They Came on Boats

Williamstown Pier


My ancestors all came to this country on boats. Remarkable!

Before the colony of Port Philip was 25 years from first white settlement the forebears of my father and the forbears of my mother had arrived, one by one or a family together, to start a new life.

Their sailing ships docked at Williamstown in the mid 1850s. It was a bustling a port for the new settlement founded a couple of decades earlier. These newcomers were mostly seeking refuge from famine and persecution in Ireland.

I share their genes.

Of this I am certain. They did not know that they had reached country that was ancient, that the history of civilization of the First Peoples here stretched back more that 65,000 years. At the time of their arrivals massacres of the First Peoples had reached a peak and soon few would be left on their ancestral lands.

This is all so very recent. My own life spans more than a third of this new settlement and tragic displacement in Victoria.

The stories that are passed down from my great grandparents are stories of the struggles of ‘pioneers’.

I try to imagine how vulnerable it felt to be a teenage girl sent from Ireland to become a wife. She couldn’t read or write, my great grandmother.

Did my convict great grandfather, who had served 9 years of a ten-year sentence in Van Diemen’s Land carry with him scars from his impoverished childhood in Leeds, the sea journey and the debasement of a convict? We understand from researching the documents that he had been flogged but had eventually had a ten-year sentence reduced to nine.

They married in East Melbourne, Honora and George, and headed south on a bullock dray to where George could find work, close to what is now Inverloch. Their last child, my grandmother, was born while the family was trying to make a living selling food on the goldfields.

Did Honora even know that George had arrived in Melbourne as a convict on ticket of leave? She didn’t pass the story to her children, but surely, she would have known. Was it burden of humiliation? She came to Australia illiterate; gave birth to fourteen children and was one of the women who, in Korumburra, wrote her name on the suffragette petition to parliament.

The great-great grandparents from my mother’s side headed to the goldfields in Ballarat. I read Claire Wright ‘s Forgotten Herse of Eureka and picture the Eureka Stockade. Was that family with their growing boys and their young girl inside the Stockade by choice or simply because the fence was built around them?

Image; Ron Macdermid

I think of the women with their long skirts and petticoats … there in mud or in dust … in primitive housing … cooking, washing, giving birth, breast feeding, never ever with a secure future.. None of them became landholders, they didn’t find gold, they never had more than barely enough to get by.

They grew to love this land, but there was so much that they were yet to learn.