In November 1865, 14 year old Tom Needham wrote a letter home to his older sister in County Kerry, Ireland. Tom was a 14 year old sailor on the HMS Narcissus, a frigate in the British Navy, which was, at the time of writing, deployed off the south-east coast of America. The United States was recovering from the effects of years of civil war, which the British had observed from afar, with little active involvement.
Tom mentions very little about America. He appears to be quite unaware of the fact that his family, back in Ireland, had already started their own exodus from the green hills of home to that promised land in the west whose coast his ship was patrolling. Exactly why the Needham family chose to migrate to America is uncertain, but I suspect it had much to do with religion, as well as anti-British sentiment. The Needhams were Protestants in a strongly Catholic part of Ireland, and their roots were English. Tom’s mother was born in England, as his father may well have been too. But all the Needham children appear to have been Irish born and bred. This blend of English and Irish, with the resulting confusion of identity, may well have helped them make the decision to start again on the other side of the Atlantic, where sectarian tensions were less extreme.
Tom’s thoughts, as he writes, are more about his family and friends back home than the bigger forces shaping the world of the later nineteenth century. His letter is quoted in full on a previous blog. It gives a glimpse of his life prior to joining the navy the year before.
The letter is addressed to “My dear sister,” and I suspect that the sister he was writing to was Belinda, though he does not mention her by name. I have no information at present about Belinda’s life – her dates of birth and death, nor the circumstances of her early death. Only Tom’s writing give a glimpse of who Belinda was, or what she was like. In particular a paragraph in the book he wrote later in life tells something of her. He describes the distress he felt when he learnt of her untimely death:
I wrote a letter to a brother and sister in Boston, United States. In reply to my long silence came one from my brother urging me to return to them, and telling me that my dear sister Belinda had died… The death of this sister came as a particular blow. It was her who had cared for me so tenderly and patiently in my young days. Her hand had packed the little Bible among my sailor traps. Her “God bless you, Tom,” was the last prayer I had heard. Her hand had waved the last farewell as I left my home shore. Her secret prayers, I well knew, had for years daily followed me over the boisterous waves and wide steppes. And now she was no more. Never again should I see those tender eyes, and that rich, raven black hair, and hear that low musical voice. What knew I of the resurrection and its comforts then? Nothing. I only knew my sister professed godliness and she had truly acted it, She had been a mystery, but an admiration to me. I had been in awe of the influence her piety had over my life . And now it was ended. Could it be? How she must have yearned for me and I never went back to her. And now it was too late. I sat in my cabin with the little black banded envelope pressed close in my trembling hands. I cried and cried alone till my heart was well nigh breaking. (Needham T, From Cannibal Land to the Glory Land, pp.49-50)
But when he wrote his letter from the Narcissus in 1865 he had no inkling that he would never see Belinda again. He promises to send “his likeness” – a picture of himself – which he knew would be treasured by Belinda. He seems frustrated by his inability to send it now. Whether she ever received such a photograph is unclear. But there is a copy of it in his book.
The way Tom writes makes me wonder if it was Belinda who became his substitute mother in the years that followed their mother’s death when Tom was seven. Belinda seems to have been the recipient of all three of the letters from Tom of which I have copies. She doubtless replied to his letters, but Tom seems not to have received those replies, and his distress at this is clearly evident in his writing. He missed her greatly, as much as any young boy at sea would his own mother.
Mary and William
The only other sister that Tom mentions in his letter is Mary, the firstborn of the family. There were five girls in the family – Mary, Belinda, Lizzie, Sarah and Susan. Mary, the oldest, was 18 when Tom was born but had already moved away from home. The year their mother died, 1858, Tom was 7, and later that same year Mary, then aged 25, married William Hickson, originally from Killorglin, on the other side of Kerry. Tom enquires after them in his letter:
How is Mary and William getting on. Are they quite well and Richey.
Mary was my great great grandmother, who migrated to America and later to Australia. She had moved to Sneem when she was in her teens, for reasons unknown. In the 1852 Griffiths evaluation, when Mary was 19, she is registered as the lessee of two plots of land, one just west, the other just south, of Sneem, a village a few kilometres to the west of Templenoe, where the Needham family had their home. Why she was leasing land there is not clear from the Griffiths valuation. Her landlord was James F Bland, the owner of Derriquin Castle and the father of Francis Christopher Bland. FC Bland was the best friend of Richard Mahoney. These two members of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy in Kerry played an important part in the life of the Needham family. The two of them were the main driving force in the Kerry revival.
I believe Mary must have met William Hickson, a nailor, originally of Killarney and Killorglin, during the years she was living in Sneem. I suspect William worked on the Derriquin Estate, which employed a number of nailors, and since he was also from an “anglo-Irish” background, they would have likely met at church in Sneem. Mary married William in 1858, and Richard (“Richey”), their first child, was born in 1859. The fact that he enquires about Richey but not Mary and William’s two younger daughters, Susie and Lizzie, suggests that he had a special liking for the little boy, aged 6 in 1865. Susie (my great grandmother) would have been only three when Tom had left Ireland, and Mary-Ann (Lizzie) just an infant.
Tom seems to be unaware that Mary and William and their three children had left for America earlier that same year, 1865. This makes me think that William and Mary’s departure from Ireland had been quite sudden. What happened in 1865 that made them leave so precipitously? Why did the rest of Mary’s siblings follow so quickly, so that by the end of the decade when Tom finally came home, there were no Needhams left in Southern Ireland?
How is Willy and Ben, are they quite well? How is George getting on? When did you hear from him? How is Aunt and Uncle John getting on? Is Johnny with Uncle always? I suppose he is a great carpenter now. Did Georgy knock off going to school yet? I suppose he is a great scholar now. Is Ben always with the Parson? How is dear Willy getting on? Does he go to school now? If he do, stick him to it, because he shall want his scholarship. I goes to school for a few hours on board and I am very glad to go.
Tom was about 14 years old when he wrote this letter in 1865. He had joined the navy when he was 13. “Willy and Ben” were his two younger brothers, George was around 5 years older than him. These four boys were the last of the ten Needham children and appear to have been very close.
I am not sure who Johnny was, nor Aunt and Uncle John. I believe that there was an older Needham boy but my records give his name as James, and in 1865 he would have been 27. So just who Johnny the carpenter was remains unclear.
“Georgy” had clearly been still studying when Tom had left Ireland, which suggests he had either gone to school late, or that he had continued his education longer than most others (“I suppose he is a great scholar now”). William (Willy) was the youngest – in 1865 he would have been 9, and Tom wonders if he is in school yet. It seems late to be starting school.
The Dromore meetings
How are the Dromore meetings getting on? Is Parson Jullings always in our old house?
In 1861, a religious revival had broken out in Kerry, largely catalysed by the preaching of two local gentry, Rev Richard Mahony and his friend FC Bland. The Mahony home, near Templenoe, where the Needhams lived, was called Dromore Castle, and it appears to have been the site of revival meetings. Tom wonders if the meetings are continuing. Ben, who was 12 at the time this letter was written, was clearly drawn to religion (“always with the parson”).
The revival, which the Needham family appears to have warmly embraced, resulted in the formation of Brethren assemblies in the area. “Parson Jullings” was presumably associated with the Needham’s own congregation. He was clearly very close to the Needham family, (“Is Parson Jullings always in our old house?”) and had been a great influence on Ben (“Is Ben always with the parson?”).
The revival was not universally welcomed by the local population. Many people wondered what to make of it. But for some it was life changing, and its converts came from both the ordinary classes and the aristocracy. There is a fascinating novel about the times that followed, authored by Christopher Bland, a descendent of FC Bland. The novel, named Ashes in the Wind, which uses fictional names for real characters of the times, relates a conversation in which the revival is mentioned. In the exchange, FC Bland is referred to as “Henry’s grandfather.”
Henry’s grandfather, High Sheriff of Kerry at the time, converted when the Revival came to the South West. Joined the Plymouth Brethren and wound up preaching the gospel in Weston-super-Mare. Why Weston-super-Mare for heaven’s sake? Sent me a copy of his book, he did, Twenty One Prophetic Papers. Couldn’t make head nor tail of it. Said I could be a brand plucked from the burning. (Bland C, Ashes in the Wind, p.8)
TE Stoakley, in his book about Sneem, when writing of the effects of the Revival, refers to 1861 as the year a “chill wind” started to blow at Derryquin Estate, the seat of the Bland family. He criticises the decision of FC Bland to absent himself from his estate at a time when Ireland was “passing through the difficult years of the land agitation.” While Bland was busy preaching in Weston-super-Mare (in Somerset, south west of Bristol) and beyond, his estate was declining, eventually passing out of the family’s possession. Bland eventually returned to Kerry from his missions work, but by then it seemed the estate’s financial difficulties could not be reversed, and a steady decline had begun that would ultimately result in the loss of the estate to the Blands, though the last of the family did not leave Kerry for good until 1933. (see Stoakley, T, Sneem. The Knot in the Ring, pp.77-80)
But what was the fruit of the Revival in the Needham family? All four of the younger boys – George, Ben, William and even Tom, the renegade sailor, would end up becoming evangelists in North America, in association with the famous preacher, DL Moody. Tom’s book, From Cannibal Land to the Glory Land, is a description of his journey to faith, which suggests he left Ireland apparently unaffected by the spiritual forces at work in his childhood years. But something had been unconsciously started in his childhood experience of revival which continued during his years at sea, and which came to fruition in America long after his South American adventures.
What of Mary, my great great grandmother? She and her husband William, after they left Kerry in 1865, lived for 12 years or so in the area around Massachusetts and Pennsylvania where many Needham descendants still live. They carried their Brethren brand of Christianity with them to Australia where they eventually settled and passed it onto their children and grandchildren: my grandmother, Gertrude, grew up in a Brethren home in Sydney. She married an English migrant whose allegiances were to the Church of England, which the Needhams had left so many years before. Her parents were not exactly impressed, I believe. George and Gertrude eventually settled on the Baptist denomination and brought up my mother and her sisters in that tradition.
The midge in Kenmare
Towards the end of Tom’s letter is this cryptic question: “Is the midge in Kenmare always? When I will go home I hope I will get in her the way that I will be near you my dear sister.” I have no idea what this means. Midges are small biting insects which frequent the rural areas of Kerry rather often, especially in warm, humid summers. A search on Google for “midge in Kenmare” reveals plenty of articles about this very subject. It seems that Kenmare was plagued by midges even in the 1800s.
But what ever does Tom mean by “When I will go home I hope I will get in her the way I will be near you…”? In “the midge”? Or in Kenmare? It almost sounds as if “the midge” is the name of a boat, or some horse drawn transport, from Kenmare to Templenoe where presumably Belinda lived in the family home. But Kenmare to Templenoe is not far – only 10 or 15 km. It could be easily walked, though the midges could be problematic!
I think what Tom was trying to say was, “how are the midges in Kenmare this year? When I get home I hope I will get to Kenmare, because then I will be close to you, my dear sister.” The yearning of a boy’s heart, far from home, in another world.