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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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).
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.
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.
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.