When I sent off my Ancestry DNA sample a few months ago, my main hope was to break through a few stumps. Well…just one would have been lovely, actually. After years of researching my elusive convict ancestors, I was ready to give anything a try.
I knew that the process would involve connecting with distant cousins, and that our shared DNA would provide hints and clues as to where to search next. I was up for the challenge, and had my ‘detective hat’ well and truly polished and ready. Let’s do this!
What I hadn’t really considered though, was how DNA could also help to further verify research. I’d never thought about it in that way (rookie mistake), but after matching with quite a few different people who share the same ancestors as me, I quickly realised just how valuable it could be.
Take the Bannisters for example. I know George and Ann are my ancestors; both former convicts who married in 1850 and had six children. Early on in DNA-land, I matched with a descendant of one of these children (which was pretty exciting). But recently, two more matches came along – from descendants of two other children. And all four of us share DNA with each other!
Sure, I have paper trails and records, but I kinda like having the extra connections, and the extra little piece to the puzzle. There’s something just a bit…nice about it all.
Along with helping to verify our research, the other huge bonus of all of this is that we have a great chance of one day breaking through the stump of our mutual convict ancestors. With my DNA alone, it’s a tough gig. But with my lovely Bannister cousins sharing their lovely DNA, we can start to narrow down connections – weeding out those that don’t have DNA in common with all (or some) of us, and looking further into the ones that do.
As Denis McCarthy, his wife and seven children prepared for bed one summer’s evening in 1846, little did they know that within hours they would be awoken by the police. Their house in Mountshannon, Limerick was on fire, soon to be burned to ashes. In the early hours of the morning on 15 June – and after an hour of battling flames – the McCarthy’s escaped, luckily unharmed.
Nearby in Annacotty, a young Irish woman was in police custody. Later charged and found guilty of Arson, Ann Mahony, aged 22 and also from County Limerick, was sentenced to transportation for 15 years.
They were two very different parties, with two very different outcomes. But they each had something in common: escape. The McCarthy family may have escaped a fire, but Ann Mahony was about to escape from something as well; the hunger, death and destitution surrounding (and no doubt overwhelming) her.
At the time of Ann’s crime in 1846, The Great Famine had hit. In its infancy – but already having a devastating effect – this period of mass starvation and disease in Ireland would last for six years. Six years that would not only see a million Irish leave their homeland through emigration, but for those left behind, a staggering amount of deaths. By the end of the famine, an estimated one million people had lost their lives.
Ann wasn’t to know that, but she had likely seen enough and experienced enough to want her escape. To plan her survival. It’s also likely that she set fire to the McCarthy house with exactly that on her mind.
And unsurprisingly, she wasn’t alone.
Arson was a popular crime for women during convict times, and 248 were transported to Van Diemen’s Land between 1841 and 1853 for just that. During the Famine and post-Famine period, at least 79 of these women appear to have done so with transportation as their end-goal; some stating it on arrival, others confessing outright. A deliberate act for an almost assured outcome.
For Ann, achieving this involved conveniently committing her crime near the police station in Annacotty. According to the trial reports, this ‘wretched-looking woman’ also sought out the authorities and confessed to the ‘monstrous outrage’ that same night.
Ann Mahony’s Convict Conduct Record and Convict Indent Record further paint a picture of just how desperate things had become; prior to her conviction in Limerick on 15 July 1846, she had spent the previous 12 months ‘on the town’ (and quite possibly battling to survive).
Ann didn’t know what the future would hold, but it’s easy to imagine her hope that it would be better than the life she was leaving behind. For Ann, and the women like her, this uncertainty was deemed worth it. In such chaotic and desperate times, theirs was a survival strategy – taking control of their own lives, and a leap of faith into a new one.
Before Ann could begin her ‘new’ life, she first had to spend time in both Dublin County Gaol and Grangegorman Female Prison. Her escape was not yet complete.
While at Grangegorman, Ann would have spent time learning domestic skills. Like the other women held there, this – along with moral instruction and advice – was to help them settle into a new life in a new land.
Finally, after almost five months of incarceration – including learning these ‘desirable skills’ – Ann began the journey to a far-away country to serve her time.
Joining 149 other female prisoners and 27 children, Ann embarked on board the convict transport Arabian at Kingstown, Dublin. Setting sail in November 1846, theirs was a voyage of almost four months – during which time seven children and one convict died. Unlike some of her fellow shipmates, Ann’s journey appeared to be a smooth one. She experienced no sickness or ill health, but in fact, was quite likely one of the many convicts described by the Ship’s Surgeon Superintendent in his report as being ‘in as good, & some better condition, than that in which they Embarked’.
Things looked like they were starting to turn around after-all.
On 25 February 1847, hazel-eyed, brown-haired Ann Mahony arrived in Hobart Town, Van Diemen’s Land. From summer in Ireland to summer in Australia and a distance of around 9,500 nautical miles, the difference would have no doubt been a startling contrast.
Upon arrival, Ann was one of 133 convicts transferred from the Arabian to the Anson hulk; the other 16 being sent to either the Hospital or the Dynnyrne Nursery. The Anson, a refitted warship moored near Hobart, had been used since 1844 to house female convicts prior to them being sent out for service.
We can assume that Ann spent the next six months on board the Anson, and was one of the 106 women advertised by the Convict Department as ‘per Arabian…eligible for private service as Pass-holders’ from 1 September 1847.
After more than a year since her crime of Arson was committed, Ann Mahony was now able to be assigned for service. Following time spent in two different prisons, months at sea on board a convict ship, and moored on a convict hulk, she could finally commence the next stage of her 15-year sentence.
Now aged 23, Ann Mahony had many years remaining before she would be considered ‘free’.
She may have escaped famine-stricken Ireland, but ahead of her was more hardship, more obstacles to overcome, and more despair.
But she wasn’t to know that.
Also ahead of her was happiness; a large family and a settled life. She wasn’t to know that, either.
What she most certainly didn’t know was that her many descendants today are thankful for this ‘lass from Ireland’ who followed her survival instincts and had the courage to escape.
And to Denis McCarthy’s family (and descendants) – we’re glad you escaped, too.
These were the actual words spoken by a man I had just met. Within minutes of our conversation, I had been described as looking like their elderly relative.
And far from being offended, it was probably the best thing I’d heard all day.
But let’s back up a bit…
In the early 1850s two different families were living in Franklin Village, Tasmania. It was a small place with a small population, and one where neighbours were no doubt friends – or at the very least knew each other well.
One of these families was that of William Bishop – a young Englishman who had arrived from London several years earlier as a 19 year old.
The other was a family of four young orphaned children – Joseph, Samuel, Sarah and William Bishop. Their parents had died by 1849, and their grandfather, Joseph Moore, left them land in his Will when he too passed.
Two families with the same surname in the same tiny village at the same time.
But were they related?
That’s what I’ve been trying to find out for years.
It’s easy to imagine a scenario where ‘my’ William Bishop moved to Franklin Village to be near his young relatives (niece and nephews perhaps?) after losing their parents at such a young age.
Or even a scenario that he was living there already, having chosen to move there because that’s where his brother/cousin was already.
But more likely…it could have just been a coincidence.
A coincidence that also includes similar names appearing over the years in the respective families – Robert, Thomas, Henry, Percy and more – along with similarities including sporting pursuits (and successes), and later residences and occupations.
But nothing concrete.
So you can imagine my surprise (and delight!) at being told I reminded a man I’d just met of his elderly Aunt…
…who just happens to be descended from the ‘other’ Bishops of Franklin Village!
I have come to know these ‘other’ Bishops well, so as soon as he mentioned his grandfather’s name, it took everything in me not to run home, grab the spare DNA kit I have, and return demanding nicely requesting saliva.
We’d just met, so I didn’t (thanks, brain – nice save).
I know that ‘their’ Sarah was also known as Frances, that ‘their’ Percy won Tattslotto one year, and that ‘their’ Joseph had a stint as a licensee in the 1860s.
I know them like my own, and one day I do hope to find a connection.
One day I’ll find out where my William came from and who his parents were.
But in the meantime, I’m happy chipping away at this particular stump…and meeting potential cousins along the way.
James was in big trouble. He knew it, the Army officials knew it. Impersonating an Anzac was a serious offence, and in 1918, one that could result in serious consequences.
To the officials, it all seemed quite cut-and-dried. This ‘imposter’ had certainly been out and about in military uniform – Anzac rosette on display, and four stripes on the arm indicating four years’ service.
When approached and questioned, he gave his name as Private James McGee – a returned soldier who according to military records, didn’t exist.
But James was a soldier in the Australian Imperial Forces, having enlisted at the age of 17. He served in Egypt, Gallipoli and Lemnos, and fought alongside his fellow men in the trenches. He did exist.
Just not under that name; James McGee. It was his birth name, a name he hadn’t used in years…
…until that day in 1918, when James panicked. He had a secret that was under threat of being discovered – if they knew who he really was, James faced being discharged. Faced being rejected.
The first time James was discharged, he was deemed medically unfit.
Night terrors, sweating and palpitations were not uncommon for those exposed to the horror and drudgery of their conditions and duty while on active service – a terrible (and understandable) effect of war. But sadly, for James these things were not new. Along with bed wetting, they had been a constant, frequent companion in life since childhood. Possibly a medical condition, but perhaps more-so as a result of his upbringing.
Since his time in Egypt and Gallipoli however, things had gotten progressively worse – the night terrors in particular increased in severity as the months passed. With the addition of heart pains and weight loss, his future was decided. His service ended in 1916.
For a time.
Not to be deterred, James tried again. This time falsifying his details and advising that he had not served previously (nor had ever been declared unfit). He was soon found out, however, and discharged once more.
Re-enlisting for home duties a few months later, James began yet another stint in the armed forces, only to be discharged again – his services ‘no longer required.’
Taking a different tact, he applied to the 3rd District Guard in Victoria and enlisted again. It was during this time – at the age of 21 – James ‘McGee’ stood facing charges of being a Bogus Anzac.
As James awaited his fate, it’s easy to wonder what may have been going through his mind. Perhaps he thought of his father, who took him and his younger siblings from Tasmania to Victoria when he was only seven…and then abandoned them to fend for themselves. Perhaps he even thought of the day they were discovered in terrible conditions, charged as State wards, and handed over to the Department for Neglected Children.
It’s possible he also thought of his mother, who knew where he was, but during the 10 years he was in state care, never came to get him back.
More likely though, he thought of his ‘secret’ – the one he was trying to protect. That he, Private James Adams, had just been released from a short stint in prison, charged with presenting a false cheque. Faced with the possibility that he may be found out and discharged – again – giving a ‘false’ name was a risk he appeared to have been willing to take.
Why was the military so important to James? For a young man who never knew a real home, and who possibly never felt like he belonged, the Army may have provided just that. A sense of being needed, useful…even important. Something young James perhaps never felt. The sense of belonging, of contributing, of mateship and comradery, is possibly the reason why every time he was discharged, he simply re-enlisted – clawing his way back into the fold again and again.
Realising that this time things were more serious – that he could be discharged and sent to prison – James pleaded his case in a letter. Along with outlining his service, he explained why he panicked and gave a false name. He was not a “bogus Anzac” – he just wanted to keep his mistake hidden. To keep his good character intact.
“…I was granted leave to proceed to Korumburra and was arrested there for False Pretences and was sentenced to 3 months Hard Labour. That was my only reason for denying my previous service when I was recognised by the Corporal who checked my attestation. I am fit in every way and am anxious to wipe out the only stain on my character by going away to the front. I am sorry for causing everybody so much trouble but I did not want anybody to know that I was in prison. I have always had to battle around for myself. My mother has never looked after me. I have been in the care of the Neglected Children’s Dept. I ask to be allowed to soldier and if so allowed I am prepared to go away with first Reinforcements. I want to get my good character back. James Adams.”
The authorities appear to have understood – or perhaps simply needed more soldiers on the front. Regardless, James Robert Henry Adams, alias McGee, had made it back in once more.
Before he could commence active service, the war ended. Returning to Australia, James now faced a different future. Many men in his position found other employment, married, and raised families. But sadly for James, he chose a different path.
James didn’t fall on the battlefields of Gallipoli like so many of our ancestors, nor did he succumb to the illnesses prevalent in Lemnos. But he was there in the trenches, there in battle, there during the horror, death and sacrifice. He was an Anzac, and he did fall. Turning to a life of crime when the war was over, he fell further still.
James Adams died at the age of 37 in Geelong Gaol. He never married or had children, nor did he reunite with his mother in Tasmania. Mrs Adams had moved on. No doubt she had her reasons, and times were certainly different back in the early 1900s, but my heart still goes out to James, who struggled all his life to find a place to belong. To the boy who since the age of seven ‘battled around for himself’ until later finding that place as a soldier.
Descendants of convicts have been fairly lucky in being able to piece together an ancestor’s time after arrival. Not only did convict records in Van Diemen’s Land capture details including physical appearance, age and religion, their time while under sentence was also pretty well documented. For many of ‘my’ convicts, I know who they were assigned to (and where), and can track their movements up until they received their ticket of leave or were deemed ‘free’.
The downside, however, comes in tracing them back any further than their crimes. For my 15 known convicts, I have only found the baptism of one – and that’s largely due to this convict’s trial report being pretty specific, ie ‘father Peter Finlay, Moulder, of Old Wynd’. Her brother was also transported, with his record providing a mother’s name and siblings. Eureka!
In most cases though, I only have either a father’s name, or mother’s first name – never both. For the rest, no names were recorded at all.
Combine this with ‘Native Place’ sometimes referring to where they were living at the time of their crime (not necessarily where they were born), along with variances in age from record to record, and you have quite a sizeable amount of stumps!
As an example, my Ancestor Scorecard shows that I have 142 unknown (I love this tool as a great snap shot of where you may need to focus your efforts, but also a reminder of how far you’ve come).
Of these ‘unknowns’, 70 relate to my convicts; either their parents, grandparents or great-grandparents. Of the total number, quite a few were Irish as well (presenting their own challenges).
So after years of digging and prodding my stumps, it’s time to try something new.
Enter DNA testing.
There are different types of tests, and different companies that do this, but I chose Ancestry’s Autosomal DNA testing.
This test looks at the DNA I have inherited from both of my parents (and all of their ancestral lines), and is often referred to as atDNA – or what I like to refer to as,
“ALL the DNA!”
The percentage of All the atDNA inherited from the more distant ancestors decreases with each new generation – it basically dilutes over time (which makes sense when you think about it). It also means that I may or may not have ‘bits’ of DNA from a particular ancestor, depending on how many generations back they are. But the beauty of DNA testing in genealogy is that you’re actually looking for matches with living people. Cousins!
Once my DNA is processed, magic technical sciencey stuff happens, and it will be compared to others in the AncestryDNA database looking for matching ‘segments’.
The higher the match, the more likely it is that we share a common ancestor. Then it’s just a case of us collaborating to work out who that common ancestor may be.
Well – it’s more involved than that (involving other acronyms and DNA terms and wot-not), but in my rose-coloured glasses approach, I’m hoping I can crack at least one convict mystery. Just one would be lovely please.
At the moment, my convict-DNA-laden saliva is in a test tube somewhere in the US waiting to be processed.
The wait begins.
In an ideal world, in 6-8 weeks’ time a fourth cousin in Ireland will be sitting at their computer, refreshing their screen hoping for a match. They have been searching for years for their great-great grandfather’s sister to no avail. But suddenly – what’s that? A match for Mahony! Could it be?
*cue excited people running toward each other in slow motion with uplifting music playing in the background*
Aren’t family resemblances great? I can look at photos for hours, trying to see a trace of an ancestor here, a hint of someone else there.
So when I received a photo earlier in the week of a very old family photo my first reaction was, ‘Oh he has to be a Bannister!’
But is he? And if so – which Bannister?
Maybe George; a former convict, and the ‘father’ of the Bannister line in Tasmania?
Or perhaps one of his children…
Comparing the photo with two of George’s sons – William and Alexander – and their wives, we can possibly rule them out. While he bears a resemblance to Alexander (those eyes!), this is clearly not the same couple.
Well that…plus this man is missing a finger on his left hand! A pretty huge clue if we can track someone down who may know old family stories, or have other photos hidden away.
So it is George?
In the full photo, several of the children are wearing styles of clothing typical of the mid-late 1880s, including wide, frilled lace collars and horizontal patterns.
George would have been in his early 70s then and Ann in her mid-50s, and this couple looks younger than that I think (but maybe not).
There are other elements in the photo that suggest it’s actually early 1900s, so it could be another son, Samuel, who would have been in his 40s at that time.
But – there are nine children in the photo, and Samuel and Ellen only had eight that I know of (and the genders / ages don’t fit).
So who are you, Mr four-fingered man?
Let’s just say the detective in me has fully kicked in, and I’m loving it. Other family are also on the case, and in time, I’m hopeful we can solve it.
As a young girl, Agnes would often daydream. Her vivid imagination opened up adventure-filled worlds on the Scottish moorlands with ease. There was so much to discover! So much to explore!
But Agnes wasn’t young anymore.
Now a widow with no income, the family’s future was uncertain, their hope all but gone. These days she needed her imagination more than ever; escaping into memories could sometimes quiet her grumbling stomach, quash her fears.
Agnes closed her eyes, searching. Settling on one memory in particular, she smiled, gently unfurling it like a precious treasure wrapped in the lightest, most delicate tissue paper.
There he was! Peter. Slouched in his faded green chair; collar undone, hair rumpled, and the hint of a beard on his face. The lingering aroma of dinner filled the air, mingled with smoke from the crackling fire. Their little house was warm, their bellies content.
Sitting cross-legged at his feet were Archie and Johanna, wide-eyed in anticipation of story time.
‘Da?’ Archie said hesitantly.
‘Will ye tell us of the time you and Mam met?’
‘Aye. She was a verra pretty lass,’ began Peter.
‘Still is, ye ken!’ Peter laughed, catching himself and glancing at Agnes. His laugh was low and deep – a sound she missed dearly.
Hearing Peter tell their story with such love filled her heart. Their bairns looking up at Da in wonder, eager for more. She was safe here, not ready for reality just yet.
A booming knock yanked Agnes back to the harsh present. Someone at the door had other plans.
Opening her eyes, it all flooded in. There was no Peter, no chair, no furniture at all. The starkness of the empty house made it bigger somehow. Colder. The delicious smells so easily recalled moments earlier were replaced by those of dampness and mould.
The knock came again.
With a regretful sigh, Agnes opened the door.
The Police Returns List of 1841 recorded Widow Findlay at 95 Old Wynd, Glasgow with 4 children. This piece of flash fiction is based on that moment in her life – the day the police came to her door, finding her in a 14 x 10 house without furniture or bedclothes.