The O’Tooles of County Wicklow
My O’Toole ancestors were from County Wicklow, “The Garden of Ireland.” They arrived in Adelaide on 7 July 1840 on a small ship named the William Nichol. It was carrying Scottish and Irish immigrants from Greenock and Dublin. The William Nichol was built in Greenock in 1834. In 1842 it was condemned at Mauritius after being dismasted in a hurricane and running upon a reef.
The O’Tooles were the first of all my ancestors to arrive in South Australia. They travelled as a family: my 3X great grandparents, John O’Toole and Catherine O’Brien who were aged 57 and 50, my 2X great grandparents John Thomas O’Toole and his wife Ellen Murphy, plus their daughter Mary and sons Dennis and James.
Under the assisted emigration scheme, labouring classes received free passage if they were aged 15 to 30 years of age and had two references. Preference was given to married applicants. John Thomas Toole (the name as written in their official documents), aged 23 and Dennis Toole aged 25 received approval for an assisted passage on 27 January 1840. It is possible that the rest of the family paid their own way. It is unlikely that John O’Toole and Catherine O’Brien would have received an assisted passage as they would have been considered too old.
It is remarkable that they were successful in their application because at that time the distribution of emigration agents in the British Isles gave less opportunity to the Irish than anyone else. In the first five years of the colony’s existence the Irish made up less than 7 per cent of immigrants.
The O’Tooles are unusual in another respect, as very few Irish immigrants to South Australia came from County Wicklow. Most came from the northern counties of Cavan and Monaghan, and the southern counties of Clare and Tipperary.
It is hard to imagine the scene which must have greeted them on their arrival. Adelaide had been settled just four years previously and the white population was only 14,600 people. It is not known how many Aborigines were living in South Australia before the arrival of Europeans. Estimates of the pre-contact indigenous population vary between 10,000 and 15,000.
The Kaurna people lived in the area around Adelaide. During the first few years of settlement race relations were amicable. The colony started out with high ideals of safeguarding the Aborigines’ interests and 20 per cent of the proceeds of land sales was to be used for their benefit. This scheme was never implemented. But I must get back to the story of the O’Tooles.
After arrival in Adelaide the emigrants were allowed to stay for only a short time in the Emigration Depot before they were required to leave and start fending for themselves. The Emigration Depot, established in 1838, was located in the West Parklands opposite what is now Hindley Street.
My 2X great grandmother Ellen gave birth to a daughter in the Emigration Depot on 26 July, just a few weeks after their arrival. Ellen and her mother-in-law Catherine O’Toole received relief assistance for ten days. They had to leave the Emigration Depot when Ellen’s baby was a few days old. The baby, named Catherine, died a few days later, on 3 August. It was a sad beginning to their lives in South Australia.
Their early years in the colony must have been a struggle for survival, for the colony itself fell on hard times, became bankrupt, and all assisted immigration was stopped between 1841 and 1845. The British Government had very inadequate knowledge of conditions in the colony. The third Governor, George Grey was ordered to carry out a stern policy of retrenchment. He continued with zeal the austerity measures begun by Governor George Gawler. He suspended work on Adelaide’s public buildings and greatly reduced all government expenditure, including the scale of relief for the unemployed and destitute. People who had been engaged on government contracts lost all means of livelihood.
The Board of Commissioners informed Grey that all who held no contract with the Board might conveniently be left to starve. Lord Stanley, Secretary of the State for the Colonies, ordered Grey to ship the unemployed to other colonies and to throw the destitute on their own resources or their relations.
The new policy engendered deep distress and discontent. Grey defied orders by drawing bills on the British Treasury for £25,000 for poor relief. The British authorities condemned these expenditures, censured the Governor and abolished his discretionary power.
It is most likely that the O’Toole’s got work as agricultural labourers. They lived in Morphett Vale, now one of Adelaide’s southern suburbs. Times must have been difficult. In April 1846, my 3X great grandfather John O’Toole and his sons, James and John, and one other were charged with stealing timber from the parklands in North Adelaide. The case was reported in The Register on 20 April. I can’t help but feel sympathetic towards my ancestors.
Photograph taken by Michael Coghlan, 12 January 2011 (Flickr Creative Commons)
The parklands between the city and North Adelaide are well manicured today, but in 1846 I imagine they were untamed Australian bush. North Adelaide now is one of the most prestigious suburbs of Adelaide. There is a statue of Colonel William Light on a hill in the Parklands overlooking the City.
More O’Tooles from County Wicklow arrived in South Australia over the next few decades. My guess is these people were related to John O’Toole in some way and came to South Australia in a pattern of chain migration for which the Irish were famous.
In 1844 my 2X great grandmother Ellen gave birth to another daughter, also named Catherine. This baby was my great grandmother, and the first of my ancestors to be born in Australia. Ellen gave birth to more children: Mary, Margaret, James, Thomas and Denis. Sadly, the youngest two died in infancy.
All of the O’Tooles who arrived in 1840 became owners of their own land, something they could never have dreamed of back in Ireland.
In September 2016 my husband and I had a holiday in South Australia, visiting the places where my ancestors had once lived. We found the burial place of John and Ellen O’Toole in the Whyte Yarcowie cemetery.
My mother Mary Dempsey grew up on a farm a few miles from Whyte Yarcowie. One hundred years ago Whyte Yarcowie was a thriving small community. Now it is a ghost town. Even the small cemetery was difficult to find.
It was a cold day which made the cemetery seem even more bleak and desolate. As I stood at the graveside of John Thomas O’Toole and Ellen O’Toole, I wondered about their lives, particularly my 2X great grandmother. Ellen lived into the next century and died on 1 July 1901 aged 89 years. I thought of her giving birth to her first baby in the Emigration Depot. Who were her parents? Where was she born and grew up? When and where did she marry John Thomas O’Toole? Once she was a young woman with hopes and dreams. I knew I had to try to find out more about her.