Forgotten tales

stories of my family

Archive for the tag “County Kerry”

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

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)

dsc_1882

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.

dsc_1891

The view beyond the graveyard in Killorglin

Our Hickson ancestry

Our Hickson ancestors hailed from Killorglin in County Kerry, Ireland. They were Irish Protestants, descended from a Reverend Christopher Hickson who had come over from Cambridgeshire probably in the 1580s during the so called “plantation of Ireland” under Elizabeth I. The “plantations” of Ireland, which involved confiscation of land by the English crown and colonisation with settlers from England (see Wikipedia) had begin during the reign of Henry VIII, Elizabeth’s father, and continued through the 16th and 17th centuries. The “plantation” of Munster (of which modern day Kerry is one of the counties) began in 1586.

According to Anthony Hickson, who has assembled the most comprehensive list of Hicksons on the Internet (http://www.hicksons.org), Christopher Hickson “was ordained Church of England 20th December 1593 by Maurice O’Brien, 1st Protestant Bishop of Killaloe. In 1615 he was Treasurer of Ardfert, Co Kerry, Rector of Disert & Vicar of Kilconley, Kerry. Two years later he was appointed Rector of Kilgobbin and the adjoining parish of Stradbally in the West of Kerry. He married into the Hussey family and had a son, Christopher, who turned Catholic and “as a rebel and a Papist” was transplanted to Connaught in Cromwell’s time.”

The Catholic-Protestant story of Ireland is a long and sad one, as is the closely related one of English-Irish relations. It has apparently played an important part in the history of the Hicksons in Ireland too. In another email Anthony Hickson wrote “this Hickson family (all the Kerry Hicksons decended from the Rev Christopher Hickson) were very divided by religion. Some were Protestants, some Catholic, hence the difficulty finding relationships.”

Richard and Mary Hickson were part of the Protestant branch of the family. Richard Hickson of Killorglin was a nailor, a trade which, according to a Dictionary of Old Occupations, was a person who “cleaned and maintained the teeth on a weaver’s carding machine, or a metalworker who produced nails.” He was born I believe around the beginning of the nineteenth century, but I do not know the exact year of his birth. He married Mary-Ann Carter, probably in the 1820s.

The church they worshipped at in Killorglin was built in 1816 but closed in 1998; at present it is a restaurant, the Sol y Sombra Tapas Bar. According to a webpage written by another Australian Hickson descendent (though not of Richard and Mary as far as I can see) there is a plaque in the old church which reads:

In memory of Richard and Mary Hickson, who for many years worshipped in this church together with their children beyond the seas, erected by their youngest son J.C. Hickson. J.P. Sydney, N.S.W. 1911

The same webpage lists seven children of Richard and Mary who migrated to Australia. Until recently I believed that Richard and Mary only had seven children, but while reading a book by the youngest of the Hicksons the J.C. Hickson who paid for the plaque in the church, I realised that there must have been more, who died in Ireland and very possibly in childhood:

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. Being the last of a numerous family who by circumstances have been scattered over the globe and whose resting places are widely asunder, while leaning on the ivy which overhangs my mother’s grave the beautiful lines of Mrs Hemans occurred to me :-

They grew in beauty side by side,
They filled one home with glee;
Their graves are severed far and wide,
O’er mountain stream and sea.

The same fond mother bent at night,
And kissed each sleeping brow:
She had each folded flower in sight.
Where are these dreamers now?

(Hickson JC, Notes of Travel, pp.39-40, published 1893)

Mary Hickson was named Mary-Ann Carter before she married. She was born in 1802 and died when she was 51 years old in 1853. John Christopher Hickson (JCH) was her youngest child and was just five when she died. That same year, the oldest of the surviving Hickson children, Susan, migrated to Australia. She was the first to leave, but was followed in 1855 by Mary and Ellen, and in 1863 by George and Kate.

By that time William, the oldest son, had married and begun to raise a family of his own. He lived in Sneem, south of Killorglin, and, like his father, was a nailor, though he would become a “whitesmith,” a metalworker who “specialised in crafting items from tin, lead, silver, pewter and the like, or who polished newly made white metal products” (Dictionary of Old Occupations).

It would seem that after the departure of Kate (Catherine) and George in 1863 that old Richard Hickson and his youngest son John moved over to Sneem and lived with William and his young family. John writes in his book:

[We] drove by jaunting car to the little village of Sneem, which lies hidden by the headlands and rocky promontories of the wild coast of Kerry. To a stranger this district would appear barren and deserted, but to some of my acquaintances it is a veritable garden of Eden, and the remembrance of early days of innocent childhood clings with a perennial freshness like the fragrance of a withered rose. Here we visited the village church where once I worshipped and was taught in Sunday School… Unpretending and insignificant as this village of Sneem is at present, there have gone forth from the ranks of those born within its limits men and women who have been a credit to the land of their birth, and who have made their mark in the political, military and social history of the age. (Hickson JC, Notes of Travel, p.40, published 1893)

I have no idea who JCH was referring to when he wrote these words, but some of those who “went forth” from Sneem were William Hickson himself, with his wife and family, and his ageing father, Richard. In 1865 they too migrated, but they chose America rather than Australia, a choice which may have been influenced by religious choices. I have previously written about the evangelical revival that occurred in the area around Sneem in 1861 and the years following. William and his wife Mary were doubtless part of this spiritual awakening as were the whole of Mary’s family. Similar things were happening in North America under the ministry of a young evangelist D.L. Moody, and it may have been those events that drew them there. Four of Mary’s younger brothers became evangelists over the ensuing decades and they were closely associated with D.L. Moody and his ministry.

The one who did not “go forth” from Sneem in 1865 when William and Mary left was JCH – John Christopher Hickson – himself. Why he remained in Ireland over the following five years is a mystery – it was not until 1870 at the age of 22 that he finally boarded ship for Australia. Why he went to Australia and not to America is also uncertain. What he did in those five years is unknown. He later became a timber merchant. Was he serving an apprenticeship in Ireland, bound to his employer for five years? I have even wondered if he may have been in prison – Anthony Hickson mentions a John Christopher Hickson who was in gaol, but has not been able to find details or dates and is not sure that it is the same person.

JCH is the most colourful Hickson in my family. He was my father’s great grandfather. There is more documented about him than any of his siblings, and much that I know about him comes from his book, Notes of Travel, published after a journey back to Great Britain in 1893 with his oldest daughter, Alice. JCH lived to the age of 97 and was successful and wealthy. He effectively retired in his mid to late forties and lived off his investments.

JCH’s book reveals a sentimental character who loved travelling and wrote poetry. He must also have been a very clever businessman to have become so wealthy so quickly. After his 1893 travels he journeyed to Britain at least three more times during his life, a not insignificant undertaking in the days when sea-travel was the only option.

He was also apparently quite proud of his ancestry. He mentions in his book the ancestral home: by rail we went to Dingle and visited “The Grove,” the old family seat of our ancestors (Notes of Travel, p.41). JCH had named his home in Sydney The Grove, after this house, so it obviously had significance for him. In the 1840s when Richard and Mary Hickson were raising their family in Killorglin, The Grove was the residence of another John Hickson (1782-1850), the “last Sovereign of Dingle.” Captain John Hickson had two family seats in Dingle, one being The Grove, at the foot of the Conor Pass Road, and the other quite close by, at Ballintaggart. He had nine children, at least one of whom (Marianne) is documented as being born at The Grove (in 1834).

In 1848, the year that JCH was born in Killorglin, another of Captain John Hickson’s children was born, but at Ballintaggart. Robert Albert Hickson, later a Brigadier-General in the British Army, inherited The Grove and lived there into the first part of the twentieth century. So if JCH visited The Grove in 1893 with his daughter, it is likely that it was on Robert Hickson that he called. Exactly how they were related I don’t know.

The Grove existed until the 1920s but there is said to be no trace of it today, since it was replaced by a hotel. Anthony Hickson’s website reports that there may be a ruin visible today. There is also an old photo of the house on the website which can be seen here. Ballintaggart House still stands and is used today for luxury wedding receptions. Exactly why The Grove meant so much to JCH but he never mentions Ballintaggart is unsure.

Though JCH remains the best known of the Hicksons from whom I am descended, he is not the only one of my ancestors from the family. His older brother William, who he lived with in Sneem, and who migrated to America, also later came with his family to Australia. It was after their father Richard had died – he is buried in Providence, Rhode Island, which JCH also visited on his world travels in 1893.

As I mentioned, JCH arrived in Australia in 1870. He married soon after and did very well for himself from the very beginning, initially in the timber business. Within seven years of arriving in Sydney he had persuaded William, who lived in Boston, to leave America and come to Australia. William and his wife and their seven children arrived in Sydney in 1878. William, I believe, became involved in JCH’s business. Though JCH and his family were Church of England, William and Mary were staunch members of the Brethren Church.

William and Mary’s oldest daughter was named Suzie. She married another Irish migrant, George Byrne, and they had 5 daughters and a son. One of their daughters was my maternal grandmother. In an odd twist of fate, Alice Hickson, JCH’s eldest daughter (who was much younger than her cousin Suzie), fell in love with George Byrne’s younger brother, Richard Byrne, when he came out from Ireland in the early 1890s. JCH expressly forbade their marriage, and whisked Alice off on their world trip in 1893. A few years later Alice married William Ross, whose daughter Winifred was my paternal grandmother.

The Hicksons, primarily John (JCH) and William, feature large in our family story. Their birthplace in Kerry is a place I have yet to visit. When that day comes, which I hope it will quite soon, it will be interesting to see the places they were born and grew up.

Kerry Revival 1861

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

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

George C Needham

G C Needham

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

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

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

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

Dromore_Castle

Dromore Castle c.1900

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

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

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

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

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

ThomasNeedham1900

Thomas Needham, the “sailor preacher.”

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

I only knew that my sister professed godliness and that she had truly acted it. She had been a mystery, but an admiration to me. I had been in awe of the influence her piety had over my life. (Needham T, From Cannibal Land to the Glory Land, p.50)

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

SusanByrne1a

Suzie Hickson (later Byrne)

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

Thomas Needham, wandering Kerry boy

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

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

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

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

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

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

>
From Cannibal Land

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

The Needhams before Thomas

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

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

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

Needham Family Church

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

Tom’s childhood

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

I was born by the ocean; on the shores of Kenmare Bay in the South of Ireland, not far from the beautiful lakes of Killarney, with their echoes, their legends and their weird fascinations…

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

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

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

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

Tom goes to sea

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

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

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

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

In reply to my long silence, came one from my brother, urging me to return to them; and telling me that my dear sister Berlinda had died. This news I had got before I quit the river steamer; and it was my urgent reason for my longing desire to leave South America. The death of this sister came as a peculiar blow to me. It was her who had cared for me so tenderly and patiently in my young days. Her hand had packed the little Bible among my sailor traps. Her “God bless you, Tom,” was the last prayer I had heard. Her hand had waved the last farewell as I left my home shore. Her secret prayers, I well knew, had for years followed me over the boisterous waves and wide steppes. And now she was no more. Never again should I see those tender eyes, and that rich raven black hair, and hear that low musical voice. What knew I of the resurrection and its comforts then? Nothing. I only knew that my sister professed godliness and that she had truly acted it. She had been a mystery, but an admiration to me. I had been in awe of the influence her piety had over my life. And now it was ended. Could it be? How she must have yearned for me and I never went back to her. And now it was too late. I sat in my cabin with the little black banded envelope pressed close in my trembling hands. I cried, and cried alone, until my heart was well nigh breaking. Who, or what, could administer comfort to my natural soul, as yet unsatisfied by the grace of God? Today, a saved man, knowing the power of prayer and the strength of Christian hope, I think of my sister as in the arms of Jesus, in that blessed repose of those who are “absent from the body but at home with the Lord.” I know that parting are only for a little while. I know that reunions are eternal. (pp.49-50)

Going home

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

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

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

From Cannibal Land afterword

 

Post Navigation