How one Victorian woman’s life was transformed by her move to Australia
hile it’s always rewarding to see your family tree spreading out on the page, there are usually some branches that carry more interesting fruit than the rest. Therefore, it’s inevitable that most of us end up focusing our efforts on the lives of our more remarkable ancestors.
For WDYTYA? Magazine reader Sheila Bligh, it was her 3x great aunt Ann Loomes that stole the show with her fascinating journey from grinding rural poverty in England to success on the other side of the world in Australia.
“She was such a strong, positive woman,” says Sheila. “I was very taken with her. Everybody else in my family is rather ordinary – you’d get bored talking about them! Ann isn’t, though, and as I found out more about her, I kept thinking ‘wow’, this is some person.
“It must have been dreadful for her at times – she had so much to deal with – but she kept going despite it all.”
Sheila began to uncover Ann’s story when a relative in Australia, who knew of her interest in genealogy, wrote to her asking for information about the English family of a man who emigrated in the 1850s.
“I wrote back straightaway saying that I knew exactly who this was, and I sent her what information I had,” says Sheila. “She then told me that she was having a party to reunite all of the man’s descendants, and invited me to join them. I was planning to go to Australia anyway, so I went along.”
It was at that party that Sheila’s ‘eureka moment’ happened. “A woman called Maree Loomes came up to me and asked whether I knew anything about her family.
“At first, all I could think was that maybe they came from the same village as me. But although we left it at that, I was intrigued and later started digging around again. It seems that until then I had missed my ancestor Ann Loomes because of a mistake by a vicar in the 18th century!” It turned out that Maree was a distant relative.
“I believe the vicar wrote the wrong name in the book,” says Sheila. “He wrote ‘Ann’ when he should have written ‘Mary’ – one of the couple’s other children. He got the wrong child. This had been a real brick wall to me. But it was when I saw that John and Ann later had another child – also called Mary – that I worked it out.
“No one gives two living children the same first name, do they? That told me that it must have been Mary that died. Ann was still alive. Discovering this fact meant that I was able to uncover the rest of her story.”
It emerged that when Ann was just 15, her mother died leaving her father a widower with one daughter and five sons. For the next seven years, Ann took over the management of the household and cared for her father and brothers, until on 28 August 1816 she left to start her own family and married John Loomes, a local labourer.
However, their wedding took place in dark times – quite literally. Ash from the eruption of Mount Tambora, on an island in the Indian Ocean, had spread over Europe, blocking out the sun, meaning that 1816 became known as ‘the year without a summer’.
That gloomy, wet August was an omen of things to come. The next two decades were marked by poverty and economic hardship, with work hard to come by – and badly paid when it was available. Although the couple had six sons, two died as babies, and John struggled to find employment. By 1834, the family was relying on parish relief to survive.
“However, it seems local magistrate Charles Smith became aware of the family’s plight and arranged for them to have a passage to Australia aboard a ship taking single women to the country at the request of the Australian Government,” says Sheila.
On 10 July 1834, Ann, John and their four surviving sons set sail from Gravesend aboard the David Scott. They arrived in Sydney on 30 October.
So far, Ann was just one of many poor Britons who made the trip; their lives marked only by names and dates. But, by a remarkable stroke of luck, a letter she wrote home soon after she settled survived. In 1835 it was used as evidence by John Marshall, an agent to the Emigration Committee, as part of his fight to refute accusations made in The Colonist newspaper, by Dr Dunmore Lang, that single women who had come to New South Wales aboard the David Scott were of “dubious character”.
Marshall’s defence survives as a pamphlet entitled A Refutation of the Slanders and
Sheila’s 3x great aunt Ann went on a journey from grinding rural poverty to success in Australia
Willful Misrepresentations Published at Sydney, by Dr Lang, in the Colonist Newspaper.
“In his reply to Dr Lang’s accusations, Marshall mentions some of the families who had sailed in the David Scott, including John and Ann Loomes,” says Sheila.
Marshall quotes Ann’s letter stating: “It is from the wife of a poor man of industrious character who was with his family dependent on parish relief at Whittlesey in Cambridgeshire, and who, through the active benevolence of Charles Smith esq, a magistrate of that county, obtained the means to emigrate with his family by the David Scott.”
Sheila says: “The letter was amazing. The spelling is definitely erratic, and I think someone else must have put the punctuation in. However, it tells us so much about the life they made in Australia.”
A land of plenty
The letter reflects the concerns of a woman whose life had thus far been dominated by hunger and poverty, and much of the content is given over to descriptions of the abundant, affordable food suddenly available to them. There was also plentiful work. Within days, John was employed, and the family were living as the tenants of Charles Cowper, 40 miles outside Sydney.
“Our master is a very nice man,” Ann writes. “Our wages are £ 35 a year. He sent us 10 stone of flour, 28lbs of sugar, 4lbs of tea, 5lbs of candles, 6lbs of soap, 1lbs of tobacco and we have two cows.
“He also gave us many useful things for our house and, bless God, we are in a land of plenty. It is a veryv fifine country and I should like it very much if I had but one friend to speak to. We sit down every day to a good joint of beef. You may buy good beef at one penny a pound if you take a quantity at once; sugar is tuppence a pound and good tea is a shilling a pound; good beer is 1/ 6 a bottle and rum 10 shillings a gallon.
“I should like to go higher up the country for the climate is like ours at home. The weather is very hot where we are now but very healthful [sic]. Our wooden hut stands on a hill and is very pleasant. We have about 20 acres of Indian Corn before our door and it grows up to seven feet high with cobs as long as your arm.”
While Ann talks about homesickness, she seems to take some comfort from the fact that there is “a church about half a mile off ”.
The first time George [her son] and his father went there, the child fainted in the heat. Later, Ann remarks that the same afternoon the parson went “10 miles to preach but comes one mile out of his way to see how George is”.
Of Sydney, she wrote: “You never saw such a beautiful place in your lives for
London is nothing to it. Clothes are nearly as cheap as at home and shoes are cheap, too.”
Missing the home country
Sheila says: “Their master also wanted a gardener and obviously asked Ann to write to her brother, James, with a view to employing him. James worked as a gardener back home in England and Ann was eager for her youngest brother and his wife to join them. If he comes, she advises James to bring brandy with him “in case of sickness in the ship”.
“Ann is delighted with her new country. But it’s clear she misses her friends and family, wants her letter passed round for them all to read and sends her love and ‘God’s Blessing’ with a kiss for all her little nieces and nephews. An Australian address where they can write to her is included in her letter with a request that they send her all their news ‘as soon as they can’.”
Sadly for Ann, James and his wife didn’t go to Australia. He and his brother George sailed for New York with their wives in 1836 and eventually settled in Michigan.
But nonetheless, Ann and John seem to have done well in the new country. “Early in the 1840s, the family moved to the Bowning district, a settlement north-west of Sydney with an aboriginal name meaning ‘ high hill’,” says Sheila.
“A document dated 20 April 1857 records the purchase of land at Two Mile Creek by John Loomes. The 1865 Electoral Roll shows John Snr, John Jnr, James and Edward Loomes living at Two Mile Creek, also known as Sheepstation Creek.
“The sheep returns for Yass, the district that included Bowning, show John Loomes living at Sheepstation Creek and having 500 sheep.
“Clearly, the family had prospered and John’s industry had been rewarded.”
John died in 1873, aged 82, while Ann died on 13 November 1881, aged 87.
“The Yass Courier of 19 November 1881 reports Ann’s death, noting that until the last weeks of her life she regularly walked into the town, a distance of more than two miles,” says Sheila. “It also says that she was one of the town’s oldest residents having lived in Bowning for nearly 40 years and ‘was well known and respected by everyone’.”
Discovering the details of Ann’s life has been the highlight of Sheila’s many years of involvement in family history. “The detective work is so rewarding,” she says.
“There were so many wonderful discoveries as I went along. But once you’ve made them, you can’t unmake them; that’s it. I’ve got a friend who is just starting out and I feel quite green with envy at the wonderful time that she’s got ahead of her!”
The record of the marriage of John Loomes and Ann Speechly, which took place on 28 August 1816
Sheila searches for the gravestones of her ancestors at St Mary’s Church, Whittleseye
Sheila’s ancestors have links to St Mary’s Church, Whittlesey but there are no graves to be foundy
The marriage entry for Ann’s parents – her father was widowed when Ann died in 1809