Forgotten tales

stories of my family

Missing home

In the southern autumn of 1893, a young Sydney girl, Alice Hickson, embarked with her father, John Christopher Hickson, on a journey around the world. They sailed on the Monowai out of Sydney on Monday 17th April. Sydney Harbour was as beautiful then as now, but there was no Harbour Bridge and no Opera House, and the population of Sydney, at 400,000, was only a tenth of what it is today. It was nevertheless Australia’s biggest city, a young vibrant place growing fast under the sunny blue skies of the great southland.


A photo featured on Reuben Goossens website

Alice grew up in a prosperous family. Her father was an Irish immigrant who had become a successful timber merchant, with mills in Nabiac on the north coast of NSW, as well as in Darling Harbour and later in Burwood. Her mother produced a whole stream of children, five boys and six girls in all, though one of the girls, Maud, died at age four, when Alice was ten years old. Alice was the oldest, the “big sister.” They lived in a succession of houses in her early childhood, but by the time she was twenty the place she had called home for at least half her life was The Grove, in Liverpool Street, Enfield. The family home had been named after the Hickson ancestral seat in Ireland. But Ireland was a land that Alice knew of only through her father’s stories, a far country whose mist covered mountains and wild rocky coast she longed to see. Alice’s mother’s mother was also Irish, but she had died when Alice was a toddler. Alice’s recollecion of her grandmother could hardly have been more than subliminal, heart memories of haunting Irish melodies as Mary sang her granddaughter to sleep.

Alice’s Irish heritage
Though Alice and all her siblings were Australian born her heritage was overwhelmingly Irish. Her father John Christopher Hickson (JCH) was the youngest of seven children born in County Kerry to Richard and Mary Hickson of Killorglin. By the time John Hickson was fifteen all but one of his siblings had left for Australia. Only his oldest brother William remained in Ireland, where he had married and started a family of his own. He was a whitesmith and lived in Sneem south west of Killorglin.

John’s mother died when he was about 15 and he found himself alone at home with his father. It would seem the two of them went then to live with William and his wife, Mary (Needham) and their two little children. But then in around 1865 William and Mary decided to migrate, not to Australia but to America, where most of Mary’s family had gone. Their ageing father, Richard, went with them. John found himself left alone in Ireland, seventeen years old.

The next five years of John Hickson’s life are obscure. What he did and who he knew and how he supported himself I have not been able to find out. All I really know for certain is that he arrived in Melbourne in 1870 on a ship called Caduceus. He had an older sister, Ellen, who was married and had settled in Melbourne and he may well have initially stayed with her. But the rest of his siblings lived in Sydney, and John soon decided that his future lay in New South Wales. Another sister, Kate, had married an Englishman named Hugh Breckenridge whose family were involved in the timber industry. Probably through those contacts John found work. Within two years he was married to Martha Watts and had started to make his mark as a timber merchant in a city where the building industry was in high gear.

William, however, who was the brother that John knew and loved best, was in America. How things were going for them there is uncertain, but John was sure it would be better for his brother and his young family if they came to Australia. Richard Hickson, their old father, had died and was buried in Boston. As far as John could see Australia offered more opportunities than America and he wanted William to come. There was room for William in the family business and John was able and willing sponsor them financially. By 1876 he had persuaded William and Mary to come with their seven children. They arrived in 1877, after a short sojourn back in Ireland.

Alice’s cousin Suzie Hickson
William and Mary arrived in Australia when Alice was only four. William, I believe, joined his younger brother’s timber business and he too appears to have done well out of it. William and Mary’s oldest daughter, Suzie, born in Ireland, raised in Boston, was 16 the year the family arrived and over the ensuing years alice came to love her dearly. Suzie, with all her knowledge of the wider world, was like a big sister to Alice.

In 1885, when Alice was 12, her cousin Suzie, who was by that time 23, married another Irish immigrant, a young man who had also come out from Kerry a few years before. His name was George Byrne and his family had been known to the Hicksons in Ireland. George and Suzie Byrne began to build a family. George had a background in merchandising and eventually became an executive in Australia’s biggest jam company, IXL.

Richard Byrne
Around 1892 George Byrne’s brother Richard, some ten years younger than him, also came out to Australia from Ireland. He almost certainly went to live with George and Suzie and their young family, and would soon have got to know Alice, Suzie’s young cousin. A romance ensued and it wasn’t long before it became clear that Richard and Alice were on the road toward matrimony.

This for some reason alarmed Alice’s father, and he expressly forbade the union. Alice was his first daughter and he appears to have had other plans for her. Richard had no money and an inauspicious background. There may have been bad feelings between there John and Richard’s parents back in Ireland, or it may have been simple class prejudice. Whatever is the truth, John would absolutely not allow a marriage between his daughter and this newcomer.

Richard (Dick) was though, by all reports, a lovely young man, with a cheerful and sunny personality. He captured Alice’s heart with his laughter and his smile. She was in love, and her father was worried. He came up with a plan to separate the young lovers – he would take his daughter away. She had always said she wanted to see Ireland, so her father proposed a trip to the old country. William’s wife Mary had a lot of relatives in the Boston area so he decided they should go via America, which John had until then, not seen.

John’s youngest son and Alice’s youngest brother, Richard, was newborn. It seems odd that John would leave his wife to care for the whole family and disappear off to the other end of the earth for six months. But that is exactly what happened. He was determined to prevent the proposal the he could see was coming, which he knew that Alice would almost certainly accept. So he booked a passage to America, and from there to Ireland. He planned to travel on to Scotland and England before returning to Australia via the Suez Canal later in the year.

Notes of Travel
John wrote about their experiences in a series of letters he sent to his second daughter, nineteen year old Edith, back in Sydney. After his return the letters were collected and published in book form, under the title, Notes of Travel, from Pacific to Atlantic. In the Preface the journey is introduced as follows:

The following Notes of Travel are the records of a hurried trip round the world taken during 1893 by myself and my eldest daughter… They were sent in the form of letters to my family while we were travelling, giving particulars of our journey, and the impressions made on us at the different places we visited… But my daughter Edith, to who they were addressed, handed them to the editor of our local weekly paper, “The Australian Courier,” where they appeared at intervals from June to December. J.C.Hickson, “The Grove,” Enfield, NSW, April 1894

“Hurried” is hardly how we would today describe a world journey that started in April and finished in October, but perhaps that is how John Hickson saw it, in a time when the pace of life was much slower. Another interpretation of the word, however, is that it was a trip taken in a hurry – without much planning or forethought. As John wondered how to deal with the prospect of a marriage between his daughter and someone he did not like, he suddenly came on the idea of a trip around the world with her. It was a highly unsuitable time, and I can imagine the response of his wife Martha when he suggested the idea. What are you thinking John? But her husband was a man of action and barely before they had talked about it the passage was booked and the tickets paid for. The next thing they knew they were on board.

The book that I have now in my hand is a fascinating account and gives some insight into John’s personality and interests. But what about the vibrant young lady who accompanied him, the twenty year old Alice Hickson? Amazingly, not once in the book does he mention his “eldest daughter’s” name, nor what was the purpose of their journey. In fact, there are only two references to Alice in the whole eighty pages, and in both she is referred to as “Miss Hickson” – a strangely formal way to write about his own daughter, especially considering he was writing home to family, where she was simply “Alice.”

The opening chapter describes the departure of the steamship Monowai from the Sydney docks en route to its first stop in New Zealand.

After the ladder was drawn in the passengers lined the wharf side of the vessel, speaking farewell words and taking a last look at the friends and loved ones who stood on points of vantage on the wharf; and as the good ship quietly crept from her berth into the stream, hundreds of goodbyes were exchanged, and until out of sight and hearing were continued by signs and waving of handkerchiefs. Some enthusiastic friend was noticed as the wharf vanished from sight, standing on a pile of timber frantically waving a handkerchief tied on the end of his stick.

I wondered as I read these words if that “enthusiastic friend” was the young handsome Irishman, Richard Byrne, who had so completely caught Alice’s heart. A picture comes to my mind of Alice – an attractive, fashionable young woman standing at the rail waving madly back with tears streaming down her face. What lay ahead? She knew that her father had decided they could never be married, and perhaps she had determined to try to focus on other things than Richard, but just at that moment the infatuation within her was a fire that she could not extinguish. He was still so close, so real. She wondered if she could ever lay aside the feelings she had for him.

He became smaller and smaller as the ship slipped further and further down the harbour, and then a headland came between them and he was gone from her sight. She turned and walked to the front of the ship, determined to look ahead and not back. There was a whole world to discover before her. She must try to be strong. She must try to forget. But the weeks at sea that lay ahead were not exactly full of distractions for the lovesick girl.

A few days out from Sydney, on the Southern Ocean between Australia and New Zealand, Alice is mentioned in a rather oblique way. John describes the various things happening on deck as people settle into the voyage.

There was for the steady quiet-going young people, deck quoits and shuffles, cards, chess and draughts tournaments; and for the livelier ladies and gentlemen, skipping, racing and jumping, there were potato races, wheelbarrow and sack races, tugs-of-war, sweeps instituted on the number if miles run in the 24 hours and any and everything to fill in the tedious hours and drive dull care away. Burwood (John’s home suburb in Sydney) was not badly represented there, and some of the prizes were pulled off by a Burwood young lady (Miss Hickson) and a well known athletic young gentleman (Mr Lambton).

It would seem from this that 20-year old Alice was one of the “livelier ladies” and one gets the feeling that Mr Lambton was the kind of “young gentleman” that John Hickson approved of, and the kind of distraction that he thought Alice needed. John writes a little more of Mr Lambton, who tragically died in America shortly after their arrival, dashing any hopes John might have had for him and Alice. Miss Hickson herself gets no more description.

The next, and only other time Alice is mentioned in the book is when the father and daughter are in the middle of the Atlantic, bound for Ireland and England. From San Francisco they have travelled by train across the great North American continent and in New York they have boarded the Germanic, a ship of the White Star line. According to John it has been a “very pleasant” crossing, but something about Alice’s demeanour seems to have been disturbing him. To his delight he finds in his cabin mate a person to whom he can unburden his soul. He is an Englishman returning home, and though apparently a diplomat, appears have a caring heart and a mind for verse.


The White Star line Germanic, from Wikipedia

We had a curious combination of passengers: admirals, counts, knights, actresses, and all sorts and conditions of men. My cabin mate happened to be a brother of Mr Rider Haggard, the novelist (who wrote King Solomon’s Mines), a very nice fellow and also gifted. He had been on diplomatic business at Panama for the British Government and was returning to his home in Dorsetshire. We had a very cordial invitation to visit him at his home and also at the Atheneum Club in London, both of which we were compelled to decline. During the passage he composed the following ditty for Miss Hickson, as a souvenir of the voyage on the Germanic…

John’s interest seems to be more in Mr Alfred Haggard and his well known author-brother than in his daughter. It is not the first time he has dropped names in his writings, having also mentioned RL Stevenson’s house which they had seen in Samoa. But Alfred seems far more interested and concerned for young Alice, and the poem that he penned gives more insight into the young lady and what she was going through than anything her father wrote. One wonders how distant the relationship between John and his daughter had become.

A homesick Australian lady
Haggard’s poem is entitled To an Australian Lady, a rather formal title considering that Alice was barely more than a girl. Alfred was a similar age to her father and seems to have taken a paternal interest in her. But he addressed her not as a girl, but as a “lady.”

I can imagine John and Alfred sitting together in their cabin in the evenings, talking about John’s downcast daughter. Alfred thinks he will write a poem to cheer her up. John thinks maybe it will help. He includes it in his letters home, perhaps because it is the only way he knows how to inform the family about what was happening for Alice, the pain she was going through. John knew that he was the cause of it. Perhaps Alice had written too, to her sisters or her mother if not to the whole family, but any letters she may have written have not been preserved to my knowledge. Had she been writing to Richard, or was she busy trying to repress the happy memories she had of him?

The opening verses of the poem are surely a reflection on the conversations Alfred had had with Alice, on the promenade decks and lounges of the Germanic. By this time they are three months out from Sydney, but she can think of nothing but home:

What? Does your heart sink
As onward you roam,
Thinking of dear ones
Staying at home?
Do you muse on your mother,
Far, far away,
Or sister or brother? Of children at play?

From the wide-spreading circles
Of this great ocean,
Where the grey clouds seem steady,
The waves are in motion,
Your thoughts fly, I fancy,
To shores far away,
To sun-shiny Sydney,
With deep-dented bay.

There the house is so busy
With life and with love,
Fair earth is around you-
Blue heaven above;
Girl friends come to cheer you,
And music and song
Raise your spirits and make, thus,
The days dance along.

Yes, truly all dull are
The days of the North.
If loved ones are absent
Then nothing has worth.
No wonder we languish,
If friends be not nigh.
Dark with night seems the ocean,
Dark with night is the sky.

After this expression of understanding and empathy Alfred tries to redirect Alice’s mind from the past and home to the days that lie ahead with all the new things that they will contain.

But be brave dearest maiden,
Remote is the strand
That with summer is golden;
Yet near is the land
Your fathers once trod on,
Near the boisterous seas,
When bravely they sallied
For antipodes

Mother England shall soon
Appear through the mist.
Her daughter returning,
By her breezes when kissed,
Shall quickly recover
Her hope and her strength;
And peaceful dwell there,
Resting at length.

This parent of nations
Her daughter will greet;
To you may her welcomes
Be tender and sweet.
And happy may time be
You pass thus “at home”
Ere you speed blithely back
Again on the foam.

Its interesting that he attempts to redefine Alice’s understanding of herself from a tanned young girl of the colonies to a returning daughter of Mother England. Did this make sense to Alice? How could he say she was returning to Mother England, a land she had never seen? Was he really expressing his own longing for the old country? Did he really think that he could comfort her with such words? And did he not realise that Alice and her father’s destination was Ireland before England, and if she had any “home” on this side of the world it was the “Emerald Isle” rather than old England. Yet he clearly sees England as the “parent of nations,” and believes that Alice will feel, when she arrives there that she has finally come home, and that there she will find rest for her soul, revival and refreshment. He continues:

And thus sanctified
By the kiss of her mouth,
Some love of the North
You shall take to the south.
You shall girdle the earth
With the steps of your feet.
And complete the great chain
As your loved ones you greet.

In your bright-gleaming home
In the Antipodes,
Your thoughts rarely dwell
On the toils of the seas;
Yet sometimes perusing
These lines that I write
When the afternoon’s hot,
Or silent the night,

Far removed from the crowd
And the heat and the panic,
You’ll admit you were bored
Upon the “Germanic.”
The men were all dull!
The women seemed frumps,
Your cabin was hot, you
Were deep in the dumps!

But one who was there
Bade you cheer up, be glad;
If the past seemed so happy,
The present so sad-
The future was rich
With joy and with blessing.
For least we enjoy
What we now are possessing.

Perchance this dull time
These grey lonely seas,
Later bring to your mind
Dear memories-
In your home and at rest
In a distant December
What now gives distress
You will gladly remember.

These words are his advice to Alice: forget the past, focus on now, the blessings of the days ahead. Make the most of the present and it will ease the pain of what has been left behind.

Alice was on a ship out in the middle of the Atlantic. She was sad and lonely. She thought back to everyone back home and wondered what they were doing. They seemed so far away. Could the future really be as rich as this man was saying?

Two days after he gave this little poem to Alice, they arrived at Queenstown, a port on the south coast of Ireland near Cork. Queenstown is called Cobh nowadays. It was here that John Hickson and his daughter disembarked before travelling over the hills to Kerry, the land of John’s birth. Could Alice find anything of herself in this place?

Queenstown-Old-Postcard 1900

A postcard from the Wikipedia article on Cobh (Queenstown)


Single Post Navigation

One thought on “Missing home

  1. Pingback: Reconstructing the Byrne family | Forgotten tales

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: