Thursday, July 11, 2013

Walking in my Convict Ancestor's Footsteps...

Finding the Places where our Ancestors Lived

Raby Farm

The places where our ancestors lived are an important part of our own identity. In places, we find the genius loci or the ancient Roman notion of spirit of place, and so come to sense the spirit of our ancestors. The Romans used the term genuis loci to describe a protective spirit in places, however in the modern Western world it has come to be associated with identity, heritage, and the spirit of the past, especially in the landscape and built environment.

'Consult the genius of the place in all,
That tells the waters for to rise or fall,
or helps th' ambitious hill the heavens to scale,
Or scoops in circling theatres the vale....'  
Epistle IV, Alexander Pope to Richard Boyle, Earl of Burlington (Alexander Pope introduced the idea of genius loci into landscape gardening.)

In my search for ancestors and their families, I like to understand as much as possible about the places from which they came and places where they lived. In these places, the spirit of my ancestors comes to life.

In the NSW, Australia, Convict Indents 1788-1842, (, I learned that my great  great great grand uncle, Lawrence Frayne, arrived in Sydney Cove on August 5, 1826, on board the ship the Regalia. Lawrence was a pantry boy, aged 17 years who had been convicted in Dublin on October 5, 1825, of the theft of rope. For his crime young Lawrence was sentenced to 7 years in the colony of New South Wales. 

Convict records provide much valuable information about ancestors. As well as physically describing  Lawrence Frayne, the record informed me that he bore a scar on his right eyebrow and another on the bridge of his nose and that his appearance included brown hair, hazel eyes and a ruddy complexion. I discovered  that on arrival in Sydney, Lawrence  was assigned to one Edward Riley of Raby Farm.  I now had a physical place to begin looking for the spirit of my ancestor. 

I know from records that Lawrence spent two years at Raby Farm before absconding and being sent to the penal settlement at Moreton Bay (now in the state of Queensland). Moreton Bay was established between the years of  1824 and 1842 to accommodate secondary offending prisoners. It became important to me to understand the place where my great great uncle began his life as a convict as this was the beginning of his Australian story.

 In this technologically connected world in which we live, we are privileged, in the pursuit of family history, to be able to see the places in which our ancestors lived through images available by means of a simple search of Google Images, Google Earth and Maps. Finding the places of our forebears enhances our sense of identity.  To be able to walk in the footsteps of ancestors and past family, helps us to understand our heritage. To see the land which they farmed, the homes they inhabited, to have some sense of the relationship they had with their environment and the landscape which was an integral part of their identity, helps to put their lives into a sense of real  historical context. We are fortunate indeed, if we can visit, in person, the places of our ancestors, and physically walk in their footsteps to 'feel' their presence.

When I began my search for Raby Farm, I was very excited to discover that the property was near Campbelltown, which is an area only a three quarter hour drive from where I live in Sydney. From the Cambelltown Council website, [1] I learned that  a merchant and pastoralist named Alexander Riley ( 1778-1833), was granted 3000 acres in 1809. This large land grant commenced at the corner of Cowpasture and Bringelly Roads, in Liverpool and is situated in what is famously Macarthur sheep country. This information was part of an explanation of the origins of a suburb named Raby, on the council website. Although much of the farm land surrounding Cambelltown has been developed into of housing estates, I was still hopeful of finding some tangible evidence of the original Raby Farm. I also set out to learn who Edward Riley was, and what the nature of his relationship to Alexander Riley was. Records had shown that it was to Edward Riley of Raby Farm, that my 3rd great grand uncle had been assigned in 1826.

Google Map showing the corner of Cowpasture and Bringelly Road

The Australian Dictionary of Biography informed me that Alexander Riley was born in London, in 1778, the son of  George Riley, a bookseller and that his mother's maiden name was Margaret Raby, The Raby family hailed from County Clare in Ireland and I found mention of a family property in England also named Raby.  Now I had the origins of the name Raby Farm. Alexander Riley arrived in NSW in June 1804, with his wife Sophia Hardwick and settled on a farm in the Hawkesbury area, north of Sydney, where he acquired the positions of magistrate and storekeeper. In 1805, Alexander Riley became deputy Commissary and shortly thereafter was appointed to the position of Secretary of State in the colony. A shrewd businessman, Riley quickly realised that there was a fortune to be made through trade. He formed a partnership with Richard Jones, a fellow merchant and pastoralist. The company of Jones & Riley forged trade relations with India through Riley's brother Edward in Calcutta, as well as trade with Canton. Alexander Riley was a founder of the Bank of New South Wales and introduced marine insurance into the colony of new South Wales. From 1812, he concentrated on building his flock of sheep at Raby Farm and was fortunate to benefit from high wool prices.

In 1817, due to ill health, Alexander Riley returned to England with his family, leaving his colonial interests in the hands of his younger brother, Edward who relocated from Calcutta to NSW.  The property Raby Farm was advertised for lease (assumedly to Edward) and was described as, ' convenient buildings, one hundred acres of cleared ground are enclosed and subdivided into convenient paddocks- the whole of the land is well watered, and one of the finest crops of wheat in the colony is now growing on it'...[2]  On the southern section of the property a residence had been built. 

By the  early 1820's, Riley's property, Raby Farm had grown to 3,200 acres with more than 200 acres cleared for the grazing of sheep and cattle as well as the cultivation of crops such as maize, barley, oats and vegetables.[3]

 Raby Farm, sketched  by Joseph Lycett in 1824

Along with his brother Edward, Alexander Riley organised to send an entire flock of Saxon Merino sheep from Germany, to his property in NSW. Chartering a ship named the  Sir George Osborne, Alexander  transported the sheep across the seas, with the first flock of this breed arriving in Sydney in August 1825. The care of Riley's flock during the journey, was entrusted to Riley's nephew Edward Riley, son of his brother Edward. When Edward Jnr arrived in Sydney in 1825, with his uncle's large flock of Saxon Merino sheep,  his father had died. The sheep and property named Raby Farm then became the responsibility of Alexander's young nephew, Edward Riley who under Alexander's expert guidance helped this strain of merino sheep to flourish  to become one of the most significant types of merino sheep in Australia. John Macarthur was known to be envious of Riley's success as his sheep won gold medals year after year in the annual Australian Agricultural Society Shows. 

Because I had found a mentio of Raby farm being leased on Alexander's return to England  I needed to confirm that Edward Riley was living at Raby Farm  as the Convict Indent had indicated. I found evidence that Edward Riley senior had resided at Raby Farm through a search of the National Library of Australia's digitalised newspaper website, Trove, where I found the following article printed in the Sydney Gazette and NSW Advertiser, October 28, 1820,  'Raby Farm, on the Cow-pasture and Bringelly Roads:- Take Notice, that if any Cattle or Sheep are found on this Farm after this date, they will be impounded by the order of Edward Riley.'

I turned to Trove to find any information I could about Alexander Riley's nephew, Edward Riley and Raby farm in 1826 onward which was when Lawrence Frayne, was assigned to work there as a convict labourer. An advertisement placed in The Australian (Sydney, NSW, 1824-1848) read, 'To be Sold, 250 Ewes which have been running this season with Mr Mc'Arthur's Rams, and are now forward in Lamb. Apply for particulars at the Office of Messrs Jones and Walker; or to Mr. Edward Riley, Raby Farm' where the sheep may be seen.'

(Jones and Walker was Alexander Riley's company Riley & Jones with a new partner added named Walker.)

 Significantly, I knew now that the Edward Riley who my three times great grand uncle, Lawrence Frayne was assigned to was Alexander Riley's nephew, Edward (1806-1840), the son of his brother Edward Riley, (1784-1825). I also knew that Raby Farm became extremely successful in the breeding of merino sheep from 1826, the same year that Lawrence Frayne was assigned to work there. Since my two times great uncle had been a pantry boy in Dublin, Ireland, I wondered what his occupation was when assigned to Raby Farm. From various sources, I found that a pantry boy was a cook's assistant in the kitchen. His responsibilities would have included peeling potatoes, cleaning and washing pots and pans. Male convicts were generally assigned work which involved hard labour, outdoors, with long hours. It is unlikely that Lawrence would have been assigned to the kitchen of Raby House, this being work generally assigned to female convicts. 17 year old Lawrence Frayne would most definitely have been drafted by Edward Riley to carry out work with which he was unfamiliar, including the clearing of densely forested land, working the land for crops at Raby Farm, or  caring for sheep or cattle. 

Male Convicts were usually assigned to outdoor labour

From an address delivered by Edward Riley to the Agricultural Society which was published in the Sydney Gazette and NSW Advertiser on Wednesday February 21, 1827, I learned that the years 1826-1827 were years of economic hardship and severe drought in NSW.  Catastrophic events such as flood and drought would have impacted on the lives of everyone at Raby Farm including the convict labour and my own ancestor. Crops certainly failed at Raby Farm according to news reports, but it appears from articles published in the Sydney Gazette, that Edward Riley's Saxon Merino sheep were, in 1826, unrivalled in quality, their wool being most suited to the climate and Raby Farm seemed to be returning considerable profit despite the drought.   

In a NSW Department of Roads and Traffic Authority (RTA) Statement of Heritage Impact, produced in May, 2010, I discovered that Raby House, situated on Camden Valley Way, has survived and is now a State Listed Heritage Item. Excited at the prospect of seeing the homestead where my convict great great uncle was assigned, I set off  by car to find Raby House. My first attempt to find the property was unsuccessful. I arrived in the Campelltown area, having no idea of what the house actually looked like and although I found several heritage properties, I could not identify which was Raby House. 

After more research and finding an old photograph of the driveway to Raby House, which showed a timber bridge which had featured in the  RTA impact statement, I headed south on the M7 and M5, a second time to find Raby House. This time my attempt to walk in my ancestors footsteps was foiled by a thick fog which rolled in over Campbelltown around 3.30 pm. As atmospheric as fog is, finding the 'spirit' of my past in the midst of it proved impossible. Undeterred, and still determined, I set off on a third journey, some weekends later, early on a clear day, and armed with the photograph below which I hoped would help me to find Raby House.

An old photograph of the driveway to Raby House
Below is my own photograph of the bridge crossing and the driveway entrance to Raby Farm which I found on my third trip to Campbelltown. In the background is pictured, Raby House. 

My photograph of Raby farm as it is today
Although Raby House is no longer situated on 3200 acres, there is enough land surrounding the significant house to still retain the feel of a large farm. Gazing along the driveway which leads up to the house which Alexander Riley built and in which his nephew Edward Riley lived at the time my convict great great great grand uncle, Lawrence Frayne was assigned to Raby Farm in 1826, I saw the land that my convict two times great uncle had worked. My thoughts turned to what life would have been like for Lawrence Frayne and suddenly I knew that I had found the genuis loci of Raby Farm and my convict great great uncle. 

Raby House June 2013

There are no words to describe the feeling of connection to an ancestor one experiences when physically walking in their footsteps. Standing on the land where my great great uncle worked and lived for the first two years of his sentence as a convict in Australia, caused a shiver to run down my spine, as I felt the  spirit of Lawrence Frayne through the spirit of the place where he had been. 

Raby House June 2013

A view of Raby House from a street nearby

*Addendum: Since writing this blog post I have been very excited to discover that there exists a convict built barn on the property Raby Farm. 


3. ibid


  1. What a great story - and I love the photos.

  2. Sharn, This is amazing. I have so missed your skillfully researched posts.

  3. Great story Sharn. I have shared this on the Claim a convict facebook page.

  4. Great story Sharn. I have shared this on the Claim a convict facebook page.