Forgotten tales

stories of my family

Archive for the category “Identity”

Templenoe to the world

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. Anyone who has been born and reared on an island will understand the sense of restraint which filled my boyish heart. Thus all my youthful pranks took a seaward turn. If my father deprived me of a boat, I launched the pig trough into the heavy breakers. If he hid the oars I made a pair of garden shovels answer the purpose. When all means of rowing failed I made a sailboat with the sheets from my bed. No punishments, no remonstrances from my gentle sisters could subdue the wild passion that constantly drove me into the deepest “perils of waters!” (Needham T. From Cannibal Land to the Glory Land, p.6)

Kenmare Bay from Templenoe jetty

Thomas Needham (1854-1916) went to sea when he was 13. His father had been a captain in the Kerry coastguard in his younger days, so seafaring was in the family. George Needham knew the perils of the sea, and especially the wild Atlantic. He died, however, when Thomas was a young boy, and in exasperation over what to do with him, his older siblings allowed Thomas to fulfil his longings and sign on to a ship as soon as he was old enough.

He left the shores of the Kenmare Bay in 1867 to explore the world. After many adventures he came back eventually to Ireland, but his family had all gone. They had migrated to America. He followed them, and once there became a strong Christian believer. He spent his life as an evangelist, in the time of DL Moody, one of the greatest American evangelists of the nineteenth century. Thomas became known as the “sailor preacher.”

Templenoe, where Thomas grew up, is hardly noticeable nowadays as you drive along the forested road from Kenmare to Sneem. There is a sign to Templenoe jetty and following the dirt road through the trees brings you to the banks of the Kenmare Bay, where the photo above was taken. It was a calm and sunny day when we were there, the waters of the bay still, the sky blue above the mountains beyond the bay.

The old Church of Ireland which the Needhams attended, and where Thomas’s oldest sister, Mary, and William Hickson were married in 1858, was closed up and for sale when Hanna and I were there in late August this year. I wandered through the churchyard and spotted the name Needham on one headstone, but it was clear that most of the Needhams had departed. The Church of Ireland was a lot stronger in the nineteenth century, and many of the old churches are now shut or converted to homes or restaurants.

The minister of the Templenoe church was a member of the local Anglo-Irish gentry in the area. The Rev Denis Mahony lived at Dromore Castle, which we did not see, but which still stands on land now owned by the Irish Forestry. He was a keen “proselytiser” according to Wikipedia, which made him unpopular with many of the local population, who were mostly Catholic. The Needhams were, however, Protestant, and The Rev Denis Mahony was also their landlord, according to the Griffith valuation of 1851, so they presumably had a good relationship with him, and were sympathetic to his evangelistic fervor. In 1861 his son Richard Mahony was instrumental in the outbreak of a Christian revival in the area, which was to have a lasting impact on the world and our family.

Richard Mahony’s best friend, FC Bland, of the neighbouring Derryquin Estate, near Sneem, was also deeply involved in this revival, which seemed to have affected the Needham family, as well as many other Kerry Protestants. Thomas Needham was only seven when the revival broke out and was more interested in boats, but his older brother, George, was 15 at the time and was profoundly changed by the revival. He too later became a well known evangelist in North America: in 1901 a newspaper article from Cambridge Massachusetts reported, “Mr Needham owes his conversion to the great religious revival that swept over Ireland in the year 1861.”

1861 was also the year that my great grandmother Susie Hickson, the first daughter of William Hickson and Mary Needham, was born in nearby Killarney. Her parents, who I believe had met one another when William lived in Sneem some years earlier, were also affected by the revival, possibly through an association with FC Bland, though they were living in Killarney or Killorglin during the revival years. Like many of those affected by the revival, they became Brethren, and this legacy was passed down to my grandmother (Susie Hickson’s daughter Gertie, born in Sydney in 1899) who grew up in the Brethren church in Sydney, Australia.

Gertie, to her parents’ dismay, married an English immigrant (my grandfather, George Simmonds) who was Anglican, but as a sort of compromise they raised their three daughters, one of whom was my mother, as Baptists. Though my mother also married an Anglican, a streak of non-conformism has run through my family ever since the Irish revivals of the 1860s (and the Scottish revivals of the 1840s) and created a longing even in me which has made me look beyond the “Established Church” for a spiritual pathway through life.

Templenoe Church in the ninteenth century

Templenoe Church, now closed and for sale

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Thomas Needham, wandering Kerry boy

Out of the wandering Kerry boy He was to fashion a man of God whose chief delight it henceforth should be to preach that gospel which is the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believeth. (From Cannibal Land to the Glory Land, p.51.)

Thomas (1854 – 1916), the third of the four Needham evangelists (George, Benjamin, Thomas and William) who were friends of DL Moody, was the second youngest of the ten children in the Needham family of County Kerry, Ireland. They were “non-conformists,” though exactly what variety I don’t know, I suspect Methodists or Baptists. Their parents were George and Susan Needham, of Kenmare, in Kerry. George (1802-1862) was a captain in the coastguard. His wife was a lot younger than him (1818-1856), only fifteen when she had her first child, Mary. She died in 1856 when Benjamin was three, Thomas two, and the youngest brother, William, only an infant. She was just 38 years old.

The three little boys, Benjamin, Thomas and William, were subsequently raised by their father and older siblings. Mary, the first born in the family, was 21 when Thomas was born, and 23 when their mother died. Mary became the stand in mother for the family. However, two years later, when she was 25, Mary married and moved out of the family home to Sneem, a few miles to the west, where she settled with her husband, a whitesmith. Mary Needham (Hickson) was my mother’s Irish great grandmother.

Elizabeth, the second sister in the family, was then 19. When Thomas was eight his father also died (1862) and he, along with all the other Needham children were left as orphans. The three youngest boys, Benjamin, Thomas and little William were wholly in the care of their older siblings, except Mary who had had started her own family.

Many years later, Thomas wrote a book about his early life, called From Cannibal Land to the Glory Land (published 1920). It can be read online here. It is a fascinating book and gives a tiny glimpse into his childhood in Ireland as well as his adventures after he left in 1867 at the age of 13. The book is the story of his journey to faith in Jesus, and provides the background to his later life as a minister and evangelist. He writes in the foreword:

Though repeatedly urged to do so, the writer has long hesitated to record the startling experiences of his eventful life. All that he is today as a Christian minister of the Cross of Christ, he owes to that grace that “brought him up of a horrible pit, out of the miry clay, and set his feet upon a rock and established his goings.” To boast anything in his natural self, of courage or exploits, would be to detract from the glory of that grace whose handicraft, as a new creation in Christ, he is. (p.4)

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From Cannibal Land

The story is there to be read in its completeness on the Internet, and I will summarise the tale some other time. My purpose here is to reflect a little on the Needham family in Ireland in the 1850s and 60s, to get a picture of their lives there. Thomas’s book is the only real source material that I have to go on, but some pictures are included which are very helpful.

The Needhams before Thomas

His oldest sister, Mary, was born in 1833, and during her teenage years had weathered the storm of the Potato Famine that so shaped Ireland in the seven years after the blight first appeared in 1845. The Needham children grew up in a country that was suffering. They saw starving people around them and deaths from malnutrition and disease were all too common. They saw those neighbours of theirs who had the means departing Ireland for the promised lands of America and Australia. Many others went to England looking for relief. Their mother, Susan (Carter), was herself English and it is not unreasonable to imagine that some of the older children of the family went to relatives in England to escape the ravages of the famine.

The community they lived in was shrinking. George and Susan surely talked too about the pros and cons of leaving their beloved homeland. But they were spared the extreme suffering of many others presumably as a result of George’s steady income, which sustained the family through those difficult years. He is said to have been a captain in the coastguard, but I have not found any document to support this, and the Griffiths Valuation lists him as parish clerk. But they lived close to the sea, a fact that was to shape Thomas’ life profoundly.

They were a family of faith, Protestants in a Catholic community. When Thomas was born (1854) the family lived in Templenoe, quite close to the church. The church of Ireland structure was deconsecrated in 1993 and became The Vestry Restaurant, but is now apparently closed.

Needham Family Church

The Griffiths valuation for 1852 shows that the family home was on the block of land next to the school and Petty Sessions Court House. It lies on the northern side of the Ring of Kerry Road, looking out over Kenmare Bay. George is listed as the tenant and the landlord is Revd D Mahony. The tenement is described as “house, office and land.” It was here Thomas Needham was born in 1856.

Tom’s childhood

Thomas describes his birthplace as follows, and includes a picture in his book:

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…

Needham Home
As a child he was filled with “an unconquerable passion for the sea” that “shaped the whole course of my early life.” His passion caused him to devise any means whatever to get out on the waters of Kenmare Bay, to the distress of his father, who knew of the sea’s dangers from his work with the coastguard.

All my youthful pranks took a seaward turn. If my father deprived me of a boat, I launched the pig trough into the heavy breakers. If he hid the oars I made a pair of garden shovels answer the purpose. When all means of rowing failed I made a sailboat with the sheets from my bed. No punishments, no remonstrances from my gentle sisters could subdue the wild passion that constantly drove me into the deepest “perils of waters!” (p.6)

After his father’s death his older siblings had to deal with young Thomas’s obsession with the sea and ships. He describes their solution to his preoccupations:

Finally, it was decided by my family, that the only cure for my fascination, was to send me to sea in earnest, and let me experience some of the hardships, as well as the fun, of the ocean. I was youngest but one of ten children. My father and mother, both godly Protestants in a Catholic community, were dead. So at the early age of thirteen, my brothers and sisters concluded to put me on board a Receiving Ship of the British Navy.

Tom goes to sea

So Thomas joined the navy in 1867, and sailed off into the world. His adventures are recorded in the book and make for great reading. At the end of chapter one he describes his parting:

The parting from home and all its familiar scenes was sad enough. But sadder to those left than to he who was going. I took the farewells, the advice and the gift of a little Bible with a boy’s elastic hopefulness. My older brother George accompanied me to the ship…

ThomasNeedham1861
It was some years before Thomas returned to Ireland, but I have tried in vain to find dates. He had departed in 1867, two years after Mary and Elizabeth had gone out to Boston. How long he was at sea or in South America is not specified in the book, but it must have been several years.

While he was still in South America he had written to a brother and sister who he knew were in Boston. A reply came eventually from the brother with the news that his older sister Belinda had died.

In reply to my long silence, came one from my brother, urging me to return to them; and telling me that my dear sister Berlinda had died. This news I had got before I quit the river steamer; and it was my urgent reason for my longing desire to leave South America. The death of this sister came as a peculiar blow to me. 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 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 that my sister professed godliness and that 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, until my heart was well nigh breaking. Who, or what, could administer comfort to my natural soul, as yet unsatisfied by the grace of God? Today, a saved man, knowing the power of prayer and the strength of Christian hope, I think of my sister as in the arms of Jesus, in that blessed repose of those who are “absent from the body but at home with the Lord.” I know that parting are only for a little while. I know that reunions are eternal. (pp.49-50)

Going home

He booked a passage for Europe and the homeland. When he came to England he discovered that none of his family remained in Ireland, but that all had migrated to America, to the Boston area, to the same area that Mary and Elizabeth had settled in 1865.

I lost no time in finding a ship for Boston and finding my kindred. And the home coming was a double. I returned to the bosom of my family, but more wonderful, I, a prodigal, returned to my heavenly Father’s house; for it was in the city of Boston that the grace of God met me and saved me. (p.52)

Thomas was still a young man – in 1870 he was barely more than 16. Who he lived with when he came to Boston I don’t know, nor what he did to earn a crust. Eventually he became a minister, but the process by which that came about is unknown to me. He died suddenly on Sunday 1 October, 1916, some 45 years later, at the age of 62, of a heart attacked sustained just after preaching to a congregation of 700. The afterword of his book explains:

From Cannibal Land afterword

 

Around the world in 180 days

Tourism in the Victorian era was in its early stages of development. Wealthy families in England had been sending their sons and daughters on Grand Tours of Europe for many years to expand their knowledge of the world, but by the middle of the nineteenth century the opportunity for travel, both at home and internationally was no longer limited to the rich. In 1841 Thomas Cook, an English cabinet maker from the Midlands, had an idea and arranged a one day train excursion for 540 temperance leaguers journeying from Leicester to Loughboro. One thing led to another, and

By 1851, he had discovered the business of travel. Cook arranged ocean liner travel and accommodations for 150,000 visitors to the World Exposition in London. The experience opened Cook’s eyes. Foreign travel, which up to that time had been limited to aristocrats, could be made available to the burgeoning middle class, which had money to spend and social aspirations to fulfil. Cook and other steamship agents set themselves up on both sides of the Atlantic, catering to the new tourism. Cook loved to travel, and believed that it should be enjoyed so that the memories would give pleasure for a lifetime. It was his goal to make a trip around the world as easy as a walk around the block, so he started the first travel agency to offer people travel that was free of care. Cook published The Excursionist, the first travel magazine, to inform people about travel destinations and what to expect after arrival… Perhaps his most famous package, the “Cook’s Tour of Europe,” allowed Everyman to take a Grand Tour – a practice hitherto limited to the very wealthy. (Bloyd S, in Orange Coast Magazine, August 1989, accessed on Google Books)

John Christopher Hickson (JCH), my grandmother’s grandfather, may well have been a reader of The Excursionist, which was by the 1890s available in Australia. JCH was a member of the “burgeoning middle class, which had money to spend and social aspirations to fulfil.” An Irish immigrant, he had made a fortune in the timber industry in the far flung colony of New South Wales. In the twenty years after his arrival from Ireland in 1870, his business had gone from strength to strength. He had married a local girl and together they had raised a family of eleven children. He had built a beautiful home in suburban Enfield, and climbed high on the ladder of Sydney society. Like many people in his situation, he dreamed of travel, of seeing the world.

However, in 1893, he was faced with an unexpected and unwelcome dilemma – his twenty year old daughter, Alice, the apple of his eye, had fallen in love with a young migrant recently arrived in Sydney from Ireland, but by John’s judgement, a man without prospects. This was not the future he had imagined for his oldest daughter. The man she had fallen for was Richard (Dick) Byrne, a working class boy from Killarney in County Kerry, very near to where JCH himself had grown up. It seems fairly certain that John knew Dick’s parents before he left Ireland. JCH was determined to prevent Alice from marrying Dick but he was painfully aware that Alice had lost her heart to the charming and handsome Irish lad. Perhaps as he racked his brain for ideas his eyes came to rest on the latest edition of Cook’s travel magazine.

1892_Cooks_Excursionist_USA

The Excursionist, US edition 1892

I have not seen a copy of The Excursionist from 1893, but I feel certain that the World’s Fair that was held in Chicago that year would have featured prominently. Thomas Cook and Sons had been organising tours to such international extravaganzas since The Great Exhibition – the Crystal Palace Exhibition – had been held in London in 1851. JCH was inspired. Here was something that could satisfy his desire for travel and adventure at the same time as providing a distraction for his lovesick daughter. He would take Alice away to see the World’s Fair, and throw in a trip around the world. It was an offer felt sure Alice would not be able to resist. With a bit of luck Alice would forget Dick Byrne, or at least realize that there was much in life to enjoy that Dick could never provide, being the penniless Irishman that he was. JCH wanted Alice to fall in love with the world, and for that love to displace her love for Dick. Hopefully by the time they were home her priorities in life would have been suitably reordered.

Alice said yes to the trip, which must have seemed wonderfully exciting to her. She knew her father’s agenda, but how she felt about it is uncertain. She was very much in love with Dick Byrne, and felt sure he would wait for her. Did she understand her father’s objections? Did she agree? Did she see a marriage to him as impossible, as much as she loved him? Was she going with her father in order to forget? Or was she stubbornly opposed to her father, but happy to accompany him on this world trip just the same? She was young. There was time to see the world and still marry Dick when she came home. It was possibly a very confusing time for Alice.

Whatever is true of the emotions that were raging in Alice, the records show that John Hickson and his daughter embarked in mid April 1893 on a ship, the Monowai, bound for San Francisco. I wonder if Alice had read Jules Verne’s novel, Around the World in Eighty Days, published just twenty years earlier? As it turned out, the father and daughter’s journey was closer to a hundred and eighty days – but unlike Phileas Fogg, they were not racing to win a wager. In fact the longer they were away the better as far as her father was concerned. In the preface to John’s book about the journey, called Notes on Travel, he describes the journey as a “hurried trip around the world.” Perhaps the only hurry was to get Alice away from Dick before the inevitable happened.

Notes of travel front page

They sailed from Sydney to Francisco and then crossed North America by train, travelling over the Sierra Nevada mountains and then traversing Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Nebraska, Iowa and Illinois. In Chicago they attended the World Fair before travelling via Niagara to New York and the East Coast, where they did the round of relatives and friends. The voyage from New York to Ireland on the Germanic took eight days, arriving at Queenstown, near Cork, on the south coast on 13th July. They then spent just over a month in Kerry, where John had grown up. After Ireland they travelled to Scotland and then south to London, before embarking on another ship, the Ophir, to make the return voyage to Australia, London to Sydney via the Suez, a voyage of some six weeks. Altogether they had spent some three months at sea, and three months on land, with the longest stay in any one place being in Ireland, where they were for about five weeks. North America and Scotland/England accounted for about three and a half weeks each. They arrived home in the second half of October.

If John’s primary goal was to prevent Alice from marrying Richard Byrne, it would seem that he succeeded. A little under two years after they arrived back in Sydney, in August 1895, Alice married William Ross, a successful accountant some 11 years older than her. One wonders if that was her father’s plan all along. Dick married Elizabeth Gray, a Kiama girl, daughter of Irish immigrants, the same year. It would seem that both Alice and Dick had accepted that their lives were not meant to be together.

At least that was how it seemed. Over forty years later with their respective lives largely behind them, Alice and Dick found each other again. Both had lost their respective partners to illness. Perhaps they had been friends all through the forty five intervening years, or perhaps they had barely been aware of each other’s lives. Alice and William had moved to Mosman on the North Shore of Sydney Harbour and raised five daughters, while Richard and Elizabeth had lived in Drummoyne and had raised a family of seven children.

After her husband’s death in 1939 Alice went to live with one of her daughters, Ethel (Epp) in Northbridge, next door to my father. But during those dark days of loneliness and world war Alice somehow reconnected with Dick, whose wife died in 1941. In 1944 they finally married. Alice was 72, Dick 74. Alice’s 95 year old father, by then living in Manly, still disapproved, but this time Alice was not to be dissuaded. Her father died a year later. Sadly Dick also died in 1946 so their happiness was short lived. Alice lived on until 1962, when she died at the age of 90, a grand old lady of Mosman.

Just as Alice never managed to get Dick out of her mind, her father John, JCH, never got travel or the Old Country out of his mind. He was well and truly smitten by the travel bug. In 1910 when he was 62 he went with his wife Martha back to England to be there for the coronation of King George V, the grandson of Queen Victoria. He never wrote a book about that journey so my knowledge of it is sparse. Unexpectedly, Martha died on the return voyage. JCH married again after his return to Australia, to an English lady he had met on the ship, and they were happy together for fourteen years when she died. JCH, perhaps seeking comfort in travel, sailed again for England the following year, in 1926, and amazingly, while he was there, married a third time, before his return to Australia. That was the last time he would cross the globe. He was 78 years old.

Did Alice ever travel again? In 1945 she lost her father and a year later her husband Dick died. She was alone and bereaved in the big house in Mosman, with its amazing view over the spectacular harbour (see the note from my father at the end of this post). She had moved back there after she married Dick and she remained there until her death. In 1949, when she was 77 years old, her oldest daughter, Gertrude, who had married a clergyman, RB Robinson (Bradley Robinson), asked her if she would like to accompany them on another trip to England, and she agreed.

England was still recovering after a terrible war when they arrived on March 1, 1949 on the Orcades. What they did and where they went in the three months of their visit I am not sure. Did they travel to Ireland, to Alice’s father’s ancestral home? Did they travel north to the Highlands to visit the Ross relatives who had never left Scotland? As far as I know William Ross had never been to Scotland after his parents migrated to Australia in 1866. But The Highlands were strong in the hearts of his daughters and their families, and it may well have been that Gertrude wanted to see the land of her father’s family, Strathcarron, the valley of Ross-shire where her Scottish grandfather had grown up. Her husband Bradley Robinson also had Scottish roots, so Scotland may well have been on their itinerary. The ship that carried them back to Australia was the Strathaird, named for another Highland valley.

Did Alice have the same wanderlust as her father? Each time she went to England she was a companion to others who had planned the various trips for their own reasons and asked her to come too. Her father wanted to get her away from Richard Byrne. Perhaps her daughter, over fifty years later wanted to help her forget Richard Byrne, who had unexpectedly found his way back into her life, if only for a few short years. Her father succeeded in his aims, at least temporarily. Did Alice’s second trip, over fifty years later, help her to process her feelings and finally lay Dick Byrne to rest?

My father, Alice’s grandson, certainly seems to have inherited something of John Hickson’s love of travel. After he married in 1958 he departed with his young wife, my mother, for the Pacific Islands where they lived for seven years in Fiji. I was born there in 1961, the year before my great grandmother Alice Hickson-Ross-Byrne died. I came to Australia in 1964 as a three year old. When I was nine we departed by ship across the Pacific and the Atlantic for England, where we lived for the next three years, before completing our circumnavigation of the world around the Cape of Good Hope. Since then I have crossed the globe countless times, as have my parents and siblings.

Travel means different things for different people. Some love the journey for its own sake. For others it is a way to escape from harsh realities. Sometimes it is about searching for identity or purpose. We can only guess what it was for John Hickson, and his daughter Alice. For me it has had all these elements and many more.

The world is a different place now with air travel having shrunk the distance between Europe and Australia to an overnight affair. Thomas Cook and Sons are still offering their package holidays, but under very different conditions. And some of us are like John Christopher Hickson still wondering to which side of the world we belong.

Note from my father, Ian Holford, 9 August 2016

I have just enjoyed reading your blog on my grandmother and her travels. There are a couple of small corrections. In the para. beginning “Did Alice ever travel again”, my grandparents had moved from the big house in Mosman with the spectacular harbour view into a smaller house (75 Raglan St. named Ferrintosh) in the thirties.  I remember visiting them there as a child before my grandfather died in 1939. My grandfather Holford lived in the same street with my unmarried uncle (Hope’s father), and they used to visit each over with me tagging along. On one occasion I got bored with their conversation and quietly ran back to the other house without my grandfather’s knowledge. I was suitably scolded on his return.

My grandmother remained in the Raglan St. house after my grandfather died and during her two year marriage to Dick Byrne, and until she went to live with Aunty Ep sometime in the late fifties. As a teenager (1946-50), I used to ride my bike to Raglan St. and mow the lawns and weed the gardens. At that time the house had been divided into two flats. My grandmother was the first family member to buy a TV set, and we used to visit her on Saturday nights to watch TV. She must have died sometime during our latter years in Fiji as I don’t remember her funeral.

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.

The most peaceable and virtuous peasantry in Britain

It is worthy of remark that it was at the climax of its spiritual prosperity the cruel work of eviction began to lay waste the hill-sides and the plains of the north. Swayed by the example of the godly among them, and away from the influences by which less sequestrated localities were corrupted, the body of the people in the Highlands became distinguished as the the most peaceable and virtuous peasantry in Britain. It was just then that they began to be driven off by ungodly oppressors, to clear their native soil for strangers, red deer and sheep. With few exceptions, the owners of the soil began to act as if they were also owners of the people, and, disposed to regard them as the vilest part of their estate, they treated them without respect to the requirements of righteousness or to the dictates of mercy. Without the inducement of gain, in the very recklessness of cruelty, families by hundreds were driven across the sea, or gathered, as the sweepings of the hillsides, into wretched hamlets on the shore. By wholesale evictions wastes were formed for the red deer, that the gentlemen of the nineteenth century might indulge in the sports of the savages of three centuries before. Of many happy households sheep walks were cleared for strangers, who, fattening amidst the ruined homes of the banished, corrupted by their example the few natives who remained. Meanwhile their rulers, while deaf to the Highlanders cry of oppression, were wasting their sinews and their blood on battlefields that, but for their prowess and their bravery, would have been the scene of their country’s defeat.
(Kennedy J, The Days of the Fathers in Ross-Shire, pp.15-16, first published 1867)

John Kennedy’s description of the Highland valleys as “sequestrated localities,” gives an idea of their isolation, remoteness and inaccessibility. Nowadays the Highlands are criss-crossed by roads and railways, but before the 1800s the roads were just dirt tracks and the railways had not yet come. Transport was on foot or by horse, and was slow. The people of these Highland valleys lived their whole lives with little contact with the outside world.

There was of course an exception to this. Many young men were recruited into Highland regiments of the British Army, famous for their fighting spirit, and for their loyalty to their lairds.  Responding to the call for volunteers, they marched out of their Highland glens, and departed for distant lands, where they fought and in many cases died, far from home. These were the men Kennedy refers to who wasted “their sinews and their blood on battlefields that, but for their prowess and their bravery, would have been the scene of their country’s defeat.” I am reminded of the haunting words of Mark Knopfler’s song, Brothers in arms:

These mist covered mountains
Are a home now for me
But my home is the lowlands
And always will be
Someday you’ll return to
Your valleys and your farms
And you’ll no longer burn
To be brothers in arms…

Such young men brought back tales of the many places they had seen, but part of the tragedy of the Clearances was that when they returned to their “valleys and their farms” there was nothing there. Their families had been evicted, the crofts where they had passed their childhood days destroyed to make way for “strangers, red deer and sheep.”

In the two centuries before the last of the Clearances in Ross-Shire (Greenyards 1854) there had been repeated spiritual revivals in the area. This is the subject of Kennedy’s book, and it makes for fascinating reading. It is also the subject of Tom Lennie’s book, Land of Many Revivals, which looks at the same influences not just in Ross-Shire but throughout Scotland. Lennie writes, for example, of the Clearances in Strathnaver, in Sutherland, north of Ross-Shire:

     The district had known rich spiritual blessing from as early as the 1720s onwards. According to the Rev Donald Munro of Ferintosh, a fresh wave of spiritual life began to pass through the Strath about the end of the eighteenth century and beginning of the nineteenth. Children and youth, impressed on seeing their seniors repair to Saturday noon prayer meetings – which were common in parts of the North at that time – eagerly began their own prayer groups.
Some in Strathnaver and the wider parish of Farr were said to have been ‘among the most outstanding of the men of the Highlands.’…
A minister who commenced his ministry in Farr said, “…I never knew any place where the religion of Christ so shone, and flourished, and pervaded the community, as it did in Strathnaver.”…
When the Rev David Mackenzie settled as minister of the Mission in 1813, he found a congregation of between 600 and 700, among whom were many men and women – some of high military rank and some well educated – who were ’eminent for piety, and their names still savoury among the churches of the north’ in the late 1870s. Over the next few years, during the period known as the Highland Clearances, every one of the Strath’s 1,600 inhabitants was ruthlessly evicted from the area. The Rev. Donald Sage… later wrote of the last Sabbath in the Strath before the Clearances… It was an unusually fine morning so the service was held on a beautiful green sward by the River Naver. After a sermon and the singing of a psalm, ‘At last all restraints were compelled to give way. The preacher ceased to speak, the people to listen. All lifted up their voices and wept, mingling their tears together. It was indeed the place of parting, and the hour. The greater number parted, never again to behold each other in the land of the living.’ One distressed witness of the evictions wrote of the sufferers: ‘The truly pious noted the mighty hand of God in the matter. In their prayers and religious conferences not a solitary expression could be heard of anger or vindictiveness.’ Many found no resting place till they reached the backwoods of Canada.
Some decades later, a Sutherland newspaper reminisced about the ‘noble band of godly men born and brought up in Strath Naver, parish of Farr, a district eminent for years, during the latter part of the last century (eighteenth) and the beginning of the present, as the residence of a number of pious, well educated and intelligent Christians.’
(Lennie T, Land of Many Revivals, 2015, pp.199-201)

A picture emerges of the inhabitants of these remote Highland valleys: there were certainly “peasants” among them, but there were soldiers too, and educated people, and they were people of faith. This was the fruit of religious revival, but such a spiritual richness was apparently not evident to the landlords who owned the land on which the people lived. These landlords were quite happy to clear them away for their own economic reasons, justified by some misinformed idea of “progress,” in which the wealthy were more interested in money and ideology than in people. They saw the inhabitants of their lands as too numerous and were worried that they might have to be supported financially from the landlords’ own pockets, something that until then had never been necessary since the “peasantry” were self sufficient and in fact paid rent to the lairds. The landlords did not see the people as intelligent, educated, loyal or pious, but rather as a potential burden that stood in the way and which needed to be removed. Hence the Clearances.

In another place or time the people may have revolted, taken up arms to defend their homes. Indeed it would seem that this was what was expected by many of the aristocracy. They had seen what had happened in France, and what was even happening to a lesser extent in England, and they expected armed resistance. They did not understand the transformation that had taken place in so many Highland hearts. Despite small disturbances the evictions were mostly a peaceful affair, and though the people appealed to their lairds’ reason and compassion, when they were met with stony indifference they usually accepted the judgements of their “superiors” and left quietly. As Lennie quotes, ‘the truly pious noted the mighty hand of God in the matter. In their prayers… not a solitary expression could be heard of anger or vindictiveness.’

Such a submission to ‘the mighty hand of God’ is frowned on in our day and age, seen as naive and foolish. Resistance is seen as the just way to proceed. But our ancestors lived in a different age, and the people of the Highlands were influenced by a different ethic and worldview. They interpreted what was happening in the context of God’s sovereignty. They didn’t understand why they should be caused to suffer, but they believed in God, and were comforted in their knowledge of his love. They did not interpret their suffering as a sign that God had deserted them or was punishing them, though they were well aware of their own failure to live up to His standards. They did not understand their suffering, but they accepted it, and saw his hand at work.

The result? The gospel was spread around the world, especially to Canada, Australia and New Zealand, countries which so many descendants of the Highlanders now call home. My own ancestors were not among those who were forced to leave, but rather left the Highlands of their own accord. But they too carried with them the spiritual heritage of the preceding two hundred years in the valleys of the Ross-Shire Highlands, a fierce commitment to God which has survived down through the generations. My grandmother’s name was Winifred Urquhart Ross – her names bearing witness to her ancestral origins in Ross and Sutherland. The man she married, my grandfather, came from a somewhat less “religious” family, with its roots in Germany and England. Before he met Win, he had already been influenced towards faith by a couple with whom he lodged in Lithgow, NSW, during the First World War. Here is what my father wrote about that time:

     Dad’s first job that I know of was in the Lithgow Small Arms Factory, but he was called up for military training in early 1918. The War ended in November 1918 just as he was about to embark for overseas. Presumably he returned to his job in Lithgow, but left at some stage to attend Technical College where he later became a teacher in Engineering Trades Drawing at Ultimo Technical College in Sydney.
While living in Lithgow, Dad was greatly helped by Mr. and Mrs. Goodes, with whom he probably boarded. They were a godly Christian couple, and would have been mainly responsible for adding a Christian dimension to his life which the rest of the Holford clan did not have. Sadly none of his siblings had any interest in the Church.
Through his involvement in the Anglican church he also became acquainted with the Robinson family (also of Scottish ancestry). Bradley Robinson was the Rector of the church, and he was married to Gertrude, the eldest daughter of the Ross family of Mosman. He got to know Winifred, a younger sister of Gertrude, who visited the Robinson family from time to time.  It happened that Dad’s father was living in the same street (Raglan St.) as the Ross family, so the friendship with Winifred strengthened until they became engaged and eventually married on December 20, 1925 in St. Clements Church, Mosman.

So the fruit of the revivals in Scotland, of the preaching of great men of God like the Rev John Macdonald of Ferintosh and many others which resulted in “the most peaceable and virtuous peasantry in Britain,” has come down through the generations, and spread itself around the world, and has even affected me, though I fear sometimes that I take more after the rather more irreligious Holford clan than the Rosses of Gledfield. But I too have found my way to a faith in the same God that inspired that Highland family, and at least some others of their descendants. So I cannot help but be inspired by the descriptions of those exciting times, and long to see them come again, not just to the Highlands, but to the little corner of the world where I find myself now. Here is another sample, an account of the ministry of James Kennedy of Aberfeldy, recorded by his son, John Kennedy, and quoted in Tom Lennie’s book:

     [Many came] every Sunday, fifteen to twenty miles, to sit under him in Aberfeldy, though they had to start at four in the morning to do it. The sight of these pilgrims travelling in carts, on horseback, and even on foot – the old men clad in homespun and often wearing the Highland bonnet, the old women wearing the snow white ‘mutch’, and carrying sprigs of sweet scented ‘southernwood’ as well as white handkerchiefs and the beloved Psalm-book in their hands – was by no means lacking in picturesqueness. Reaching Aberfeldy long before the hour of service, they were hospitably entertained at breakfast by the villagers. Then they streamed into the plain little chapel, and the worship began… As soon as the church was emptied the manse was crowded… Many of them did not get home till midnight; but the way, though long, was made cheerful with ‘songs of Zion’ and with talk of what they had heard in the morning.”
(Kennedy, Old Highland Days, quoted in Lennie T, pp.210-211)

And a final description, written by a Rev David Campbell a native of Glenlyon, recalling Kennedy’s ministry there in 1816. He had seen Kennedy

     stand almost knee-deep in a wreath of snow, while at the same time it was snowing and drifting in his face all the time he was preaching, and the people gathered around him patiently and eagerly listening to the fervent truths that proceeded from his lips… “Ach gu phi a-comhdhunnadh” – “But to conclude”! – when he came to that, his voice faltered, his eye brightened, and you would think he was as it were rushing between men and death, or plucking them out of the fire.
(quoted in Lennie T, p.210)

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