The Pikemaker’s Orphans

This essay is a footnote to an earlier one about William Davis, known to historians of Australia’s colonial era as “The Wexford Pikemaker”. The name came about because Davis was arrested at Enniscorthy in Wexford, Ireland (he was an innkeeper there) prior to the Irish rebellion of 1798 and accused of making pikes, or short spears, for the rebels. The key battle was actually fought with the Irish armed only with pikes, as their allies in France, who were to supply firearms for the cause, reneged. Showing great gallantry and bravery, and the kind of quixotic muddle headed thinking that has held them back on other occasions, the Irish attacked a British army which was armed with cannon, and thousands were slaughtered. What remained, men, women and children, were killed by the British as the Irish leaders negotiated in vain for terms. The women were of course raped before being killed. The British, here as elsewhere, showed the kind of repressive treatment to the Irish, verging on terrorism, which caused rebellion rather than crushed it, part of the sad story of the interaction of the two nations.

Davis knew little of all this, because he was shipped to Australia (then known as New South Wales), exiled from Ireland for life. We have no idea if he was a rebel, or did make pikes for the rebels, for he was never tried for any offence. It is to be suspected there was no evidence other than an ‘information’ lodged against him. In Australia Davis was at first treated harshly, as both an Irishman and a Catholic, but he earned his freedom, and successfully speculated in land transactions, eventually owning, or leasing, large areas in the southern section of present day Sydney, especially the area known as The Rocks. If he was alive today, and had kept his holdings intact, William Davis would be one of the richest men on earth, but even in his own day he was extremely wealthy. Davis was a devout Catholic, and did much to establish the Catholic religion in Australia. When he arrived there it was a proscribed faith, and Davis agitated for its recognition, supported establishment of religious orders, and both donated the land for and funded the building of St Patricks Church. His will made several bequests to Catholic organisations.


We don’t know if Davis was a family man. He was almost 35 years old when he was arrested, and may well have had a wife and children of his own in Wexford. In Australia he married another convict, Catherine Miles, whose origins are obscure. She may have come from Cork. The couple do not appear to have had children, though records for Catholic marriage, birth and death were part of an ‘underground’ faith in the colony at this time and have not survived. What we do know is that Davis adopted a young man named Joseph. In a court case reported in the Gazette newspaper in 1834, Davis told the judge that the man accused of theft was his adopted son, that he had known him since he was three years old, and that he was of good character. Almost all we know of this mysterious Joseph is that he wasn’t, as court reports survive of charges against him of assault, drunkenness and theft. However, nothing was proved. Another report suggests that in 1825 Joseph Davis sailed off to Britain with William Davis’ wife Catherine Miles, and returned a married man. His wife is thought to be a woman called Margaret Noonan, perhaps a daughter of Catherine’s. There is also a tradition Joseph was a nephew of William Davis’, son of one of his brothers.

This Joseph Davis, and his wife Margaret Noonan, are of particular interest to historians tracing the history of this Davis family in Australia, and the complete lack of surviving records about them save the charges preferred against Joseph is very frustrating. However we do know of the birth of three children to the couple. Joseph and Margaret are reported to have died very young, and their three children were adopted by William Davis and bought up in his house. The orphans are the subject of this essay. So far I have not encountered anyone interested in the fate of these three, and their eventual progeny. Perhaps this look at them will help to create that interest.

The eldest child was another Joseph Davis, born according to one account 12 February 1828, a date that fits the story of the marriage in 1825. Joseph was born in Sydney. His death index entry confirms he was the son of Joseph and Margaret. In about 1835, aged seven, he was adopted by William Davis and bought up by he and his wife Catherine. Catherine died in 1839, and William provided what care he could until his own death in 1843. He left this adopted grandchild (there was no formal adoption) a bequest of 300 acres of land in Minto, an area about 30 miles or almost 50 kilometres SW of Sydney in the Cambelltown district. As Joseph was still only 15 years old William provided a guardian in the person of John Davis, his brother John’s grandson (himself only 22) who was also one of the executors of his estate. William bought the children up in the Catholic faith: a subscription list for St Patricks of 1840 contains an entry of a donation by “the grandchildren of Mr Davis”. William would have impressed on the children the importance of establishing the Church in New South Wales.

On 25 June 1847 a notice in the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper appealed to ship’s captains to look out for a boy called Joseph Davis, who had absconded from his apprenticeship with a Mr John Morris and was off wandering in parts unknown. It looked as though Joseph the younger, age 19, was about to repeat the rebellious pattern shown by his miscreant father, to the concern of his guardians.

However, Joseph settled down. On 16th April 1853 he married Mary Shaughnessy at St Marys Cathedral, the ceremony conducted by the Venerable Archdeacon McEncroe (who was also one of Joseph’s guardians). Mary was the daughter of Timothy and Norah Shaughnessy, farm workers from Mount Brown in Limerick who had arrived in NSW in 1838 on the ship Strathfieldsaye with their two children Mary, born 1831, and James, born 1835. Timothy and Norah were to have a further four children in Sydney. Timothy died there 06 June 1876.

Joseph and Mary were to have seven children, the eldest, called Joseph, born 08 January 1854. Mary may have been already pregnant when she was married. There survives a newspaper notice dated 16 February 1855 asking that Joseph senior contact his family: we gather he had travelled back to the Davis home town of Birr in Offaly, and was at the date of the notice somewhere in Tasmania. Another newspaper advertisement of 1855 refers to him as a commission agent operating at 12 Charlotte Place Sydney.

Aside from the Joseph born 1854, died 28 July 1927 and buried at Rookwood Catholic cemetery, there were a further six children. Alfred born 1856, died 18 October 1920 and also buried at Rookwood Catholic cemetery; Sydney, born 1859; George, born 1860, died 1925, married 1892 to Bridget Hogan; Annie, born 1863; Mary, born 1866; and Patrick, born 1868. Mary senior died 20 October 1896, and was buried at Rookwood Catholic cemetery. Joseph senior died 23 July 1899 and was also buried there.

The indications are that Joseph was an astute businessman who managed his affairs successfully, and a family man who retained the affection of wife and family. The only descendants of Joseph I have been able to trace are the two sons of George and his wife Bridget Hogan, George born 1893 and John born 1895.

The second of the orphans was Catherine, born 1833 in Sydney. The index entry for her birth gives Joseph and Margaret as her parents, but her death index entry says the parents were William and Catherine, her adopted parents. William Davis left Catherine two houses in Sydney in his will. The comparatively moderate bequest is perhaps a sign that William expected Catherine’s future husband to provide for her, though of course William’s executors were instructed to ensure the three orphans were well provided for and well educated, until attaining their majority.

As Catherine was a nineteenth century woman the only records that exist for her are of her marriage and the birth of her children. On 03 February 1852, aged 19 (and a year before her elder brother married), Catherine was married in St Marys Cathedral to John Carew. Officiating was the Venerable Archdeacon McEncroe, one of Catherine’s guardians.

Of John Carew there exists not much certain information. He may have been the John Carew who arrived in NSW on the ship Subraon, born 1824 in Cahill Tipperary. The family were to move to Queensland, and John died in Fiji, but there is a John Carew whose death is registered in Queensland, also born 1824, whose parents are given as Patrick Carew and Margaret Buckley. These details are unconfirmed, but are likely antecedents for John Carew.

John and Catherine’s eight children were all born in Sydney, even though John was involved in conveyancing work in both NSW and Queensland, and 20 February 1857 was admitted to practice as a solicitor and barrister in Queensland. The children were: Catherine, born 03 November 1852 (Catherine senior may have been pregnant when she married) and died 08 January 1854 in Harrington Street Sydney; Grace Evelyn, born 03 November 1852 (Catherine’s twin), married to Edward Henry Doyle in Queensland, died 15 October 1937 in Brisbane; Mary Lucy, born 02 January 1854, married 28 April 1880 to Patrick Edward Lunny in Brisbane, died 08 July 1880 in Brisbane; Charles Albert, born 15 December 1855; John Albert, born 31 January 1861, died 16 November 1915 in Queensland; William Davis, born 23 July 1865, died 10 April 1868 in Queensland; Arthur Henry, born 17 August 1870, married  in South Australia to Edith Erricks, died 20 June 1942 Broken Hill NSW; and Geoffrey, of whom nothing is known.

Misfortune was to strike the Carew family in Queensland. John lived in Rockhampton, where he practised as a solicitor and barrister. On 26 June 1875 he was declared insolvent. There is no indication as to what happened, though John may have seen disaster coming, as he reserved a portion of land in the town in trust for his family and tried to have it excluded from his estate. On the 19 September 1877 a benefit concert was held in Rockhamton for Catherine and her family, perhaps a sign the family was well thought of, and that the insolvency was no fault of John Carew.

John Carew died 28 February 1877 in Levuka Fiji. I have no idea whatsoever what he was doing there. Catherine died 18 August 1900 in Clermont, a coal mining town 380 kilometres due west from Rockhampton. Aside from the fact that the Carews had two establishments, one in Sydney and one in Rockhampton, or perhaps that Catherine preferred to have her children in Sydney, the marriage appears to have been a good one. I have presumed that Catherine’s move to Clermont after her husband’s death was to be with one of her children, which shows a supportive family situation. There appear to be no children from any of the marriages found so far of the children of John and Catherine Carew.

The third of the orphans was William Michael, born 25 March 1835 in Sydney. The index entry for his birth gives his parents as Joseph and Margaret. Like the other two children William Michael was adopted by William Davis in about 1835 and went with them to live in his house. He preserved memories of stories William told him as a child, and several were passed on to his son Charles Gabriel, who wrote them down, together with a sketch of the Davis family tree. All this has been preserved in the collections of the NSW State Library. William Michael inherited 115 acres of land in the Airds district of Sydney, near Cambelltown, as well as William’s house in Charlotte Place, under the terms of William’s will.

William Michael is said to have prospected for gold when a young man, then become a merchant, though there is no information of the product he bought and sold. His business career was none too stable, for he was declared insolvent 03 December 1861. On the 16th April 1860 William Michael married Esther Riley at St Marys Church at Concord, the ceremony performed by the Reverend P Kenyon. Esther was the daughter of Michael Riley and his wife Ann. Michael was a tailor in Castlereagh Street Sydney. He died 18 October 1868, his wife Ann 05 July 1864.

William Michael and Esther had 10 children. Mary was born in 1866 and died 30 May 1935, and was buried at Rookwood Catholic cemetery; Gertrude was born in 1868 and died 21 March 1949 in Willoughby; Catherine Maria was born 1870 at Concord; Esther Mary at Concord in 1873, and was married to Alfred John Clissold 20 October 1916 at the Methodist church in Kempsey; William Gerald was born 1874 and died 1959 in Richmond; John Joseph in 1875; Patrick 1879; Grace Mary in 1881; Charles Gabriel in 1883, married 25 November 1916 at Our Lady of the Sea Watsons Bay to Kathleen Cronin and died 1957; and Stanilaus, born 1885.

William Michael had a change of career. He was one of the first Fellows of St Johns College at Sydney University, and some time in the 1890s he was made Headmaster of  Blakehurst Public School near Hurstville in Sydney’s southern suburbs.

He died 07 April 1907 at his home at Enmore. His wife Esther died 13 November 1906. Both are buried at Rookwood Catholic cemetery. Only two of their ten children had offspring I have been able to trace.

The three children of the mysterious Joseph Davis and Margaret Noonan (or Nunan) had a rocky start with the death of both parents, or the death of their mother and disappearance of their father (opinions differ as to what really happened) when they were quite small. William Davis, their father’s adoptive father, provided home and care and bequeathed money and property to each. Yet they experienced insolvency, unable to capitalise on the advantage he had given each. They each experienced what appeared to be a stable marriage and had many children, yet those children left very few descendants.

In thinking of the qualities of these three, one is forced to consider again the obscure life of Joseph their father. Was he a never do well, an unsavoury type who bought pain and unhappiness to his family? Or was he merely a high spirited, unruly man treated unfairly by his peers who just refused to do what he was told? Until his records are unearthed, we will not know the answer.

There are three books I know of about William Davis and his extended family worth seeking out for more information.

The first is Bernard Dowd’s William Davis: The Wexford Pikemaker, published in 1970. This is a 30 page pamphlet which, because of its source material, is as much about the history of Catholicism in Australia as it is about William Davis. It covers William’s time in Australia and his role in fostering the Church there. It is in the nature of things that it is now slightly out of date. Copies are in the State Library of NSW and probably other libraries as well.

The Davis Family from Birr, King’s County Ireland is a thesis published in 1998 by Dorothy Fellowes. Dorothy is a trained historian who has used approved historical research methods to uncover information on her Davis ancestors. It is said to be particularly good on the story of John Davis, William’s grandnephew and heir and executor. The thesis is available in the Kent Street library of the Society of Australian Genealogists in Sydney.

Pikemaker’s Progeny is a book by Bob Davis, soon to be published, which will bring the Davis story up to date and hopefully incorporate all previous research.

A mention must also be made of the original William Davis researcher, Patricia Farr, whose discoveries have been used by all subsequent researchers. Pat began her researches many years ago (she probably wouldn’t like to say exactly how many!) and is a mine of information. Hopefully someone can persuade her to publish her discoveries, or to put up a site like this one. In the meantime she seems willing to answer any questions.

©2012 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.

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4 thoughts on “The Pikemaker’s Orphans

  1. Thanks John. Since publishing this, I have found the China shipping lists, saw Thomas and the two girls and their father – but missed John, so will correct my tree based on your info. Also found are the arrival of the two sisters Rose and Mary Dowling, on the Sir Charles Napier in 1841, and a close friendship between John Davis the Pikemaker’s heir and Thomas Carew. I have a letter from John to Thomas in San Francisco I can send you if you’d like to see it. I think the bond with the Dowling sisters drew the men together. The letter mentions Thomas’ father John and one of his daughters were in Melbourne, so they may have settled there. I have seen a tree, which may be yours, on Thomas, at Ancestry.com.

    1. I am interested in the letter and would like to see it. Thomas married Rose so I understand his connection to the Dowlings. Is there a connection between the Dowlings and Davises? On my earlier post, I mistakenly listed John Carew born in 1811 when it should have been 1821. It is not my tree on Ancestry.com but I am on it.

  2. Thank you for this extensive posting on the Pikemaker’s Orphans. In your discussion on John Carew, I believe the John Carew who married Catherine Davis arrived in NSW on the China in 1839 with his father John, brother Thomas and sisters Mary and Joanna. John was born in Kilfeakle, Co Tipperary, Ireland about 1811 to John Carew and Mary Farrell. John’s brother Thomas, my great-great grandfather, left for the California Gold Rush in 1850. John Carew died in Fiji.

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