• History

    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.
    You can subscribe to this blog to receive updates on new posts by the link on the left hand side of the page.

    Thank you for reading!

  • History

    Travels with my Ancestors #13: Thomas Eather, Kentish man & Elizabeth Lee, Lancashire lass: pt 2

    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.

    Map of Green Hills (Windsor), redrawn by Bryan Thomas, 1981.
    The Eather farm is indicated by the arrow.
    Source: Hawkesbury City Council

    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.[1]

    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.[2]

    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.[3]

    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.[4] 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.

    Hearth at Lancaster Cottage Museum.
    Photo by author

    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.[5]

     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.[6]

    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.[7]

    Joseph Lycett, ‘View of Windsor upon the River Hawkesbury’ 1824
    Source: https://dictionaryofsydney.org/media/1787

    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.[8] 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,[9] 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[10] and was allocated fifty acres on the lowlands at Cornwallis, on the southern bank of the river just outside Windsor.[11] 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.[12]

    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.

    Windsor Church, Landscape Scenery Illustrating Sydney and Port Jackson [picture] : c1854 / Frederick Casemero Terry.
    Source: Hawkesbury City Library

    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.[13]

    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.[14] **

    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 during the term of her natural life and by her not to be sold or alienated.[15]

    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.[16]

    Commemorative plaque for Thomas and Elizabeth at Windsor’s St Mathews church
    Photo by author

    [1] Karskens, Grace, The Colony, p.128

    [2] Karskens, Grace; p12

    [3] Flynn, Michael, The Second Fleet: Britain’s Grim Armada, p258

    [4] The Sydney Morning Herald Monday 29 Nov 1886, Death notice for Thomas Eather

    [5] 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

    [6] Karskens, Grace, People of the River, p.100

    [7] St Pierre, John, The Eather Family: 200 Years in Australia, p.25

    [8] St Pierre, John, p31

    [9] 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

    [10] 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

    [11] St Pierre, John, p36

    [12] 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.

    [13] St Pierre, John, p39

    [14] 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

    [15] St Pierre, John, p42

    [16] Australia and New Zealand, Find A Grave Index, 1800s-Current, for Elizabeth Eather, 11 June 1860. Via Ancestry.com

  • Books and reading,  History

    Connections: ‘The Remarkable Mrs Reibey’ by Grantlee Kieza

    I’d added Grantlee Kieza’s biography of the woman on the Australian $20 note to my ‘Must Read’ list from the moment I heard about it.

    The reason?

    Apart from the obvious (my abiding interest in Australian history and especially women’s history), I have three points of connection with the subject, Mary Reibey:
    1. She hailed originally from near Manchester in England, where my ancestor Elizabeth Lee was also born and raised,
    2. Like another of my ancestors, Mary’s crime which had her transported to Australia was the theft of a horse, and
    3. She was a contemporary of yet another ancestor, Jane Longhurst. Like Mary, Jane was an emancipated convict in early colonial Sydney who ‘made good’, managing business affairs and a large family within the male-dominated world of nineteenth century Sydney.

    Mary showed her redoubtable spirit from an early age, running away from a position as maid in a boarding school and in a flight of youthful fantasy, stealing a horse which she thought would be her ticket to a financially independent life.

    Of course she was discovered, arrested and tried for the crime; at first receiving the death sentence, later commuted to transportation to the penal colony of NSW. The startling thing about her time in gaol was that she’d been dressed as a boy – and she managed to keep her sex hidden from her male cellmates in a crowded prison! In my view that would take some chutzpah, not to mention ingenuity.

    She arrived in the colony full of trepidation as to what life in this frightening place might have in store for a youngster just fifteen years old.

    The author paints a fascinating and vivid picture of convict life in Sydney and Parramatta : housing, clothing, rations, and living and working conditions, along with the many larger-than-life characters that peopled the early days of the colonial period.

    The class system of Britain was transported here along with their unwanted criminals, and this is seen in attitudes by free settlers towards the convicts.

    Also, people in authority struggled to understand many behaviours of the convicts; why did they make such poor choices (such as getting drunk and fighting) which they must know would result in punishment? To middle class eyes this was inexplicable. Why would people jeopardise their futures in this way? To convicts, most of whom came from dire circumstances, having a good time while one could grab it was entirely sensible. Who knew when the next catastrophe could strike? You could die of a disease, accident or violence tomorrow. May as well enjoy tonight while you could.

    Mary, however, kept her head down and out of trouble. She married Tom Reibey, a free settler with an entrepreneurial bent, who was involved in trade and real estate. They had a large family together, but Tom nominated his wife to manage the business dealings during his long absences from the colony on trading voyages. She was wife, mother, and trusted co-manager of the family’s business affairs.

    After her husband’s death, Mary continued with the various business interests, shipping and trading, buying, selling and leasing real estate, amassing an even greater fortune.

    She is the ‘remarkable’ Mrs Reibey because all this activity was at a time when work options for women were severely curtailed and no women were expected to see the inside of a board room or business negotiation. Much to the surprise of her fellow settlers, ‘Mrs Reibey’ proved to be a shrewd negotiator, driving a hard bargain, with a nose for the next opportunity. This was how one survived – even thrived – in the cut throat world of the colony.

    I got a thrill from seeing my ancestor, Jane Roberts (nee Longhurst) mentioned along with Mary in the section describing the formation of the Bank Of New South Wales – the first bank in the colony. Jane and Mary were among a handful of women investors in that early bank, much to the surprise and confusion of their male counterparts, as the concept of women investors was a foreign one.

    There are moments that made me smile, such as Mary answering a charge by a debtor that she was ‘no lady’ by hitting him over the head with her parasol!

    There are also tender, heartwarming moments in the book, as when Mary fulfills a long-nursed ambition to make a return visit to her homeland, with emotional reunions with family members in the ‘old country.’ I found myself wondering how reunions between my convict and immigrant ancestors may have played out, should any of them had the wish and the resources to return to England.

    The Remarkable Mrs Reibey is a comprehensive and engrossing portrayal of a colonial women who surely deserves her spot on the $20 note. Her portrait, depicting a grandmotherly round-faced woman with spectacles and a lace cap, belies the adventurous and headstrong spirit of the younger Mary, with the endurance and smarts to not only survive, but thrive, in a colonial environment that was well and truly stacked against women.

    The Remarkable Mrs Reibey was published by HarperCollins Publishers in May 2023.

  • History,  Writing

    Travels with my Ancestors #12: Thomas Eather, Kentish man & Elizabeth Lee, Lancashire lass

    This is the third chapter in the story of Thomas Eather, convict, farmer, husband and father – and my 4 x great-grandfather. You can read chapter one here and chapter two here.

    In this chapter, Thomas meets Elizabeth Lee, a young woman from Lancashire in the west midlands of England, who was also transported to NSW as a convict. You can find the first part of Elizabeth’s story here. She is my 4 x great-grandmother.

    When we left Thomas, he had arrived at Sydney Cove aboard the death ship Neptune, and wondering what lay ahead, now that he had survived that hellish voyage.

    In 1791, Elizabeth arrived on the Third Fleet’s Mary Ann, wondering the same thing.

    By the time the Third Fleet arrived, most new convicts were being sent to the little settlement of Rose Hill, later called Parramatta. It was here that Thomas and Elizabeth’s paths first crossed.

    Thomas had been first assigned to work in Sydney Town, on the traditional lands of the Gadigal people of the Eora nation.

    The area around the Cove, known as Warrane to the original inhabitants, had already been changed beyond recognition: the First Fleet arrivals had cut native trees and cleared vegetation, planted gardens and sown crops, erected shelters and trampled the sides of the waterway they dubbed the ‘Tank Stream’ to a muddy mess.

    What Thomas and his companions from the Second Fleet saw was a muddle of uneven tracks between tents, a jealously guarded government storehouse, military huts, and rough shelters housing groups of convicts. A larger brick residence, set on a hill overlooking the harbour, was where the Governor lived. There was a burial ground and, of course, gallows—they were not allowed to forget that further crimes could be fatal. Having escaped the noose once, Thomas was not eager to test the limits of His Majesty’s mercy a second time.

    It was a largely unplanned, chaotic space in which convicts were expected to labour to construct the site of their own imprisonment, shelter, and sustenance.

    Sydney Cove. William Bradley, From ‘A Voyage to New South Wales’, 1786–1792.
    Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales

    The Gadigal, and other Eora tribes around the new settlement, continued to fish in the harbour and its many coves and inlets; their slender bark canoes, or nowies, dotting the waters. They could often be seen walking around the township. Governor Phillip had issued orders that they were not to be harmed, and for the convicts and their guards, the dark skinned, often naked men and women had become a common sight.

    With his experience of rural labouring work, Thomas was a good candidate for assignment to the government farms. Early attempts at farming around the settlement were only partly successful, and the Governor was keen to find land that could produce the quantities of grain crops needed for the colony’s survival.

    There was talk in the camp about Rose Hill, later called Parramatta (from Burramattagal, the name of the first inhabitants.) Some said the new settlement promised better soils and more land to spread out.  June 1790 saw Thomas working there on the government farm. He lived with other convicts in a large tent hut, one of several spread out like a barracks. Life was messy: convicts fought amongst themselves, some tried to evade the labour demanded of them. They had to prepare their own food from the paltry rations they were given. There were plenty who, unlike Thomas, had never worked on a farm or milked a cow.

    During each long day they cleared the land, dug the soil, planted wheat and maize. It was exhausting work, all done by hand without aid of horses or bullocks. He was used to hard physical labour, although getting over the weakness and illness caused by six months on the Neptune slowed many of its survivors. Each man was expected to hoe or cultivate a set amount of land per day. There was a military guard to protect the farm from theft by convicts, or attack by the Burramattagal people, who were being squeezed out from their traditional country, sacred places, and livelihoods.

    View of Governor’s House, Rose Hill, ca 1798. Dixson Galleries, State Library of New South Wales

    Once the Government farm began producing, they were allowed to labour for themselves for part of each day, after they’d completed their assigned workload.  Gradually, Parramatta became the planned, secondary settlement which the Governor hoped would become more manageable, more civilised than Sydney.

    The convicts did not care about civilised. There was always the threat that rations would be restricted again if the farms did not produce enough. The ‘slops’ clothing issued on the transports was now threadbare. They cared more about the quantity of meat, flour, tea and sugar they were allowed, and where they were to sleep at night. Any dreams for the future were secondary to the business of survival.

    It was to this fledgling community that Elizabeth was sent. Given her previous work in Manchester, she would be assigned work as a servant to one of the officials or government employees. She’d spend her days working at cleaning, cooking, laundry work; whatever tasks she was directed to do by her master or mistress.               

    She met Thomas very soon after her arrival and they began living together. There were plenty of couples joined in ‘Botany Bay marriages’: either common law ones or bigamous ones (after all, the other spouse left behind in Britain could hardly protest.) Neither had been married before, and their union was genuine, even if they didn’t have a formal marriage record. And there were real advantages for both in becoming a couple.

    For one thing, they were allowed to move to a small hut, rather than share the larger communal quarters reserved for single men and women. Being one of a couple gave each an ally, a support during continuing hard times. For Elizabeth, it also helped her move away from the label of ‘whore’ or ‘prostitute’ given to all the female convicts by many of the men in the convict huts—and by some officials, to whom they were either ‘married’ or ‘concubines.’

    Wattle and daub hut (detail from Panoramic views of Port Jackson, c.1821). R. Havell & Son, engravers: after Major James Taylor. Museums of History NSW.

    Both were young, unlikely to ever return home once they’d served their time. They had to establish a new future here. And the Governor and Reverend Johnson were forever encouraging folks to marry and live respectably.

    They’d watched St John’s Church being built across from the military barracks, and it was here that their first child, Ann, was baptised in April 1793. Elizabeth had given birth in their tiny hut, panting through the pain of labour, with no more than another convict woman to offer words of encouragement and her hand to squeeze. And, like all female convicts, she had to manage pregnancies and childcare around her work duties.

    Church Street and St. John’s Church, Parramatta, from a copy of a steel engraving, 1853

    The little girl was followed by a son, in April 1795. He was named Robert after his Heather grandfather back in Kent. (Robert is my 3 x great-grandfather.) Thomas had grown up with the family tradition of naming first-born sons Robert: it had been that way since the first Robert Heather made his home in Kent, long ago in the early seventeenth century.

    They ignored the tales of escapees: convicts who stowed away on departing ships; made a run for the bush; or the Bryant couple who (with others, including a fellow Thomas knew from the Neptune) had escaped on a stolen government boat. Most escapees were recaptured, forced back to the settlement by thirst or starvation, or perished in the alien bushland. The Eathers were having none of it, preferring to keep out of trouble.

    They’d remember 1797 for three reasons: Elizabeth completed her sentence and became a free woman; daughter Charlotte was born; and in recognition of good behaviour, Thomas was granted land in the Hawkesbury by Governor Hunter, who had replaced Arthur Phillip.[i] The couple could scarcely believe their good fortune. After their traumatic start in this strange, wild place, they could dare to begin to think about a future here.

    To be continued

    [i] The first of many land grants given to Newton ancestors. It’s important to remember: this was land that was not the Governor’s to give. It was the land of the original peoples of Australia, and was never ceded.

  • History,  Writing

    Travels with my Ancestors # 11 : Thomas Eather, Kentish man (part two)

    This is the second chapter in the story of Thomas Eather, convict, farmer, husband and father – and my 4 x great-grandfather. You can read chapter one here.

    November, 1789: Gravesend, on the Thames

    It would soon be called the ‘death ship’ or the ‘hell ship.’ Of course, Thomas Eather didn’t know this and nor did his shackled companions as they stood on the Gravesend dock, waiting to be rowed out to board the transport ship. From a distance, it appeared to be an improvement on Maidstone gaol, where he was first incarcerated, and the rotting Thames hulk where he’d been imprisoned for six months. Breathing the salty air was a relief after the fug of the hulk. Grey and white birds wheeled and squawked above his head, as if boasting of their freedom. Then he was on the rowboat and the Neptune drew closer with every pull of the sailors’ oars. It was impossible to tell what lay in store.


    For fourteen months, he had languished in Maidstone Gaol, before being moved to a hulk on the Thames River. On the Justitia, he experienced a sort of living death. Derelict, unseaworthy ships, the hulks were tied up and converted into prisons where convicts slept and ate. Every day he was rowed out with the others to undertake back breaking work in the dockyards, or dredging gravel from the stinking river mud. At sunset he returned to the hulk, where he ate, then dropped into an exhausted sleep. At daybreak, he did it all over again.

    Atkins, Samuel (1800). [Prison hulk loading] Source: Trove.
    Also available at: http://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-135231236


    Now, in mid-November 1789, he had his first sight of the Neptune. It was a large ship, square rigged, with three masts. When he’d clambered up the ladder, he could see the river from a new vantage point. Hard to imagine being at sea on such a vessel, but what would he know? He’d never left his native Kent. That moment between climbing onto the ship and being directed below decks, was the last chance for the prisoners to breathe fresh air and see the skies, until they reached their destination—if they survived, that is.

    The Neptune
    Source: http://www.fromwhencewecame.net/WilliamLevistonJaneChampion.html

    Then he and the others were sent down to the convict prison deck. He stumbled below into the belly of the ship, and heavy leg irons were again clamped around his ankles. It was hard to move. No room to stretch out, anyway, with pairs of convicts chained together in the cramped cells with one thin blanket each. Already, bitter wintry draughts probed into aching bodies. All around him it was dark, airless, and stank of stale bodies, piss, and dread.

    No, the Neptune was no better than the gaol and hulk. What lay ahead for him and his fellow prisoners?


    Shackled with short bolts at the ankles and chained together, he shared a cell with three to five others. While the business of loading supplies went on, all he knew of it were the noises that penetrated down to the prison: the thud of water barrels across the deck, shouts of the crew, banging and clattering of equipment being hoisted up the ship’s sides.

    When the Neptune began to move out of the mouth of the Thames to shelter at the Downs, just off the coast, he could see nothing of the outside world. The ship made its slow way south to Plymouth, then to Portsmouth, where it joined two other transports that sailed in the Second Fleet.


    In Portsmouth, the unfortunate prisoners stayed for nearly a month, buffeted by cold westerly winds. Lying on the damp grimy floor, the government-issue clothing did little to protect from the chill. Shirts and waistcoats were of coarse linen or canvas ‘duck’ cloth, less snug than wool. Rations of thin gruel and bread did little to warm the stomach. In any case, stomachs began to heave as the ship finally left the shelter of port in January 1790, heading down the English Channel and out into the rough seas of the Atlantic.

    There were no portholes in their deck and the convicts were rarely allowed above, so Thomas could not watch the coastline of his homeland fade into the distance. But there were changes in the ship’s movements. The waters below the hull were deeper and more turbulent; the creaking and clanking of ropes and rigging above and around them somehow wilder, less rhythmic.

    If his experience so far had been difficult, it was here that the real nightmare began. The bitter cold was replaced by stifling heat and humidity as the Neptune crossed the Equator. Sweat ran down backs under the coarse clothing, and beaded filthy foreheads. The air was thick, dense with moisture, harder to breathe in the close confines of the prisoners’ deck. A stop in port at Cape Town gave relief from the swells of the high seas, and a renewed supply of fresh water, but not increased rations.

    The Neptune had been previously used as a slave ship, transporting enslaved people from West Africa to the Caribbean or the Americas. The ship’s master, Donald Traill, had captained the Neptune on those shameful voyages and proceeded to treat the new human cargo in the same way.

    For this Second Fleet, the British government made the mistake of paying the ships’ owners for every prisoner taken on board their ship – not the prisoners taken off at the other end.

    It’s obvious to see the problem here. Having pocketed the money for each convict shoved into the prisoner hold, the owners and captains had no financial incentive to ensure the well-being and safety of these men and women. In fact, there was a strong incentive NOT to do so. By skimping on rations, clothing, blankets, the captains could on-sell saved foods and other items when in port, at inflated prices.

    For days, weeks, months, the prisoners lay in their own mess. Time compressed, then drew out into eternity. How long had they been at sea? Who could tell? Most prisoners had few opportunities to move, to feel sunlight or fresh air on skin, or to wash. The stink was overwhelming. Along with the odour of filthy human bodies and matted hair, came the smell of rotting teeth and gums, as scurvy set in, due to the poor diet. Lice tormented skin with itches and bites that could not be soothed.

    As fresh water supplies dwindled on the long run from the Cape of Good Hope to New South Wales, thirst was a daily anguish.

    If Thomas had had enough coins, he might have been able to purchase fresh water, extra rations, or clothing, from the crew’s black market. As it was, he had to hope that they would reach their destination before illness or starvation took him.

    When storms lashed the ship, the turbulence upended toilet buckets while sea water sloshed through the deck, soaking prisoners, clothing, and bedding. The contaminated water lingered, infecting open sores and weakened bodies. Cold southern temperatures added to the misery. Then ship’s fever swept through both crew and convicts.

    When a prisoner died, his partner in chains stayed quiet about it, so that he could grab the deceased’s rations and if he were quick, their blanket. Eventually, the death was discovered by the crew and the corpse tipped unceremoniously into the deep. Had Thomas counted, he’d have tallied forty-six such deaths before Cape Town—but there were far more after.

    By the time the Neptune made its way through the heads at Port Jackson in June 1790, 147 male and 11 female convicts had died—one in every three convicts on board.

    William Bradley – Charts from his journal ‘A Voyage to New South Wales’, 1802 December 1786-May 1792
    Source: SLNSW https://collection.sl.nsw.gov.au/record/1kVdrNRn


    A crowd of people gathered to watch as the ships unloaded their human cargo at Sydney cove. These were among the first newcomers to arrive since the First Fleet had made landfall eighteen months earlier: hopes were high for new supplies to ward off starvation. Nothing could have prepared the onlookers for what they saw that day.

    Thomas Rowlandson (1756–1827), Convicts embarking for Botany Bay, 180-? Source: nla.obj-135232630

    Thomas and other survivors stumbled, crawled, or were carried onto dry land. Eyes that had not seen daylight for half a year squinted painfully in the bright Sydney sun. Their skeletal forms, snarled hair and inflamed skin gave the wretched men and women an almost inhuman appearance. Some died on the boats that brought them to shore and were ruthlessly tossed onto the rocks. Those not yet dead but suffering from fever, scurvy, weeping wounds and other complaints, were carried to the hospital. The air rang with the clanging of hammer on metal as tents were hastily erected beside the hospital building on the western arm of the cove, to accommodate the extra sick bodies.

    Amongst those watching as the prisoners were brought to land—the convicts hardened by their own sufferings, military men, and government officials—were those who wept at the pitiful sight.

    Thomas had survived his ordeal. What was next?


    To be continued.

    AIATSIS Map of Indigenous Australia, AIATSIS Canberra, 1996

    Flynn, Michael; The Second Fleet 1790: Britain’s Grim Armada, Library of Australian History, 1993

    Karskens, Grace; The Colony, Allen & Unwin, 2010

    Keneally, Thomas, Australians: A Short History, Allen & Unwin 2016

    Historical Records of Australia series 1 vol 1 1788-1796, p189. Via Internet Archive at https://archive.org/details/historicalrecord00v1aust/page/188/mode/2up?q=189. Accessed July 2023


    National Museum of Australia Online https://www.nma.gov.au/

    State Library of NSW https://www.sl.nsw.gov.au/

    St Pierre, John; The Eather Family: 200 Years in Australia 1790-1990, vol 1, The Eather Family History Committee, 1990

  • History,  Travel

    Travels with my Ancestors #10: The Eastenders – William Eaton and Jane Lloyd Ison

    This is the tenth in the Travels with my Ancestors series. You may wish to read the first post for context. You can find it here.

    I’m in London, the final week of my Travel with my Ancestors journey. I’m heading away from the usual tourist haunts and grand palaces to the East End. In mediaeval times this area lay outside the city gates. It was home to successive waves of immigrants: Huguenots (Protestants) fleeing persecution in France in the late 1600’s who brought their silk weaving skills with them; Irish linen weavers; construction and dock workers; Jews escaping pogroms in Poland and Russia.

    During WWII London suffered greatly during the Blitz, and the East End and the docklands south along the Thames were among the most heavily bombed districts.

    Post war recovery was slow, with poverty, poor health and high crime rates. In more recent years, urban revival and new building projects have changed the face of the East End. A youthful, edgy and creative vibe attracts shoppers, foodies and music lovers.

    I’m here to explore where my 4 x great grandparents originated. They were William Eaton and Jane Lloyd Ison, and they lived in and around Bethnal Green and Spitalfields in the late 1700’s.

    The tale of a cheese

    William was born around 1769 and baptised in February that year at St Mathew’s church, Bethnal Green. I don’t know what his family situation was when he was a youngster. In later years he might well have admitted that the mistake he made when he was nineteen was the biggest of his life. He had tried to make away with a round of Cheshire cheese – which he dropped in full view of its owner. Of course, he was arrested, tried at the Old Bailey Court in 1788 and received a sentence of seven years transportation to NSW for his trouble – and no cheese.

    He was sent on a Third Fleet ship, the Admiral Barrington, sailing into Sydney in the winter of 1791.

    He did well after his arrival and in 1804 was granted fifty acres of Dharug land in the Nepean district. He called the property Eatonville; it lay on the banks of the Grose, not far from where the Nepean and Grose rivers meet at Yarramundi.

    In 1800 he married Jane Ison, whose story is a darker and more complicated one.

    A darker tale

    I find the church where Jane had been baptised in 1770: Spitalfield’s Christ Church. It’s an imposing building of smooth dressed stonework and graceful white columns. I imagine her parents, James and Eleanor, holding baby Jane at the baptismal font. What were their hopes for their little girl? Her father had a trade, either gunsmith and/or shoemaker, which meant he could offer his family a better life than some in the East End, but they were not comfortably off. What lay in store for Jane?

    She grew up amid the smells and sounds of Spitalfields. The Victorian era market building, now a popular spot for bargain hunters and hipster vintage lovers, stands on the site of the original thirteenth century East London marketplace, which would have housed stalls selling everything from live poultry to baked goods, flowers and sides of beef.

    Jane was not yet fifteen when she married Edward Jaggers. Her account of her first husband’s fate was vague: as she told it, she was widowed very young. Trying to make a living in the crowded city, young, inexperienced and unskilled, her options were limited: enter domestic service if she could find a position, sell her body, become a pickpocket on the streets, or join a criminal gang.

    She chose the last option and nearly lost her life as a result.

    By December 1792, she was in a crowded cell at Newgate Gaol ready to face trial at the Old Bailey, along with four other women. Any relief she may have felt at leaving the dirty, dangerous gaol vanished once she was in the court room, standing in the dock. In this daunting, unfamiliar place, surrounded by men wearing frockcoats or dark gowns and white wigs, she heard the charges against her and her companions read out.

    Their accuser, a Welsh drover named William Ellis, described what had happened to him. According to Ellis, Jane and several female accomplices had lured him to a house in Sharpe’s Alley, where he went upstairs on the promise of sex with one of the women for the price of sixpence.

    This alley no longer exists; but I know that it ran off Cowcross Street, which does still stand. The landscape is vastly different from Jane’s time: there are now clean paved streets, traffic signs and coffee shops. A few local names give a nod to how it looked back in the late eighteenth century, full of (mostly illegal) gin houses, the area known as a ‘rookery’ (a term used to indicate places known for prostitutes and criminal gangs: places where ‘respectable’ folk would not venture.)

    Once he was on the bed, two of the women took his purse and watch, when one of them (possibly Jane) bit him on the hand as he tried to struggle. After his assailants had run off, he made his way down to the street, ‘very much frightened’, and reported the assault and theft to the nightwatchman, who was next to testify.

    While the women escaped, they were identified and arrested a day or so later. And so Jane and her accomplices faced the court in December 1792. Several of them tried to lay blame on the others, protesting their innocence, but the evidence against them was damning.

    I know that the Old Bailey court is no longer the same building as the one the women were tried in, but I still want to see where it all happened, so my next stop is to the Central Criminal Court building on Old Bailey Street, in the City.

    The building that stood here in the 1700’s was a crowded and cramped place, with a passageway from Newgate Gaol around the corner, allowing easier access to bring prisoners from their gaol cell to the dock. Newgate is no longer there, and I’m certain that the many thousands of prisoners who languished there along with the rats, fleas and lice, would not regret its loss.


    Because the charges against the women involved violent assault as well as robbery, and stolen property worth well over £31, they must have known that if they were found guilty that day, their sentences would be harsh.

    Even so, nothing could have prepared them for hearing the ‘guilty’ verdict from the jury for all but one of the five; followed immediately by the sight of the judge placing the dreaded black cloth over his wig and solemnly pronouncing a sentence of death for the four guilty parties—Jane included.

    She was twenty-two years old.

    The four women were returned to the teeming gaol cells. It seemed that the only way out would be via the gallows. Jane could not claim pregnancy, the most common plea for mercy by women. Would she be hung at the public gallows just outside the gaol, for all to come and gawk as she took her last breath? Perhaps she’d hear the execution bell toll its mournful warning on the night before her execution. How long would it take for her to die once the trapdoor was released beneath her by the hangman? Would she disgrace herself or die with dignity? These thoughts preoccupied all those facing the death sentence.

    Three months after the trial, she heard that she and her accomplices had been granted mercy. They were not to be hung after all, but rather transported ‘to the eastern coast of NSW for the term of their natural lives.’ Relief and trepidation were mixed as she contemplated the meaning of this new sentence.

    In February 1794, she was put aboard the Surprize, anchored on the Thames at Blackfriars Bridge. For nearly two months the business of provisioning the ship went on, while the convicts accustomed themselves to the routines of shipboard life. They set sail in May. Her three partners in crime sailed along with her; whether they wanted to speak to each other after all the accusations they’d hurled during their trial was another matter.

    The Surprize docked at Port Jackson in October, a time of warm spring sunshine and cooling sea breezes in the upside-down seasons of the place.

    Her fortunes took a turn for the better when she met William Eaton, already three years into his sentence. Sydney Town was a small settlement and the two met there; a daughter arrived in May 1800, and three months later the couple were married at St Phillips’ church, on the same day as their baby was baptised. As convicts, they did not have the luxury of choosing the date and circumstances of such major life occasions.

    William and Jane had seven children together and lived at Eatonville at Yarramundi where William established a productive farm on his land grant, growing wheat, barley, fruit and vegetables: all essential produce to feed the infant colony. He also had two horses (costly and sought after animals), cattle and hogs, two convicts working for him, and he kept his family off the government stores—quite an achievement for someone born and raised in the crowded poverty of eastern London.

    In 1823 he was widowed, still with young children. A year later he married another Jane. He shared sixteen years with her at Eatonville until her death in 1840. The two Janes were buried in the same vault at St Peters’ Richmond, where William himself was buried in 1858 at the very grand age of ninety years.

    That’s the story of William and Jane, and my search for their beginnings in the seedier parts of eighteenth century London. I find myself wondering: if I could meet them (assuming time travel is a thing) would I like them?

    Possibly. William’s crime seems so quirky, even amusing (and I confess to a little sympathy with his evident clumsiness in dropping that cheese!)

    Jane, I am not so sure about. She was a young woman of her time and place in history; perhaps neither especially good nor especially bad, although a little of my sympathy here also lies with the gormless Welsh drover, who was clearly thinking with a part of his anatomy other than his brain, when he agreed to give Jane or her accomplice sixpence for sex and go upstairs with them.

    I am glad to have found some of the places of significance for these people, my 4 x great-grandparents: these Eastenders.

    All photos by author.
    Thank you for reading. If you’d like to read more Travels with my Ancestors, you can subscribe to my blog.

  • 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.

    Thanks for reading. You can follow my Travels with my Ancestors by subscribing to this blog.
    All photos by the author.

  • History,  Travel

    Travels with my Ancestors #7: From where the fleets sailed

    This is the seventh in the Travels with my Ancestors series. You may wish to read the first post for context. You can find it here.

    I’m at Portsmouth, in Hampshire on England’s south coast, at the mouth of the Solent River.

    It was from here that the first three fleets of convict transportation ships left England in 1787, 1790 and 1791 respectively. The fleets were made up of ships carrying convicts, male and female; plus officers, marines to guard the prisoners, and ships’ crew; along with one or two supply ships. Surprisingly, there were ‘private’ passengers aboard as well: people chancing it in the unknown of the colony, hoping to make money, to find adventure or sometimes, seeking anonymity after scandal or disgrace at home.

    After those initial three fleets, transport ships set sail independently, at different times and from a variety of ports. It was all systems go for the British authorities, who could not wait to rid their country of their undesirables, the so-called ‘criminal class.’

    Five of my ancestors were on ships of the Second and Third Fleets.

    They were Thomas Eather, William Roberts, Elizabeth Lee, William Eaton and Isaac Cornwell. You can read a little about those underlined by clicking the links on their names.

    Life at sea in the eighteenth century was not for the faint-hearted. There was the ever-present risk of shipwrecks, generally resulting in terrible loss of life because most people could not swim.

    Shipboard diseases and illnesses such as ‘ship fever’ (typhus), measles, influenza, scurvy, constipation or infection could bring death or disability.

    It meant living for months in cramped spaces, sleeping in a hammock or uncomfortable narrow bunk, sharing those spaces with many others – with limited washing or laundering facilities and primitive toilets. Rations were monotonous at best, unless you were ship’s master or among the officers or upper-class passengers. Ship’s biscuit, salted beef or pork, rancid butter, hard cheese, and gruel or porridge, with a ration of ale, or spirits if you behaved yourself – and that was the lot of the crew and soldiers, who usually fared better than the prisoners.

    For those travelling at His Majesty’s Pleasure below decks in the prisoners’ quarters, conditions were usually much worse.

    Especially on the Second Fleet, the convicts’ lot was unspeakably bad. The British government made the mistake of paying the ships’ owners for every prisoner taken on board their ship – not the prisoners taken off at the other end. It’s obvious to see the problem here. Having pocketed the money for each convict shoved into the prisoner hold, the owners and captains had no financial incentive to ensure the wellbeing and safety of these men and women. In fact, there was a strong incentive NOT to do so. By skimping on rations, clothing, blankets, the captains could on-sell saved foods and other items when in port, at inflated prices.

    One ship of the Second Fleet, the Neptune, was the worst of the fleet and later labelled the ‘death ship.’ The ship had been previously used as a slave ship, transporting enslaved people from West Africa to the Caribbean or the Americas. The ship’s master, Donald Traill, had captained the Neptune on those shameful voyages and proceeded to treat the new human cargo in the same way.

    The end result was a shocking death toll, with many bodies jettisoned over the edge into the deep waters below. Those who did survive crawled, or had to be carried off, at Sydney Cove: emaciated, dressed in tattered rags, filthy, and covered in weeping sores.

    Thomas Eather and WIlliam Roberts were among the survivors. One hundred and sixty years later, their descendants met and married: my father and mother. I am always in awe when I consider the odds against the possibility of such an outcome. Whatever their crimes that put them on that ship, those men were tough to have outlasted the months on the Neptune and then go on to prosper in the penal colony that was their new home.

    The outcry about the conditions on the Second Fleet resulted in an improvement for subsequent transport ships, which meant that Elizabeth Lee and Isaac Cornwell had a somewhat better experience on the Third Fleet.

    Having recently travelled back to Australia on an Airbus A380, I remember the feeling of being cramped in the small seats and worn out by the long flight. Then I remind myself to think of my convict ancestors. On the plane I was given a seat, was regularly fed, had clean toilets to use, fresh water to drink and cabin staff to bring me anything I needed. Apart from a few midair bumps and jolts, I did not suffer weeks of debilitating sickness due to the unaccustomed motion of the sea. I had no chores to do on the journey, nor did I have to worry about my fellow passengers’ emotional or violent outbursts or theft of my few, precious belongings from home.

    So yes, I had it easy. Those people on the convict ships did not.

    As I stand at the edge of the historic part of Portsmouth harbour, I look out at the blue-grey sea and sky, and down to the shingle on the beach below. There is a line of old buildings on one side of the harbour; small vessels dot the waters around the fully rigged ship on display. A fresh wind brings the tang of the sea as it blows across my face. How much of this did the convicts see or feel, once they had boarded their ship?

    For those unfortunates on the Second Fleet vessels, the answer is not very much. Prisoners were kept below decks, chained together in twos or threes for most of the voyage, and I imagine that began as soon as they boarded, clanking along the deck in iron fetters.

    For later voyages, prisoners were given regular time above deck, although with the risk of escape always foremost in the minds of authorities, that was often curtailed whilst in port.

    As each ship drew anchor and slowly made its way out of the harbour, some would weep as the expanse of sea widened between them and their loved ones. Others remained dry-eyed as they had nothing to leave behind.

    But for each and every convict, the thought that remained was this: What lay ahead at the end of this voyage?

    I’m happy to know that for three of the four of my convict ancestors, what lay in store for them was a much better, healthier and more prosperous life in the colony.

    Isaac Cornwell’s story did not have such a happy ending. On New Year’s Eve in 1810, he went to a celebration at the home of Patrick Hand at Richmond Hill (now called Agnes Banks.) Another local joined in the drinking until about 9 pm, when a violent argument broke out between the three men. Isaac was known for his hot temper, especially when drunk. One of the others armed himself with a musket. The night ended with Isaac lying dead with a musket ball in his head.

    Which I think only goes to prove that alcohol and weapons are always a dangerous combination, no matter the era or the circumstances.

    I am grateful that the other three survived and lived happier lives than they would have experienced had they remained in England. And very glad to have stood at the spot where those ships departed Portsmouth harbour, two hundred and thirty years ago.

    One last thought: this monument, marking the sailing of the convict fleets from Portsmouth, makes me smile but also feel a wee bit astounded. It’s an ugly sculpture (in my humble opinion) but it is the wording on the plaque that stops me in my tracks.

    It reads:
    This Monument commemorates the Sailing
    from Spithead on the 13 May 1787
    of the First Fleet Conveying Settlers to Australia
    A Great Nation was Born

    Where to begin with this one? Perhaps with the last line ‘A great nation was born.’ This ignores the fact that before English colonisation Australia was already home to several hundred First Nations. It reinforces the destructive legal fallacy of Australia being ‘terra nullius’ – empty land.

    And ‘Settlers’? Yes, as mentioned above, there were some ‘free settlers’, voyaging to the colony of their own choosing. But the vast majority of those on board that First Fleet and all the transport ships that followed, were definitely not there from choice. Most of them did go on to settle in Australia once they had served their sentences, and they may well have been tempted to thumb their noses at the ‘mother country’ because their lives were a great deal better there than in England. Still. The choice of that single word – ‘settler’ – neatly obscures the suffering and trauma the convicts experienced. This is the power of language.

    Thanks for reading. You can follow my Travels with my Ancestors by subscribing to this blog.
    All photos by the author.

  • History,  Life: bits and pieces

    Time travel: marking 200 years of the Parramatta Female Factory

    Today, Sunday 21st February 2021, the Parramatta Female Factory marked two hundred years since the convict prison building, commissioned by Governor Macquarie, took in its first cohort of 109 women and 71 children. It has been many years since the site operated as a gaol, workhouse, marriage bureau, work assignment centre and even an early version of a women’s health service (of sorts), but the Greenaway-designed buildings still stand, as do others added on over the decades.

    A group of volunteers called Parramatta Female Factory Friends have been advocating for this site to be given world heritage status and for local, state and federal governments to recognise its importance and do what needs to be done to protect and enhance its future. It was a committee from the Friends who organised and ran today’s event.

    It’s estimated that one in seven Australians today can trace their heritage back to a Parramatta Female Factory woman. That includes me: my 4 x great-aunt Mary Greenwood was an inmate here in the 1830’s, almost certainly her mother passed through here briefly before being assigned to work at the (then brand new) King’s Grammar School – as a laundress. Her name was Mary Ann Greenwood and she was my 5 x great-grandmother.

    Thomas and Meg Keneally, both patrons of the Friends of Parramatta Female Factory, spoke of the power of the stories it can tell modern Australians about the women who lived and worked there. To survive the whole transportation experience, including incarceration in the various female factories around the country, women needed to be resilient and tough. They were voiceless and powerless then, but as Meg said, she and other descendants of her 3 x great-grandmother can now be her voice.

    The day included an opportunity to lay floral tributes along the commemorative wall, which is inscribed with the first names of every woman known to have passed through its forbidding gates. Here I am with my little posy; if you look closely you’ll see my forebears’ names on the wall.

    Another special part of the morning was a performance by Cliona Molins and Rosie McDonald, along with Nigel Lever and Ann Palumbo, of four songs specially commissioned by the Female Factory Friends to mark the bicentenary. The song suite is called Mothers of the Nation and includes recognition of the many women who, as the title song’s lyrics tell us, were

    Mothers of the Nation, black and white,
    Written out of history
    Mothers of the nation, hold your heads high
    Mothers of the nation, elders yarn,
    her story of strength and fight
    to carve out a life in this land.

    ‘Mothers of the Nation’, by Cliona Molins and Rosie McDonald

    My thanks to the organisers of today’s special occasion.

    If you’d like to know more about the stories of the Parramatta Female Factory and the activities of the PFF Friends, you can visit their website.