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A little family history: the story of Sarah Letitia Cresswell

It’s disconcerting reading your own name on a gravestone. There’s an eerie flash of recognition and then a strange kind of unsettling uncomfortableness. Like you know you’re not really sitting on your own grave but can’t be absolutely certain.


The gravestone belonged to the woman I am named after, my grandmother’s grandmother, Sarah Letitia Cresswell.


The quest begins

My quest to tell Sarah’s story began with an inconvenient box. The box contains barely a portion of the evidence of my mother’s passion for tracking every conceivable branch of her family and feeding information into the ravenous abyss that is Ancestry.com. Mum also printed and collated the information into a colour-coded organisational system completely incomprehensible to anyone else in the family.


When Mum died unexpectedly in 2012, the box she had marked ‘Cresswell’ came to me. This was my father’s mother Enid’s side of the family. For years, I ignored it. Eventually, I possessed the box so long that a little colony of old travel guides and maps migrated around it.


Then the other day, looking for something to write about, I decided to look inside. Amongst reams of paper with my mother’s scrawl all over it, I came across a piece of genuinely interesting information: the death certificate of my namesake, Sarah Letitia Cresswell.

Sarah has, until now, only been known to me through a photograph my grandmother Enid gave me many, many years ago. On the back, underneath Grandma’s scrawl explaining the identities in the photograph, are the words: ‘Rochester, 1917’. Sarah looks to be in her early 50s and she is seated next to a young man with a receding hairline in a dark suit. He is her fifth child and second son Percy, my grandmother’s father. A resemblance between the two of them is certainly there; they have the same brow and tight, weary smile. I can definitely see my grandmother in her face and, if I squint a bit, maybe even a little of myself.


Sarah leaves Ireland

Born Sarah Letitia Johnston, her birth details are not available because, as the Irish Genealogy website will tell you, records from this time have largely been destroyed. Her death certificate had none either. Issued in 1943, it merely stated she was ‘71 years from Ireland’.

The Irish arrived in Australia primarily as convicts in the 1790s. By the 1830s, most arrived as free settlers and eventually comprised around 25% of the Australian population. Back in Sarah’s day, there was a marked difference in the standing of Irish and English settlers in the Australian colonies. According to the Protestant majority, the Irish brought with them their centuries-old culture of protest against British oppression. This, combined with their distinctive cultural traditions, world-views, historical experiences and values, made them fundamentally hostile to the English- and Scottish-born residents of the Australia colonies. The largely English-born population of Australia viewed the Irish in the same class as the native aboriginal people: an inferior race. The only difference, according to Manning Clark, one of Australia’s most influential historians, was ‘the shade of the Catholic’s skin.’


But Sarah Johnston and her family were different from the other settlers ‘from Ireland’. She arrived in Port Melbourne (pictured above) on the immigrant ship Western Empire in 1867 from Londonderry, a town in Northern Ireland. Londonderry was so called because it was primarily occupied by English Protestants, not Irish Catholics. It grew rapidly during the 19th century, especially after railway arrived in 1845. Textile manufacturing and a ship-building industry also caused the town to flourish. This increase in employment opportunities should have encouraged the Johnston family to stay. Instead, Sarah’s mother, Mary (neè Gallagher) and her daughters: Margaret (15), Maria (13), Kate (9), Sarah (7), Lizzie (5) and little brother Thomas (2), emigrated to Australia.


If the thought of a trans-oceanic voyage to a foreign land with a two year old, let alone four other children fills you with a sense of dread, for Mary it was most likely a matter of survival. There are no records of Sarah’s father in the Australian immigration records or in Australia. So he had probably either died or abandoned the family. Moreover, in Londonderry in the 1860s, the Catholics were gaining the upper hand over the Derry Protestants in the political arena. Mary’s hometown was experiencing increasing levels of violent political upheaval and an uncertain future. If her future was going to be uncertain, she must have decided, it may as well be in a land where her Protestant faith had the upper-hand.


Emigrating to Victoria

The family’s passage on Western Empire took a mere three months, a fraction of the time taken by the convict ships of the 1790s. Somehow along the voyage, the Captain died and just before the ship arrived, it collided with another vessel off Queenscliff. Fortunately, none of the passengers were injured.


As an immigrant, Mary Johnston was not in the preferred demographic of Government-funded assisted passages to the Australian colonies. Nor was Londonderry a common port for this practice. The 1860s were a time when the colonial authorities exerted considerable control over migration by cherry-picking particular skills and expertise among acceptable emigrants. So it is most likely Mary paid for the passage of her family herself. It is also probable that Mary chose Victoria (and not North America or Canada) because of a family connection here. Who she may have been joining remains a mystery because after her voyage on the Western Empire, Sarah’s mother did what most women did when they arrived in Australia: disappeared from the historical record. The last mention of her is on Sarah’s death certificate. There, under her and husband Thomas’ occupation is the mysterious descriptor ‘investor’.


My theory is that after arriving in muddy and filthy Melbourne, Mary took her family north, towards Sandhurst (present-day Bendigo). We can only imagine how a woman used to the tenements and factories of Londonderry would have perceived the vast blue skies, foreign-looking trees and strange animals of the flatlands of Central Victoria. Even with the brand new train making the trip faster and easier, the land just goes on and on, as far as the eye can see.


Present day map of Central Region of Victoria


Sarah moves to Rochester


There were a few Gallaghers in the records of Central Victoria at that time, so Mary most likely went to live with a brother or other relative. There is no record of her death certificate available but there is a Mary Elizabeth Johnston in Kangaroo Flat cemetery in Bendigo. She died on 19 March 1875. This may or may not be her.


The “Johnstons went to Sandhurst” theory matches with when Sarah next appeared in the records: in 1878. At 18 years old, she married John Cresswell in Rochester, a small settlement in central Victoria. John’s family was from Sandhurst so it is most likely Sarah lived locally, and he met her perhaps at one of the many dances held in those days.

John Cresswell was born in Sandhurst on 2 June 1855 to Luke, a carpenter, and Mary. They were almost definitely Protestants, as it would have been socially disastrous for Sarah to marry a Catholic. Instead of following in his father’s footsteps, John trained as a blacksmith.


For a young migrant woman in pre-20th century Australia, marriage to a blacksmith was advantageous. Blacksmithing was once essential to every conceivable metal tool or implement used in the home and in the fields. This gave the local ‘smithy’ a pivotal role in every community. As the industrial revolution took hold, blacksmiths changed and adapted their work, ensuring there would always be a need for their services. Even today, blacksmiths make quality, unique metalwork used as gates, light fixtures, religious artefacts, jewellery and musical instruments.


Life in Rochester in the late 19th century


John made a prudent decision to move to Rochester and set up his business in Gillies Street. Located around 60 km west of Sandhurst, by the time he married Sarah, the arrival of the railway to Rochester had caused the town to rapidly grow.


Rochester was first occupied by Europeans in 1844, when squatters settled the flat plains that stretched as far east as the eye could see. By 1846, Dr John Pearson Rowe sold his medical practice in Hobart and took up Restdown Station, a large tract of grazing country of around 100,000 acres along the Campaspe River. At one stage, he ran around 50,000 sheep on the property. To induce the Cobb & Co coaches to stop near his settlement and provide accommodation for the many drovers and prospectors passing through the district, Dr Rowe built the Apelles Hotel. He named his settlement ‘Rowe’s Camp’, then ‘Rowechester’ and eventually the land was gazetted as the more traditional ‘Rochester’.


Slowly, a town emerged. More hotels appeared, then a butcher and a baker. The railway arrived in 1864. By the time of John and Sarah’s marriage, Rochester possessed a permanent brick railway station, Hart’s blacksmithing, a flour mill, several stores, a post office, a school and a local newspaper called the ‘Rochester Express’.


John and Sarah quickly produced three children: Elizabeth “Ruby” Rubina (1879), Edward “Luke” (1880), and Ida Gertrude (1882). They lived in a four-roomed weatherboard house typical for the time, with a small garden attached. John’s blacksmithing business made a modest living for the family but not enough to afford a gravestone for their fourth child, Margaret Olive. Little Margaret died in 1887, only one years old. Pictured here is her gravesite in Rochester cemetery. In those days, Rochester had no sanitation or drainage, so typhoid and cholera outbreaks took children and adults with startling frequency. The disease outbreaks competed with the other big killer in the region: suicide.


A musical family grows

While there is no way to know how John and Sarah met, they certainly shared a love of music and singing. This made them a popular couple around town. John was particularly well-known for his deep tenor singing voice. The two participated in the Rochester Amateur Dramatic Club and in November 1886, soon after Margaret was born, they shared a bill at the Gospel Temperance Association’s monthly meeting. Sarah sang ‘No One Cares for Me’ and John sang ‘Home, dearest Home.’ [1] These songs stood in stark contrast to the anti-temperance songs and recitations on the bill, with names that hint at a life of debauchery (and fun?!) like ‘The Drunkard’s Last Scene’ and ‘Keep out of the Public House’.


Hart and Cresswell Blacksmiths


By 1889, John had sold his house and business and became a partner in the other blacksmithry in town, Harts Foundry. He was held in high enough regard by W G Hart that the business was renamed Hart and Cresswell. This was a savvy business move for John. The two men quickly became the dominant providers and agents of imported farm equipment in Central Victoria. In addition to implements and tools, Hart and Cresswell also made their own carriages and carts to special order, such as this one pictured here. Their wagons were highly sought after in the northern districts, being ‘strongly built and fitted with all the latest improvements.’ Hart and Cresswell also had contracts to build coaches for proprietors in Sandhurst and Castlemaine.

I’m not sure who wrote the advertisements for Hart and Cresswell, but the copyrighter was quite captivated with what they had to offer. In one advertisement, the intriguing ‘McCormack Reaper, Binder with Square Tube Frame and Simple Knotter’ was described as ‘marvellous for its simplicity and wonderful for its accuracy. The tide of victory is easily, absolutely and completely with the McCormack.’


My personal favourite though was the ‘The Climax’. This was a ‘Steel Disc Harrow and Seed Sower (combined)’. I’m not sure where the ‘climax’ part comes in – perhaps because it had a seat on it? - but you could inspect the machine at Hart and Cresswell. Over the next few years, Hart and Cresswell continued to successfully manufacture, import and sell farming equipment. Demand for their custom-made machinery spread into New South Wales and as far afield as Western Australia.


Entertaining the town

In 1890, John and Sarah welcomed their fifth child, my great-grandfather, Percy Thomas Johnston. The three years between Margaret’s death and Percy’s birth perhaps indicated a deep well of grief for the couple. Nevertheless, their engagement in the local community strengthened. They continued to sing with the Rochester Amateur Dramatic Club and John lent his support to the Rochester Free Library. At the Grand Vocal and Elocutionary Concert in aid of the Library that year, John performed ‘The Romany Lass’. For the concert’s finale he sung the rousing ‘Let me like a Soldier Fall’ based on the poetry of James Joyce. Sarah sang in the Presbyterian Church Choir and produced needlework much admired and exhibited annually at the local agricultural show.


John and Sarah’s last child, Raymond “Ray” John arrived in 1893 to complete the family. Ruby, their eldest child, was 14. John and Sarah’s musical talent extended to their offspring. As the years passed, the children also established themselves as valued members of the Rochester community. The older children often sang in Sunday School Concerts, and the two younger boys Percy and Ray continued the tradition from around age 10.

In 1904, Ruby and Ida, now both adults, sung in the Grand Popular Concert and Entertainment held in honour of the arrival of the ‘New Bioscope Pictures’ from Melbourne. Check out this blog to find out more about a bioscope as it’s not clear exactly what this was besides an early cinematic device. Ruby’s musical preferences swung away from her father’s popular folk tunes towards the operatic stylings of Braga’s La Serenata. She and Ida also sung a duet called ‘Anchored’.




Ruby’s marriage to William Barry

In 1909, at the ancient (for the time) age of 30, Ruby married William J Barry, a local farmer in Strathallen. Ruby’s years of service as the organist to the Presbyterian Church resulted in the local women organising a special evening and presentation for her on the eve of her wedding. They presented her with a handsome electro-plate silver salver, teapot, sugar basin and cream jug. ‘They had all been charmed by Ruby’s skilful playing and her rich, full and beautiful voice,’ Rev Nielson told the assembled crowd. Nielson then congratulated Mr Barry for snagging a ‘singing bird’ as a mate. As was common for the time, Ruby’s father John Cresswell thanked the assembled crowd on Ruby’s behalf. It was, by all accounts, a pleasant and harmonious evening.


Percy makes his mark

Academically, the younger boys particularly shone. In 1906, 16 year old Percy received a special prize for the highest marks in his year at school. Ray also topped his class. Percy participated in regional debating competitions and developed a reputation as an excellent shot. The younger Cresswell brothers were among the only boys at Rochester School to excel academically: the fact most of the high achievers were girls is simultaneously heartening and depressing when we consider the limited intellectual prospects for country girls in early 20th century Australia.

After completing school, Percy took a position under Walter Chaplin, the local shire engineer. By this time, the Victorian colony had become a federated state of Australia. In Rochester, the local land was beginning to be sold off and sub-divided. Percy and Walter probably worked on the plans to build the Mallee-Waranga Channel (pictured here) to bring more irrigation water down to the region from the Campaspe River. Rochester hosted hundreds of workers and horses that flocked to the area to work on digging out the Channel. It eventually formed part of the Wimmera-Mallee channel system, one of the largest water supply systems in the world at the time.


Ida marries Percy’s boss

After Ruby’s marriage and departure, Percy took over as the Presbyterian Church’s organist. He was also secretary to the board of management and taught in the Sunday school. Walter Chaplin was also involved in the church. He took a shine to Ida and the two were married on 6 May 1908. Ida wore a ‘pretty white silk dress, trimmed with tucked net, lace and chiffon, and the customary wreath and veil.’ After an enjoyable breakfast, the couple left for Melbourne on the afternoon train with ‘a large number of valuable presents’ for the bride.


John becomes a dairy farmer



By 1911, with his daughters finally married and off his hands, John Cresswell’s capacity to continue working as a blacksmith was coming to an end. In 1912, he dissolved his partnership with W G Hart and together with Percy, purchased land in Nanneela, a few kilometres east of the Rochester township and next to the Mallee-Waranga Channel. His intention was to establish a dairy farm. I’m not sure how this was easier work than blacksmithing but that’s what the records tell me. John’s youngest son Ray was placed in charge of the milk run, delivering milk – in a wagon made by his father – to the residents of Rochester twice a day in the warmer months. Thanks to its excellent location right next to the irrigation channel, the farm proved quite profitable.


Of the five surviving Cresswell children, less is known about Luke Cresswell, Sarah and John’s eldest son. He is the only one not found in reports of musical performances by the family in the time. Perhaps there were enough show ponies in the family already. He is never mentioned in news about Hart and Cresswell or the Cresswell dairy farm. He appears once, in 1914 when he was working for the State River and Water Supply Commission, probably on the Channel-building project. At the age of 34, the Rochester Express reported Luke had passed his civil engineering exam, just in time for World War I.

Rochester and World War I

The impending war loomed heavily over Rochester. The town became a major military recruitment centre for the Central Districts of Victoria. Many of the boys and men of remote, rural Australia considered the war an opportunity to experience the excitement of travelling the world. Rochester’s population was around 1,500 at the time but over 1,000 men were recruited there, decimating the local community. However, from the Cresswell family, only Luke joined up.


During the war, Sarah actively participated in the local chapter of the Red Cross Society. Like many Australian women at the time, she knitted mittens and socks to send to the soldiers on the front. Percy’s life continued much as before: he still played the organ in the church and participated in the Rifle Club. In 1916, after years of apprenticeship under his brother-in-law Walter Chaplin, Percy accepted a temporary position as Shire Engineer for Kingston-Creswick Shire. The next year he obtained a permanent position with Borung Shire. Based in the Wimmera town of Nhill 280 km north-west of Rochester, it was now time for Percy to leave his hometown.


Percy moves on

The Church honoured Percy’s standing in the Rochester community with a party and a proper send-off. Of course, it would not have been a Cresswell party without music and singing. Percy’s older sister Ruby travelled especially for the party and produced a musical item for the occasion. The Church’s Board of Management presented Percy with a handsome wallet ‘substantially lined with banknotes’ as a token of his contribution to the church over the years. According to a Mr Long, Percy was a ‘man that could always be depended on, and they will miss him because he saw that the little things were done, which many others did not think about, and everything was always in order.’ The farewell ended fittingly with a rendition of Auld Lang Syne and God Save the King.


With Percy gone and Luke off at the war, John continued to operate his dairy farm with Ray. We know this because of a small news item in the 5 March 1918 issue of the Rochester Express stated he sustained a nasty injury to the jaw by a kick from a cow that was ‘ordinarily a very quiet animal’. John also fell afoul of the law by shooting a duck out of season. A Felix Jellicoe (probably a neighbour) pressed charges against him and even produced the head of the duck as evidence. The Rochester Police Court fined John £2 and 5s for a breach of Game Laws. This seemed the beginning and end of John’s life of crime.


Then in 1919, two significant family events occurred. Percy married Ruby Swingler in Ballarat and Luke returned from the front. Luke’s return cast a long shadow over the happy occasion of Percy’s marriage. Like many men who returned from war, Luke was irrevocably damaged by it.


John and Sarah move to Bendigo


John’s deteriorating health may have contributed to Sarah and John’s decision to retire and move to Bendigo (the town’s name changed from Sandhurst to Bendigo by popular vote in 1891). Years of blacksmithing would have taken a significant toll on John’s lungs. In 1920, he and Percy sold their two farms to another local, R J B Lucas. Once again, the Presbyterian Church honoured the contribution of the Cresswell family with a farewell party. Several long-standing friends of the couple spoke to wish them every success and happiness. Sarah broke out in song, ‘which was greatly appreciated’ and Ruby, ‘an old favourite’ not to be outdone by her mother, ‘was in good voice’.


John and Sarah Cresswell moved to 31 Havelock Street, Bendigo (pictured here). Within four years, John died at home of lung cancer, among other illnesses. He was 69. In his obituary published in the Rochester Express, he and his family were described as ‘well-known and highly esteemed.’ The item continued, ‘the late Mr John Cresswell was known as a man of sterling traits of character, whose word was his bond. He leaves a widow and grown-up family, one son and two daughters.’


But he had three sons, so why were Luke and Ray not included?


Luke and Ray Cresswell

The omission of Luke and Ray from John’s obituary complied with a common aversion in the press to publishing tragic, distasteful or shameful elements to personal stories. Luke’s repatriation after the war gave some hint of his condition. He never married and died of broncho-penumonia on 1 June 1927, only three years after John. At the time, he was interned in Mont Park, a Melbourne hospital dedicated to the mental ill-health challenges of returned servicemen. The coroner recorded his profession as ‘assisting about the house and digging in the garden, etc’. He was 49 years old. There is no record of his enlistment in the national archives but his name does appear on the local war memorial (pictured here) as ‘E L Creswell’.


It’s not clear whether Ray moved with his parents to Bendigo. He was 27 by then and without his father’s land to work on, out of a job. He also never married. He also died in Mont Park, indicating he suffered from significant mental illness. A notice placed in The Age from Ruby, Ida and Percy informing of his death in 1950 said only ‘a patient sufferer at rest’.


Sarah’s last years


After John’s death, Sarah moved to Melbourne. She probably lived with or near Ida and her family. She died almost 20 years after John, on 27 March 1943 at age 83. Her children arranged for her to be returned to Bendigo so she could be buried with John in Bendigo Cemetery.


What I like about their gravestone is that it is so obviously from Sarah to John. Perhaps this is just my mushy romantic streak, but it seems there was a great, lasting love between them. On his side of the inscription it says, ‘In my Father’s house are many mansions.’ This is a bible quotation from John 14:2. It’s also a gospel song that John may well have sung. It was sung many years later in the dulcet tones of no less than Elvis Presley. A song makes a fitting end to their story.


A special note

For this post I owe my great thanks to John and Lorraine at the Rochester Historical Society. They dug out all sorts of articles and photographs for me, personally showed me Margaret’s gravesite in the cemetery and John and Percy’s land in Naneella. Best use of $30 ever.


Other pictures from my visit to Rochester

NB: the Moreton Bay Fig Tree in the second picture is all that remains of Harts Foundry.




[1] I can’t find a version of ‘No One Cares for Me’ online that fits with this time period. There is a contemporary one with the same title and several versions of one written in 1932. The 1932 one may have been based on Sarah’s version but there’s nothing that says this.

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