Forgotten tales

stories of my family

Archive for the tag “Thomas Needham”

Tim Fenian

TN 1865 letter p2What about this great breaking out in Ireland, is it doing any injury to ye in Kerry? I hope the next letter that you will write to me, that you will let me know all about it. (Letter home, November 6, 1865)

So wrote young Tom Needham, 14 years old, from HMS Narcissus, a British frigate off the southern coast of the USA, toward the end of 1865, and about half a year after the conclusion of the American Civil War. What had he heard, I wonder, about the political situation in Ireland? What was “this great breaking out” that was causing him so much concern for his family back in County Kerry?

I believe he was talking about the Fenian Movement, which had its origins in America in the 1850s amongst Irish ex-patriates, men (and women) who had left their homeland because of famine, economic hardship, or political persecution, many of whom had fought on one side or the other in the American Civil War. These so called “Fenians” talked of raising a force of Irish-Americans to return to Ireland to assist a rising against the English and establish an Irish Republic.

However, there was no similar organisation of rebels in Ireland planning such a rising until a certain James Stephens, an engineer from Kilkenny who had fled to Paris after an earlier “rebellion” in 1848, returned to Ireland in 1856, determined to raise just such a movement amongst the common Irish. Stephens became the leader of an organisation that he called the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), which became commonly known, together with its American counterpart, as “The Fenians.”

Why Fenians? They took their name from a legendary group of ancient Irish warriors (the Fianna) of the second and third century. The term Fenian became popular in the mid nineteenth century as the name of the association that Stephens and his American counterparts formed, but has persisted even into modern times as a label for anyone opposed to British rule in Ireland (see the Wikipedia article for uses of “Fenian” in popular culture).

The Irish Fenian movement was most active in the 1860s, when our Needham ancestors were exiting Ireland, and in 1867 there were minor uprisings in different places around Ireland including Kerry. However, these were short lived and universally unsuccessful in achieving any change in the status quo. The significance of the 1867 rebellion was more in what it said about the discontent of a growing part of the Irish population than in any military victory. The movement continued to exist in various forms up until the First World War, and after the Easter Rising of 1916 in Dublin, it evolved gradually into the IRA.

The IRB was from the start a secret society. It represented a change in thinking from earlier movements for Irish liberation in that it accepted, even promoted, violence, or armed rebellion, as being the only realistic way of achieving freedom for Ireland, as opposed to the diplomatic negotiation that had characterised earlier movements like the United Irishmen in the 1790s and Young Ireland in the 1840s. Because it was secret, no-one really knew who was a Fenian and who wasn’t, except, of course, those that had joined up. In the small communities of rural Ireland, however, many knew who was involved, though they may not have willingly given that information to the authorities in Dublin. As always happens in such times, the authorities had their spies, and there were double agents who worked for both sides and sometimes came to violent ends.

Ireland was divided into those who supported the Fenians, and those who didn’t, and it was not entirely easy to predict who would be on which side based on either their religion or their heritage. Even some people of Anglo-Irish heritage, and some Protestants in this predominantly Catholic country, supported the Fenians. The Catholic Church was officially opposed to them. Apart from the newspaper published by the IRB itself (The Irish People), the press was also generally opposed to the Fenians (see this article from the Irish Times), and the police force (Irish Constabulary) was tasked with rooting out the revolutionaries and arresting them.

I have wondered at times what our Irish ancestors thought of all this, and whether any of them were involved in this revolutionary movement. The Fenians were strong in Kerry, to which many contemporary sources bear witness:

One of the few places Stephens discovered an existing revolutionary organisation was in the Skibbereen-Killarney-Kenmare area of south-west Cork and south-east Kerry, where O’Donovan Rossa had founded the Phoenix Society to keep alive the desire for an independent Ireland (Pádraig Ó Concubhair, The Fenians were Dreadful Men, p.19).

However, with their English roots, it seems unlikely that the Hicksons or the Needhams were part of the movement, even if the Hicksons had been in Kerry for over three hundred years. Our Hickson family were related to the Anglo-Irish aristocracy in Kerry, even if only distantly, and John Christopher Hickson’s writings contain no suggestion of sympathy for the Fenians. His older sister, Susan Hickson, who was as far as I can tell the first of his family to migrate to Australia in 1853, married John Hume, another Kerry emigrant, who, prior to himself migrating in 1855 at the age of 30, had been a policeman in the Constabulary. He left, however, before the revolutionary feelings in Kerry had evolved into Fenianism, even before James Stephens had returned from Paris where he had fled after the 1848 rebellion in County Tipperary.

The Needhams were still more “English” than the Kerry Hicksons. George Needham, though as far as I know born in Ireland, was the son of an Englishman. His wife, Susan Carter, was also English (according to the entry for her son, Benjamin Needham, in the US Census for 1910). George died in 1862, five years before the Fenian rising in Kerry in 1867. But in his earlier life he had been a captain in the Kerry coastguard, and was, as such, part of the British establishment which so many Irish saw as the enemy. The Needhams, like the Hicksons, were in a sense part of the “middle class” of southern Ireland, neither aristocracy like some of the Hickson’s distant relatives, nor the rural poor. Though they very likely understood Irish, their home language was English.

But none of that mattered to Tom Needham’s shipmates, who took great delight in teasing the young Irish lad. In another letter home to his older sister Belinda, from the gunboat, HMS Linnet in 1866, he reassures her:

I hope you never fretts about me because I am as happy as a king. On board the ship one of them calls me Tim Fagan and another Tim Fenian, they gets on chaffing me and I pretend to speak Irish to them and I do make them wild. O there is no coming over me on board a ship. What about the Fenians there? There is great talk about them, the Americans are killing a great many of them… (Letter home, 26 August 1866)

Afternote:

While exploring the Internet for information about the Fenians, I found an article from a local newspaper from a town near to where we now live, Maitland. It is dated 16 May 1867 and contains a copy of The Fenian Proclamation. It seems this statement had been sent out to newspapers all over the world, to raise awareness and support for the Fenian cause in Ireland. Following is a copy of the proclamation, as archived on the Australian website, Trove. The feeling of injustice that lay behind the Fenian movement is easy to discern as the following excerpts show:

Our rights and liberties have been trampled on by an alien aristocracy, who, treating us as foes, usurped our lands and drew away from our unfortunate country all material riches. We appeal to force as a last resort… unable to endure any longer the curse of a monarchical government, we aim at founding a Republic based on universal suffrage, which shall secure to all the intrinsic value of their labour. The soil of Ireland, at present in possession of an oligarchy, belongs to us, the Irish people and to us it must be restored. We declare also in favour of absolute liberty of conscience and the separation of Church and State. We intend no war against the people of England; our war is against the aristocratic locusts, whether English or Irish, who have eaten the verdure of our fields…

1867 Fenian Proclamation

Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser (NSW : 1843 – 1893), Thursday 16 May 1867, page 2. National Library of Australia http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article18718311

Advertisements

Tom’s ships

Tom Needham joins the Navy

Tom was 13 when he joined the navy in 1864, a young Irish boy who had grown up beside the sea on the coast of County Kerry. His father George Needham had at one time been a captain in the Kerry coastguard, and may well have been in the navy himself, since many coastguard officers were recruited from the navy (see the Ballinskelligs website).

I have copies of three letters that Tom wrote home, in 1865, 1866 and 1869 respectively. In the first two he mentions the names of some of the ships on which he served: they were the Egmont, the Narcissus and the Linnet.

But it would seem none of these was the ship he initially joined when he left home in 1864. The only information about his first year at sea comes not from his letters, but from the book he wrote many years later (1900) about his early life: From Cannibal Land to the Glory Land. There he paints a vivid picture of his earliest experiences in the navy, around the British coast:

the bristling guns; the crowds of nimble sailors; the mysteries of swinging, splicing and knotting of ropes; the fine uniforms; the cursing, the activity… I made great progress in all naval studies and gunnery practice; so that when from overcrowding of the ship transfers were to be made, I was among the selected ones. These changes widened my boyish experiences in the hardship of life at sea. First, I passed through the trials of hazing*… Then came the public floggings for slight misdemeanors… For my nimbleness I acquired the name of Deerfoot, and was often drafted to run races with sailors of other school ships… After several short trips around the British coast a selection came to send me, with several others, to a foreign port… (Needham, T. 1900. From Cannibal Land to the Glory Land, Chapter 2, “On Shipboard,”). *hazing: to harass with unnecessary or disagreeable tasks, to subject to abusive or humiliating tricks or ridicule.

The foreign port he was sent to appears to have been Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, and the first letter I have suggests that it was there that he had spent time aboard the Egmont. He wrote from the Narcissus, a short time later (1865):

I am not aboard of the Egmont, I am aboard of the HMS Narcissus. Did you not get a few letters from me when I was aboard of the Egmont? I wrote two to you and I am wondering why don’t you write to me? Did you get a letter from America yet? I hope the Lord spares me for the next letter. (Letter from Thomas Needham, November 1865)

So what do we know of the Egmont, his first ship after leaving the British Isles?

HMS Egmont, receiving ship, Rio de Janeiro

According to Wikipedia the HMS Egmont was a 74-gun third rate ship of the line which had been launched in 1810 during the Napoleonic wars. It had been the flagship of Rear-Admiral Charles Vinnicombe Penrose in 1814, but once the war with France was over it was apparently laid off, though where, and in what it was engaged, is uncertain; then from 1848 to 1862, according to a website maintained by P Benyon on naval social history, it appears to have been mothballed in Portsmouth. Finally in 1862 the aging Egmont was called back into service, commissioned in Portsmouth at the end of that year as the “Receiving Ship” for Rio de Janeiro.

Receiving ships were usually obsolete or unseaworthy vessels moored at a navy yard and used as accommodation for new recruits or men in transit between stations. Tom, as he said in his book, was “sent to a foreign port,” and it would seem that Egmont was the ship that “received” him, in Rio. How long he spent on the old ship is not mentioned anywhere, but it was long enough to be missing home, and to write to his dear sister Belinda “a few letters” (though those letters have disappeared).

I have not been able to find any pictures online of the Egmont, but another old ship of the line which met a similar fate was the HMS Implacable, of which there are many surviving images. Those pictures give a sense of what the Egmont, Tom’s temporary home in Rio, looked like. The Implacable, also a 74-gun third rate, was built before the Egmont, but lasted into the 1940s, by which time it was the second oldest ship in the Royal Navy, after the Victory. Wikipedia has an account of her history. Here is a picture of her latter days:

So Tom, the young Irish boy, who had “learnt the ropes” sailing around the coastal waters of Ireland and England, found himself, at the age of 14, suddenly on the other side of the Atlantic in the strange and wonderful world of Brazil. He lived aboard a retired veteran of the Napoleonic wars, and would have had daily reminders of those glorious days of sail, as he walked the decks of the old 74. How often, I wonder, did he get ashore, to the streets of Rio? What was it like in the 1860s I wonder? As fascinating as it might have been, Tom was surely thankful when he left the old hulk and moved to the Narcissus, a ship only 5 years old, which headed to sea again to patrol the shores of North America.

The Royal Navy of Victorian Britain

But what, exactly, was the Royal Navy doing in South America? Although between the end of the Crimean War (1856) and the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 it was involved in no major conflicts, the British Navy was the largest in the world. Why did Britain need such a massive maritime military presence when there were no wars to fight? And why in South America, so far from its home shores?

The American Civil War (1861-1865) saw naval battles between the north and south, and in Europe the Danish, the Prussians and the Austrians, amongst others, were involved in conflicts at sea. Meanwhile the British were just sailing around patrolling the sea lanes of the world, building a bigger and stronger navy while doing little more than just “show themselves.” Why the need for this massive navy of which our Tom was a young tar?

Ben Wilson, in his recent history of the British Navy, “Empire of the Deep,” describes the years between 1860 and 1899 as an arms race for the major European powers. The British Empire reached to the farthest corners of the globe, and the navy was the force that ensured its peace and security. In the mind of the British, it had to remain that way. Wilson explains:

With power came fear. Britain was dependent as never before on the Navy. In 1846 parliament had abolished protective tariffs on corn, which meant that British farmers had to compete on the world market and labour moved from the countryside to the booming industrial towns. Without imports of food the country would starve. Without control of the seas she would become poor. It was an uncomfortable position to be in – and people were awaking to the fact that Britain and her empire were vulnerable, perhaps more vulnerable than any country on earth…

Unless Britain had a crushing superiority of ships over France, Russia and Germany in northern waters she would lose the security at home that had allowed her to construct a massive empire. But she also needed to be the dominant naval power in the Mediterranean, South Africa, the Indian Ocean, the China Seas and off American waters. Lose any of these and the whole system would unravel. Britain, it was felt, had to be the dominant naval power everywhere or she would lose everything.
(Wilson B, Empire of the Deep, p.503)

So Rio de Janeiro was just one of the many ports around the world that maintained a British Navy presence; in South America and the South Atlantic the British, as elsewhere, were determined to maintain their global dominance.

For Tom the time in Rio marked a transition from the old world to the new. Until then he had been only on sailing ships. But when he left Rio it was aboard the Narcissus, a wooden hulled steam driven screw frigate that in 1864 was just 5 years old. The old sailing ships were gradually being replaced by steamships, even if almost all vessels still carried sails to propel them when there was no ready supply of coal to feed their engines. When Tom joined the Narcissus he left behind the world of sail and entered the world of steam. Ben Wilson writes:

The Royal Navy was in a state of fast evolution. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the fleet contained ships of a variety of ages, performance and speeds. Co-ordinating such a motley fleet was becoming exceptionally hard for the service’s flag officers, many of who were bred to the age of sail. (Wilson B, p.498)

Naval technology was changing rapidly around the world. Some old sailing ships were being modified by the addition of steam engines and the cladding of their wooden hulls with iron – creating the so called ironclads – to improve their speed and armour. Newer steamships started to be built with all-iron hulls, and such vessels saw service in the American Civil War. Wood and sail were gradually being replaced by iron and steam. Traditional broadsides of cannon were being replaced by turrets in which the cannons were placed in rotating towers. The great Age of Sail is said to have officially come to an end in 1862 when at the Battle of Hampton Roads (American Civil War) the steam-powered ironclad CSS Virginia destroyed the sailing ships USS Cumberland and USS Congress (Wikipedia).

HMS Narcissus

The Narcissus was a wooden hulled screw frigate in service from 1859 to 1883. These early screw frigates carried a full sail plan, like the older sailing frigates, but had a steam powered screw propellor for propulsion. The screw propellor was the invention of a Swedish naval captain, John Ericsson, and replaced the older and more vulnerable paddle wheels which were used for a short time on naval ships, but are much better known as the propulsion of the steamers that plied the Mississippi in the nineteenth century. Steamships had a number of advantages over the old sailing ships, including speed, but most significantly the ability to sail against the wind, making them much more manoeuvrable.

A number of pictures of the HMS Narcissus can be found on the Internet, and the following is from the Royal Museums Greenwich website.

HMS Narcissus, PW8141

Tom’s Narcissus was the third ship by this name in the Royal Navy. Records indicate that from April 1865 to May 1866 she was under the command of Captain Colin Andrew Campbell and was the flagship of Rear Admiral Charles Elliot, in service off the south east coast of America. This agrees with Tom’s letter:

I am in the South Coast of America, it’s a fine place in winter, but in summer it is scorching, plenty of every sort of fruit and vegetables there. (Letter from Thomas Needham, November 1865)

Perhaps the ship was patrolling the coast of Florida, Georgia or the Carolinas.

How long he remained on the Narcissus is difficult to fathom from Tom’s writings. However, his next letter home, written in August 1866 states that he had moved on to another ship, the Linnet. The Narcissus was based in South America for the three years from May 1866. Perhaps it was again in Rio, the main British naval base in Brazil, in June or July of 1866, that Tom was transferred to his next ship.

HM Gunboat Linnet

August 26, 1866
My dear sister, I hope you are quite well and in good health. I have written two letters to you and have not heard from you yet my dear sister. I should like to hear from you. I am quite well thank God and in good health. I have left the flagship the Narcissus, I am in a gunboat which came out from England lately, her name is the Linnet she is a very nice little ship, I like her very well…

My dear sister, I have seen a good many places since I left the flagship, I have been up the river Plata. I have been close up where they are at war. There is sick and wounded coming into the town every day. There was a steamer came in yesterday full of wounded soldiers and they had on board a dead general which was shot through the heart, did not they kick up a row about him.

According to Wikipedia, HMS Linnet was a Britomart-class steam powered gunboat launched in 1860 and broken up in 1872. It was one of 16 Britomart-class gunboats, which are described in an article which includes a photo of one of these 16 gunboats, the Cherub.

The River Plata is better known as the Rio de la Plata and is a large bay on the eastern coast of South America between Uruguay to the north and Argentina to the south. It lies over 1000km south of Rio de Janeiro, where Tom had probably transferred from the Narcissus to the Linnet. Two major ports lie on the coastline of the Rio de la Plata – Montevideo in Uruguay and Buenos Aires in Argentina.

The war that Tom writes of was the Paraguayan War that was waged from 1864 to 1870 between Paraguay and the so called Triple Alliance of Uruguay, Brazil and Argentina. What role Britain played in the war is uncertain and controversial – see the theories on this in the Wikipedia article on the war. Tom was around 15 years old when his ship, the Linnet, was at Rio de la Plata, and it is clear from his letter that the thing that made the deepest impression on him was the steamers full of wounded soldiers daily coming down the river from up country. It was indeed a bloody and humanly costly war for Paraguay, whose population was reduced by almost 60% during the 6 years of war – from some 525,000 to only 221,000. It is said that some 70% of Paraguay’s adult male population died during the conflict, leaving only around 28,000 men in the country when the final shots were fired. Another tragic waste of life.

1866-1869

I have seen a transcript of a third letter written by 18 year old Tom in 1869, apparently just prior to his discharge from the navy. It mentions no ships by name, and indicates that he was thinking about a passage from England to America after his discharge. This is in keeping with the fact that his family, in the years that Tom had been away, had all migrated to America. This third letter is also addressed to his sister Belinda, who must have died around this time, unknown to Tom, as indicated in his book.

The question, of course, arises as to what Tom was doing in the three intervening years between his second and third letters. The answer to that is found in his book, From Cannibal Land to the Glory Land, in which he describes how he was inexplicably and bizarrely set ashore and abandoned far south on the coast of Patagonia by a “wicked captain and his more merciless chief mate.” The background to this is not explained in the book. There is a picture in the book of “the merchant vessel in which I sailed to South America, the captain of which was afterward converted.” Although there is no explanation in the book, the suggestion is therefore that Tom left the navy at some stage after 1866 and joined a merchant vessel.

Tom's ship

The story of what ensued after this extraordinary incident is related in the book, and will be the subject of another blog. Tom, of course, eventually returned to England, and there is no suggestion in his book that he rejoined the navy to do so. However, his 1869 letter casts doubt on this assumption, because it seems to be written from somewhere in Europe, and the way he writes seems to suggest that he is still in the navy – he speaks of his Admiral, and of “paying off.” Furthermore the letter is written to Belinda, but according to the book he had a letter while he was still in South America in which he was informed of Belinda’s passing. Could it be that after this last letter he returned to South America, before eventually finding his way to his family in the USA?

It may be that further letters will come to light which will clarify the events a bit better. But what remains is that for five or six years, from the age of 13 to 19, Tom Needham had some extraordinary experiences at sea and in distant, wild lands, experiences that he would later recall in writing his book, which is the story of a journey from unbelief to faith in a sovereign God. In later life, as a travelling evangelist, he became known as the “sailor preacher.”

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

“My dear sister…” November 1865

A letter home from a young sailor, an Irish boy on a British ship, in 1865:

Addressed to “My dear sister..,” this letter was probably written to Belinda Needham, Tom’s older sister, the one of his five sisters to which he seems closest. A transcript follows the images.

TN 1865 letter p1
TN 1865 letter p2

Nov 6th 1865
My dear sister, I hope you are quite well. How is it that you won’t write to me? 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. My dear sister if the Lord spares me and you, I hope I shall see you in two or three years time.

I am not aboard of the Egmont, I am aboard of the HMS Narcissus(2). Did you not get a few letters from me when I was aboard of the Egmont? I wrote two to you and I am wondering why don’t you write to me? Did you get a letter from America yet? I hope the Lord spares me for the next letter. You shall have my likeness. I cannot get it this time my dear sister. I was in a good deal of ships since I left England. I am in the South Coast of America, it’s a fine place in winter, but in summer it is scorching, plenty of every sort of fruit and vegetables there.

I am quite well and happy thank God. What about this great breaking out in Ireland, is it doing any injury to ye in Kerry? I hope the next letter that you will write to me, that you will let me know all about it. How are the Dromore meetings getting on? Is Parson Jullings always in our old house? How is Mary and William getting on. Are they quite well and Richey. 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 got no more to say at present. I hope you won’t be fretting about me, because I am quite happy and have very good times.

Your affectionate brother,
Thomas Needham

The letter provides a glimpse into Tom’s family, his home tracts in southern Ireland, and historical events in the wider world. It tells us something of what occupied Tom’s mind in the years he was at sea as a teenager.

Tom had joined the British Navy when he was 13, in 1864. His mother had died 6 years previously when Tom was only 7, and his father passed away in 1862, leaving the family without any parents. However, Tom’s oldest sister Mary, the first born of the family (and my great great grandmother), was 19 when their father passed, and there were four other older sisters to provide some maternal care for the family, particularly to the three youngest, who were all boys. Tom, Ben and William, were respectively 11, 9 and 6 when their father died, leaving them all orphans.

It was Tom’s fascination with the sea and his wanderlust for places beyond the green hills of home that led him to sign on to a British ship in 1864. The hard reality of life at sea was, however, a shock to his young mind. He had grown up in a loving and God-fearing home, surrounded by a close and caring family. He was thrust out into the wide world amongst hardened, cynical ruffians, subject to the demanding discipline of the British navy, the most powerful fighting force in the world.

When he wrote this letter, the first of his of which I have been given a copy (by Scott Anderson, Tom’s great great grandson), he had been at sea for possibly a year and a half. The green hills of county Kerry were a distant and cherished memory. His longing for home and family is implied in the opening lines. A life dominated by ships and the sea is evident as he relates something of his experiences since he left Ireland. He writes of his impressions of the new world that he was experiencing, and wonders about the political unrest in Ireland, news of which had reached him even half a world away, and which troubled his 14 year old mind.

I found myself reflecting on this letter, and researching the times in which Tom lived to try to get a grip on his early life, and the result was a long article which I have decided to divide into three blogs which will follow this one.

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

Post Navigation