Mandurah - Western Australia
With the loss of the American colonies through the American Civil War Britain also lost a convenient place to dispose of convicts. From the arrival of the ‘First Fleet’ in 1788 Australia provided a new opportunity. However it was not until 1851 that the Swan River colony, needing additional labour, encouraged transportation to Western Australia.
By today’s standards the crimes leading to transportation were often minor. Those transported were commonly, therefore, more like unfortunates than hardened criminals and many had trade skills of value to the settlers.
One of these skilled men was Robert Wilkinson Mewburn. Robert was born at Stockton-on-Tees, County Durham and baptised there at the Anglican church of St Thomas on the 25th February 1827. His parents were Wilkinson Mewburn, a wood turner living at that time on the High Street, and listed as working at Shoulder of Mutton Yard, and Ann Mellanby. Wilkinson and Ann both were Stockton born, he being baptised on the 27th December 1795 and Ann on the 16th November 1794.
Shoulder of Mutton Inn, Stockton
Going further back, Wilkinson was the son of a local weaver, William Mewburn, who was baptised at Stokesley, North Yorkshire (some ten miles south of Stockton) on the 16th December 1758 – the son of farmer John Mewburn. John’s origins are unknown (this is highly speculative, but a baptism at Ormesby in 1733 is about the right time for him. That would place him among the Cleveland Mewburns, the source of several important Mewburn lines).
Wilkinson’s mother was an Elizabeth Wilkinson from Stockton. She had an earlier marriage in 1786 to Robert Errington before marrying William in 1795; it was also William’s second marriage, his first having been to Hannah Flower in 1790.
Ancestry of Robert Wilkinson Mewburn
Wilkinson died in 1832 leaving Ann with four children to support (one had already died) and another on the way. Robert would hardly have had any memory of his father. In the 1841 census they were living at Old Post Office Yard. Somehow, despite these straightened circumstances, Robert received an education and, according to Australian accounts, became a printer and clerk. However, things got worse at home a few years later.
On the 30th December 1849, at the Quarter Sessions in Durham, Robert was given one month’s hard labour at the House of Correction in Durham for stealing two pieces of metal each worth 6 pence. Not long after he was released, on the 15th February 1850, he was caught and charged with the theft of a pair of boots, worth 10 shillings, from William Marwood at Thornaby. There were no second chances. On the 9th April 1850 at Northallerton Sessions, while still just 23-years old, he was convicted of larceny and sentenced to transportation for seven years (the usual period).
By the census of 1851 his mother, Ann, was living at 10 Ramsgate with just her second daughter, the dressmaker Elizabeth, and receiving parish relief. Robert was already in jail at that point.
Ann’s daughters made good marriages, however, and in the 1871 and 1881 censuses she was living with Rachel, the youngest, who had married John Francis Craggs a successful builder and local magistrate.
Robert was held first at Portland prison. The wheels of justice ground slowly and it was not until the 31st of January 1853 that he was finally shipped to Western Australia aboard the Pyrenees.
The journey was not an easy one as the subsequent report by the ship’s surgeon made clear, though he reckoned that, despite fever and dysentery and the fact that at least six died, “the health of most of the persons embarked was improved by the voyage”. Whether Robert would have agreed is a moot point. He certainly did not have the easiest of times as he suffered a bout of diarrhoea between February 23rd and March 1st.
Most prisoners disembarked on the 6th of May; some on the 16th and the last ones on the 2nd of June. Robert seems to have been well behaved and was clearly thought to be useful as he was able to go out into the community rather than back to prison, according to Rica Erikson’s The Brand on His Coat). It says:
In 1872 an expiree, Robert Mewburn, organized a petition for a regular teacher at Mandurah. He was soon appointed as a schoolmaster and built his own school. Where he taught until his death in 1891. Mewburn was a printer and clerk before transportation for larceny, in the Pyrenees in May 1853, at the age of twenty-five years. Like so many others who arrived on those early ships he received his ticket-of-leave on landing and his conditional pardon a year later. He is said to have been employed by Thomas Peel [the founder of Mandurah]. Later he ran a general store at Mandurah and was also a lay preacher.
In 1870 he married Emma Eacott, a young woman whose parents had come to the colony with Thomas Peel in 1830. Emma, who was one of Mewburn’s pupils, was twenty-five years younger than him and outlived him by nearly fifty years, having borne nine children.
Whether there are documents to back up all these facts about his life is unknown – they are not cited. It certainly is a little out about his children with Emma as there were ten.
Wikipedia has an entry for Robert, though largely based on the Erickson work.
Mandurah lies some 45 miles south of Perth and Fremantle (though it is pretty much built up all the way along the shore line today) down in the south west corner of Australia. Today it is a city and an important holiday destination but in Robert’s time it was a settlement of maybe 150 people. At its peak his school had 28 children registered.
The Mandurah Community Museum has an extensive account of his life, very similar to that of Ericson, though even further out on the number of children by claiming just seven:
On arrival in Western Australia in 1853 he was granted a “Ticket of Leave”, and a year later, a “Conditional Pardon”.
It is not known when he first came to Mandurah, however it is believed he first worked for Thomas Peel, then went on to run a general store and also acted as a lay preacher. It is thought that he also acted as an informal schoolteacher. Later Robert Mewburn married a student, Emma Eacott, aged 15, in 1870. The couple had 7 children.
In 1872 he organized a petition for a regular teacher in the Mandurah area, and this resulted in him being appointed government schoolmaster. The appointment of Mewburn was perhaps due to the introduction of the Elementary Education Act, which made school attendance compulsory for children aged between six and fourteen. Mewburn built his own wattle and daub (slurry mud) home to which he added a school room. The school was centrally situated between the families on the south (ferry end) and the north (village end) of Mandurah. There were thirteen boys and three girls attending.
This remained the official school, where he taught with his daughter until he died in 1891. His grave is in the Christ’s Church Cemetery.
He was a very dedicated and capable teacher and the official report for 1876 noted that:
“This is a most successful country school. The Master is very attentive to his duties, and seems to be much appreciated by the parents of the scholars. With over 20 children divided into six classes, he yet manages so to distribute his attention over the whole school as to prepare the infants at their seventh year for the Second Standard.”
Violet Sutton said, “he was a very good writer and every one of his pupils wrote in beautiful hands, he was quite a good old chap, and used to tell students, no good teaching them geography and that, they’d only be chasing cows, all the time...”
Today Mandurah still remembers Robert Mewburn’s efforts; the Mewburn Centre in Sholl Street is named after him. His home and school building were near where the Mewburn centre is now.
The bare facts about his family life can be established from contemporary records.
Robert and Emma were married on the 16th March 1870 at Fremantle in a Congregational ceremony. Emma was a month past her 15th birthday, having been born on the 12th February 1855, and Robert was 43. They had ten children together, only one of which died in infancy and, despite Emma’s re-marrying with George Woolams six years after Robert’s death, Robert and Emma are celebrated together on a memorial stone at Christ's Church Anglican Church Graveyard, Mandurah.
About a year after the marriage Robert began to keep a set of accounts for the school and used the book also as a diary. Many of the children’s births were noted, and at some late date he listed them all on one page so we have a good record for them. Many local events and the doings of other residents are noted. He also recorded occasional poems, recipes and cures. It turned into a commonplace book.
Descendants of Robert Wilkinson Mewburn
Robert and Emma’s ten children were as follows:
Walter Mewburn, 1870-1944
The first child, Walter, was born on the 31st January 1871 at Mandurah (at which time Robert was describing himself as a farmer), and christened on the 26th February at Pinjarra. Walter’s marriage to Priscilla Hicks was registered at Helena Vale in 1901. They had four children – Florence May and Walter Richard “Dick” at Midland Junction, Elsie at Swan and Irene “Rene” Nellie at Fremantle.
Newspaper references, without detail, indicate that Walter served in WW1.
On the 1st April 1944 Walter was hit by a train at Midland Junction. He lived there on Stafford Street. He died on the 2nd.
Mary Ann Charlotte Mewburn, 1872-1953
Mary Ann was born on the 18th December 1872. The Mandurah Community Museum has this to say about her:
Miss Mary Ann Mewburn, Robert Mewburn’s daughter, continued to teach in her father’s house until 1894. The facilities offered at the house were insufficient for the needs of the children and the school was moved to the old Police Barracks which were located on Pinjarra Road near the traffic bridge. Mary Ann Mewburn taught and lived in the Police Barracks premises until 1895, when she resigned due to ill health.
The exact state of her health is unknown. What is certain is that she married a year later and lived for another 58 years. The marriage was to George Saunders in 1897 at Mandurah. They moved around a little and had four children at Pinjarra, Mandurah, Albany and Katanning.
Mary Ann’s death was registered at Perth in 1953.
Robert Mewburn, 1875-1875
An infant death – the only child not to live to adulthood. Robert was born on the 12th January 1875 and died on the 23rd.
Rachel Mewburn, 1876-1967
Rachel was born at Mandurah on the 18th February 1876. She married firstly Frits Bay at Mandurah in 1892, then Charles Geddes at Perth in 1903. There was one child from each marriage. Rachel’s death is recorded at Murray in 1967.
Margaret Alice Mewburn, 1878-1974
Margaret Alice was born at Mandurah on the 1st November 1878. She married Samuel Thompson at Guildford in 1898 and had three children by him at Fremantle – where her death was registered in 1975.
Eliza Mewburn, 1880-1939
Eliza was born at Mandurah on the 24th October 1880. She married William Hollingsworth at Mandurah in 1897 and they had four children around Mandurah and Murray. Eliza died at Fremantle in 1939.
Robert Thomas Mewburn, 1881-1918
Robert Thomas was born at Mandurah on the 22nd October 1881. He married Ester Phoebe Wilson at Katanning in 1904 and they had six children at Pinjarra, Katanning and Subiaco. He died at Perth in 1918.
There was one son, Robert Wilkinson Mewburn, to carry the name forward. He was born on the 21st December 1905 and died at Perth in 1962. He married Kathleen Mulcahy at Perth in 1934. However there is no trace of them having children so the line may have ended there.
Robert Wilkinson managed to fall foul of the law in 1951, being convicted of street betting and fined £2, playing a game called “two-up” in Osborne Park. He was described as a truck driver of Tyler Street.
Lucy May Mewburn, 1883-1975
Lucy May was born at Mandurah on the 25th August 1883. She married Ernest Kutzer at Mandurah in 1903 and they had nine children, mostly at Murray. Her death was registered in 1975 at Fremantle.
George William Mewburn, 1885-1918
George William was born at Mandurah on the 4th December 1885 (the Birth Index lists his name as George Lewis Mewburn). He married Olive Mary Hocking at Fremantle in 1916. They had one daughter (and another stillborn child) before George’s untimely death at Palmyra was registered at Fremantle in 1918. The account of his funeral in the Daily News for 28 August 1918 indicates that he worked for the Yorkshire Insurance Company and was a member of the WAOD Prince Lodge.
Ruth Mewburn, 1889-1923
Ruth was born at Mandurah on the 28th February 1889. She married Hubert “Bert” Boult in 1911 at Murray and they had three daughters at Fremantle. Ruth died on the 16th July 1923 at Wellington.