Saturday, January 8, 2011



You’ve met the convicts from my past, the Scottish pioneers and the sole German who changed his name for the sake of brevity and pronunciation.  Now its time for Grandmother Maggie’s four aunts to surface in this potted version of Australia’s early history, part of a much bigger saga entitled Secrets and Lies

 While much of this story relates to the gold fields of Victoria the big question at the end of this chapter will remain with great-Grandmother Geraldine and how, and why she found her way from Oz to Fiji.

The four sisters however were only a small part of their parent’s family of sixteen children. Their father Alfred was a Town Council tax collector in Sussex before blotting his copybook, a shameful experience culminating in bankruptcy and prison.  An embarrassment that changed the family’s style of life and caused several of the youngsters to at times change their names.  

Worthing's Town Hall where Alfred Sweeny was once employed.

Tracking the family’s movements wasn’t easy, one minute they were all Sweenys then one by one, at various times, some of the children began using the name Keates, their mothers maiden name; one son even adopted the surname Kirkland, apparently a name plucked from thin air. The role of amateur detective sometimes bordered on voyeurism as I uncovered secrets some of the siblings might have preferred remained hidden. 

At one stage I even wondered if some of the sixteen were perhaps adopted, but no they were each and every one of them little Sweenys.  Four eventually died, the first Adeline at the age of five, twins Bernard and Leonard, and four year old Reginald the child born amidst the chaos of poverty and despair. 

ANN KEATES MOTHER:      BORN 1821 Sussex d 1903 LONDON

1.     ADELINE ORDE      b 1841  d 1846
2.     ALFRED ROBERT  b1842   known later as Keates
3.     BERTHA                   b 1844 – immigrated Australia 1867- m Nickless
4.     ALICE KATE           b 1845 – married West, Wheeler and Glover
5.     ADELINE MAUDE  b 1847 – immigrated Australia 1866 m Dinon m Hazell m Harvey – also known as Adelaide.
6.     ETHELBERT            b 1849 – known as Kirkland – married Eliza Brown Aust
7.     GERALDINE ORDE  b 1849- immigrated Australia 1866- Fiji  m McGowan m Foreman
8.     FRANK ALBERT     b 1852  d 1888– immigrated Australia -   unmarried
9.     BERNARD                 b 1852 -d 1852  twin
10.  LEONARD                b 1852 -d 1854 twin
11.  CAMILLA NORAH b 1854- immigrated Australia-m Benjafield d 1877
12.  ERNEST LEONARD            b 1855 – settled Australia- m  Crone- m Knight– lived/died  South Africa
13.  EVELYN WALTER b 1857 – lived Portsea – married Lloyd twice-known                                                Keates/Sweeny
14.  MADELINE MAY    b 1859 Wales – m 1880 Evans – died England
15.  REGINALD               b 1861 – died age 4 in Wales
16.  CONSTANCE OLIVIA b 1863 Wales – m Fleming-died London 1901                                       


Worthing’s  Steyne Library, renamed Clarendon House is the building to the left of  the Steyne hotel; it no longer exists but by 1859 it will be the last residence owned by Alfred and Ann Sweeny.  

In the aftermath of the court case and scandal the grand old building, together with all its furnishings and contents, was seized by Council authorities and Alfred placed in a debtors prison.   Ann and the children were left with the clothing they stood in, reliant on the charity of others.

The Sweeny trail led me from the relative affluence of Worthing in Sussex to the Poor Courts and slums of Swansea in Wales, from Liverpool’s bustling port to Auckland in New Zealand, and a one month trial visit before Alfred Sweeny uprooted the entire family and returned to England.  

Then finally on to Melbourne in Victoria where we find the four sisters who arrived within three years of each other on three different ships. 

Teenagers Geraldine and Adeline arrived together in 1866 on board the Red Jacket,  older sister Bertha, at one time a governess, followed a year later on the  Atalanta, and then in 1868 on board the Southern Ocean arrived 13 year old daughter Camilla and sixteen year old son Frank to join their older sisters. At home in Wales Anna remained with Madeline and  little Constance. 

Source: Illustrated Australian News for Home Readers, 20 May 1873.
Courtesy State Library of Victoria 
 Factory girls leaving work in Melbourne 1873 - dressed as the Sweeny girls would have been.

Its obvious the girls, like countless others, all came to Australia under various immigration schemes with their fares paid in return for specified domestic work in the colony.  

I’ve mentioned the gold fields in New South Wales in a previous chapter.  In Victoria the gold rush was centred mainly around the towns of Bendigo and Ballarat where gold had been found in 1852 and where later in 1856 Australia’s second largest nugget, the Welcome Nugget was unearthed.   The three older girls were assigned as seamstresses and nurse maids to two small towns close to Ballarat and within a few miles of each other, Meredith and Anakie.

Scenting easy money, the Australian gold fields lured thousands upon thousands of fortune hunters from all over the world. Within seven years the population in the Victorian gold fields alone rose from 20,000 optimistic souls to a frantic 150,000 men and women all clamouring for a slice of the gold rush bonanza.   The situation became desperate in Melbourne as husbands left wives, employees walked off farms and jobs and ships discharged ever more prospectors; ships crew deserted in droves and tented cities sprung up on the outskirts with authorities levying a rent of five shillings per tent site on each new arrival.

Tented cities on the outskirts of Melbourne.

As bit by tantalising bit I uncovered my great-Grandmother Geraldine and her sisters early life in Australia I kept wondering why their mother could have orchestrated their move to this raw new land, and worse to have deposited them in the gold fields of all places and then blithely returned to England, never to see them again.  

They may, though,  have contacted an uncle, their mothers brother Harry.  A young man who had traveled from Sussex to the gold fields in the 1850’s. Nothing more was known about his time in the colony except for this brief mention in a letter written home by one of his traveling companions, a friend from Worthing days, ‘Duke’ Paine. It is a revealing description of the harshness and brutality of life on the Australian gold fields.

“Harry Keates (the son of a Worthing tradesman) and I started together with a few pounds in our pockets and a pack of 60lb or 70lb weight each strapped over our shoulders. We carried these things as far as Kilmore, 40 miles distant from Melbourne, over the most awful roads imaginable, up to the middle of our thighs in black mud, with the rain pouring down upon us, and amid the most dreadful thunderstorm I had ever heard.

“The roads through the forest are much infested with bushrangers, murder and robberies being of common occurrence. We all of us carry loaded firearms.

“Provisions were difficult to obtain, and then only at exorbitant prices. We bought a sheep for 12s, killed him, cut him into quarters, and ate him, seven of us, in two days.

“When we reached the diggings, we had £2 amongst seven of us. My shipmates agreed to work together, and some new creek having just been opened up we took a claim and commenced our first hole. Our claim was a large one, some 20ft by 30ft, and it afterwards proved to be in the best part of the creek.”

It took five days to dig a hole free of water, back breaking work, which left the working party at the point of exhaustion. Then the sides of the hole fell in and they had to start again, soaked to the skin for 24 hours a day and susceptible to infection from the slightest wound.

Finally they found gold, as fine as gunpowder, worth about £150, “that put us in ready money and better spirits than we had enjoyed for some time past”. But the money soon ran out along with the gold dust and debts began to mount.

Paine wrote: “This work knocked us all up, the most dreadful sores breaking out on our legs and hands, and had it not been for the kindness of a French gentleman, a neighbour of ours, who, I believe, had been a surgeon in the army, we should have been laid up altogether.

“If ever I felt sorry at having left England and the comforts of home, it was at this time. I was without a shoe to my foot and the clothes on my back all in rags.”

While some trudged others traveled in style to the gold fields
The diggings, like the miners themselves, were rough affairs
Holtermann collection
State Library of New South Wales

Duke Paine put his modest earnings to use in creating a reasonably affluent new life, but Harry Keates became one of those anonymous men whose lives were overtaken by the craze for gold. No marriage has been found for him, no children to provide comfort in his old age.  Harry died as Henry Keats in the Dunolly District Hospital on the 11th July 1897 from cancer of the tongue and extreme exhaustion.  He was 70 years when he died alone with no one to advise authorities of his place of birth, or even to notify next of kin.  It was left to a wards man at the hospital to sign his death certificate:  A lonely death for a son of Sussex.

Had Ann Sweeny over the years remained in contact with her brother? A large contingent of Sussex fossickers, some with their wives made the 1852 journey with Harry and Duke Paine.  Ann must have corresponded with someone who had already migrated to the new colony, why otherwise would she choose to send her daughters to the goldfields of Victoria.  Actually, as sad events would prove, Ann must have been a very trusting soul to send them to Australia at all.

Life in the new colonies in these times was not for the faint hearted.  Any genteel refineries one may have been used to in the old country were soon left by the wayside in the raw Australian bush.  The Sweeny girls were well educated for that era, they had neat structured writing skills, had already traveled with their parents on a previous voyage to New Zealand so one imagines they weren’t lacking in confidence.  But they were young, had little or no financial resources and without parental protection depended on each other for moral support. But still, who could possibly imagine life turning so sour for the Sweeny girls, especially in such a short time frame?

By 1872, in a tragic turn of events, all four would have given birth to illegitimate babies.  Bertha’s first daughter, Edith, died in 1869 aged only 8 months.  Adeline’s first son Alfred James was born late in 1869 and died 9 months later...admittedly though a marriage to a James Dinan has been found.  In 1870, 21 year old Geraldine delivered a son she named Samuel Benjamin Sweeny, while in 1872 Camilla would bring into the world a son Frederick Keates who would die in 1880 as Frederick Benjafield.  

Were the four girls overly naive and trusting, were they flighty and promiscuous, or sadly, had they simply sought comfort in a strange, lonely world. 

No,  I think these practical young women may simply have been wise beyond their years.  As I discovered after delving further, two of the sisters, Bertha and Camilla, later married almost certainly the men who fathered their first children.   Possibly the young men had taken work some distance away making marriage impossible in the short term.

 But Adeline, who later preferred to be called Adelaide, and Geraldine were perhaps a different matter entirely.  Adeline claimed a marriage and her child was not branded with the title illegitimate. Her first child was named Alfred James and when he died she went to extraordinary lengths to obtain a second birth certificate for the child naming a later year than the child’s original birth.

Geraldine, my great Grandmother, and her son Samuel Benjamin however, disappeared from official Victorian records not long after her son’s birth; around the same time that baby  Alfred James died. 

The re-emergence of Geraldine in Fiji, her subsequent marriage to a Scottish sea faring man from Ayrshire and the birthplace and date of her first born McGowan child will provide an ongoing question mark in the next chapter about my ancestors...


Robyn Mortimer ©2011