Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Adelaide in South Australia

We now leave the villages and towns of Essex so familiar to my great grandfather William Beales, and travel to Adelaide, the birthplace of his wife, Eliza Whybrew.

Rundle Street, Adelaide in 1845, by S. T. Gill.
 (Image from the State Library of Victoria.)
Eliza's grandparents, John and Catherine Mason, arrived in South Australia in December 1844, when the colony was less than a decade old. The main streets of Adelaide already contained some impressive civic buildings, churches, shops and hotels, along with a smattering of houses built of brick or the local stone. But most of the settlement's European population of around 10,000 people lived in single-story structures built of wood, tin or pise (a form of wattle and daub).

Adelaide and its surrounding farmland was the brain-child of Edward Gibbon Wakefield. While in prison in Newgate (for abducting a young heiress) he put forward the idea of populating a new Australian colony by selling land to the wealthy, then using the proceeds to pay the fares of labourers and artisans, who would provide a labour force for the land owners. The labourers' incentive to work hard would be that they could eventually save enough money to buy their own land. This would, he believed, avoid the social problems experienced in most of the other colonies, where land was granted freely to settlers while transported convicts provided the labour force. The "taint" of convict life would be absent.

The British Government passed the South Australia Colonisation Act in 1834, and in  February 1836 a convoy of ships full of eager settlers left England for the new colony. The first task of the Surveyor General, Colonel Light, was to work out where to actually put the new settlement. Light favoured one site on the Torrens River, while the Governor, Hindmarsh, favoured another, closer to the coast. It took a public meeting and a show of hands by the frustrated settlers, on 10 February 1837, to agree on the site favoured by Colonel Light.

William Light's map of Adelaide, 1837.
Image from Adelaidia website

By March 1837, the future city, with its grid of streets, open squares and surrounding parklands had been surveyed. It didn't take long for land prices to soar as new settlers continued to arrive. The Kaurna people, who had lived on the land for tens of thousands of years, and whose fire-stick farming practices were responsible for the park-like landscape so admired by the settlers, were gradually displaced.

What brought the Masons to Adelaide?

As an Irish ex-convict, John Mason (my great great great grandfather) was not exactly the sort of settler that Edward Gibbon Wakefield had envisaged for his new colony. In 1834 the 19-year-old John had been transported from Limerick in Ireland to New South Wales for stealing several yards of cotton material from a shop. 

After serving his seven-year sentence in Sydney, John married a newly-arrived Irish girl, Catherine Murphy. In December 1844 they and their two surviving daughters, Mary Ann and Catherine, left Sydney on the brig Dorset. They seem to have been travelling as part of a group with John's friend and fellow ex-convict William Doody, William's wife, Bridget (nee Murnane) and her sister and brother-in-law, the McCormacks. 

Sydney Morning Herald, 23 Dec 1844

For John Mason and William Doody, Adelaide offered the opportunity to leave behind the taint of being a convict, although they would have to keep that motivation to themselves. Bridget Doody's parents had settled in South Australia a few years earlier. William Doody, a country man, may have been attracted by the chance to buy land. News about the riches to be made at the recently-opened copper mines in South Australia might have been an attraction. Or, as good Irish Catholics, the group may have been following the Sydney priest, Father Francis Murphy, who had just been appointed the Bishop of Adelaide.

The Bedford Hotel, Currie St, c1891
Formerly named the Ship Inn, and now demolished,
it stood almost opposite the Mason's house.
John and Catherine rented an assortment of small cottages around Adelaide as their family grew to include eight daughters. They eventually settled in Currie Street, to the west of the city centre. Their sixth daughter, Eliza's mother Susan, was born in May 1848. It's clear from the girls' baptism records that the family were part of the community of Irish Catholics in Adelaide, a small and sometimes unpopular minority in the largely English and Scottish protestant colony.

John found work as a labourer. As immigrants continued to arrive, there was plenty of work for builders' labourers and the like. So much so, that land owners often had difficulty attracting labourers for their farms. In time John established himself as a member of the wider community, becoming a member of the Ancient Order of Forresters, a mutual aid organisation.

But in 1856 he became bed-bound and was unable to work. In January 1857 he died, leaving Catherine and her daughters destitute. She was able to get some support from the Destitute Board, a body which, like the police force and the prison, had not been envisaged by Wakefield in his original plans for Adelaide. The older girls also brought in a small amount of money.

Currie Street, looking west, 1872.
Image from the State Library of South Australia
By the time Susan Mason was in her teens, Adelaide had grown to a sizeable place. In 1866 the non-Aboriginal population numbered 163,452. This included over 5,000 Germans who had established a wine growing industry in the hills around Adelaide. It also included thousand of single women from Ireland who arrived during and after the great famine. Many of these found work as servants or farm labourers, but some joined the growing number of prostitutes around the city. Susan included several of them among her friends.

The Whybrews leave South Australia

By the mid 1850s, South Australia had been granted its own parliament, though initially only land-owning men could vote. By 1861 property-owning women had been given the right to vote in municipal elections. Despite some ups and downs, the colony was faring well. Much of its wealth came from exports of wheat and wool, and from copper mining.

Yet it was also very isolated, leading to a sense of vulnerability among the population. Most residents were happy that the British government continued to station troops in Adelaide to protect them from real or imagined threats.

Members of the 50th regiment in 1850
Image from the National Army Museum
In 1868 it was the turn of the 50th (Queen's Own) regiment to be stationed in the barracks near the Torrens River. The red-coated soldiers of the 50th would provide husbands for both Susan and her sister Eliza. Ironically, the same regiment had acted as guards on board the ship that had transported their father to Sydney. Susan Mason and David Whybrew were married in Adelaide in May 1869, after some interesting escapades and the birth of their first daughter, Harriet, in 1868. Their daughter Eliza was born in December 1869.

When David's regiment was called back to England in 1870, Susan went too, taking baby Eliza with her, but leaving Harriet behind in the care of another family. As far as I know Eliza never went back to Australia, so had no memory of her birth place. Harriet, on the other hand, remained in Adelaide until her teens, when she suddenly reconnected with her family in England.

Several of Susan's sisters married in Adelaide and some of their descendants no doubt still live there. I've yet to discover where John and Catherine Mason are buried, although it is probably somewhere in West Terrace cemetery.

St Luke's church, Adelaide, where Susan
and her sister Eliza both married 
My own family arrived in Western Australia from the UK in 1969 and I visited Adelaide several times over the following decades. One of my daughters studied at university there. I always liked its leafy, old-but-trendy atmosphere. But until I began researching my family history I had no idea that three generations of my father's family had lived there. Now, when I have chance to visit, I see it in a different way, with various landmarks around the city having associations with "my" Adelaide family.

You can find out more about the Mason and Whybrew families in Adelaide in my book Susan: convict's daughter, soldier's wife, nobody's fool.
It's available on Amazon and other online books stores

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