A Grave Matter: Booley family plot at Ballarat’s Old Cemetery

My g.g. grandfather Robert Francis Booley, brother-in-law of Sarah Harriett Royal (nee McPherson). Picture (c) J. Fawcett2016
A picture of Robert Francis Booley (1829-1875) taken Ballarat c1855-1865. Robert buried 8 of his 11 children as well as his wife between 1860-1869 before joining them in perpetual rest in Ballarat’s Old Cemetery. Picture source: J. Fawcett 2016

A grassy single plot within the Ballarat  Old Cemetery hides the heartbreak of an immigrant family who fled political unrest in England to seek a new start in colonial Australia,  the proposed new  land of opportunity, health and wealth.

No gravestone exists in this  country cemetery  in Victoria’s west to count the mounting death toll as  Suffolk-born Robert Francis Booley (1829-1875)  buried eight of his children, and his wife Mary Catherine McPherson (1829-1869) in just a nine-year  time span.

Within the next four years another two sons were laid to rest in the family plot  before Robert F. himself was buried there,  totaling ten family members in just 15 years buried  in grave number 26 in the first row of Section 4,  of Ballarat’s Old Cemetery.

And just two year later another of Robert’s sons, at just 22 years of age was buried in Melbourne, leaving behind just two surviving brothers of what was originally eleven siblings.


The gravesite of Robert F. Booley and his family is located in Area D, Section 4, Row 1, Grave 26 of the Ballarat Old Cemetery. Source: BallaratCemeteries Online http://www.ballaratcemeteries.com.au/php/search.php
The gravesite of Robert F. Booley and his family is located in Area D, Section 4, Row 1, Grave 26 of the Ballarat Old Cemetery. Source: BallaratCemeteries Online http://www.ballaratcemeteries.com.au/php/search.php

I was surprised  Robert F.  Booley’s death certificate shows he died of ‘Phthisis Pulmonalis’ (Tuberculosis),  as I was sure it would say  ‘Died Of Heartbreak” in big,bold writing.

To bury eight of your children as well as your wife and then follow them soon after to the grave,  all within just over a dozen years beggars belief and  seems  so far removed from the heady beginnings of Robert and Mary Catherine’s marriage some two decades earlier.

My great great grandparents Robert F. Booley and his wife Mary Catherine McPherson had married in Geelong in 1849, having stepped ashore at Point Henry  on the 3rd of October 1848 after travelling  together to Australia aboard the 582-ton immigrant ship Berkshire.

But Robert F. and Mary Catherine were no strangers to each other, for both their fathers were leading political activists in their home-town of Ipswich  in county Suffolk, England.

Robert F. Booley had migrated with his four brothers and two sisters and their parents Robert Booley senior (1803-1876) and Mary Ann Closse (1801-1883).

Mary Catherine McPherson was an old friend of the family, and though she came without her own family she left the vessel with the Booley family at Point Henry.



Robert Francis Booley and his family are recorded in this extract from the passenger manifest for the 585 ton Berkshire which arrived Point Henry near Geelong on the 3rd Oct 1858 (source: PRO, Vic, VPRS Book 4)
Robert Francis Booley, parents and siblings are recorded in this extract from the passenger manifest for the 585 ton Berkshire which arrived Point Henry near Geelong on the 3rd Oct 1848 (source: PRO, Vic, VPRS Book 4)

225 immigrants sailed for  Australia aboard the Berkshire,  departing the  port of Plymouth on England’s coast on the 9th of June 1848.

The vessel was commanded by John Whyte, master,  and the immigrants came as ‘assisted’ passengers under the Regulations of the Colonial Land and Emigration Commissioners, excepting a few cabin passengers and the captain’s wife.

During the 111 day voyage, five births occurred (four of those in August) and two deaths took place (one adult, one child)  (source: Immigrant Passengerand Disposal Lists, Public Records Office of Victoria: Berkshire, VPRS 3502 Book 4).

Five of the passengers  were employed on board during the voyage, to assist with passenger comfort and control: Robert Booley (senior)  and William Summerton were employed as constables on board, George and John Hunt as schoolmaster and assistant respectively, and Joseph Thorp as Cook’s assistant.

There were an assortment of mechanics aboard,  as qualified tradesmen were then called and  of which the five Booley men were included: 10 x Blacksmiths, 5 x carpenters, 3 x cabinetmakers, 2 x wheelwrights as well 1 each  stonemason, brick-maker and plasterer.

The rest of the passengers occupations were variously given: agricultural laborers (46) made up the highest proportion along with  general laborers (10),  and then a small assortment gave their occupations as gardeners, shepherds, sawyers, housekeepers, nursemaids, house or laundry maids, needlewomen or dressmakers.

Passengers weren’t able to immediately disembark after arriving at Point Henry, as there was a general election being held in the adjoining township of Geelong. The official needed to clear passengers to land, was also the electoral officer,  so after 111 days at sea the passengers bided their time waiting for election day to end.

Robert F. Booley's father was no stranger to politics in their hometown of Ipswich, Co Suffolk. Eng. (source: )
Robert F. Booley’s father was no stranger to politics in their hometown of Ipswich, Co Suffolk. Eng. (source:London Despatch., 25 Nov 1838:NLA, Online Resources )

Neither the Booley nor McPherson families were strangers to political processes. Both Robert Booley and Mary Catherine McPherson’s  father, Donald McPherson (1801-1852) were long-time active agitators in the Chartist political movement in England, and both were long serving members of Ipswich Working Men’s Association.

Both the McPhersons and Booleys were non-conformist believers, refusing to accept the impositions of the Church of England and both fought for equal rights and representations for all men.

McPherson was both a strategist as well as political creature and along with Booley snr,  who was recognized as a powerfully  persuasive speaker the men devoted the majority of their lives in Ipswich promoting the essential points of the Chartist movement: equal electoral opportunities for all men (rather than only those who were landowners, or wealthy), annual parliaments, the payment of elected representatives so as to enable anyone to be able to serve a constituency (again rather than just the wealthy or their nominees) and the right for all men to vote.


After landing at Geelong the senior Robert Booley set up shop near Geelong’s waterfront in his trade as coach-smith and wheelwright,  and launched himself into local politics.

His son Robert F. Booley and his brothers were trained in their father’s field of expertise but all stayed away from the political arena.

With the outbreak of the gold rushes in the early 1850’s the Booley men picked their way round the various goldfields,  but generally turned their hand to working in sectors like carting,  which created lucrative financial opportunity in both freight and passenger transport especially for those savvy enough to be able provide the vehicles and repair them along the rough country routes to and from the goldfields. Or they followed their training in the blacksmith, wheelwright and coachsmith trades.

Robert Francis Booley and his wife Catherine settled themselves in Ballarat while the other brothers generally spread themselves between Geelong, Ballarat and up to the Lake Bolac district.

Robert F Booley's father was quick to launch himself into colonial politics after his arrival at Geelong. (source: TROVE, NLA)
Robert F Booley’s father was quick to launch himself into colonial politics after his arrival at Geelong. (source: TROVE, NLA)


His father meanwhile was doing the rounds of the political platforms at the goldfields, urging miners to burn their licences for want of equal representations.

Booley senior spoke to growing crowds of disenchanted diggers across the goldfields like at Mount Alexander in November 1851.

Three years before the great Rebellion at Ballarat which shaped Australia’s democratic political system, Robert Booley senior was encouraging people to stand up for their right to equality and equal representation.


As an orator for the Geelong-based People’s Movement Booley senior was considered a popular, persuasive if not somewhat eccentric orator who was talented in reaching the working class. And as a member of the 8 Hour Working party Robert Booley senior was playing a part in shaping Australia’s future political landscape, particularly in the aftermath of the 1854 Eureka Rebellion.

But there is no evidence Booley’s children followed in his political footsteps, though his great grandson Harry  Booley certainly filled the spot in later years with his role in the Railway Unions.

Robert Booley at Mount Alexander 1851Robert Francis Booley made his way west of Geelong, but despite it’s fields of gold the mining town of Ballarat was an unlucky place for Robert .and  Mary Catherine McPherson and their eleven children.

Their 2-year old daughter Laura Mary Booley was laid in perpetual rest at the Ballarat cemetery on the 9th September 1860, followed almost three months later by their barely 12 month-old daughter Ellen Ada Booley. Both girls were named for maternal aunts from Ipswich, in keeping with family tradition.

Then with the flush of the gold rushes fading and an exodus of population, Robert Francis Booley suffered a drop in his blacksmithing work and suffered  from a bout of ill health. Owing some eighty-two pounds in liabilities and owning only about four pounds in assets, Booley made the onerous decision to declare himself insolvent  (Argus, 2 April 1864). The causes stated for the insolvency were ‘sickness, want of employment, pressure from creditors and fear of arrest’ (The Star, Ballarat, 31 March 1864).

Booley Gold Find Geelong 1852

Historical newspapers can be search for familiy references via the National Library of Australia’s  digitized newspapers portal  TROVE.


Sickness continued to dog the family and some six months later, on the 11th February 1865 their 3-years old daughter Ada Mary Booley joined her sisters in the family plot at the (old) Ballarat Cemetery.

Seven months later on the 22nd November 1865, Mary Catherine McPherson gave birth to another daughter, Mary but the little infant only thrived for one day before she too joined her sisters in the family plot.

Nine months later Mary Catherine delivered another child,  on the 17th August 1866 but the baby was still-born  and a  fifth Booley child was laid to rest in the family grave.

I wonder how these great great grandparents of mine found any consolation in their losses. I know that their religion mattered to them, Robert F. being of a long line of Wesleyan/Non Conformist family members and his own father a lay minister of that church. Mary Catherine’s people were of a similar church of Independents in both Ipswich and further  back in Scotland, so if  religion mattered to them I hope it gave them comfort.

I worry about the other Booley siblings, who had to watch time and again as death robbed them of one of the special link in their family unit. Were they exposed to their parents misery, did they receive comfort from family and friends or each other.Or was the horror of losing yet another sibling stuffed down inside along with instructions to get over it or get along with it.

Three of Mary Catherine’s siblings (McPherson) had been living at Ballarat in these years , but began migrating to New Zealand with husbands and children of their own:

Mary Catherine had  earlier received word  in 1852, of her own father ‘s death  back in Ispwich   and then two years later came news that her brother had died there as well.

Her mother  Mary McPherson nee Campbell (1806-1880) did  follow the rest of her children out to Australia, arriving in  Ballarat around 1860 but ill health limited her ability for consistent support for the Booley family.

Mrs McPherson worked variously as a needlewoman or a nurse to earn a little income, but on three occasions at least between 1860 and 1866 she was admitted to the Ballarat Benevolent Asylum, a hospice of sorts for those unable to afford medical care.

In January of 1868 Mary Catherine  and Robert F. Booley  was blessed with yet another daughter,  but little baby Kate thrived for just one day and joined her sisters in the cemetery on the  10th January 1868.

In only eight years Mary Catherine and Robert F. had buried seven of their children. The deaths and harsh colonial lifestyle took its toll. Mary Catherine Booley (nee McPherson) was laid in perpetual rest with her daughters at the Ballarat cemetery on the 25th February 1869. Frank Milton Booley Obituary

Robert Francis Booley tried to maintain the upkeep of his family, moving around homes and jobs where he could, but then on the 21st March 1874 his twenty-two year old son Robert Byrne Booley went to join his sisters and their mother at the cemetery.

Then, eight months later another of  Robert F. son’s joined the mounting toll, this 19 years old Willie Cowper Booley who was buried with the family on the 16th February 1875.

With eight children and a wife to mourn, its no surprise Robert Francis Booley’s own health began to falter. On the 1st July, five months after Willie’s death  Robert Francis Booley was admitted to the Ballarat Hospital.

The hospital’s file shows Robert Francis as living in Bradshaw Street, and  usually worked as a coachsmith.  Robert F.’s health declined after being admitted to the hospital and on the 10th September 1875 he joined his wife and eight children in the Ballarat (old) Cemetery.

Robert Francis Booley's son Walter Scott Booley (1863-1936 and his wife Mary Jane nee Brabner (1865-1928). Picture from Williams Family Archive.
Robert Francis Booley’s son Walter Scott Booley (1863-1936 and his wife Mary Jane nee Brabner (1865-1928). Picture from Williams Family Archive.

My grandmother’s father was one of the three remaining sons of Robert Francis Booley and Mary Catherine McPherson: Walter Scott Booley (1863-1936) was just six years old when his mother died and barely 12 years of age when his father died.

Two years later his second eldest brother Donald Fletcher Booley died at the age of 22 years,  and was buried in Melbourne, leaving just his oldest brother  Frank Milton Booley (1849-1926) as his only remaining sibling.

Their grandmother McPherson helped where possible,  but the following year found herself back in  the Benevolent Home and so her daughter Kate Willoughby’s husband  fetched her to live with the family at Horsham..

The two remaining boys got work brickmaking and bricklaying, probably spending time with their Horsham relatives as they eventually settled at Warracknabeal in the 1890’s, where Frank Milton was known for his brickmaking business.

Walter Scott Booley moved around  with his wife and children in tow, wherever viable work could be found through the 1890’s Depression.

Walter worked at Warracknabeal with his brother, and took on carting and farming round Ouyen and then Nyang, and his wife supplemented their income as postmistress.  Then World War 1 came round and took  four of their sons to the European theatre of war, and Walter Scott Booley  decided to bring his remaining family back to Ballarat.

My grandmother’s photo of Robert Francis Booley  in a Ballarat militia uniform remained with his son Walter Scott until  the latter’s death in 1936.

This time there was not room enough in the family grave at the Old Cemetery  so Walter Scott Booley  is buried at the new cemetery with his wife Mary Jane Brabner (1865-1928) who had predeceased him in 1928.

Back in the Old Cemetery its difficult knowing which is worse: that there is no gravestone to memorialize our migrant great-great-grandparents and their family, or that there are so many to name  it would take a monumental masonry job to fit an appropriate headstone on such a small gravesite.

Most Booley’s in Victoria are descendants of Robert and Mary Booley, so hopefully there is enough of us to round up funds to get that headstone into place.

Five daughters of Walter Scott and Mary Jane Brabner (the granddaughters of Robert Francis and Mary Cath Booley). My grandmother Jean (second right) was a keen keeper of the family history. Picture Source: Williams Family Archive