Saturday, July 30, 2011



While Great Grandmother Geraldine was creating a life for herself on a Fiji Island and Adeline, Bertha and Camilla were dealing with their own problems in 1870's Australia, the rest of their sixteen brothers and sisters were attempting to survive in Victorian England in circumstances much removed from their comfortable childhood.  

They each went their separate ways, Alice and Alfred junior, Madeline, Ernest, Constance, Evelyn, Ethelbert, some following their sisters to Australia, others staying closer to home.

This  is a follow up to the story about the Four Sisters from Sussex, the history of my grandmother Maggie’s mother Geraldine and three of her sisters. They were part of a family of 16 youngsters born to Ann and Alfred Sweeny in the years from 1840 to 1863.


In the early days of research I couldn’t quite believe the number  of children I was discovering.  At one stage I firmly believed some were adopted.  It took a while before I finally realised they were indeed all little Sweeny’s.

While my interest in the Four Sisters of Sussex  lay mainly with the fortunes of my great grandmother Geraldine and her offspring, I couldn’t avoid being constantly sidetracked into the comings and goings of her siblings, all 16 of them ... save for the three who didn’t survive early childhood. 

This postscript follows their lives after those halcyon days in the town of Worthing where their father was the respected Collector of Taxes, his ultimate downfall and the family’s steady disintegration as the surviving youngsters are scattered to the four corners of the globe.

I set about tracing their past some ten or so years ago and in that time uncovered their many aliases, their lives both at home in the UK and abroad in Australia, New Zealand and Fiji.

At the same time though, I discovered a steady stream of new relations, the offspring of the Sweeny survivors, the sons and daughters of Ann and Alfred.  My cousins many times removed.

The overall story I’ve amassed is seriously huge, I’ve posted shortened chapters, the whole though is far too involved to tell in random blogs.  But for those of you who want to know what happened to each and every one of those children  here is a potted version of The Sweeny’s – Life after Worthing.



1860, Alfred has taken the family to New Zealand on a failed attempt to resurrect their failing fortunes. He leaves first on the vessel Jura accompanied only by Ethelbert and Bertha.  Ann leaves a few months later with the remainder of the children on board the Avalanche.

It was certainly no pleasure cruise, she and her young family were accommodated in steerage, the voyage was long and uncomfortable.

After only a month in Auckland Alfred loses all interest in starting afresh in New Zealand and they return together to England on the Phoenix. They arrive back in Liverpool penniless and homeless, and are forced to seek charity from The Guardians in both Sussex and Wales. Their youngest son, Reginald conceived in New Zealand, died three years after his 1861 birth from the effects of burns to his neck. We have no idea how that happened.

Yet another daughter is born, Constance Olivia, bringing the family’s total  to 16 births and four deaths. Times are tough, the older children find work in distant towns, Bertha as a governess in Usk, Alice, aged 16 marries Alfred West in Liverpool.  The boys Alfred Robert, Ethelbert, Evelyn and Ernest are eventually all apprenticed to the maritime services.

Then in 1865, with two year old Constance a toddler and still mourning the death of her youngest son, Ann suffers the ultimate humiliation; Alfred deserts his wife to live with a younger woman, Sarah Grant, by whom he has a son. In a double blow to Ann Sweeny, this child is named Reginald Grant Sweeny.


Sarah Grant had been listed as his wife in documents and Alfred is again jailed.  At this stage Ann, earning a precarious living as a dressmaker in Rodney Street, Swansea, may well have decided to seek greener pastures and a better life for her family. 

She sets about planning her daughters future. Bertha is still in Usk, Alice Kate is married to Alfred West, and their mother Ann now has  only Frank, Madeline,  Adeline, Geraldine, Camilla and the baby of the family, Constance, at home with her. Ethelbert, Evelyn Walter and Ernest are all at sea, apprenticed to the  merchant navy. 

Australia was beckoning with schemes to attract young women to migrate with subsidised fares and positions available at the end of the voyage. By 1867 the first two Sweeny children had set sail for Australia, 17 year old Geraldine and 19 year old Adeline. Bertha would follow a year later.


A curious see-saw of emotion seemed to emerge at this time.  Their father’s disgrace and jailing made life difficult for the youngsters. The older ones remembered the privileged life they once enjoyed in Worthing. Faced now with cramped accommodation and accusers pointing fingers, their lives were suddenly shattered. 

About this time many of the youngsters began to take drastic and cunning means to either disguise their identity or cloak certain events in the secrecy of anonymity.  This subterfuge certainly made it difficult for researchers to later track their movements as one by one the Sweeny children frequently resorted to assumed surnames.

Their mother’s maiden name Keates was one alternative, the most favoured. Yet through all this duplicity each and every one of the children referred to their father on official documents as Alfred, either Sweeny or Keates ...a Solicitor.

Though Geraldine and her life in Fiji is the pivotal connection to the story of Maggie McGowan, my Gran,  each one of her mother’s siblings played a part in her life, some more so than others.  



ALFRED ROBERT: The eldest son Alfred Robert appeared to have deserted the family directly following his father’s first jailing. He took no part in the exodus to New Zealand and by the time his father had left Liverpool with Bertha and Ethelbert on the Jura, Alfred Robert had already left home assuming the name Keates to join the Marines as a lad of 16.  By the 1871 census though he is living in Swansea and charged with running a brothel in Salubrious Square. He emerged in later census records as the licensee of a Temperance Hotel.  

ALICE KATE: Alice Sweeny, the eldest daughter, lived in adjacent rooms to brother Alfred Robert when he was charged with running the brothel in Salubrious Square, Swansea.  She married her first husband Alfred West, seaman, at the age of 17 in November 1860, not long after the return from New Zealand in the Phoenix.  Her sister Bertha witnessed the marriage.  Father Alfred, in the space marked  ‘father’s profession or rank’, was listed with the simple statement ‘support of the local board of health’. In other words on charity.

 In Swansea records for 1866 there is a death notice for a one year old child named Alfred West. Alice would marry George Wheeler in 1868 and George Glover in 1875.  She died in 1893 at the stated age of 44 which meant at some time, perhaps on one of her marriage certificates, she had claimed to be four years younger.

EVELYN WALTER: Evelyn Walter, working in Portsea, Hampshire, hedged his bets by alternating between both Sweeny and Keates and dropping his first name altogether. He even went to the extreme of marrying the same woman, Annie Lloyd, twice, in 1891 and again in 1892 using both surnames, Sweeny and then Keates.

ETHELBERT:  Ethelbert kept his given name but at some time assumed a surname that had no connection whatever to the Sweeny’s or the Keates, Kirkland.  Of Ethelbert Sweeny, we do know he was accepted into the navy aged 16 in 1865 in the Welsh town of Llanelly and had he followed through his naval obligations should have been in the Navy until at least the late 1870’s.   However by 1872, as Ethelbert Kirkland, he is married to Eliza Brown and living in Melbourne, Australia giving his occupation as mariner.  His present day descendent,  Malcolm Kirkland, is actively involved in tracing the family history.

MADELINE MAY:  There is no record of Madeline resorting to subterfuge regarding her surname.  She married a shipwright, William Evans in 1880 and lived in Pembroke raising a large family.  Madeline and an Evans infant are mentioned in the 1901 census visiting her mother Anna Sweeny in London, so obviously she kept in touch with her parents and her younger sister Constance Olivia. 

Though Madeline is shown as a student residing with her father in Talley, this may have been at the time her parents were estranged.  She is later shown as Mrs Evans with her son Bernard living with her mother Anna and sister Constance in Swansea.

Over the years I despaired of ever finding out what happened to Madeline, about her later years, her children. Until just recently another of Geraldine’s great grand daughters on a motoring trip through the UK stayed a night at the Goat Hotel in Powys, Wales.  As luck would have it the owner was Madeline’s great grand daughter Alyson, at last a connection has been made.

This is a photo of Madeline’s present day kin, albeit taken a number of years ago, possibly in the 1940’s.  The gentleman to the right is Madeline’s son Bernard Evans.

CONSTANCE OLIVIA:  Constance, the youngest Sweeny, would in time marry George Fleming, a locomotive engine driver and bear eight children before her death in London in 1901. The youngest was a babe in arms. This was a double tragedy for the family, only a short while before her husband had been killed in a work related accident.  The eight young Flemings were subsequently left in the care of their grandmother the aged and senile Ann Sweeny and were placed in orphanages following her death.

One of those children, Francis Ivor Fleming, will in later years figure prominently in the story of my grandmother Maggie McGowan. His amazing life is detailed in closing chapters of the Ancestor Series.

I am extremely grateful to Constance Olivia’s present day kin, Peter and Kim Fleming who provided access to Peter’s account of Alfred and Ann Sweeny and constantly exchanged ‘finds’ with me as together we searched for Frank Fleming’s history.

CAMILLA NORAH: Camilla’s life is a sad one, her mother accompanied 13 year old Camilla and 16 year old Francis Albert to Australia on the Southern Ocean in 1868  leaving both in the care of their older sisters, Bertha, Adeline and Geraldine.  Camilla married Charles John Benjafield in Melbourne in 1874 but died with heart problems at the age of 32. Neither of her two sons survived childhood. Even Camilla at various times used the surname Keates.

FRANCIS ALBERT: Frank, a seaman never married, though he witnessed two of his sister’s weddings.  He died in Melbourne in 1888 with the name of Frank Albert Sweeny Keates. 

BERTHA: GERALDINE: ADELINE:  They arrived in Australia on the ships Red Jacket in 1866 and Atalanta in 1867.  All three of these girls, together with Camilla, will suffer most from the separation from their mother, and they too will resort to name changing as they face the tragedies that lie ahead.  Three of them brought illegitimate children into the world before eventually marrying the offspring’s fathers.

Their lives are recounted in the Four Sisters from Sussex.

THEIR PARENTS:  Alfred and Ann Sweeny reunited yet again and moved with the Fleming’s from Wales to London. By the 1891 London Census, Alfred is listed as secretary to a New Zealand gold mining company in the City; never for Alfred the demeaning title of clerk. Even when he worked for a law firm in Wales he gave his title as solicitor, though clerk would perhaps have been closer to the truth.  

Alfred all his life had yearned for success and position, but in the end, in 1904, a year after his wife, Ann’s death, he died alone and destitute in a crowded London work house for the aged and poor.

Sadly we have little in the way of photographs or personal letters to document the siblings lives.  Only two left photos for posterity but only one, Ernest,  left a record of his everyday thoughts.

ERNEST LEONARD:  Ernest Leonard played around with his name only to the extent of adding Charles, making him Ernest Leonard Charles Sweeny. By 1879 though, he too had settled in Australia marrying Ann Knight in Adelaide.  Ernest, of all the children, is the only one to leave behind his written word.  His great grandson Kim Sweeny has a treasure chest of letters written to his son Ernest Charles Sweeny in the early years of the twentieth century.

Perhaps through Ernest’s letters we can best understand the tragedy of the family’s disintegration.  Barely five years of age when Ann took her children aboard the Avalanche for that disastrous expedition to New Zealand, the small child along with his even younger siblings Evelyn Walter and Madeline May would have been bewildered by the acrimony surrounding his parents and the sudden change to their lifestyle.

Through all the drama of New Zealand and the return voyage on the Phoenix,  the breakup of his parents marriage, the very struggle to exist and the gradual disappearance from their lives of older siblings, the smaller children would no doubt have clung to their one constant, their mother, Ann Keates Sweeny.

This telegram points to another poignant episode in his life when he discovered the son he had believed dead nearly 20 years was actually alive.

Living in Wales his father Alfred signs the papers that will  apprentice his young son to maritime service.  In his own words, in a poignant letter written in 1902 to his own son he tells of the last time he saw his mother, Ann Sweeny in Wales, in the year 1870 when he was 15.

Ernest Leonard Sweeny, one of the 16 Sweeny children and the only one to leave behind any personal correspondence.

This photograph of Ernest Leonard in the latter years of his life, together with the studio portrait of Geraldine Orde Foreman are the only images so far found of the Sweeny’s.

Geraldine  - my great grandmother who sailed to Australia with her sister Adeline , married William McGowan in Fiji, then following his death married Robert Foreman.

               Kim Fleming, Constance Sweeny Fleming’s great grandson: He and his father Peter have together researched the life and times of the Sweeny’s in great depth.

Sweeny great grandsons today
Ethelbert’s grandson Malcolm Kirkland with his wife Meredith...and right Neredah and Kim Sweeny, Ernest Leonard’s grandson, pictured together in Melbourne, Victoria.

The first name choice, Kim, is a complete coincidence with neither branch of the family at the time having any idea the other even existed.



This journey through the lives of the Sweeny’s is an ongoing passion.   Where only a few short years ago the various family branches in the UK and in the southern hemisphere knew nothing about each other, there is now a contact of minds and memories.

A family history has evolved and with it an insight into the way life was lived in centuries past.  There are without a doubt numerous other descendants of the Sweeny’s who right now are living in far flung parts of the world. From them I’m sure new stories will continue to emerge, new secrets will be revealed and an old photo or two will surface. 

All grist for this historian’s pen. 

Meanwhile I continue to live in hope, but hurry up and make contact, I’m not getting any younger! 


For readers who have just discovered the ongoing Sweeny Sagas, you need to search back through the blogs archives,  to the Ancestor Series and in particular to Four Sisters from Sussex.

Robyn Mortimer ©2011
Next : A return to Straddie.