Travels with my Ancestors #15: Robert Eather & Mary Lynch part 2

This is the continuing story of the family and descendants of convicts Thomas Eather and Elizabeth Lee in Australia. Part 1 of the lives of their eldest son, Robert, and his wife Mary, brought us up to the 1840s, where they were farming at Tennyson in the Hawkesbury valley, while maintaining large herds of cattle and sheep in the Liverpool Plains region of northwestern NSW.

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.

In all the busy coming and going to his grazing lands, and his farming and home life, Robert found time for his other passion—horseracing. Racing was a popular pastime in the Hawkesbury and the Eather brothers and their sons were heavily involved in all aspects of organising race days, serving as stewards, and breeding horses.

They loved the heady sound of hooves galloping down a rough racetrack to the finish line, and the cheers and shouts of spectators. They enjoyed plenty of ales and on special race days, the women provided other refreshments and food. There was money to be made, too, with all the wagering before each event.

Site of cockpit in Chislehurst, Kent

Cock-fighting was another event which drew eager crowds and high wagers. Had his father Thomas reminisced about the spectacle of fighting birds on the cockpit at Chislehurst Common, back in his youth in Kent? His sons were among a group of lads in the valley who carried on the tradition, until authorities banned it. Matches continued in secret, in paddocks and hidden lanes, always with a lookout posted to raise the alarm if local police wandered by.

What pastimes did Mary enjoy? There was little time for leisure, though as the children grew, their need for mother’s attention lessened. Perhaps she found moments to walk in the kitchen garden, to enjoy the scent and sticky sweetness of apricots or peaches as they ripened, rather than hoeing the weeds. Perhaps it was pleasurable to sit by the kitchen fire at night with a candle to darn or mend clothes instead of bending over the washtub or kneading bread dough. Perhaps, when visiting her mother-in-law, she would listen to Elizabeth’s stories of the old days in the Hawkesbury.


Married in the Church of England she may have been, but her children were all baptised Catholics. She was proud that daughter Rachel’s ceremony was conducted by no less than Bishop Bede Polding, a well-known figure to Hawkesbury Catholics.

Daughter Cecilia married a French Catholic, Michel Despointes; and possibly due to her influence, three granddaughters entered Catholic orders, two later becoming Mother Superiors.

Though they ranged across NSW, the Eather clan kept a tight family bond. Robert’s brother Thomas returned often from the Liverpool Plains. His sister Ann had married wealthy ex-convict Joseph Onus and lived in Richmond. Onus himself had properties adjoining Eathers, both in the Hunter and on the Namoi. Other siblings later moved west, Rachel to Orange and James to Narrabri, but others remained in the area. Family events such as weddings, baptisms and birthdays were celebrated together.

In the winter of 1853, the family gathered for an unhappy purpose: to bury Mary, in the Roman Catholic section of Windsor cemetery. She was just fifty years old. As the family stood at her graveside, Robert gaze likely fell on the children he and his wife had raised, with a mix of gladness for their sturdy health and worry that the youngest (Sarah, then aged just ten) was now motherless.

Three years later, he found companionship, and a step-mother for Sarah, when he married Elizabeth Brown(e). She was possibly a widow, an emancipated convict originally from Ireland—just like Mary’s parents.

In Ireland she’d married Mark Browne and had three boys: twins George and John born in 1827 and another son Pierce, in 1829.

Only baby Pierce was allowed to travel with his mother to Sydney on board the transport ship Hooghly, but was taken to the Male Orphan School soon after arrival. Elizabeth must have grieved terribly: she’d left two small sons in Ireland and then Pierce, who’d survived the voyage with her, was taken away. But the following year Elizabeth’s assigned master, James Raymond, applied to have the child in his custody. It was an act of kindness for him to reunite his convict servant with her little boy.

When she and Robert married, Elizabeth was a businesswoman, with boarding houses in Sydney’s York St. She continued this work for a while until moving to live with Robert. In 1858 Robert was at her boarding establishment at 98-104 York St, Sydney, likely assisting Elizabeth in the business.

They had twenty years together; in the comfortable house known as ‘Ben Lomond Cottage’ he’d built with Mary at Tennyson. The house had five rooms with an attached kitchen, as well as a dairy and granary, and enclosures for pigs, cattle, and farm equipment.

The climate here was temperate and their property well away from the dangers of river flooding. The new Mrs Eather could enjoy a cup of tea on the wide verandah where cooling breezes blew, admiring the spring blossoms on the fruit trees nestled in the surrounding hills.

While there was still plenty of work to be done to maintain a house and farm of this size, she may have been thankful that her childbearing days were past her, and her second husband already well established. The hard work of rearing babies, combined with setting up a home and livelihood, had already been done by Robert and by Mary, her predecessor. Now she could enjoy the fruits of that labour.

For supplies or social outings they could travel into Enfield (today’s North Richmond) by horseback or sulky. A punt across the river there allowed visits to other family and friends in Richmond and Windsor. It was replaced by a bridge in 1860, further opening the district.

They lived here until the property was put up for sale in 1863. Elizabeth died ten years later.

Now aged seventy-eight, Robert moved to live with his son Abraham in Francis Street, Richmond. Continued involvement in his properties was beyond him; he’d sold the land at Westmead to eldest son Thomas, and 100 acres at Tennyson to Abraham for just five shillings. The deed of sale explained the low price as arising out of natural love and affection; possibly an act of appreciation for the son who would care for him in his final years.

Had his restless need to push into new territory subsided as he aged? His older body now demanded that he remain at home, though he might still have dreamt of the open plains of the northwest. His days were now spent by the river where he’d been born, living with Abe and his wife.

The next generation

Abe had been something of a wild lad in his youth. Inheriting the Eather love of sports, he’d gained a reputation as a fast runner. Known as the ‘Windsor favourite,’ he competed in foot races on which large sums of money (£50 or more) were at stake in ‘winner takes all’ events. He’d also been known to race a horse up and down Windsor Street in Richmond for a bet, winning handsomely.

He was similarly restless in personal relationships. In 1851 he’d married Margaret McElligott and had a daughter with her. After her death, he’d fathered two daughters with local woman Sophia Adams, before marrying again in 1863.

This time he fronted at St Mathews Catholic church in Windsor to marry Ellen Farrell. At St Peters in Richmond on that same day, his sister Sarah wed her cousin James Eather, and his cousin Thomas Griffiths (the son of one of the Eather foster-brothers) married Mary (Ann) Cornwell.

Connections between and across settler families in small communities like the Hawkesbury were many and complicated, and multiple marriages between families common. There were invisible threads that bound neighbours, friends and families together over decades of shared experiences and often, shared hardship.

Also, the Eather family did enjoy multiple wedding celebrations!

The three matches were followed by a combined wedding feast, with plenty of food, ale and treats for the children.

With Ellen, Abe settled into family life, having eleven children over twenty-six years—plenty of grandchildren for his own father to enjoy —though the first born, little Margaret, did not live past a year.


Two shocking local events rocked the district during Robert’s final years. The first was a blow that struck at the heart of the entire family and became a sad part of the Hawkesbury’s history.

In June 1867, heavy rain began to fall—nothing new to residents of this valley, so accustomed to regular flooding. Concern began to mount as river levels rose with alarming speed, the torrential downpour showing no sign of easing. Abraham and Ellen’s house on Francis Street would surely be safe, far enough above any previous flood levels. The low lying areas surrounding Richmond and Windsor were a different matter. Warnings went out advising people to take refuge in the townships.

Robert’s nephews —George, Charles and Thomas— all had farms and houses at Cornwallis, on the lowlands just outside Windsor. The brothers and their wives and children gathered at George’s house, newer and sturdier than the others. George took his wife and children by boat to Windsor, and offered to take the other women and children with him, but they stayed, thinking a boat could be sent later, should waters rise higher than expected.

Rain continued to pound the Hawkesbury area all that day and into the evening, filling it and the neighbouring Nepean valley to record levels. As the tide rose around George’s house, Charles and Thomas helped their families climb up onto the roof of the house. Twenty souls perched along the ridge: two men, their wives, and eleven children aged between one to sixteen years. All night they remained there, shuddering with cold and pelted by unrelenting rain and wind.

The rescue boat they prayed for never appeared. The two families had to stay on that roof for another whole day. Darkness fell again. Thomas had just grasped his eldest boy to him, trying to secure their precarious hold on the building, when suddenly the roof itself collapsed under them. They were all plunged into the raging, icy floodwaters.

Only three survived: the two men and the sixteen year old, who were eventually rescued by a boat sent over from Windsor. The two women, and ten other children, perished.

The deepened lines on pallid faces of residents were testament to the heartache and loss felt right across the valley, its farmlands and small communities. Some of the dead were found, washed up along the river, in the following days and months. The bodies of Thomas’s wife Emma and three daughters were never found.

It was a long time before the Eathers and their neighbours recovered.


Just seven years later, the valley experienced the other side of the colony’s climate coin: searing hot winds and fire.

In the lead-up to Christmas, families prepared for celebratory meals and gatherings: shopping for festive food, wrapping gifts, decorating homes. December 23rd 1874 dawned hot, with a gusty wind blowing dried leaves about the town. By 1 pm, Windsor was being whipped by a hurricane-force gale which blew in thick smoke from bushfires in the surrounding areas.

Flames first appeared at the blacksmiths on George Street, embers landing in the nearby tannery where timbers caught alight. Sparks carried the danger into cottages and shops along George Street and then across into Macquarie Street.

Panicked townsfolk got in the way of efforts to put out flames whipped up by the terrible wind. The newly established Windsor volunteer fire brigade did what it could, though their efforts had little effect until the wind died down later in the afternoon.

The damage and loss from this disaster were appalling: over 53 buildings (including 36 homes) lost, 30 acres of land burnt, many animals killed. Belongings brought out into the street in a bid to save something were not spared.  

There were at least two deaths: poor Eliza Wilson who was unable to get out of her weatherboard cottage in time and perished; another woman was riding in a buggy outside the town when it ignited from the heat. Her skirts caught alight and she died.

A report in the Sydney Morning Herald a few days later noted that:

The 23rd day of December, 1874, has been a black day for Windsor, and long will it be
remembered by all who witnessed the sad and sorrowful catastrophe.

Flood and fire—the bookends of natural disasters in Australia. They’d been new and frightening challenges for his parents, but for Robert’s generation they were part of the landscape, to be expected and endured, particularly across a long life when they were repeated many times.

Robert outlived five of his children: two who had died in infancy, and three adults who’d died in between 1874 and 1879. Robert lived with Abraham and Ellen until his death in 1881.

His passing was noted in the local newspaper:

The Late Robert Eather
This pioneer of the Hawkesbury departed this life recently; much regretted. He had attained the ripe old age of 86 and was the eldest of five brothers. He was the first of the five to leave for the ‘bourne from whence no traveller returns.’ The aggregate of the ages of these venerable brothers was 392 years: Robert 86; twins 81; one 74; and the youngest, 70. Mr Eather leaves behind him great-great grandchildren

The Australian, Windsor, Richmond and Hawkesbury Advertiser, 21 May 1881

While Abe was made the executor of his father’s will, it was to daughter-in-law Ellen that Robert left his estate. He made his mark (X) near his name, printed by the solicitor who prepared the simple, one page document. At the time of his death, his property included a portion of the land at Tennyson, some horses and cattle, a house and furniture. Once funerary and other expenses were paid, the total value amounted to around £180.

Robert Eather will 1881

Robert and Mary lived during years of enormous change. The Eathers had moved from the shackles of servitude and poverty to the freedom of land ownership and prosperity in one generation, achieved through determination, an eye for opportunity, and hard work. New generations—over eighty grandchildren— were forging their own way in the colony.

All of this was at great cost to the first peoples of Australia, though it is questionable if the Eathers, or many of their contemporaries, either understood or cared much about that. For the first European settlers, and their children and grandchildren, Australia was a land in which to firstly survive, and then to thrive. That is exactly what Robert and Mary Eather had set out to do, and what they’d achieved.

The Eather family story will be continued in another chapter of Travels with my Ancestors.
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