A patient at Seacliff Asylum

I once went to a music festival at Orokonui, near Waitati north of Dunedin. We had great fun. As we enjoyed the music and danced away New Year’s Eve in the old buildings, I had no idea that this was once a very sad place for my family. Many years later, I discovered that my great-great-grandmother died here in 1920, in what was then called the Orokonui Home.

The first record I found about Mary Ann Paskell was her death certificate. She died of ‘senility and heart failure’, age 83. Her maiden name Archer was included in her name, but apart from this, the certificate included no information about her parents, who she married and when, or how many children she had. They were all marked “Not Known”. The certificate reads as though her whole life had been erased.

Who was this mysterious, senile woman of 83 years of age, who died at this lovely place, now a beautiful ecosanctuary?

Looking across Blueskin Bay to Orokonui

Mary Ann Archer was born to a poor farming family at Becontree Heath in Dagenham, Essex. In the mid-19th century Dagenham was rural. It is now part of the London metropolis and the site of a vast housing estate and a large Ford factory nearby. Mary Ann’s mother, who had the unusual name of Mahala, migrated from Diss, located on the Norfolk/Suffolk border about 90 miles from Dagenham. Mahala became the second wife of Thomas Archer, a farm labourer, a few days after her 20th birthday. Mary Ann was Mahala’s fourth child, born in 1839.

There were few prospects for a young woman in such an environment, only child-bearing and hard labour. Mary Ann may have had a more adventurous spirit. When news came around of a goldrush in Victoria, Australia, she bought a passage to Melbourne at only 18 years old. Her ship Lillies sailed from London in July 1857, carrying mostly cargo and a modest number of passengers.

Landing in Melbourne in October, Mary Ann immediately went to Sandhurst (since renamed Bendigo) and worked at gold-mining. There she very soon married John Thomas Paskell, who came from the Medway area of Kent. John also felt the lure of gold-mining and had landed in Melbourne only two weeks before their marriage. This timing suggests that perhaps Mary Ann and John knew each other before leaving England and had arranged to meet in Victoria.

Babies soon appeared, the third born in 1862 at Long Gully, two miles from Bendigo. By this time, gold had been discovered in Otago. Sometime between 1862 and 1865, Mary Ann and John took their family across the Tasman Sea to Dunedin and settled on a gold prospect at Glenore near Milton. The alluvial gold at Glenore proved to be hard-won but John then found a coal deposit nearby at Adams Flat. The family settled on some land there, farming and mining the lignite from a shallow quarry.

More children followed and in 1878 Mary Ann gave birth to her tenth child, Samuel. Just five weeks later, Mary Ann was admitted to the Seacliff Asylum. The records of her admission and her medical condition at the time have not been found. In the period immediately after Samuel’s birth, Mary Ann could have been suffering from postpartum depression or, more likely, postpartum psychosis. The latter is a very severe form of ‘baby blues’ experienced by 1 in 1000 mothers. What causes this illness is not well understood even today. There are likely biological factors including genetics and pregnancy-related hormones.

Symptoms of postpartum psychosis include those observed in Mary Ann in later records. These include: severe confusion or delirium; seeing, hearing, or feeling things that aren’t there – hallucinations; thoughts or beliefs that aren’t within reality or that people around you think are strange and out-of-character – delusions. Modern treatments for postpartum psychosis bring about recovery in most cases within 12 months, but too little was known or understood about the illness in the late 19th century to help Mary Ann.

The Seacliff Asylum was located north of Dunedin on a commanding site overlooking the sea. It was opened around the time of Mary Ann’s admission. The superintendent was Dr Frederick Truby King, who is famous for introducing new ideas into the treatment of mental illness. His methods were based on good nutrition, exercise, and outdoor activity. Truby King, as he was generally known, later applied his methods to the treatment of mothers and newborn babies. He founded the Plunket Society, which became established as a key element of New Zealand’s health system and persists today.

The asylum building at Seacliff was designed by Robert Lawson in a grand Gothic Revival style, with towers and ornate stonework. It was the largest building in New Zealand at the time. The sight of it must have been astonishing to Mary Ann when she arrived from the comparatively unsettled area around Milton. ‘The buildings were surrounded by their own farms and gardens. Patients were expected to work both inside and outdoors to the extent they were able, helping with domestic chores, farming and gardening.’

Seacliff Asylum c. 1890

Four years later in 1882, with Mary Ann still confined to the asylum, her husband John was working his coal seam, removing the rocky layer from above the coal. When about fifteen feet down, a rock fell from the rockface and struck him on the head, severely fracturing his skull. One of his sons was working nearby and went for help but there was nothing they could do. John died instantly.

John died without leaving a will, which complicated matters greatly for the family. Mary Ann was classed as a ‘lunatic’ and unable to take control of John’s affairs. Administration orders for dealing with John’s estate were not settled until 20 years later. In 1902 their son William Paskell was granted the power to sell the Adams Flat property and distribute the proceeds.

A surviving asylum casebook shows that Mary Ann was at Seacliff during the 1880s. In 1885 the casebook notes that Mary Ann is ‘strong and healthy, passionate kitchen worker’, and ‘remained out all night last night.’ Three years later, she was ‘very violent and abusive’, ‘broke out last night’, and ‘placed in seclusion’.

In 1894, Mary Ann was discharged from the asylum and returned to Adams Flat, although it is apparent she had not recovered fully from her illness. The estate administration papers in 1902 include a sworn statement by William stating that his mother, Mary Ann, ‘has continued an imbecile and is aged and infirm and physically unfit to manage her affairs and is never likely to be able to do so.’

In December 1902 she was committed once again to the asylum. Mary Ann was suffering from delusions, her committal papers showing that she was quite unwell:

‘She has no heart and that someone has destroyed her inside’
‘She gets very violent in her language’
‘She talks incoherently and unconnectedly’
‘She thinks her breast bone was broken and that she has no stomach’
‘She says that her heart has been cut up into mincemeat and only a small part left’
‘If she takes an ache or pain, she thinks someone is the cause of it and cannot be made to believe otherwise’

The 1902 committal papers indicate that Mary Ann had experienced mental illness ‘probably since leaving Seacliff eight years ago’. It can’t have been easy for her family to care for her adequately with little or no medical supervision. Two of her children, William and Annie (now married) are noted as Mary Ann’s near relations.

Unknown female patient of Seacliff Asylum – Truby King introduced the practice of photographing patients for adding to their clinical files

Mary Ann remained in the asylum for the rest of her life. Mary Ann’s patient records show that her son John Thomas and daughter Elizabeth sent letters in 1903 enquiring about their mother’s health. In 1917 the records note that her condition was senile dementia but that she had ‘normal’ habits and kept herself clean and tidy. A year later she had deteriorated to only ‘fair’ conduct and ‘unclean and very untidy’.

The Orokonui Home was established near Waitati initially as an experimental ‘reformatory for inebriates’, that is, for recovering alcoholics. It was a working farm of 900 acres in a ‘quiet, healthy and picturesque spot’. Unfortunately, Orokonui Home was unsuccessful in the treatment of alcoholism. In 1905 the facility was made an auxiliary to the asylum, by now renamed the Seacliff Mental Hospital. Seacliff had taken in many aged people with dementia and other age-related infirmities. The pressure on Seacliff’s accommodation was relieved by the purchase of ‘The Camp’ (now known as Larnach Castle) in early 1906 and by using Orokonui Home for the first admission of male patients and to house elderly female patients.

At age 83, Mary Ann died here on 14 November 1920. During her last night her ‘breathing was rapid and she was very restless’, her heart action ‘laboured’. The doctor gave her some strychnine, to no avail. She passed away just after midnight, the doctor noting the cause of death as ‘senility and heart failure’.

The Coroner, J.A. Bartholomew, was required to investigate Mary Ann’s death. Mr Bartholomew came out to Waitati the day after her death. The Coroner took statements from Dr Henry Meredith Buchanan, the assistant medical officer for Seacliff Mental Hospital, and from Mary Ann’s nurse, Violet Glover. Dr Buchanan noted that her health ‘has been frail but remarkable for her age’. Violet Glover states that the ‘patient was properly cared for and attended to’ during her final days.

Dr Buchanan notes that her nearest relatives had not been heard from since 1903. (Their letters enquiring after her health are appended to Mary Ann’s case notes.) Dr Buchanan stated: ‘Notices have been sent to their last known addresses.’

One of the named relatives, her son John Thomas Paskell, had died of cancer in 1903. The other named relative, her daughter Elizabeth – ‘Mrs W. Connelly, Bluff’ – was treated violently by her husband and had obtained a separation order in November 1903. Another son Henry had drowned on the West Coast in 1894. Her son William had been killed in the Great War.

Given all these untoward events, it seems unlikely that the four or five surviving sons and daughters received the notification of their mother’s death. Mary Ann was buried on 17 November 1920 at the Waitati Cemetery in an unmarked grave, quite possibly with little ceremony.

Adding a further degree of sadness to this story, Mary Ann’s daughter Sarah Susannah Thomsen was also an inmate at the Seacliff Asylum from the early 1900’s. Mirroring her mother’s illness, Sarah was committed to Seacliff soon after the birth of her last child. Sarah also died at the Orokonui Home, aged 84, a year older than her mother.

Acknowledgement: I am very grateful to my cousin Marlene Piercy for her persistent efforts to obtain copies of the surviving case notes from the Otago District Health Board of Mary Ann’s incarceration at Seaview Asylum.

Massachusetts General Hospital Postpartum Psychosis Project; https://www.mghp3.org/about-postpartum-psychosis; obtained June 2020.
Te Ara; Story: Mental Health Services; https://teara.govt.nz/en/mental-health-services/page-2; obtained May 2020
The Cyclopedia of New Zealand; 1905; http://nzetc.victoria.ac.nz/tm/scholarly/tei-Cyc04Cycl-t1-body1-d2-d17-d26.html; obtained May 2020

Poor and Pregnant: Single mothers in the Sussex Weald

In August 1849, Emily Robins, 16 years old and seven months pregnant, journeyed the six miles from her Sussex village of Warbleton, in the High Weald, to the market town of Hailsham. Shamed as ‘immoral’ by the prevailing social attitudes and unable to gain employment, Emily had nowhere to turn for help but to the dreaded workhouse.

Emily’s father, David Robins, was a poorly paid farm labourer, always uncertain whether he would have work next season. Emily was the eldest of six children and her youngest sibling was only two years old when Emily approached the workhouse. She joined a large cohort in the women’s dormitory of the large and austere workhouse building, many of them also pregnant or single mothers. Two of her companions in the dormitory, Mercy and Harriet, were from her neighbourhood. Mercy’s toddler, Walter, had been born in the workhouse the year before. Harriet – the elder of the three women – was a young widow.

The stories of Emily Robins, Mercy Kemp, and Harriet Clapson illustrate the situations that poor women were forced to endure, through becoming pregnant while unmarried or widowed. The paths of these women crossed not only within the workhouse, but also in the Warbleton community where they normally lived. In particular, the women were all connected to one man, Henry Robins. Emily’s connection to Henry is that he was her uncle, her father’s elder brother.

Fifteen years earlier, the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 had significantly reformed how ‘poor relief’ was administered in England. The Act grouped neighbouring parishes into unions, and a board for each union became responsible for poor relief for all the parishes. ‘Outdoor relief’, by which poor people received money, food, or other assistance in their own homes, was abolished. Each union was required to establish a workhouse to provide ‘indoor relief’. The parishes continued to pay for maintaining their own poor, but shared the premises to save money.

Eleven parishes around Hailsham, including Warbleton and Heathfield, formed the Hailsham Poor Law Union. The parish vestries contributed funds collected through ‘poor rates’ to construct a workhouse at Upper Horsebridge on the outskirts of Hailsham town on what is now Hawks Road. The new workhouse opened in 1836.

Hailsham Poor Law Union Workhouse, c.1908

Emily’s stay in the workhouse overlapped with Harriet Clapson’s only briefly. Harriet’s husband had died when she was 34 years old and two of her five children had also died. Her married life – to Samuel Clapson, a tailor – had been hard enough. In the rural environment of the Sussex Weald, a tailor made men’s working clothes and heavy coats. Samuel’s earnings were never good and the family lived on common land, probably in rudimentary, cramped shelter. After Samuel’s death, as a widow with children to feed, Harriet really struggled.

Two years after Samuel died, Harriet became pregnant, giving birth to George in the spring of 1848. The father of the child is not stated in the official records. Harriet had yet another mouth to feed and no opportunity to earn a living, so she turned to the workhouse for help in the autumn that year. Harriet’s connection to Henry Robins is that Henry took her new baby George into his own family, keeping him out of the workhouse. Was this an act of kindness or was it obligation?

On admission to the workhouse, Harriet was separated from her three children, as the rules of the 1834 Act required. The children were kept in the ‘schoolhouse’ wing of the building and were allowed to see their mother only rarely. The children were supposed to receive an education in the schoolhouse; however, the ‘teachers’ were drawn mostly from the adult inmates and were themselves frequently illiterate and uneducated. The teachers dispensed harsh discipline rather too freely.

Harriet discharged herself and her children from the workhouse in February the next year, but returned a week later, still unable to support her family. When Emily joined her in the workhouse in late summer 1849, Harriet was gravely ill with consumption (better known today as tuberculosis).

The workhouses were unheated and poorly cleaned, and therefore very unhealthy places. In these conditions, and given meagre and low-quality food, the inmates were prone to disease. In addition, there was no separation of the inmates by any criteria other than sex and age. Healthy people slept in the cramped dormitories alongside the sick and mentally unwell. Any disease, such as consumption in Harriet’s case, quickly spread to several others.


Two years earlier, as winter began in late 1847, Mercy Kemp entered the workhouse. Mercy was pregnant for the second time and she had managed to persuade her parents to look after her one-year-old Edward (‘Ned’). Mercy’s new baby, who she named Walter, was born in the workhouse in mid-winter, when the workhouse was at its coldest. The father of neither boy is known. Many births occurred in the workhouse. For example, in the six months from October 1847, the workhouse register records 15 births – only three of these were noted as ‘legitimate’, i.e. to women with husbands.

The Poor Law Amendment Act left single mothers in the lurch. Previously, a system was in place that required the mother to name the father under oath and for the parish to impose a ‘bastardy bond’ on him. This bond obliged the father to make payments of maintenance to her. The 1834 Act removed these powers, in the belief that maintenance payments were encouraging bastardy. The new system caused considerable hardship for women, since they usually could not work when caring for an infant. In 1844, single mothers gained some limited ability to extract maintenance from the baby’s father directly, but received no assistance from the parish to do so.

Mercy received no such money from Walter’s father. Over the next two years, 1848-1849, Mercy left and re-entered the workhouse at least six times, trying to find a way to escape the terrible conditions. For some admissions, the workhouse supervisor added a note beside her name in the register, “can’t maintain her bastard”, in the brutal language of the time.

The living conditions and daily routines in the workhouses were harsh and cruel, intentionally so. The key guiding principle of the Act was to make poverty as unattractive as possible so that people would be motivated to work. The inmates were treated as if they were in a prison, except that they were free to discharge themselves whenever they desired. Those, such as Mercy, who left and returned frequently, were forced to accept the shelter offered by the workhouse, as it was better than dying of starvation.

When finally she emerged from her workhouse experiences in 1850, Mercy gained a place as a household servant in Heathfield. Her boys, Ned and Walter, were cared for by Mercy’s parents and Emily’s family respectively. Emily would have had a lot to do with young Walter, as she was ’employed at home’ – in other words, given board in exchange for cooking, cleaning and child-minding. Perhaps Emily instigated this arrangement, since she had met Mercy and Walter in the workhouse and knew they would end up back there if Mercy could not keep her job.

Mercy’s connection to Henry Robins began back in 1841. Mercy and Henry were employed as servant and labourer respectively on a small farm at Three Cups in Warbleton parish. After her time in the workhouse and two years as a servant in Heathfield, Mercy married her old acquaintance Henry Robins (now a widower) in 1852. George Clapson, Harriet’s son, who had been with Henry for four years now, became a fixture in Henry and Mercy’s new blended family, adopting the Robins surname. In 1861, the family unit included Mercy’s two children and Harriet’s son George, all born out of wedlock. Present day DNA testing of descendants indicates that George’s father was, in fact, Henry Robins. The family, including Ned, Walter, and George, moved away from the Weald to Marden in Kent, where the flatter, more fertile farmland promised the greater certainty of work.


Harriet Clapson, ill with consumption, left the workhouse for a ‘holiday’ not long after Emily arrived there in late summer of 1849, and did not return. She died a few weeks later at her parents’ home near Warbleton.

Possibly, Harriet’s three older children, David, Caroline and Ellen, were not told that their mother had passed away. They were kept at the workhouse for some years. In 1852 David was apprenticed to a tailor in Warbleton. Placing boys into apprenticeships as soon as they were old enough to work was common practice in the workhouses, as a means of ensuring that young boys had secure employment when they left the workhouse. Girls were often discharged into domestic service, as was Caroline in 1853, given into the care of her uncle. Ellen, the youngest, died four months after Caroline left the workhouse; she had spent five of her eight years within the workhouse.

In October 1849, after two months of poor nutrition and hard work, and the workhouse growing colder as autumn progressed, young Emily Robins’s time came. Midwifery in the workhouse was almost non-existent and Emily was probably attended by other female inmates, including Mercy, to help her through the birth. Her little baby girl lived for only one hour.

Two weeks later, Emily had no reason to stay in the workhouse and perhaps she felt ready to look for a job. Nevertheless, Emily returned to the workhouse twice more. The first occasion was only weeks after her departure but this time with her parents and five siblings, her father David being out of work at the end of the harvest season. After two months, David found a new job as a farm labourer back in Warbleton. Emily had a further brief stay in the workhouse and then married in 1855, producing three more children who lived to adulthood. Like Henry and Mercy, Emily and her new family moved to Kent. She died in 1885 at the age of 52.


General information about the Hailsham Union Workhouse:

General information about Poor Law and the operation of workhouses:

  • Barratt, Nick; Who do you think you are? Encyclopedia of Genealogy; 2012.
  • Friar, Stephen; The Companion to Local History; 2011.

The events in the lives of the three women and their families have been found in the following recordsets:

  • Hailsham Poor Law Union Workhouse Admission and Discharge Register; East Sussex Records Office; G/5/14
  • Hailsham Poor Law Union Workhouse Registers of Births and Deaths; East Sussex Records Office; G/5/16 and G/5/18
  • Census of England and Wales, 1841 and 1851, Warbleton, Sussex;
  • Census of England and Wales, 1851, Heathfield, Sussex;
  • Census of England and Wales, 1851, Hailsham, Sussex;
  • Census of England and Wales, 1861, Marden, Kent;
  • Parish Registers, Warbleton, Sussex;
  • Church records, Heathfield Independent Chapel;
  • Civil registration of births, deaths and marriages; Hailsham Registration District

Harriet’s Story

Poverty and death pervaded the short life of Harriet Roberts. In the High Weald of eastern Sussex, earlier generations carved rather poor farmland out of the vast woodland that had thrived there for centuries. From the 14th century the forests supplied vast quantities of oak timber to the Medway and Thames rivers for shipbuilding. Increasing numbers of farming people settled in the new clearings and carved out a living of sorts. The plentiful supply of wood also provided charcoal to the iron industry in the Weald, where ironstone could be extracted easily.

Harriet’s father Stephen, who leased a small field on the edge of a woodland known as Dallington Forest, may have been involved in processing wood into charcoal. The Roberts family lived here in the little parish of Dallington through the early decades of the 19th century. The field stood on land owned by the Earl of Ashburnham who amassed great wealth through involvement in the iron ore industry and from his considerable landholdings. He held some 14,000 acres surrounding the family’s country seat of Ashburnham Place, which was to the east of Dallington. The house was one of the most magnificent in the Weald with a large park of lakes and trees, landscaped by Capability Brown. Ashburnham Place housed a large collection of pre-Renaissance artworks and ancient manuscripts. Needless to say, the Earl’s tenants, such as Harriet’s father, shared few of the benefits of this vast wealth.

Dallington Forest map 1874

Harriet’s father’s field was beside the Willingford Stream near Bomden farm
[source: OS Six-inch England and Wales, surveyed 1873-4]

One of six daughters, Harriet was born on the farm and baptised at Dallington church in 1811. Receiving no education, her childhood would have been spent doing chores around the house and farm. At 22 she married Samuel Clapson, a young man from the nearby parish of Warbleton. Samuel was a tailor, not a well-paid trade in those days. He and Harriet lived “on the Common”, which probably refers to the cottages that ring the triangular green in the centre of Rushlake Green, the largest village of Warbleton parish.

Rushlake Green old photo 1 cropped

Cottages at Rushlake Green in 1926
[source: Warbleton Parish Council website]

Samuel and Harriet joined the growing nonconformist movement that dissented from the governance of the Church of England, a movement that was strong in the High Weald. Their church became the Independent Chapel at Punnett’s Town. The congregation of Independents was established here in 1787 and grew to include a significant segment of the population of the parishes of Dallington, Warbleton and Heathfield, that were all near Punnett’s Town. A new chapel, which still stands today, was built by the congregation in 1809. As the congregation grew, the baptisms celebrated in the chapel increased from only 12 baptisms in 1800 to 55 in 1836.

Heathfield Independent Chapel

Heathfield Independent Chapel, Punnett’s Town c.1930
[source: Heathfield and Waldron Parish Council website]

Harriet bore five children to Samuel between 1836 and 1844, and they were all baptised at the Independent Chapel. Unfortunately, times soon became tougher for Harriet. Anne the eldest and Mercy died in early childhood at just three years old. Barely a month after young Mercy’s death in 1845 Samuel also died, leaving Harriet with three children under 8 years old to fend for and no means of support. The only social welfare at this time was the meagre ‘poor relief’ provided by the overseer of the poor for the parish. As a dissenter, Harriet would not have been treated kindly by the Anglican overseer.

It was common for widowed women in this situation to seek a new husband to provide for her and the children. Harriet did not remarry, but she became pregnant with her sixth child three years after Samuel’s death. She named him George but did not identify George’s father when she registered the birth.

George Clapson birth record 1848

George Clapson’s birth record, 1848 [source: GRO]

Harriet returned to Dallington, perhaps to live with her parents who were probably still on the little farm near Dallington Forest. Soon however Harriet became ill with consumption (now known as tuberculosis). Consumption, a highly-infectious bacterial disease, was a frequent killer in the mid-19th Century. The disease was easily spread in the cramped living quarters common among poor people, especially in the tenement dwellings of the cities. The small labourers’ cottages of rural Sussex would have been effective conduits of the disease.

After what was, presumably, a lengthy illness, Harriet died in her father’s house in 1849. She was taken to Warbleton to be buried with her husband Samuel in the little churchyard. She was only 38 years old. Baby George was only 15 months old.

Harriet Clapson death 1849 GRO

Harriet’s death record 1849 [source: GRO]

Harriet’s four orphaned children were now in a vulnerable position. The three older children, David, Caroline and Ellen, were admitted to the house for the poor in Hellingly. Commonly known as workhouses, these institutions dispensed charity and care in very small measure. Here the children were undoubtedly undernourished and poorly educated. After four years there, Ellen succumbed to the awful conditions, aged just nine years. David and Caroline survived and eventually left the workhouse and grew to adulthood. Unlike Caroline, who married and had several children, David never married and died in his thirties in London.

George, though apparently fatherless and just a toddler, was the most fortunate child. Perhaps being too young for the workhouse, George was taken care of by Henry Robins, a widower, and his mother Sarah. What was the reason for this arrangement? The Robins family, like Harriet, were members of the Independent Chapel congregation and would have known about the family’s plight and perhaps had a close friendship with Harriet. Indeed, we now know that Harriet and Henry were extremely close. DNA testing of George’s descendants and descendants of Henry’s brothers has revealed that we share common ancestors, who must be Henry’s parents James and Sarah Robins. The testing provides concrete evidence that George’s father was, in fact, Henry Robins. Henry and Harriet had lost their spouses well before Harriet’s pregnancy and perhaps both were looking for new partners. (An alternative explanation could be that George’s father was a brother of Henry.)

When Henry took in George he was farming 50 acres at Greenwood, a hamlet a mile to the west of Dallington Forest. The early 1850s was probably the most prosperous period of Henry’s life, as later, when agricultural conditions deteriorated, he found only intermittent work as a farm labourer. Farm hands were only taken on for a year at a time or less in those days and were very poorly paid. In the 1860s Henry and his second wife Mercy Kemp moved to Marden in western Kent at the other side of the High Weald, chasing after farm work for Henry and his sons. They lived in this area for the rest of their lives.

Now using the surname Robins (he had never really known any other family), at 16 George too became an agricultural labourer, and he joined the growing union of farm labourers who were agitating for better wages. The Kent and Sussex Agricultural and General Labourer’s Union gathered considerable strength in the early 1870s, when the so-called Revolt of the Field of 1872 brought to national attention the dire poverty in which many farm labourers’ families semi-starved. Unlike the National Agricultural Labourers Union whose approach led to widespread lock-outs, the union in Kent adopted tactics that minimised the use of strike action, thus succeeding in keeping men in work.

Arthur Simmons, the secretary of the union, realised that one way to improve wages and conditions was to encourage some men to emigrate, thus reducing the size of the local workforce. This policy also provided an avenue for emigrating labourers to lead better lives in the new colonies and eventually to have land of their own. Simmons claimed to have helped 4000 Kent and Sussex families to emigrate during the 1870s, by working with New Zealand government immigration agents.

George Robins and his half-brother Samuel accepted free passage to New Zealand in 1874. George thrived in Otago on the plentiful food and work. He married and had five children and later adopted an orphan baby, perhaps a repayment to the community for his own lift from extreme poverty. Harriet would have been proud of him.

Stephen John Verdun Wilson – the story behind a name

My father was given an intriguing name. Born a hundred years ago, on 1 March 1917 during the Great War, he was named Stephen John after his father’s brother, John Stephen Wilson. (He was always known as Stephen.) At this time, Stephen was serving with the New Zealand Division on the infamous Western Front.

My father’s parents added an unusual third name – Verdun. This gave him the initials S.J.V., which always seemed to make my father seem distinguished, at least to me. Verdun is not usually a person’s name, but rather a town in eastern France near the border with Germany. It is situated at a critical crossing point of the River Meuse. Consequently, an intense battle raged throughout 1916 in the area around Verdun. The Battle of Verdun was the longest and one of the most costly battles in human history. It is estimated that the French and German armies suffered nearly one million casualties. French forces eventually regained Verdun in December 1916, a victory that was an important step towards the eventual outcome of the war.

The news of this victory appeared in New Zealand’s newspapers around the time of my father’s birth. My father’s name ‘Stephen John Verdun Wilson’ unmistakably links his birth to the Western Front of the Great War and, although New Zealand soldiers did not participate in the Battle of Verdun, it shows that my grandfather held a deep respect for his brother Stephen’s voluntary enlistment.

Stephen’s war service was lengthy and terrible. He was the first of three brothers to enlist and the only one to endure the entire length of the war.

Continue reading the full article here: Albert and Stephen v2


This clipping from Otago Daily Times, 2 January 1917, illustrates the positive outlook resulting from the new tactics used by the Allies in the Battle of Verdun. Perhaps it was this new certainty of success that inspired my father’s parents to add ‘Verdun’ to his name.

Finding my Scots-Irish ancestors in Bushmills – Part 3

This blog concludes this series about my search for my ancestors from Bushmills, County Antrim.

In search of the Boyds of Magherintendry

Various records of my great-great-grandfather Stephenson Boyd’s age show that he was born in about 1812-13. An important clue to Stephenson’s origins is given in his death record in Scotland – thankfully, the Scottish recordkeepers sought detailed identifying information from the family when registering a birth, marriage or death. The death record names Stephenson’s parents as:

“Robert Boyd, Agricultural Labourer, deceased”

“Liticia Boyd, maiden surname Stephenson, deceased”

 S Boyd death certStephenson Boyd’s death record, 1878

This information enables us to search the earlier records to locate other information about this couple. Although the 1851 census of Ireland has been destroyed, a census substitute has been created from later old age pension application forms. The old age pension was introduced in Ireland in 1909 for people over 70 years. However, because compulsory registration of births did not commence until 1864, the authorities looked for entries in the 1841 and 1851 censuses to prove the applicant’s age.

The abstracts of the pension application forms show that Robert Boyd aged 68 and Letitia Boyd aged 64 lived at Magherintendry townland, Billy parish, in 1851. Further, this record gives us the names of two of their daughters, Letitia b.1823 and Ann b.1833, one or both of whom were applying for the old age pension.[1]

Boyd 1851 MagherintendryAbstract of the 1851 census search for an old age pension application, 1909.

The 1909 pension information includes Robert’s wife Letitia’s maiden name as the pension applicant remembered it – the name is transcribed as “Steen/Stinson”. Other 19th Century records also show variants of this name, possibly a corruption or antecedent of Stephenson. Interestingly, Margaret and Stephenson’s youngest son Stephenson (b. 1866) was known as ‘Stean’ by the family.

This information leads us to the Griffith’s Valuation of 1859, which, as noted above, is a comprehensive register of all occupiers of land in Ireland. The valuation shows a Robert Boyd occupying a house and garden at Magherintendry, a few miles south-east of Bushmills. Like Eagry (where Margaret Dean seems to have come from), Magherintendry is a townland within Billy parish just a few miles outside Bushmills.[2]

Unfortunately, we cannot say with any certainty that Stephenson Boyd was born and brought up here at Magherintendry, as there are no records that show Robert and Letitia Boyd’s residence prior to 1851, by which time Stephenson was already married and had migrated to Scotland. It is tempting, however, to speculate that Stephenson and Margaret Dean met because they lived only a couple of miles apart and may have met at the Scots-Irish Presbyterian church at Bushmills.

Griffith’s Valuation of 1859 confirms Robert Boyd’s residence in Magherintendry townland where he is shown as the occupier of a cottage.

Griffiths Magherintendry

The Griffith’s Valuation record for Magherintendry, showing Robert Boyd as the tenant of a house and garden. The numbers and letters in the left column are cross-referenced to the map shown below, enabling identification of the exact position of the house.

Griffiths map Magh1859 Map showing Magherintendry townland in lower right, and Bushmills in upper left – Billy parish church is in centre bottom. Robert and Letitia Boyd’s house was located in the southern-most corner of Magherintendry.

The exact location of the Boyd house shown on the 1859 map above allowed me to pinpoint the present-day location. A modern house has replaced the little cluster of cottages that once occupied the site, shown below.


The Billy church (Church of Ireland) sits on a rise a mile or so from Magherintendry, overlooking the Bush valley. Billy churchyard contains a large number of graves which have been carefully mapped and transcribed by a local group.[3] There are four Boyd graves and no Dean graves in the churchyard – Robert or Letitia Boyd are not amongst them, nor any Boyds of Magherintendry. We have no reason to expect that our known Boyd ancestors were wealthy enough for their estates to afford a gravestone, so it is not surprising that there do not appear to be any relevant marked burials here. In any case, since they were Presbyterians, they may have been buried in an unknown graveyard associated with a Presbyterian chapel.

Billy churchBilly church from Craig Park, near Magherintendry

Billy graveyardGravestones in the Billy parish churchyard

I doubt that there is any more to be discovered about the ancestors of my great-great-grandparents Margaret Dean and Stephenson Boyd. But this series, I hope, has illustrated what is possible despite the patchiness of the surviving Irish records.

[1] Source: Ancestry.com – Ireland, 1841/1851 Census Abstracts (Northern Ireland)

[2] Source: Primary Valuation of Ireland; http://askaboutireland.ie/griffith-valuation/

[3] Gravestone Inscriptions at the old burying ground beside Billy Parish Church in North Antrim; http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~irlantbp/index.htm

Finding my Scots-Irish ancestors in Bushmills – Part 2

This is the second of three posts about my research into my ancestors from Bushmills, County Antrim. It illustrates what is possible to derive and infer from the patchy Irish records.

Unfortunately, there appears to be no surviving record of the marriage of my great-great-grandparents Margaret Dean and Stephenson Boyd. The only evidence we have of this marriage is contained within the 1863 baptism record of Margaret and Stephenson’s daughter Christina in Cambuslang, Scotland. This records that Margaret and Stephenson were married on 21 May 1842 in Bushmills. The informant for the record was Margaret herself, so it is very likely to be accurate.[6]

Christina Boyd birthChristina Boyd’s birth registration, 1863

Based on this important clue, I have poked around in the records from time to time over several years looking for other evidence. This became somewhat easier as more records and indexes became available online, thanks in particular to Bill Macafee’s transcriptions of records for Antrim and the freely available Griffith Valuation records and maps on Ask About Ireland.  The real breakthrough came, however, when I had the opportunity to visit PRONI in Belfast and Bushmills itself recently.

The Dean family of Eagry townland

Dean (often spelt Deen in the older records) was not a common name in the Bushmills area during the 19th Century, and the name is concentrated in a small area. This, together with the Presbyterian church’s practice of recording the maiden name of the mother of a baby at baptism, enables us to work out some of the relationships in the Dean line and where my great-great-grandmother Margaret Dean possibly fitted in.

The records show that a Dean family lived in the Eagry townland of Billy parish in the 18th and 19th Centuries. Eagry borders the south-eastern edge of Bushmills and is very close to the centre of the town and in fact adjoins the Old Bushmills Distillery. (See the map below.) There is a small suburb of Bushmills called Eagry Park near the area today. I have found scant evidence of Deans residing in other townlands in the vicinity. Since the population of Eagry was tiny (there were only 20 tenant families in 1859), it is reasonable to assume that all Eagry Deans are closely related.

Eagry map

Map of Eagry townland against a modern map

The earliest available record of a Dean family living in Billy parish occurs in the Flaxgrowers List of 1796. This list was made as part of a government initiative to encourage linen flax production. Farmers were granted up to four flax spinning wheels, depending on how much flax they sowed on their land in the spring of 1796. At this time, the spinning of flax into linen thread was largely a cottage industry, carried out by the families of flax growers and their neighbours. Two Deans, Hugh and Jane, are listed as receiving one spinning wheel each, indicating that they each sowed 1 rood (a quarter of an acre) in flax.[1]

Hugh Dean is mentioned again in the Agricultural Census of 1803, residing at Eagry. The Agricultural Census, compiled as a defensive measure during the Napoleonic Wars, lists all farmers and their sons who were old enough to be classified as farmers.[2]

In addition to Hugh Dean, 5 other Dean men of Eagry are listed in the 1803 Agricultural Census: Archibald, Archibald Junior, James, and two Roberts. Unfortunately, no parish records have survived before 1820, so it is difficult for us to determine the relationships between these men. Eagry is the only townland within Billy parish where the name Dean is found in 1803; furthermore there is only one occurrence of a Dean in the neighbouring Dunluce parish.

The name Archibald Dean recurs over multiple generations in Eagry – it is highly probable that each successive Archibald is the son of an older Archibald. To avoid confusion, on the following pages I have numbered each Archibald from the earliest one found.

Archibald Deen I

The earliest known Archibald (Archibald I) died in January 1822 aged 94 years – Archibald I is almost certainly the one listed above in the 1803 Agricultural Census above. His age at death indicates that Archibald I was born about 1728. His grave is marked with a large stone memorial, in the churchyard of St John the Baptist church, Dunluce parish of the protestant Church of Ireland. The church is located at the south-western edge of present-day Bushmills town, just across the Bush River from Eagry. Archibald I’s gravestone is one of the earliest that survives in the churchyard and is positioned close to the church building.

Archibald Deen graveThe grave of Archibald Deen I of Eagrey, 1822

Archibald Dean II

Another Archibald Dean (Archibald II) married Nancy Frizzel in about 1790. We know that Archibald II died before 1827, as it is clear that he has already died when one of his children was married in that year. The marriage records of the Bushmills Presbyterian Church show that Archibald II and Nancy had the following children:

  • Archibald III, b.1808
  • Hugh
  • Robert
  • Jenny
  • Jane
  • William
  • Mary

Archibald Dean III

In 1855, another Archibald Deen (Archibald III) leased 24 acres in Eagry from the landlord, John Cuppage Anderson, at an annual rent of 25 pounds. Archibald III’s lease is dated 29th October 1855 and is “for 21 years from the date thereof and life of lessee, now aged about 47.” Therefore, Archibald III was born in about 1808 and is likely to be the grandson or great-grandson of Archibald I.[3]

In the Griffith’s Valuation of 1859, Archibald III is listed as tenant of 24 acres of land, with a house and ‘offices’ (i.e. farm buildings).[4]

Eagry viewOverlooking Eagry townland towards Bushmills in the valley (centre distance) and Portballintrae on the coast (right)

Baptism records show that Archibald III married Margaret McCurdy, although the marriage record itself does not appear to have survived. Between 1823 and 1834, four of their children were baptised in the Bushmills Presbyterian chapel, whose records commenced on 28 Nov 1820[5]. These children are:

  • Samuel b. 12 Nov 1823
  • Rachel b. 7 Jan 1825
  • Jane b. 10 Mar 1829
  • Hugh b. 6 Feb 1834

Margaret Dean’s age given in other records indicate that she was born in about 1822-3. Although there is no daughter named Margaret in the above baptisms, it was commonplace at the time to name a child of each sex after the parents. Therefore it seems probable that my great-great-grandmother Margaret Dean was the daughter of Archibald Dean III and Margaret McCurdy.


Likewise, there is no record of the baptism of Margaret and Stephenson’s first 3 children, Isabella, William and Robert, who, according to Scottish census records, were born prior to the family’s migration to Scotland around 1848.

Boyd 1851 censusThe 1851 Scottish census record for the Boyd family, showing that Isabella, William and Robert were born in Ireland

In summary,  there were at least three Archibald Deans:

  • Archibald Dean I b. about 1728, d. 1822
  • Archibald Dean II b. about 1760, d. before 1827, married Nancy Frizzel
  • Archibald Dean III b. about 1808, d. after 1859, married Margaret McCurdy

What can we conclude from this?

Despite the surviving direct evidence being scanty, I think that I am safe ground to claim that my great-great-grandmother Margaret Dean was the daughter of Archibald Dean III and Margaret McCurdy. Therefore Archibald Deen I, whose grave I found in the Bushmills churchyard, is my direct ancestor.

The Dean family name persists in the Bushmills area until at least the 1911 census, which lists a Samuel Dean, stonemason, and his family living in Bushmills town.


[1] Source: 1796 Flaxgrowers List, in Databases compiled from Eighteenth-Century Census Substitutes; Bill Macafee, http://www.billmacafee.com/18centurydatabases.htm

[2] Source: PRONI MIC678/1, as transcribed by Bill Macafee www.billmacafee.com/census/1803census.htm

[3] Anderson’s estate was sold on 8th May 1862 in 11 lots, including Eagry and Magherintendry townlands – the latter townland will appear in the Boyd section of this story. Source: PRONI D2977/26/2/5 Rental and particulars of sale – John Cuppage Anderson, 1862.

[4] Source: Primary Valuation of Ireland, a property tax survey carried out in the mid-nineteenth century under the supervision of Sir Richard Griffith; http://askaboutireland.ie/griffith-valuation/

[5] Source: PRONI MIC1P/113/1; Bushmills Presbyterian Church, Co. Antrim, baptisms and marriages.

[6] Source: National Records of Scotland, at Scotland’s People, Statutory Registers, http://www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk



Finding my Scots-Irish ancestors in Bushmills – part 1

This series of three posts set out my research into my Dean and Boyd ancestors who came from County Antrim.

Tracing your Irish ancestors can be extremely frustrating and inconclusive, as anyone who has attempted it will know. This is because so many records of births, marriages and deaths, as well as census records, have been lost. The remaining records are patchy at best. There are many such challenges in tracing my Irish Boyd and Dean ancestors.

My great-great-grandparents were Margaret Dean and Stephenson Boyd. Margaret immigrated to New Zealand with her daughters in 1883, following Stephenson’s accidental death. Margaret settled in Gore and died in 1911 aged 87 years. Margaret and Stephenson came from North Antrim, Northern Ireland, from the area near the small town of Bushmills. Much more than these bare facts has been slow to emerge. I had the opportunity to unravel some of the mysteries when I visited Belfast and County Antrim in 2014.

So, what do we know with any certainty? Margaret Dean and Stephenson Boyd married in 1842 in or near Bushmills in North Antrim and a few years later moved across the water to Lanarkshire in Scotland, a few miles south of Glasgow. The records of neither Margaret’s nor Stephenson’s births do not appear to have survived. Neither has their marriage record. Fortunately though, the location where they grew up, and the families they came from, are hinted at in various records. Bushmills is mentioned, as is Billy, a parish which includes part of Bushmills town.

Both the Boyd and Dean families appear to have been Presbyterian, which indicates that they were Scots-Irish – i.e. their ancestors were part of the settlement of Ulster by Scottish landowners, tenant farmers and farm workers in the 17th and 18th centuries. Even today, the area and the accent encountered there have a strongly Scottish feel compared to the southern counties of Ireland. So, apart from being famous for Old Bushmills Whiskey and the Giant’s Causeway, what was Bushmills like in the 1800s?

Main Street Bushmills

The main street of Bushmills, 1930s (Bushmills Historical Society)

Bushmills is a small town of about 1000 people situated near the northern coast of County Antrim, now in Northern Ireland. Billy is a parish covering an area to the immediate south-east of Bushmills. In keeping with all Irish parishes, Billy is divided into a number of small ‘townlands’, including Eagry, Clougher and Magherintendry. The townland boundaries are often marked in the landscape by ditches and streams. The Bush River separates Billy from Dunluce parish to the west and Bushmills straddles the river.

Bushmills town consisted of only 15 houses in 1829, but grew considerably until reaching 251 houses and 1072 people in 1900. These numbers do not include the considerable population that resided on farms in the surrounding districts.

Bush River postcard

Bush River bridge at Bushmills

The Presbytery of Bushmills was established in 1646 and underwent considerable turmoil and dislocation until 1820, when the Rev Hugh Hamill was ordained as minister. Rev Hamill began the meticulous recording of births and marriages in that year, and fortunately for us these registers have survived. The first Presbyterian meeting house in Bushmills town was a small thatched building, which was replaced with a new building in 1829. The building was extensively renovated in 2005. Mr Hamill purchased some land on Straid Road in Eagry townland for his residence. Following his death in 1864, the house was gifted to the congregation as the manse of subsequent ministers.

Useful information about the history of the Bushmills Presbyterian Church can be found at http://bushmillspresbyterian.co.uk. The Bushmills Historical Society has published a collection of photographs of old Bushmills here: www.bushmillshistorysociety.co.uk

In the next post, I will piece together what I know of my Dean ancestors from Bushmills.

George Robins: Illegitimacy and Adoption in 19th Century Sussex

Uncovering George Robins’ story has been something of a mission, involving a tangled web of births, deaths and changing surnames. The only story that seems reasonable to me is the following:

George’s mother was Harriet Roberts, who was born in Warbleton parish, East Sussex, in 1807. Harriet married Samuel Clapson in 1833, with whom she had five children before Samuel died in 1845. Subsequently, Harriet gave birth to George in 1848 to a father whose name Harriet did not disclose.

The following year Harriet herself died, leaving her six children as orphans. The older children were admitted to the Hailsham Union Workhouse, while baby George went into the care of Henry Robins. Henry’s first wife Mary Ann had died in 1844, 5 years earlier. Both the Robins and Clapson families were dissenting Protestants, attending the Heathfield Congregational Chapel, located at Chapel Cross. My guess is that this is how Henry knew about the Clapson orphans. It may also be reasonable to suspect that Henry was indeed George’s unknown father. (Update April 2018: DNA matching has now confirmed that Henry was indeed George’s father.)

Henry Robins married his second wife, Mercy Kemp, in 1852. Henry had known Mercy for some years, as they worked on the same farm in Warbleton parish in 1841. George Clapson grew up in the care of Henry and Mercy, and he became known as George Robins. It is apparent that George knew nothing of his illegitimate birth, as he regarded Henry and Mercy as his parents. The family moved to Marden in Kent in the 1860’s.

There is another intriguing angle to this story. Mercy had two illegitimate boys prior to her marriage to Henry: Walter and Edward Kemp. These boys also went to Marden with the Robins family, and were recorded as having the surname Robins in some census records. Is it possible that Henry was their father as well?

The stormy arrival of the ship Conflict to Wellington

The following transcript from The Evening Post, Wellington, Monday August 3, 1874, describes the perilous entrance of the ship Conflict, bearing my maternal great-grandparents William and Eliza Franklin and their four children, into Wellington harbour during a typical southerly gale in total darkness. The information conveyed about the voyage and the passengers reflects the concerns of residents at the time: How many new immigrants? How long did the voyage take? Will new diseases be brought ashore?

“The ship Conflict, 1171 tons, Captain R. Hardy, 84 days out from London, with 461 immigrants equal to 366.5 statute adults, arrived off the Heads yesterday evening and was boarded by Pilot Holmes about half-past 7 o’clock. It was then blowing hard from the northwest and Pilot Holmes thought it advisable to anchor outside. At about half-past 12 this morning the wind suddenly chopped round to the southeast, still blowing heavily. The bolt of one of the shackles on the cable had to be driven out as there was no time to weigh, and an anchor with sixty fathoms of chain was consequently lost. The weather was so thick that neither Pencarrow nor Somes’ Island lights could be seen,  nor could even a glimpse be caught of the land on either side of the entrance. Pilot Holmes brought the vessel in entirely by compass bearings and anchored her early this morning off Pipitea Point. Captain Hardy and Dr Whitelam report all well on board. Ten deaths occurred during the voyage – one of the crew, and two adults and seven children amongst the immigrants. There were several cases of measles during the voyage, the last on the 15th June, but no other infectious or contagious disease. The following are the nominated passengers for Wellington :- [list of names omitted]. The Health and Immigration officials did not go on board to-day, owing to the state of the weather. The immigrants will probably be inspected and landed to-morrow.”

A Kentish emigrant, George Robins

George Robins, my paternal great-grandfather, was an agricultural labourer who was raised in the High Weald of eastern Sussex and western Kent. At age 26 he was working near the Kentish village of Marden in 1874. Through a scheme promoted by the Kent Agricultural and General Labourers’ Union, George was enticed to emigrate to New Zealand.

The scheme was devised by the union secretary, Alfred Simmons, “who was instrumental in directing the frustrations of the rural labour force towards emigration to New Zealand” according to Jock Phillips and Terry Hearn. [Settlers – New Zealand Immigrants from England, Ireland & Scotland, 1800-1945]. Falling agricultural prices from 1870, and the consequent squeeze on labourers’ wages, threatened many Kentish workers’ livelihoods. This gave rise to the infamous ‘Revolt of the Field’ in which agricultural unions were formed for the first time.

Alfred Simmons saw that a good way to reduce the pool of labourers in England, as well as to improve individuals’ prospects, was to sponsor emigration to the colonies. Phillips and Hearn again: “The prospect of unemployment or a penurious old age had become something to be feared. The thought of independence in a new country where the family could support its dependents on land was an enticing prospect.”

The union’s newspaper, the Kent Messenger of 21 November 1874 [British Library Newspaper Library, ref: EW M83447] noted the departure of the contingent of emigrants which included George Robins:

Last Tuesday morning a party of nearly one hundred emigrants left Kent for New Zealand under the auspices of the Kent Union. Mr. Simmons, hon. sec, met the emigrants on their arrival by train at London Bridge, and took them by vans to Blackwall to the Emigrants’ Depot. Here they stayed till the following day, when they embarked in the ship “Gareloch,” which is bound to Port Otago. Nearly all the emigrants were agricultural labourers and their wives and children, and many of them had received liberal grants from the Union, and the private fund at the disposal of Mr. Simmons. Two of the labourers were men who had been locked-out of employment, and who then determined to leave the country. It is a great satisfaction to know that almost without exception, the Kentish emigrants give great satisfaction in New Zealand, and are prospering very excellently in their new home.”

After 79 days at sea, George’s ship, Gareloch, duly arrived in Port Chalmers on 12 February 1875. The ship was immediately quarantined as eight cases of scarlet fever had occurred during the voyage. The ship’s master, Captain Greenwood, blamed the unhygienic conditions at the Blackwall Emigrants’ Depot for this. After several days of quarantine in port, to ensure that the fever did not spread to the population onshore, George was eventually allowed to go ashore to start his new life.