Friday, February 4, 2011



You’ve probably guessed by now that Yorkshire was yet another of our stopovers during that memorable overseas jaunt with the Reluctant Traveller, and again,  had we only known back then what we know now.

Yorkshire is just one of England’s many beautiful counties: when we drove through England all those years ago, Stan and I wandered through the rolling Yorkshire Dales, but again, had no idea we were in any way connected to the district of West Riding.  Even now when we watch an English movie or TV series set in Yorkshire we remember the green countryside, the stone fences, the little pubs, and the delicious Yorkshire humour.

Exploring the past can sometimes lead you disastrously up the proverbial garden path.  When daughter Jenny and I started searching the origins of the Mortimer family we latched onto two convicts, one to our joy, a convicted highwayman.

I have to admit we quickly fell in love with these additional rogues becoming very attached to their extended family history.  It was a blow when we realised we had taken a misguided leap when we should have crept with caution, double checking places, dates and birth details.

Replacing the convicts with a hard working Yorkshire mill workers family was at first sight a bit of a let down.   But not for long.  The era I was researching coincided with the great decade series of Victorian Census’s from 1841 to 1901. 

With these census records family historians could track a family from year to year, follow their lives as they moved from town to town or even shifted to another street, check each new baby, guess at a death or wonder why someone has vanished from sight; and discover only too well just how tough life was in those days, especially for young children. 

And in the case of our Mortimer clan even reveal a long hidden family scandal.

I started the search with Ben Mortimer, the Reluctant Travellers grandfather, working hopefully backwards to his great-great grandfather,  a gentleman by the name of William.  And that’s where those sixty years of census entries took over my life.  To put it simply I became a voyeur, a peeping tom on the lives of 19th century Yorkshire Mortimers, Greenwoods, Waddington’s and Knowles.

This was the era of factory mechanisation in England, of the cotton and wool mills of Yorkshire and Lancashire. The 1840’s when countless numbers of soulless multi storied brick edifices suddenly dotted the green and beautiful landscape.  Small towns and villages became the industrial suburbs of Leeds, Bradford and Birmingham. Where families once worked the land, they and their children now manned the looms and spinning wheels of industry.

Heaton woollen mills 1860
As early as the 16th and 17th century our Mortimers lived in the West Riding district of Yorkshire where unfortunately for me there were, and still are, a huge number of apparently unrelated Mortimers. Early Yorkshire families around that time seemed to come in one size, extra large. As each son married and produced more sons, they in turn replicated the names of sibling brothers. 

 Most were given solid old English names like John, Samuel, Joshua, Joseph, Mark or Thomas; and such repetition made the one family extremely difficult to pin down. 

Luckily our Mortimers had the foresight to toss in the odd Jasper and Enoch which helped enormously to pinpoint the right family; which I eventually did but only with the help of those census records.

Finding the Patriarch, William Mortimer’s family origin was one of the tricky ones.  Each likely William Mortimer I attempted to trace ended in failure or with no proof of relationship.  Eventually though, two separate clues in the 1881 Census for Manningham provided the missing pieces in our Yorkshire jigsaw puzzle.

First off I found the 1846 Bradford marriage of Benjamin’s grandparents, my Reluctant Traveller’s great-great grandparents, William Mortimer and Sarah Greenwood. The groom, a stone mason was aged 21, and the bride, a weaver was 20.  Both fathers were named; Samuel Mortimer, a labourer and Peter Greenwood a delver, or digger, possibly a farmer.  Bride and groom signed the registry with an X. Neither had reading or writing skills.

In the following decade’s census I located their growing family, now with two children, Thomas and Ann, and the census after that baby Enoch.  Being a greedy researcher I now wanted to push back even further with the Mortimer clan, and that presented the enormous task of locating William’s parents. With all those Mortimer’s floating around Yorkshire it was like the old story of the needle in the haystack.


The first breakthrough was finding a 19 year old Jasper Mortimer in 1881, living with his Aunt Sarah Mortimer and her 21 year old son Enoch at number 27 Beamsley Road, Manningham.  The other clue was Sarah’s husband William Mortimer, not at home on that same census night in 1881 with his wife, as perhaps he should have been, but instead a couple of blocks away at 118 Beamsley Street with a lady listed as his sister, Mary Ann Knowles and her ten year old daughter Florence.

1871 Census – Sarah minus William in Church Street

It took a long time to find Williams mother, Mary Waddington, in the 1841 census; a lady who, I discovered, had remarried taking her Mortimer sons into her new family, both teenage boys, Samuel and William but listed now as Waddington. And along with their mother were the two new Waddington children, Mary Ann and James.

Then a rare stroke of luck, living not five doors away from the Waddington's was a 15 year old Sarah Greenwood with her brothers.  All very conveniently lumped together on corresponding 1841 census pages.  William had obviously married the girl next door.

With all this searching and back tracking I was beginning to feel like an Agatha Christie detective especially when I pieced all the clues together uncovering the identity of the woman William Mortimer had spent the census night with, first in Church Street  and ten years later in Beamsley Road Manningham as stated in the census records of 1871 and 1881.

The woman was his own step sister Mary Ann Waddington. (Married to Isaac Knowles some years prior, who after the ceremony very conveniently disappeared from view). 

I didn’t jump to the immediate conclusion that William had left his wife Sarah and their marital home, it took the two Census years, 1871 and 1881, where Sarah is listed as head of the household and William is listed with Mary Ann Knowles and her growing family, to finally convince me that dirty work was indeed afoot.



Skimming through these records showed all too vividly the extent of child labour in Yorkshire’s mills as late even as the 1860’s when William Mortimer’s younger brother Samuel lived at number 112 Valley Road in Shipley.

Valley Rd Shipley 1861
Samuel had married for the second time, a widow Ellen Pickard.  The family comprising  Ellen’s two sons from a previous marriage, their two young children  together and Samuels four from his first wife including the ten year old Jasper, all lived in a crowded terrace building.

Eight children  aged from three years to fifteen with only the two youngest, babies remaining at home with their mother while the other six aged 10 to 15 all worked in the Shipley brickyards.  Other census records showed youngsters as young as 8 years working long shifts alongside their older siblings.

And even in the 1871 census for Manningham the 11 year old Enoch Mortimer is helping support his mother by working as a worsted spinner in the nearby mills.

Children as young as 10 working the mills


Sydney Cove 1890's
Old railway station Sydney
Photos kept State Records NSW

When Thomas Mortimer married Elizabeth Wingate in 1868 and eleven years later took their three children, Ben, Sarah and Frederick to Australia,  I worried for the matriarch Sarah Greenwood Mortimer.  Had she been left behind in Yorkshire to fend for herself?

My sympathies lay with Sarah, the Reluctant Traveller’s great-great grandmother.  A woman who worked long hours in the mills later becoming a pork butcher and tobacconist, working from home in modest self employment.  

In 1881 her youngest son Enoch followed his older brother to New South Wales sailing off to Sydney on the Cardigan Castle.  I wondered what would become of Sarah, at that stage was she even still alive.

 Then I found the 1883 shipping record for a Sarah Mortimer, still a comparatively young 54, setting sail for Australia on the Cuzco.

When Sarah died in Sydney twenty three years after arriving in New South Wales both her sons Enoch and Thomas, inserted funeral notices for their ‘dearly beloved Mother’.

As with all our immigrant forebears it took a great deal of courage to uproot entire families from the familiarity of home to a land thousands of miles away across harsh and dangerous seas. 

The change to the Mortimer’s lives couldn’t have been more startling.  From Victorian England to a land where European settlement had yet to reach its first centenary. A land of heat and vast empty space, where each morning was greeted with the raucous laughter of strange birds, a land where the sun shone constantly bright and hot on parched paddocks.  A land where even the constellations in the night sky resembled none of the stars they had left behind.

Thomas and later Ben together with younger brother Frederick found jobs in the wool trade as shearers, wool classers and labourers, their work taking them into remote country areas of New South Wales.

In the state’s far north west in the dry dusty town of Walgett, Ben found his bride to be, Sarah Ann Breneger, daughter of a feisty Australian born Scots woman, Sarah Stewart and  John Breneger, a German hotel keeper.*

The acclaimed poet "Banjo" Paterson caught perfectly the feel of the raw landscape in his poem ‘A Walgett Episode’.

 ‘The sun strikes down with a blinding glare The skies are blue and the plains are wide The saltbush plains that are burnt and bare By Walgett out on the Barwon Side The Barwon River that wanders down In a leisurely manner by Walgett Town. 

There came a stranger - a "Cockatoo The word means farmer, as all men know Who dwell in the land where the kangaroo Barks loud at dawn, and the white-eyed crow Uplifts his song on the stock-yard fence As he watches the lambkins passing hence.’ 

Walgett comes from the Aboriginal word ‘wilgay’ meaning where the rivers meet; the Barwon and the Namoi Rivers.  From 1861 to 1910 the town was serviced by paddle steamers carrying wool, timber, dried fruit and livestock long the Darling River system.

The main street of Walgett long before motorised transport

Paddle steamers used the then navigable Barwon River to transport goods to Walgett.

When the two young people married I wondered why the ceremony took place in Sydney and not in Walgett where Sarah’s parents and siblings lived together with a multitude of Stewart relations.  But I didn’t know at the time that Ben’s grandmother, Sarah, had made the long journey from England.  It made sense to focus their wedding day around her presence.

         Sarah Ann Breneger’s parents – their hotel in Home Rule NSW.*
By the early 1900’s Ben and Sarah Ann Mortimer had moved their family from Walgett across the border to Charleville in Queensland where their son Jack met and married the youngest daughter of Marius and Louisa Sorensen, Lucy Jane Constance.*

From small beginnings Charleville grew to become the largest town in the Maranoa district, the centre of business and the hub for surrounding sheep and cattle properties.




1928 was a momentous year for the Mortimers, it marks the birth in Charleville of Jack and Connie’s first child, Stanley Vernon Mortimer, my Reluctant Traveller.    Within a few years both the Mortimer and Sorensen families would move to Brisbane, Queensland’s capital city.

The marriage of a Mortimer son to a Sorensen daughter closes the Reluctant Traveller’s family circle of ancestors from Europe; you’ve read their stories...the Stewarts from the Isle of Skye,  Johannes Brauninger/Breneger from Germany, the Walls and the Williams from Somerset and Wales, the Powell’s from Wiltshire*, Marius Sorensen from Denmark and finally the Mortimers from Yorkshire. 

In the goodness of time Connie and Jack’s son, Stan, will marry me, the grand daughter of an American with a glib tongue and a gentle Fiji born woman with a Scots Sussex background.  

Together we have forged for our children an even larger circle of men and women from all corners of the globe who made their way down under.



In this way the nation of Australia evolved – from the uncertain days of convict transportation and the ignorance of indigenous habitation by 18th century bureaucrats, to the first settler’s tentative push into the raw interior and outback, the start of wool production and farming, through the folly of two world wars and numerous world spats, finally to culminate in today’s wonders of instant communication.

The world can only guess where the future will take us.

But for now I’m still exploring the past with grandfather Brown Parker, the American with the identity problem.  The next episode will mark a trying time for Grandmother Maggie as Charles Brown Parker outwears his welcome in several Australian towns.


Next –  Part 11 - Grandfather ChasBert in Australia
Robyn Mortimer ©2011

*The Denmark Connection
* From Scotland came the Skirl of Bagpipes
*Straddie – A Surprising Slice of History.