• 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.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Long overdue – the real story of the Hawkesbury-Nepean: ‘People of the River – Lost Worlds of Early Australia’ by Grace Karskens

    I was born and grew up in the Hawkesbury region and returned to live there and in the nearby Blue Mountains in my thirties. I have at least four ancestors who arrived in the Hawkesbury and Nepean region after serving their sentences, to take up land as settlers. Despite this, and despite attending high school in Richmond, not far from the river itself, I had learnt little of the early history of the region – which is rather sad, when you consider that it was an area rich in stories of the people who lived here before and after British colonisation.

    In People of the River, historian and author Grace Karskens brings those stories to life, digging down into layers of history, back to what she calls ‘deep time’, tracing the ways in which the First People of the river and its surrounds lived before the English arrived, and the subsequent interactions between and among Aboriginal and settler communities.

    This is no lightweight or dry history text. It’s an incredibly comprehensive account, though the impeccable research is always conveyed with a deft touch. The book includes chapters about the Hawkesbury-Nepean’s ancient geology, geography, earliest human habitation, the cultural and spiritual lives of its people (both Dharug and settler), the economic, political and social contexts of the colonial era, as well as the tragedies endured by the First Peoples, such as disease, family and community dislocation, child stealing, and violence.

    However, we also learn of the many ways in which the First Nations communities adapted to and survived British colonisation and the many, sometimes surprising, ways in which they interacted with settlers. Referring to artefacts discovered, some held in museum collections, she writes:

    These are the poignant ‘small things forgotten’, the scattered, silent, yet insistent record of a vast and extraordinary human experience: the enforced creation of new worlds and lives, woven from the old. Despite the terror and violence, the determined campaigns, the loss of so many of their kin, the disruption to their food sources and their social and sacred places, the people of Dyarubbin survived, and remained in their Country.

    People of the River p175

    Ms Karskens is a gifted writer and her histories are engaging, lyrical and deeply moving – if you have read her earlier work, The Colony, about the history of the Sydney region, I am sure you will agree.

    Along with her research for this book, the author has also been involved in a project with Dharug knowledge holders and fellow historians, that aims at re-discovering and reinstating the Dharug place names of the region. I am so glad to learn that the town I lived in for ten years, Richmond, has a much older name: Marrengorra.

    I struggle to keep this post about People of the River brief – there is so much to enthuse about and so many amazing stories here. If you, like me, enjoy learning more about the real history of our country, this is a must-read. I lingered over it for several months – it’s a hefty book at 525 pages (not including appendices) but such a joy. I finished it with a satisfying sense that I now have a better understanding of the corner of Australia that has been so personally meaningful to me.

    People of the River was published by Allen & Unwin in 2020.

  • History

    The intriguing mystery of Margaret Catchpole

    In the kitchen at ‘Durham Bowes’ in Richmond, the historic home built in 1812 where Margaret worked.

    How can someone be raised in a district and know so little about the stories of the people and places in its past?
    I was born and raised in the Hawkesbury, arguably one of the most historically rich regions in Australia in terms of European settlement and early contact with our nation’s First Peoples. I learnt the basics in school of course, about Governor Macquarie’s ‘Five Towns’, of which Richmond was one.

    But I certainly didn’t learn much about some of the more colourful personalities of these times. Margaret Catchpole is a case in point.

    Margaret arrived on the Nile in 1801, transported for escaping from gaol, after being imprisoned for stealing a horse (while dressed as a boy). Remarkably, she was one of the relatively rare convicts who could read and write, and exchanged many letters and gifts with her old employer in Sussex – from whom she had stolen the horse! There must have been a warm relationship between these two women, for the ostensibly wronged one to continue to write to an ex-employee who had stolen from her family. Even more remarkably, she kept Margaret’s letters, so historians have had the opportunity to learn about convict life and experiences at this time.

    On a recent tour organised by the Hawkesbury Historical Society, I had the opportunity to discover Margaret and walk around the spots where she lived and worked.
    You can check out the Historical Society’s website here: https://www.hawkesbury.net.au/

    Margaret worked for some of the most prominent English settlers around the Hawkesbury, for whom many roads and other features are named: the Dight, Pitt, Faithful, Skinner and Wood families. She delivered babies, cared for small children, cooked, nursed sick family members, and performed many other tasks for her assigned masters and mistresses. She apparently made several trips into Parramatta or Sydney from the Hawkesbury – on foot. No mean feat considering the distance, the dangers and the isolation at that time.

    She also helped save several members of the Dight family, helping them to the roof of their cottage on the Richmond lowlands during the devastating flood of 1806.

    She eventually received a pardon in 1814. She was 58 years old by then and sadly only lived another five years as a free woman. She is buried in the first cemetery established in Richmond, across from St Peters church. The mystery surrounding her actual burial site is another aspect of her story, one that continues to intrigue today.

    I have a sneaking suspicion that Margaret (or someone very much like her) might become a character in my next fiction project, which will be set in the Hawkesbury district.