Those elusive ancestors – were they convicts?
I had never considered the possibility of having convicts in my ancestral heritage. I don’t know why it had not occurred to me, considering that the convict story is so much a part of Australia’s early colonial history. I think I naively assumed that if there had been convicts amongst my early ancestors I somehow would have known about them. I would have heard rumours or detected a hint of mystery or noticed veiled silences around certain family stories. However, by thinking in this way I failed to take into account that until only recently a convict ancestry was something that was hidden and not spoken about. Then, as the interest in family history and genealogy became more widespread, people began to claim their convict heritage with pride. I would listen to their descriptions of the crimes, sentences and success or otherwise of their particular convict and think how interesting it all was but at the same time believing that this was not going to be my story.
So, imagine my surprise and I must admit delight when I discovered that I too had a convict ancestor. Of course, delight seems a very inappropriate response considering the harshness of the transportation system and the conditions most of the convicts had to live under when they arrived in the colonies. I think my true feeling is one of pride that from such a sad and brutal history my family has evolved.
My convict ancestor is my great great grandfather Owen Connor. I was researching my family history on my paternal grandfather’s line in the usual way, working backwards from myself and collecting birth, death and marriage certificates for each generation. When I came to Owen Connor’s death certificate it stated that he was born in Galway, Ireland and he had been in New South Wales and Queensland for 54 years. He died in 1890 at the age of 72. From this information I could calculate that he came to Australia about 1836 and was born about 1818. A search of the arrivals records for 1836 and a few years before and after came up with only one likely person and that was Owen Connors who arrived in Port Jackson on the convict ship St. Vincent on 05 January 1837. I now began to consider that I too could have a convict in my family. I took a trip to the Genealogical Society of Queensland and spoke to the helpful research assistants there who pointed me in the right direction for further research. I already had a marriage certificate for the wedding of Owen Connor and Ellen Smith on 23 April 1849 in St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Ipswich, Queensland. The assistants suggested that a good place to look first would be in the Convicts Permission To Marry records. I quickly found the records for a permission to marry dated 06 March 1849 for Owen Connors age 30 and Ellen Smith age 17. The permission to marry stated that Owen came to Australia on the St. Vincent and his sentence was life and that he had been granted a ticket of leave. It also stated that Ellen had arrived free on the Roslin Castle. Some further research at GSQ gave me a description of Owen’s crime and his sentence. The National Archives of Ireland also gave a record of his crime, his sentence and where his trial had been held. He was tried in County Galway and found guilty of stealing a heifer. His sentence was “transportation life”. All the information pointed to the fact that Owen Connor, my great great grandfather, was a convict.
It appears that Owen’s life in Australia was not easy. He was given a ticket of leave and married Ellen in Ipswich and they had 10 children in 22 years. He died in 1890 at the Dunwich Benevolent Society on Stradbroke Island. The Dunwich Benevolent Society was established in 1856 to care for the aged, infirm and destitute who were unable to care for themselves. At the Queensland State Archives I was able to access the Queensland Government Gazettes and trace Owen’s contact with the society over the 2 years prior to his death. He was first admitted in February 1888 and then discharged in April 1888 but then readmitted in February 1890 and died there in April 1890.When he was first admitted the Gazette recorded that Owen Connor was admitted from the Ipswich Hospital and that he had been unfit for work for the past three years through illness. At the Queensland State Archives I also discovered that Owen had been declared insolvent during the years 1867 to 1870 and I was able to read a very sad letter that he wrote to the authorities asking for speed in the hearing of his case because he was in very poor circumstances with no money and 8 children to provide for. I also researched through Trove and was able to ascertain that he may have been reasonably successful in the early years after his marriage. An advertisement in the Ipswich Herald and General Advertiser on 16 July 1861 stated that he had 3 houses to let “with good accommodation” but by 1867 he was declared insolvent and on 3rd May 1870 The Brisbane Courier reported that Owen Connor’s liquor licence had been suspended for 6 months because he had not been keeping proper books of accounts. Then on 8th February 1887 in the Queensland Times there is reference to a request by Owen Connor for flood relief because he had lost everything and was starving. His story is surely one that needs further research and one that I will come back to.
|Letter written by Owen Connor|
It has not been too difficult to trace Owen’s arrival in Australia and to establish his convict beginnings. However, the same cannot be said for his wife Ellen Smith. The permission to marry register stated that she arrived free on the Roslin Castle. She was 17 at the time of her marriage in 1849, which means she was born about 1832. The Roslin Castle was a convict ship and came to Australia 5 times between the years 1828 and 1835. Did Ellen arrive free but as a child of a convict? Was she born on the voyage or soon after? Her death certificates state that she was born in Sydney, New South Wales and her father’s name was McIntyre (only his surname is given) and her mother’s name is listed as Ellen Dobyn. However, her marriage certificate gives her maiden surname as Smith and the birth certificates that I have obtained of some of her children state that she was born in Dublin, Ireland and her maiden name was Smith. So, I have a mystery to solve.
On the other side of my family tree, my mother’s side, there is the case of Richard Edwards and Rosanna Rail. They married at the Drayton Courthouse on the Darling Downs in Queensland in December 1850. Their marriage certificate states that they were married with the consent of Arthur Hodgson Esq. Arthur Hodgson was a well known pastoralist on the Darling Downs at that time. I attended a seminar about tracing your convict ancestors and was advised by the speaker that having a consent to marry recorded on the marriage certificate could indicate that one or both people may have been convicts. So far I have not found any permission to marry for Richard and Rosanna. They too are proving elusive. I did not think that Richard Edwards would be such a common name but there are many arrivals with the name of Richard Edwards both as convicts and free settlers. Complicating the search is the fact that none of them matches up very well with the dates stated on the certificates that I have for Richard. Rosanna Raill is proving even more difficult. There is no match for the surname Raill and any of its variations such as Real and Reel and Ryall and even O’Reilly. So, as you can see I have a lot of investigating to do. Will Richard and Rosanna prove to be convicts and will Ellen Smith be the child of a convict? I will keep you informed of my findings.