WINIFRED JANE NEALIS


Winifred Jane Nealis arrived at Melbourne on the 6th December 1848 aboard the "Lady Kennaway". The orphan girls were taken from Williamstown on smaller boats up the Yarra River to the Immigrant Barracks on the west side of King Street, near Collins Street, Melbourne. Winifred was employed by Major William Firebrace of Melford, Melbourne as a maid at a salary of 12 pounds for 12 months. Major Firebrace was a very influential man who owned large land holdings at Deep Creek, Sunbury (Parish of Bulla Bulla) and Horsham, and a house in Market Street, Melbourne. Did the bushfires of the 6th February, which burnt the new colony to ashes, bring Major Firebrace back to the city of Melbourne?

Up to the 21st September 1852, nothing is known but on this day she married a man who called himself Robert Gipson. Samuel Pickersgill, who jumped ship in 1841, would have changed his name because "jumping ship" was a capital offence punishable by hanging. From 1841 to 1852 he carted goods from Sandridge ( Melbourne's port ) to Melbourne central, won and lost land in card games, and loved whisky.

After their marriage, family stories have it that Winifred ran a canvas tent guesthouse at Princes Bridge on the bank of Melbourne's Yarra River to cater for the great influx of immigrants due to the 1852 gold finds. This is borne out by the section in Michael Cannon's book "Melbourne after the Gold Rush"- 'To shelter the newcomers, an increasingly beleaguered La Trobe in 1852 authorised the erection of a "canvas town" on the south side of the Yarra on the spot where the Arts Centre now stands. Surveyors laid out streets for the erection of these tents. With the influx of migrants, housing had become cruder and cruder and the filth and squalor was a breeding ground for typhoid amongst the cesspools.'

In 1853 Robert William Pickersgill was born ( not registered under Pickersgill or Gipson but we think March or April was the birth month ).

On the 30th January 1855 on the "Constance" for Liverpool, England, we think they left Melbourne as Mr. and Mrs. Alex Rouston and child. That is the only family to fit that picture with the correct ages. I have researched this period thoroughly, and we know that Eliza Ann was born on the 8th August 1855 at Seacroft, just outside Leeds, in Yorkshire, England. The M62 motorway runs from Liverpool to Leeds, so it would be logical to say there would have been a coach route in 1855 between these two cities. We think Samuel went back to England to lose his previous identity, or perhaps his father or mother may have died and he wanted to collect his inheritance. The 1841 census shows William and Sarah ( Pickersgill ) living at New Lane, Leeds, both age 45 years. The 1851 census shows William a widower and living at 12 Middle Row, Leeds. Sarah died in 1845 and William died in 1859, but there is no will. Family stories are that Samuel went back to collect his inheritance, for Sarah was a wealthy lady and Samuel's money was in the Privy Purse.

They arrived back in Melbourne on the 4th June 1856 as Pickersgill, indentured to Alex McCallum as farm labourers on French Island, Western Port Bay, 100 miles east of Melbourne. Here Priscilla was born. She was the main character in the celebrated writer Marcus Clark's book "Twixt Shadow and Shine". Priscilla was a modern girl of the 1870's, and is worth a read. The book can be obtained from the Parliamentary Library in Canberra, Australian Capital Territory.

They then moved as squatters to Churchill Island, which was the first farm in Victoria, planted by Lieutenant James Grant on the 28th March 1801. Lt. Grant also build a blockhouse 24ft. x 12ft. as a defence against the French. Unfortunately the foundation of this building cannot be found. On the Ferguson Chart dated 1861 we have a white house on a flat coastline, which must be the Pickersgill house. This area I think is about one third the way up the north coast, for they have found crockery and bottles there. They were the only permanent residents there then and Marion Louisa was born on Churchill Island in 1860. Some time between 1860 and 1866 they had 3 daughters - Marion Louisa, Catherine ( my grandmother ) and Elsie Annie.

This is supposition but is logical. The date of Samuel's finalisation of his indenture to Alexander McCallum was 6th June 1860. Alexander McCallum left French Island in August 1860 and Louisa was born on Churchill Island on 13th October 1860, therefore I think Samuel came to Churchill Island sometime in June 1860.

During their stay on Churchill Island, Winifred developed a vegetable and flower garden, whose produce she sold to get money to pay a ticket of leave man to teach the children to read and write. She also worked as a cook and house cleaner to get money for the deposit on Churchill Island. When she had enough, she sent her husband to Melbourne to buy her island home. He returned with the news that he had lost it in a card game. In 1866 they were thrown off the Island by John Rogers, who purchased the Island. They moved to a shack on Western Port Bay at Fiddler's Green, San Remo, where Samuel Jabez was born. Winifred was broken hearted at losing her cosy little home but she battled on. In 1870 they moved a little further aroung the bay to Bass, where Walter John was born. Why they went there is unknown, but I suspect that the empty houses there would have been an attraction. Finally Samuel applied for land at San Remo and received a grant of 160 acres ( about 70 hectares ) in the early 1870's where they built a house overlooking Bass Strait. This is where Herbert was born. Here Winifred furnished the house and again planted vegetables, flowers and trees to attract the birds and earn money.

Although we must acknowledge that Samuel was obsessed with drinking and gambling, he did work hard as a shearer and at any odd jobs to provide for his family. You can even say he was an enterprising man, for he mined the stone building blocks at Quarry Rocks and by bullock dragged then up the cliff and down to the waiting ship at the original Griffiths Point. The scars are still visible today. Also he set up a brick making business at the blind creek and sold them to early settlers. I have a sample of one. In 1888 due to his drinking and gambling the property was heavily mortgaged; the Bank foreclosed on the mortgage and they lost it. However, during the first part of the 1880's the laws relating to women's rights to own assets in their own names were implemented ( Married Women's Property Act Amendment Bill, 1880-1; 1882-3; 1884; 1895-6 ). So Winifred bought the front section of block 12 ( v.2016 007 ) on the 2nd May 1888 ( now folio 207083 ) and built a home in her own name and took in boarders who worked on the coal railway. On the 22nd April 2000 I went inside this house now owned by Sheila Dobbin. The house is like a rabbit warren and the walls are faced with tongue and groove boards, very popular in the 1880's and 1890's. It was ideal for a boarding house with a separate area for them and another one for the boarders.

In true Irish generosity there was always a chair at the table for the weary traveller. However late in October 1891, Winifred's husband came home and told her he had mortgaged her house to settle a gambling debt. This was the last straw for she just went to bed and died of a broken heart.

This wonderful pioneering lady who fought to give her nine children a good start in life wasn't allowed to finish her life in peace and is buried in an unmarked grave in the Catholic section of the San Remo Cemetery, for no records of grave positions are kept. To add insult to injury Samuel would not pay the five pounds for the grave. This was paid by one of the sons at a later date. I have seen the minutes of the San Remo Cemetery committee relating to this matter. Fortunately all nine children took after their mother and became good family people and an asset to the communities where they lived. We do not know where Winifred was born nor where she was buried, but the memory of her warmth and generosity will live for evermore.

To finalize this story, I shall explain how Samuel died. Whilst living with a daughter in Dandenong, he bet someone he could ride a horse full pelt through a pine plantation. He nearly did, but just on the exit edge a bird shied the horse and he hit a tree trunk full frontal and knocked the ribs off his spinal column. Samuel didn't live long after this. The date of his death was 10th October 1902. He was aged 76 years.

Contributed by Laurie Thompson ( PPPG Member No. 944 )


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