• 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.

  • 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.

  • 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,  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!

  • 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

  • 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 # 5: Kentish men and women – The Heather / Eather family

    I am in Kent, in the southeast of England. There are two villages and one town I’m here to see. All three places are related to the story of my Heather/ Eather ancestors, my paternal grandmother’s forebears, who lived in this little corner of England from the 1600’s.

    Robert Heather and his wife Mary moved to the village of Chislehurst in about 1640. Together they had a daughter and five sons; each successive generation naming their eldest son Robert. For over twelve decades the Heathers were baptised, married and buried at St Nicholas’ church in the village.

    Today that church stands sturdily, overlooking the expansive Chislehurst Common, a swathe of green within the suburban landscape of southeast London that has overlaid the village of yesteryear. The Common is threaded with quiet walking paths through stands of spreading oaks. Squirrels scamper up trees as I pass, a spring chorus of birds follows me through this timeless place.

    A strange circular depression in the grass is a puzzle – a former pond? A bomb crater from the war? – until I see a small plaque labelling it as ‘Chislehurst Cockpit’. I have an awful feeling that I know what this was.

    Later, I google it and my suspicion is confirmed – it is a leftover from the days when village pastimes were bloodier and more violent than today’s football or cricket matches. Cockfighting, single stick fighting and other such entertainments were pursued there until banned by more squeamish authorities in Victorian times.

    Now to the church. St Nicholas has stood since the 15th century, though the site has seen worship for over a thousand years. The Norman font is still in use today: all those Heather babies baptised with water from its stone basin. When I look closer, I notice a very sweet modern addition: a garland of knitted babies’ booties and tiny socks around its base.

    I stand at the altar, where I imagine successive Robert Heathers and their brides reciting their wedding vows. Were their eyes fixed on the embroidered tapestry or intricate carving behind the Reverend? Unable to read, they may have enjoyed the storytelling in these artworks.

    The Heathers were not wealthy, too poor to have afforded a stone monument to mark the life and death of one of their number. Many Heather bones lie beneath the soil in the churchyard; if they once had a simple wooden cross to mark their places, they have long since rotted away. But the earth here has been enriched by the blood and bone of generations of the Heathers.

    In Maidstone, I want to find the place where one of the Heather sons, Thomas, was tried, sentenced and imprisoned in 1788. I have researched the town’s history and learnt that the Court House and Gaol were once in what today is the Town Hall.

    When I get there, I am disappointed to find the doors firmly closed and locked. This I had not anticipated. Then I notice a small old-fashioned doorbell with a sign above it that reads ‘Please ring.’ Should I? I decide that yes, I should: I am here for this one day; my only chance to see where these events played out. So I press the button. Nothing happens.

    I swallow my disappointment and am about to turn away, when I notice a more modern-looking button. I press it. Long moments pass, before a young man pops his head around the door.

    Quickly I say, ‘I’m from Australia, and an ancestor of mine was tried and imprisoned here. I was hoping to see the place where this happened.’

    He hesitates, then smiles. ‘I was just about to do the fire drill, but I’ve got a few minutes. Come on in.’

    Scarcely believing my luck, I follow him inside and up a flight of stairs to a large room where, he tells me, the local council meetings now take place. High on the wall at one end of the room is a plaque with the insignia of British justice, and the young man, whose name is Russell, tells me that it was here that judges meted out punishment to those who, like Thomas, had broken the law.

    I can imagine it: Thomas in the dock, the bewigged judge stern-faced on a high bench above him. Thomas’ crime had not been a trivial one: he was accused of ‘Highway Robbery’, having stolen goods from a man on a road while brandishing a weapon – a hoe? A pick? Or even a musket or pistol? The place where this happened was very possibly a road near the same Chislehurst Common I recently walked across.

    Whether he knew it or not, this was one of the many offences that attracted the Death penalty. Thomas would hang.

    He was taken to a cell, which is where Russell and I now go. Up a flight of narrow stairs, through a heavy door with a small square peephole cut into its thickness. What was once a gaol cell is now an empty room. In places, letters and dates have been carved into the the bare walls and floor – this is Georgian-era graffiti by educated prisoners who could write.

    I ask Russell how many prisoners would be accommodated in this room.

    ‘Up to sixty, at times,’ he tells me. ‘Men, women and children.’

    Fortunately for Thomas (and his descendants) he did not hang. His death sentence was commuted to a term of transportation: fourteen years across the seas in the new penal colony of New South Wales. He spent a total of two years in that cell in Maidstone, before being transferred to one of the prison hulks on the Thames in London.

    Then in 1789 he was on board the prison ship Neptune, bound for Sydney. He survived that voyage on the worst ship of the worst convict fleet to leave Britain – but that is a whole other story.

    For now, I am grateful that he made it to Australia, and that I pressed that bell at the Maidstone Town Hall in order to see where these life changing events took place.

    PS. If you are wondering how Thomas Heather became Thomas Eather, imagine this: You have just been disembarked at Sydney after a hellish voyage, and a pasty-faced clerk demands your name, quill poised over a ledger book. In your Kentish accent, you reply ‘Thomas Heather’, dropping the ‘h’ as you always do. What the clerk hears and records is ‘Thomas Eather.’ And so the Australian Eather family has his origins in a dropped ‘aitch.’