Travel yarns, history with a twist...an Aussie's view of the world both irreverent and thoughtful...with side excursions to Fiji, China, India, Uzbekistan, Jordan and South America, South Africa, Japan and along the way insights into the many people who populated my past...from Quakers to Convicts, all with a story to tell.
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
Anna’s story continues…
BEGGING FOR CHARITY
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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 THE BIGAMIST
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
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
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
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?