>I attended my first family reunion in 1988 at Camden, New South Wales, a get-together for the countless descendants of my great-great-great-grandparents. William Jenkins and Eliza Tully were married on 2 October 1838 at St James’ King Street, Sydney – with permission of the governor, as William was a former convict and Eliza was still serving her seven-year sentence. They had fourteen children between 1839 and 1862, every one of whom made it to adulthood, married, and had children, leaving over 140 grandchildren. By the time Eliza died in 1902, she had at least 300 descendants spread in an arc from southern New South Wales to the Northern Territory. It was no surprise then that the reunion attracted a couple of hundred descendants ranging in age from 6 days to 97 years.
Remarkably, we have pictures of William and Eliza, and images of most of their children. William’s photographic portrait was taken shortly before his death in a farming accident in 1875. A copy, touched up in pastel, sat behind my grandmother’s wardrobe for most of her life. Eliza’s was taken in her final years and shows a small, neatly-dressed woman with bonnet and bow seated outdoors, her crinkled face gazing calmly at the camera. The photographs, and a handful of inherited items – a pair of vases, a book – made them real, respectable representatives of the dairy farming community that built Camden. Their remarkable achievement of raising so many healthy children (the fourteen children lived on average to 69) spoke of success and happiness and hard work over a lifetime.
But Eliza, the matriarch of the Jenkins clan, arrived in Sydney in 1836 as a 16 year old convict. She was sentenced to seven years’ transportation at the Belfast Quarter Sessions on 28 October 1835 for stealing a cotton gown and a silk gown belonging to one James McCullough. Contrary to the romanticised notions held by her descendants, the Belfast Newsletter described her as ‘a repeat offender’. What’s more, her sister Sarah was transported on the same ship, the Pyramus, having being found guilty of stealing cotton, and also being a repeat offender. Other Tully criminals mentioned by the Belfast Newsletter suggest the whole family were engaged in the craft of stealing. Yet we know next to nothing of their background; Sarah was born in 1818, and Eliza in 1820, both baptised at St Anne’s Church of Ireland, Shankill. The Shankill parish register records that they were the daughters of William Tully, a boatman, and his wife Eliza Kerr (or Carr). At least one brother, James Kerr Tulley, remained in Belfast, where he married in 1852, recording on his marriage certificate that he was a boatman like his father,
What are we to make of this? Eliza’s marriage was, by any standards, successful, broken only by the untimely death of her husband in 1875. Her sister Sarah’s marriage to a Scottish soldier, William Murray, was equally successful, producing seven healthy children. Did the convict system work, providing rehabilitation, or at least real opportunities for life, that were not available in Belfast in the mid-nineteenth century? Did the girls get lucky in finding two decent men and a healthier life in rural Australia?