Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Robert Forrester's Wife Mary Frost

On 19 October 1791, the marriage of a Robert Forster to a woman named Mary Frost was recorded in the parish registers of St Philip's Church of England in Sydney. Robert made his mark but Mary signed her name, unusual for women in Sydney at that time..

Excerpt from Parish Registers, St Philip's Sydney, SAG Film 90, Mitchell Library

Who was Robert’s bride? Mary’s identity remains shrouded in mystery. Her date and ship of arrival in the colony of New South Wales are not known for sure. The known details of other women in the colony named Mary Frost exclude them as candidates. 

When 'Robert Forrester, First Fleeter' was published in January 2009, it contained an Appendix canvassing Mary's possible identity (Appendix 3). With a Second Edition of the book nearing completion, that Appendix has been omitted to allow space for new material and the deleted information appears below instead.

Mary Frost, arrived Neptune

Mary Frost of the Second Fleet ‘death ship’ Neptune was not Robert’s bride.

This Mary broke into the house of John Betts in the small village of Hoe, near Dereham in Norfolk, in October 1788 and stole various items of wearing apparel and some flour, thus sounding like a poor country girl, rather than an educated woman. She spent five months in gaol in Norwich Castle before being convicted on 19 March 1789 at Thetford in Norfolk, sentenced to death and immediately reprieved.[1]

Only two months after her arrival in Sydney she went with a large group of convicts to Norfolk Island aboard Surprize, arriving there on 7 August 1790. Their relocation was intended to help relieve the pressure on Sydney’s food supplies.

At Norfolk Island Mary Frost of the Neptune married Joshua Peck.[2] First Fleeter Peck had travelled on the same transport ship as Robert Forrester and was sent to Norfolk Island in October 1790. A number of marriages were performed there by the visiting chaplain in November 1791, and one must have been the Peck/Frost marriage, as the Peck children carried their father’s name after 1791. Records of the marriage do not survive.

Frances/Mary Frost, arrived Lady Juliana

Another convict sent to Norfolk Island aboard Surprize at the same time as Mary Frost was Frances Frost, rather confusingly and mistakenly listed by Smee as Mary Frost.[3] Frances Frost, who had originally arrived in Sydney on 3 June 1790 aboard the Second Fleet ship Lady Juliana, was not Robert’s bride either.

At Norfolk Island Frances had at least two children, one of whom was Sarah who died in October 1795 aged 4, so born in 1791. Frances left Norfolk Island a few weeks after Sarah's death, in November 1795, returning again in 1796, suggesting ‘she was the wife or mistress of a New South Wales Corps soldier’. A second child named Sarah or Elizabeth Frost was born on Norfolk Island in October 1796. Frances Frost may also have been the mother of a child, or children, named Mary Frost and born on Norfolk Island.[4]

Two or Three Mary Frosts on Norfolk Island at the end of 1791

It is known that Robert Forrester went to Norfolk Island almost immediately after his marriage, arriving in November 1791, with his wife, also named Mary Frost according to the record of marriage. But ... the Mary Frost (Forrester?) who arrived at an unspecified date in November 1791 was listed as a child, who departed on 21 November 1792.[5] The entry may have signified the baptism and death of a child, born either to Mary Frost and Joshua Peck before their marriage, or born to Frances Frost. The departure date otherwise does not make sense. No ship left Norfolk Island on 21 November 1792, unless this was a typological error for the departure for Sydney of Atlantic on 21 September 1792 or the departure of Britannia on 21 November 1793, both ships bound for India.

Such an interpretation of baptism and death in infancy fits with the birth or baptism of another Mary Frost on 21 December 1793, for whom there is no departure date from Norfolk Island.[6] This child did not carry the surname Peck, so could have been a child of Frances Frost.

Mary Frost and Joshua Peck had a number of children together on Norfolk Island.[7] Some were born later in New South Wales, and in Tasmania.[8] When Joshua Peck returned to Sydney for a period, on 30 March 1793 aboard Chesterfield, his wife supposedly went with him.[9]

Yet a convict woman named Mary Frost, from the Surprize, appears in the Norfolk Island Victualling Book throughout the period 1792-1795, receiving daily victuals for most of 1793 and all of 1794 and 1795. Was this Joshua's wife?

In the later 1790s Joshua Peck's wife Mary Frost travelled several times between Norfolk Island and Sydney on business aboard Reliance, without her husband but with his knowledge and consent, and was in Sydney with Joshua Peck in May 1799 when she charged a soldier with rape, committed on the road to the Hawkesbury. The court believed the rape claim was true, of the soldier concerned, but could not prove it, especially as the evidence suggested Mary was a woman of somewhat easy morals and her husband confirmed that he had already forgiven her once for her ‘incontinence’.[10]

The Pecks were apparently resettled in Tasmania at the end of 1807. In the 1811 Muster the Mary Frost married to Joshua Peck was recorded with Joshua Peck at Hobart as ‘Mary Peck, Neptune (her ship of arrival in Australia), March 1789, Thetford’. She died near Launceston in 1847.

Robert Forrester left Norfolk Island in March 1793 and returned to Sydney without his wife Mary Frost. As described in the First Edition of the Forrester book, and will be described in the Second Edition, her ultimate fate remains unknown.

Please email me If you'd like to join the waiting list for the new book. For more details, see my website

[1] Needham, Women of 1790 Neptune, pp 31, 141, 143
[2] Gillen, Founders, p 131
[3] Smee, Second Fleet Families. Smee has mixed up the various women named Mary and Frances Frost
[4] Flynn, The Second Fleet, pp 280-1
[5] Nobbs, Norfolk Island, p 206
[6] Ibid, p 206
[7] Ibid, p 208
[8] Needham, Women of 1790 Neptune, p 143
[9] Gillen, Founders, pp 281 & 213
[10] Macquarie University website, ‘Decisions of the Superior Courts of New South Wales, 1788-1899’,,%201799.htm

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Isabella Ramsay's Origins

Many of the First Fleeters who arrived in Sydney Cove on 26 January 1788 never found a wife. There just weren't enough women to go round.

The story of the convict 'Robert Forrester, First Fleeter', published in January 2009, would never have been told if he'd been one of these men. Luckily, he found a mate in Isabella Ramsay, who arrived in Sydney Cove as a convict on 9 July 1791. Robert and Isabella had nine children together, making her one of the founding mothers of modern Australia. Their numerous descendants retain a keen interest in their story.

But who was Isabella and where did she come from?

The Ramsays

The details of Isabella's trial at Carlisle, Cumberland in 1790 (published in full in the book) narrowed the focus of the search for her to north-west England, on the border with Scotland. Her child-bearing years extended from 1794 to 1806, placing her date of birth somewhere between 1750 and 1780.

Isabella Ramsay's Place of Origin

Ten years ago, before the advent of Ancestry, Find My Past and the like, the International Genealogical Index (IGI) was the obvious place to start the search for Isabella’s family of origin. For baptisms of girls named Isabella Ramsay in the period 1750-1780, only two children emerged as serious options, both baptised in 1773 in Cumberland.
  • The first child was Isabela Ramsey, daughter of Thomas, christened on 10 June 1773 at All Saints Cockermouth. (Source: Bishop's Transcripts, 1689-1830, Cockermouth, Cumberland, LDS Film 0090596)
  • The second was Isabella Ramsay, daughter of William, baptised on 17 October 1773 at Workington. (Source: Bishop's Transcripts,  St Michael, Workington, Cumberland, LDS Film 90689, Items 4-6)
Ten years later, no-one else has emerged as a possible contender.

Cockermouth is not far from Workington and parish records are consistent with Thomas and William being brothers, along with another man named James Ramsay. Brief descriptions of their families follow.

Thomas Ramsay of Cockermouth

Thomas Ramsay was christened at the Presbyterian Church in Workington, Cumberland, in 1749 as a son of William Ramsay and Ann Buckingham.

He married Ann Paul in Gateshead, Durham, on 22 December 1765.

On 10 June 1773 at All Saints Cockermouth, three daughters of a Thomas Ramsey, hatter, were baptised. The youngest of the three was Isabela Ramsey. This baby was buried 17 days later, so could not have been the woman transported to New South Wales.

Two more children were born to Thomas and Ann.

If baby Isabela’s father was the same Thomas baptised back in 1749, then she was a cousin of the other Isabella who was baptised in 1773.

William Ramsay of Workington

William Ramsay was christened at the Presbyterian Church in Workington, Cumberland, in 1753 as a son of William Ramsay and Ann Buckingham. His age at death suggests that he may have been born around 1750. At that time, Workington was a major seaport and shipbuilding town.

William Jnr became a seaman, and in the course of his travels he met Mary Wind, who he married in Gateshead, Durham, on 22 December 1771. Gateshead was directly across country from Workington. His likely brother Thomas also married in Gateshead, in 1765. William and Mary lived in Gateshead for a short period before returning to Workington.

William Ramsay and Mary Wind had the following children:

  1. Margaret Ramsay was christened in Gateshead, Durham, on 11 October 1772. Margaret, daughter of William Ramsay, was buried on 26 January 1777 at St Michael's in Workington, Cumberland. Her age was not given but she was four years old.
  2. Isabella Ramsay, daughter of William Ramsay, and one of a set of twins, was christened at St Michael’s in Workington on 17 October 1773.
  3. Ann Ramsay, daughter of William Ramsay, and the other twin, was christened at St Michael’s in Workington on 17 October 1773. Ann died before December 1777, when a second child named Ann was baptised.
Baptism, Ann & Isabella, daurs of Wm Ramsay

The record for the first Ann’s burial has not been found in the parish transcripts for St Michael’s in Workington, but the transcripts contain only two burials in December 1773, an unusually low number, suggesting that some records from the original registers were missing or illegible. Alternatively, it is possible that Ann was baptised twice, in 1773 and again in 1777.

Assuming that baby Ann did die in December 1773, it seems likely that the twins’ mother died too, as William Ramsay, a mariner, married a woman named Mary Ramsay at St Michael’s in Workington on 30 May 1774. Mary was possibly William’s first cousin, brought in to look after his two infant children (Margaret and the surviving twin, Isabella).

William Ramsay and Mary Ramsay had the following children:

  1. James Ramsay, son of William Ramsay, was christened at St Michael’s in Workington on 2 July 1776. James was buried on 11 February 1799 at St Michael's in Workington. No age was given, but he was aged 22.
  2. Ann Ramsay, daughter of William Ramsay, was christened at St Michael’s in Workington on 7 December 1777.  She married the mariner Leonard Crosthwaite at St Michael’s in Workington on 21 July 1796. He died at sea soon after their marriage, along with two brothers (Source: The London Chronicle, Vol 82, J Wilkie, 1797, p 482), but not before fathering a son Leonard Crosthwaite Jnr, who was baptised at St Michael’s in Workington on 29 January 1798 as the son of Leonard (dec’d) and Ann Crosthwaite. 
    Ann survived as a grocer, later helped by her son, and remained a widow until her death at Beckfoot, on the coast north of Workington, in the district of Holme Cultrant Abbey. She was buried at St Michael’s in Workington on 14 June 1832, her age given as 57 years. As a precise calculation, the age at death puts her date of birth between 15 June 1774 and 14 June 1775, in between the two baptism records for Ann Ramsay, but ages given at death are often an approximation. In Ann's case, the informant was likely her elderly father or her son.
  3. Elizabeth Ramsay, daughter of William & Mary Ramsay, was christened at St Michael’s in Workington on 20 February 1780. Elizabeth, daughter of William Ramsay, was buried on 19 April 1799 at St Michael's in Workington. No age was given, but she was 19 years old.
  4. Mary Ramsay, daughter of William & Mary Ramsay, was christened at St Michael’s in Workington on 10 February 1783. Mary, daughter of William Ramsay, mariner, died on 5 October 1807, and was buried two days later at St Michael's in Workington. She would have been 24 years old.
The names Isabella Ramsay later chose for her Australian-born children led to the conclusion that her father was indeed William Ramsay of Workington. Isabella Ramsay’s four Australian daughters were named Elizabeth, Margaret, Ann and Isabella, the same names as for herself and her half-sisters, except for Mary. Perhaps Mary was not chosen as a name in Australia because Bella and her step-mother Mary did not get along.

Only one of Isabella’s siblings lived long enough to marry, which also fits with her own apparent death at a relatively young age.

Yet another point of support for this being Isabella’s family of origin is the disappearance of Isabella from parish records (Bishops Transcripts) in Cumberland. No marriage was recorded for Isabella, and no burial, whereas the life cycle for the rest of this family can be traced, except for her twin, as noted. Isabella’s departure from Cumberland is therefore consistent with parish records.

Isabella’s step-mother Mary, wife of William Ramsay, mariner, was buried at St Michael’s, Workington on 11 January 1819. Her age was stated at 68 years.

Isabella’s father William lived on for another thirteen years. He died two months after his daughter Ann, and was buried at St Michael’s in Workington as an 82-year-old mariner, on 11 August 1832. His entire family in Cumberland had predeceased him, except for his grandson Leonard Crosthwaite, who died in 1867, unmarried and childless. William probably never knew about the fate of his daughter Isabella and his numerous grandchildren on the other side of the world.

James Ramsay of Whitehaven

Isabella’s uncle James Ramsay was christened in 1756 at the Presbyterian Church in Workington, Cumberland. He was a son of William Ramsay and Ann Buckingham.

James Ramsay and his wife Dinah née Banks lived in Addison’s Alley, Whitehaven, a booming seaport a little further to the south of Workington. At the time it was the second busiest port in England, after London. Baptisms for James and Dinah’s four children were recorded in the Scotch Presbyterian Church in James Street, Whitehaven between 1778 and 1784. Their daughter Dinah died in 1782, aged two years.

James Ramsay was buried in St Nicholas Old Chapel, Whitehaven on 26 January 1785. Six weeks later his youngest daughter died, also named Dinah. Dinah was left to care for her surviving daughter Nanny and son James.

Dinah remarried on 30 January 1788, to a man named Archibald Stoup. Both of Dinah’s marriages are recorded in the parish records of St Nicholas, Old Chapel. Dinah remained a resident of Addison’s Alley, where two Stoup children were born, Mary in 1788 and Alexander in 1792, and the Stoups then moved, as Dinah’s last child Isaac Stoup was born at Michael St, Whitehaven in 1796. All three Stoup baptisms are recorded in the same parish records as their Ramsay half-siblings.


The above details provide an updated version of Appendix 5 in the book  'Robert Forrester, First Fleeter', a book which contains much more about Isabella herself and is currently being revised. The new book won't include the above genealogical details, to save space, so they are 'preserved' here. This culling will leave room in the Second Edition of the book for all the new perspectives on the lives of Robert Forrester and Isabella Ramsay, collected over the past ten years.

Please email me if you'd like to join the waiting list for the new book. For further details, see my website.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Robert Forrester's Origins

Generally speaking, Forrester is a northern English/Scottish lowlands surname, but Robert was arrested in London, and proclaimed himself as a stranger in London, providing a flimsy basis for determining his birthplace.

Despite extensive consideration of the three traditional genealogical points of reference (place of birth, date of birth and marital status), Robert’s origins remained unclear when 'Robert Forrester, First Fleeter' was published in January 2009. Various options were summarised in Appendix 1 of that book and are re-published in this post to 'preserve' the lines of enquiry, although they are now rejected as possibilities.

Working back from his stated age of sixty nine at the time of his death in February 1827, this being a notoriously unreliable genealogical indicator, he was born between 15 February 1757 and 14 February 1758. If his recorded age of twenty four years when he was incarcerated in the hulks on the Thames is reliable, his date of birth was around 1758 or 1759.

Robert Forrester's Headstone, Windsor, NSW
Back in 2008, of the thirty or so specific baptism entries in the International Genealogical Index (IGI) for the years 1757, 1758 and 1759, only three contained the correct spelling of this surname, and many of the other twenty seven were the sons of fathers with given names like Jonathan, Ridgway, James and Francis, names not chosen by Robert for any of his own sons.

A selective analysis of these baptismal records follows, and one marriage for a Robert Forrester with the correct spelling has been reviewed. Others may disagree with the conclusions drawn, and may care to research every single option.

When he came into contact with the law, Robert was living in the major parish of St Giles in the Fields in London, and although he claimed at his trial to be a stranger there, this could have been untrue. If so, finding his baptism in London would be a long, slow process. Many of the parish records for London have not yet been added to computerised indices, so many possibilities for the birth of a Robert Forrester in London may be hidden in the extensive microfilmed records at the London Metropolitan Archives or the City of Westminster Archives Centre.

Option 1

The first correctly-spelled Robert Forrester baptism which has been indexed was recorded at Founders Hall. Lothbury. Scots Church London in September 1757.[i] Some descendants claim him as the First Fleeter, but this researcher has studied the parish records and does not agree with that conclusion. That particular child was the second of six children born to a tallow chandler named Robert Forrester and baptised at the family home, York Buildings, Buckingham St, Strand, no mother’s name being given. The Strand was very close to St Giles in the Fields, so the geographic link is strong. The tallow chandler must have been a man of some means, as all his children received private baptisms at home. The other sibling names in that particular family were Stephen, Joseph, Rebecca, Elizabeth and Susanna.

Although the general location and spelling of the surname is correct, economic circumstances and naming patterns suggest that the family concerned is almost certainly NOT relevant to Robert Forrester of the First Fleet. Unless the tallow chandler had fallen on hard times or died, why would Robert Forrester live in a doss house when his own family lived close by in relative comfort? Furthermore, the First Fleeter did not choose Stephen, Joseph, Rebecca or Susanna as names for any of his later children, although he did utilise the popular girl’s name of Elizabeth. For those who disagree with the author, further examination of the affairs of the tallow chandler might yield further insights.

Option 2

A second Robert Forrester with the correct surname was baptised a long distance from London, in Newcastle on Tyne on 5 March 1759. His parents were Matthew and Mary. His background needed further analysis, using original parish records, but the name Matthew aroused suspicions and none of his daughters was named Mary.

Option 3

An interesting third option was the Robert Forrester baptism on 10 April 1757 in Marblehead, Essex, Massachusetts.[ii] Many families of Scottish origin had moved to America by this date. At that time Marblehead was an important fishing and trading port not far from Boston, where the famous ‘Boston Tea Party’ of 1773 symbolized the start of demands for independence from Britain. Proposing that Robert might have been an American-born ‘refugee’ in London in 1783 is not a far-fetched notion, as large numbers of displaced American loyalists moved northwards to Canada or across the Atlantic to Britain after America’s War of Independence resulted in defeat for the British and their supporters.

This child’s baptism record gives the parent names as John Forrester of Nerne (the seaport Nairn?), Great Britain (Scotland) and his wife Abigail née Oakes, who were married in Marblehead on 3 January 1750.[iii] His other siblings were John, Samuel and Francis. John, the eldest boy, was married in Marblehead in 1775 but soon died (fighting in the war?), as his widow Eleanor remarried in 1779.[iv] Of these names, only John turns up in the family of the First Fleeter Robert Forrester.

Family naming patterns were not promising, but further investigations seemed necessary. The 17 volume publication ‘Massachusetts Soldiers and Sailors of the Revolutionary War’, on CD, did not contain any mention of any Robert Forresters, or any variations of that surname. Assistance was sought from the Reference Librarian at Lynn Public Library, Massachusetts.[v] She searched through the library’s information concerning the revolutionary war, viz: 'Rolls of the Soldiers in the Revolutionary War 1775-1783' by Vermont; 'British Americans: The Loyalist Exiles in England 1774-1789' by Norton; 'Mary Beth Encyclopedia of the American Revolution' by McKay; 'Loyalists in the American Revolution' by Van Tyne; and 'Claude Pictorial Field Book of the Revolution' by Lossing, Vols I & II. Again, there was no reference to anyone with a name like Robert Forrester.

Option 4

Regarding his marital status, evidence given at his trial in April 1783 implies that young Robert was unmarried, since he shared a room in a lodging house with other men. If he was married, a wide range of possible marriages exist. Only one has been followed up: the marriage of Robert Forrester to Mary Pratt after Banns on 22 May 1780 at St Andrew, Enfield, north of the City of London.[vi] The groom was a bachelor of the parish, the bride a spinster of the parish. The groom made his mark and the bride signed, in the presence of the Vicar Richard Newbon and witnesses Thos Brewer and John Bradshaw, who both signed. Several other weddings at this church during the 1770s involved Pratt family members, but there were no other Forrester weddings. The groom must have been a temporary resident of the parish.

If the Robert Forrester who married Mary Pratt then moved to the parish of St Giles in the Fields, this was not evidenced in parish registers. There were no baptisms in the latter parish from May 1780 to February 1784 for any children of a man named Robert Forrester. The only Forrester baptism in the parish during the period March 1777 to February 1784 was for Christopher Forrester on 17 August 1783, a son of Christopher and Elizabeth Forrester, whose possible connection to Robert Forrester has not been examined.

Turning to baptisms of children with surnames similar to Forrester, the starting point must be St Giles in the Fields. This being a major London parish, the parish clerks here would have been very well educated and aware of spelling for names. The relevant parish records have been checked, but the Robert baptised there on 22 October 1758 was a son of John and Elizabeth Fewster, and the Robert christened there on 8 June 1759 was a son of Robert and Mary Forrest.[vii] Robert’s name was spelt as either Forrester or Forester in court, and it is presumed that he knew how to say his own name correctly, even if he was unable to write it, so the Fewster and Forrest baptisms at St Giles in the Fields are unlikely to have been relevant.

Although Robert was associated with a man from Ireland when arrested, indexed baptism and marriage entries provide no particular links for Robert back to Ireland.

Option 5

Given his later rapid alliance with a woman from Cumberland, Robert Forrester of the First Fleet could have been the Robert Forster christened in November 1757 at Kirkandrews Upon Esk, north east of Carlisle in Cumberland, as a son of Arthur Forster.[viii] A large group of Forresters/Forsters lived in this parish, including men named John, Henry, William, Robert and George, all being names later used in the First Fleeter’s family. However, during a time when family naming traditions were much stronger than now, none of Robert’s later sons were given the name of Arthur, perhaps casting doubt on this as Robert’s family of origin. For similar reasons, other children from this county were considered unlikely.

However, as the Forrester book went to print in 2009, the author concluded that 'these parish records now provide the best hope of ‘finding’ Robert, and detailed research by others, connecting these Cumberland Forrester/Forster family members, may yield good results'.

Note: Please Discard All of the Above Options 

The further research in Cumberland, recommended in 2009, was taken further during November 2017, and written up as one of my earlier blog posts.

Kirkandrews upon Esk, November 2017
BUT, due to further research during 2018, the theory that Robert came from Cumberland has now been discarded and it's unlikely he was baptised at Kirkandrews upon Esk in 1757. Indeed, it became clear during 2018 that none of the above five options apply to the First Fleeter named Robert Forrester.

Thanks to the analysis work conducted throughout 2018 by my fifth cousin Stuart Hamilton, another Forrester descendant, DNA testing has short-circuited the guessing game about Robert's family of origin. DNA testing has yielded the surprising result that Robert was most likely the Scottish-born son of an unmarried Forrester woman and a man named John McGaw. Robert adopted his mother's surname and appears (at this stage) to have been unbaptised. Further details will be published in the Second Edition of 'Robert Forrester, First Fleeter', due to be published in 2019.

The new book won't include the genealogical details published in Appendix 1 of the old book, to save space. As explained at the start, those details are retained here, in this blog post. This change in content will leave room to include all the new perspectives on the lives of Robert Forrester and Isabella Ramsay, collected over the past ten years. See my website for basic details and updates. Please email me if you'd like to join the waiting list for the Second Edition of this book.

[i] PRs, Founders Hall Lothbury & Scots Church London Wall, Film MS 4962, Guildhall Library, London
[iv] Ibid
[v] Lisa Kulyk-Bourque, Reference Librarian, Lynn Public Library,
[vi] PRs, St Andrew Enfield, Middlesex, England, LDS Film 585399
[vii] PRs, St Giles in the Fields, London Metropolitan Archives
[viii] IGI, on Website

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Seven Dead Babies in Ten Years

Family history came into sharp focus for me last week when Kathleen Folbigg made the news again. In 2003 she was found guilty of the murder of three of her infant children and the manslaughter of a fourth, for which she is serving a sentence of 30 years imprisonment. Damning evidence against her claimed there had never been three or more infant deaths in the same family attributed to unidentified natural causes. Smothering was suspected. Following appeals by her legal team over the forensic evidence offered in her trial, the NSW Attorney-General has now ordered a judicial inquiry into her convictions.

History tells us that women can be serial killers and a long list of candidates has been compiled to prove it. Several books have been written about Kathleen's dastardly crimes, but is she Australia's worst female serial killer .... or not a serial killer at all? Have authorities in NSW considered the experience of Martha Nicholls, who lost seven infants in quick succession back in the 1880s and 1890s? If confronted by her maternal record today, what would the authorities do with poor Martha?

Martha Margaret Buttsworth was born at Wilberforce NSW on 15 January 1858. In 1883 she married local farmer George Nicholls of Freemans Reach. Nicholls was a great-grandson of the First Fleeter, Robert Forrester via his daughter Ann and granddaughter Jane Martin and was therefore a distant relation of mine. From information on the public record, here is the heart-breaking series of infant births and deaths for the children born to Martha and George Nicholls:
  1. Ella May Nicholls was born in Mar 1884 and died on 24 Nov 1884, aged 8 months.
  2. Arthur George Nicholls was born in Mar 1885 and died on 21 Apr 1885, aged 4 weeks, 2 days.
  3. Martha Nicholls was born in Nov 1886 and died on 16 Nov 1886, aged 9 days.
  4. Florrie Alice Nicholls was born in Feb 1888 and died on 6 Mar 1888, aged 1 month.
  5. Minnie (or Millie) Myrtle Ridge Nicholls was born in Apr 1890 and died on 6 Aug 1890, aged 4 months.
  6. Elsie Jane Nicholls was born in Apr 1892 and died on 16 May 1892, aged 5 weeks 4 days.
  7. Alfred Ernest Nicholls was born in Mar 1894 and died on 7 Apr 1894, aged 3 weeks. His demise was the only reference made by the local paper to the extraordinary events in this family: "A child of Mr George Nicholls died last week. Mr and Mrs Nicholls are deeply sympathised with in their sad bereavement." ('Wilberforce', Windsor & Richmond Gazette, Sat 14 Apr 1894, p 10)
  8. Martha’s eighth and youngest child survived her infancy and childhood. Essie Margaret Nicholls was born in 1896. She married Ernest Roy Rutter in 1921 at Rockdale in Sydney and it's believed they had three children. She died on 11 December 1988.
As part of their review of the Folbigg case, the NSW authorities would do well to examine the death certificates for the Nicholls babies, all of whom are buried at the Wilberforce Cemetery, where their parents later joined them. No suspicion surrounding these infant deaths seems to exist and they were buried in what was then a consecrated Church of England cemetery. It's a beautiful, peaceful resting place but unfortunately, as I live in Melbourne, I don't have a picture of their specific grave, just this picture of nearby headstones. (Essie and Roy Rutter are buried in the churchyard of St Matthew's, Windsor.)

Wilberforce Cemetery, NSW
Happily for her, Martha had become a grandmother when she herself died suddenly on 24 July 1929, aged 71. Excerpts from her obituary in the local paper indicate that she was well-regarded in her community:
Much sympathy was expressed throughout the Hawkesbury district when it became known on Wednesday that Mrs. Martha Margaret Nicholls, wife of Mr. George Nicholls, a well-known identity of Freeman's Reach, had passed away that morning. Apparently in good health, the late Mrs. Nicholls visited Windsor last week to make arrangements in connection with some property which she owned, and her sudden passing caused a shock in the community.
Born at Wilberforce, the deceased was a member of a well-known Hawkesbury family, the late William and Margaret Buttsworth. She was married in Sydney 46 years ago to Mr. George Nicholls, a well-known and highly respected Freeman's Reach farmer and one of the original members of the Hawkesbury District Agricultural Association. The issue of the marriage was eight children, only one of whom (Mrs. Roy Rutter, of Freeman's Reach) is living.
The late Mrs. Nicholls, who had reached the allotted span of three score years and ten, was beloved and respected by all who knew her. Possessing a quiet and unassuming disposition, she was a true Christian woman, and was a great help to her husband on the farm. We join with many friends in expressing heartfelt sympathy with the bereaved widower. ('Obituary',  Windsor & Richmond Gazette, Fri 26 Jul 1929, p 3)
George was also described as an exemplary citizen when he died in 1941. The first part of his lengthy obituary states:
Few there are whose public service and personal merit over a long period of years gains them such standing in their district as to cause their passing to be looked upon almost as the loss of a cherished institution, but such a one was George Nicholls, estimable district citizen and resident of Freeman's Reach, whose death in the Hawkesbury District Hospital on Tuesday of last week, at the age of 87 years, has since been the subject of general and sincere expressions of regret throughout the Hawkesbury.
One of that select band who are prepared unselfishly, to give up a great proportion of their time to the service of their fellow men without expectation of reward, and withal an exemplary neighbor and kindly and generous friend, the late Mr. Nicholls throughout his long lifetime set an example for all to emulate, and for few to excel. Himself the fortunate possessor of robust health and the capacity to overcome these difficulties which beset every path of human endeavor, his readiness at all times to extend a helping hand to those not so well endowed, earned him a circle of staunch friends such as is granted only to such personalities, and his memory will be cherished for many years to come in the district of which he was always so proud.
A son of the late Mr. and Mrs. Frederick Nicholls, of Freeman's Reach, where he was born and remained throughout his life, the deceased came of a sturdy pioneer stock whose influence was reflected in his character. Even as a young man he took a close interest in various public bodies in his own centre and the district generally, and throughout his more mature years a great deal of his leisure from the farming activities in which he was engaged throughout his life was devoted to the public duties which he voluntarily undertook from a sense of citizenship which was always one of his most prominent traits.
('Obituary', Windsor & Richmond Gazette, Fri 13 Jun 1941, p 4)
It's clear that the parents George and Martha Nicholls lived a normal lifespan, even if Martha died suddenly and unexpectedly. Her death certificate, as well as those for her babies, might throw possible light on what was wrong with the Nicholls children. Does this family history case offer fresh food for thought for Kathleen Folbigg's legal team?

Monday, June 11, 2018

William Norris and daughter Nellie Norris - Update

Be patient - the 'juicy bits' of this story come later in this post.

Subsequent to the publication in August 2012 of my prize-winning book about the life of Charles Homer Martin, Ann Forrester and their children, Southwark Luck, many more newspapers have been digitised by the National Library of Australia, with their content accessible via that marvellous online resource Trove - so aptly named, being every researcher's treasure trove.

This meant I was able to confirm certain matters about Susannah Martin's husband William Norris, published in a blog story on 13 June 2013. This new post updates that original post.

In the five years since then, one of William's distant relatives by marriage, Carol Roberts of Windsor, has come into possession of an old family photo album. In November 1916 we met at Windsor and discussed the photos therein and, now that identities have been sorted out,  I'm happy to publish this photo of William Norris, 1840-1887, by courtesy of Carol Roberts.

The obituary for William & Susannah's daughter Nellie (Windsor & Richmond Gazette, Fri 16 Mar 1928, p 3, col b) states that her father was licensee of the Railway Hotel in Windsor for a period. Therefore the William Norris life events I described on pages 282-285 of my book Southwark Luck definitely applied to Nellie's father and not a different man by that name.

Finding Nellie's published obituary also allowed me to correct the details about her date of death, as published on page 292 of Southwark Luck. She died on 9 March 1928, as Nellie Dowling. Her new name points to a much more important aspect of Nellie's life and times. Please read on.

She was Nellie Dowling because two years earlier, on 27 February 1926, at St Mary Immaculate Church in the Sydney suburb of Manly where her new mother-in-law lived, Nellie had married Charles Edward Dowling. He'd gone to war in 1916 over-stating his age and claiming to be a 21-year-old farmer, but his marriage record ten years later declared his true age (28 years) and gave his occupation as linesman.

Pianist Nellie, on the other hand, was now 46 years old but she stated her age as 31 years. It was true, she looked youthful in her photo (taken at an unknown date) but it's often hard for women to disguise their age to that extent.

Why did she do this? Did Charles know, or ever learn, the truth? By all accounts the Dowlings were a devoted couple during their short married life, and young Charles mourned the loss of his wife. He honoured her with 'In Memoriam' notices in 1929 and 1930 before his own death in Queensland in 1935.

Carol Roberts of Windsor has also recently discovered a wonderful photograph of Nellie, taken in Sydney much later in her life. Despite the poor quality of this old photo, Nellie did look much younger than her age! 

Later press coverage suggests that no-one from Windsor was present at the 1926 wedding ceremony - the witnesses were young Manly-based friends of the groom (William Patrick Daley and his brother Fred). If deliberate deception was intended, the marriage venue and choice of witnesses might have suited Nellie very well, as Windsor-ites might have let slip that she'd 'been around' for many years. But the groom no doubt knew this, as he'd been living locally, at Pitt Town, prior to the marriage.

There's a hint that community disapproval was behind Nellie's startling claim - definitely at Windsor (as will be seen), but possibly also among the groom's young friends. Maybe as a couple the Dowlings decided to maintain this public image, to avoid being objects of ridicule, because they immediately moved to live 'out west', far from both Windsor and Manly.

Let's step back to Nellie's character. Her photos do not suggest a flamboyant, 'Auntie Mame' type of personality, trying to be 'mutton dressed up as lamb', as that old saying goes. Indeed, she looks rather earnest, prim and proper in her younger photo and rather intelligent and thoughtful in the second photo, which probably indicates the way she presented herself to the world as a professional singer. And on page 288 of Southwark Luck I did not do her justice in describing her selfless community-mindedness, an attitude apparently absorbed from her mother. I'll redeem myself by re-publishing her obituary (Windsor & Richmond Gazette, Fri 16 Mar 1928, p 3, col b), which tells Nellie's story very well:

The Hawkesbury district was shocked on Friday last when the news became known that Mrs. Charles Dowling (nee Miss Nellie Norris) had passed away in Jenner Private Hospital, Sydney, after a short illness. The deceased was well-known throughout the district, where she did wonderful philanthropic work for many years. She was an accomplished pianiste, and. as Nellie Norris, as she was always affectionately called, carried on the profession of a musician in Windsor from girlhood. A wonderful organiser, she was one of the foremost workers at the farewell and welcome home functions to the soldiers during the war. She also arranged numerous entertainments for the District Hospital, and other local institutions, and with the tact and ability she displayed they were always a huge success.

Deceased was a native of Windsor, a daughter of the late William Norris, who was a successful farmer at Cornwallis for a number of years, and later the licensee of the Railway Hotel, Windsor. After the death of her parents, the subject of this notice lived with her brother-in-law, Mr. John Lamond, senr., the well-known Windsor hairdresser. About two years ago she married Mr. Charles Dowling, of Pitt Town Bottoms, and the couple subsequently took over the license of the Coolabah Hotel, at Coolabah, where they met with outstanding success. The late Mrs. Dowling continued her charitable work in the Nyngan district, and she and her husband, to whom she was greatly attached, became popular residents.

She had, however, not been in the best of health for some time past, and about a month ago entered Nyngan Hospital suffering from internal trouble. About a fort night ago she was brought to Sydney for treatment, but the case was a hopeless one and she passed away on Friday. At the time of death she was 48 years of age. The funeral took place on Saturday afternoon, the remains being laid to rest in St. Matthew's Catholic cemetery, Windsor, Rev. Father McNally performing the last sad rites.

Nellie's unconventional marriage must have shocked the citizens of her home town because two weeks after her death a local resident complained of the districts' ingratitude for Nellie's decades of community service and the show of indifference at her passing:

Being one who frequently admired the public spirit and charitable disposition of the late Mrs. Dowling (nee Nellie Norris), I was somewhat surprised that a public farewell was not tendered to her on the occasion of her marriage and departure from Windsor two years ago. For a period of about 35 years the deceased figured prominently at numerous entertainments in the old town, which never could claim a musician of a higher standard. I am led to believe that upon one occasion about £30 was raised from her own efforts in aid of the Windsor District Hospital, and with the Government subsidy that institution received approximately £60.

At all the functions in honor of 'The Boys' who went to the war, or returned home, Nellie Norris did her part and did it well. At different times her talents, her time, were freely given for the benefit of anyone or any public body that needed assistance yet when the time came for her to leave the old town where she had spent so many years of her life for the benefit of others, she was allowed to go without even the slightest recognition for all the valuable assistance so freely given. Surely she was worthy of some kind of testimonial of public farewell, just to show that her many years of service were valued and appreciated. Should not the hospital committee of the day and the general public hang their heads in shame!

This was not all. When the news filtered through the town and district that the Grim Reaper had claimed her as a victim in the noon day of her life, under circumstances both sudden and sad, what respect did Windsor public show when her remains were brought to her native town for burial? One could almost count on their finger tips the number who joined in that sad cortege at the graveyard. Should not the public of Windsor be doubly ashamed for the cold indifference manifested towards one of the finest musicians and citizens the town ever possessed?

It would have been only a fitting tribute of respect to her memory had all the public institutions flown flap [sic] at half mast high, and the public joined in hundreds at the graveside in loving memory of one who did so much for the slow, sleepy old town of Windsor. (Windsor & Richmond Gazette, Fri 30 Mar 1928, p 6, col a)

A subsequent article suggested that ‘it is not too late to perpetuate her memory by obtaining a life-size portrait and have same nicely framed, suitably inscribed, and hung, in some public place’. (Windsor & Richmond Gazette, Fri 20 Apr 1928, p 12, col d)

Nearly a century later, the above-mentioned Carol Roberts, whose short article about Nellie was published in the Hawkesbury Gazette on 29 May 2013, thinks it's possible that a plaque was eventually dedicated to Nellie's memory.

Today, nothing is known of either a portrait or a plaque honouring one of Windsor's premier, if unconventional, female citizens. At least we now have this second picture of Nellie. The story reminds us that back then, and often today, it's acceptable for a man to marry a woman many years younger than himself, but not vice-versa.

Friday, December 29, 2017

On the Trail of the Forresters in Cumberland

I haven't forgotten Robert Forrester and his family, despite the infrequent posts on this blog. Far from it. I’ve just spent a month in England, including four days in and around Carlisle, trying to work out whether he originated in Cumberland, an English county on the border with Scotland.

Having eliminated a number of other possible options for his home district in Appendix 1 of my book 'Robert Forrester, First Fleeter', published early in 2009, on page 324 I flagged Cumberland as worthy of further investigation. Was he, in fact, the Robert Forster who was born at Kingfield, Nicholforest and baptised at Kirkandrews upon Esk on 13 November 1757? (There'll be more on the Forster vs Forrester surname later in this post.) This was a baptism complying exactly with the right range of dates for the First Fleeter's birth, according to his early prison records and his age at death. The Robert born at Kingfield seemed to be the youngest member of a Forster family living at Kingfield at that time, with an older brother named William and another possible brother named John.
Location of Nicholforest, Cumberland, from

I started my research in the Carlisle Archives with the idea of tracing all the men with a name like Robert’s (Forrester/Forester/Forster/Foster) to see which of them might have disappeared out of the district, just as Robert’s partner Isabella Ramsay had disappeared from hers after her trial at nearby Carlisle. But during the 1780s and 1790s a number of Roberts remained in the Kirkandrews and Nicholforest area, marrying, having children and being buried, and there was no way of telling one from the other.

During the three days I spent in the Carlisle Archives I was fortunate to meet Chester Forster, the former Chairman of the Friends of Cumbria Archives and a local expert on the Forrester/Forester/Forster/Foster families of the specific parishes I was researching. I was able to tap into his years of research. He kindly emailed me his parish records of these families. Now that I am back in Melbourne, I need to do much more cross-checking within these parish records, especially the death records.

More importantly, Chester offered to show me round the district on the fourth day, Saturday. My marvellous Yorkshire friends and hosts Sir Stephen & Lady Pamela Brown and myself, in one car, followed Chester and his wife in their car to all the places mentioned in the parish records I’d just spent days poring over. It was invaluable as an experience and I’m very grateful to Chester - and the Browns.
Chester Forster (left) explains local history to Sir Stephen Brown

We started with the church of Saint Andrews beside the river Esk (Kirkandrews upon Esk), today located within Scotland. The church is a surprise package in itself, so Spartan on the outside, yet so Mozartian on the inside.
Kirkandrews upon Esk
Interior of Kirkandrews upon Esk

Further along the valley we crossed the river back into England and moved on to Kingfield. Even Kingfield’s ‘gatehouse’ was impressive.
Kingfield Lodge

Our wonderful guide Chester came from this area so he walked up the driveway to the main house and spoke to the owner, Mr James Thomson-Schwab, who readily gave permission for us to enter and photograph his property. This was despite the presence of the local gentry who happened to be gathered there that day for a ‘shoot’. It was exceedingly obliging of the owner.
Evidence of the Pheasant Shoot

We drove in and I was astonished. Surely Kingfield had not once been Robert’s home? It was far too grand.
Kingfield House

The parish church for the Robert Forrester born here in 1757 was at Kirkandrews, but close to Kingfield was the chapel of ease known as Nicholforest. We stopped at Nicholforest, which was not a separate parish back in 1757, nor was this church building in existence at that time.
Church of St Nicholas, Nicholforest

The road took us onwards past The Nook, where other Forresters had lived.
Signpost for The Nook (Nuik)

Once again, Chester walked down a laneway and once again obtained permission from the owners for me to take photographs.
The Nook Farmhouse

We ended up at Stonegarthside (sometimes written as Stingerside, always pronounced Sting-aside!) which Chester says is generally acknowledged as ‘the ancestral seat of the Forsters and that Forrester is interchangeable, depending upon the hearing of the vicar.’ (This spelling variation is also apparent in the early convict records for Robert Forrester.)

The house looks formidable and well evokes its local history. The district has a long history over many centuries of border clashes, as Scottish reivers (raiders) swept in from the north. Back in the sixteenth century the Forster/Forrester clan chief’s daughter married into the Armstrong clan which Chester described as ‘the most notorious of the Scottish reiving clans’.

The extensive farmyard lies between the house and the road, somewhat shielding the main house from view.
Stonegarthside Farmyard

Stonegarthside's bird life was also impressive.
Puffed up like a turkey – local pride at Stonegarthside

As we left the district for a very late lunch at Longtown we passed by Netherstonegarthside or Nether Stonegarthside, half a mile from the main property.

My first reaction to seeing Kingfield and Stonegarthside was to doubt that ‘our’ Robert was the 1757-born son of Arthur. The Forresters seemed to have been local gentry and the housing seemed far too grand to be the former home of the man we have always pictured as a humble First Fleeter.

However many other clues pointed to this district as Robert’s place of origin. For a start, in his new country Robert took up with Isabella Ramsay almost as soon as they met, although both were married to others. Did their bond form so quickly because they shared the same home district and regional accents, powerful comforts in the alien land of Australia to which they had both been banished?

Second, Robert bestowed upon his sons the given names which were very common in the parish of Kirkandrews upon Esk - Robert (after himself), John, Henry and William. A grandson was named George. These very traditional English names were not common in other potential places of his birth, including Scotland and America, or even among Forrester families living in London, where Robert said in 1783 that he was ‘a stranger’.

Third, when I spent a day driving around the geographically quite large parish of Kirkandrews upon Esk and its ‘offspring’ Nicholforest, I was struck by how similar was the landscape to the Hawkesbury Valley at Windsor. Both areas were once heavily-forested, and the evidence remains. There is a strong emphasis on farming and it seems it was ever thus, with the population of this affluent rural area seemingly as thinly spread as it would have been at the Hawkesbury in Robert’s day.
Rural Scene near Stonegarthside, with river in view

And there was the local parish church Kirkandrews, perched high above the river Esk just like the church of St Matthew overlooking the Hawkesbury River.
Kirkandrews is built on high ground beside the River Esk

As we drove along and I gazed at the landscape, my intuition kicked in – ‘If Robert came from here, no wonder he loved his farm by the Hawkesbury so much and wouldn’t give it up, no matter how many floods he endured. The district reminded him of home.’

There was a major stumbling block however, a giant flaw in the logic of my theory. The Robert Forrester baptised at Kirkandrews upon Esk in 1757 was the son of a man named Arthur, another very English name. Following naming traditions common at that time, any son of the Robert born here in 1757 should have been named Arthur, in honour of his grandfather. But First Fleeter Robert had no son named Arthur. I hung onto one shred of hope – Robert may have rejected long-standing cultural traditions if there was bad blood between him and his father.

And therein lay a possible explanation. As well as the Scottish reiving families, some English families living along the border were reivers too, causing feuds within and between English families. Were father and son on opposite sides of a clan-related feud? Did this explain the First Fleeter’s choice of names for his four sons and the absence of a son named Arthur?

In 1783 Robert was arrested in the company of a Chelsea pensioner, a soldier wounded in the American War of Independence. It’s likely that Robert too went off to this war to fight for the English cause, as many loyal young men of good families did. Chester told me that the local regiment at the time was the 34th Regiment of Foot. But unless the First Fleeter was an officer, or a Chelsea pensioner like his co-accused, there is little chance that his name could be found in army records. I have yet to follow up that avenue of investigation at the State Library of Victoria.

To conclude, my research in Cumberland came to nothing as I still haven’t proved anything about Robert’s origins. He wasn’t literate but I don’t know (yet) whether the Kingfield Forsters were literate either. More research into parish records is needed and is underway.

As for his other qualities and attributes, I do know he was regarded as responsible because he was placed on the night watch in Sydney. He was a good shot with a gun, suggesting military service  ... or much practice at pheasant shooting! He proved himself in Australia as a good farmer, against the odds. He raised his children well, to become upstanding citizens in their own right. He was very independent of government assistance and handouts compared with many other early settlers. It’s possible that these attributes all mean he came from a good family, something never before regarded as a possibility for him.

Having now absorbed the atmosphere pervading the parishes of Kirkandrews upon Esk and Nicholforest, I’m simply left with the gut feeling that somehow this district was Robert's 'place'. A lot more delving and checking will occur before I publish my final conclusions in the Second Edition of ‘Robert Forrester, First Fleeter’, which I hope to publish around Easter 2018.

IMPORTANT UPDATE, December 2018:

My gut feeling was wrong. Possibly Robert came from a place with this kind of geographic  'feel', but it was not this specific place. DNA testing conducted in 2018 and analysed by Stuart Hamilton, another Forrester descendant, has yielded the surprising result that ‘Robert Forrester, First Fleeter’ is most likely the Scottish-born son of an unmarried Forrester woman and a man named John McGaw. Robert adopted his mother's surname and appears (at this stage) to have been unbaptised.

Further details will be published in the Second Edition of 'Robert Forrester, First Fleeter'. The revised book involved much more research work than expected and its planned appearance is running about a year behind the above-cited schedule. Please email me if you'd like to join the waiting list for the Second Edition of this book.