Ancestors: Robert Knowles Waters

Susannah Waters 2Robert Waters was my great great grandfather, my mother’s father’s mother’s father. The photo shows Robert’s daughter Susanna in the early years of her marriage sometime in the 1880s.

Robert was born about 1829 in Limerick in SW Ireland, but there is no trace of that birth in surviving records. Limerick in fact was his place of origin, not necessarily his birth county but perhaps his county of work and residence. His parents were John Waters, a farmer, and Susanna Knowles. It was in honour of the Knowles family that Robert was given his middle name, one he was to quote throughout his life. If he had brothers and sisters as he probably did, we do not know their names. Robert was a Catholic of the Church of Rome though he was to describe himself later as Church of England: perhaps he held no firm convictions. He had had an education and could both read and write.

In Ireland in the 1840s the Hunger struck harder than ever before. Irish farmers grew crops and exported them to foreign markets to raise cash for rents: they survived themselves on potatoes, and endured periods of ‘hunger’ as that crop fluctuated. In the late 40s, due to bad weather and pestilence, it failed completely. The Irish people starved in their millions, and then died from fever and exposure, and those who could, emigrated from their beautiful country.

In 1850, on the 4th of February, Robert embarked on the ship Duchess of Northumberland in England, probably at Plymouth, and arrived in Moreton Bay in Queensland Australia on 31 January 1851. He stated to the Immigration Board members on arrival (it was an assisted passage) that both his parents were by then deceased, that he was a labourer and that he had a cousin living in Sydney. From what follows it would seem that cousin was a James Gammell, born in Limerick though resident in Tipperary, who had migrated to Australia in 1841 and who was living in Parramatta NSW. On board the ship were fellow passengers Mary Anne Davis and her brother James Morris Davis, from Birr parish in Offaly. Little more than a year after arriving in Sydney, on 19 April 1852, Robert married Mary Anne in St Marys Cathedral in Sydney (a Catholic ceremony). Robert and Mary Anne were to have eight children.

Australia had several gold rushes, and one of them took place over the 1850s and 1860s in and near Braidwood, inland from NSW’s south coast, NW from Bateman’s Bay. Alluvial gold was found by many, washed from streams tributary to the Shoalhaven River. On 08 June 1853, registering the birth of his first son John Robert, Robert described himself as a storekeeper at Major’s Creek, southwest of Braidwood on the way to Araluen. In 1854, at the birth of his daughter Catherine, he was resident in Braidwood, but by 25 August 1856, when Robert registered the birth of his second daughter Susanna, he had succumbed to gold fever and was prospecting at Mongarlowe due east of Braidwood. Robert did not strike it rich. His next two children, Mary Jane and Joseph Edmund, were both registered in Braidwood town, in 1858 and 1861 respectively.

Braidwood was a developing town and in 1862 it opened its first gaol. Robert Waters was appointed the first gaoler on 12 February, and his wife Mary Anne the first Matron. But development was slow. Quoting from pages 100 -101 of Netta Ellis’ book Braidwood, Dear Braidwood. A History of Braidwood and District.

“In 1861 a substantial two storeyed gaol and gaoler’s residence costing £1819, was erected at the northern end of Wallace street, on the edge of the Police Paddock where the barracks for the Mounted police had been built twenty five years earlier. In 1862 the gaoler, R Waters, wrote frequently to Sydney requesting extra amenities; he wanted a well, a shelter shed, a shower bath for prisoners and a fenced area for growing vegetables. More secure locks on cell doors were necessary “to prevent a sudden rush by prisoners at night on a false call”. In 1863 the cesspool at the gaol was reported to be “useless except for stagnant water”. Dr Redhead reported that the latrines had been “receptacles of faeces of five hundred persons for the past ten months, and as the weather lately has been very muggy the contents emitted a most deleterious miasma which together with effluence arising from decomposition of soaked animal blood and the various matter in the slaughter yards almost adjoining the Braidwood gaol account for the amount of sickness in the neighbour”. It seems that incarceration in the gaol was a double punishment!”

Robert seems to have become discouraged by lack of official support for the needs of the goal and its prisoners. Before the year had ended Robert had left Braidwood and travelled further north to Berrima, inland from Kiama and to the west of Moss Vale, where he briefly worked as gaoler. His sixth child William Henry was born there in 1863.

But perhaps Robert was disillusioned by life as a gaoler. He moved to Parramatta NSW, where his cousin James Gammell was established, and into a residence in Isabella Street adjacent to James and his wife Margaret Downey. James had been witness to Robert’s marriage to Mary Anne, and James’ son, another James, would marry Robert’s daughter Susanna in 1883. The designation ‘cousin’ might reflect earlier marriage between the two families in Ireland.

Life was not easy for Robert. Disappointed as a gold prospector, frustrated as a gaoler, Robert set up as a shoemaker in Parramatta. But by 22 May 1867 he went bankrupt and was declared insolvent. That same year Robert’s seventh child was born, Henry William. The last, Robert Knowles, was born at Parramatta in 1870.

Robert survived insolvency. His friend James Gammell may have helped. For the next few years he carried on the trade of shoemaker in Parramatta, and was still listed in Sands Business Directory of 1886, operating from premises in Church Street. His friend James Gammell had died in 1875. Of his children, Catherine had died in 1860, William Henry at birth, John Robert in 1886. Mary Jane was to die in 1900. When Robert died 17 March 1901, at his house in Isabella Street Parramatta, only three of his children survived him. Three of his sons married into the Rochester, Lamerton and Cowle families. They produced many children.

Financial success eluded Robert. But he was an Irishman, and the friends and family that surrounded him may well have meant more to him than money. Australia was not the land of golden opportunity he may have hoped for; at least, though, it was free of the rapacious control by insolvent landlords that had caused so much hardship to earlier generations of the Irish.

©2009 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.

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