There’s a veritable treasure trove of historical sources out there; census data, shipping manifests, letters, birth/death/marriage certificates, inventory accounts, last will & testaments, etc, all just waiting for someone to notice them and piece their stories together. It is, of course, natural that there’s more interest in big people and big events. However, through studying the less eventful lives of less glamorous people, we can not only uncover incredibly interesting human stories, but also learn a lot about how life was for the everyday people who made up the majority — people like us.
In order to demonstrate the process of how a historian slowly but surely pieces together a previously untold history, I’m going to tell the story of the Hird family, who migrated from England to Australia in the 1870s. I’ll be focusing mostly on William Hewitt (the father of the family) and Thomas (the eldest son). This will be complete with images of my primary sources to give you an idea of what they actually look like. Due to the nature of History, I have limited material to work with, so it’s impossible for me to present a full, objectively true account of their lives. Thus, I need to fill in the gaps and make a lot of educated guesses — and every time I do, I’ll explain why and how I did so.
Their story is fascinating on its own, but the way in which I’ve unravelled it is just as interesting. I hope you enjoy it; perhaps you’ll even develop a taste for microhistories along the way!
Who were the Hirds?
The earliest part of the Hird family’s story can be pieced together through census data. William H. Hird first appears in the English census of 1841, aged nine — thus, his birth year was likely 1832. He lived in Waddingham, Lincolnshire in central England with his father, Thomas (aged 48), his mother, Mary (43), and seven siblings, their ages ranging from eighteen to one. While William was the fourth eldest child overall, he was the eldest son.
By the time of the next census in 1851, William had moved 23 miles north to Garthorpe, near modern-day Scunthorpe. Here, he was undertaking a butcher’s apprenticeship under John Taylor, a 35-year old qualified butcher who also gave him room and board. During his time in Garthorpe, William met Hannah Cockin (also known as Ann), a woman his age. Census records from 1841/51 indicate that Hannah was a Garthorpe local who had lived there with her mother (a farmer) since childhood.
Ten years later, the census of 1861 indicates that William and Hannah had moved together to Luddington, a small town two miles southwest of Garthorpe. They had likely married there in 1856, as claimed online by one of their descendents. William worked there, predictably, as a qualified butcher. The couple likely moved to find work in this field after his apprenticeship was completed, rather than compete with his former master back in Garthorpe. The census shows that they already had three children: Thomas (4), William Jonathan (2), and John (1), all born in Luddington. They lived in communal housing, indicating that despite Thomas’ professional qualification and years of experience, times were tough.
Why did they immigrate to Victoria?
The family soon decided to immigrate to Victoria, Australia. In those times, each of the different Australian colonies employed agents who would travel through rural communities in the British Isles trying to entice people to immigrate — it’s possible that the Hirds had met one of these agents. Potential immigrants also had access to a wealth of information about destinations that were competing for migrants (including the USA and Canada), such as widely disseminated pamphlets and books; they’d almost certainly have seen of some of this material.
The trip to North America was much shorter and cheaper than the trip to Australia, and other Australian colonies such as New South Wales had assisted migration schemes that offered migrants free tickets. Yet still, the Hird family, despite having endured economic hardship in Luddington, chose instead to pay their own way and immigrate to Victoria. Why?
Well, Australia in general was advertised abroad as something of an agricultural dreamland, where any family could easily obtain their fair share of land and make an independent living for themselves. This was clearly a persuasive narrative: while only 27% of emigrants from the British Isles chose Australia as their destination, it received a whopping 82% of emigrating agricultural workers. Additionally, Victoria specifically had recently instituted a scheme called ‘land selection’, whereby settlers could rent-to-buy land from the government for relatively affordable prices. The Hirds themselves took advantage of this scheme soon after arriving.
Thus, it’s fair to assume that the Hird family, disillusioned with their fortunes in Luddington, made a conscious decision to make the move to Australia, in the hope of transitioning to a more independent, agricultural lifestyle. This is greatly supported by later evidence, as they quickly settled into their own farmland once in Victoria. Additionally, in letters sent back home in the late 1870s, they write about how much they enjoy their new lives, suggesting to their friends & family back home, who seem to have been in dire economic straits, that they make the move as well.
Immigration & early years
William migrated first, by himself. He died in 1912, and his death certificate states he had been in Australia for 49 years, so he likely arrived in 1863. He definitely didn’t return afterwards, as the 1871 census shows his family still in Luddington without him. Thus, he almost certainly went on ahead of his family to make money to send back and pay for their passage. To earn this money, he worked in the famous goldfields of Victoria, something that he mentions in the aforementioned letters. In June 1872, the rest of the family, which included two new daughters, Mary J (10) and Annie (8, probably conceived right before William left), finally joined him. They left Plymouth — some 320 miles from Luddington — for Melbourne on the clipper ship, Queen of Nations, eventually arriving after what would have been about a nine-week long voyage. They subsequently linked back up with William for the first time in nine years.
Five years later, in 1877, both William and Thomas Hird wrote letters to family in England. These letters give us a great idea of how’d they’d gotten along since arriving. At this point, William was already an established farmer with 320 acres (the maximum allowed to be selected per person) of land in Gannawarra, Northern Victoria, having taken advantage of the liberal land selection policies of the Victorian government. He had no plans to return to England, evidenced by his inclusion of an apology to his father for not coming back to care for him in his old age.
Thomas, the eldest son, had worked the previous two years with a local cheesemaking family. Now 20, he moved back home and selected some farmland of his own. The family ingeniously took advantage of land selection legislation: Thomas selected the land immediately adjacent to his father’s, effectively ensuring them a family farm that would eventually cover 640 acres (1 square mile). When the letters were written, Thomas’ own farm was fledgling, only being nine months old and covering 50 acres. To help him get established, both of his younger brothers were sent to work on his land.
There is, as you might expect from the times, less information about the women of the family. William writes that Mary J (now 15) was earning £8 per week working in Castlemaine, about 110 miles to the south. He makes no mention of exactly what she was doing, but given her age, she was probably a domestic worker living with a host family. The younger Annie was a student, while little mention is made of Hannah, aside from her sending her love to family back home and a note that she apparently still feels like a young woman at 46.
Additionally, the letters offer little insight into how they’d been assimilating into their new community, aside from a mention about Thomas’ former employers having taken a liking to him. Their lack of complaints indicate that they were doing just fine fitting in. There’s two clear reasons why they probably had few issues integrating: firstly, they were English, which meant they were already a part of the social and political majority, in contrast to immigrants from other places, especially Ireland and Germany. Secondly, they lived in a rural, sparsely populated area on vast tracts of their own fenced-in land, meaning there was a lot of separation between them and other residents. They likely could have easily gone weeks at a time without so much as seeing someone from another family.
Life goes on
Three years later, in 1881, Thomas penned a letter to someone whom he owed money. It appears that times had become tough, as he writes of his difficulties paying his rents, stating that “times are rather hard up here, and it takes a man all he knows to make ends meet.” However, his previously 50 acre holding had already reached its limit of 320 acres, bringing the family farm up to 640 acres in total. Thus, his progress had clearly been rapid up until this point.
Thomas was not alone: other land selectors in northern Victoria also suffered from poor harvests and other hardships in the late 1870s/early 1880s, and the Hirds clearly weren’t spared these difficulties. However, while others abandoned their selections as a result, later records show that both William H. and Thomas persevered through these rough years. It’s likely that optimism stemming from their highly successful initial years, combined with their preference for an agricultural lifestyle, gave them a determination that others may not have had.
From 1881 to 1895, there’s a gap in primary source material concerning the Hirds. However, by the second half of the 1880s, records indicate that the farmers who still remained in the region were prospering, and even those with more modest farms were still, at the very least, far richer than the average wage-earning, working-class family. We can surmise that the Hirds also did well during this period, and later evidence certainly supports that notion.
In 1895, the 38-year old Thomas married Rosannah Jane Hall from Adelaide, a woman 15 years his junior. Thomas had married unusually late, especially since he had been a successful farmer for at least the better part of a decade. This can be explained by gender imbalances prevalent at the time, especially in rural areas. For example, in 1891 in Castlemaine — a nearby urban area — there were 15% more men than women, and the ratio was surely worse in rural Gannawarra. That Rosannah was from Adelaide might even imply that she had travelled to marry Thomas. Whatever the reason, Thomas marrying shows that he was socially successful, as the dating game was clearly very competitive for men in northern Victoria.
Indeed, in 1896 Thomas gave a statement regarding the proposed construction of a new railway extension in the Gannawarra region that provides strong evidence of his wealth and social status. In it, Thomas notes that he had 640 acres (260 hectares or 1 square mile). This lines up perfectly with the two lots of 320 acres that we know the family held. William — who was still alive, now aged 63 — had evidently retired by this point, giving his own 320 acres to Thomas and uniting the family farm under a single official owner for the first time. Today, their land, based off area alone, would be worth about $741,000; quite a respectable sum considering their humble beginnings only 23 years earlier.
Thomas additionally states that he had sold 1,200 sheep in Melbourne the year before, and that there were another 1,240 on his farm that he raised himself, along with 500 that he’d recently bought. The Hirds thus followed the same path that many other similar farmers did during this period: they started out cultivating, then gradually swapped over to farming livestock as their wealth grew. He’d also become an important member of his community, enough that he was, as he states, chosen as the chairman of a local Trust.
Thomas died an abrupt death in 1899, aged 42, leaving everything to Rosannah in his will. He was survived by his two children, Henry and Eva, as well as his wife, his mother & father, and, it seems, all or most of his siblings. His children are first mentioned in his will, and couldn’t have been older than three or four at the time, given the date of his marriage to Rosannah and their marriage certificate not mentioning any children.
Rosannah herself died two years later in 1901, aged just 29. She’d evidently fallen on hard times since Thomas’ death, as she left behind an estate worth only £2500, half of what he‘d left her. Her will dictated that this be divided between her two children once the youngest reached 21 years of age.
Henry, however, would never make it to 21. He left high school in 1914 to enlist in the Army and fight in World War I. The next year, aged 19, he fought in the (in)famous Gallipoli campaign. He was wounded during the Second Battle of Krithia on the 8th of May, 1915, dying two days later. His only listed next of kin is his sister, indicating that they had perhaps been adopted rather than taken in by the extended family.
1912 and onwards
The story of the rest of the family can be unravelled, at least in part, thanks to William H.’s death certificate, will and probate; he died in 1912 at the ripe old age of 80, having left Gannawarra and lived out his retirement some 20 miles south in Macorna North. His death certificate shows that Thomas hadn’t been the only child he survived; while William Jonathan (53), John (51) and Mary J (50) lived on, Annie was deceased. Additionally, a sixth child, Jenny — presumably born sometime after the family’s arrival in Australia — had died as well. We also finally learn the family’s religion: Baptist.
Additionally, his will gives us some information about the women of the family. Mary J and Annie had both married into a ‘Bassingdale’ family, evidenced by each of them having that surname. Annie had at least three children: Mabel, who appears to have married a Peter Hall; George, who now lived with William H.’s son, William Jonathan, in Gannawarra; and Rose, who lived with Mary J, also still in Gannawarra. William H.’s will bequeathed his estate to Hannah Hird, his wife. However, his probate reveals that sometime in the years between the writing of his will (1905) and his death (1912), Hannah had died. Thus, it was instead divided evenly between all of his grandchildren.
William H’s estate was significant: his probate reveals that he still held personal wealth of more than £3000 ($350,000 USD today), despite having retired at least 17 years earlier and having given all of his land to Thomas. That he had so much left over even after many years of retirement indicates that he was an extremely successful farmer, possibly even more so than Thomas.
From here, one more important set of records remains: those issued following the death of William Jonathan Hird in 1924, aged 65. William’s probate reveals that like his father and brother, he too had selected land in Gannawarra. In the many years since, he’d also become a very successful farmer, leaving behind an estate worth more than £6000 ($450,000 USD today). While he was less successful than Thomas when accounting for inflation, he was nonetheless very well off.
Like his father, he was retired at the time of his death. He had married a Mary Elizabeth Hird and had four children: Thomas Hird (evidently named for his brother), Albert Hird, Rachael West, and Violet Grigg. Curiously, two of his children don’t bare his last name; probably because they were born out of wedlock. After retiring, he’d likely given his farmland to his sons, then moved to Kerang, about 13 miles to the west.
Conclusion and reflection
This is where my telling of the Hird family’s story ends. In the 61 years between William H. Hird’s initial arrival and the death of his middle son, William J., three of the four men in the family had established themselves as wealthy, upper-class farmers. It would be entirely possible to continue the story from here and trace their descendents to the present day, if one was inclined to do so.
My research does, however, have flaws. It leaves significant gaps, especially regarding the youngest son, John Hird — who may very well have been a fourth successful farmer — and lacks detail about the lives of the women of the family. I could also find no direct indication of whether/how they might have interacted with Aboriginal people, which is possibly the most egregious absence from this article. The land they selected had almost certainly been stolen from its original Indigenous inhabitants within living memory.
Nonetheless, it tells a tale of an immigrant family who came to Australia to seek not just better fortunes, but an entirely different lifestyle, succeeding unequivocally on both fronts. They left strong roots in the local community and dozens upon dozens of descendents — some of whom have even posted online seeking information about their ancestors.
I hope through reading this, you’ve perhaps learned a little bit about what intensive primary source-based research looks like and how extrapolations can often be made to fill in gaps — or, failing that, that you’ve at least been entertained! Little histories such as this one are incredibly interesting and I’m very glad to have had the opportunity to bring the story of the Hird family and their migration to you.
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