A Much-put-upon Woman
The information about Mary Kirwin comes mainly from the N.S.W. State Archives (Shipping Lists, Reel 2461), from the book “Old Convict Days”, by William Derecourt, from various birth and wedding certificates and from family lore.
According to the Shipping List, Mary Kirwin was fifteen years of age when she arrived, in the company of 243 orphan females and other immigrants, in Sydney, 29 June 1850, on the ship “Maria”. She had been a farm servant in County Carlow, Ireland, and her parents, both deceased, were named Timothy and, I think, Martha. Mary was “C. of R.”, i.e. Church of Rome, or Roman Catholic. She could neither read or write; her health was good and no remarks were recorded for her.
According to that information, Mary Kirwin must have been born in about 1835. And apart from that information, everything wlse in this chapter has been told in the previous chapter or can be found in “Old Convict Days”, the memoirs dictated by her husband, William Day, Derecourt or Dedicoat, in 1892.
I do not know what she did immediately on arrival but by March 1852 she was employed by Bartholomew and Ann Mahoney at the “Crispin Arms”, 112 Clarence Street, Sydney. It was, according to Derecourt in “Old Convict Days” a “house of call for sailors and soldiers, and from first appearances rather a rough shop, although the landlady seemed a jovial hearty woman”. Derecourt calls her Mrs. Marley in his book, but on Mary Kirwin’s marriage certificate and in a directory of the time the name is given as Mahony.
William Derecourt says Mary Kirwin – whom he never names – was a “good-looking” girl, and having eyed the girl during the meal, said to his companion: “That girl shall be my wife some day soon. You keep an eye on her as I start for the diggings tomorrow morning, and this day month I shall be down again and marry her”. She was “about sixteen years old”, and all of this was said “without [my] having spoken to her”. Henry, Derecourt’s companion and the son of the proprietress, must have kept an eye on her for she was ready and waiting one month later, Thursday, 3rd April, 1852. As we have seen in the previous chapter, the interval was greater than one month, more likely having been six or eight months.
Derecourt returned from the Turon, walking to Penrith, taking a coach to Sydney and staying for the rest of the day at the “Dog and Duck” in the Haymarket. He proceeded up Brickfield Hill to King Street where at the confectioner’s shop he had a wedding cake made, “and a good one for three pounds”. He made his way to Mrs. Marley’s Crispin Arms, “to my intended to whom be it remembered I had not yet spoken a dozen words”.
He entered “to their surprise” and in the presence of the girl’s mistress he said “Are you quite ready”? “Without further hum or hah, she said Yes”. Though she was “content and agreeable” to what he wanted, she wished to know about his religion, as she was a Catholic. “Oh”, he said, “you can be married in any church you like. I’m sort of Protestant, or in truth a Ranter, but I’m not particular, and if we get married and have any family the boys shall be Protestants and you can bring the girls up in your own persuasion”.
They went next day to St. Mary’s Cathedral, but it being Lent the priest would not allow them to get married because “the rules of the church forbade it”. So, nothing daunted, they went on the Saturday to Dean Cowper, a Church of England parson, who directed them to St. Philip’s, Church Hill.
There were the usual questions and “she must have the consent of her parents”. “I told him they were in Ireland and how could I get their consent”. There were further problems: “You’ll have to be called three times in church, and we can only call twice in one day”. William was not greatly bothered by rules: “let us be called twice and I will give you five pounds for a licence”.
And so the “next evening, in the company of Mr. and Mrs. Marley, the master and mistress of the girl, I went to the church and after the service the ceremony was performed and we returned home to the Crispin Arms”. That was Sunday, 6 April 1852. Dean William Cowper, Church of England Chaplain, in the presence of “Batw Mahony and Ann Mahony her x mark”, at St. Philip’s, Sydney, married William Day, bachelor, and Mary Kirwin, spinster, both “of this parish”.
The Monday was spent at Ashton’s Circus, “the clown at which was an old acqaintance of mine”, says Day. After the circus performance “my friend with his companions and instruments arrived, and the dancing, mirth and fun soon became fast and furious”. Day was a generous man: he provided a bicker of she-oak (ale) for the bar customers, took precautions so that there would be no disputes over costs, and about 2 a.m. retired”.
Day was confident of himself, having made preparations for marriage before he got Mary Kirwin’s consent. He said he was “determined to have a wife and at first sight took fancy to this one”. Had he been refused he would have gone to the Registry Office and “the girls being assembled [I] would have declared myself in want of a wife, showing plenty of gold and notes”. He never dreamt of failure; besides, he says, being “quite respectably togged out in my newly-purchased sailor’s garb, and with my expectations did [you] think for a moment I would be long without a wife?”
Day went off to Sofala a few days later and made arrangements for Mary Kirwin to come in a month or so.
The marriage could not have been an easy one for Mary Kirwin. She gets scant mention in the book, and it is hard to know what kind of woman she was, since all the information is told from Day’s point of view.
On one occasion Mary complained to him: “It does not look well of you working in the company of an unmarried girl”, which he had been; so William responded to her implied request. On another occasion he was digging away underground and his wife came to the top of the shaft and called him. Up he came, asked what she wanted, she “seemed like one bewildered, and stammering and stuttering had only time to say ‘I -‘ when the whole ground under which I had been working sank bodily down, burying tools and everything I had below under hundreds of tons of dirt”. When he asked Mary why she had called, she said she had “no particular object in going to the shaft and she knew not what possessed her to call me”.
Their first daughter, Mary Ann, was born 10th April 1853 and was christened 1 May 1853 by William J. K. Piddington, a Wesleyan minister on the Bathurst Circuit. William’s profession is given as tinsmith – one of his many professions, he being gunsmith, lockmaker, carpenter, digger and jack of all trades. She was later to marry, under the name of Derecourt, John Seach.
Their second daughter, Matilda or Mathilde (according to different certificates) was born 4th August 1854. She was christened a Roman Catholic by Fr. Kums in the parish of Sofala (the records are in the Catholic Church at Kandos.) Her father’s occupation was given as digger. She eventually married, as Derecourt, James Cross.
Day was a successful digger, making at this time thirty or forty pounds per night. “Upon its being known that I was lucky”, he says, “some of my gossiping neighbours, getting on the vain side of my wife, persuaded her to employ a girl to help look after the two children and assist in the house affairs”. He tried to dissuade her but, “as all the world may guess”, unsuccessfully – “the more I argued and remonstrated the more bent she became on accomplishing her desire”.
One can hardly blame the lass, mother of two children at the age of nineteen, living in the rough conditions of the gold fields. She was uneducated and not greatly experienced, whereas husband William had learnt to fend for himself at a very early age, having wandered around the Birmingham area for some years, in and out of jobs and scrapes, until he was eventually transported for stealing a waistcoat. Ten years in Van Diemen’s Land, a wide variety of experiences in the Adelaide area, plus a worldly wisdom, a physical strength of some note and an ability to handle men and situations which is awe-inspiring, all those things must have made him a formidable husband and more than a handful for Mary Kirwin.
Mary, nonetheless, got her servant girl and William got a lesson on the dangers of boasting. He brought the servant back from Sydney by several stages and whiled away the time by a “good deal of blowing and gassing”. Unfortunately “my wife wormed out of her quite innocently, all particulars of my proceedings in Sydney, and getting on the soft side of her, heard of all my boastings in the coach on our passage over the Blue Mountains”. The results were inevitable: William, “merry as a cricket”, was in the midst of displaying to his wife a real “darling of a two pound bonnet”, when up she sprang “with the fury of a tiger cat, snatched the millinery from my hands, gathered up all the other presents and toys without a word and bundled them into the flames of the hearth”. There was more, but suffice it to say that he soon got the message and he says “foolish boasting was ever to prove a thorn in my side”.
There were other children.
Julia, our great-grandmother, was born at Sofala in 1855, but I can find absolutely no record of her birth. Place and year of her birth are derived from her death certificate and her brother Richard’s birth certificate. She was to marry, also as Derecourt, Malcolm McLean.
Elizabeth, or Betsy, was born 3rd December 1857 at Ironbarks. “William Day, 40, gunsmith, of Birmingham, and Mary Curwin, 34, of Dublin. Previous issue: 4 children. Informant: William Day, father, Ironbarks”. This certificate illustrates perfectly the unreliability of all the certificates associated with Day. In 1857 he was thirty-five (his age is uncertain, but the best approximation of the year of his birth is 1822 or 23.) Mary was twenty-two, and there were only three other children: he seems to have included Betsy among the “previous issue”. Betsy seems to be dead by 1864, as is shown in the previous chapter.
At this time, between 1857 and 1859, Mary Kirwin must have turned to drink. How serious the matter was is hard to gauge. Day introduces his former manager on the Turon, one Robert Wilson, who married a wife considerably younger than himself and could not control her. It appears she and Mary Kirwin took to drinking together. “After a time”, says Day, “I found my wife had been induced to join her in her cups; indeed on one occasion I found the two dancing on the floor ‘Jack the Lad’, to their own music and no dinner cooked. Before the advent of Wilson’s wife my old woman was noted as a hard working woman, attentive to her household duties, and a kind and affectionate mother; but now these orgies were of a daily occurrence and how to mend matters puzzled me. I got maddened to such a pitch at their increasing drunken fits that I was almost tempted to bundle both of them down a hole”.
His response was to go along with Wilson’s plan to hold up the Bathurst Mail, which they did 24th June 1859 (though who planned the escapade is open to conjecture.).
The long and the short of that little episode was that he ended up in the Bathurst Court, tried and convicted by Judge John Dickinson, and sentenced to seven years’ hard labour, in spite of the fact that “he had a wife [Mary was present in court] and four children and his wife was again near her confinement”. (From The Bathurst Free Press and Mining Journal, 24 September 1859).
Mary was delivered of her fifth child and first boy, Richard, 4 November 1859. “Father: William Day, confine(d) at Cockatoo, 40 England. Mother: Mary Kirwin, 24, Dublin, Ireland. now of Ranken Street, Bathurst. Married April 1851, Sydney N.S.W., four children, Mary Ann 6, Matilda 5, Julia 4, Elizabeth 2, none dead”. And although Mary could sign only with x her mark I would say that she was a more careful informant than husband William.
Though he makes no mention of such deeds in his book, he is accused informally by Edward Montague Battye, Superintendent of the Western Mounted Patrol, in a letter dated Hartley 28 June (1859), of several other crimes. “William Day”, he writes, “is known to me and I believe him to have been one concerned in the Mudgee Mail Robbery on two occasions – the highway robbery of W. Phillips in 1855 if not in the murder of Trooper Codrington in Wyagdon Hill”. (This letter is to be found in the N.S.W. State Archives Ref. 9/6424, among the Witnesses’ Depositions at a preliminary trial held at Hartley 30 June/l July 1859. The same reference to Codrington’s murder appears in The Bathurst Free Press and Mining Journal, Wednesday, 20 June 1859, to be found in the Mitchell Library). These accusations may or may not have any substance. If they do, then Mary Day had married herself a very difficult man whose behaviour lends some excuse to her own.
What happened to Mary Kirwin and her five children while William was confined at Cockatoo? References are scanty. In his book, Day writes “After dinner I got my noble friend to write a letter to the kind friend who had taken charge of my children in my trouble, receiving in due time a favourable and most consolatory letter”. Now we know that by 28 November 1859 the four girls had been sent to the Very Reverend Dean Grant for transfer to the Catholic Orphan School at Parramatta. This action was to cost her the affection of her children who as they got older turned their backs on her – at least, Julia did, but I cannot speak for the others.
Later on, Day wrote a letter, stating the grounds of his petition, his good deeds, etc., to his wife from Cockatoo Island, penned on Frank Gardiner’s back as we have seen. The story of how he made a brush from a “favourite cat’s” tail, how he made paint from red lead and his own blood, how the letter was was inscribed on Gardiner’s back “occupying from the shoulders to below the waist”, is equal to anything that occurs in romantic literature. However, Gardiner apparently delivered the message, as “I had a letter from my wife telling me that Gardiner had given her all the particulars, which should be attended to”. It is reasonable to assume that he was able to get some message to Day’s wife by some means or other because she eventually petitions the Governor for his early releas. The petition bears some fruit and he was released 21 December, 1865.
Nothing more is mentioned of his wife in the book. He makes reference to “my daughter, then living at a Mr. Greninger’s near Braidwood”. She was involved in one daring escapade in which the bushrangers Clarke saved her from the attentions of a one-eyed ruffianly member of their gang. They were active around the mid 1860s. Just which daughter this was, there is no way of telling, though it is almost certain that it was Mary Ann, the eldest. Day, once he is off Cockatoo Island makes no reference to either his wife or children; he refers simply in a couple of episodes to “my daughter”. The book fades away in unconnected memories.
What happened to Mary Kirwin? I simply do not know any more at this stage than is conjectured in the previous chapter. I summarise what I wrote in Chapter Five. She may well have died and been buried as Derecourt in Sofala in October 871. Someone of the name Derecourt was buried in Sofala in October 1871, and as the children are accounted for as above and as Bill Day had changed his name to Derecourt at this time, it is possible that the someone was his wife Mary. The microfiche records of death have several other possibilities for Mary Day including “Mary Day died 1890 aged seventy-four, at Camperdown, widow”, and “Mary Day, 3rd February 1867, buried at Camperdown, born England, fifteen years in N.S.W.”
There is the family story that on some unspecified occasion Mary Kirwin came to visit her daughter Julia in Sydney. Julia would not believe that the woman was her mother, until Mary produced a prayer-book which appeared to serve as proof. Even then Julia refused to have anything to do with the woman because of her apparent abandonment of them as children.
I had always assumed that Julia was married at the time, but if this visit had taken place when the girl was only about ten or twelve, ie, about 1867, then the Mary Day who died of Phthisis 3 February 1867 and buried at Camperdown Cemetery, could have been her mother. This woman had been in the Colony for 15 years, though the death certificate indicates that she came from England and gives no indication of marriage or children. If the girl had been about fifteen or sixteen, then the 1871 Derecourt burial in Sofala still could have been Mary Day. On the other hand, if Julia was a married woman when the supposed visit occurred, then the Mary Day buried at Camperdown in 1890 could have been her mother, who being born in 1835, would have been 55. I am inclined to believe that 1871 burial in Sofala was Mary Day’s under the name Derecourt; but that is by no means certain.
What happened to the children? Elizabeth (Betsy) is assumed to be dead by 1864 (as shown in the previous chapter) and of Richard I know absolutely nothing. Matilda married James Cross in 1874 about six weeks before her younger sister Julia married Malcolm McLean, both at the Elizabeth Street (Sydney) home of Rev. Dr. James Fullerton according to the rites of the Presbyterian Church and the custom of the time. I guess that they were close, as Julia was a witness to Matilda’s wedding. Matilda was apprenticed at the age of thirteen (1867) to Mrs Cnnor of Shoalhaven. It is reasonable to assume that the other two girls were similarly apaprenticed – Mary Anne to the Greningers and Julia to a family in Surry Hills where she later met the Cordial man, Malcolm McLean. Of Matilda, however, nothing else – none of the descendants I have had any contact with knows anything of either Matilda’s descendants or of the later history of Richard. Mary Ann married John Seach in All Saints Cathedral, Bathurst, 4th January 1879. Mary Ann and Julia evidently kept some contact as I have a picture of them, probably taken in the late teens of this century as Malcolm McLean (d. 1920) is in the picture.
There is just that one scrap of family lore that says that Mary Kirwin was not well able to look after the children, so they spent some time in an orphanage, whence William would retrieve them from time to time. The implication was that Mary was an inadequate mother and that William was “often away”. The truth would appear to be slightly different. No wonder the woman could not cope, having five children aged two to six when her husband was sent to Cockatoo island. And if he was the rogue that is pictured in Battye’s letter, robber and murderer, it is less wonder. The orphange story is true: the four girls certainly were placed in the Catholic Orphan School at Parramatta, which had been taken over in 1859 by the recently founded Sisters of the Good Samaritan, Sisters Magdalen, Gertrude and Agnes but nothing is known of how long they were there or how they were treated or where they moved to from there. It is reasonable to assume that Mary Ann chose to return to Sofala, via Braidwood, and married at the age of twenty-six, and that Betsy died aged about six. Matilda married at the age of twenty and her sister Julia married about two months later aged nineteen (1874).
Mary Kirwin: from Irish farm servant to wife of ex-convict, bushranger and accused murderer, and the mother of five children. Mary Kirwin had it tough. An emigrée from who knows what conditions of poverty to a harsh country, married in hope at seventeen, bearing five children in six years to a man who sounds, for all his self-proclaimed sensitivity, like a hard man and a chauvinist. She is left high and dry when he is imprisoned on Cockatoo Island – four little girls aged six, five, four and two, and a baby yet to be born. She is forced to send the girls to an orphange, costing her their affection and love, and maybe one of them her life. She probably returned from her confinement with Richard in Bathurst to Sofala where she probably died in 1871. She seems to have travelled to Sydney with her prayer book to find her daughters, only to be rejected. From here we can only assume that her future was desolate and that her last few years were spent in misery and even rejection. Her situation may even have been compounded by a worsening of the drunkenness which had begun some years into her marriage, increasing her sense of hopelessness and isolation. It is not a happy story. Was she a pretty Irish lass gone to ruin? A photo of Julia, possibly taken on her wedding day in 1874 shows a pretty young woman, but a photo of her and her sister Mary Ann taken some time before 1920 shows two quite worn women. Yet Julia’s daughter Lily, our grandmother, had real beauty.
There is much conjecture in all this attempt to discover a real person behind the few facts, yet Mary Kirwin lives on in her descendants; and I, for one, regard her plight with sufficient sympathy to dedicate this history to her conjointly with Bridget Horan, whose story is still to be told.