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, alledgedly 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.”

Amongst 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 shipAsia (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 amongst 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.

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Robin and Mercy Bell of Kent, England and Scone in New South Wales

I have been researching my Bell ancestors since childhood when my maternal grandmother told me stories of bushrangers, gold miners and colourful family characters. I must admit it is still my favourite family when it comes to research.

It is now more than fifty years since I bought my first certificate, which was the death certificate of George Bell, my grandmothers paternal grandfather, who died in 1894 at Picton in New South Wales.

Since that time I have traced these ancestors back to the Middle Ages in Kent, England. I have also traced many twigs and branches of the Bell Family Tree’. Some of these I have published in book form.

For twenty years I also published a Bell Family Newsletter in which I kept the family members up to date with the family research. Family members also sent details of their ‘twigs’ and ‘branches’ which was also shared through these newsletters.

Although I no longer publish the newsletter I’m always interested in the research of these families and from time to time I solve long standing puzzles and make wonderful break-throughs.

I now intend to share these with family members through my blog and articles on my website. This blog is about the family of Robin and Mercy Bell (nee Cox), who immigrated from Mereworth, Kent,on board the Woodbridge, which arrived in Sydney on 15 September 1838. These were the uncle and Aunt of my fore mentioned George Bell. Much of the story of this family and their descendants is told in ‘The Descendants of Robin and Mercy Bell’, which is available through this website.

I have continued to research this family line to try and solve mysteries and find information not available when the book was printed. I found some of the missing information at a later date and shared it with interested family members in the Bell Family Newsletters Nos 41 and 42. Now I have been able to find more on this family, particularly the women, before the family immigrated.

Mercy Cox was born about 1782, probably in Staplehurst, Kent, the seventh child and youngest daughter of Uriah and Anne Cox (nee Poole). Her baptism has not been found, but it is possibly in the Congregational Church records, as were her older brothers and sisters.

Mercy Cox married James Cheeseman on 8 November 1800 at Smarden in Kent. James was the eldest son of Solomon and Sarah Cheeseman (nee Cornwall) and had been born at Marden Kent in 1767.

Ann Pool, the eldest daughter of James and Mercy Cheeseman was born at Staplehurst, and was baptised on 4 July 1802.

In late 1803 James Cheeseman went away to the Napoleonic Wars, and never returned. In the Staplehurst Overseers Account Books we find that the parish paid Mercy Cheeseman a weekly allowance from parish funds for nearly three years. On the 18 December 1803 the infant daughter of Mercy and James Cheeseman died and was buried in the churchyard at Staplehurst.

On the 22 April 1804 another daughter was born to Mercy and she was baptised in the Staplehurst church on 22 April. She was named Sarah Cornwall Cheeseman for James’ mother.

Mercy’s parish allowance payments stop on 14 April 1806. Lady Day, the 25 March is the first day of the Church year, and it would appear these payments stopped soon afterwards. After the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, there was a break in hostilities with France, so one would expect James Cheeseman to return home to his family. Obviously not having put in an appearance by the end of the church year in March 1806, the parish may not have been willing to continue to support his family, and may have tried to resettle them in the husband’s parish of birth, Marden, Kent.

Sometime in 1806 another daughter was born to Mercy Cheeseman, possibly at Marden. She was baptised at Marden on 31 January 1808 and is recorded at the daughter of James and Mercy Cheeseman. I will write more about these three daughters of Mercy Cheeseman in my next blog.

It was about this time that Mercy Cheeseman formed a relationship with Robin Bell of East Farleigh, Kent. Robin, the fourth child and third son of Thomas and Ann Bell (nee Lawrence) was born at Mereworth, Kent, and baptised there on 15 March 1785.

Jane Bell the eldest daughter of Robin and Mercy Bell was baptised at East Farleigh on 28 February 1808. She died at Maidstone the following year and was buried in All Saints churchyard on 25 November.

It had been over seven years since Mercy Cheeseman’s husband, James had gone off to war, and the general conclusion was that he had perished, as he had not returned home to his family. Robin Bell and Mercy Cheeseman were married at East Farleigh on 10 October 1811.

On the 10 November 1811, Ann Bell, the daughter of Robin and Mercy Bell was baptised at East Farleigh. She later married her cousin Josiah Bell and remained in England when her parents and siblings emigrated.

Mary Bell, the third daughter of Robin and Mercy Bell was baptised at East Farleigh on 16 January 1814. On 4 August 1834 there was a Removal Order for her to be removed from East Farleigh and returned to Mereworth her father’s parish of birth because she was expecting a child. At her examination on 18 August 1834 she named John Saunders, a labourer of Brenchley as the father. She remained at East Farleigh with Mereworth Parish Overseers paying parish relief to East Farleigh for her keep. In the following month a son was born to Mary and she named him Robert in honour of her father. He was baptised at East Farleigh on 7 October 1834. He died just before his third birthday and was buried in St Mary’s churchyard, East Farleigh on 26 September 1837.At this stage nothing further is known of Mary Bell. She may have been the Mary Ann Bell who married George Terry at Maidstone in 1836.

Further children were born to Robin and Mercy Bell including the following:

Robert Bell baptised 28 April 1816 at St Mary’s East Farleigh.

Henry Stirling Bell baptised 16 August 1818 at St Mary’s East Farleigh. Died and was buried there on 5 March 1820.

John Bell, baptised 28 May 1820 at St Mary’s East Farleigh.

Thomas Bell, baptised 7 June 1822, at All Saints Maidstone.

James Bell, baptised 7 November 1824, at St Mary’s East Farleigh.

Jethro Bell, baptised 18 March 1827, at All Saints, Maidstone.

Charlotte Bell, baptised 15 November 1829, at St Mary’s East Farleigh.

All these children emigrated with their parents on board the Woodbridge in 1838. Much of their life and descendants can be found in my book, The Descendants of Robin and Mercy Bell.