Forgotten tales

stories of my family

Archive for the category “Occupations”

Tom goes to sea

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

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

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

Needham bible 2

Family marriages 

 

Needham bible 1

Family Bible

A few months later he wrote:

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

TN rolled notes

Tom’s letters

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

TN book 0 cover

Book published around 1900

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

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

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

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

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

Tom's ship

Tom was later transferred to a merchant vessel

Coastguard

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

According to Keith, Mary Needham

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

Version 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kenmare River 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lackeen Point new station

This picture can be found on the Kenmare Chronicle Facebook page

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ByrneFamily

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

Kerry Revival 1861

While doing online research on the Needham family I came across the following statement in an article from the Cambridge (Massachusetts) Tribune from 1901.

Mr. Needham owes his conversion to the great religious revival which swept over Ireland in the year 1861. Mr. and Mrs. Needham have collaborated in the writing of a number of religious books, which have earned for the authors the indorsement of well known clergymen of the Baptist sect. (Cambridge Tribune, Volume XXIV, Number 24, 17 August 1901)

George C Needham

G C Needham

I had not been aware that there had been a great religious revival in Ireland in in 1861 so I did some more searching and found a whole lot of references. Names like Spurgeon, Dwight L Moody, and others kept turning up, together in some cases with George C Needham (the C stands for Carter, which was his mother’s maiden name), which is the Mr Needham referred to in the article above.

One of the most useful accounts I found of what was happening in Kerry in 1861 is the following which I have taken from the Gospel Hall website. Dromore Castle, which is mentioned at the beginning, is an old house in Templenoe, the village where the Needham family lived.

Dromore Castle (where lived the well-known Christian gentleman, Mr. R. J. Mahony) and Derriquin were neighbouring estates. F. C. Bland and R. J. Mahony had known each other from infancy, and their mutual affection was like the love of brothers. Early in the year 1861 some earnest words spoken by Mr. Mahony at a gathering of parochial school children at Dromore Castle made such a deep impression on some of the adults present that meetings for prayer followed. One and another became deeply anxious about eternal things, and soon an increasing company of the peasantry were rejoicing in new-found blessing. The Ulster revival of 1859, and the Dublin awakening of 1860, had failed to make any sensible impression upon the people of the south. But God was about to work among them in His own way. A friend from a Midland county, hearing of the work, paid a visit to Dromore, bringing with him C. H. Mackintosh, whose ministry by word and pen has helped so very many. A meeting was arranged, and the closing passage to the 2nd chapter of the Epistle to Titus was his subject. Among the number who attended were Mr. and Mrs. Bland, and both of them were brought to Christ by the Word.

In those bright days of the early revival there was a striking freshness and power about the testimony. As in apostolic times, the convert not infrequently became a witness and a minister at once, seemingly as the natural outcome of the blessing received. Boon companions and bosom friends in recreations of their boyhood, and in the pleasures and pursuits of their early manhood, Bland and Mahony now became united in preaching Christ to their friends and neighbours. The blessing spread among the gentry, and at the summer assizes at Tralee eight members of the grand jury took part in public meetings for the preaching of the Gospel. And the fruit of that work still lives. Many Christian homes there are in Munster where “the Kerry revival” is reckoned as the epoch of their spiritual blessing. (Biography 43 – F.C. Bland, Gospel Hall website)

Dromore_Castle

Dromore Castle c.1900

The article in Wikipedia about Dromore Castle (from which the public domain picture to the left has been taken) indicates that R.J. Mahony’s father (Denis Mahony), who was a Church of Ireland minister and who supervised the building of the house, was not locally popular because of his evangelistic tendencies, in spite of a keen social conscience that led him to set up soup kitchens for the poor during the Potato Famine. The Rev Denis Mahony is listed as the landlord of the Needham family home in the 1852 Griffith valuation though he apparently died in 1851. Dromore Castle was inherited by Richard John Mahony, the man mentioned in the article above, who together with F.C. Bland (Francis Christopher) was so instrumental in the revival of 1861.

Derriquin Estate, (there is a good photo of the now ruined Derryquin Castle on this blog) owned by F.C. Bland, was near Sneem, where Mary Hickson (Needham) and her husband lived in 1861. Since the Hicksons and Needhams were members of the Church of Ireland as were the Mahonys and the Blands, it seems hardly surprising that the Needhams were affected by the same move of God that affected their landlords. It may even be that the “earnest words spoken by Mr Mahony at a gathering of parochial school children at Dromore Castle [early in 1861]” were heard by the three youngest Needham boys who were all still in school – Benjamin was 8, Thomas 7 and William 5. The “adults present” on that day may have included the boys’ older siblings or their father – though their mother was dead.

Perhaps it was George C Needham, 15 years old at the time, who was most impacted by the revival that broke out that year, and who spent so many years preaching the gospel later in life, primarily in America, but also in Britain and as far afield as Japan and China. The same newspaper article quoted above, from the Cambridge Tribune, includes the following in its short biography of George:

Mr Needham is assisted in his evangelistic work by his wife. They have been extensive travelers In the cause of religion. Both Mr. and Mrs. Needham have carried their revival Into England, Ireland, Scotland, Japan, China, and various parts of the United States. Mr. Needham claims that within a year a deep spiritual movement has made its appearance In Japan, and that large numbers of Japanese are being converted to Christianity. The movement affects not only the poorer classes, but it is penetrating to the more exclusive circles of society. Official Japan is agnostic, but many among the cultivated classes, educated by contact with European and American civilization, are more willing to listen to the teachings of the missionaries. Mr. Needham assisted the late Rev. Mr. Moody in his work of evangelization for a good many years. He is now associated with Rev. William Moody, the son of the great evangelist. (Cambridge Tribune, Volume XXIV, Number 24, 17 August 1901)

The younger brothers, Ben, Tom and Will, all became evangelists too, and so they too were doubtless impacted, even if they were hardly aware of it at the time. Thomas does not mention the revival in his book From Cannibal Land to the Glory Land, but dates his conversion to Christianity to the time after he came to America.

ThomasNeedham1900

Thomas Needham, the “sailor preacher.”

It certainly seems likely that the older sisters were affected. One of them, Belinda, whose life remains largely unknown to me, is mentioned in Thomas’ book, written many years later. He speaks of the piety of his older sister, who gave him a Bible when he went to sea in 1867 and prayed for him daily all the years he was wandering the world. He wrote:

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. (Needham T, From Cannibal Land to the Glory Land, p.50)

I can’t help wondering about the effect of this revival on my direct ancestors – William and Mary Hickson – Mary being the oldest of the Needham siblings. They were relatively recently married and lived in Sneem, quite close to F.C. Bland. They had a toddler, Richard, and in 1861 their second child, Susie, was born. Susie was my great grandmother, born 100 years before me. Her parents took her to Boston when they migrated there in 1865 and to Australia where they arrived in 1878. Susie was by then 17 years old. Some years later she would marry another Irish immigrant, George Byrne, and together they raised their six children in the Brethren Church in Sydney. One of their five daughters was my grandmother, Gertrude Byrne, and though she married an Anglican, George Simmonds, recently migrated from England, they raised their three daughters in the Baptist Church in Goulburn.

SusanByrne1a

Suzie Hickson (later Byrne)

My father’s mother was a Ross, whose ancestors experienced the revivals in the Scottish Highlands in the 1840s. So there is a revival heritage on both sides of my family, and that has left its mark in me. In these days of growing indifference or even antagonism toward the things of God in the western world, which is my home and cultural heritage, I often find myself longing for a powerful move of God to come again.

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

 

866 Company in Dublin 1916-1919

A brief visit to Dublin
I recently spent a few days in Dublin. It was my first trip to Ireland; I was there for the wedding of a friend from Australia, Simon More, who has made his home there. He and his wife Michelle were married at the City Hall, an imposing edifice squeezed in between city streets, not far from the famous Trinity College Dublin (TCD). I had arrived the day before and spent the day wandering the streets alone, trying to get a feel for a city to which I felt no connection at all. A broad river, the Liffey, crossed by numerous bridges, runs through the centre of the city. The streets were crowded and chaotic. Every nationality seemed to be walking the streets. I heard languages that I recognised and others that I didn’t. It seemed like the whole world had come to Dublin.

The River Liffey in Dublin today

The River Liffey in Dublin today

It felt remarkably un-British and I suppose that is not surprising since it is many years since it stopped being part of United Kingdom. In 1922, following a period of revolution in Ireland, twenty-six of the thirty-two counties of Ireland seceded from Britain to form the Irish Free State, which later became the Republic of Ireland. The currency is the euro, not the pound, and the Irish language is seen everywhere, on signs and in publications. Having said that I heard few people speaking Irish, although in the mish-mash of languages that are spoken on the streets of Dublin it was no doubt hiding there somewhere.

As well as the rather distinctly European (as opposed to British) feel, I was struck, as I browsed through a few bookshops, by the number of books on offer that focussed on the Easter Rising of 1916, realising that this was doubtless a reflection of the approaching centenary year. I also realised I knew pretty much nothing about that momentous event which is so significant in the history of modern Ireland. The names of the leaders of that revolt against British rule were unfamiliar to me, and their fate before a firing squad was something of which I was unaware. The Irish Republic which they proclaimed on Easter Monday 1916 lasted 6 days before it was squashed by the military might of the British Army.

When the ringleaders were executed they became martyrs for the cause of Irish Republicanism, attracting many who were previously pro-British to their side. There was a clampdown of British force, with a confusing train of events over the ensuing years. This so called revolutionary period in which the Easter rising was the first major militant attempt of the period to gain independence for Ireland, included repeated waves of civil unrest leading to the War of Independence (1919-1921), the creation of the independent Irish Free State (1922, as a result of the Anglo-Irish Treaty), the Partition of Ireland (when Northern Ireland opted out of the Free State to remain within the United Kingdom) and the Civil War (June 1922-May 1923). The Irish Free State renamed itself Ireland in 1937 and declared itself a republic in 1949. Northern Ireland gained Home Rule for itself but remained part of the United Kingdom.

The General Post Office in Dublin, destroyed in the Easter Rising of 1916 and rebuilt some years later. Flying the Irish flag.

The General Post Office in Dublin, destroyed in the Easter Rising of 1916 and rebuilt some years later. Flying the Irish flag.

My first visit to Ireland therefore coincided with the centenary of a momentous period in Irish history, and as I wandered the streets of Dublin I realised that just as I knew almost nothing about that time, I knew very little about this country. A number of my ancestors migrated from Ireland in the 1870s and 1880s, notably from two families – the Byrnes and the Hicksons. However, both these families came from the other side of the country, from County Kerry. Why they left is still an unanswered question for me. One of them, John Christopher Hickson (who arrived in Australia in 1870), made return trips to the old country in 1893 and 1911, but after that it wasn’t till my parents visited Ireland on a number of occasions in the 1980s and 90s that there was any sort of reconnection. The connection became stronger however, when my father married Eunice Orr after my mother’s untimely death; Eunice’s mother was Irish, though she lived most of her life in Australia. She died just last year.

I found myself in Dublin, and wandering the streets I pondered my ancestral connections with this land, and this city. I knew of no ancestors from this side of Ireland, but as I pondered the events of 1916 presented in so many bookshop shelves, I remembered that my English great grandfather, George Simmonds, had served here with the British army during World War 1. He was in the Royal Army Service Corps (RASC) and though he served in Europe during the first half of 1916, in Salonika, Greece, he was posted to Dublin in November of that year, some 7 months after the uprising. He spent the rest of the war here, some two and a half years, so he must have got to know Dublin quite well.

George Simmonds in Dublin
I was not sure however whether I was pleased with this realisation. The British army were, after all, the enemy, or at least it seems that way looking back. Of course there were many in Dublin at the time who saw themselves as part of Great Britain – not everyone was a republican, even if home rule was important to many. The Easter uprising of 1916 polarised the city and the nation however. The years that followed were years of unrest and uncertainty, but the cause of secession from Britain grew ever stronger. The British Army came to be seen as representing the enemy for more and more of the population, almost like an occupying force. George Simmonds was a part of that British Army.

But armed conflict between the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the British Army did not really erupt until January 1919, when Sinn Féin established themselves as the First Dáil (Assembly) and declared an independent Irish Republic. By that time George was close to the end of his tour of service in Ireland, discharged from the army in May of the same year. By that time the lines had been drawn: the IRA had became the official army of the Irish state, while the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) supported by the British Army, were loyal to the British Government. A War of Independence followed lasting a little over two years before a truce was declared in July 1921. The infamous Black and Tans was a force of temporary constables recruited in Britain toward the end of 1919 to assist the RIC in their struggle against the IRA. Many of them were WWI veterans who had seen action on the Western Front, although some were Irish. They were notorious for their brutality and their reprisals on civilians and civilian property.

However, George Simmonds was demobbed in May of 1919 and had left Dublin before this guerrilla war really got going so he missed the bulk of the violence, thankfully back home with his family and his market gardens west of London, where he could only read about the horrors unfolding in Ireland. Even while he was in Dublin he was not a soldier in the conventional sense, being part of the RASC. He was a member of a horse transport company, namely 866 Company, involved in support and supply for the army. He had performed similar duties in Salonika, one of the less remembered theatres of the European War, where he had also been in a Horse Transport Company, 483 Company of the 27 Divisional Train. His war service, both in Greece and in Ireland, was more focussed on transportation than on military tactics, more on horses than on humans. Although motor vehicles were becoming more numerous in the 1910s and 20s, horses were still the backbone of transport systems in the First World War. George had been involved in the transport industry before the war, a so called “carman.” During the war he continued what he knew best. But as in Salonika he could not avoid the reality and the effects of bitter armed conflict around him, in Ireland he felt the tensions, saw the effects of the conflict, and no doubt experienced the hostility of the local people in a city that was asserting its independence from the British Empire of which he was a proud citizen. It is hard to know whether he felt resentment or sympathy for them.

What stories of the IRA did he tell his young family when he returned to England? By the time he came home his oldest son, my grandfather, was 14 years old and there were four younger children in the family. Their father had been away for a good part of four years and certainly the younger siblings, James and Mary, who in 1919 were just 5 and 3 respectively, hardly knew him. My Grandpa Simmonds, who I never knew, would leave England forever just four years later, in 1923, and never see his parents again. Some years after his arrival in Australia he would marry my grandmother Gertrude Byrne, a first generation Australian, whose father George Byrne had migrated to Australia from Ireland in 1882. Her mother, Susie Hickson, was also of Irish stock. Both George and Gertrude knew Ireland only second hand, from stories their fathers had told them.

Healing the scars of the Great War
My mother said of her grandfather that he was scarred by his experiences of the Great War, and I suppose no-one from that era escaped unscathed. Mum told me that his lungs had been damaged by gas used in the trenches, and that had led to his early death in 1928 at the age of 52. Of course Mum never met her grandfather, who died 9 years before she was born, and on the other side of the world. What Mum knew of her grandfather must have been passed down to her from her father. I have not been able to find any evidence of lung disease in George senior’s military records. His pension application suggests that he was suffering from joint pain – arthritis which he felt had been worsened by sleeping in wet clothes on active service in Salonika. It also indicates that he was treated in hospital in Malta, and later in the UK. Many soldiers from Salonika were evacuated to Malta, but few of them for battle wounds. More were affected by infectious diseases and it is possible that George contracted pneumonia from his wet clothes. Many contracted malaria too.

The name of another hospital also appears on George’s pension application, though there is no indication of why he was admitted there, for what he received treatment. It was a hospital in England, a so called Voluntary Hospital, at Rainhill, in Lancashire. From what I have been able to find out, it would seem that Rainhill was a psychiatric hospital and the majority of patients there during WW1 were treated for shell shock, which we now know as post traumatic stress disorder. This has raised a whole lot of questions in my mind. Could it be that George Simmonds was a victim of shell shock? Was that the reason he was not sent back to Europe after his repatriation from Greece? What really happened in Salonika in the first half of 1916 that could have so traumatised him. The little I have read of that time in Salonika seems to indicate it was a relatively calm period, with most of the offensive occurring after George left.

There was also a hospital in Dublin in the years that George was there that specialised in the treatment of shell shock in returned Irish servicemen: the Richmond War Hospital. But if George had indeed suffered shell shock, his treatment was presumably over by the time he came to Dublin. Maybe Ireland was a place of rehabilitation for him, for though there was certainly violence in Dublin in the years 1916 to 1919, it hardly compared to the terror of the Western Front, or even the lesser known theatres of war like Salonika.

The Wicklow Mountains
The day after Simon’s wedding, another of my expatriate Australian friends, Jeremy Cavanagh, arrived from London. We drove south out of the city and spent two refreshing days tramping through the Wicklow Mountains. Though it is so near the city feels far away. The hills are barren and wild, and when we were there the heather was in flower. From a high road that crosses the mountains we followed a track down a green valley to Lough Dan. There was no-one about though we passed several farmhouses. We came to the lake between the mountains, its dark waters ruffled by a chill wind; a deserted farmhouse with padlocked doors stands forlorn between a thick growth of ferns on the valley floor, the stream running swift and silent through the trees nearby. We sat for a while on the little beach and stared out across the water before climbing the slopes beyond the stream and ascending through forest back to the barren heights. The next day, from Glendalough nearby, we climbed a steep path through another forest to emerge atop a precipitous escarpment far above that lake. We walked upwards into a broad shallow cirque, a glacial hollow between ancient hills. The treeless horizon made a stark silhouette against grey clouds scudding across the sky, patches of blue revealed from time to time through a parting in the clouds.

The green hills and heather clad heights of Ireland breathed life into my tired soul. I wondered if they had the same effect on George, raised so close to the great metropolis of London, scarred by the horrendous conflict he had witnessed across the sea. For George and his horses it may well have been that despite the tension and intermittent violent outbursts that he witnessed in Dublin, Ireland, with its green slopes and wild mountains, was a place of healing, restoring the peace of spirit he needed to return to his market gardens and his family and start over with the life he had left behind four years before.

The Wicklow Mountains near Lough Dan

The Wicklow Mountains near Lough Dan

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