Unfinished Stories (3)
(The featured image at the head of this post is of Marjorie Collins in the laboratory at Adelaide University. It is reproduced courtesy of the University of Adelaide Archives).
Bridget McMahon per Maria (1850)
Let me tell you an uplifting story. It’s the story of a famine orphan, Bridget McMahon, from Rathkeale workhouse in County Limerick.
I’m very grateful to Bridget’s descendant, Dr Eleanor Dawson, for sharing the information she has about Bridget’s history. People may know Eleanor from episode four of Barrie and Síobhán’s docudrama, Mná Díbeartha. Eleanor was interviewed early in 2009(?) if my memory is correct. She and I have some things in common. Obviously, an interest in the Famine orphans. We also share a profound belief in the value of education. And coincidentally, we share a medical history. My father died of tuberculosis when he was 31 years old; Eleanor contracted tuberculosis at 16 in her last year(s) of school. She was sent home to bed within the hour of her first ever X-ray, after 3 months of productive cough and lethargy. With home tutors, including her mother, she came out top of the New South Wales Leaving Certificate examination in 1944. Her uncle Archie, a medical man, saved her life, she says. In the days before antibiotics, from 1943 to 1947, he regularly inserted, under local anaesthetic, a cannula between the left lung and thoracic wall, creating an artificial pneumothorax collapsing the worse affected lung and its apical cavity, thereby promoting rest and healing. (Thank you Eleanor for information about the procedure. Eleanor too is a medical graduate; also a researcher, and a retired psychiatrist).
There are some differences between us too. I’m a trained historian who is concerned with historical context; what was the Famine like in Limerick, for instance. I would encourage would-be orphan family historians not to neglect the Irish context of their orphan. And to look for those things that help make ‘our’ family members more than ‘singular’ and unique but representative of something larger. For the advice Alison Light gives in her Common People, see http://wp.me/p4SlVj-Gf
Eleanor has a closer relationship with a particular orphan, Bridget McMahon, her great-grandmother, than I could ever have. With her training in medicine and psychiatry, she is inclined towards her family’s medical history, and towards a professional understanding of the emotional and psychological dimension of such a family history.
Still, if we were preparing a television programme such as Who do you think you are? we’d tell you we intend focusing on Bridget’s distaff line; from Bridget to her daughter Annie Marie Long (later Collins), to granddaughter, Marjorie Collins (later Shiels), all the way to her great-granddaughter, Eleanor Shiels (later Dawson). How appropriate is that? It is Bridget’s mitochondrial line, mtydna. And if you allow me some licence, I’d say there is much of Bridget in Eleanor Dawson. She is quiet and unassuming, not given to blowing her own trumpet, highly intelligent, resilient, resourceful and a character as strong as tempered steel.
I’m telling you all this because it is important we examine where we are coming from. We, all of us, should be aware, and wary of, the ways our beliefs and values influence how we interpret the past. Self reflection is important.
Let us begin with Bridget herself. Eleanor tells us, according to the New South Wales Board of Immigration shipping record of the Maria (the penultimate Earl Grey orphan vessel to arrive in Sydney, at the end of June 1850) Bridget could read but not write. She was a dressmaker, Roman Catholic by religion, and of good health, strength and possible usefulness. When she went from Ireland to join the shipload of ‘sister-orphans’ in Plymouth, her father John McMahon was dead, and her mother, Penelope ní Carroll, was living in Rathkeale, County Limerick, possibly in that very workhouse Bridget had left.
On Rathkeale workhouse, see Peter Higginbotham’s great website, http://workhouses.org.uk/Rathkeale/
Something of a mystery
There is a discrepancy between Bridget’s age (19) recorded on the Maria shipping list and the age she gave (22) at the time of her marriage to Samuel Long in 1858. We have searched Limerick Catholic parish records high and low for Bridget’s baptismal record and the marriage record of her parents, John McMahon and Penelope Carrol(l), without success.
[What a valuable resource is the National Library of Ireland’s online record of Catholic parish records. See http://registers.nli.ie Happy hunting and may your eyes be strong!]
What we did find was Penelope’s baptism, 6 January 1815, ‘Penelope of John Fitzgerald Fmr and Naby(?) Carrol, townland of Caherelly, parish of Ballybricken and Bohermore, sponsor, Mary Soolivan’. This link should take you there. Click on the plus sign at the top of the page to make the image larger.
Penelope is such a distinctive name. This is the only Penelope we found in Limerick parish records. Our priestly authority, Tom Power, suggests the local priest may not have been happy with the name, it not being ‘Christian’ enough. But Penelope definitely retained it. She is recorded as Penelope Carroll at the birth of Bridget’s sister Mary, in Rathkeale parish, 2 October 1836, and as a sponsor at the baptism of James Quin in the same parish, 22 January 1839. I wonder where the name originated. Perhaps Naby or John learned of it at a Hedge school. Had they heard of Homer’s Odysseus? Maybe Penelope’s determination to keep the name, Penelope ní Carroll, was not so uncommon. Or perhaps she had a rebellious nature, or at least, an independent spirit.
We searched for Bridget’s baptism and her parents’ marriage, especially in Ballybricken and Rathkeale, and in the parishes in between. We assume both events occurred in parishes where appropriate records have not survived, maybe in Cappagh, Banogue, or Croagh.
And what of the Famine in Limerick? It certainly threw Bridget into Rathkeale workhouse. Her father may have been a famine death. Limerick had high rates of people being evicted from their holdings during the Famine, and large numbers of people being employed on public works, breaking stones and making roads. Its port exported tonnes of grain during the Famine years, and imported tonnes of maize or Indian corn, making large profits for corn factors and millers. That corn may have helped save Bridget’s life.
The Famine in Limerick, especially around Rathkeale, is something worth researching further. I have to hand notes I made from a local newspaper, The Limerick Reporter. [Which reminds me, Macquarie University Library has microfilm copies of some Irish newspapers at the time of the orphans’ emigration. From memory, The Galway Vindicator and Connaught Advertiser, The Clare Journal, The Fermanagh Mail and Enniskillen Chronicle, and The Armagh Guardian].
Bridget and her mother surely knew what was happening around them: of the women rioting in the William Street Auxiliary workhouse in Limerick, 13 April 1849? Or of the women rioting in Nenagh workhouse in Barrack street in the same month? Or of John Sheehan P.P. telling of the frightful destitution in Ennistymon, County Clare, “The meal depots are more crowded than our chapels, but these must appear, to have their poverty paraded, with their spectral shapes, and skeleton forms, half-naked and in rags, eaten alive with filth and squalor and vermin…”, Limerick Reporter, April and May 1849.
The following report may have reached them too. It is from the Reporter’s Milltown Malbay correspondent, printed 26 October 1849.
“I was witness to an interesting exhibition at the Ennistymon workhouse, viz. the emigration of twenty-three female paupers selected by the active Vice-Guardians Messrs. Naish and Ward for the sunny clime of Australia. Under the careful superintendence of Miss Griffith, the Matron, these fortunate creatures appeared to excellent advantage in their tasteful costumes, cottage bonnets and green veils, bidding an eternal farewell to the unfortunate land of their birth, while their ruddy health and contented mien, contrasted painfully with the squalid wretchedness of 500 miserable beings at the gates, claimants for admission.”
Did some of the orphans carry guilt in their psychological baggage when they left for Australia?
Out of Ireland
Unfortunately we do not know who employed Bridget in Australia. There is a family story she was seamstress to the Blaxlands at Bathurst and Ryde. It may only be one of those stories that families create. We have not been able to confirm it. Yet the story can be traced to someone who knew Bridget when she was still alive, so we shall not dismiss it out of hand. What we do know is that she married Samuel Long, a Protestant, from County Tyrone, in 1858, nearly eight years after she arrived. She wasn’t having any of that ‘daggers drawn fighting on a narrow ground’ (Walter Scott). She was prepared to marry across the religious divide.
In 2005, Eleanor asked if I would take a short detour from my trip to Donegal and look for Samuel’s place of origin in the parish of Ardstraw, townland of Ballyfolliard, County Tyrone. No worries. It is now a rich and fertile dairy farming area, not jam-packed with people as in the 1850s.
“And we call that crossroads Tobair Vree. And why do we call it Tobair Vree. I’ll tell you why. Tobair means a well. But what does Vree mean? It’s a corruption of Brian… an erosion of Tobair Bhriain. Because a hundred and fifty years ago there used to be well there…And an old man called Brian …drowned in that well… What do we do with a name like that? Do we scrap Tobair Vree altogether and call it what?–The Cross? Crossroads? Or do we keep piety with a man long dead…?” (Brian Friel, Translations, Act two, scene one).
Samuel Long, Eleanor informed me, was one of six sons of a tenant farmer of the Duke of Abercorn. He was literate, had been in the Irish Constabulary and arrived in the Vocalist, in Port Jackson, in October 1856, with two of his brothers. An uncle by marriage, established for some years as a farmer in Wollongong, had paid for them under Remittance Regulations. Aged 26, 24, and 22, they were designated as farm labourers but all were soon absorbed into the Colonial Service. Samuel became a labourer, then a senior attendant and then the storekeeper at the Tarban Creek Lunatic Asylum. In 1869, Tarban Creek Asylum became Hospital for the Insane, Gladesville.
Samuel and Bridget had a long association with such institutions. Samuel later became institutional storekeeper at the Newcastle Asylum for Imbeciles and Idiots, as it was named, 1871-1914. After the loss of her eighth and last Gladesville-born child as a premature baby, Bridget acted as de facto gatekeeper in Newcastle, for a time.
Both of them must have had some sort of relationship with other members of staff and some of the patients, we would suggest. The institutional records that have survived will allow us to put their lives into historical context. It is a task for another time. It will not be for the faint-hearted.
Later in life Samuel became senior attendant at the Australian Museum in College Street, Sydney. Bridget Ann Long (nee McMahon) and Samuel Long each died in the care of their childless son Robert and his wife Rebecca at their Waverley home in November 1913 and February 1914. Their unpretentious headstone overlooks the Pacific ocean at Waverley cemetery.
Ann Maria Collins (1863-1921)
Around the same time the New South Wales government introduced plans to ‘improve’ Gladesville Mental Hospital, it sought to reform public education. A new Education Act or Public Instruction Act was passed in 1880 making education compulsory for all 6 to 14 year olds. As a result, there would be an enormous increase in the number of schools in New South Wales. State Aid was withdrawn from denominational schools and three new types of schools were created, Superior Public, High, and Evening Public schools. See http://www.governmentschools.det.nsw.edu.au/story/instruction_act.shtm
Ann Maria Long was to marry James Patrick Collins, a Limerick man who had arrived via Canada to take up a post with the new Department of Public Instruction. The couple would move around New South Wales as James moved from post to post. He first taught at Swan Bay and Woodford Leigh before moving to Lismore Public. This last was to become a Superior Public school during James’s time. It prepared some students for matriculation to the University of Sydney. After their home was flooded and one of their children had died of diphtheria and Annie about to be confined with baby Archie Collins, James’s request for a transfer was accepted. The family moved to Richmond where the couple’s last three children were born. In 1897 James was appointed to Manly school and the family lived in the schoolmaster’s residence in Darley Road (now demolished).
Sadly, James died aged 42, leaving behind 34 year old Annie with six surviving children. Annie herself would die when she was only 57. Somewhere in that gene pool lies a seemingly random family ‘time-bomb’? Annie was able to manage after James’s early death…by teaching. She and her eldest son, Clarence Richard, worked as pupil teacher and work mistress, moving from one rented accommodation to another. With the help of bursaries Annie put four children through Sydney University, at a time when the number of people going to University was very small. As Sydney University says, it was ‘a brilliant family’… Clarence Richard Collins, B. A., Archibald John Collins M.B. Ch.B, Rosalie Helena Collins, B. A. and…
Near the outbreak of the First World War, in 1913, Archie completed his medical studies. He was to graduate with first class honours and awarded the Walter and Eliza Hall traveling scholarship for medical research in London. Instead, he served with distinction in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) in France, being awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) and Military Cross (MC) for gallantry in charge of a casualty clearing station. He was later knighted for services to medicine and served the University of Sydney as a Senator for many years. What a tale Eleanor’s family has to tell of Archie.
The fourth graduate was Eleanor’s mother, Marjorie Collins, B.Sc. and M.Sc.
Marjorie Shiels (1895-1970)
Marjorie Collins was also a brilliant scholar. Like her brother Archie and her younger sister, she was Dux of Fort Street School. For a synopsis of her academic career see http://sydney.edu.au/arms/archives/history/students_early_women_Collins.shtml
She graduated with first class honours in Botany from Sydney University in 1916. She was a pioneer botanical ecologist who was awarded the first Master of Science (M.Sc.) degree at Sydney University in 1924.
In 1917, Marjorie’s outstanding undergraduate career led to a position as lecturer and demonstrator at Adelaide University working with Professor T.G.B.Osborn.
Here is the featured photograph again with Marjorie acting as demonstrator in one of Professor Osborn’s classes. Our thanks to the University of Adelaide Archives.
Marjorie’s biographer, Dr Claire Hooker, tells us that Marjorie’s stay at Adelaide inspired her to examine some of the big questions about the effects of climate “on vegetation and on the ecology of semi-arid regions”, what today we would describe as environmentalist concerns. She loved the land she studied and developed early ideas about conservation.
At the end of 1919 she returned to Sydney to take up a Linnaean Macleay fellowship. She was the first botany candidate to win such a fellowship, a fellowship “that required extensive, rough fieldwork”. Undaunted, Marjorie held Linnaean Macleay fellowships until 1924 and in that year, she won a Sydney University Medal for her M.Sc. examination in Botany, and graduated with first class honours. But as Dr Hooker opines, Marjorie “was to find being a pioneer painful and difficult, both as a woman scientist and as an ecologist”. In 1925 she left academia.
After marrying, Marjorie taught in schools for long periods, wrote natural history articles, and co-authored widely used Honours Leaving Certificate school textbooks on Biology and Practical Biology. She inspired many school-students with her enthusiasm and warmth, not least her daughter, Eleanor, who was also to carve out her own distinguished career as doctor, researcher and psychiatrist.
Here is a photograph of Eleanor Shiels when she graduated from Sydney University, in 1951. She was already four months into junior residency at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital and one month married to Edward Dawson. A compromise would soon be arranged with the Hospital Board.
Eleanor’s career spanned medicine and psychiatry. Her CV, she says, is on her bucket-list. But at least I know after she retired she continued her good work writing about, and making submissions to professional bodies and to parliament on the ethics of psychiatrist-patient relations. Now in her twilight years she is still learning, this time, how to care for her life-partner and soul-mate, Edward Dawson.
Let me finish by sharing with you a poem she wrote just over a year ago; it sheds light on the very personal nature of family history. I’ll call it “Eleanor’s poem”. Eleanor may prefer another title.
At fifty-seven my mother’s mother suddenly died
in the twenty-fourth year of her widowhood.
Epidemic losses from her married years had numbered three;
diphtheria and typhoid, and then pneumonic flu.
Two sons had come back safe from Flanders’ fields,
from Passchendale and Zonnebecke,
the elder wounded, the younger decorated,
eventually even knighted and stated by his ultimate valedictorian
to have forged his soul in the crucible of battle.
But in that family didn’t they all?
Alone my teacher grandmother had raised the six survivors of her seven children
to lives of study, sacrifice and service.
Aided by bursaries, two of her daughters and two sons alike
graduated with honours from her ever-moving suburb-to-suburb household,
fine paradigm of need and equal opportunity.
Then came cancer and post-operative embolism.
At fifty-seven she suddenly died, never having seen or held a grandchild.
At fifty-seven her only married daughter did become a grandmother.
That daughter stood beside me, raptly looking down upon my snugly cotted offspring;
sharing my delight, warmly encouraging yet gently warning me
about the scant-envisaged future years she labelled ‘work and thrall’.
She’d reminisced then how Camilla Wedgwood,
doyenne of 1920s Sydney academic scene,
had viewed me years before in that same cot, tut-tutting, ‘what a waste!’
And with that memory, my mother, a humorously self-styled bluestocking
conspired with me to recognize that even clever women in high places
do not know everything.
Years later, at fifty-seven, now long years ago, I myself was pondering the past;
coming to realize ever so slowly, that I’d not need and must not want a grandchild,
if that child had to be a cold-store embryo or else a long-day child-care baby.
Time would tell.
For at twenty-one my eldest grandchild told me of his dream-
a dream of living with his soul-mate in a tree house
and taking babies for picnics in a forest.
with an email chuckle-sign he asked for help-
help to work out how to make his dream come true.
“We are such stuff as dreams are made on,
and our little life is rounded with a sleep”.
(Eleanor Dawson 13/02/2015)
Eleanor has long been a supporter of the Irish Famine Monument at Hyde Park Barracks in Sydney. Here she is with the Irish Ambassador Declan Kelly at a wreath-laying ceremony at the the Monument in 2002.
[A gathering at the Irish Famine Monument takes place each year on the last Sunday of August. This year, 2016, the guest speaker will be Tim Costello. See http://www.irishfaminememorial.org for details].
Eleanor understands and is proud of her connection to her Irish Famine orphan, Bridget McMahon, from County Limerick. Let me remind you of her wonderful lineage: Penelope Carroll–Bridget McMahon–Ann Maria Collins–Marjorie Shiels–Eleanor Dawson. Or as Jaki McCarrick puts it in her play, “you…are a great gift to Australia, and don’t ya forget it”.
Once again a link to the contents of my blog http://wp.me/p4SlVj-oE
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.
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.
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,
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.
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.
Some Unfinished histories (1)
I’m not sure how this will go. I’ll try getting in touch with some of the orphans’ descendants who sent me material in the past. Maybe together we can give an outline of a family history that may be of interest to others, even if it’s just to suggest possible lines of enquiry. I’ll attempt some of the things I’ve suggested earlier, such as make our own presence felt, find something about the orphan’s Irish background, as well as what happened to her in Australia. And I hope, put her in some kind of historical context. I’m sure you know all this already. You are welcome to make a suggestion about the things we ought to include.
This time, I’ve chosen to write something about one of the infamous ‘Belfast Girls’, Mary McConnell. I’ve been in touch with one of Mary’s descendants, Mrs Pat Evans, for more than twenty-five years; she herself has been working on Mary for more than thirty. Tricia has provided lots of information about Mary’s history. She tells me that she is emotionally close to her orphan descendant. After all, she is her great-great grandmother. It took her a while to reconcile herself to some aspects of Mary’s life but she understands her, and admires her resilience. Tricia says, ” I am able to accept that my Mary was not what we would call a good girl today and at the same time extremely thankful of what she did to survive in the harshness of the day”.
We both are very grateful to a renowned local historian, Brian Andrews, who helped us put Mary’s life into context, in the Hunter Valley of New South Wales. Unfortunately I lost contact with Brian some years ago. But I see, via the web, he was awarded an OAM for his work as a local historian. Congratulations and well-deserved, Brian. Brilliant work.
I’d like to keep this post in an unfinished form to emphasize that orphans’ family histories are constantly being revised. The ‘facts’ can change so quickly.
Tricia rightly suggests that if she was writing Mary’s history outside and independent of this blog, she’d provide a summary of the Earl Grey scheme, something like this,
“Lord Earl Grey, the British Secretary of State, thought he had the magic answer for several problems facing the English Parliament. He could rid the Irish workhouses of the orphaned paupers by supplying the Colonies with female labour and females to correct the imbalance of the sexes, which were both needed in great numbers in the Colony of New South Wales. This scheme was called the ‘Earl Grey Scheme’ and was to remove about 4,000 female Irish orphans from the disgusting workhouses throughout Ireland. The scheme was to survive for only two years.
Tricia recently informed me that William Ashton‘s details are also incorrect. He was not a Bounty migrant who came by the Brothers in 1841. Rather, he was a convict found guilty of highway robbery at Liverpool Quarter Sessions in July 1838. He arrived in New South Wales on board the Theresa in 1839. Tricia discovered this through Maitland gaol records and the Maitland Mercury which linked William and Mary’s name together. We should also remove William’s parents’ names and his birthplace and date from the form, and change his occupations to ‘brickmaker, sawyer, labourer, and bushman’. The other details are correct.
Among descendants of the Famine orphans, the story of the “Belfast Girls” is relatively well-known. Surgeon Douglass described the ‘Belfast girls’ as “notoriously bad in every sense of the word“. “The professed public woman and barefooted little country beggar have been alike sought after as fit persons to pass through the purification of the workhouse, ere they were sent as a valuable addition to the Colonists of New South Wales”. It was a stain that’s been very difficult to remove.
A detailed enquiry by Irish Poor Law Commissioner C. G Otway rebutted Douglass’s claims –as might be expected– and was supported by the Colonial Land and Emigration Commissioners in London–as also might be expected– but it was never enough to restore the good name of the rebellious ‘millies’ (Mill workers) and “gurriers” from Belfast. As far as the Surgeon, Captain, and Matron of the Earl Grey were concerned, Mary McConnell was “a professed public woman”. She, and the other ‘Belfast girls’, should not be allowed to land in Sydney. “Considering that the landing of the Belfast girls in Sydney, would assuredly lead to their final ruin, and being also impressed with the importance of separating them from the remainder of the Orphans, the Committee [the Sydney Orphan Committee] acceded to the proposal of Dr Douglass, that they should be at once forwarded into the Country” .
Let me mention in passing, how much I enjoyed Jaki McCarrick’s recent award winning play, “Belfast Girls“, not as a nitpicking historian but for its dramatic sensibility, its contemporary relevance, and above all, Jaki’s sympathetic treatment of the young women.
Ellen (with renewed resolve) …Remember, this is what you’re to be wed ta. Your books. Your learnin’. For Molly’s sake — let none of us waste this journey an’ all we’ve learned. You — in here (points to her head) are a great gift to Australia, an’ don’t ya forget it. We all are an’ must none of us forget it.
(Belfast Girls by Jaki McCarrick © Samuel French Ltd. London. All rights reserved
Reprinted by permission of Samuel French Ltd. on behalf of Jaki McCarrick)
We are lucky the Otway Report has survived: it has specific information about Mary McConnell. (For more details, see Disc 2 of Ray Debnam’s CD set, Feisty Colleens).
In the report, two Belfast Detective Police Constables, DC John Cane and DC Stewart McWilliams testified that none of the Belfast girls accused of prostitution by Surgeon Douglass was known to them as such.
Stewart McWilliams, Police Constable sworn:
I am one of the detective police;…I have been so employed for the last eighteen years; from the nature of my duties, I have a knowledge of all the houses of ill-fame, and the persons frequenting them in Belfast; all of the prostitutes I mean. I do not think there is a prostitute in the town I do not know…
From my knowledge of young persons working in mills and manufactories, I know they are generally unguarded in their language and mode of expression, and use unchaste language, though they may not be unchaste in person, or prostitutes.
I have read over the names on the list of the females sent in the first vessel from Belfast, and there is not the name of a single person that I ever knew or heard of as being a prostitute amongst them.
Look at the name whose initials correspond with Mary McCann, No. 45 I had no knowledge of her as a prostitute or person of bad character, and she could not have been well known in Belfast as a prostitute without my knowing it.
Look at Mary McConnell, No.55 I give the same answer… (Barefoot vol. 1, pp. 106-7.)
Given the circumstances, theirs is the kind of evidence we might expect? I leave you to decide for yourself. My view is that people today are not so quick to adopt the high moral ground; they understand how someone may depend upon prostitution to survive and others might use it for their own empowerment and material security. Maybe Surgeon Douglass too quickly accepted as truth the insults and obscene language the Belfast orphans hurled at one another.
More interesting than the Constables’ evidence is the testimony of Catherine McKevey who lived with her husband, a Pattern Maker, in Laggan Village. She had known Mary personally for the six years before she left for Australia.
This has an authentic ring to it, does it not? Mary’s parents were ‘decent, hard-working people‘. Mary had lived and worked with Mrs McKevey for about a year when she 14 or 15 years of age, as ‘a thorough servant‘ (i.e. doing everything). Her dad had died three years ago (in c. 1845-6) and her mum two (in c. 1846-7); ‘she was an orphan‘. ‘I heard (gossip) she was in the penitentiary and had not behaved herself as she ought‘. After Mrs McKevey’s, Mary had gone first into service, and then to work in Mr Montgomery’s mill. ‘I…advised her as to conducting herself well where she was going…‘.
Good-bye your hens running in and out of the white house
Your absent-minded goats along the road, your black cows
Your greyhounds and your hunters beautifully bred
Your drums and your dolled-up Virgins and your ignorant
(Louis MacNeice, Valediction)
Sometimes family historians need to make an educated guess about what happened to a descendant. We’ve done that in some of what follows.
Mary was born in Tyrone, the daughter of James and Fanny McConnell, and baptised a Presbyterian. Surely she had siblings? Maybe a brother or sister died before she and her young parents went to Belfast, in the early 1840s. ‘Jummie’ McConnell, a weaver, part of the declining domestic-putting-out system in Tyrone, and like an ever increasing number of others, was told there’d be a job and hope in Belfast. It was a city built on mud flats, and already growing into Ireland’s major manufacturing city. But in the 1840s, it was a mere fledgling of what it was to become later in the nineteenth century.
The young family went across Queen’s bridge to Laggan Village, down near the Short Strand and the bottom of Ravenhill Road, in County Down. It was part of Ballymacarrat, a largely working-class and Protestant area, with its Iron Works, Vitriol Works, Rope Works and Textile Mills. Tricia was informed by a Senior Research Fellow at Queen’s University that Laggan Village was on the South Bank of the Lagan River, a Protestant working-class area that included Ballarat Street, Dungevan Street and Bendigo and Carrington Streets. The map Tricia has is a fairly modern one; it includes Albertbridge, one of the bridges crossing the Lagan but that bridge was not finished until 1890. In the recent ‘Troubles’, the area was a ‘narrow ground’, a battleground for sectarian conflict. It has since been rebuilt. I doubt if Mary would recognize it, if she returned today.
“I never saw a richer country, or, to speak my mind, a finer people; the worst of them is the bitter and envenomed dislike which they have to each other. Their factions have been so long envenomed, and they have such narrow ground to do their battle in, that they are like people fighting with daggers in a hogshead” (Walter Scott 1825)
Mary appears not have carried any of that ‘venom’ with her. Her common-law husband, William Ashton, was a Roman Catholic and her children were baptised in the Church of England.
Her parents, Jimmy McConnell and his wife, Fanny, were ‘hard-working, decent people’. But Belfast would be no earthly paradise, and Laggan village would be their deathbed.
Tricia, I’ve tried to find out a bit more about Belfast during the Famine years. I haven’t bought this book, just seen bits of it via Google; Christine Kinealy and Gerard Mac Atasney, The Hidden Famine. Hunger, Poverty and Sectarianism in Belfast, 1840-50, Pluto Press, 2000. (The authors also have a chapter in the Atlas of the Great Irish Famine). They explain Belfast did not escape ‘the devastation triggered by’ the Famine which is something not widely recognized by historians. Nearly 1500 people died in Belfast workhouse during 1847 (Mary would have seen many of them die). In the three months between late December 1846 and March 1847, during a very bad winter, nearly 280 thousand quarts of soup and 775 cwt of bread was given to the hungry through Belfast’s soup kitchens. “By the end of March, over 1,000 “wretched-looking beings” each day were receiving free rations of bread and soup at the old House of Correction“. The Belfast Relief Committee knew that more than food was needed.”There are to be found a vast number of families…who have neither bed nor bedding of any description–whose only couch is a heap of filthy straw, in the corner of a wretched apartment”.
Now imagine you are 17-18 year-old Mary McConnell in late 1846, early 1847. Your dad died a year ago and you and your mum have survived, only just. In that desperately cold winter, your mum died too. You lost your job in the Flax Mill. What would you do? What do you think Mary did? Fight tooth and nail, as a street kid? Become a prostitute, at seventeen years of age? (that is still uncertain). Develop an obscenely sharp and cutting tongue to protect herself from rivals and predators? “That’s my fucken crust of bread, wee lad. Touch it and I’ll cut yer balls off”. Use soup kitchens; there was one in Ballymacarrat. Get into the workhouse when the cold months came. She was in Belfast workhouse “16 months previous to her emigration“, that is since early 1847 (Barefoot, 1, p.71). But then she learned of the Earl Grey scheme, and with other street-wise young inmates, decided Australia was the place to go. Some of her shipmates, the Hall sisters, Rose McLarnon and Eliza Mulholland also had an association with Ballymacarrat.
Family reconstitutions-family histories
Just to complete my previous post, here are some more family reconstitutions for your perusal.
(See http://wp.me/p4SlVj-zv for more information about this ‘revolutionary’ demographic technique. Scroll down the link to the “Introduction” of Professor Wrigley’s book).
Some Port Phillip arrivals; double click or ‘pinch’ to make larger
Some who went to the Moreton Bay district
I wonder why we need to assess the contribution of the orphans to Australia. Is it just something historians do, deluded fools that we are? There have been a number of attempts already. The orphans were workhouse refuse/deadwood tipped out on poor unsuspecting colonists by British imperialists. Or were they ‘mothers to the Australian character’ whose ‘descendants enjoyed opportunities unheard of in Ireland’? There’s a great array of views about the orphans’ history on the Irish Famine memorial website that are worth pondering, at http://www.irishfaminememorial.org/en/events/ I wonder if speeches made at the Melbourne annual gathering in November are also available. Does anyone know?
I’ve even dabbled a little myself in the past, in the introduction to Barefoot and Pregnant?, volume one, in the magazine, History Ireland in 2000, and in the description of the Earl Grey scheme on the Irish Famine memorial website. See for example the penultimate paragraph at http://www.irishfaminememorial.org/en/history/earl-grey-scheme I’d probably still hold to these views. Elsewhere, I’ve suggested we be wary of too sentimental a treatment of the orphans’ lives.
As Tanya Evans reminded me, I even posed one of those intractable questions a long time ago; ‘were the orphans disproportionately represented among the criminal classes, in suicide records, or among the inmates of destitute and mental asylums’? One might surmise that since the orphans lacked the same family support networks as other immigrants, they were more at risk of falling on hard times. Their demographic history, too,–many of them married older men and had long years of widowhood–may have increased their chance of ending up in an institution, later in life.
On one of my research trips to Melbourne, financed by Macquarie University, i searched for orphans among prison records. In the Public Record Office of Victoria there was a Central Register of Female prisoners at VPRS 516 and a Prisoner’s Personal Description Register at VPRS 521. They were in a very fragile condition and soon became only available on microfiche, thank goodness. Here’s the sort of thing I noted down,
PROV VPRS 521 vol 1 No 7 Catherine Ellis Lady Kennaway 1848 b. 1835 5’1″slender fair complexion dark brown hair grey eyes received into gaol 1 January-14 January 1851
ditto No 129 Amelia Nott New Liverpool 1849 b. 1827 Free three convictions drunk slender fresh complexion dark brown hair grey eyes neither read nor write two small scars on bridge of nose b Jersey RC married servant 20 October 1854 For medical treatment
ditto No 133 Susan Stewart Pemberton 1850 b. 1834 two previous drunk stout fair brown hair hazel eyes reads and writes imperfectly 5′ 2½” scar upper lip and right hand Ireland Catholic single idle and disorderly 1 calendar month 15/2-15/3/1856
ditto No 833 Mary Ann Tyrell Roman Emperor 1848 1835 once before 4″8½” Ireland Catholic married
You will appreciate the kind of problem this poses. Did some orphans deliberately provide false information or genuinely forget details of their arrival? What if we find no record of their marriage? Can we be sure this really is an Earl Grey orphan? Some of the examples above would appear to be so. But how many overall went to gaol? What percentage of the total? Were they in gaol only for a short period of their lives, or often, over the years?
If we go looking for orphans in institutions, in prisons, benevolent asylums, mental hospitals and the like, of course we will find them. But what we do here, and I think I’ve mentioned this before, is add the bias of expectation to the bias of the sources we use. We distort our view of things by focussing one-eyed on this aspect of the orphans’ history.
Still, it is important that we get an idea of how many orphans experienced such a life. I encourage anyone working in this area to continue doing so. If i remember correctly, Julie Poulter is researching orphans who went to Darlinghurst gaol in Sydney, in a thesis she is doing at the University of New England. Maybe people looking at these things will be willing to share their findings? I could include what you want to say in these blog posts. At least I think that is possible. I’m not sure how many people actually read the comments at the end of each post.
A similar caveat applies to my own painstaking family reconstitutions. They are weighted towards the orphans who generally lived in stable, life-long relationships here in Australia. That too may be a distortion of how we perceive the orphans’ contribution to Australian society. Nonetheless I shall continue using them. I intend appending more to this post. They are an important means of helping us write orphan family histories. And the more family histories we have, the greater the empirical data we have to assess what happened to the Earl Grey orphans in Australia. They will ‘thicken’ our description, an anthropologist might say.
SOME ETHICAL ISSUES
The common ground between family historians, professional genealogists and academic historians is sometimes a tricky one to negotiate. I particularly admire those who treat each other with tact and sensitivity. And worry that my own steel-capped boots will damage too many metaphorical shins. Yet for Earl Grey orphan histories to flourish, may I suggest cooperation is essential? Tanya Evans treats some of the issues I have in mind in her recent Fractured Families and resolves them with what she calls ‘shared authority’. Her book is well worth a read.
Let me outline some of my own concerns.
- What’s the best way to ask family historians how they confirmed there is an Irish female orphan in their family? There was, after all, an enormous number of young Irish females arriving in New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia in the early 1850s. Are you sure ‘your’ Mary Kelly, Cathy Kennedy or Mary Ryan is the one who came to Port Phillip in 1849 on the Pemberton and you’re not just making a leap of faith?
And to extend this a bit further, how do we know that this second or third or fourth marriage is our orphan’s? Can we be sure that this is her changing her name more than once? Reading orphan descendants write about frequent remarriages and name changes has really interesting implications. Did women at the exposed and vulnerable end of Australian society in the nineteenth century have to use these survival strategies, or life strategies, in order to get by? What kind of life must they have led? My not having read much about this sort of thing before may simply be a fault of my own. Has much/anything been written about it already, does anyone know?
2. What if I discover something a family historian may not like to hear, that that orphan descendant beat his wife relentlessly, that that one molested children or that daughter was locked away in a mental institution for more than forty years? What other disturbing factor could there be…that she was constantly drunk and abandoned her children to an Industrial school?…that she committed infanticide? Maybe you can accept and acknowledge these things. As Alison Light put it, we don’t have to like our ancestors. But what if one person in the family objects to such things being publicized in their family history? Or perhaps there is disagreement over an interpretation you’ve made. Does that mean it should be censored or even shelved? I’d love to hear your view.
3. Or what if it is as simple as someone objecting, “You can’t say that. No ancestor of mine was ever in a workhouse.” It has happened before. It may even be an objection to something you include about the Famine. “The charge of culpable neglect of the consequences of policies leading to mass starvation is also indisputable.” (Peter Gray quoted in D. P. Nally’s Human Encumbrances, p 226). Should one therefore cut that bit from the family history?
‘On you go now! Run, son, like the devil
And tell your mother to try
To find me a bubble for the spirit level
And a new knot for this tie.’
(Seamus Heaney, The Errand in The Spirit Level)
I saved some material on my computer sent to me by orphan descendants some years ago. I must try getting in touch again, if they are still with us, D.G., as my friend Tom Power would say. I could begin by putting together a draft of a family history, ask for their input, and show them the draft. If they gave their consent, I could then put it into the blog. I have a sense of these orphan family histories as more of a beginning than an end.
In the meantime I’ll put up some more FAMILY RECONSTITUTIONS. I’d like to return to them at a later date to suggest ways they can be used in a family history. I’ve made a selection of orphans who went to South Australia, Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland. And in order to emphasize the need for cooperation, I’ve gone back to some originals where orphan descendants filled out one of my forms as best they could, and I was able to add a bit more information.
First some family reconstitutions from New South Wales and South Australia. More to follow. Double click or pinch to make these larger.
To be continued…
key to blogs is at http://wp.me/p4SlVj-oE
WHERE TO FROM HERE?
When I came to the end of my last post I wondered if I should write a conclusion to the whole series. Maybe something on the Earl Grey Irish Famine orphans’ contribution to Australia. Was H. H. Browne correct in his assessment? Were the orphans of little use, and ‘distasteful’ to the majority of colonists ? Or did they make an valuable contribution? Along with convict women, they became ‘mothers to the Australian character’? However, if they are set in context beside the c. 9,000 single Irish females who immigrated to New South Wales in 1840-41, the 5,000 who came to South Australia in the mid 1850s, or the 70% of female government assisted migrants to Victoria in the 1850s, we might gain a more realistic picture of where they stand. This is not to deny the orphans their unique position as destitute famine refugees. Nor the particular hardships they faced. To do this might require me going back over everything,– to reorganize, rewrite, polish, and rewrite again. Maybe a publisher would be interested in a small print run.
But then I remembered what I’d written in earlier posts (4, 13 and 19) about histories of individual orphans. Could we reconstruct their experience at local level in Ireland and match it with the same detailed local history in Australia? Could we put together life histories of individual orphans, maybe even inter-generational family histories? Or compare their experience in different regions–the Illawarra and Hunter Valley in New South Wales, around Ipswich in what was to become Queensland, the goldfields of Victoria or Clare Valley in South Australia, for instance? And what do we do with the ‘lost’ souls, the Mary Littlewoods or Georgina Mulhollands or the Mary Ryans we cannot find? http://wp.me/p4SlVj-p7 outlined some of the problems we’d face.
How to tell the orphans’ stories raises all sorts of issues: properly navigating copyright issues and acknowledging one’s debt to others; how best such family histories might be integrated into a larger historical context. I particularly liked the way Kay Caball wove orphan family histories into her Kerry Girls. Elizabeth Rushen and Perry McIntyre put information about individual Red Rover (eary 1830s) women into an Appendix in their Fair Game (Anchor Books, 2010). Doing something similar would only enhance my little history of the Irish Famine orphans–should I have the talent or the energy. But don’t hold your breath. I wouldn’t want to trespass on people’s privacies.
One work I’ve lately been taking inspiration from, is the delightful Common People by Alison Light (Penguin, 2015). Let me try to understand why. It’s a book that shows me just what family history can be, maybe even should (?) be like.
I’m a sucker for good writing whether it’s Ames talking to Jack Boughton at the end of Gilead (Marilynne Robinson); or a black crow and Morrigan at the end of Gun Street Girl (Adrian McKinty); or whether it’s lyrical writing, full of pathos, or hard-headed, clear, honest and direct as it is in Common People. Here’s how Alison Light writes about the death of her great-grandmother Sarah Hill, in Netherne Asylum, in 1911.
“The Register of deaths confirmed the information on her death certificate: she died on 18 June from ‘exhaustion’ after sixteen days of mania…
There were far more questions than answers. ‘Mania’ is deemed a ‘mood disorder’, generally characterized as a state of wild, feverish elation, a hyperactive state of restlessness and often irritability, which leads to sleeplessness. But in the nineteenth century ‘mania’ was an umbrella term…In fact nothing about Sarah’s mania or her death ‘from exhaustion’ could be taken for granted. If she died of heart failure after a fortnight’s frenetic activity and no sleep, she was also likely to be near starvation. Those who were raving were hard to feed, words pouring out of their mouths so that they could take nothing in. Might Sarah have survived in a private asylum in her own comfortable, quiet room with the special care of the best doctors…? As with her sojourn in the workhouse as a child, the adult Sarah had arrived in a public institution at perhaps the worst time in its history.” (pp.166-67)
Her transparent, in your face, honest presence throughout the book is a real breath of fresh air for someone like myself who was trained to distance oneself and write history essays and theses in the third person. We were taught objectivity may not be achievable but it is always worth striving for. Laudable aims, I’m sure. Yet Alison Light’s presence–she’s everywhere–makes her work very personal. It gives a piquant sharpness to her book which makes it interesting to readers other than her immediate family and like minded ancestor hunters.
“I…hoped that my speaking voice would anchor the reader as we moved through time (p.xxiv)…I find that her people had long been on the move (19)…I need a larger-scale atlas as William travels back into his childhood (19)…In the wake of my father’s death I took to tinkering about in the Portsmouth Record Office (70)…I feel tender towards those who refused to conform…cocking a snook…at squire and parson (117)…If anywhere can claim to be my ancestral home it is the workhouse. Somebody in every generation fetched up there (233)…I now know that nothing about a graveyard can be taken at face value (252)”.
What lifts her book to a wider audience still, is her self-reflection, and examination of why so many people research their family’s past. A reader must be made of stone not to stop and think about her ‘meditations’.
“My first instinct in writing Common People was to find the people who had been missing from my past. I wanted…to rescue them…from sheer oblivion (p.xxv)… When my father was very ill with cancer, I went in search of his mother’s grave. It was an odd, possibly morbid thing to do. Family history begins with missing persons—missed in both senses of the word. But when do we register an absence as a loss? (p.11)…Family is never one organism but fissiparous, endlessly dividing itself. In a family tree everyone seems connected, but in life families ‘fragment’…People want to know where they came from but they also want to know where they could have gone and why their branch of the family did not go there (93-4)…Genealogy has long fostered grandiloquent forms of family romance and been a source of reassurance to antiquarians, cranks and snobs…humble aspirants elevate themselves…believing there was once a family pile or manor in the past…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 (130)”.
Can you see yourself in any of this? Common People is full of such reflections challenging readers to ask themselves what exactly do they want, and why?
What appeals to me most of all about her book is how she does her damnedest to put her family into historical context. She is willing to cast her net widely, not only into nooks and crannies but over the big-picture historical context, as often, and as much as she can. Sure, in any family history there are dead-ends and blind alleys and people you’ll never really know but if you merely want a family tree, lives shrunk between dates in brackets, you’re missing the sweetest thing of all.
Any family history worth its salt will go further and ask questions about ‘economic forces’, politics, religious and social conditions, and the like. Alison Light invites us to take ourselves into ‘history’, with its different interpretations and debates and argumentative soul; make our family members more than ‘singular’ and unique but representative of something larger. Her book is also about working-class Britain ‘on the move’ during industrialisation in the nineteenth century; her ancestors act as ‘intermediaries between the living and the dead’ charting an unglorious story of poverty throughout much of the twentieth as well. (Many of these phrases are hers. I do them less than justice).
We may regret that we don’t have the same wealth of resources at our disposal in Ireland or Australia–not the same access to census data, or county histories, or a tremendously rich array of local social histories, as Alison Light had for Common People. But don’t despair. I’m sure there’s plenty we can use. I’m not the best person to ask about this. Maybe others can make some suggestions?
I was pleasantly surprised when I had a quick look at my books, a library that’s been brutally downsized in recent years. I’d consider myself a very limited Australian historian but look what I found…some brilliant histories of ‘localities’,
Grace Karskens, The Rocks. Life in early Sydney, Melbourne U.P., 1997,
Don Watson, Caledonia Australis. Scottish Highlanders on the frontier in Australia, Vintage, 1997,
Mark McKenna, Looking for Blackfella’s Point. An Australian History of Place, UNSW Press, 2002,
a couple of fascinating ‘primary’ sources,
J. S. James, The Vagabond Papers, ed M. Cannon, Melbourne U.P., 1969,
William Kelly, Life in Victoria 1853 and 1858, Lowden, 1977,
and a couple of others you may need more than once,
G. Blainey, Black Kettle and Full Moon. Daily Life in a Vanished Australia, Viking, 2003 and
Gerald Walsh, Pioneering days. People and innovations in Australia’s rural past, Allen & Unwin, 1993.
I’m sure there are plenty more. Your local librarians, local historians and Archivists will be only too pleased to help you. See for instance two recent ones I mentioned in an earlier post, Libby Connors, Warrior, Allen & Unwin, 2015 and Tanya Evans, Fractured Families. Life on the margins in Colonial New South Wales, UNSW Press, 2015. Tanya with the help of family historians skilfully recounts the history of Jane Kelly per Digby in chapter five.
And what if we approached from a different direction? By travelling in the footsteps of the people you’re interested in? Here’s a link to Peter Higginbotham’s great website.
Go to Ballyshannon workhouse or whatever is left of it today and make your way to Dublin’s North Quay. Then, since there is no longer a boat to Portsmouth, take the ferry from Rosslare to Holyhead. You are experiencing a similar route to the one your orphan ancestor took. I travelled on that ferry a few times many, many, years ago. I’m not sure what it’s like today.
And in Australia, it may be impractical to travel as orphans did with Surgeon Strutt, by cart, over Razorback, southward to Yass and Gundagai. But you get the idea. Take the journey nonetheless.
Go to the workhouse ‘your’ orphan came from and travel to Dublin or Cork. Follow her footsteps as much as you can after she arrived in Adelaide, Sydney or Melbourne. It’s an experience worth having; you are trying to relive her ‘history’. Is that too crazy? I’m sure you will have other and better ideas. Perhaps you’d share them?
I travelled to a distant town
I could not find my mother
I could not find my father
I could not hear the drum
Whose ancestor am I?
(Edward Brathwaite, The New Ships in Masks, Oxford U. P. 1970)
My thanks to the late Lionel Chapman for the family photograph at the head of this post. It has Johanna Kelly in a wedding photograph in 1907.
A link to the contents of my blog http://wp.me/p4SlVj-oE