Forgotten tales

stories of my family

Archive for the category “Travels and sojourns”

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.

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Family marriages 

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Tom was later transferred to a merchant vessel

Dingle, the family seat

John Hickson, Notes of Travel, published 1893, page 41:

From Valencia we returned along a road overlooking the sea through Killorglin, and regretting exceedingly that we could not remain and enjoy a day’s salmon fishing in the Laune, we went on to Tralee, the chief town of the county. By rail we went to Dingle and visited The Grove, the old family seat of our ancestors…

The road between Valencia and Killorglin is exceedingly beautiful in places. Hanna and I drove it in the other direction. Here are some shots:

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The beach at Rossbeigh, west of Killorglin

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Part of the road around the Ring of Kerry

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The Skellig islands off the coast near Valencia

The next day we drove on to Dingle, where we arrived late in the day and stayed at a B&B just outside town. We ate dinner in a pub, and wandered the streets. The next morning we continued our exploration of the little town and even tried to find the location of The Grove, which disappeared many years ago. The closest we could find was a housing estate by the same name at the start of the road up to Conor Pass, which we ascended as rain closed in and the clouds came down on the mountains.

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Dingle

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The Grove is now a rather ordinary housing estate.

John Hickson and his daughter Alice took the train from Dingle to Dublin, eastward across the whole country. But we drove northward instead, into County Clare, where we saw the famed Cliffs of Moher, then on to Galway the next day and finally back east to Dublin, from where we departed back home to Sweden.

“The old family seat of our ancestors”

The Grove seemed to occupy a significant place in John Hickson’s memory. Though he had never lived there, he made time in 1893 to visit. I have wondered what that means. Did they actually knock on the door and talk to the Hicksons who were living there in 1893? He doesn’t mention them by name, which he surely would have if they had stopped even for a cup of tea. I suspect John’s agenda with that little detour on their world journey was to impress on Alice an aspect of her identity of which she was barely aware – that she was connected to the landed gentry of Kerry, and came from noble roots.

But why was that important to John? He had left Kerry and Ireland behind 23 years earlier, starting a new life in Australia. What was the relevance of such connections in the new world that he had made his home and his future?

I suppose it was partly because of the desire all of us have to know who we are, which seems to depend so much on where we have come from. John was born the last child in a relatively modest family from a small town in the back locks of rural Ireland. But unlike his father, a tradesman turned shopkeeper who died in obscurity in the USA five years after he had migrated there late in life, John had made good in his adopted land, and had become wealthy and respected. John was interested in family history, and ancestry, because it helped him understand who he was, and the Anglo-Irish gentry was perhaps a part of his family teee that he wanted to revive, which enhanced his standing in the new world, and which he wanted to pass on to his children.

Furthermore, it may have been part of his strategy in getting Alice to see the unsuitability of a marriage to Richard Byrne, a young man recently arrived in Sydney from Kerry, for whom Alice had fallen, head over heels. Richard’s older brother, George Byrne, was married to John niece, Suzie Hickson, but as far as John was concerned, the Byrnes were from a social class that was below them and his aspirations for his own daughter were higher than that. I am assuming that John knew George and Richard’s parents in Kerry before he left, but he never mentions them in his book as friends, and I have wondered what kind of relationship he had with them. It seems fairly certain they were dead in 1893 when John and Alice came to visit.

In 1893 when he and Alice visited, The Grove was still in the hands of a Hickson, but it soon passed out of their lives. I have written a little about the Hicksons and their houses in a previous blog. But the web of relationships of Hicksons in Kerry in the nineteenth century remains a mystery to me, and until I have sorted that out I will not know how John Hickson was related to The Grove and its occupants. How far removed John Hickson was from his wealthy and influential relatives is a mystery. There were other large houses occupied by Hicksons in Kerry, but John only mentions The Grove.

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The Grove in Dingle, from Anthony Hickson’s Hickson website

I suspect that when he went to Dingle with Alice they simply saw the old house, but that they did not go in. If they had John would surely have mentioned it in his book, but he makes no more than the above passing mention of the “old family seat of our ancestors.” Perhaps there was no-one at home at that particular time. Or perhaps he had never really known them.

The Grove would eventually fall into ruin and is said to have disappeared during the 1920s, very possibly during the Civil War when many of the big houses of Kerry were destroyed by angry young men, a vital sign of the demise of the Anglo-Irish ascendency in Kerry. John Hickson would return to Britain in 1911, 1913 and 1926. Whether he visited Kerry on each of these occasions I am unsure, but had he been there in 1926 he may well have been witness to the downfall of The Grove. What became of the Hicksons who remained in Ireland is unknown to me, and whether there are any still in Kerry I have been unable to ascertain.

There is no doubt that Dingle is a very beautiful part of the world, as is much of Kerry, along the Wild Atlantic coast. Nowadays tourists flock to Dingle for its picturesque beauty, its cultural heritage, especially the music, and its activities, from dolphin watching in the bay to beach and hill walking. But 150 years ago when the Hicksons were taking their leave from this lovely land the conditions were very different and the opportunities offered by the young colonies on the other side of the globe were attractive and enticing. It was so that our Hickson ancestors came to Australia. But John Hickson could never quite get Kerry out of his mind and kept going back there, keeping the spirit of Ireland alive in his heart and attempting to impart it to his children.

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Looking back over Dingle from the Conor Pass

Killorglin – the Hickson’s Kerry home

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Commemorating his parents in the Killorglin Church of Ireland

Old friends in the old country

In John Hickson’s book, Notes of Travel, the Martin family turns up in passing on a few occasions, and oddly enough plays a small role in the history of our family. It was the Martin family who hosted John (JCH) and his daughter during their stay in Killarney in 1893:

We arrived at Killarney at midday and were met by our old and dear friends Mr William Martin and his family… (Hickson J, Notes of Travel 1893, p.34)

JCH had been gone for 23 years. As a young man of 22 he had left Ireland to seek his fortune in Australia, following his older siblings who had successively departed over the previous 15 years. He had succeeded beyond his wildest expectations, and when he returned to Ireland in 1893 with his eldest daughter, Alice, he was a wealthy man. As a timber merchant and property developer in the young city of Sydney, by the age of 45 he was rich enough to be able to retire from active work and live on the income from his investments.

He had married soon after his arrival in Australia and together he and his wife Martha were raising a family of 10 children, the youngest of whom was still an infant when JCH embarked on his world trip. He had built a big home in Sydney which he named The Grove after the “family seat” in Ireland. I have little doubt that he returned to the land of his birth with a certain amount of pride in both his own achievement and the land that had afforded him such success.

William Martin and his family were “dear and old friends,” according to JCH, but they lived in Killarney, some 20 km away from Killorglin where JCH had grown up. I found myself wondering about who William Martin was really and how he and John Hickson knew each other. After some research on the internet it became clear that William was a rather successful businessman himself.

He was some years older than John Hickson, having married in 1865, five years before JCH left for Australia. His marriage to Phillipa Eager was registered in Killarney. He is variously recorded in publicly available documents as being a grocer (1867), a seedsman (1870), an auctioneer (1880), and a flour and meal dealer (1881). His business was located in Main Street, Killarney, though in later years he appears to have moved around the corner to New Street. Thom’s Irish Almanac and Official Directory of 1884 indicates that William Martin became a town commissioner, and another directory records that in 1893 he was a Commissioner for Affidavits. JCH himself was a Justice of the Peace in Sydney, so they no doubt shared notes about their official duties when they were reunited in Killarney on John’s return.

But how did they know each other? The clue lies in a reference a few pages later in JCH’s book to a Roger Martin, who appears to have been related to William. JCH had taken the train to Killorglin where he wanted to visit his mother’s grave:

Dromevalley, the necropolis of Killorglin, contains the dust of many dear to me: there lie some of my earliest and best friends, my faithful schoolmate and companion, R. Martin, and beyond all, my dear mother, with some of my brothers and sisters side by side. (Notes of Travel, p.40)

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The “necropolis” of Killorglin

Roger Martin was most likely a younger brother of William Martin. Slaters Royal National Commercial Directory of Ireland 1881 indicates that Roger was also a seedsman, manure dealer, flour and meal dealer. But his business was in Killorglin, not in Killarney like his older brother’s. It seems likely that the Martin family lived, like the Hickson family, in Killorglin, but that William moved to Killarney to set up his business in the 1860s, and married and settled there. Roger, however, remained in Killorglin.

It becomes clear in JCH’s book that Roger Martin was John Hickson’ closest childhood friend. They had surely remained in touch by letter over all the years of their separation and John had dreamt of the day when they would meet again. However, before that day came, Roger passed away. Of his arrival in Killorglin that summer day in 1893 John writes:

I met many friends who had known me in youth, but found many changes in faces and places; and of the companions I once knew, some had left, some were dead, and a generation had risen up “who knew not Joseph.” There was one whom I missed intensely, my old and valued friend and companion, the late Roger Martin; and for many years in contemplating my visit to my old home, the pleasure of his companionship and his warm-heartedness would loom up as the central feature. (Notes of Travel, p.37)

They were the same age, both born in 1848. But by 1893, when the 45 year old John Hickson returned to Ireland, his good friend had already gone to an early grave. Online records show that he died in 1891, at the age of 43, but to discover the cause of death I will need to get a copy of the death certificate. Was it illness, or accident? Whether he had a wife and children is also unclear. If he was survived by a family JCH does not record it in his book. When John and his daughter returned two years after Roger’s death they were guests not of his dear friend, but of Roger’s older brother, who lived up the road in Killarney.

A few weeks back my daughter Hanna and I visited Dromevalley, “the necropolis of Killorglin.” It is on sloping ground among green fields on the other side of the Laune River from the town centre. I searched in vain for Hicksons or Martins in the graveyard. I could not find John’s mother, his siblings, or his friend. If at some time they had headstones, they seem to have gone now. But JCH apparently found them in 1893 when he was there.

John Hickson clearly mourned the loss of his old friend. Much had changed since he had left but his loss caused the most pain. It surely made him more certain that his rightful home was now Australia. His descriptions of Ireland betray how dearly he loved his native land, but his destiny was decided. He was now a citizen of another country and though he would visit Kerry again on several occasions over his remaining years, Ireland would never be home again in the way it was during his childhood.

Roger Martin, strangely enough, plays a bigger role in our family history than simply being John Hickson’s friend. His name appears again in connection to another of our ancestors from Kerry. It is a tangled web of relationships and JCH plays a part in that story too, as does his older brother William Hickson. But that forgotten tale will have to wait for another blog.

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The view beyond the graveyard in Killorglin

Killarney

My daughter, Hanna, and I stayed just outside Killarney for two nights last week, in a B&B we found in Muckross Road. Muckross House and the ruined Muckross Abbey are popular tourist attractions nearby but we did not visit them. We were able to see Muckross House from the other side of the lake. We had stopped for a walk in Killarney National Park, following a track down to a place called The Meeting of the Waters, where the three lakes of Killarney meet. We caught glimpses of the stately home on the return to the car.

There is an old cottage there called Dinís Cottage, apparently a tearoom in the not too distant past but now closed for business. According to one website, Dinis Cottage dates back to the 1700s. John Christopher Hickson (JCH) mentions the place it in his book, Notes of Travel, which describes his visit with his daughter Alice in 1893:

We landed at Dinish Island and had tea in the cottage where the Queen once dined on her visit to Killarney. We performed the feat of shooting the rapids, and through the old Weir Bridge, past the Meeting of the Waters, where fisherman were plying the fly, past Eagle’s Nest Mountain and Innsfallen Island; landed and inspected Glena Cottage, another halting place of Victoria when visiting there, and landed at Ross Castle after a most enjoyable and delightful day. (Hickson J, Notes of Travel 1893, p36)

We didn’t “shoot the rapids” (which are rather mild as far as rapids are concerned) but a small boatload of tourists did pass by while we were walking along the stream behind Dinis Cottage. It seems the same activities have attracted tourists for at least the last 120 years.

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The Old Weir Bridge at the Metting of the Waters

In fact we saw far less than JCH did on his trip, but he was in Killarney for two weeks and we were there only for two days. We didn’t get out on the lake at all, and our mode of transport was a car loaned to us by friends in Dublin, rather than by “jaunting cars” – which JCH mentions repeatedly in his book. I had been a little mystified by what exactly a jaunting car might be, until we arrived in Killarney and discovered to our delight that they are still readily available for hire in the city centre in order to get to any number of destinations.

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Jaunting car near Ross Castle

Hanna and I drove one evening to Ross Castle, which had just closed, though we were able to walk around it and bask in the warm evening sunshine on the lakefront. JCH describes his visit to the castle briefly in his book:

We arrived at Killarney at midday and were met by our old and dear friends Mr William Martin and his family… Together we visited the ruins of Ross Castle on the shore of Killarney Lakes, where once were quartered the troops of Cromwell, and from the top of which a fine view of the lower lake can be obtained; through Lord Kenmore’s domain, a beautiful and romantic spot; the beautiful ruins of Muckross Abbey and the sweeping lawns and embowered shades of Muckross House. (Notes of Travel, p34)

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Ross Castle in the evening sun

Killarney is still very much the tourist town, and having now been there it is easy to understand why. It is a beautiful place, set at the foot of the Killarney Mountains, much of which is now contained in Killarney National Park.

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Killarney Mountains

More of JCH’s recollections:

We climbed Mangerton Mountain and saw the Devil’s Punch Bowl, and at Torc Mountain we sat and listened to the music of the waterfall. The heather, the mountain moss and turf were mingled and blended, and the views were charming. The landscape is something that must be seen to be understood. The green fields, the dark woods, the bright water…

Our friends organised a picnic in honour of our visit, and we drove in jaunting cars to the Gap of Dunloe. Leaving the town of Killarney we passed neatly trimmed hedges of hawthorn, rich meadow land, and fields of waving corn, and coming to the foot of the mountains we were met by a number of country men with horses or mountain ponies which they hire for the trip over the hills… We travelled as far as we could in our jaunting cars, having the eighteen ponies following in cavalcade…

We lunched at the foot of the Gap, where the echoes were grand; a small lake rested peacefully beside us, and the cliff towered above us, where the mountain cloud rested… Near here still stands the cottage of “Kate Kearney,” and occupied by one of her descendants, but we did not come under the spell from “the glance of her eye.” (Notes of Travel, pp 34-35)

On another trip we will go up to the Gap of Dunloe, though it is unlikely we will use ponies. There is a narrow winding mountain road that is passable with ordinary cars nowadays. Perhaps we will see Kate Kearney’s Cottage then; this time we satisfied ourselves with buying Kate Kearney’s Fudge, readily available form any one of dozens of tourist shops around Ireland.

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The road leading off to the left leads to the Gap of Dunloe

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