Robert Irwin: a life in the shadows

Campbell Point from Scarboro Terrace (Eames)

It’s a sobering thought: how little trace people leave behind them after their death. A few possessions nobody values the same way as their owner; a few memories of the person, often unreliable ones. Travel back to the nineteenth century, and even family members have not preserved memories, and photographs have all but vanished, if they ever existed.

I have a great grandfather like this, my father’s mother’s father. His name was Robert Irwin, and he was born in Northern Ireland, possibly Antrim, in about 1834. Almost every fact about him is doubtful or ambiguous.

In 1865 Robert emigrated to New Zealand to take up a land offer in the Waikato district near Auckland. In Auckland he married a woman who had been one of his fellow passengers on the immigrant ship; her death certificate gives her parents’ names as Robert Irwin and M Hughes. These are most likely Robert’s parents, written down under his wife’s details by mistake: even his ancestry is ambiguous. There are other, later, marriages between Irwins and Hughes in Antrim to support this surmise.

The Waikato Immigration Scheme was designed to open up that district in the north of New Zealand to European immigration, but as first conceived it was a failure. Many skilled tradespeople were offered free passage and an allotment of land under the scheme, ten acres initially. But almost immediately after drafting and publicising the Scheme, and while recruiters were active signing up emigrants in Great Britain and Ireland, the British holding loan destined to finance the Scheme fell through, while there were also delays in passing the Act in New Zealand to make the land available for settlement. Thousands of migrants were left stranded on arrival in New Zealand, living with their families and luggage in camps outside Auckland. While some waited over three years for the promised land, others gave up the struggle and moved into nearby towns, obtaining what work they could. It was a bitterly disappointing introduction to the new country, full of hardships and deprivation.

The emigrants’ ship Ganges set sail 04 November 1864 from Queenstown in Cork, just a week after the Scheme had come to a standstill. The migrants on board knew nothing of these problems over their land grants. When the ship docked at Auckland 14 February 1865 they had had a terrible voyage, and were glad to see land. The Ganges boarded 474 emigrant passengers, but 56 of them died on the voyage, 54 children and two adults, from bronchitis and whooping cough. It is thought that in the rush to get the Scheme underway some usual medical checks were omitted, and infected children were allowed on board. Only extreme vigilance and constant medical attention on the part of captain and crew prevented the contagion from spreading further on board. There were also two deaths of seamen by misadventure. On the other hand, there were 16 births during the voyage. One can only wonder at the fortitude with which emigrants travelled to the other side of the globe, on craft which seem impossibly frail to modern eyes.

The Ganges 1860

Among the passengers were 11 with the surname Irvine. These were not all related, as Irvine is a common name, especially in Northern Ireland. One of these Irvines was Robert Irwin, my ancestor. Not the least confusing thing about his name is that Irvine was spelt also as Irwin and Erwin (the way it was pronounced). Sometimes these three names represent variant spellings of the same name, sometimes they are distinct family names. The only way to tell is to refer to documents transcribed by the name’s owner. My great grandfather was an Irwin, but the passenger list called him an Irvine. Another passenger was Marcella Irvine. She was an Irvine by marriage. She had married John Irvine 08 December 1862 in Enniskillen in Fermanagh. As Marcella travelled alone on the Ganges (as far as we know) it is to be presumed her husband John had died sometime in 1864. Her first marriage certificate mentions her family name, Waters, and her father’s name, Richard Waters. Waters pronounced with an Irish brogue sounds like “Watters” and is sometimes spelt that way. Among the passengers was also a James Preston and his wife Rachael, who will crop up later in Robert Irwin’s story.

Emigrants on the Ganges (Illustrated London News)

Less than three months after disembarkation, Robert Irwin and Marcella Irvine (born Waters) were married, on 09 May 1865, in Saint Matthews Church of England Auckland (Marcella’s name is spelt Irwin on the certificate). A mystery surrounds the birth of their first child, Richard Waters Irwin, presumably named after Marcella’s father. The child was born sometime in 1865, so Marcella was pregnant when she was married in New Zealand in May. She may have been pregnant when she boarded ship in 1864, the child’s father John Irvine, or became pregnant, while still a widow, to Robert Irwin in New Zealand. The child was said to have been born in Auckland but the birth cannot be traced.

Robert, Marcella and their infant Richard travelled to the north and took up residence in the Onehunga immigration camp, to wait while the land grants disaster was sorted out. They were granted lot 228 in the district of Tuakau, and it was there the couple’s first daughter was born, Elizabeth, on 08 August 1867. The actual grant application was dated 04 April 1868, and the land was granted in Robert’s name on 30 August 1869, four and a half years after the couple had arrived in New Zealand.

A sketch of the old Auckland Post Office in Princes St (Auckland Libraries)

Robert’s daughter Elizabeth refers to her father in surviving documents as a teacher, But it is apparent that there were no jobs in New Zealand for Robert as a teacher. Stranded in an immigrants’ camp, with a growing family, he had to make ends meet with whatever work he could get, generally labouring work. There were another two boys born about this time, perhaps one of them with the name Robert, but their birth cannot be traced. By 02 June 1871 Robert had given up the struggle, and resigned his grant at Tuakau to take up residence in Auckland proper, in Abercrombie Street, where presumably work was easier to come by. Here his second daughter, Mary Ann, was born, on 01 May 1872. With five children, and work hard to get, both parents had to contribute to the support of the family. With an eight year old son, a six year old daughter, two other boys and a fifteen month old baby, Marcella made ends meet by taking in washing, while other documents refer to Robert as a fishmonger. The following newspaper report suggests Robert was assertive, perhaps even hot tempered.

“Resident Magistrate’s Court, before Thomas Beckhara, Esq., R.M.
Robert Irwin V. Christopher Greenway. Claim, £8—trespass and damage. Mr Thorne appeared for plaintiff, and Mr Kissling for defendant. The complaint was that Mr Greenway did, on the 31st of July, and Ist of August, cut down two clothes-lines belonging to plaintiff, whereby damage was done to a large quantity of linen hanging thereon, and that in consequence of having to wash the linen over again Mrs Irwin had suffered loss of time in her business and loss of confidence with her patrons. Richard Garlick, C. Greenway, Robert and Marcella Irwin, Constable Naughten, Annie Bowes, Maria Jenkins, George Staines, and Maria O’Leary were examined. The case occupied much time, and his Worship having reviewed the whole of the evidence gave judgment for plaintiff for the actual amount of damage, £1 14s 6d and costs”. (Auckland Star, Volume IV, Issue 1112, 15 August 1873, Page 2).

The claim for “loss of confidence with her patrons” is one for an intangible value which made no impression on the court, but seems to reflect the thinking of an intelligent, even intellectual, man, though not a practical one. One wonders why Mr Greenway cut down the lines: they might have been attached to his building without permission. Relations with the neighbours don’t seem to have been cordial.

Looking west from Symonds Street showing the south side of Abercrombie Street,  James D Richardson 1860s (Auckland Libraries)

As is usual for nineteenth century women, Marcella is just a name, on two marriage certificates and her children’s birth certificates. Her hot tempered husband gave her a brief mention in the newspaper, in the humble role of washer woman. Then, seven years later, 28 October 1880, Marcella died of a heart attack. She was just 40 years old. Robert was left to care for the children, now aged 15, 13, two between 12 and 10, and an eight year old.

Two years later Robert was at law again, and again demonstrating his hot temper, as the following account shows.

“Sharp Work. Sophia Burke, alias the “Terror”, and Ellen Millicent Curtis, were charged with breaking the drawing-room window of Robert Irwin, on the 21st instant: damage, 10s. The girls pleaded guilty. Sergeant Gamble said the two prisoners, who lived in Abercrombie Street, went on to Mr Irwin’s premises, and commenced capering in front of his window, and sang in a boisterous way snatches of lewd songs. Irwin disapproved of thelr conduct in strong language. The girls, who were the worst of their class, then threw stones through his window. Prosecutor here stepped forward and said, “I am Robert Irwin, the prosecutor, and I wish to withdraw the charge against these innocents”. The Bench (replied): “You cannot; the matter is in the hands of the police and the girls have pleaded guilty”. The Bench, in consideratlon of the notorious oharacter of the girls, and the number of convictions agalnst them, ordered them to pay fines of £5 each, and costs, or one month each with hard labour. The girl Burke shook her head at the Bench and left the Court, cursing and using filthy language”. (Auckland Star, Volume XVI, Issue 3807, 23 October 1882, Page 3).

There seems to be collusion here between Robert and his neighbours, the two girls. Having his windows broken, and his peace and quiet disrespectfully disturbed, prompted him to charge the girls, but in court it became apparent how defenseless they were against the machinery of the law (they wouldn’t have had £5 for fines) and he had a change of heart. Too late to do any good. Robert had now been in his house in Abercrombie Street for over 10 years.

Allotments for lease around Albert Park, where the Albert Barracks used to be, and where the university now is (Auckland Libraries)

Robert makes one last appearance in the record, again in pursuing a legal claim.

New Zealand has at times led the world in areas such as women’s rights, conservation and social welfare. The old age pension was introduced in 1898, for all citizens in need over 65 years of age, but before that, the government encouraged a support system whereby adult children contributed to the maintenance of their parents. Throughout the 90s the Auckland Star reported a number of cases where a Robert Irwin summonsed his son, another Robert, for non payment of support. In each case the son paid up, but it is interesting to note there was recourse to legal reinforcement in this family matter. There is no indication in the reports just who this Robert Irwin was. Perhaps he was my ancestor, as another son, called Richard, is also mentioned in the court reports. Eventually this Robert senior was admitted to a charitable institution, but still ended up in court as plaintiff or defendant from time to time.

Auckland 1863. Abercrombie is to the south east, running off the main throughfare of Symonds Street

In 1898 the old age pension was introduced. First in line was my great grandfather.

“Old age pensions. Applicants before the court. The first batch of Auckland claims under the Old Age Pensions Act was dealt with to-day by Mr H. W. Brabant, S.M., at the Magistrate’s Court. In all twenty cases were set down for hearing, but the court was crowded with old colonists, mostly men…The first claimant for a pension was Robert Irwin, who stated that he was born in 1830 [1834], and arrived in the colony in 1865, coming out as a free emigrant, and getting ten acres of land and a town allotment. He could not prove his age, but proof of the date of his arrival could be got at the Lands Office. He sold the land three years after his arrival. His present earnings were about 6d a day, obtained by cleaning boots. Mr Thomas Culpan, Registrar under the Act, said he was satisfied that the defendant had been living a sober and moral life and had no property. His Worship adjourned the case pending enquiry at the Lands Office, as to the date of the applicant’s arrival in New Zealand. Later in the morning, however, the claimant produced a witness named James Preston, who deposed to arriving in the same ship [the Ganges] in 1865. The case was allowed to stand over. James Preston, Wyndham-street, Auckland, stated that he had no occupation, though formerly a milkman. His wife kept a shop. He was born in Ireland in 1833, and came to the colony in 1865. His wife’s profits from the shop would be less than £1 a week; perhaps 2s or 2s 1d a day. He called as witness as to the date of his arrival Robert Erwin [Irwin], the first claimant. The Registrar said he had ascertained that the ship named by claimant did arrive in 1865, but he could not find a passenger list, the records having been destroyed by fire here in 1872. He was satisfied that Preston had no property and bore a good character. The case was allowed to stand over”. [Preston and Irwin later awarded a pension] (Auckland Star, Volume XXX, Issue 14, 18 January 1899, Page 8).

Sadly, Robert seems to have drifted away from his children. His son Richard died 10 March 1916 aged 52, unmarried, of pneumonia and pleurisy, in Baker Street Auckland. Robert’s daughter Elizabeth married Francis Knowles, a seaman from Winchester in Hampshire on 06 September 1887, with whom she had eight children, the youngest of whom was my father. Francis and Elizabeth, with three of their sons, came to NSW in 1916. Robert’s other daughter, Mary Ann, married John William Gussy, son of a Neapolitan retailer who had emigrated to New Zealand and set up shop in Auckland. The marriage took place 24 May 1890: there were six children. There is no mention anywhere in these marriages and births of Robert Irwin.

In 1903 an old age pensioner called Robert Irwin died in Auckland, unmourned by any family members. The undertaker who filled out the death certificate was obliged to leave all the fields blank except the man’s name. Could this have been my ancestor Robert Irwin?

And Robert steps back into the shadows from which he emerged, from which are glimpsed some details of his life. But what he felt, what he hoped for and dreamed of I will never know.

©2011 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.

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5 thoughts on “Robert Irwin: a life in the shadows

  1. Hi Philip. I chanced upon your informative story while researching the ship ‘Ganges’. Do you know any more about this ship, in particular, where and when it was built Also, where did you access the image of the ship.
    Coincidentally, my great great grandmother was Antrim-born [don’t know where] Ellen Irwin who married Daniel McAuley in 1828 before sailing to New Brunswick around 1832. They eventually sailed out to NZ in 1863
    Many thanks for any assistance you can offer
    Stephen
    Cambridge, NZ

  2. Hi Phillip
    Son of Marcella, Richard Irving is on the NZ historical index Ref: 1864/2954. There are no parents entered.
    There are many births in the early years that have no details in the index but the document is available to purchase through this site. It will complete your history!

    I enjoyed your story about Robert Irwin. I think the Robert Irwin that I am researching went to USA.
    Cheers, Jen Fraser (NZ)

      1. Actually the Richard mentioned by Jennifer is not Marcella’s son but the son of a Richard and Margaret Irving of Dunedin.

        However, the Robert mentioned in the text as being hauled into court by his father Robert for non payment of maintenance is now confirmed as a son of Robert and Marcella, born 17 Oct 1868 in Graham Street Auckland. This Robert married Margaret Wingate in 1889, had two sons, Robert Alexander (born 07 Apr 1890, died 28 Apr 1890) and Charles Clarence Victor (born 16 Jan 1892, died 16 Jul 1896). Robert himself died during a storm at sea on 23 Jul 1892, aged 23. Marcella unexpectedly reveals on Robert’s birth certificate that her full name is Susannah Marcella Sophia (born Waters).

        Marcella’s other son may be James Alexander Irwin, born 1873 died 1964.

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