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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.

 

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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

Four Irish-American evangelists

In John Hickson’s book, Notes of Travel, the name Needham turns up a number of times in the chapter on North America. He refers to them as “friends” or “relatives.” John Hickson was an Irish immigrant to Australia. How did he come to have friends and relatives in North America? Who were these Needhams, why were they in the USA and in what was their connection with John Hickson?

The text of the book gives some clues:

Camden (New Jersey) is a fair-sized town on the banks of the Delaware river about 90 miles from New York, and surrounded by some very fine farming land. The few days we spent there were excessively hot, not the dry heat of Australia, but an oppressive damp heat that makes life a burden. Our friends the Rev Wm (William) Needham and Mrs. Needham invited us to picnic with their congregation at a place called Glenlock, some twenty miles from Camden, and although we were most kindly and attentively treated, the heat and oppressiveness of that day will long remain in our memory. However, in the afternoon, over the strawberries and cream and iced tea, we forgot the heat and toil of the day, and talking of events of past days when we were boys together, we renewed our youth and laughed and joked over many an exciting incident. (Notes of Travel, pp 25-26)

William Needham (1856-1941) was eight years younger than John Hickson. But they had been friends in Ireland during their young days, despite their difference in age. William had come to America and become a minister. John had migrated to Australia and become a timber merchant. Now they were reunited in New Jersey. Apart from this picnic on a sweltering day in one 1893, the details of the visit are not recorded, but it is clear that William welcomed John and his daughter Alice to America with open arms. The two Irishmen (John was 45 and William 37) had a good laugh about old times and compared the way their lives had gone. It seems unlikely that they ever saw each other again.

Further down the same page we meet another Reverend Needham, this time Benjamin:

The town of Coatesville is nicely situated between low hills and undulating country, and is rich in agricultural and pasture land… the famous Brandywine [river] passes through it. We were driven by our friend and relative, Rev. B. Needham, along its banks and were shown the places where some severe battles had been fought between Washington and the English troops. It is a very pretty place and we enjoyed our visit very much although the days we spent there were oppressively hot. Mr Needham is pastor of the Baptist church, also conducts a gospel tent and is a man of large influence in the town of Coatesville. (Notes of Travel, pp 26-27)

Benjamin Needham was one of William Needham’s older brothers. He was forty in 1893, the year John Hickson and his daughter came to America, but still five years younger than John himself. He too had come out from Ireland, and had also become a minister. In contrast perhaps to Sydney, where John had made his home, there was a great spiritual revival happening in the north eastern states of the USA. DL Moody was in the centre of this awakening, but there were things happening all over the countryside. The Needham brothers seem to have been a part of this.

Like the Hickson family they were Irish Protestants, but they did not have the proud Church of Ireland tradition that seems to have characterised the Hickson family. There were ten children in the family and many, perhaps all of them, came to America. Benjamin, as can be seen from this extract, was a Baptist pastor. Even before they left Ireland they had been “non-conformists”, neither sharing the Catholic faith of the majority in their homeland, nor the Anglican faith of the Hicksons. The revival in North America of which DL Moody was a part was connected with the Holiness Movement, which had its origin in Methodism, so it was also in a sense a “non-conformist” movement. The strong Anglican traditions that characterised Protestant Sydney at that time was perhaps less dominant in America. And how much the revivals of the 1890s affected the predominantly Catholic Irish Americans is something of which I have no knowledge.

Moody’s name crops up repeatedly in John Hickson’s book. Hickson mentions travelling to Northfield, “the home of Moody and Sankey, where some of our friends live… Here Moody was born and here his mother still lives, as also both himself and Mr Sankey when not engaged in evangelistic work. They have both devoted large sums of money to the establishment of seminaries for the education of young men and women who show an inclination for advancement… Those institutions are … supplied with the best professors and teachers, and every modern appliance and convenience.” So Moody’s legacy is about more than just spiritual revival and had a profound effect on the educational development of that part of the States.

Northfield appears to have been the home of a third Reverend Needham, whose wife, as it turns out, was also a preacher of some note. Hickson writes:

We had the pleasure of hearing a very gifted American lady, the wife of Reverend G. C. Needham, addressing a meeting, and the style, terseness, beauty and common sense of her address would be a valuable acquisition to many of our modern ministers. The Sunday we were at Northfield Mr Needham preached to a large congregation in a beautiful church, and was assisted by a very able choir… Northfield is a lovely place and we would have been pleased to have been longer able to enjoy the hospitality of our friends Mr and Mrs Needham… but… after spending a few days there we took train via Millers Falls to Boston. (Notes of Travel, p.28)

George, born in 1846, was the big brother of the four Needhams who became ministers, and was two years older than John Hickson. His wife’s name was Elizabeth Annable and according to other records they are both buried in Narbeth, Pennsylvania. George is mentioned in Hartzler’s book, Moody in Chicago, as being one of Moody’s co-missioners, so it seems likely George knew DL Moody quite well.

The fourth of the Needham brothers who became an evangelist is not mentioned by John Hickson in his book. His name was Thomas (1854-1916), and since he wrote a book about his early life, I know more about him than any of the others. That book has the curious title of From Cannibal Land to the Glory Land, and the story it contains I will write about another time. Where Thomas was in 1893 when John and his daughter were travelling I am uncertain since he doesn’t get a mention, but he lived in the same area around New York-Boston, and was known to DL Moody too, as can be seen he afterword to his book:

Mr Thomas Needham, who, for nearly forty years preached the gospel in the United States, having been associated with DL Moody, Dr Torrey, Dr Chapman, his brother George and many known evangelists and teachers in that land, passed into the presence of his Master on the first Sunday in October, 1916. (From Cannibal Land to the Glory Land, p.69)

The question that arises, of course, is how John Hickson was related to all these evangelists. Hickson’s book indicates that he was childhood friends with at least one of them, William, the youngest, even if William was a good deal younger than John. But he was closest in age to George, who was two years older than him. Notes of Travel clearly states that John Hickson and the Needhams were boys together, but it seems they were more than friends, though Hickson does not explain in his book how they were related.

The answer to this question lies in their oldest sister, Mary Needham. The Needham boys I have mentioned were four of ten children in the family from County Kerry. Some years ago I received an email from Keith Walmsley, my mother’s cousin, himself a descendent of the Hicksons and Needhams. He explained the following:

[Mary] 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?). Anyway she took on being “mother” to all the other children and obviously did a fantastic job as they were a very keen Christian family of the nonconformist group. Four became evangelists in one way or another.

Mary Needham married William Hickson, John Hickson’s older brother, when John was just a lad. They had seven children, one of whom was Susie Hickson, my mother’s grandmother. Mary and William migrated with their first three children, and William’s father Richard Hickson, to the Boston area in 1865. It was some 12 years later that they decided to leave the USA and move to Australia, where they arrived in 1878. Richard had however died and is buried in Providence, Rhode Island, some way south of Boston.

John Hickson had lived with William and Mary in Ireland when he was a teenager in the years before they migrated to America. So Mary was John’s sister in law, and her evangelist brothers, who she had “mothered” after their own mother had died, were thereby John’s brothers-in-law. It was in his early years in Ireland that he got to know all Mary’s family. It was many years after they had all left their Irish homeland that they were reunited in the land of the star-spangled banner.

In Chicago 1893

In May-June 1893 John Hickson and his daughter Alice spent three weeks in Chicago. They had gone there primarily to see the World’s Fair, a massive exhibition which commemorated the four hundredth anniversary of Columbus’ arrival in America. Such exhibitions were huge events during the Victorian era, and the Chicago exposition of 1983 was the largest to date, attracting over 27 million visitors during the six months it was open. The Crystal Palace exhibition in London in 1851, which was the first international exposition, and the Exposition Universelle of 1889 in Paris, for which the Eiffel Tower was built, are two that stand out in my mind, but there have been many others. John Hickson recorded some thoughts about the Chicago World’s Fair in his book, Notes of Travel, published in 1894.

World’s Columbian Exposition 1893
The Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1893 rivalled earlier expos in scope, and was much larger than any that had gone before. It was a celebration of innovation and modernity, but also an opportunity for nations to display their best and finest, to attract admiration, and perhaps investment. A whole city, which became known as The White City, was constructed with many remarkable buildings though only one of them remains to this day, namely the old Palace of Fine Arts, now the Museum of Science and Industry; the rest fell into disrepair or was destroyed by fire over the years that followed; some buildings were relocated elsewhere. Notably in Chicago was the first dishwasher and the world’s first ever Ferris Wheel. There are many accounts of the Chicago World’s Fair on the internet and two that caught my eye were this blog and this website. Music also played an important part at the Fair, with Dvorak’s New World Symphony composed especially for the event, and a young piano player named Scott Joplin developing a new sound in music – ragtime.

The World’s Fair takes up about two pages of John Hickson’s eighty page Notes of Travel. JCH summarises the experience as follows:

The sights you see return to your memory only by instalments; but as a descriptive account of the exhibits and the whole particulars of the exhibition have been given by specially trained reporters, who have flashed their reports to the ends of the earth in all languages, I will not attempt to describe them; but whatever may be said of the financial failure of the Fair, it was a grand conception, liberally and splendidly carried out, and as a means of education, amusement and improvement, could not be surpassed. (Hickson J, Notes on Travel, p.19)

JCH could hardly have imagined the Expo that he and his daughter visited in 1893 would still be talked about over 120 years later, which can be seen in the many contemporary websites (not to mention books) describing the Fair and its legacy. He seems to imply in what he wrote that the World’s Fair in Chicago was a financial flop, but this seems not to be accurate (see this website), and why JCH formed this opinion is uncertain. The legacy of the Fair was, in any case, not its financial profits, but rather the magnitude and splendour of its exhibits: as JCH puts it, “a grand conception, liberally and splendidly carried out.”

My favourite picture of the expo is one I found on the Nikola Tesla Inventor official website. For me this old photo evokes an image of the young Alice Hickson at the World’s Fair (though there is nothing to indicate it is actually Alice in the picture). This was the sight she saw before her, and this is the type of dress she wore. If her father had been a photographic enthusiast then he would have been behind the camera, but I suspect that there were few people apart from professionals who owned their own camera in 1893!

LookingDownAt1893WorldsFair

The World’s Fair was not the only memorable experience for John Hickson and his daughter Alice. In fact, shortly after their arrival they witnessed:

Decoration Day
On Decoration Day (now known as Memorial Day), America decorated the graves of its fallen soldiers. The Chicago Tribune, of May 30, 1893, recorded:

The ceremonial of today occurs in conjunction with the great Exposition at Jackson Park, and thousands of strangers will be in the city to witness the parade of the veterans.

Two of those “strangers” were John Hickson and his daughter Alice. Reading JCH’s description brings Anzac Day to mind for all Australians, but in 1893 Anzac was still in the future. A world war of the scope of the 1914-18 conflict could not be imagined in 1893, though both John Hickson and his daughter would live to hear of its horrors first hand. In fact both father and daughter would live through two world wars.

But in 1893 the war dead they remembered were veterans of the the American Civil War, still relatively recent in the minds of the population. Here is John’s description:

On the 31st of May (JCH appears to have got the date wrong!), in Chicago, we saw their annual celebration of Decoration Day. This day is set apart every year to visit the soldiers’ graves and deck them with flowers and tiny flags, and generally orations are delivered by some prominent men. The procession of military and civilians was of great length, but what attracted us most in the pageant was the company of veterans of the civil war, marching behind the same flags that bore them to victory, now old, tattered and bullet riddled, which for thirty years have been preserved and yearly paraded. (Hickson J, Notes on Travel, p.19).

DL Moody
The other memorable experience for John Hickson and his daughter was attending an evangelistic rally with DL Moody, widely acknowledged as the greatest evangelist of the nineteenth century. JCH relates that they

were present at a service in a large circus tent in which there were 15000 people addressed by Mr Moody, Mr McNeil and others. At another time, in a crowded theatre where Moody was preaching, I pushed through the throng to speak to and shake the hand of the great evangelist. We also heard Dr Gunsaulus, a polished and able preacher of the Congregational Church, and Dr Henson, the clever pastor of the First Baptist Church. We visited most of the places of interest in and about Chicago, and left there on the 18th June, on our way to New York, via Niagara Falls. (Hickson J, Notes of Travel p.19)

In fact The World’s Fair Gospel Campaign was arguably as significant as the Fair itself, at least in the minds of some. HB Hartzler wrote a book about the campaign shortly after, entitled Moody in Chicago, “an account of six months’ evangelistic work in the city of Chicago and vicinity during the time of the World’s Columbian Exposition, conducted by Dwight L Moody and his associates.” Here are some extracts from that book, which can be downloaded from Internet Archive.

The World’s Fair has been closed on Sunday for want of attendance, but the religious services are daily growing. Every good opening for the gospel is readily seized. When Forepaugh’s great circus tent had been set up in the city Mr. Moody tried to secure it for Sunday. He was granted the use of it for a Sabbath morning service, but as the manager expected Sunday in Chicago to be a great harvest day, he reserved the tent on the afternoon and evening for his own performances. Fifteen thousand people came to hear the simple gospel preached and sung at the morning service. The circus, however, was so poorly attended in the afternoon and evening that Sunday exhibitions were soon abandoned. (Hartzler H, Moody in Chicago, p.64)

Hartzler quotes another writer in his book, who had recorded the following:

Now this is what I often found to be true : that these congregations were made up of people from every part of the United States and Canada, and I may say from every part of the globe; everybody that has come up to the World’s Fair is represented in these meetings a great mass of people brought together from every nation and every race in the world, and preachers are brought together who can speak to them in their own tongue. So it is a remarkable movement. I remember that a friend suggested to Mr. Spurgeon that such a great preacher as he ought not to confine his ministry to London, but that he ought to make a tour around the world and preach to everybody; and Mr. Spurgeon replied, I can just stand in my place in London, and let the world come to me; and so they did, as a matter of fact. And so this World’s Fair is a great opportunity because all the world is present in Chicago, and being there, they come to hear the gospel. I consider it one of the most blessed triumphs of the grace of God that on these Sundays the people are attending church and listening to the Word of God instead of going for recreation. Now that is the right way to conquer: not by violence, not by law, not by threatening, but by a counter-attraction, by offering something better.

I have made this statement in order that we may praise God that such advantage is being taken of this great occasion that will never come again. We shall never again see such an event. I need not say that the Fair is magnificent; it is a dazzling alabaster city set on the lake. People are there from every part of the earth; and next to that architectural wonder, and the marvellous display of art and science and beauty of every sort, I consider that the most striking thing in that city to-day is the evangelistic work that is going on. (Gordon, in Hartzler, Moody in Chicago, p.71)

Moody

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One wonders what sort of impression Moody’s meetings made on John Hickson, a man of the world even if he was a regular churchgoer back home in Sydney. Did he go to hear the gospel, or was he just unable to resist the spectacle? Was he a pilgrim, or a tourist? John Hickson was an Irish protestant, but whether he was a deeply spiritual man with a hunger after God I don’t know. He has left no written record to say one way or the other. He certainly had connections in the Christian ministry. His older brother William had married Mary Needham, a girl from a deeply religious family with whom the Hicksons were acquainted back in Kerry. In fact, after his mother died, John Hickson had lived with William and Mary in Sneem when he was a teenager. William and Mary had actually migrated to America before they came to Australia in the 1870s. Mary had four younger brothers who became evangelists in the north eastern states of America and at least one of them, George Needham, was part of the Moody Campaign in Chicago in 1893. He is listed as one of the many missioners in Hartzler’s book. So there was no lack of Christian input into John Hickson’s life. But the impact of that input is hard to ascertain.

How did Alice react? She was twenty when she heard DL moody preach; it must have been an overwhelming experience to be among fifteen thousand people at an evangelistic meeting in America. Many years later, as an old lady, Alice would hear Billy Graham preach, or so my father told me. She must surely have compared the two great evangelists. I wonder whether faith played an important part in Alice’s life, or in her father’s for that matter. They heard the greatest preachers of their time, but what fruit did that bear in their lives? Did they meet God, as Moody challenged his hearers to do? Were their lives changed by that meeting with God? Some of Alice’s five daughters were later deeply involved in the church. But perhaps it was their father William Ross, with his rich heritage of revival in the Scottish Highlands, who had the greatest spiritual influence on them. Hard to know.

Those weeks in Chicago in 1893 must have been an extraordinary experience for John and Alice. They stood by as America remembered her war dead, and wondered how people of one nation could so passionately have fought each other only a generation before. They saw all that the world had to offer at the World’s Fair, and marvelled at the achievements and aspirations of humanity. They were challenged to follow Jesus in the massive evangelistic meetings of DL Moody and his associates. Which of these experiences left the most lasting mark on their lives, I wonder?

Our Irish roots

I have begun to dig into my Irish roots.

My grandmother was the daughter of Irish migrants, George Byrne and Suzie Hickson. Both were born in Killarney, County Kerry, George in 1860, and Suzie in 1861. However, Suzie’s parents decided to migrate to America when she was still an infant, so she did not grow up in Ireland, but in or around Boston, where the Hickson family settled. When Suzie was around 13 her parents decided to move to Australia, where several of her father’s siblings had already settled. They arrived in Sydney around 1874, Susie by that time a young Irish-American.

George Byrne, her future husband, spent his formative years in Ireland, apprenticed for five years (1876-1881) to a general merchant in Killorglin named Roger Martin. Having completed his apprenticeship he decided, like the Hicksons before him, to migrate to Australia, where he arrived around 1882. He eventually found work in marketing for IXL jams. He may well have made contact with the Hicksons soon after arriving in Australia, and in 1885 he married Suzie, who by then was 23. George and Suzie would have seven children, one of them my grandmother, Gertrude Byrne, who was born in 1899 in Sydney. They were a religious family, very involved in the Brethren Church in Sydney, something that Suzie came eventually to regret.

George had a younger brother named Richard who also came out to Australia, but a good many years after George, being ten years younger than him. He arrived in the early 90s and promptly fell in love with Suzie’s young cousin, Alice Hickson, who was two years younger than him, the daughter of John and Martha Hickson. They wanted to marry, but Alice’s father did not approve and did everything he could to dissuade them, including taking Alice away on a world trip, including a visit to their Irish roots back in the old country.

When they returned Alice married another Sydney man, someone more acceptable to her father, a certain William Ross, whose parents were Scottish-English migrants. William and Alice married in 1895 when Alice was 23, the same age as Suzie when she married George Byrne ten years earlier. William was almost 12 years older than Alice but their marriage was a happy one. They had five daughters, one of whom, Winifred, was my other grandmother. Her son, Ian, married Gertrude Byrne’s daughter, Gwen. So by a strange coincidence the Hickson’s were once again united, when my father married my mother. Their respective grandmothers were cousins.

The Irish side of my family therefore features these two families – the Byrnes and the Hicksons – most prominently. But they are not the only Irish ancestors. Alice Hickson’s mother, Martha, John Hickson’s wife, also had Irish roots. Her mother was a Mary Magenity, from County Down in Northern Ireland, transported as a convict at the age of 17, convicted of stealing from her employer, for whom she served as a housemaid. She arrived in Sydney in 1832, and 7 years later, in 1839, she married an English convict, a certain William Watts, from Wiltshire. They had a whole tribe of kids, one of whom was Martha, who married John Hickson.

Whatever became of Richard Byrne, George’s younger brother, who had fallen for Alice Hickson, only to be rejected? It turns out that not long after Alice had married, Richard married a girl from Kiama named Victoria Gray. Victoria was also the daughter of Irish immigrants, her father from Ulster and her mother from Tyrone, in Northern Ireland. They had seven children, and Victoria died when she was 66, in 1941.

It would seem the flame of romance between Richard and Alice had never been completely extinguished. Alice’s husband William had died in 1939, a few years before Richard’s wife in 1941. In 1943 Richard and Alice finally married, the young sweethearts finally united in old age. Alice’s father John Hickson was still alive when they married and he still disapproved. He died a few years later but it is said that he never forgave his daughter for going against his wishes. It makes one wonder what Richard could possibly have done to arouse such opposition from Alice’s father. The descriptions I have of Richard are of a cheerful man who was successful in his chosen career and caring to those around him. He was also a strong Christian and in fact worked for the Bible Society for many years. 

But perhaps John Hickson’s disapproval dated from long before he even met Richard, who tried to woo his daughter. Perhaps it was something that began in the old country, before he left (1866), before Richard was born (1870). John, who was born in Killorglin, knew Richard’s parents George Byrne and Sarah Ruddle. Perhaps a disagreement with George when they had been growing up together was the reason he did not allow his daughter the happiness she longed for withe George’s son so many years later.

My research into our Irish roots will focus chiefly on these two families, the Hicksons and the Byrnes. But I will also touch on Mary Magenity, the convict from northern Ireland, whose daughter Martha married into the Hickson family (John Hickson). She is the only direct ancestral link we have with the convict settlement of Sydney and further afield in the first half of the eighteenth century.

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