Some photos recently posted to the Melrose Facebook page of Girdlestone family members have got me thinking about my Great Great Great Grandmother, Elizabeth. She’s part of my problematic Coventry line that seems to contain more dead ends and unresolved questions than answers … and yet, it is where I started my research more than two decades ago!
Little is know about Elizabeth, not even her last name. According to assisted immigration records, she was a native of Wales’ Monmouthshire and was born there in about 1826. Presumably she married Thomas Bourn some time before the birth of their daughter Priscilla in about 1850. However, I have found no record of Elizabeth’s marriage to Thomas Bourn, nor of Priscilla’s birth or baptism.
Details about Thomas are also scarce. His immigration records tell us that he was born in Somerset around 1825 and that he worked as a miner. Like Elizabeth, he could read and write and was a member of the Church of England.
At the age of 28, Elizabeth, a general servant, migrated to Tasmania with her husband and four-year-old daughter, Priscilla. They sailed from England on 10 November 1854, on board the Chatham. Just over three months later, on 19 February 1855, they arrived at Hobart Town, ready to fulfill the terms of the agreement for their assisted passage. As proprietor of the fledgling Douglas River Coal Company, Dr Joseph Milligan had sponsored the Bourns and other mining families to operate his new mine near Bicheno on the colony’s East Coast.
The Bourne family was accompanied by other miners, labourers and general servants from Somerset, Monmouthshire and from Scotland. Thomas’ fare was set at £55, comprising £22 for each adult and £11 for young Priscilla.
The Courier of 22 February 1855 reports that ‘… the Douglas River Coal Company have imported about one hundred men, women, and children, by the Chatham, comprising a superintendent, an engineer, blacksmith, &c. &c., and that they are accompanied by a clergyman.’ An earlier report noted that ‘The colliers and their families … are partly from Welsh mining districts, and from His Grace the Duke of Buccleuch’s colliery at Dalkeith. They will be accompanied by an experienced working engineer, under whose practical experience we may reasonably infer the resources of the Company will be amply developed, and open up an important addition to the mineral wealth and advantage of Tasmania’.
Dr Milligan established the Douglas River Coal Company in May 1849. Under the terms of the lease, royalty payments were to be used by the Government to erect a wharf at Bicheno and to lay a tramway to the mine. When the Government failed to deliver on this commitment, the company spent a lot of money building the tramway, which opened in 1854.
Other reports reveal snippets of information that tell us a little about the Bourn family’s early days in Tasmania:
- In April 1855, the Colonial Times reported that the Earl of Chester brought another eighteen colliers selected in Scotland, and a clergyman, The Rev Mr White, who had decided to settle at Bicheno, agreed to open a school and to perform one service on the Sabbath to servants of the Company. The Company had been unable to secure the services of a ‘medical gentleman’ from Melbourne but was negotiating with another gentleman who would replace the retiring doctor from Swansea.
- Dr Milligan advised the company’s directors that colliers and superintendents had been engaged for a period of three years.
- A special meeting of shareholders in May 1855 revealed tensions in the management arrangements, including the resignation of the Superintendent of Works and complaints about Dr Milligan. The report noted ‘We have 87 men there; and when they are to brought into profitable employment we cannot tell.’
- In September that year, the report to directors noted that eight colliers had arrived from England since the previous meeting but two had since absconded; two others who had previously absconded had since returned to work. Cottages had been erected for the workmen and others were being completed. It also noted that ‘… in a short time thirty or forty men would be enabled to work in the mines’, presumably suggesting that until this point the work was largely about establishing the site and infrastructure.
- In November the company was advertising in Hobart newspapers for colliers to proceed immediately to the mines.
Despite the substantial investment in the tramway and other infrastructure, the mine’s production was small and the company folded after only four years. The Hobart Town Gazette reported in March 1858 that twenty-one English colliers just brought out by the Trade Wind especially to work the mine found that their services were not wanted now that the works had been suspended and the company put up for sale.
Coal mines were also opening up in the colony’s north-west. Among other discoveries, coal had been found at Bott Gorge, near Latrobe, in 1850 and a number of collieries soon began operating in the Mersey-Don coalfield, attracting many new settlers in the following years. Unfortunately the Bourn’s left little trace in available public records but at some point they moved from the east coast to the Mersey.
I have found nothing definitive about Thomas following his arrival in Tasmania. Elizabeth and Priscilla also leave very light traces in the public record.
In 1867, seventeen-year old Priscilla married my Great Grandfather, James Coventry. The ceremony was performed in the ‘dwelling house of James Girdlestone’ in the district of Port Sorell. I think ‘James’ is a mistake and the couple actually married in the house belonging to John Girdlestone, the man who Elizabeth was to marry in 1888 and to whom she appears to have already had two sons.
Working with the very few records readily available, it seems that Elizabeth and Thomas’ relationship dissolved within a few years of their arrival in Tasmania. Perhaps the challenges at the Douglas River proved too much. Maybe they were further disappointed at the Mersey. Perhaps Thomas decided to pursue the opportunities presented by the Victorian gold rush, leaving his wife and young daughter behind in the new settlement on the Mersey.
Whatever happened, it seems clear that Elizabeth and John Girdlestone were in a relationship as early as 1859, as ‘John and Elizabeth Girdlestone’, are recorded as the parents of the baby, William John, baptized at Port Sorell on 19 February 1860, having been born at Frogmore just four days before Christmas 1859. Two years later, on 20 April 1862, the Port Sorell register records the baptism of another son, Henry Patrick. Henry was born on the 17th of March. On this occasion, the family’s place of abode is listed as ‘Sherwood’, the estate on which Frogmore was located.
When John and Elizabeth married on the 26th of July 1888, in the house of Mr Coventry at Latrobe, the register recorded that John was a 66 year old labourer. Elizabeth, like John, signed with her mark, despite the immigration records that tell us she could read and write. She is described as a 65 year old widow.
Presumably Elizabeth was only able to legally marry John Girdlestone after receiving news of her former husband’s death, although when this occurred is still not clear. There is a death registration in Victoria, in June 1871, recording the death by heart disease of an English-born, 53 year old Thomas Bourne who, at the time of his death was residing at the Immigrants’ Aid Society’ Home for the Homeless and Destitute. Perhaps this was our Thomas, although a few years older than expected, but the record also says he was from Devonshire, a seaman and single? The search for Thomas continues.
So, who was John Girdlestone?
Thirty years ago my Grandmother received a letter from another researcher telling her that a Stephen Girdlestone, born in England, had sailed as a member of the crew on a ship to Mauritius where he had worked for some time on sugar plantations before sailing to Van Diemen’s Land and settling at Ballyhoo, near Latrobe. There he married a widow who had a child named Priscilla, later Mrs Coventry. The couple had two sons, William John and Patrick Henry. According to family members, when the boys were quite young men, their father took them and two of the Bonney boys, Tim and George, to Zeehan to cart silver ore from Zeehan to Trial Harbour. According to this account, Stephen (who must actually have been John) took two horse teams and accompanied the boys to be their cook and to look after the camp. Sadly, after a short time, Stephen caught a chill, died, and was buried at Zeehan. So far I have not discovered any documentary evidence of John’s death but as his eldest son died in 1896, he must have died before that time if this story is true. There is a record on Family Search for the death of a John ‘Geidlestone’ at Zeehan on 15 November 1891, but nothing more concrete than that.
John was 66 years old when he married the widowed Mrs Bourn. He had been in Tasmania for more than forty years, having arrived on The Marion in early April 1844. Sailing with him, not by choice, was his younger brother William. Both had been convicted, on 7 July 1843, with stealing sheep – a not uncommon crime amongst my ancestors!
On the 27th of May 1843, the Norfolk Chronicle reported:
The following notorious gang of thieves, who for some time have infested the neighbourhood of Snoring, have been committed to Walsingham Bridewell, for further examination, by the Hon and Rev Thos. Keppel, viz — John Girdlestone, Robert Fray, Wm Girdlestone, Jas White, Edw Francis, Hannah Fray, Mary Fray, and Ann Girdlestone, charged with stealing five sheep from Mr Wright, one from Mr Brown, of Houghton, and one from Mr Whistler, of Snoring, with various other felonies.
John and William had a younger sister, Ann, who was recorded as being nine years old in the 1841 Census, so around eleven at the time of her arrest. The 1841 Census tells us that the family lived in the High Street, Great Snoring, and that the father, Robert, worked as an agricultural worker. Robert and Frances had nine living children at the time of the Census: Mary (age 23), William (20) and John (17), both working as agricultural labourers, Amy (15), Robert (12), Ann (9), Elizabeth (7), Susan (5) and Joseph (1).
Two years after the Census was taken, the Norfolk Chronicle reported on John and William’s fate, as part of its coverage of the previous week’s criminal Sessions at Walsingham:
John Girdlestone, 22, William Girdlestone, 22 and Robert Frary, 28 were next tried, charged, the first and last with stealing a sheep from Mr. Wm. Browne of Houghton and all three with stealing a sheep from Mr John Whistler, of Great Snoring. William Girdlestone pleaded not guilty; the other two pleaded guilty. Against the latter, the leading points of the evidence were stated to the court, which were quite satisfactory; after which his examination before the magistrates was put in, and it revealed such a series of robberies as we could not have conceived it was now possible, with a rural police, to perpetrate. It related a systematic course of robbing for some years, in which time five sheep had been stolen from a Mr Newton, — poultry, potatoes, iron, &c, from others — and lastly, they had arranged to go out into the highway, and were the persons who robbed Mr Osbaldiston, of Hindringham, with a man named White as their companion, whom they stated to be the person that cut Mr O’s reins. White, it was understood, had already been transported. The probability is, that William Girdlestone had stated this in the hope of being admitted approver, but in this he was mistaken. The jury found him guilty, and the court sentenced the prisoners to 15 years’ transportation.
John and William sailed to Van Diemen’s Land aboard the convict ship, Marion. She set sail from Deptford on 29 November 1843 and landed 295 convicts at Hobart on 4 April 1844.
John’s convict record describes him as a ‘notoriously bad’ character with bad connections and says he had been imprisoned several times. He was also described as a 21 year old, unmarried shepherd, 5 foot, four and a half inches tall, with a ruddy complexion, dark brown hair, hazel eyes, a large nose and native of Norfolk.
Rocky Hills Probation Station
He was to serve his first two years at the Rocky Hills Probation Station, which was established on the East coast’s beautiful Great Oyster Bay, near Swansea. The prisoners sent there were set to work on the East Coast Road. They were also involved in clearing land and constructing station buildings. The ‘Spiky Bridge’ (completed the year before John arrived) and parts of the old coach road are still visible reminders of the legacy of the convict workers stationed at Rocky Hills.
In her memoir, My Home in Tasmania, Louisa Anne Meredith writes disparagingly about the Rocky Hills Probation Gang:
At one part of the road we found a gang of men employed in its improvement; forming, in the meantime, greater obstacles than they removed; and so they have continued to be employed, aided by frequent reinforcements of new arrivals, nearly ever since; and still, after nearly nine yeas, the comparatively trifling task remains unfinished, and the station is deserted. The mismanagement of this gang was evident to the most casual observer; so notorious was their idleness, that it was a common thing to see them not even pretending to be employed, unless in making arbours of boughs to sit under in the sun! A more sleek-looking, stout, sturdy, lazy fraternity, I cannot conceive possible. This herding together of so many idle men under the pretence of “doing probation”, as they call it, must be injurious to the well-disposed among them, and is no punishment to the worthless.
In December 1846, the station was visited by the Acting Lieutenant-Governor of Van Diemen’s Land, Charles La Trobe. His report was scathing and noted the ‘utter abandonment of all order and decency at Rocky Hills’. He said that the 406 prisoners were ‘noisy in the extreme, and exhibited a most disorderly appearance. They were badly clothed, their hair long, and about one half of them barefooted, though the latter circumstance was not attributable to the neglect of the officers in charge’. Superintendent de Gillern was removed from his post and the discipline officers were sacked.
Return to Hobart
John was able to leave the Rocky Hills probation gang on 6 April 1846. His conduct record is difficult to read but it appears that he was first assigned to W Rowlands of Hobart. After a few days in hospital in April-May 1848 he was then assigned to a Mr McDowal (or MacDowall). However, in January 1849, it seems John was charged with arson and discharged. In February he absconded albeit relatively briefly as his apprehension is recorded in the Gazette of 3 April 1849. On the 21st of April he was assigned to Captain McKay of Hobart. This assignment didn’t last long and on the 17th of May, John was assigned to a Mr Bennett at Clarence Plains (now Rokeby).
John was granted a ticket of leave on 25 May 1852 and recommended for a Conditional Pardon in August 1853.
Earlier I suggested that John and Elizabeth may not have married until 1888 because Elizabeth needed to know that her first husband, Thomas, was dead. However, while their marriage certificate indicates John was a bachelor, it is also possible that he had been married before. Reports in the local newspapers refer to an Ann or Hannah Girdlestone, wife of John, with a connection to Mr Bennett. There is a marriage of a 28 year old Ann Ryan to 27 year old Mariner, John Girdlestone, on 11 October 1852, in Hobart, which may relate to Elizabeth’s John.
On 18 April 1854, the Colonial Times reports on a prisoner, Veal, accused of absconding from his place of residence. The pass-clerk provided evidence that two months earlier the accused had given his place of residence as ‘Girdlestone’s, Collins Street’. Ann was called to give evidence:
A female named Ann Girdlestone swore that accused had never slept a night in her place, but often had his dinner there. He was down the river from last muster. In reply to Mr. Knight, witness found fault with her husband, who (she said) had done no good for her since he went down the river with prisoner and the mob of them. (A laugh.) Her husband left her last Sunday; she was not on good terms with him, and she gave information against prisoner, who was apprehended on Tuesday night. Her husband told her he was emancipated; but she found he was only a ticket-of-leave. Her husband and prisoner were at work down the river splitting wood. Mr. Midwood and Mr. Emmett told her he was a ticket-of-leave. The prisoner has been in Mr. Bennett’s employ. Mr Knight, for the prisoner, said he had been labouring under the delusion that he was a free man, as he had been recommended for a conditional pardon two years ago. Mr. Bennett was called to prove that prisoner had been in the employ of himself and son, and had been well-behaved. It appearing, on reference to the Comptroller-General’s office, that the man’s pardon had not arrived, their worships (Messrs. Jones and Forster) sentenced him to fourteen days’ hard labour, taking all the circumstances into consideration.
Ann was before the court again two years later, this time in relation to a series of allegations that boil down to abusive language, threatening behavior and assault between neighbours living in Hobart’s by then downtrodden Old Wharf district. John does not appear to give evidence in support of his wife, although he is referred to briefly in the testimony as one of the witnesses; a drayman named George Barrows had been employed by John to remove one of the women’s things from the wharf on the day of the altercation.
Beyond this point I have discovered nothing more about Ann Girdlestone and John seems only to re-appear on the record with the baptism of his son, William John, in December 1859. Perhaps he fled the crowded conditions of Hobart’s Old Wharf in search for work that better suited him; perhaps he was fleeing Ann. We will probably never know. His brother William similarly left little presence in the public records and newspapers. As far as I can tell he left no wife or children who might provide clues to any on-going connection between the families.
Elizabeth and John
Presumably Elizabeth and John lived a fairly quiet and simple life, establishing themselves in the Mersey district. Elizabeth registered the births of some of her grandchildren and these reveal that she was living at Barrington from about 1873.
In January 1906, the North West Post reports on a fire that surrounded ‘Mrs Girdlestone’s farm’ and the efforts of neighbours to save the house and barn:
Some of the farmers in this locality have had a rather trying time during the last few days. Mrs Girdlestone’s farm was about surrounded by bush fires yesterday, and great difficulty was experienced in saving the house, several of the neighbours staying up all night to fight the flames. As it was several chains of fencing were destroyed. The barn also caught fire, but was saved. Messrs W. Ahearne, Bailey, Gibbons, and others also had fencing burnt. The danger in many cases is not yet over, and a constant watch has to be kept.
Her son Henry lost 16 trees in the same fires but fortunately his pea crop was saved.
When Elizabeth died, on Boxing Day, 1907, the Mercury reported simply “Mrs Girdlestone, who had resided in this district for upwards of 50 years, died on Thursday last, at the age of 82 years.”
One can’t help hoping that one of her Elizabeth’s descendants will one day stumble across a box of old letters or a not-too-faded diary and be able to fill in the gaps. In the meantime, there’s plenty of room for speculation and further research. I’d love to hear from anyone who knows more or who might be able to furnish a photo of any of the individuals in this story.
[Added 21 February 2106; Updated with reference to marriage to Ann Ryan on 18 June 2016]
Elizabeth on my Ancestry Tree
Thomas Bourn on my Ancestry Tree
John Girdlestone on my Ancestry Tree
 Descriptive List of Immigrants by the Barque Chatham from London to Hobart Town, sailed 10 Nov 1854, Arrived 19 Feb, digital copy
 Marriage Register, “James Coventry and Priscilla Bourne,” 17 June 1867, Port Sorell, RGD 37/1/26, no 541.
 Neither the West Coast Heritage Centre nor the West Coast Council could verify this date or provide any further information. The West Coast Council advised that their records only go back to 1897.
 The Norfolk Chronicle, 27 May, 1843, accessed from British Library Newspapers website, January 2016
 The Norfolk Chronicle, 15 July, 1843, accessed from British Library Newspapers website, January 2016
 Fiona Blackwood, ABC Stateline, Tasmania, ‘Unique convict station up for sale’, 14 February 2003, http://www.abc.net.au/stateline/tas/content/2003/s785001.htm
 Geoff Ritchie, ‘The Spiky Bridge’, On the Convict Trail, 1 May 2013, http://ontheconvicttrail.blogspot.com.au/2013/05/the-spiky-bridge.html
 Louisa Anne Meredith, My Home in Tasmania: During a Residence of Nine Years, Volume 1, Cambridge Univestity Press, 2010, originally published 1852, pp 83-84, accessed via Google Books (Preview view)
 Douglas Wilkie, ‘The Life and Loves of Eugene Rossiet Lennon, THRA P&P 58, April 2011
 Hobart Town Gazette, Tuesday April 3, 1894, p197, accessed via FamilySearch
 LINC, Conduct Registers of Male Convicts Arriving in the Period of the Probation System, CON 33/1/53, http://search.archives.tas.gov.au/ImageViewer/image_viewer.htm?CON33-1-53,308,125,L,52
 LINC, CON 33/1/53 (as above)
 An advertisement in The Courier the previous year has John Girdlestone of Collins Street, “next Mr Potter’s, Hair-dresser”, calling for raspberries, cherries and strawberries; 1853 ‘Classified Advertising.’, The Courier (Hobart, Tas. : 1840 – 1859), 8 February, p. 1, viewed 21 February, 2016, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article2245861
 1856 ‘POLICE COURT.’,The Tasmanian Daily News (Hobart Town, Tas. 1855 – 1858), 9 April, p3, viewed 21 February, 2016, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article202386941; 1856 ‘POLICE OFFICE.—THIS DAY.’, The Courier (Hobart, Tas. : 1840 – 1859), 17 April, p. 3, viewed 21 February, 2016, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article25021671856; ‘LOCAL INTELLIGENCE.’, Colonial Times (Hobart, Tas. : 1828 – 1857), 18 April, p. 2, viewed 21 February, 2016, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article8784437