Forgotten tales

stories of my family

Archive for the category “People”

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)

Two nailors of Derryquin

William Hickson and George Byrne

I have known for some time that William Hickson (1832-1899) of Killorglin, who later migrated to America and then Australia, was a nailor. It says so clearly on his marriage certificate:

1858-marriage-hickson-needham-2

While looking through some records for George Byrne (1860-1929), who married William Hickson’s daughter Susie many years later in Australia, I discovered that his father, who was also named George, was also a nailor. It is recorded on George junior’s death certificate.

Death George Byrne:
July 28, 1929, Coast Hospital, Little Bay, Randwick
Late of 25 Cook Street, Lewisham
George Byrne, Clerk
69 years
Cerebral haemorrhage, Purpura haemorrhagica
Name and occupation of father: George Byrne, Nailor
Mother: Sarah Ruddle
When and where buried: 30 July 1929, Congregational Cemetery, Woronora
Name and religion of minister: William McFarlane, Brethren
Where born and how long in the Australian colonies, Killarney, Country Kerry, Ireland, 47 years
Place of marriage, age and to whom: Summerhill, 24, Susan Hickson
Children of marriage: Kathleen, Emily, Frances, William, Gertrude, Isobel. One male deceased.

This conflicts somewhat with a transcript of George’s birth record which I found through one of the genealogical search engines, which records his father as being a waiter:

Birth George Byrne:
http://churchrecords.irishgenealogy.ie/churchrecords/details/0b6ac10010627
Baptism 22 July 1860
Born 18 May 1860 Killarney, Kerry, Ireland
Father George Byrne, waiter
Mother Sarah

I have wondered what it means, that he was a waiter. Killarney today may be full of restaurants with waiters but in 1860 when George was born it was probably not the tourist mecca that it is now. I have wondered if he was a waiter in a large hotel, or the house of an aristocratic family, but finding the answer has eluded me. What I suspect is that George’s father was not a waiter at all, but a nailor, as the later death record indicates, and that the above record contains a mistake in the transcription. The Irish Genealogy website does not contain an image of the original church record and the two words nailor and waiter could easily be confused.

George Byrne (senior) of Killarney has been an elusive character thus far in my family history research. I have not been able to find the date of either his birth or death, only his marriage in Killarney on 24 February 1857 to Sarah Ruddle. However, assuming he was around 25 at the time, he would have been born around 1832, the same year as William Hickson.

So George Byrne (senior) of Killarney, was a contemporary of William Hickson of Killorglin, and they were both nailors. However, whereas William would leave Ireland in 1865 and migrate to first America and then Australia, George lived out his whole life, as far as I know, in Ireland.

The nail and bolt industry

What is a nailor? It is not a trade or profession that is familiar to the modern reader. However, nailors were in great demand in the days before the manufacture of nails and bolts was automated in the latter part of the nineteenth century. It was heavy work involving anvils and hammers and furnaces, somewhat akin to blacksmithing. Here is a description from industrial England which I found at a website cataloguing old occupations (http://rmhh.co.uk/occup/n-o.html):

In the early 19th century, in the neighbourhood of Birmingham alone, 60,000 people – men, women and children – were involved in the hand manufacture of iron nails. They turned out something like 200 tons of nails, of numerous varieties and levels of quality, every week. Commonly an entire family would work together, confining themselves to a particular class of nail.

There were about 300 sorts of wrought or forged iron nails alone. Specific names suggest the uses to which they were put – deck, wheelwright, hurdle, mop, etc. Further terms such as rose, clasp, diamond, pearl and sunken describe the shape of the nail head; and flat, sharp, spear, needle and refer to their points. The terms fine, bastard and strong described their thickness.

The very finest quality nails were used for horseshoes; each nail required at least 35 blows of the hammer to draw it out fine enough to prevent it from cracking or breaking off in the horse’s hoof. Most nails required at least 25 blows of the hammer to form them. When the shank had been drawn out from the red hot rod to the required length, it was inserted into a heading tool, cut, turned and struck on the anvil. During this process, the bellows had to be worked several times.

The workers who forged the nails on the anvil were known as Nailors or Naylors. Each could make as many as four nails a minute – that’s up to 3,000 a day.

What has happened to the traditional nail maker has happened to many other classes of industrial worker, who have seen their crafts swallowed up by automated processes or superceded by new inventions.

A book published in 1989 about nail making in the Midlands is called “Glory Gone: the Story of Nailing in Bromsgrove,” by Bill Kings & Margaret Cooper (Halfshire Books, 1989/1999).

There is a short review of this book at http://archiver.rootsweb.ancestry.com/th/read/GLOUCESTER/2010-05/1274520577:

‘Glory gone’ was the ironic comment of Bromsgrove’s last nailmaker on the area’s former staple trade. At its mid-nineteenth century peak it employed over three thousand people, 30 per cent of the population. Most of the physical evidence — the nailshops, cottages and warehouses — has long disappeared; but a visitor to the area one, even two, hundred years ago would have heard, seen and smelt the making of nails. This book tells the story of the hand wrought nail trade in the Bromsgrove area, examining the contrast between the prosperity of the sellers of nails, the masters and foggers, and the dreadful poverty of those who made those same nails, among them a high proportion of women and children. There is an account of the century-long struggle against low wages and the illegal truck system and a look at what nailers did when they were not toiling at the nailblock. Finally, there are short firsthand accounts recalling childhood days spent among nailers by four men and women who a decade ago were the last living links with the staple trade.

 

The Hickson and Byrne families

William Hickson married Mary Needham in 1858 in Templenoe, County Kerry (see marriage certificate). They were both 25. They had three children before migrating from Ireland to America in 1865. These Irish Hicksons were Richard (b.1859), Suzie (b.1861) and Lizzie (b.1863). The other three of their children, Sara, William and Charlie, were born in America, in the area near Boston where they lived. William worked, I believe, as a whitesmith. Then in 1877-78 they returned to Ireland for a short time before migrating again to Australia. During that short interlude in Ireland Suzie, my great grandmother, was around 16 years old. After moving to Australia I believe that William worked in his younger brother John’s timber company. The family appear to have been fairly well off. William died in 1899 but his wife Mary survived into the twentieth century and died in 1916 when the world was at war.

George Byrne married Sarah Ruddle in 1857 in Killarney. Their ages are not recorded on the marriage certificate. Information about their lives and family is scanty. I am uncertain of how many children they had, but I am aware of two sons who migrated to Australia: George (junior) was born in 1860 in Killarney (see above), and Richard around 10 years later in 1870. There were no doubt many others in between (and George junior may not have been the first) but I have no record of the others.

Where and when George and Sarah died and were buried is at present unknown to me, but I believe that George probably died before 1876, in his mid forties. I have a copy of a document recording George junior’s indenture to Roger Martin, a general merchant in Killorglin, in 1876. It is signed by George’s mother, Sarah Byrne, which suggests that his father was dead. George was 15 or 16 at the time and served Roger Martin for 5 years, after which he migrated to Australia. I suspect that Richard Byrne may have also been indentured to Roger Martin 10 years later, before he too migrated to Australia, but I have no evidence of this at present. I have previously written about a possible Richard Byrne-Roger Martin connection.

There are lots of commonalities in the Hickson and Byrne families. Both William Hickson and George Byrne (senior) were nailors. Both married around the same time – George first, to Sarah Ruddle, in 1857, and a year later William, to Mary Needham. Both couples appear to have been living in Killarney around 1860 and the years after that, since that is where William and Mary’s first three children were born, and where George and Sarah’s son George was born.

The two families were joined in 1885 when George junior, recently arrived in Sydney from Ireland married Suzie. George and Suzie Byrne were my mother’s Irish born grandparents. They had six children, five girls (one of whom was my grandmother) and a boy. George was a businessman and worked for IXL jams in Sydney. They were staunch members of the Brethren assemblies in Sydney.

The Brethren connection

It is this connection with the Brethren that fascinates me. The Hicksons and the Byrnes were both Protestant families in predominantly Catholic Kerry. In 1861 a revival broke out amongst the Protestants in Kerry, initially in the area around Templenoe where Mary Hickson (Needham) lived before her marriage to William Hickson. The revival resulted in the formation of Plymouth Brethren assemblies in Ireland. Mary’s family were profoundly affected by the revival – her four youngest brothers all became evangelists in North America, part of the spiritual awakening connected with DL Moody’s ministry. There seems little doubt that William and Mary were members of the Plymouth Brethren in Kerry before they departed for America, and that they carried this version of the Christian faith with them first to America and later to Australia.

George and Suzie Byrne, after they married in Sydney in 1885, raised a family in the strict traditions of the Brethren assemblies. The effects of this on their six children were not entirely positive – but that is another story. However, it indicates that George Byrne was almost certainly a part of the Brethren movement in Kerry prior to his migration to Australia in 1882. This in turn makes me fairly certain that his parents, George and Sarah, were part of a Brethren assembly in Killarney.

The two nailors of Derryquin

It is all conjecture, but all this leads me to the belief that William Hickson and George Byrne were friends in Kerry in the 1850s and 60s. They were the same age and were both nailors. William was from Killorglin and George from Killarney, but William lived in Sneem as a young man and it seems likely that he worked on the Derryquin Estate, near Sneem. I suspect his parents had taken the family there in search of work at the time of the Great Famine. William’s father was also a nailor. Although I have at present no evidence, I wonder if George Byrne also moved to Sneem during the late forties or early fifties. I like to believe that it was in Sneem and at Derryquin that William and George’s friendship was established. There is no doubt that the estate employed a number of nailors, as described by TE Stoakley in his book, Sneem, the Knot in the Ring:

Derryquin formed a community that was largely self-supporting. There was timber in plenty and a saw pit where sawyers were kept busy converting the logs into the planks, boards and scantlings for the carpenter’s shop where doors and sashes were made and all the innumerable odds and ends of estate joinery were done. There was a forge where the tenants horses were shod and all the general smithy work was done, even the manufacture of bolts and nails. (p.77)

William met his future wife in Sneem. Her name was Mary Needham and she was the oldest daughter of the Needham family of Templenoe, a village just a few miles east of Sneem toward Kenmare. William married Mary in 1858, but by that time, according to their wedding certificate, William was living in Killarney. Their first three children were all born in Killarney.

George actually married the year before William, in 1857. His wife was Sarah Ruddle, and church records show that they married in Killarney. Whether Sarah was a Killarney girl from the beginning or not is uncertain. I have little knowledge of George and Sarah’s children, but I know that they had at least two sons born respectively in 1860 and 1870, in Killarney. They were named George and Richard, and both would end up migrating to Australia, George in 1882 and Richard about 10 years later.

Both the Hicksons and the Byrnes seem to have been quite impacted by the Kerry Revival that broke out in Templenoe and Sneem in 1861, even if both young families were by that time living in Killarney. The two families may have been part of the same Brethren assembly in Killarney in the early 1860s.

Separation

But then William and Mary and their young family decided to emigrate, and were thus separated from their friends George and Sarah and their children, who stayed behind in Kerry. The Hickson children grew up near Boston in the USA while the Byrne children grew to maturity in County Kerry.

Then in 1877 the Hicksons came back. Sadly, William’s old friend George had died a few years before and Sarah was a young widow. How she fed her family I have no idea, though her son George, who was in the first year of his apprenticeship in Killorglin to the general merchant, Roger Martin, would have been helping pay the bills. But it must have been exciting for her to meet her old friends, William and Mary, and for the children of the two families to get to know each other. Three of the Hickson children had never seen Ireland before, and there were several Byrne children who had not been born when William and Mary had left with their little family in 1865.

Suzie Hickson was 16 when they came home, just a year younger than George and Sarah’s oldest son, George. I have a feeling that the seeds of a romance between George and Suzie were planted during that short sojourn of the Hickson family in Ireland, those few fleeting months before the Hickson family emigrated for the second time, this time to Australia. I suspect that it was in those months that George decided his future. He would serve his time with Roger Martin and support his mother and siblings, but then he too would emigrate. He realised that his destiny lay in Australia, with the girl who had captured his heart, his Irish-American-Australian sweetheart. But it would be five long years before he would see her again.

Sarah Byrne, however, would never see her friends William and Mary Hickson again. As far as I can discern neither William (who died in 1899) nor Mary (who survived until 1916) ever returned to Ireland, and Sarah never saw Australia. The two nailers of Derryquin had waved farewell to each other for the last time in 1865 when the Hicksons left for America. In 1878 their wives did the same, as the Hicksons sailed away again, for a new life in Australia.

Killorglin – the Hickson’s Kerry home

dsc_1900

Killorglin with the old Church of Ireland in the background

John Hickson and his twenty year old daughter Alice visited Killorglin in 1893 on their world trip. John wrote in his account of that journey:

The old town that in early days to my youthful imagination seemed a city, remains with little alteration, its fairs and markets and annual festival of Puck Fair still exists to mark its ancient customs, but many of the places and things most sacred in my memory were gone, and connecting them with those that were passed away, I felt the want and sighed for “the touch of a vanished hand, the sound of a voice that is still.” (Hickson J, Notes of Travel p.38)

It is hard to go back to places where we have lived before, and there is a note of sadness in John’s writing. The remembered joys of life cannot be relived, though they are remembered with longing. John left Kerry as a 22 year old in 1870 and came back 23 years later. He lived those years on the far side of the world, in the vibrant antipodean city of Sydney, making his fortune as a timber merchant. By the time he returned to Kerry in his mid forties he was successful and wealthy, the father of ten children, the eldest of which had come with him to see where her father had been born.

In his book John quotes a poem that he had written in 1868, when he was twenty, and in which he looks back on his school days with fondness. Here are two stanzas which give a glimpse into school life in rural Ireland in the 1850s.

When to school we with our brothers o’er the bridge we’d briskly walk
Some new play, or sport, or pleasure, was the subject of out talk
With our books in strap or satchel, on our shoulders loosely swung
Then e’re school commenced its duties, some nice hymn was sweetly sung.

Ah! the dear old thatch roofed schoolhouse, with its turf fire and clay floor,
And its plain deal desks and benches, and the wainscot near the door;
Its neat maps and pictures hanging on the smooth and white washed wall,-
Neath its shelter we were gathered, many a day when we were small.

The poem goes on to describe their games and pastimes, catching fish in the River Laune, swimming in some of the quiet pools, and the whole thing is laced with nostalgic longing for childhood.

laune-river

The River Laune, Killorglin

The town had changed since John had left it 23 years earlier. He writes of Killorglin as his “native place,” where “I spent my happy boyhood days.” He says:

This town in the old days was a quiet, unfrequented spot; but now the march of progress has extended railway communication to it. We accordingly went by rail to Killorglin to note the changes produced in thirty years. (Notes of Travel p.37)

Thirty years before the time that he penned these words, John Hickson was 15 years old. He mentions elsewhere in his book that he lived in Sneem during his childhood. I have wondered if he actually lived in Sneem before he started school, between 1848 and 1853, or after he finished school, around 1863. Either is possible, but the former seems more likely since John’s older brother William married a girl from near Sneem in 1858, and presumably they had met in Sneem rather than Killorglin, although I cannot be sure.

In August this year, my nineteen year old daughter and I passed through Killorglin on a visit to Kerry, much as John and his daughter did over 120 years ago. The “march of progress” which meant that John and Alice could travel there by rail, ironically resulted in the closure of the railway nearly sixty years ago (opened 1885, closed 1960). We arrived neither by horse and buggy nor by rail, but by car.

The famous tourist route known as the Ring of Kerry, said to be one of Ireland’s most beautiful drives, passes through Killorglin, so the bridge over the Laune and the town centre are choked with traffic. We saw signs of the Puck Fair, that had been held the week prior to our visit. We crossed, on a stone bridge, the wide, fast flowing waters of the Laune. We visited the graveyard where John Hickson’s mother and several of his siblings, as well as his best friend, are said to be buried, though we could not find any trace of their graves. But we didn’t see his old schoolhouse with thatched roof and clay floor, since it is likely long gone.

dromavally

The graveyard where members of John Hickson’s family are said to be buried.

There is an old Church of Ireland in the centre of the town, which like so many Protestant churches in Kerry, has been closed a good many years. It is now a tapas restaurant. It was the family church of the Hicksons during John’s childhood. I was keen to look inside because I had read that there is a plaque on one wall donated by John in 1911, on a later visit to his hometown. Waiting till the restaurant’s opening time I entered the beautifully renovated church interior, with its well stocked wine bar on one side of the old nave. I explained my purpose to the man at the door and he fetched the owner, who explained that most of the wall plaques had been removed, but there was one he could show me that might fit the bill. We walked through the old church, now restaurant and out to a back entrance, and there was the plaque which John had had made over a hundred years ago, as a tribute to his parents, John and Mary Hickson.

hickson-plaque

Commemorating his parents in the Killorglin Church of Ireland

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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