UNFINISHED STORIES (2)
Mary McConnell (cont.)
Using her family history detective skills, Mary’s descendant, Tricia Evans, has discovered what became of Mary in Australia. She writes,
“For no apparent reason William and Mary never married but they did raise eleven children. Finding all these children and following them through was no easy task…Their first four children were all born pre-1856 which is when civil registration began in New South Wales, therefore births were not registered but luckily they did have them all baptised. I started with the microfilm of the Church of England, Newcastle Diocese registers. I thought I had struck the jackpot as I found them all one after the other right down to the last child, George Silvester Ashton being baptised on 20 June 1872. In fact, nine children were baptised in the Anglican Christ Church, Mount Vincent, and two in the Wesleyan Church in Mulbring.
I then thought it would be an easy task to look for any deaths and or their marriages. As their 7th child is my great grandmother, Margaret Ashton who married James Warby on 15 December 1883 at Maitland, NSW, I made this my starting point. Again I learnt that nothing is as it appears to be.
As I have already mentioned, the first four children were baptisms only, therefore they are listed as Ashton, naming both mother and father. Then when it became law in 1856 to register a birth, death or marriage, Mary registered the next seven children as illegitimate with no father’s name, and gave them the surname of McConnell. So we have a family, on paper, where some are under the name of Ashton and the rest are under the name of McConnell, then not to make it any easier, they all got married under the name of Ashton.
Mary McConnell (Ashton) was to leave a very large legacy in her new homeland by having eleven children who gave her 58 grandchildren”.
There must be quite a number of present-day Australians descended from this one Irish orphan.
Tricia’s good work has allowed us to revise Mary’s family reconstitution form, for yet a third time. Whoever said family history was a ‘finished’ history? Since we’re uncertain where some of Mary’s early children were born, we’ve left that blank to be filled in at a later date.
Mary McConnell family reconstitution upgrade
As is often the case, documented evidence of Mary’s life amounts merely to snippets of information. Shortly after her arrival, Mary was employed as a servant to Mr Wilson of East Maitland, for three months, at the rate of £8 per annum (we do not know where or when she met William). She described herself as washerwoman (registering Margaret’s birth in January 1863). Sometime during her life she learned to read and write. She was recorded as being unable to do either when she left Belfast workhouse but could do both, according to her gaol description of 1882. She was only c. 150 cms. tall (1880). She had lost the third finger on her left hand (1882) and was described as ‘stout’ when she fell down the stairs and broke her neck in 1892. As Tricia puts it, “we can only piece together what we believe could be the truth.” And yet, with a dash of curiosity, an enquiring mind, and a snifter of historical understanding, our appreciation of Mary’s life will increase. We may not have the same resources as Alison Light, census records, for example, that throw light on their neighbours but there are some things we could, and should explore. These examples are not the end of it.
May I urge family historians to try setting their Irish Famine orphan in a particular historical context. Even if you do not have a direct link to a particular thing, your curiosity will carry you along. What was the difference in weather like for young Mary McConnell Ashton? Was she aware of Aboriginal people? Was her life experience very different from ours? How did she travel? What were conditions like on a tenant farm in the Hunter Valley? What work did a sawyer do? Mary was a washerwoman and sometimes acted as a midwife. What did that entail in the second half of the nineteenth century? And then of course there’s Trove. These are a few of the things I try to do here. Each case will be slightly different. But you appreciate what I’m after, don’t you? Put some historical flesh on your wee girl’s bare bones.
How did this young woman from Belfast feel about the weather in her first summer in Australia? She probably loved the warm sun on her back as she went about her household chores. She may also have looked up, and longed for a wet Belfast sky. Other Irish migrants recorded how they felt. A young Dubliner, Isabella Wyly, wrote from Adelaide in March 1857, “You say I told you nothing about the Climate, but what with dust, & Heat & hot winds & Flys & and an Insect that the call Moskitoes we do not know what to do with ourselfs just now. We ar suffering very much from the hot weather”. (David Fitzpatrick, Oceans of Consolation, p.117) Adelaide heat is not the same as Hunter Valley heat in the summer. But it was still shocking to young Michael Normile from County Clare who wrote from Lochinvar in 1855,
“The Climate of this Country is far differant to home. The winter is coming on with us now it is beautiful weather the same as home summer. The summer we past was dreadful hot…I heard that some people got sun struck, in fact I was a day and I would give a mouthfull of money for a mouthfull of fresh air…I Seen this last Summer 4 months without a drop of rain and all that time hot scorching weather. You would See cattle strewed dead in water holes, or along the roads fine working Bullocks all for the want of water”. (Fitzpatrick, Oceans, pp.70-1)
Remember Mary had three young children in tow by this time, all under three years of age.
May I suggest, too, that instead of writing Aboriginal people out of our history, we make every effort to write them in? Aboriginal history is flourishing. Libby Connors’ Warrior is testimony to that. With just a brief untutored internet search, here’s what we found relating to Aboriginal people in the Hunter in mid-nineteenth century,
http://www.environment.nsw.gov.au/resources/heritagebranch/heritage/media/13235huntesvol1.pdf See 4.2 by Alan Atkinson
Alan Atkinson tells us the land of the Pambalang or Big Swamp tribe extended from Newcastle West to the foothills of Mount Vincent, whereas Helen Brayshaw refers to the Wonaruah or Gringai people of this general area. The number of Aboriginal people had fallen drastically since the beginning of the century: none was reported as coming to Maitland for blankets in 1850, for example. Some may have been employed on Knox Child’s estate at Mount Vincent which is where Mary and William settled in the 1850s. Or on neighbouring estates. Others ‘came in’ to live on the fringes of towns like Maitland.
Mary and William probably did not know of the Bulga Bora Ground used for initiation ceremonies near Wollombi but they were aware of the trials of Aboriginal people in West Maitland; of Murphy, Tommy Potts, Martin and King John of the Maitland tribe and Jemmy and Richard Wiseman of the Sugarloaf tribe in December 1851, and of Wickety Wee and Morris in 1853. (See the link to the history of Aboriginal Sydney above).
There were other ways Mary and William’s life experience was different from ours. Mary was about 150 centimetres tall, William 155. Our ancestors were smaller than we are. Their life expectancy was shorter, their families were larger, they had fewer material possessions, fewer labour-saving devices and most of them had a lifetime of hard physical work. By 1882 Mary was missing the third finger on her left hand. How did she cope with pain, and childbirth, and disease? There were no epidurals, no antibiotics, no analgesics, and no gum-numbing injection when she had a tooth extracted.
Janet McCalman in her history of the Melbourne Women’s Hospital, Sex and Suffering (1998) tells of the difficulties Irish Famine women had in giving birth to their children. Malnutrition and poverty in some cases led to underdeveloped and deformed pelvises. Once the women had a better diet, rest and sunshine, in Australia, their babies grew larger in the womb. Mothers had great difficulty giving birth to them. I remember seeing an exhibition of obstetric instruments, in Adelaide I think it was. Someone had commented that they wanted more focus on women themselves. But for me, those instruments were horrific instruments. They made me appreciate what women had to go through. In the cases Janet McCalman describes in the early pages of her book, craniotomy forceps were used. “If there was no room, [for the baby to pass through the pelvis] then the baby had to be removed by a destructive operation, most often a craniotomy where the baby’s skull was perforated and collapsed, or the child was taken apart in the uterus and extracted in pieces”. (p.22) Fortunately, our Mary McConnell did not suffer such horrors.
Their means of transport was also different from ours. We are uncertain when or where Mary and William met. William’s tickets-of-Leave were for the Paterson and Raymond Terrace Districts, granted with the usual conditions; he could live and work for himself in the district, must carry his ticket with him at all times, and must attend church. The couple’s first child, William Henry, was born in Miller’s Forest, about four miles from Raymond Terrace. In January 1853, with another child and Mary three months pregnant, we know they were in West Maitland. They were before a Police court charged with indecent language in a public place. See http://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/page/127645 page 2 col 5. Mary and William had probably travelled by water, horse, cart or on foot. The tributaries of the Hunter river interconnect Paterson, Raymond Terrace, Morpeth and West Maitland and between there and Mount Vincent where the pair were to settle sometime after, it was a walk of 15 or 16 miles. We hope they at least had a cart for their young children. Here’s a map of the area courtesy of Brian Andrews.
Sugarloaf District, Hunter Valley
As Tricia discovered, all Mary and William’s children were baptised in church. For twenty or more years, Mary and William lived at Mount Vincent, on the Mulbring Creek, with other tenant farmers on the estate of William Knox Child. Knox Child had sold his estate in Kent and come to Mount Vincent in the 1840s. He divided his new estate into tenant farms letting them to free migrants and ticket-of-leave convicts.
William Ashton leased a tenant farm from Knox Child sometime in the early to mid 1850s, although exactly what kind of lease is uncertain. His lease may simply have entailed a dwelling, and a small plot of land of 10 acres. William presumably helped with the ploughing, sowing and harvesting of the wheat crop on the Estate at certain times of the year, and at others, worked as a timber-getter and sawyer. In 1862 and 1871, his name appears on official gazette lists of those licensed to cut hardwood on the slopes and ridges of Sugarloaf valley. (At different times, William’s occupation was recorded as brickmaker, sawyer, bushman and labourer).
The slab hut where Mary and William lived probably had a shingle roof made from local forest oak, and a well-watered, beaten and swept, dirt flour. Their furniture and utensils were sparse and simple, with Mary cooking porridge, stew and soup in cast iron pots. William may have added a lean-to, as his family grew larger. The split slabs of hardwood that formed their house were cut by sawyers like William.
The saw pits where William worked were usually in the bush, near where the trees were felled. A large square hole was dug deep enough in the ground to allow another sawyer to stand completely below ground level. Once the tree, now cut into carefully measured logs, was rolled into place above the pit, one man below and one above used a large hand-saw to cut the logs to the dimensions they wanted. It was hard work. One can imagine William with a big bushy beard coming home dirty, covered in sawdust. Our thanks to Brian Andrews for this information about sawyers and their work. Here are a couple of illustrations from Brian’s Sugarloaf magazine,
Saw Pit. Thanks to Brian Andrews.
Mary herself had an ever-growing family to attend to, a child being born almost every two years from 1850 until 1872. She had her own daily domestic chores, maybe a kitchen-garden where she grew vegetables, even though the soil was not particularly fertile. When Tricia’s great-grandmother Margaret was born in January 1863, Mary described herself as ‘washerwoman’. Tricia writes “I have always felt (nothing to back it up except my gut feeling) that Mary was one of the washerwomen in the Knox Child household. If so, she may have worked in a building separate from the main household”. Or she may have boiled water for the laundry on a wood fire outdoors taking washing in from other tenants on the estate. At any rate, I doubt her job was as clean or ‘idyllic’ as in this image from the New South Wales State Library picture collection.
Washerwomen c. 1871 courtesy State Library New South Wales
I wonder did Mary retain her ‘attitude’, and like Mrs Molony on the goldfields in Victoria, answer back those who questioned the quality of her work, or what she charged for her washing. William Kelly, in his Life in Victoria in 1853 recorded his meeting with Mrs Molony,
“…or about four shillings above the usual price, I remarked, in an audible soliloquy; upon which, putting her hands in the jacket pockets, approaching the attitude to which all voluble women incline in energetic declamation, she apostrophised us in the following vernacular terms; ‘Sweet bad luck to the pair of yes, ye lousy lime-juicers. It’s dirty linen that’s too good for the likes of yes. I wouldn’t give you a squeeze o’ me blue-bag for the money. Maybe yes think I wash for divarshun, and that me wood is laid down for me thankee, or that I git me wathur for the whistlin‘”. (Kelly, Life, pp.53-4). From what we know of her, I’m sure Mary gave a tongue-lashing if she was crossed.
Most of us, family historians especially(?), like to believe our ancestors lived the lives we would want for them. “If the creation of a nation rests on its ‘foundation myths’, family legends too, handed down the generations, are also the stuff, like dreams, of which we make ourselves” (Alison Light, Common People, p.130). It’s the natural thing to do. ‘Mary and William fell in love, they worked hard and raised a large family and were respected by their community’. you know the kind of thing I mean. Mary and William’s life at Mount Vincent may well have been their best years. William even wrote a letter to the press protesting against road works and signed a petition, both against and for, locating a post office on the Mount Vincent estate (1858 and 1859). Tricia says, “after they moved into Maitland in the 1870s, Mary gained a reputation as a midwife. Being a midwife in these times was not an official job. It was just a well-experienced person who was prepared to attend whenever she was needed. I know she was in attendance for many of her own grandchildren and this is where she gained her skill”.
But as Tricia was to find out, “nothing is as it appears to be”. In the Maitland Gaol Description Books in State Records of New South Wales April 1880, Tricia found not only both Mary and William linked together, convicted of obscene and profane language; that the Magistrate remarked at the trial ‘women appeared worse than the men in using bad language‘; that William was a convict not a Bounty migrant as she previously thought; and that he had 11 previous convictions recorded against his name. As she put it, “boy oh boy, the hunt was on”.
We’ve had a look through gaol records and reports in the Maitland Mercury and Hunter River Advertiser. Here’s some of what we found. Most of the cases were heard in the Police Court, West Maitland. Mary appears only a few times, William very often for ‘drunkenness and obscene language’, in effect for criminal misdemeanours, rather than major crimes. We began by searching for the ’11 previous’. http://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/660805?searchTerm=%22William%20Ashton%22%201853&searchLimits=l-state=New+South+Wales
See page 2, col.5
1 January 1853 Both Mary and William were found guilty of using indecent language ‘at the end of Ashton’s house’ in West Maitland ’12 yards from a public thoroughfare’. [This may be a useful way of tracing where they lived. We also should search for the legal definition of ‘indecent language‘. I suspect the ‘crime’ was a means of controlling convict society and preventing civil disturbance. No doubt there is more to it than that. Maybe a lawyer or legal historian could put us on the right path].
4 January 1863 William, obscene language
10 January 1867 William, assault. Both parties fail to appear
And then something that may be the key to all the rest, 10 April 1867, a JP commits William, on suspicion of insanity. 11 April he is found to be suffering from delerium tremens and a week later, he is remanded in gaol ‘for his own protection’. I wonder was William an alcoholic. He certainly had a problem with alcohol.
But in early 1878 he fell off the wagon. 12 March Drunk in the High Street, West Maitland; 8 August obscene language; 10 August Guilty of obscene language in Sparks Street. ‘He had been annoyed by his wife’; 8 October indecent language and drunkenness; 31 October 1879 Obscene language, gaol for a month; 20 December Maitland obscene language.
Between 1878 and 1887, when he was about 58 to 68 years old, William appeared in court almost twenty times. He had had enough of a lifetime of ‘hard yakka’ and turned to his old friend, a bottle of rum? He is in and out of gaol, sometimes for only 48 hours, sometimes for a month. Mostly, he is found guilty of obscene language and being drunk. He just doesn’t have the money to pay the fine so he goes to gaol instead. These were not exactly fun times for Mary.
Let me finish William’s sorry tale with a few other court reports that help us understand what was happening to him. On the 23 rd January 1884 he was ‘drunk and disorderly’ again, and a month or two later, 13 March he’s charged with neglecting to send a child to school. [I wonder what that’s all about]. Shortly later, on the 19th April, a Mrs Griffiths sues him to quit tenancy of her dwelling in Devonshire Street, West Maitland.
In 1887 (30 July) there is a meeting of William’s creditors declaring his estate insolvent. The next we hear from the Maitland Mercury 24 September 1887 ‘William Ashton of Mount Vincent was fined £10 plus costs by the Newcastle Bench for having on August 20th shifted certain points on the Homebush-Waratah Railway at Awaba by reason of which a train engine got off the line’. There is a report of the case in the Newcastle Herald, 23 September 1887 page 3, col.5. see http://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/135979909?searchTerm=%22William%20Ashton%22&searchLimits=l-state=New+South+Wales|||l-decade=188|||l-title=356
An aged man is but a paltry thing, a tattered coat upon a stick, unless…
(Yeats, Sailing to Byzantium)
We can but hope that Mary’s last few years were a bit more peaceful. She was visiting her married daughter in King Street, Newcastle when she fell down the stairs and broke her neck in 1892. In 1894 William died. Both of them are buried in Sandgate Cemetery. Their large family spread across the Hunter and beyond, working as rough carpenters, small farmers, labourers, sawyers and coal-miners, in areas such as Newcastle, Toronto, Moontown in East Maitland, and Mount Vincent. Their youngest child, George Silvester, joined up to fight in the First World War at the ripe young age of forty-three!
Tricia tells me, once her health issues are resolved, she hopes to return to her family history in earnest. She will look into William’s history further, do more on her great grandparents, Margaret Ashton and James Warby, have a look at George’s war record, and research the other two tragedies in her family history; the poisoning of Mary McConnell’s great-great-grandchild 9 month old Cyril Albert Ashton in 1899, and the murder of Cecil Boyne Lambert in 1917. Maybe another family member is willing to help?
Tricia has in her library, John Turner’s, The Rise of High Street, Maitland–A Pictorial History, Council of the City of Maitland, 1989 which reproduces some of F.C Terry’s beautiful prints of West Maitland. You may like to view them in a WordPress site.
George Ashton’s war medal