Páginas vistas en total

jueves, 21 de mayo de 2015

martes, 19 de mayo de 2015

The Williamson family led by "us kids" (Linley, Jim, Howard, Bryan and Sandra) went to Nevis from the Bannockburn end in October 2014 to pay homage to our forebearers. Here's a video about the event.

The announcement in the Otago Daily Times dated May 22 1939 was brief but eloquent:

domingo, 11 de marzo de 2012

The Legend of Letty Browne

Letty Browne
Leticia Brown or Browne was born in Dorset, England, on 15th March 1842. In 1857 she is on the passenger list (surname given as Brown) of the "Cora Pearl"  (from Southampton bound for Lyttleton), where her occupation is given as servant. Her patrons were Mr and Mrs James Stephenson, also of Dorset. The Stephensons established themselves in Christchurch and became prominent in social circles. James Stephenson, a barrister, is best known as trustee of several provincial institutions including the McDongle Art Gallery and the Christchurch Friendly Society and as a member of the Provincial Council from 1868 to 1882. Nothing more is known of their servant Leticia as she does not appear even on the 1858 census.

James Stephenson
However, on 28th December of the next  year a Leticia Browne[sic] registered the birth of an illegitimate female child in Clyde, Central Otago. The child was given its mother's surname but was apparently given in adoption. We can only speculate on the circumstances that brought a pregnant Leticia to the goldfields at the tender age of seventeen. Should it be laid at the door of the respectable Mr Stephenson? In those days it was not unusual to dismiss pregnant maidservants with a sum of money and the address of a distant relative. Or did Leticia run away with a beau and a promise of marriage? There is a reference in verse  that we shall consider presently, attributed to Leticia herself in later life although probably apocryphal,  that suggests the culprit may have been a clergyman. Be that as it may, the only alternatives for girls in her situation in the 19th century were starvation, a quick marriage  or prostitution , and the best place to find a plentiful supply of clients in the latter  case was on the goldfields. There were more varieties of gold digger than the prospector with his pick, shovel  and pan: cardsharps, so-called dancing troupes, claim jumpers, gangs of bandits, confidence trickster of every ilk, gunrunners, liquor stills, false assay agents, mine salters and a plethora of other free-riders and hangers-on followed the gold rushes wherever they led like a cloud of blowflies. Amongst this motley crowd were those known as working girls.

Goldfield working girls

Leticia was evidently a very determined person and knew what she wanted. A legend grew up around her exploits as a working girl. Notoriety brought prosperity, as she was in demand by the "crème de la crème" of goldfield society: miners who had struck it rich, local dignitaries, dredgemasters with their generous wage and share in profits, the chief of police and district judges... She could afford to pick and choose.
During the sixties she was known all over the Central Otago region as Letty Browne. She was celebrated in popular songs that went the rounds of the pubs and drinking houses. Most of these have been lost in the mists of time, but one remains extant due to a curious circumstance. Mr Alec Hardy, sole teacher at the Garston primary school during the 1950's, confiscated an exercise book in which a schoolboy had copied the following verses. The culprit, whose surname was McClean, said he had heard his grandfather sing the song on many occasions when he got a little tipsy with his cronies:

The Ballad of Jack and Letty

Jack and Jim and Bob and George
Sluiced the face above the gorge
Staked a claim in sixty-nine
Spoon dredge on the Clutha line

Letty Browne was a working lass
Generous bust and shapely ass
Digger's dream and miner's curse
Dunstan pub was her home turf

Jack swagged out the take that day
Assay office, eight men's' pay
Two months sweat in a banker's note
Thought he'd stop to wet his throat

"Hello digger, what's your choice?"
Letty Brown had a soft wee voice
Starry eyes and plunging cleavage
Folded arms to get more leverage

Now Jack was just your average bloke
Barrel chested, legs of oak
Weak of brain and strong of arm
He lost his way in Letty's charms

George was wrathful, Bob was plastered
"Where's that friggin' no-good bastard?
I'll put his balls through the stamping gear
And tie his dick to the bosuns chair!"

Jack came sneaking home at dawn
Face all bloody, clothes all torn
"I met with bandits on the bluff
Half a hundred strong, and tough"

"I put up such a bloody fight
We were at it half the night
Six or eight I sent to hell
More than that I cannot tell"

Jim gave Jack a friendly hug
Bob poured tea into his mug
George said "Jack, ye did thy best
Get thee down and take thy  rest"

Jack  stood up, he looked a wreck
Something fell from round his neck
Something perfumed, something pretty
Something they'd all seen on Letty

A gold dredge is a dangerous place
One false move, you leave no trace
Catch your foot in a chain drive hole
The Devil waits to take your soul

Clutha water is turquoise blue
Clutha current is strong and true
Cold and deep the river wends
And in those depths my story ends

The Clutha River at Devil's Nook
The only known photograph
of Letty Browne, wearing her
famous gold nugget chain.


The ditty I referred to above as probably being apocryphal I got from a schoolmate, also at Garston primary school during the 1950's. It formed part of a longer composition that circulated amongst schoolboys in those days. Perhaps its only value is to show the extent of the acclaim reached by Letty's reputation as the epitome of the working girls in Central Otago nearly a century earlier:
       "Ode on my Goldmine"
     by Leticia Browne

              Oft have I wondered how I would of got on 
            If I hadn't been blessed with a cunt so fine.
       Washing the dishes for some lucky John
   A penny a day and  scraps for to dine.

         But I was deflower'd by a parson at Clyde
   And he gave me a nugget worth fifty.
                   I resolved on that day as a whore I would bide 
 To work hard and always be thifty.  

               And all this I owe to my goldmine, you see   
 I call it my Sweet Kitty Puss Pie.      
                      If you got the dough there's none better than me
               If you're ever up Dunstan way give it a try   

There is also the story of a rich dredge owner who wrote  poems to her in the hope that she would consent to spend the night with him on his monthly holiday. In those days people wrote verse at the drop of a hat. None of these ditties can be considered to constitute poetry, such is the low artistic value of the rhymes. But it casts a curious light on the decline of written communication that has taken place since. At all events, the story goes that the dredgemaster sent Letty the following missive:

Gold dredge on the Waimumu Stream

Letty will you make me oh so happy?
Letty if you let me
Letty if you pet me
I promise to be a real nice chappie
I'll give you gold
And price ten-fold
If you'll dress up in a baby's nappy
Suck your thumb
Show your bum
Letty will you make me oh so happy?

To which Letty is reputed to have replied:

Letty don't and Letty won't,
for all the gold in Gabriel's Gully

You're too fat and stink of rat,
Puss with you I will not sully.

Balclutha Bridge
Letty Browne plied her trade throughout the sixties and gathered together a fortune big enough to establish her as an investor in various mining enterprises. In the seventies she bought a large house at Balclutha (appopriately, for Jack's bones must have passed under the famous Balclutha bridge, the last before the river reaches the sea) and lived the rest of her days in retirement. Nothing more is known of her until her death in 1911. In her will she left her entire fortune of more than 100,000 pounds, including the house,  to the Otago Women's Shelter movement.

The little we know of Letty sheds a fascinating light on one of the seldom-mentioned aspects of the goldfields. It is time some serious research was carried out into the origins, customs, working conditions, economic impact and sociological implications of the working girls of the Otago gold rushes.

I would like to recommend Diggers, Hatters & Whores  by Stevan Eldred-Grigg.

NOTE: Letty Browne never existed. She sprang to life during a night on the wine in Geneva with Bob McKerrow. We hope you enjoyed the read, which is pure fiction. The photos are culled from public domain sites on the Internet and the persons portrayed therein have nothing to do with the roles I have given them. If anyone objects to their presence on this blog I will be happy to remove them. All verse written by James Williamson and Bob McKerrow.

miércoles, 29 de febrero de 2012

Why emigrate from "Bonny Scotland"?

Living in Scotland in the 19th Century
Typical croft of the period
Hard to believe
The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were times of brutal poverty and repression for the common people of Scotland. Under the traditional clan system, destroyed by the English after the Battle of Culloden in 1746, Scottish aristocrats rented land to tenants (known as crofters) under a semi-feudal system the mainstay of which was the raising of black cattle and kelp collecting. When these industries became unprofitable, the landowners turned to sheep. Sheep required less labour, and first the highlands, then the rest of Scotland were brutally cleared of crofters to make way for the new system which was based on the enclosure of vast tracts of arable land.

 The method was violent, and the common people treated worse than the animals that were to replace them. Eviction of crofters was achieved by simply burning villages to the ground. A contemporary account by Donald McLeod, a crofter from Sutherland, makes harrowing reading:
" The consternation and confusion were extreme. Little or no time was given for the removal of persons or property; the people striving to remove the sick and the helpless before the fire should reach them; next, struggling to save the most valuable of their effects. The cries of the women and children, the roaring of the affrighted cattle, hunted at the same time by the yelling dogs of the shepherds amid the smoke and fire, altogether presented a scene that completely baffles description — it required to be seen to be believed.
A dense cloud of smoke enveloped the whole country by day, and even extended far out to sea. At night an awfully grand but terrific scene presented itself — all the houses in an extensive district in flames at once. I myself ascended a height about eleven o'clock in the evening, and counted two hundred and fifty blazing houses, many of the owners of which I personally knew, but whose present condition — whether in or out of the flames — I could not tell. The conflagration lasted six days, till the whole of the dwellings were reduced to ashes or smoking ruins."

The only alternative
Enclosure of the Highlands destroyed the clan system even more surely than English repression. If the English disarmed the crofters, prohibited the wearing of tartans and kilts and ruled the country with an iron fist through the infamous Black Watch regiments, enclosure cut the last bonds of cultural and emotional allegiance of the people to the Laird. Those who survived the enclosures were driven to the new industrial towns in the Lowlands or to try their luck in America or Australasia.

The Potato Famine
The Highland Potato Famine was a famine caused by potato blight that struck the Scottish Highlands in the 1840s. While the mortality rate was less than other Scottish famines in the 1690s, and 1780, the Highland potato famine caused over 1.7 million people to leave Scotland during the period 1846–52.

Famine was a real prospect throughout the period, and certainly it was one of  severe malnutrition, serious disease, crippling financial hardship and traumatic disruption to essentially agrarian community. The effect on the Lowlands was equally devastating with an influx of impoverished Irish and Highland Scots which increased competion for jobs, housing and food. The effects of overpopulation lasted for the rest of the century, and emigration was the only relief valve.
Wherever poor Scots gathered during these years emigration would inevitable be discussed, plans laid and information on assisted emigration schemes such as those set up by the Otago Association passed on by word of mouth. A "respectable" Scot could emigrate to Nova Scotia for as little as one pound, and little more to Australasia. The effects on the Scottish countryside are still evident today. The Highlands are sparsly populated with weak cultural identity (Gaelic was the common language of crofters in the 19th century but today only 1.2% of the entire population of the country has "some Gaelic ability", mainly in the Outer Hebrides) and many more sheep than people.

The effects can still be seen today

martes, 28 de febrero de 2012

Andrew Williamson 1.0

        The deep-set eyes look out from under a thatch of dark auburn hair. The face is thin with a short ginger beard, high forehead and straight, regular features, the hands large, the tallish frame sparse of flesh but strong and straight. It is November 1857 and he takes a last look at the group of landowners gathered in the shelter on the Kirk before turning away. The filthy mire of the common has soaked his ill-shod feet and the autumn drizzle runs off the nondescript tam o' shanter and down the back of his neck. The Crawfordjohn hiring fair is drawing to a close, and Andrew has not got his shilling. He rests, with hands crossed on the bow of a shepherd's crook worn to a smooth silvery grey by his father's hands, staring at the bleak wall of the church. His expressionless face betrays nothing of the conflicting emotions welling up inside: desire, frustration and embarrassment, disappointment, resentment and fear. Especially fear, the fear inherited from the famine he had barely survived as a boy.  Not even his natural defiance can banish the images etched on his brain since childhood: the hopeless appeal in the eyes of classmates dying of starvation; the train of skeletal Highlanders in bare feet, naked except for a threadbare blanket or cloak, with their big-headed hood-eyed children with swollen bellies passing daily through the village on their way to Glasgow in a phantasmal procession of walking dead; Tom falling sick from eating boiled grass; the shrunken face of his dead mother. But there is no outward sign of turmoil as he stares at the Kirk, his eyes as still as the mist-shrouded line of birches on the ridge behind the village.

"You'd be John Williamson's boy Andrew, wouldn't ye?"
Andrew lowered his eyes to take in the squat figure of Douglas Macgregor, farmer.
"Ye've got my deepest sympathy young Andrew, your father was a good hard-working man".
"Aye, that he was".
"How old are ye now, lad?"
"Two and twenty come January".
"Aye, time flies". Macgregor looked down, avoiding the level gaze of the younger man. "Still, I won't be needing another shepherd this year.  Good luck t'ye!"

The landowner stomped off through the mire. Andrew looked around. The fair was over, at least the hiring part. Now the dancing and drinking was beginning in front of the tavern across the way. He followed the movements of a yellow bonnet amongst the throng of other dancers, seemingly lost in thought. His reverie was interrupted by a tinker, a small nuggety man of about forty who was rolling a shiny new shilling around the fingers of his right hand.
"I got me shillin'," he offered, "I seen you dinna get a place lad. Can I invite ye to a dram?" Andrew shook his head. "I tell ye what lad", continued the tinker, "ye canna stare at the gentry. They'll not hire ye. Ye gotta be 'umble or ye're goin' to starve".
"Go to the devil man! Who asked your opinion?" Andrew spat out. "I've got better things to do than get drunk with a stinking tinker".
"Aye, I seen you lookin' at 'er", said the tinker. "Fat chance!"

He had arrived when the hiring fair was in full swing, taking his place amongst the
shepherds each holding a crook or a tuft of wool as a sign of their trade. Next to him, a group of cowmen with pails and dairymaids with milking stools chatted and laughed together, and further off housemaids held brooms or mops. There was a festive atmosphere, a great deal of flirting and joking and some red faces that betrayed early visits to the inn. The smell of sweat and steaming clothes assaulted his nostrils and his ears rang with the noise of shouting voices, laughter, and the screams of excited girls whose petticoats were menaced by the scissors of a jovial tailor. Standing on tiptoe Andrew tried to look over the heads of the crowd to find his brother Robbie who, because he was only seventeen years old and without a trade, could only aspire to a place as a general farm hand. Instead, he caught sight of the yellow  bonnet, and under the bonnet a pair of black eyes unflinchingly met his. A derisive smile played around the red mouth of Kathleen Morrison as she stood only a few yards away wagging her big wooden cooks' spoon at him across the sea of bobbing heads. Andrew's stomach contracted and the blood rushed to his head in a wave of desire that left him stunned. He could only return a weak smile, and knew as he did so that it made him look silly and inept. He dropped back on his heels but it was too late: in a second there she was, confronting him with a taunting grin.
"Oh, young Andrew Williamson, are you going to dance with me later?"
"Err... I can't come to the dance. My brother..."
"Oh yes, poor Tom. Isn't he any better? What a pity, you are so good looking Andrew Williamson; I'm just dying to show off with you. Do come!"
Andrew felt the flush rise to his face. The desire to take her wet shoulders in his hands overcame him and he raised them, crook and all, unable to speak. "Oh, he's blushing, poor boy. Don't worry, your reverend William Goldie isn't here. He's gone over to Leadhills".
At the mention of the minister's name Andrew's arms fell back to his sides and the crook rattled to the ground. As he bent to pick it up his face brushed her gown and he smelt the musky reek of her and when he stood up it was on trembling legs. "Never mind", she said. "If you can't you can't. There's plenty more who will. But if you change your mind you know where to find me".

Andrew pushed open the door and stooped to enter the cottage, pausing and rubbing his eyes to accustom them to the smoke. It was late afternoon and the cottage, with its one small window, was in darkness except for the dull glow of the coal fire. He hung his cloak on a peg behind the door and peered through the smoky air. Thomas, his eldest brother, was huddled as usual in the corner next to the hearth that sent puffs of acrid smoke into the room every time the door was opened, his white face with its stark orange freckles staring with mute reproach at the newcomer. Nobody else was home.
"Where's Robbie?" asked Andrew. "Did he get a place?"
The cottage had two rooms: the 'but-end' with its open hearth was kitchen, dining room and living room, and the 'ben-end' with its three box-beds the sleeping room.
"Hasn't been back home", said Thomas. "What about you?"
"No luck. Macgregor said he don't need shepherds this year. I reckon he's got some Paddy on the cheap. Nobody else even put me the question. How are you Tom?"
"I'm alright, don't you worry about me, I don't need nothing".
So Robert, the charming, carefree Robbie, was their only hope of surviving the winter. Andrew knew they could expect little help from the married brothers James and George who now had their own children to feed. And John and David, the other two single men still living at home, barely earned enough to keep the five of them in oats and coals. John had finished his apprenticeship and was working as a draper's assistant in Abington, three miles away, and David, who loved horses, was a stable hand at the inn, but even their combined incomes would not be enough. Andrew knew that Tom would not survive the winter if he couldn't get meat, eggs or milk to vary the constant diet of porridge and boiled potatoes.
It was dark when John and David arrived, together as usual. They already knew that Andrew hadn't got a place, having passed though the common on the way home. And they had news about Robbie: he had got his shilling as a general farm hand.

Tom did not survive the winter, dying in March. After the funeral the four brothers returned to the cottage and sat around the smouldering fire. David, Andrew and Robbie waited for John to speak first. Not only was this deference his right now that he was the eldest unmarried brother, but his pragmatic intelligence, steady character and ambition endowed him with natural leadership. "I've been corresponding with a drapery in England, in Wiltshire. It's a good place they've offered me and I am going to take it. There's more and better work in England than here, a man can make a living. Robbie, you'll come with me. You others can decide for yourselves".
"I'm not going to England", said Andrew. "I'd rather emigrate and live with savages than with the English".
"Oh, Andy, take me with you!" burst out Robert. "Why don't we go to America and find a fortune in gold?"
"How can you emigrate if you haven't got a penny to your name?" said David. "Besides, you've taken the shilling and probably spent it too. You've got to stay here until next Michaelmas. As for me, I'm going with John. There's work with horses in England. I'm not going to risk drowning or getting eaten by cannibals. England for me. Who cares if you hate them?" he turned to Andrew, "don't you hate the gentry here?"
"Aye, but at least I know them. I'll be going over to Greenock next week. There's assisted emigration, I've seen the notices. You can go to Australia for four pounds." He was silent a moment. "I know I haven't got four pounds, but we have to sell the cottage. A hundred and twenty pounds I reckon we could get, that makes twenty pounds each counting Jamie and Georgie and us four.  You two are going to England, you need money to make a start. Robbie can go too after Michaelmas, it's only seven months 'till he gets his wages. He can stay with James or George even if he has to sleep in the but-end. That only leaves me and I'm not staying here. Lot's of men are emigrating... and women too".

He stopped, suddenly aware of the bare silence that greeted his words. He looked around: three pairs of eyes stared mutely back. The freehold on the cottage went back to their great-grandfather George, the first Williamson to arrive in Crawfordjohn from Lanark more than  100 years ago, in the days when the village was a busy and prosperous  junction with stables, inns, schools and its own market. Now, a decade after the potato famine, it had become a stagnant backwater. New roads had left it stranded far from the main thoroughfares. But for all that the cottage was still the family. If they didn't live there they would no longer be the Williamsons of Crawfordjohn. Each brother stared into this new chasm, and the sepulchural silence was broken only by the moan of the wind in the eaves.
Andrew stood up. "I'll never get on here", he murmured. "I need to know. Tomorrow".

lunes, 27 de febrero de 2012

The Bare Facts

Andrew Williamson in later life.
(Thanks to Laurie Ann Rands)
Andrew Williamson was born on 15 January 1836 in Crawfordjohn, Scotland, to John Williamson and Helen, nee Welsh. He was the 6th of 7 children. His father died in 1857, and during the next few years the family broke up. Thomas, the eldest brother, died in 1859. John and Robert moved south and settled in Swindon, England. Only Mary stayed in Crawfordjohn where she married a Lanarkshire man. No more is known of Andrew until on 1 October 1866, now 30 years old, he turns up at the Registry Office in Alexandra in Central Otago, New Zealand, to marry Ellen Balling (b. Jersey, England, 1835). Seven months later, on 1 March 1867 , a  stillborn child was delivered. Another child would be born on 23 July 1868. Three days later both the mother and the second child were also dead.

Andrew then married Ellen Whelan (born in  Limerick , Ireland in 1841) at the Dunstan Registry Office on 13 February 1869, just 7 months after losing his first family.  The first of 8 children, John, was born in Outram on 14 October the same year. Seven more would follow at regular intervals Ellen, born in Dunstan in 1871, Robert in Clyde in 1873,  then Mary in 1876, Jane in 1878, Ada in 1881, Andrew in 1883 and Alice in 1887 were all born in the Nevis Valley. Andrew died there in 1912 at the age of 76, and is buried in an unmarked grave.

In 1871, the date of this clipping from the Otago Times, he was still prospecting around the Dunstan area:

Messrs. Williamson and Co. have abandoned their claim on the West bank of the Molyneux (between Clyde and Alexandra), and are now prospecting at the foot of the Dunstan Range. They have struck payable gold nearly everywhere, and if water were obtainable, they state they have found ground that would afford remunerative employment for a large number of miners for many years to come.

But water with a good head to drive a sluicing nozzle is rare in those parts. Apparently the Dunstan prospect didn’t work out and they either had to turn back towards Clyde or carry on over the Carrick Range to the Nevis. Robert was the last of his children born outside the valley. By 1876, when Mary was born, Andrew must have been working a claim in the Nevis Valey and had brought his family to join him.

This, from the Otago Witness dated 21 August 1901 is about the death of Ellen Whelan, my great grandmother. It corroborates the indirect evidence provided by the birth registry that the family established residence at Nevis soon after Robert was born:
The third death, came as a shock to almost everyone. It was that of Mrs Andrew Williamson, who, with her husband and small family, came to the Nevis in the early seventies from Clyde, where they had been residing for some years. Mrs Williamson had been ailing for some time past, suffering from chronic bronchitis, but no one imagined that her end was so near. She passed peacefully away from her sorrowing friends at 8 o'clock on Saturday evening, 3rd inst.