Power: How much power did my female ancestors have?

They say that knowledge is power, and having read of a woman’s role in society in the 18th Century, I imagined that my female ancestors from this period were most likely illiterate and subsequently had little power. Checking back through the branches of my family tree, the Biggs family line appears to have recognised that women in the family should have basic literacy skills, and in reading further about the wives of farmers in this period, it is clear that they played a significant and essential role.

The Biggs men in the 18th Century were yeoman farmers, owning their land and regarded as upper-middle-class in English society. During this period, yeoman farmers were regarded as patriarchs, controlling the family, owning property. stock and other items of considerable monetary value. All valuables that might have come with a woman into her marriage became the property of the husband, she was restricted to “household” activities and expected to be submissive towards her husband. However, if a farm was to be successful, such as that owned by the Biggs family of Potterne, the wife needed to be a business partner with her husband, directing certain parts of the farm economy with ‘so large a portion of skill, of frugality, cleanliness, industry, and good management . . . that without them the farmer may be materially injured’ (J. C. Loudon, An encyclopaedia of agriculture (sec. edn, London, 1831), p. 1036.) 

In looking for women who would have undertaken similar roles and shared experiences in this period with Biggs women I came across Mary Bacon (1743-1818), an 18th Century farmer’s wife who lived in Hampshire. Her ledger provides information on recipes, cures, farming and account records etc as well as a list of books that provided insight into her reading habits. She had copied sections of loved Bible stories together with religious musings and hymns illustrating how important her religion was in her life. Based on this it would appear that having a wife who was literate would be of enormous value to her husband and family. Unfortunately, this book is no longer readily available and I have only been able to read exerts but I hope to be able to gain access to it in the National Library in Canberra in the not too distant future.

Mary’s ledger shows that for farmers’ wives to do their work effectively, literacy skills would be important. Examining signatures on marriage registers is used by historians as a legitimate means to estimate literacy (Schofields, R S, “Dimensions of Illiteracy in England1750-1850”). The Marriage Act of 1753 required couples to sign the marriage register, so I went back to marriage records to review if my female ancestors could write. While most women in each branch of my family tree were able to write their name by the 19th Century, this was not the case in the 18th Century except for my Biggs family line that shows the women were literate by the mid 18th Century.

Looking for the first female ancestor I could identify as literate I traced back to the daughters of James Biggs and Mary Miel (my 5xgreat grandparents) both of whom were illiterate. However, at the time their three daughters married; Grace married 1770; Ruth married 1781; Jane married 1780; they were able to sign their names . It is Grace’s signature on the marriage register that provides the earliest evidence of literacy among my female ancestors.

Marriage register from Church of England, Potterne, showing signature of Grace Biggs in 1770

An essay by Nicola Verdan ‘…subjects deserving of the highest praise’: farmers’ wives and the farm economy in England.”(https://www.bahs.org.uk/AGHR/ARTICLES/51n1a2.pdf). shows “Women were not narrowly confined to the farmhouse … those sections that ‘belonged’ to the house, and therefore the wife, included the kitchen garden, the dairy, and the farmyard. She would be responsible for pickling, preserving and cooking…, making wine, …. the manufacture of butter and cheeses in the dairy, and finally, rearing of pigs, hens and other poultry in the farmyard… She would have spent much of her day preparing provisions for the kitchen table, not only to feed the family but also any servants and labourers that were housed or fed on the farm.” The essay paints a powerful picture of these women who were the lynchpin of England’s strength and success.

Even more evidence of how highly the Biggs women were regarded is given when looking at the will of Thomas Purnell. He was Ruth’s husband and they had seven children, three sons, the eldest twenty-three and married at the time of his father’s death, and four daughters. It was normal practice for fathers to leave the majority of their estate to their eldest son. In acknowledgement of the love and partnership Ruth and her husband Thomas shared she was made sole executor and main beneficiary of her husband’s estate.

The will of Thomas Purnell, 1805 husband of Ruth (nee Bigg) Purnell

In my eyes, they are not only women of power but of love and commitment and I am so proud to share some of their DNA.

Unusual Sources

Exploring old records, data bases, books and archives is very addictive when it comes to family history. Every once in a while though an unusual source appears to add colour to the story or family line that I might be hunting. The most unusual for me was while I was enjoying a British TV series called Rev. A story about a Church of England priest and his life in an inner city parish in London. The fictional name of the church was “St Saviour in the Marshes” in Hackney, East London. It was in the film credits that I realised that the church was actually St Leonards, Stepney, my ancestors family church (Biggs family line from Henderson to Crosby).

The church as it stands today was built around 1740, replacing an earlier structure.

Church of St Leonards Shoreditch, 1827. ‘Plate 10: Church of St. Leonard, Shoreditch, views of exterior’, in Survey of London: Volume 8, Shoreditch, ed. James Bird (London, 1922), p. 10. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vol8/plate-10 [accessed 21 February 2021].

The first record I have I my ancestors involvement with the church is the marriage of Peter Crosby (4 x great grandfather) to Elizabeth Biggleton (4 x great grandmother) in 1782 at St Leonards, Shoreditch..

Marriage Bonds and Allegations. London, England: London Metropolitan Archives. Surrey Marriage Bonds and Allegations records held by the London Metropolitan Archives

It is then possible to trace the Crosby family through church records, with baptisms, marriages and burials until 1837 when Thomas Henderson married Margaret Crosby and became my immigrant ancestors to Australia.

Not only did I love the TV series but it also showed me the church interior and exterior from all angles. A very unexpected but welcome addition to my knowledge about the lives of my ancestors.

‘Plate 17: Church of St. Leonard, Shoreditch, interior views’, in Survey of London: Volume 8, Shoreditch, ed. James Bird (London, 1922), p. 17. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vol8/plate-17 [accessed 21 February 2021].


When my grandfather, Jack Doherty, met my grandmother, he was an itinerant worker and boarder in her mother’s home in Brisbane around 1913. He dearly loved her but she was separated from her husband, William Shute, who had returned to outback Australia so the relationship was not without problems. When Jack left to find work my grandmother Hazel Edith Shute (nee Chisholm) gave him “a photo in remembrance” of herself dated 2 November 1913.

On the back of the postcard/photo Hazel had written a poem that shows how deeply she had fallen in love with Jack.

Hazel Annie aged 19 years. Photo given to Jack Doherty with verse.
Hazel Annie aged 19 years. Photo given to Jack Doherty with verse about 1915.  Biggs family private collection. Original held by C M McGregor. Digital copy taken by C M McGregor, 2014

Think of me at morn
Think of me at night
Think of me when far away
And never forget to write

Think of me when you are happy
Think of me when you are sad
Think of the girl (Hazel) who dearly loves you
Perhaps the thought will make you glad
Eight little letters make three little words
Forget me not (I love you)

The old old story ever new I have told my love for thee in these lines would tell again how dear thou art to me.

Yours always Hazel

Attempts at reconciling with her husband, William Shute, failed during November and she once again remained in Brisbance while he returned to Outback Queensland.

It appears that Jack returned to celebrate Christmas with Hazel and her family and it was at this reunion that their relationship was cemented and was to become life long. My mother was conceived aound the 20th December and DNA tests have confirmed that Jack Doherty was her father. The life story of Hazel Annie Chisholm can be read by clicking here

In the Kitchen

When I think of home my first thoughts are always of Highgate Street, my childhood home in Bexley.

Our home in Highgate Street in the 1970s

Our house was something like the magical tents from Harry Potter charmed to be larger on the inside than it appears to be on the outside. The most magical part of our house was the kitchen and this was the heart of our home.

The house was built as a timber fellers cottage in the late 1800s and when my parents moved in it needed much work and although it had rooms added and updating done over the years the kitchen always remained roomy and quaint with a ceiling that always seemed to spring a leak when it rained and a sloping floor that was beyond correction but was great for rolling marbles.

No dishwasher in this kitchen … Mum and Dad doing the dishes around 1970

The kitchen accommodated everyone, friends, family, neighbours and those just popping in for a cuppa. As kids it was the centre of our universe, a place to do homework under our mother’s eagle eye, to play board games especially monopoly, for doing jigsaw puzzles on rainy days, for dress fittings for our mother’s creations and to talk, laugh and sometimes cry always knowing that it was a safe and caring place to be.

Most amazingly of all is the food that the kitchen produced. Under my mother’s magic touch it could be a warm nourishing soup to go with the heart to heart talk; a birthday party with all the neighbourhood kids (didn’t matter how many came there was always enough fairy bread, sausage rolls and cupcakes); Friday night take away fish and chips with any of the family that could be there; or a hearty meal appearing out of nowhere for friends that just happened to arrive unannounced at dinner time. But best of all were the wonderful Christmas dinners that will stay in my memory forever.

Christmas dinner in the kitchen about 1980

The big events in our family were celebrated in our home. Mum and Dad’s silver wedding was a big highlight as Mum saw it as a chance to make up for the formal wedding celebrations she missed due to the war. My engagement party was also huge and the guests spilled out from the kitchen to the backyard.

Raising a toast to John and I on our engagement in 1971 with Mum and Dad and John parent’s Bill and Margie in front.

Mum and Dad loved the sunny corner in the kitchen with an easy chair each. Dad to read with fingers in his ears, blocking out the ordered chaos that surrounded him. Mum in a chair beside the phone ready to lend an ear to whoever needed it while knitting away at a jumper or cardigan for whoever was next in line.

Mum with knitting basket and phone close at hand 1990s

When Grandkids arrived they were welcomed into loving arms and played happily in the kitchen, that sloping floor was also great for racing matchbox cars. One of my favourite photos was taken in the kitchen and is of Cameron discussing a newspaper article with his Poppy.

Cameron with his Poppy, Charles Biggs

Favourite Photo

These trigger words from “52 Ancestors” left me in a bit of a quandary as to what photo to choose. Should it be one of my treasured old photos of an ancestor, one of our big family celebrations, or maybe one of my family or friends that I hold dear to my heart.

John William McGregor at Bundeena Beach around 1947

My choice is actually my mother in law’s favourite photo of her son. My husband John thinks the photo was taken on the beach at Bundeena when he was about three or four years old. The reason I know his mother loved this photo is because she took it to an artist to have it made into a larger painting. I have to admit I actually prefer the little black and white photo as he looks more natural.

The other reason I chose this photo is because I can see some similarity with our granddaughter, Lani. I had always thought she was the spitting image of my son in laws family especially his niece, Matilda Potter. After looking at John’s photo I reckon there is a bit of Pappy in her as well …. just hope its not the naughty bit!


One of the joys of investigating family history is the passing down of names through the centuries. It is such a beautiful way to keep the memory of someone who is dearly loved alive as well as giving the bearer a strong family connection to the past.

Naming a child can be difficult. Ross, Gordon, 1873-1946, artist, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Initially I thought such tradition had bypassed my generation. My parents seemed to have chosen names that were popular at that time rather than hold to family traditions. However, it is our second names that we can find our link to our ancestors.

My oldest brother is Colin John, the John is definitely in honour of his grandfather Jack (John) Doherty and it is so lovely to know that Jack my brothers grandson also bears this name.

My grandfather Jack (John) Doherty strolling down the street with my mother, Hazel Edith c 1940s

Thanks to the British Royal family, my sister’s name of Margaret Rose, was also a popular choice for the period. It is in her second name of Rose that the connection is made to a very much loved member of the family (even if it is not biological), our Aunty Rose Margaret.

Aunty Rose

For me, Carolyn Mary, was again a popular choice. Mary is an acknowledgement of the importance of my Pop Doherty’s family in my life. His sister Aunty Mary (Doherty) and her husband Len Porter were very close to my mother Hazel especially following the death of her mother and grandmother. I have no photo of Aunty Mary but only a memory of visits to their home in Beverly Hills.

Finally the youngest in our family, Anthony Roy. While Anthony was and still is a popular name I think it was chosen by mother because of her strong Catholic faith and in particular devotion to St Anthony of Padua. As for the second name of Roy it is in honour of our Uncle Roy (Ernest Roy Biggs) who was killed in action during a bombing raid over Germany. Defnitely a wonderful name to carry through life.

Photo of Uncle Roy (Ernest Roy) Biggs

So if you have a baby in the family to name don’t forget to check out the family tree for inspiration. You are likely to find a meaningful name with a great story behind it.

Legends: My ancestor was eaten by cannibals!

As legends go there would probably none to equal that of my fifth great grandfather, William Hugh Travers …unbelievably murdered and eaten by cannibals!!

It has not been possible to find any details about William’s background before he sailed on the “Speke” from England in 1808. Records show William as a twenty-year-old Irish seaman. Like other seamen of this era, William would have gone to sea when a boy, probably no more than 16 years old. Life on board was hard but it did offer a chance of freedom and adventure, regular food, even if it was not of the best quality, and reliable pay. This is more than what he may have been able to achieve if he was locked in poverty in Ireland. I can recommend reading “Two Years Before the Mast” by Richard Henry Dana, although written about a sea journey in 1834, it does an insight into what life on board a sailing ship was like for William. A free on line version can be viewed at https://www.gutenberg.org/files/2055/2055-h/2055-h.htm

The Speke sailed from Falmouth, England, on 18 May 1808 and arrived in Australia at Port Jackson on 16 November 1808. The vessel had been contracted by the British government to transport 99 female convicts to Australia, including my five times great-grandmother, Elizabeth Davis/Davison, who was only 16 years old at the time. At sea for months, there was no possibility of separating the female convicts from the crew and the crew was encouraged to take “wives” for the duration of the voyage. A report titled, “A Selection of Reports and Papers to the House of Commons. Vol. 58” stated: “Improprieties will be committed on board a female convict ship under the best regulations, but females who do not wish to do wrong should not be compelled against their inclinations”.

Such “improprieties” were not uncommon and are detailed in “The Floating Brothel” written by Sian Rees describing the voyage of the Lady Juliana in 1789 which sailed under similar conditions to the Speke. It is unlikely that any woman, especially a sixteen-year-old girl, such as Elizabeth, would have any choice in the matter, if she wanted to survive the voyage and arrive safely in Australia.

William chose Elizabeth, and by the time the ship arrived in Sydney, she was almost five months pregnant. Elizabeth was sent to the Female Factory at Parramatta to work and await birth while William returned to life on the sea. Their son, Edward Mortimer Davis, was born on 11 April 1809. Elizabeth died in 1811 when her son was two years old. William’s name is documented in the Colonial Secretary’s Papers as the father of Edward. Edward used his father’s surname in later years, being known as Edward Mortimer Travers. (Colonial Secretary’s Papers, 1788-1825. New South Wales Government. The main series of letters received 1788-1825. Series 897, Reels 6041-6064, 6071-6072. State Records Authority of New South Wales. Kingswood)

Had William developed an attachment to Elizabeth? Was he aware that she was pregnant with his son? Regardless of possible answers to those questions, William was contracted to the ship and there would have been little choice or opportunity to remain in the colony regardless of any feelings he may have had towards Elizabeth. At this point he disappears from records, possibly returning to England on the Speke to continue his life at sea.

It is not until 1814 that William reappears in an article in the Sydney Gazette about the voyage of the commericial schooner, the Cumberland, and William is identified as a member of the crew attacked and killed in the “Friendly Islands”: The article provides a background to the incident Sydney Gazette Sat 22 Oct 1814 p. 2. National Library of Australia:

On Thursday arrived the “Cumberland” a colonial schooner, Mr. Goodenough master, from Islands to the Eastward of the Friendly Islands, which she from hence proceeded the 18th of January last, with a view of procuring sandalwood, but failing in that object, has brought a lading of a wood possessing the property of dying various shades of yellow. This they procured at the island of Loratonga, 16 leagues E of Tongataboo, the natives of which are of the Otaheitan complexion, and of similar manners, but taller and much better formed.

On their first and second attempts to land, they were prevented by the natives, who attacked them with slings, from which they threw round stones 6 lbs. weight with surprising dexterity. They nevertheless effected a landing afterwards, and became very friendly with the natives, who were employed in procuring the wood, and paid as labourers for their assistance, in tochies,(Tongan word for adze) tomahawks, and other suitable articles. They continued a friendly intercourse until the 12th of August ; when John Croker one of the crew who had accompanied Mr Wentworth on shore, was assaulted and killed in his presence with a club so instantaneously and unexpectedly as to render Mr Wentworth’s aid wholly ineffectual. As soon as he saw the unfortunate man knocked down, he drew and snapped his pistol at the assailant—but it missed fire; and as there was no time for deliberation, he rushed forward to his assistance—but human aid was then of no avail, for his head was bruised to a mummy, and his corporal pains had ceased for ever.

Mr. W. having now only to provide for his own safety, took a pistol from the dead man’s body, and menacing and menaced, made his way to his boat. In another quarter a similar assault had been made on others of the crew, who were on shore for provisions, and all massacred: these were William Travis, George Strait, and an Otaheitan, and Ann Butcher, an unfortunate woman who had gone from this port in the vessel, was killed at the same time, when ashore on a visit to some native women who had shewn her much kindness.

Mr. Goodenough affirms it to be his opinion, that all the murdered persons were afterwards devoured, as they had seen a part of one that exhibited every appearance of its remaining a fragment of a cannibal festival.

More details of this voyage are provided in “Rarotongan Sandalwood: The Visit of Goodenough to Rarotonga in 1814. H E Maude and Marjorie Tuainekore Crocombe. The Journal of Polynesian Society. Vol. 71, No. 1 (March 1962), pp. 32-56. https://www.jstor.org/stable/20703963.

When the Cumberland departed for the Pacific Islands, it was clear that the British government was well aware of the disruption these commercial voyages were inflicting on island communities. Six weeks before the Cumberland left Port Jackson, Governor Macquarie had promulgated a Government and General Order dated December 1, 1813, requiring a good behavior bond of £1,000 from all vessels trading in the Pacific Islands, to be forfeited on the occurrence of several specified acts against the natives of these islands.

Despite the warning issued in this order, the Cumberland sailed to Walker’s Island (Rarotonga) arriving in March with the expectation of finding the untapped treasure of aromatic Sandalwood and to take their share before the find was exhausted. They went on to breech the government order and it appears that these were not disclosed on their return.

When the ship arrived in Rarotonga the captain ignored initial attempts by the islanders to drive them off, was ignorant of tribal conflicts and rivalries, and had no respect for the islanders’ way of life. Reading the full story of the voyage it is clear that the crew of the Cumberland only wanted three things: a bountiful commercial cargo, food, and women; and “what they wanted they took with a free hand, not noticeably concerned with the niceties of legal ownership.”

The final straw was the desecration, on the 12 August 1814, of the marae (community sacred place) where they took coconuts from the storehouse belonging to the chief. They could hardly have done anything more calculated to offend not only the chief and people of Avarua but, to a lesser degree, the whole island of Rarotonga.

Retribution was swift. The two European seamen, George Strait and my ancestor, William Travis, who were engaged in supervising the carrying away of the coconuts, were attacked and killed. Travis was killed by the people of Titama at Matavera while Strait was despatched at Turangi. Captain Goodenough told that the men had been murdered and later eaten in a ceremony involving cannibalism.

So that is the story of my ancestor William Travis as far as I have been able to find so far. It leave me feeling horrified at the social norms and attitudes of Europeans and my ancestors involvement. Nonetheless it is a tale worth telling to generations to come.

#52 Ancestors: Beginnings

I love the start of a new year, it is a chance to start afresh and after a terrible 2020 it something I certainly need. For over 12 months due to health problems my family history research has been unfocused and random so my new years resolution is to put my formal researcher’s hat on again.

To help to get back into it, I am back to using the word prompts from Amy Crow Johnson’s 52 ancestors in 52 weeks to get me writing again so I can share tree information with my family and discover more about my ancestors and the reasons for some of the life changing decisions they made. Her week one prompt is Beginnings and as you can see I am beginning the new year with new resolve in undertaking family history.

My other new years resolution is to dig further into the Biggs family tree I have managed to research and confirm our Biggs family line back to James Biggs senior from Potterne in Wiltshire in 1724. Now if I can find out more about the exact land they farmed and maybe take it back another generation or two I would be very happy.
I hope 2021 leads us to some new and exciting places.

Sweet and Sour Sweet Peas

As a child of the 1950’s I grew up in a family that ate dinner together every night promptly at 6pm, just half an hour after Dad arrived home from work. Dinner was eaten at a large laminated table in the middle of the kitchen. It was a place that served many purposes not just for eating. It was used for doing our homework while Mum kept an eagle on our progress while she cooked dinner, a table for cutting out patterns for our new dresses, or a riotous game of monopoly with groans of ‘we haven’t finished yet’ when told to clear the table for dinner.

The dinners may not have always been to my liking but you can be assured the food was plentiful and nourishing even though it was routinely ‘meat and three vegs’. Friday nights were my favourite as it was regarded as Mum’s night off with the dinner supplied by the local take away fish and chip shop. Mum’s familiar words nearly every Friday ‘now that was a nice piece of fish’ are now embedded in family history and bring a shared chuckle whenever repeated at family gatherings.

After such a standard diet for descendants of English heritage the opening of a Chinese Restaurant in our quiet little suburb proved to be the wedge that started to change our eating habits. Mum’s night off could now be extended to take away Chinese. We ordered the usual surburban Chinese meals that were common back then, spring rolls, chicken chow mein, sweet and sour pork and of course fried rice. While my experiences have made me wonder about the authenticity of those Chinese meals I would have to say that those plastic containers filled with strange concoctions of unrecognisable vegies, meat and sauce changed my eating habits for ever.

It was Dad’s job to order and pick up the take away and, I suspect, encouraged by our big brother, Col, the quantities ordered always seemed to result in lots of leftovers. My memories of one meal in particular saw my mother throwing up her hands saying there is just too much and the resulting leftovers being consigned to a large hole in the garden.

Never one to miss a chance at a few more flowers the newly dug patch seemed like the ideal place to plant some sweet pea seeds and as it was the St Patricks Day it seemed auspicious that they were planted on that date. Now whether it was St Patrick or all that left over sweet and sour pork I don’t know the sweet peas flourished, growing to enormous heights and covering the side of the house in incredible rainbow coloured flowers for weeks.

Every year I now plant my sweet peas on St Patricks Day and remember the love, laughter and togetherness of those early family meals and the wonders of sweet and sour pork as a garden fertiliser!

#52 Ancestors: Context

When I started this blog, it was to supplement our family tree on Ancestry, to turn basic facts into a little bit of a story and share some ideas of what I thought my ancestors were like in order to bring us closer to them. I wanted to make them not just a name and a set of dates but people who have made us what we are today

There are so many places to go to find out more about our ancestors’ lives within a historical context. My favourite place is old newspapers. Trove an online site of the National Library of Australia (https://www.nla.gov.au/) is just that, a treasure trove.  In the section on digitised newspapers, I have found everything from memorial notices that summarise their lives and how they were regarded by the community, articles that had been written by my ancestors that shed light on their opinions and tales of the hardships they faced whether it be accidents, drought, or bankruptcy.

Sometimes an ancestor has led me to research an occupation I knew little about. My 4 x great grandfather was a miner in Northern England. Historical research abounds in this area, and it filled in so many details of what life was like for him, his family and the community where he lived and worked. The research also led me to historical fiction which has brought it to life for me. The Durham Trilogy by Janet MacLeod Trotter which follows the lives of families in the mining village of Durham is one example. I had never heard of a “clippy mat” where the women would cut up pieces of old cloth and thread the pieces through hessian until I read these books.  The mats were made as floor coverings to keep feet warm in the cold northern England winters, and I can imagine my female ancestors sitting around the fire in candlelight working on the mats.

World War 1 and 11 records held by the National Archives of Australia are extraordinary resources that have helped me discover so much about my family’s war history.  Where they are gaps in the written records the Australian War Museum provides incredible information on the regiments they belonged to, where they fought and the conditions they experienced (https://www.awm.gov.au/). A visit to the museum even provided an experience of flying in a Bomber over Europe in WW2. It gave me just an inkling of what my Uncle Roy experienced before he was shot down over Germany in 1943.

The more I research the more I can put my ancestors lives in context. I am no longer satisfied with the basic facts, these are just an introduction to their story and I hope through some of my stories that I have managed to bring them to life for others in my family.