Travels with my Ancestors #16: Robert Vincent Eather and Ann Cornwell

This is the continuing story of the family and descendants of convicts Thomas Eather and Elizabeth Lee in Australia. You can find the very first post in this series here. That one deals with my journey to discover Elizabeth’s beginnings in Lancaster; following posts explore the Eather roots in Kent, then the journeys of both on convict ships to NSW, where they met and created a family and life together.

This post tells the story of their grandson, Robert Vincent (1824-1879) and his wife Ann Cornwell (1831-1889.) They are my great-great grandparents.

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.

Legacies and continuity

Like his father before him, Robert Vincent Eather arrived into the world surrounded by the fertile river land of the Hawkesbury valley. The family lived at their farm at Cornwallis, on low lying land near Windsor. When Robert junior was born in May, 1824, the leaves of the deciduous trees planted by his father and grandfather were burnished with autumn reds and golds, and a chill was in the air.

His childhood was crowded: nine surviving siblings, and later, the three orphaned Griffiths boys his parents had fostered—the farmhouse brimming with young bodies. At least there was plenty of space outside, though chores always wanted doing.

His father’s butchery in Richmond was a flourishing business, and the farms produced good yields. Once he was old enough, Robert followed in his father’s footsteps, becoming a farmer and butcher, setting up a shop in Richmond, on the corner of Paget and Lennox streets.

Richmond Church and Rectory c.1854 Frederick Casemero Terry.
Source: Hawkesbury City Library

The township had been established back in Governor Macquarie’s time, and his family had seen it grow. There were now many businesses lining its main street, fringed on one side by open land that had been meant for a market square but had instead been used for games and foot races by the townsfolk, and a Guy Fawkes bonfire each November. There was a grocery store, blacksmith, chemist, bakery, drapery, the Royal and Commercial hotels, several churches and schools, saddler and shoemaker, and tannery. There were frequent grumbles about the poor repair of the streets, which in wet weather were flooded, with large potholes big enough to bathe a baby. The stink of the tannery was barely covered by piles of bark thrown down to mop up the bloody refuse that seeped out onto the road.

Still, Richmond was a good town to live in. His grandparents told many stories about the old days in the district, when Windsor was called ‘Green Hills’ and the people who lived alongside the upper reaches ran a bit wild, just like the river.

In 1847 he married Ann Cornwell, also from the Hawkesbury. Ann’s parents, John Cornwell and Ann Eaton, had been ‘native born’. And like him, Ann’s grandparents had come to the colony in fetters—in her case, all four grandparents. In the small Hawkesbury settler community, there were few families without at least one elder with a murky past. Each successive generation tried its best to shrug off the convict legacy of their forebears.

Restless lives

Given the tumult and drama of their grandparents’ convict pasts, Robert and Ann’s life together got off to a tamer start in Richmond. One year after their marriage, their first child was born. Young Jane was followed by another girl, Cecilia; then ten other children, each born within two or three years of the last. Ann had no respite between babies; feeding and housing the growing family preoccupied her husband. And Robert had become increasingly restless, looking for opportunities outside the Hawkesbury district.

Maitland Mercury & General Advertiser Sat 7 June 1856 p3

In 1856, with their first five youngsters in tow, they moved to The Glebe, a suburb of Newcastle, on Awabakal land in the Hunter Valley. Here Robert took up an auctioneer’s license; and opened a butchery business.

Newcastle in 1874. Source: Hunter Living Histories University of Newcastle https://images.app.goo.gl/mhmUPbrCaGRGUGnt7

There were many similarities between this valley and the one they’d been born in. Both Hunter and Hawkesbury were mighty rivers, with the fertile soils of all floodplains. European occupation had begun with penal settlements, followed by bloody battles with the First peoples, who fought to defend their traditional homelands. Now, the white settlements were growing: the lure of land ownership and the natural resources of the valleys proving irresistible.

Three more children were born at Newcastle, though Robert’s little namesake Robert Vincent junior, only lived one year.  In 1867 the family moved again, this time to Black Creek, near Singleton, on Wonnarua country. Two years on, they returned to Newcastle.

He put an optimistic notice of a new business venture in the local paper:

Robert V Eather begs most respectfully to inform the inhabitants of Lake Macquarie Road, Glebe, and Racecourse, that he will conduct the BUTCHERING BUSINESS heretofore carried on by Mr Davis Jones… where he hopes, by strict attention to business combined with cleanliness and civility to all who will favour him with a call, to merit a share of patronage so liberally bestowed on Mr Jones.

The Newcastle Chronicle, Wednesday 18 Jan 1868

Problems with credit had him placing a peevish notice in the newspaper, warning that he would take legal action to recover money owed him by customers who were late paying their bills. If the business was not going as well as he’d hoped, money was tight with eleven children to provide for.

Alcohol is an easy salve for problems, but can bring more trouble. In 1870 he was charged with public drunkenness, though let off without penalty. A few months before that, he’d been fined 10 shillings for riding his horse carelessly on a public thoroughfare. Was he liquored up then, too?

In the early 1850’s the gold rushes had begun, luring people from all over the world to the diggings in NSW and Victoria. Perhaps he’d been caught up in the spirit of the time, always on the lookout to make a fortune, rather than a living. The decade before had brought drought, depression, and bank crashes, all of which contributed to a sense of the precariousness of life.

In 1856, he came before the court in Maitland, over a dispute between himself and a man called Richardson who he’d employed for a while as auctioneer’s clerk. When he told the man that he no longer needed his services because he was ‘off to the diggings,’ the man took him to court for unpaid wages and breach of promise. The court found in Richardson’s favour; Robert was ordered to pay a hefty £10.

Ann would not have thanked him if he had gone off to the diggings, leaving her with the children to keep on her own. While some on the goldfields struck it rich, many more returned with nothing— or worse, in debt. If he’d used the idea as a ruse for not continuing with Richardson’s employment, she must have wondered what was going on. Either way, it was an expensive mistake.

Ever restless, he moved Ann and the children again, but this time for good. By 1872 they were back in the Hawkesbury, on forty acres near Howe’s Creek, at Tennyson, where he’d been raised.

Their three youngest children were born here.

In those years between their marriage and finally settling back on home ground, Ann had given birth to thirteen babies, moved four times, buried one son aged one year, another aged eleven, and a daughter aged two. She worried about her husband’s businesses, money, and his drinking. At long last they were settled, within reach of their extended family members for support and help.

She could breathe a sigh of relief—for now.

The next generation

Five years after their move back to the Hawkesbury, Robert was dead. The alcohol he’d turned to when things were tough may have finally claimed its toll: the death certificate recorded the cause of his death as cirrhosis of the liver and fluid in the lungs. He was fifty four.

At least she had a home where she could continue to live: her husband had left all his estate, valued at £715, to her. Son John managed the property on her behalf. Her three youngest children, Walter, Isabella and Florence, aged twelve, seven and five, stayed with her there until she died ten years later, in 1889.

Ann’s will expressed her wish that her property be divided: one half to go to son John, the other half to be shared equally by Walter, Isabella and Florence.

She was buried near her husband at St Peters churchyard in Richmond.

They had come full circle, from their birth beside the Hawkesbury River, to their burial in its soil.

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