Forgotten tales

stories of my family

The Byrnes and our Irish origins

My grandmother’s oldest sister was named Kathleen Byrne, but the family usually called her Lena. She was born in 1886 in Sydney, the first child of George and Susie Byrne, who were both Irish migrants from County Kerry. Her parents were reasonably well off; some would say it was because they were a strict Brethren family who never wasted their money on the frivolities of life. Her father was trained in retail: he did his apprenticeship as a merchant in Killorglin, back in Kerry, in the 1870s, and though I am unsure what he did at first after his arrival in Sydney in the early 1880s, he ended up an executive in the Melbourne based IXL Jam Company (though he never lived anywhere but Sydney). I think of him every time I see the jars of IXL jams lined up on the supermarket shelves when I do the weekly food shop. George and Susie prospered in Australia, certainly much more than they would ever have done in Ireland had they raised their family there. My mother’s cousin, Keith Walmsley, once wrote to me:

George and Susie must have been well off as they paid cash for any house they went to live in (several) and Susie was able to manage the finances to also build a holiday home at Ocean Beach right near the surf. Nevertheless Susie confided to Connie (one of Lena’s sisters and Keith’s mother) in her last days that she had messed up the family and said – George should have had more input into the family generally – they all should have been given a lot more education – and they should never have gone to the Brethren church as it was “too narrow in many ways” and if she had her time over again would have gone to the Anglican church like some of her relatives.

Paying cash for a home in Sydney, and being able to afford in addition a holiday house in Ocean Beach (north of Sydney in Umina on the Central Coast), today seems almost unthinkable, given the exorbitant price of real estate in the sprawling city. Only a very wealthy immigrant to Sydney would today be able to imagine such privilege; certainly not one from a country as impoverished as Ireland was in the late 1800s. I suppose it is a reflection of how much Australian society has changed. Once it was a land of opportunity for the poor, for anyone willing to work hard, but now such opportunities are restricted to the already wealthy – which are the kind of migrants that Australia welcomes with open arms, while restricting as much as possible those of limited or no means. I suspect that the Irish poor would not be welcomed as migrants to Australia today.

An Irish migrant family in Sydney

For relatively newly arrived migrants, the family appears to have lived well. George and Susie married in Summer Hill, which is where Kathleen, their first child, was born. They lived in a variety of homes over the years, as Keith’s letter indicates. George’s death certificate shows that in 1929 the family was living in Lewisham. However, electoral rolls for 1930 and 1933 show that the now widowed Susie and some of her adult children, including my grandmother, who was in her early thirties, were living in Epping, north of the harbour, where I believe Susie lived until she died in 1946. I do not know the exact location of their holiday home at Ocean Beach (“right near the surf”), but I do have a photo taken in about 1939 of Gertie (my grandmother) and her three daughters (the one at the front right is my mother) at the beach, so I presume that the house was still in the family then, though George was dead and Susie was in her late 70s.

Gert & girls Ocean Beach

Gertie Simmonds (Byrne) and her three girls on Ocean Beach 1939

The Byrne family strikes me as unusual because of the fact that mother and adult children appeared to be all living together when their father died. The exception was Connie (Emily Constance, b.1888), Keith’s mother, who had met a charming Englishman named Thomas Walmsley soon after the First World War, and married him in defiance of her parents’ desire that the oldest daughter, Kathleen, should marry first. The strange idea that the oldest daughter should marry appears to have been something that came from the Brethren Church, in which George and Susie raised their family. Kathleen was the first born, but by the end of WW1 she as 32 and had not found anyone. She was an attractive girl and must have turned quite a few heads, so why she never married remains a mystery to me. Perhaps there were few eligible men in the rather narrow Brethren circles in which she moved. Perhaps Kathleen was just too picky. The outbreak of war when she was 28 would not have made it easier, as so many young men were shipping off to Europe to fight for the Empire. When my grandmother Gertie left home and married in 1933 the three remaining sisters and their brother William were all still living with their mother in Epping.

My grandmother’s rather well off youth was sadly not continued into her married life. In 1933 she married an English migrant, George Simmonds, who was 6 years younger than her. George was a labourer, having grown up in Western London as the son of a market gardener. He had come out to Australia in 1923 when he was 18 and prior to marrying Gertie 10 years later he worked as an itinerant farm labourer in country towns of Queensland and NSW. I am uncertain how they met, but they married in 1933 and eventually settled in Goulburn, though my mother has told me that they lived in Hay for some of her childhood. Gertie’s family never really approved of George Simmonds. For one thing, he was English, but even worse than that he grew up in the Church of England, which the Brethren saw as hardly better than being Catholic. Furthermore, he was a smoker, which did little to endear him to his future parents in law, though Keith confided in me once that he was glad of it, because his Uncle George always kept his tobacco tins for him, at a time when toys to play with were a scarce commodity, and even tobacco tins could provide a young boy with something to collect and treasure.

Apart from the disapproval of his wife’s family, life was tough for George, since work was variable, with Australia in the grip of the Great Depression. It became even tougher when he suffered a serious injury as a result of falling from a horse. Chronic health problems did little to help their already stressed economy. He and Gertie never owned a home, and he died at the age of 50 of a heart attack, when Mum was only 18. My mother grew up, therefore, in relative poverty. At one stage her parents were so poor they had to put their three girls temporarily into a children’s home because they did not have the means to support them. One by one the girls left home – Mum and Dorothy married, but Auntie Joyce remained single all her life. Gertie died alone in 1976 in Goulburn.

Kathleen Byrne

Back to Kathleen who, I believe, worked in an office job her whole working life, and lived at home with her mother and unmarried sisters. Connie and Gertie were both raising families, Connie in Sydney and Gertie in Goulburn. By the time Susie died in 1946 Kathleen was 60. She and her two spinster sisters presumably sold the family home, and, I suppose, the house at Ocean Beach too, and moved to Springwood in the Blue Mountains. When I was a young boy I knew the three of them – Lena, Frances and Isobel – as the “aunts in the mountains.” We would visit them for afternoon tea from time to time, but I was quite small and never thought much about who they were or where they had come from. They were simply “the aunts,” and I found them a bit odd. One of them, though I don’t think it was Kathleen, seemed to be quite mad, though in a gentle ladylike sort of way: I remember her speaking quite seriously on one occasion about the little folk in the garden – fairies I presume – who peered through their windows from time to time: the legacy, I suppose, of her Irish heritage. The aunts passed away one by one, until there was only one left, the oldest of them all, our Kathleen, who died in a nursing home in Springwood in 1986 at the age of 100, an old lady bent and wizened, dearly loved by her nieces and nephews, including Mum and Keith.

Version 2

Kathleen Byrne age 20, around 1906

When she was 27, Kathleen (I prefer her given name, because it sounds so Irish) was given a book called Munster by her mother. This book now sits on the shelves of our home, and has been a source of some fascination to me, mainly because of the annotations in the margins, about which I have written before. I have no way of knowing whether those notes were written by Kathleen or my mother, who inherited the book when Kathleen died. Munster, of course, is the southernmost of Ireland’s four regions, and Kerry, where Susie and George were born, is one of its counties. The book is a travelogue, written in the early 1900s, by which time tourism to Kerry was becoming a major source of income for the area.

Kathleen never went to Ireland as far as I can tell, but she was seemingly as fascinated by the family history as I am, if the annotations in the book are indeed hers and not my mothers. On the second last page of the book (p.61) the name “Byrne” is handwritten in the margin beside the printed name “O’Brien” which is underlined in pencil. If Kathleen wrote this note, it would seem she believed there was a connection between her own name and that of O’Brien, and that this was significant in some way. The O’Briens referred to in the book are no other than Charlotte Grace O’Brien and her father William Smith O’Brien, both people of some fame, who lived near Foynes in County Limerick on the Shannon River estuary. This is some way north of Killarney where George and Susie were both born, but George and Susie, and their six children, clearly knew of them. It seems they may have even believed they were related.

The Byrnes and O’Briens

William Smith O’Brien remains a well known personality in Irish history, his daughter Charlotte less so, though she was well known at the time. William was part of the upper classes, but unlike many of his standing he was not Anglo-Irish, though he was Protestant, a member of the Church of Ireland. He was an Irish nationalist who achieved fame because of his participation in the 1848 uprising against the British in Ballingarry, County Tipperary, for which he ended up being transported to Van Diemens Land. He was betrayed in his attempt to escape from there, but after serving some years in the penal colony he was eventually pardoned and went back to Ireland, where he lived out his days.

His daughter, Charlotte, became famous in her lifetime because of her untiring efforts on behalf of poor Irish migrants, who were being exploited en route to America or elsewhere by unscrupulous con-men determined to swindle unsuspecting immigrants. Charlotte was tireless in her efforts to protect the naive and vulnerable poor who were leaving Ireland in droves. The writer of Munster writes warmly of her, and I realised when I was reading the book that Charlotte came from the same generation as Kathleen’s parents, George and Susie (though she was a good fifteen years older than them, and they would only have known of her only from a distance). Kathleen would likely have admired Charlotte, and would have been proud to think she may have been related (as we all are when we find that we have a distant connection with some prominent person who has achieved great things).

Having said that, the notes in the margin may well have been made by my mother, who sadly died in 1999, so that I cannot ask her. Dad, who is alive and well, cannot enlighten me. The handwriting is not specific. So it may have been Mum who believed that the Byrnes and the O’Briens were connected. However, a quick search on the Internet (notably Wikipedia, in which many people have no confidence but which in this case agrees with many other sites), reveals that the Byrnes are almost certainly descended not from the great Brian Boru (High King of Ireland in 1014) whom the O’Briens claim as their forefather, but from Bran Mac Maélmórda, King of Leinster, deposed in 1018, son of Brian Boru’s sworn enemy, Máel Mórda Mac Murchada, who Brian defeated at the Battle of Clontarf in 1014, outside Dublin. There is a fictionalised account of that great battle in Edward Rutherfurd’s novel, “Dublin, Foundations,” published in America as The Princes of Ireland (The Dublin Saga #1), which is a very enjoyable read.

Whatever the truth, whether our Byrne ancestors are descended from the O’Briens (Brian), or the O’Byrnes (Bran), there seems little doubt that they are the most Irish of all our family. The other Irish branches of our family tree are all English somewhere in their past. The Hicksons (Susie Byrne was a Hickson) came to Ireland in the 1500s during the Elizabethan “plantations,” while the Ruddles, (Sarah Ruddle was George Byrne’s mother) were also an English family. The Needhams (Mary Needham married William Hickson, Susie Hickson’s uncle) were also English – apart from Mary the Needhams all ended up in America. But the Byrnes were Irish for at least nine hundred years, if they did indeed come from Bran Mac Maélmórda, though who knows whether people of other nations (the Vikings and the Scots seemed to have a particularly strong interest in Ireland far back in the mists of time) were part of the family tree prior to that.

Mum was convinced she was related to the O’Briens and it may have all stemmed from the book, Munster, or perhaps from something her mother or her aunties or grandmother had said. Her grandfather, George Byrne, died before Mum was born, but her grandmother Susie lived until Mum was about nine. It wasn’t until the 1980s that Mum and Dad and my youngest brother, Peter, who was still living at home, went looking for these places in Ireland. Mum came back very excited, especially about meeting an O’Brien family in Foynes on the Shannon River estuary. She told me the story years ago, and it had faded in my memory. But, to my amazement and delight, Peter told me recently that he had kept a diary on that trip. He was only 11 but the writing is impressive. He gave me permission to quote his diary, and it seems the perfect end to this blog.

Peter’s Diary

13/4/83. Killorglin – Foynes
This morning we set out to get to the Dingle Peninsula.
It was raining hard as we approached Dingle. When we arrived we set out straight for the shops. I looked for a flag of Ireland. Unfortunately I had no success. Mum and Dad were looking for an Irish teaspoon and a good book about Ireland.
Having not much success in that we drove further into the town, where we stopped for lunch. Our lunch consisted of Crackerbread, Orange juice and for desert, some small apple pies.
After lunch we drove to the tourist office to find the time that the ferry crossed from Tarbert to Killimer on the River Shannon. We were told that if we drove fast we would make it on the next ferry.
So Dad went as fast as he dared. We saw the ferry leaving just as we arrived. Dad and I were very angry. In the end we decided to drive to a little town named Foynes.
There was a small cottage there mentioned in a book named Munster. The cottage was said to be on a hillside in Foynes and built by Charlotte Grace Obrien. She was a distant relative of ours. We went to a small cottage on the hillside and asked the owner if hers was C.G.O’brien’s cottage. She replied that it wasn’t but the Littles would know where it is if anyone did. So we went to see the Littles. Mum asked if they knew about the cottage. We were very excited to hear they knew all about the cottage and even knew where C.G.O’brien was buried. So we thanked them and were of at once. The house, which had an overrun garden was now owned by a German. They had told us where she was buried, it was a place named KnockPatrick. We drove up a small dirt road. Unfortunately we came to a dead end and had to return to the main road. We continued on and finally found the place. Having to walk up we were glad to get to the top. Dad and I looked into some sepulchres. One had been flooded with rain water and bones were floating about everywhere. But it was getting late so we found a Bed & Breakfast in the neighbourhood.

14/4/83. Foynes – Bunratty, Ireland
I got up early today because we had an early breakfast. Mum rang up the man who is supposed to be related to us and lives on an island. He said it was just the right time to come because the tide was up. He rowed over, picked us up and rowed back. I found out that each member of a family of 5 [or 7 – it is overwritten] had a boat. They had a little dog called Eccles. He was tiny! Their youngest daughter Charlotte had just had her 21st Birthday. Charlotte was named after Charlotte Grace O’brien who owned the cottage on the hill. There was some Coca-Cola left over and I was allowed some for morning tea. We also had a lovely lunch on the island, but before that, we went for a walk on the beach. Mr O’brien told us that when he was young there were flying boats on the harbour. They would land and take off on the water. After lunch he showed us his records of all the boats that had entered the harbour for quite some time. When back at the car we drove straight to Bunratty where we spent the night.
PS. We went to see Dromoland Castle that night which once belonged to the O’brien family.

830414 Foynes Island

Foynes Island in the Shannon Estuary, from Peter Holford’s collection 1982

What Peter didn’t write in his journal, but which I remember her relating to me, was the fact that there was a portrait on the wall of the O’Brien’s home of a person who bore an uncanny resemblance to my other brother, Stephen. For Mum, that picture proved it: we were related. We have never had any further contact with the O’Briens of Foynes Island, County Limerick, but perhaps somehow, through a common ancestor in the distant past, we are related. O’Byrnes or O’Briens, it doesn’t matter. Suffice to say that we have a bit of Irish in us, like millions of others around the world, and of that we are proud.

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Munster: Kenmare River

Munster cover

Kathleen’s book, which her mother gave her in 1913

I found an old book on my father’s shelves. It is called “Munster, Pictured by Alexander Williams, Described by Stephen Gwynn,” and on the frontispiece in elegant cursive writing: “Kathleen Byrne. 1913. From Mother.” Opposite this inscription, on the inside of the cover, my mother has written her own name and address. Mum was Kathleen’s niece; the book appears to be one of the few items she inherited from her auntie.

Kathleen Byrne, born in 1886, was the oldest of five daughters of George and Susie Byrne. Her dad had arrived in Sydney from County Kerry, Ireland, about four years before she was born, though the exact date eludes me as does the name of the vessel on which he sailed. On arrival George became reacquainted with his childhood sweetheart, Susie Hickson, whom he had known back in Kerry, but who had migrated with her parents and siblings to Australia in 1878, when she was 17 years old. At the time of Susie’s departure from Kerry, George had been in the middle of his apprenticeship to a general merchant in Killorglin, so it was another 4 years before he could follow her. They married in 1885 a few years after his arrival in Sydney. Susie was 24, George 25. Kathleen, their firstborn, came a year later.

The book I have before me was given to Kathleen as a gift when she was 27 years old. She was still a young woman, but she never married, much to the disappointment of her parents. Neither did two of her sisters; when I was a child I knew them as the three spinster auntie, Kathleen, Frances and Isobel. In old age they lived together in a cottage in Springwood, in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, where we visited them from time to time. I never saw any of them after Frances died in 1974. Isobel was the next to go in 1980, but Kathleen herself lived to be 100 years old, finally passing away in 1986. I have a photo of her and various family members, including my mother, on her hundredth birthday.

1986 Kathleen age 100

Kathleen Byrne turns 100 in 1986. The group are nieces and nephews and their children, including my mother Gwen Holford, second from right and Keith Walmsley, far right.

“Munster” is fascinating to read, not least because of a few handwritten annotations in the margin and some underlined words scattered through the book. It is impossible to say whether these notes were made by Kathleen or Mum, since the handwriting does not resemble either of theirs in the front of the book. I suppose it is even possible that the annotations were made by Kathleen’s mother Susie. What is clear, however, is that for someone in the family certain passages in the book were significant. I have been reflecting on some of these scribblings. The first is about the Kenmare River, which is the subject of this blog. Future blogs will refer to other notes.

Munster, of course, is one of the four regions of Ireland, the others being Ulster, Leinster and Connaught. Kerry, which was the origin of most of my Irish ancestors, is one of the counties of Munster. The book is an account of the writer’s visits to that part of Ireland, but is not a travel guide in the sense of Lonely Planet, or Rough Guides. Kathleen never went to Ireland, but Mum and Dad did, after I had left home, around the time that Kathleen died. Mum is no longer alive to tell me about that trip, but I do remember some of the stories she told me on their return. My younger brother Peter, who was still at school at that time, went with them, and he remembers the journey vividly, as does my father, who is now 84. I am fairly certain that Mum had the book with her on that trip, and that the annotations in the margins guided some of her enquiries.

The first significant notes are on page 24 in a reference to the Kenmare River. The text of the book reads: “The south coast of Cork, from Youghal to the Kenmare River, is the pick of Ireland for yachtsmen… Endless is the succession, from Cork itself with all its lesser creeks and havens… Past Mizen Head, on the west shore, are greater bays, harbours, not for yachts, but for navies – Dunmanus, Bantry and the Kenmare River, whose northern shore belongs to Kerry, but which has a frontier certainly in Paradise.” The annotation, handwritten, referring it would seem to the underlined words, Kenmare River, reads: “Behind George Needham’s cottage, now a Police Barracks.”

Munster Kenmare

“Munster,” p24

George Needham was Susie Hickson’s grandfather. He and his wife had ten children, the firstborn of which was Mary, Susie’s mother. Mary Needham grew up in Templenoe, on the northern shore of the Kenmare River, “which has a frontier certainly in Paradise,” according to the old book of Munster. It is, as these words suggest, an area of extraordinary natural beauty, and forms today part of one of Ireland’s most popular tourist routes, the so called “Ring of Kerry.” The Kenmare River a deep inlet in the coast rather than a river, the hills on the southern shore being in Cork, while the mountains rising from the northern shore forming part of the Iveragh peninsula of County Kerry. The area is not only beautiful, but is also rich in history. Not least it was a smuggler’s haven, especially in the 1700s.

The Needhams were Protestants, and they were Anglo-Irish. George Needham had been, I believe, an officer in the British Navy. I am not certain as to whether he was born in Ireland or not, but I am fairly certain that his wife was English born. Although he eventually became the parish clerk in Templenoe, he had initially, after leaving the navy, been a captain in the Kerry Coastguard, based presumably on the Kenmare River. The Irish Coastguard had been established by the British government largely as a response to the smuggling that occurred not only in Kerry but all up the West Coast of Ireland. Because so many of the local population was dependent on smuggling for their livelihood (they preferred to think of as the “import-export business” rather than smuggling) the Coastguard was not a greatly loved institution, standing as it did in the way of business. George Needham, as a Coastguard captain, and English to boot, may not have been greatly liked. The attitudes to the Coastguard may have softened during the famine of the 1840s, when it was involved in the distribution of food relief, and once George had left the Coastguard it is possible that the locals may have thought better of him. But even as a parish clerk he was part of the English establishment, and that may have made it difficult for him.

Kenmare River chart

Nautical chart Upper Kenmare River

Here is a little of what the book “Munster” has to say about smuggling on the Kenmare River:

Here, as elsewhere, English settlers were brought in as lords of the land, with enormous power over the native Irish, whose loyalty still held to the representative of their old chiefs. The O’Sullivans were chiefs now principally in the extensive smuggling operations – and let it be remembered that under the laws made by England to crush out Irish trade, contraband was almost the one outlet for Irish commerce. If Irishmen wanted to export the wool of their sheep, the hides of their cattle, the meat they had salted, all this traffic was by law forbidden. Such laws make smuggling necessary and beneficent, and the O’Sullivans on the south of the Kenmare River, like the O’Connells on its northern shore, brought in their cargoes of wines, tobacco, silks and laces, and sent back ships laden with wool. With those cargoes went out too that other contraband, the supply of officers and men for the Irish brigade. The English landlord-settler was the representative of English law, and between him and the O’Sullivans conflict was certain… (pp31-32)

The story of how the English came to Kerry is a complex one dating back many hundreds of years, and contains much sadness and injustice. Suffice to say that the English colonised Ireland, as they colonised many other countries in the world in their pursuit of Empire, and were regarded as foreigners in Ireland, even if some families had been there for hundreds of years. The Hickson family, for example, which Mary Needham married into, had come over to Ireland during the reign of Elizabeth the first, and surely felt themselves to be thoroughly Irish. But English was their native language, rather than the Irish of many of the locals, and they were Protestants, whereas the majority was Catholic. Sadly the English government had been using religion as a form of oppression and control of the native Irish for centuries, so for many the Church of Ireland was seen as the religion of the Establishment, and Catholicism as the religion of resistance. That is, however, an oversimplification, since in many cases the most outspoken voices for Irish nationalism were Protestant.

Our distant Hickson ancestors had been landlord-settlers back in the 1580s on the Dingle Peninsula, further north in Kerry, but that was long in the past, and by the nineteenth century our direct Hickson ancestors were neither landlords nor landowners, but paid rent like other commoners in Kerry, and worked as blacksmiths (or more specifically, as nailers). However, they were not subsistence farmers, like the vast majority of the peasantry in Kerry, and that gave them some resilience when the famine hit in the 1840s. Neither were the Needhams gentry in any way, but like the Hicksons they were Protestants, and English, and as such part of a small minority in Kerry that was not greatly loved, though they enjoyed privileges denied to the majority.

Perhaps it was partly for this reason that, while George Needham and his wife both died and were buried in Kerry, most if not all of their ten children left Ireland in the turbulent times of the 1860s and 70s, migrating to North America. Susie, Mary Needham’s second child, who was born in County Kerry, in Killarney, was around 4 years old when her family departed for the USA. She was a Hickson, but her parents William and Mary, made the decision to go with the Needhams to America, rather than following William’s family, several of whom had already migrated to Australia.

Emigrants_Leave_Ireland_by_Henry_Doyle1868

Henry Edward Doyle, 1868, via Wikimedia Commons

The result was that Susie spent her childhood and adolescence as an Irish immigrant in America, much more influenced by her Needham relatives than the Hicksons. However, after 12 years in America her parents, at the urging of William’s family in Australia, decided to return to Ireland, and from there they migrated again, this time to Australia.

So Kathleen and her siblings grew up hearing stories from their parents and grandparents of their childhoods in Ireland, and Susie’s sojourn in America. Their maternal grandfather, William Hickson, died in 1899 when his grandchildren were still very young. Their grandmother, Mary (Needham), lived until 1916 so she too would have told stories of Kerry to her grandchildren, one of whom was my grandmother, Gertrude, born in 1899. Templenoe, and the Kenmare River, as the home of their maternal grandmother, would have loomed large in the childrens’ imagination of the Ireland of their forebears. The book Susie gave to Kathleen in 1913 would doubtless have been treasured by her as a reminder of her mother and grandmother’s birthplace. Stephen Gwynn, the author of Munster writes warmly of the Kenmare River:

Nothing else in Ireland is so perfect, to my fancy, as this long narrow sea lough between the two mountainous peninsulas, and having inland of it the full vista of those higher mountains which encircle Killarney’s lakes… Iveragh (the peninsula)… is bounded on the south by the Kenmare River, on the north by Dingle Bay, on the west by the Atlantic Ocean (with the Skelligs lying off in it), and on the east by Magillicuddy’s Reeks and the lakes of Killarney; which is set therefore in beauty and majesty and splendour and has interest and charm at every turn of every road…
The train will take you to Kenmare… From Kenmare the beautifully engineered road, which was a joy to man and beast till heavy motor coaches began to destroy it, runs along the north shore of the sea lough, and a few miles out crosses the Kerry Blackwater by the most picturesque bridge over the loveliest stream that anyone could ever hope to throw a fly in. A little further along is Parknasilla, the big hotel which has been built at a point where the coast breaks up into a number of wooded islets, with bridges connecting them, and meandering walks – well, nothing could be prettier. Then you go along through Sneem, getting into opener, wider country. (pp 33, 35-36)

Kenmare River 2

Looking south across the Kenmare River to the mountains of Cork. From a visit to Kerry 2016.

This was the country that our Needham ancestors called home, until the family broke up and departed for America in 1865 and the years that followed. Only the oldest of the Needham children, Mary, would end up in Australia. In Kerry, now, there is little trace of the family left, although I did spot the Needham name once or twice in the graveyard of the now boarded up Templenoe Church.

 

Reconstructing the Byrne family

I am descended from four Kerry families of the nineteenth century: their names are Byrne, Hickson, Needham and Ruddle. My maternal grandmother was Gertrude Byrne and her parents, both Irish born, were George Byrne and Susie Hickson. George’s parents were George Byrne (senior) and Sarah Ruddle, while Susie’s parents were William Hickson and Mary Needham. My paternal grandmother was Winifred Ross. Her mother was Alice Hickson, firstborn of Kerry born John Hickson, brother of the aforementioned William Hickson. So Irish blood runs thick in my veins.

Unravelling the stories of these four families has been and remains a fascinating exercise. The Hickson and Needham family stories have come together relatively easily, due to written accounts from various members of these families, particularly John Hickson, and Thomas Needham. The Byrnes have been much harder, and the Ruddles are still largely unknown to me. The following article outlines my reconstruction of the Byrne family, and the sources I used to reach these conclusions, some of which are linked to the highlighted words in the article.

George and Richard Byrne

George, my great grandfather, was born in Killarney, on 22 July 1860, and was baptised in the Church of Ireland (COI) parish church at Aghadoe, a village outside Killarney on the way to Killorglin. Until recently I was aware of only one other sibling in his family, namely Richard, his younger brother, who was born about 10 years after him. George migrated first to Australia, I believe in 1883, and Richard some years later, though documentary evidence of their respective migrations has been hard to come by.

GeorgeByrne1

George Byrne, my great grandfather (1860-1929)

James and Hannah Byrne

A few months back I was contacted quite out of the blue by Barbara Fromberg, of Sydney, who had read some of my musings about the Byrne family on my blog. Barbara informed me that she was the granddaughter of another Byrne, James, whom she believed to be a brother to George and Richard.  I had never heard of James, as she had never heard of George and Richard, but she pointed me to a number of documents that showed her suspicions to be correct. She also made me aware of a sister Hannah, who appears to have been the first born in the family.

Aghadoe

Barbara and her husband had recently returned from a journey to Europe including Ireland, and it was she who enlightened me to the Aghadoe connection. She sent me a photo she had taken of the parish church of Aghadoe, where my great grandfather and his older sister Hannah were baptised. Aghadoe appears to have been the home of the Ruddle family, while the Byrnes seem to have come from Killarney proper.

Aghadoe Parish Church

Parish Church at Aghadoe, near Killarney (photo courtesy of Barbara Fromberg)

My daughter Hanna and I were in Ireland last year in August (2016) and did some family history hunting, but then I was totally unaware of Aghadoe and my knowledge of the Byrne family in Killarney was extremely vague. We visited Killorglin and Sneem and Dingle, which were important in the Hickson family story, and Templenoe, which featured in that of the Needhams. We stayed outside Killarney but on the southern side of the town near Muckross. I didn’t even know of the existence of Aghadoe, which lies west of Killarney, just north of the road to Killorglin, which forms part of the famous “Ring of Kerry” tourist route.

Kerry highlights 1883

County Kerry, with family places highlighted

Thanks to Barbara a picture of my great grandfather’s family in Ireland began to emerge. I now knew of four children in the family: Hannah born 1859, George in 1860, James 1866, and Richard, 1870. Together Barbara and I have tried to nut out the Byrne family of Killarney, but it has been a frustrating task, with many dead ends. The picture is still incomplete, and only some of my questions have been answered.

Questions about George and Sarah

George Byrne senior

George Byrne senior 1831-1872, (photo from Barbara Fromberg’s collection)

Sarah Ruddle

Sarah Byrne (Ruddle) 1835-1890? (Barbara Fromberg collection)

Who were George Byrne (senior) and Sarah Ruddle? Where did they come from, what were their own family backgrounds, how did they meet, when did they marry? Were they rich or poor, in what were they employed, what motivated them, what gave them joy, what were their hopes and dreams, what were their struggles? When and where did they live and die? Were there more than the four children listed above, perhaps some who died in infancy, which was such a common occurrence in the days before infections could be effectively treated with antibiotics? What compelled their children to migrate? Why didn’t they migrate themselves when so many of their friends were doing just that (including the Hicksons and the Needhams whom I have mentioned above)? What was it like in Killarney in the 1800s? There are many questions and I have only started to answer some of them, and of course there is a lot of conjecture and imagining in the process. I have only found a few objective sources to draw on which have provided a framework for thinking. The following are some of them:

Sources

  • Marriage record for George Byrne and Sarah Ruddle (1857)
  • Death record of George (1872)
  • Baptism records of Hannah (1859) and George junior (1860)
  • Birth record of Richard (1870)
  • George junior’s indenture when he began his apprenticeship (1871)
  • Marriage certificate for George junior to Susie Hickson (1885)
  • Marriage certificates of James (1891 and 1906)
  • Various photos provided by Barbara Fromberg, as well as those in my personal collection.

I should mention that my mother’s cousin, Keith Walmsley, a grandchild of George Byrne (junior), has also given me a good deal of information about his grandparents and their backgrounds, and his son Simon has provided some of the photographs. I hope that other documents will appear as I continue to search, but the ones listed above form the basis of my current objective knowledge.

Facts

From these documents I have deduced the following:

  • George and Sarah Byrne married in 1857 at the parish church in Aghadoe, near Killarney (Church of Ireland)
  • George Byrne (senior) was a nailer (a blacksmith, involved in the manufacture of nails)
  • George’s father was William Byrne, also a nailer (often spelt “nailor”)
  • Sarah Ruddle was a sextoness. A sextoness was a female sexton. A sexton is described as “a person who looks after a church and churchyard, typically acting as bell-ringer and gravedigger.” (Oxford Dictionary online). I don’t imagine that Sarah did much gravedigging, though her father Thomas Ruddle may well have done so, since he was the sexton at the same church.
  • Sarah’s father, Thomas Ruddle, was the parish clerk at Aghadoe
  • George was 26 when they married, which would give him a birth year of 1831. I have not located a birth certificate.
  • Sarah was 22 when they married, giving her a birth year of 1835.
  • They had, as far as I can determine, four children, being Hannah, George, James and Richard, the last three of which migrated to Australia.
  • George died on 30 October 1872 of prolonged bronchitis (his death certificate says 2 years). This would suggest that he may have had some form of asthma, or that he had chronic lung damage from exposure to smoke, or fumes, since he was a blacksmith (nailer).
  • George’s death record says his age was 47, which would give him a birth year of 1825, but this does not match with his marriage record, which gives him a birth year of 1831. I suspect that his age at death has been wrongly transcribed from the original death certificate, since a 7 can easily look like a 1. This would mean that he was actually 41 when he died.
  • Sarah was only 37 years old when her husband died. I have no knowledge of whether she ever remarried. However, she signed George junior’s indenture to a merchant in Killorglin in 1876 with the name Sarah Byrne. She would have been 41 by then.
  • Sarah was deceased in 1891, according to James’ first marriage certificate. So she probably died in her 50s (she would have been 56 had she been alive in 1891) though when and where she died is uncertain.
  • The family lived in Chapel Lane, Killarney, in 1870 (Richard’s birth record) and still in 1872 (George’s death record).

The fact that I have been unable to find various records is both frustrating and mystifying, notably a birth certificate for James Byrne. Barbara made me aware of a fire that ravaged the Public Records Office in Dublin in 1922, during the Irish Civil War, destroying many records. However, according to Claire Santry on her Irish Genealogy News blog-site all civil registration records survived that fire, and according to the Irish Genealogy website these Civil Records list births from 1864 to 1916, marriages from 1870 to 1941, and deaths from 1878 to 1966. Richard, born 1870, is there, but James, born 1866, is not. I cannot find any records for a marriage or death of Hannah Byrne, nor is there any death record for Sarah, who died in this period.

More children?

The first question that occurred to me was, were there more children? Hannah and George (junior) were close together, but then there is a gap of 6 years before the next child, James, and then another 4 years before Richard was born. Were there others in between, or after? To answer that required a bit more information about their parents, George Byrne senior and his wife Sarah Ruddle.

I knew nothing of George senior’s death until Barbara shared with me a copy of his death record, indicating that he died in October, 1872 in Chapel Lane, Killarney. He was, I believe, 41.

Having ascertained that George and Sarah Byrne were married in 1857 and that George died in 1872, I searched the databases on Irish Genealogy for Byrnes born in Killarney to George and Sarah between 1857 and 1872. However, rather than finding more Byrne children, I found less. Two of them – Hannah (1859) and George (1860) – are there in the church records. One is in the civil records – Richard (1870). But James is not there, and there are no other children of George and Sarah Byrne in either of these collections between 1857 and 1873. So if there were other children born between 1860 and 1870 they are either not recorded, or the records have been lost.

Why no birth certificate for James?

And where is our James? According to his marriage records (he was married twice after he had moved to Australia, in 1891 to Florence Ashmead and 1906 to Jessie Lawrence) he was born in 1866. As mentioned above, we cannot blame the fire in Dublin in 1922 for the absence of his birth certificate. His parents were fastidious in recording the baptisms of Hannah and George, which are available online. And Richard is there in the Civil Records. So why did James miss out?

Interestingly there was one other Byrne child born in Killarney during those years (1857-73), and curiously his name was was, in fact, James. But according to the register his year of birth was 1870, and his parents are listed as Edward and Catherine Byrne. Furthermore, though this James’ birth is registered in Killarney, his place of birth is listed as Scrahan, which is north of Killarney, closer to Listowel. His father, the “informant” for the birth, appears to have worked as an attendant at the Killarney Lunatic Asylum, and lived on the premises there. Presumably his wife, Catherine (formerly Barony) was resident in Scrahan, while her husband was working in Killarney.

So there was another Byrne family in Killarney at the time, that of Edward and Catherine Byrne. I have wondered if Edward and George Byrne (senior) might have been brothers, but I have not been able to confirm this. Did Edward and Catherine Byrne have other children, and if so, where are they recorded?

Thinking about the absence of our James from any birth registers, as well as the presence of this other James Byrne, it occurred to me fleetingly that they might be one and the same. Could Edward and Catherine’s son, James, have been “adopted” by George and Sarah out of some unknown necessity, and raised as their own? But his age is wrong. James son of George was by all accounts born in 1866, whereas James son of Edward was born in 1870, the same year as Richard.

I think, quite simply, that there must have been two James Byrnes in Killarney in the 1870s, but that while there is an existing birth record of one of them, the details of the birth of the other – our James, Barbara’s grandfather – remain a mystery. Only from his Australian marriage records can we deduce the year of his birth, and these same records clearly state that he was the son of George and Sarah Byrne, of Killarney.

Australian records

There are Australian records for George junior and Richard too, since both of them migrated to Australia, married and had families. George was my great grandfather on my mother’s side. Richard, oddly enough, married my great grandmother on my father’s side, but it was the second marriage for them both, when they were old, after each had other families. I have written about that unusual occurrence elsewhere. James I had no knowledge of until a few months ago when Barbara contacted me.

But the Australian records give few clues to the Byrnes’ brothers life in Ireland, only that they had come from there and who their parents were. What kind of relationships existed between these three brothers in Australia is unknown to me, and I have no-one to ask. What happened to their older sister, Hannah Byrne, is also a mystery. Did she migrate too, or did she remain in Ireland? Did she marry? Where and when did she die? There is more research to be done here.

Religion

James’ death certificate (1942) indicates that he was a member of the “Open Brethren” religion. I know from my mother (now deceased) and her cousin, Keith Walmsley (alive and well), that their grandparents (George junior and his wife Susie) were also members of the Brethren Church in Sydney. I am uncertain about Richard Byrne’s religious denomination, but I do know he worked for the Bible Society in Sydney in later life, which suggests that he had a Christian faith.

In 1861, the year after George junior was born, there was a religious revival in Kerry, the result of which was the formation of many Plymouth Brethren assemblies in the county, and I suspect the Byrnes were part of one of these. Their first two children, Hannah and George, were baptised in the Church of Ireland in Aghadoe. Sarah was a sextoness at the parish church there, and her father the parish clerk. Whether they left the Church of Ireland in 1861 at the time of the revival is uncertain. I have not found any baptism records for either James or Richard, but if they had transferred their allegiance to a Brethren assembly in the early sixties, then it is possible no records were kept.

Migration

The only migration record I have been able to find to date is that of George junior, who appears on a list of “unassisted immigrants” on a ship called the Sydenham, out of London, arriving in Sydney in 1883. It is not entirely certain that this is our George Byrne, since there are no details about him recorded on the passenger list. This was typical of self funded migrants at that time, in contrast to those who got government assistance, or who were sponsored by family or friends, whose details were usually well documented. As Robin Haines says, in Life and Death in the Age of Sail,

“Privately funded passengers, those better off travellers who sought no government subsidies to fund their passage, were not required to negotiate any bureaucratic turnstiles before embarking on their voyage to Australia. Consequently they are almost invisible in the official record, unlike those who travelled on passages provided by each of the colonial governments.” (Haines, R. Life and Death in the Age of Sail, 2006. p14)

The Sydenham sailed out of London, whereas our George was from Ireland. I have not been able to ascertain her route, whether she sailed to Ireland before heading south. I suppose it is possible that George travelled to London to embark, but this seems unlikely. This record is the only George Byrne I can find arriving in Australia at about the right time.

Exactly when James and Richard migrated is uncertain. James’ death certificate, kindly provided by Barbara Fromberg, indicates, a little cryptically, that when he died in 1942 that he had been “28 years in NSW and 47 years in the Commonwealth.” This doesn’t really add up, since his first marriage was in Sydney in 1891, which was 51 years prior to his death. So clearly he arrived in Australia before 1891, though exactly when and where remains a mystery. The same is true for Richard. The records may be there, but I have yet to find them.

Suffice to say that George and James appear to have left Ireland in the 1880s and Richard, the youngest of the three, possibly in the 1890s.

Summary

The Byrne family, as I know it thus far, was one of four children. George senior, the father, died while his children were still quite young and the task of raising them was left to his widow, Sarah. What became of Hannah is unclear. The three boys all migrated to Australia, George in 1883 when he was 23 years old, the others at uncertain dates, but James certainly before 1891 which was when he married for the first time and Richard before 1893, when he first appears in the Hickson family story (I have written of that in another blog). What became of Sarah, their mother, is also a mystery.

Near Killorglin

Near Killorglin, County Kerry (my photo collection)

 

Tim Fenian

TN 1865 letter p2What about this great breaking out in Ireland, is it doing any injury to ye in Kerry? I hope the next letter that you will write to me, that you will let me know all about it. (Letter home, November 6, 1865)

So wrote young Tom Needham, 14 years old, from HMS Narcissus, a British frigate off the southern coast of the USA, toward the end of 1865, and about half a year after the conclusion of the American Civil War. What had he heard, I wonder, about the political situation in Ireland? What was “this great breaking out” that was causing him so much concern for his family back in County Kerry?

I believe he was talking about the Fenian Movement, which had its origins in America in the 1850s amongst Irish ex-patriates, men (and women) who had left their homeland because of famine, economic hardship, or political persecution, many of whom had fought on one side or the other in the American Civil War. These so called “Fenians” talked of raising a force of Irish-Americans to return to Ireland to assist a rising against the English and establish an Irish Republic.

However, there was no similar organisation of rebels in Ireland planning such a rising until a certain James Stephens, an engineer from Kilkenny who had fled to Paris after an earlier “rebellion” in 1848, returned to Ireland in 1856, determined to raise just such a movement amongst the common Irish. Stephens became the leader of an organisation that he called the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), which became commonly known, together with its American counterpart, as “The Fenians.”

Why Fenians? They took their name from a legendary group of ancient Irish warriors (the Fianna) of the second and third century. The term Fenian became popular in the mid nineteenth century as the name of the association that Stephens and his American counterparts formed, but has persisted even into modern times as a label for anyone opposed to British rule in Ireland (see the Wikipedia article for uses of “Fenian” in popular culture).

The Irish Fenian movement was most active in the 1860s, when our Needham ancestors were exiting Ireland, and in 1867 there were minor uprisings in different places around Ireland including Kerry. However, these were short lived and universally unsuccessful in achieving any change in the status quo. The significance of the 1867 rebellion was more in what it said about the discontent of a growing part of the Irish population than in any military victory. The movement continued to exist in various forms up until the First World War, and after the Easter Rising of 1916 in Dublin, it evolved gradually into the IRA.

The IRB was from the start a secret society. It represented a change in thinking from earlier movements for Irish liberation in that it accepted, even promoted, violence, or armed rebellion, as being the only realistic way of achieving freedom for Ireland, as opposed to the diplomatic negotiation that had characterised earlier movements like the United Irishmen in the 1790s and Young Ireland in the 1840s. Because it was secret, no-one really knew who was a Fenian and who wasn’t, except, of course, those that had joined up. In the small communities of rural Ireland, however, many knew who was involved, though they may not have willingly given that information to the authorities in Dublin. As always happens in such times, the authorities had their spies, and there were double agents who worked for both sides and sometimes came to violent ends.

Ireland was divided into those who supported the Fenians, and those who didn’t, and it was not entirely easy to predict who would be on which side based on either their religion or their heritage. Even some people of Anglo-Irish heritage, and some Protestants in this predominantly Catholic country, supported the Fenians. The Catholic Church was officially opposed to them. Apart from the newspaper published by the IRB itself (The Irish People), the press was also generally opposed to the Fenians (see this article from the Irish Times), and the police force (Irish Constabulary) was tasked with rooting out the revolutionaries and arresting them.

I have wondered at times what our Irish ancestors thought of all this, and whether any of them were involved in this revolutionary movement. The Fenians were strong in Kerry, to which many contemporary sources bear witness:

One of the few places Stephens discovered an existing revolutionary organisation was in the Skibbereen-Killarney-Kenmare area of south-west Cork and south-east Kerry, where O’Donovan Rossa had founded the Phoenix Society to keep alive the desire for an independent Ireland (Pádraig Ó Concubhair, The Fenians were Dreadful Men, p.19).

However, with their English roots, it seems unlikely that the Hicksons or the Needhams were part of the movement, even if the Hicksons had been in Kerry for over three hundred years. Our Hickson family were related to the Anglo-Irish aristocracy in Kerry, even if only distantly, and John Christopher Hickson’s writings contain no suggestion of sympathy for the Fenians. His older sister, Susan Hickson, who was as far as I can tell the first of his family to migrate to Australia in 1853, married John Hume, another Kerry emigrant, who, prior to himself migrating in 1855 at the age of 30, had been a policeman in the Constabulary. He left, however, before the revolutionary feelings in Kerry had evolved into Fenianism, even before James Stephens had returned from Paris where he had fled after the 1848 rebellion in County Tipperary.

The Needhams were still more “English” than the Kerry Hicksons. George Needham, though as far as I know born in Ireland, was the son of an Englishman. His wife, Susan Carter, was also English (according to the entry for her son, Benjamin Needham, in the US Census for 1910). George died in 1862, five years before the Fenian rising in Kerry in 1867. But in his earlier life he had been a captain in the Kerry coastguard, and was, as such, part of the British establishment which so many Irish saw as the enemy. The Needhams, like the Hicksons, were in a sense part of the “middle class” of southern Ireland, neither aristocracy like some of the Hickson’s distant relatives, nor the rural poor. Though they very likely understood Irish, their home language was English.

But none of that mattered to Tom Needham’s shipmates, who took great delight in teasing the young Irish lad. In another letter home to his older sister Belinda, from the gunboat, HMS Linnet in 1866, he reassures her:

I hope you never fretts about me because I am as happy as a king. On board the ship one of them calls me Tim Fagan and another Tim Fenian, they gets on chaffing me and I pretend to speak Irish to them and I do make them wild. O there is no coming over me on board a ship. What about the Fenians there? There is great talk about them, the Americans are killing a great many of them… (Letter home, 26 August 1866)

Afternote:

While exploring the Internet for information about the Fenians, I found an article from a local newspaper from a town near to where we now live, Maitland. It is dated 16 May 1867 and contains a copy of The Fenian Proclamation. It seems this statement had been sent out to newspapers all over the world, to raise awareness and support for the Fenian cause in Ireland. Following is a copy of the proclamation, as archived on the Australian website, Trove. The feeling of injustice that lay behind the Fenian movement is easy to discern as the following excerpts show:

Our rights and liberties have been trampled on by an alien aristocracy, who, treating us as foes, usurped our lands and drew away from our unfortunate country all material riches. We appeal to force as a last resort… unable to endure any longer the curse of a monarchical government, we aim at founding a Republic based on universal suffrage, which shall secure to all the intrinsic value of their labour. The soil of Ireland, at present in possession of an oligarchy, belongs to us, the Irish people and to us it must be restored. We declare also in favour of absolute liberty of conscience and the separation of Church and State. We intend no war against the people of England; our war is against the aristocratic locusts, whether English or Irish, who have eaten the verdure of our fields…

1867 Fenian Proclamation

Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser (NSW : 1843 – 1893), Thursday 16 May 1867, page 2. National Library of Australia http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article18718311

Tom’s ships

Tom Needham joins the Navy

Tom was 13 when he joined the navy in 1864, a young Irish boy who had grown up beside the sea on the coast of County Kerry. His father George Needham had at one time been a captain in the Kerry coastguard, and may well have been in the navy himself, since many coastguard officers were recruited from the navy (see the Ballinskelligs website).

I have copies of three letters that Tom wrote home, in 1865, 1866 and 1869 respectively. In the first two he mentions the names of some of the ships on which he served: they were the Egmont, the Narcissus and the Linnet.

But it would seem none of these was the ship he initially joined when he left home in 1864. The only information about his first year at sea comes not from his letters, but from the book he wrote many years later (1900) about his early life: From Cannibal Land to the Glory Land. There he paints a vivid picture of his earliest experiences in the navy, around the British coast:

the bristling guns; the crowds of nimble sailors; the mysteries of swinging, splicing and knotting of ropes; the fine uniforms; the cursing, the activity… I made great progress in all naval studies and gunnery practice; so that when from overcrowding of the ship transfers were to be made, I was among the selected ones. These changes widened my boyish experiences in the hardship of life at sea. First, I passed through the trials of hazing*… Then came the public floggings for slight misdemeanors… For my nimbleness I acquired the name of Deerfoot, and was often drafted to run races with sailors of other school ships… After several short trips around the British coast a selection came to send me, with several others, to a foreign port… (Needham, T. 1900. From Cannibal Land to the Glory Land, Chapter 2, “On Shipboard,”). *hazing: to harass with unnecessary or disagreeable tasks, to subject to abusive or humiliating tricks or ridicule.

The foreign port he was sent to appears to have been Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, and the first letter I have suggests that it was there that he had spent time aboard the Egmont. He wrote from the Narcissus, a short time later (1865):

I am not aboard of the Egmont, I am aboard of the HMS Narcissus. Did you not get a few letters from me when I was aboard of the Egmont? I wrote two to you and I am wondering why don’t you write to me? Did you get a letter from America yet? I hope the Lord spares me for the next letter. (Letter from Thomas Needham, November 1865)

So what do we know of the Egmont, his first ship after leaving the British Isles?

HMS Egmont, receiving ship, Rio de Janeiro

According to Wikipedia the HMS Egmont was a 74-gun third rate ship of the line which had been launched in 1810 during the Napoleonic wars. It had been the flagship of Rear-Admiral Charles Vinnicombe Penrose in 1814, but once the war with France was over it was apparently laid off, though where, and in what it was engaged, is uncertain; then from 1848 to 1862, according to a website maintained by P Benyon on naval social history, it appears to have been mothballed in Portsmouth. Finally in 1862 the aging Egmont was called back into service, commissioned in Portsmouth at the end of that year as the “Receiving Ship” for Rio de Janeiro.

Receiving ships were usually obsolete or unseaworthy vessels moored at a navy yard and used as accommodation for new recruits or men in transit between stations. Tom, as he said in his book, was “sent to a foreign port,” and it would seem that Egmont was the ship that “received” him, in Rio. How long he spent on the old ship is not mentioned anywhere, but it was long enough to be missing home, and to write to his dear sister Belinda “a few letters” (though those letters have disappeared).

I have not been able to find any pictures online of the Egmont, but another old ship of the line which met a similar fate was the HMS Implacable, of which there are many surviving images. Those pictures give a sense of what the Egmont, Tom’s temporary home in Rio, looked like. The Implacable, also a 74-gun third rate, was built before the Egmont, but lasted into the 1940s, by which time it was the second oldest ship in the Royal Navy, after the Victory. Wikipedia has an account of her history. Here is a picture of her latter days:

So Tom, the young Irish boy, who had “learnt the ropes” sailing around the coastal waters of Ireland and England, found himself, at the age of 14, suddenly on the other side of the Atlantic in the strange and wonderful world of Brazil. He lived aboard a retired veteran of the Napoleonic wars, and would have had daily reminders of those glorious days of sail, as he walked the decks of the old 74. How often, I wonder, did he get ashore, to the streets of Rio? What was it like in the 1860s I wonder? As fascinating as it might have been, Tom was surely thankful when he left the old hulk and moved to the Narcissus, a ship only 5 years old, which headed to sea again to patrol the shores of North America.

The Royal Navy of Victorian Britain

But what, exactly, was the Royal Navy doing in South America? Although between the end of the Crimean War (1856) and the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 it was involved in no major conflicts, the British Navy was the largest in the world. Why did Britain need such a massive maritime military presence when there were no wars to fight? And why in South America, so far from its home shores?

The American Civil War (1861-1865) saw naval battles between the north and south, and in Europe the Danish, the Prussians and the Austrians, amongst others, were involved in conflicts at sea. Meanwhile the British were just sailing around patrolling the sea lanes of the world, building a bigger and stronger navy while doing little more than just “show themselves.” Why the need for this massive navy of which our Tom was a young tar?

Ben Wilson, in his recent history of the British Navy, “Empire of the Deep,” describes the years between 1860 and 1899 as an arms race for the major European powers. The British Empire reached to the farthest corners of the globe, and the navy was the force that ensured its peace and security. In the mind of the British, it had to remain that way. Wilson explains:

With power came fear. Britain was dependent as never before on the Navy. In 1846 parliament had abolished protective tariffs on corn, which meant that British farmers had to compete on the world market and labour moved from the countryside to the booming industrial towns. Without imports of food the country would starve. Without control of the seas she would become poor. It was an uncomfortable position to be in – and people were awaking to the fact that Britain and her empire were vulnerable, perhaps more vulnerable than any country on earth…

Unless Britain had a crushing superiority of ships over France, Russia and Germany in northern waters she would lose the security at home that had allowed her to construct a massive empire. But she also needed to be the dominant naval power in the Mediterranean, South Africa, the Indian Ocean, the China Seas and off American waters. Lose any of these and the whole system would unravel. Britain, it was felt, had to be the dominant naval power everywhere or she would lose everything.
(Wilson B, Empire of the Deep, p.503)

So Rio de Janeiro was just one of the many ports around the world that maintained a British Navy presence; in South America and the South Atlantic the British, as elsewhere, were determined to maintain their global dominance.

For Tom the time in Rio marked a transition from the old world to the new. Until then he had been only on sailing ships. But when he left Rio it was aboard the Narcissus, a wooden hulled steam driven screw frigate that in 1864 was just 5 years old. The old sailing ships were gradually being replaced by steamships, even if almost all vessels still carried sails to propel them when there was no ready supply of coal to feed their engines. When Tom joined the Narcissus he left behind the world of sail and entered the world of steam. Ben Wilson writes:

The Royal Navy was in a state of fast evolution. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the fleet contained ships of a variety of ages, performance and speeds. Co-ordinating such a motley fleet was becoming exceptionally hard for the service’s flag officers, many of who were bred to the age of sail. (Wilson B, p.498)

Naval technology was changing rapidly around the world. Some old sailing ships were being modified by the addition of steam engines and the cladding of their wooden hulls with iron – creating the so called ironclads – to improve their speed and armour. Newer steamships started to be built with all-iron hulls, and such vessels saw service in the American Civil War. Wood and sail were gradually being replaced by iron and steam. Traditional broadsides of cannon were being replaced by turrets in which the cannons were placed in rotating towers. The great Age of Sail is said to have officially come to an end in 1862 when at the Battle of Hampton Roads (American Civil War) the steam-powered ironclad CSS Virginia destroyed the sailing ships USS Cumberland and USS Congress (Wikipedia).

HMS Narcissus

The Narcissus was a wooden hulled screw frigate in service from 1859 to 1883. These early screw frigates carried a full sail plan, like the older sailing frigates, but had a steam powered screw propellor for propulsion. The screw propellor was the invention of a Swedish naval captain, John Ericsson, and replaced the older and more vulnerable paddle wheels which were used for a short time on naval ships, but are much better known as the propulsion of the steamers that plied the Mississippi in the nineteenth century. Steamships had a number of advantages over the old sailing ships, including speed, but most significantly the ability to sail against the wind, making them much more manoeuvrable.

A number of pictures of the HMS Narcissus can be found on the Internet, and the following is from the Royal Museums Greenwich website.

HMS Narcissus, PW8141

Tom’s Narcissus was the third ship by this name in the Royal Navy. Records indicate that from April 1865 to May 1866 she was under the command of Captain Colin Andrew Campbell and was the flagship of Rear Admiral Charles Elliot, in service off the south east coast of America. This agrees with Tom’s letter:

I am in the South Coast of America, it’s a fine place in winter, but in summer it is scorching, plenty of every sort of fruit and vegetables there. (Letter from Thomas Needham, November 1865)

Perhaps the ship was patrolling the coast of Florida, Georgia or the Carolinas.

How long he remained on the Narcissus is difficult to fathom from Tom’s writings. However, his next letter home, written in August 1866 states that he had moved on to another ship, the Linnet. The Narcissus was based in South America for the three years from May 1866. Perhaps it was again in Rio, the main British naval base in Brazil, in June or July of 1866, that Tom was transferred to his next ship.

HM Gunboat Linnet

August 26, 1866
My dear sister, I hope you are quite well and in good health. I have written two letters to you and have not heard from you yet my dear sister. I should like to hear from you. I am quite well thank God and in good health. I have left the flagship the Narcissus, I am in a gunboat which came out from England lately, her name is the Linnet she is a very nice little ship, I like her very well…

My dear sister, I have seen a good many places since I left the flagship, I have been up the river Plata. I have been close up where they are at war. There is sick and wounded coming into the town every day. There was a steamer came in yesterday full of wounded soldiers and they had on board a dead general which was shot through the heart, did not they kick up a row about him.

According to Wikipedia, HMS Linnet was a Britomart-class steam powered gunboat launched in 1860 and broken up in 1872. It was one of 16 Britomart-class gunboats, which are described in an article which includes a photo of one of these 16 gunboats, the Cherub.

The River Plata is better known as the Rio de la Plata and is a large bay on the eastern coast of South America between Uruguay to the north and Argentina to the south. It lies over 1000km south of Rio de Janeiro, where Tom had probably transferred from the Narcissus to the Linnet. Two major ports lie on the coastline of the Rio de la Plata – Montevideo in Uruguay and Buenos Aires in Argentina.

The war that Tom writes of was the Paraguayan War that was waged from 1864 to 1870 between Paraguay and the so called Triple Alliance of Uruguay, Brazil and Argentina. What role Britain played in the war is uncertain and controversial – see the theories on this in the Wikipedia article on the war. Tom was around 15 years old when his ship, the Linnet, was at Rio de la Plata, and it is clear from his letter that the thing that made the deepest impression on him was the steamers full of wounded soldiers daily coming down the river from up country. It was indeed a bloody and humanly costly war for Paraguay, whose population was reduced by almost 60% during the 6 years of war – from some 525,000 to only 221,000. It is said that some 70% of Paraguay’s adult male population died during the conflict, leaving only around 28,000 men in the country when the final shots were fired. Another tragic waste of life.

1866-1869

I have seen a transcript of a third letter written by 18 year old Tom in 1869, apparently just prior to his discharge from the navy. It mentions no ships by name, and indicates that he was thinking about a passage from England to America after his discharge. This is in keeping with the fact that his family, in the years that Tom had been away, had all migrated to America. This third letter is also addressed to his sister Belinda, who must have died around this time, unknown to Tom, as indicated in his book.

The question, of course, arises as to what Tom was doing in the three intervening years between his second and third letters. The answer to that is found in his book, From Cannibal Land to the Glory Land, in which he describes how he was inexplicably and bizarrely set ashore and abandoned far south on the coast of Patagonia by a “wicked captain and his more merciless chief mate.” The background to this is not explained in the book. There is a picture in the book of “the merchant vessel in which I sailed to South America, the captain of which was afterward converted.” Although there is no explanation in the book, the suggestion is therefore that Tom left the navy at some stage after 1866 and joined a merchant vessel.

Tom's ship

The story of what ensued after this extraordinary incident is related in the book, and will be the subject of another blog. Tom, of course, eventually returned to England, and there is no suggestion in his book that he rejoined the navy to do so. However, his 1869 letter casts doubt on this assumption, because it seems to be written from somewhere in Europe, and the way he writes seems to suggest that he is still in the navy – he speaks of his Admiral, and of “paying off.” Furthermore the letter is written to Belinda, but according to the book he had a letter while he was still in South America in which he was informed of Belinda’s passing. Could it be that after this last letter he returned to South America, before eventually finding his way to his family in the USA?

It may be that further letters will come to light which will clarify the events a bit better. But what remains is that for five or six years, from the age of 13 to 19, Tom Needham had some extraordinary experiences at sea and in distant, wild lands, experiences that he would later recall in writing his book, which is the story of a journey from unbelief to faith in a sovereign God. In later life, as a travelling evangelist, he became known as the “sailor preacher.”

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