farms. There was an uprising in 1826 where several huts were plundered or damaged. Rumours spread that the attacks were in retaliation against settlers known for their harshness or cruelty towards the Wonnarua. Violence against Wonnarua by whites occurred at Garland Valley, Ravensworth, and Wallis Plains (later Maitland.) Just as in the Sydney basin, the occupation of Hunter Valley lands by white settlers was anything but peaceful.

    Thomas and Sarah later leased out their Bulga land and returned to the Hawkesbury, but the Eather brothers were not yet done with land acquisition.

    • As was common at the time, Aboriginal people who served as guides or servants to white settlers as this man did, went unnamed and unremembered in many written records.
    • Meerea Park (  is a family wine making company with  historic connections to the Eather family and to wine grapes grown originally by Thomas; Meerea Country Estate (www.meerea.comis an historic property where the Eathers lived at Bulga, now leased as holiday accommodation.

    It was Robert’s turn to look for new land. Leaving Mary and the children in the Hawkesbury, Robert set off with his twin brothers Charles and Thomas, and two of their brothers-in-law, to establish runs near the Namoi River, on the lands of the Kamilaroi. They were among the first colonial squatters—a cohort who collectively made a grab for vast amounts of land outside the then-established settlements. They had no official permission—in fact, the government had made an order outlining the ‘Limits of Location’ and forbidding unauthorised settlement in regions outside these boundaries.

    In 1836 they learned that the colonial government wanted to rein in the uncontrolled squatting on land. Quick off the mark, the brothers submitted the very first application for a license:

    …your Memorialists are possessed of a considerable number of horned cattle as their joint stock which for some time…are depasturing at a place called ‘Benial’ on the Namoi River…your Memorialists acting in conformity with the meaning of an Act of the Legislative Council for the encroachment on the Waster Lands of the Colony will not be permitted to graze their cattle on the Waste Lands unless {they} obtain a License from the Government…Your Memorialists therefore most respectfully solicit that Your Excellency will be pleased to grant them a License to Depasture their cattle at ‘Benial’ …and are in duty bound will forever pray &c, &c, &c.
    Richmond Sept 16 1836

    They travelled there by foot and horseback, with a horse- or bullock-drawn cart to carry essential supplies and equipment. It was a journey of around two months.

    There were plenty of dangers: accidents on the rough bush tracks; deadly snake or spider bites; heatstroke from the burning summer sun; encounters with Aboriginal people, if unfriendly; and bushrangers, who were known to rob travelers in these lonely parts.


    For Mary, these were long weeks of worry, combined with the unceasing work of family and farm, until the menfolk returned. She’d have no news of their progress: she had to be patient, counting the days until they got home.

    She’d never forget the time when sons Abe and Jim, with childhood friend John Griffiths, came to grief while droving cattle. The young men had been north of Walgett, in territory mostly unexplored by white people. It was a drought year and the sun had baked the parched earth to a dry crust. When their precious water supply ran low, Abe and John went to find the Narran River, which they knew flowed nearby, but they lost their way.

    After two days and nights without water, John could go no further and Abe left him in a marked place, limping on alone. Abe was later found nearly unconscious by a Kamilaroi man, whose kindness and quick action saved his life. They never found John’s body.

    The younger men related all this on their return. Abe grieved the loss of his childhood friend for years and his mother must have shuddered when the story was told at family gatherings.

    Some of her sons’ adventures passed into family legend, such as Abe’s oft-repeated comment that after Queensland became a colony in the 1850’s, he could light his pipe with one foot in Queensland and the other in NSW.

    Yet the dangers of the bush remained. Each time she bid her husband and sons farewell, she had to hope they would return to her, alive and unharmed. If an accident or illness occurred there was no help there: they had to rely on their own resources. She had to trust they could find their way out of any difficulties they encountered.

    Her sister-in-law Sarah was someone with whom she could share her worries, because unlike Mary, Sarah had joined her husband on those long treks to Bulga, and later to the Namoi.  She was a source of information about the frontier life and its hardships, especially for a woman, travelling and living in isolated places with only the menfolk and children for company. What fortitude and spirit! Of course, such physical hardship and isolation was not for everyone. Mary may have admired Sarah’s courage; she may also have been grateful to remain at home in the relative safety of the Hawkesbury while Robert travelled away from her.

    During the 1830’s and 40’s Mary saw her husband relentlessly pursue more land, submitting applications for grants, buying, leasing and selling acreage. It was a kind of fever, this push to add more territory, always moving outwards. In a world where nothing was certain and disaster could strike at any moment, land seemed the only solid thing that could be relied upon.

    She transferred to him the title of the grant at Westmead made to her on behalf of her late father. They named it ‘Eather’s Retreat’ though they never lived there. It joined the growing collection of Eather properties around the colony.

    Eather and Kamilaroi: Connected Stories

    I have written elsewhere about the necessity and difficulty of discovering all sides of our ancestors’ lives – the dark and the light – if we want to know their stories in full.

    This is where I come to a difficult part of the Eather history: their interactions with First Nations people on the lands they explored and lived on. Here are my thoughts :

    It is impossible to tell the story of the Eathers in Australia without also telling the story of the First Australians on whose lands the Eathers settled and farmed.

    Robert and his brothers were on a constant mission to acquire land. To them, the rich black soil country of the Liverpool Plains was untamed land, ready for occupation and livestock.

    For the Kamilaroi people, that land was heritage, livelihood, and spiritual home. It became clear that the white strangers would not be leaving: they were there to stay. How could the Kamilaroi survive when access to everything they needed was blocked by the white men’s fences and guns?

    News of continued conflict between white settlers and Aboriginal people reached into all corners of the colony. Attacks by Kamilaroi on cattle, fences, huts and sometimes, settlers, their employees and families, resulted in bloody reprisals across the northwest: the land surrounding the Namoi River was littered with sites of violence and death in the 1830’s. 

    The most notorious was the slaughter of Wiriyaraay people of the Kamilaroi nation at Myall Creek in 1838, where people were murdered and the perpetrators made clumsy attempts to burn the corpses.

    This episode ignited heated discussion around kitchen tables, farm sheds and public bars, especially when seven of the white men involved were tried and hung the next year.

    There were settlers who were sympathetic to the situation of the Aboriginal people, and sickened by indiscriminate and bloody violence against them. When reports filtered back into townships that those killed at Myall Creek included infants, children and women, and involved decapitations and other mutilations, many people were disgusted.

    On the other hand, plenty were outraged at the trial result. Soon after the sentence of death was pronounced on the perpetrators at Myall Creek, two men came before the court on charges that they had abused and insulted the chairman of the jury which had found the attackers guilty, ‘for finding white men guilty for a lot of cannibals…’ They added that they ‘would have sat for a month before {they} would have found them guilty.’

    As debate raged about the rights and wrongs of the verdict and sentence, violence continued in and around the region where the Eathers were establishing their herds. In the settlements they passed through on their journeys from the Hawkesbury they would hear about the latest events.

    Whatever opinions they held; they were not merely bystanders. The settlers’ occupation of Aboriginal land was a  key reason for the conflict. Both Kamilaroi and settlers felt fear and anger as the attacks and reprisals continued with no end in sight. What was the solution?

    Much popular opinion held that God meant for Christians to use and ‘improve’ the land for production. Indeed, grants of land made by the colonial government brought with them conditions: to clear a proportion of the land, farm crops or livestock, build homes and infrastructure. Church leaders, clergy and missionaries felt an obligation to bring the Christian faith to native peoples. For these colonists, Aboriginal resistance to such God-given tasks could not be tolerated.

    The Eathers were living according to the colonial government’s directions: marrying, having large families to become loyal British citizens, taking up land, contributing to the wealth of the Empire.

    Whether they participated in, deplored, or approved of the violence against Aboriginal people, they certainly lived through the frontier wars. They were not immune to news of successive waves of violence, because the conflict was at its height in the decades when they were among the settlers pushing further into new territories.

    Up along the Namoi, Robert leased a run called ‘Muggarie’ while Thomas established neighbouring ‘Henriendi.‘ Both properties were located just east of Sir John Jamison’s ‘Baan Baa’ station. Here they grazed sheep, cattle and horses.

    Location of property ‘Baan Baa’ on Namoi River, Liverpool Plains district, just north of Boggabri.
    The Eather runs ‘Henriendi’ and ‘Muggarie’ were just to the east of there .

    Source: Google Maps

    Where the settlers fenced, cleared and built, conflict with Kamilaroi erupted. Attacks on settlers were followed by bloody reprisals throughout the 1830s, including at ‘Baan Baa’ and nearby Barber’s Lagoon.

    Both Eather runs were situated between sites where violence erupted between Kamilaroi and settlers. Newspapers were full of reports of events, sometimes urging restraint and at others, demanding punishment of Kamilaroi as a deterrence. Each fresh outbreak sparked heated discussion amongst settlers as to what should be done. Whether or not the Eather men took part in reprisals, they must have known what was happening and had their own views about it.

    Eather family ties meant that several branches of the family worked and lived at various properties leased or owned by the brothers. Several of Thomas’s sons and their families, brother James, and cousin Samuel, all joined him at Henriendi in the 1860’s.

    It was certainly ‘frontier territory’ with the rough living and danger of most frontiers. One of the Eather sons was involved in a search for bushrangers who held up the Walgett mail coach in 1864. An infamous bushranger, Captain Thunderbolt (who like the Eathers, hailed originally from the Hawkesbury) roamed the Liverpool Plains in the 1860’s robbing coaches and inns, though family stories and local news sources maintained that Thomas’s son Charles was a friend of Thunderbolt’s and for that reason, Henriendi station was safe.


    Charles amassed many acres of land to graze sheep or cattle. But in the 1870s and 80s the ‘boom and bust’ cycles of rain and drought, plus the vagaries of wool pricing, saw him struggle financially. Parts of Henriendi were put on the market. Charles was declared bankrupt in 1884 and Henriendi subdivided fifteen years later.

    Thomas and Sarah continued to make many trips to and from the Hawkesbury. They both died there and were buried at St Peter’s church in Richmond, but they left behind many Eather descendants in the Liverpool Plains region.

    Home in the Hawkesbury

    Meanwhile, by the 1840s Robert’s family had moved across the Hawkesbury River to the hills outside North Richmond. He purchased 170 acres of land in an area bordered by present-day Gadds Lane, Slopes Road and Kurmond Road.

    The district was called ‘Sally Bottoms,’ named for the sally wattle trees that proliferated there; later the name changed to Tennyson. It was beautiful farming country of gentle slopes and meandering streams. They built a house and planted an orchard. Citrus and stone fruits grew well, along with grains and hay for stock feed, melons and vegetables such as turnips.

    Robert and Mary Eather purchased land at Sally’s Bottoms, today known as Tennyson, shown in the area outlined in red on this extract from Historic Land Records viewer, Book 102.
    The screenshot from Google Maps (below) shows the location today (near Gadd’s lane)

    Here is where we leave Robert and Mary for the time being. Their story will be continued in another chapter of Travels with my Ancestors.
    You can subscribe to this blog to receive updates on new posts by the link on the left hand side of the page.

    Thank you for reading!

  • History,  Travel

    Travels with my Ancestors #10: The Eastenders – William Eaton and Jane Lloyd Ison

    This is the tenth in the Travels with my Ancestors series. You may wish to read the first post for context. You can find it here.

    I’m in London, the final week of my Travel with my Ancestors journey. I’m heading away from the usual tourist haunts and grand palaces to the East End. In mediaeval times this area lay outside the city gates. It was home to successive waves of immigrants: Huguenots (Protestants) fleeing persecution in France in the late 1600’s who brought their silk weaving skills with them; Irish linen weavers; construction and dock workers; Jews escaping pogroms in Poland and Russia.

    During WWII London suffered greatly during the Blitz, and the East End and the docklands south along the Thames were among the most heavily bombed districts.

    Post war recovery was slow, with poverty, poor health and high crime rates. In more recent years, urban revival and new building projects have changed the face of the East End. A youthful, edgy and creative vibe attracts shoppers, foodies and music lovers.

    I’m here to explore where my 4 x great grandparents originated. They were William Eaton and Jane Lloyd Ison, and they lived in and around Bethnal Green and Spitalfields in the late 1700’s.

    The tale of a cheese

    William was born around 1769 and baptised in February that year at St Mathew’s church, Bethnal Green. I don’t know what his family situation was when he was a youngster. In later years he might well have admitted that the mistake he made when he was nineteen was the biggest of his life. He had tried to make away with a round of Cheshire cheese – which he dropped in full view of its owner. Of course, he was arrested, tried at the Old Bailey Court in 1788 and received a sentence of seven years transportation to NSW for his trouble – and no cheese.

    He was sent on a Third Fleet ship, the Admiral Barrington, sailing into Sydney in the winter of 1791.

    He did well after his arrival and in 1804 was granted fifty acres of Dharug land in the Nepean district. He called the property Eatonville; it lay on the banks of the Grose, not far from where the Nepean and Grose rivers meet at Yarramundi.

    In 1800 he married Jane Ison, whose story is a darker and more complicated one.

    A darker tale

    I find the church where Jane had been baptised in 1770: Spitalfield’s Christ Church. It’s an imposing building of smooth dressed stonework and graceful white columns. I imagine her parents, James and Eleanor, holding baby Jane at the baptismal font. What were their hopes for their little girl? Her father had a trade, either gunsmith and/or shoemaker, which meant he could offer his family a better life than some in the East End, but they were not comfortably off. What lay in store for Jane?

    She grew up amid the smells and sounds of Spitalfields. The Victorian era market building, now a popular spot for bargain hunters and hipster vintage lovers, stands on the site of the original thirteenth century East London marketplace, which would have housed stalls selling everything from live poultry to baked goods, flowers and sides of beef.

    Jane was not yet fifteen when she married Edward Jaggers. Her account of her first husband’s fate was vague: as she told it, she was widowed very young. Trying to make a living in the crowded city, young, inexperienced and unskilled, her options were limited: enter domestic service if she could find a position, sell her body, become a pickpocket on the streets, or join a criminal gang.

    She chose the last option and nearly lost her life as a result.

    By December 1792, she was in a crowded cell at Newgate Gaol ready to face trial at the Old Bailey, along with four other women. Any relief she may have felt at leaving the dirty, dangerous gaol vanished once she was in the court room, standing in the dock. In this daunting, unfamiliar place, surrounded by men wearing frockcoats or dark gowns and white wigs, she heard the charges against her and her companions read out.

    Their accuser, a Welsh drover named William Ellis, described what had happened to him. According to Ellis, Jane and several female accomplices had lured him to a house in Sharpe’s Alley, where he went upstairs on the promise of sex with one of the women for the price of sixpence.

    This alley no longer exists; but I know that it ran off Cowcross Street, which does still stand. The landscape is vastly different from Jane’s time: there are now clean paved streets, traffic signs and coffee shops. A few local names give a nod to how it looked back in the late eighteenth century, full of (mostly illegal) gin houses, the area known as a ‘rookery’ (a term used to indicate places known for prostitutes and criminal gangs: places where ‘respectable’ folk would not venture.)

    Once he was on the bed, two of the women took his purse and watch, when one of them (possibly Jane) bit him on the hand as he tried to struggle. After his assailants had run off, he made his way down to the street, ‘very much frightened’, and reported the assault and theft to the nightwatchman, who was next to testify.

    While the women escaped, they were identified and arrested a day or so later. And so Jane and her accomplices faced the court in December 1792. Several of them tried to lay blame on the others, protesting their innocence, but the evidence against them was damning.

    I know that the Old Bailey court is no longer the same building as the one the women were tried in, but I still want to see where it all happened, so my next stop is to the Central Criminal Court building on Old Bailey Street, in the City.

    The building that stood here in the 1700’s was a crowded and cramped place, with a passageway from Newgate Gaol around the corner, allowing easier access to bring prisoners from their gaol cell to the dock. Newgate is no longer there, and I’m certain that the many thousands of prisoners who languished there along with the rats, fleas and lice, would not regret its loss.


    Because the charges against the women involved violent assault as well as robbery, and stolen property worth well over £31, they must have known that if they were found guilty that day, their sentences would be harsh.

    Even so, nothing could have prepared them for hearing the ‘guilty’ verdict from the jury for all but one of the five; followed immediately by the sight of the judge placing the dreaded black cloth over his wig and solemnly pronouncing a sentence of death for the four guilty parties—Jane included.

    She was twenty-two years old.

    The four women were returned to the teeming gaol cells. It seemed that the only way out would be via the gallows. Jane could not claim pregnancy, the most common plea for mercy by women. Would she be hung at the public gallows just outside the gaol, for all to come and gawk as she took her last breath? Perhaps she’d hear the execution bell toll its mournful warning on the night before her execution. How long would it take for her to die once the trapdoor was released beneath her by the hangman? Would she disgrace herself or die with dignity? These thoughts preoccupied all those facing the death sentence.

    Three months after the trial, she heard that she and her accomplices had been granted mercy. They were not to be hung after all, but rather transported ‘to the eastern coast of NSW for the term of their natural lives.’ Relief and trepidation were mixed as she contemplated the meaning of this new sentence.

    In February 1794, she was put aboard the Surprize, anchored on the Thames at Blackfriars Bridge. For nearly two months the business of provisioning the ship went on, while the convicts accustomed themselves to the routines of shipboard life. They set sail in May. Her three partners in crime sailed along with her; whether they wanted to speak to each other after all the accusations they’d hurled during their trial was another matter.

    The Surprize docked at Port Jackson in October, a time of warm spring sunshine and cooling sea breezes in the upside-down seasons of the place.

    Her fortunes took a turn for the better when she met William Eaton, already three years into his sentence. Sydney Town was a small settlement and the two met there; a daughter arrived in May 1800, and three months later the couple were married at St Phillips’ church, on the same day as their baby was baptised. As convicts, they did not have the luxury of choosing the date and circumstances of such major life occasions.

    William and Jane had seven children together and lived at Eatonville at Yarramundi where William established a productive farm on his land grant, growing wheat, barley, fruit and vegetables: all essential produce to feed the infant colony. He also had two horses (costly and sought after animals), cattle and hogs, two convicts working for him, and he kept his family off the government stores—quite an achievement for someone born and raised in the crowded poverty of eastern London.

    In 1823 he was widowed, still with young children. A year later he married another Jane. He shared sixteen years with her at Eatonville until her death in 1840. The two Janes were buried in the same vault at St Peters’ Richmond, where William himself was buried in 1858 at the very grand age of ninety years.

    That’s the story of William and Jane, and my search for their beginnings in the seedier parts of eighteenth century London. I find myself wondering: if I could meet them (assuming time travel is a thing) would I like them?

    Possibly. William’s crime seems so quirky, even amusing (and I confess to a little sympathy with his evident clumsiness in dropping that cheese!)

    Jane, I am not so sure about. She was a young woman of her time and place in history; perhaps neither especially good nor especially bad, although a little of my sympathy here also lies with the gormless Welsh drover, who was clearly thinking with a part of his anatomy other than his brain, when he agreed to give Jane or her accomplice sixpence for sex and go upstairs with them.

    I am glad to have found some of the places of significance for these people, my 4 x great-grandparents: these Eastenders.

    All photos by author.
    Thank you for reading. If you’d like to read more Travels with my Ancestors, you can subscribe to my blog.

  • History,  Travel

    Travels with my Ancestors #9: A question of ‘why’?

    This is the ninth in the Travels with my Ancestors series. You may wish to read the first post for context. You can find it here.

    Around 1841, a newly married couple arrived at the port of Launceston in Tasmania’s north. They were Charles Littler and Ann (or Anne) Summers. They are my 3 x great-grandparents on my mother’s side. They left behind their families, home and community in Essex, England, and voyaged to a small island at the bottom of the world, perched between the Southern and Indian Oceans.

    What did they know of Van Diemen’s Land, as it was then called? Why had they chosen this place as their new home? And how did they, and later generations of Littlers, fare in Australia?

    Both Charles and Ann came from the town of Waltham Abbey, Essex, which had been the home of Littlers since the mid-1700s. My visit to this place, just north of London, is necessarily brief, but my aim is to visit the church from which it got its name, and to walk around the town itself.

    There has been a church on the same site here for fourteen centuries. The current building has a tower built in the reign of Mary Tudor. I know that both Charles and Ann were baptised here, in the early 1800’s.

    Its main claim to fame is that the legendary king Harold prayed there in 1066, just before his ride south to Hastings to battle Duke William of Normandy for the English throne. Harold died in the battle (the ‘arrow through the eye’ of Bayeaux Tapestry fame) and the story is that his mistress ordered his body to be brought back to Waltham Abbey for burial in the grounds. No one knows exactly where, but there is a marker on the grassy ground outside the church and a statue of Harold carved into the stone of the building.

    Charles came from a family of some means. His father William had taken advantage of the silk weaving industry that had sprung up in Essex and owned a silk printing factory in the centre of town, earning enough to support his wife Elizabeth and huge family of eighteen (including three sets of twins.) As was common at the time, the couple lost three children to illness.

    However, life, family and business continued, and as the Littler sons reached adulthood, their father turned his printing business into a partnership with Charles and his eldest brother Edmund. They were comfortably middle class; the continued prosperity of the Littler family seemed assured.

    Ann, on the other hand, came from a rather different family background. Rather than a successful businessman, her father Michael Summers was a labourer, working at the Royal Gunpowder Mills, a major employer in the area. Before her marriage to Charles, Ann also worked there. Her family lived at Crooked Mile, a road leading north from the town. I venture up that road but there is little of historical interest evident now.

    The Gunpowder Mill, however, is a heritage site with a history of over three hundred years of production. No doubt it contributed much to the bloody and brutal business of empire building in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

    Workers at the mills were proud that their labour supplied the gunpowder that contributed to Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar and Wellington’s defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo. They operated under strict rules, working slowly and carefully to avoid accidents, which could be fatal. Even the powder boats, pulled by a man rather than a horse along the system of canals through the site, contributed to safety, as the waterways were a smoother ride than horse and cart for such highly explosive materials. The finished product was taken by barge to the arsenals at Woolwich or Purfleet on the Thames.

    Ann and her father may have worked in one of the press houses where the gunpowder was made, following the ancient recipe incorporating charcoal, saltpeter and sulphur. At the end of a working day, they would find it hard to rid their hands and clothes of the pungent odour of the explosive they helped create.

    There is no sign of the Littler’s silk production and printing factory now. The town feels a little run down to me, and I note shabby shops rubbing shoulders with quirky Tudor and Georgian or Victorian era buildings. It’s a pleasant stroll, though, and the question on my mind is why Charles and Ann decided to emigrate to Australia?

    Interior of St Martins in the Fields, London

    The answer might lie in events that unfolded a year before Charles and Ann married in 1838, which did not take place in their parish church of Waltham Abbey (because it was apparently undergoing some repair work) but at the rather grander St Martins in the Fields at Trafalger Square in London.

    In January 1837, his father William summoned his solicitor to prepare his will, and to dissolve the business partnership with his sons. Three days later he was dead. The outlook for the Littler family was now more complicated.

    Almost immediately after their wedding, Charles and Ann embarked on their momentous voyage to Australia, arriving first at the port of Adelaide, then continuing to Van Diemen’s Land.

    Ann’s trepidation about beginning married life aboard a ship full of emigrants, not to mention leaving behind her pretty town, her job, and her family, was mixed with excitement. For a young woman, the prospect was one of adventure, starting her new life with Charles on the other side of the world, far away from England with its old traditions and society’s expectations. But if Charles was acting from frustration or anger at the loss of his role in the family business, Ann may have felt differently.

    Either way, she had to prepare for a long voyage, followed by a period of adjustment and learning. If pressed, she was unlikely to have been able to point to Van Diemen’s Land on a globe. It looked to be at the bottom of the world. One thing she would have realised was that, once they stepped aboard the Henry Porcher, life would never be the same again.

    On the long voyage from England, Charley (as he was known) took on the role of assistant to the ship’s surgeon, probably as a volunteer. Emigrants were required to perform duties on a roster system throughout a voyage, and he chose to work in the ship’s small hospital space.

    The surgeon had responsibility for the well-being of all crew and passengers. He treated ailments, tried to prevent shipboard illnesses such as scurvy, delivered (and sometimes christened) babies, carried out a funeral at sea if a passenger died, arranged activities for passengers, and supervised dietary matters. Charley would assist where he could. This experience was to stand him in very good stead once he arrived in the colony.

    The Henry Porcher docked at Adelaide first, but the Littlers’ journey ended at Launceston, in the northeast of Van Diemen’s Land, on the traditional lands of the Pyemmairrener people. They were to spend the rest of their lives there.

    Charley’s work in the Henry Porcher’s shipboard hospital resulted in a recommendation for both he and Ann to be employed in newly vacated positions at the Female Factory: he as Gatekeeper and Ann as sub-Matron. The Factory was one of a number of barracks built to house women convicts, where prisoners lived and worked until they were assigned as free labour.

    Neither had any experience related to the jobs they’d be taking on. Being regarded as a decent respectable fellow (as he was described in the letter of recommendation) was all he needed. His middle -class background was an asset here, though he and Ann may have been unprepared for the environment in which they were to live and work for the next few years.

    Their time there was not without scandal and controversy: a whole other story which I may continue later.

    For now, I leave Waltham Abbey with my question of why? unanswered. I can’t say for certain what drove my mother’s great-great-grandparents to leave Waltham Abbey for a life in a penal colony ‘Down Under.’ But I do feel happy to have visited the place where their life together began.

    Thanks for reading. You can follow my Travels with my Ancestors by subscribing to this blog.
    All photos by the author.

  • History,  Travel

    Travels with my Ancestors #8: From the Fenlands – the Robinson family

    This is the eighth in the Travels with my Ancestors series. You may wish to read the first post for context. You can find it here.

    When Hardy Robinson disembarked from the immigrant ship Irene in the Australian spring of 1852, he carried with him a new baby daughter, some luggage, and his tattered hopes for life in a new country. Accompanying him were his other two children, Harvey aged five and Elizabeth, three. The children looked confused and overwhelmed by the events that had overtaken them. Hardy looked exhausted and deeply troubled.

    What had happened to this little family between embarkation in England and arrival in Australia? Some tragedy had struck, destroying the vision that had propelled them to emigrate.

    My father rarely spoke of his father’s background, and once (in his later years, when his memory was fading fast) told me that he thought his paternal grandmother was German as ‘she had a sort of German-sounding accent.’ Imagine my surprise when I discovered that Elizabeth Robinson, my great-grandmother, was in fact from Lincolnshire, in England’s east midlands.

    This is how Lincolnshire came to be included in the Travels with my Ancestors itinerary.

    I’ve explored the city of Lincoln in the county’s north, with its incredible history and castle, medieval canal and cathedral. Now I’m heading south, to Sleaford and the cluster of smaller villages from where the Robinson family originated.

    Much of southern Lincolnshire is flat, marshy land. Incredibly green to Australian eyes, dotted with black faced sheep and small hamlets, the fenlands were first drained back in the 1600’s during the reign of Charles I. Today it is rich farmland, though prone to flooding.

    Leading up to the fateful journey as assisted immigrants, Hardy (my 2 x great-grandfather) had worked as an agricultural labourer around the village of Helpringham, in this fenland country.

    All his life he’d been surrounded by the smell of the marshes and the lush green fields of the fens, where the heavy soil produced crops of wheat, oats, beans, barley and potatoes. Now, as he stepped off the ship at Newcastle in the colony of New South Wales, he wondered if he would ever experience the sights and scents of his homeland again.

    Before my own journey of exploration, I had spent a day at the State Library of NSW, poring over the journal of the ship’s surgeon on the Irene. I knew that Hardy’s wife, Mary, had boarded the vessel with her husband and children. I also knew that she did not disembark with them on arrival. I was searching for clues as to why.

    I had initially assumed that Mary gave birth to her baby, little Hannah, on the voyage – a horrifying scenario given the cramped and unhygienic conditions of shipboard life at the time. What I found in the surgeon’s journal suggested otherwise.

    In the nineteenth century, the ship’s surgeon was responsible for the health and wellbeing of all on board. He assigned chores, facilitated daily activities for adults and lessons for children to reduce boredom, oversaw cleaning routines and the allocation of rations. Of course, there were also medical problems to contend with, ranging from childbirth to digestive problems, injuries, infections.

    At that time, dark beer such as porter was considered a healthful way to support the production of breastmilk. Surgeon Willmott ordered each nursing mother to be allocated 1/2 pint twice daily. I found Mary’s name on the list of nursing mothers at the beginning of the voyage. So, Mary did not die in childbirth as I had thought. I examined the journal, day by day, to discover what had killed her.

    Every surgeon dreaded the first sign of a communicable disease such as typhus, smallpox or scarlet fever. What surgeon Willmott had to contend with was measles.

    On day two of the Irene’s voyage, the first case was reported: the sister of a woman who had left the ship before they sailed, after breaking out in the tell-tale rash and fever. Over the next weeks, the disease spread at a steady rate. Some sufferers were sent to the ship’s ‘hospital’ (usually a curtained or boarded section of deck with bunks for people needing care), while some remained in their own berths. Given the highly infectious nature of the disease, it was no surprise that cases multiplied.

    Willmott took his duties seriously and did all he could to prevent the spread of the disease as well as to minimise infection and discomfort from other causes. Despite this there was a great deal of illness on board, and he had to perform another duty, that of carrying out the burial rites when someone had died, before they were ‘buried at sea’ – essentially, wrapped in a shroud and tipped overboard. Altogether, thirty-four passengers lost their lives: not uncommon at this time.

    Mary held out against measles, scurvy or diarrhoea, all of which affected many of her fellow passengers. Until just two weeks before making landfall at NSW, when the Surgeon’s journal noted:
    Wednesday, 29 September Buried Mary Robinson at 8 am.

    My guess is that she contracted measles, but I can’t be sure.

    Poor Mary. To die so close to their destination, knowing she was leaving her husband, newborn daughter and two other little ones to make their new home without her. It’s such a tragic scenario but one which played out all too often. These people took such risks in coming to Australia. There had to be compelling reasons to uproot themselves and venture forth on such an uncertain adventure.

    With all this in mind, I begin my Lincolnshire exploration in Helpringham, where Hardy had been born in 1819. There had been Robinsons in Helpringham and Sleaford, about ten kilometers north, for at least a century and a half. His great-grandparents and their grandparents before them had all been born and raised in that part of the county. His grandparents Robert and Mary had run a coaching inn there, the Willoughby Arms, in the late 1700’s. The churchyard at St Andrew’s in Helpringham held many Robinson graves. I can assume Hardy was baptised there.

    Next stop is Great Hale along with its smaller sister, Little Hale, just north. This is where Mary was born and grew up, and where she and Hardy married in 1847, at the Hale Magna Church of St John the Baptist. The church stands on the site of an Anglo-Saxon cemetery from the seventh century and has the typical square Norman tower, with features and chapels added over successive centuries.

    As I walk through the door where Hardy and Mary entered on their wedding day, I’m sure that neither of them could have imagined that just four and a half years later, Mary would be dead.

    The other thing I notice is a quote in the church guide booklet. The Vestry Book in 1663, refers to the excommunication of several people from the parish, for their constant contempt of the laws, commands and constitution of the Church of England…
    It goes on to exhort members of the parish to refrain from any commerce and conversation with them of any of them or theirs by lying, following, eating, drinking or talking with any of them…until they lawfully go ask that formal absolution in their behalf… {Brief notes on the Hale Magna Church 2021}

    These individuals and their families were being sent to Coventry, completely expunged from the social and spiritual life of the community.

    It is harsh, but we should remember that it was after the English Reformation when profound religious differences divided communities, and the turmoil of the Civil War was a very recent memory. Indeed, a crucial battle in the Civil War, won by Parliamentarians against Royalist forces, took place at Gainsborough in Lincolnshire. All of these events left an intense need for conformity to the religious and social standards of the day.

    This is of interest to me because in later years, there is a distinct pattern of ‘non-conformity’ of religion in the Robinson family. Methodism and Wesleyanism gained a strong following in Lincolnshire in the late 1700’s and Hardy Robinson and his children were Wesleyans before and after their emigration. Today these religious differences are hardly worth a comment, but in previous centuries they affected many aspects of life, not just how you worshipped.

    Indeed, all my visits to various churches on my Travels with Ancestors have brought home to me the central role that religion played in the daily lives of everyone from the monarch, bishops and nobles to tradespeople, shopkeepers, farmers and labourers. The annual calendar revolved around church festivals and celebrations, along with seasonal ones like harvest time. The main records kept of the life events of ordinary folk were those of baptism, marriage, and burial, to be found in the parish church. It was the church that was largely responsible for the distribution of ‘poor relief’ and aid to its community. Government had a much smaller role in everyday life then; the church a much larger one.

    The county town of Sleaford is another place of note in the Robinson family tree, with my 5 x great-grandfather Abraham Robinson being baptised there in 1713. It has a grand church, St Denys, and today is a comfortable and prosperous looking town of Georgian and red-bricked Victorian buildings, a busy high street and a canal through its centre, a feature that I imagine is a common one in this marshy fen territory.

    I leave Lincolnshire content to have walked in some of the Robinson footsteps from long ago.

    And what of Hardy and his family in NSW?

    Six months after their arrival, baby daughter Hannah died. Hardy must have felt like packing up his sad little family and returning to Lincolnshire, but that was beyond their means, having arrived as assisted immigrants. They settled in the Hunter Valley and Hardy found work. He remarried twice over, so his life was again marred by death of a spouse. He lived until 1900 when he died at the good age of eighty-one.

    His daughter, Elizabeth, married Beadon Newton (my great-grandfather), so uniting those two families.

    I wonder what my father would have said to the news that his grandmother was from the Lincolnshire fens, not from Germany. I imagine he may have given a wry smile at his mistake.

    Thanks for reading. You can follow Travels with my Ancestors by subscribing to this blog.
    All photos by the author.

  • History,  Travel

    Travels with my Ancestors #7: From where the fleets sailed

    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.

    It reads:
    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.

    Thanks for reading. You can follow my Travels with my Ancestors by subscribing to this blog.
    All photos by the author.

  • History,  Travel

    Travels with my Ancestors #6: Kick-ass Jane-The Longhurst and Roberts families

    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.

    The road to Ewhurst

    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.

  • History,  Travel

    Travels with my Ancestors # 5: Kentish men and women – The Heather / Eather family

    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.’

  • History,  Travel

    Travels with My Ancestors #4: People of the West Country – the Newtons

    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.

    Bath Abbey
Photo by author
    Beautiful Bath Abbey

    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.

    Village Life

    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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  • History,  Travel

    Travels with my ancestors 3: Elizabeth Lee – Lancashire Lass

    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.

    Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, April 2023. Photo by author.

    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.

    Gateway to Lancaster Castle, May 2023. Photo by author

    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.


    Elizabeth’s story will continue in later Travels With My Ancestors posts.

    [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

  • Life: bits and pieces,  Travel

    Travels with my mother XVI: Last Things

    This is the sixteenth in my series called Travels with my Mother. If you’ve not read the first in the series, you might wish to have a look at that one as it gives the context behind these posts.

    Some of my mother’s ‘travel stories’, of imagined trips or holidays, bring to mind actual experiences we have enjoyed together over the years.

    Our parents were not especially adventurous but when it came to connecting with their daughters, they went all out. They’d travel to wherever we were: Canberra in the very early 70’s when my sister went to university there; a hippie community in northern NSW where my middle sister lived for a time; the USA and Canada when I was an exchange student. When I lived on a remote island in the Torres Strait, they began making plans to visit, though I’d returned to NSW before that could happen.

    When my son and nephew were young, my two sisters and our parents would take them to Port Macquarie for a week or two each summer. They were wonderful holidays of mornings at the beach, afternoon teas at bangalow-fringed cafes, Grandpa fishing or kite flying with the kids, and nights spent reading or playing rowdy games of Canasta.

    As our parents’ mobility and health began to decline, those glorious weeks were replaced by weekends, somewhere closer where we could still meet up and enjoy a seaside break. We’d lost one of our family by then to cancer, but those shorter holidays were still enjoyable, even if long beach walks were replaced by short strolls through town or a drive to a sightseeing spot.

    Then Dad passed away and the closest we got to family holidays was a weekend with Mum at Kiama and another quick trip, to Canberra, a year later.

    In 2009 when I was recovering from illness, they made frequent trips to provide support, company and practical help. Mum was eighty and Dad eighty four and they were in the final years of having their driver’s licenses.

    After they’d both given up those licenses, their trips were chauffeured by family or in a taxi. Excursions became more functional: shopping, banking, doctors; but there were still occasional visits and celebrations with family for birthdays and Christmas.

    Reflecting on those times, it strikes me that we usually don’t know when we are experiencing the last of a particular event. I’d no idea that the weekend at Kiama would be the last time Mum would enjoy a visit to the seaside. Or that Christmas last year would be the final time Mum would be able to visit my home. When was the last time we enjoyed a movie at the cinema? I think it was at little Glenbrook Cinema, watching Their Finest Hour. And our last celebratory restaurant dinner together was for Mum’s 89th birthday.

    Those memories are now bittersweet, knowing that they are the last times we did those things. Mum’s world has been reduced to her nursing home and Covid-19 has shrunk it further, as I’m not able to take her out in the wheelchair to her favourite local cafe.

    I do hope that we have not yet had our last cappuccino together.

    All this is to say: treasure those precious moments and experiences with the people you love. We can never know if there will be another. And memories of special times can form a cherished album that we keep within our minds and hearts, full of those last things.

    Images by Miriam Fischer & Nastya Sensei at pexels