>When I first became interested in my family history, I was fortunate enough to be able to learn much about my relations from my maternal grandmother. Joyce was a good storyteller, with an eye for detail and an excellent memory. Moreover, when she was a small child her grandmother Sarah came to live with her family in their Kogarah residence. And so Joyce absorbed a great deal of information that might otherwise have been lost, and inherited a portfolio of photographs and documents together with a photographic portrait of her great-grandfather William Jenkins.
Yet even Joyce knew little about her grandfather’s origins. Thomas William Billett, as she knew him, lived almost his entire life in the Camden district, from his birth at The Oaks in 1844, until his retirement from dairy farming in 1916. Joyce dimly remembered his death in 1919 in the Moore Park Hospital in Sydney, one of thousands of victims of the flu epidemic. But she didn’t know his parents’ names, only a vague recollection that his mother was Roman Catholic, and that he might have been adopted or raised by a different family.
Thomas Billett’s birth was easy to trace: he was baptised at Narellan church on 8 December 1844, and his parents were recorded there as George Billet, sawyer, and Julia Williams. A brother Daniel Billet was born two years later – but this time his mother’s name was given as Julia Hogan. Herein lay a clue to one of my most ‘ordinary’ ancestors, whose life and personality is almost entirely unknown, beyond a handful of references in official documents. Yet even based on such slim information, it is possible to get a glimpse into how big-picture historical processes impacted on individuals and communities – and therefore how these processes shaped whole families.
My great-great-great-grandmother Julia was born in about 1815 in Cork, Ireland, the daughter of Michael Hogan, a harness maker. She first appears in 1832 as one of a group of 202 girls and young women who were removed from the Cork House of Industry and Foundling Hospital and sent to Australia on board the ‘Red Rover’. The idea was to solve two problems: the care of orphaned girls in an impoverished Ireland, and the lack of white women of a marriageable age in the British colony of New South Wales. The ‘Red Rover’ was celebrated on arrival in Sydney on 10 August 1832 as the first emigrant ship carrying solely free women – though given the origins of its passengers in an orphanage it seems unlikely they chose to come to Australia ‘freely’ in modern terms.
The Sydney Gazette reported on Tuesday 14 August that ‘The Female Emigrants from Ireland, per Red Rover, were landed yesterday, and conducted to the Lumber-yard, which has been fitted up for their temporary accommodation. Several of them have been delivered to respectable inhabitants who had made application for them, according to orders previously issued. It is to be hoped, that these young women, who presented as they passed along the street a neat and respectable appearance, will be so treated by the families who apply for them, as to effect that important amelioration in the moral condition of our working population, which the measure is intended to accomplish.’
On arrival, Julia was assigned as a servant to William Hovell, famed for his part in the Hume and Hovell overland expedition to Port Phillip in 1824, and went to live at his property at Minto on an annual wage of £10. She next appears on 9 December 1834 when she applied to the clergyman at Narellan, Thomas Hassall, for permission to marry a 45-year old convict, Charles Wood. The permission was denied: Wood was already married. In 1836, however, a daughter Eliza Wood was baptised (raised as Eliza Williams). Then on 19 November 1835 Julia was married at St Peter’s Campbelltown to John Williams. Three children followed: John, born 1837 at Liverpool, Mary Ann, born 1840 at Campbelltown, and George, born 1842 at Camden (died 1843), with their father described variously as servant, labourer, and brickmaker.
Something happened in the mid-1840s. John Williams disappears from view. Perhaps he is the man of that name who died at ‘Vermont’ on 2 April 1847 aged 39 and was buried at Narellan. Julia suddenly appears in the Narellan baptismal registers bearing Thomas and Daniel to George Billet, an emancipated convict and a sawyer. George disappears just as suddenly as John. Julia then turns up on 1 May 1850 in the baptismal register of St James’ Roman Catholic church as the mother by one John Scott of a son Charles Scott, born on 28 May 1849 at Camperdown. To confuse matters still further, Julia’s fifth recorded relationship is registered as a marriage in the Presbyterian church in Elizabeth Street, Sydney, on 6 January 1866. Her husband was Thomas Knight, a fellow resident of The Oaks, near Camden, and a widower with three children. One of his sons, George Knight, was married to Julia’s daughter Mary Ann Williams at St John’s Camden in 1857, a wedding to which Julia gave her consent given the bride was barely 17 years old.
Julia’s life came to an end at her home in The Oaks on 9 April 1866. Her death certificate records the cause as consumption, of three months’ duration – almost precisely the time of her second marriage. She was buried in the Roman Catholic cemetery at The Oaks, survived by Eliza, John, Mary Ann, Thomas, Daniel, and Charles.
Julia, with her five relationships and seven children by four men, was hardly an exemplar of the kind of working class respectable morality that the British government wished to instil in New South Wales. Yet she had come a long way from the Cork House of Industry in her life of 51 years. We do not know what happened to all of her children, but she left dozens of grandchildren. Her daughter Mary Ann Knight died in Corryong in 1928, a well-respected senior citizen and matriarch of the district, while her son Thomas Billett’s family was widely respected in the Camden dairy-farming community. Her great-grandchildren made the move into small business and the cities, and while they forgot Julia’s name and life (if ever anyone really knew much about it), they owed her their lives.