Annie O’Neill

There was a baby girl born in a tent in August 1849 in Ararat, rural Victoria. Her name was Annie O’Neill. Why Ararat?

Her parents, John and Mary, had landed in Melbourne in 1841 with two young sons after a difficult 4-month voyage on the Ward Chipman.  The Port Philip settlement was only 6 years since Colonisation. The family had three children born in Australia. A little boy died as an infant, a daughter named Kate survived and Annie, the baby born in the tent, was the last.

This little Annie O’Neill is my great grandmother. I will never know exactly why she was born in a tent in Ararat.  To reach that place was a 90-mile journey on a very difficult track from the Port Philip settlement into the land of the Wathaurong People who in 1849 still had a strong presence on their land.  

Exactly two years after the birth of little Annie gold was found. Within weeks the district became a goldfield and prospectors came from Geelong, Melbourne, Sydney and eventually the world.

John and the Irish born sons, Mick and Dan, became prospectors. There was political agitation for miners’ rights and Mick and Dan were in the thick of it. When in 1854 the British soldiers opened fire on the protesting miners and their families in the Eureka Stockade, Mick was injured in the fighting. He eventually set sail for the Californian goldfields. In Ballarat and Ararat districts the green hills disappeared as prospectors dug into every square meter of land. Some among the first prospectors wrote home to Europe to describe ‘natives’ still living there; in a very short time there was no land at all for the Wathaurung people.

Dan and his father continued panning for gold but never found wealth. When the mines became businesses and the gold was extracted by tunnelling underground, they found employment as miners.

Amidst overcrowding, poor sanitation, substandard housing and chaos there continued to come, from across the world, those who hoped to strike it rich on the goldfields.  In this noisy, busy place Annie grew to become a beautiful, red headed young woman who found employment as a domestic servant working for a family who had become rich.

In 1860 a young German, Franz Claus Stahl, ‘jumped ship’ in Melbourne and headed for the goldfields. He failed to strike it rich, but he eventually met and fell in love with Annie, who was about 13 years younger than he was. He may have already been a friend of her brother Dan. Franz built a family home in Talbot. He and Annie married in August 1869 and lived there for 30 years. Margaret Ann, known as ‘little Annie’, was the first of six children; there were four girls then two boys. When Franz applied to become a ‘Naturalised Australian’ in 1873, he listed his occupation as ‘sailor’ though I doubt he ever saw the sea again.

My mother told me that her grandfather Franz developed miners’ disease from digging for gold in the dust-clogged tunnels; Franz died in 1906 in Melbourne. His son John, who had also worked in the mines, was employed on a Council project …  tunnelling under Footscray to provide a sewerage system for Melbourne’s western suburbs.

John was now breadwinner for his widowed mother, young brother and four sisters.  When he noticed problems in the tunnels he reported to the Council and to the trade union that the scaffolding was insecure and dangerous. Nobody listened to this twenty-year-old labourer’s complaints. The tunnel collapsed; John was the only worker to die crushed beneath the rubble.  The union leader came to offer compensation to Annie, the widowed mother. She was furious. My mother told me that ‘she threw it back at him’. Harry, the surviving son, was still too young to work. Young Annie was the eldest of the girls. She took her turn, working as a domestic assistant to a wealthy Portuguese family and providing an income for her own family.

Annie, Theresa, Violet, Lizzie and young Harry settled down in Melbourne. Dan had already left to go mining and droving in the outback. Mick, after prospecting for gold in California, fought in the American Civil War and was injured in this uprising. He sent his photo to his mother but he never returned to Australia.

My next glimpse of Annie Stahl (nee O’Neill) comes when this great grandmother of mine was living in Carlton where her children and her children’s children loved to visit her.

One day there was a knock on the door of Annie’s house. A bearded man stood there, rather ragged.  ‘I’ve come to live with you Annie.  I’m your brother Dan’, he said. When Annie’s young grandson Leo Martin came to visit, Dan took the chance to describe himself as a hero of the Eureka Stockade.  Annie was listening and said, ‘Take no notice of him Leo. He was asleep in his tent when the fighting broke out, heard the ruckus, jumped up in fright, hit his head on the tent pole, and took no further part in the proceedings’. I have heard my Uncle Leo tell this story; it is the best known of the stories handed down in the family.,

The Stahls all lived around Melbourne but laved the sight and smell 0of the Australian bush. An iconic photo taken on a family picnic has been lovingly preserved.


Vera, of the Martin family, is my mother. We found that her name was registered as Annie Veronica, but she preferred Vera. Before George Martin could walk his daughter Vera up the aisle for her wedding to Joe Healy, Vera insisted that they go first to see her grandmother Annie.  It was important for the frail 84-year-old Annie to see her beloved Vera as a bride.

Annie Stahl (nee O’Neill) lived to see Vera pregnant, shared the joy of a third great grandchild on the way, but died in 1935 just before I was born.

Melbourne became a settlement in 1835. My great grandmother’s family arrived in Melbourne only 6 years after the settlers established a colony there. Annie O’Neill died in the year that I was born. I put my story side by side with her story. My great grandmother’s story, with my story seamlessly added, reach back very close to the beginning of colonisation.

It is Makarrata time now. The First Nations Peoples in our part of this country are telling their stories of 65,000 years. They are telling of colonisation from the experience of their families. As for Annie O’Neill and me … our stories are a drop in an ocean.