Margaret Cooke (1833-?): from Carbury in Kildare to Gladstone in Queensland, and Monte Cristo Station on Curtis Island

The fourth in Tinteán‘s series on Irish Famine Orphans

A Feature by Elizabeth Malcolm

Carbury Castle, Co. Kildare. Photo by Elizabeth Malcolm, 1977.

When I was a PhD student in Dublin during the mid-1970s, I would often go for drives on weekends with friends. Like me, some of them were interested in Irish history, so we would search out interesting historic sites and ruins on our excursions. We’d head south into the Wicklow Mountains; or we’d go north to the Boyne Valley; or we’d drive west following the River Liffey and the Royal or Grand Canal. One winter’s weekend in County Kildare, near the Offaly border, we spotted a striking ruin on the side of a hill close to the road. We got out, explored the place and its surrounds, and I took a number of photographs. The building was the remains of an early 17th-century Jacobean manor house, with only the ivy-covered walls still standing. An Ordnance Survey map told us that it was a place called Carbury Castle (usually spelt Carbery or Carberry in the past), but otherwise I knew nothing of its history.

Yet, the house intrigued me for reasons I still can’t fathom. So I had one of my black-and-white photos enlarged and mounted, and for years I carried that picture around with me, hanging it on the walls of my various offices or homes in Ireland, Norway, Australia and England.

Nearly 20 years later, in the early 1990s, I was working in England when I was contacted by an elderly relative living in Sydney. A retired librarian, she was a first cousin of my orphaned mother, and they had grown up together during the 1920s in Rockhampton, Queensland. My mother had recently died and my cousin was keen to research family history and, knowing I was a professional historian, she was seeking my advice. I was very happy to help because, at that stage, although I knew a lot about my father’s Irish family since he had been born and grew up in the North, in south-west Fermanagh, I knew little about my mother’s family who were from the South. Over the next four or five years, my cousin and I exchanged many letters and together we gathered a substantial amount of genealogical information on our family.

The Cookes of Carbury

One of the first things my cousin discovered was that we were descended from an Irish Famine orphan. Trevor McClaughlin’s book on the orphans had appeared shortly before and, finding I had an orphan ancestor, I ordered a copy from the Melbourne publisher. According to the book, my maternal great-great-grandmother was a Catholic girl named Margaret Cooke, who arrived in Sydney in November 1849, aged 16, on board a ship called the William and Mary. Margaret had been in the workhouse at Edenderry in King’s County (now Offaly). Her parents were Matthew and Mary, and her mother at least was still living in 1849. But Margaret hadn’t been born in King’s County; she was born about 5 kilometres east of Edenderry in County Kildare, at Carberry’.

Initially I couldn’t believe it was the same Carbury as in my photographbut it was. Of course Margaret wasn’t born in the ruined manor house I’d explored almost two decades earlier. The name Carbury referred to the local area and a landed estate, as well as to the house. Margaret’s family were probably small tenant farmers renting land on the estate. The landlords were a Protestant family originally called Colley, later Wesley, descendants of an English soldier who first acquired the land during the Leix/Offaly plantation in the 1550s. They weren’t especially wealthy landlords and their younger sons tended to pursue careers in the Anglican church, the British army or the legal profession. But, growing more prosperous during the late 18th century, they moved to Dublin and County Meath, changing their name to the grander-sounding Wellesley. One younger son, Arthur Wellesley, who joined the British army, went on to become the Duke of Wellington. It was he who, as United Kingdom prime minister, reluctantly conceded Catholic Emancipation in 1829.

I wish I knew more about Margaret Cooke in Ireland as well as Australia, but she remains a shadowy presence. It is not unusual for working-class women to be harder to research than working-class men. Most left fewer traces in contemporary records; that is unless they managed to acquire land, run a business, write a novel or fall foul of the lawand Margaret seems to have done none of these things. Stories about women who made an indelible impression on their children are often preserved in family folklore handed down the generations, but memory of Margaret doesn’t appear to have survived in this way, at least as far as I am aware. Nor have I discovered any precious photographs of her. Therefore, in both countries, I’m forced to rely heavily on the events and circumstances, as well as the men, surrounding Margaret in order to gain some insight into her life.

Her birthplace Carbury had a turbulent history, so the Cooke family had very likely suffered major dislocation and serious hardship well before the Great Famine struck. During the late 1790s, for instance, the Carbury Castle area was a stronghold of the United Irish movement in County Kildare. In mid-1797, Carbury was placed under martial law, thus unleashing the military on its unfortunate inhabitants, probably including Margaret’s grandparents. Yet, in June 1798, as many as 2,000 supporters of the United Irishmen rallied at Carbury Castle, from where they launched ill-fated attacks against local loyalists and the army. Could members of the Cooke family have been among them? The area appears to have continued disaffected even after the defeat of the rebellion. During the 1822 trials in Dublin of a group of men charged with membership of an illegal secret societya number of whom were subsequently transporteda police informer testified that he had joined the organisation at Carbury in north Kildare, having been told that all the local Catholic men belonged to it. I wonder if Margaret’s father, Matthew, was a member of this powerful Ribbon society.

Kildare was not as hard hit by the Famine as some western and southern counties. Nonetheless, it suffered significantly during the late 1840s, with its population falling by 16 per cent between 1841 and 1851. Unfortunately, the records of the Edenderry Workhouse have not survived, therefore I don’t know if Margaret had any siblings with her or if her mother ended up in the workhouse too. However, the year in which Margaret left Ireland, 1849, saw the peak of the Irish workhouse population, with nearly one million people crammed into 131 workhouses, of whom around 65,000 died during the course of that one year, mostly of diseases like dysentery, typhus and cholera. Historians think that in all perhaps 250,000 died in workhouses between 1845 and 1852: that is about a quarter of the Famine’s total death toll. These weren’t just harsh places; they were often lethal ones as well. By coming to Sydney in 1849, Margaret may well have escaped what would have been a pretty miserable death. After the Famine, whereas able-bodied men quickly left the overcrowded workhouses in search of employment or to emigrate, many destitute women and children were forced to stay on through the decade of the 1850s.

Margaret Cooke in Sydney and Newcastle

Margaret was spared long years of dreary workhouse life in Ireland, but her new life in Australia does not appear to have gotten off to a very promising start. From Hyde Park Barracks she was quickly apprenticed to a man called Mr J. Caldwell. This is probably John Caldwell, a staunch Protestant and successful Sydney grocer with a shop at 200 Pitt Street. A little over a year later, in January 1851, Margaret’s indenture was cancelled and she was ‘sent up the country. As Trevor McClaughlin explains, orphans were usually expelled from Sydney when their employers complained about their behaviour; rural or regional New South Wales (NSW) was thought to be less corrupting for young girls than the city. Margaret next appears in official records in Newcastle on the NSW central coast. There, in December 1851, aged 18, she married a man named Ebenezer Johnson at Christ Church. Whereas her new husband signed the marriage register, Margaret entered a cross against her name, indicating that she was illiterate. This was not unusual, however, as at the time of the Famine at least 60 per cent of Irish women could not read or write English. Thus literacy had not been a qualification for orphan selection. Although she was married in an Anglican church, presumably in deference to her husband’s wishes, Margaret nevertheless raised her children as Catholics.  

Ebenezer Johnson was English, having been born in 1830 at Rochford in Essex, on the northern shore of the Thames estuary. He went to sea as a cabin boy aged only eight and was awarded his able seaman’s ticket at the age of 14 in 1844. His entry in the seaman’s register indicates that he could not write, but at the time of his marriage seven years later he appears to have been able to sign his name at least. How and when he came to Australia, I unfortunately don’t know. But many English sailors abandoned their ships to prospect for gold in NSW or Victoria during 1851, so Ebenezer may well have been one of these men.

Margaret and Ebenezer Johnson in Gladstone

My next sighting of Margaret, or rather of her husband, is nearly four years later in the port of Gladstone on the central Queensland coast. In July 1855, Ebenezer bought one of the first blocks of crown land to be sold on the site of the new town and, in 1857, he purchased further blocks. Margaret may well have felt rather at home in Gladstone because the surveyor who had laid out the site of the proposed town in 1853-4 was Dublin-born, and thus names like Liffey, Boyne, Leixlip and Ormonde featured prominently in the new landscape.


Sailing ships moored at Gladstone about 1869 (State Library of Queensland).

Most histories of Gladstone mention a ‘Captain Johnson’ who, during the mid-1860s, was in charge of ships transporting live cattle from Gladstone to feed hungry diggers on the New Zealand gold fields. My cousin and I assumed that this was probably Ebenezer, but more recent research has shown that there were several Captain Johnsons involved in Queensland shipping at this time; and I now believe the cattleship captain was a John M. Johnson—no relation. Ebenezer did, however, continue his seafaring life. As late as 1881, he was still being described as a ‘seaman’ on the marriage certificate of one of his sons. A Rockhampton newspaper report in January 1872 notes that he and a son were involved in catching turtles on and around Masthead Island, an atoll in the Coral Sea about 60 kilometres north-east of Gladstone. A substantial commercial turtlefishing industry did develop in the Gladstone area, but that was not until after 1900. Ebenezer’s fishing, using his ketch the William and Henry, seems to have been a relatively smallscale enterprise. The newspaper reported that, after three days away, Ebenezer returned to Gladstone with 16 turtles, which he sold to the Central Queensland Meat Processing Company. His eldest son, William Henry (1854-94) probably helped Ebenezer in this turtlefishing venture. Like his father, William Henry went to sea, captaining vessels carrying timber and other goods up and down the Queensland coast during the late 1870s and 1880s.  

Earlier, when gold was discovered at Calliope just south of Gladstone in 1862, many of the male inhabitants of the town, including Ebenezer, headed to the diggings. Substantial amounts of gold were initially unearthed, but there is no evidence that Ebenezer profited greatly from his period as a miner. In addition to fishing and mining, it seems that he also operated at least one Gladstone hotel, and perhaps more than one. Margaret would have been closely involved in this enterprise since publicans’ wives often worked harder than did their husbands in the running of hotels. My impression, though, is that Ebenezer was not a very successful businessman: he was prosecuted more than once for breaches of the conditions of his liquor licence and gossip had it—rightly or wrongly I don’t know—that he was drinking almost as much alcohol as he was selling.

Margaret and Ebenezer had eight children between 1852 and 1868: five boys and three girls. Two died young, but the rest married and produced families of their own. What eventually became of the pair is something of a mystery though. My cousin was unable to locate a death certificate or a will for either of them. But she did hear of a family story claiming that Ebenezer had been swept overboard in a storm and lost at sea. During this period many ships were wrecked on Masthead Island and, in March 1872, Ebenezer was quoted in a Rockhampton newspaper warning of the dangers of turtle fishing. He reported that he had been stranded for two weeks on the Masthead atoll, which didn’t have a supply of fresh water, unable to sail due to bad weather. Presumably he survived by drinking rain water. My cousin couldn’t confirm the suggestion that Ebenezer had drowned, although it might explain why no death certificate exists. Yet, it doesn’t explain why there isn’t one for his wife Margaret either, unless of course she left Queensland after Ebenezer’s death.

Frederick and Ellen Johnson at Monte Cristo Station

I am descended from Margaret and Ebenezer’s fourth child, a son born in Gladstone and named Frederick (1861-1935). Like his father, Frederick Johnson married an Irish Catholic immigrant: Ellen Byrne (1858-1938) from Dublin, the daughter of Michael Byrne, a labourer, and Ellen Dunne. In September 1876, Ellen Byrne arrived in Brisbane as an 18-year-old assisted immigrant. She and Frederick married at St Joseph’s Catholic Church in Rockhampton in February 1881, with Frederick’s older brother William Henry and his wife Emily as witnesses. Both Frederick and Ellen were listed as then living on Curtis Island: he working as a stockman and she as a domestic servant. This large island just off the Queensland coast between Gladstone and Rockhampton was the site of a cattle station called Monte Cristo (sometimes spelt Christo), where the couple were employed. Between 1881 and 1897, Frederick and Ellen had eight children, five girls and three boys, most of them born at Monte Cristo.

The owner of Monte Cristo Station during the 1880s and 1890s was a Scottish immigrant, Robert Laidlaw Paterson (1829-1903), a descendant of Sir Walter Scott’s ‘Old Mortality’ and the son of a former moderator of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland. Paterson had originally arrived in Victoria in 1849, then headed to NSW and was in Queensland by 1858. A wealthy and well-educated bachelor, Paterson had interests in several central Queensland cattle stations and, in 1875, he bought the Curtis Island property because he needed additional grazing land. The young wife of the previous owner, Rosa Campbell Praed (1851-1935), moved to England after the sale, where she quickly became a successful popular novelist. A number of her books draw on her time on Curtis Island between 1872 and 1875, while her autobiography, My Australian Girlhood (1902), paints a harrowing picture of island life. Left alone for long periods by her husband, pregnant with her first child and having just one Aboriginal woman to help her, Praed endured drunken stockmen, searing heat, plagues of insects and cyclones in a small dilapidated wooden house. Eventually, however, as she explains in her memoirs, a ‘cultured gentleman’ in a ‘cabbage-tree hat and moleskins’, with a ‘Scotch accent’ and a fondness for ancient Greek literature, came to her rescue. Although she doesn’t name him, her saviour was Robert Paterson, who bought the failing station from her feckless and unfaithful husband.    

The Johnson family lived on Curtis Island for nearly 20 years after Praed’s departure, but sadly they left no account of their lives there. Frederick Johnson was listed variously as ‘head stockman’ and ‘station overseer’ of Monte Cristo; Ellen presumably acted as housekeeper, not only to her own growing family, but to the station’s stockmen and Paterson as well. The children seem to have been especially close to the owner. Books of English and Scottish poetry belonging to Paterson were treasured by the Johnson children long after his death in 1903, some being inscribed to them by Bossie’, their nickname for him. My cousin remembered her mother, who became a teacher, talking fondly with her sisters many decades later about Paterson, and especially how he had encouraged them to get an education and to read good literature.

After 1898

Yet, the family had left Monte Cristo Station five years before 1903 and, not only that, but Frederick and Ellen had separated. Frederick went to live in Gladstone where in 1899 he got a job as a stockman at the town’s large new meatworks. He had another son in 1913, also called Frederick, and died in Brisbane in 1935. Ellen took the younger childrenfive of whom, including four girls, were under 12 years of ageand found employment as a cook on a succession of cattle stations in central and western Queensland. It must have been a hard life for a single woman during the first decades of the 20th century trying to support and raise her daughters in this male-dominated frontier society. Eventually Ellen and several of her children settled in Rockhampton where she died aged 80 in 1938. Why Frederick left his wife and children in 1898 isn’t clear. But my cousin recalled that when she and my mother were children, whereas they visited their grandmother Ellen often and she even looked after my mother for a time, their grandfather Frederick, who was then living not far away in Gladstone, was never mentioned by the family.

Today there are hundredsperhaps even thousandsof descendants of my great-great-grandmother Margaret Cooke living in Queensland and elsewhere in Australia. I believe that gatherings of descendants have been organised on occasion in the past. But I still regret that I know so little about her and, especially, that I haven’t a clue when or where she died.

Elizabeth Malcolm is an Honorary Professorial Fellow at the University of Melbourne. Her latest book, with Dianne Hall, is A New History of the Irish in Australia (Sydney: NewSouth Publishing/University of NSW Press, 2018).