Wednesday, February 20, 2013



Synopsis:  Geraldine Sweeny arrived in Fiji in 1872 as a young unmarried mother of a baby son.  Her arrival in Levuka is clouded in mystery; she may well have sailed there with her future husband, William McGowan, or simply have traveled there from Melbourne in Australia with the express purpose of joining him.  Their marriage is registered in the year 1875, but in that same year they are listed in Fiji’s census as the parents of two sons. By now 1881, years have passed, their family has grown to four sons and a daughter, but William, a ship’s captain has died, and Geraldine, pregnant with their 6th child finds herself in a desperate situation.

Levuka's new Fiji Times building.

Levuka in the 1880’s according to import records was a colourful and comfortable place to live. Residents with the wherewithal to purchase could avail themselves of gin from Scheidam, champagne from France, ink from Australia, clay pipes from Scotland, ceramics from England and bottles from the United States.  Ships were bringing in ‘fashionable’ clothes, newspapers, furniture, weapons, books and liquor to a population numbering no more than 2500. 

It was even claimed that by 1875 for instance the shops of Levuka were ‘fully stocked with all things needful, which a European can buy at about one third more than he would pay in England.’

With the imminent move of Government from Levuka to Suva, urgent communication between the two towns continued to rely on the fluttering wings of the Pigeon Post established back in 1869 by the Fiji Times.  Pigeon lofts were built close by the Post Office, which in itself was right beside the Customs House.”

In this way a telegram service enabled private messages to be sent between the islands,  and for newsworthy events to be included in the ‘Times’ next issue.
 In fact many news stories carried the banner “By Pigeon Post from Suva” including this short bulletin in an 1886 edition…
“Suva 1pm Dec 28: No appearance of either Melbourne or Sydney steamers.  The Lord of the Isles arrived on Sunday with 17 recruits.”
“In the Sheffield Maiden Handicap Turner was 1st, Rimenschneider 2nd and Boyd 3rd.  R. Bentley and W. Andrews tied for the cup.


But, despite the British Empire being ruled by a Queen, life in Victorian times was not generally cognisant of women’s rights. They held no positions of civil authority, had no right to vote in elections and were mostly not considered equal partners in a marriage. Though small examples of female freedom were creeping through the male shield of dominance in England and America and to a small extent in Australia, by and large this had yet to be the case in Fiji.
In fact I really wonder how the colonial ladies felt about the visiting outspoken artist and author from Scotland, Constance Frederika Gordon Cumming traveling the world quite alone, though admittedly with influential contacts wherever she went. For a while the Lady Constance was a guest of Governor Arthur Gordon in Levuka, regaling their household and friends with stories of her travels. A future story will document her extraordinary life.
I’m fairly sure my Great Gran Geraldine, especially in her present circumstances must have envied the lady greatly.

1881. Widowed and alone and a pregnancy to endure.  Did the township rally to help, were there sufficient funds in the family coffers to help eke out an existence of sorts? 
I have no idea. With no source of income Geraldine could well have been left destitute. William’s employment and salary ceased with his death; apart from their household chattels there was nothing of any great value, except for the property on Kadavu.
And with William’s death and no legal will and testament how was she to gain access to his property?
I too live on a small island among a close knit but small community.  When a tragedy occurs and help is desperately needed we all rally to the common cause.  I can’t imagine it being any different back then in Levuka.
As well, Geraldine by now must have been comparing her present situation with that of her mother Anna Sweeny back in 1860, destitute and pregnant in Sussex with her 14th child.


For Geraldine the ensuing months would become a blur.  Maggie and Andrew under the age of 4 years; the eldest boy, either Wink or Alfred no older than 11: the incessant queries of youngsters too young to understand the full reality of their mother’s plight.
Initially there was the sadness of a funeral, the kind hearted offers of help that would over the months perhaps dwindle away: But always, constantly hammering away in the back of her mind the knowledge that she must, somehow, get her family’s future back on track. 
First though there was the birth of a child:  A precious child, the last of William’s progeny.

On the 4th September 1881, Constance Annie McGowan was born to William McGowan (deceased) and Geraldine McGowan nee Sweeny. The baby was stillborn.

An old friend who had witnessed the birth of Andrew in 1879, Mrs Hawksley, again was present at the birth of baby Constance.

For Geraldine McGowan 1881 was full of sadness, a year of mourning.



At this stage in history Levuka still clings to its role as Fiji’s capital, though Suva is being prepared for the role, and for the McGowans, Levukas everyday life continues as normal.  Business premises continue to trade with their various families remaining at the helm.   The names are easily recognized, they have been here for years; the Hennings, Morgans, Hoerders, Brodziaks, Bentleys and Heidemanns.

Heidemanns had owned the trading vessel Mona, William McGowans last command.
The Polynesian Hotel

Wesleyan Church- surviving 1895 cyclone, and today.
Many of the earlier rabble rousing liquor establishments have disappeared but three hotels remain; the Royal, the Polynesian and the Planters’ Club.  Levuka’s finances are entrusted to two banks, The Bank of New Zealand and the Union Bank of Australia, while its spiritual needs are cared for by three churches maintained by the Church of England, Roman Catholic and Wesleyan dioceses.

How on earth did so much activity take place in such narrow confines!
 According to descriptions of the day... a short stroll beyond a rocky point overlooking a deep and pretty bay brings you to the native and half caste town of Vogadau where the Levuka Cricket Club doubles as Levuka’s Recreation Reserve,  and which in April of this year, 1882 is about to host a huge fun sports day...
 At this time, with so much upheaval in her life, Geraldine probably couldn’t muster a great deal of interest in an event that the people of Levuka, both black and white, had been looking forward to for some time. The elder boys, Wink and Alfred, both attending school may even have taken part, as contestants from Levuka’s multi cultural population lined up for obstacle races, boating events and track races.

Again it seemed the female element was relegated to the status of observer, the Illustrated Sydney News making reference only to ‘the sisters of our athletes.’

The various events were obviously designed to entertain, with barrel rolling, tent pegging and boat races included in the program.

While Geraldine must have heard crowds cheering on the hopeful contestants, her mind would have been elsewhere.  She had decisions to make, momentous decisions that would have great bearing on her children’s future.



A lot can happen in ten months. 

I have no records for that period to help follow Geraldine’s movements.  No idea how the family managed. By now she would have consulted Levuka’s legal fraternity and discovered her non-status regarding the McGowan property.  Perhaps friends and William’s work associates helped with money and essentials to keep the young family afloat.

But as future developments show Geraldine may well have surveyed the eligible bachelors in her midst and considered the future in a decidedly different way.

A precious moment in time, way ahead in the 1970’s helped explain what happened next.

In the story of Maggie* I recounted my darling little grandmother on her death bed recalling an early memory…

When I was in my thirties and a mother myself I spent many days and nights at the Hospice for the Dying holding my ninety six year old grandmothers hand. 

As my frail little grandmother lay, seeming smaller with every breath, I asked her what she remembered of her early childhood. 

She thought for a while, this beautiful gentle woman, the centre of my life, her hand in mine.  Lying back on the crisp white sheets of the hospice bed unruffled by the slight weight of her body, my grandmother let her thoughts wander.  I could see her mind reaching back, back through the mists of nearly a century of living.

She was quiet for a while, I didn’t hurry her; we had all the time in the world, all that was left.  Then she replied.

‘The bananas...a big hand of ripe bananas...’

I waited for her to go on, to continue, but she had a smile on her face and I didn’t want to interrupt her thoughts, her memories.

‘Mother’, she continued, ‘she said I must eat one banana a day, and when they were all gone, I would be there.’

Another silence:  More memories.

‘Where would you be darling,’ I gently asked, frightened she may not remember any more, this would be the sum total.

Another silence, her hand still clutching mine

 ‘The ship,’ she finally whispered, ‘the ship that brought me to Australia, to my aunt.’

‘But you came to Australia with Grandpa, don’t you remember?’

Her eyes lit up when I mentioned him, but her hand in mind pressed hard, insistent.

‘Yes, yes I did, but I came first, alone; I was very small.  Marama and the boys stayed Levuka.’

Again she lapsed back into silence.  Perhaps she was thinking about Grandpa, the wily old American I could still remember back in the time when I myself was very small; back when Australia was at war and Sydney was awash with soldiers and sailors and he was still alive.

She lay there, silent, thinking her thoughts.

‘Why did your mother send you away from Fiji?’ I finally asked.  

But the moment had gone, the memories had slipped back behind tightly closed doors and she could only reply, ‘I don’t know, I can’t remember.’


This conversation took place long before I started delving into the past but I never realised its significance, until sighting a small person’s passage on the vessel Suva carrying passengers and cargo to Australia in July 1882.  Suddenly it all came rushing back.


Little Maggie then was barely 5 years old, yet here was Geraldine, her mother, sending her only daughter alone on a lengthy voyage to Australia.  Why now? Why not the boys as well?

This was 15 months after Williams death, 10 months since the birth and death of baby Constance.  Why wait until now to send Maggie away?  I could only imagine the cost of extra passage for the boys was beyond her means.
Her reasoning though became clear when I found the 29th July 1882 marriage for Geraldine McGowan to a resident of Levuka, Robert Foreman, sailmaker.  Dr and Mrs Mary Hathaway witnessed the ceremony.
The marriage was performed only a few days after Maggie’s departure; the bride was already pregnant with their first child.
The bride was 32, the groom 33; but little is known about Robert Foreman apart from his birthplace in Dundee, Scotland, and parents Robert Foreman, grocer, and Margaret Scott.  His name doesn’t appear in the 1875 Fiji census, nor does he feature in any newspaper archives.  I wondered if he was even resident in Levuka at the time of William McGowan’s death.
Geraldine had indeed surveyed her options. Geraldine Alice Foreman was born in March of 1883 and would become known as Lulu: The first of five Foreman children.
But though all this, Maggie, her first born daughter remained in Australia.
Though William McGowan died in 1881, steps wouldn’t be taken, officially, to seek recognition of Geraldine’s claim to their property on Kadavu until August 1883.
On this date papers were lodged in the Supreme Court of Fiji by her Proctor, Mr William Scott…
Notice is hereby given that after the expiration of fourteen days from the publication, her application will be made to this Honourable Court that administration of the property of the said William McGowan late of Levuka aforesaid Mariner deceased be granted to Geraldine Foreman of Levuka aforesaid lately the widow of the deceased but now the wife of Robert Foreman of the same place, Sailmaker.
Dated this 31st day of August 1883.
And there, in a legal limbo, the application languished until 1887 when after being required to pay yet another £5 bond to the court Geraldine was finally granted probate and legal access to her property on Kadavu.
It is interesting to note that throughout these proceedings Robert Foreman was required to attach his signature beside that of Geraldine, indicating his permission for her participation.
In the meantime daughter Maggie continues to live, presumably with her mother’s sister, Adeline (or Adelaide as she now prefers) in Melbourne, Australia.   My grandmother never mentioned these years, not to me nor to her own daughters. 
Still, this wouldn’t have been a lonely time for her. Adelaide had a son just a few years older; her brother Ethelbert Sweeny who went under the surname of Kirkland and his wife had a brood of youngsters and lived close by.
Mother and daughter wouldn’t be reunited until the 28th March 1888 when the 850 ton vessel Pukaki berthed in Melbourne.  On board were Mrs Geraldine Foreman and her infant daughters Minnie and Edith.  Eldest daughter Lulu was left behind in Levuka.
Geraldine stayed only a few months in Australia before boarding the Hauroto for the journey home to Fiji. Shipping information shows the vessel sailed to Levuka by way of Sydney and the New Hebrides. Maggie is listed under her second name as Maud Foreman aged 7.  Perhaps the cost of passage was cheaper for a younger child. 
No doubt Geraldine traveled with all the baggage necessary for a baby and a toddler, and on the ships lading she is shown as being accompanied by a Fijian servant, named Charlie.
If Maggie was thrilled to be home in Levuka and reunited with her four brothers the homecoming may have been tainted by the boy’s attitude to their step father.  
During another of those rambling conversations with my grandmother in her declining years, she mentioned a time when her eldest brother berated her for calling Robert Foreman ‘father’.    Brother Wink made it quite clear to his sister that their stepfather was not, and would never be their father.
In light of certain events in 1900 I wonder if young Wink had been blessed with a seventh sense.
Robert Foreman appeared to make no waves in the ongoing history of Fiji.  He would maintain his sailmaking business in Levuka, at the same time passing on his knowledge to the four McGowan boys.  He and Geraldine would add to their family, with daughters Lulu, Minnie, Edith and Iris before the arrival of a Foreman son, Robert.
I could find only two newspaper references to his name, the first in a 1900 Petition to federate Fiji with New Zealand in order to give, among other demands regarding taxes, native Fijians the same rights and considerations the Maoris’ were accorded in their country.
Robert Foreman’s name was appended to a list containing many other residents and business people of Fiji.

The petition was unsuccessful.
The years following Maggie’s reunion with her brothers are largely unknown.  My Grandmother spoke of family picnics, musical evenings, of attending school with the nuns at the convent. She mentioned teaching at a local Sunday school, which seems at odds with her association with the Catholic Church.
And she spoke of her first meeting with Charles Brown Parker who was born in Peru, Indiana as Bert Everett Brown.
Maggie and Lulu will become especially close, photos taken in their later years show their striking resemblance.  Lulu’s husband Alfred Marlow will become a prominent businessman in Suva with a keen interest in aviation.

Maggie and Lulu together in Melbourne

William and Andrew benefited most from the interaction with their stepfather Robert Foreman.   Foreman ran his sailmaking business in premises on Levuka’s waterfront.  A business William would move to Suva.
                 A McGowan brother supervising work at the sail loft.

William and his sons and grandsons will retain their inherited love of the sea with William owning his own craft, a 30 foot cruiser capable of carrying 20 passengers.  One of his sons will become a Vice Commodore of the Royal Suva Yacht Club.  In 1910 his cousin from London, the orphaned Frank Fleming will be listed as an employee and will figure in newspaper stories regarding the destruction of the business by fire and his and Williams attempts to save the building.

Andrew became the figure head of a grocery and general goods empire in the new capital. The McGowan name still features prominently on the current building on the same site. His daughter Doris will marry Arthur Leys who will establish a legal practice and become a Mayor of Suva.  Lorna McGowan will become a pioneer teacher for Fiji’s School of the Air.  None of his three children will produce heirs.

Gordon worked on outlying islands and finished up marrying the boss’s daughter Minnie Rosa and taking over their family plantation on the island of Taviuni.  He will bequeath many artefacts to Fiji’s Museum.

With Maggie on her last visit to Fiji is Gordon standing with his wife Minnie Rosa, Wink on Maggie’s right and an unknown man who may be Andrew McGowan or perhaps his son in law.

 Many years later Gordon will sell his island home to an American entrepreneur who will convert it into an exclusive luxury resort.

Alfred James will remain the mystery man of the McGowan family.  He will marry an  Island lady; their son Alfred Felix McGowan produced a number of talented offspring and the name McGowan is still prominent in Fiji.   Alfred James second marriage will produce five sons and will take him to Australia, to Brisbane where he will die in his 90's just a few years before his sister Maggie:  Both, brother and sister lived just a few suburbs apart with no apparent intermingling or knowledge of the other.
Alfred James McGowan

Maggie will meet and marry her American husband in Levuka in 1900.  Her brothers will disapprove of the marriage; the groom is a man with a dubious past and their distrust will last a lifetime…with good cause.  By 1901 Maggie and Charles Brown-Parker will be living in New Zealand where he will attain both fame and dishonour:  The first on the vaudeville stage and the latter in the law courts of that country regarding illegal gambling and non-payment of debts.

Maggie and Chas Sydney 1940

Three of the Foreman girls settled in Australia, only Edith will remain unmarried.
Edith and Minnie on the right with Minnie’s daughter, War time Sydney.
When a young Wink McGowan chastised his sister for calling Robert Foreman ‘father’, he perhaps had observed, even in those early days a simmering aura of marital disharmony surrounding his mother and her second husband. 
Even descendants from the Foreman children had no real knowledge of their great-grandfather:  Didn’t know what had happened to him.  Some thought he had walked away from his marriage to Geraldine.  Perhaps he did.
It was strange then that I should come across two sets of archived news items in the same week in 2013; two items more or less clearing up the mystery surrounding both men: The death of William McGowan in 1881, and an enlightening clue to the state of Geraldine’s marriage to Foreman.
 That second sighting of Robert Foreman’s name occurs in New Zealand in 1901 when Geraldine, I imagine at her wits end, has requested a legal court separation from her husband.
This very short reference to a case heard in the Auckland Police Court on April 30th, 1901 before Mr. H.W. Brabant SM appeared in the next day’s Auckland Star.

What triggered this court hearing isn’t known.  Geraldine may have confided in her daughters but they in turn didn’t pass it on to their children.  The fact that the case is heard in New Zealand lends the theory that Robert Foreman has left Fiji for good.

The separation may not have been granted, but so far as Geraldine was concerned her marriage to Robert Foreman was well and truly over.

Eldest daughter Maggie returned to Levuka in 1905 for the birth of her fourth child, a son Robert Brown Parker, and its interesting to see that her step brother Robert Foreman has registered the birth; Maggie would not return to Fiji  again until 1946 when travel to Fiji following the end of WW2 was allowed.  

Soon after the birth of Robert Brown Parker in 1905 Geraldine left Fiji  for Australia with her daughters Edith, Minnie, and Iris.

In the photo below Geraldine is shown in Australia with Maggie and her Brown-Parker daughters-in-law Molly and May, surrounded by grand-children including my mother Rewa, the child with the intense gaze. Maggie is in her late 40’s and Geraldine is 76.


Geraldine died in Sydney in November 1931, a long way from her birthplace in Worthing Sussex, and a lifetime away from the Levuka grave site of her first love, William McGowan.

Robyn Mortimer ©2013-02-18




And more about Maggie's life from the Ancestor series.

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