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George Fairbrother is my great grand uncle by marriage, and his story is one of the saddest in my family history, one of exile, and early death. Yet it began much more auspiciously.
The word ‘fairbrother’ is a translation of the French ‘beaufrere’, originally a kind of complimentary salutation, like ‘my good fellow’ in English. ‘Beaufrere’ appears in English documents after the conquest by William I of Normandy in 1066, and soon after in its English form ‘fairbrother’. At that time surnames were uncommon, and a second name was used as we use nicknames, to distinguish one man from another by a trait or occupation. It was the Poll Tax of 1379 which introduced surnames, as these were an essential method of taxing the whole population effectively, and from that time onward the family name Fairbrother can be found.
If the Fairbrother family was originally a French one as the beaufrere tag implies, they may have been among the 200,000 Huguenots, or French Protestants, driven from France by religious persecution. About 10,000 of these are thought to have emigrated to Ireland by 1690, encouraged by an act of parliament giving civil liberties to Protestants settling in Ireland. They were skilled weavers who created an industrial centre in the Dublin area. “They started their business around the area now called Weaver’s Square. They taught the people of Dublin how to weave silk and poplin. At first, everything seemed to prosper and many more people came to live in the area. However, difficulties arose because of the Irish weather. The cloth needed to be stretched and dried on tenter hooks in the fields between what is now O’Curry Avenue and Clarence Mangan Road. In 1814 Thomas Pleasants built a stone Tenter House on the land between Cork Street, Brickfield Lane, Brown Street and Ormond Street”. (Jimmymac, http://www.dublin.ie/forums).
The first mention I can find of George Fairbrother’s family appears to make them part of this development. The family are said to have been Quakers, Dissenters who moved to Dublin from London (earlier, perhaps, to London from France) some time in the 17th century. They were weavers too, and set up business in Dublin in the area known as The Tenters (after the hooks used to stretch the woven cloth), on land still remembered as Fairbrothers’ Fields, which is now Sweeneys Terrace.
Enrolled among the Ancient Freemen of Dublin are many Fairbrothers, including a Samuel, a stationer (1714), Abraham, a weaver and Quaker of Marrowbone Lane (1741) and George, a weaver (1750) (http://dublinheritage.ie/). “The Freeman’s Journal 25th June-1st July 1820 mentions two Fairbrothers on the electoral list: A. Fairbrother, Dolphins Barn Halls, merchant; and H. Fairbrother, Tenter Lane, weaver.” (Jimmymac, http://www.dublin.ie/forums). This latter could have been Henry Fairbrother, who was probably the father of my ancestor George Fairbrother.
A Henry Fairbrother, who may have lived about 1760-1840, married an Alice, and with her had four sons. William, born 02 May 1789 in Mill Street, Henry, born 13 October 1792 at Newmarket, Abraham, born 19 April 1795 in Starling Street, and George, born 16 January 1803 in Pool Street.
There are 85 Fairbrothers listed on bmd church registers 1750-1850, 28 of these at St Catherines in Thomas Street and 12 at St Lukes in The Coombe. Their addresses include Weavers Square, Sweeneys Lane, The Tenters, Mill Street, Newmarket, Starling Street, Dophins Barn, Pool Street, Braithwait Street, Little Ship Street, Kevin Street and Patrick Street, and so part of the weavers district of Dublin (http://www.irishgenealogy.ie/). There were still Fairbrothers listed on the electoral rolls of 1939 in Weavers Square.
(Note: The twenty-five Liberties or Franchises of Dublin where Dissenters could freely practise their religious rites included the Bishop’s Liberty, which comprised the large area of the Coombe; Lord Kildare’s Liberty; and the Earl of Meath’s Liberty, which was of the nature of a manor, and included Kevin Street and Booter’s Lane, Bride Street, Bull Alley, Meath Street and Mellefont Lane, etc.; Clontarf; Donnybrook; Ringsend; Clonskeagh; Miltown; Dolphin’s Barn; Hospital Fields; Stonybatter; Grange Gorman; Finglas; Drumcondra; Ballyburgh; and Raheny.)
On 10 December 1824, George Fairbrother, Henry Fairbrother’s youngest son (presumably), was tried and sentenced at Dublin. He was 21 years old, and was sentenced to seven years transportation to NSW; the crime he was accused of was the stealing of lead. He had attained his majority, was living in Clontarf and may have at that time been the owner or co-owner of Fairbrothers Fields as tradition asserts. The seven years sentence was one handed out to those committing what we would often today call a misdemeanor, and dismiss with a lecture from the judge.
George arrived in NSW 03 January 1826 on the Sir Godfrey Webster from Cork. He was described as 5 ft 6 1/4 in tall, of fair complexion, with light brown hair, and blue eyes. He was assigned convict labour as a shoemaker. In the 1828 NSW census he was a labourer at Minto, and on 23 Dec 1831 he had earned his Certificate of Freedom. But George had a problem. In Dublin he owned a profitable weaving business, presumably being managed by his brothers or other relatives. As a now free settler in NSW he was entitled to return home and continue with that business. But first he had to find the means to do so.
However, back in Dublin, hard times had overtaken the weaving industry. Britain had imposed sanctions on an industry which was threatening its own, and in Dublin the weaving trade had all but died out by the 1840s. This may have spelt ruin for George Fairbrother, who decided to stay on in the colony.
On 10 July 1843 George married a Mary Smith at the Church of All Saints Sutton Forest, which is near Bowral and Mittagong, just south of Berrima, inland from Wollongong on the coast south of Sydney. Mary, who spiced up her name by calling herself Mary Hannah Smyth, was a convict, also from Dublin, a Catholic, who had worked as a kitchen maid, had an illegitimate child, a girl, and several convictions for shoplifting. Her father was George Smith (or Smyth). Mary was tried in Dublin in 1837, her age given as 25. She was described as being 5 ft 1 1/2 in, with fair ruddy complexion, brown hair, hazel eyes. Her sentence was seven years, and she arrived in NSW on the Whitby in 1839.
George and Mary had five children together, and Mary’s daughter became George’s step daughter and the sixth child of the family. I have not been able to discover her name. George and Mary’s eldest child was called Alice (perhaps after George’s mother). She was born 15 June 1845, married Thomas Patrick Winchester in 1866 in Maitland, had seven children, and died 1927 at Merewether.
The second child of the marriage was George, born 14 June 1846 at Berrima. He married Luisa Lutherborrow 27 October 1870 at Parramatta, had six children with her, and died 14 July 1883 in Parramatta. The third child was Anne, born 1848 in Berrima, whom I have not been able to trace. Next was John, born 22 November 1850 at Berrima, who married Catherine Cecilia Gammell 17 November 1870, had one child with her, Edith, but Catherine died in giving birth to another, John James. John died 05 March 1911 at Newtown. The couple’s fifth and last child was Thomas Joseph, born 08 February 1853 at Berrima. He married Sarah Ann Cambridge in 1875 in Sydney, had two children, and died 25 December 1928 in Sydney.
All was not well with George Fairbrother. He seems to have suffered a nervous breakdown some time in late 1852, and shortly afterwards made the first of several attempts on his life. There is no possibility of finding out just why his misfortunes of 25 years had an effect at this particular time, when he was apparently surrounded by a loving family. On 18 September 1853 George Fairbrother succeeded in hanging himself from a tree in Cordeaux’s Paddock Berrima, his fourth attempt to kill himself proving successful. His previous attempts had been foiled by his step daughter. He was only 50 years old. The NSW Register has recorded the death under the name Farebrother. The Sydney Morning Herald of 24 September 1853 has the story.
“A second inquest was held before the Coroner on the 20th instant, at the Gold Digger’s Arms, Berrima, on view of the body of George Fairbrother, who was found strangled in Mr. Cordeaux’s paddock (on Sunday last), by his wife and five children. This was truly a lamentable case: it appears from the evidence that deceased had been labouring under depression of spirits and melancholy for a long time, and made many attompts on his life, and was cut down by his step-daughter in the first instance, some months ago, after which he attempted to cut his throat, when the same girl saved him on that occasion also, by taking the razor from his hands. About six months ago, he was a second time cut down by his wife from a beam, when he attempted to hang himself with a pocket handkerchief; on that occasion he was confined in Berrima Gaol for some time. Recently he was in the habit of straying away from home for days together, when he last left he told his children they would find him dead in Cordeaux’s paddock. He was three days missing, when his wife and children went to look for him on last Sunday morning, when they found him where he stated with a leather strap and buckle round his neck the end of the strap tied to a sapling; he was quite dead. The Jury returned a verdict, that the deceased, George Fairbrother, put an end to his existence by strangling himself with a belt while labouring under insanity”.
Mary was left stranded by her husband’s death. She had a five month old baby, and children aged three, five, seven and eight years to look after. Her own daughter may have been in her late teens and able to help financially, but things were desperate all the same. On 5 April 1854 Mary was able to enter George, Anne and John in Orphan School, and thus received maintenance for three of her children. The two eldest girls, aged eight and about 18, would have had to work, and Mary would have had to too, though much of her time would have been taken up with the baby, Thomas.
However, Mary’s lot was to improve. In 1855 she met a man called Richard Roberts. I have been unable to find out anything about him, except that he married Mary Fairbrother 16 July 1855 at St Patricks church Parramatta. There is no trace of her after that until her death, 24 September 1883 at Paget’s Flat Alexandria. Her sons and their families attended the funeral, as the Sydney Morning Herald notice of 25 September 1883 indicates.
“THE FRIENDS of Messrs. THOMAS and JOHN FAIRBROTHER are respectfully invited to attend the Funeral ol their late beloved MOTHER, the late Mrs Mary Roberts: to move from her residence, Paget’s Flat, Alexandria, THIS (Tuesday) AFTERNOON, at half-past 1 o’clock, to the Necropolis. H KINSELA undertaker”.
Curiously, of George’s children, both George and John got off to a rocky start, John being charged with theft in 1859, aged nine, and George with the same crime in 1860, aged 14. Both men were said to have died after a long and painful illness.
George Fairbrother left 13 grandchildren behind, and many great grandchildren. Though his life was filled with disappointment, misfortune and tragedy, he seems to have inspired affection in those who knew him. Like all of us, his greatest enemy was himself.
A note on this narrative. Like all genealogical investigation, it contains speculation, and perhaps unwarranted assumptions. As records are fragmentary and names common, it is easy to mistake one person for another. In many if not most cases the records are missing completely and it has been necessary to fall back on generalisation. Nevertheless I think this a reliable outline of a life, with the proviso that much that would explicate it is missing. But it always is.
©2011 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.