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.

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.

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.

#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: Comedy

dorothea maunsellTo find something suitable for this trigger word I have had to resort to my husband’s family tree and the Maunsell family. Dorothea Maunsell, John’s 5 x great aunt, was born to Thomas Maunsell and his wife, Dorothea (nee Waller) about 1750.

Dorothea’s father was a wealthy Dublin barrister, king’s counsellor in the court of the exchequer and MP for Kilmallock, co Limerick. His wife was descended from the landed Irish gentry and grew up in Castle Waller in Kilnareth. As would be expected during this period in history, as the family patriarch, Thomas had selected a suitable husband for his daughter by the time that she had entered her early teenage years.

Around this time the famous Italian castrato, Giusto Ferdinando Tenducci, was successfully appearing in operas and concerts in the British Isles. He was both good looking, personable and at the height of his operatic powers. Lured by high fees to Dublin in 1765, the castrato became a guest and music teacher in the house of Thomas Maunsell. The stage was now set for what I can only describe as a grand operatic farce.

Dorothea was not happy with father’s choice for her husband and she rejected his attempts at matchmaking. In her book The Castrato and His Wife, Berry described the relationship between Dorothea and her music teacher as “a crush” on the part of the young women and that Tenducci had developed a genuine attachment to her. To me, Dorothea appears to be a calculating young minx manipulating Tenducci to escape an unwanted marriage. The pair eloped and were married by a bedridden Catholic priest in the parlour of a private house in Cork. As she was underage and Catholic marriages were not valid in Protestant England they would both have been aware that the marriage was not legal.

Attempts to stand their ground against the fury of the Maunsell family and the extensive newspaper coverage that gripped the imagination of the lascivious public were useless. Dorothea even published her own account of the marriage A True and Genuine Narrative of Mr and Mrs Tenducci, representing herself as the victim of parental cruelty and judicial intransigence.

In 1768, Dorothea gave birth to a son, whom Tenducci claimed as his own.  Dorothea, bored with the novelty of her marriage, had started an affair with a rich, young man, William Long Kingsman. Once again Dorothea took action to remove herself from the life she did not want and again eloped, this time with Kingsman, her lover, who was the child’s real father. Another clandestine wedding took place, now with her father’s full consent, returning to England where the union with Tenducci was annulled on the grounds of non-consummation.

Tenducci, though apparently devastated by the loss of his wife, returned to London, where he remained a favourite with concert audiences. A final brush with the bankruptcy courts in 1788 sent him back to Italy for good, and two years later he died in Genoa of an apoplectic fit.

Dorothea does not appear to have paid a high price for her manipulation or wicked behaviour. She went on to have four children to William Kingman and remained married to him until his death in 1793 when she was in her early forties. She did not remarry and died in 1814 in London.

Now, all it needs for this comic opera to be complete is some musical genius to transport it to the stage, and hopefully, they will not portray Dorothea with too much sympathy!

# 52 Ancestors: Brother

Albert ChisholmWith the trigger word of ” brother”, it reminded me of my grandmother’s “missing” brother. I think it most likely that the connection was severed when her brother became a Baptist minister.

My grandmother, Hazel Annie Chisholm,  had separated from her husband after less than two years of marriage. She began a relationship with a Catholic who was the love of her life and my grandfather. When she sent her daughter to the local Catholic school I imagine that this would have been the final straw for Albert who had wholeheartedly become a Baptist. This would have meant strong opposition to divorce and the holding of anti-catholic/papist sentiments.

Thanks to his granddaughter, Robyn Rayner and the Chisholm family researcher, Audrey Barney, it is now possible to share his story. To read more about him click here