Sunday, April 6, 2014


Nothing pleases me more than poking about in the lives of kin who lived and loved in centuries past.  Like Alice and her Looking Glass, the achievements and mistakes our people from the past stacked up over a multitude of years are fascinating reflections of our own life.  I’m not at all sure some of my great Grand-mama’s or Papas would be pleased now to see some of their innermost secrets laid open for public scrutiny, but I look on them with great relief – they make my own youthful peccadilloes seem very tame indeed.  



I’ve written in detail about a number of my long dead kinspeople:  Geraldine McGowan’s adventures in Fiji, Sarah Breneger who lived during the New South Wales gold rush, Bryan Spalding and his daughter Catherine who knew well the raw convict days of settlement, gentle Maggie and her blustering Yankee husband, the Quaker contingent of Pennsylvania and Indiana, the dour Yorkshire Mortimers, the Stewarts from Skye and the Danish Sorensens.

Of all these amazing and at times strong willed people I searched for one in particular who was perhaps the most amazing of them all and couldn’t for a variety of reasons go past my great great-grandmother Ann Keates Sweeny.  The year 1860 saw her comparatively comfortable lifestyle torn apart. She deserves a medal, not only for her courage, determination and family loyalty but as well for the fact that she bore 16 children to a man who clearly put his own creature comforts before all other consideration even to the point of committing bigamy with a much younger woman.

Had Ann lived in this modern time and age there would have been no multitude of children and the errant hubbie would have been booted out long ago.

And I would never have had her life story to tell.


Above two images Worthing Town Hall - depicted 20 or so years apart.

The year is 1836. Queen Victoria is yet to ascend the British throne: An Act of Parliament has in earlier years given seaside Worthing in Sussex the status of a town. Only the year before, Worthing’s first Town Hall, with clock, has been built for the grand sum of £1,250 on land donated by Sir Timothy Shelley father of the poet.  You can see the Town Hall at the end of South Street in both images above dated some 20 or so years apart.

 The occasion is the annual Tradesmen’s Ball and our story begins with a 16 year old Ann the eldest daughter of Francis Keates, a local businessman of some note, and her childhood sweetheart, Alfred Sweeny, an articled clerk who is some 4 years older.

This social knee’s up is a jolly one.  The Ball, held in the Nelson Hotel has attracted the patronage of many of Worthing’s middle business class citizens. Nelson’s is a popular venue and prior to the building of the grand, and very new Town Hall, had been the meeting place of the town council.

 Young Ann Keates is there, no doubt wearing a pretty ball gown created by her mother, the former Mary Saysell, a gifted seamstress;  and so too is Alfred an articled clerk in the office of prominent local lawyer William Tribe.  Unfortunately for our young couple, Lawyer Tribes son of a similar age also attends the ball and he is a most jealous and vindictive young man.

But unbeknown to either Alfred or William, another of those present at the ball has anonymously written and circulated a crude page of literature denigrating not only the night’s revelry but also the reputations of several of those who attended. Unfortunately we have no record of this unknown person’s scribbling; whatever it is he wrote, we in the here and now have not a clue. 

But someone who obviously attended the ball takes personal umbrage and writing under the pseudonym of ‘Castigator’ writes a lengthy and libellous retort in the form of doggerel or running rhyme, which he sends to the local newspaper the Brighton Guardian.  I can only imagine legitimate news was pretty thin on the ground that particular day and for that matter, its editor not overly worried about defamation nor litigation, because publish it he did.

Nelson Hotel - with sign protruding.

 And in the words of this 144 line rhyming prose ‘Castigator’ clearly believes Alfred Sweeny is the author of the original unsigned publication and cruelly sets out to in turn cast aspersions not only on Alfred who he describes as – a slanderer, a clerk…having scratch’d away at parchment sheets or ledgers all day…who makes himself the laughing stock of all who courted pleasure at the Nelson Ball… held his betters up to ridicule …did maliciously attempt to bite the heels of him who afforded that delight…

You get the gist of his diatribe – it goes on and on… it seems ‘Castigator’ knows Alfred Sweeny well, and so he should for Alfred is indeed a clerk in his father’s Worthing solicitor’s office and the coyly named respondent hiding under the cloak of anonymity harbours an unhealthy and jealous dislike for the man he describes as a clerk and slanderer.  Alfred by now is considering ‘Castigator’s’ identity with deep suspicion.

Not content with defaming Alfred Sweeny, ‘Castigator’ then turns his waspish pen against both Alfred’s widowed mother and against his sweetheart as well, Ann Keates.  Mother Sweeny is a dressmaker, and we discover later, she has had great difficulty obtaining payment for shirts ordered and made for a young customer known as Mr Ambrose, who in turn is a close associate of the petulant Master Tribe.

The reason that his (Alfred’s) hate on Ambrose fell

The latter sent some Irish calico

To some ones mother – I shall not say who

To be made into shirts…

At this stage Castigator goes into detail about Mr Ambrose complaining the length of time it took to complete the order, and the fact that payment was not made because as he petulantly puts it…

 ‘… Ambrose said ‘Twas not convenient; Besides he should not hurry now to pay…’

But ‘Castigator’ has now shown his hand too freely and is quickly recognized by Alfred to be his employer’s son William Foard Tribe.  The doggerel continues with a reference to Alfred’s sweetheart, Ann Keates who in relation to her father’s many diverse business interests is named as Miss Fish.… 

‘At this the beardless puppy stormed and swore
But Ambrose quickly show’d him to the door
From pride thus hurt how often hatred grows;
He (Alfred) says a fish would make a ‘bloated dish’,
Pray was he thinking of his own Miss Fish?

By now Alfred has decided enough is enough and his reply to ‘Castigator’ is swift and direct. In a signed letter to the Editor published in the Brighton Guardian on March 2nd, he denies authorship of the original verse that caused such venom stating he should have treated  ‘Castigator’s attack with the silent contempt it deserves but for the imputation made on a female relative of mine’ .  

Alfred’s reply was contained in a stinging letter that the newspaper printed in full; one where he took up his mother’s defence with a full report of the blatant dishonesty of Mr Ambrose; for such a business transaction had taken place which clearly put the guilt of non payment in Ambrose’s corner.

There was no way, as Alfred himself realised back then, that he could prove without doubt the identity of the anonymous ‘Castigator’ but we in the here and now should be grateful the vindictive and jealous young Tribe embarked that night on his vendetta to destroy our ancestors reputation:  Grateful because Alfred’s signed retort published in the Brighton Guardian enabled Peter Fleming,  a fellow ancestor like me, to piece together this fascinating and pivoting event in the life and times of Ann Keates and Alfred Fleming.

That nasty and vitriolic clutch of poetry and its public airing would however prove to be only the starting point of a lifetime of bitter feuding by the Tribe family, a long journey through the years that would see great disaster fall on the shoulders of my great great-grandparents, Ann and Alfred Sweeny.

A disaster that inevitably changed the course of my life as well.



Worthing Beach - Steyne Library & Hotel centre pix
 Four years of courting pass:  In 1840 the young couple marry and on their marriage certificate Alfred states his occupation as a fish monger.  Francis Keates, a generous father in-law has provided the newlyweds with a readymade business, the seafood no doubt originating from his own fishing trawler.  Ann and Alfred take up residence in the rooms above the business in 33 South Street.

By the spring of the next year however, a position becomes vacant for a tax assessor and collector for the Worthing Council:  Alfred passes through the due processes of nomination and with the necessary guarantees, £1000 from his father in law, his mothers landlord, a local plumber and a carrier – and with no small measure of in house persuasion by Francis Keates who is also a town councillor, Alfred secures the very lucrative position.

The Sweeny’s set about producing a family that would eventually number sixteen children.  Their first child is named Adeline Orde Sweeny, the middle name celebrating the marriage of Alfred’s sister Mary Ann to Special Constable Robert Jocelyn Shafto Orde; a step up in society for Mary Ann, for on the Orde’s marriage certificate Robert is proudly described as a Gentleman.

In quick succession over the next six years three more children will be born, and sadly their first born little Adeline will die: The year following her death a fourth daughter will be born and she will be named Adeline Maud.  The second name Orde will be held in reserve until my great-grandmother Geraldine Orde Sweeny is born in 1849.

The Sweeny’s next home which incurs an annual rent of £10 is a modest upstairs downstairs cottage in Warwick Place, one they will soon outgrow. Alfred sets about his work as a tax and rent collector for the Worthing Town Council.  Taxes in those days were levied on such obscure items as church pew seats, and tax collecting was a lucrative position to hold. 

In 1842 the Sweeny’s move once again, this time to 41 Montague Street opposite Bath Place Lawn a position that enjoys views of the sea. Baby Robert Alfred is born here and at this stage there are rooms to spare which are let to casual lodgers including touring performers from the Theatre Royal.

Worthing Pier - a popular spot.
 Alfred is now moving in Worthing’s social circles, enjoying the hospitality of manor houses and attending meetings and events with the town’s forefront of movers and shakers.  These are heady times and Alfred is in the thick of it.  At home Ann finds herself awash in babies and domestic chores.

 I wonder just how seriously Alfred considered the citizens of high standing who provided the large sums of security that enabled him to rise to the giddy heights that he surely did.  Apparently they held Alfred in high regard and so they should. 

Alfred after all was an essentially honest young man, but his family was growing at a rapid pace and his household expenses exploding.  He continues rather blithely to move the family into ever more expensive housing, sets up additional business interests and begins generally to live a tad beyond his means.  Their new residence at 13 Warwick Place for instance has eight fireplaces and coal is delivered through a pavement entrance into an underground cellar.

In 1847 Alfred purchases at auction two additional buildings in Warwick place for the grand sum of £255 with the proviso that the house at Number 2 may be used by his brother in law Robert Jocelyn Shafto Orde during the natural life of the purchaser Alfred Sweeny.  I imagine this generous arrangement has been made on the condition that his aged mother would share the house with her daughter Mary Ann, now calling herself Marianne and her husband, the policeman.

Through all this ‘Castigator’, alias the young William Foard Tribe, now himself a lawyer in his father’s practice is forever watchful and ever sniping in council matters, just waiting for the right moment to pounce on Alfred, his boyhood adversary.

Following the second Adeline’s birth, eleven more children are born, four more daughters and seven additional sons. Twins Leonard and Bernard barely survive birth before they too pass away. (There is a report that the child’s uncle, in tears and despair carried baby Bernard’s tiny coffin to the Parish Rector.)

 Later much later in 1863, another young son Reginald will also die in early childhood:  By then though the remnants of the Sweeny family will be living in much less agreeable circumstances in the slums of a Welsh mining town.

Disaster first strikes when Ann’s father’s business partner and in- law John Saysell dies upsetting a delicate business arrangement and as a consequence Francis Keates is declared bankrupt, and is dismissed from his position on the Worthing Town Council. Through all the financial wrangling the Keates manage to retain their china and glass business but  Frank Keates himself will pass away a few years later in 1854 leaving his own family in straitened circumstances.   During this time a Keates son, Ann’s brother Harry will make his way to Australia joining other lads from Worthing seeking their fortune in the Victorian gold rush.

About the same time Alfred’s sister Mary Ann and her husband the gentlemanly Special Constable Robert Orde decamp to live in France.   I think one can safely assume Orde has done a runner for whatever reason we do not know.  (Mary Ann will die in France and Orde will return to England and marry a much younger woman at the same time taking a good ten years off his age on the marriage certificate.). 

At this stage things are not looking too rosy for Alfred Sweeny; in one fell swoop he has lost the credibility and support of two of his most staunch pillars of society.  But Alfred forges on, managing to obtain additional guarantees, on this occasion from the local town plumber and a brewer of note and the accumulation of family and property and personal recognition gaily continues.

Alfred now takes over the lucrative collection of pew rents at the Worthing Chapel of Ease which means that except for the Poor Rates most of the money levied in the town now passes through his hands.  All of this apparent success has been noted by the Tribes and now William Senior, once Alfred’s employer begins to publicly criticise the tax collector’s work ethics and practice on the floor of the Council’s chambers.

Again and again Alfred survives the Tribes accusations.  The Sweeny’s have many friends in high places in Worthing’s business circles and the popular tax collector, despite his unenviable position, is judged generally to be a fair advocate, often deliberating on the side of the poor:  Decisions that at times went against the fortunes and pockets of greedy land lords, many of whom were no doubt clients of the Tribe law firm.

A councillor at the time, George Greenfield said of William Tribe …’He wouldn’t care if he persecuted the man to death, not that I wish to take his part, but I won’t be a party to what I consider persecution.’

Through all these ups and downs Alfred has been busy dabbling in real estate purchasing three further properties all close to the sea and ideal for holiday renting.  (Worthing Town has become very fashionable in the eyes of the London elite and on occasion even enjoys Royal patronage…) and has moved his growing family into his latest acquisition, the grand and spacious multi-storey Steyne Library which he promptly renames Clarendon House.

He has great plans for the spacious building including the establishment of a reading Library and bedrooms aplenty for the accommodation of lodgers.

Clarendon House and Steyne Hotel
 No doubt Anna and the children enjoy the comfort and ease that money can provide. They have a live in maid and judging by the size of their new residence I would think Ann, who now is often referred to as Anna, has some general domestic help as well.  Mary Ann and her policeman husband in making their sudden departure from Worthing have left Alfred’s mother behind and the elderly Mrs Sweeny and all her possessions have now been moved to Number 2 Warwick Place where she becomes a lodging house keeper taking in summer visitors.

About now Alfred is appointed secretary of the Worthing Liberal Registration Association, a post lacking financial advantage but conferring a degree of social recognition.  But following this appointment Council irregularities are found in his issuing of receipts and keeping of accounts.  The Tribes become aware of this and in a letter describe apparently fraudulent behaviour regarding rates collected from a Mrs Fielder.

Alfred’s response is to write a letter of apology to Mrs Fielder and return the errant sum of money.  To his superiors he explains the lapse as an oversight due to over work and the large number of accounts to be processed.  Alas for Alfred keeping his many business ventures spinning is proving very difficult indeed.

Events finally spiral to a head when the Tribes openly contest Alfred’s collections particularly in relation to of all things, the church pews. Perhaps Alfred has become somewhat sloppy with his accounting and figures haven’t accordingly balanced.

 There is considerable empathy for Alfred, but throughout the ensuing year the Tribes father and son uncover further anomalies and attack him not only in Council Chambers but also in newspaper articles reminiscent of the original doggerel; the overwhelming result is inevitable.

Alfred avoids dismissal by handing in his resignation.  The Tribes, one imagines, are jubilant at the outcome.

W. Tribe's Residence - 1800s.
On the home front with Anna again pregnant, another daughter is born, Madeline May, on January 15th 1859 bringing the number of children to fourteen, and during the remainder of that month, with business debts mounting, Alfred’s fortunes take an alarming and critical slide. 

In a final bid to survive Alfred sells Clarendon House to a friend for £700 which leaves him about £130 clear of his debt.   But it wasn’t enough.   His business affairs are in a right mess and on the 12th February the parish officers serve a summons for non payment of £2 and 5 shillings poor rates. 
Faced with an untenable situation Alfred knows full well the officers next step will be to make claim on his belongings, he has after all officially instigated similar seizures on other council debtors, and in an effort to save some of his and his aged mother’s furniture he arranges a midnight removal. 

 A few days later Alfred is arrested for debt and taken to prison in nearby Lewes.  His attempts at evasion were of no benefit, the furniture and effects found and confiscated and the sale of Clarendon House declared null and void. 

Ann and the children were allowed to keep only the clothes they were wearing, bedding and tools to the total value of £20:  All their belongings, the children’s books, toys, special treasures vanishing in an instant. Their eldest son Alfred Robert, 17, ashamed and bewildered deserted the family to join the marines.  In later years he would adopt his mother’s maiden name and become known as Alfred Keates. He would some years later suffer the ignominy of a conviction for running an illegal brothel in Swansea at number 66 Salubrious Square.

The children may not have been aware at the time but their family structure was beginning to crack. In an effort to escape the shame and humiliation of England, the released Alfred looked to New Zealand.  Steerage fares were cheap and each fare reputedly attracted a claim for 20 acres free land in the new country. 

Alfred was finally released from jail on July 5th, 1859 the same day an auction notice appeared in the paper regarding freehold properties owned by him.  They included Clarendon House and a freehold dwelling at no 2 Warwick Place.  (The resulting sum total cleared from his debt to creditors of £727 enabled Alfred to buy the steerage passages for himself and his two children aboard the Jura.)

 In 1859 Alfred took with him his ten year old son Ethelbert and daughter Bertha, 15, and set sail on the Jura for Auckland. 

A public subscription is taken up to provide later passage to New Zealand for the destitute Anna and the remainder of the children.  Left at home to fend for herself, the 38 year old mother reliant on welfare charity gathers her children around her and waits for a suitable ship.

1860: Aboard the Shaw Saville vessel Avalanche, Anna and her brood will face a long, uncomfortable voyage in the cramped and crowded conditions of their 2nd cabin accommodation, certainly not first class but thankfully a step up from third class steerage. Hopefully New Zealand will provide a safe haven, opportunities to rebuild their fortunes. 

 But Alfred has not taken into account the harsh reality of life in the new colony of New Zealand; one that essentially needs sturdy farm workers, and with the Maori Wars looming, men and boys to fight in the militia.   Anna unaware of the troubles that lie ahead sails on through rough seas, her clutch of youngsters around her.  In Auckland a despondent Alfred attempting to come to grips with the reality of poverty in a strange new land waits her arrival. 



Part 2 of Anna’s Story will detail the crushed dreams of a new life, the fickle decision by her husband to return to England barely months after arriving in the land of the Long White Cloud and the family’s flirtation with shipwreck aboard the Phoenix.  It is perhaps a blessing for Anna that she cannot see far into the future; is unaware of the even greater hardship and shame that lies ahead. 

Robyn Mortimer ©2014-03-26

With special thanks to fellow kinsmen Peter Fleming and Malcolm Kirkland for their keen research and attention to detail.