Search billions of records on

James McKenna

Born 1822, Howth Co. Dublin, Ireland. Died 1873, Perth, Western Australia

My Great Great- Grandfather James was born about 1822 in Howth, Co. Dublin, Ireland which is on the coast about 9 miles from Dublin City. 

He was the son of John  McKENNA & Elizabeth nee GRIFFIN. At the age of 19, James and his older brother John emigrated to Western Australia in 1841 aboard the emigrant ship "Ganges" which sailed from London and Liverpool, England in June 1841.  At the time he left for Western Australia (then the Swan River Colony).

James left his parents, three sisters (Margaret, Elizabeth and Ellen) and another 3 brothers (Hugh, Michael and Joseph) in Ireland. His father John was stated as deceased at the time of James' marriage in 1849.  James is also understood to have had a brother Nicholas who emigrated to either America or Canada.  His sister Margaret McKenna was still living in 1898 in Howth or near Dublin City, evidenced by a letter written to James' son John, dated 17 January from a Solicitor by the name of David Dunne of Dame Street, Dublin. The letter refers to the possibility of Mr Dunne visiting Margaret and to the Hope Tavern and the Bogeen Farm in Howth.  

The "Ganges" was captained by Samuel C. Walker and arrived in Fremantle in the Swan River Colony on October 15, 1841 with 123 passengers. Cabin passenger, John Schoales, recruited many of the passengers that were aboard in Ireland as indentured labourers and accompanied them on the voyage. 

James McKenna is listed on the ship's passenger list as aged 21, however later records indicate that he was only 19 at the time he sailed.  His brother, John McKenna, aged 21, is also listed.

Another passenger, William Wade, recorded in later life his recollection of the voyage. William's memoirs are a fascinating insight into the nature of and conditions aboard voyages to the Swan River Colony at that time. Extracts from his reminiscences, the original manuscript of which is held at the Battye Library, Perth, follow:

"Liverpool, the last of the sojourn - 1841

It was Saturday and as far as memory serves me the eleventh of June but I am not quite certain of the day of the month but it was the day we must take up our residence on the food barque Ganges of the port of London bound for Fremantle Western Australia. It makes my hand shake today when I recall the event and I feel as if going through it again. We looked at each other without speaking. I saw a deeper paleness on poor Father's face as the horror drew near. We must be on board.

Page 62 - The Ganges, the New Life

That Saturday night was slept in our berths on the fore-hold of the ship which was fitted up for the single male passengers. When I say slept I am wrong for no sleep visited my eyes. I felt as if transferred to a new world. There were strange sounds, strange smells, strange people who kept tramping up and down the ladder all night long. My temples ached and my stomach heaved forecasting what was to follow ere long. The morning came at last. It was ushered in by the rattling of chains and the churning of paddle wheels and customary cries of seamen who were taking a ship out of dock and preparing for sea. On turning out and getting on deck we found a steam tug-boat along-side busily making fast to the ship by sundry chains and fastenings which I cannot describe better. We had the old Liverpool coal smoke about us and the tug gave us an extra supply. The weather had changed during the night and a drizzling rain was falling accompanied by a rather stiff breeze, cloudy of course making everything look miserable after the long spell of sunshine we had lately enjoyed.

The steam began to hiss and gurgle in the tug but the cabin passengers were not all on board. In the course of an hour they had all arrived and the movement from the dock began then in a short time we came to the gate by which the ship entered. ...we soon got out into the river again. Here another stop for it appears the Captain had not yet come on board. We saw a boat approaching and when it came along-side a little gentleman in a great coat and a tall black coat came aboard. I heard a seaman say "the Skipper's arrived", this was Captain Walker. He had a severe look but was not unhandsome, I thought a Captain would be wearing some mark of distinction about him and was disappointed. But presently appeared on the poop a dapper figure in a faded blue tight fitting jacket with brass buttons, wearing a sea cap with no lace. He looked over at the tug and muttered a few words disappearing at the same instant. This was the real Captain Walker.

The tug gave a snort and the ship a jerk, at once we were moving down the river to the sea.

Instantaneous with the ship's movement appeared on the poop a very handsome gentleman in shining blue and gold lace cap, spotless white pants, a ruddy face and black whiskers giving orders in a stern but not unmusical voice, which orders were repeated by a similar edition of himself on the quarterdeck to various seamen in various parts of the ship, which orders elicited sharp replies of "aye aye sir" from various quarters. These were the first and second mates. We saw very little of the Captain afterwards and thus we went out to sea.

There were two cooking galleys, one on the right side for the cabin and one on the left side for the immigrants or passengers. The cabin cook was an aged Scotsman with a very northern tongue, very feeble it seemed to me for an arduous billet. The other cook was a regular cockney or "varmint" with a voice and a temper like a fox terrier and would brook no second words from remonstrance. But I am getting before my subject somewhat.

We were by this time getting well out of the Mersey and beginning to see some curling waves when "breakfast" was called by the cook on the left. We went to investigate. There were three classes of passengers i.e. married couples, single women and single men and boys and we had only seen a few of the latter and had no conception of the numbers on board.

We were looking for the breakfast thinking of our eggs and bread and butter on land. We saw a sort of platform on deck on which there were two little tubs containing about a gallon each of some black liquid and a pile of what looked like dirty bits of board. There were three or four untidy, seedy, middle-aged men at the tubs and trying to break the things from the pile. Ship's biscuit they said, I took one to look at only. I thought of my butter biscuit at Belfast and shuddered. This was all covered by a bluish mould and harder than a piece of deal(?) board. I thought "if this is what we have to live on life will not be long for me".

When we had been a fortnight or three weeks at sea we passed the island of Madeira on our left hand. The aspect was of a great red mountain with patches of green up its side which I suppose were the vineyards we had heard of. I think we were about ten miles off but the weather were very clear and bright beyond anything we had ever before witnessed. It was a glimpse of fairyland coming out of our dull atmosphere. About a week later we met a deeply laden ship and were delighted to see her steering directly to us and as she approached we saw about being lowered were a number of men and an officer in the stern and they were soon climbing our sides and jumped on deck. I forgot to say that we knew the vessel was a British Merchant Ship by her flags. She was from the coast of Africa laden with palm oil bound for London. I do not remember the ship's name but they had been a good time getting their cargo and were very eager for news of home. We gave them all our newspapers and they left us a great lot of pumpkin and other vegetables and after having had some good chats with our sailors and immigrants, especially the girls, a signal from their own ship called them to attention, and so after many good wishes they bade us good-bye and proceeded on their way to the old country.

At this stage of our voyage I often of dark nights was attracted by the desire to look out on the surrounding surface of the ocean in its blackness and wonder about its depth, its immensity and its inhabitants and with a shudder attempt for a moment to realise what it would be to fall or to be thrown over-board into that dark abyss, then to reflect with thankfulness that to the present we had met with no storm or damaging weather or disaster of any kind and were now approaching the Cape of Good Hope of South Africa where we learned that the ship would call, but above all the care and mercy of God who had preserved us and carried us in safety over so many thousands of miles of ocean in answer to the prayers of our parents which we knew were continually going up for us. The thought of seeing the Cape cheered us. In gazing over the dark sea the sight was now and then relieved by a long bar of phosphorescent light in the water, sometimes rushing towards the ship and sometimes alongside.

A few days later land was announced and the Ganges head set for Table Bay. The wind was light and the ship proceeded slowly but we were quickly observed from the shore and before the anchor was down a small fleet of boats laden with vegetables, fruit, fresh bread, fish, negro women and jars of Cape wine was surrounding us. Bargaining became the order of the day, the oranges and fresh bread were eagerly bought and enjoyed. Crayfish and fresh crabs tempted many but not us. Oranges and bread suited us better than anything else and we enjoyed them to the full. The sight of Table Mountain was our next enjoyment, its grandeur filled our hearts with delight and admiration. The Captain, Mr Schoales and most of the cabin passengers prepared to go ashore but others were not permitted. The Ganges lay a long way out, at least three miles and Cape Town was just barely visible. There was some grumbling about it but it was unheeded.

There were signs about that some of the Cape vintage had found its way to the ship. The poor old cabin cook was drunk and helpless, stowed away in his bunk in the forecastle. A crank the name of Tom Hardey got a skinful and was on his knees on the deck praying to our horror that God would "sink the bloody ship to the bottom of the sea". A couple of sailors were fighting in the forecastle and bleeding each others noses and swearing. There was no cooking or preparation of food on that day. The two officers were taking it easy in their cabins. Mrs King and her daughter were the only ladies in the cabin and the steward attended upon them. The return of the Captain and the rest toward evening calmed the troubled waters for the time but as the ships business took them ashore again next day we had a mild rehearsal of the day before. Only one passenger, him above-named, fell before the shrine of the Bacchus and some of the Jacks and the two cooks, especially the latter, were still nonist inventis.

The appearance of Table Mountain at night was impressive. Flashes of light like musketry fire were continually scintillating from the face of the rock as if an action was proceeding, it might have been light from a window but we were too far off to discern. The third day dawned and orders were given to get ready for sea. The weather also began to show signs of change, there was considerable excitement among the seamen and several of them were drunk, one especially, Charlie of the bucket, he was particularly nasty and wanted to fight everybody. A few stern commands and threats restored a sort of order and the anchor was got up and the ship's head put to sea.

Meantime it began to blow. In the ardour of getting away the hawse holes in the ship's bows were not stopped after the anchors had been secured. Officer's heads at fault, and the forecastle was inundated and a sick sailor was washed out of his bed. The ship was plunging bows under and the water pouring in tons through the hawse holes, along the deck and penetrated the cabin. Poor old cook was nearly drowned before he was rescued. There was a commotion and the hard sharp tones of Captain Walker like a brass trumpet rated the officers. It was "Aye, Sir" here and "Aye, Sir" there, everywhere. Like the wind tearing through the rigging the stern voice of the Chief Officer answering the Captain and swearing like a tiger in the intervals, the "Ahoy, Ahoy" of the sailors all contributed to make a din worthy of the Cape of Storms.


... rough weather prevailed for a week after leaving the Cape but we were comforted by the fact of the wind being in our favour and bringing us every hour nearer to our destination. My brother at this stage was complaining and looked out of sorts but I was in the very best of health and spirits. The poor old cabin cook was found to be paralysed in his legs and unfit for further duty.  He was a kindly homely old man and was very good to me during the great part of the journey at sea. He afterwards died in the hospital at Perth, WA. The damage of the forecastle killed him. A baby was born somewhere hereabouts, died and was consigned to the deep. The only case of death on the voyage. The shepherd and his two dogs, well and lively, fine weather now set in and the decks were enlivened by the married people and the girls swarming up out of their quarters and making merry.

OCTOBER 14, 1841

Towards evening we sighted Rottnest, one of the islands off Fremantle, and the ship was put about and kept in the offing during the night. By the earliest daylight her head was turned shoreward again under easy sail and we gradually drew towards some islands shining in the rising sun and presenting a most cheering aspect though the land was but rocks. As the morning advanced great excitement and activity pervaded us all and was increased by the sight of boats making towards us. Everyone put on his or her best and mounted and thronged on the ship's side, hearts beating and faces glowing with joy and anticipation. Now the pilot or harbour master's boat is alongside and the deputy harbour master steps on board ...

... There was there great shaking of hands and thousand questions never waiting to be answered about the voyage and everything imaginable. A great bubble of tongues but in our own familiar English and thus we arrived in Australian waters on the 15th day of October 1841, day ever memorable, and we cast anchor in Gages Road, Fremantle Harbour, Colony of Western Australia. Humble thanks to Almighty God for his prevailing mercy to us and bringing our voyage to a safe ending."

[Wade, William - Papers. MN 858. 949A, 1026A, 1075A. Battye Library Perth, WA]

Transcription of the passenger list and more information about the "Ganges"


James in Western Australia

The motivation behind James McKenna's decision to leave Ireland for Western Australia is unclear. The timing of his departure is prior to the terrible years of the Irish Famine which drove so many of those who did not die from its affects to other parts of the world.  According to anecdote, the family was involved in "gun-running" and James and his brother  fled to avoid capture by the English.  While no evidence has been found in support of that suggestion, James' home port of Howth would have leant itself admirably to that cause, and there is documented evidence that the port was used for that purpose.  

William Wade makes mention in his memoirs of at least two passengers aboard the "Ganges" claiming to be "dissenters".  There may therefore be some truth in what the family has been given to believe. However, the period in question was one of substantial economic hardship in Ireland, and it was quite probably the prospect of a better future, and to some extent adventure, which drove James and John to leave Ireland.

Following his arrival in Swan River Colony, James was variously employed as a labourer, a boatman, a horse-trainer and a vet. He qualified as a Juror in 1860 with £150 personal estate. He appears to have employed 8 Ticket of Leave men in Fremantle and Wanneroo between 1855 and 1869.

He befriended two Frenchmen, Louis Langoulant and a Mr D'Elleberry, both of whom are believed to have deserted ship in Albany and walked to Perth in about 1840. Louis later married Mary Ann King (step-sister of James' wife Catherine) and Mr D'Elleberry was the witness at the baptism of James' eldest son John in 1852.

According to the Dictionary of Western Australians (Rica Erickson 1978), James operated a boat on the Swan River in partnership with Edward Bolger (another passenger on the Ganges) in the 1840s. After the boat was sold in 1845, both men found employment as boat hands. 

Apparently disillusioned with life in the Colony, James inserted a notice in the "Inquirer" in January of 1847 stating that he had been brought out by Schoales, was a horse-trainer and vet and announced his intention to leave the Colony if he could not find work in his proper trade. James remained in Western Australia despite the fact that there is no evidence to suggest that he obtained the requested work. Perhaps it was about this time or soon after that he met his future wife.

James early life in the Colony was not without incident.  The "Inquirer " of 1 December 1847 reported that his two French companions had appeared before W.H. Mackie and G. Leake (Magistrates) to answer a charge of threatening and attacking the house of Reverend Brady (by throwing stones on the roof) on the previous Monday.  James was called as witness, having passed the evening in question at an inn in the company of the accused. The culprits were reprimanded and fined for drunken and disorderly behaviour.

In 1849 at age 27, James married Catherine Bridget STANTON at St John's Catholic Church, Perth.  Witnesses to their marriage were James McNamara, a fellow passenger aboard the "Ganges", and Catherine's sister, Emma Eliza Stanton, then age 17.   Catherine was the daughter of John STANTON (who had arrived as a Private with the 63rd Regiment of Foot aboard the Sulphur in 1829) and Harriet NEWMAN (widow KING).

James is believed to have managed lime kilns in the Swanbourne area following his marriage and is understood to have supplied lime for the construction of St. Mary's Catholic Cathedral in Perth.

Between 1851 and 1872, James and Catherine had ten children, all of whom, with the exception of the youngest, Agnes, who joined the Convent, married and had children in Western Australia:

  • Elizabeth Matilda McKENNA (born Perth February 1851)  married James BOWMAN and had 9 children.

  • John McKENNA (born Perth July 1852) became Chief Inspector of Police in WA.  He and his wife Ellen Windsor SMITH had 13 children

  • Catherine (Kitty) McKENNA (born Perth 1854) married Henry Robert GORDON and had 6 children.

  • James Thomas Michael McKENNA (born Perth 1858) married Honoria Agnes Jame ROACH.  They had 11 children.

  • Margaret McKENNA (born Perth 1859) married William Henry HIGGINS.  They had a son William.

  • Edward William McKENNA (born Perth 1862) married Justina Agnes LEWIS and had 14 children.

  • Matthew Joseph McKENNA (born Perth 1864) married Elizabeth MITCHELL.  They had 5 children.

  • Walter Thomas McKENNA (born Canning 1866) married Catherine Ada Hessian HUGHES and had 8 children.

  • Patrick O'Connell McKENNA (born Perth 1869) married (1) Sarah NETTLETON and (2) Mary HUNT and had 6 children

  • Agnes McKENNA (born Perth March 1872) entered the convent of the Sisters of Mercy as "Sister Veronica"

James died in Perth in 1873 at the age of 51.  His widow Catherine may have re-married James Looney.

His older brother John McKENNA married Mary PURTELL (widow GEE) in Perth in 1867.  John and Mary had three children; Elizabeth (born Fremantle 1868, married Eyre D'ARCY-EVANS), John Matthew (born Fremantle 1870) and Ellen (born Fremantle 1872, married Julian Alfred SMITH). Mary, who also had five children from her fist marriage, died in 1883.  John returned to Ireland in 1890 with his son John Matthew.  Both later died in Howth in 1899 and 1893 respectively and are commemorated on James' and John's parents headstone in the Roman Catholic Cemetery in Howth.