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Tim Fenian

TN 1865 letter p2What about this great breaking out in Ireland, is it doing any injury to ye in Kerry? I hope the next letter that you will write to me, that you will let me know all about it. (Letter home, November 6, 1865)

So wrote young Tom Needham, 14 years old, from HMS Narcissus, a British frigate off the southern coast of the USA, toward the end of 1865, and about half a year after the conclusion of the American Civil War. What had he heard, I wonder, about the political situation in Ireland? What was “this great breaking out” that was causing him so much concern for his family back in County Kerry?

I believe he was talking about the Fenian Movement, which had its origins in America in the 1850s amongst Irish ex-patriates, men (and women) who had left their homeland because of famine, economic hardship, or political persecution, many of whom had fought on one side or the other in the American Civil War. These so called “Fenians” talked of raising a force of Irish-Americans to return to Ireland to assist a rising against the English and establish an Irish Republic.

However, there was no similar organisation of rebels in Ireland planning such a rising until a certain James Stephens, an engineer from Kilkenny who had fled to Paris after an earlier “rebellion” in 1848, returned to Ireland in 1856, determined to raise just such a movement amongst the common Irish. Stephens became the leader of an organisation that he called the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), which became commonly known, together with its American counterpart, as “The Fenians.”

Why Fenians? They took their name from a legendary group of ancient Irish warriors (the Fianna) of the second and third century. The term Fenian became popular in the mid nineteenth century as the name of the association that Stephens and his American counterparts formed, but has persisted even into modern times as a label for anyone opposed to British rule in Ireland (see the Wikipedia article for uses of “Fenian” in popular culture).

The Irish Fenian movement was most active in the 1860s, when our Needham ancestors were exiting Ireland, and in 1867 there were minor uprisings in different places around Ireland including Kerry. However, these were short lived and universally unsuccessful in achieving any change in the status quo. The significance of the 1867 rebellion was more in what it said about the discontent of a growing part of the Irish population than in any military victory. The movement continued to exist in various forms up until the First World War, and after the Easter Rising of 1916 in Dublin, it evolved gradually into the IRA.

The IRB was from the start a secret society. It represented a change in thinking from earlier movements for Irish liberation in that it accepted, even promoted, violence, or armed rebellion, as being the only realistic way of achieving freedom for Ireland, as opposed to the diplomatic negotiation that had characterised earlier movements like the United Irishmen in the 1790s and Young Ireland in the 1840s. Because it was secret, no-one really knew who was a Fenian and who wasn’t, except, of course, those that had joined up. In the small communities of rural Ireland, however, many knew who was involved, though they may not have willingly given that information to the authorities in Dublin. As always happens in such times, the authorities had their spies, and there were double agents who worked for both sides and sometimes came to violent ends.

Ireland was divided into those who supported the Fenians, and those who didn’t, and it was not entirely easy to predict who would be on which side based on either their religion or their heritage. Even some people of Anglo-Irish heritage, and some Protestants in this predominantly Catholic country, supported the Fenians. The Catholic Church was officially opposed to them. Apart from the newspaper published by the IRB itself (The Irish People), the press was also generally opposed to the Fenians (see this article from the Irish Times), and the police force (Irish Constabulary) was tasked with rooting out the revolutionaries and arresting them.

I have wondered at times what our Irish ancestors thought of all this, and whether any of them were involved in this revolutionary movement. The Fenians were strong in Kerry, to which many contemporary sources bear witness:

One of the few places Stephens discovered an existing revolutionary organisation was in the Skibbereen-Killarney-Kenmare area of south-west Cork and south-east Kerry, where O’Donovan Rossa had founded the Phoenix Society to keep alive the desire for an independent Ireland (Pádraig Ó Concubhair, The Fenians were Dreadful Men, p.19).

However, with their English roots, it seems unlikely that the Hicksons or the Needhams were part of the movement, even if the Hicksons had been in Kerry for over three hundred years. Our Hickson family were related to the Anglo-Irish aristocracy in Kerry, even if only distantly, and John Christopher Hickson’s writings contain no suggestion of sympathy for the Fenians. His older sister, Susan Hickson, who was as far as I can tell the first of his family to migrate to Australia in 1853, married John Hume, another Kerry emigrant, who, prior to himself migrating in 1855 at the age of 30, had been a policeman in the Constabulary. He left, however, before the revolutionary feelings in Kerry had evolved into Fenianism, even before James Stephens had returned from Paris where he had fled after the 1848 rebellion in County Tipperary.

The Needhams were still more “English” than the Kerry Hicksons. George Needham, though as far as I know born in Ireland, was the son of an Englishman. His wife, Susan Carter, was also English (according to the entry for her son, Benjamin Needham, in the US Census for 1910). George died in 1862, five years before the Fenian rising in Kerry in 1867. But in his earlier life he had been a captain in the Kerry coastguard, and was, as such, part of the British establishment which so many Irish saw as the enemy. The Needhams, like the Hicksons, were in a sense part of the “middle class” of southern Ireland, neither aristocracy like some of the Hickson’s distant relatives, nor the rural poor. Though they very likely understood Irish, their home language was English.

But none of that mattered to Tom Needham’s shipmates, who took great delight in teasing the young Irish lad. In another letter home to his older sister Belinda, from the gunboat, HMS Linnet in 1866, he reassures her:

I hope you never fretts about me because I am as happy as a king. On board the ship one of them calls me Tim Fagan and another Tim Fenian, they gets on chaffing me and I pretend to speak Irish to them and I do make them wild. O there is no coming over me on board a ship. What about the Fenians there? There is great talk about them, the Americans are killing a great many of them… (Letter home, 26 August 1866)

Afternote:

While exploring the Internet for information about the Fenians, I found an article from a local newspaper from a town near to where we now live, Maitland. It is dated 16 May 1867 and contains a copy of The Fenian Proclamation. It seems this statement had been sent out to newspapers all over the world, to raise awareness and support for the Fenian cause in Ireland. Following is a copy of the proclamation, as archived on the Australian website, Trove. The feeling of injustice that lay behind the Fenian movement is easy to discern as the following excerpts show:

Our rights and liberties have been trampled on by an alien aristocracy, who, treating us as foes, usurped our lands and drew away from our unfortunate country all material riches. We appeal to force as a last resort… unable to endure any longer the curse of a monarchical government, we aim at founding a Republic based on universal suffrage, which shall secure to all the intrinsic value of their labour. The soil of Ireland, at present in possession of an oligarchy, belongs to us, the Irish people and to us it must be restored. We declare also in favour of absolute liberty of conscience and the separation of Church and State. We intend no war against the people of England; our war is against the aristocratic locusts, whether English or Irish, who have eaten the verdure of our fields…

1867 Fenian Proclamation

Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser (NSW : 1843 – 1893), Thursday 16 May 1867, page 2. National Library of Australia http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article18718311

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Missing home

In November 1865, 14 year old Tom Needham wrote a letter home to his older sister in County Kerry, Ireland. Tom was a 14 year old sailor on the HMS Narcissus, a frigate in the British Navy, which was, at the time of writing, deployed off the south-east coast of America. The United States was recovering from the effects of years of civil war, which the British had observed from afar, with little active involvement. 

Tom mentions very little about America. He appears to be quite unaware of the fact that his family, back in Ireland, had already started their own exodus from the green hills of home to that promised land in the west whose coast his ship was patrolling.  Exactly why the Needham family chose to migrate to America is uncertain, but I suspect it had much to do with religion, as well as anti-British sentiment. The Needhams were Protestants in a strongly Catholic part of Ireland, and their roots were English. Tom’s mother was born in England, as his father may well have been too. But all the Needham children appear to have been Irish born and bred. This blend of English and Irish, with the resulting confusion of identity, may well have helped them make the decision to start again on the other side of the Atlantic, where sectarian tensions were less extreme.

Tom’s thoughts, as he writes, are more about his family and friends back home than the bigger forces shaping the world of the later nineteenth century. His letter is quoted in full on a previous blog. It gives a glimpse of his life prior to joining the navy the year before.

Needham Home

Belinda

The letter is addressed to “My dear sister,” and I suspect that the sister he was writing to was Belinda, though he does not mention her by name. I have no information at present about Belinda’s life – her dates of birth and death, nor the circumstances of her early death. Only Tom’s writing give a glimpse of who Belinda was, or what she was like. In particular a paragraph in the book he wrote later in life tells something of her. He describes the distress he felt when he learnt of her untimely death:

I wrote a letter to a brother and sister in Boston, United States. In reply to my long silence came one from my brother urging me to return to them, and telling me that my dear sister Belinda had died… The death of this sister came as a particular blow. It was her who had cared for me so tenderly and patiently in my young days. Her hand had packed the little Bible among my sailor traps. Her “God bless you, Tom,” was the last prayer I had heard. Her hand had waved the last farewell as I left my home shore. Her secret prayers, I well knew, had for years daily followed me over the boisterous waves and wide steppes. And now she was no more. Never again should I see those tender eyes, and that rich, raven black hair, and hear that low musical voice. What knew I of the resurrection and its comforts then? Nothing. I only knew my sister professed godliness and she had truly acted it, She had been a mystery, but an admiration to me. I had been in awe of the influence her piety had over my life . And now it was ended. Could it be? How she must have yearned for me and I never went back to her. And now it was too late. I sat in my cabin with the little black banded envelope pressed close in my trembling hands. I cried and cried alone till my heart was well nigh breaking. (Needham T, From Cannibal Land to the Glory Land, pp.49-50)

But when he wrote his letter from the Narcissus in 1865 he had no inkling that he would never see Belinda again. He promises to send “his likeness” – a picture of himself – which he knew would be treasured by Belinda. He seems frustrated by his inability to send it now. Whether she ever received such a photograph is unclear. But there is a copy of it in his book.

ThomasNeedham1861

The way Tom writes makes me wonder if it was Belinda who became his substitute mother in the years that followed their mother’s death when Tom was seven. Belinda seems to have been the recipient of all three of the letters from Tom of which I have copies. She doubtless replied to his letters, but Tom seems not to have received those replies, and his distress at this is clearly evident in his writing. He missed her greatly, as much as any young boy at sea would his own mother.

Mary and William

The only other sister that Tom mentions in his letter is Mary, the firstborn of the family. There were five girls in the family – Mary, Belinda, Lizzie, Sarah and Susan. Mary, the oldest, was 18 when Tom was born but had already moved away from home. The year their mother died, 1858, Tom was 7, and later that same year Mary, then aged 25, married William Hickson, originally from Killorglin, on the other side of Kerry. Tom enquires after them in his letter:

How is Mary and William getting on. Are they quite well and Richey.

Mary was my great great grandmother, who migrated to America and later to Australia. She had moved to Sneem when she was in her teens, for reasons unknown. In the 1852 Griffiths evaluation, when Mary was 19, she is registered as the lessee of two plots of land, one just west, the other just south, of Sneem, a village a few kilometres to the west of Templenoe, where the Needham family had their home. Why she was leasing land there is not clear from the Griffiths valuation. Her landlord was James F Bland, the owner of Derriquin Castle and the father of Francis Christopher Bland. FC Bland was the best friend of Richard Mahoney. These two members of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy in Kerry played an important part in the life of the Needham family. The two of them were the main driving force in the Kerry revival.

I believe Mary must have met William Hickson, a nailor, originally of Killarney and Killorglin, during the years she was living in Sneem. I suspect William worked on the Derriquin Estate, which employed a number of nailors, and since he was also from an “anglo-Irish” background, they would have likely met at church in Sneem. Mary married William in 1858, and Richard (“Richey”), their first child, was born in 1859. The fact that he enquires about Richey but not Mary and William’s two younger daughters, Susie and Lizzie, suggests that he had a special liking for the little boy, aged 6 in 1865. Susie (my great grandmother) would have been only three when Tom had left Ireland, and Mary-Ann (Lizzie) just an infant.

Tom seems to be unaware that Mary and William and their three children had left for America earlier that same year, 1865. This makes me think that William and Mary’s departure from Ireland had been quite sudden. What happened in 1865 that made them leave so precipitously? Why did the rest of Mary’s siblings follow so quickly, so that by the end of the decade when Tom finally came home, there were no Needhams left in Southern Ireland?

Tom’s brothers

How is Willy and Ben, are they quite well? How is George getting on? When did you hear from him? How is Aunt and Uncle John getting on? Is Johnny with Uncle always? I suppose he is a great carpenter now. Did Georgy knock off going to school yet? I suppose he is a great scholar now. Is Ben always with the Parson? How is dear Willy getting on? Does he go to school now? If he do, stick him to it, because he shall want his scholarship. I goes to school for a few hours on board and I am very glad to go.

Tom was about 14 years old when he wrote this letter in 1865. He had joined the navy when he was 13. “Willy and Ben” were his two younger brothers, George was around 5 years older than him. These four boys were the last of the ten Needham children and appear to have been very close.

I am not sure who Johnny was, nor Aunt and Uncle John. I believe that there was an older Needham boy but my records give his name as James, and in 1865 he would have been 27. So just who Johnny the carpenter was remains unclear.

“Georgy” had clearly been still studying when Tom had left Ireland, which suggests he had either gone to school late, or that he had continued his education longer than most others (“I suppose he is a great scholar now”). William (Willy) was the youngest – in 1865 he would have been 9, and Tom wonders if he is in school yet. It seems late to be starting school.

The Dromore meetings

How are the Dromore meetings getting on? Is Parson Jullings always in our old house?

In 1861, a religious revival had broken out in Kerry, largely catalysed by the preaching of two local gentry, Rev Richard Mahony and his friend FC Bland. The Mahony home, near Templenoe, where the Needhams lived, was called Dromore Castle, and it appears to have been the site of revival meetings. Tom wonders if the meetings are continuing. Ben, who was 12 at the time this letter was written, was clearly drawn to religion (“always with the parson”).

dromore-2

Dromore Castle, the scene of the Revival’s “Dromore meetings.”

The revival, which the Needham family appears to have warmly embraced, resulted in the formation of Brethren assemblies in the area. “Parson Jullings” was presumably associated with the Needham’s own congregation. He was clearly very close to the Needham family, (“Is Parson Jullings always in our old house?”) and had been a great influence on Ben (“Is Ben always with the parson?”).

The revival was not universally welcomed by the local population. Many people wondered what to make of it. But for some it was life changing, and its converts came from both the ordinary classes and the aristocracy. There is a fascinating novel about the times that followed, authored by Christopher Bland, a descendent of FC Bland. The novel, named Ashes in the Wind, which uses fictional names for real characters of the times, relates a conversation in which the revival is mentioned. In the exchange, FC Bland is referred to as “Henry’s grandfather.”

Henry’s grandfather, High Sheriff of Kerry at the time, converted when the Revival came to the South West. Joined the Plymouth Brethren and wound up preaching the gospel in Weston-super-Mare. Why Weston-super-Mare for heaven’s sake? Sent me a copy of his book, he did, Twenty One Prophetic Papers. Couldn’t make head nor tail of it. Said I could be a brand plucked from the burning. (Bland C, Ashes in the Wind, p.8)

TE Stoakley, in his book about Sneem, when writing of the effects of the Revival, refers to 1861 as the year a “chill wind” started to blow at Derryquin Estate, the seat of the Bland family. He criticises the decision of FC Bland to absent himself from his estate at a time when Ireland was “passing through the difficult years of the land agitation.” While Bland was busy preaching in Weston-super-Mare (in Somerset, south west of Bristol) and beyond, his estate was declining, eventually passing out of the family’s possession. Bland eventually returned to Kerry from his missions work, but by then it seemed the estate’s financial difficulties could not be reversed, and a steady decline had begun that would ultimately result in the loss of the estate to the Blands, though the last of the family did not leave Kerry for good until 1933. (see Stoakley, T, Sneem. The Knot in the Ring, pp.77-80)

But what was the fruit of the Revival in the Needham family? All four of the younger boys – George, Ben, William and even Tom, the renegade sailor, would end up becoming evangelists in North America, in association with the famous preacher, DL Moody. Tom’s book, From Cannibal Land to the Glory Land, is a description of his journey to faith, which suggests he left Ireland apparently unaffected by the spiritual forces at work in his childhood years. But something had been unconsciously started in his childhood experience of revival which continued during his years at sea, and which came to fruition in America long after his South American adventures.

What of Mary, my great great grandmother? She and her husband William, after they left Kerry in 1865, lived for 12 years or so in the area around Massachusetts and Pennsylvania where many Needham descendants still live. They carried their Brethren brand of Christianity with them to Australia where they eventually settled and passed it onto their children and grandchildren: my grandmother, Gertrude, grew up in a Brethren home in Sydney. She married an English migrant whose allegiances were to the Church of England, which the Needhams had left so many years before. Her parents were not exactly impressed, I believe. George and Gertrude eventually settled on the Baptist denomination and brought up my mother and her sisters in that tradition.

The midge in Kenmare

Towards the end of Tom’s letter is this cryptic question: “Is the midge in Kenmare always? When I will go home I hope I will get in her the way that I will be near you my dear sister.” I have no idea what this means. Midges are small biting insects which frequent the rural areas of Kerry rather often, especially in warm, humid summers. A search on Google for “midge in Kenmare” reveals plenty of articles about this very subject. It seems that Kenmare was plagued by midges even in the 1800s.

But what ever does Tom mean by “When I will go home I hope I will get in her the way I will be near you…”? In “the midge”? Or in Kenmare? It almost sounds as if “the midge” is the name of a boat, or some horse drawn transport, from Kenmare to Templenoe where presumably Belinda lived in the family home. But Kenmare to Templenoe is not far – only 10 or 15 km. It could be easily walked, though the midges could be problematic!

I think what Tom was trying to say was, “how are the midges in Kenmare this year? When I get home I hope I will get to Kenmare, because then I will be close to you, my dear sister.” The yearning of a boy’s heart, far from home, in another world.

Kenmare River 2

Looking south across the Kenmare River from Templenoe

“My dear sister…” November 1865

A letter home from a young sailor, an Irish boy on a British ship, in 1865:

Addressed to “My dear sister..,” this letter was probably written to Belinda Needham, Tom’s older sister, the one of his five sisters to which he seems closest. A transcript follows the images.

TN 1865 letter p1
TN 1865 letter p2

Nov 6th 1865
My dear sister, I hope you are quite well. How is it that you won’t write to me? How is Willy and Ben, are they quite well? How is George getting on? When did you hear from him? How is Aunt and Uncle John getting on? Is Johnny with Uncle always? I suppose he is a great carpenter now. Did Georgy knock off going to school yet? I suppose he is a great scholar now. Is Ben always with the Parson? How is dear Willy getting on? Does he go to school now? If he do, stick him to it, because he shall want his scholarship. I goes to school for a few hours on board and I am very glad to go. My dear sister if the Lord spares me and you, I hope I shall see you in two or three years time.

I am not aboard of the Egmont, I am aboard of the HMS Narcissus(2). Did you not get a few letters from me when I was aboard of the Egmont? I wrote two to you and I am wondering why don’t you write to me? Did you get a letter from America yet? I hope the Lord spares me for the next letter. You shall have my likeness. I cannot get it this time my dear sister. I was in a good deal of ships since I left England. I am in the South Coast of America, it’s a fine place in winter, but in summer it is scorching, plenty of every sort of fruit and vegetables there.

I am quite well and happy thank God. What about this great breaking out in Ireland, is it doing any injury to ye in Kerry? I hope the next letter that you will write to me, that you will let me know all about it. How are the Dromore meetings getting on? Is Parson Jullings always in our old house? How is Mary and William getting on. Are they quite well and Richey. Is the midge in Kenmare always? When I will go home I hope I will get in her the way that I will be near you my dear sister. I have got no more to say at present. I hope you won’t be fretting about me, because I am quite happy and have very good times.

Your affectionate brother,
Thomas Needham

The letter provides a glimpse into Tom’s family, his home tracts in southern Ireland, and historical events in the wider world. It tells us something of what occupied Tom’s mind in the years he was at sea as a teenager.

Tom had joined the British Navy when he was 13, in 1864. His mother had died 6 years previously when Tom was only 7, and his father passed away in 1862, leaving the family without any parents. However, Tom’s oldest sister Mary, the first born of the family (and my great great grandmother), was 19 when their father passed, and there were four other older sisters to provide some maternal care for the family, particularly to the three youngest, who were all boys. Tom, Ben and William, were respectively 11, 9 and 6 when their father died, leaving them all orphans.

It was Tom’s fascination with the sea and his wanderlust for places beyond the green hills of home that led him to sign on to a British ship in 1864. The hard reality of life at sea was, however, a shock to his young mind. He had grown up in a loving and God-fearing home, surrounded by a close and caring family. He was thrust out into the wide world amongst hardened, cynical ruffians, subject to the demanding discipline of the British navy, the most powerful fighting force in the world.

When he wrote this letter, the first of his of which I have been given a copy (by Scott Anderson, Tom’s great great grandson), he had been at sea for possibly a year and a half. The green hills of county Kerry were a distant and cherished memory. His longing for home and family is implied in the opening lines. A life dominated by ships and the sea is evident as he relates something of his experiences since he left Ireland. He writes of his impressions of the new world that he was experiencing, and wonders about the political unrest in Ireland, news of which had reached him even half a world away, and which troubled his 14 year old mind.

I found myself reflecting on this letter, and researching the times in which Tom lived to try to get a grip on his early life, and the result was a long article which I have decided to divide into three blogs which will follow this one.

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)

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