Forgotten tales

stories of my family

Tom goes to sea

I was very excited toward the end of last year to receive a comment on my blog from Scott Anderson, a descendant of Thomas Needham:

I am the great, great, great grandson of Thomas Needham, my grandfather was Thomas Needham Sitler, my uncle John Needham Sitler, who is a Presbyterian minister. I have my copy of ”From Cannibal Land to Glory Land”. I think most of our clan lives in South Carolina, that’s where the book comes from. I’m going to try and go to Kenmare at some point. We are a small family now, I would like to know how many cousins we have…

My Uncle has the Needham Family bible, which we had repaired about 8 years ago, it has the family tree in it and is quite fascinating. Funny how the Apple does not fall far from the tree. My Uncle is a minister, my grandfather was a sailor as is my son, both in the US Navy. Like you we also are wanderers, some of us moved back to Europe, my mother lives in Mexico.

Needham bible 2

Family marriages 


Needham bible 1

Family Bible

A few months later he wrote:

Sorry it took me so long to get back to you. I have the Sitler Bible which is the Bible of the family Beatrice Needham my great grandmother married into, I have taken some photos of it (see above). Better still my uncle has given me the original handwritten notes and diary of Thomas Needham when he was a cabin boy, during the voyage. I will need to take them over to the university to have them photostatted since they are in poor condition.

TN rolled notes

Tom’s letters

Thomas Needham was the younger brother of my grandmother’s grandmother, Mary Needham (who became a Hickson after her marriage). Mary and William Hickson, from County Kerry, Ireland, migrated in 1865 to the USA and then later in 1877 to Australia. There were at least 10 children in the Needham family, who lived on the shores of Kenmare Bay on one of modern day Ireland’s most loved tourist routes, the so called “Ring of Kerry.” Mary was the eldest, and Thomas the third youngest, so there was a big gap between them, Mary old enough to be his mother. Indeed, as their mother died when Thomas was quite young, his older sisters took on much of the responsibility for raising Thomas and his brothers.

TN book 0 cover

Book published around 1900

As a boy Thomas was obsessed with the sea and ships. He dreamed of what lay beyond the waters of Kenmare Bay, and longed to see the world. At the age of 13, in around 1864, he signed on to a ship in the British Navy. Many years later, using his letters and journal as a reminder of the journey he had travelled, he wrote a book about his adventures at sea, called From Cannibal Land to the Glory Land (written around 1900). It can be read online here. He begins his story:

An unconquerable passion for the sea shaped the whole course of my early life. No wonder it was so. I was born by the ocean; on the shores of Kenmare Bay in the South of Ireland, not far from the beautiful lakes of Killarney, with their echoes, their legends and their weird fascinations. The sea was to me as toys and amusements. But more than that it was the boundary and limit of my world. I knew that beyond that vast expanse of water, were great cities and strange sights. I longed to see these things for myself. (p.6)

Finally on board, a 13 year old recruit to the harshness of the British Navy, Tom realised that reality did not quite match his dreams. He wrote:

Here I was in a new world. Not the free world by any means that I had imagined lay beyond the shores of Kenmare Bay. I was under discipline and restraint. Wickedness and hard heartedness such as I had never even dreamed of in my loving Irish home now became my meat and drink. A green boy and a battleship brought together! (p.9)

Using Tom’s book, and the letters that Scott has so kindly shared with me, it has been possible to gain som glimpses into Tom’s early life, the people and events that shaped his life. They give a fascinating glimpse into the life of a teenage sailor in the British Navy in the 1860s. In the coming weeks I will try to write an account of that time using these two sources, the book and the letters.

Tom's ship

Tom was later transferred to a merchant vessel


Single Post Navigation

10 thoughts on “Tom goes to sea

  1. Wow. What a great contact to get from Scott Anderson. I wonder what his son does in the US Navy.

  2. Dot Cumens on said:

    I just found this blog on the Needham’s! I am so excited. I am getting all my info together for our Needham reunion on Sunday. I am the niece in law of Ira Needham, whose father was Benjamin C. Needham and his father was Rev. Benjamin C. Needham, brother of all the evangelists. We live in Downingtown, PA and all the info has been handed down through the family. Uncle Ira just turned 98 and he is the last of his 9 brothers and sisters. I would love to have him read some of the letters. Do you have any copies you can email me and I can show him. Any pictures of the family would be helpful too. I have the pics of the brothers on my family tree. I have verification that this branch, Rev. Benjamin C. Needham marrying Mary Rebecca Pardee is descended from Elder William Brewster of the Mayflower, the Pardee side. That is what I have been researching through the Mayflower Society.

    • Hi Dot! I have only one picture of the Needhams – apart from the pictures from Tom Needham’s book, which I am sure you have seen. I have a picture of Mary Needham (who became Mary Hickson), who was Tom and Ben’s oldest sister, and my grandmother’s grandmother. I have pictures too of my great grandmother, Mary’s daughter, Susie Hickson, who was born in Ireland, raised in America, and ended up here in Australia. I can send them to you. Scott Anderson (who I mentioned in the blog) has sent me copies of two letters, and a transcript of a third. I will check with him, but I’m sure it would be OK to send them on. Perhaps you know him. You can always contact him directly. I can send you his address if you don’t have it. Exciting to know that very very distantly we have connections with the Mayflower!! I can see you have done a lot of research. I would love any pictures you have of the Needham brothers. Thanks for getting in touch!

      • Dot Cumens on said:

        Thanks for answering so quickly! I have the pics that you and Scott have. Yes I do have a copy of Thomas’ book, but one other cousin has an original. No I do not know any distant “cousins”. I just happened to google Capt. Geo. Needham and this blog and all this history showed up! I am making a tree to show at the reunion and I was looking for a photo or tombstone or something for George or Susan.
        Uncle Ira has a hand carved cane that was made for Ben C Needham when he preached in Brantford Ontario to the Indian tribes.
        Can you also send me or tell me how you and Scott fit in as descendents. I’m a little confused on the Hickson’s and the children. Thanks so much for any info.


      • Hi again Dot. To answer the question of descendants: the information I have on Scott is what he has outlined in the comment and the family Bible picture above. In 1910 Beatrice Needham, who was presumably a granddaughter of Thomas, married Horace Sitler. in Collingswood, NJ.
        I am assuming that Beatrice had a son, Thomas Needham Sitler, who was a sailor like his great grandfather, and who had at least two sons: John Needham Sitler, a Presbyterian minster, and Scott’s father, whose name I don’t know. I am uncertain how I have Scott’s last name as Anderson – I must write to him.
        As for me, I am really not descended from Thomas at all, but rather froths oldest sister, Mary Needham. She married William Hickson, and they migrated first to America, where all the Needhams went, but later to Australia, at the urging of William’s younger brother. So Mary was the only Needham who ended up in Australia. Her daughter was Susie Hickson, who married another Kerry boy who had migrated to Australia, George Byrne. Their daughter was Gertrude Byrne, my grandmother, who married an English migrant, George Simmonds. Their daughter, Gwen Simmonds, was my mother. She died in 1999 at the age of 62.
        My mother married my father, Ian Holford, who oddly enough was a descendant of the Hickson who had encouraged William to leave America and come to Australia. Mum and Dad were not actually aware when they married that their respective great grandfathers were brothers!
        You can see the only Needham picture I have on my blog entitled “Coastguard”. It is Mary Needham (Hickson) when she was old – taken around 1916 I believe. I often wonder how much contact she kept with her younger brothers in America. Her brother in law, John Hickson (the persuader) mentions in a book that he wrote that he visited Needham relatives in America in 1893 when he visited with his daughter Alice. See my blog entitled “In Chicago 1893”.
        I would love to have more details of the Thomas Needham descendants on your side. And of course pictures are especially welcome. Like you I would love to have more information on George and Susan Needham, but I have not been able to find anything much, and what I have written is largely conjecture…

  3. Hi again Dot. Reflecting more on what I have written above, it would seem more likely that Beatrice was Thomas Needham’s daughter (not granddaughter) and that her son Thomas Needham Sitler had a son, John Needham Sitler (Scott’s uncle) and a daughter (name?) who married an Anderson – hence Scott is an Anderson, not a Sitler. So Thomas Needham is Scott’s grandfather’s grandfather (great great grandfather).

    • Dot Cumens on said:

      Thanks David for the update. After the reunion tomorrow I’ll have to sit and figure all that out. It just boggles my mind that I’ve found relatives so far away! I will read your blog about the visit to Pennsylvania. I have newspaper clippings from back then, so I will reread them to see if any names pop out now that I know them. I certainly will go through all my “stuff” to see if there is anything that you would be interested in and forward it on to you.

  4. You have to love blogging and the random chance of meeting cousins around the world, and that goldmine of letters.

    • You’re right. It’s great fun… I’ve had a bit of a blog drought the last few months, but that comment from Dottie got me going again.

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: