• History

    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.

  • Books and reading

    Did you know that in Victorian times, the fear of grave-robbers disturbing the final resting place of a loved one led to a brisk sale in ‘mortsafes’, an iron frame anchored over graves to secure them? And that there was an equally brisk, and to modern eyes very disturbing, trade in the bones and other body parts of non-Europeans, smuggled about the globe and ending up in private collections, museums and scientific institutions?

    These are some of the snippets I learned by reading Black Silk and Sympathy.

    I love Deborah Challinor’s historical fiction for this reason. She weaves into her stories fascinating insights about the places and periods in which her novels are set – in this case, London and Sydney in the 1860’s. Specifically, it is the world of Victorian undertakers: not usually a topic for a novel, especially one with a female protagonist, but all the more reason to enjoy it.

    Tatiana at seventeen has been recently orphaned and makes a decision to leave London – and England – and try her luck in the colony of New South Wales. She is offered work as an undertaker’s assistant by Titus Crowe. It’s an unusual offer, but Crowe is an astute businessman and recognises the attraction of a ‘woman’s touch’ to grieving clients. Echoes of today’s women-operated funeral businesses, I suppose, but truly ground breaking in Victorian-era Sydney.

    When Titus dies, Tatty is determined to keep running the business on her own terms. Not unheard of, but unusual for the time, especially in the competitive world of the funeral industry.

    Unfortunately for Tatty, the competition is even fiercer than she’d thought, and one rival in particular will stop at nothing to limit her success.

    Being a businesswoman in this town, and particularly in your industry, will not be without its challenges. And you will be the only female undertaker in Sydney. To my knowledge there are seven other local undertaking firms apart from yours, all chasing the same profit to be made from funerals. Be prepared.

    Black Silk and Sympathy p167

    She is a formidable adversary though, and through quick thinking and a willingness to take risks, Tatty and her business endure.

    Previous books I’d read by this author include the Convict Girls series, and it took me a while to realise that several characters, who felt vaguely familiar, were from those novels, albeit several decades on. It’s always nice to meet old friends from earlier books again.

    The author’s background as an historian and researcher show in her impeccable details of the period, including fascinating insights into Victorian mourning customs and funeral practices, and the restrictions on women owning anything of their own once they married. The laws of the time certainly stacked the odds against women having anything like independence; yet there were women like Tatty who did not let that stand in their way. Thankfully we can now read stories about such women and the circumstances in which they lived.

    Tatty is a heroine to relate to and I hope to meet her again in the next book of the series.

    Black Silk and Sympathy is published by HarperCollins Publishers in April 2024.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    As I sit down to write this review, it is leading up to ANZAC Day in Australia, an annual day of commemoration of those who served in military campaigns in Australia’s name. Up until recently, those who served as medical staff and nurses in wartime seem to have been ‘add-ons’ in our military histories.

    Take the story of Sister Vivian Bullwinkle. Her name should come easily to Australians thinking about their nation’s involvement in war, like Simpson and his donkey in the ANZAC story, or ‘Weary’ Dunlop in WWII.

    There is now a statue of Sister Vivian in the grounds of the Australian National War Memorial. But when it was unveiled in 2023 – last year! – it was the first statue of a woman at the memorial.

    I’ll move on from my bewilderment at why it took such a long time to recognise this woman, and onto Grantlee Kieza’s story of her life. What a tale it is.

    Vivian Bullwinkle completed her nursing and midwifery training at Broken Hill Hospital in the 1930s. Then came the announcement in September 1939 that Australia was at war with Germany. From the Melbourne hospital where she was working, Viv enlisted as an army nurse. By 1941 she was on her way to Singapore, where she would face the new enemy of the war, Japan.

    The book includes vivid descriptions of the rapid and vicious attacks on Malaya and Singapore by Japanese troops. On reading these pages I had a sense of the fear that must have been in every heart, knowing that the Japanese were moving south at a rapid rate, killing anyone who stood in their way. I also felt anger at the apparent lack of preparation on the part of Allied authorities; the complacent belief of Western superiority which was then prevalent, certainly worked in favour of the Japanese. Rumours began spreading about the merciless nature of the Japanese soldiers.

    On a personal note, an uncle of mine was involved in that first encounter with the Japanese on Singapore Island; he was reported missing, presumed dead; a fate confirmed by the Australian Army at the war’s end. His mother and siblings never got over the loss of smiling, kind, lovable Ernest Harvey Newton, known as ‘Snow’ to his family. Learning about the cruelty inflicted on those who survived encounters with the Japanese, perhaps Snow’s fate was preferable. Who can say? All I know is that the whole thing was an shocking savagery that should never have happened.

    Eventually the nurses were evacuated from Singapore; it is telling that they apparently felt great reluctance and shame to be leaving the sick and wounded soldiers they’d been caring for. The author paints an appalling picture of the chaos and desperation of a defeated Singapore. The nauseating smell of death and raw sewage, oil fires and explosions, terrified civilians climbing over each other in their panic.

    Worse was to come for Sister Vivian and her comrades. Put aboard the Vyner Brooke, formerly a royal yacht of Sarawak, over two hundred people endured a terrifying voyage from Singapore heading for the relative safety of the Indonesian islands not yet occupied by Japanese. The stories of those on board are poignant: sixty-five Australian nursing sisters, including one who was seven months’ pregnant; a family of Polish Jews who had fled to the assumed safety of Singapore only to find themselves refugees once again; and many women and children.

    The ship was bombed by Japanese aircraft and went down off the coast of Bangka Island near Sumatra. Viv and her nursing colleagues tried to assist the wounded and terrified civilians, before the inevitable order to abandon ship as it broke up underneath them.

    But Viv had never learnt to swim.

    Somehow, she survived, with the aid of a life jacket and an upturned lifeboat, despite continued bombing from above and the threat of sharks below. She stumbled onto a beach where she recovered enough to find other survivors washed up on the island by the strong currents. At least twelve nurses had died in the water that night. With no food, shelter, and with many needing urgent medical care, the survivors agreed that they had to surrender to the Japanese and hope that the rumours they’d heard about the Japanese taking no prisoners were not true.

    What follows is a story of unbelievable cruelty, even sadism, by some of the Japanese they encounter. Men and women alike were coldly gunned down or bayoneted on Radji Beach, left to bleed out in the shallow water or drift off on the tide. Twenty-one of Viv’s nursing companions were murdered that day.

    Amazingly, after being hit through her middle by a machine gun and left in the water, Viv did not die. Some instinct told her not to show that she was alive, and even though she couldn’t swim, she allowed herself to float until the men with guns were satisfied that they had killed everyone. Eventually she was taken to a prison camp where she was reunited with others of her nursing sister colleagues.

    Moved from camp to camp, starved, with no medical care, minimal fresh water, no way to preserve their hygiene and health, beaten and abused…this was the experience of nurses and civilian refugees on Bangka Island and Sumatra for three and a half years. They survived by caring for each other, pooling any resources they could scrounge, making efforts to raise the spirits of their companions, burying the dead as one by one, women began to succumb to the ravages of malnutrition, tropical diseases and mistreatment by their captors.

    It’s a terrible story of unimaginable hardship and suffering. As I read, I often wondered ‘What would I do in this situation? Could I endure it? Would I have survived?’

    It’s also about stoicism, bravery, sacrifice and the comradeship that we often hear about amongst soldiers, but is less often applied to those who care for the sick and wounded.

    Of course the war did end, Japan surrendered, and the prisoners were eventually found and returned to Australia. We should remember that in the midst of their suffering, none of the nurses knew what would happen. They had no way of knowing what the eventual outcome of the war – and their fates – would be.

    After the war, Viv’s strength of spirit, her compassion and her pride in the nursing profession, did not abate. She devoted the rest of her working life to improving the standing and professionalism of nursing in Australia, as well as speaking at many memorials and events where she kept the memory of her dead sisters alive.

    And in 1975, aged nearly sixty, she played an instrumental role as one of twelve nursing volunteers in Operation Babylift, the mass evacuation of orphaned babies and children from South Vietnam, aboard a chartered Qantas jet from then Saigon to Sydney.

    I was so happy to learn that just a year or so later, she married and was able to enjoy more than twenty years with husband Frank Statham.

    Sister Viv is a gripping account of a woman who endured great suffering but went on to live a full and productive life in spite of her awful wartime experiences. Grantlee Kieza has written a biography worthy of this truly remarkable Australian.

    Sister Viv is published by HarperCollins in April 2024.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Writing

    Short Story: ‘The Bitterness of their Woe’

    This is a story about the horrific flood of the Hawkesbury River in 1867, in which twelve members of the Eather family perished. I wrote this back in 2021 as a fictional response to the tragedy, and was thrilled when it received first prize in the E.M. Fletcher family history writing competition that year.

    The terrible events were referenced in my post of 4 March 2024 ‘Travels with My Ancestors’ #15, which concludes the lives of my ancestors, Robert and Mary Eather, who were great-uncle and aunt to the children who drowned in the flood.

    The Bitterness of their Woe

    ‘The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away.
    Blessed be the name of the Lord.’

    I stare at Emma’s memorial stone. It wasn’t the Lord who took my darling wife away from me. It was my own foolish, stubborn nature. I thought I could keep them safe—Emma, our children, and my brother’s family. I’d reckoned myself smarter than the Lord himself, who’d sent the rains. But what did I know? Not enough.
    I do, however, know how to mourn.

    Cornwallis, near Windsor NSW, 1867

    That cursed rain began mid-June. When the fields around our house became a seething sheet of water, my brother George rode over to see me.
    “The water’s reached the level of the ’64 flood,” he said. “You’d best bring Emma and the children to my house. I’ve told William the same.”
    I agreed. George’s house was newer than mine and our brother Will’s, and on a higher point of land. We could wait it out in safety there.

    Emma carried little Maudie and gripped Angelina’s hand as they sloshed across low ground, already sodden from days of rain. I could barely see our two boys, walking ahead with Annie and Eliza. We covered our heads with our coats but were soaked and chilled when we reached George’s door.

    George ushered us inside and passed around towels to dry ourselves as best we could. William and Catherine were already there, their five youngsters gathered in a tight knot. The smallest ones were grizzling from cold and Emma went to help them get dry. Always kind, my Emma.

    George said, “I’m taking Dora and the children by boat to Windsor. Shall I take Emma and your youngsters too?”
    I hesitated. “What about your workers?” George had two young lads who worked his farm alongside him and his eldest boy.
    “I can come back for them, if the river keeps rising.”
    I shook my head. “Take them now, and send another boat back for us if it’s still raining by nightfall,” I said. “We got through the last flood; remember how we’d worried my place would go under? Turned out fine. We’ll be safe enough here. Get the lads into Windsor and send help if you think it needed.”

    I turned to Emma and the children. Emma was pale.
    “Don’t you think we should send the three youngest, at least? And Catherine’s?” she said in a low voice.
    I gave her a reassuring smile.
    “The river has never reached George’s house, not once. I’ve lived through plenty of floods. We’ll be safe here. Wouldn’t you rather we stayed together? George can send another boat for us, but I don’t believe we’ll need it.”
    Emma went to answer, but I cut her off.
    “Trust me, the children will be safe. Now, you and Catherine get something hot for them to drink.”
    Emma bit her lip and turned away.

    I had a moment of doubt then. Should I allow them to go with George? But George’s boat wasn’t big enough to take them—eleven children and their mothers. I’d shepherded us through the last big flood and would do so again. I knew this river and its moods.

    We watched as George rowed his boat upstream. It dragged in the water under its heavy load and I was glad I hadn’t trusted our little ones to it. George had enough to manage with his family and the lads. His wife turned to wave and shouted something back to us, but her voice was lost in the turbulent river as it raced past.

    When night fell, I wished I had that time over to decide differently. I’d thought the rain heavy before, but as the world darkened, water crashed from the sky in torrents, a powerful wind behind it buffeting the sturdy walls and roof of George’s house. Emma gasped at each thud. Then Charles called out in a frightened voice I’d not heard since he was a tiny boy.
    “The water’s coming in!”

    We hurried to staunch the flow with towels, sheeting, anything we could find, but nothing stopped the cold rush of water under the door. Young Eliza, in a panic, opened the door and was knocked to the ground by a wave two feet high. She screamed before Emma scooped her up to safety.

    William shouted, “We need to get everyone up on the roof. We’ll drown otherwise.”

    With difficulty we got outside, Maudie in my arms, Angelina on my shoulders. Emma, Catherine and Charles followed with the others. William struggled with the ladder, finally tying its base to the gum tree outside the front door, and leaning it against the house. We helped Catherine, Emma and the children climb to sit astride the ridge top. The women’s legs tangled in their sodden skirts and Catherine reached a hand to steady Emma as she teetered. By now all the children were crying, except Annie and Charles, who held on to their siblings and cousins with grim determination.

    The wind was ferocious up there.
    I tried to say “We won’t be here for long. George will send a boat—” but I broke off as no one could hear me above the din. I heard a dismal wailing and thought it was one of the children, but it was a cow, swirling past in the rushing water below us.

    And still the rain sheeted down.

    We stayed on that roof all night. A long, inky, fierce night. The rain and wind never let up, even for a moment. William and I made sure that no one fell asleep, by poking or nudging each of our group at intervals. I shivered so hard from the chill; I feared I’d jolt myself off the roof. I could see nothing below, but heard the evil gurgling of the water as it continued to rise.

    When at last dawn arrived, I choked back a horrified cry when I saw how far up the house it had come. Surely it could not reach us on the roof? But how much longer could we last, cold and wet as we were?

    It beggars belief, but we endured another whole day on that roof. The children were silent now, which was horrifying, much more so than their earlier tears. Catherine clasped her baby in her arms with little Clara slumped between her knees. Emma’s lips moved; I think she was praying. She shuddered from the cold, gripping on for dear life and holding Maudie’s legs to keep her safe.
    My chest and stomach tightened. They were all here because of me. If only I had taken up George’s offer and sent them to safety. Right then, if I could have saved them all by plunging into the roiling waters below, I would have done so.

    We looked in vain for George’s boat—any boat. Why hadn’t he sent help? The light faded and we were once again in darkness. I had not thought things could be worse but there, too, I was wrong. The storm intensified, thrashing us harder with rain that stung like shotgun pellets. Spiteful gusts of wind whipped at us. I was growing weary, so tired…how could the little ones keep holding on? But how could they not?

    Then it came, a groan and a crack, audible even above the noises of wind and swollen river. The walls of George’s house began to crumble and fall. There was a shifting in the roof beneath me and before I could think, I was plunged into the icy water. A scream…Emma or Catherine? Or one of the girls? I will never know whose voice I heard.

    The shock of the cold water stunned but I got my head above it. Hidden things knocked and bumped me as the river swept me along. I reached out blindly and my hands closed around something solid. It was a tree branch, half submerged but steady. I wrapped my arms around it, calling: “Emma! Charles? Eliza! Can you hear me? Come to my voice if you can! I’ll pull you to safety!”

    Charles called, close by, his voice ragged in the gusting wind.
    “I’m here, and Uncle Will.”
    I swallowed a sob. “Thank God! Are your sisters and mother near?”

    There was no answer. I screamed Emma’s name, crying out for my children, and for Will’s family. Above the noise of the wind and water I heard Will doing the same. My hands splashed about in futile attempts to find a leg, hand or arm. When I tried to call again, icy water filled my mouth. Choking, spitting, eyes squeezed shut; I bent my head and wept. How could this be happening? How could I have been so wrong about this flood, the danger of it? I wanted nothing more at that moment than to let go and sink beneath that hateful water.

    Then I roused myself. Charles was here, and Will. I had to help my boy and my brother; if I could save no one else I had to save them. I took one hand from the branch long enough to undo and remove my belt.

    “Charles!” I called, “take my belt and tie yourself to the tree with it.”
    His hand fumbled under the sloshing water towards mine and found the leather strap. Will shouted that he and Charles had made themselves fast. I could see nothing; could only pray that they would stay safe.

    I clung to the branch, holding my head above the water that slapped and pulled at me. My limbs grew heavy with the intense cold and fatigue. I called words of encouragement to Charles and Will; they gave answering shouts to let me know they were still there. At times I had to fight the urge to let myself be washed away. Somewhere in the river’s turmoil were my Emma, our children, and my brother’s entire family. Why should I live?

    But there was Charles, whose answering cries grew fainter as that hellish time wore on. I had to live, for Charles’ sake.

    At last I heard a voice, not Charles or Will. Someone was calling out to whoever might be lost in the river or on its banks. There was the wavering light of a lantern held high.

    “Here; over here!” My voice cracked, but the fellow in the boat heard and pulled towards us. I heaved myself over the edge of the boat, turned to help Charles and Will. We collapsed in a huddled heap on the floor of the vessel.

    Will gasped out, “Our wives, children…” and the oarsman turned the boat in slow circles, calling into the darkness, but there was no sign of them. Eventually he gave up the search and turned the boat back towards safety.

    We shivered and groaned in our misery, huddled in that boat. Two wives and ten children—vanished. Gone from us, forever.

    The waters receded after three days. Charles and I lay in bed, weakened from our ordeal. Searchers found Will’s Catherine and their children—all drowned. A neighbour spotted my boy James, washed up downstream from George’s house. We buried him the next day. Eliza’s body was discovered two months later, on a sandbank a mile away. But my Emma, and Maudie, Angelina and Annie…they were never found.

    I thought it would fell me, the pain of it. I didn’t care about the farm—the stock and crops and our house, all gone. Charles, Will and I stayed with George and Dora for a time. We rose each morning and went to bed each evening. The hours in between were lost to me for weeks. I registered nothing, except the loss of Emma and our children.

    A newspaper report about the floods described the awful losses—of people, homes, farms, livestock. It said:

    ‘The inhabitants of our district have not yet begun to taste the bitterness of their woe.’

    Truer words were never written.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Fitting end to trilogy: ‘The Settlement’ by Jock Serong

    The Settlement is the conclusion to a trilogy of historical fiction novels by award-winning Aussie author Jock Serong. Set in early colonial times in Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) the three books tell the uncomfortable story of the violence of the colonial project, the evil manifested by those involved, and the defiance of the island’s First Nations.

    I can’t recommend the first (Preservation) and second (The Burning Island) highly enough. If you enjoy both historical and crime fiction these novels are for you.

    The Settlement again moves forward in time to the 1830’s, where we meet the real-life George Augustus Robinson, the evangelistic character who took it upon himself to try to solve the problem of spiraling conflict between First Nations people and the settlers in Van Diemen’s Land.

    The so-called ‘Black Line’ – a very expensive and (for the British authorities at least) completely unsuccessful attempt to corral and capture Aboriginal people to eliminate the problem, had been a failure. Robinson convinced the authorities to allow him to locate and meet with the leaders of the groups posing a threat to white settlement, with the aim of convincing them to quit their homelands and move to a settlement on an island in the northeast.

    So the ill-fated and eponymous settlement of ‘Wybalenna’ on Flinders Island was established.

    The narrative moves between key characters: Robinson himself, and other historical figures including leading First Nations figure Mannalargenna, among others; and fictional characters such as two Aboriginal orphans, Whelk and Pipi. A sympathetic, if powerless and conflicted character is the settlement’s Storekeeper, who wrestles with his conscience and his own personal issues throughout the novel.

    Robinson himself, now called the settlement’s Commandant, also struggles with the morality of his actions, but always manages to hide behind his religious beliefs and expediency, with an eye to his future position and legacy. He becomes an illustration of the moral blankness at the heart of colonisation.

    The chilling character of the Catechist is a remake, of sorts, of the evil figures from the first two books. I heard the author in an interview describe this recurring / reincarnated character as embodying the evils of colonialism and the violence inherent in it. Or, as described in this novel, as an embodiment of the place, the hands and face of an otherwise formless despair. (p108)

    The scenes involving the death and funeral of Mannalargenna are almost unbearable, lifted only by the strength and dignity of the man’s spirit even as his body fails, and beautifully conveyed:

    Mannalargenna cared little for displays of suffering. He continued to use the grease on his skin and the ochre in the short tufts of his hair, in defiance of the Commandant’s wishes. He persisted in adorning himself in other ways, and in speaking language. Far from rendering him an alien in their midst, it made aliens of his captors. Like a holed and smoking ship of war, he would slide beneath the waves imperious.

    The Settlement p174-175

    Jock Serong has again woven a dark story around the equally dark bones of historical fact. He has cemented his place as one of my favourite Australian contemporary authors.

    The Settlement was published by Text Publishing in August 2023.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Claiming independence: ‘All the Golden Light’ by Siobhan O’Brien

    All the Golden Light is the story of one Australian woman, Adelaide Roberts, towards the end of the First World War. In a way, it’s also the story of a whole generation of women, who came into adulthood amidst the turmoil of war, a newly Federated nation, and who had to battle for the right to direct their own lives.

    We might think that Adelaide’s hopes are modest. She simply wants the right to choose her own life, to marry whom she pleases, to live a life in keeping with her own desires. In other words, freedom.

    At the turn of the twentieth century, though, these simple ambitions were beyond the reach of many women.

    Like many others, she is manipulated by family and circumstance into marriage with a man she does not love. She has met a man who fascinates her, but her future is not her own to choose.

    As events overtake her, her options seem more limited than ever, leaving her in a situation that becomes more dangerous by the day.

    The novel is set in the south coast of New South Wales, Australia, and the beauty of the islands, coastline and bush of this region is brought vividly to life.

    The terrible toll wrought by the war on small communities and the men and women affected by the conflict is also very clear.

    There is plenty of drama and tension in this novel, and readers will understand the many barriers facing women who want to live an independent, free life at this time.

    I found it difficult to relate to Adelaide and some of the other characters, and I’m at a loss as to why. It may have been just me, or what was going on for me at the time I was reading this book. But despite this, Adelaide’s predicament and struggle felt very real.

    The irony of her awakening to the women’s suffrage movement and her strong desire to exercise her own rights, while simultaneously being pushed into situations not of her choosing, is also very real:

    An image of her teenaged self came to her. She was around sixteen and huddled under the back verandah with a copy of Vida Goldsteins’ Women Voter magazine…Everywhere, women were being tortured, force-fed, imprisoned and sexually assaulted…
    In that moment, under the house, fury about the oppression that these women had endured surged through Adelaide’s veins. The world she knew, or at least she thought she knew, shifted. She realised women didn’t need to blithely adhere to convention. There was another way forward.

    All the Golden Light p 104

    All the Golden Light was published by HarperCollins in January 2024.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • 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!

  • Books and reading,  History

    Tale of two cities: ‘Edenglassie’ by Melissa Lucashenko

    It felt quite appropriate that I was finishing this new book by Goorie author Melissa Lucashenko just as the annual public holiday of ‘Australia Day’ (also known as Invasion Day or Survival Day) dawned.

    Given that the day is supposedly Australia’s national day, but is held on January 26th, the day that Governor Phillip planted the British flag on a Sydney beach and claimed the place for the British, it raises many questions of the kind also found within this novel.

    When does colonisation of a place end – if it ever does?
    Has the modern nation of Australia moved beyond its undeniably racist beginnings?
    Who has the right to tell whose stories?
    Can we see vestiges of the past in our current cities and landscapes? What lies beneath the concrete and tall buildings?
    Can past hurts ever be healed?

    Edenglassie was a name used briefly in the early years of colonisation for part of what is now the city of Brisbane. The novel has two timelines: a current day one, and a second narrative taking place in 1855, just a few decades after the first British convicts, guards and settlers established a settlement there.

    Mulanyin is a kippa, a young Yugambeh man from the coastal region around Nerang, who has been living at Edenglassie, gone through ceremony there, fallen for a young woman, Nita, and plans to marry her, save enough money to buy a boat and return to his saltwater home. He’s received good advice from his elders, especially his Big Father, who warns him: Think hard before you pick up the things of the dagai, especially those that seem entirely pleasurable.

    He is hot headed and must learn to control his impulses, especially when he sees wrongdoing against his fellows or himself. He comes to learn that while the Law imposes bonds and obligations that chafe, it also binds all Goorie people together and protects them and their civilisation. There is a lot of information given here about some of the precepts of Aboriginal culture: the importance and purpose of ceremony, the intricate rules of kinship and marriage, the careful tending and protection of natural resources.

    It is effortlessly woven in with Mulanyin’s story, as is the language scattered liberally throughout. We learn that jarjums are children, jalgany is an Aboriginal woman, pullen pullen is a space set aside for ceremonial combat. There is no glossary – we get the meaning from context and repetition throughout the novel; the best way to learn.

    The mid-nineteenth century was a time of increased tension and conflict in areas of Australia where European settlers were pushing further, taking more land, squeezing the First peoples out of home and livelihood. Inevitably Mulanyin is caught up in some of this with tragic consequences for his people.

    His story carries through, indirectly to begin with, into the modern-day narrative. This is actually where the novel opens, in 2024, with an elderly woman known as ‘Granny Eddie Blanket’ suffering a fall in the city that sees her in hospital for most of the rest of the novel.

    Granny Eddie is a formidable woman in her nineties, with a granddaughter, Winona, who is a strong activist. A young doctor, Johnny, provides care while exploring with Winona his own search for his indigenous ancestors. While a white journalist plies Granny Eddie with questions, hoping for a story on ‘Queensland’s Oldest Aboriginal Woman.’

    Through sometimes heated discussion we hear debate on issues like cultural appropriation, ‘wannabe blackfellas’, government hypocrisy, does DNA make you Aboriginal? contemporary blak activism… This part of the narrative is both hard-hitting and frequently very funny, often at the same time.

    Granny Eddie chastises Winona for her scorn at Dr Johnny’s attempts to get closer to indigenous ancestry:

    ‘I can’t come at it, Gran,’ she finally muttered. ‘It just feels all wrong. Invasive.’
    “Yeah, I know it does,’ Granny nodded. ‘But believe me, girl. You’re thinking like a whitefella when ya close him out. That’s not our way. We bring people in, we bring our Mob home, and we care about em. We teach em how to behave proper way. So, you just knock orf and be nice to him!’
    But what if they’re the same mob that stole our Home in the first place, Winona burned to retort. What if they’re white, Nan.
    But instead, she sat down and shut her gob and stayed ning, just like a real Goorie must do when growled by her Elder.

    Edenglassie p148

    Last year I hear Melissa Lucashenko interviewed in which she described how it is for an Aboriginal person walking around modern Australia, aware of all the history under their feet; the ancestors’ birthplaces and burial sites, the places that once nurtured whole communities and were nurtured in return. Edenglassie is a novel that helps white Australians catch a glimpse of what was there before the dispossession and the violence and theft that came with invasion and colonisation.

    And, we can get a tiny glimpse into the way that ancestors’ stories and teachings are carried though into modern day lives.

    Edenglassie was published by UQP in October 2023.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books,  History

    Lest we forget: ‘Secret Sparrow’ by Jackie French

    The publishers had this to say about Australian author Jackie French’s latest offering for middle grade readers:

    This is the story of women who fought during WWI, but not as nurses or ambulance drivers.

    In 1917 sixteen-year-old Jean McLain is working as a post-office assistant in England. But when she wins a national Morse code competition, the British army makes a request Jean cannot refuse – to take a secret position as a signaller in France.

    If Jean can keep the signals flowing between headquarters and the soldiers at the Front, Britain might possibly win the war.

    From Secret Sparrow blurb, HarperCollins Australia

    I sometimes think that if Jackie French was not an author, she would have made a wonderful archaeologist or even miner: she is forever digging out long-buried nuggets of wonder and creating compelling stories to bring to life little-known events or circumstances from the past.

    Secret Sparrow tells the story of young Jean, whose character stands in for the women who were sent by the British to work as ‘signallers’ in WWI. Working at base camps but sometimes near or on the front lines, they operated the morse code machines, sending and receiving coded messages that were crucial in the days before mobile technology or even telephones were widely used in warfare.

    Most of these women were employed by the postal service, although on temporary ‘secondment’ to the army. This meant that they were paid at the normal rate for their postal worker job, received no special conditions and – shockingly – were not paid pensions or medical expenses due to them after injury, or at the end of the war.

    A shortage of recruits with signalling skills meant long shifts of twelve hours or more, with no toilet or meal breaks. Signallers needed to be fast and, importantly, accurate – a slip could literally be the difference between life and death for soldiers. It was crucial work.

    To add insult to injury, in researching this history, the author learned that the majority of records relating to the women signallers’ service were destroyed after the war. Was this to evade responsibility for paying pensions to these women? Or embarrassment that the authorities had needed to recruit women for what were seen as men’s jobs, due to the danger and skill involved?

    Jean’s story takes us to the heart of trench warfare in France in 1917 and the author does not try to tidy it up for younger readers. The mud, rats, lice, horrific injuries, chaos, death and fear are all there. But there is also comradeship, and kindness, and bravery.

    There are moments of humour:

    ‘Toodle-pip, ma’am,’ Sergeant Peartree said to Mrs Reynolds with a half-salute, half-wave. Jean had a feeling that he thought a woman administrator was not worth a proper salute, or possibly he simply didn’t know which one was due to her – an ignorance shared by almost the entire army, the generals included. Those worthies had not decided whether the female administrators were officers, non-commissioned officers or ordinary troops. Apparently they were simply to be treated like unicorns: a species you didn’t have to acknowledge might exist.

    Secret Sparrow p93

    Jean’s wartime story is told by her to a young Arjun, a boy she helps when they are both caught out in a flash flood in rural NSW, Australia. It is 1978 and Jean is now an older lady, who has not lost her quick thinking and survival skills. She is able to look at her wartime experiences in a nuanced way which she shares with Arjun:

    It was a stupid war, fought in stupid ways, and mostly run by stupid men… The stupidity of the battle I was in – multiply that by every battle in the war… So yes, we had to fight. But we shouldn’t have had to fight like that. England and Germany were ruled by elites, and those elites weren’t very good at ruling. They’d got the job because they were born into it, and so millions of people died.

    Secret Sparrow p226

    Lest we forget, indeed.

    Secret Sparrow was published by Angus & Robertson, an imprint of HarperCollins Children’s Books, in November 2023.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • History,  Travel

    Travels with my ancestors #14: Robert Eather & Mary Lynch part 1

    This is the continuing story of my ancestors Thomas Eather & Elizabeth Lee, and their descendants.
    You can read the beginning of Thomas’ story here, part two of his story here, Elizabeth’s here, chapter three (where Thomas and Elizabeth meet and marry) here, and the final stages of their lives.

    Now we are moving on to the next generation of the Eather family: eldest son Robert and his wife Mary. They were of the generation of colonial-era white Australians known as ‘currency lads and lasses’: the first to be born in the colony.

    NB: For ease of reading online, I have omitted my references and footnotes. If you are interested in seeing the sources I have relied on for this story, please let me know via the contact form on this website and I’ll be happy to share them with you.

    ROBERT EATHER (1795-1881)
    AND MARY LYNCH (1802/1803? -1853)

    Currency lad
    In the autumn of 1795 in a tiny, dark hut at Parramatta convict camp, Elizabeth Eather gave birth to her second child and first-born son, Robert. As she cradled her baby, she wondered what his future would hold. What kind of life would he live, here in this place of transported prisoners and their guards?


    The boy’s earliest memories were not of Parramatta, because when he was two, the family moved to take up a land grant along the Hawkesbury (Dyarubbin) river. Robert’s childhood and youth were spent here on his parents’ farm. He learned how to clear and fence land; plough the soil and sow seed; care for cattle and pigs. His father had worked on farms all his life and taught his children about livestock and crops.

    His memories included multiple floods that ripped through the valley. The waters left behind sodden, stinking clothes and bedding and ruined crops—but also a thick layer of silty, fertile soil on which new crops could grow. The river flowed in Robert’s blood. He was planted in Hawkesbury soil and he thrived there, along with the maize and barley.

    View of the River Hawkesbury – above Raymonds Terrace, above Windsor and part of the Blue Mountains. New South Wales c1822-23 by Joseph Lycett.
    From State Library NSW [DG D 1,11]

    It was inevitable that this ‘currency lad’ would follow in his father’s footsteps.  In 1818 while in his early twenties, it was his turn to receive a grant of land from the Governor, Lachlan Macquarie.

    The sixty acre allotment was at Mittagong in the southern highlands of NSW. This was the land of the Gundungurra and Tharawal peoples, with no permanent European settlement as yet established in the district. It was too far from the lushness of the valley he knew; too unfamiliar; too wild.

    He never took up this grant, exchanging it for cattle. He farmed instead on leased land at Cornwallis lowlands on the edge of Windsor, and built a cottage on George Street, alongside his parents’ home. The Hawkesbury was where he’d been raised and where he’d establish his base. Over time, visions of open land on which to graze more livestock crept in, but he would seek them out while keeping one foot firmly in Dyarubbin soil.

    Currency lass
    On a Tuesday morning in April 1824, twenty-year-old Mary Lynch approached St Matthew’s Church of England at Windsor, all rosy brick in the morning light. How stately it was, how elegant, despite being one of the first churches built in this penal settlement of sinners. Perhaps that was the point. Perhaps its imposing presence was supposed to impress them all into godly obedience.

    St Matthews Windsor
    Picture from
     Discover the Hawkesbury

    If that didn’t work, there was the minister, Reverend Samuel Marsden, with his beady eyes, pursed lips and glare of disapproval. The ‘flogging parson,’ he was nicknamed, a man who preached the love of God but relished the power of the lash. She hoped he wouldn’t notice the three young children clutching at her hands, or her rounded belly pushing against her gown. She didn’t need his condemnation on this day of all days. There were plenty like her and her common-law husband Robert, too impatient to wait for the next visit by the clergyman to wed and begin a family. On this day, she and Robert were legalising their union, legitimising their children: they were getting married.

    Robert’s brother, Thomas Eather, was joining them in a double ceremony with his bride, Sarah McAlpin. At least Sarah’s loose gown hid her own expectant state.

    Autumn breezes cooled the faces of those gathered in the churchyard. Her parents, Thomas and Celia, were among them – staunch Catholics attending a wedding in this Church of England, but there was no church in the Hawkesbury to meet their own religious needs. Roman Catholicism itself had only been officially recognised in the settlement a few years previously with the arrival of two Irish priests, who occasionally travelled to the rural districts. But Mary’s husband-to-be was not Catholic, so it was easier to marry in a Church of England ceremony, even if it meant facing the derision in the vicar’s eyes.

    The couples were blessed and Mary could breathe a sigh of relief. As the group left the church to enjoy a wedding breakfast together, kookaburras caroled them from the trees, as if to join in the celebration.


    Like her husband, Mary was ‘native born,’ (as it was called then – somewhat strangely, given that the land was already occupied by peoples who had been native born for countless generations.) Like many her age, she was the child of both a soldier and a convict.

    Her father hailed from Dublin. He told many tales of his soldiering career, having served over thirty years in different regiments. He’d joined the NSW Corps in 1796, and spent two years overseeing convicts on the rotting Thames hulks. In this thankless work he directed the daily movements of convicts just like his daughter’s future father-in-law—and his own future wife.

    Perhaps this experience gave him some insight into the grim world of prisoners, knowledge that he would draw upon during the next stage of his career.

    In August 1799, an opportunity arose to try something completely different. The transport ship Minerva was in Cork harbour, being loaded with twenty-six female and one hundred and sixty-two male convicts, bound for New South Wales. He made sure to be among the thirty-two soldiers assigned to the voyage.

    During nearly five months at sea from Cork to Sydney, Celia (Catherine) Daley, caught his eye. She’d been sentenced that same year to seven years transportation. They both knew that liaisons between crew, the military and convicts were officially frowned upon, but they found ways to carry on their relationship regardless.

    Their romance was not a fleeting shipboard one. After the Minerva anchored at Sydney Cove in January 1800, they lived together as couple. Mary was born within three years. On the 1806 Muster, Thomas had Celia recorded as his wife. They spent some time at Parramatta before moving to Windsor.

    Twenty years later, when Celia died aged fifty-eight, her husband was on his own and retired from the military. To stave off loneliness, he moved to join his daughter and son-in-law on George Street. There he was surrounded by family, with five young grandchildren to keep him company.

    Due to his long military career, Thomas was made a grant of 100 acres of land. He tried first for land in the new wine producing area of the Hunter Valley, the land of the Darkinjung and Wonnarua peoples, and then in Dharug country, at Kurrajong in the Hawkesbury hills. Both times he was disappointed, as the land he’d selected had already been taken up by another. He died before he could finalise his claim. Undeterred, Mary wrote to Governor Ralph Darling that same year, requesting transfer of her late father’s grant to her. She was allocated land in the district of the Field of Mars (near today’s Anderson Street, Westmead.)

    A colonial brood

    Over the next two decades, Mary gave birth to another eight babies: twelve children in all by 1843, from when she was barely seventeen to age forty. They were years of absolute exhaustion from almost continual pregnancies, childbearing, and breast-feeding. There was no avoiding the never-ending work that needed to be done, and no reliable way of preventing pregnancy. Twice she stood with aching heart by the tiny grave of an infant son, wondering which of her children she’d have to bury next.

    Despite these challenges, their farm’s productivity grew, along with the family. They now owned cows, five horses, and eighty hogs. The wheat, maize, barley, and potatoes they planted bore good harvests and by 1822 they were supplying wheat to the Government stores, to the value of over two hundred pounds. Gradually their herds increased until they had over one hundred head of cattle. They were building on the solid foundation of his parents.

    When they thought about their future together, their hopes centered around providing for their growing family. But there may also have been ambition—to rival the prosperity of settlers or the military who’d arrived free to the colony and saw themselves as superior. Calling themselves the ‘exclusives,’ they looked down on those whose parents had come on a transport ship—people like the Eathers. The accusation of ‘convict stain’ stung; Robert and his family wanted to prove themselves the equals of any.

    Land, land and more land

    Land was the way to do it. Like his father before him, Robert was busy leasing, buying and selling property. He knew he had to have more acres on which to graze his growing herds of cattle and sheep. In 1829 he petitioned Governor Darling for an additional grant, stating his case in positive terms:

    Your Memorialist therefore for the sake of his rising family for whose future prospects he is naturally anxious, entreats Your Excellency to lend a favourable ear to his prayer by including him among those to whom it is Your Excellency’s intention to confer a Grant of Land, your Memorialist flattering himself that his character being generally known to be that of an industrious and striving Man, will be of some avail in Your Excellency’s estimation…

    He was by now a respected figure in the Hawkesbury community, appearing on potential jury lists for the Windsor Court sessions. Mary was proud to see him appear alongside leading men of the district, such as William Faithful, John Grono, John Ezzy. What a turnaround: the son of two convicts now sitting in judgement on the legal affairs of the district! Perhaps that was what this place was all about: turning the old way of doing things on its head.

    In the 1828 Census he gave his occupation as butcher; one that went well with his other preoccupation—grazing sheep and cattle.

    Robert began to venture out beyond the Hawkesbury. He needed land: the best way to prosperity and security.

    It was a desire shared by his siblings.  In the 1820’s he’d farewelled his brother Thomas who set off north along the Putty Road, trudging through Colo, the rugged Howes Valley and the Wollombi range, to reach Bulga on the western side of the Hunter Valley. Accompanying Thomas were his wife Sarah’s sixteen-year-old brother Will McAlpin, and an Aboriginal manwho guided them through the difficult terrain to more open country. They travelled on foot with a bullock to carry supplies.

    Later that year Thomas returned to Bulga, with Will and another youngster, several Aboriginal men— and Sarah. His Scottish-born wife rode on the back of a bullock with her first child, eighteen-month-old baby Thomas, balanced on her lap. Her pluck became part of family and Hawkesbury legend, which held that she was the first white woman to cross the mountains from the Hawkesbury into the Hunter Valley.

    They chose a spot at the foot of the mountain near Bulga alongside a tributary of Wollombi Brook. It was open, grassy land of tall trees and sparse undergrowth—no doubt the result of successful traditional land management such as ‘firestick burning’ practiced by the Wonnarua people there for generations.

    Here they built a bark hut, later replaced by a bigger slab house, and named their property Richmond, in honour of their Hawkesbury home. A few years later, Thomas applied to Governor Darling for a land grant, and in 1831 he received 100 acres at Bulga. He called the property Meerea, ** reputedly a word from the local Aboriginal language for one of the nearby mountains.

    Location of Bulga outlined in red, with two Eather properties: ‘Meerea’ and ‘Richmond’ near the village. Source: Google maps

    The Wonnarua people fought back against the disappearance of their traditional territory into settlers’ farms. There was an uprising in 1826 where several huts were plundered or damaged. Rumours spread that the attacks were in retaliation against settlers known for their harshness or cruelty towards the Wonnarua. Violence against Wonnarua by whites occurred at Garland Valley, Ravensworth, and Wallis Plains (later Maitland.) Just as in the Sydney basin, the occupation of Hunter Valley lands by white settlers was anything but peaceful.

    Thomas and Sarah later leased out their Bulga land and returned to the Hawkesbury, but the Eather brothers were not yet done with land acquisition.

    • As was common at the time, Aboriginal people who served as guides or servants to white settlers as this man did, went unnamed and unremembered in many written records.
    • Meerea Park (www.meereapark.com.au)  is a family wine making company with  historic connections to the Eather family and to wine grapes grown originally by Thomas; Meerea Country Estate (www.meerea.comis an historic property where the Eathers lived at Bulga, now leased as holiday accommodation.

    It was Robert’s turn to look for new land. Leaving Mary and the children in the Hawkesbury, Robert set off with his twin brothers Charles and Thomas, and two of their brothers-in-law, to establish runs near the Namoi River, on the lands of the Kamilaroi. They were among the first colonial squatters—a cohort who collectively made a grab for vast amounts of land outside the then-established settlements. They had no official permission—in fact, the government had made an order outlining the ‘Limits of Location’ and forbidding unauthorised settlement in regions outside these boundaries.

    In 1836 they learned that the colonial government wanted to rein in the uncontrolled squatting on land. Quick off the mark, the brothers submitted the very first application for a license:

    …your Memorialists are possessed of a considerable number of horned cattle as their joint stock which for some time…are depasturing at a place called ‘Benial’ on the Namoi River…your Memorialists acting in conformity with the meaning of an Act of the Legislative Council for the encroachment on the Waster Lands of the Colony will not be permitted to graze their cattle on the Waste Lands unless {they} obtain a License from the Government…Your Memorialists therefore most respectfully solicit that Your Excellency will be pleased to grant them a License to Depasture their cattle at ‘Benial’ …and are in duty bound will forever pray &c, &c, &c.
    Richmond Sept 16 1836

    They travelled there by foot and horseback, with a horse- or bullock-drawn cart to carry essential supplies and equipment. It was a journey of around two months.

    There were plenty of dangers: accidents on the rough bush tracks; deadly snake or spider bites; heatstroke from the burning summer sun; encounters with Aboriginal people, if unfriendly; and bushrangers, who were known to rob travelers in these lonely parts.


    For Mary, these were long weeks of worry, combined with the unceasing work of family and farm, until the menfolk returned. She’d have no news of their progress: she had to be patient, counting the days until they got home.

    She’d never forget the time when sons Abe and Jim, with childhood friend John Griffiths, came to grief while droving cattle. The young men had been north of Walgett, in territory mostly unexplored by white people. It was a drought year and the sun had baked the parched earth to a dry crust. When their precious water supply ran low, Abe and John went to find the Narran River, which they knew flowed nearby, but they lost their way.

    After two days and nights without water, John could go no further and Abe left him in a marked place, limping on alone. Abe was later found nearly unconscious by a Kamilaroi man, whose kindness and quick action saved his life. They never found John’s body.

    The younger men related all this on their return. Abe grieved the loss of his childhood friend for years and his mother must have shuddered when the story was told at family gatherings.

    Some of her sons’ adventures passed into family legend, such as Abe’s oft-repeated comment that after Queensland became a colony in the 1850’s, he could light his pipe with one foot in Queensland and the other in NSW.

    Yet the dangers of the bush remained. Each time she bid her husband and sons farewell, she had to hope they would return to her, alive and unharmed. If an accident or illness occurred there was no help there: they had to rely on their own resources. She had to trust they could find their way out of any difficulties they encountered.

    Her sister-in-law Sarah was someone with whom she could share her worries, because unlike Mary, Sarah had joined her husband on those long treks to Bulga, and later to the Namoi.  She was a source of information about the frontier life and its hardships, especially for a woman, travelling and living in isolated places with only the menfolk and children for company. What fortitude and spirit! Of course, such physical hardship and isolation was not for everyone. Mary may have admired Sarah’s courage; she may also have been grateful to remain at home in the relative safety of the Hawkesbury while Robert travelled away from her.

    During the 1830’s and 40’s Mary saw her husband relentlessly pursue more land, submitting applications for grants, buying, leasing and selling acreage. It was a kind of fever, this push to add more territory, always moving outwards. In a world where nothing was certain and disaster could strike at any moment, land seemed the only solid thing that could be relied upon.

    She transferred to him the title of the grant at Westmead made to her on behalf of her late father. They named it ‘Eather’s Retreat’ though they never lived there. It joined the growing collection of Eather properties around the colony.

    Eather and Kamilaroi: Connected Stories

    I have written elsewhere about the necessity and difficulty of discovering all sides of our ancestors’ lives – the dark and the light – if we want to know their stories in full.

    This is where I come to a difficult part of the Eather history: their interactions with First Nations people on the lands they explored and lived on. Here are my thoughts :

    It is impossible to tell the story of the Eathers in Australia without also telling the story of the First Australians on whose lands the Eathers settled and farmed.

    Robert and his brothers were on a constant mission to acquire land. To them, the rich black soil country of the Liverpool Plains was untamed land, ready for occupation and livestock.

    For the Kamilaroi people, that land was heritage, livelihood, and spiritual home. It became clear that the white strangers would not be leaving: they were there to stay. How could the Kamilaroi survive when access to everything they needed was blocked by the white men’s fences and guns?

    News of continued conflict between white settlers and Aboriginal people reached into all corners of the colony. Attacks by Kamilaroi on cattle, fences, huts and sometimes, settlers, their employees and families, resulted in bloody reprisals across the northwest: the land surrounding the Namoi River was littered with sites of violence and death in the 1830’s. 

    The most notorious was the slaughter of Wiriyaraay people of the Kamilaroi nation at Myall Creek in 1838, where people were murdered and the perpetrators made clumsy attempts to burn the corpses.

    This episode ignited heated discussion around kitchen tables, farm sheds and public bars, especially when seven of the white men involved were tried and hung the next year.

    There were settlers who were sympathetic to the situation of the Aboriginal people, and sickened by indiscriminate and bloody violence against them. When reports filtered back into townships that those killed at Myall Creek included infants, children and women, and involved decapitations and other mutilations, many people were disgusted.

    On the other hand, plenty were outraged at the trial result. Soon after the sentence of death was pronounced on the perpetrators at Myall Creek, two men came before the court on charges that they had abused and insulted the chairman of the jury which had found the attackers guilty, ‘for finding white men guilty for a lot of cannibals…’ They added that they ‘would have sat for a month before {they} would have found them guilty.’

    As debate raged about the rights and wrongs of the verdict and sentence, violence continued in and around the region where the Eathers were establishing their herds. In the settlements they passed through on their journeys from the Hawkesbury they would hear about the latest events.

    Whatever opinions they held; they were not merely bystanders. The settlers’ occupation of Aboriginal land was a  key reason for the conflict. Both Kamilaroi and settlers felt fear and anger as the attacks and reprisals continued with no end in sight. What was the solution?

    Much popular opinion held that God meant for Christians to use and ‘improve’ the land for production. Indeed, grants of land made by the colonial government brought with them conditions: to clear a proportion of the land, farm crops or livestock, build homes and infrastructure. Church leaders, clergy and missionaries felt an obligation to bring the Christian faith to native peoples. For these colonists, Aboriginal resistance to such God-given tasks could not be tolerated.

    The Eathers were living according to the colonial government’s directions: marrying, having large families to become loyal British citizens, taking up land, contributing to the wealth of the Empire.

    Whether they participated in, deplored, or approved of the violence against Aboriginal people, they certainly lived through the frontier wars. They were not immune to news of successive waves of violence, because the conflict was at its height in the decades when they were among the settlers pushing further into new territories.

    Up along the Namoi, Robert leased a run called ‘Muggarie’ while Thomas established neighbouring ‘Henriendi.‘ Both properties were located just east of Sir John Jamison’s ‘Baan Baa’ station. Here they grazed sheep, cattle and horses.

    Location of property ‘Baan Baa’ on Namoi River, Liverpool Plains district, just north of Boggabri.
    The Eather runs ‘Henriendi’ and ‘Muggarie’ were just to the east of there .

    Source: Google Maps

    Where the settlers fenced, cleared and built, conflict with Kamilaroi erupted. Attacks on settlers were followed by bloody reprisals throughout the 1830s, including at ‘Baan Baa’ and nearby Barber’s Lagoon.

    Both Eather runs were situated between sites where violence erupted between Kamilaroi and settlers. Newspapers were full of reports of events, sometimes urging restraint and at others, demanding punishment of Kamilaroi as a deterrence. Each fresh outbreak sparked heated discussion amongst settlers as to what should be done. Whether or not the Eather men took part in reprisals, they must have known what was happening and had their own views about it.

    Eather family ties meant that several branches of the family worked and lived at various properties leased or owned by the brothers. Several of Thomas’s sons and their families, brother James, and cousin Samuel, all joined him at Henriendi in the 1860’s.

    It was certainly ‘frontier territory’ with the rough living and danger of most frontiers. One of the Eather sons was involved in a search for bushrangers who held up the Walgett mail coach in 1864. An infamous bushranger, Captain Thunderbolt (who like the Eathers, hailed originally from the Hawkesbury) roamed the Liverpool Plains in the 1860’s robbing coaches and inns, though family stories and local news sources maintained that Thomas’s son Charles was a friend of Thunderbolt’s and for that reason, Henriendi station was safe.

    Source: uralla.com

    Charles amassed many acres of land to graze sheep or cattle. But in the 1870s and 80s the ‘boom and bust’ cycles of rain and drought, plus the vagaries of wool pricing, saw him struggle financially. Parts of Henriendi were put on the market. Charles was declared bankrupt in 1884 and Henriendi subdivided fifteen years later.

    Thomas and Sarah continued to make many trips to and from the Hawkesbury. They both died there and were buried at St Peter’s church in Richmond, but they left behind many Eather descendants in the Liverpool Plains region.

    Home in the Hawkesbury

    Meanwhile, by the 1840s Robert’s family had moved across the Hawkesbury River to the hills outside North Richmond. He purchased 170 acres of land in an area bordered by present-day Gadds Lane, Slopes Road and Kurmond Road.

    The district was called ‘Sally Bottoms,’ named for the sally wattle trees that proliferated there; later the name changed to Tennyson. It was beautiful farming country of gentle slopes and meandering streams. They built a house and planted an orchard. Citrus and stone fruits grew well, along with grains and hay for stock feed, melons and vegetables such as turnips.

    Robert and Mary Eather purchased land at Sally’s Bottoms, today known as Tennyson, shown in the area outlined in red on this extract from Historic Land Records viewer, Book 102.
    The screenshot from Google Maps (below) shows the location today (near Gadd’s lane)

    Here is where we leave Robert and Mary for the time being. Their story will be continued in another chapter of Travels with my Ancestors.
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    Thank you for reading!