Timothy Brennan, nondescript farmer

Convicts  named Timothy are easier and more interesting to research than farmers of the same name. There are shiploads of records associated with convicts and better books about their lives and experiences. It’s easy for me to imagine their struggles and how they lived. Farmers, though? They are harder to get into. Also, it’s tough for me to imagine my ancestors when all I’ve got is census data. But… I’m going to do my best to imagine one, because there are a lot of farmers in my tree, and I’ve got to start somewhere.

It seems like most of the Irish immigrants in my family came from the old country to the new, got some land and farmed it hard. Some of them packed it in and went to the city within a generation or two, while others kept on clucking. In fact, the Brennan farm, which is now being encroached upon by suburban sprawl and box stores, was just sold in the last couple years, after more than 150 years in the family. I get that land ownership is a loaded concept: the Haudenosaunee and the Anishnaabe had been on that land a lot longer, but still there’s still a tinge of sadness that it’s being eaten up by a growing city. At the same time, I’m not about to move to rural Ontario and figure out how to sow canola or husband cattle because of a false sense of nostalgia.


Timothy Brennan (1821-1906) was the immigrant on this branch, and I know very little of his life in Ireland – or Canada, really. His parents were farmers (Paul Brennan and Mary Walsh) in Ireland. He was baptized in Seskin, Old Leighlin, Leighlinbridge, Co. Carlow, Ireland in 1821. He probably had holy water poured over his screaming face in the 13th century cathedral below, St. Laserian’s. His headstone claims he was born around 1815, while censuses peg it at various dates from 1821-26. I guess he wasn’t great with math. He was the oldest of 6 boys and 2 girls.


He was also confused about when he immigrated. The 1901 census says 1849, but a newspaper article says 1856. I can’t find him in the 1851 census, and he was married in Ottawa in 1854, so I’m going with early 50s. It’s also possible he immigrated around 1849, but took a few years to make it to the homestead, which actually belonged to his father in law. There were huge numbers of Irish immigrants during this time: it was right in the middle of the great potato famine. During the late 1840s and early 1850s, over 1 million died and another 1 million emigrated, resulting in a loss of around 25% of the population. County Carlow was particularly badly hit, and lost up to 50% of the population to starvation or immigration.

The Irish Famine, 1845-1849, (1900). Artist: Unknown

B0KH45 The Irish Famine, 1845-1849, (1900). Artist: Unknown

The famine itself was caused by blight, a crop disease, but the effects were amplified by the political and economic climate of the time. Already before the famine, the Irish were almost totally dependent on the potato as their main (and often only) source of food. The vast majority of the population was poor tenant farmers, who were barely surviving before the blight hit. When the disease got to Ireland, it spread quickly because their monocultured variety of potato was susceptible. During these years, though, farmers were still expected to export their crops. Over 4000 ships filled with grains were sailed from Ireland over these years, while the people were starving. Exports of cattle actually increased. This occurred because British landlords demanded certain quotas and Ireland was largely under the power of the British.


So Timothy likely left Ireland to escape the famine. He was the oldest son and around 30 years old when he came to the Ottawa Valley. It’s likely he would’ve been sending money home to Ireland. He may have immigrated with his younger brother James, or perhaps went ahead and sent money for James to join him. I believe their parents and other siblings remained in Ireland, although their younger brother Paul joined them in Canada many years later in the 1880s after some time in the military.

Timothy immigrated as a farmer and used those skills in Canada. He married Ann Kennedy (a Tipperary lass) in 1854 in Ottawa. They went on to have 2 boys and 4 girls, who were farmers or married to farmers (i.e. were also farmers). One of them was his son Patrick, my great great grandfather (pictured below with his wife Anastasia Brophy circa 1925).


In an article from the Ottawa Citizen (Sept 26, 1931), his son Patrick (my great-great grandfather), tells stories about him. Timothy came from Carlow in the 1850s and secured an inner lot, meaning that there was no road access to their 50 acres. I believe it actually belonged to his father in law, as stated on a map from 1879. Although their land was on the banks of the Jock river, he had no way to travel the river, and so he had to haul everything and cross overland and through bush on other people’s unfarmed and unoccupied lots (which his family subsequently bought up). Eventually he built a boat to come and go from during periods of flood. Their eventual home is hardly a shanty so I think they did relatively well. Here’s a picture of the farmhouse and stockyard, when his sons Patrick and James were running it, around 1925.



Timothy’s wife Ann died in 1898, and he passed away in 1906 of old age at 85 – I’ve got a headstone below – it replaced the previous one which was in disrepair.  At the time of his death, he’d been living with his son James, who reported the death. By the next census James and his brother Patrick were living there. This is where my great grandmother grew up, and the land stayed in the family through her sister.

Although the records are pretty boring, I can imagine a few things of his life. He probably arrived in Canada destitute and hungry, but managed to make a decent life for himself and his family. I would love to know what became of his siblings who remained in Ireland (and there’s an old post online from a woman who has a 1869 letter from him to his brother Paul, which I’d love to get my hands on!). Conclusion: farmers are indeed more boring to research than convicts.








Timothy Tierney, Again

Nearly a month has gone by since my last entry about Timothy Tierney, and he’s still on my mind. Every year I let my Ancestry subscription lapse for a while until they offer me a good discount to come back. This break gives me an opportunity to look for other resources and be more creative with my research. It’s a good chance to read some books and go deeper.

You’ll remember that Timothy was my great X4 grandfather, which means that I share about 106 cM of DNA with him. It also means that he’s one of 64 of my great X4 grandparents and I’m one of his uncountable descendants. Judging from his 6 childrens’ fertility, I’m guessing there are thousands of us. He’s just one tiny knot on my family tree, yet I keep thinking about his life. Below is a graphic about a family tree to his generation.

Screen Shot 2016-08-30 at 4.36.39 PM

I’ve already done an overview of his life. This month I’d like to talk more about convict life in Australia and how he fits in with it. Much of my information about transportation to NSW comes from “Convict Society and its Enemies” by John Hirst. I was quite surprised by a lot of information in this book – I had a very different idea about what a life sentence of hard labour entailed.


Over the 50 odd years that the UK transported convicts to New South Wales, some 162,000 people were forcibly relocated. When the first boatload of convicts lifted anchor, prisons in the UK were not like what they are now – our modern notion of prison is quite different from what existed then. The death penalty was used a lot, and for relatively minor crimes. Other punishments for less severe crimes were usually limited to lashing. Prisons were squalid, chaotic places usually reserved for those awaiting trial or debtors. By the late 1700s, there were some movements to modernize the penitentiary system and standardize and codify laws. The infrastructure just wasn’t in place to house the number of convicted criminals as capital punishment for any old thing was starting to fall out of favour. Some convicts were housed on hulks, or ships, off shore on the rivers in large cities (pictured below). By day they did hard labour and by night they slept on board in cramped filthy quarters, where they shared a lot of diseases. Realizing this wasn’t a longterm solution, magistrates began sending prisoners to colonies. There was some transportation to America, but it largely ended after US independence and shifted to NSW.


It turns out the transport itself wasn’t that bad, you know, relatively speaking. In Timothy’s case it was 109 days without porting. By the time of his transport, the conditions ok – convicts weren’t usually locked up and could generally go on deck (this surprised me). The survival rates and conditions were much better than many immigrant ships of the time, especially the “coffin ships” leaving from Ireland.

I had always imagined that convicts were sent abroad and then housed in prisons where they toiled and built roads for the government in chain gangs. This is true in some cases, and there were places such as Hyde Barracks in Sydney where this happened. However, in most cases, prisoners were assigned a master. Masters were typically free settlers or ex-convicts who would take in convicts, getting labour in return for providing them with rations and basic accommodation. Usually these homesteads were quite far from major cities. Some larger homesteads would have 30 or more convicts working and living there. Masters were not allowed to punish servants, and had to report bad behaviour to the courts, and the courts would decide the course of action. If a convict absconded from his master, when he was caught he might be sentenced to lashings, or in the worst cases sent to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) or Norfolk Island, where there were brutal prisons, rife all sorts of atrocities. Luckily these places were the exception. In fact, being a convict in Australia was often more comfortable than the lives many of the convicts left behind in the UK and Ireland.


Timothy arrived in Australia with some advantages. He was a larger, strong man when compared to other convicts. Most other convicts were petty urban thieves with few skills that would help them in an agricultural society. Timothy was a political prisoner and former farm hand and shepherd, who likely knew a good day’s graft. This experience probably helped him to be selected by a master and offered a prime position on the station or farm. He wasn’t assigned until 2 years after his arrival, and it’s likely he was living in barracks (pictured below) and rocking out with the chain gang for the first while. This was typical during the time of his arrival, as word had been getting back to the UK that life in NSW wasn’t all that bad. The magistrates wanted transportation to instil fear in the hearts of would-be criminals everywhere, and made most of them toil upon arrival. Below is a picture of convict arriving.


Timothy’s master was John Elliott, who hailed from Northumberland. He had come to NSW as a blacksmith’s indentured apprentice in 1825 with his wife and 1 child. After completing his apprenticeship, he got land near the town of Maitland (below). He and his wife Martha had 12 children, who all lived to adulthood, which was a pretty big deal back then.


I’m not sure how many other convict servants were working under John Elliott, but there were others. In theory, convicts were to work from dawn to dusk with a one hour break for meals, although this was not always done in practice. Some convicts did task-based labour, meaning that they would be off the clock once their job was done. This would allow them to work for their own money. This was not technically legal by the time Timothy came to NSW, but was often the practice. In fact by 1838 Timothy was working as a constable, even though he was still a convict. He probably did this work in his off time to earn some extra money.

John is reported to have been a kind master, although he did have convicts that absconded from him (and subsequently caught and flogged). Timothy worked for John until at least 1843, when he received his Ticket-of-Leave.  A Ticket could only be granted to a lifer after a minimum of 8 years. The Ticket allowed Timothy to own land and work for himself or for money. He could also marry or invite family to join him. One of the conditions of his ticket was that he remain in a designated area, which for Timothy was in Maitland. Sometimes ticket holders would continue to work for their master, earning wages.

Ticket holders were expected to maintain good behaviour. Timothy wasn’t always great – he was charged with drunkenness on one occasion in 1850; he pled guilty and was cautioned and discharged. In 1851 he was selling some wheat he’d grown in Bolwarra on land he rented, some 20 kms from John Elliott’s place. The following year, he was granted permission to cut timber in Wollombi.

In 1852 Timothy received a conditional pardon, meaning that he was essentially free in every way except that he could not return to the UK or Ireland or hold a publican’s license.  The last record I have of him is in 1858 in Wollombi when he donated 5s to someone who’d lost their place in a fire.

Screen Shot 2016-08-31 at 7.24.36 PM.png

I have no confirmed record of him until his death at the Liverpool Asylum in 1872. I don’t know when he entered the Liverpool Asylum and those records no longer exist.

I’ve looked at the other Timothy Tierneys in NSW at the time, but can’t find any others that are the right age. There was one man 10 years older who was convicted and did 7 years, but I think he returned to Ireland after his sentence in 1833. There are also at least 3 other Timothy Tierneys who were all about 40 years younger than “mine”… One of them is amusing/tragic: he was arrested and spent time in jail for exposing his person, a few years later was found drunk and wandering the streets in rags, and eventually died from choking on meat while drunk.

Although transportation would have been difficult, in some cases it was an improvement in living standards. I don’t know if that’s the case for Timothy, but it seems he did quite well for himself in some ways. He got his ticket of leave and pardon in very good time, and more or less stayed out of trouble. However, because he didn’t have family in NSW he also didn’t have anyone to care for him in old age, which is why he (like many others) ended up in an unmarked grave outside an asylum for the poor and ill.