While I have yet to determine that William James Coventry is a direct ancestor of mine, I have collected information about him as I have tried to establish whether he may be the father, or perhaps the uncle, of my Great Grandfather, James Henry Coventry.
Although baptised ‘James William’ his first and middle names seem to have been reversed in most of the subsequent documentation and he was generally known as William. William was born on 1 January 1815 at Bridgewater and baptised on the 16th of March by Reverend Knopwood, Hobart Town’s first chaplain. Reverend Knopwood’s register indicates that the baby’s mother, Mary Martin, was unmarried and does not name the father even though William was the third of four children born to this Mary Martin and William Coventry.
William was only fourteen years old when his father was sentenced to seven years at Macquarie Harbour for stealing three bullocks. He was only fifteen when he learnt that his father had been killed and eaten by fellow escapees. Shocking and sad, I will write his story separately, but no doubt the horror of William Coventry senior’s death impacted markedly on the lives of his children, particularly in a colony in which, over time, people sought to escape the ‘convict stain’ of their forebears.
On 14 December 1834, William married Ann Lucas, daughter of Richard Lucas and Elizabeth Fawkner, and niece of one of Melbourne’s founding father’s, John Pascoe Fawkner. William and Ann married at St Mark’s at Pontville on 14 December 1834. They lived in the Melville Parish, at Brighton where William had a grant of 52 acres, neighbouring Francis Cox.
William and Ann’s first child, Mary Anne, was born in July 1835 and baptised at St Mark’s. Then followed Elizabeth Belinda in May 1836, William Richard in August 1837, Margaret Catherine in May 1839 and John Francis in December 1840. I haven’t seen all of the birth registrations but Margaret’s tells us that William was working as a shoemaker at Brighton.
A copy of the Census record for 1842 shows that William owned the brick residence on the Brighton Road that he and his family inhabited. The home accommodated fourteen free people, comprising a married couple (William and Ann), a boy under 2 (John Francis), one boy and three girls between 2 and 7 (William, Mary, Elizabeth and Margaret), a young girl between 14 and 21 (born free in the colony) and 7 men over 21, one arrived free, five ‘other free persons’ (or former convicts) and one person holding a ticket-of-leave. The Coventry family members declared themselves to be members of the Church of England but six of the men belonged to the Church of Scotland and one was Roman Catholic. The list of occupations indicates the young girl was not a domestic servant or otherwise employed so it would seem likely that she was a member of the Coventry’s extended family. Of the men employed on the property, five are listed under the category ‘mechanics and artificers’ – so presumably they were engaged in William’s shoe making business – and one under ‘gardeners, stockmen and persons employed in agriculture’.
From Brighton to Circular Head and back again
At some some time in 1842 the family moved from Brighton to Circular Head where the next child, Amelia Hannah was born on 10 December 1842. She was baptised in the local Church of England on 13 January 1843. Sarah Rachel was born in August 1844 and baptised in November. On 24 June 1846 James Nathaniel was born. Sadly he died a few months short of his third birthday, suffering from inflammation of the chest.
Another son was born in January 1849. When William registered that child a month after its birth it either still had not been named or William neglected, for some other reason, to include the name on the register. Family members have generally associated this registration with Thomas Alfred. Louisa Sophia was born on 14 September 1850, followed by Charles Henry in December 1853. I have not yet seen his birth registration but it would seem that he was born back at Brighton where he died in July 1855. The Colonial Times reported that Mr and Mrs Coventry and seven children had sailed from Circular Head in the cutter Lapwing, arriving at Hobart on 21 June.
In 1856, Ann gave birth to twins, and her last children – Victoria Josephine and Napoleon Albert William. They too were born at Brighton.
So, how was the family surviving during these years? With more than a dozen children to feed, not to mention any hired help or assigned labour, William must have been working hard. According to family researcher Alma Ransom, William leased a block at Muddy Creek in the Forest District from the Van Diemen’s Land Company at Circular Head from 1843.
In 1842 the Van Diemen’s Land Company had advertised blocks of land on seven year leases at 2 shillings an acre. The first three years rent was to be spent on improving the land with the remainder to be paid to the company in cash or produce. At the end of seven years the tenant could either purchase his farm at £2 an acre or surrender it back to the company and be paid £4 for every acre under cultivation. To make the offer even more attractive, the Company’s chief agent, James Gibson, undertook for the Company to buy all the tenants’ produce for seven years at fixed prices for potatoes, barley, wheat and oats. It seems that it was this offer (advertised both in the colony and in England) that prompted William to move his young family from their home in Brighton to the pioneer country of Circular Head. A map dated 1844 indicates that William was renting 320 acres at one of the properties known as the ‘Forest Farms’. At the time he was one of 29 tenants leasing some 3260 acres in the area.
Kerry Pink tells us that this this was:
… good land — rich basalt soil mulched for hundreds of years by the rotting foliage of rainforest. But it was land that could only be won by sweat and toil, clearing the tangled overgrowth and falling the forest giants. The yeoman farmers of the North-West, with small capital and few working animals in the early years, worked six days a week, dawn till dark, resting only on the Sabbath. It was an epic struggle with the forest that cost an estimated £25 an acre to clear, in contrast to the pastoral country of the central districts where stock could immediately be turned out to graze on natural pasture. But gradually, an acre or two a year, they began to win.
The guaranteed fixed price for produce was certainly a bonus while it lasted. Gibson committed the Company to pay £5 5s a ton for potatoes and the pioneers grew, dug and delivered hundreds of tons of ‘red skins’ to the Company’s stores at Circular Head and Emu Bay and received their money. Unfortunately for the Company though, hundreds of tons had to be dumped in the sea before it could terminate the agreement that added to its severe financial difficulties. In September 1850 the agreement was terminated – just a year before the Victorian gold rush saw prices soaring!
Surviving records from the 1843 Census tell us that William Coventry was living at Stanley township, Circular Head in an unfinished wooden house. The household comprised sixteen people: two married men appear to have been owners of the property – one of these was William but I haven’t identified the second — although it seems likely that this was William’s brother John. A third married man was listed, along with three single men, in the category of ‘Mechanics and Artificers’; there was one single male in the gardener/agricultural worker category and two single men whose occupations fell into the annoying ‘other’ category. Ann and a younger married woman (possibly John’s wife Rachel) no doubt cared for the numerous children in the household: one girl under two (Amelia), two girls and two boys aged between two and seven (Elizabeth and Margaret; William and John), and a girl between 7 and 14 (Mary). There was also a young female domestic servant to help out.
In May 1850 The Courier reported the loss of a boat built by ‘two brothers named Coventry … at Circular Head’. It would seem likely that the brothers were William and John:
The Courier – Wednesday 8 May 1850, p2
A wreck — A cutter of about 12 tons, named The Struggler, was lost at the River Forth on the night of Wednesday week 24th April. The little vessel was the property of two brothers named Coventry, by whom she was built at Circular Head. She was on her way to Launceston to be registered, when, it coming on to blow, the persons in charge mistaking the Forth for Port Sorell ran in and struck upon a reef. The owners have sacrificed their all, and ten tons of potatoes put on board for Mr. Tyson have been lost. The wreck has been purchased by Mr. John Williams for £12.
It seems that the Coventry family moved back to Brighton in the winter of 1853. I have yet to locate the birth registrations for the younger Coventry children and do not know whether William took up farming, resumed his old occupation of shoemaking or pursued some new pursuits. In any event, it seems that at some point the family was on the move again, this time to the state’s southern Huon district.
A move to the Huon
When William and Ann’s eldest child, Mary, married David Smith in June 1861, the marriage notice in The Mercury described her as the second daughter ‘of Mr W Coventry, Wattle Grove, Huon’. The strange thing about that, of course, is that the birth registrations we have seem to indicate that Mary was the eldest child in the family. In any event, she shared her wedding day with her sister Amelia — both girls marrying sons of John Smith and Mary O’Brien — Mary married David Smith and Amelia married Thomas. I wonder whether they knew that the Smiths were grandchildren of First Fleet convict, Thomas O’Brien from Tyronne in Ireland, and Second Fleet convict, Susannah Mortimore from Devon. Thomas and Susannah were among the first convicts sent to Norfolk Island and so spent their early days in the colony with a number of my other ancestors. Mary and Amelia’s grandfather William Coventry was also a convict at Norfolk Island’s first settlement and their grandmother Mary Ann Martin was born there in 1793.
A number of references to William in the Hobart Town Gazette for 1861 indicated that he served as a Trustee for the Port Cygnet Road District. Unfortunately though his Wattle Grove property of some 95 acres failed to prosper and by December William was facing the insolvency court.
Back to Circular Head
It is not clear exactly what happened next by the early 1870s, by which time most of their children had married, William and Ann returned to the Circular Head district. In 1874 they moved to Waratah where they remained. William served as a Trustee for the Roads Trust and on 11 August 1880, William was appointed Collector of Road Rates, a position that he held for many years. A Tasmanian Directory for 1887 indicated that William Coventry senior lived in Ritchie street, Waratah.
Ann Coventry died at Waratah on 5 January 1890. She was 74 years old.
William remained in Waratah until 1904 when, at the age of 89 he left to live with his daughter Amelia Smith at Ridgley. An article in the Weekly Courier in July 1904 said that he claimed to hold the title of being the oldest native born Tasmanian still in Tasmania. At that time his descendants numbered 67 grandchildren and 98 great-grandchildren.
William Coventry died on 2 September 1906 at Thomas and Amelia’s house in Ridgely. He was buried at Wivenhoe Cemetery, Burnie. The Obituary in The Advocate described William as being of ‘… a genial and kindly disposition … [with] a large circle of friends.’
[Last updated 5 August 2012]