5b — Stray stories of family and Australiana — 4

Originally posted January 24, 2014.

In September 2011 I posted Returnee!  It recapitulates what I knew at the time about William Whitfield (1812-1897).



The Maudabawn Cultural Centre viewed from the Grotto Gardens

near to Madabawn Bridge, Drumcondra, Dernakesh, Boagh and Drumgoon, Cavan, Ireland


Cootehill is a fine example of an 18th century Ulster linen market town.  Cootehill takes its name from the Coote family who acquired a large estate after the Cromwellian wars.  The land had previously belonged to the O’Reilly clan. Cootehill developed from a small village dating from the late 17th century.  Thomas Coote was a founding member of the Linen Board in Dublin and played a major role in encouraging the linen trade in Cootehill.   The linen market grew rapidly throughout the 18th century.  And by 1801 had become the sixth largest market for brown linen in Ulster.

William Whitfield, recall, was born 16 Mar 1812* , Parish of Drumgoon, Cootehill, Co. Cavan, Ireland.

That’s my grandnephew Nathan in Ireland in 2011 – the returnee of that 2011 post. He said recently on Facebook that he was sorry he hadn’t known more of his mother’s Whitfield connection to the place at the time. I reflect with some amazement that my great-uncles and aunts actually knew William Whitfield as their grandfather! Most of them were adults when he died. This tells you something of the time frame of European presence in New South Wales.


Nathan also through his grandmother – my brother’s former wife – traces back to a much more ancient Australia while both he and I may also have a connection through my Whitfield grandmother.

Consider this map, which is linked to the full size version.

Aboriginal Cultural Country Areas 1

There are two places I have spoken of lately in connection with the Whitfield stories – but how recent all that is compared with what the background represents!

See also two other great maps: Cumberland Plains  to 1830 and NSW Extent of Territory Known to Europeans 1770-1860.

* In an email  May 19, 2017 Stuart Daniels, grandson of my father’s Aunt Annie, noted: Bob Starling (family historian) also found that William was 8 when he landed in Sydney so he was born 1816. Actually that would make him 10. We are sure about the arrival of the Thames (see next post) and about William’s wedding being in 1836. The other issue Stuart and Bob found is that William’s mother was not Mary Gowrie but Mary Goss: Jacob’s wife I think was born Mary Goss not Gowrie as most people have. Her brother put Goss on Mary, his sister’s death certificate & I have found Goss in Dublin but nowhere a Gowrie. While noting these finds I will be retaining the dating and nomenclature also found  in the reference book Australian biographical and genealogical record series 1, 1788-1841, with series 2 supplement, 1842-1899 / series 1 edited by John T. Spurway, assistant editor Allison Allen; series 2 edited by Kenneth J. Cable and Jane C. Marchant.

12a — Whitfields, Ratcliffes, and Wests

As we move back to the 1860s and 1870s, the Ratcliffes enter the Whitfield story. I recall my father mentioning the name, though not often. I really knew nothing about then until very recently. This entry is from  January 25, 2014.

Conjunction of half-remembered stories with new information: re Elizabeth Ratcliffe – born 16 Mar 1838 in Cabramatta NSW Australia, and died 16 Jun 1919 in Picton NSW. She scores her own entry in Australian biographical and genealogical record series 1, 1788-1841, with series 2 supplement, 1842-1899 / series 1 edited by John T. Spurway, assistant editor Allison Allen; series 2 edited by Kenneth J. Cable and Jane C. Marchant.


She is my great-grandmother, wife of William Joseph John Whitfield.

Seems her father Joseph was Keeper of the Chapel at Cabramatta, or, I gather, its caretaker. Earlier:

From the Indent for the Guildford 1824: Joseph Ratcliffe was tried in Suffolk in March 1823. He received a sentence of Life. He was a Brickman and Ploughman at this time. His native place is also stated to be Suffolk. He was 26 , had a brown and freckled complexion, brown hair and dark brown eyes and was a tad over 5 feet 3 inches tall. My research shows that Joseph was recommended for a Conditional Pardon in 31 January 1839 and was approved in July 1839. In 1837 Joseph received permission to marry Sarah Leonard who was 17 and born in the colony. Joseph at this stage was in receipt of a Ticket of Leave (No.32/611). They applied through the Rev. Hassall at Narellan.

Many years ago I can remember Mum, Dad and I having a Sunday drive through the backblocks of Liverpool and Camden. As we passed through Cobbitty Dad pointed out the Anglican Church and told what I thought of as a garbled story of a family connection with it – a connection which somehow involved a marriage and the Reverend Samuel Marsden – the famous flogging parson. This was the 1950s so convicts as such were never mentioned.  Well, not as relatives anyway. (Same applied – more so? – with Aborigines.)  But behold, the story now makes a certain amount of sense.


Heber Chapel, Cobbitty

From the Dictionary  of Sydney:

The area known as the Cowpastures (so named after cattle from the First Fleet roamed there) brought the area to the attention of European settlers. Settlement on the west of the Nepean River was prohibited, with the exception of the Macarthur and Davidson grants, but it was not long before grants were taken up in the lush pastures on the eastern side. Governor Macquarie had named the area Cobbedee, and when Gregory Blaxland was given a grant here in 1812 he called it Cubbady Farm. The larger grants in the area were Wivenhoe, given to the Reverend William Cowper in 1812, and Macquarie Grove, which was acquired by the Reverend Rowland Hassall in 1812. This was later passed on to his son Samuel Hassall. Denbigh was given to Charles Hook in 1815. Matavai was granted to James Hassall. There were also several smaller grants along the banks of the Nepean.

In 1827 the Reverend Thomas Hassall was given the parish of Narellan, which included Cobbitty. There was no church building from which to conduct his ministry and he stayed with his brother at Macquarie Grove. Following the death of Charles Hook, Hassall acquired Denbigh, and as the house there was almost completed he used the materials he had been acquiring for a new house to build Heber Chapel on Pomare Grove (named after the Tahitian chieftain Pomare), a grant obtained for him by his father in 1817. Heber Chapel was dedicated in 1828 by Hassall’s father-in-law, the Reverend Samuel Marsden.

The parish was a large one, with the first preaching stations reaching from Cabramatta to Goulburn. Hassall indulged his fondness for well-bred horses and he rode to the widely scattered areas of occupation. As his father-in-law had been nicknamed the Flogging Parson, Thomas soon became known as the Galloping Parson. The first vault in the churchyard belongs to his brother Samuel who died in 1830.

By 1840 the foundation stone of St Paul’s Anglican Church had been laid and it was completed in 1842. Heber Chapel was used as a schoolhouse during the week and had a schoolmaster’s residence attached. The schoolmaster was John Armstrong. The present Cobbitty Public School was established in 1882, and as well as providing education to the children of the area it has established a fine reputation for the local market it holds once a month.

When the Reverend Thomas Hassall died on 29 March 1868, Denbigh was no longer available to the new minister and a new rectory was built across the road from St Paul’s in 1870…

So it looks as if Joseph Ratcliffe, another of my great-great-grandfathers,  looked after the preaching station at Cabramatta for the Reverend Thomas Hassall, and it was in Cabramatta that my great-grandmother was born in 1838.

Related: Stories of Liverpool.

Stories of Liverpool’ is an exhibition about our community’s heritage filled with vivid accounts of lives of ordinary Australians; stories of gossip, murder, scandal and bankruptcy, as well as of pioneering struggle, endurance, innovation, achievement and occasionally failure. Importantly, the exhibition also tells us stories about the original inhabitants of this place, the Dharug people. Explore Liverpool’s rich heritage through this online exhibition.


Joseph Lycett c 1820

The story of the sailing ship ticket and letter in Wellington NSW


See that name Richard West, a passenger on the brig Grecian?


Visiting my father’s cousin Dorothy West in Wellington in the later 1960s I saw his original sailing ship ticket! I also saw a letter to him from England. All I remember of the letter is a snippet about “knowing you have said you don’t want to die in that country…”

And who was he? It appears he was the father of Caroline Philadelphia West, my great-great-grandmother, wife of William Whitfield. See this interesting note:

Richard Constable West (Widower) and Ann Willson (Spinster) were married on the 10.10.1819 at St Leonards Shoreditch, Middlesex. William Willson was a witness (original document recently listed online). I’ve started searching for Richard West’s previous marriage, as his daughter Caroline Philadelphia West was born in 1817, it is possible his previous marriage may only have been recent to that date.. Mr Richard West & two children sailed from London on the 212 ton brig “Grecian” 23.11.1831, arriving Sydney 17 April 1832. The ship was carrying merchandise. — regards, Vicki

Now I have long wondered about that name Philadelphia. This makes sense.

13a — Whitfields 1880s-1930s

This post fills in background in preparation for the next going back through my family story to 1885. Consider these reposts. Apologies for a degree of repetition from posts here recently:

Wollongong High’s centenary, my family history, WW1

In December is the 100th birthday of what is now Wollongong High School of the Performing Arts….

I taught there 1975-1980, with a hiatus for secondment to Sydney University 1977-1978. My Uncle Keith Christison and Aunt Beth Christison (Heard) went to WHS in the 1930s. I had an Uncle, Colin Whitfield, who was part of the founding intake. He was born in 1901, but I never met him.  This may be seen in Shellharbour Cemetery:


For the sad story behind these see Neil’s personal decades: 20 – Shellharbour Whitfields 1905 and Neil’s personal decades 26: Whitfields, Christisons, and more — 1915.

Family history and mystery–the Indigenous connection

…And this is my grandmother:


Henrietta Bursill (Whitfield) 1874-1931

That’s my father’s mother, who had a very sad life. According to stories my father and mother told me it is through Henrietta that the family has some Aboriginal ancestry, as I noted back in 2000-2001:

Now Henrietta has been something of a family secret; one story, told me by my father and mother, says she was the illegitimate offspring of an Aboriginal (or part-Aboriginal) farm worker and a widow. You will note my father was nineteen or twenty when she died. My nephew Warren not long ago met a Tharawal Elder named Les Bursill at a gathering in Canberra; Henrietta was a Bursill (variant “Bursell” on some records). So it is possible they were all descendants of the First Australians… That’s Henrietta on the right. About Warren: my brother married his first wife Aileen, Warren’s mother, in 1955. It turns out she too was of Aboriginal descent. See Warren’s excellent account of that family in A Guringai Family’s Story.

There is no doubt about my sister-in-law’s descent from the family of Sophy Bungaree, that is of the family of Bungaree of considerable fame in early colonial history. But what about the Whitfields and the Bursills? I see that Henrietta’s birth certificate names no father, and if then the story I heard is true – and I am quite sure it is – then of course she wasn’t a Bursill at all, which does rather complicate matters. For the moment then we are all assuming Dharawal, but that father could have come from further afield…

Possibly we’ll never know exactly where Henrietta’s natural father came from. The story about her birth was raised with my maternal grandfather, Roy Hampton Christison, when my mother and father became engaged. As my mother told the story, old Charlie  Bursill came and told grandfather Roy about the “touch of the tarbrush” via Henrietta. I do note that Grenville’s 1872 Post Office Directory lists a MRS Bursill as a farmer in Shellharbour. The story is that she had an Aboriginal assistant working for her, and that he, in 1874, was the actual father of Henrietta. He is said to have (wisely?) disappeared. Grandfather Christison told C Bursill to jump into Lake Illawarra, I believe, and of course the engagement and marriage went ahead in 1935.

What I do know is that as a kid I always sensed something as I wandered the bush around the Woronora valley, or on a hill in Sutherland West then known as The Devil’s Back but now just a mundane suburb. It was a presence that lived in the rock shelters and in high places with views of surrounding country. I can’t explain it…

Update 18 July 2021

There are significant additions and corrections to Henrietta’s story at Family history and mystery–the Indigenous connection.

What a treasury of family history!

For the first time I have been over the last few days trawling through the recently digitised Kiama Independent on Trove checking Whitfield and Christison and other family-related names. I have far from finished my trawl, but what treasures I have already found!


That’s my grandfather, Thomas Daniel Sweeney Whitfield, born in Picton NSW in 1867 (or 21 December 1866) and died in 1948. I can just remember him. By the way, he always dropped or denied the “Sweeney” bit as having “Daniel Sweeney” in his name was a rather too poignant reminder of the family’s origins.  When I wrote that some years ago I was still venting my anger with some aspects of old Tom’s treatment of my father in the past, even if the old Tom I remember vaguely was a fairly benign deaf octogenarian with white hair…

And here is something about Tom’s mother-in-law:


…her daughter, Henrietta, was Tom’s first wife. She had a hard life.



See also an account I gave some years back, one element of which is contradicted by the newspaper record. It seems Henrietta II died at home in Shellharbour.

There were five sons in my father’s family, and a daughter, Ella. The oldest son, Aubry (or Aubrey), died in 1906 at the age of twelve. Then another brother, Colin, died probably around 1915 at the age of about fourteen; I have heard this story, but am not sure of dates; I know when I was at school I used an algebra book belonging to Colin from around 1914 at Wollongong High. Information provided by Bob Starling in April 2005 has clarified this.

  • WHITFIELD Aubrey R 1893-1906 (13)
  • WHITFIELD Thomas W L (1906-1906)
  • WHITFIELD Colin C 1901-1915 (14)

So one died in infancy, and another accidentally. A third son died as a teenager nine years later. I was told one died in a riding accident, the other in a shooting accident. Certainly, my grandmother Henrietta went mad, and, among other things, chased my father round with an axe at one time, and another time tried to burn the house down. She died in Parramatta Asylum in 1931. Curiously, I was able to ascertain in the 1970s that she had died of tertiary syphilis, of GPI (General Paralysis of the Insane) as it was then called; my father was in the 1970s being checked for Huntington’s Chorea, an hereditary form of dementia, and this fact came to light. Fortunately it was also established that my father did not have this problem. Evidence for all this came from the specialist at Prince Henry Hospital who actually tracked down the doctor, still alive at the time, who had signed my grandmother’s death certificate.

It appears, from what I have been told, that my grandfather tended to blame his wife for the death of the first-born son, and that this compounded with the death of the second. Her decline into madness coincided with my father’s childhood and adolescence, but was not his only problem. My father was apparently quite a talented artist, and I have seen evidence of this from World War II, when he sent a number of sketches home from Papua. One was of a Scotch thistle and was drawn especially for my sister. There was a colony of well- known Sydney artists who frequented Shellharbour at that time and they encouraged his talent, and indeed wanted him to go back to Sydney with them. Well, his father was having none of that, and demanded that he destroy all his artworks and paraphernalia. He in fact hid a lot of it in a cave on Native Dog Hill (now Mount Warrigal), where it may well be to this day. He was also taken out of school at the minimum age, and apprenticed to his father. My father told me these stories at various times.

My mother tells me that even after she and my father married in 1935, my father had one day made a set of window frames involving some very fine finishing work. He was very proud of them and showed them to old Tom, who promptly told him they were shit, smashed them, and got him to start over. Later my mother, who refused to be cowed by the old man, said to Tom that they seemed good to her. “They were,” old Tom said. “They were fine, nothing wrong with them, but I don’t want him getting a big head.”

So after such childhood experiences, after such a family, after the Depression and the struggle to establish himself, after the Second World War, my father’s dreams in some ways died in the grave with my sister.

The stories there in the main came from my father and mother.


* Or was she? This whole Bursill business is getting complicated.  Until 28 June that is! Another newspaper, the Kiama Reporter and Illawarra Journal, has more detail in its obituary on Mrs Henrietta Bursill (Senior).


Certainly my grandfather Thomas was married to Hetty/Henrietta Bursill/Bursell who was born in the Kiama District in 1874 and died in 1931.  So Henrietta I (died 1921) is definitely my great-grandmother. I have also ascertained that she was married to Thomas R Bursill in Chippendale in 1858 and that her maiden name was Henrietta Woodley.

But is the story my mother and father told me true: that Henrietta II was born rather a long time after Thomas R Bursill died? Is this what Charlie Bursill apparently told my mother’s father Roy Christison around 1934-5, only to be rebuked good and proper by Roy H? (Think “tarbrush”.) The articles are vague, and openly available material online has not helped me out. I can’t find a year of death for Thomas R Bursill yet, but I do note that in 1872 Greville’s Post Office Directory of Shell Harbour only lists a Mrs Bursill as a farmer in Shell Harbour.  But this may be the clincher:


When you think about it, especially given the rather wonderful obituary Henrietta I scored in the Kiama Reporter, it is rather touching that she named this, her last and probably unexpected, child after herself. She seems to have been quite a woman!


Charles Bursill’s place in Shellharbour in 1895

“’Seaside’ was the home of the Bursill Family. Charles Bursill was the first and last harbour master at Shellharbour. He was a builder, carpenter, undertaker and Sunday school teacher actively involved with St Paul’s Church of England. The house site was formerly owned by Captain William Wilson. It was demolished and replaced by the Ocean Beach Hotel which opened in 1929.” – Shellharbour Images

But meanwhile I have found a nice court case from 1897. Henrietta II  is “Betty” there but that is obviously wrong. It concerns the proprietor of the Steam Packet Hotel**, Abraham Winsor, who was accused of shooting at James Dennis Condon with intent to murder. Henrietta was a witness.


** “Campbell Mercer built the Steam Packet Hotel in 1855 on land purchased from T A Reddall. Mercer leased the building to David Moon who obtained a Publican’s License and opened the Steam Packet Hotel in April 1856. The hotel was sold to Thomas Cosgrove in 1861 and was known locally as Cosgrove’s Inn. The hotel was a centre for social life and public meetings, as well as a base for travellers. The Condon Family owned the hotel from 1868 until the 1880s. The hotel continued under a succession of licensees until the early 1900s when it became Beazley’s General Store, followed by the Gethings Store. The building was demolished in the late 1970s.” – Shellharbour Images  I remember it as a store; almost certainly bought ice creams and soft drinks there! Seems, reading between the lines, there may have been reasons for a Condon to be shooting in the general direction of the proprietor of the Steam Packet in 1897!


The Steam Packet

16 – 1880s and 90s – Whitfields again

Posted originally on January 30, 2015 by Neil

This series of posts is the most comprehensive I have done on family history. I am doing them backwards here so that in due course they will appear sequentially.

I want to follow up yesterday’s post which, you may recall, detailed the sad fate of William Whitfield (1812-1897) and the impact of the Depression of the 1890s on his son William Joseph John Whitfield (1836-1925), whose son in turn (Thomas Daniel Sweeney Whitfield 1866-1948) was my grandfather at whose knee I have sat. Just think: when William was born Napoleon was off to Russia, and William Joseph John lived through World War 1.

I was really moved by the extra detail about William’s death in Rushcutter’s Bay. Afterwards I wondered what happened to his wife, Caroline Philadelphia West. I also wondered just when William had returned to the inner Sydney he had left in the1840s. The second I don’t know yet, but the first is a sad story again.


William Whitfield and his wife Caroline Philadelphia

Screenshot - 29_01_2015 , 8_39_24 PM

1881: leaving a husband and 13 children

The following year William sold up:


Location, location, location:

Once occupied by the Gundungura and Tharawal Aborigines, the first Europeans to investigate the area around Picton were the party of ex-convict John Wilson who passed through in 1798. They had been sent by Governor Hunter to accumulate data about the southlands to discourage convicts who were escaping and heading south in the belief that China was only 150 miles away.There was already a very small European presence to the north around present-day Camden, consisting of stockmen sent to tend the cattle on the Cowpastures, although all other settlement of that area had been forbidden in order to ensure the development of the herd (see entry on Camden for further information on the Cowpastures).

By 1819 Governor Macquarie had authorised the construction of a road from Picton through to the Goulburn Plains. The first land grant in the area was ‘Stargard’, a gift to Christian Carl Ludwig Rumker, Governor Brisbane’s astronomer, in honour of his rediscovery of Encke’s Comet. Nearby Major Henry Antill established a 2000-acre property in 1822 which he first named ‘Wilton’, subsequently renaming it ‘Jarvisfield’ after Jane Jarvis, the wife of his friend, Governor Macquarie. The station stretched from Stonequarry Creek to Razorback. The family home still stands although now it is used as the clubhouse for the Antill Park Golf Club….




Stargard Estate today

Moving now to the son, William Joseph John: I was struck by the details of that sad auction announcement. It really must have been quite a big concern, that Blue Gum Mill. One of the items listed is a 14hp Rushton Proctor Portable Engine. Imagine that!


Casting forward to 1903 I note this:


That is one of my father’s younger aunts, the daughter of William Joseph John. They settled in Wellington NSW where in the late 60s and early 70s I stayed in their house with their daughter Dorothy. They were deceased by then. The house however had quite a few treasures, including a Whitfield family Bible that may have been old William’s. The groom’s father long lived in Appin NSW, part of the district including Picton – just the other side of the escarpment I see from my window. There is a famous tale about Appin: Massacre at Appin in 1816.

When Europeans took up land grants, they cleared and fenced the land, irrecoverably changing the patterns of hunting and gathering that had been followed by the Dharawal people for tens of thousands of years.
Some European settlers formed a close rapport with Aborigines. Charles Throsby of Glenfield was accompanied by Dharawal men when he explored the southern highlands area. Throsby was a persistent critic of European treatment of the Aborigines. Hamilton Hume who, in 1814 with his brother John, made the first of a number of long exploratory trips southwards, did so in company with a young Aboriginal friend named Doual.
Whereas the “mountain natives” (probably Gandangara) had a reputation of being hostile in defence of their people and their land, the Dharawal were peaceful and had no history of aggression. Unfortunately few settlers could distinguish between the two groups.
In 1814, Macquarie issued an order in the Sydney Gazette, admonishing settlers in the Appin and Cowpastures area. “Any person who may be found to have treated them [natives] with inhumanity or cruelty, will be punished?.” This followed an atrocity when an Aboriginal woman and her children were murdered at Appin.
Two years later, in the drought of 1816, the Gandangara came again from the mountains in search of food. Europeans were killed and about 40 farmers armed themselves with muskets and pitchforks….

That becomes a very sad story. It is commemorated annually theses days: Annual Appin Massacre Memorial Ceremony.

On 17 April 1816, there was a massacre of Dharawal people near Appin. For over a decade now, the Winga Myamly (sit down and talk – Wiradjuri language) Reconciliation Group, which works towards Reconciliation by raising awareness of issues and promoting a partnership to bring about change for Indigenous people, has organised this Memorial Ceremony held on the Sunday afternoon closest to 17 April….

Just a reminder of the background behind the stories I have been telling and the places concerned.