William Clarke

Emigrants to Tasmania

While most of my ancestors had no choice in their journey to Van Diemen’s Land, my GGG Grandparents, William and Ruth Clarke, chose to migrate to the colony in 1853, the year that it became Tasmania.

The couple sailed aboard the Northumberland, leaving Birkenhead in Liverpool and arriving in Launceston on 20 February 1853, with 274 immigrants on board. The Return of Immigrants arriving on the Northumberland tells us that William was thirty years old and that he was born in Lincolnshire.  He could read and write and he followed the Wesleyan religion.  Having worked as a farm servant he was now engaged to work with a coal company on the Mersey River.  He would be paid wages of £2 10 s a week.  William was accompanied by his 27 year old wife, Ruth, and their three children, five-year-old Elizabeth, three-year-old Sarah and toddler, Mary. Sadly, Sarah was not to see her new family’s new home; she contracted hydrocephalus and died at sea.

Early Life

Tracing back through the available records on-line, and informed by the efforts of other researches, it seems that William may have been baptised at Gunby by Spilsby, in Lincolnshire, on 13 March 1823, and that he was one of eleven children born to William and Elizabeth.

I haven’t discovered much about Gunby by Spilsbury – except that Gunby Hall looks to be rather magnificent and Spilsby is the birthplace of Sir John Franklin, an explorer who was appointed Lieutenant-Governor of Van Diemen’s Land in 1837.  The university college I stayed in from 1984-1987 was named for his wife, Lady Jane Franklin.  Presumably William and his family lived in a cottage associated with Gunby Hall estate, but I have yet to find much information on the estate (assuming, of course, that I have identified the right family).  A guide to National Trust properties describes an ‘extensive wooded estate, crossed by a network of paths, [which] incorporates some fifteen farms and a stretch of disused railway line.  The property also includes the remote Monkesthorpe Chapel …’.  More generally, the guide explains that Gunby lies at the southern tip of the Lincolnshire Wolds, only 10 miles from the North Sea, in one of the remote corners of England.

It seems that Ruth Kitchen was probably baptised at Thorpe Acre with Dishley in Leicestershire on 25 August 1825 and that her parents were William and Sarah Kitchen.

Census records seem to confirm Ruth’s background and tell us a bit more about the family’s circumstances. In 1841, when she was about 15, Sarah lived in Mill Street in Oakham in the county of Rutland. Her father was fifty years old and working as an agricultural labourer.  Ruth’s mother was at home caring for her five children, aged from four to 15.  Ruth was the eldest, followed by Robert, Elizabeth, Sarah and Hannah.  The family had moved to Rutland before Elizabeth’s birth in 1829.  Amongst the Kitchen’s neighbours were a grocer, tailors, a schoolmaster, a printer, glaziers, bakers, butchers, agricultural labourers and bricklayers.

Ten year’s later, the 1851 Census tells us that Ruth is still living in Mill Street with her parents and siblings Robert and Sarah.  But at the age of 25 she is also  married with two young children: three year old Elizabeth and one year old Sarah.  Her husband is an agricultural labourer, but otherwise I haven’t been able to locate him in the Census records.  Other researchers have found that Ruth married William Clarke in Oakham on 4 April 1847. Perhaps his work took him away from home on Census night.  Or perhaps Ruth was living with her parents at the time because she was soon to give birth to her third child, Mary.

What must this young family have been thinking as they boarded the Northumberland in Liverpool towards the end of November in 1852?  Ruth was in the first trimester of her fourth pregnancy, William was looking to a change in career – from agriculture to mining – and their young daughters were moving away from the grandparents, aunts and uncles and places of their infant years.  Did they know that Sarah was ill or was the cause of her death, described as hydrocephalus, something she contracted at sea? Unfortunately there are no particular clues to the things that motivated the family to leave the country they knew to take a chance on the Mersey River in north west Tasmania.

The family arrived in Launceston in February 1853.  Presumably they took lodgings there for a few months, as William’s birth, on 28 April 1853, is registered in Launceston. Another eight children were to follow, with the youngest, Stephen Kitchen, born at Port Sorell on 14 November 1868.  My Great Great Grandmother, also named Ruth, was born at Port Sorell in May 1867.

While William and George’s births were registered in Launceston, other researchers have indicated that the family initially settled in Sherwood, just outside Latrobe, before moving to Torquay (now Devonport) in 1859 and then Northdown in 1862.  The children’s births were registered variously at Port Sorell, Wesley Vale and Torquay. William and Ruth spent their last years together in my hometown, Latrobe.

William and Ruth Clarke

Ruth died at Latrobe, aged 66, on 28 September 1891. The death register shows that William was working as a market gardener at the time.  Six years after his wife’s death from heart failure, William drowned in the Don River.

Death by drowning

The North West Post  report of the inquest, held at the Don Hotel on day William died, Saturday 10 April 1897, makes sad reading.  John identified his father’s body.  It seems that William lived with John in Latrobe but had not been seen since just before 6:00 am on the Friday morning when he had left the house.  John reported that his father, aged 75, had been ‘childish’ for the last three or four years.  Doctor Payne reported that he was suffering from ‘softing of the brain’.

William had wandered away before and been found at Spreyton.   John assumed that he had spent the day, as he frequently did, at the house of one of his sisters.

The hotel keeper, Edwin Cleaver, stated that William had entered the hotel from the rear about 2 o’clock on the previous afternoon, went along the passage to the bar, did not speak, but turned around and went out by the front door, in the direction of the Don Heads.  He seemed ‘very peculiar in his manner’.

Edwin McKinistry, who was staying at the Don Heads saw William at about 4 pm at the jetty. William paid no attention when McKinistry said ‘good day’ and just walked to the end of the jetty, crawling on his hands and knees across some of the places where it was not very good.  McKinistry and his mate watched him, and spoke to him again, remarking that it was rough.  William repeated ‘rough’. He wandered about the jetty and the large shed all the afternoon.  McKinistry conversed with him for about half an hour on various topics and William said he had his blankets with him and refused to have a cup of tea.

He spoke of the old country and said he was a married man, and his home was in England.  He also said he was earning about 10s. per day on the tram or railway.  He seemed weak on his legs, and resembled a man that had been drinking, and was recovering from the effects. About half past eight McKinistry saw William by the shed and wished him ‘good night’.

McKinistry helped to pull the body from the water next morning.  He told the inquest that the body was found in a very rocky area, about 300 yards higher up the river than the shed.  He could have walked to where the body was found without falling.  The tide was ebbing when he had last seen him.

Osborne Elliott, residing with his parents at Don Heads, stated that he found the body that morning, just below his parents’ place.  William was lying face down.

Dr Smith stated that from a superficial examination he had made, he was of option that deceased met his death by drowning.  He had a peculiar appearance of the skin, which was characteristic of drowning.  He had a number of abrasions on the back of the head which witness thought might have been caused by struggling and drowning in a rocky place.  There were no marks of violence, or anything to lead one to suppose that he came by his death in any other way than by drowning.

The jury, after consideration, returned the following verdict – ‘That William Clarke was found drowned and suffocated in the River Don, but how or by what means that said man became drowned or suffocated, there is no evidence to show.’

A sad end for a man who had had the courage to travel halfway round the world to establish a new life with his young family some forty years earlier.

[Updated 25 August 2012]

Online resources

William Clarke on my Ancestry tree


The National Trust guide referred to above is by Lydia Greeves and titled History and Landscape: The Guide to the National Trust Properties of England (2006).  It is available from Google Books.


5 thoughts on “William Clarke

  1. Hi It is so interesting reading about my ancestors who are also your ancestors. William Clarke was my GG Grandfather. I like the photo of Latrobe and I can see Kenworthy’s and remember I loved going in there to see what I could find. I would like to chat/email to see where we fit on Clarke family tree.

    • Hi Jared, thanks so much for making that connection and providing the links to the information and lovely photos on your site. Cheers, Lynne


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