“Superficially, a family might look like an accidental gathering of individuals called together by chance meeting of a man and woman who fell in love and wanted to express the depth of their love in procreation.
At a deeper level, a family is an incredible intertwining of multiple streams of ancestry, memory, shadow and light.
Each home hosts the arrival of history and assists the departure of new destiny.
The walls of the home contain immense happenings that occur gradually under the subtle veil of normality. Though each family is a set of new individuals, ancient relics and residues seep through from past generations. Except for our parents and grandparents, our ancestors have vanished.
Yet, ultimately, and proximately, it is the ancestors who call us here. We belong to their lifeline. While they ground our unknown memory, our continuity bestows on them a certain oblique eternity. In our presence we entwine past and future.”
John O’Donohue, Eternal Echoes.
I became interested in family history when my curiosity was aroused about how my family came to Australia. It had never been discussed in our home and the only clue to my ancestors was a family myth about my grandfather being an illegitimate grandson of Charles Dickens. This has proved to be false and I was not popular when I discovered that.
Eventually, I found that I had English and Irish convicts as well as an Italian who might have jumped ship.
There must have been a resiliency bred into them, they survived harsh conditions and poverty, some of them living long lives with many children. My family are now scattered all across Australia so I decided to write some stories to be handed down to the next generations.
The first family member to arrive was Charles Reginald Burgess, a farm labourer from Edington, England and his story begins at Sydney Cove as a convict sent out to Australia in 1829 for stealing a sack of potatoes, presumably to support his pregnant wife.
The need to support his family apparently not strong enough to prevent him from being sentenced and transported to Australia.On arrival he was assigned to work for John Town of Richmond and was eventually to settle in the Wollombi area at Cockfighter Creek.
The law, at the time, permitted those living in the new colony to annul any previous marriage so, since his daughter in England had died, probably of starvation, in 1836 Charles married his second wife Mary Casey and they had 4 sons, Charles, William, Leonard and John. Leonard was my Great Grandfather.
Mary and Charles Reginald Burgess.
Mary’s father was a convict, Cornelius, and his wife Honora and 3 daughters followed him from Ireland to make a new life with him in Australia, thus escaping the Irish famine.
In 1854 Mary left the family home and Charles put an advertisement in the local newspaper warning people that he was no longer supporting her and not to give her credit.Mary lived another 15 years and my guess is that she went to look after her mother until Honora died in 1855.
The Maitland Mercury and Hunter River District News
Wednesday 13 February, 1850
Singleton, Feb. 11th, 1850.
Supposed Case of Incendiarism.-We are sorry to have to record that a serious destruction of property took place on the farm of Charles Burgess, of Cockfighter‘s Creek, about 9 o’clock on Thursday night last, when his barn, containing about 400 bushels of wheat belonging to himself, and 200 bushels the property of a man
named Fletcher, was discovered to be on fire, at which time the flames had made such progress that any effort to save the property was entirely useless.
From circumstances which had publicly taken place just before the occurrence of
this painful event, the inhabitants (Burgess and Fletcher included) are led to believe, on reasonable grounds, that this destruction of the fruits of their labour has been accomplished by an incendiary.
Influenced by this opinion, some of the leading and right-minded inhabitants have taken measures to raise a subscription on behalf of the sufferers ; and surely if there are generous hearts in Wollombi, they will come forward on this occasion, and by their aid in the cause of humanity, put into practice the first and greatest of Chnstian virtues.
I feel assured that their charitable feeling will this time influence them to save two families from want, and also induce them to frustrate the design of their ruthless enemy.
On Friday night a man named Collins was placed in our lockup, on suspicion of having committed the crime above mentioned. On the day following he was brought up before Major Sullivan, who, after a strict investigation of the case and
examination of witnesses, ordered the prisoner to be remanded for farther examination.
Again in 1858 Charles had another scrape with the law and was charged for cattle duffing.
In 1870 he married Jane Brien (1846-1919) 50 years his junior, (said to be the nanny of his children) together they became the parents of another eleven children. Along with the celebration of a marriage in 1870, tragedy struck with the loss of two small children, Rueben and Cornelius within months of each other, one of the children a baby of three months old, Jane’s father also died in 1870.
Maybe they had been affected by the river flooding which occured regularly. Earliest flood’ in the Hunter about which there is any definite information occurred in 1818, twoyears before the district was discovered.It left behind it obvious traces of its severitysuch as trees which had lodged in the branches ofothers a long way from the ground.Before that, however, the erratic behaviour ofthe Hunter was well known to the blacks, whohanded down authentic stories of bygone floods fromgeneration to generation.But what was the biggest flood ever known inthe Hunter valley?There are plenty of agedpeople in Singleton who claimthat the deluge of March, 1893,in which month 1314 points ofrain fell, caused the greatestinundation ever.But that is because they werenot alive when a worse oneoccurred in 1820 ,73 yearsearlier.From a study of Singleton’shistory it would appear thatthere was a long standing controversy over the date of theflood of floods.Eighty years ago, a RoyalCommission on Floods, whichsat in the local Court Housewas told by Mr. John Eckford,of Maitland, that the riverrose seven feet higher than thatof 1826, its nearest rival.He selected three spots each aconsiderable distance apartwhich the water had reachedand the Commission ordered anexpert to take measurements.The levels agreed and so theargument was settled for alltime.ROSE 63 FEETIn his evidence Mr. Wyndham. of Dalwood, said that the1820 flood reached 63 feet abovesummer level.Nevertheless the 1826 floodmust have been a corker, forRev. Alfred Glennie to tell theCommission that, in his opinion,the river rose higher than theone six years earlier.That floods were more frequent in the early days iseasily proved. In the 17 yearsbetween 1857 and 1874, for instance, the Hunter “played up*’five times—in 1857 1861, 1867,1870 and 1874.Nowadays inundations arepopularly believed to comealong about every 20 years, butthat is based on comparativelyrecent history.About this “time (1861) theford at the foot of George St.was impassable for two monthsand hundreds of teams conveying foodstuffs to the north wereheld up. From the outcry arosea demand for a bridge, andabout 40 years later the Dunollybridge was built.In 1867 telegraph lines acrossthe river were snapped by flooddebris and ‘ the telegraphistwashed out of his office. TheWesleyan Church and schoolroom at Wollombi disappearedin the waters, followed by astore and contents at Broke.The inundation of March,1870, came quietly and unexpectedly because there had beencomparatively little rain butit did a lot of damage andseven people were drowned atDenman. .At Muswellbrook a prisoner inthe local lock-up kicked up afuss because the water was upto his shoulders.HOLIDAY VISITATIONThe flood of 1874 arrived,of all days, on Anniversary Day.Three local residents, whostruck the current at the cornerof George and Macquarie streetswhile rowing a boat, had afrightening experience when thecraft was dashed against a rail-‘ing which tore out its bottom.The same day a large floodboat, returning from rescuework at Dunolly received a tremendous bump near the Pitzroyhotel and sank with eleven occupants. Luckily none wasdrowned. The bump occurredwhen the boat struck the topof a street alignment post whichtore a large hole in it.After 1874 a number of lessimportant floods occurred in theHunter until the one Singletonpeople know as the worst theyhave seen came along in 1893.There were some drowning casesand a house and furniture owned by a railway employee saileddown the stream.ALWAYS CATCHES ITMaitland people recall theterrible damage the 1893 flooddid to the town. Every streetwas feet deep in water and atthe station the tops of railwaycarriages were covered. Eventhe floors of some balconieswere flooded.Twenty ? years later, in 1913the next big outbreak occurredand left the usual trail of desolation in its wake.A milder one was recorded inJune of 1930, when 12 inchesof rain fell.And then, of course, there wasits recent successor when, onthe morning of June 18 last theHunter decided that Singletonstreets were due for a wash;but it was gone within a comparatively few hours only toprovide Maitland with the worstcatastrophe since 1893.The earlier frequencies areunderstood to have been basedupon the fact that the riverchannel differed vastly fromwhat it is today and that thewater had not the same meansof escape to the sea as it hasat present.DQUBLES ITS WIDTHThis belief was supported byj evidence given by Mr. AlexMunro at the Commission, whoknew the Hunter since 1830. Hesaid the river channel at Singleton had greatly increased insize in the vicinity of the town.A local chemist, Mr. W. C.Lesley, at one time member for Jthe district, said during his 28years’ residence in the town theHunter had doubled its width.The 1857 flood was claimed byMr. John Brown to be greaterthan that of 1826, but no otherwitness agreed with him.In July, 1861, the Hunter roseafter a tremendous fall of rain,flooded the lower Hunter butdid not overflow its banks atSingleton.A month later the old riverwas in flood again. The waterdid not rise as high as itspredecessor, but Maitland wasflooded again. At Glennie’sCreek the rise was reported tobe much higher than in 1857,which seems extraordinary.
Eveline, born in 1874, grew up in the Wollombi area and was courted by her husband to be, Thomas John Sylvester for an extended period.
It was Eveline who would look after her aged father until his death in 1903 thus preventing her and Thomas from marrying any earlier that when they did, she was 32 in 1870.
Thomas Sylvester grew up a few miles further on from Wollombi area at Stockyard Creek, Payne’s Crossing. On their marriage certificate Thomas was listed as a dairyman; this was just one of the many farm orientated jobs he would hold and use to eventually support his wife and seven children. On the fifteenth of August 1906 Eveline [Evelyn] and Thomas were married in Lady of Our Lourdes Church at Payne’s Crossing. The wedding was one of the largest to be seen anywhere at the time or even as would be seen today. Indeed it was a double wedding also celebrated Thomas’ sister Louisa and her husband to be, William James Martin.
Upon their marriage Eveline and Thomas settled at the end of the Stockyard Creek Valley in a house made with vertical timber slabs. It was at this home that five of their seven children would live until sometime around nineteen thirteen, when the family packed up all their goods and chatels on a bullock wagon and moved to Martinsville. The road acrosss the Wattagan Mountain from Paynes Crossing has hardly changed from that time. Its hard to imagine that the fully laden waggons were able to negotiate the track or road as was. While it would have been Thomas that drove the Waggon through the mountain it would have been Eveline that was left to drive the horse and carriage with five young children, four girls and a boy. The eldest of the girls not long entering their teenage years.
As tedious as this journey was, it was a journey that would be made on a regular occcurence when Thomas and the eldest of his daughters and eventually his sons would drive cattle back and forth through the mountains between the properties at Payne’s Crossing and Martinsville. Thomas and Eveline soon built up a business of general farming involving the timber industry, cattle dealing, dairying, including owning and running a butcher shop at Cooranbong. Eveline herself worked in the Butcher Shop while her daughter Louise was left to look after the younger members of the family. The family business grew to one of the largest in the local community employing several family members and other itinerant workers, all of this would end when Thomas and Eveline seperated.
Upon the separation Eveline moved to the Newcastle area and had to seek employment to support herself. In May of 1952 Eveline was a passenger in a car at Wellington NSW, when the car driven by her daughter in-laws brother, ran off the road and hit an electric light pole just North of Wellington. As a result of the accident Eveline was tragically killed; she is buried at Cooranbong Catholic Cemetery N.S.W. next to her husband of nearly forty years, Thomas John Sylvester.