Thursday, January 24, 2013

Boris Johnson's Ice Age

The Canberra Times printed an article yesterday written by Boris Johnson (he being the mayor of London).  Johnson wrote how he had stared through his window at a flowerpot and his bashed up barbeque and noticed that the layer of snow he could see outside his London home was getting thicker. He wrote "This is now the fifth year in a row that we have had an unusual amount of snow; I mean snow of a kind that I don't remember from childhood: snow that comes one day, sticks around for a couple of days, followed by more."

He concludes "But I observe something appears to be up with our winter weather, and to call it "warming" is to strain the language".  So Boris consulted learned astrophysicist Piers Corbyn, "...who has very good record of forecasting the weather". Corbyn reckons global temperature depends not on concentrations of CO2 but on the mood of our celestial orb (the sun). And that 'mood' is one of declining solar sunspot activity known to have coincided once in the past with a severe cold spell on Earth (the Maunder Minimum).

Johnson writes "I am not saying for a second that I am convinced Corbyn is right ... I am only speaking as a layman who observes there is plenty of snow in our winters these days, and who wonders whether it might be time for government to start taking seriously the possibility - however remote - that Corbyn is right". He concludes by writing "I look at the snowy waste outside, and I have an open mind".

Well Boris.  I live in Canberra, the capital of Australia.  Here, The Canberra Times (same day) also reports "Canberra heading for January heat record as storms spark fire fears".  The article tells us "Canberra is sweltering through what could be its hottest January on record, according to the Bureau of Meteorology".  The average daily maximum temperature in January for Canberra is 27C.  This January so far, our average daily maximum temperature is sitting at 33C, a massive 5 degrees C above average!  Now it's only 24 January today, so we may be lucky to be blessed with some days where the maximum fails to exceed 30C (here's hoping) and lower the average daily maximum somewhat.

Boris - you look out your window and wonder if sunspot activity is leading the world to another Ice Age.  I look out my window and wonder when Canberra's summer will start cooling down to the long term average!

Perhaps an article written with a bit of fun in mind, but it might be sensible, Boris, that you look further than your own backyard to see if your conditions are reflected elsewhere.  And perhaps consult more than one expert (and perhaps not just an astrophysicist). From what I can tell, places like Washington and New York (regular deep freezes most winters) seem to have seen nary a snowflake at all this year.  Perhaps all their snow has gone to London!

So, I wish I was in London right now, enjoying the sight of snow falling rather than than my garden trees scorching under a relentless sun (see my poor Gingko below).

Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Story of John Best - Part 2

As the convict ship Minerva sailed south from Cork, one can imagine the fear engulfing the convicts.  These convicts had surely never been to sea before. Many had been incarcerated in cramped, dark and damp cells for months, if not years.  John Best had been in prison for 5 or 6 months.  The short sea voyage from Dublin to Cork had been hellish.  Many men on board Minerva were suffering from ulcers immediately prior to departure.  Ship’s surgeon, James Hunter wrote in his journal that many convicts were “constipated in the bowels, many of them had not had an alvine evacuation for more than a week.” This may have been caused by their detention aboard the brig that brought them from Dublin to Cork.  It was not unusual that convicts transported from Dublin to Cork received neither clothing nor bedding, as these were considered unnecessary expenses due to the shortness of the journey to Cork. Because only a few were allowed on deck at once, they spent most of the time in irons in the hold in very unhealthy conditions.  In other words - no toilet breaks when required.  In theory, the trip was a 2 day journey.  But in reality, delays often prevailed and it was more like a week to two week journey.  Hence the tendency for convicts to arrive at Cork in a constipated state.  Another sign of the terrible conditions in the Irish jails and aboard the Dublin-Cork brig is found in James Hunter’s Minerva journal: “They were upward of eighty cases of the disease [itch] while in jail and just before they were sent on board [the Minerva].” Itch (or scabies), was a contagious skin-disease caused by a parasite (Sarcoptes scabiei). The disease could have been easily avoided by regular bathing and the wearing of clean clothes. Clearly, both these hygiene basics were not properly provided by the overstretched and corrupt prison system.

The Minerva convicts surely then developed a fear of terrible trials ahead during their much longer sea journey to New South Wales.  Once out on the open ocean, the rocking motion of the Minerva had an immediate effect, with many men suffering sea-sickness in the first week.  Hunter wrote in his journal that Minerva “... on leaving port experienced a heavy gale of wind which last some day, every convicts and many of sailors were sea sick”.  But the fresh sea air must have also had a healing quality, as Hunter went on to write that it: “... probrably had a good effect upon the ulcers as many healed rapidly afterward, there were many minor cases which were all well within one month.” 

The convicts no doubt also feared the dark, wild ocean itself – none would have been swimmers and most would have been familiar with tall tales of sea monsters taking ships, sirens luring ships to their doom on rocks and pirates attacking. But perhaps the hardest thing the convicts had to deal with was the loss of their families and the only way of life they had ever known.  The depression is evident in Hunter’s description of poor old John Cartwright – he suffered badly from the pain of being taken away (see mention in The Story of John Best – Part 1).  Alas, poor Cartwright, he was so desperate to return to his family that he took part in a daring, but ultimately unsuccessful, escape attempt in 1819 (he successfully escaped Van Diemen's Land but appears to have died several months later in gaol in Java).

Surprisingly, for the remainder of the trip to Port Jackson, ailments were relatively few and were either physical injuries related to life aboard the Minerva (e.g. ‘contused and lacerated fingers’, ‘fracture ulna by falling on the wet deck’) or individual medical problems such as occasional cases of fever, diarrhoea, furunculus (boils), dysentery or symptoms associated with the common cold. One case of cholera morbus (gastroenteritis) and a case of venereal disease in a boy convict were recorded in Hunter’s journal.

One can imagine the ship endured buffeting in the strong westerly gales (the Roaring Forties) that sweep the Southern Ocean. The voyage across the Great Australian Bight would have been rough too.  Despite those travails, the Minerva arrived safely in Sydney on 30 April 1818 without loss of life.  The Minerva’s arrival at Port Jackson was recorded in Governor Lachlan Macquarie's personal diary:

"Thursday 30. April 1818 At 8,O'Clock this Evening, the two Male Convict Ships Lady Castlereagh Commanded by Capt. George Weltden with 300 Male Convicts from England, and the Minerva Commanded by Capt. John Bell with 160 Male Convicts from Ireland, anchored in Port Jackson; the former Ship having sailed from England on the 22d. of Decr. and the latter from Cork on the 1st. of Jany. last; neither of the Ships having touched any where during the Voyage nor lost a Single Man. — Mr. Jas. Cragie is Surgeon Supdt. of the Lady Castlereagh, and Lieut. Brotheridge of the 48th. Regt. commands the Guard; Mr. — [name omitted] Hunter is Surgeon Supdt. of the Minerva, and Capt. Allman of the 48th. Regt. commands the Guard on board that Ship." 

About half the convicts were disembarked at Sydney and subsequently transported to Newcastle per the 'Elizabeth Henrietta'.  Governor Macquarie directed that the Minerva and the remaining 160 convicts proceed to Hobart in Van Diemen’s Land.  John Best was one of those stuck aboard the Minerva for a little while longer! John spent about a month aboard Minerva while she was anchored in Port Jackson, just off shore from the current site of the Sydney Opera House.  During this time, the convicts would have been allowed to move about the deck (shackled by leg irons) and to view the infant settlement of Sydney town.

From Lachlan Macquarie’s diary (1818):

Thursday 28. May !
The Ship Minerva Capt. Bell, with 160 Male Convicts and a Guard of the 48th. Regt. Commanded by Lieut. Van Meulen sailed from this Port for the Derwent. — 

The Minerva arrived in Hobart on 7 June 1818, after a total journey of 157 days. Hobart at the time was still only a small township. The white population of Van Diemen’s Land (later to be known as Tasmania) was only some 3,000 people at the time.

The convict ship Minerva Arrives in Hobart on an overcast winter's day - 7 June 1818

Monday, January 7, 2013

The Red Lion at Marsworth

In a post last year (Marsworth - Visit to an Ancestral Home), I described how my older son and I visited Marsworth in Buckinghamshire (England) and lunched at the Red Lion pub. 
I also mentioned that my ancestor, William Rowland, left his ancestral home of Marsworth early in the 1850s and then migrated to Australia in 1852.  William returned, with his daughter Susan, to visit Marsworth in 1898.  According to his obituary, William "... saw the house in which he was born and the church in which he was baptised".

Extract from William Rowland's Obituary
In my previous post, I wondered whether the house in which William was born still survived.  I strongly doubted it, because very few early-1800s buildings remain in Marsworth.  One of the few that does remain is the Red Lion pub.

Well, can you imagine my surprise when I recently came across a court record dating to either 1832 or 1833, in which William's mother and grandmother are both mentioned. In that record, William's mother (Jemima) was living with her mother-in-law (who was Mary Rowland) at the Red Lion. Here is the exact text:

R. v Thomas Page [aged 20], Marsworth, Stealing 4½ crowns belonging to Robert Russell, on 8 Dec. Witnesses: Robert Russell, keeps beer house at Marsworth, and a wharf Joseph Rowland, constable of Marsworth. Jemima Rowland, lives with mother-in-law at Marsworth (Red Lion). Guilty - 4 months hard labour.

Source: From the County of Buckinghamshire Quarter Sessions "Epiphany Sessions 1832 [no ref. or date]" [] (accessed 01-Jan-2013).

Folks, if William's mother Jemima was living at the Red Lion with her mother-in-law Mary, then surely her husband (William senior) and her children (including my migrant ancestor William) would have been with her too. Mary, by the way, was a widow in 1832 - her husband John Rowland had died in April 1820 and his occupation (according to his will) was 'victualler' (i.e. the operator or owner of a public house or similar licensed establishment) at Marsworth.

This court record gives me a good degree of confidence in believing that William Rowland (junior) not only lived his very early years at the Red Lion, he was actually born at the Red Lion (born 9 November 1828).  Hey ... perhaps a little bit of a stretch but I'm willing to go with this and confidently say that my son and I also saw and went inside both the house in which William Rowland was born and the church in which he was baptised (All Saints, Marsworth).

The Story of John Best – Part 1

The year was 1817. A description of Irish society at that time noted how it was comprised of wealthy people and poor people; unlike England there were no middle classes. John Best was a labourer and herdsman (shepherd) of about 34 years of age. It's safe to assume he fell into the poor group of Irish people. John was a native of the small town called Kinnegad in Westmeath County, Ireland. As the crow flies, Kinnegad is 23 kilometres south-west of Trim and 57 kilometres west of Dublin.

John was married to Mary (maiden name unknown) and by 1817 they had four children:
  • Michael (born 1807),
  • Eleanor (born 1810),
  • Thomas (born 1813) and
  • Joseph (born 1815).
Life in the early 1800s must have been something of a struggle for Kinnegad townsfolk. Like most other small Irish towns, commerce revolved around agricultural pursuits.  No real wealth flowed to those who toiled on the land.  Unlike England, which at that time was experiencing industrialisation, Ireland lacked iron and coal resources and so remained a land of agriculture. Most Kinnegad residents leased a small plot of land from a landowner (usually an absent English landowner).  On this plot, a family could live in a dwelling of their own construction – often a stone cottage – and they had the right to grow their own personal supply of vegetables and keep an animal of two.  But the majority of the land was given over to raising potatoes as a cash crop.  With the income raised from selling their potatoes, a family could then meet their rent obligation to their landlord.

The town’s cottages were largely constructed of field stones, with pitched, grass-thatched roofs and a stone chimney at one, or sometimes both, ends.  Small clusters of cottages had been built close to each other, with fields surrounding them, fenced by low, field stone walls.  The town centre had grown where the main roads to Dublin, Galway and Sligo intersected. Buildings in Kinnegad town centre were more substantial – a number of two storey stone buildings, often with a shop at ground level and the proprietor’s residence on the first floor.  Here also was the Catholic Church, St Mary's, built in 1793 but now a mere ruin sitting behind the modern-day St Mary's Church.  The old St Mary's was a fine stone building for its time and John and his family would have regularly attended.  By 1817, the muddy streets in the town centre were covered with gravel to give the Dublin to Galway stagecoaches a firmer surface, thus faster and more reliable passage in wet weather.

 By spring time 1817, a long wet spell had become a very serious problem across most of Ireland.  For some farmers, their potato crop was destined to be a complete failure.  Others were lucky enough to grow a crop that reached harvest and so made themselves a financial return.  In Kinnegad, John Best was perhaps among the not-so-lucky ones.  His potato crop probably did fail. If so, he would have faced a year until the next harvest with virtually no income whatsoever.  The need for farm labourers had largely evaporated, because many tenant farmers couldn’t pay for help. John faced a dilemma - how would he and Mary feed and clothe their family? Things took a turn for the worse sometime during the spring or early summer of 1817.  John was arrested for ‘burglary and robbery’ (what we today might describe as breaking and entering).

 John was probably motivated by need, not greed. But he was, nevertheless, arrested and locked up. There is a possibility that he committed the crime purposely, with the intent of being sentenced to transportation.  Others were certainly doing that, because life in Australia as a convict was, in 1817, already recognised as being better than the difficult conditions endured by poor folk in Ireland.

Kinnegad did not have its own gaol.  So John would have been quickly transported to the Trim Gaol, about 23 kilometres to the east (longer by road).

Trim was a walled town; its walls had been built over 150 years earlier to defend it against Oliver Cromwell’s English forces, but the town had surrendered before the walls could be put to any test.  Amongst its public buildings were a church, two Roman Catholic chapels, a market house and a court house for holding the assizes (periodic criminal courts held around England and Wales).  A gaol adjoined the court house and it contained a tread mill that prisoners were forced to operate to supply water to the prison. When Mr William Smart, the Governor of the Trim county gaol, locked John away, John would have recognised two other prisoners in the cell – George White and 28 year old Patrick Grenan (or Grehan), also of Kinnegad. Both White and Grenan had also been arrested for ‘burglary and robbery’ – perhaps the three of them were involved in the same crime?  Also locked up in the Trim gaol was a Brian Bennett, native to County Cavan, charged with mail robbery. All faced trial at the summer assizes.

 In early August 1817, the Trim summer assizes were held. There was much ado when they began. The Irish patriot, Roger O'Connor faced a charge of robbing the Galway mail coach in December, 1812 in order to capture love-letters incriminating his friend Sir Francis Burdett.  O'Connor had been " ... removed thither, by habeas corpus, from Newgate [prison in Dublin]". O'Connor was tried at the Trim assizes before the Right Hon. Sr. George Daly on Monday and Tuesday, August 4 & 5, 1817. This trial attracted much public interest ...the Newgate Calendar described it as: “The court was crowded to excess, and O'Connor, with his friend Sir Francis Burdett, were allowed to sit within the bar[1].  O’Connor was acquitted. Of much less note were the trials of John Best, George White, Patrick Grenan, Brian Bennett and other men, which probably followed over the next day or so. John, George White, Patrick Grenan and Brian Bennett were all found guilty and each received a sentence of transportation for life.



John, along with White, Grenan, Bennett and any others sentenced to transportation, would have then been transported to the Dublin gaol at the earliest opportunity. Convicts brought to Dublin were housed, along with other offenders, mostly in Newgate and Kilmainham gaols. Dublin's city gaol, Newgate, was under constant criticism from reformers because of its deplorable condition and the fact that all categories of offender were housed together. Kilmainham was Dublin's county gaol, with arrangements for convicts much the same as in Newgate, except that transportees were separated from debtors and petty offenders. It is unknown which gaol John was sent to. But John would have spent several months (August to December?) in a crowded gaol in Dublin. While he waited under difficult conditions, arrangements were underway for transporting him and his cohorts to Port Jackson.

 In Cork, a port city south of Dublin, the transport ship Minerva was being prepared to receive the convicts.  Read about the Minerva here: [].   A ship’s surgeon – Dr James Hunter - had been assigned to the ship and he took up his post on or about 5 September 1817. Soldiers of the 48th Regiment were also quartered aboard the ship during September. Fortuitously, Dr Hunter’s journal survives.

 In about November 1817, John and his fellow transportees were removed from the Dublin gaol and placed aboard a brig in Dublin harbour. Because of delays, transportees sometimes had to wait on board these vessels for extended periods in appalling conditions. Sometimes, convicts had to remain aboard their vessel in dock at Dublin for six weeks awaiting suitable winds. They received neither clothing nor bedding, which were considered an unnecessary expense due to the shortness of the journey to Cork. Because only a few were allowed on deck at once, they spent most of the time in irons in the hold in very unhealthy conditions. The journey from Dublin to Cork only took two days, but it was not uncommon for such vessels to again be detained once they arrived in Cork harbour and before the convicts could be removed to their transport ship.  We get a sense that John Best and fellow Dublin transportees were, in fact, delayed board their Dublin-Cork transport vessel, because,  In Dr Hunter’s journal, Hunter wrote:

 John Cartwright, aged 35, convict; disease or hurt, typhus mitior, having a wife and many children, the anxiety and lowness of spirits coupled with the fatigue experienced in a passage from Dublin has induced the fever which he is now affected; taken ill, 26 December 1817;

 The convicts appear to have been loaded aboard the Minerva on or about 23 December 1817. Once aboard, conditions improved for the convicts.  They were required to wash and had clothing supplied. Once the convicts were properly settled, a routine of chores alternating with confinement to cells would have been introduced. 
At Dublin Castle, on the 30th of December 1817, Charles Chetwynd-Talbot, 2nd Earl Talbot, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, signed his approval for the convicts to be transferred to the Governor of New South Wales.  A copy of the approval was shipped from Dublin to Cork and couriered to the master of the Minerva, Captain John Bell [read about Capt. John Bell at].

Two days later, on a cold, mid-winter’s day – New Year’s Day 1818 –the Minerva pushed away from the wharf and caught a fresh breeze out of Cork harbour and headed south. 

Some convicts were used to help with tasks aboard the ship.  Dr Hunter wrote in his journal:
“William McCormick, convict; disease or hurt, contusion in the right side resulted by heaving at the capstan in weighing the anchor; taken ill, 1 January 1818; well 7 January 1818. “

On board were a number of other convicts with whom John would get to know over the years to come:
·       George White (age 30) of Kinnegad,
·       Brian Bennett (age 30) of County Cavan,
·       Patrick Montgomery (age 41) of County Antrim,
·       William Campbell (age 38) of County Armagh,
·       Leslie Ferguson (age 17 ) of Colerain; and
·       John Bell (convict, age 35) of County Antrim.

 As the Minerva sailed south on a brisk breeze, John would have known he’d never see Ireland again. Mary and the four children were left behind to cope as best they could without him.  How gut-wrenching must that have felt?

Click here to read The Story of John Best - Part 2
Go Back to read John Best - The Prequel 



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