CHAPTER SIX Tipperary:- The Irish origins

On Feb 23rd 1824, at Boherlahan, an Irish village near Cashel in Tipperary, a farmer from Cashel by the name of John Cooney married Honora Strapp. The marriage was witnessed by the bride's older brothers William and John. Honora came from nearby Camus (in Gaelic meaning 'crooked water' ie it was near a bend in the river) where the Strapp family farmed an area of 38 acres at one time in this very fertile part of Ireland beside the River Suir.1 The couple had nine children.2 The one of particular interest to this story, Bridget, was baptized on March 21st 1827, at which time her parents townland was recorded as Mt Judkin. For later children the townland is recorded as Hore Abbey, but only a road separates these two townlands about 3/4 mile from the famed "Rock of Cashel"3

The name Strapp is a very unusual one and it is thought by some to have German origins. One theory is that in the rebellion of 1798 a member of the O'Meara family incurred the wrath of English law and had to flee Ireland with a price on his head. He found refuge in Germany where he married and lived under the assumed name 'Strasse' which on his return to Ireland he changed to 'Strappe' and which was later written without the 'e'. Other family members have cast doubt on this theory. Another explanation that has been put forward is that the name was Huguenot in origin with a third possibility that the Strapps came to Ireland as part of the Palatinate settlement from the Rhineland that was established near Adare in Co Limerick. Against this is the fact that the name is found in England as far back as 1610. Whatever the case the family soon integrated into Irish society and established themselves on what would have been a prosperous farm in Co Tipperary. The common crops grown in the area were potatoes, corn and turnips; more than likely they would have supplemented their diet with trout from the river and also had cows to provide milk and butter. A story preserved in the family was that they also bred horses and one of them was supposedly purchased by an Englishman with a keen eye for such things which as 'Old Joe' subsequently won the British Grand National Steeplechase in 1886. 4

View from the "Rock of Cashel", Co Tipperary looking in the general direction of the area farmed by the Strapps. The ruins of Hore Abbey are in the background.

Nothing is known of John Cooney's family origins although there were a number of families of that name living in the Cashel - New Inn area prior to the famine. Although John came to Australia, Honora did not. Perhaps she did not survive the famine. If she died in the district her most likely burial place is at Ardmayle which although being a Protestant graveyard continued to be the burial place for the Catholics of the area as well.5

The disastrous potato famine of the 1840's resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands and the migration of similar numbers from Ireland which it is estimated halved the population of the country in the space of a decade. Possibly it was as a result of this cataclysmic event that John Cooney and his surviving children including his daughter Bridget decided to leave Ireland. They do not appear to have travelled together unless the full fare for the whole family was paid which would suggest that they were at least moderately well off (whilst records of assisted immigrants to Victoria have survived there are very few records of unassisted arrivals). It seems that Bridget and her sister Mary migrated first although apparently not together. Bridget most probably arrived at Geelong aboard the "Credenda" on Nov 3rd 1853. This vessel of 901 tons, under the command of Captain Patrick Culliton carried 301 passengers, mainly Irish, and sailed from Southampton on Aug 6th 1853.6 According to the shipping records, Bridget was a domestic servant from Co.Tipperary, a Catholic, and unable to read or write. Her age was recorded as 20 years. 7 Upon arrival the records state that she had "gone with her cousin John O'Brien of Pt Henry."8

Although some of the details do not fit, the vessel most likely to have brought most of the other members of the family to Australia was the 'Caractacus' which sailed from Liverpool on Nov 21st 1857 and berthed at Melbourne on Feb 19th 1858. Aboard were John Cooney (50), Patrick Cooney (22) and Thomas Cooney (14). All were from Tipperary, all were Catholic and all were labourers. Except for Thomas the ages given are not consistent with other documents but as Thomas was the only one of the three who could read and write this is perhaps not surprising. (Patrick was listed as being able to read but John could neither read nor write). Also aboard was a Catherine Cooley! aged 17, also from Tipperary, a Catholic and unable to read or write. A note beside her name indicates that she went with her sister Mary Vinsted! of Point Henry. The reference to Point Henry suggests that this may be Bridget's sister travelling on the same boat as her father and brothers with her surname mis-spelled. If this is the case then the sisters have also been confused and the married name mis-spelled, as by this time Bridget was Mrs Benstead and Mary was Mrs Heaney. At least this explanation accounts for the arrival of all the members of the family who are known to have come to Australia except for Annie (Honora). Possibly she came out with her older sister Mary but I have been unable to satisfactorily identify when either of these came to Australia. 9

The Cooney family seems to have farmed in the Pt Henry-Moolap area east of Geelong for many years as many of their descendants were still living in the area well into the next century and a "Cooney St" is to be found in Moolap at the present time. John Cooney died at his residence in Moolap on June 20th 1876 at the age of 77yrs. He was buried in Geelong's Eastern cemetery two days later. 10

On August 21st 1856, Fr Eugene McCarthy celebrated the marriage of Bridget Cooney and Thomas Benstead at St Marys Church in Geelong. The ceremony was witnessed by Patt Brien (probably one of the O'Brien cousins from Pt Henry given that it was a common Irish custom to drop the 'O' prefix of the surname) and Margaret Haney (who marked the register with an X) 11 Bridget gave her age as 24 years,12 her place of birth as Tipperary, Ireland, her abode as Pt Henry, her occupation as servant and her parents names as John Cooney (farmer) and Honora Strapp. Thomas Benstead is recorded as being a 29 yr-old labourer of Pt Henry, born in Kent, England. His parents names were given as Thomas Bensted (labourer) and Hannah Brooker. Both Thomas and Bridget marked the register with an X.13

Thomas was the sixth of the nine children born to Thomas and Hannah and was christened in 1826 at Warehorne in Kent, a place with which his family had a long association. His grandfather, who was also named Thomas, married Abigail Russell at Warehorne on Oct 19th 1771 and the couple had five children christened in the town between 1773 and 1791. Abigail was born in nearby Bethersden, the eldest of four daughters of Thomas Russell and Sarah Horton.14

Woolpack Inn at Warehorne. Dating from the 16th century the inn and the church opposite would have been familiar sites to Thomas Benstead

Warehorne is a small village on the edge of Romney Marsh - a flat, low-lying area in south-east England which became famous in the 19th century for its breed of sheep whose major characteristic was an ability to feed in wet situations, and which was considered to be more resistant to foot rot and internal parasites than any other breed. Improved methods of pasture management and husbandry meant the marsh could sustain a stock density greater than anywhere else in the world. From the 17th through to the 19th century the area around Romney Marsh was notorious for smuggling - its sparse population and proximity to France across the English Channel making it ideally suited for this activity. The parish Church of St Matthew in Warehorne still contains a tunnel used by smugglers linking the church to the nearby Woolpack Inn.

Thomas the fourth born of Thomas Benstead and his wife Abigail was christened on Sep 3rd 1786. He married Hannah Brooker on 6th February 1815 at Tenterden and Jane, their first child was christened at Warehorne later in that year. Hannah was about four years younger than her husband and had been born at Tenterden in around 1790. All of their nine children were christened at Warehorne and Thomas' occupation was recorded as "agricultural labourer" an occupation in turn taken up by his son Thomas.

Hannah's family had lived in the Tenterden area for several generations. Her parents Richard and Sarah had five children christened in the Tenterden parish and Richard was christened there on 2 Mar 1766, the sixth child of James Brooker and Sarah Tompkin. Both James (1727) and Sarah (1738) were christened at Tenterden and the couple were also married there on the 25th April 1756. Sarah was the eldest of at least three children of John and Sarah Tompkin.

James Brooker was the seventh child of William Brooker and Frances Lockear who were married in nearby Horsmonden on 21 Jan 1706. Horsmonden was the birthplace of Frances, she being the eldest of the six children born to Richard Lockear and Mary Bull.15

Warehorne church and graveyard

It would seem that farm labouring was not the only activity that the younger Thomas Benstead engaged in. On 10th March 1845 he was convicted of breaking into a house and stealing the sum of 6 pounds 10 shillings and a pair of shoes from one Stephen Nutley (or Nutly) at Ashford, a market town a few miles north of Warehorne. He was sentenced to ten years transportation to Tasmania.

One can only speculate on the circumstances that led Thomas to commit this crime (presuming he was not wrongly convicted). Perhaps he was desperate, perhaps it was an act of bravado of a foolish youth - he was only nineteen after all.

Whatever the circumstances, ten years seems a severe sentence, but although it is difficult to get an exact comparison, one estimate would place the amount stolen as being close to $9000 Australian dollars (2010 value). Another comparison can be made with the amount of 55 pounds per year paid to James Bond on his arrival at Portland a little over 10 years later (see Ch 2) which means the amount stolen by Thomas was more than a months wages - a not insignificant amount! Had Thomas committed the offence half a century earlier, he may well have been executed, but from 1808 onwards there was progressive reform which by 1861 had reserved capital punishment for more major crimes - fortunately for his descendants!

Thomas was transported aboard the "Marion" which sailed from Woolwich on the 14th June and arrived in Hobart on 16th Sep 1845. A surviving document located in the UK national archives mentions that on the voyage to Van Dieman's Land Thomas was placed on the sick list from June 20th to June 28th suffering from rubeola (measles. He subsequently worked in a labour gang at Darlington on Maria Island (co-incidentally where another ancestor of mine John Barry or Berry had served as a prison guard almost 20 years previously. There is no evidence to suggest Thomas was an habitual criminal. The surgeon's report on the "Marion" states that he was well behaved and he seems to have been a model prisoner, to the point where he was granted a conditional pardon after serving seven and a half years. His later life also seems to have been above reproach.

The convict records reveal that he was married, with his wife's name given as Caroline and the records also give the names of his parents, Thomas and Hannah, and siblings James, Jane, Anne, Sarah and Charlotte. The marriage of Thomas Benstead to Caroline Day took place at Great Chart, a village on the outskirts of Ashford about 8 miles from Warehorne, on 2nd Sep 1844. A child named Mary Ann was born on 1st Feb the following year but lived only a few days. A little over a month later Thomas was convicted and sentenced. This event must have been traumatic for Thomas and his family, and especially for his young wife, as the couple would have realistically had to resign themselves to the likelihood that they would never see one another again.16

On completion of his sentence Thomas seems to have decided to put his past behind him and move to Geelong where he was to meet and marry Bridget Cooney. Presumably Thomas did not disclose that he was already married or perhaps said that his wife had died. It is hard to believe that Bridget was not at least aware of his convict past. However it appears that no memory of these events was preserved among his family and descendants.

Little more is known of his parents or grandparents. However it seems that Thomas' father was still living in Warehorne at the time of the 1851 census. He died from cancer of the face on 23rd December 1858 in the Willesborough workhouse in East Ashford. He was recorded as being 73 yrs of age. Despite its grim reputation the workhouse was the place where many elderly or infirm spent their last days, not because they were paupers or long-term inmates, but because the workhouse infirmary was often the only place available once they could no longer be cared for at home. It is estimated that in the 19th century over six per cent of the population may have been in a workhouse at any time.

Hannah survived her husband and died at the home of her son James and daughter-in-law Susan at 25 St Stephens Square, Southwark, Surrey on July 18th, 1861. Susan was present at the death and was the informant named on the death certificate which she marked with an 'X'. Hannah's age was given as 76 which would place her birth at around 1785 however ages provided by informants on death certificates are often inaccurate. The cause of death was given as 'paralysis'. 17

Thomas Benstead (photograph courtesy of Chris Upton)

Life in Australia must have been a financial struggle for Thomas and Bridget and their money problems seem to have accumulated. So much so that in April 1880 Thomas filed his insolvency schedule stating that he was unable to pay his debts which then totalled over 53 pounds. Money was owed to various creditors, mainly local traders, but it seems he had also borrowed various sums from individuals including his brother-in-law Thomas Cooney. He owned no property except for items of household furniture and a goat and some fowls which altogether were valued only 4 pounds, leaving a defficiency of nearly 50 pounds. Thomas cited sickness of himself and family members, (his daughter Sarah had died in February of that year after an illness that had required hospitalization at various stages and he himself had been unable to work at times due to severe rheumatism), unemployment and in particular a loss of 30 pounds on a contract to supply railway sleepers for the railway in 1879 as reasons for his financial predicament.18

The couple appear to have lived in the Point Henry district for most of their lives. They had at least eleven children including John, Honorah (see next chapter), Sarah, Hannah (Mrs Olson), Thomas, Bridget (Mrs Allison), Patrick, James and Catherine (Mrs Jarvis). Two children, Hannah and Mary Ann, died in infancy. 19 It was at Curlewis (near Pt Henry) that Bridget died on June 24th 1886. She was buried the following day and it is said that the toll of the church bell could be heard throughout the funeral procession to the cemetery at East Geelong where the burial took place.20 Thomas survived his wife for many years until he died at Footscray in January 1917 at the age of 93 years. He is buried in the Footscray cemetery with his daughter Hannah and her husband John Olson.21

Site of the Strapp farm at Camus near Cashel, Co Tipperary photographed in 1995. The foundations in the foreground are most likely those of the house in which Honora Strapp lived in the early 19th century. The ruins of a later house are in the background and the barn is on the right. Br Joe Perkins is on the left and Tommy Strapp a distant cousin is on the right. Tommy was still living in the area at the time of my visit and his own father's childhood home is the one pictured in the background.

Site of the Strapp farm near Cashel in Co Tipperary. The roof of the barn is on the left and the ruins of the farmhouse are in the centre of the picture. The River Suir is at the bottom of the valley beyond the house.