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.
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.
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.
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.