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 (www.meereapark.com.au)  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.

Source: uralla.com

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.
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