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The dreamer wakes to disappointment
My great grandmother was called Marcella, a word from Latin that means ‘strong’. The more I look at the details of her life, the more it seems full of difficulties, disappointments, trials and tribulations. They seem to swim into view with each discovery in the records. Yet she had such high hopes. Marcella had need of all her strength just to survive. She died aged only 40 years old. Through the few details I have been able to uncover a picture emerges of the hardship, ill-treatment and poor health women once had to cope with while bringing up their families.
Marcella Waters was born about 1840 in Northern Ireland, to a farmer called Richard Waters, perhaps in Enniskillen, county Fermanagh. Her full name, mentioned only once by her, on the birth certificate of one of her sons, was Susanna Marcella Sophia Waters (sometimes spelled ‘Watters’). The given names suggest her mother had pretensions to, or was of, the gentry.
When she was 21 she married John Irvine, a servant, on 08 December 1862 in Enniskillen. It was a civil ceremony, not a church one. Both parties declared themselves over 21 and from Enniskillen. John’s father was another farmer, Thomas Irvine. Marcella may have fallen pregnant to her husband between May and November 1864. This is all I know of John Irvine. As Marcella was to remarry the following year, it must be assumed he died about this time.
Prior to November 1864 Marcella or her husband John applied for a passage to New Zealand under the Waikato Immigration Scheme, whereby men were offered free passage and a 10 acre plot of land in an area north of Auckland recently taken from the Maori peoples, increased to 15 acres for married men. Marcella may well have planned to travel there with her husband John, but in the event travelled alone. Single women were welcomed in the colony as potential wives for settlers.
It seems extraordinary for a lone 24 year old woman, recently bereaved, possibly pregnant, to set out on a journey to the other side of the world in New Zealand. We have to remember the promoters of the Waikato Scheme sent recruitment agents around the country giving glowing reports of the opportunities now available for settlers. Perhaps Marcella was accompanied by a friend or acquaintance on board the immigrant ship. As no details were collected about the immigrants, we have no way of knowing. But the venture showed considerable hope and determination on Marcella’s part. She was looking for a new start.
Among Marcella’s fellow passengers to New Zealand were another Irvine family. A labourer called William Irvine, his wife Agnes, and their children Harrison, Andrew, Ann and Elizabeth were mentioned in the shipping records (held at PRONI). Unfortunately no relationship is indicated between the Irvines, and it is a common name in parts of Northern Ireland. The only details on the shipping list are ages, and in some instances, occupations.
On 04 November 1864 Marcella embarked on the ship Ganges at Queenstown (now Cobh), Cork , at which point she may have been between one and six months pregnant. A child, perhaps of her marriage to John Irvine, was born in New Zealand in 1865, and the birth not registered, so the precise date of birth is unknown. The child was named for Marcella’s father, Richard Waters.
There is another possible parent for this child. On board the immigrant ship was a fellow passenger of Marcella’s, Robert Irwin, born 1834 in Northern Ireland, Marcella’s future husband. If Robert was the father, conception must have taken place on board the Ganges, between 04 November 1864 and the date the couple were married in Auckland, 09 May 1865. Perhaps the pregnancy was the cause of the marriage. In this case the child would have been born between August and December 1865.
The Ganges had a difficult voyage. It left Queenstown (Cobh) with general cargo, and a total of 474 passengers. Unfortunately, the ship was delayed in loading and leaving port, and examination of the health of those boarding was not as thorough as it should have been. When it arrived in Auckland 14 February 1865, there had been 54 deaths of children, and two adults had died as well. Cause of death was bronchitis and whooping cough. Overcrowding and poor ventilation was blamed for the deaths. There were also several deaths by misadventure of sailors. Redressing the balance somewhat, there were 16 births on the voyage (Richard Waters was not one of them).
On arrival in New Zealand Marcella would have been pregnant, a widow, perhaps forced into a marriage to avoid the taint of illegitimacy for her child. Already, at age 24, life was presenting Marcella with problems.
On 09 May 1865 Robert Irwin married Marcella Irvine in Auckland. Marcella’s previous name was spelled ‘Irwin’ not ‘Irvine’ in the marriage registry, a spelling confusion that would recur through her life. The names were probably pronounced the same. A son, known as Richard Waters Irwin, had been born 1865, but the birth does not appear to have been registered. Then, on 08 August 1867, at Tuakau in the Waikato, Marcella gave birth to a daughter, Elizabeth, her second child, my grandmother. By the time a third child, a second son, Robert, was born on 17 October 1868, the family had moved to Graham Street Auckland. Another son, William George, was born in 1871 in Auckland (though this birth too does not appear to be registered), and a daughter, Mary Ann, on 01 May 1872, in Abercrombie Street Auckland.
In Waikato things went wrong for Marcella and Robert. The land grants, designed to settle the Waikato district near Auckland recently taken from the Maoris, was delayed going through Parliament, and to make matters worse, the loan floated in London to fund the scheme fell through. As a result thousands of immigrants were left stranded, herded into camps outside Auckland and left to provide for themselves. Many had no financial resources, and soon decamped for Auckland to find work. Although Robert’s grant finally came through, by the time it did Robert and his family had moved to Auckland, and he sold the allotment.
Marcella seems to have made an unfortunate choice for her second husband. Robert, whose occupation is noted as school teacher (daughter Elizabeth’s death certificate), clerk, (son Robert’s birth certificate), labourer, then fishmonger, spent a lot of his time unemployed. Marcella, as well as looking after five small children, also worked as a washer woman. Robert Irwin was fond of litigation, and often appeared in newspaper records of court hearings in Auckland. On one occasion, 15 August 1873, Robert sued a neighbour for pulling down a washing line attached to his property, and soiling the washing, which had to be done again, to the detriment of Marcella’s business. Claim, £8, damages awarded, £1 14s. Marcella’s children at this date were, 8, 6, 5, and 2 years, and 15 months. At a later period, and perhaps at this time as well, Robert was in court charged with drunk and disorderly behaviour. He gives the impression of being an educated man dissatisfied with his lot but unable to better himself, taking refuge in drink and irascible behaviour.
In 1878, on 04 January, Robert was charged with beating Marcella, hitting her with his fists and pulling her hair, and threatening her with an axe. Robert denied the charge. Marcella said she just wanted her husband to treat her decently. Robert was fined £10 and went to jail.
“Wife Beating.—Robert Irwin was charged with having assaulted his wife, Marcella Irwin, by striking her with his clenched fist on the face and head, by pulling her hair, and by taking up an axe and threatening therewith to have her life. The prisoner said it was quite true that they had a bit of a squabble, but all that had been set out in the information had not taken place. He would, however, admit the charge. Irwin was accordingly bound over in his own bond for £10 and two sureties for £5 each to keep the peace for six months”. (New Zealand Herald 05 Jan 1878)
Two years later Marcella was dead. She died 28 October 1880, of heart disease. Perhaps also of overwork, worries about money, and ill treatment by her husband. She would have been full of hope in 1862, when, aged 22, she married her first husband. But the next 18 years were to bring bad luck, ill treatment, hard work, frequent childbirth, and illness, and death would have been a release.
Robert Irwin spent the next few years suing his sons for maintenance (due to him under New Zealand law). His son Robert said in his own exoneration he had his own family to care for, and that his father merely drank his allowance away. Finally, in 1899, Robert senior had the distinction of becoming New Zealand’s first old age pensioner (New Zealand pioneered social welfare legislation). He died, probably, in 1903, aged 69, a pensioner abandoned by his family, a man about whom the undertaker had no information whatever.
There is some information about Robert and Marcella’s children. Marcella’s first son, Richard Waters Irwin, turned out badly. The newspapers record many charges of drunk and disorderly behaviour, and of petty theft, against him. Richard died 10 March 1916 aged 51, of pneumonia and pleurisy, and probably of malnourishment and lack of care.
Elizabeth married my grandfather Francis Knowles, had eight children, and went with some of her family to Sydney Australia, where she died 14 August 1948 of heart disease, aged 81.
Marcella’s son Robert married Margaret Wingate in Auckland in 1889. Margaret was the daughter of Robert Wingate, a mine manager who was killed at age 41 by falling down a mine shaft. He had a tempestuous marriage with Jessie Alexander, who went to pieces after his death and became an alcoholic unable to look after her children. Robert Irwin and Margaret had two children, Robert Alexander who died after three weeks, and Charles Clarence who died 1896 aged 4 years and six months. Robert himself was drowned in a fishing accident 23 July 1892, six months after the birth of his second son. He was 23 years old. His wife was left destitute and a fund was started to assist her.
William George married Catherine Monaghan in Auckland in 1907. She was an heiress of sorts, daughter of William Monaghan and Bridget McGrath. William and Catherine had four children and lived at Ellerslie Auckland. William died 1949 aged 78, by which time he was working as a horse trainer.
Mary Ann married John William Gussy, son of a Neapolitan fish monger whose name was originally Gusei, who died in Samoa in 1917. Mary Ann then married Thomas Edward Barnett. She died in 1926 aged 54.
Marcella has descendants in the Bern, Clark and Henson families, through her daughter Elizabeth; perhaps through the children of her son William George; and the Gussy family, through her daughter Mary Ann. All these are based in Auckland New Zealand, a long way from Enniskillen.
©2014 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.