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My ancestors came from Ireland, a fact I only discovered when I explored my family tree. Of 62 individuals over the last five generations before me in the direct line, 32 were Irish. The Irwins and Waters from Enniskillen, Gammells and Downeys from Tipperary, Waters from Limerick, Davis from Offaly, Conways and Kennedys from Wicklow, and Bennetts, Condens, Knowles, Morris and Halls from many other counties were ancestors, and among the millions of Irish who were forced out of Ireland by the English cruelty, the Hunger and the need to earn a living. The most distant of those Irish ancestors of whom I know anything is William Davis, my 4 great grand uncle.
William was born in 1768 in Birr (Biorra), a town on the west border of county Offaly (King’s County) once known as Parsonstown after the resident Earls of Rosse, and where the river Brosna, a tributary of the Shannon, begins. William’s father was Joseph Davis, his mother Margaret Nolan, and he had two brothers, John and Robert, and a sister Mary. (The name is Welsh and means ‘son of David’. Irish forms include Daid or O’Daid, Davitt and Taaffe, the later family coming from Wales in the 12th century. The English form Davis has been most common since the 18th century).
Since the time of Cromwell the English had ruled in Ireland like the ancient Spartans did in Laconia, and the native Irish had become a race of helots. They had been dispossessed of virtually all their land and had the lowest standard of living in the world, sleeping on the ground with the animals, living in peat shelters, and subsisting on potatoes. Aware that this situation was a breeding ground of rebellion, the English introduced a reign of terror under which Irish could be punished with flogging, tortured to enforce a desired confession, imprisoned without trial, while doing nothing to lessen the widespread starvation and virulent epidemics. This treatment, like the Blitzkreig later with the British, actually achieved the effect opposite that intended. Instead of being cowed into submission the Irish rallied. William would have grown up hearing of the guerrilla ‘whiteboys’. Inspired by the example of the French and American revolutions, finally rebellion broke out, with the expected support of France, and in May 1798 occurred the Battle of Vinegar Hill in Enniscorthy Wexford. French arms were not delivered in time and the Irish went into battle armed with pikes, a six meter spear with a metal tip. The English had cannon: 50,000 Irish were slaughtered, most of them after the battle when they tried to surrender. Women and children were also massacred, the women first being raped. It was a vicious reprisal. The Celts throughout their history have fought the same way: they make stirring speeches, show outstanding bravery, but little tactical skill, which is how they were pushed out of England by the Anglo Saxon German tribes in the first place.
All along that singing river that black mass of men was seen,
High above their shining weapons flew their own beloved green.
“Death to every foe and traitor! Whistle out the marching tune.”
And hurrah my boys for freedom; ’tis the rising of the moon”.
Tis the rising of the moon, tis the rising of the moon
And hurrah my boys for freedom; ‘Tis the rising of the moon”.
Well they fought for poor old Ireland, and full bitter was their fate,
Oh what glorious pride and sorrow, fills the name of ninety-eight!
Yet, thank God, e’en still are beating hearts in manhood burning noon,
Who would follow in their footsteps, at the risin’ of the moon
By the rising of the moon, By the rising of the moon
Who would follow in their footsteps, at the risin’ of the moon.
William was arrested in March 1798 because someone said he was a blacksmith who was making pikes for the rebels. He said he was a publican with an inn at Enniscorthy, but no-one was listening. The English were not interested in sifting evidence but in making reprisals to intimidate any would be rebels. The punishment for treason then was to be drawn, hung and quartered while still alive, until it was modified in 1814 (between 1814 and 1870 the punishment was inflicted after death). As William was a convicted rebel he thus faced the prospect of being hung, cut down while still alive, and brought back to consciousness so as to see himself emasculated, then disemboweled before finally being killed, cut in four and beheaded. Instead in November 1798 William was sentenced to transportation to Port Jackson in Australia, then known as New South Wales, for the rest of his life.
On 24 August 1799 the ship Friendship left the port of Cork. Among the over 500 convicts on board were 132 Irish branded as rebels, one of whom was William. On the six month voyage 19 men died in the insanitary conditions on board. Nobody worried too much about sanitation, health regimen or even adequate rations, and anyone who complained was flogged.
Life at Port Jackson was brutal. William was doubly suspect, as an Irish rebel and as a Catholic, which was still a proscribed religion in the infant colony. One of the more infamous officials at Port Jackson was the Reverend Samuel Marsden, a judge and Anglican priest. Marsden was eventually dismissed from his position for giving sentences exceeding that laid done by the law and has gone down in history as the Flogging Parson. Sentences of 200 and 300 lashes were inflicted on convicts, carried out by two whipmen who effectively removed skin, flesh and even fragments of bone with their lashes. Victims were known to have died from loss of blood or infection following their punishment. Marsden had William flogged twice, once for being an Irishman and a blacksmith and a suspected rebel, and once for not being a Protestant. Given the large number of Irish in the colony one can see why this was thought excessive, and an embarrassment to the administration.
However a change in William’s life was about to occur. In January of 1809 he met and married a woman named Catherine Miles, tried for theft in Surrey in 1805 and sentenced to seven years transportation. She arrived on board the Alexander in 1806 in a flotilla commanded by the incoming Governor William Bligh (of Bounty fame). The marriage was celebrated at Parramatta by Father Dixon, one of the pioneering Catholic priests in Australia and himself a man of ’98. In a later dispute with his wife William claimed she had another husband back in Ireland, which makes it look as though she was born there.
William was able to put some money aside. Although convicts were expected to work on government projects as part of their sentence, they were also leased as a labour force to private individuals and paid a pittance. A frugal man could put a small sum aside and this is what William did. In 1809 he was able to take a lease on some land in a locality known as Charlotte Place in the burgeoning town of Sydney.
It is probable that William made a good impression on his supervisors and employers. Reports were kept on all convicts and notes made of their behaviour, propensity for drink, and business acumen. William’s reports were obviously good, as in July of 1811 he was granted a provisional pardon. From this we learn something about his appearance. He was described as 5 ft 6 in in height with a dark complexion, black hair and hazel eyes.
The newly appointed Governor Macquarie was one of those impressed by William, whether directly from personal observation or through the reports of his subordinates. William’s lease was regranted and extended to 22.5 perches on the corner of Harrington Street and Grosvenor Street 25 August 1812. In 1814 he received an absolute pardon. On 20 June 1816 he was granted 80 acres in the Campbelltown district and in October of that year a further 120 acres in the same area.
William was now a man of property employing convict labour. The local newspaper, The Sydney Gazette, carries many references to his property transactions and other activities. He was also an investor. From the sale of his produce he put aside some cash to purchase two shares in the Bank of NSW 5 December 1816. Now 48 years old William was something of a figure in the community, known for his generosity. The following year some of his friends got together to present him with a statue, of Jesus with a crown of thorns, to commemorate what he had suffered as an Irishman and a Catholic on first arrival in Australia.
On 17 August 1819 William received another grant of land, a further 70 acres at Campbelltown. Around 1820 he was granted a license to run a public house, called The Fortune of War, and so returned to his original calling of publican. The inn was actually run by Catherine, William’s wife, as William himself was busy with his other financial interests.
In 1826 the couple separated after a disagreement. William published a notice in the Gazette that he would no longer be responsible for his wife’s debts. He had found, he said, that she had a husband alive in Ireland. We can get a vivid snapshot of Catherine Miles at this time because she replied to these charges, also publicly in the Gazette through March and April 1826.
“WHEREAS I Catherine Davis, of Cambridge Street, Sydney, arrived in this colony in September 1808 , and intermarried with my present husband, William Davis, in January 1809, at Parramatta, by the Rev Mr Dickson [Dixon], a Roman Catholic clergyman. The matrimonial ceremony was performed in the presence of Thomas Harpar and Sarah Chidley, who are since married and residing at Windsor. At the period I was married to the said William Davis, he was a government man [convict] to an overseer in the lumber yard, named Abbott; shortly after my marriage, I made application to Colonel Patterson for a Ticket of Leave for him, which he granted. We having no property at that time, but what we acquired by our daily labours, I made application and obtained a license to carry on a Public house, which I retained for the term of 12 years, without intermission, and with an unblemished character; and in the interim, obtained his emancipation; and shortly afterwards, through my intercession with several respectable gentlemen now living, obtained for him, from Governor Macquarie, his free pardon, and from my indefatigable exertions, acquired the property he is now possessed of. I therefore deem it an unprecedented hardship that the said William Davis should, after a lapse of seventeen years residence in this colony as his lawful wife, attempt to break through his said marriage, as during that time there appeared no impediment as to the validity of my marriage with him, but is now from some unaccountable motives, trying to set it aside, by asserting that I have a husband living in Ireland, which is totally false, for I positively assert that I have not, nor ever had, any other husband but the said William Davis. Sydney, March 28, 1826.
Catherine seems to have been quite a forceful character, to go by this publication. It is worth noting the associations of the names of both public houses: in Parramatta the couple ran The Blacksmiths Arms (could this be a sly reference to the pikemaking charges which led to William’s transportation?); in Sydney it was the Fortunes of War (here perhaps referring to the unlikely way William’s fortunes had changed over the years). It is pleasing to note the rift between the two was soon healed and they stayed together until Catherine’s death in 1839.
William acquired yet more land in October 1834 adjoining his house in Grosvenor Street. This became the site of St Patricks Roman Catholic Church in Sydney. In 1838 William donated a house to the Sisters of Charity who arrived that year to minister to the female convicts at the government factory. And 25 October 1840 William made a spectacular gesture in support of his faith when he laid £1,000 on the foundation stone of St Patricks during the ceremony marking the start of construction. William eventually owned a considerable part of the Rocks area near Circular Quay in Sydney.
William had a great love of children. He had no natural children of his own, and about 1812 adopted a Joseph Davis about whom not much is known. He may have been a nephew of William. Joseph led an adventurous life in the Australian bush; he was arrested and charged with theft of livestock but exonerated. The following year he died at age 27 as a result of a fall from a horse. He left three young children, whom William adopted. The youngest, William, remembered coming to see the elder William leave one morning. It was very early and the weather was cold. William dismounted from his mule, and wrapped his overcoat about the child’s shoulders and as a consequence caught a cold on his journey. These journeys, taken when William was in his seventies, were to watch the construction of St Marys Cathedral. The mule knew the way well, and one morning, William not appearing, made his own way to the site.
William Davis died in his sleep on the night of 17 August 1843, aged 75. He had become over the years both a public figure, and a foundation of the Catholic religion in Australia. He left an extended family. He was buried at Sydney’s Old Burial Ground, where Central Railway Station now stands. His memorial reads: “WILLIAM DAVIS died 17th August 1843 aged 78 years. He was one of the last survivors of those who were exiled without the formality of a trial for the Irish Political Movement of 1798”.
There was some consternation at the reading of his will, as he had left his house in Grosvenor Street, which he had enlarged several times, not to the Church, but to John Davis, the grandson of his brother John. Although Catholic priests were tenants there, and joint trustees of his estate, the Church wanted the property for its own purposes as it adjoined the lot on which St Patricks Church was built. They eventually raised £1,500 in 1861 to purchase the property. William’s estate is estimated as worth £30,000: one third of this was bequeathed to his family, including his grand nephew John whose passage to Australia he was said to have paid, the rest went to the Church.
William and Catherine had two adopted children, Elizabeth and Joseph. Joseph married Margaret Noonan in 1831 and had three children, Joseph, Catherine and William, but died in 1835, and William and Catherine adopted his son’s children as their own. The youngest, William Michael, became a prominent public figure and headmaster of Blakehurst Public School.
There was an exodus of Davis family members from Birr to Australia. The magnet for many of them was the goldfields of Braidwood. William’s younger brother John had a son John, four of whose children emigrated to Australia and ended up in Braidwood. The eldest of these, John also, was the heir who inherited William’s cottage in Grosvenor Street. He came to Braidwood in the late 1850s, and ran a public house in the town until his unexpected death in 1861 aged 40. Two of his siblings, Mary Ann and James Morris (named after his mother Catherine Morris) sailed on the Duke of Northumberland in 1850/51. Mary Ann married a fellow emigrant on board, Robert Knowles Waters, and the two became the first gaoler and matron in the town before moving to Parramatta. James Morris Davis married a cousin, Catherine, set up as publican following his brother John’s death, went bankrupt, but is then likely to have been John’s heir and the recipient of the £1,500 raised by the Church to obtain possession of William’s cottage in Grosvenor Street. James Morris moved to Sydney. He is buried at Gore Hill cemetery in a plot surrounded by the graves of seven of his nine children and surmounted by a beautiful Irish cross.
Yet another Davis brother was William, son of William the Pikemaker’s youngest brother Robert. This William was a stonemason. When his wife Mary Larkin died in Ireland he, together with three of his children, came to Australia in 1855 on the Gloriana, and they all ended up in Braidwood. None of these Davis family members struck it rich on the goldfields, but they married and had children, and now several hundred Sydneysiders can claim them as ancestors. None of them encountered the spectacular ups and downs that William Davis the Pikemaker experienced in his life. His was a rare combination of impulsiveness, warmth and generosity that drew people to him, accompanied by a shrewd head for business that enabled him to take advantage of opportunities when they presented themselves. It’s odd to think that quite possibly he never made a pike in his life and has gone down in history as the Wexford Pikemaker.
©2010 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.