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.

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