Agnes Willis Cairns and the 4X Great-Granddaughters’ Gift


This year we have three granddaughters who are in Fourth Grade at school. This is the year they are introduced to early European Settlement in Australia, the First Fleet, and the ‘convict era’. They were all given research projects along the way.

They are well aware of their grandmother’s passion, so it was not long before they contacted me for help.

I could tell them they were descended from First Fleeters, Second Fleeters, and various other convicts. In fact, they have at least fifteen ancestors, who came to Australia as convicts.

Once I could show them where they all slotted into our large ‘family tree’ they were ready to research these convict ancestors.

All are very proficient in the use of ‘Google’ and the Internet, so were quickly able to bring to light a lot of information on their convict ancestors, which was a lot of fun for us all.

As part of learning about the convict experience, the girls have been reading fiction stories written about convict children of nine to twelve years of age. Most were convicted of stealing and sentenced to transportation. The stories may be fiction, but they are based on facts and give good details, so the children can understand and relate to the lives of the convict children of the early 19th Century.

We do not have any ‘child’ convicts in our family history, but I was able to tell the girls their 4X Great Grandmother, Agnes Cairns had arrived in Tasmania in 1829 at 10 years of age. That is the same age as the granddaughters are this year. Agnes was a  free person but had traveled half-way around the world on a convict ship, to the small colonial outpost of Hobart. She accompanied her mother, Elizabeth Merry, who was a convict.



from Google Images- 30 August 2018


The granddaughters were keen to put Agnes’s name into Google and convict websites. They were so disappointed, as found no records with her name on them, although they did find her mother.

As I could show all the pertinent records from the girls own birth certificates, back through the generations to their 4X Great-Grandmother Agnes Cairns, they could understand where Agnes and her mother Elizabeth fitted into the family tree. They were at a loss of how they could find out about this ancestor. I suggested they write her a letter asking the questions they wanted to know about.

This is the letter.

Dear 4X Great-Grandma Agnes,

We have been learning about children in the early 19th Century.

Our grandmother has told us you came to Tasmania when you were ten years old. The same age as we are now. She said your mother was a convict.

Can you please write and tell us where you lived in Scotland?

Did you have any brothers or sisters?

How did you come to Australia?

What was it like living in Hobart when you first arrived?

Where did you and your mother live and what did you eat?

When and where did you marry?

Where did you live with your sixteen children? You must have had a very large house.

Lots of love

From your 4X Great-Granddaughters……Mary, Jane, and Ann (not their real names)


From Google Images – 30 August 2018


Now that will be an interesting history project for one devoted grandmother.

My plan is to write Agnes’s story in about fifty pages, answering in some detail the questions about where and how she lived, from her birth in Kilmarnock, Scotland to her death in Victoria, Australia, aged 89 years. There are no known pictures of Agnes, but I will add appropriate illustrations where I can.

Yes, the girls do know that their 4X Great-Grandmother is dead, and they know it will be their own grandmother, who will research and write the story. But, can you imagine how exciting it will be for these girls to get a ‘personal’ reply from an ancestor? Wouldn’t we all love and treasure such a gift, no matter how old we are? Wouldn’t it be a possession we would keep and pass down to our children and then down the line, keeping our Family History alive for the generations to come?


My Bell Family Ancestors – George Bell (1817-1894) – Sorting Red Herrings

I have blogged about my ancestor George Bell before, and mentioned that he was born in 1817 at East Farleigh, Kent, England.

He married Sarah Sargent at Sutton Forest in 1844 and settled in Picton, (NSW),where they raised a family of five sons and three daughters.

My next challenge was to find when and how he had arrived in Australia. Where would I find clues?

I had his full death certificate (1894) which stated he had been in the colonies 56 years. This would give me a time period of approximately 1837-1838.The informant was his eldest son, George.

On his marriage entry in All Saints, Church of England, Sutton Forest, (NSW) in 1844 he was a “bachelor, Free by Servitude” and his wife Sarah was a “spinster, Free Immigrant.” So, it looked like he may have been a convict!

When I had been researching his life at Picton I had come across a subscription publication, “Aldine’s History of NSW “(1888) in which there were biographical details of the pioneers, aledgedly submitted by themselves. There was an entry for George Bell in which states:-

In 1837 he left England to try his fortune in the colonies, and landed in the same year in Sydney.”

Amoungst other material I have been able to find on the family was a copy of an article published in the journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society. James Bell, the second son of George and Sarah Bell, who was born in 1847, and had spent his whole life in Picton, was asked to give a lecture to the Royal Historical Society on the history of Picton. In it he states:- “My father, George Bell, who was a native of East Furley (Farleigh), near Maidstone, in Kent, England, arrived in Sydney in 1838, a freeman, having joined the crew of the convict ship Asia (adopting the name of Freeman) to obtain a passage to Sydney”.

I had been able to confirm through parish records, that George Bell was born in East Farleigh, Kent in 1817, the son of Thomas and Mary Bell.

The immigration records for most government assisted immigrants have survived and are now held by the State Records of New South Wales, formerly known as the Archives Authority of NSW. These had been indexed by the staff and volunteers at the Mitchell Library, ( a part of the State Library of NSW), in the early part of the 20th Century. I started my ‘research’ into my Bell ancestors in 1973 and made a visit to the State Archives.

[Where as in the 1970’s it was only accessable by visiting the library and searching an in- house card index; by the 1980’s and 1990’s the Archives Authority made them available through several printed books based on the card indexes. They are now searchable on-line by logging onto the State Records of NSW website. These searches are free. ]

I was not able to find George Bell amoungst the free immigrants to Sydney in 1837 or 1838.

A search of convict shipping records at the Archives Authority of NSW (now State Records)confirmed the convict ship ‘Asia’ did make a voyage to Sydney in 1837.

A check of the ‘Convict Indents’ at State Records for the 1837, Asia voyage also confirmed there was on board a convict named “George Bell, alias Ball. He was aged 20 years (born 1817), could read and write, was a Protestant, single and a native of Woolwich (Kent). He had been tried in the Central Court, London on 27th February (1837) for stealing hats and had been sentenced to seven years transportation.”

Great excitement, a convict in the family!I kept it quiet, as it was not fashionable to have convict forebears in the early 1970’s. Only after 1988!.

It looked as if there had been a family cover-up and I had found my ancestor coming as a convict.

Evidence:                           a. His marriage certificate in 1844 had stated that he was ‘free by servitude’.

          1. He was born in the right year , 1817.

          2. He was born in Kent, England. Woolwich is only a few kilometres from Maidstone.

          3. He arrived in Sydney in 1837.

          4. The convict ship ‘Asia’ had made a voyage to Sydney in 1837.

BUT,was this my ancestor, George Bell? Or were there two people with the same name on the same ship? More research was needed.

In my next blog I will explain some of the detailed research that helped to prove that this George Bell was not my ancestor. It is all too easy to trace the wrong family tree, if you are not careful.

More On My Baxter Families of London

In my last Baxter blog, I mentioned I was investigating court cases in Chancery concerning George and Mary Baxter and the Brayne family. Although I have not solved all the mysteries concerning the court cases, I have been able to find much more on the lives of the Baxter and Brayne families in 18th London.

Over the last few months, I have been using the research facilities at the Grafton Latter Day Saints Family History Centre, for access to microfilms of English records and to the Internet subscription sites of, Findmypast, and The Genealogist. I have also spent a lot of time researching all kinds of topics on- line and at the local library, as well as in the hundreds of books in my own private library.

After many hours of meticulous research and the collection, assessing and filing of over three hundred documents I have been able to extend and record in some detail our Baxter and connected families in London. Finding burial dates and places in London has been notoriously difficult, but I have finally met with great success.

I have connected many, but not all the above-mentioned documents to our families, but I have filed them, as they may yet be useful in that the connection may be in an earlier generation, not yet investigated. Collecting all these documents has enabled me to trace the origins and lives of several interesting Baxter individuals, such as the George Baxter, who is credited with the development of colour printing, although I have not found a family connection yet. Another interesting person was Charles Baxter the noted 19th Century portrait artist, who was connected to our family.

The results of all this research in England, particularly London, has been most pleasing, but the most interesting fact I discovered, was that several family members, particularly cousins of our Thomas George Baxter, came to Australia in the early to mid 19th Century. Some as convicts, as was Thomas George Baxter, and others as free immigrants.

This was revealed when I decided to sort out several Baxter families in New South Wales, who were living in the same area at the same time and had the same Christian names running through the families. This was particularly the case with Charles, John, Thomas., George, and William, for the males and Mary Ann, Elizabeth and Sarah for the females, in the Baxter families around Goulburn. I knew from the material placed on the Internet that other researchers had drawn conclusions and made certain claims about these families, but from my own research, I knew several of these were incorrect.

Although the indexes for Civil Registration of Births, Marriages, and Deaths in Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria are very informative, you cannot build your family tree on these indexes alone. It is necessary to purchase the full certificates to get the correct information. For many years I have used the Transcription Services of Joy Murrin and Marilyn Rowan, to obtain full copies of Birth, Marriage, and Death Certificates from the office of the Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages in New South Wales. Both have websites you can Google to find full information about their services.

It was by following the Golden Rule of Genealogy, that is by moving backward from the known to the unknown, with the correct documents, that I was able to identify who these people were, where they came from, and to whom they were connected, both in Australia and in England. As I sorted, grouped and documented these families I have been also able to extend many branches down to the present, in several states of Australia.

Early next year I look forward to meeting and sharing information and photographs with many of these recently found ‘cousins,’ although the ‘connection’ may be some six or seven generations back in London in the 18th Century. That for me is the ultimate pleasure of doing Family History.

In the Emerald Isle – the Shinkwin Family of County Cork, Ireland

This week I have turned my attention to another of my Irish ancestors, William Shinkwin.

Over the years I have researched and documented William’s life, through birth, marriage and death certificates, convict records, government gazettes,official correspondence and newspapers, from his arrival in Sydney in 1825, until his death in 1881.

I have now turned my attention to researching his life before his arrival in Australia. The information given in the above mentioned records, led me to begin the research in County Cork, Ireland.

Recently the internet subscription website Findmypast added over 8 million court and prison records in Ireland to their database, including those for County Cork. A search for William Shinkwin and other variants drew a blank, which was very disappointing. However after a protracted search year by year and then hundreds of pages of entries within those years, I was finally able to locate William’s entry. It stated that William was convicted under the Insurrection Act on 8 August 1823 at Mallow Special Sessions and sentenced to seven years transportation. It also stated that he had been put on board the Convict Hulk, Surprize

.There were a number of Insurrection Acts passed by the English parliament throughout the 18th and 19th Centuries, which had a impact on the Irish people, but it was the Act of 1822, which had the greatest, and this was the Act that William was transported under.

In effect Ireland was under Martial Law with all the attending strict regulations, including banning of gatherings and a curfew, where all persons were to remain in their house of abode after sun-set. There were Special Session Courts to try persons who breached these laws, and they were automatically sentenced to transportation, if they couldn’t give a good reason for their conduct. Once sentenced it could not be reversed or changed.

The prison hulk, Surprize was originally a 38 gun frigate previously named HMS Jacobs which had been launched in 1812. She had seen service in the navy during the hostilities with France, but was decommissioned in 1822, and sent to Cork Harbour, to serve as a prison, particularly for political internees. Originally these transportees were housed in the Cork City Gaol, which was built over the old gate to the northern part of the city, but it was in a state of decay and was constantly overcrowded, and so the hulk was a solution to this problem.

I have not been able to locate any surviving official records of the Special Sessions, but I have been able to locate a report of the circumstances that brought William Shinkwin before the courts, and his subsequent trial.

At the time of his arrest William Shinkwin was employed as a servant and was residing at Mallow, a town some twenty miles north west of the city of Cork. On the 16th July 1823 he was out in the streets after sun-set. Being high summer at the time it would have been twilight for some hours after sun-set, and many would have been tempted to remain out doors. However, Constable Hales out on duty at 11 pm met William in the street. William gave various and contradictory reasons for being away from his place of abode at that hour, and so was taken into custody. He was brought before the Justices of Peace on the 20th July. On the 8 August he was again given the opportunity to explain his presence in the street, but declined to do so, so he was sentenced to seven years transportation as required by law. To whether it was a romantic tryst, a political meeting or a drinking session with his mates at a local public house, we will never know, but William was removed to the Cork Gaol. There he remained until the 6th September when he was removed to the Surprize prison hulk. William was to remain on the hulk for over a year.

Towards the end of 1824, the convict transport the ‘Hooghly’ was being prepared at Deptford, Kent for its voyage to New South Wales. She was an AI class ship of 466 tons, built at London Dockyard in 1819. She was under Captain Peter Reeves and Robert Tainish had been appointed Surgeon Superintendent.

Tainish kept a detailed medical journal, which began on 26 October 1824. He joined the ship at Deptford in early November and awaited the convict guard under Captain Patrick Logan of the 57th Regiment, which arrived from Chatham, on 13 November. They were cold and wet and nearly all developed severe colds.

Within a couple of weeks preparations were completed and the Hooghly set sail for Cork Harbour where nearly two hundred male prisoners were embarked, on and about the 18 December. The ship set sail from Cork on 5 January 1825.

The Surgeon, Robert Tainish’s Journal has survived and is now at The National Archives in London. It shows that Tainish was kept very busy during the voyage attending not only the prisoners but the crew and guards along with their families.

William Shinkwin reported sick on 17 February, and was treated for constipation. He was discharged from the sick list on 20 February. There were no further entries for him.

The Hooghly arrived at Rio Janeiro on 18 February and stayed there for over a month, presumably to add fresh fruit and vegetables to the diet, as there were many cases of scurvy among the convicts, guards and crew.

The ship left Rio on 22 March and headed for Australia. She arrived in Sydney on 22 April 1825 after a voyage of a total of 107 days.

On arrival William Shinkwin was assigned to ‘Piper’, believed to have been Captain Piper of Point Piper.

Although I have not finished the research on William Shinkwin, I am pleased to be able to add some details to this part of his life, which has encouraged me to continue. I am now putting into book form the life of this ancestor.