Wednesday, November 14, 2012


The year is 1867 and Australia is obviously the ‘Inplace’ to be. The discovery of gold has started a rush from all corners of the globe. Accommodation in Melbourne town is at a premium and tent cities are popping up everywhere.

Queen Victoria’s second son, Prince Alfred, the Duke of Edinburgh is on an official visit to the colony and royal watching has reached epidemic proportions.  Everyone wants to see the royal Prince but the crowds prove too numerous to handle and a welcome picnic at the Melbourne Town Hall organised for 10,000 people proves disastrous when 40,000 show up.

A similar event in Geelong is abandoned when the push of the crowd is judged too dangerous and a replica of his ship burns down killing three people.  

Officials probably thought nothing more could possibly mar the Royal visit but they were wrong.  A ball in Bendigo was cancelled when gaslight ignited the decorations and burnt the hall to the ground and later a soldier taking part in a military display at the Flemington Race Course managed to blow off his own hand.

Worse was to come though when Prince Alfred moved on to Sydney and a very angry Irishman shot him in the back at a beach side picnic.  A team of Florence Nightingale trained nurses happened to arrive in the city on the same day, just in time to nurse him back to health. 

I mention this chain of unlikely events only because the Prince’s bad luck was essentially responsible for the founding of both the Alfred Hospital in Melbourne and the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Sydney.  

And in an indirect way the story of Camilla the fourth Sweeny sister has a very slight connection to both medicine and to charity.


Bertha, the eldest of the four was actually the third sister to make the voyage to the southern hemisphere arriving on the Atalanta in 1867.  She and her siblings well remembered the privileged life they had enjoyed back home in Worthing, Sussex before their taxation collector father was jailed for Town Council fiddling.

A year earlier Adeline, who preferred to be called Adelaide, and eighteen year old Geraldine who was my great-grandmother, had together made the long journey from England on the Red Jacket and soon made their way to the gold mining town of Ballarat.

Red Jacket enroute to Australia

Camilla was the youngest of the four sisters from Sussex.  She was only 13 years old in 1868 when she and her 16 year old brother Frank arrived in Melbourne on the Southern Ocean with their mother, Anna Sweeny. But Mother Sweeny waited only long enough to see her children safely on land before jumping back on board ship for the long return voyage home to England and the remainder of her brood.

I’m sure great-great grandma Anna really thought she was doing the right thing sending her daughters off on the long perilous journey to England’s newest colony. Imagined they would settle comfortably into their new life, in time meet personable young men and, make a new and prosperous life for themselves.   And maybe someday they would all be reunited and live happily ever after.

What a trusting soul she must have been.

As it turned out the siblings would never see their mother again, and despite her hopes for their future, within four years all four of these young women would bear children out of wedlock.

This then was the unpredictable start to the rest of Camilla Norah Sweeny’s short, sad life.


Despite the Victorian era they lived in, never for a moment imagine these Sweeny children were shy, unworldly young men and women.  Their exceptionally long trip to Australia wasn’t their first marathon voyage through southern waters, this venture to another country not their first taste of the unknown.

A few years earlier the family had taken flight to New Zealand, their disgraced father’s search for a new life turning to folly when he and Anna and their tribe of youngsters stayed only a disappointing month in Auckland before returning to a life of shame and poverty back in the United Kingdom. Consequently all four youngsters were seasoned travellers.

And all four were well experienced in the art of deception.

It’s a mystery why they played around with their surname, Sweeny.  After all it was their father who blotted his copy book, spent time in jail and then cheated on his long suffering wife before illegally marrying another woman...and had a child by her. Wife and children were blameless.

So why, when it suited them, did his children at times adopt their mother’s maiden name Keates?  All four girls except Geraldine brought children into the world as little Keates.   Another son, Ethelbert went even further by calling himself and his family by another name altogether, Kirkland.  Another son in England married the same woman twice, once under the name of Sweeny and then again as Keates.  And yet another son decided to keep his original names but sneak in a Charles to make him Ernest Leonard Charles Sweeny.

Okay, I can understand their shame and humiliation. Well off and privileged one moment, living in a grand house, their father a prominent and respected citizen of the town; then overnight reduced to poverty, finger pointing and scorn, their father a jailbird.  But how do you explain the various legal documents all his children signed over the years where they proudly described their father, be him Sweeny, Keates or Kirkland as a solicitor when actually he was no more than a clerk and a bigamist to boot.

Piecing together their lives has been fascinating and for the most part easy, putting face and circumstance to a name a little more difficult.

 Bertha for instance I imagined was a shy young woman. She had been a governess back home in Wales where the family settled when they returned from New Zealand.  Barely a year after she arrived in Australia she was pregnant with her first child, a girl she named Edith Keates.  The child died 8 months later and within a few years she married Walter Nickless who was six years her junior.  They would name their first child Edith.  Was Nickless the father of the first Edith?

Walter was only 17 or 18 when Bertha first arrived in Ballarat and probably considered far too young to marry an older woman.

In Adeline’s case I’m sure she was an attractive flirt, full of self assurance, adaptable and a mother figure to her siblings in Australia. Over the years she would claim three husbands.  There is little doubt she helped master mind her sister Geraldine’s move to Fiji, and perhaps even arranged the deception with a birth certificate showing her sister’s child was legitimate. 

Geraldine was I think the practical one. Perhaps not a raving beauty but gifted with the ability to plan ahead; weigh quickly the pro’s and con’s of a tricky situation.  The type of woman a man senses immediately, whether he fully intends it or not, will eventually become his wife, his soul mate, the mother of his children. Events in Fiji following her husband, William McGowan’s sudden death show just how determined and single minded she could be.

And that leaves Camilla.
Anna Sweeny went to enormous effort to deliver Frank and Camilla safely to Australia.  These two weren’t her youngest children, there were four other small ones at home including two girls younger than Camilla.  Camilla Norah I feel was always the sickly one, sweet tempered and gentle, the daughter who would most benefit from a life of sunshine and warmth.


In 1859, just four years or so after his future bride’s birth in Sussex, 13 year old Charles John Benjafield and his siblings arrive in Australia on the Abner Stetson with their parents Charles Coutts and Sarah Benjafield.

Charles C. is a surgeon, a member of the Royal College of Surgeons and is soon appointed Resident Medical Officer of Melbourne’s Benevolent Society.  He in turn was the son of a career soldier, Major Nathaniel Benjafield of His Majesty’s 67th South Hampshire Regiment of Foot who spent his army years in India in the days when Calcutta was known as Bengal.

The Major mentioned in despatches died a hero at Asseerghur in the 1818-1819 Mahratta War and his young children with their stepmother, Nathaniel’s second wife returned to England.

Charles senior worked long and arduous hours with the Benevolent Society, the hospital very quickly becoming attached to the Industrial School and to the Immigrants Aid home. An 1864 report on the state of the Society reported 450 destitute and deserted children among the yearly number of over 6,000 inmates seeking help.

By 1868 this heavy work load was taking its toll on the Doctor’s health and he dies the following year. 
Thirteen year old Camilla arrived in Melbourne in 1868 about the same time 22 year old Charles John Benjafield was sitting his Civil Service examinations.  He will become the Society’s Secretary Accountant and for a number of years will take an active part in managing its affairs.

His father is still alive at this time and in residence at the Immigrants Home at Prince’s Bridge in Melbourne.  I can’t help but wonder if this is where the two young people, Camilla and Charles John first met.


Ethelbert is Camilla’s older brother by five years.  As a 10 year old he and sister Bertha had been their father’s travelling companions back in 1859 when they sailed ahead on the Jura to New Zealand.  Their mother Anna and the younger children were left to follow on alone on the Shaw Saville vessel the Avalanche.  Camilla was just 8 years old at the time.

That short and disastrous expedition marked the final disintegration of the Sweeny family.  Their return to Liverpool on the Phoenix with a heavily pregnant Anna led to further disgrace, derision and separation.

The older girls were forced to find work away from home, the boys Ethelbert, Evelyn and Ernest as they attained a suitable though very young age were apprenticed to the Maritime Navy. (I rather think Mother Anna became somewhat stuck on the letter E in naming these three boys.)

Ethelbert Sweeny was 15 and living in Llanelly Wales when he last saw his parents and had he completed his contract he should have been at sea well into the 1870’s.  However by 1872 using the name Ethelbert Kirkland we find him living in Melbourne with his wife the former Eliza Brown. 

Which by 1872 should have meant there were now six Sweeny’s domiciled in Australia, but by that year Geraldine had made yet another sea voyage and was by then facing her own problematic future in Fiji.

Delving through newspapers and archives it soon became apparent though that the remaining five were in constant contact with each other.   


Why the young Sweeny’s all gravitated to Victoria and not for instance to New South Wales or further north to the sub tropics that would soon be named Queensland is not known.

It could simply have been because they had a Keates uncle already prospecting for gold in the fields around Bendigo and Ballarat.  Perhaps Mother Sweeny felt her girls would be safe enough with an uncle close by. Once again she was wrong.

In any case the three older girls were assigned to work in small towns not far from the main centre in Ballarat and no doubt all three mingled together on their free days. 
Bertha, Geraldine and Adelaide all delivered their babies in Ballarat, so I guess it’s safe to assume they met or associated with the infant’s fathers in that same town or at least in the general gold mining area.  I would hazard a guess they all visited at various times the local Mechanics Institute which first opened its doors in 1861. 

 The Governor arrives. Ballarat –courtesy State Library of Victoria

These centres were in essence a cross between an educational facility and a meeting place, almost a social hub where one could read books and pamphlets and perhaps even leave messages.   Two Sweeny’s, both Ethelbert and Bertha had previously joined the Mechanics Institute in Auckland on that short month long visit some years before.

The Institute’s name was a misnomer; in 1864 the Institute is for instance presenting ‘scientific lectures on electro astronomy, electrobiology, phrenology and the poetry of science.’

In addition the grand ballroom hosted bazaars for fundraising, balls and dances, concerts and on one occasion an exhibition of wax anatomical models initially restricted to men, but eventually opened to ladies on a Friday night with the warning ‘that modesty in the behaviour of the females was expected.’

I truly wonder what part of the anatomy was depicted.

For Camilla those first three years in Australia must have been a revelation with her sister’s one after the other falling pregnant their respectability no doubt in free fall.  Brother Frank was working on coastal steamers and only occasionally managed visits with the girls.  Later both he and Camilla will witness both Bertha and Adeline’s marriages... in the latter case her first recorded marriage.

Ethelbert is living with his wife Eliza in Sandridge a suburb now known as Port Melbourne.  Camilla is obviously spending time with them.  When the Kirkland’s first child is born in September 1874 Aunt Camilla Kirkland (Sweeny) signs the Register as official informant.

At the age of 17 Camilla follows in her sisters footsteps and gives birth to a baby boy.  The birth is listed in Melbourne’s Royal Women’s Hospital Midwifery Book no 1, 1856-1876.

The listing, seventh from the bottom of the page gives the mother’s name...

Keates Camilla unmarried, age 17... 1st child male weight 7 lb.

It should be noted that fourteen of the forty one entries on that page alone indicate unmarried mothers.  The newborn child is named Frederick Bernard Keates but he will die in 1880 as Frederick Benjafield.

The chosen name is not entirely a Sweeny recycle but could easily have been in honour of Charles Benjafield’s younger brother Fred a well known cricketer, or even after one of Walter Nickless’s brothers.

Two years later on December 13, 1874 Camilla marries Charles John Benjafield in the Melbourne Registry Office. The bride’s sister Adeline Maud Dinan as sister and guardian gives her written consent to the union.  It’s interesting that the ceremony is held in a registry office and not in a church.

The Registry entry reads:-

Charles John Benjafield, Accountant, age 28 residing at St Kilda Road, Emerald Hill.
Camilla Norah Sweeny, age 19, no occupation, residing Erith Cottages, Barkley St., Carlton.
Charles lists his father as Surgeon, and once again Camilla’s father Alfred Sweeny is appended as a Solicitor.

For me, Robyn Mortimer, a present day observer I am amused to see the Registrar signing their marriage certificate is a gentleman named M.E. Mortimer.

And so their married life together begins with Charles John continuing his work at the Immigrants Home.  From time to time we follow his career when advertisements in the Melbourne Argus publicise the calling of tenders to supply the hospice with various foodstuffs, all signed by the Secretary Charles John Benjafield.

Only one article touches on the frivolous when Charles advertises for the return of a pet cockatoo allegedly stolen from the premises, with a reward offered on its safe return.

But Camilla’s health is slowly deteriorating.  They have another child, a son Charles John who fails to survive his early childhood.

From time to time we see mention of Mrs C.J. Benjafield making the voyage by coastal steamer from Melbourne to Sydney and return. 

I imagined she was visiting her sister Bertha Nickless whose husband’s business interests with an Insurance company is centred in New South Wales.

But that wasn’t the case.  It seems Charles and Camilla felt the need to move from Melbourne.  The city holds too many sad memories.  The death of Sarah Benjafield, Charles mother, and the passing of their toddler son named after his father, Charles John.  Besides Melbourne is a city of extreme weather conditions, excessively hot in summer, decidedly chill in winter, a change of lifestyle was needed.

An opportunity arises for Charles to conduct a business in the small country town of Wellington, the second oldest New South Wales settlement west of the Blue Mountains.

The property consists of a number of buildings including a store and residence. The imminent arrival of a direct rail connection from Sydney makes the business even more desirable. 

While I could find no actual contracts, nor deed of purchase events later in the year show that Charles Benjafield did at some time in 1880 become the proprietor of the Vectis Stores.


By now Bertha and Walter Nickless have two children, Edith and a son named Osmond.  Difficulties are looming in their marriage and eventually Walter will be forced into bankruptcy and the couple’s belongings sequestered.  The future isn’t looking too rosy for the Nickless family.

Back in Melbourne Adelaide/Adeline has given birth to another son she names Francis Dinan but rears as Francis Hayzell, the surname of her first officially recorded husband.  Hayzell won’t be the last.  By 1890 she will have acquired a third husband who is 23 years younger.

Geraldine is by now living in Fiji and married to William McGowan.  Her family has grown with four sons and a daughter, Maggie Maud born in 1877, my Grandmother.  When William McGowan dies suddenly in 1880 Geraldine realises she must remarry if she is to have any chance of retaining her late husband’s estate. And so she becomes Mrs Robert Foreman.

To save little Maggie the unsettling changes in domestic arrangements she sends her only daughter to her sisters in Australia, but to which one.   Bertha is living in Sydney; Camilla is in ill health and still in deep mourning and not the best person to care for the little girl.   Adeline/Adelaide seems the most obvious one to choose.  Maggie stays in Melbourne for the next six years, her Aunt’s son Francis, just a few years older, will be her substitute brother.

These are sad years for little Maggie, not only separated from her Mother and brothers but also present for a series of deaths in her Aunt Camilla’s family. First was the death of Sarah Benjafield, Camilla’s widowed mother in law, followed by the death of her bachelor brother Frank Sweeny,   And if this wasn’t enough, there had been further tragedy for the Benjafields in this news article buried in a Sydney newspaper dated December 22nd 1880.

Young Frederick, only 8 years old has died in a swimming accident; an after school hours game that went badly wrong.  Camilla and Charles are devastated.  They have lost two sons and now this new lifestyle, this promising future has lost all its appeal.

The business is quickly put back on the market and the Benjafields move back to Melbourne.

Camilla endures her grief for seven more long, desolate years until, on the 7th September 1887 when her devoted husband announces her death.

But when Charles speaks of the heart disease she has suffered for so many years he perhaps knows full well his beloved young wife has really died of an irreparably broken heart. 

Benjafield – On the 7th inst. At 375 Albert Road South Melbourne of heart disease after many years suffering Camilla Norah, the beloved wife of Charles John Benjafield and daughter of Alfred Sweeny, Solicitor, London, aged 32 years.
Just as her brothers and sisters kept alive the illusion of their father as a figure to be admired and praised, so too did Camilla, right to her dying day when once again her father is stated to be Alfred Sweeny, Solicitor.

And he wouldn’t die until 1903, 16 years later.

Robyn Mortimer ©2012

For further insight into the Sweeny family read the story below....