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.
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.
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