When first we left old England’s shores
Such yarns as we were told
As how folks in Australia
Could pick up lumps of gold
So when we got to Melbourne Town
We were ready soon to slip
And get even with the captain
We scuttled from the ship
With My Swag All On My Shoulder (trad. arr.)
Frustratingly, the four daughters of my great-great grandfather’s first marriage seemed to disappear one by one from the records just as the Victorian age began to pick up steam. Unlike their successful middle brother, the mahogany merchant James William Skelton (see A Tale of Exploitation) the paper trail which documented their lives suddenly petered out when they reached their twenties, leaving me to wonder what had happened to all of them.
With Margaret Sarah, James Skelton’s first born, and possibly his favourite child (as she taught music at his tailoring premises in the city), I soon discovered she had died from tuberculosis at the age of twenty-four, shortly after her mother’s demise from cancer of the womb (see Present at the Death). These twin tragic events appeared to precipitate James’ dash into the bed of the impoverished teenage Mary Ann (my paternal great-great grandmother), a relationship I have written about at length in another chapter (see When I Grow Rich). Regular readers will know that Mary Ann Hawkins’ story runs through that of my branch of the Skelton family like an earth wire, and although she was the one who is responsible for our existence, she could also be said to be the one responsible for our ‘downfall’.
In the first census shortly after the two deaths, taken in 1851, James Skelton is still recorded as living in Coldharbour Lane in Brixton in the family home with his younger daughters, Ann and Helen. However, we know that Mary Ann was already pregnant with their first child by then, although she was registered along with her infant son William (whose father was not James) at another address. I can imagine that my great-great grandfather had probably been attempting to keep this embarrassing relationship a secret from his adult children. (Although knowing grown-up daughters, they probably would have guessed at his situation, maybe even humouring him by feigning ignorance of his nocturnal wanderings).
The house in Brixton where James lived with Ann and Helen in 1851
The child that Mary Ann was pregnant with in 1851 was the first of five children she would go on to have with James. And although they did not marry until shortly before his death in 1867 at the age of 68, by 1861 they were openly living together in Walworth. So sometime in the 1850s James would have had to have ‘the discussion’ with his four living children. By then his only son, James William, was already out in British Honduras and had fathered an illegitimate daughter of his own, so he possibly felt removed from the situation. However, it is fair to say that as a Victorian social climber he was probably not too happy about his father’s sudden drop in status, continuing to refer to him as ‘a gentleman from Brixton’ until his death.
Aldred Road in Kennington – where James lived with Mary Ann
For the girls it may have also felt like a betrayal of sorts. Particularly as Mary Ann was the same age as Ann, the youngest daughter. So it is interesting to note that in 1851, only a few months after the census was taken, Ann Skelton married William James Haydon – a 23 year old plumber, painter and decorator who worked for his father’s business. On the marriage certificate, James Skelton (his handwriting shaky) and Ann’s older sister, Sarah Westle Maria Skelton*, were the official witnesses.
*This was the only document to record the presence of Sarah, who had been untraceable since the 1841 census, when as a teenage girl she was living with the rest of the family in Horsleydown Lane.
A son, William, was born in Surbiton ten months after the wedding. A daughter, Elizabeth Helen, must have also been born, for although there is no birth record, this child of Willian and Ann Haydon’s was baptised in Brixton in 1861. There was, however, frustratingly no census return for the young family earlier in that year. It also seemed strange that there was a gap of almost a decade between the birth of the two children. But everything eventually became clear when I discovered William Haydon in the 1871 census, back in South London at the family home in Brixton Road. There he was listed as having six children – three of whom had been born in Australia, including the aforementioned Elizabeth Helen. Yet he was no longer married to Ann, but a woman called Mary Ann from the east London parish of Dalston. It was then – with a jolt – I realised that she must have been William’s second wife. Which in those days usually meant one thing only.
Eventually I began to gradually put together the story of Ann’s short but adventurous life in Australia. And when I turned up in the Victorian outback in January 2016, in the fierce heat of high summer, I was finally able to understand the risks that Ann had taken when she had made the notoriously dangerous voyage ‘down under’ with her young family in search of the immigrant dream over 160 years earlier.
I arrived in Melbourne on a balmy Antipodean evening, less than a week into the new year, queasy and disoriented from two long-haul flights, Yet it was the most delicious and strangest feeling to walk out of Tullamarine airport and realise that I was now on the opposite side of the world. What kind of weird magic was it that had taken me there in the space of a day compared to Ann’s three month ordeal? I wanted to reach back through time to tell her all about that marvellous invention that would radically change our lives in the centuries to follow. But I knew that even if I could, it would be too much for her to bear. For she would surely guess that if man could invent such a flying machine they would also have come up with a cure for the disease that was to prove fatal for her and her two older sisters.
The wonderful thing about Australian birth records (or at least the Victorian state ones) is the amount of detail each contains. Not only are both parents’ ages given, but also their birthplace, their marriage date and place, the number of children they already have, as well as the father’s profession. And a quick on-line credit card transaction can have these records on your computer a few minutes after locating them in the archives. But on that first warm but windy morning in Melbourne, bleary yet elated, I decided to trek out through the bland northern suburbs to the Victorian Archives Centre, wanting to ascertain for myself if there was anything more to discover. It was more or less a wasted trip (with me shivering in the air conditioning and cursing the fact the cafeteria was unexpectedly closed), although I was at least able to find out more about the ship on which the family arrived in Australia.
The three Haydons set sail from the Port of London on March 20th 1854, travelling with 25 other paying passengers (passage cost £7 and 16 shillings each) in a ‘windjammer’ full of rum, brandy, wine, beer, tobacco, and hardware, bound for Port Philip. After three months at sea they finally landed on the Yarra river on July 24th 1854 – right in the midst of a cool Melbourne winter. The city at that time was booming and a huge ‘canvas town’ had been erected to house the new immigrants who had been arriving daily since gold had been discovered in Victoria three years earlier. Many of those living there were ‘digging widows’ (with their children): women who were waiting to get the message to join their husbands on the goldfields.
Canvas Town, South Melbourne 1850s (c) Gov of Victoria
Whether the Haydons stayed in such a place initially or were lucky to have lodgings in a boarding house, we will, unfortunately, never know. However, throughout that decade Melbourne would use its new-found wealth to transform from a rough and ready frontier town to a grand colonial city. 1854 was the year many great municipal schemes and public buildings were nearing completion. And when William Haydon set sail back to England in 1861 with his four motherless children in tow, he would have found the place as elegant as any old-world city.
Did William make the decision to go ‘down under’ in 1854 primarily to search for gold, or was he just attracted by the many advertisements for passage to this exciting new land that would have been all over London at the time? Being a young man, the idea of the gold rush presumably enthralled him, but perhaps he was canny enough to realise that his tradesman skills would be more likely to create wealth in a country that was going through a fevered expansion. But whatever the reasons, we know that a year after the Haydons’ arrival in Victoria they were living far from Melbourne in the wild and uncharted interior of the state, indicating that gold was the primary motive.
Gold Miner and Family c1861 by Richard Daintree (c) Victoria State Library
The birth records of their three Australian-born children (their first-born, little William, had made the voyage with them at one and a half) show that they moved from the principal gold-prospecting areas in Victoria: from the settlement of ‘Muckleford’ in The Loddon to ‘Deep Creek’ at Hepburn, and finally to the wonderfully named ‘Eagle Hawk’ at Maldon. In 1855, on the birth of Charles Skelton Haydon, his father is described as being a plumber/glazier by the registrar in Castlemaine. But by 1857, when the first girl, Sarah Ann, was born, he was already described as a ‘Goldminer’. Another daughter was to follow two years later, when William was still described as a miner.
And from this record it is interesting to note that from July to September of 1859 there were only five births in the boomtown Maldon area, and all to miners (few of whom would have had their families with them). I was fascinated by the names of the mining settlements into which these children were born: Sandy Creek, Porcupine Flat, Lister’s Gully, all evocative of the Gold rush landscape – yet their poetic beauty could not obscure the knowledge of the harsh conditions the families would have faced in such places.
Castlemaine in the 1860s, photographer unknown
Before I left for Australia I had spent some time researching the areas in which the Haydons had lived. Hepburn (or Daylesford) was now a chi-chi spa town, marketing itself through the natural mineral springs it possessed. It didn’t seem to have much connection with its previous incarnation as a gold-rush town. But something about the bleak-sounding Eagle Hawk at a village called Maldon piqued my interest. Perhaps because the family had spent the most time in that area – and Ann had been interred there in 1860 (one of the first burials in the new municipal graveyard).
In addition, the settlement of Muckleford (where the family had initially lived), was located just outside Castlemaine (the administrative centre of the Mount Alexander Diggings region), on the main road to Maldon. So it seemed as if I would manage to see both of those key places. Then what really sold Maldon to me was its description as Australia’s ‘first notable town’, an honour bestowed in 1966 through the National Trust of Australia due to the intact gold rush architecture, and which prevents any alterations to the buildings. A short Victorian state-sponsored tourist video (below) gives a flavour of the town, although on the day I visited there were only a handful of people around as the temperature was almost 40 degrees!
You can perhaps imagine my feelings as I prepared to leave Melbourne after four days exploring the city, and take the train to Castlemaine. I was excited, yet feared disappointment. I’d enjoyed my time in Melbourne, but after first visiting the wonderful Museum of Immigration and doing my usual ‘pounding the streets until my feet bled’ – or in this case burnt to a crisp – I already knew that the ‘old’ Melbourne that was so beloved of locals and tourists was just being built when the Haydons arrived. So any attempt to understand how they would have experienced the colony proved futile. Perhaps the closest I felt to them was when I crawled into a replica ‘immigrant ship’ in the museum, trying to imagine how they survived the three months at sea.
New (2016) and Old (1854) Melbourne: Swanston St from two different angles.
I even took a long boat trip from the centre of town down the Yarra River and out to the old maritime settlement of Williamstown to try to experience how they might have felt when they sailed into the huge bay of Port Philip. But it seemed like all of Melbourne was there, eating and drinking vast quantities, while lying in the sunshine, and the whole exuberant over-excess made me feel sad and lonely.
Melbourne Skyline from Williamstown
After taking the self-guided historic town trail, I decided to walk out to the old bluestone Williamstown Lighthouse at Gellibrand Point (see left), telling myself that this was possibly the first sight of Australia Ann would have had from on deck the Atalante. But somehow I couldn’t quite conjure up the spirit of the 1850s with all the conspicuous consumption around me, and I was quite relieved when the afternoon finally came to a close, and all the BBQs were packed up and the SUVs driven back to suburbia.
Disembarking from the boat back in the centre of town I thought I saw my cousin and his wife on the other side of the river. I knew they often holidayed in Australia as their youngest son had emigrated there several years previously (although their break was usually over Christmas and New Year – and David was based near Sydney). Nevertheless, I ran over the bridge to catch up with them, and of course it was not Steve and Beverley at all, but two slightly more glamorous look-alikes. It was then I glanced down and saw the glaring red marks all over my feet and ankles – the very place I’d forgotten to put on sunscreen. I was, I surmised, possibly slightly ‘sunstruck’ and so I hurried back to my hotel, pausing to pick up some calamine lotion and a pie en route.
Sprawled on the bed with my notebook computer (is there anything more blissful than returning to a hotel room alone?) I did some last minute research for my trip to Castlemaine. What would the weather be like? What were the exact times of the infrequent Maldon buses? And the official opening hours of the Maldon Visitor Centre and Heritage Museum? And was there any place in Castlemaine itself where I could obtain more information about the Mount Alexander goldfields in general?
Of course, I should not have left all these important tasks until my last night in Melbourne, but in the excitement of being free to explore a strange city I had fallen into my typical unfocused research pattern which revolved around just turning up in a place and walking around to soak up the atmosphere, and hopefully at the same time noticing things and being able to talk to people. And although this is an excellent strategy in some ways (leading to all sorts of unexpected sights and encounters), it really should be combined with a more structured approach. Particularly if it is taking place in a country on the other side of the world!
This was, however, actually my third visit to Australia: the first being on a working holiday visa in 1989; the second being my pre-wedding ‘honeymoon’ in 2005, but which involved me coming out on my own a few weeks earlier ‘just to get a bit of extra travelling in’. However, I had never visited the goldfields region before, and had in fact spent very little time in Victoria at all. So I was looking forward to my trip into the interior of the state, and wondering whether the places would remind me of the old ghost towns I’d visited in California. These were abandoned settlements that had captured my imagination in a way that had taken me by surprise (not being a fan of Wild West tropes), especially when the human stories behind the deserted buildings leapt to the fore.
I was to be in Castlemaine for three nights – plenty of time (or so I thought) to explore the area and visit Maldon. And I had agreed to meet up with an Australian friend later in the week, who had already booked our onward accommodation. Now, looking back, I see that this was perhaps one of the daftest things I could have done. As someone who is almost pathologically afraid of letting people down, one of the most stressful things for me is having to cancel arrangements I’ve already made with others. And so I kept right on with the agreed plan, even though all my instincts were screaming Stay! Stay! Stay!
And the reason for this was pure and simple: I fell in love with the rugged beauty of Central Victoria, the friendliness of the people, the surprisingly cool and arty town of Castlemaine, the open and curious nature of those I told about my research. And I made one very serendipitous connection which brought me much closer to understanding Ann’s life in Malden – and for that alone I will always be grateful to the Castlemaine Historical Society.
This lively group meets in the Old Court House every Tuesday to carry out research for themselves and others. For a small fee, visitors are welcome to use the facilities and pick the brains of the resident researchers. And it just so happened that the day I was due to arrive in Castlemaine coincided with the eve of the first meeting of the Historical Society after the festive break.
Back of the Old Court House Castlemaine (where the researchers eat their pies)
So shortly before nine o’clock on a Tuesday in mid-January I headed out through the wide Castlemaine streets to the Old Court House, already sweating in the formidable heat. As well as a sun hat and water, I was carrying a slim folder containing my meagre research notes. I did not realise then quite how much they would be augmented by the end of that day.
To be continued next month in The Lost Boy on the Bendigo Road
The Incidental Genealogist, May 2018