Living Ancestors

I have done a lot of family history research. Much of it has been looked at by my family, but none of it has been read as intently, as this piece of fictional writing, that was based on one of our ancestors. It’s a long piece for a website but I hope it will interest you as much as my family. I wrote this piece to make our ancestor feel alive and to have our family walk in the shoes of George. Many felt that they had, I hope you do too.

George Warren (1811-1871): Life as a free settler

It was 1840 and George walked home among the crowded Cheltenham terrace houses.  The streets were narrow and two story houses overcrowded. Cheltenham was at the end of its heyday; it was once a thriving spa town that attracted many of the wealthiest people. The spa water was said to cure any ills and many grand pump houses were built to accommodate those wanting to partake in bathing or drinking in the water. George had found a lot of work plastering those grand houses and pump rooms and was able to support his small family of three sons and one daughter. But work was getting harder to come by.

George passed by the local square and men were gathered there to listen about a place called Australia. It had been a place that convicts had gone to for punishment. But it was also a promise land for those that could afford passage as they were being given land just for getting there. George knew that it took at least a years’ wage and six months travel to make the journey. But now there was talk about a new plan to settle South Australia under the “Wakefield” plan. George listened to how they needed young men and women to work hard and they would be able to buy their own land. Some said it could take as little as a few years to save enough money. They were selling the land already in London for a pound an acre and the money raised would give passage for skilled workers to work that land. George was a plasterer and he was already 31 years old; they wanted people thirty or under, if he didn’t take this opportunity now, he might not have another chance.

George and his wife Mary Ann Robertson applied for passage on the 21st May 1840 and left their home at 11 Charles Street in Cheltenham with their sons John, William and Henry and their daughter Amelia. (1) The family had to travel the 135 kilometres to London to get to their ship the “Fairfield” first, it may have been possible that they took that journey by train as in 1840, Cheltenham train station opened its’ doors allowing many working class people to make long journeys like George and Mary Ann needed to make to London. However they made the journey, no part of their trip was easy with Amelia only being 3 months old.

George and Mary Ann and their family boarded the “Fairfield”.  The family felt a mixture of fear for such a long journey and excitement at the prospect of a new beginning. The ship held around 220 other passengers (2), young married couples with growing families; the average number of children for a family in that era was around seven.  George and Mary Ann stepped down the ladder under the decks; they had to duck their heads as they didn’t have enough room to stand up straight. They looked around at the cramped space filling up with families and wondered how they were going to survive the next six months.

George and Mary Ann worried most about their daughter Amelia as she would be too young and vulnerable to fight any disease if it spread. Over the course of the next six months, George and the family watched thirty five people be committed to the sea.  The dead were wrapped in cloth and put up on a plank, the captain would say a few words of consolation and then they were tipped out to the ocean. George had heard the other men talking about other boats that had disease and if too many bodies were dumped then sharks would start circling. It sounded horrific to him to think of any of his family being eaten by a shark right in front of him. Mary Ann heard about young babies and children being thrown overboard at night if they died to spare their mothers the grief of seeing sharks eat their young. They both prayed their family would make it to Australia. (2)

Captain James Lee bought the “Fairfield” into Port Adelaide on the 14th December 1840. (2) It was the height of summer in Adelaide and although the heat was oppressive it was preferable to the stench they were leaving behind on the boat. Six months of faeces had built up in the bilge on the bottom of the boat and with nowhere to bathe properly the smell of their clothes and bedding were becoming unbearable.  After the ship docked George and Mary Ann helped their children get their sparse belongings together to make the 13 kilometre walk into Adelaide. George and Mary Ann arrived at Emigration Square completely exhausted.

George, Mary Ann and the children had never felt such heat and the children were constantly upset from being hot, and cramped in the tent at G268 in Emigration Square. (1) Amelia reached 12 months of age before passing away. The family walked in the heat across the parklands from the immigration depot to the West Terrace Cemetery where they buried her on the 10th February 1841. (1)  George and Mary Ann both knew the sea journey would have been hard on Amelia but they weren’t prepared for the conditions they were living under now at Emigration Square.

Emigration Square was a square of around 20 pre-fabricated weatherboard houses that had been bought out from London. With the arduous sea journeys many immigrants arrived without family members: children orphaned, women lost their husbands and had many children to look after. These people were vulnerable and needed somewhere to go, however the square got so overcrowded that conditions become unbearable. The government then had to start to allowing people to stay two weeks on the ship they arrived on to house the new immigrants. The colony’s hospital was also in the square and anyone arriving from the boats would get checked over there, however there were not many beds available and people would have to just stay wherever they could in the square. (Emigration Square was on West Terrace opposite Franklin Street and right on the present Adelaide High School sports fields.)

Mary Ann held her daughter Eliza after giving birth to her on the 19th January 1845. (3) Another little girl to add to her family of growing boys; John was now 14 years old, William was 12 and Henry was 7 years old. Mary Ann was happy that they had finally moved into a home in Currie Street (1) to raise their baby, she did not want Eliza to go through the same conditions as Amelia. George worked hard plastering, he was contracted to at least two years’ service for his free passage and although the conditions were hard on the outside, six months in prison for not fulfilling his work order was not an option. George walked around the city looking for work, he knew that those that worked in the city, got better pay and conditions and could get their own home earlier.

Henry Pope offered George a three bedroom home to rent on Town Acre 183 in North Street. (1)  However in August 1847 George struck a deal with Henry to purchase his own part of a Town Acre 183 in North Street in Adelaide. He bought it for forty-five pounds and ten shillings.  George was thrilled that he was now part of the grand plan of Adelaide in his own part of a Town Acre. Even before the boats had left port in England “Town” Acres had been divided and set up for people to buy at one pound an acre. Like many of the town acres his had been subdivided many times to increase the profit for wealthy landowners. George took his family over to the part of the land they had bought, although the plot was only 6 metres by 25 metres, George had grand plans for what he could do with it.

Currie Street were the family first rented and North Street were the family built were in the West End of town. The West End was a centre for prostitution and opium dens and the poorest in the colony settled here. The lots were close to Emigration Square and wealthy landowners realized that if they split their town acres in to smaller enough lots they could sell them for what seemed a reasonable price. This meant that the lots ended up being around the size George built on of 6 metres by 25 metres. (1) People put together their housing so haphazardly that many of the buildings had to be condemned and were listed as not habitable. Landlords put no plumbing in and built three roomed cottages with no light or ventilation going into the middle rooms. It was not a safe or enjoyable place for people to live.

Mary Ann was suffering from gastritis and was in pain; she was barely eating and feeling completely full even after a little bit of food. It was getting so bad that George could do nothing but watch over her as she vomited every bit of food and drink up. George could only reflect on the twenty years and five children that he and Mary Ann had when he buried her in West Terrace Cemetery on the 10th April 1848. Mary Ann had only been young at 35 years old and George had three sons and a young daughter to look after now. (1)

George was a plasterer and had much work through a James Crabb Verco and his building partner Santos. James was well known in Adelaide and had come over on the same boat with Santos in 1850. They had struck up a friendship and started a building partnership together. James was very influenced by Santos involvement in the church and was baptised in the River Torrens when he arrived, he also helped build a stone chapel on Franklin Street with Santos. This chapel now housed the first church of Christ in Adelaide. James then went to Grote Street where he was an elder and then went onto establish another church on Kermode Street. This church was known by locals as the Verco church. James would sometimes preach in this church. The Verco family had a few other interesting members including James son Sir Joseph Cooke Verco who become well known for his study of medicine and his help in establishing the faculty of medicine at Adelaide University. The Verco medal was named after him and is only awarded to the most distinguished published scientists. He is also remembered for his work in the Royal Adelaide Hospital with the Verco Ward. His brother William had a son also named William Alfred that was a doctor and built the first skyscraper for Adelaide. It was six stories high and was built at 178-179 North Terrace and is now part of the Myer Centre in Rundle Mall. The inside of the building was remodelled and another story was built on top but the outside is said to be original.

James also had a sister, Mary Ann Tucker. She had been married before in England but her husband died within a couple of years of being married. With no other prospects Mary Ann decided to follow her two brothers, three sisters and mother that had immigrated to South Australia. On the fourteenth of February 1850, George was married to Mary Ann. Her brothers James Crabb Verco and Richard Verco both signed as witnesses to the marriage in the Congretional church on Freeman Street.(1) (The church was disused in 1867 when Thomas Stowe went bankrupt and his congregation established a memorial church for him. The church was finally demolished in 1987 and the ING building built in its place at 45 Pirie Street in Adelaide.) Revered Thomas Quiton Stowe did their ceremony and was the second minister of religion into the colony in 1837. (The Anglican minister had come a year earlier and established the Holy Trinity church.) Thomas Quinton Stowe went on to open many churches and trained many ministers over the years, he also served on many public committees and when he died the city of Adelaide shut down to mourn his loss and a monument was paid for by the public erected over his grave.

Mary had her first and only child named after his father, George. He was born on the 10th December 1850; eight months after his parents were married. Mary Ann was overjoyed at her son being born but at 34 years of age and with no experience with young children she was soon overwhelmed. George Senior felt his world slowly unravelling with the newborn in the house. He had worked hard and was getting nowhere fast. In 1851 on the 23rd of June George was committed to the Adelaide Asylum.(1) As there were only 9 rooms in the cottage for the committed and it was always so overcrowded that people slept in the hallways, George had to go to the Adelaide Goal. It was written that George was “Insane – friends wishing to get him into the Asylum”.  Many of the people that got admitted died in the asylum; it was not usually a place to get cured but more a place to confine people so they didn’t hurt themselves or others. George spent his time wandering the gaol, no work, no amusements, no separation of the insane. No-one helping him, only time to think and any punishment was with the use of restraints and cold plunge baths. George was one of the ‘lucky’ ones and was discharged on the 29th April 1852 and Mary Ann signed with a cross on a statement that read “I hereby undertake that my husband George Warren shall be properly taken care of and neither injure myself or others”. (1)

George felt a new sense of purpose and began works on his house converting it to a four bedroom ‘pise’ house with a lathe and plaster shed. (‘Pise’ is created by ramming clay earth into a frame, after a few days it sets and becomes so hard a chisel would be needed to break it.) George built the framework of wood for the walls and poured the mixture of clay, sand and earth into the frames. Over the next five years George did much work to his home and sold it in 1856 for 89 pounds. (1)

By 1856, John was 25 years, William Charles was 23 years old, Henry was 18 years old, Eliza was 11 years and George Junior was 5 years old. As they only had the two younger ones to support George and Mary Ann moved on to a more respectable part of town to North Adelaide, to a house and garden at Section 1030 Kingston Terrace.(1) Mary Ann’s brother in law Thomas Magarey owned the house.  Thomas was a serious man and a highly religious one that had come to South Australia in 1845 and married Elizabeth (Mary Ann’s sister) in 1848. Thomas was a successful miller with his brother and also a pastoralist owning 200 kilometres square and capable of running 20, 000 sheep on his Naracoorte property.

Mary Ann fell ill and passed away on 14th September 1859 at 43 years of age. Her stepson Henry Walter Warren oversaw the burial in the West Terrace Cemetery. (1) For George it was another cruel blow in his time in the colony. The home they lived in a Kingston Terrace was sold by Thomas to Mary Ann’s brother Richard Verco and George and the children continued to live there until around 1862. George then moved his younger children around to a number of houses with him; Liverpool Street in 1862, Chancery Lane in 1863, Gouger Street in 1865-66 and Storr Street in 1867-69. George died on the 9th January 1871 in Adelaide at 60 years of age; he was buried in West Terrace Cemetery. (1)   Georges’ sons John and Henry had not married yet, his son William had married and moved on to Yorketown to farm with his new wife’s family, while the younger children Eliza had married the year before and moved to Bullaparinga and George Junior married two years later and settled in Adelaide.

Reference Source for George Warren

(1)   Majority of the information for George has come from Keith Eckert who is descended from George’s son William Charles Warren. Keith wrote a booklet of his family history called “Winegrowers, Builders and Farmers: A history of the Hamilton’s, Warrens and Eckert’s”.

(2)   Fairfield shipping record

(3) website

I have based this fictional story on the dates of Georges’ real life events, which Keith Eckert researched in his family history booklet. I have also done a lot of reading and research into what his life would have been like in the colony to gain some understanding of what they went through. The information has come from numerous websites that I have read for my own enjoyment, so therefore I have not referenced properly. I hope you enjoy my account of Georges’ life in the colony and hopefully the expansion of information makes George’s life more real than a set of dates.


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