There is a show on Australian TV at the moment called “Who do you think you are?” On it celebrities trace their ancestry. It says something about the Australian love of the under dog when they get really chuffed to discover a convict ancestor.
The first of my ancestors to settle in Australia were not convicts. Instead, they were on the run.
A couple of years ago my brother and I came across some old letters when we were sorting out family papers at my dad’s house. The letters were written by my great, great, great grandmother, Priscilla and are addressed to her daughter, Eliza, my great grandmother. The letters concern Eliza’s visit back to the family’s ancestral home in Essex, England and are Priscilla’s version of family history. She writes that her family lived in the country around the Essex border for ‘time out of mind’.
By putting together the clues in the letters my brother and I worked out that Priscilla and her husband John had been involved in some dodgy land deal. Priscilla is very concerned that her daughter does not pry too deeply into the past. “I am still wanted for questioning in the matter,” she writes.
It is unclear just what shady dealings Priscilla and John got up to but it was enough to make them flee to Australia in 1849. According to the shipping records they were accompanied by their nine children and the voyage took three and half months. Looking at the shipping records I calculate that the oldest child was eighteen while the youngest was just five. The trip must have been horrendous. Priscilla writes to Eliza to be very careful during her time in Essex and keep her parent’s whereabouts a secret. “Another sea voyage would do me up,” Priscilla writes.
The movements of Priscilla and John in Australia are also unclear. They disembarked at Adelaide and some of the adult children remained there. By the early 1860s they had made their way down into the part of Victoria known as Gippsland, the area I now live in. In those days Gippsland would have been a rugged place. The first white settlement of the area dates from the mid 1840s. Those first settlers lived like aristocrats although many came from very poor circumstances in Britain. There is evidence to suggest that there was widespread slaughter of the aboriginal people but it is rarely acknowledged today. By the time Priscilla arrived in the area such nefarious deeds were in the past and were never discussed. The land laws had changed and it was possible for people to acquire small parcels of land and set up businesses in the frontier like towns. John and Priscilla settled down and John set up business as a cobbler. The children grew, scattered across southern Australia and New Zealand, married and had countless children. Many had ten or more. It would seem I have many, many distant relatives I have never met or even know the names of.
Eliza eventually returned to Australia with her new husband, a man from a well established family from Essex. A man from the family Priscilla had cautioned Eliza to steer clear of! The pair built a house on the outskirts of Melbourne, had a number of children who died in infancy and lived what sounds like very austere and tragic lives. Only my grandfather survived to adulthood. The family never lived in Gippsland and by the time my father had married and had his own family, the connection with the area was forgotten. Many years later I visited the area, fell in love with its rolling green hills and temperate rain forests and moved here. Although I’m not crazy about the place I’m living in right now, I’m finding it hard to imagine a life away from this little green corner of the world. Strange.
Strange too that John’s surname was actually Strange. John Sida Strange is the name recorded on list of passengers that set sail for Adelaide on The Senator in 1849. The Sida Strange’s were a large family from the Essex area and the origins of the name are well known. Back in the 1600s the Sida family fled religious persecution in Poland. They settled in Essex. Because they wore different clothes, ate strange food and spoke an unknown language they were know as the strange people. The name stuck and was eventually incorporated into their surname.
Looking at passenger list online I discover that Priscilla had retained her maiden name – maybe it was a common law marriage only. This story just gets better and better. No wonder I’ve always had trouble fitting into society – I’m genetically programmed to be a misfit!