Forgotten tales

stories of my family

Archive for the tag “Sydney”

The passing of an archbishop

Recently (11 September 2018) I attended Donald Robinson’s funeral. Don was my father’s cousin, 10 years older than Dad. Their mothers were sisters, Gertie and Winnie Ross. I remember Don fondly because, among other things, he was the keeper of the family history, and a large part of his family history is also mine. He did a massive amount of research back in the 70s and 80s when I was at school and university and before I had really spared more than a passing thought for my heritage. I suspect he started long before that being, as a clergyman in Sydney, surrounded by history in his early parishes, churches dating back to the very earliest days of the colony. He had ready access to church archives at a time when there was no, nor indeed any Internet at all to provide access to resources which could assist in constructing the family tree.

Of course he would have had to access many other records apart from church archives, but he was a tenacious researcher with an enquiring mind and a vivid imagination, and must have spent many hours assembling information about the ancestors which were much closer to his generation than to mine. I believe he once organised a huge family reunion with as many people as he could assemble from the family tree, but I was overseas at the time, and missed the opportunity to speak to him in person about his enquiries. Sadly, by the time I had caught the ancestry bug I was overseas again, and still could not easily “pick his brain.” And then, as happens so often in these days when we are living so long, his mind gradually succumbed to the ravages of Alzheimers dementia, and he spent his last years in a nursing home in Sydney, where, though he was cared for with great attentiveness by family members and old clergy associates, I did not have the opportunity to visit him.

Don was a scholar who devoted the majority of his life to theology – the study of God. He went to school in Sydney from the late 1920s to the early 40s. He was almost 17 when the Second World War broke out. He studied English and Greek at university, but broke his studies for military service in the Second World War, where he served in intelligence as a code breaker. After university he decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and enter the ministry, and using the money he had saved from his time in the army managed to complete his theology degree at Cambridge University in England. He became a minister and then a teacher in theology at Moore College in Sydney, then a bishop, then an archbishop, but in the end returned to Moore College as a lecturer. In his spare time he was devoted husband and father, but he also engaged his mind in the family history, leaving masses of notes and articles which he handed down to his children.

Don’s daughter, Anne, gave a moving and very personal eulogy in which she painted a wonderful picture of her father and told the fascinating story of the life he lived. Much of his life story can be found online, so I won’t try to repeat that, but rather add some web links at the end of this page. However, a few things that were said about Don caught my attention because of my interest in his family history research, so I thought I’d record some reflections here.

The Holford-Robinson connection

First some background about the connection between the Robinson and Holford families. It all started in Lithgow, NSW, a small country town on the western fall of the Great Dividing Range, where my grandfather, Charles Holdorf (later Holford), who had grown up in Goulburn and Sydney, found himself working in 1916, the year after he left school. Grandpa, who was then just 16 years old, was the oldest of the five children in his family. His father had shipped out to the war in Europe at the end of 1915, and was fighting the German Reich on the Western Front (notably at Fromelles). Charles’ five younger siblings lived in Manly with their grandmother, who had been the primary caregiver after their mother died in 1908 leaving their father a widower with five children under 10. His father himself was a travelling salesman and part time soldier and was often on the road.

Charles secured a job at the Small Arms Factory in Lithgow through his father’s military connections. He boarded there with a couple who were keen members of the Anglican Church, and in this way got to know the minister and his wife, Bradley and Gertie Robinson. The Robinsons were also from Sydney, though as far as I know the Holdorf family, who were not particularly religious, did not know them. Charles was greatly influenced by both his landlord and the Robinsons, and appears to have embraced the Christian faith during that time in a way that was somewhat more intentional and committed than any of his younger siblings back in Sydney.

Donald was the third of Bradley and Gertie Robinson’s four children, and the only boy. However, he was not born until November 1922, after Charles had left Lithgow and returned to Sydney for tertiary studies. But the connection between Charles and the Robinsons did not end when he returned to Sydney, because during his time in Lithgow he had made the acquaintance of Gertie Robinson’s younger sister, Winifred, who was a year or two younger than him. After the War, Charles’ father found a house in Mosman, in Sydney, as chance would have it in the very same street as Winifred lived with her parents. Charles may have lived there with his father and siblings and the friendship between the Holford and Ross families grew. A romance blossomed between Charles and Winifred, which led to their marriage in 1925 at the local Anglican Church, St Clements, Mosman. The Robinsons were there, of course, with young Donald by then a toddler, almost 3 years old.

Gert (Robinson) and Winn (Holford) were two of five daughters born to William and Alice Ross, of Mosman. William, born in England, was the son of a Scot who had left Ross-Shire at the time of the Highland Clearances. Alice, Australian born, was the daughter of an Irishman from County Kerry, who had come out to Australia in the 1860s. So the Ross girls were of solid Scottish and Irish stock. Gert, as we have seen, married DB (Bradley) Robinson, also of Scottish roots. Winn married my grandfather, whose own background was German and English.

It is the Scottish-Irish heritage of the Rosses that we share with the Robinsons, and which Donald, who died last week at the age of 95, so thoroughly researched, during his extraordinary life as a Sydney clergyman. My father, though eleven years younger than Don, was very fond of his older cousin, and despite geographical distance, they maintained their friendship throughout Donald’s life. Dad was sad, as we all are, when Don passed away last week and we will miss him greatly.

Don’s connection to his past

Donald’s first curacy, in 1951-53, was at St Matthews, Manly, where his Irish great grandfather, John Christopher Hickson (Don always referred to him as JCH), had been a prominent member until his death in 1944. JCH had come to Australia from County Kerry in the late 1860s and Don did extensive research into his life. His notes remain an extremely valuable resource in understanding this man, who is in many ways the central figure in our Irish ancestry.

John Hickson came from a family of nailers in Killorglin, Kerry, but he could trace his family line back to an Anglican clergyman who came to Ireland hundreds of years earlier during the Elizabethan “plantations.” Some of the Hicksons remained part of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy even into the nineteenth century, but John Hickson’s branch were far less assuming. His father was a nailer, something akin to a blacksmith, but JCH never wrote of this as far as I have been able to discover. He was more proud of his aristocratic connections, as distant as they may have been, and wrote of the “ancestral seat” – one of the “big houses of Kerry” – as though it was his own, though I’m not sure that he had ever even entered the stately home in Dingle which was the home of another branch of the Hickson tree.

JCH, after his arrival in Australia, married Martha Watts, the daughter of a convict couple, transported to Australia respectively from England and Ireland. William Watts (English) and Mary Magenity (Irish) had married at St Phillips Anglican Church in Sydney in the 1840s while they were still serving their time. By the time Martha, who was the sixth of their thirteen children, was born, they were free. I believe Martha was baptized at St Phillips Church, like a number of her siblings. Over a hundred years later, in the mid 1950s, Donald Robinson, Martha’s great grandson, did his second curacy in the very same church.

Don was always very proud of his great grandmother’s convict heritage, though I’m not sure that JCH was. I suspect he was more inclined to converse in polite Sydney society about his own aristocratic Irish ancestors than his wife’s convict parents. John and Martha’s first child was Alice, who, as mentioned, married William Ross, a Sydney accountant 12 years her senior, in 1895. It was perhaps not the happiest of matches, but they made a good go of it and raised a family of five girls, Gertie and Winnie among them.

William’s father, James Ross, was Scottish, the son of a blacksmith, born in Ross-shire, Scotland. James left Scotland around the time of the Highland Clearances, moving south to England. By the time he migrated to Australia in the 1860s, at much the same time as John Hickson (who was a good deal younger), he was married with four children. His son William was born in England and was only about 6 when he arrived in Sydney. He went to St Andrews Cathedral School and I suspect his parents were acquainted with John and Martha Hickson. He married their daughter Alice, under circumstances that are somewhat obscure, a match which apparently pleased her father greatly, but Alice less so. She had, it seems, fallen in love with a young Irishman of whom her father disapproved for some unknown reason. Whatever, William and Alice had five daughters, as mentioned above, the oldest of which was Gertrude, Donald’s mother, and the fourth of which was Winifred, my father’s mother.

Don did a huge amount of research into the Ross family background too, and visited Scotland on a number of occasions, where he saw the little village of Gledfield where James Ross had grown up. Many years later I also had the opportunity to visit Gledfield where I too saw the ruins of the blacksmith shop where James’ father had plied his trade in the 1830s. Before he migrated south to England, it would seem James lived for a time in a village called Ferintosh, on the Black Isle, across the water from Dingwall, some way south of where he had grown up. Spiritual revival had broken out in the Scottish Highlands in the 1830s, and James had come under the influence of a well known evangelist called John McDonald, who is remembered as “The Apostle of the North.” In Ferintosh there is a little burn in a dell (“the preacher’s dell”) which was the site of massive outdoor communion meetings in the 1840s, where John McDonald preached to thousands. James Ross was there and never forgot those exciting days in his youth. Later in life he would name his Sydney home Ferintosh, a name which has been passed down through the generations. Now Martin Robinson’s home in Sydney bears that name, a memory of the spiritual heritage which we share with the Robinson family.

Interestingly, spiritual awakening was also a feature of John Hickson’s background in Ireland. When he was 13 there had been a revival in Kerry, much less well known than the Scottish revivals. The result was the formation of many Plymouth Brethren assemblies in Kerry, and there is little doubt that John Hickson and his family were influenced by this movement. His brother, William Hickson, married a girl called Mary Needham, whose family appears to have been at the epicentre of the Kerry revival. Most of the Needham family migrated to North America, where four of Mary’s brothers ended up becoming clergymen, all deeply involved in the spiritual awakening that surrounded the ministry of DL Moody in the late 1800s.

Fruit of revival

Don Robinson may not have been a revivalist in the normal sense of the word – he was, after all, a respected minister who became an archbishop of the Anglican Church – but one gets the feeling that his life was in some ways the fruit of the nineteenth century revivals in Scotland and Ireland. As such, he became a theologian, deeply committed to the centrality of the Bible in the Christian faith. Through his years as teacher and leader in the church in Sydney over the second half of the twentieth century he has profoundly impacted hundreds, perhaps thousands of current Christian leaders, who in turn have had impact on tens of thousands of others, ordinary Christians like me.

I am proud to be related to this man of God, the humble archbishop who so often had a twinkle in his eye. Now he is with his Saviour. Rest In Peace, Donald Robinson.

Article from Sydney Anglicans publication

Wikipedia article

Bishopscourt, where the Robinson family lived for 10 years



The Byrnes and our Irish origins

My grandmother’s oldest sister was named Kathleen Byrne, but the family usually called her Lena. She was born in 1886 in Sydney, the first child of George and Susie Byrne, who were both Irish migrants from County Kerry. Her parents were reasonably well off; some would say it was because they were a strict Brethren family who never wasted their money on the frivolities of life. Her father was trained in retail: he did his apprenticeship as a merchant in Killorglin, back in Kerry, in the 1870s, and though I am unsure what he did at first after his arrival in Sydney in the early 1880s, he ended up an executive in the Melbourne based IXL Jam Company (though he never lived anywhere but Sydney). I think of him every time I see the jars of IXL jams lined up on the supermarket shelves when I do the weekly food shop. George and Susie prospered in Australia, certainly much more than they would ever have done in Ireland had they raised their family there. My mother’s cousin, Keith Walmsley, once wrote to me:

George and Susie must have been well off as they paid cash for any house they went to live in (several) and Susie was able to manage the finances to also build a holiday home at Ocean Beach right near the surf. Nevertheless Susie confided to Connie (one of Lena’s sisters and Keith’s mother) in her last days that she had messed up the family and said – George should have had more input into the family generally – they all should have been given a lot more education – and they should never have gone to the Brethren church as it was “too narrow in many ways” and if she had her time over again would have gone to the Anglican church like some of her relatives.

Paying cash for a home in Sydney, and being able to afford in addition a holiday house in Ocean Beach (north of Sydney in Umina on the Central Coast), today seems almost unthinkable, given the exorbitant price of real estate in the sprawling city. Only a very wealthy immigrant to Sydney would today be able to imagine such privilege; certainly not one from a country as impoverished as Ireland was in the late 1800s. I suppose it is a reflection of how much Australian society has changed. Once it was a land of opportunity for the poor, for anyone willing to work hard, but now such opportunities are restricted to the already wealthy – which are the kind of migrants that Australia welcomes with open arms, while restricting as much as possible those of limited or no means. I suspect that the Irish poor would not be welcomed as migrants to Australia today.

An Irish migrant family in Sydney

For relatively newly arrived migrants, the family appears to have lived well. George and Susie married in Summer Hill, which is where Kathleen, their first child, was born. They lived in a variety of homes over the years, as Keith’s letter indicates. George’s death certificate shows that in 1929 the family was living in Lewisham. However, electoral rolls for 1930 and 1933 show that the now widowed Susie and some of her adult children, including my grandmother, who was in her early thirties, were living in Epping, north of the harbour, where I believe Susie lived until she died in 1946. I do not know the exact location of their holiday home at Ocean Beach (“right near the surf”), but I do have a photo taken in about 1939 of Gertie (my grandmother) and her three daughters (the one at the front right is my mother) at the beach, so I presume that the house was still in the family then, though George was dead and Susie was in her late 70s.

Gert & girls Ocean Beach

Gertie Simmonds (Byrne) and her three girls on Ocean Beach 1939

The Byrne family strikes me as unusual because of the fact that mother and adult children appeared to be all living together when their father died. The exception was Connie (Emily Constance, b.1888), Keith’s mother, who had met a charming Englishman named Thomas Walmsley soon after the First World War, and married him in defiance of her parents’ desire that the oldest daughter, Kathleen, should marry first. The strange idea that the oldest daughter should marry appears to have been something that came from the Brethren Church, in which George and Susie raised their family. Kathleen was the first born, but by the end of WW1 she as 32 and had not found anyone. She was an attractive girl and must have turned quite a few heads, so why she never married remains a mystery to me. Perhaps there were few eligible men in the rather narrow Brethren circles in which she moved. Perhaps Kathleen was just too picky. The outbreak of war when she was 28 would not have made it easier, as so many young men were shipping off to Europe to fight for the Empire. When my grandmother Gertie left home and married in 1933 the three remaining sisters and their brother William were all still living with their mother in Epping.

My grandmother’s rather well off youth was sadly not continued into her married life. In 1933 she married an English migrant, George Simmonds, who was 6 years younger than her. George was a labourer, having grown up in Western London as the son of a market gardener. He had come out to Australia in 1923 when he was 18 and prior to marrying Gertie 10 years later he worked as an itinerant farm labourer in country towns of Queensland and NSW. I am uncertain how they met, but they married in 1933 and eventually settled in Goulburn, though my mother has told me that they lived in Hay for some of her childhood. Gertie’s family never really approved of George Simmonds. For one thing, he was English, but even worse than that he grew up in the Church of England, which the Brethren saw as hardly better than being Catholic. Furthermore, he was a smoker, which did little to endear him to his future parents in law, though Keith confided in me once that he was glad of it, because his Uncle George always kept his tobacco tins for him, at a time when toys to play with were a scarce commodity, and even tobacco tins could provide a young boy with something to collect and treasure.

Apart from the disapproval of his wife’s family, life was tough for George, since work was variable, with Australia in the grip of the Great Depression. It became even tougher when he suffered a serious injury as a result of falling from a horse. Chronic health problems did little to help their already stressed economy. He and Gertie never owned a home, and he died at the age of 50 of a heart attack, when Mum was only 18. My mother grew up, therefore, in relative poverty. At one stage her parents were so poor they had to put their three girls temporarily into a children’s home because they did not have the means to support them. One by one the girls left home – Mum and Dorothy married, but Auntie Joyce remained single all her life. Gertie died alone in 1976 in Goulburn.

Kathleen Byrne

Back to Kathleen who, I believe, worked in an office job her whole working life, and lived at home with her mother and unmarried sisters. Connie and Gertie were both raising families, Connie in Sydney and Gertie in Goulburn. By the time Susie died in 1946 Kathleen was 60. She and her two spinster sisters presumably sold the family home, and, I suppose, the house at Ocean Beach too, and moved to Springwood in the Blue Mountains. When I was a young boy I knew the three of them – Lena, Frances and Isobel – as the “aunts in the mountains.” We would visit them for afternoon tea from time to time, but I was quite small and never thought much about who they were or where they had come from. They were simply “the aunts,” and I found them a bit odd. One of them, though I don’t think it was Kathleen, seemed to be quite mad, though in a gentle ladylike sort of way: I remember her speaking quite seriously on one occasion about the little folk in the garden – fairies I presume – who peered through their windows from time to time: the legacy, I suppose, of her Irish heritage. The aunts passed away one by one, until there was only one left, the oldest of them all, our Kathleen, who died in a nursing home in Springwood in 1986 at the age of 100, an old lady bent and wizened, dearly loved by her nieces and nephews, including Mum and Keith.

Version 2

Kathleen Byrne age 20, around 1906

When she was 27, Kathleen (I prefer her given name, because it sounds so Irish) was given a book called Munster by her mother. This book now sits on the shelves of our home, and has been a source of some fascination to me, mainly because of the annotations in the margins, about which I have written before. I have no way of knowing whether those notes were written by Kathleen or my mother, who inherited the book when Kathleen died. Munster, of course, is the southernmost of Ireland’s four regions, and Kerry, where Susie and George were born, is one of its counties. The book is a travelogue, written in the early 1900s, by which time tourism to Kerry was becoming a major source of income for the area.

Kathleen never went to Ireland as far as I can tell, but she was seemingly as fascinated by the family history as I am, if the annotations in the book are indeed hers and not my mothers. On the second last page of the book (p.61) the name “Byrne” is handwritten in the margin beside the printed name “O’Brien” which is underlined in pencil. If Kathleen wrote this note, it would seem she believed there was a connection between her own name and that of O’Brien, and that this was significant in some way. The O’Briens referred to in the book are no other than Charlotte Grace O’Brien and her father William Smith O’Brien, both people of some fame, who lived near Foynes in County Limerick on the Shannon River estuary. This is some way north of Killarney where George and Susie were both born, but George and Susie, and their six children, clearly knew of them. It seems they may have even believed they were related.

The Byrnes and O’Briens

William Smith O’Brien remains a well known personality in Irish history, his daughter Charlotte less so, though she was well known at the time. William was part of the upper classes, but unlike many of his standing he was not Anglo-Irish, though he was Protestant, a member of the Church of Ireland. He was an Irish nationalist who achieved fame because of his participation in the 1848 uprising against the British in Ballingarry, County Tipperary, for which he ended up being transported to Van Diemens Land. He was betrayed in his attempt to escape from there, but after serving some years in the penal colony he was eventually pardoned and went back to Ireland, where he lived out his days.

His daughter, Charlotte, became famous in her lifetime because of her untiring efforts on behalf of poor Irish migrants, who were being exploited en route to America or elsewhere by unscrupulous con-men determined to swindle unsuspecting immigrants. Charlotte was tireless in her efforts to protect the naive and vulnerable poor who were leaving Ireland in droves. The writer of Munster writes warmly of her, and I realised when I was reading the book that Charlotte came from the same generation as Kathleen’s parents, George and Susie (though she was a good fifteen years older than them, and they would only have known of her only from a distance). Kathleen would likely have admired Charlotte, and would have been proud to think she may have been related (as we all are when we find that we have a distant connection with some prominent person who has achieved great things).

Having said that, the notes in the margin may well have been made by my mother, who sadly died in 1999, so that I cannot ask her. Dad, who is alive and well, cannot enlighten me. The handwriting is not specific. So it may have been Mum who believed that the Byrnes and the O’Briens were connected. However, a quick search on the Internet (notably Wikipedia, in which many people have no confidence but which in this case agrees with many other sites), reveals that the Byrnes are almost certainly descended not from the great Brian Boru (High King of Ireland in 1014) whom the O’Briens claim as their forefather, but from Bran Mac Maélmórda, King of Leinster, deposed in 1018, son of Brian Boru’s sworn enemy, Máel Mórda Mac Murchada, who Brian defeated at the Battle of Clontarf in 1014, outside Dublin. There is a fictionalised account of that great battle in Edward Rutherfurd’s novel, “Dublin, Foundations,” published in America as The Princes of Ireland (The Dublin Saga #1), which is a very enjoyable read.

Whatever the truth, whether our Byrne ancestors are descended from the O’Briens (Brian), or the O’Byrnes (Bran), there seems little doubt that they are the most Irish of all our family. The other Irish branches of our family tree are all English somewhere in their past. The Hicksons (Susie Byrne was a Hickson) came to Ireland in the 1500s during the Elizabethan “plantations,” while the Ruddles, (Sarah Ruddle was George Byrne’s mother) were also an English family. The Needhams (Mary Needham married William Hickson, Susie Hickson’s uncle) were also English – apart from Mary the Needhams all ended up in America. But the Byrnes were Irish for at least nine hundred years, if they did indeed come from Bran Mac Maélmórda, though who knows whether people of other nations (the Vikings and the Scots seemed to have a particularly strong interest in Ireland far back in the mists of time) were part of the family tree prior to that.

Mum was convinced she was related to the O’Briens and it may have all stemmed from the book, Munster, or perhaps from something her mother or her aunties or grandmother had said. Her grandfather, George Byrne, died before Mum was born, but her grandmother Susie lived until Mum was about nine. It wasn’t until the 1980s that Mum and Dad and my youngest brother, Peter, who was still living at home, went looking for these places in Ireland. Mum came back very excited, especially about meeting an O’Brien family in Foynes on the Shannon River estuary. She told me the story years ago, and it had faded in my memory. But, to my amazement and delight, Peter told me recently that he had kept a diary on that trip. He was only 11 but the writing is impressive. He gave me permission to quote his diary, and it seems the perfect end to this blog.

Peter’s Diary

13/4/83. Killorglin – Foynes
This morning we set out to get to the Dingle Peninsula.
It was raining hard as we approached Dingle. When we arrived we set out straight for the shops. I looked for a flag of Ireland. Unfortunately I had no success. Mum and Dad were looking for an Irish teaspoon and a good book about Ireland.
Having not much success in that we drove further into the town, where we stopped for lunch. Our lunch consisted of Crackerbread, Orange juice and for desert, some small apple pies.
After lunch we drove to the tourist office to find the time that the ferry crossed from Tarbert to Killimer on the River Shannon. We were told that if we drove fast we would make it on the next ferry.
So Dad went as fast as he dared. We saw the ferry leaving just as we arrived. Dad and I were very angry. In the end we decided to drive to a little town named Foynes.
There was a small cottage there mentioned in a book named Munster. The cottage was said to be on a hillside in Foynes and built by Charlotte Grace Obrien. She was a distant relative of ours. We went to a small cottage on the hillside and asked the owner if hers was C.G.O’brien’s cottage. She replied that it wasn’t but the Littles would know where it is if anyone did. So we went to see the Littles. Mum asked if they knew about the cottage. We were very excited to hear they knew all about the cottage and even knew where C.G.O’brien was buried. So we thanked them and were of at once. The house, which had an overrun garden was now owned by a German. They had told us where she was buried, it was a place named KnockPatrick. We drove up a small dirt road. Unfortunately we came to a dead end and had to return to the main road. We continued on and finally found the place. Having to walk up we were glad to get to the top. Dad and I looked into some sepulchres. One had been flooded with rain water and bones were floating about everywhere. But it was getting late so we found a Bed & Breakfast in the neighbourhood.

14/4/83. Foynes – Bunratty, Ireland
I got up early today because we had an early breakfast. Mum rang up the man who is supposed to be related to us and lives on an island. He said it was just the right time to come because the tide was up. He rowed over, picked us up and rowed back. I found out that each member of a family of 5 [or 7 – it is overwritten] had a boat. They had a little dog called Eccles. He was tiny! Their youngest daughter Charlotte had just had her 21st Birthday. Charlotte was named after Charlotte Grace O’brien who owned the cottage on the hill. There was some Coca-Cola left over and I was allowed some for morning tea. We also had a lovely lunch on the island, but before that, we went for a walk on the beach. Mr O’brien told us that when he was young there were flying boats on the harbour. They would land and take off on the water. After lunch he showed us his records of all the boats that had entered the harbour for quite some time. When back at the car we drove straight to Bunratty where we spent the night.
PS. We went to see Dromoland Castle that night which once belonged to the O’brien family.

830414 Foynes Island

Foynes Island in the Shannon Estuary, from Peter Holford’s collection 1982

What Peter didn’t write in his journal, but which I remember her relating to me, was the fact that there was a portrait on the wall of the O’Brien’s home of a person who bore an uncanny resemblance to my other brother, Stephen. For Mum, that picture proved it: we were related. We have never had any further contact with the O’Briens of Foynes Island, County Limerick, but perhaps somehow, through a common ancestor in the distant past, we are related. O’Byrnes or O’Briens, it doesn’t matter. Suffice to say that we have a bit of Irish in us, like millions of others around the world, and of that we are proud.

John Christopher Hickson (1848-1945)

Donald Robinson, a former Archbishop of Sydney, writes (around 1960):

The Hicksons were an old Protestant family whose Hickson forebears had crossed to Ireland from England in the time of Cromwell. Their ancestral seat was “The Grove” at Dingle, 30 miles or more west of Tralee in county Kerry, and a few miles from the western extremity of Ireland.

Don Robinson and Dad (who are cousins) are great grandsons of John Hickson (1848-1945), the youngest son of Richard and Mary Hickson, who lived in the early 1800s in Country Kerry. Don has written a fascinating account of John Hickson, which I will quote in full below. Two other brothers, William and George, as well as a sister, Kate, are mentioned by name in this account, since they all migrated to Australia, though William first migrated to America and later to Australia. William, who was 15 years older than John, is of equal interest to me because Mum was descended from him. Mum and Dad are therefore distantly related to each other, though they had no idea of this at the time they married.

Don’s account of John Christopher Hickson (slightly edited) is as follows:

JCH was born on the 2 September 1848 and bred in the small town called Killorglin, on the Laune River as it flows from the Killarney Lakes to the sea. Some part of his boyhood was spent in the picturesque village of Sneem, on the wild rocky coast Kerry, where he had Needham relatives. He was the youngest of a large family, which dispersed to various parts of the world. His mother, Mary Ann (nee Carter), and some of his brothers and sisters died in Killorglin, but his father Richard, a shopkeeper, went with his elder brother William to America, Richard lies buried in North Cemetery at Providence, near Boston.

JCH came to Australia alone (a doctor advised a warm climate for his weak chest) and went to work for George Hudson the timber merchant. Impatient of his slow progress, he began his own timber business, and soon owned his own mills at Nabiac on the Walamba River, and a yard at Darling Harbour, at the foot of Liverpool Street. He was always an enthusiast for the possibilities of Australia, and he persuaded his brother William to come here from America, and another brother George from Ireland, who married Agnes Harper in St. Phillip’s on 9 November 1870. His sister Kate also settled here, and married Hugh Breckenridge, an artist. A daughter of Robert Breckenridge, Hugh’s brother, subsequently owned “The Grange” at Mount Victoria, formerly owned by the Schleichers, and today by the C.S.S.M.

JCH was a member of the first Sydney Regiment when it was formed in the 1860’s. On 25 January 1872, he married Martha Watts who had been born in Balmain N.S.W. on the 20th June 1848, to William Watts, farmer and Mary nee (Mountgarret), then living in Balmain. The marriage was at St. Luke’s Sussex St., Sydney (now demolished) By Rev. Thomas Unwin. They had eleven children: Alice (Mrs. Ross), Edith (Mrs. Layton), George, Mabel (Mrs. Robinson), Maud, Aubrey, Stanley, Percy, Eunice, Hilda (Mrs. Doyle) and Roland. Maud died as a child. My grandmother Alice, was the eldest of the family. She was born on 10 November 1872, at Botany Road, Waterloo.

The Hickson home was later in Cleveland Street facing Albert Park, and is perhaps still standing. But while Alice was still a girl, JCH moved to Summer Hill at which time my grandmother attended the first service in the new St Andrew’s Church on 5 September 1885, when the Rector John Vaughan preached on the text “Come and See”. In the 1880’s JCH moved again to a house called “The Grove” in Liverpool St. Enfield, and I still have the use of a Latin dictionary which bears Alice’s name, with “High School Sydney, 1886” inscribed. The Hicksons were associated with St. Thomas’s Church at Enfield, where Alice was prepared for confirmation by Rev. E. S. Wilkinson, and where she was later married by him on the 24th, August, 1896, the first couple married in the renovated St. Thomas’s Church.

In 1893 JCH made a trip around the world, including a visit to the World Fair at Chicago and pilgrimage to his old family haunts in Ireland. He had friends and relatives (many from Kerry like himself) in a number of places both in America and the British Isles; one such was the Rev. B Needham, a relative, minister of the Baptist Church in Coatesville, near Philadelphia; and a friend of boyhood days, who showed many kindnesses in London, was the chief inspector at Scotland Yard, Mr. Melville. JCH took my grandmother (Alice, then aged 21) with him on this trip, partly, it is said, to prevent a romance with Richard Byrne (who had been born in Killarney, Ireland, and whose family was well known to the Hicksons.) She seems to have had a gay time on the trip. JCH published an account of his journey under the title “Notes of Travel, From Pacific to Atlantic’, with description of the World fair at Chicago, and travels by sea and land around the world. It was printed at Parramatta by Fuller’s Lighting Printing Works Company, and ran to about 80 octavo pages. Much of the information of his early years has been obtained from this, and it contains some interesting material, including the fact they went to hear D.L. Moody preach a number of times in Chicago, and on one occasion JCH pushed through the throng to speak to and shake the hand of the great evangelist.

On 24 August 1895, shortly after their return, Alice married my grandfather, William Frederick Ross, of Heydon St., Enfield.

JCH continued to prosper, and at this time owned a timber yard near Burwood station in Railway Parade, where the Metropolitan Funeral Home now stands. He bought a holiday home on the southern highlands at Balmoral – ‘Glen Gariffe’, (named after a town in Ireland), where my mother spent many holidays as a girl. When he was only 46, at the time of his trip abroad, he had retired from active work, and about 1906 he moved from Enfield to Manly, where he bought a large house, ‘Kyamba’ (still standing 1960), in Addison Road, and lived on the income from his various properties.

In 1911 he went to England again, for the coronation of George V, with his wife. On the return journey Martha caught cholera at Naples, and was buried in the Mediterranean Sea on the 18th July 1911. Four months after his arrival home, JCH married again, to Miss Alice Elizabeth Hammett, who had been on the ship (coming out to marry someone in Western Australia) and had nursed Martha Hickson, on the voyage.

JCH became a churchwarden and treasurer at St. Matthew’s Manly, and when the new church was built he was the clerk of works. He fell out with the Rector, the Rev. A.R. Ebbs, over matters of financial policy.

When Alice Elizabeth died, JCH, now 77, went to England again and returned with a third bride, Isabel Hewitt Parkinson who survived him. He placed a fine brass Lectern in St. Matthew’s in memory of Alice Elizabeth. His later years were spent in a flat at number 9 Victoria Parade, Manly, where he died in 1945 at the age of 97. He had hoped to live to be 100, to see his descendants to the fourth generation, and to see the end of the war. But none of these hopes was fulfilled. He paid my university fees in 1941, and offered to do so for the rest of my course, but the war interrupted my studies. He left 100 pounds to each of his great grandsons. He retained his faculties to the end of his life, and enjoyed conversations with S.M. Johnstone and T. C. Hammond, both Irishmen like himself.

He never forgave my grandmother for her second marriage, when she was 70, to Dick Byrne.

When he first married and lived in Redfern, JCH was friendly with Nathaniel Taubman, my wife’s grandfather with whom he used to walk to work in Waterloo.

German immigrants in Sydney: 1855-1886

Gottfried and Viktoria Fischer arrived in Australia in March 1855. Both were 33 years old. They had three children, Caroline (8), Charles (5) and William (1). Their fourth child, Heironimys, aged 4, had died of cholera on the voyage out. Five months after they arrived Joseph was born, in August 1855. In 1860, five years after their arrival, Michael Frederick was born. So from this it seems clear that the Fischer family lived at least for the first five years in Sydney, and the birth certificates of the two boys indicate that the family lived in Kent Street, on the Darling Harbour side of the city centre. They had come out on the Vinedressers Bounty Scheme, but there is no indication that Gottfried worked as a vinedresser or indeed in any agricultural employment. Documents from later in his life suggest he was a carpenter and cabinet maker, and since German craftsman were highly sought after at that time he was likely to have found employment readily in the city.

In 1863 the family appears to have been living in Forbes. Two events happened in that year that indicate their presence there. The first was the death of Joseph, the first of their Australian born sons, who died on 12 March 1863, aged 7, of typhoid fever. The second was the birth, four months later, of Martin, the last of Victoria’s children. It was as if history had repeated itself. Victoria was pregnant with Joseph when Heironimys died in 1854. She was pregnant with Martin when Joseph died in 1863. Martin, however, survived to adulthood.

Why the family was in Forbes and how long they remained there is uncertain. The next recorded major event in the life of this German immigrant family was the marriage of the only girl, Caroline, in 1868, to John Holdorf. They married at St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney (which was temporarily housed in a wooden structure after the first cathedral burnt down in 1865), which would suggest that they had moved back to the city. It also indicates that the Fisher family was Catholic, which is in keeping with their origins in Bavaria (Viktoria) and Hesse (Gottfried). John Holdorf was from northern “Germany”, from the duchy of Holstein, and was Lutheran.

The anglicisation of the family can be seen in the changing of the spelling of their respective names. Viktoria became Victoria. Fischer became Fisher. Johann Holtorf became John Holdorf. Michael and Martin, the Australian born boys, certainly sound more English than German, though even the older children had quite English names (Caroline, Charles and William). Heironimys was perhaps the most German sounding of the children’s names, but he had perished at sea. Had he made it to Australia I can imagine that he too would have adopted an English name.

Gottfried and Victoria lived out the remainder of their days together in Sydney, in the inner eastern suburbs, what is now known as Darlinghurst, but which has previously been regarded as part of Woolloomooloo. They raised their daughter and their four boys in town. Gottfried was a carpenter and a cabinet maker and it would appear that Charles Benedict learnt the same trade. Charles married a girl called Emily and they had a family. Caroline and John moved to Goulburn shortly after their marriage and built a life there, raising a large family. What became of William and Michael I am unsure of at this time. Martin, however, the youngest of the Fishers (born 1863), married Louisa Stallwood and they lived in Paddington. The exploits of two of their sons, Fred and Les, in WW1, have been well documented by Pauline Cass on her blog. The Fishers and their descendants were a Sydney family.

In 1877 Charles was renting a house at 202 Palmer Street, Darlinghurst, the owners of which were registered as Fisher and Usher, presumably his father Gottfried and a business partner. Gottfried had been in Australia for 22 years by this stage and had clearly built a business and a name for himself. The building was demolished and rebuilt by Gottfried and his son Charles Benedict, and appears to have been owned by Charles until his death in 1926 when he left it to the Presbyterian church. The same building passed into the hands of the Department of Main Roads in 1969 and thereafter was used as emergency housing by the department of housing.

As for Gottfried and Victoria, they lived in Darlinghurst, at 259 Bourke Street, (behind the present day school, SCEGGS, Darlinghurst, which did not exist in Gottfried and Victoria’s day) until Victoria died in 1886 at the age of 64. Gottfried lost his life partner whom he had met so many years before in Augsburg, Bavaria and with whom he had crossed the world to start a new life in the New World. It was surely a hard time for him. He seems to have retired, packed up his life and moved to Goulburn where he lived for the remainder of his life with Caroline and John and their huge family. He died 10 years later in 1896, 74 years of age.

See also:

Transcript of Victoria’s funeral notice:
The Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 3 April 1886
THE FRIENDS of Mr. GOTTFRIED FISCHER are respectfully invited to attend the Funeral of his deceased beloved WIFE. Victoria ; to move from her late residence, No.259, Bourke Street, Woolloomooloo, this Saturday afternoon, at quarter before 2 o’clock, for the Necropolis. PKIRBY, Undertaker.

Transcript of Martin’s marriage notice
SMH Thursday 28 April 1887
FISCHER-STALLWOOD.-April 20, 1887, at St. James Church,by the Rev H I Jackson, Martin, youngest son of Gottfried Fischer of Bourke Street, to Gertrude Louisa Stallwood, second eldest daughter of Reuben Stallwood, of Glebe Point, Sydney.

St Mary’s Cathedral:

Arriving in Sydney 1855

The Fischer family, migrants from Germany, arrived in Sydney on board the sailing ship Caesar in March 1855. It was a different sort of arrival to ours in Sydney Harbour in 1973, having sailed on the Ellinis from Southampton. We had been at sea for four and a half weeks, but they had left Hamburg some four months previously. We had been buffeted by high winds and huge waves across the Roaring Forties, but the passengers of the Caesar, including the Fischer family, had been decimated by disease off the west African coast with over 60 dead from cholera. We sailed up a harbour lined with luxury residences, past the spectacular Opera House and under the iconic Harbour Bridge, landmarks that have become symbols of Australia over the last 50 years, but in 1855 none of this was there to wow the Fischer family. We were returning home, but for the German speaking Fischers a strange new land lay before them with a new language to contend with.

Despite all this it was a relief to arrive finally at this longed for destination. The stop at Twofold Bay on the south coast was the first taste of Australia, their first sight of Australian beaches and the bush clad hinterland. Sydney, a raw young British colony barely 67 years old, and infamous for its convict roots, was the place that they would call home. It is hard to imagine what thoughts went through the minds of Gottfried and Viktoria Fischer and their three children, as they leaned on the railing of the sailing ship and stared out at what was to be their new home. However, Dr Middendorf’s recollections give some idea of what they saw:

On the morning of Monday the 26th (March) we saw the lighthouses and pyramids of Port Jackson. Towards midday we were in the entry between the cliffs – “the heads” – which form the entrance. Shortly after, the pilot came without coming on board, only giving the direction to cast anchor. We couldn’t see the town from there. We remained there a couple of hours and saw several ships going in and out. Many boats came alongside, making offers to the Captain in regard to provisioning, and the indefatigable newspaper reporters also put in an appearance.

Then came the inspecting doctor. He was more reasonable than his colleague in Twofold Bay. His main question was whether everything had been washed. After this was answered in the affirmative, he let us go. A steamer that had taken a ship out to sea towed us in. In the dusk we moved through the harbour, which has very many inlets. It is like an inland sea, the water is so calm; the rush of waves is restrained by the projecting rocks. The banks are occupied by villas, as by a river. At half past seven in the evening the anchor dropped and the lights of the town gleamed across to us.

Sydney Heads around 1850 (

Sydney Heads around 1850 (

The family, with the other immigrants, disembarked and collected the few possessions they had taken with them and with which they would start their new life. Rural Germany seemed very distant, very foreign, in the glare of the southern sun. They had come out on the German Vinedressers Scheme and there was an agent to meet them and to assist them in finding a place to stay in those first confusing days. Although I have no record of the Fischers’ first impressions of Sydney, the doctor’s description gives some clues as to their experience. He begins his recollections by relating how glad he was to be rid of the passengers:

Since the passengers went, which happened at long last a few days ago, one feels like a new man. The ship is clean and the only reminder of our cargo consists of a host of fleas and bugs that have united themselves against us like the French and the English against the Russians. Add another small contingent of lice, and with that the Turks have to be content.

I must say that I feel more sympathy for the migrants who had to endure the fleas and lice and other bugs, than I do for the doctor who only had to put up with the passengers from the comfort of his own cabin. I suspect that the irritation that young Middendorf felt toward the passengers came mainly from the daily reminder of his medical impotence in the face of a cholera epidemic at sea. He was glad to be rid of them, to be free of the sad, or in some cases accusing stares of the many bereaved and grieving families. But they were the ones who had suffered: Dr Middendorf’s struggles seem trivial by comparison. He is unimpressed by Sydney, and I wonder how much of that was from memories of a tough voyage which he would rather leave behind. His only concession to Sydney is the climate, which he has to admit, is pleasant.

It is a town like other large towns, of considerable dimensions. The main part lies on a narrow hilly tongue of land that stretches out into the harbour; around this lie the ships… Convivial life does not exist here. Nobody wants to do anything but make money. People go to the public houses not to have a pleasant time, but only to drink, or rather get drunk. On Saturday evening half of Sydney is drunk, though that is supposed to be also the case in other English places. There are no beautiful surroundings here. Everything around the town is sand. I took a walk to Botany Bay; the land is worse than round Berlin. There is supposed to be more fertility up in Parramatta; I haven’t been there as yet…

There is something good here, it seems to me, and that is the climate. The whole time we have had weather like our lovely summer days, except for the period when rain fell; the air is always clean and warm. Since we’ve been here we’ve seen three English immigrant ships and one American arrive; two were here when we came. As a worker I would not emigrate to Australia, i.e. go there in order to stay there. The country may be good for earning money, but not for living in…

Ernst Middendorf, it seems, had entertained the possibility of remaining in Australia but these first impressions made him decide otherwise. He sailed away with the Caesar and never returned to Australia, though he did make a name for himself elsewhere in the world. The Fischer family, on the other hand, made Sydney their home. They had come out with the Vinedressers Scheme, but whether Gottfried had any experience or knowledge of wine growing is quite uncertain. It would seem that a significant proportion of the migrants who took advantage of this scheme were city dwellers and had no competence in viticulture (there is a discussion of the scheme in Jürgen Tampke’s book, The Germans in Australia, p.78, available online on Google Books).

According to other records the family settled, at least initially, in the city. They lived in Kent Street,  which today is in the city centre. Viktoria was pregnant when they arrived and 5 months later in August had another son, Joseph. Three more Australian sons would follow. Caroline, my grandfather’s grandmother, remained the only daughter in a family of boys. Some time after settling in Sydney the Fishers (they changed the spelling of their name) relocated to Forbes for reasons which are at present unknown to me. But they returned to Sydney eventually and Gottfried worked as a carpenter until Viktoria died in 1886 when he moved to Goulburn where he lived with his daughter Caroline and her husband John Holdorf (Johann Holtorf). Gottfried died in 1896 after 41 years in his new homeland. Neither he nor Viktoria ever saw Germany again.

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