Wednesday, 28 January 2015

52 Ancestors 2015 - Week 6 - So far away

It was on Australia Day, last year, that I began the 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks challenge. Many of the stories I wrote in the following months involved family members who left their home in the United Kingdom to travel to the other side of the world to live in Australia. The theme for Week 6 in the 52 Ancestors 2015, 'So far away', seems an appropriate topic to start writing on this Australia Day.

In 1967 Geoffrey Blainey published his book, A Tyranny of Distance, where he put forward the view that distance and isolation have shaped the history of Australia. This would have certainly been the case in the late eighteenth century and the nineteenth century.

Two hundred and twenty-seven years ago the ships of the First Fleet arrived in Sydney Cove and during the next few months the new penal colony of New South Wales was established as an outpost of Britain. The convicts who travelled on the eleven ships that made up the First Fleet had little hope of seeing England or their families again when the ships left Portsmouth on 13 May 1887. The ships arrived at their original destination, Botany Bay, on 18 January 1788 after a journey of 252 days however the plans changed and it was eight days later that they arrived at their new destination on 26 January.

We complain today about the long flight from Melbourne to London but the journey undertaken by the convicts of the First Fleet took eight and a half months, crammed in small ships with minimum space, minimum food and fresh water, no privacy and generally squalid conditions. There must have been times when they feared that they would not see land again especially when the ships encountered rough seas and storms. During the journey the ships called into Tenerife, Rio de Janeiro and Cape Town for fresh provisions - very different locations and weather conditions compared with England, even though the convicts would be confined aboard ship.

Prior to leaving the UK the convicts were in prison and / or prison hulks, sometimes for years before leaving the country. When the First Fleet convicts arrived at Sydney Cove they were greeted by bush and no buildings - a very different setting compared with the country they had left, particularly for those who lived in cities and towns. This was to be a penal colony but there was no need for prison walls as there was nowhere, initially, for the prisoners to go. There was only alien bush or the ocean.

The convict settlement at Sydney Cove was definitely isolated from England, particularly as communication was via mail carried by ships. When the ships that carried the convicts and their guards to Australia returned to England they carried communications from Captain Arthur Phillip reporting on the new colony and its requirements. It was not until the arrival of the ships of the Second Fleet in June 1790 that news was received from England. The ships did carry some supplies but they also carried additional convicts, many of whom were ill when they arrived.

For many years the colonies depended on deliveries of mail brought by ships from overseas. The arrival of ships was a much anticipated event and flagstaffs, such as the one erected in what is now the Flagstaff Gardens in Melbourne, were used to signal the arrival of a ship. Not everyone could read or write so many of the convicts, in particular, were therefore unable to communicate with family back home unless they could find someone to write / or read a letter for them.

People sending mail from Australia to overseas or from overseas to Australia needed to be aware of the departure date of ships. The weight of the mail was also a consideration. This point is illustrated in a copy of a letter that Jean Mackillop, in 1855, wrote to her daughter, Eleanora Hutton, who was living in India - also a place far away. She wrote that her grandson, George aged 5, would soon write to his parents: He is to write to you next, if he is a good boy – this goes via Marseilles and must therefore be brief and light. At the end of the letter she wrote: It is time I concluded this letter – for you will be puzzled to make it out. I would have entered more into details if I had been aware we cd exceed the ½ oz.

The twelve convicts in my family who came to Australia obviously travelled half way around the world because they had no choice. They made the best of their life and married convicts or children of convicts and had families of their own. Those who were married in England had to wait seven years from the time of their arrest before they could remarry. The convicts initially lived in Sydney before eight of them moved to the Hawkesbury area. Two went to Norfolk Island in 1790 and in the early 1800s transferred to the new colony of Van Diemen's Land. In each of the new colonies the settlement needed to be built from scratch. When the former convicts acquired land they had to build accommodation as well as prepare the land for farming. It would not have been easy but it was their new life and it could probably be argued that they had a better life in Australia than if they had remained in the United Kingdom.

The first family member to settle in Australia of his own will was Thomas Birch (1767-1821) who arrived in Hobart Town in 1808 as a ship's surgeon. When the ship was unable to make the return journey Thomas decided to try his luck in Hobart Town becoming a successful merchant. His daughter, Sarah, married Simeon Lord (the son of a convict) who had purchased property in Van Dieman's Land. At least two of the sons of Sarah and Simeon were sent to England for part of their education so there may have been some contact with family in England.

George Mackillop (1790-1865) brought his family to Van Diemen's Land, via India in 1834 where they stayed for about six years. George was a merchant in India and as well as conducting business in Van Diemen's Land he was looking for opportunities in the new colony of Victoria. George and his family returned to Edinburgh around 1840, the family finally settling in Bath. However two of George's daughters returned to Victoria with their husbands, also via India. Eleonora married William Forbes Hutton (1816-1896) and the family settled in Australia in the early 1870s. Georgina married Thomas Bruce Hutton and they arrived in Melbourne in 1872. These families kept in touch with the family in England and in 1873 William Forbes Hutton travelled to England to settle family matters and returned with two of his children in 1874. His wife and the other children arrived soon afterwards.

Other family members such as the Weston and Cox families started arriving in Australian as free settlers from the 1830s.  The Hillcoats arrived in 1852 and after six years in the colony of South Australia, resulting in John Hillcoat running up debts he could not pay, the family returned to England for a brief stay before once again trying their luck in Australia - this time in the colony of New South Wales.  Members of the Smith family came individually to Australia in the 1850s. In all the father, John Smith, and four of his children had migrated to Australia from England. The Thom family arrived in 1877 after William Thom had died, possibly because an older son was already in the country.

Over the years the time of the journey between Britain and Australia decreased as larger ships were built and steam ships started to be used during the 1850s. The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 also reduced the time required for the voyage. However Australia still remained a country far away.

In the 21st century, however, distance  no longer means isolation from the rest of the world. Today people from Australia frequently fly to England and other countries in Europe, usually taking about a day and a half to get there. Advances in communication such as telephone, wireless, television and now the Internet have allowed us to almost instantly know and see what is happening in other parts of the world. Email and social media tools, such as Facebook, provide us with the opportunity to communicate instantly with family and friends in countries on the other side of the world such as Britain and Canada. So although we are far away in distance those of us living in Australia, unlike our Ancestors, are no longer isolated from the rest of the world.

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