Forgotten tales

stories of my family

Archive for the tag “County Kerry”

Reconstructing the Byrne family

I am descended from four Kerry families of the nineteenth century: their names are Byrne, Hickson, Needham and Ruddle. My maternal grandmother was Gertrude Byrne and her parents, both Irish born, were George Byrne and Susie Hickson. George’s parents were George Byrne (senior) and Sarah Ruddle, while Susie’s parents were William Hickson and Mary Needham. My paternal grandmother was Winifred Ross. Her mother was Alice Hickson, firstborn of Kerry born John Hickson, brother of the aforementioned William Hickson. So Irish blood runs thick in my veins.

Unravelling the stories of these four families has been and remains a fascinating exercise. The Hickson and Needham family stories have come together relatively easily, due to written accounts from various members of these families, particularly John Hickson, and Thomas Needham. The Byrnes have been much harder, and the Ruddles are still largely unknown to me. The following article outlines my reconstruction of the Byrne family, and the sources I used to reach these conclusions, some of which are linked to the highlighted words in the article.

George and Richard Byrne

George, my great grandfather, was born in Killarney, on 22 July 1860, and was baptised in the Church of Ireland (COI) parish church at Aghadoe, a village outside Killarney on the way to Killorglin. Until recently I was aware of only one other sibling in his family, namely Richard, his younger brother, who was born about 10 years after him. George migrated first to Australia, I believe in 1883, and Richard some years later, though documentary evidence of their respective migrations has been hard to come by.

GeorgeByrne1

George Byrne, my great grandfather (1860-1929)

James and Hannah Byrne

A few months back I was contacted quite out of the blue by Barbara Fromberg, of Sydney, who had read some of my musings about the Byrne family on my blog. Barbara informed me that she was the granddaughter of another Byrne, James, whom she believed to be a brother to George and Richard.  I had never heard of James, as she had never heard of George and Richard, but she pointed me to a number of documents that showed her suspicions to be correct. She also made me aware of a sister Hannah, who appears to have been the first born in the family.

Aghadoe

Barbara and her husband had recently returned from a journey to Europe including Ireland, and it was she who enlightened me to the Aghadoe connection. She sent me a photo she had taken of the parish church of Aghadoe, where my great grandfather and his older sister Hannah were baptised. Aghadoe appears to have been the home of the Ruddle family, while the Byrnes seem to have come from Killarney proper.

Aghadoe Parish Church

Parish Church at Aghadoe, near Killarney (photo courtesy of Barbara Fromberg)

My daughter Hanna and I were in Ireland last year in August (2016) and did some family history hunting, but then I was totally unaware of Aghadoe and my knowledge of the Byrne family in Killarney was extremely vague. We visited Killorglin and Sneem and Dingle, which were important in the Hickson family story, and Templenoe, which featured in that of the Needhams. We stayed outside Killarney but on the southern side of the town near Muckross. I didn’t even know of the existence of Aghadoe, which lies west of Killarney, just north of the road to Killorglin, which forms part of the famous “Ring of Kerry” tourist route.

Kerry highlights 1883

County Kerry, with family places highlighted

Thanks to Barbara a picture of my great grandfather’s family in Ireland began to emerge. I now knew of four children in the family: Hannah born 1859, George in 1860, James 1866, and Richard, 1870. Together Barbara and I have tried to nut out the Byrne family of Killarney, but it has been a frustrating task, with many dead ends. The picture is still incomplete, and only some of my questions have been answered.

Questions about George and Sarah

George Byrne senior

George Byrne senior 1831-1872, (photo from Barbara Fromberg’s collection)

Sarah Ruddle

Sarah Byrne (Ruddle) 1835-1890? (Barbara Fromberg collection)

Who were George Byrne (senior) and Sarah Ruddle? Where did they come from, what were their own family backgrounds, how did they meet, when did they marry? Were they rich or poor, in what were they employed, what motivated them, what gave them joy, what were their hopes and dreams, what were their struggles? When and where did they live and die? Were there more than the four children listed above, perhaps some who died in infancy, which was such a common occurrence in the days before infections could be effectively treated with antibiotics? What compelled their children to migrate? Why didn’t they migrate themselves when so many of their friends were doing just that (including the Hicksons and the Needhams whom I have mentioned above)? What was it like in Killarney in the 1800s? There are many questions and I have only started to answer some of them, and of course there is a lot of conjecture and imagining in the process. I have only found a few objective sources to draw on which have provided a framework for thinking. The following are some of them:

Sources

  • Marriage record for George Byrne and Sarah Ruddle (1857)
  • Death record of George (1872)
  • Baptism records of Hannah (1859) and George junior (1860)
  • Birth record of Richard (1870)
  • George junior’s indenture when he began his apprenticeship (1871)
  • Marriage certificate for George junior to Susie Hickson (1885)
  • Marriage certificates of James (1891 and 1906)
  • Various photos provided by Barbara Fromberg, as well as those in my personal collection.

I should mention that my mother’s cousin, Keith Walmsley, a grandchild of George Byrne (junior), has also given me a good deal of information about his grandparents and their backgrounds, and his son Simon has provided some of the photographs. I hope that other documents will appear as I continue to search, but the ones listed above form the basis of my current objective knowledge.

Facts

From these documents I have deduced the following:

  • George and Sarah Byrne married in 1857 at the parish church in Aghadoe, near Killarney (Church of Ireland)
  • George Byrne (senior) was a nailer (a blacksmith, involved in the manufacture of nails)
  • George’s father was William Byrne, also a nailer (often spelt “nailor”)
  • Sarah Ruddle was a sextoness. A sextoness was a female sexton. A sexton is described as “a person who looks after a church and churchyard, typically acting as bell-ringer and gravedigger.” (Oxford Dictionary online). I don’t imagine that Sarah did much gravedigging, though her father Thomas Ruddle may well have done so, since he was the sexton at the same church.
  • Sarah’s father, Thomas Ruddle, was the parish clerk at Aghadoe
  • George was 26 when they married, which would give him a birth year of 1831. I have not located a birth certificate.
  • Sarah was 22 when they married, giving her a birth year of 1835.
  • They had, as far as I can determine, four children, being Hannah, George, James and Richard, the last three of which migrated to Australia.
  • George died on 30 October 1872 of prolonged bronchitis (his death certificate says 2 years). This would suggest that he may have had some form of asthma, or that he had chronic lung damage from exposure to smoke, or fumes, since he was a blacksmith (nailer).
  • George’s death record says his age was 47, which would give him a birth year of 1825, but this does not match with his marriage record, which gives him a birth year of 1831. I suspect that his age at death has been wrongly transcribed from the original death certificate, since a 7 can easily look like a 1. This would mean that he was actually 41 when he died.
  • Sarah was only 37 years old when her husband died. I have no knowledge of whether she ever remarried. However, she signed George junior’s indenture to a merchant in Killorglin in 1876 with the name Sarah Byrne. She would have been 41 by then.
  • Sarah was deceased in 1891, according to James’ first marriage certificate. So she probably died in her 50s (she would have been 56 had she been alive in 1891) though when and where she died is uncertain.
  • The family lived in Chapel Lane, Killarney, in 1870 (Richard’s birth record) and still in 1872 (George’s death record).

The fact that I have been unable to find various records is both frustrating and mystifying, notably a birth certificate for James Byrne. Barbara made me aware of a fire that ravaged the Public Records Office in Dublin in 1922, during the Irish Civil War, destroying many records. However, according to Claire Santry on her Irish Genealogy News blog-site all civil registration records survived that fire, and according to the Irish Genealogy website these Civil Records list births from 1864 to 1916, marriages from 1870 to 1941, and deaths from 1878 to 1966. Richard, born 1870, is there, but James, born 1866, is not. I cannot find any records for a marriage or death of Hannah Byrne, nor is there any death record for Sarah, who died in this period.

More children?

The first question that occurred to me was, were there more children? Hannah and George (junior) were close together, but then there is a gap of 6 years before the next child, James, and then another 4 years before Richard was born. Were there others in between, or after? To answer that required a bit more information about their parents, George Byrne senior and his wife Sarah Ruddle.

I knew nothing of George senior’s death until Barbara shared with me a copy of his death record, indicating that he died in October, 1872 in Chapel Lane, Killarney. He was, I believe, 41.

Having ascertained that George and Sarah Byrne were married in 1857 and that George died in 1872, I searched the databases on Irish Genealogy for Byrnes born in Killarney to George and Sarah between 1857 and 1872. However, rather than finding more Byrne children, I found less. Two of them – Hannah (1859) and George (1860) – are there in the church records. One is in the civil records – Richard (1870). But James is not there, and there are no other children of George and Sarah Byrne in either of these collections between 1857 and 1873. So if there were other children born between 1860 and 1870 they are either not recorded, or the records have been lost.

Why no birth certificate for James?

And where is our James? According to his marriage records (he was married twice after he had moved to Australia, in 1891 to Florence Ashmead and 1906 to Jessie Lawrence) he was born in 1866. As mentioned above, we cannot blame the fire in Dublin in 1922 for the absence of his birth certificate. His parents were fastidious in recording the baptisms of Hannah and George, which are available online. And Richard is there in the Civil Records. So why did James miss out?

Interestingly there was one other Byrne child born in Killarney during those years (1857-73), and curiously his name was was, in fact, James. But according to the register his year of birth was 1870, and his parents are listed as Edward and Catherine Byrne. Furthermore, though this James’ birth is registered in Killarney, his place of birth is listed as Scrahan, which is north of Killarney, closer to Listowel. His father, the “informant” for the birth, appears to have worked as an attendant at the Killarney Lunatic Asylum, and lived on the premises there. Presumably his wife, Catherine (formerly Barony) was resident in Scrahan, while her husband was working in Killarney.

So there was another Byrne family in Killarney at the time, that of Edward and Catherine Byrne. I have wondered if Edward and George Byrne (senior) might have been brothers, but I have not been able to confirm this. Did Edward and Catherine Byrne have other children, and if so, where are they recorded?

Thinking about the absence of our James from any birth registers, as well as the presence of this other James Byrne, it occurred to me fleetingly that they might be one and the same. Could Edward and Catherine’s son, James, have been “adopted” by George and Sarah out of some unknown necessity, and raised as their own? But his age is wrong. James son of George was by all accounts born in 1866, whereas James son of Edward was born in 1870, the same year as Richard.

I think, quite simply, that there must have been two James Byrnes in Killarney in the 1870s, but that while there is an existing birth record of one of them, the details of the birth of the other – our James, Barbara’s grandfather – remain a mystery. Only from his Australian marriage records can we deduce the year of his birth, and these same records clearly state that he was the son of George and Sarah Byrne, of Killarney.

Australian records

There are Australian records for George junior and Richard too, since both of them migrated to Australia, married and had families. George was my great grandfather on my mother’s side. Richard, oddly enough, married my great grandmother on my father’s side, but it was the second marriage for them both, when they were old, after each had other families. I have written about that unusual occurrence elsewhere. James I had no knowledge of until a few months ago when Barbara contacted me.

But the Australian records give few clues to the Byrnes’ brothers life in Ireland, only that they had come from there and who their parents were. What kind of relationships existed between these three brothers in Australia is unknown to me, and I have no-one to ask. What happened to their older sister, Hannah Byrne, is also a mystery. Did she migrate too, or did she remain in Ireland? Did she marry? Where and when did she die? There is more research to be done here.

Religion

James’ death certificate (1942) indicates that he was a member of the “Open Brethren” religion. I know from my mother (now deceased) and her cousin, Keith Walmsley (alive and well), that their grandparents (George junior and his wife Susie) were also members of the Brethren Church in Sydney. I am uncertain about Richard Byrne’s religious denomination, but I do know he worked for the Bible Society in Sydney in later life, which suggests that he had a Christian faith.

In 1861, the year after George junior was born, there was a religious revival in Kerry, the result of which was the formation of many Plymouth Brethren assemblies in the county, and I suspect the Byrnes were part of one of these. Their first two children, Hannah and George, were baptised in the Church of Ireland in Aghadoe. Sarah was a sextoness at the parish church there, and her father the parish clerk. Whether they left the Church of Ireland in 1861 at the time of the revival is uncertain. I have not found any baptism records for either James or Richard, but if they had transferred their allegiance to a Brethren assembly in the early sixties, then it is possible no records were kept.

Migration

The only migration record I have been able to find to date is that of George junior, who appears on a list of “unassisted immigrants” on a ship called the Sydenham, out of London, arriving in Sydney in 1883. It is not entirely certain that this is our George Byrne, since there are no details about him recorded on the passenger list. This was typical of self funded migrants at that time, in contrast to those who got government assistance, or who were sponsored by family or friends, whose details were usually well documented. As Robin Haines says, in Life and Death in the Age of Sail,

“Privately funded passengers, those better off travellers who sought no government subsidies to fund their passage, were not required to negotiate any bureaucratic turnstiles before embarking on their voyage to Australia. Consequently they are almost invisible in the official record, unlike those who travelled on passages provided by each of the colonial governments.” (Haines, R. Life and Death in the Age of Sail, 2006. p14)

The Sydenham sailed out of London, whereas our George was from Ireland. I have not been able to ascertain her route, whether she sailed to Ireland before heading south. I suppose it is possible that George travelled to London to embark, but this seems unlikely. This record is the only George Byrne I can find arriving in Australia at about the right time.

Exactly when James and Richard migrated is uncertain. James’ death certificate, kindly provided by Barbara Fromberg, indicates, a little cryptically, that when he died in 1942 that he had been “28 years in NSW and 47 years in the Commonwealth.” This doesn’t really add up, since his first marriage was in Sydney in 1891, which was 51 years prior to his death. So clearly he arrived in Australia before 1891, though exactly when and where remains a mystery. The same is true for Richard. The records may be there, but I have yet to find them.

Suffice to say that George and James appear to have left Ireland in the 1880s and Richard, the youngest of the three, possibly in the 1890s.

Summary

The Byrne family, as I know it thus far, was one of four children. George senior, the father, died while his children were still quite young and the task of raising them was left to his widow, Sarah. What became of Hannah is unclear. The three boys all migrated to Australia, George in 1883 when he was 23 years old, the others at uncertain dates, but James certainly before 1891 which was when he married for the first time and Richard before 1893, when he first appears in the Hickson family story (I have written of that in another blog). What became of Sarah, their mother, is also a mystery.

Near Killorglin

Near Killorglin, County Kerry (my photo collection)

 

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Missing home

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

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

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

Needham Home

Belinda

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

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

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

ThomasNeedham1861

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

Mary and William

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

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

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

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

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

Tom’s brothers

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

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

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

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

The Dromore meetings

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

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

dromore-2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The midge in Kenmare

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

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

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

Kenmare River 2

Looking south across the Kenmare River from Templenoe

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)

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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

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.

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