The Downes Brothers - Wren Boys from County Clare
This is the story of three Irishmen from County Clare, convicted of manslaughter and transported to Australia for a crime they probably did not commit. One managed to make a new life for himself, one got "caught in the furze" and the fate of the third is unknown. The search continues for the families they left behind.
From the Ennis Chronicle and Clare Advertiser, Saturday 6 January 1827:1
On St. Stephen's day, some rioting occurred between two parties of Wren boys2 near Seafield, in the West of this County, when a man named Anglam, who was riding with his party, received a blow of the handle of a pitchfork from another named Shanahan, which fractured his skull in such a manner that he expired on Saturday night. Anglam's brother struck Shanahan, with a loaded whip which leaves no hope of his recovery. We understand that six men have been committed to the Jail of this town charged with the above crime.
An inquest was held into the death of Timothy Anglim, and from information given by Pat Anglim, charges were laid against Pat Shanahan and others.3 But at the Ennis Spring Assizes on 9 March 1827, only John Downes, Michael Downes and James Mungovan were convicted of the manslaughter of Timothy Anglim and sentenced to be transported for seven years. No mention was made of Shanahan and the other men supposedly arrested.4
The three prisoners, claiming innocence and fearful for the fate of their families left behind, petitioned the Governor of Ireland on 24 March:
Unfortunately for the three men their petition was refused, despite the visit to the gaol on 3 April by the benevolent Elizabeth Fry, who reportedly conversed with most of the prisoners.6 All three convicts set sail from Cork 27 September 1827 in the Marquis of Huntley, William Ascough Master, together with 160 other Irish male convicts, 33 soldiers of the 40th Regiment as guard, women and children belonging to the soldiers, a ships company of 40 men and boys and the ship's surgeon John Smith, Royal Navy. The ship travelled via the Cape of Good Hope, arriving in New South Wales 27 January 1828, and suffered one death on board.7
"Innocent bystander" pleas were very familiar to the authorities.8 On this occasion, however, our petitioners may have had a case. In August 1828, near Westport County Mayo, police arrested the "notorious character" Patrick Shanahan (alias Fox), charged with the murder of Timothy Anglim. Shanahan had not died as predicted, but had escaped, just as the three convicts had claimed. He was brought back to Ennis by the Clare constabulary and committed to the gaol there, but the desperate man escaped again, this time to County Tipperary. He was re-arrested near Nenagh on 23 August, but not before receiving in his thigh a pistol ball, which was extracted in Ennis two days later by Doctor Castles.9
Shanahan appeared at the Spring Assizes in March 1829. The case for the prosecution apparently rested on the same witnesses Timothy Gallagher and Patrick Anglim who had supposedly "sworn falsely and maliciously" in 1827. Newspaper reports are confusing, but it seems the large Anglim party, led by Tim Anglim on horseback, had gone to Seafield wren-hunting, where they met the other wren party on the road. General fighting broke out, during which Tim Anglim reportedly boasted that if he wished he and his party could pull all the cabins down. Pat Shanahan was wheeling a pitchfork but his brother Thomas, armed with a tree-spade, actually struck Timothy Anglim down in the dyke. Four others beat him when down. Tim Anglim's brother Patrick took to Pat Shanahan with a loaded whip, after which Shanahan flew into a house for protection and, dressed in woman's clothes, made his escape by the back way to County Mayo.
The Limerick Evening Post & Clare Sentinel's report underscores the capricious nature of "justice":
The learned judge then addressed the Jury, and said, there were three individuals transported for this murder before. He did not know when they were tried before, but he was sure there was sufficient evidence to justify such a sentence. On the present occasion, however, it did not appear sufficiently satisfactory that the prisoner struck the deceased; he had notwithstanding, a pitchfork in his hand and under the circumstances he would deem him guilty of manslaughter.
One year later again, no doubt encouraged by the lenient treatment dealt his brother, Thomas Shanahan returned. On 11 February 1830 the following notice appeared in The Clare Journal and Ennis Advertiser:
Once more Patrick Anglim gave evidence. This time it was reportedly a stone which knocked his brother down, after which Thomas Shanahan had struck the deceased with the pitchfork.
The Learned Judge and Jury did not waste time. According to The Clare Journal, a "conversation took place between the Court and Counsel on both sides, when it was agreed that a verdict of manslaughter should be given". The Limerick Evening Post & Clare Sentinel confined itself to reporting Tom Shanahan's sentence of six months' imprisonment. By this time, the press, the courts and the clergy were occupied with the increasing level of violence and agrarian disturbances in the County, and showed little interest in a Wren day riot of four years ago.
On arrival in Sydney the friends were split up. Michael was assigned to Captain John Brabyn at Clifton Cottage, Richmond.10 (Clifton farm is now part of the RAAF base, Richmond). Captain Brabyn, formerly of the New South Wales Corps and recently of the Veterans' Company, had much experience with Irish convicts and a reputation for severity. He had been in command of the guard on board the Marquis Cornwallis in 1796 when the Irish convicts and some of the guard tried to take over the ship; and he was also at Castle Hill in 1804 against the Irish convict uprising. But by the time Michael arrived that was all behind him; Brabyn had retired from the army and was a magistrate on the Windsor bench and a prominent member of the Hawkesbury Benevolent Society, becoming president in 1829.11
It seems Michael did not stay long in Captain Brabyn's personal service, but was probably despatched to the Hunter Valley to work for Brabyn's Irish son-in-law John Gaggin.12 Gaggin, a clerk in the Commissariat, had a 2000-acre grant at Luskintyre, between Singleton and Maitland, and from 1827 to 1832 he was also superintendent of the Hawkesbury Benevolent Society's herd of cattle at Mooki on the Liverpool Plains west of the Hunter. As a magistrate Brabyn could control the assignment and movement of convicts, and it is likely that he sent Michael, a farm servant, to the Hunter, where the settlers were crying out for labourers,13 or perhaps to Mooki with the Benevolent Society's cattle. Also, as an Irish speaker, at this time Michael's command of the English language was probably restricted, and he would have been more useful with Gaggin's Irish overseer than in Brabyn's mostly English household.
Captain Brabyn also had a property called "Sydenham" near Singleton in the Hunter Valley, which he gave to the Gaggins in trust for his grandchild Frederick Gaggin. In 1832 John Gaggin lost his Luskintyre property and went to live at Sydenham.15 Michael possibly moved to Sydenham, either with the Gaggin family or earlier, because his Ticket of Leave, issued on 1 May 1832, confined him to the district of Patricks Plains, the old name for Singleton.16
On 24 June 1834 Michael was a free man.17 Back at Richmond, after fifteen years of loneliness and coincidentally on St Stephen's Day, in 1842 he married Martha Allen,18 a free immigrant who had arrived from Strabane, County Tyrone in February 1842 and who was employed by Mr Ward of Richmond.19 Michael was still a labourer in Richmond when the first two children were baptised,20 but by March 1848 he was back in the Hunter and farming in the Maitland area,21 probably as a tenant farmer as the days of free land grants to expirees had long passed.
In about 1860 or earlier he finally settled down on his own land, which he named "Clarefield" (no doubt after his homeland), at Goorangoola Creek, not far from the Gaggin property at Sydenham. He purchased about 113 acres, right on the creek, for £197-18-0, from John Browne22 (the district's most prominent Catholic citizen), and by 1863 had cleared about 25 acres, built a house and shed, and erected fencing, total value of improvements £192-00-00.23 When the Crown Lands Alienation Act was passed in 1861, small settlers were able to "select" crown land previously occupied by the squatters, and under this system Michael was able progressively to add another 232 adjoining acres to provide for Martha and their eight children.24 In 1863 Michael was about 60 years old and eldest son James only 18 his achievement in manually clearing and cultivating his land at that age can only be marvelled at.
Martha was not to enjoy her new home for long; on 26 January 1864 she died,25 and Michael was alone for the second time. Baby Mary Ann was just 4 years old.
Michael continued to farm his land and raise his children, succeeding where hundreds of other selectors failed. In 1875 Michael, six of his children, and James' wife and four children were all living at Clarefield.26 In 1878 the Inspector of Conditional Purchases visited, and reported that the land was "well improved". The property was fenced, and the most recently acquired portion was used for grazing, with 20 acres ring-barked.27 But life on a small holding was hard, and sometimes funds just ran out. Like many other small settlers, Michael was forced to mortgage his farm to the local butcher, Michael Ryan, in 1879 for twelve months, presumably to pay the bills.28
Michael died on 15 October 1881. He is buried in the Singleton cemetery.29
Shortly before his death Michael transferred his land to son James,30 who lived on at Clarefield with his wife and nine children. In 1885 James registered his livestock with the district inspector: five horses, 13 head of cattle, 15 sheep and one pig.31 James and his family stayed on until the depression of the 1890s hit the family. In 1893, after a long drought, and as the banks were closing their doors, eastern Australia experienced a devastating flood. On 7 March, 985 points (250 mm) of rain fell in Singleton in 24 hours. The Hunter river rose 38 ft (11.7 m), the township was under water for four days, and the surrounding farms ruined. According to The Singleton Argus of 15 March 1893:
The Kermode lands were next-door to Clarefield (see map), and we may assume the Downes property suffered similar damage. The State Premier visited Singleton, and government grants were issued to the destitute, but recovery would have been extraordinarily difficult, especially with the depressed prices for produce and with high unemployment. In 1896 James increased his mortgage to the bank to £200, and in 1899 the bank foreclosed. James and his family moved into Singleton township and the property was taken over by Thomas Jackson.32
On 16 April 1930 the following article appeared in The Singleton Argus:
Roselands. One of the old familiar landmarks of the district disappeared last week, in the demolition of the old Clarefield House. It was originally built by one of the early pioneering farmers, the late Mr Downes, over 70 years ago. The late Mr James Downes and family lived in it for many years after his father's death. The late Mr T. Jackson, who also lived in it for some years, had it enlarged and renovated; but the old house had served its time, and with all its old associations and memories has had to share the fate of many of the other old homes.
(*Note: 3 Downes siblings married 3 Sharp siblings)
While Michael Downes' story is one of triumph over adversity, brother John's is one of sadness and misfortune.
John was ill on the voyage, and three weeks out of Sydney, was placed on the sick list for four days, vomiting blood.33 Whether this was the result of a punishment or poor treatment cannot be determined. He was later to show a spirited temper, and might not have endured the close confinement and the January heat with equanimity.
On arrival he was assigned to Mary Dorr of Penrith.35 Mary was an ex-convict whose husband, James, was a Ticket-of-Leave holder36 who therefore could not be assigned servants himself (see Box 3). James Dorr grew and cured tobacco on a 50-acre farm on the Nepean river, winning first prize for his product at the Agricultural Society meeting in 1825.37 John's service there was satisfactory, and when he petitioned 7 November 1829 for his wife Honorah and son John to be given free passage to New South Wales, his petition was recommended by his employer James Dorr.38 In August 1831 the British government forwarded to Dublin Castle, Ireland, a letter recommending passage for Honorah and John.39 But whether Honorah was found, and whether she wished to join her husband, are not known. There is no evidence she came to Australia.
Then things went bad for John. In 1830 Mary Dorr died,40 and as James Dorr had not yet been granted his freedom, John was re-assigned to John Simpson,41 also of Penrith. Simpson was an ex-convict tailor with a chequered career. He had been overseer of tailors at the Lumber Yard while a prisoner, but he was removed and punished for absenting himself from the shop.42 After gaining his freedom he operated a tailoring business from Penrith, and in 1828 he lived on a 5-acre grant with his wife, six children, one convict tailor and one ex-convict general labourer.43
In December 1831, with the fourth anniversary of his arrival approaching, John applied through the local court for a Ticket of Leave, but received no reply. Then in June 1832 he was found in the Windsor district with an improper pass. This unfortunate event may well have been caused by slackness on the part of his employer and John may have been on legitimate business. But the authorities had recently decided to enforce the pass system (see Box 4). John was removed from Simpson's service and placed in Government employment at Hyde Park Barracks. On 24 June 1832, from Hyde Park Barracks, he again petitioned the Governor for his Ticket of Leave. The authorities, when investigating his case, noted that his original application for a Ticket had been received, but had not been actioned because five years' service was required, and "5 years expires January 1833". Presumably the extra year's service was required because John had not remained with the one employer, although this was clearly contrary to stated policy (see Box 5). In August John was informed that his petition could not be complied with and he "must apply in the regular way".45 This would have been seen as a further injustice, especially as both his brother John and James Mungovan had Tickets of Leave by this time.
In December 1832, while still at the Barracks, he was found drunk and creating a disturbance in his ward, and sentenced to the Treadmill for 10 days.46 Then in March 1833, while on the Garden Gang, he was flogged 25 lashes for disobedience of orders and insolence.47
Finally, on 10 October 1833, almost seven years from his conviction, he was released with a Ticket of Leave allowing him "to remain in the District of Penrith, on the recommendation of the Sydney Bench, dated 30 November 1832".48 He obtained his Certificate of Freedom on 7 October 1834.49
By this time John must have thought there was no justice in the world, but worse was to come. In February 1843, having given up hope of his wife Honorah joining him, John applied to marry Ellen Roe, Ticket of Leave holder from County Limerick. Ellen had been convicted of stealing brass at the Limerick City Quarter Sessions in July 1836, sentenced to seven years' transportation along with about 20 other young women at the same sessions, and arrived 30 May 1837 per the transport Margaret.51 But John's application to marry Ellen was refused, for the reason that he was married on arrival with one child.52 The minister was the Revd J Brady, RC Clergyman at Windsor, the same man who had married his brother Michael and Martha Allen six weeks previously. Second marriages after seven years' separation beyond the seas were not uncommon, and although void, were not considered a felony. (See Box 6.) But convicts had to seek official permission to marry, and because Ellen Roe was not yet free, the officials saw fit to check and refuse the marriage.
Despite these bureaucratic obstacles, John and Ellen decided to settle down together anyway. In May 1843 Ellen received approval to transfer her Ticket of Leave to the Maitland district,53 and John became a small farmer on Wallis's Creek, south of Maitland. He was probably a tenant farmer on the Dagworth estate, or on one of the other large estates which had been established by the wealthy settlers of the 1820s. He may have been the John Downes who in 1846 was cultivating tobacco there54 a skill no doubt learnt from his first employer James Dorr. John and Ellen lived together for 12 years until, on 3 August 1854, Ellen succumbed to a severe cough and headache, and died of "effusion on the chest caused by neglected cold and inflammation of the throat".55
On 25 July 1875 John Downes, labourer aged 69 years, died of old age at the Benevolent Asylum, Singleton.56 His death was certified by the wardsman, and all family details were recorded as "unknown". He was said to have arrived from County Limerick and been 50 years in New South Wales. It is highly likely that this is our John, now in Singleton near his more successful brother and family a perusal of convict records has found no John Downes from County Limerick but the full story remains to be found.
John would have been a broken man. Historian L.L. Robson has written of convicts who received the lash:
The most profound factor preventing reformation, and perhaps driving men to persistent offence, was the lash. Its advantages of cheapness and speed are obvious, and it was a means of enforcing discipline in the armed forces, the officers of which filled many posts in early Australia. It would be difficult to find a more effective means of hardening the heart of the convict than by flogging him. Degrading to all concerned, the cat-o'-nine-tails was feared until its first use, after which a marked deterioration of the convict's character set in. A similar effect followed the placing of men into the brutalizing chain gangs.57
For a first offender, a rural man caught up in the high spirits of the St Stephen's Day Wren ritual, John Downes seems to have been dealt all the cards from the bottom of the pack.
James was one of five unfortunates to contract dysentery on the voyage. After three days of pain he sought assistance on 1 Nov 1827 from the ship's surgeon who described him as a healthy looking dark complexioned man. James remained in his care until discharged cured 6 November. From his journal it seems the surgeon was conscientious in his duties, the only death on board being one from dysentery.58
On arrival James was assigned to Charles Tompson of South Creek.59 Tompson, a "gentleman convict" who was sentenced to seven years' transportation in Warwick for stealing two books, had arrived per Coromandel in 1804, prospered, and managed to regain a position in local society. In about 1819 he bought a 700-acre farm, Clydesdale, south of Windsor on the Richmond Road.60 By the time James arrived Tompson owned over 2000 acres and headed a large household, including 17 convicts.61 His eldest son, Charles junior, under the tutorship of Irish Protestant clergyman and 1798 rebel Henry Fulton, became a classics scholar and poet and is considered to be Australia's first native-born bard.62
James seems to have settled in satisfactorily at Clydesdale, and obtained his Ticket of Leave on 1 May 1832 allowing him to remain in the Windsor district.63 He received his Certificate of Freedom on 17 May 1834.64
In August 1838, James renewed his Certificate of Freedom, his first one having become mutilated.65 A search for James after this time has so far been unsuccessful. He doesn't appear to have re-married, nor acquired land in NSW. His death has not been found in the NSW records, suggesting he may have left the colony. Investigations are continuing.
Our three miscreants left several clues as to their origins, but it is difficult to draw firm conclusions, other than they came from West Clare and probably around the Seafield/Tromra area.
We cannot say definitely when they were born, or even which of the Downes brothers was the elder. The convict indents prepared on arrival in New South Wales show James and John's age as 28 and Michael's as 26. The Warrants of the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, prepared in Ireland prior to departure in 1827, however, state Michael was 30, James 29 and John was the younger brother at 28.67 In later years Michael said he was born in 180768 this is possible as Clare men were said to have married as young as 17 (see ).Box 7 Given he and his compatriots were all married with one child in March 1827, and John junior was about 5 in 1830, we can only assume they all married about 1824.
John was possibly living in Milltown Malbay at the time of his arrest. In 1830 he said his wife Honorah nee Gallagher and son John, aged 5, resided in Miltown Malbay, Parish Kilmurry, and were known to Andrew Deveron Esq JP and the Revd Patrick McGowen [sic], RC Clergyman.69 Milltown Malbay is located in the civil and Roman Catholic parishes of Kilfarboy, not Kilmurry, but until 1839 the Roman Catholic parishes of Kilmurry and Kilfarboy were united, with Fr Patrick McGuane as curate to his brother Fr Anthony McGuane PP. 70 The Revd Andrew Davoran was the Church of Ireland vicar for Kilfarboy, and is listed in the Tithe Applotment Books for 1825 at Milltown Malbay (Liegard North).71
In the 1821 census, Milltown had 110 houses with 125 families and a population of 600 souls.72 By 1837 it had 133 houses and 726 inhabitants.73 The Tithe Composition of 1825 taxed 75 occupants of land in Liegard North townland, including a John Downes who occupied a half-acre of first-quality ploughland. Although we can never prove this was our John, it is likely that he worked this half-acre to support his wife and son.
What became of Honora and John is a mystery. The Kilfarboy baptism register shows there was a Gallaher family living in Liegard, at least from 1842, so it is possible that they returned to her family. The only other known Downes occupant of Liegard North was Daniel Downes possibly a relative, as Michael Downes named one of his Australian children Daniel (and the name is still favoured by descendants today). In 1830 Daniel Downes and others of Kilfarboy parish were evicted by Thomas Morony for overholding (over-staying his lease),75 after his family and ancestors had resided on the same farm for 133 years.76 According to evidence given at the 1836 Royal Commission into the poor in Ireland, evicted families in Kilfarboy were dispersed to other parts of the country (see Box 8). It is possible that when the agents came looking for Honora and John to offer them passage to Australia, they had left Milltown, or were in no condition to travel, had they even the means of getting to the port of embarkation.
In Summer 1829 an Honora Downes is shown in the County Clare Police Book as laying charges against a Synon Russell.77 This is the only mention found of Honora, if indeed it is she, in my search to date, and Synon Russell has not been located.
If we examine the names of the victim and witnesses of the Wren Day riot in conjunction with the Tithe records of 1825, we are drawn to the townland of Carrowdough, home of Tim Galleher and Pat Anglim and brother, and to its neighbour Clohan More, where eleven Downes holdings are shown (see map). If the Wren Day dispute was about territory and between rival gangs, we can speculate that the opposition came from here. But speculate is all we can do, because there is no sign of any of these families in the 1855 Griffith's valuation of Carrowdough and Clohan More, so the families must have been moved on.
Our last clue is the place of the crime, Seafield, and here is where we find the concentration of Mungovan and Shanahan families. The tithes for this area were only partly compounded in 1825, the full composition being established in 1834. The townland of Seafield is not specifically shown, but in the adjacent and co-leased town of Tromra Castle, in 1834 six Shanahans and five Mongevans are listed, including one "widow of Jas Mongevan". Although there is none shown at Tromra Castle, there certainly were Downes families in the area, as is evidenced in the Kilmurry RC parish register which commenced in 1839 and in which Bridget Downes of Seafield is the mother of Senon Keleher baptised in 1840. The parish register also shows Anglim and Galleher families living in the Seafield area, at least from 1840.78
In the more comprehensive Griffith's valuation of 1855, Jas. Mongevin's widow has disappeared, but among the many Mongevin families in the vicinity we find a Mary Downes inhabiting the smallest and poorest of nine cottages along the seafront at Seafield, next door to James Gallagher.79 Could this be our Michael's wife? Let us speculate that it is (for we can find no reason not) and follow the fate of Mary through the valuation field books.80
Mary remained in her cottage, leased from Daniel Mungovan Jnr, until about 1863 when she and the Mungovans disappeared from Seafield and the cottage was taken over by James O'Brien. About 1868 a Michael Downes appeared on the Seafield books, farming about two acres of the original Mungovan ground. Could this be the son of Mary and our Michael? Pure speculation, but let us continue. In 1877 the row of cottages was in ruins, but by 1882 Michael had a house on his land, and he remained there until 1901 when his son John Downes replaced him. The 1901 census shows Michael, aged 75, his wife Mary, 75, and son John, 35, and family, and daughter Honor Boyle, 35, and family, all resident at Seafield. The ages are entirely unreliable, as borne out by the 1911 census (when John was 53 and Honor 55), but it is quite possible that Michael, born about 1825, was indeed the son of our Michael who was transported to Australia.81
Carrying our investigation through, we find the house and land passing to Mary Downes (John's wife) in 1930 and to their son Patrick in 1941.
Returning to Daniel Mungovan, the provider of a home for Mary, we may speculate that this was a relative of our transportee James. Laurence, Daniel Senior, Patrick and Michael Muggevin [sic] were all occupiers of land at Seafield in 1855. About 1857 John Mungovan replaced Laurence, and Daniel Junior replaced Michael. About 1863 all Mungovans disappeared from the Seafield books, for reasons unknown. It is possible that they emigrated several Mungavin/Mungovan families from Clare took assisted passage to New South Wales, but none from Seafield or they may simply have relinquished their holdings there in favour of their homes at Tromra West. The search continues.
I am indebted to Mrs Shirley Downes, who conducted the first research into Michael and John Downes, and who "started me off" on my search. Shirley's work is in the booklet "Your Downes and Humphries Ancestors" in the National Library of Australia.
© 2000 Patricia Downes
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