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.

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All photos by the author.

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