Wednesday, April 16, 2014


The story so far…

1860:  The Sweeny family, at this stage numbering fourteen children, has suffered the shame of their father’s imprisonment and the loss of their once carefree life.  Reliant now on the charity of others,  Anna with 8 of her children, four of them under the age of 6 years and one still in swaddling clothes and barely crawling, is about to endure the 3 month voyage from England to New Zealand on board the sailing ship Avalanche. Husband Alfred with 16 year old Bertha and 11 year old Ethelbert sailed to Auckland some months earlier with the intention of securing free land grants from the New Zealand government.

Certainly the advertisement above similar to many published in English newspapers in the 1850’s helped set Alfred’s mind thinking about ways to recoup his lost fortune… Anna herself may have seen published the image below of Auckland in London’s Illustrated News only a few years earlier and been slightly reassured that this land at the ends of the earth had at least a modicum of civilisation.

In either case both would be sadly disappointed. Alfred’s delusions of a grand life in this small island country as a gentleman farmer or property owner will be dashed when he realises the country wants only those ready and willing to labour under difficult conditions.  There will be no treasure at the end of this rainbow.

What follows now in this next instalment is husband Alfred’s great folly as he uproots his entire family on a fruitless quest to attain riches.

We have no personal diaries from any of the Sweeny children, much less their mother, detailing the lengthy and ultimately pointless sea voyages they endured in the first half of 1860: Nothing at all to indicate either an abhorrence or even a growing affinity with life on the ocean wave.
But I did find diary entries and newspaper articles that others had written about their experiences on the same voyages our Sweeny’s sailed, and even an account of the vessel Anna luckily avoided.   Both of their sailing ships of choice faced rough weather, but Alfred’s more so than Anna’s.


Aboard the 792 ton Jura, Alfred, 16 year old Bertha and 11 year old Ethelbert departed England on October 3 1859. With them on board were 87 passengers including several small children and assorted cargo.  The three travelled in the crowded between decks steerage section, their sleeping arrangements basic wooden double bunks open to view amidst the clutter of tables and benches and belongings; bulkhead divisions made only to separate the sexes travelling alone.  

This descent into a claustrophobic hell must have been an eye opener for Alfred and a culture shock for the Sweeny children.  It would be their home for the next 3 months.
Seven days into the voyage the vessel, clearly not intended for passenger comfort, encountered fierce storms with passenger decks awash with sea water and the vessel being crazily tossed about by mountainous waves.

1850’s: An image of similar immigrants travelling steerage to NZ
 A fellow passenger Frederick Sidwell’s misspelt description of a stormy day at sea paints the picture only too well … ‘Had a ver ruf day the sea running mountains high, the ship realing to and frow like a drunkin man, chists upsetting. Watter cans pots and pans tumbeling in all directions.  As well some of the passengers were seek…’

 He went on to describe the pig sties on deck damaged and split asunder in the stormy conditions with pigs running amok throughout the ship.  The Sidwells, husband, wife and six children, paid £155 for the privilege of a second class cabin; Alfred Sweeny and his two children endured the voyage in the cramped conditions of bargain price steerage.  Both families would have supplied their own bedding; the shipping company provided food rations of meat, flour, rice, barley, tea, coffee, sugar, potatoes, lime juice and water but passengers were responsible for cooking their own meals.

A cow was also listed on board but survived and was off loaded in Auckland;  not so a consignment of caged song birds, thrushes, linnets and pheasants which were all swept away to a watery grave save for one lone partridge that arrived safely in Auckland on January 15th 1860.   The journey had taken 104 damp, stomach churning days, almost 4 months to sail from Liverpool to New Zealand.

I wonder how Bertha and Ethelbert felt as the ship heaved and bucked and fellow passengers in steerage moaned and groaned, their surroundings mired in disorder and mess; did they wish themselves elsewhere…anywhere but where they were? 


Meanwhile some few months’ later back in Sussex Anna was to have taken passage on another ship, the Frenchman leaving from London a month or so before the vessel she eventually boarded, the Avalanche; but she was not yet ready to depart.  Perhaps the public subscription to enable her passage had not reached sufficient amount, or she felt baby Madeline May too young at that time; in any case their departure was deferred until the later date of February 2nd when 39 year old Anna and her eight remaining children, Alice, Adeline, Geraldine, Frank, Camilla, Ernest, Evelyn and Madeline travelled to London to board the 763 ton Avalanche under the command of Captain Stott.

One has to wonder if Ann was clairvoyant in bypassing passage on the Frenchman:  On the ill-fated vessel’s arrival in Auckland on March 22nd  1860 a hearing was convened in the Resident Magistrates Court regarding unsanitary conditions aboard the barque ‘Frenchman’ at ‘present in quarantine’. 

Evidence was given: “The court finds that the ship did not call in at any port on the voyage; it sailed with no Bill of Health and that a fortnight after leaving England small pox broke out amongst the second class passengers incurring several deaths.  The Surgeon in reply states that the whole of the bedding and clothes of the infected persons had been thrown overboard, the ship fumigated and disinfected, 87 persons aboard had been duly vaccinated,  and that he was of the opinion that no danger was now to be apprehended.” 

Anna and her eight children were very lucky indeed.

In comparison the ship they finally boarded, the Avalanche took just 96 days to reach Auckland, 8 days less than the Jura: According to the ship’s Captain apart from a few days experiencing gale force winds with the loss of the mizzen topsail, the health of all on board had been good with no deaths and 2 births swelling the sum total of her passenger list.

Just four weeks before the ships arrival in Auckland one of those babies was born to Joseph and Sarah Sturge, Joseph a former Quaker disowned for marrying out of his church; they named the infant Arthur James Avalanche Sturge.

The Sweeny brood also sailed in 2nd Cabin accommodation, a step up from Steerage though in no way as comfortable or as private as a first class salon.

The Avalanche

Alfred and the two children, Bertha and Ethelbert must have welcomed their first steps on dry land with a heartfelt prayer; The Auckland they now view is perhaps larger than they expected but with none of the fine two and three story buildings back home that line the seaside promenade of Worthing.

Instead they find an enormous number of small wooden houses perched on surrounding hills.  They search for and find Auckland’s Mechanic’s Institute, just across from the Wesleyan Mission, which all three promptly join on the 19th January just three days after arrival.  The Institute, one of thousands popping up in towns throughout the world gives citizens access to local information, a notice board, a library and reading room and encourages an interest in science and study.  (Some 20 years later Geraldine Sweeny McGowan will similarly utilise and enjoy Fiji’s Mechanic’s Institute in Levuka.)
Large central building is Auckland’s Wesleyan Mission, to its right the Mechanics Institute: Sir George Grey Special Collection.
 With Anna expected to embark a few weeks later from London Alfred set about finding accommodation and work.  From a letter Anna later sent home and was published in the West Sussex Gazette we know… ‘Rentals are very dear, we pay ten shillings per week for a two roomed house with little furniture and primitive amenities’.

At last the family is reunited, but the occasion is marred by Alfred’s inability to find work. Time and again he finds himself one of many applying for the one position. He has journalistic ambitions and applies for work with a local newspaper but is unsuccessful.
Anna and the children have barely time to find their land legs after the long voyage from London before their father suddenly decides they will all return to England...immediately. Post haste!

To fully appreciate the folly of this entire short excursion to the ends of the earth it’s best to see for yourself the time frame surrounding their arrivals and departure.
January 18th 1860 Alfred with Bertha and Ethelbert arrive NZ.
May 7th 1860 Anna and her brood of eight youngsters arrive.
May 31st 1860 Phoenix family’s due departure for England.

The decision to return to England is made in haste.  The Phoenix has advertised a departure date of May 31.  That date is later changed due to ‘inclement weather’ and perhaps Alfred has made his decision in light of the later advertisement advising this, while at the same time offering a reduced rate for family’s traveling in steerage.  The departure date will change a number of times, the Phoenix finally departing on July 2nd.

 But one wonders what has really precipitated the Sweeny’s sudden departure.

True, in the months before Anna arrived Alfred had plenty of time to search for work and was obviously unsuccessful, but was this the only reason he suddenly seeks passage home just 24 days after his wife’s arrival?

In letters written to the West Sussex Gazette he deplores the scarcity of work, mentioning one position he applied for had attracted over 50 applicants.  He puts Bertha, and later Alice, to work in a menial job and the money they bring home helps put food on the table.  I suspect even Ethelbert aged 11, or by now possibly 12 years old is similarly employed. Their father claims to have trudged many miles through the countryside seeking work.

It seems fairly clear that Alfred’s flight to New Zealand was excessively coloured by the promise of free land.  He has no actual trade skills.  On his immigration papers he had described himself as a librarian and while resident in Auckland had written a pompous letter to the local paper deriding complaining migrants who have been unable to find work. The letter, published on the 7th May, includes the following paragraph:-

“(from those on board the Jura)…there are eleven persons still wanting employment…and only a month has yet elapsed since they set foot in New Zealand.  This is not so much amiss.    In most instances of failure to obtain employment in the colony is denounced as a great trap for the unwary, the complaining parties having neither the justice, the reason nor the ability to explain that failure most often arises from their want of patience, prudence or eligibility as emigrants or from want of a proper amount of pecuniary means on arrival or from too many choosing to come out at once and thus damaging and destroying one another’s chances of success…   signed A.Sweeny”

Within a month though, Alfred has himself become one of the ‘complaining few’, he himself now lacking the patience, prudence and sufficient pecuniary means to ensure survival.

At the same time though he can’t help but hear the town gossip and read in Auckland papers about the Taranaki Maori uprising; understandably the original inhabitants are mightily upset at having their land usurped.  But then with growing alarm Alfred soon becomes aware of the New Zealand Militia Act of 1858 which gives powers to enlist civilians who had resided in the colony for six months.  Already five months have passed since he set foot on New Zealand soil.  Soon, very soon he could be legally deemed eligible for conscription.

The Sweeny’s were clearly running short of money and I doubt they would find the charity of England’s work houses in the new colony of New Zealand; but that wasn’t Alfred’s primary concern. As well as being totally unsuited to farming or labouring I’m quite sure he was not at all keen to go to war.

The sudden decision to return to England is obviously a shock for Anna.  She has in this short interim managed to pen a letter home to the Sussex newspaper describing conditions in the colony.  Would she have gone to this trouble had she been aware her stay would be so short? I doubt it. The letter was clearly meant to be the first in a series of such informative missals on the pitfalls or otherwise of living in New Zealand. The West Sussex Gazette had after all played a pivotal part in the public subscription to raise funds for the family’s passage to the colony.

But the decision has been made: She has no choice now other than to begin preparing her young family for yet another long and harrowing sea voyage. 

At this stage I can only put myself in Anna’s place;  Confined for nearly 3 months on board ship with eight children ranging in age from 15 years to a babe in arms; on arrival thrust into a small and inadequate dwelling totally unsuitable for such a large family; faced with a husband who exudes doom and gloom; and then, with barely enough time to recover from the long sea voyage suddenly faced with yet another upheaval and a further 3 months battling the elements.

                                          THE PHOENIX

Fully rigged sailing vessels of the 1800’s rarely kept to a strict schedule.  Powered by the wind and at the mercy of the tides and shifting sands their times of arrival and departure could never be accurately forecast.

In the case of the Phoenix for its return voyage to Liverpool the delays stretched into months.  As early as February 1860 the Daily Southern Cross reported in its shipping section advice that ‘Captain Brown of the White Star Line vessel Phoenix would proceed in about a fortnight to Wellington with the balance of her cargo and from there to Hokianga to load timber and will return to Auckland to fill up, and receive passengers for Liverpool direct’.

When finally on July 2nd the vessel departed from Auckland with her complement of passengers it was reported that the “Phoenix for Liverpool after an ineffectual attempt to round the North Head on Sunday came back to her anchorage but finally succeeded in making a start yesterday afternoon.”
The same newspaper report on the ships departure mentioned… ‘…the White Star Line which has brought so many immigrants to New Zealand is already engaged in carrying them back to the old country…’ an immediate reference perhaps to the Sweeny’s, but at the same time indicating a growing pattern of disgruntled immigrants.

The Phoenix, heavily loaded with its cargo of timber, carried a relatively small number of passengers, seventy odd, and amongst them was John William Hodkinson who had the foresight to record the journey home in his diary.  His description of the voyage paints a vivid picture of severe storms, a leaking vessel and the urgent necessity to jettison cargo overboard, of a drunken captain, threats of mutiny by the crew and even the presence of a stowaway.

Curiously Alfred on his return to Worthing will also pen a description of the voyage to the West Sussex Gazette in which he describes the untiring efforts of the crew to stem the effects of a leak in the hull; He describes the Captain as polite and courteous and ever conscious of the passengers comfort, even organising parties and theatrical events for their entertainment. 
Following the prevailing winds the voyage progresses from the waters of the Pacific Ocean far south to the ice of the Great Southern Ocean before rounding the dangerous seas at the tip of South America and entering the Atlantic for the final long push north to England.

 Hodkinson writes of the miseries of rounding the infamous Horn… “We have often heard of the horrors of Cape Horn and it has quite realised our expectations…” His diary describes the quarrelsome passengers, inadequate provisions, the wetness in the cabins and on deck, the extreme cold and the inability to keep warm except in bed.  Later in the warmer climate he wrote of the vermin that became rife due to the lack of cleanliness of some of the passengers.

            Whichever version rings true, for Anna, Alfred and her ten children confined in the stark reality of steerage, faced with the lack of privacy for even the most basic of functions and sanitation the long days and nights, the constant roll of the ship, must have seemed like a living hell… especially for Anna who by now realises she is pregnant with their 15th child.



The cry of Land ahoy when the Phoenix neared Liverpool signalled the end of the one hundred days journey from Auckland.  In his diary William Hodkinson describes their harrowing arrival…
Oct. 9 Off Dunganon say 200 miles
Oct. 10. Off Rock light and landing

At easy seeing distance we have scarcely time to swallow our breakfast for fear of missing some important object. There is no lack of Ships of all sizes from the yachts to the 3 deckers sailing in every direction. 12 noon, Off Dungannon 3 pm we can see Taskes Island, where the famous Dasher Lighthouse stands on. The wind is from the north rather against us… we hope for a change or else no Liverpool for us to morrow…
Oct. 10th. We arose early & got breakfast over so that we could look about us but the weather was not very favourable for seeing fast, for the drizzly rain had come again & the wind not being fair we were beating up the channel that is tacking, about noon were near Holyhead lighthouse, sometimes we could not see it when more than a mile distant on account of the rain, after dinner we took on board Pilot Mr ___ but I rather think he is not quite sober but perhaps he knows his business… all afternoon we are sailing along the Welsh coast with a strong wind more fair on account of our course being more east.
Ships are now as plentiful as blackberries & steam tugs too, they wanted £20 for taking us into Liverpool but as we have got such a good wind the captain would not engage them. Then about 5 pm we entered the mouth of the Mersey and we could see the lights of the core of docks, the Pilot thought we had but anchor for the night and we let go the patent anchor opposite the Battery.
The gale blew us on to the bank & as the wind, a gale and the sea was high, we dragged our anchors, the tide being at the ebb. We soon touched the bottom with a heavy thuds and then she keeled on her side.
The sailor had got beach but happily the wind abated or the ship would soon have gone to pieces. Some of the passengers asked the 1st or 2nd mate where we were going and he said we were going to the devil. It was a no fair game to sail all way from New Zealand & then be wrecked in the Mersey.
The Captain wanted to signal for a tug to take the passengers to port but the sailors would not hear of it. They hailed a tug… for all hands we got a good sized piece of pork to wash & when roasted we did not feel inclined for eating, we stayed up all night approaching but it was very uncomfortable owing to vessel heeling on her side but as soon as this tide permitted on the morning we got a tug which brought us opposite the landing stage and took us passengers with children.

The Sweeny’s arrival in Liverpool on October 10th is a dismal affair. Anna pregnant and fearful for their future, she and the children still shaken by their brush with disaster are numb with shock: They have no one to greet them and no idea how they would manage to find shelter.

What little money Alfred has will not go far. He leaves Ann and the children to the hopefully charitable mercy of the Liverpool Guardians and takes the train to Worthing hoping perhaps to get help from his mother, the aged Ann Sweeny.  But having lost all her possessions and any standing she once had in the community his mother is now one of three lodgers in their seventies living in a tradesmen’s cottage and in any case reliant on parish charity. 

In the depths of a cruel wintery December Alfred is called before the Broadwater Guardians in Sussex:  Where once he stood in authority he now cringes in despair.  The Guardians have received a request from their Liverpool counterparts seeking the sum of fourteen shillings a week relief for Mrs Anna Sweeny and her family until she or her husband could obtain work. The situation is decidedly grim.

Back in Liverpool Anna loses the practical support of two of her eldest children, 15 year old Bertha takes up a governess position in Usk, and on November 27th the Sweeny’s eldest daughter Alice Kate, aged 16 marries an American mariner Alfred West.  This will be the first of three such unions for the bride.  (In truth Anna may have welcomed two less mouths to feed.)

 Weeks and months pass with husband and wife living apart, Anna reliant on charity, until eventually the Liverpool Guardians refuse to give her any further help and she is sent money to return to Worthing where she gives birth to Reginald Arthur Sweeny on March 26th 1861.

She dreads the confrontations and recriminations ahead, the begging for charity, the meeting with former friends and neighbours; the question marks surrounding the public subscription, the failed odyssey to New Zealand. 


NEXT AND FINAL INSTALMENT:   If you think Ann Sweeny’s life story couldn’t get any worse, you are very mistaken. The family will again be forced to leave Worthing, this time to Wales.  Ahead looms death, despair, for Alfred imprisonment yet again, and the eventual dispersal of their children to the far corners of the globe.

For Anna the happy days of her youth are distant memories; the laughing carefree ‘Miss Fish’ dancing the night away at the Tradesmen’s Ball now  unrecognizable.
Robyn Mortimer ©2014 

Again my gratitude to and admiration for fellow family historian Peter Fleming, like me a Sweeny descendent and historical sleuth.