I had a letter from my mother’s cousin, Keith Walmsley, a few years back. I had asked him what he knew about our Irish forbears – my great great grandmother (who is Keith’s great grandmother) was Mary Hickson, who came out to Australia with her husband William from Kerry in 1877. Mary Hickson was the eldest child of the Needham family of Templenoe, County Kerry. She was born in 1833. Her parents were George and Susan (Carter) Needham.

According to Keith, Mary Needham

“was one of ten children in the Needham family that lived in the south of Ireland. Her father was a captain in the coast guards and her mother died early (is it any wonder after so many children)…”

Version 2
The captain’s daughter, Mary Needham (1833-1916), in later life

Lackeen Point Coastguard Station
I have not found any other documentary evidence that George Needham was in the Kerry Coastguard, but on examining old maps I discovered that there was a Coastguard station very close to Templenoe where the Needham family lived. It was situated at Lackeen Point at the opening of the Blackwater River on the northern shore of the Kenmare Bay. Surely this was where George worked in his early adulthood.

There was another station on the southern side of the Kenmare River at Kilmakilloge, across the water from Lackeen. Westward from Lackeen toward the Atlantic there was a smaller station at a place called White Strand in the vicinity of Daniels Island and further out still toward the ocean was a bigger station at Waterville. The best known coastguard station on the Iveragh Coast is the one at Ballinskelligs, west of Waterville. The ruins are still standing.

There is a website for Ballinskelligs which says something about the Coastguard station there. Of the Irish Coastguard in the nineteenth century, it explains:

The Coast Guard Stations scattered around the coast of Kerry were set up by the British Navy in 1821 to curtail and if possible end smuggling on the coast of Ireland which was losing a great amount of money to the King’s or the Queen’s revenue. From 1836 they were given the added task of stamping out illegal distilling for the same reasons, but without much success. Apart from the ship ‘Manpower’ they had 11 cruisers off the coast of Ireland…

The Coast Guard stations were part of rural life around our coasts. The stations flourished during the 19th century. The coastguards were finally disbanded in 1923. They were about 100 years in operation in the country. They were vitally important in the eyes of the British Empire, they were closely linked on the Iveragh Coast, at Waterville, Ballinskelligs, Portmagee, Valentia, Cahirsiveen and Kells. The Coastguards were known as “Na Fír Ghorma.” …

The Coastguards were mainly naval reservists, or men at the end of their service. They were good seamen, and highly capable of managing life boats, and were trained also in life saving. They also acted as recruiting agents for the British Army…

The Griffiths Valuation of 1852 lists George Needham as a parish clerk in Templenoe. So his days with the coastguard must have been prior to this. Although I do not know the exact date of George’s birth, I believe he was around fifty in 1852. One can wonder whether George had been in the navy before he was in the coastguard, or whether he was also a naval reservist. His son Thomas went to sea at an early age, and left a book and a number of letters that are still in existence, about his experiences in the British navy. I will write about them another time.

Kenmare River 1
The northern shore of Kenmare Bay, looking west from Templenoe pier toward Lackeen Point.

The Irish Coastguard Service
The website mentioned above explains more about the activities of the Coastguard:

Many ships were shipwrecked on the coast. The Coastguards job was to salvage anything valuable from the ships. Often the locals would outwit them and get there before them and hide their spoils and use the wood to repair their houses etc… There are many stories of shipwrecks and adventures.

I do not have any hard evidence that George worked at the Lackeen Point Coastguard Station, but family tradition said he was with the coastguard, and there is no reason to doubt it, and Lackeen Point is the closest to where George and his family later lived. The coastguard was not greatly liked by the local population, it being a representative of the British Government which was so resented by many of the Irish population. What is more, some of the locals must have been dependent on smuggling for their livelihood, and any authority that stood in their way was seen as the enemy. However, during the Potato Famine which began in 1845 the coastguard was involved in distribution of food relief, which perhaps redeemed them in the eyes of some.

There is a Facebook page devoted to the Kenmare Chronicle which has some references to a new coastguard station built at Lackeen Point built in 1863, the year after George Needham’s death. This was in response to a memo recorded in the House of Commons Reports from Committees in June 1860 (see Google Books here) which speaks of the poor condition of coastguard stations in Ireland at that time:

In many instances the coast guardsmen in Ireland are lodged worse than the cattle; cases have been reported where the rooms are in such a dilapidated state that the men have been obliged to thatch the beds, and this at a time when their wives and children have been lying sick in them, the sickness having been produced by the cruel exposure to which they have been made subject. (memorandum by Commodore Eden, re Public Board of Works in Ireland).

Lackeen Point new station
This picture can be found on the Kenmare Chronicle Facebook page

Some drawings of the new station at Lackeen Point (see above) and some information about what happened to it can be found on the Kenmare Chronicle Facebook page. One of the comments mentions that the fate of the station was sealed when it was destroyed during the Civil War in 1922 with the remains of the station later being dismantled and removed to be replaced by forest. Many of the coastguard stations in Ireland were destroyed by the IRA, as the Ballinskelligs website explains:

The Coastguard Station at Ballinskelligs was burnt down by the local IRA during the War of Independence. Most of the coastguard stations were destroyed at this time. The excuse was that they would become ready barracks for the British solders. The station at Valentia survived, it is now converted into holiday apartments. Kells Coastguard station also survived, it is now a private house. Cromane station is now a pub.

A possible biography of George Needham
George Needham was probably born around 1802. I am unsure whether he was Irish or English. I have almost no knowledge of his life, apart from the fact that he married Susan Carter, a girl some 16 years his junior when she was only 15, and that they together had 10 children, the oldest of which was my great great grandmother, Mary Needham. Susan was also English, according to an entry in the 1910 US Census for her son Benjamin Needham (one of Mary’s younger brothers). From Mary’s marriage record it is also evident that by the age of fifty George was a parish clerk in Templenoe.

One of George and Susan’s sons, Thomas Needham, joined the British navy in around 1864, when he was 13 years old. His parents were by that time both dead, as he mentions in his book, From Cannibal Land to the Glory Land. Thomas’s love for the sea and ships may well have been something he inherited from his father.

A picture of George’s early life begins to take shape in my mind. I suspect he was English and went to sea as a teenager, in the great age of the British navy, following the Napoleonic Wars. Perhaps around the age of thirty he left the navy and joined the coastguard, and was posted to Lackeen Point Coastguard Station on Kenmare Bay in southern Kerry. It is possible that he met and married his wife, Susan Carter, in England before he came to Ireland – they must have married around 1833, but their first child, Mary, was born, as far as I know, in Kerry.

George may have been in the coastguard for many years, though I have not been able to find a record of his service anywhere. Perhaps he only served for a few years, though what he did when he left is uncertain. At some stage he gained employment as a parish clerk in Templenoe, very close to Blackwater where the Lackeen Point Coastguard Station was located. Between 1833 and 1856 he and Susan raised a family of ten children. The first of these was Mary, born in 1833, the last was William, born in 1856, when George was 54 but Susan was only 38. Susan died the same year, leaving her 10 children motherless and her husband George a widower. However, by that time Mary was already 23 years old and doubtless played an important role in the care of her younger siblings, though the 1852 Griffith valuation suggests that she was not living in Templenoe at that time.

The Needham family was devout one, and were regular members of the Templenoe Church. They were Protestants in a predominantly Catholic community, their family roots English in a very Irish region. As parish clerk in Templenoe, George would have had close links to the local aristocracy, namely Denis Mahony of Dromore Castle, who was the Needham’s landlord and also a clergyman of the Church of Ireland, presumably vicar at the church which the Needham family attended. The Rev Mahony was a few years older than George Needham, but he died in 1851 to be succeeded by his first son, Richard Mahony, who was about 5 years older than George’s daughter Mary.

In 1858, two years after her mother’s death, Mary married William Hickson of Killorglin, whom she had got to know some years earlier when the Hickson family had been living in Sneem. Mary and William appear to have moved to Killarney after their marriage.

Three years later a Christian revival broke out in Kerry, centred on the Sneem-Templenoe area in which the Needhams lived, largely led by Richard Mahony of Dromore and his friend Francis Christopher (FC) Bland of the neighbouring Derriquin Estate. The revival resulted in the formation of Plymouth Brethren assemblies in the area, and it would seem that the Needham family, especially the younger children, was profoundly affected by this religious awakening. The four youngest sons of the family all became evangelists in North America later in life.

In 1862 in the midst of the revival George Needham died. He was around 60 years of age. A few years later his children began to disperse to the wider world. Perhaps it was for religious reasons. The Plymouth Brethren were regarded with some suspicion by much of the Kerry population. Or perhaps the Needhams just felt a bit too English for southern Ireland, even if all George and Susan’s children were born there. By the end of the 1870s there were no Needhams left in County Kerry. Most of the children ended up in North America. Mary and her husband, although first migrating to the USA in 1865, decided, after 12 years, to move further to Australia. Their first daughter Suzie Hickson, born in 1861 in Kerry, raised in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, ended up in Sydney, NSW, where in 1885 she married a newly arrived migrant from Kerry, George Byrne.

George and Susie Byrne were my mother’s Irish grandparents.

George and Susie Byrne and four of their children (ca 1900)

9 thoughts on “Coastguard

  1. You might enjoy reading ‘The Wreck of the Zanzibar’ by Michael Morpurgo – although it is set in the Scilly Isles in 1907. It will only take you an hour or so to read it.

  2. My grandfather was born at Lackeen Point. His father was a Coastguard from St Helier, Jersey. I imagine it was policy not to post Coastguard anywhere they had friends or family, but he did marry a woman from West Cork. I did a bit of research a few years back , and I think the Station was destroyed by a Royal Navy ship when the IRA occupied it.

    My grandfather lived later at stations on Valentia Island and the Aran Islands. He and his two brothers were orphaned and went to Greenwich College before joining the Navy.He was based at Kingstown, Dun Laoghaire, and was married in 1916, during The Easter Rising. He and my grandmother then lived briefly in Kirkwall, Orkney, as he was based at Scapa Flow, and my mother was born there.

    My grandmother was a Dublin girl and found Kirkwall a very different place. She told me the local young women were very curious about Dublin life, in a place where summers were warmer and (a bit) less rainy.

    1. Fascinating. Thank so for sharing some of your family story. My English great grandfather, who had been at Salonica with the British army in early 1916 was later in that year of the Easter Rising posted to Dublin where he spent the rest of the war. He was with a horse transport company and as such was not a regular soldier. He went back to England in 1919 and died 10 years later. His son, my grandfather, came out to Australia as an 18 year old in 1923 and married Gertrude Byrne, a daughter of George and Susie, who are mentioned in the last paragraph of the blog above.

      I am frustrated that I have not been able to find any record of George Needham’s coastguard service in Ireland. It is family tradition that he was in the Kerry Coastguard, but it would be good to have it confirmed by an official document. I suppose your great grandfather was at Lackeen Point in the late 1800s, perhaps 50 years after George Needham (my great great great grandfather) was there (in the 1830s or 40s).

  3. I am also a descendant of the Hicksons from County Kerry, and have been reading your posts with interest. Thank you for your research and willingness to share! There is a reference to George Needham’s Coastguard service in the biography of Rev. Benjamin C Needham published in 1893, in Chester County Pennsylvania. It gives a few more details of the earlier generations of this line of Hicksons. Here is a link where you can read the entry:

    1. Hi Lois,

      Which Hickson are you descended from, and which country do you live in? From what I can work out, pretty much all the Hickson children descended from Richard and Mary of Killorglin ended up in Australia, although there were some I believe who died in Ireland. John Hickson makes a reference in his book, Notes of Travel, to some siblings who were buried in Killorglin.

      Pulling together information from a variety of sources I have made a list of the ones who came to Australia as follows. I am quite unsure as to how accurate the information is, and am pretty sure that the arrival date for John Hickson is wrong, since I think he arrived in the mid to late 1860s. Which would make the ship he arrived on also wrong. But here is the list:

      1831 Susan migrated to Australia 1853, aboard the Australia
      1832 William migrated to Boston 1865 and to Sydney, Australia in 1877-78
      1835 Mary migrated 1855 with Ellen on the Hilton
      1840 Ellen arrived Sydney 1855
      1844 Catherine migrated 1863 together with George on the Severn
      1845 George migrated 1863 on the Severn
      1848 John arrived Melbourne 1870 on the Caduceus (???)

      I am descended through my mother’s line from the oldest male, William (who married Mary Needham), and through my father’s line from the youngest, John (who married Martha Watt). Are you descended from any of these?

      I have previously read the excerpt about Benjamin Needham that you mentioned. It is fascinating as are all of those early accounts, of which I have very few.

      Thanks for making contact and if you have any other information about Hickson’s or Needhams I would love to hear more from you.

      Kind regards

  4. I have come acros another pic that I think is the Lackeeen point Coastguard station even though it doesn’t look like the plan ! I put it up on the Kenmare Chronicle fb page. Will also look into the Needham story, they married into the other Plymouth Bretheren families in the area… Brennan, Mansfiels and Maybury families too

    1. Hi Simon
      Thanks for that photo. I think you may be right, although this photo appears to be taken from the other end of the building from the drawing that I included in this blog. You write that the photo is taken from an old family album. I guess there are no notes in the album that might indicate exactly what it is? Would you mind if I post the photo on my blog? I will of course link it back to the Kenmare Chronicle facebook page, and mention that it comes from a McClure family album. Is there any other attribution you would like me to quote? Incidentally, anything you find on the Needhams would be greatly appreciated.
      Kind regards, David

      1. Blog away ! If I find out any more I will post it on here for you. We have just finished our latest publication on WW 1 but no Needham came up there.

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