Too young

>I began researching my family history as an eleven year old when an aunt showed me how to use a microfiche reader. It took a while to realise that behind those microfiche lay a wealth of knowledge in the form of the detail of Australian birth, death and marriage certificates. And so it was not until October 1985 that I ordered my first birth certificate from the New South Wales Registry Office. The paper certificate took a couple of weeks to arrive, and by coincidence it arrived while my grandparents were staying with us in Melbourne.

The certificate was the birth on 14 October 1857 of my grandfather’s grandfather, John Pywell. I’d ordered it because, being a little naive, I couldn’t make sense of the index entry. The birth certificate left blanks in the boxes for father’s name and date of parents’ marriage. Instead, it only listed the mother: Mary Ann Pywell was living at Eskdale on the Williams River in the Hunter region. She was the informant, stating that she was born at ‘Weldon, near Oundle, Northamptonshire’, and aged 14 years.

Fourteen! It was virtually inconceivable to me that a fourteen-year old could have a child, let alone in 1857. I made the first of several faux-pas in my early genealogical days by showing the certificate to my parents – and then to my grandfather. In those days, 1857 seemed unimaginably long ago, but to my grandfather, an Anglican clergyman of fairly conservative morals, it was probably fairly confronting to have evidence of his grandfather’s birth outside marriage thrust under his nose.

Now I’m less shocked by the event, and more sanguine about how John’s birth did not seem to have affected his life one way or the other in comparison, for example, to his half-brothers and sisters who were born within marriage. But this single event resonates backwards and forwards in the family history.

Mary Ann Pywell lived a remarkable life. Born in the small farming town of Weldon in 1842 (she was actually 15 at the time of her son’s birth) where her ancestors had lived since the mid-seventeenth century, she lost her mother when she was 10. Her father decided to bring his three surviving children to Australia, and so at the age of 13 she arrived in Sydney aboard the ‘Bengal’; an uncle, George Pywell, emigrated at the same time with his wife and daughter to South Australia. The family was soon split up; Mary Ann worked as a servant in the Raymond Terrace region, her father Thomas lived briefly in Adelaide, where sister Rachel eventually became a ward of the state, and her brother Thomas ended up on the Namoi River in norther New South Wales. Each of the three children did well for themselves in the circumstances, commanding a standard of living that, while not wealthy, did allow for some comforts and the luxury of an old age surrounded by children and grandchildren. Mary Ann married John Norris Campbell, dairy farmer, in 1862, and they raised a further 11 children in addition to Mary Ann’s son John Pywell. She died in 1939 at the grand age of 97 years, having outlived her husband and her first-born child, and leaving several great- and even some great-great-grandchildren.

In 1987 I searched the Newcastle church archives for record of a baptism of John Pywell. I got lucky. John was baptised on 13 June 1858 at Raymond Terrace in the Church of England – and the baptism certificate gave his father’s name as John Henry Hawley, dealer, of Raymond Terrace.

I put my newfound research skills to work and quickly discovered that Hawley was a 44-year old married man with two children of his own and three step-children at the time that John Pywell was born. His wife Sarah was probably pregnant at the same time as Mary Ann. Well, bad things happen I thought and there’s no point trying to deny that something had gone awry in the summer of 1857.

What did surprise me, however, was to discover that at the same ceremony, another ex-nuptial child was baptised. Angus Campbell was the son of another 15 year old Raymond Terrace girl, Sarah Campbell, by one Dugald McGregor. Sarah was the sister of John Norris Campbell, and would become Mary Ann Pywell’s sister in law. Angus was born just 10 days after John Pywell. Was there some kind of wild party in January 1857 in Raymond Terrace, or some horrible attack on local girls, or some other explanation?

For years I had no way of knowing, until the National Library of Australia began making vast quantities of newspaper material available online. Through this I chanced upon a case in February 1858 in which Dugald McGregor successfully appealed against a decision of the Raymond Terrace bench to charge him maintenance for Sarah Campbell’s child, on the grounds of improper legal process. I have some homework to do in following this up!

Sarah Campbell went on to marry and have five more children with Alexander Marr, while John Hawley’s marriage survived and lasted until his death in 1897.

Perhaps the most significant resonance of this event in my family was in 1908, when John Pywell’s eldest daughter Mary Ann gave birth to a child out of wedlock, raised as her youngest brother. Did the twenty-eight year old Mary Ann turn to her namesake and grandmother for advice or solace? Did she have a more difficult time, notwithstanding her age, because of the codes of respectability and appearance that had developed in white Australian society in the intervening half a century? But that’s another story.

Thomas Pywell (1815-1881)
married 1836 Sarah Barwell (1812-1852)

Mary Ann Pywell (1842-1939), married 1862 John Norris Campbell (1840-1899)
= John Henry Hawley (1812-1897)

John Pywell (1857-1922)
married 1879 Ann Way (1859-1936)

Mary Ann Pywell (1880-1965)
married 1913 John James Sherlock (1874-1930)

Charles Henry Sherlock (1918-2007)
married 1943 Emily Elizabeth Newth (1920- )

Charles Henry Sherlock
married Peta Robin Sproule

Peter David Sherlock



Filed under Family History

3 responses to “Too young

  1. The book John Campbell & Charlotte Dawson: Trials of Life and Law is now available at
    John Norris Campbell, who married Mary Anne Pywell, was the son of John and Charlotte.
    Kind regards
    David Otterman

  2. Pingback: Mary Ann Pywell | John Campbell & Charlotte Dawson: Trials of Life and Law

  3. Michael Lightfoot

    My father, Albert Ashley Pywell LIGHTFOOT (grandson of Mary Ann’s brother Thomas jnr) vaguely remembers being at John PYWELL’s funeral in 1922. He particularly remembers “a house full of women”. This would have been at the farm on Pywells Rd Luskintyre.

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