Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Sydney in New South Wales

On 2 March 1834, the Parmelia sailed through the sandstone heads of Port Jackson in New South Wales. Author Thomas Keneally describes the Parmelia's voyage and arrival in his book, The Great Shame: A Story of the Irish in the Old World and the New. Hugh Larkin, one of Keneally's wife's ancestors, was one of the 200 or so Irish prisoners on board. John Mason, my great great great grandfather, was another.

They had been cooped up in the crowded, creaking ship since they left Cork the previous October, so everyone was eager to catch a glimpse of land and the penal colony which was to be their home and prison for the next 7 years, 14 years or even a lifetime. From the decks they could see the coastal hills, with their strange (to their eyes) drab vegetation, the sandy beaches and the lighthouse, signal station and shacks around South Head. Sydney Town itself was hidden from view.

But the ship didn't immediately head for the docks in Sydney. According to Keneally, the soldiers of the 50th regiment, who had been the guards aboard the Parmelia, were landed four days after they reached Port Jackson. The convicts were given health checks and assessed for their fitness for work. It was not until 18 March that they were disembarked upstream at Sydney Cove.

Map from Museums Victoria

Sydney's history

People had been living in the area that would become Sydney for 30,000, perhaps even 50,000 years. It's estimated that the Aboriginal population was between 4000 and 8000 before the First Fleet arrived in 1788. Their descendants remain to this day, but initially their numbers declined as their traditional food-gathering areas were taken over by settlers, and they succumbed to previously-unknown diseases such as smallpox and measles. Violent confrontations also occurred.

John Mason had come from Limerick, a port city of elegant buildings but dire poverty. Food riots had broken out among the destitute there in 1830. In some ways, Sydney, with its bustling port, might have seemed familiar to him, though it was much smaller than Limerick. In the 1820s, Governor Lachlan Macquarie had set about constructing many grand public buildings and laid out the future city with a botanic garden and public open spaces.

Vue de George's Street a Sydney 1833
By Alexis Nicolas Noel 
Contributed By National Library of Australia  [nla.pic-an8148364]

Macquarie had also insisted that those who had served their term ('emancipists') should be treated as free citizens and be allowed to buy land, establish businesses, and be appointed to government posts. Many had done well for themselves. The port had become a busy trading centre. Those with money or power kept up a social life as similar to their English counterparts as they could, in the heat and dust.
Advertisement in the Sydney Gazette, 9 March 1833

But Sydney was still a town built by, and for, convicts. Although many women had arrived, either as convicts or free settlers, men still heavily outnumbered them. Crime, drunkenness and prostitution were rife. Convicts were provided with food, clothing and shelter, but their lives could be very harsh, depending on where they were allocated to work. Public floggings and hangings took place regularly. In 1833, there were 1,149 floggings in NSW, with 247 convicts receiving 9,909 lashes between them.

John Mason, convict labourer

Nineteen-year-old John Mason was initially assigned to work for Alexander Fotheringham, a prominent local business man and shipwright. By 1837 he had been re-assigned to Wright and Long, a shipping company with a wharf at Millers Point on Darling Harbour. He may have helped to build the store building on the wharf at the Point, eventually sold to Captain Joseph Moore, using sandstone quarried on-site. Working alongside John was another convict, William Doody, who would later migrate with John to South Australia.

By the time twenty-year old Catherine Murphy arrived in Sydney aboard the Mary Annin August 1840, the town had a population of 35,000, and had its own City Council. New South Wales was in an economic depression, and transportation of convicts to NSW had been suspended, but settlers continued to arrive. Decent accommodation was in short supply. Perhaps Catherine was met on the wharf by Mrs Caroline Chisholm, who endeavoured to make sure that newly-arrived single women had accommodation and found employment, rather than drifting into prostitution.

Caroline Chisholm

John and Catherine's marriage

Catherine came from a farming family in Monaghan, Ireland, and was hoping to find work as a farm servant. It seems, though, that she probably stayed in Sydney. On 2 February 1841, her twenty-first birthday, she married John Mason in St Mary's Roman Catholic church. John had received his Certificate of Freedom on 18 July 1840.

Hyde Park and St Mary's Cathedral, c1842
by John Rae. Image from State Library NSW

John and Catherine made their home in Elizabeth St, near the harbour, and their first child, Rosanna, was born there 10 months later in December 1841. Andrew and Mary Goodwin, an Irish couple who had been the witnesses at their wedding, became Rosanna’s baptism sponsors (similar to god-parents). One of John’s former mates from his days at Wright and Long’s shipping company, Timothy Rourke, along with his wife Mary, were the sponsors at the baptism of the Mason’s second child, Mary Ann, in October 1842. John’s friend William Doody and his wife Bridget (nee Murnane) were sponsors at the baptism of the Mason’s third daughter Catherine in 1844.

In 1843 John and Catherine were rocked by the death of little Rosanna. Such deaths were tragic but common in the colony as childhood diseases such as measles, whooping cough and scarlet fever arrived with the children of free settlers and spread in the overcrowded conditions in the city. Infants made up thirty percent of deaths in the colony in the 1840s.

Millers Point Sydney c1845 by Joseph Fowles.
Image from State Library NSW
Leaving for Adelaide

The Mason family remained in Sydney until December 1844. Then they sailed for Adelaide aboard the Dorset, along with several other Irish Catholic families. Did they feel any sadness at leaving the former penal colony? Somehow I doubt that they did. It wasn't a place of happy memories. Today, much of what they left behind has disappeared and the city would be unrecognisable to them.

General sources:
Wikipedia, History of Sydney
Webster World Encyclopedia of Australia
Convicts and the Colonisation of Australia
NSW State Records and Archives


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