Tuesday, 2 January 2018

My First Ancestor

This is the story of how I got started in family history research, as well as another ancestor’s tale.
About 30 years ago, at a family dinner, my mother and uncle were trying to remember stories they had been told about various ancestors, to help with a family tree school assignment for my brother.  Two names stood out: Henry Sparrow Briggs and Captain Thomas Rowley.  Not long after this dinner, my mother and I were at the local public library and decided to check out the reference section for any early Australian history that might mention either man.  We found a series of books* with family record sheets for the first people who came to Australia from England.  On one sheet, we found both Thomas Rowley and his son-in-law Henry Sparrow Briggs.

The family record sheet listed Thomas Rowley’s spouse as Elizabeth Selwyn**.  The initials “GS” following her name discretely indicated that she was a “government servant”, which my mother knew was a euphemism for “Convict”.   At least one convict in an Australian family tree is almost to be expected.  So, Elizabeth Selwyn was the first ancestor I discovered; the start of my family history research and I had immediately discovered something much more intriguing than dates and places.  I also have a soft spot for Elizabeth because she managed to die a respectable widow although she never married.

According to Gloucestershire Prison Calendars, at the lent assizes in 1791, Elizabeth Selwyn received a sentence of 7 years transportation for stealing a cotton gown and several other items of clothing from the dwelling of a James Brown.  She had an alleged partner in crime, Elizabeth Evans, who I have found no further record of, not even the outcome of her trial.  At the time of Elizabeth Selwyn’s arrest in December 1790, she was said to have been 18 years old, a servant and of the parish of Cherington, Gloucestershire.

Two years earlier, in July 1788, an Elizabeth Selwyn aged 19, was charged have a number of items of clothing in her possession that had been stolen from the house of one Priscilla Dangerfield.  I have found a Priscilla Dangerfield living in Kings Stanley, not far from Cherington, in the late 1700’s.  I think it is possible that this criminal could be my Elizabeth Selwyn in spite of the older age.  In researching various convict ancestors, I have noted that most convicted of multiple crimes before being transported.

To date, I have found two possible Elizabeth Selwyn’s in Gloucester parish registers, although the dates and ages don’t quite add up.
  • The first Elizabeth Selwyn, daughter of John Selwyn and Betty Bird, was baptised 1 Jun 1766 in the parish of Kings Stanley.  She seems a bit too old but the location is good.
  • The second Elizabeth Selwyn, daughter of Jasper Selwyn and Mary Cook, was baptised 9 Jun 1771, in the parish of Westbury on Severn.  The age is better but the location is not so good.

My Elizabeth Selwyn was transported on the “Pitt”, which left England in June 1791 and arrived in Sydney on 14 February 1792.  The voyage was long and grim even compared to other journeys of the time.  The weather was bad; winds were unfavourable; fever on board affected the sailors, soldiers and free passengers, with nearly 30 deaths; convicts suffered from scurvy and flux, and four convicts tried to escape and probably drowned while the ship was docked at Rio De Janero.  And yes, the ships did travel across the Atlantic from England to Brazil before crossing back, going around the Cape of Good Hope and across the Indian Ocean to Australia.

According to some accounts I have read about the early settlement in Australia, the military officers got first pick of the female convicts on arrival.  Whatever the circumstances, Elizabeth Selwyn and Thomas Rowley were a couple by the time they got to Sydney.  Their daughter Isabella Rowley was born on 19 Nov 1792; almost exactly nine months after the Pitt reached Sydney.  Convicts had to get permission to marry and would not have been allowed to marry an officer, so Thomas, a Lieutenant in 1792 and later Captain, and Elizabeth never wed.
On 8 May 1794, Elizabeth Selwyn received an absolute pardon and so was a free woman, having served about half of her seven year sentence.  By this time, Elizabeth had been living as Thomas Rowley’s mistress and house keeper for two years and was pregnant with her second child, Thomas, so the pardon probably didn’t make much difference to her day to day life but it would have allowed her to return to England, if she had the means and desire to do so.

Over the next 12 years, Elizabeth Selwyn and Thomas Rowley had three more children:  John, Mary and Eliza (my ancestor).  The five children were all acknowledged in Thomas Rowley’s will as “begotten on the body of Elizabeth Selwyn” and they always used his surname.  It is possible that Elizabeth was pregnant when Thomas died in 1806 with another son, Henry.  There is evidence of a Henry Rowley associated with the family in early census records and government papers, but no baptism records.  Being illegitimate and not named in his father’s will, he would not have been entitled to claim a share in the inheritance.
Elizabeth Selwyn was left a stipend in Thomas Rowley’s will on the condition that she did not marry or co-habit with another man.  To date, I have no evidence to show whether or not she stuck to the co-habiting condition and she never married.

As a military officer, Thomas Rowley had received substantial land grants around what is now Sydney, so his “wife” and children became prosperous and respectable settlers, presumably hiding their illegitimacy and convict heritage.

Elizabeth Selwyn died 22 June 1843, in Sydney.  She is now buried in the Rowley/Briggs family tomb at Waverley Cemetery in Sydney, but was originally buried in a family plot on their property of Kingston (now the inner suburb of Newtown, in Sydney).  The tombstone describes her as the wife of Thomas Rowley Esq and aged 68.

Un-cropped photo saved to many trees on Ancestry.com.

I was given a scan of a photo labelled as being of Elizabeth Selwyn but a quick bit of research on the history photography suggests that this is very unlikely.  There are a number of unsubstantiated, speculative or very circumstantial stories about Elizabeth Selwyn and Thomas Rowley and their life in Australia that have been accepted as true by some researchers.  I have found it fascinating to see how speculation can become accepted “fact” over time as “possible”, “probably” and similar words are dropped.  I have become much more cautious about sharing information I am not sure about and make an effort to question why I think mine and others’ research conclusions are correct.

My “first” ancestor has helped to keep me hooked on family history research because she has proved interesting and has left some (so far) unanswered questions.

*Several volumes on First, Second, Third and Forth Fleet Families of Australia, compiled by C.J. Smee
**There are multiple spellings of Selwyn.

Notes on lineage: Me > Mum > Daphne Madge Smith > Esther Ilma Lees > Fanny Sarah Eliza Briggs > Frederick Henderson Briggs > Eliza Rowley > Elizabeth Selwyn

P.S. The idea for this blog post comes from this: https://www.amyjohnsoncrow.com/52-ancestors-in-52-weeks/, the prompt being "Start".