• 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 # 11 : Thomas Eather, Kentish man (part two)

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

    November, 1789: Gravesend, on the Thames

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


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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

    Thomas had survived his ordeal. What was next?


    To be continued.

    AIATSIS Map of Indigenous Australia, AIATSIS Canberra, 1996

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

  • History,  Travel

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

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

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

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

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

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

    The tale of a cheese

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

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

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

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

    A darker tale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

    She was twenty-two years old.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • History,  Travel

    Travels with my Ancestors #9: A question of ‘why’?

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

    Around 1841, a newly married couple arrived at the port of Launceston in Tasmania’s north. They were Charles Littler and Ann (or Anne) Summers. They are my 3 x great-grandparents on my mother’s side. They left behind their families, home and community in Essex, England, and voyaged to a small island at the bottom of the world, perched between the Southern and Indian Oceans.

    What did they know of Van Diemen’s Land, as it was then called? Why had they chosen this place as their new home? And how did they, and later generations of Littlers, fare in Australia?

    Both Charles and Ann came from the town of Waltham Abbey, Essex, which had been the home of Littlers since the mid-1700s. My visit to this place, just north of London, is necessarily brief, but my aim is to visit the church from which it got its name, and to walk around the town itself.

    There has been a church on the same site here for fourteen centuries. The current building has a tower built in the reign of Mary Tudor. I know that both Charles and Ann were baptised here, in the early 1800’s.

    Its main claim to fame is that the legendary king Harold prayed there in 1066, just before his ride south to Hastings to battle Duke William of Normandy for the English throne. Harold died in the battle (the ‘arrow through the eye’ of Bayeaux Tapestry fame) and the story is that his mistress ordered his body to be brought back to Waltham Abbey for burial in the grounds. No one knows exactly where, but there is a marker on the grassy ground outside the church and a statue of Harold carved into the stone of the building.

    Charles came from a family of some means. His father William had taken advantage of the silk weaving industry that had sprung up in Essex and owned a silk printing factory in the centre of town, earning enough to support his wife Elizabeth and huge family of eighteen (including three sets of twins.) As was common at the time, the couple lost three children to illness.

    However, life, family and business continued, and as the Littler sons reached adulthood, their father turned his printing business into a partnership with Charles and his eldest brother Edmund. They were comfortably middle class; the continued prosperity of the Littler family seemed assured.

    Ann, on the other hand, came from a rather different family background. Rather than a successful businessman, her father Michael Summers was a labourer, working at the Royal Gunpowder Mills, a major employer in the area. Before her marriage to Charles, Ann also worked there. Her family lived at Crooked Mile, a road leading north from the town. I venture up that road but there is little of historical interest evident now.

    The Gunpowder Mill, however, is a heritage site with a history of over three hundred years of production. No doubt it contributed much to the bloody and brutal business of empire building in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

    Workers at the mills were proud that their labour supplied the gunpowder that contributed to Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar and Wellington’s defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo. They operated under strict rules, working slowly and carefully to avoid accidents, which could be fatal. Even the powder boats, pulled by a man rather than a horse along the system of canals through the site, contributed to safety, as the waterways were a smoother ride than horse and cart for such highly explosive materials. The finished product was taken by barge to the arsenals at Woolwich or Purfleet on the Thames.

    Ann and her father may have worked in one of the press houses where the gunpowder was made, following the ancient recipe incorporating charcoal, saltpeter and sulphur. At the end of a working day, they would find it hard to rid their hands and clothes of the pungent odour of the explosive they helped create.

    There is no sign of the Littler’s silk production and printing factory now. The town feels a little run down to me, and I note shabby shops rubbing shoulders with quirky Tudor and Georgian or Victorian era buildings. It’s a pleasant stroll, though, and the question on my mind is why Charles and Ann decided to emigrate to Australia?

    Interior of St Martins in the Fields, London

    The answer might lie in events that unfolded a year before Charles and Ann married in 1838, which did not take place in their parish church of Waltham Abbey (because it was apparently undergoing some repair work) but at the rather grander St Martins in the Fields at Trafalger Square in London.

    In January 1837, his father William summoned his solicitor to prepare his will, and to dissolve the business partnership with his sons. Three days later he was dead. The outlook for the Littler family was now more complicated.

    Almost immediately after their wedding, Charles and Ann embarked on their momentous voyage to Australia, arriving first at the port of Adelaide, then continuing to Van Diemen’s Land.

    Ann’s trepidation about beginning married life aboard a ship full of emigrants, not to mention leaving behind her pretty town, her job, and her family, was mixed with excitement. For a young woman, the prospect was one of adventure, starting her new life with Charles on the other side of the world, far away from England with its old traditions and society’s expectations. But if Charles was acting from frustration or anger at the loss of his role in the family business, Ann may have felt differently.

    Either way, she had to prepare for a long voyage, followed by a period of adjustment and learning. If pressed, she was unlikely to have been able to point to Van Diemen’s Land on a globe. It looked to be at the bottom of the world. One thing she would have realised was that, once they stepped aboard the Henry Porcher, life would never be the same again.

    On the long voyage from England, Charley (as he was known) took on the role of assistant to the ship’s surgeon, probably as a volunteer. Emigrants were required to perform duties on a roster system throughout a voyage, and he chose to work in the ship’s small hospital space.

    The surgeon had responsibility for the well-being of all crew and passengers. He treated ailments, tried to prevent shipboard illnesses such as scurvy, delivered (and sometimes christened) babies, carried out a funeral at sea if a passenger died, arranged activities for passengers, and supervised dietary matters. Charley would assist where he could. This experience was to stand him in very good stead once he arrived in the colony.

    The Henry Porcher docked at Adelaide first, but the Littlers’ journey ended at Launceston, in the northeast of Van Diemen’s Land, on the traditional lands of the Pyemmairrener people. They were to spend the rest of their lives there.

    Charley’s work in the Henry Porcher’s shipboard hospital resulted in a recommendation for both he and Ann to be employed in newly vacated positions at the Female Factory: he as Gatekeeper and Ann as sub-Matron. The Factory was one of a number of barracks built to house women convicts, where prisoners lived and worked until they were assigned as free labour.

    Neither had any experience related to the jobs they’d be taking on. Being regarded as a decent respectable fellow (as he was described in the letter of recommendation) was all he needed. His middle -class background was an asset here, though he and Ann may have been unprepared for the environment in which they were to live and work for the next few years.

    Their time there was not without scandal and controversy: a whole other story which I may continue later.

    For now, I leave Waltham Abbey with my question of why? unanswered. I can’t say for certain what drove my mother’s great-great-grandparents to leave Waltham Abbey for a life in a penal colony ‘Down Under.’ But I do feel happy to have visited the place where their life together began.

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

  • History,  Travel

    Travels with my Ancestors #8: From the Fenlands – the Robinson family

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

    When Hardy Robinson disembarked from the immigrant ship Irene in the Australian spring of 1852, he carried with him a new baby daughter, some luggage, and his tattered hopes for life in a new country. Accompanying him were his other two children, Harvey aged five and Elizabeth, three. The children looked confused and overwhelmed by the events that had overtaken them. Hardy looked exhausted and deeply troubled.

    What had happened to this little family between embarkation in England and arrival in Australia? Some tragedy had struck, destroying the vision that had propelled them to emigrate.

    My father rarely spoke of his father’s background, and once (in his later years, when his memory was fading fast) told me that he thought his paternal grandmother was German as ‘she had a sort of German-sounding accent.’ Imagine my surprise when I discovered that Elizabeth Robinson, my great-grandmother, was in fact from Lincolnshire, in England’s east midlands.

    This is how Lincolnshire came to be included in the Travels with my Ancestors itinerary.

    I’ve explored the city of Lincoln in the county’s north, with its incredible history and castle, medieval canal and cathedral. Now I’m heading south, to Sleaford and the cluster of smaller villages from where the Robinson family originated.

    Much of southern Lincolnshire is flat, marshy land. Incredibly green to Australian eyes, dotted with black faced sheep and small hamlets, the fenlands were first drained back in the 1600’s during the reign of Charles I. Today it is rich farmland, though prone to flooding.

    Leading up to the fateful journey as assisted immigrants, Hardy (my 2 x great-grandfather) had worked as an agricultural labourer around the village of Helpringham, in this fenland country.

    All his life he’d been surrounded by the smell of the marshes and the lush green fields of the fens, where the heavy soil produced crops of wheat, oats, beans, barley and potatoes. Now, as he stepped off the ship at Newcastle in the colony of New South Wales, he wondered if he would ever experience the sights and scents of his homeland again.

    Before my own journey of exploration, I had spent a day at the State Library of NSW, poring over the journal of the ship’s surgeon on the Irene. I knew that Hardy’s wife, Mary, had boarded the vessel with her husband and children. I also knew that she did not disembark with them on arrival. I was searching for clues as to why.

    I had initially assumed that Mary gave birth to her baby, little Hannah, on the voyage – a horrifying scenario given the cramped and unhygienic conditions of shipboard life at the time. What I found in the surgeon’s journal suggested otherwise.

    In the nineteenth century, the ship’s surgeon was responsible for the health and wellbeing of all on board. He assigned chores, facilitated daily activities for adults and lessons for children to reduce boredom, oversaw cleaning routines and the allocation of rations. Of course, there were also medical problems to contend with, ranging from childbirth to digestive problems, injuries, infections.

    At that time, dark beer such as porter was considered a healthful way to support the production of breastmilk. Surgeon Willmott ordered each nursing mother to be allocated 1/2 pint twice daily. I found Mary’s name on the list of nursing mothers at the beginning of the voyage. So, Mary did not die in childbirth as I had thought. I examined the journal, day by day, to discover what had killed her.

    Every surgeon dreaded the first sign of a communicable disease such as typhus, smallpox or scarlet fever. What surgeon Willmott had to contend with was measles.

    On day two of the Irene’s voyage, the first case was reported: the sister of a woman who had left the ship before they sailed, after breaking out in the tell-tale rash and fever. Over the next weeks, the disease spread at a steady rate. Some sufferers were sent to the ship’s ‘hospital’ (usually a curtained or boarded section of deck with bunks for people needing care), while some remained in their own berths. Given the highly infectious nature of the disease, it was no surprise that cases multiplied.

    Willmott took his duties seriously and did all he could to prevent the spread of the disease as well as to minimise infection and discomfort from other causes. Despite this there was a great deal of illness on board, and he had to perform another duty, that of carrying out the burial rites when someone had died, before they were ‘buried at sea’ – essentially, wrapped in a shroud and tipped overboard. Altogether, thirty-four passengers lost their lives: not uncommon at this time.

    Mary held out against measles, scurvy or diarrhoea, all of which affected many of her fellow passengers. Until just two weeks before making landfall at NSW, when the Surgeon’s journal noted:
    Wednesday, 29 September Buried Mary Robinson at 8 am.

    My guess is that she contracted measles, but I can’t be sure.

    Poor Mary. To die so close to their destination, knowing she was leaving her husband, newborn daughter and two other little ones to make their new home without her. It’s such a tragic scenario but one which played out all too often. These people took such risks in coming to Australia. There had to be compelling reasons to uproot themselves and venture forth on such an uncertain adventure.

    With all this in mind, I begin my Lincolnshire exploration in Helpringham, where Hardy had been born in 1819. There had been Robinsons in Helpringham and Sleaford, about ten kilometers north, for at least a century and a half. His great-grandparents and their grandparents before them had all been born and raised in that part of the county. His grandparents Robert and Mary had run a coaching inn there, the Willoughby Arms, in the late 1700’s. The churchyard at St Andrew’s in Helpringham held many Robinson graves. I can assume Hardy was baptised there.

    Next stop is Great Hale along with its smaller sister, Little Hale, just north. This is where Mary was born and grew up, and where she and Hardy married in 1847, at the Hale Magna Church of St John the Baptist. The church stands on the site of an Anglo-Saxon cemetery from the seventh century and has the typical square Norman tower, with features and chapels added over successive centuries.

    As I walk through the door where Hardy and Mary entered on their wedding day, I’m sure that neither of them could have imagined that just four and a half years later, Mary would be dead.

    The other thing I notice is a quote in the church guide booklet. The Vestry Book in 1663, refers to the excommunication of several people from the parish, for their constant contempt of the laws, commands and constitution of the Church of England…
    It goes on to exhort members of the parish to refrain from any commerce and conversation with them of any of them or theirs by lying, following, eating, drinking or talking with any of them…until they lawfully go ask that formal absolution in their behalf… {Brief notes on the Hale Magna Church 2021}

    These individuals and their families were being sent to Coventry, completely expunged from the social and spiritual life of the community.

    It is harsh, but we should remember that it was after the English Reformation when profound religious differences divided communities, and the turmoil of the Civil War was a very recent memory. Indeed, a crucial battle in the Civil War, won by Parliamentarians against Royalist forces, took place at Gainsborough in Lincolnshire. All of these events left an intense need for conformity to the religious and social standards of the day.

    This is of interest to me because in later years, there is a distinct pattern of ‘non-conformity’ of religion in the Robinson family. Methodism and Wesleyanism gained a strong following in Lincolnshire in the late 1700’s and Hardy Robinson and his children were Wesleyans before and after their emigration. Today these religious differences are hardly worth a comment, but in previous centuries they affected many aspects of life, not just how you worshipped.

    Indeed, all my visits to various churches on my Travels with Ancestors have brought home to me the central role that religion played in the daily lives of everyone from the monarch, bishops and nobles to tradespeople, shopkeepers, farmers and labourers. The annual calendar revolved around church festivals and celebrations, along with seasonal ones like harvest time. The main records kept of the life events of ordinary folk were those of baptism, marriage, and burial, to be found in the parish church. It was the church that was largely responsible for the distribution of ‘poor relief’ and aid to its community. Government had a much smaller role in everyday life then; the church a much larger one.

    The county town of Sleaford is another place of note in the Robinson family tree, with my 5 x great-grandfather Abraham Robinson being baptised there in 1713. It has a grand church, St Denys, and today is a comfortable and prosperous looking town of Georgian and red-bricked Victorian buildings, a busy high street and a canal through its centre, a feature that I imagine is a common one in this marshy fen territory.

    I leave Lincolnshire content to have walked in some of the Robinson footsteps from long ago.

    And what of Hardy and his family in NSW?

    Six months after their arrival, baby daughter Hannah died. Hardy must have felt like packing up his sad little family and returning to Lincolnshire, but that was beyond their means, having arrived as assisted immigrants. They settled in the Hunter Valley and Hardy found work. He remarried twice over, so his life was again marred by death of a spouse. He lived until 1900 when he died at the good age of eighty-one.

    His daughter, Elizabeth, married Beadon Newton (my great-grandfather), so uniting those two families.

    I wonder what my father would have said to the news that his grandmother was from the Lincolnshire fens, not from Germany. I imagine he may have given a wry smile at his mistake.

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

  • History,  Travel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • History,  Travel

    Travels with my Ancestors #6: Kick-ass Jane-The Longhurst and Roberts families

    Tiny Ewhurst, a village in a narrow parish in the south of Surrey, was almost left off the Travels with Ancestors itinerary. I had somehow forgotten to include this, the birthplace of Jane Longhurst, my 4 x great-grandmother, who I can only describe as my most ‘kick-ass’ ancestor. Fortunately my ever-patient husband and our travelling companion are willing to do a small detour on our way east, towards Kent.

    We reach the village after navigating roads that steadily decrease in width, the closer we come to it. It takes a steady nerve to drive along England’s tiny rural lanes and byways, but Andy does a good job as tour driver.

    The road to Ewhurst

    Unlike many of my ancestors, as far as I can tell, Jane was not born into poverty. The Longhursts were an established family in the district; probably not wealthy, but her father may have owned some land, as he appeared on a voter registration list for Ewhurst. In the 1700’s only people who owned property were eligible to vote.

    For whatever reason, Jane was tried and convicted of a crime that earned her the sentence of seven years’ transportation. Rather surprisingly, though there are records of her trial and sentence, details of her actual crime have not yet surfaced – but I live in hope of uncovering this one day.

    She was born about 1783 in Ewhurst, and baptised at the church of St Peter and St Paul in the village. That is my first port of call, because it’s the one definite pinpoint in England that I have for her.

    Before leaving Australia, I had made contact with many of the parish churches I hoped to visit, to check on opening hours and so on. I was put in touch with a local woman, Janet, an active member of the local historical society. She is kind enough to meet me at the church and show me around, giving so much rich detail about the village’s history in the process. Janet wrote the History Society’s Guide and History of St Peter & St Paul, so she is a perfect companion for this visit.

    The oldest part of the church dates from Norman times, and Janet points out the distinctive Norman use of rough stone rubble and pieces of red Roman-era tile, that were frequently reused in later buildings. Other parts of the church were added, built or rebuilt over subsequent years, much of it after Jane’s time there. But I am able to photograph the church and its baptismal font, certain that baby Jane’s tiny head was wet with water from here at her baptism in March, 1783.

    Out in the lush churchyard, Janet points out the ancient, spreading yew tree, sheltering a number of old headstones that are too weathered to read. A lower churchyard has at least 83 species of wildflowers, and grass cutting is carefully timed to allow different species the chance to set seeds and flower. A monument with stone wings seems to stand as guardian angel over the place.

    Jane’s father and grandfather were likely buried in this churchyard, though possibly in different sections. Her grandfather, James, would have been laid to rest in the ‘respectable’ part of the churchyard, whereas her father John may have taken his own life. Records are a little confusing here, but if his death in around 1793 was a suicide, he would most likely have been buried away from the general burial ground , as suicide was regarded as a dreadful sin in the eighteenth century. Gazing over the beautiful grounds, I can only hope that he lies in peace, wherever that may be.

    As we drive away from little Ewhurst, I am very grateful to Janet for all her information and help.

    What happened to Jane after her trial and sentence?

    She arrived in Sydney on the transport ship Glatton in 1803, and was assigned to labour for a master or mistress there. Seven years later, she’d completed her sentence and she married William Roberts, also an emancipated convict. They’d been living together before that date and had four sons together; then later two daughters and three more sons were born.

    WIlliam had done rather well for himself. Through hard work, diligence and commitment, he had caught the eye of Governor Macquarie, becoming a sought-after road and bridge building supervisor. He was paid handsomely for this work, in land grants on Dharug country in the Hawkesbury Valley of NSW, plus cash and liquor – this was the era of the ‘Rum Corps’ and rum and other spirits had a stranglehold over the economy of the colony.

    The family lived at Windsor and then in Sydney, at The King’s Arms, the public house they ran at Castlereagh and Hunter Streets.

    When the Governor became disturbed at the rapidly increasing number of liquor establishments operating in the town, and the unruly behaviour of patrons, he issued a decree closing a great many of them. The Roberts’ hotel was one of those approved by Macquarie and allowed to keep trading.

    Sadly for Jane, William died in 1819. For a widowed or single woman at that time, life was not easy. Even having money (which Jane now certainly did) was no guarantee of continued success. The male – and military – dominated colony held strict expectations of a woman’s place. It did not include the world of business or trade.

    There were very few exceptions to this, and Jane became one of them. She wrote to the Governor, successfully requesting payment owed to her husband for work he had carried out before his death. She continued the hotel businesses that she and William had established. Later, another request to the Governor resulted in an allocation of land for grazing cattle. She became one a very small number of women who were early subscribers to the newly established colonial bank. Her name appears on the bank records alongside the likes of better-known colonial women such as fellow emancipist Mary Reiby, and the Governor’s wife, Elizabeth Macquarie.

    She did this all while raising nine children into adulthood, many of whom went on to become successful business people and farmers themselves.

    Jane remarried in 1825 and had eleven years with another William, also an emancipist: William Hutchinson. His story is also an interesting one. But this post is all about Jane – the girl from a tiny Surrey village whose 3 x great granddaughter was my mother, Doreen. She would have recognised something in Doreen, had they been able to meet – a quality of determination, a refusal to give up.

    I can understand why Mum was always fascinated by Jane and her story. I’m delighted and grateful to have made the pilgrimage to Ewhurst, the birthplace of our kick-ass ancestor.

  • 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.’

  • History,  Life: bits and pieces

    Travels with my ancestors #2: Darkness and light in family history

    Photo by Raphael Brasileiro: https://www.pexels.com/photo/shadow-of-a-person-2920850/

    Every family history contains its shadows: people or events we might prefer to remain in the dark.

    The problem with ignoring them is that we are only getting half a history: rather than the full story of our ancestors and the worlds they lived in, we get a trimmed, sanitised, unsatisfying narrative. We are no closer to understanding the context of our ancestors’ lives and the times in which they lived.

    In my family history writing, I have chosen to incorporate information which can be confronting, because I want to present a richer, more truthful story of their lives.

    I haven’t done this to make anyone feel guilty or resentful. We can only understand the wider history of this country and its people if we are mature enough to look at the darkness as well as the light.

    There is the inevitable theme of ‘land grants’ given by colonial authorities to many of my ancestors, who came here either in chains or as free immigrants. It is important to remember that this land was taken by the British government as theirs to give: however, it was never ceded by those who came first—indigenous Australians. All land purchased by non-indigenous people since colonisation in 1788 is therefore based on the same error.

    In writing about my ancestors, I have tried to refer to the places in which they lived by the original names, the ones used by the First Nations of Australia, as well as the names commonly used today. I have consulted maps and online sources for this: any errors are my own.

    Indigenous Australia map by AIATSIS Canberra

    The so-called ‘frontier wars’ of the seventeenth, eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries (more accurately called the wars of resistance, or Australian wars) were widespread and prolonged. They were the result of First Nations people being forced off their lands, away from livelihoods, history and sacred places: the Country to which they had been deeply and profoundly linked for millennia. The wars featured horrible violence, massacres, and sickening atrocities. As with any war, violence was perpetrated on both sides.

    I have no evidence that my family forebears were directly involved in such acts of violence. It is possible that some were. But what is undeniable is that by arriving here (willingly or unwillingly) and settling on land, building homes, fencing off land for livestock or crops, and changing the landscape, they contributed to the dispossession of First Nations people.

    I believe it is possible to stay with the discomfort of simultaneously feeling proud of what our forebears endured and achieved, while recognising the part they played in this fracturing of ancient cultures and ways of being.

    It’s all part of our real, collective Australian story. By acknowledging it, even if that is difficult, we can better understand our own place here. To feel truly Australian, we must connect with all parts of Australia’s past—even the darker ones.

  • History,  Life: bits and pieces

    Travels with my ancestors #1: Things they would want me to know.

    When I look at my family tree, going back seven or eight generations, I am astounded at the number of lives represented there. Each little icon, male or female, on the Ancestry.com screen, or names I’ve pencilled in on my hand drawn charts, is—was—a person. A person who was born, grew up, perhaps married, had children. A person who earned a living, learned stuff, developed likes, had their loves and their hatreds. Someone who eventually grew ill or suffered an accident or met their death in some other way. They left people who mourned them, remembered them, laughed with others about happy or funny moments, cried about the sad or terrible ones.

    How many ancestors? I haven’t stopped to count them all. Trust me, there are many.

    Every one of those individuals had to have lived and reproduced for me to be here. Every decision, mistake, accident of history has led to… me.

    How amazing.  

    I am the unique product of all those people. My own experiences, decisions and actions have led to who I am, but so too have all the actions of past generations. Their DNA, mixed in the marvellous cocktail of life, resulted in: me.

    That’s astounding, don’t you think?

    Why then, do we weave or stomp or trudge or dance our way through life, giving scarcely a thought to the people who made us? Our parents, of course, usually get our attention; perhaps because they are there; perhaps family resemblance is strong enough for us to recognise the link that joins our own generation to theirs. Grandparents, too, can be more visible, due to proximity, or appearance in family photo albums, or in family stories.

    Go back another generation and, well…the scene is a bit emptier. Great-grandparents and beyond: we might know names, and have a vague inkling of eras, if not specific dates when they lived, but most of us are unable to describe what sort of people they may have been.

    Unless, of course, you get bitten by the family history bug.

    In this, I was lucky. I grew up with many diverting stories about ancestors. My father was one of a huge number of Australians proud to claim a particular Second Fleet convict; my mother had several convicts in her family tree, plus some tantalising hints of romance and some murkier stories buried in the dry records of births, marriages and deaths.  They had done much of the groundwork before me: constructing family trees and digging out those records (in the days when nothing was online, and everything had to be found in person at libraries and archive repositories.)

    So, I suppose you could say I was bitten by the bug at an early age. Though it wasn’t until I’d left full-time work and had the time (and internet connection, laptop, and subscription to a family history platform) that the passion really took hold. Covid-lockdowns gave me plenty of time to dive down rabbit holes searching for that one person I needed to fill in on the tree, that one missing record or date, that hidden story.

    Oh, the stories!

    Romances, murders, deserted wives, divorces. Poverty, bravery, wartime heroics. Quiet fortitude and deep despair. People loving, birthing, fighting, killing, growing, leaving, losing, and winning. All of life, there in my family trees.

    At the risk of sounding fanciful, I have come to believe that they would want me to know. Every story is part of the whole. Each person had their own story, important to them and to those who loved them. Something urges me to uncover their stories; while there are no doubt things that some ancestors, were they able to say, would rather that I didn’t know (crimes committed, mistakes made) I nevertheless believe I honour them by discovering and then telling their stories.

    Beyond myself, the stories of my ancestors are threads that contribute to the tapestry that is Australia today. In both positive and negative ways, the ways in which they lived their lives, the choices they made and the results of those choices: all contributed to the big picture of this country I call home.

    By uncovering these threads, I have a greater sense of belonging here, in this island nation on the other side of the globe from where my ancestors originated. Why did they come here? What circumstances, decisions or accidents led them to travel across the world to this place? Why did they stay?

    If they had not come here, survived, stayed, married, and had children, then I would not exist. A twist of fate, or a small part of an ordained plan—I’m happy for that to remain a mystery.

    I’m not happy to leave their lives to the mysterious past. I want to learn about my ancestors, and the part they played in the complex sequence of events that resulted in me.

    I like to think they’d be happy about that, too.

    Come with me on the journey as I travel with my ancestors. There may well be something in their stories that ignites something in you: a spark of recognition, or a longing to know more about your own family tree. What are its patterns, what characters and events are represented there? What are some of the stories of your ancestors?