Sea Legs – September 1848

He moaned with the latest pitch and lurch of the ship as the odours of hundreds of bodies, damp bedding and water closets imprisoned him in his bed. Nine-year-old Richard Grenfell had never felt so ill. He lay there, staring at the bunk overhead and fixed his gaze on a knot in the timber. Yet, still his body detected movement, a conundrum that made his stomach heave. Perspiration gathered in little beads on his skin. His mother, Ann, wiped his forehead with a damp cloth, and Richard managed a feeble smile. He rolled onto his side. Beyond Ann, his two younger brothers played, unaffected by the tilt and rolling that distressed him.

Four-year-old Nicholas usaw Richard looking at him, and with a few wobbly steps to counter the ship’s action, he was at his brother’s bedside. “Be ‘ee sick, Dickie?” He put his hand on Richard’s clammy arm. Richard nodded, but the slight movement threw his balance into confusion.

Berths below

“He’ll be all right, Nick,” Ann said. She looked up and offered a silent prayer.

Ann poured a cup of water. “Can ‘ee take this to your sister?” With the pannikin, Nicholas walked to the next bunk and offered the water to Mary Ann. Richard watched, knowing her suffering, as she waved the little boy away.

“Where is Father?” Richard asked Ann.

“On deck with t’other men, hangin’ on for dear life, I hope.” And with that, she raised her gaze again.

Richard wished he could join his father, away from the stench and stifling air of the ‘tween decks. However, Ann had forbidden it after a wave washed some sailors out of their berths in the foc’s’le the night before.

Forecastle looking forward Drawn by C B Hudson

This work has been identified as being free of known restrictions under copyright law, including all related and neighboring rights.

The William Money had left Plymouth on the previous Tuesday afternoon, the 19th of September. Richard and Mary Ann darted about the ship, exploring this new, enthralling environment. They watched as the tug released the towing line to a raucous cheer from the passengers. When Mary Ann tired of the adventure and left to help Ann with their younger brothers, Richard teamed up with James Thomas, and the boys explored further. Sons of Cornish miners, Richard from the isolated parish of St Just in Penwith, James from Wendron, they had never before been on any watercraft. A 140 foot, three-masted barque offered the opportunity for endless exploits.

By Thursday the ship was almost becalmed, and the passengers spent the morning lying about on deck

“My Father is goin’ to work at the Burra Burra,” James said.

“Mine too,” Richard said, “I think they’re all doin’ that, goin’ to the mine. I’ve got two uncles and Mother’s cousins on the ship. Lots of other people, too, from St Just.”

The boys sat perched on an upturned dinghy on the ship’s deck, scanning the mirrored ocean for the hint of a breeze.

Richard continued, “we might be buyin’ some land after a while. My Uncle Cyprian has a farm in Sancreed.”

Most of the emigrants were miners, accompanied by their families, enticed by reports of high wages in South Australia. In Cornwall, Richard witnessed his parents despair as miner after miner lost their job. The offer of free passage and well-paid employment in South Australia was enough enticement to a new venture for the Grenfells. Ann, with her husband, Richard Grenfell, and their children, Mary Ann, Richard, Nicholas and Cyprian joined scores of their neighbours and relatives to board the William Money.

Later on Thursday, the breeze strengthened, filled the sails and stretched the canvas to its limit. Richard and James held on to the port-side bulwark, laughing and shrieking into the wind, their screams blowing back in their faces.

It wasn’t long before they sensed an uneasy feeling in their stomachs. They became quiet, and nausea replaced their glee. Seeing their consternation, a passing crewman said, “Look at the horizon, lads. ‘Tis the only way to get your sea legs.”

That night, the passengers rolled back and forth in their beds, their moans and groans in sync with the creaking timbers. And the sailors in the foc’s’le sloshed about, desperate to grab something solid.

Each of the next four days was a monotonous repetition of the previous one. Richard could discern day from night only by the few extra oil lamps casting their sickly, yellow light and emitting clouds of greasy smoke. Or when the weather lulled, the hatches opened, and those brave enough donned their waterproofs and climbed the steep companionway ladder to the outside world.

They came back with stories of squally rain, crashing waves, torn canvas and broken spars. Below decks, buckets, ready beside bunks, slid from one side of the ship to the other threatening to spill their smelly contents.

On Sunday, Richard Grenfell said to the younger Richard, “Come ‘ee, my son. We be goin’ to prayers with our kin.”

“But Father, I feel so poorly.”

“A dose of prayer will do ‘ee good.”

Most of the Cornish on board were Methodists, and they had separate prayers to the other passengers.

That day, the clouds gathered, as black as ink, and the weather worsened again. As the wind blew the tops off the waves, passengers scuttled down the ladders, eager to get below before the flying spray gave way to crashing water on deck. Richard heard the thud, thud as the sailors hammered the battens in place on the canvas over the hatches. Pots and pannikins rattled, and joined the howling wind to beat out a tune, and the thunder reverberated like a big bass drum.

A wave, larger than the previous ones, came out of nowhere. The ship lurched, and sent people cascading like nine pins. One man was hurled across the ship, coming to rest with a thump and a crack, breaking his arm.

“Oh, we be going to Davey Jones’s locker.”

“God have mercy on our souls,” the Methodists chanted. “Oh, we be going to Davey Jones’s locker.” Richard was now too worried to be sick. What were they thinking to bring us on this ship? Like a wrestler, it had tossed them about day after day. Would his family survive to see 1849 in the new land?

Over the next two days, the storm eased.

When Richard woke on Wednesday, something was different. The harsh sounds of the past week were absent, and the previous, erratic motions of the vessel moved aside for steady rhythms. He stood, his legs shaky and unsteady, the smell of baking bread stirring his hunger pains for the first time in days.

Cooking had been impossible throughout the inclement weather, and those who could keep their food down coped by chewing dry biscuits. Seasick women couldn’t produce enough milk for their babies. On Monday, there was the journey’s first distressing burial at sea – a baby.

The 'tween decks

It was time for the mess group encompassing the Grenfells to cook their food. Ann and her sister-in-law Elizabeth, with help from Mary Ann, cooked fresh potatoes loaded in Plymouth. Ann served the meals for their families, gathered at the long, central table. As well as the potatoes, there was freshly-baked bread, suet and salted beef.

Richard bit into the beef. “Eww, this is as salt as Lot’s wife’s elbow.” Ann laughed. He sounded exactly like his father.

Richard was delighted to contribute to his mother’s happiness. He wondered what the new land would be like and day-dreamed about the farm they would buy one day. First, Father needs to make a lot of money at the mine.

Book of Memorandum – By James Menzies 1848

Genealogy Snapshot

Name: Richard Grenfell (1839-1909)
Parents: Richard Grenfell and Ann Warren Nicholls
Spouse: Sarah Eleanor (“Ellen”) Pryor (1849-1916)
Spouse’s Parents: Joseph Pryor (1810-1883)and Ann Hosking(abt1810-1861)
Surnames: Grenfell, Nicholls, Pryor, Hosking, Willis
Relationship to Shelley: great, great, grandfather (2x great grandfather) Richard is Shelley’s 2x great grandfather

  1. Richard Grenfell (1839-1909) great, great, grandfather (2x great grandfather)
  2. Emmeline Dulcinea Ann Grenfell (1874-1956) (great grandmother)
  3. Olive Ann Willis (1896-1970) (grandmother)
  4. Father
  5. Shelley
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Denis Bennett in Liverpool

Patrick stood open mouthed. After a time he managed to say, “Oh that is so pretty. I wish I could buy that for Ma.”

Denis smiled.

John laughed, a wisdom bestowed by his extra six years. “Oh yeah, that would look lovely, sitting on the box in the corner of our room.”

Patrick pouted.  “Well I’m going to shoe horses like Bernard when I get bigger and have enough money to buy Ma a silver tea set. It will have writing on it, just like this one. It will say ‘to Ma from Patrick.’”

Denis smiled again. “Come on boys, we should be getting back to yer mammy. You can tell her about the tea set, Paddy. That will be almost as good.”

They left the store window. Patrick’s shoulders drooped, his arms were limp at his sides. He barely managed a glance at the Town Hall, situated at the head of the quadrangle of the Exchange Buildings.

“We can go and see Nelson first,” Denis added. A slow smile brightened Patrick’s face, and he managed a small skip as he moved towards the Town Hall. Continue reading

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Crossed Paths

Denis Bennett stepped out the door of the Old Fort Tavern onto the cobbles of Bath Street and into the dank air. Dark, dreary air that, with one brushstroke, coloured the Liverpool canvas grey. Denis turned up the collar of his coat against the biting north-east wind that licked the waters of the Mersey into short, sharp waves. A forest of ships’ masts stood above him, piercing the fog as it dispersed above the walls of Prince’s Dock.

Ships, that Denis had hoped he would be unloading that day. He had managed only two days work in the past week, earning seven shillings. It wasn’t enough; a guinea and his family could live in comfort, but work was scarce. That morning, after waiting with the other porters and hoping for a day’s work, he’d been rejected again. How to tell Hannah?

Liverpool Docks

Liverpool Docks

It wasn’t his intention to stay long at the tavern, but Paddy Kelly was there after finishing up at Clarence Dock. Kelly told Denis a grim story of famine refugees; a steamer had spilled out another miserable flood of 250 desperate souls from Dublin. Continue reading

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Tasmania to the Transvaal

The change room at the Western Mine could hardly contain those assembled. With much hand shaking and back slapping, the group of men wished their two colleagues the best of luck – give it to them warm, stay alive and come back to us. There was a call for quiet, moderating the din. Mr Deakin spoke on behalf of the mining company, and collective silence filled the room, interrupted only by the occasional murmur of approval when he voiced the admiration for the volunteers. He then presented a silver pipe to Maurice Keys. And to Victor Peers, a gold medal, a fine piece of local workmanship made by Mr Wathen of Main Street.

The two were members of the Zeehan Rifle Company, part of the Tasmanian Volunteer Rifle Regiment, who responded to the call for infantrymen. Three others from Zeehan were also selected. Australia’s colonial governments sought volunteers to fight for Britain in their war with the Boer Republics. It was 1899, Continue reading

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The Search for my Irish Bennetts

“It’s those Bennetts, again…still,” I said. There may have been a swear word in there as well. Chris had asked how I could spend so much time on my iPad, with the occasional swipe at the screen and tap tap at the keyboard, or ponder over papers, spread out across the table. Those Bennetts have been the main focus of my family history research over the past 3 months, spurred on by a windfall in records that are now available.

Francis Bennett, my great, great grandfather, has led me on a merry chase over the years and there is still much I want to find out about him. Continue reading

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Our Annie

I was impatient to receive John Willis’s birth certificate once I’d sent for it. I had put the required details on the form – “as much as you know,” information garnered from his marriage certificate. He was born in Bowden about 1871 (at that time, a town two miles from Adelaide), father John Willis and mother, Ann Unknown.

If I was ordering the certificate today, I could get a copy emailed within days, but this was the early stages of my hobby of researching my family history.

Weeks later the expected mail arrived. My eyes scanned the document, picking out the relevant facts and mentally checking them off. John Willis, born in Bowden in 1869. The two year discrepancy in the birth date was acceptable. So far, so good. Father – George Gubbins, mother – Ann Willis.  No, that wasn’t right. I sent the certificate back, with a note telling the department they had provided the wrong one. No no, was the reply; this is the only one that fits the date you gave us, and the certificate winged its way back to North Queensland.  Oh, how could I have been so naive! Continue reading

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Skildergat (Peers) Cave

Victor and Bertie bent over their task, clearing away the sandy earth from their latest discovery. With each, painstaking brushstroke a blackened skull began to take shape.

Victor Peers stood up, and with hands on hips he pushed his shoulders back to relieve the aches. He walked over and looked out from Skildergat Cave. Grasses outside swayed under the north-westerly wind, but the sandstone shelter protected him and his family from the rain the wind brought. Victor could see Fish Hoek, nestled below in the sand hills. His lookout, more than 100 metres above, gave him the perfect vantage to view the panorama of the Atlantic Ocean in the west or across False Bay towards the Indian Ocean in the east. The sea (a bountiful supplier of fish, mussels, shellfish and crayfish collected by the cave’s ancient inhabitants) lapped the wind-swept valley of shifting sand dunes on two sides.

The voice of his son broke Victor’s reverie. Continue reading

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Doublegee Dan

Hannah could stand it no longer. She had placed the dough into the oven earlier, and now the smell of the freshly-cooked bread twisted her stomach into knots. Feeling ill and lightheaded, she raised her hand to knock. Her nerve weakened. She turned and walked back towards the kitchen. Again, as if dancing, she wheeled away from the cooked loaves she had turned out on the table. She advanced to the entrance of the room where her employer’s wife sat, concentrating on her baby on her lap. Hannah tapped with shaking hands beside the open doorway to get the attention of the woman within. Hannah bit her lip. With eyes to the floor and before she could change her mind, she blurted out her request.

“Mrs Phillips, could I please have some of that bread I’ve just baked?”

Mrs Phillips looked up at the slight figure of the young woman framed in the doorway, and then to her baby, which was about the same age as Hannah’s baby, John. Hannah needed strength to be able to work and feed her baby as well. Both of them were so thin.

“Hannah,” Mrs Phillips said, “you take half of one of those loaves for you and Daniel.”

Hannah could hardly contain herself. She ran over and hugged Mrs Phillips, who was taken aback at the show of affection. Then, it was back to the kitchen at almost a run. She bent down and kissed baby John, who was asleep in his basket in the corner. Hannah cut one of the loaves in two, and before wrapping one half in a cloth to take to Daniel, she broke a piece off. That bread appeased her ailment more than medicine, as she savoured the taste of each, small bite. Continue reading

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Murder at Meredith

A shot split the night, and William Purcell buckled at the knees and fell forward to the ground. He groaned momentarily, the charge from the gun shattering his heart. William Patrick Purcell, an Irish baby thirty-four years before, baptised in hope in Cork City, put into Grangegorman Prison, Dublin as a four-year-old with his mother, a thief, and transported for his mother’s crime across the seas to the Queen’s Orphan School in Hobart, Van Diemen’s Land. William Patrick Purcell, a young, itinerant saddler and harness maker, the profession of his step-father, who crossed the seas once again for a new life in the Victorian goldfields. Here he met the daughter of a Ballarat miner, and a new family was started. William Patrick Purcell lay there, his life expired. Dead, before his eighth child was born.

Saddler William M. Jackson with his display of saddlery and leather work in the pavillion at the Stanthorpe Agricultural Show, 1920 Saddler 1920
Item is held by John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Public Domain This work has been identified as being free of known restrictions under copyright law, including all related and neighboring rights.


 “Another drink, Will?” Continue reading

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The Burden Riflemen

It has been interesting to discover that some of the Burden ancestors of Chris were involved in volunteer military groups. The first part of this blog post is an imagined scene – but based on facts.

Philip Burden woke early on the Saturday in March 1863 that had been chosen for an intercolonial rifle match between New South Wales and South Australia in their respective capitals. He was eager to see what weather the new day had brought. The day before, when he had been participating in a competition between his club and the Adelaide Rifles, the wind had picked up in the afternoon, so that it was impossible to keep his rifle steady when he fired his 10 shots at 800 yards. He winced when he remembered how his score had fallen off badly as the distances and the wind increased in parallel.

Philip and Mary’s two boys raced into the bedroom. Continue reading

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