Ghosts of Irish Australia: Catherine Scullin

Catherine Agnew (Scullin)

by Annie Agnew

July 1, 1847, I stood on the shore in Dublin, watching the huge ship, the Waverley slowly sail out of sight. My heart was being wrenched from my chest for the second time in just over a decade as I waved frantically to my sister-on-law, Alicia and her four children. I wrapped my arms around my three youngest sons, all of us sobbing as the ship sailed towards the horizon and our only close family slipped out of sight. In four months, the Waverley would arrive in Hobart. Eventually, Alicia and the children would make their way to Sydney. Then by various other means to the Monaro region in New South Wales where they would join James her husband and his brother, my husband, Henry, both of whom now had their tickets of leave.

Shortly before departure, one of my boys, also called James, was taken ill with fever, which prevented us from boarding the Waverley, dashing our plans to sail with Alicia. There was no way I could let Henry know. I had sold our meagre belongings. The land we farmed for the thirteen years since James and Henry were transported was re-let. I had no idea how to get another passage, or how I would face the future without my beloved Alicia.

Caroline Chisholm had worked hard in Australia for the families of convicts to be reunited and as far as she knew, we were also on the Waverley. No one knew we had been rejected from the list of travellers. My heart was broken for the husband who would be waiting for us all to arrive.

Eleven years earlier, Alicia and I had sobbed as we watched the St Vincent sail away with Henry and James bound in chains. This time, our crying children were tiny, with my youngest only 3 months old and Alicia’s infant not yet born. Our hearts were full of both anguish and relief as only four weeks earlier, the two men had received their last rights and were awaiting their hanging, having been sentenced to death by Judge Robert Torrens for the death of Henry McWilliams, their neighbour. While not directly responsible for McWilliams’ death, the brothers had sought the help of another, Patrick Toghill, to ‘teach McWilliams a lesson’ for his ongoing bullying. Unfortunately, the beating that ensued brought about the demise of McWilliams hours afterwards. By this time, Toghill had escaped and was most likely already on a ship heading to America. Henry and James, who had small children and families, could not leave and were duly arrested, tried, and sentenced to death. But thanks to the support of the Broagh community, the citizens of Derry and particularly, one of the largest landowners in the county, George Dawson whose brother -in-law was Sir Robert Peel, our petitions for clemency were successful. On the morning of the planned hanging, 10 August 1836, a letter of reprieve arrived from Dublin, with the sentence commuted to transportation for life.

Alicia and I were full of joy that the men had escaped hanging, yet terrified for what the future held. How would we manage with our babies when the men were transported? My eldest, Hugh was only 8 years old, Adam 4, Edward 2, and James an infant. Hugh and Alicia’s eldest, also called James, would help with the farming if we could convince the landlord to allow us to stay. Thankfully, other family members in the Broagh were willing to help and the workhouse did not become our fate, something that happened to so many other wives and families of convicts transported to New South Wales.

For the next eleven years, our two little families farmed and worked hard to survive. At times, we had to request leniency for rent payments, often sub-renting our land to others. The children took on responsibilities beyond their years, but together we managed even the darkest days when food was short and we were cold and frightened. We raised pigs, chickens and cows – anything that could keep food on our table and sell at the market to help pay the rent. Our one room houses were rough, the children slept together in one bed, made from piled up straw covered with coarse handspun cloth and blankets; the only warmth coming from the open stove in the far end of the room.

Thanks to the availability of the hedge schools, I could read and write some basic words, as could the boys, as they grew into young teenagers. They knew little about their dad, although occasionally a letter with some information made it from the colony to us in the Broagh. Henry also could read and write a little, so between his few simple words and the help of others, we did manage to communicate in a rudimentary way over the long years apart. Our excitement was beyond belief when we learnt that Henry and James had applied through Caroline Chisholm for us to travel to the colony, and have our families back together. Many other women had abandoned their husbands after they were transported, and many convicts had re-married once they reached Australia, but somehow, we managed to hold onto the threads of our family through the trauma and years of separation.

For the two years after Alicia and her children sailed away, I returned to the Broagh where other family members took us in. I now had no home of my own.  The boys worked hard to help on family farms, doing any jobs they could. By this stage, Hugh, the eldest (now 18 years) was finding his own way in the world. After we left, Hugh would join the 48th Regiment of Foot in the British Army and eventually fight in the Crimean War where he was injured, finally reconnecting with us in Australia in 1858 with his wife, Ellen.

Finally, in September 1849 we departed on the Success, sailing away from Ireland, its poverty and the impact of the Great Famine, towards an unknown future with the man I had not seen since he was dragged away in chains, some thirteen years earlier.

The journey was both frightening and yet at times, exciting. The conditions on the Success were cramped and dirty, the food meagre and stale. The boys were sick from the lurching of the ship after we sailed into open waters, and as we neared the equator the heat was stifling. When the waters were calm, I stood on the open deck, and felt the breeze of hope against the skin on my face. My boys, thin from years of struggle, began to look brighter and happier as the weeks passed. None of us had any idea what life in the colony would be like. But we knew we’d be a family again and there would be an existence better than the poverty and shame we’d left behind.

After several months, on December 18, 1849, we finally saw the opening in the cliffs where the Success would pass through to take us to the town of Sydney. As we drew into the dock, I saw Henry in the crowd… weathered and grey, bearing a mantle of sadness and pain. The boys were anxious, not knowing who to look for, or what to expect.

In the days that followed, we slowly made our way through this strange countryside, re-building our little family as we trudged along a rough dirt track towards our new life. The heat was unbearable, and our thick Irish clothing not suited to the piercing sun that bore down upon us. Brown and dry hills with frighteningly twisted trees filled with screeching birdlife gave way to open plains as we neared the Coolringdon, the station owned by Stewart Ryrie, where Henry had been assigned as a shepherd since being granted his Ticket of Leave.

Henry’s Conditional Pardon, gave us the freedom to create our own future. We found our way to the little valley of Numeralla, to the east of the small town of Cooma, where the prospect of gold and land that could be squatted on held hope for a new life. We located some land at the southern end of the valley, where two rivers joined and the long river flats were dark with rich soil.

 In the years that followed, we built our home and ploughed the land in ‘Warren’s Corner’, slowly becoming integral to the growing community. Henry was (ironically) the first juryman in a trial, when the new courthouse opened in Cooma, Edward would eventually start a local cordial company, Adam (who did not marry) farmed with us, while Hugh ran a small store that was held up by bushrangers in 1863 and became the first postmaster in Numeralla that same year.

Born in the early to mid 1790s, I lived until I was an old woman, laid to rest in 1889, in the Cooma Mittagang Cemetery, alongside my husband, Henry who died in 1884. The long shadow that we cast threads down to our ever-growing descendants, some of whom still tread the dark brown soil where this new life began.

The author, Annie Agnew, is the 3 x great granddaughter of Catherine Agnew (Scullin), a descendent of her son Edward. She grew up in Numeralla where Catherine and Henry settled after Catherine arrived in Australia. She has been to Ireland several times, and now connects with Agnew “relatives” across the globe via zoom thanks to DNA discoveries.

This is the Agnew house at Numeralla built in the late 19th century. Catherine probably knew and lived in the white house at the rear of this one.

2 thoughts on “Ghosts of Irish Australia: Catherine Scullin

  1. Dear Annie. I have just read with great interest your clever first hand version of Catherine Agnew’s life. It comes from your heart. Nothing soft and cushy either here or there (Ireland) for our forbears! I recently passed through the goldfields of Victoria, where Caroline Chisholm made such an impact. It was pleasing to see a park and other items named after her. Thank you. MW

    • Thank you, Megan…the women from those times were so strong and had to endure such hardships! What a great legacy they created for all who have followed…Annie

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