Monday, April 28, 2014



Thus far…

1861:  Great great-Grandmother Anna and ten of her children have endured six months at sea in the confines of Victorian era sailing ships, a bare glimpse of and only a short respite in New Zealand before returning to England, and now some months later with her 15th baby Reginald Arthur born into abject poverty, faces yet another forced departure from her familiar childhood surrounds in Worthing, Sussex.

Husband Alfred, the cause of the family’s reversal in fortune, has returned to the scene of his downfall obviously hoping to regain some semblance of his past standing in the community, that of a trusted Town Council Collector of Taxes:  But with adversaries like William Tribe and the Newland brothers he is both ridiculed and humiliated and forced to stand in judgement yet again in front of authorities. 

Anna’s story continues…


England’s poor in the Victorian era were at the mercy of church authorities.  Religion in its various forms dictated not only a method of worship extolling the consequence of immorality and crime but also held sway over charitable assistance. 

The community’s poverty stricken, whether their plight be caused by ignorance, inherited circumstance or as in the case of Alfred and Anna Sweeny the legal stripping of property and belongings, had no other recourse than to seek help through the office of the Church Guardians:  Each town or borough had its own established and officially recognized Council of Guardians. A mixture of government authority and supposedly Christian endeavour; it’s directors, always of superior standing in both church and local governing bodies stood in judgement of those much less fortunate than them.

And so it was that Anna and the little ones, their belongings sequestered, left standing with only the clothes they wore and now barely surviving in Liverpool, with husband Alfred many miles and counties away in Worthing, has been shunted by the Merseyside Guardians back to the scene of their crime and the controlling dominion of the Broadwater Guardians in Sussex. 
By now some months have passed and Anna is heavy with child.  Winter is enveloping all of England and her smaller children, Frank, Camilla, Ernest, Evelyn and Madeline, aged 2 to 9 years, are in dire need of warmer clothing, and even of shoes.  Along with Alfred she is forced to face the tribunal of the Worthing Guardians.  Alfred is no help at all.  He is seething with anger and arrogant in manner. Anna wants only to be left in peace, but the welfare of her children are of paramount importance. Wearily she submits to their questioning and debate.

The likes of William Newland overseer, church Wardens Peter French, Robert Wilson. William Tribe and others, all men who had previously been contemporaries of Alfred during his tenure in Council affairs display a haughty absence of Christian charity.  

A paltry few shillings per week is granted.

Anna’s widowed mother, Mary Keates, herself a victim of bankruptcy now attempting to care for her own younger children, takes in 14 year old Adeline, who becomes apprenticed to an aunt as a dressmaker.  Anna and her brood find shelter in a small cottage in nearby Heene.  Their confused eldest son Alfred Robert has deserted the family, the now 17 year old Alice has married and Bertha has obtained a position at the Priory in Usk as a governess.  Ethelbert and Geraldine, 11 years and 12 do all they can to help their mother with their younger siblings.  Eleven days later Reginald Arthur Sweeny is born.

At this crucial time it appears Alfred has left his family behind in Worthing and returned to Liverpool where he is employed as an enumerator in Toxteth Park collecting door to door information for the 1861 census:  Alfred is away for such considerable time the Vestry Clerk asks the Worthing Superintendent of Police to report on his doings.

The report finds that… “Sweeny Alfred.  Applies for relief, was in an insurance office in Liverpool - earns from fifteen shillings to twenty shillings for eight weeks – sent home during that time thirty shillings to his wife – is in no occupation now – had seven half crowns for assisting with census taking – had £50 when he came from New Zealand to Liverpool paid the money for his passage home – has a letter from a gentleman name Saffery in Market Raison in Lincoln – is in hopes of obtaining a situation in his office – has 9 children at home, the eldest of them is 13 or 14 years of age.

As a result the Broadwater Guardians noting that assistance had been extended for almost a year moves to terminate their expenditure. Even more tragedy has struck the Keates family with the deaths of both Anna’s brother John and her mother Mary Keates and a decision is now made by the Sweeny’s, husband and wife to reunite and move the family to Llanelly in Wales.

The heavily fume laden air…
 Anna makes a last desperate plea to the Guardians for sufficient clothes and bedding for the children.  Newland proposes and Mr Bennett seconds a motion that the Vestry Clerk provide such items he may think only absolutely necessary and get the family to Llanelly at the cheapest possible cost.

The children are bewildered, their small lives turned upside down. I wonder is it now they begin to learn the devious craft of deception; the ability to change their identity at will, to use as the need arose the surname of Sweeny or the nom de plume of Keates:  Or indeed as we now know in Ethelbert’s case to search for and adopt the fictitious name Kirkland.

1862 Wales: Those last months in Worthing have been a sobering experience for Anna, the loss of both her mother and mother in law, the bitter betrayal by former neighbours and associates. (Though in truth she knows their patience has been sorely tested.)  She now attempts to make a home amidst the crowded tenements of the heavily chemical laden air of Llanelly; a mining town swirling with the fumes of refineries treating copper, iron and lead.

Despite the long separations and the turmoil Anna and Alfred are still man and wife though by now recriminations and arguments must be peppering their day to day lives.

Yet another child is sent off to work elsewhere. Thirteen year old Ethelbert is accepted into the Royal Navy as a “boy second class” and begins his initial training aboard the HMS hulk St Vincent in Plymouth.  Later he will be assigned to the Eclipse.

 Ethelbert the child enters the Navy as a Sweeny, but emerges many years later as the grown adult Kirkland and one can only guess the reason for his complete and utter change of identity.

Baby Reginald has at some time suffered a burn to his neck an injury that worsens as the days pass until his death on the 8th October 1862. With her older sisters elsewhere Geraldine, my great great-grandmother, at the age of 13 is now the eldest child still living at home.

In the ensuing year the family moves from the unhealthy fume laden confines of Llanelly to the comparatively fresher seaside town of Swansea where in June of 1863 the 16th Sweeny child, baby Constance Olivia is born. 




Alfred, now describing himself as an accountant has obtained a position as Managing and Confidential Clerk to solicitor, John Rolley Tripp: Employment my kinsman and fellow researcher Peter Fleming finds difficult to believe.  Alfred after all was a bankrupt; had served time in jail and would not have been able to provide the best of recommendations.

Alfred though has adopted a new persona; perhaps he is living an almost Walter Mitty type existence, distancing himself from the humdrum and reality of poverty, a wife and 16 children.  
In a move that shocks his wife, Alfred at the age of 46 abandons his family, abruptly leaves his comparatively well paid position at the solicitor’s office and sets up home 30 miles away in Graham Street Newport with a young woman known as Sarah Grant. 

Forty two year old Anna helpless and absolutely destitute is once more forced to beg for help.  On September 22nd 1864 the Broadwater Vestry Relief Committee finds itself again faced with the problem of a destitute Sweeny family.  A letter from the Swansea Guardians is presented at their monthly meeting advising Alfred Sweeny had deserted his family and Mrs Sweeny was applying for assistance.

An allowance of 7 shillings a week was instructed to be made for the present time while the Vestry Office offered a reward of £5 for the apprehension of Alfred.  Police in Swansea were given details of his description and the hue and cry was on for the arrest of Alfred Sweeny.

In a final insult Anna learns just 3 months later on the 4th November 1865 that Sarah Grant, now bigamously married to Alfred has born a son that the couple name Reginald Grant Sweeny. The choice of name must have cut Anna to the quick, the memory of her own baby son’s death still fresh in her memory… his name now bestowed on another woman’s child.
Aware he is now wanted by the police Alfred plans to flee with Sarah to America but just before Christmas of the same year he is taken into custody.

Appearing before the Swansea Mayor and Magistrates he attempts to bluff his way out claiming he had left his wife and family with their knowledge and approval.  The Mayor feigns astonishment asking how children under the age of 12 could give such permission. 
The Mayor goes on to describe the case as one of the worst and most heartless that had ever come before the court and promptly sends the defendant to prison with hard labour for three months, ordering the money found on him be handed over to the Board of Guardians towards the repayment of the sum they had expended in support of his wife and family.

Sensation seeking newspapers of the day describe a grief stricken Sarah Grant and a tearful separation as Alfred is taken from the dock.  A newspaper headline in the West Sussex Gazette reads “A HEARTLESS HUSBAND” detailing Alfred Sweeny’s desertion of wife and family.  His shame is absolute. 


The Swansea jail was situated only a few streets away from the Sweeny household where their errant father would spend the next twelve weeks in a jail far less accommodating than the one in Lewes, Sussex: While in Lewes prison he had been allowed to wear his own clothing and was not forced to work,  he was now in the Swansea jail clad in rough prison garb and subjected to the back breaking labour of stone breaking in covered sheds. 

He was also in the company of hardened felons, one of whom, a convicted murderer became the last man in England to be hanged in public just a week or so after Alfred was released.  The hanging was accomplished in front of an unruly crowd numbering close to 15,000… and only a street or so away from Anna Sweeny’s lodgings. 

By now you probably consider, like me, that Alfred has received his just deserts. My sympathy for Anna is overwhelming, but I for one wondered where Alfred went once he was released.  Did he return to the arms of his lover:  Or, full of remorse did he and Anna reconcile. 

Their father’s behaviour and notoriety has deeply affected the entire family. Their living conditions and betrayal spread across newspapers in Swansea and back in Sussex. Anna realises they will never be free of the shame and innuendo and makes the momentous decision to send her daughters away.

All their children have been well schooled, their hand writing as stylish and concise as their father’s. They are well traveled and all except the two babies and the eldest son have already traveled around the world.  They lack only the opportunity to be accepted and to succeed.

The new colonies springing up in Australia are in need of servant girls.  Agencies in England advertise subsidised passage with the promise of respectable work at journey’s end.

In much the same way Alfred had leapt at the chance to acquire free land in New Zealand, Anna sees a chance for her children to make a new life for themselves in a country far from their father’s shame.  Seventeen year old Geraldine and nineteen year old Adeline departed Liverpool for Australia within a few months of their father’s release from jail.  They traveled on the smart clipper Red Jacket in company with 100 other young women of qualified good health and moral character. Waiting for them in Victoria is a nurse maid position for Geraldine and work as a seamstress for Adeline. 

London in the 1880's

In 1880 Alfred has popped up in London where he is the tenant of number 45 Reaston Street, New Cross; a block of terraced tenement buildings on the site of the former Hatcham nursery. Indeed it may have been at Alfred’s urging that the young Flemings together with Anna Sweeny have followed the aging Alfred to London, and following the birth of their first son Bernard in 1883 move in with the senior Sweeny occupying three rooms on the first floor for which they paid him six shillings a week. 

By 1887 Madeline has married a Pembroke shipwright William Evans and makes a short trip to London to visit her mother and sister and while there gives birth to her third child.

Alfred himself, now 74 and ever the keen opportunist claims employment as secretary to a Gold Manufacturing Company.  Son in law George at this time was probably collecting a wage of about 28 shillings a week for his work on the wharves as a steam crane driver.

The Fleming family grew rapidly; after Bernard, Isabel Mary was born followed by Frances Ivor, Camilla Norah, Ernest Wilfred, Olive Geraldine and in 1898 Constance Anna, the children’s names echoing those of their mother’s own siblings. Then a calamity, the sudden death of George Fleming in a work accident spells tragedy and disaster for his family. Constance, never a robust girl is pregnant with baby Myrtle and now with no weekly wage putting food on the table the future looks increasingly bleak.

Little Myrtle is safely born but her mother passes away just weeks later. At 79 Grandmother Anna is now in sole charge of the Fleming brood and she too is far from well. An increasingly feeble Alfred has been placed in a London work house where he becomes just one of a myriad of lost lonely old men.  

The turn of the century sees their grandmother Anna struggle to keep the young family together but for her it is a losing battle and finally she too is removed to a work house for the poor where she dies just months later.  The Fleming children are dispersed to orphanages.  Baby Myrtle absorbed into a neighbour’s family, the eldest boy Bernard apprenticed to the electrical trade.

The youngsters will lose touch with one another; little Camilla will be sent off with other orphans to Canada and it will take nearly a century for her fate to be uncovered. Young Frank will strike out in search of his fabled aunt Geraldine in Fiji.  Myrtle will half a century later make contact with Frank just months before his death in Suva. Bernard will marry Lucy and then in the aftermath of WW1 lose her to his younger brother Frank. Ernest Fleming’s descendents Peter and his son Kim will take up the search to piece together the Fleming history.

The six Sweeny youngsters in Australia will never forget their Sussex childhood and will always keep memories of their mother close to their heart.  Like their youngest sister Constance Fleming they too will bestow on their various children the names of their childhood siblings.

Only two portrait images of the Sweeny family have survived the years, both taken in comparatively older age, of siblings Geraldine and of Ernest.  Perhaps in the brother and sister we can see a likeness to their parents, Anna and Alfred Sweeny.

The Sweeny women were strong and fearless in the face of adversity.  All Anna’s daughters displayed a courage not unlike their mother’s…Alice, Bertha, Adeline, Geraldine, Camilla, Madeline and the youngest one Constance…forthright young women in an age when women were expected to be seen but not heard. 

For all his faults the children at no time denied their father’s existence, continually referring to him in official documents as either Alfred Sweeny or Alfred Keates, or in the case of Ethelbert Alfred Kirkland, Solicitor. 

For Anna Keates, the apple of her father’s eye, the captivating Miss Fish at the Tradesmen’s Ball, her journey through life with Alfred Sweeny proved to be a courtship of tragedy and privation. The sad times clearly outnumbered the joyous. But while he on so many occasions deserted his family she remained staunchly loyal to her children going to great lengths to ensure for them a new start in life .

It is no wonder then that I place my great great-grandmother Anna Keates Sweeny at the top of my family tree, her position in my heart and mind shared only with her daughter Geraldine, and in turn her daughter Maggie Maud: Three women of exceptional fortitude. With genes like these how lucky can a great great-granddaughter be?

Part 1.
Part 2.

Robyn Mortimer ©2014-04-27

Yet again I gratefully acknowledge and thank kinsman Peter Fleming for his dedication and scholarship in amassing so many details of the Sweeny’s life and times.