Fortune: How to use tea leaves to tell your fortune

I was only a young child but I clearly remember sitting around the kitchen table covered with a hand-embroidered tea cloth and the remainders of an afternoon tea. The tea set used was our good china and I think it was possibly the end of a Saturday afternoon tea with our Aunty Rose.

Attributed to Enoch Wood Perry
 (American, 1831–1915)

It was one of the few occasions when my mother shared her memories of her mother, my grandmother, Hazel Annie, and being curious about our family even at a young age my ears pricked up and I sat transfixed as Mum explained how she had been shown by her mother how to read the leaves.

It was a simple process, Make a pot of tea with proper tea leaves (no tea bags allowed) and let it steep, pour into a cup ( a china cup and saucer, not a mug) without straining, When finished with just a small amount left in the bottom, swirl the cup counterclockwise. Tip the cup upside down onto the saucer then turn it over and look at the pattern of the tea leaves. The pattern the leaves form will tell your fortune. Unfortunately, I couldn’t work out any patterns in the leaves as a child and have to admit it is a skill I certainly don’t have today. If you would like to try it yourself there are many websites and books as for me I would need the how to read tea leaves for dummies.

There is no doubt in my mind that my mother was just a little bit psychic and with her creamy coffee coloured skin, black hair and exotic looks she would have been a perfect gypsy.  That mother’s skill in knowing your children so well meant we rarely escaped from being found out when we had been up to mischief. Her skills extended further than just her family. She was open hearted offering a shoulder to cry on, a willingness to lend a friendly ear and provide comfort whatever the source of pain. Maybe she was not psychic and able to tell fortunes but those of a naturally skilled counselor.

My Mum, Hazel Edith Biggs (nee Doherty) in her early twenties

So now when I drink my morning cuppa, brewed with boiling water and real leaves I think of my Mum preparing a pot of tea in an age-old ritual that is involved in making the perfect brew. It makes me smile when I think about that chat over a cuppa and how maybe it was not just a friendly gesture but a little bit of magic.

Same Names: Monmouth

This colour wood engraving shows the crew of the American whaleship Monmouth sighting a whale as it sprays from its blowhole. This is the vessel that rescued my ancestors on their voyage to Australia.

I have not been able to find a passenger list for the Meridian, but I do know that my great, great grandfather, Thomas Henderson, his wife Margaret, and their eight children ( the oldest fifteen and the youngest less than two months embarked on Friday, 4 June 1853 on the Meridian for a journey to Australia to start a new life. I have also been contacted by the descendant of another passenger whose ancestors joined them on the same voyage. His name was William Guyton traveling with his wife Sophia, who was about five months pregnant, and their two children.

The voyage on the Meridian was not completed. On Aug. 23, the Meridian’s captain, suspecting an error in his calculations, sailed the ship in the direction of St. Paul’s islands in the far south of the Indian Ocean. Here he believed he would be able to make the necessary navigation corrections; however, the ship encountered a strong gale coming aground on the rocks of Amsterdam Island.

The story of the shipwreck is horrifying but Thomas and his family all survived as did William Guyton and his family including the infant, a girl, who was born on the Meridian shortly before the sinking. The full account of the voyage and shipwreck can be read by clicking here.

An American whaler, the Monmouth, in the charge of Captain Ludlow had not had much luck so far during the whaling season and the Captain decided to try his luck in the waters closer to Australia.  Rather than finding the sought-after whales what they did find was the wreck of the Meridian and 105 survivors. Captain Ludlow was determined to rescue everyone who was stranded there – at a considerable financial sacrifice to himself and his crew since he would be suspending normal operations at the height of the whaling season

All of the survivors were incredibly grateful to Captain Ludlow and the crew of the Monmouth for their rescue. So much so that the Guyton’s named their newly born daughter Florence Monmouth Guyton after their rescue ship.

As for the Hendersons, they too never forgot their rescuers.  They remained forever grateful to their deliverer, Captain Ludlow, and in his memory, a house they owned at 21 Albert Street, (renamed Philip Street) Burwood was named Monmouth. The property was purchased by the family around 1874. Like the Monmouth, it became a place of safety during the upheavals of their lives at this time. Betsy initially took up residence with her sister Janette after the failure of her marriage. Her father also lived there following a financial disaster, insolvency, and the failure of his second marriage

Albert Street, Burwood is in the top left corner and the place were the Hendersons owned the house they called Monmouth.

Without the Monmouth our family story would be very different. It would not surprise me if there were not other children or homes that carried this name in memory of the miraculous rescue. The family home named after the ship sadly no longer exists but we can still celebrate and remember the caring and brave crew who saved our ancestors.

Multiple Weddings: Why remarry?

There are many reasons why my ancestors remarried but the sadest story of multiple marriages belongs to my 3 times great grandfather Daniel Chisholm. His first wife Sarah was a fit young woman of 24 years and pregnant at the time of her marriage to Daniel in 1829. Women in this period saw childbearing as their fate and duty and as was expected she gave birth to eight children during her seventeen year marriage until her death from puerperal fever in 1846.

Left a widower with five surviving children Daniel remarried withing six months. His wife, Ann Bradshaw was 15 years younger than Daniel and 29 years of age at the time of their marriage, She had two children, the second child died when six months old and she died in the same quarter of the year. Her cause of death is unknown.

Once again Daniel remarried within six months to Martha Wilson (possibly a relative of his first wife). When they married in 1850 Daniel was 48 and Martha was twenty years younger. Their marriage lasted 17 years until her death in 1867. Martha had six children, dying following the birth of her last child Milton.

Daniel did not remarry. As well as losing his wives, it appears that only five of his children survived to adulthood. It is difficult to understand such a high mortality rate in this day and age. We have much to be thankful for where modern medicine is concerned. I am also extremely thankful that one of his surviving children was my 2 x great grandfather, Joseph Wilson Chisholm, who established the Chisholm line in New Zealand. Without him I would not be here today!

If you would like to read more about Daniel click here

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.”( 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.