Thursday, October 3, 2013

Blackwells Down Under

Last fall, in the first flush of my enthusiasm for family history research, I began writing what I imagined would be a book on the subject to pass on to future generations, should there be any. The next few posts will be excerpts from the very small beginning I made on that project. The style is a little different, and there are actual footnotes, clickable. Impressive, eh?

I started with the beginnings of the Blackwells in Melbourne, giving short shrift to our earliest known Blackwell ancestor, Matthew of Manchester, and jumping ahead to his son the emigrant (and founder of the Australian branch), Richard Henry. I’ll double back to Matthew in later posts.


This is not a story of intrepid pioneers opening a new land, of homesteaders carving a life from the hostile wilderness or brave young adventurers seeking their fortunes on a wild frontier. It’s a little more prosaic than that. But finding out about our ancestors in Australia was a bit of an adventure.

By the time Richard Henry Blackwell walked off the R.M.S. Siam in Melbourne, Australia, on the fourth of November 1878, he was already forty years old. Not a young man, given life expectancy at that time of about 67. And Melbourne, with a population by then of 250,000, was by no stretch a wild frontier. Still, give R.H. credit. He was starting a new life in a new and land, relatively late in life.

Steampships in Suez Canal, 1880

Getting there was no longer the long dangerous undertaking it had once been. Only a few decades before, it could have taken up to 17 weeks, most of the voyage on open seas in small ships entirely reliant on wind power. The vessel that brought R.H. on the final leg of his journey was a new steamship1 of the Pacific & Orient Company line. The trip from England would have taken him first into the Mediterranean, then down the Suez Canal, which had been open less than ten years, along the Red Sea, into the Indian Ocean and across to Bombay, India. He likely boarded the Siam in Bombay. It plied the leg between India and Sydney, stopping in Galle, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka); Glenelg, South Australia (near Adelaide); and Melbourne.

Steamship docked in Bombay, about 1870

R.H. probably travelled in relative comfort too. Modern steam ships like the Siam were a big step up from the clipper ships that brought an earlier generation of immigrants. According to Dr Robert Lee of the University of Western Sydney, “During the 1870s the passenger liner began to assume its modern appearance, with a straight (or nearly so) bow replacing the clipper bow of early steamers. Masts were gradually truncated and steamers began no longer to carry sail at all. Passenger decks above the hull, whose cabins had windows rather than portholes, began to appear and multiply, as conditions for first and second class passengers at least became positively luxurious.” 2  

The Siam was typical of this new class of ship. In a report of an earlier visit the same year, the The South Australia Register (Adelaide) noted that the Siam had “gained the reputation of being the fastest of the P. & O. Company’s fleet between Galle and Australia.” On that August 1878 run, it broke all records, making it from Ceylon in 15 days, 4 hours and 3 minutes – approximately. The Register marvelled that as a result, the mail from England was less than 35 days old! 3

The Argus, the Melbourne newspaper, reported on the Siam’s stop there three months later in less effusive terms. The run from Galle this time had taken a few days longer. The Argus4 noted times and names of crew and debarking passengers, including “Mr. R.H. Blackwell,” who it said had embarked in Southampton. The Public Record Office Victoria5 also noted R.H.’s arrival.

View of Melbourne in the 1870s (Post Office on left)

It was mild that day: 70° F with the barometer steady. The Melbourne he found was already a bustling city, with suburbs, a university, a new children’s hospital, and many fine buildings, including the “new” (now known as the old) Customs House6, built in 1873. The Customs House, on Flinders St., would have been his introduction to official Australia. Luckily his skin was lily white and his eyes straight, or he might not have gained admittance given recent immigration legislation designed to keep out Chinese.  

Old Customs House, Melbourne, circa 1880

Why did Richard leave his home and family in Lancashire and come to Australia? We don’t know for sure, or we don’t know yet.

He was born in the Manchester suburb of Chorlton in 18387, to a stone mason from Cheshire, who later styled himself an architect. Matthew Blackwell and his wife Ann (nee Marsden) eventually prospered, although possibly not before Richard pulled up stakes and headed for Australia. When Ann died in 1889 – Matthew was already gone – she left almost £900 to each child, including Richard, who by then had been living in Australia for 15 years. In terms of average income, that would be equivalent to over £350,000 in today’s money9.

It’s possible that as a fifth child, with no family-provided career and theoretically no expectation of an inheritance, Richard was struggling at home, and thought he might as well try his luck in the new world. It’s more likely, though, given his age and how quickly he apparently landed on his feet in Melbourne, that he was already an established businessman and simply went looking for new opportunities. He might even have been an employee despatched to Australia by an ambitious employer. After all, he had no wife and family to keep him in England. He was free as a bird.