Travels with my Ancestors #13: Thomas Eather, Kentish man & Elizabeth Lee, Lancashire lass: pt 2
October 16, 2023
This is the continuing story of my 4 x great-grandparents, Thomas Eather and Elizabeth Lee, who arrived in Australia on convict transport ships in the Second and Third Fleets respectively.
You can read part one of their story here. This chapter finds them in the valley of the Dyarubbin, or Hawkesbury River, in NSW.
Thomas and Elizabeth moved to take up their land grant in the Hawkesbury area just a few years after the first British had ventured there. Many of those who’d first taken land along the river did so without official permission. Tales of the enormous promise of the district were told in Sydney and Parramatta, and convicts who’d served their time rushed to the new ‘land of plenty.’ As they spread further north, fencing land, clearing vines and casuarinas from the river banks, and trampling the native yams into the mud, the newcomers threatened the very existence of the Boorooberongal people of the Dharug nation, who had made the river land their home for thousands of years. They began to resist, waging armed warfare from 1799 to 1805.
Attacks on lonely cottages and farms were met with violent retaliation from settlers and authorities. Stories about these pitched battles made their way back to the Eathers and their neighbours in the more closely settled areas around Green Hills, later called Windsor. They had weathered so much already: now they were confronted by the risks of this frontier existence.
Their allotment was thirty acres at Mulgrave Place, near where the wandering Rickaby’s Creek joined the Dyarubbin. It had to be cleared, ploughed and sown, just like the farms at Parramatta. They needed somewhere to live: together they built a wattle and daub hut as their new home, with a bare earth floor and window shutters fashioned of woven sticks.
Life for most settlers around the Green Hills and beyond relied on self-sufficiency. There was little in the way of official control or help. There was no constable until 1796, no reverend to conduct worship, marriages or baptisms, and the soldiers sent in 1795 were there to punish the Boorooberongal, not impose order on settlers, who liked to drink, socialise, and avoid rules and regulations wherever they could.
For many convict farmers, being out of the gaze of officials was a boon, even though they had to work hard to establish themselves. The air was fresh and clean, the river flats productive, their labour their own.
The Eathers had help from a convict assigned to them: a strange turnaround of fortune and status. Three years after they took up the land, they’d planted half of it with wheat and maize, and within two years they’d produced ten bushels of maize and purchased four hogs.
They could watch with pleasure as the ears of maize ripened, and the kernels on the sheaves of wheat became plump and golden. The hogs snuffled in contentment in their pen, eating whatever the family did not use. They had become self-sufficient in what they produced: off government stores for the adults, if not the children—an achievement to be proud of.
In 1800 twin boys arrived, named Charles and Thomas. By now Elizabeth was accustomed to the isolation of her new home, with few women for companionship. She had twin babies to care for, and toddler Charlotte around her feet. Ann and Robert, the older children, would quickly learn to help with the smaller ones and chores in the house and on the farm. The work was constant and tiring: keeping the cottage clean, fetching water from the creek, washing clothes and bedding by hand, baking bread or damper, cooking meals, feeding the babies, and hoeing, weeding, watering crops.
She may have had occasional, snatched moments of rest, to observe the subtle change of seasons in this new land—so different to the Lancashire frosts and damp summers of her youth—or listen to the unfamiliar calls of the wild birds that lived in the trees around their hut.
Through all the hard work ran a seam of contentment and perhaps, a nagging fear that it could all be taken away in an instant.
Still, Elizabeth had served her sentence by 1797 and 1802 brought another landmark: Thomas received an Absolute Pardon after completing his fourteen years of servitude.
He could not return to England, but why would he want to? He and his wife must have sometimes longed to revisit familiar places and faces from their homelands. But they were finally free of convict shackles. They had land to farm, a home, and a healthy family. Their futures, that had once looked so grim, now beckoned with promise.
Along with that promise, the challenges continued. Accustomed to the wetter, cooler English climate, they had to adjust to the extremes of summer heat, and a drought in 1798. When rains did fall, they were often torrential downpours that felt and sounded as if God Himself had opened the sky. Then came floods in May 1799; followed by an even more shocking one the next year, and worse again the year after that. The river that gave them such fertile soil, could also sweep everything away.
‘Eather Farm’ near Rickaby’s creek was very low-lying and the floods destroyed crops and damaged their hut. The Boorooberongal had offered warnings to settlers about the river’s moods and dangers, but for many, the plentiful crops that could be grown on the silty soil that the floods left behind, outweighed fear. In those last two floods, the waters rose to 15 and 12 metres, and most thought that they would be the last of such high flood levels, at least for many years.
Some settlers had become so discouraged or frightened that they moved away, back to Sydney or Parramatta. But the Eathers stayed. They built another cottage, on higher land overlooking the farm, hoping to avoid disaster when the river next burst its banks. When crops failed or were washed away by the river, the family had to go back on government stores, until they could produce enough themselves.
In 1806 rain once again lashed the district. Torrents fell from the sky and the river became a roaring, rushing creature, sweeping away all in its path. The floodwaters spread out across both Hawkesbury and Nepean plains, turning the valleys into a vast bathtub.
The Eathers fled their low-lying farm and took refuge on higher ground. During a long, terrifying night, they could hear voices crying out and the sharp echoes of musket fire, as frightened people, perched precariously on the roofs of houses and barns, signalled to the rescue boats that circled around the surging river.
The Eathers lost their pigs and many of their crops, and spent the rest of that year slowly recovering. In 1809 Thomas leased part of his land to Andrew Thompson, convict, settler, constable, and landowner. When floods struck again that year, at least this time he and Elizabeth did not have to bear all the losses.
Two more Eather sons and a daughter arrived between 1804 and 1811, completing the family of eight children. Unlike many settler couples, they did not suffer the grief of losing a child to injury or illness: all the youngsters grew into healthy adulthood. Their parents noticed how tall and bonny they were: the ‘currency lads and lasses,’ as those born in the colony became known, often outstripped their parents in height and sturdiness. The new environment was good for this next generation.
Thomas petitioned Governor Macquarie in June 1820 for a second land grant and was allocated fifty acres on the lowlands at Cornwallis, on the southern bank of the river just outside Windsor. Then he purchased a block in Windsor’s George Street in 1818*, while son Robert, now twenty-three, bought an adjoining allotment. They built a five-roomed house, adding two small cottages behind, which they rented out.
Their bright star continued to shine. They were now landlords in a growing, prosperous town, living in a comfortable home, while continuing to farm. They could attend Sunday worship in Windsor’s beautiful new St Mathews church, walk to the shops in town and visit family who lived nearby. They could stroll to the river and along its banks, to watch the constant activity of small open boats, canoes, and sloops across, up and down the river.
Their older children were marrying and having families of their own, so they now had grandchildren to enjoy. They’d reduced their farming commitments by the 1820’s, giving away or selling the original ‘Eather Farm’ at Rickaby’s Creek, and opening a store in Windsor.
A settler dies
In February 1827 Thomas made a will—perhaps prompted by premonition or ill health. Whatever his reason, it was timely, because just five weeks later he died, aged sixty-two. He was buried the next day in the grounds of St Mathews at Windsor. **
Elizabeth had lost her husband of over thirty-five years. She grieved his death, surrounded by their children and grandchildren. Thomas’ death left a gap in her life, but she did have the comfort of the close family they had made together. And his will meant that she was financially secure for the rest of her life. He had made provision for her in the best way he could:
I give and bequeath to my dearly beloved wife Elizabeth all those three…dwelling houses situate in George Street in the town of Windsor…together with all horned cattle, carts, ploughs, harrows and all other implements there unto belonging. Also all household furniture, good and effects which I may be possessed of at the time of my decease for and duringthe term of her natural life and by her not to be sold or alienated.
He had also provided for their children after his wife’s death. The three cottages on George Street were to be divided into separate living spaces, and bequeathed (along with farm implements, furniture, and livestock) to their two younger sons John and James, and four of their grandchildren.
The will was an expression of Thomas’ love for wife and family and his duty as husband, father, and provider. It was an achievement to be able to leave property and income to those he left behind—something his own father and grandfather back in Chislehurst had not been able to do. His sons and daughters could look with pride at what their parents had done since arriving here in chains.
Not all convict partnerships and marriages lasted; some couples paired in haste for practical reasons, and regretted their choice very soon afterwards. Elizabeth and Thomas’ relationship had lasted the distance. They had shared the difficulties of their years of convict servitude, the challenges of being among the earliest British settlers in the valley, and the traumas of successive floods.
If Elizabeth experienced loneliness in the coming years, she did not remarry. She stayed living in the George Street home, taking in boarders to earn extra income. Younger son John, who never married, continued to live with her and work the remaining farmland they owned. There were weddings to attend as grandchildren came of age, and great-grandbabies born.
The passing of a generation
As Elizabeth aged, she had need for more care and company. In her seventies or early eighties, she moved to Richmond to live with one of her children, either Thomas and his wife Sarah, or one of her daughters.
There, she looked her last on the valley that had been her home for nearly seventy years, marvelling at the changes she had witnessed there: from a small settlement at the place where the continent’s ancient history collided with its future, to a collection of growing towns and spreading farmland. Her own transformation was also remarkable: the frightened young servant girl and convict, alone in a strange land, had become a wife, farmer, mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother. She was leaving a large, loving family who would mourn her, but she could do so knowing that she had lived a good and productive life, here in the valley of the Dyarubbin.
She died at the grand age of eighty-nine on 11 June 1860, and was buried in the grounds of St Mathews church at Windsor, where her husband also lay.
 Flynn, Michael, The Second Fleet: Britain’s Grim Armada, p258
The Sydney Morning Herald Monday 29 Nov 1886, Death notice for Thomas Eather
 New South Wales, Australia, Convict Registers of Conditional and Absolute Pardons, 1788-1870, State Records Authority of New South Wales; Kingswood, New South Wales, Australia; Card Index to Letters Received, Colonial Secretary; Reel Number: 774; Roll Number: 1250
 Australia Birth Index, 1788-1922: John Eather (1804 Volume Number V18041478 1A), Rachel Norris nee Eather 1828 New South Wales, Australia Census (Australian Copy), James Eather (Australia and New Zealand, Find A Grave Index, 1800s-Current), 1828 New South Wales, Australia Census (Australian Copy) State Records Authority of New South Wales; Kingswood, New South Wales, Australia; 1828 Census: Alphabetical Return; Series Number: NRS 1272; Reel: 2554. Via Ancestry.com; Accessed July 2023
 New South Wales, Australia, Colonial Secretary’s Papers, 1788-1856 Series: NRS 899; Reel or Fiche Numbers: Fiche 3001-3162. Via Ancestry.com. Accessed July 2023
 John St Pierre, pp.36-37. *The blocks of land were located at 210 George St, between Suffolk and Fitzgerald Streets, backing onto O’Brien’s Lane (which did not then exist.) In recent years, the block has been variously occupied by a Coles Supermarket, then a Target and later a Kmart store.
 Australia and New Zealand, Find A Grave Index, 1800s-Current, for Thomas Eather 1827. Via Ancestry.com ** There is no headstone showing the exact location of Thomas’ grave, but a plaque has been erected in the church grounds, commemorating Thomas and Elizabeth’s lives