Family Legends - can they be trusted?

Family Legends - can they be trusted?

"One of our ancestors was an aide-de-camp of Governor Macquarie. He left his Will in a tree, and when he was speared by the natives his widow was given a grant of land. His son was asked by the Governor what trade he wanted to follow, and he decided to be a shipwright."

This was the story told to me by my great-aunt, Adelaide Metcalfe, the oldest surviving relative in my mother's family (born 1902). This was early in 1981 when I had just begun my family research, and was questioning some of my relatives. The story had been told to Adelaide by her grandmother, Mary Jane Green (née Murray), in the early 1900s, and Adelaide assumed that it referred to one of the Murray family. I gave little credibility to such a romantic story (I had read Roots and Branches!), but how was I to take it into account during my research?

Working backwards through death and marriage certificates (with help from Adelaide) brought me to the birth of her mother, Mary Ann Green, on 19 January 1859 at Miller's Point1. Mary Ann's birth certificate told me that her mother, Mary Jane, was then 32 years old and a native of Glasgow, Scotland. Mary Ann's father, William, was 52 years old, a shipwright, and born in Windsor NSW. This meant that William's parents lived in NSW in the early 1800s, possibly during the time of Macquarie's Government (1810-1821). From a search of the shipping indexes at the NSW State Archives I discovered that Mary Jane had arrived as an assisted immigrant on the Herald on 9 February 18452. If Adelaide's story were to have any substance, therefore, it must refer to William's family.

Adelaide was unable to tell me when her grandfather, William, had died, except that it was long before she was born. I had not yet learned that indexes to Wills were available to help find dates of death3, so I could not obtain William's death certificate without a long and costly search [birth, death and marriage indexes were not yet available to the public in Australia]. That was unfortunate, as I did not yet know the names of William's parents, which the death certificate might have told me. The Mutch Index of Births, Deaths and Marriages4, to which I was directed at the Mitchell Library, revealed a William Green born in Windsor about that time. He was the son of William Green and Mary Rose, and was born 8 May 1805, according to his baptismal record on 21 April 1811 at St. Matthew's Windsor.

The index to the Colonial Secretary's correspondence at the State Archives led me to a petition for a grant of land5, received from William on 31 March 1830. This letter stated that he was born after the death of his father, William, in the Hawkesbury flood of March 1806 (contradicting the baptismal record!). The Sydney Gazette of 6 April 1806 reported on the drowning of William while trying to recover property swept away by the flood6. So I continued this line of research, confident that I had found the right family, until a chance encounter at the State Archives set me on the right track.

While queuing at the counter one busy morning, I noticed that the woman in front of me had notes referring to a Green family. I introduced myself, and the discussion which followed revealed that the woman (Joyce Buckley) and I were second cousins once removed. We exchanged information, and one item of particular interest to me was revealed by the death certificate of our common ancestor, William Green. Joyce had found a family grave at Rookwood containing the remains of William, Mary Jane and three of their children7. The gravestone gave William's date of death as 14 October 1887, from which Joyce had been able to obtain his death certificate8. This gave his age at death as 82 years, and his parents' names as Thomas and Catherine - which meant that I was tracing the wrong family.

Unfortunately for us, Green is not an uncommon name, and there were several Thomas Greens in NSW in the early 1800s. Joyce and I were unable to find any record of a Thomas Green marrying a Catherine, nor of any children being born to them. [I later discovered that many Catholics refused to be married by the Anglican priests. When the first full-time Catholic priests, Frs. Therry and Connolly arrived in the 1820s, there were many occasions when a couple were married and had several children baptised on the same day. Thomas was dead by that time.] Joyce had, however, found references in the Colonial Secretary's index9 and the SAG general index10 to a Thomas Green who had died �over the mountains�, and whose widow Catherine had received a cow in payment for his services to the Government during the building of the road across the Blue Mountains. These events had occurred in 1815, so I thought that a thorough search of the 1814 muster of NSW11 might yield profitable results. First I listed all the Thomas Greens in the muster; their occupations, ships of arrival, and whether they were free or bonded. I then looked through all the women in hope of finding Catherine (Green or otherwise) and the children. This proved worthwhile when I was able to match the following two listings in the Windsor muster:

Examining the Windsor ration book for that period12 on microfilm at the Mitchell library told me that the two children on rations were William and Mary. It also noted Thomas' death, and showed that the family did not receive any rations in the next ration period, probably because they had moved. Consulting the index to the Sydney Gazette13 at the Mitchell library led me to several relevant articles, especially the following two:

We are sorry to conjecture the more than probable loss of William [sic] Green, a constable at Windsor, of long established character as a useful member of the police. The day following that of his Excellency the Governor's departure from Bathurst, he unfortunately left his remaining companions, and went away with some natives toward their encampment, and has not since been heard of - from which we must unwillingly conjecture, that he had lost his way and perished from want, or that he has fallen a victim to his own rashness in venturing among natives with whom we are so little acquainted.14.

Whereas his excellency the Governor in chief has been pleased to grant to the several persons undernamed a proportion of horned cattle, as a donation for their service in constructing a road across the Blue Mountains to the new discovered country. This is to give notice, that on Wednesday the 5th July next, at ten o'clock in the morning, attendance will be given at the Eastern Creek stockyard, where the following persons are requested to attend in person, or send written orders, upon which the cattle will be delivered without delay; viz.:

Joyce and I now knew what had happened to Thomas, William's father, but what had happened afterwards to Catherine and the children? The manuscript catalogue at the Mitchell library led me to a receipt for £5 given to Catherine by Governor Macquarie in 1815 from the Police Fund16. Reading through later musters and censuses17 I found that 3 of the children were placed in the male and female orphan schools. Orphan school admission books18 and apprenticeship indentures19 at the State Archives gave me more details, including a date of birth, and verified that they were children of Catherine Green, washerwoman.

A letter written by William in 1825 asking that his brother John be apprenticed to him as a shipwright was also in these records (as there was no microfilm copy of the letter book20, I was able to see and handle the original letter). The letter stated that William had served his own apprenticeship at the Government dockyards in Sydney, and that he and his mother were living in Princes Street. Low's Directory of Sydney 1844-4521 listed Mrs. Green living at 128 Princes Street; this was the latest record we had of her until Joyce found a death notice in the Sydney Herald Index22, from 7 December 1852:

Died at the residence of her son-in-law at West Maitland,
on the 23rd November, Mrs. Catherine Green, aged 70 years.

But did this refer to our ancestor? And if so, who was the unnamed son-in-law? During my next holiday I was able to travel to Maitland and with the help of the Council Offices I found the relevant grave at Campbell's Hill cemetery23. The stone was in fair condition, quite legible, and the inscription included these helpful [if egotistical] words:

Erected by her daughter
Mrs. Margaret Guy,
late Mrs. Delany,
of no. 60 York St. Sydney.

We had already found the names of the 5 children referred to in the 1814 muster, and Margaret was not one of them. I thought, therefore, that this was not our Catherine, although [fortunately] Joyce disagreed with me. When I later looked at death and funeral notices in the Sydney Morning Herald24 for our ancestor William, I found that one of the funeral notices had been placed by his nephew Lawrence Delany:

The friends of Mr. Lawrence Delany of the Honest Irishman Hotel, Camperdown, are respectfully invited to attend the funeral of his late uncle, tomorrow afternoon at a quarter to one o'clock.

[William's death notice in that same paper stated:
GREEN - October 14 at his residence, the Wheatsheaf Hotel Canterbury, William Green, native of Windsor NSW, shipwright, in his 82nd year.]

This made it likely that Margaret was indeed William's sister - perhaps one of his sisters (Mary or Catherine) was known as Margaret? Then I discovered in the list of gravestones removed from the Devonshire Street cemetery25 a family vault containing members of the Guy, Delany and Beattie families, including Mrs. Margaret Guy, who died 14 May 1875. Her death certificate26, though sadly lacking in detail, told us that her maiden name was Green. I now knew to check at the Probate office, where I found her Will27, in which she left £50 to her brother William Green, shipwright, and £100 to her son Lawrence Delany. Joyce deduced that Margaret must be one of the children referred to in the 1814 muster, and that Thomas, the youngest, was born after the muster (possibly after his father's death). So the grave at Maitland was indeed that of our ancestor Catherine, and we were now able to draw up the following tree:

Thomas GREEN b. ca. 1780 Shropshire England; tried at The Old Bailey 3 Apr 1799, life sentence; arrived NSW via Royal Admiral 20 Nov 1800; disappeared 11 May 1815 Bathurst Plains Catherine McLOGHLAN/DELANEY b. ca. 1782 Ireland; tried at Kilkenny Assizes 20 Apr 1802, 7 years sentence; arrived NSW via Rolla 12 May 1803; died 23 Nov 1852 Maitland
  1. William born circa 1805 Windsor; shipwright, hotel keeper; married 24 September 1849 to Mary Jane Murray31; died 14 October 1887 Canterbury8.
  2. Mary (Ann) born circa 1808; no other details.
  3. Catherine born circa 1810; female orphan school; almost apprenticed to James Bowman, principal surgeon, in 182619; no other details.
  4. Margaret born circa 1811; married 25 February 1843 to Lawrence Delany32; married 18 May 1850 to Samuel Guy33; died 14 May 1875 Sydney.
  5. John born 2 March 181318; male orphan school; no other details.
  6. Thomas born circa 1815; male orphan school; apprenticed to Jones & Walker as seaman 14 March 182719; no other details.

Joyce had visited the Land Titles Office in Prince Albert Rd., Sydney, where she found a reference in one of the indexes34 to a transfer of a house and land at Green Hills (renamed Windsor in 1810 by Governor Macquarie) from Thomas Green to Catherine McLaughlin and his children in 180735. When I was able to visit the same offices for the first time, I found, in the same index, a registration of a transfer of a block of land in Castlereagh Street, Sydney, from Catherine Green, widow, to John Lowrie in 181836. I could not, however, find any record of Catherine selling the land at Windsor or coming into possession of the land in Sydney. Perhaps it was granted to her by Governor Macquarie, or exchanged for the land at Windsor, but as yet I have found no evidence to support either premise.

I still didn't know which of the daughters was living at Maitland when Catherine died there in 1852. Searching again through the Musters and Censuses of the 1820s disclosed two more children, Susan and Martha, known as either Green or McLaughton in different Censuses. Re-examining the microfilm indexes to the Births, Deaths and Marriages unearthed a Susannah Green who married Alexander Boyd on 5 Nov 1838, but no marriage for a Martha Green. While checking the baptisms for the Boyd children, I discovered that on the same day as Susannah Boyd was baptised at St. Andrew's Presbyterian church in Sydney, that an Eliza Jane McFarlane, daughter of Thomas McFarlane and Martha Green was also baptised. Another search of the marriage records revealed the marriage of Thomas McFarlane and Martha Bamrig on 31 Sep 1840 at St. Lawrence C of E. Martha Bamrig did not appear in the baptismal index, but a Susannah Bambridge, daughter of Patrick Bambridge and Catherine Delaney was baptised in 1821.

Susannah and Alexander Boyd were living in Maitland in the early 1850s when two of their children were born, so they were the ones Catherine had been visiting at the time of her death. I had not only found the answer to my question, I had found two more children!

The convict indents list Patrick Bambrick as arriving on the Guildford on 1 April 1818, and describe him as follows:

Tried - County Kildare July 1817
Sentence - Life
Native Place - Queens County
Calling - Land Surveyor
Age - 28 years
Height - 5' 6 3/4"
Complexion - dark sallow
Hair - brown
Eyes - blue
Ticket of Leave - no.1961

The muster of the Guildford states that he was 24 years of age, sentenced to Life for cow stealing. The only other mention of Patrick found to date is in the Colonial Secretary's In Letters 1788-1821. This is a letter from W. Minchin, superintendent of police, to J.T. Campbell, stating that Patrick was an �idle and disorderly person�, and that his Ticket Of Leave was withdrawn on July 8th 1820 for disorderliness.

Governor Macquarie's treatment of emancipated convicts is well-known. His belief that they were the equal of anyone who arrived free in the Colony brought him to loggerheads with the Exclusives in the Colony, including the Reverend Samuel Marsden. It seems possible, therefore, that he could have helped the family after Thomas's death, perhaps to the extent of arranging for William to be trained as a shipwright, which would enable him to support his mother and siblings.

So the story which had passed down through the family by word of mouth for over 160 years was substantially correct, apart from embellishments to conceal convict ancestry, long before the days when convict ancestors were eagerly sought after. It was now possible to rephrase the story as follows:

"One of our ancestors, Thomas Green, an ex-convict constable, while returning from the Bathurst Plains in Governor Macquarie's party, disappeared with a group of natives. His widow Catherine was given a cow, £5, and possibly a block of land in payment for Thomas's services in helping to build the first road over the Blue Mountains. His son William became a shipwright after an apprenticeship at the Government Dockyards, possibly through Governor Macquarie's intervention."

As for the Will which was supposedly left in a tree, I have been unable to find out anything about that. Perhaps it was added to the story to make it more romantic, or perhaps the facts had been changed through the years. Then again, maybe I simply haven't looked far enough!

Our culture, unlike many others, places very little trust in oral history, preferring to believe written records. We are told that family legends are unreliable, as they can in fact be - but written records can also be false or inaccurate. Many such stories lay claim to a family being the first white settlers in an area, or having the first white child born in an area. The lesson I have learnt, however, is that such stories should not be discarded without investigation - there may be more than a grain of truth in them.

For more details about Catherine and Thomas, read their individual pages.



  1. Birth Certificate of Mary Ann Green, no.452 of 1859, RGNSW.
  2. Immigration agents' lists, Herald, AONSW 4/4902
  3. NSW Probate office, Supreme Court Building, Queen's Square, Sydney
  4. Mutch Index of Births, Deaths and Marriages, AONSW microfilm reels 2125-29.
  5. Letters re land, AONSW reel 1134 (2/7787-2/8013, reels 1081-1200).
  6. Sydney Gazette 6 April 1806, p.2 col.1 paragraph 1.
  7. Grave 401, section A, Old Roman Catholic Section, Number 1 mortuary, Rookwood Necropolis.
  8. Death certificate of William Green, no.2499 of 1887, RGNSW.
  9. Returns of Government cattle 13 January 1819, p.48, AONSW 4/1742.
  10. Royal Australian Historical Society Journal vol.1 p.231.
  11. General Muster of NSW 1814, AONSW 4/1225 (reel 1252, COD81); ed. Carol Baxter, ABGR, Sydney, 1987.
  12. Windsor Government Stores ration book, ML A803 (reel CY369).
  13. Index to the Sydney Gazette 1803-1826, ML.
  14. Sydney Gazette 17 June 1815, p.2 col.1 last paragraph.
  15. Sydney Gazette 24 June 1815, p.1 col.1 Government Notice.
  16. Government Order and Receipt for £5, A763 pp.121-2 (reel CY705), ML.
  17. 1822 muster on PRO reel 72, HO10/36; 1825 muster on PRO reel 66, HO10/19, AJCP.
  18. List of admissions to Male Orphan School, AONSW 4/7208 (reel 189).
  19. Apprenticeship indentures from Orphan Schools, AONSW 4/399 (reel 198).
  20. Letter book relating to Male Orphan School, AONSW 4/330.
  21. Low's Directory of Sydney 1844-45; Facsimile Edition, Sydney, 1978, Library of Australian History.
  22. Index to the Sydney (Morning) Herald, Malcolm Sainty and Keith Johnson, vol.4 p.102.
  23. Grave 29, section C7 centre, Campbell's Hill cemetery, West Maitland.
  24. Sydney Morning Herald 15 October 1887; death p.1, funeral p.24.
  25. Sydney Gravestone Inscriptions vol.1, Keith Johnson and Malcolm Sainty, Sandhills cemetery, no.1264.
  26. Death certificate of Margaret Guy, no.1200 of 1875, RGNSW.
  27. Will of Margaret Guy, no 1597, series 3, NSW Probate office.
  28. Case no. 227, April 1799, Old Bailey Session Papers, Q343.1/L 1799, pp.230-1.
  29. Royal Admiral lists, AONSW 4/4003 (reel 392).
  30. Rolla indents, AONSW 2/8275 (reel 2427).
  31. Marriage certificate of William Green and Mary Jane Murray, no.167 vol.98, RGNSW.
  32. Marriage certificate of Margaret Green and Lawrence Delany, no.1851 vol.92, RGNSW.
  33. Marriage certificate of Margaret Delany and Samuel Guy, no.457 vol.96, RGNSW.
  34. Index of Old Registers from date of commencement to 1825, LTO.
  35. Entry no.1348, Old Register 1, p.161, LTO.
  36. Entry no.563, Old Register 7, p.263, LTO.

Originally published in a shorter form in Descent vol.14 part 4, December 1984

Copyright © Lindsay Swadling 1996