52 Ancestors Wk4 – Eliza Johnston

Eliza Johnston his my great great grandmother and the first of her line to immigrate to Australia. I was sent a photo of her recently and it was the first time I had seen her face. It is not one that I know well and she doesn’t appear to resemble anyone close to me. All this picture indicates is that her life was hard. She is wearing a dress with no form or shape – a sack. Her hair is pulled back into a bun. There is no smile of her face and she looks stoic – not worn out but ready to get on with whatever is next. She stands beside her husband Robert and it is difficult to decide what type of people they are from the picture.

Eliza was born in 1870 in Greenhill, Lanarkshire, Scotland, to her Irish parents, Charles and Mary Ann Johnston. I think they may have been Ulster Scots. It seems likely given their religion and their place of birth – Antrim. I do not know if the family was transplanted to Ireland under Cromwell and it is one of my aims to determine this.

My understanding is that Greenhill is a village within the parish of Shotts.

Thanks to the Scotland’s People website I have found the record of Eliza’s birth. From this I confirmed that her mother’s maiden name was Brown and her father, Charles, an Iron Miner. Eliza (or Elizabeth) was the eighth child of nine. (Note that I am only aware of children who I can find records for. No doubt both Eliza and Mary Ann lost children whose names we may never know.)

In the 1871 census the family are living at 20 Greenhill in Shotts and Charles is listed as an Ironstone Miner. Eliza was ten months old. Her brothers, Alexander (15), Charles (13), and Thomas (10) were also Ironstone Miners. Brother Hugh (8) was at school while the three youngest William (4), Mary Ann (2) and Eliza were at home.

In 1881, the family are living at 26 Greenhill Village and Charles Snr and his sons are working as miners (except Hugh who is a labourer) at the coal mine. Elizabeth and her younger brother, John, are at school. Eliza’s sister, Mary Ann had died in 1877 of tabes mesenterica (tuberculosis of the lymph glands in the abdomen) which is caused by drinking the milk of cows infected with tuberculosis. It appears to be a wasting disease. Mary Ann suffered for five months before she died at the age of 9.

In December 1885, Eliza emigrated to Australia. She was 15 and travelling (as far as I can gather) alone. She is listed as a domestic servant travelling on the Plymouth. (It is interesting to note that you were considered an adult from the age of 12.) Eliza is listed as an assisted immigrant who was Presbyterian and could read and write. Eliza’s brothers, Hugh and Thomas, had arrived in April 1885. I assume Eliza met up with them when she arrived. Her father, Charles, also emigrated as he is recorded in the 1891 census in Greta.

In March 1887, Eliza married Robert Snedden, a miner from Carnbrae, Lanarkshire. They had eleven children: James (b 1887), Janet (b 1888), Mary Ann (b 1889), John (b 1891), Elizabeth (b 1894), Agnes (my great grandmother; b 1896), Christina (b 1898), Esther (b 1902), Charles (b 1906), Alexander (b 1910) and Margaret (b 1913).  Their daughter, Elizabeth died at the age of 18 from lysol poisoning. Her story is here.

The family lived in the Hunter Valley, primarily around Greta. I suspect that they moved when required for work. Robert appears in the 1891 census living in Hunter St, Greta. I am told that Eliza ran are boarding house in Greta.

By 1931, Eliza and Robert are living in the Rocks in Sydney. Eliza owned a shop at Susannah’s Place. I am am curious to know why they moved away from the Hunter Valley to Sydney. Susannah’s Place is now a museum.  The museum webpage has photos of the the house that they lived at.

It is difficult for me to feel affection for Eliza as I had (and received) little affection for her daughter, Agnes, who died when I was 11. However, she has always intrigued me.  As I type this, flicking back and forth between this screen and the photo, I realise that there is a look in Robert’s face that reminds me of my great grandmother, their daughter. I suspect that some of my memories of her may reflect Eliza and Robert’s personalities, however dimly. Agnes was not a warm woman. I suspect that her parents were practical and hard working with little room for sentiment or emotion.

Eliza’s life was unquestionably difficult. The circumstances of a miner’s daughter living in Lanarkshire during the nineteenth century were brutal and full of hardship. It is no wonder that at the age of 15 she opted to travel south to Plymouth and voyage across the world to join her brother’s in the hopes of a better life.

Yet that life would still have been difficult. She was married at 17 and by the time of her 20th birthday Australia was in the grips of a depression. She suffered not only the loss of her sister when she was 7 but one of her daughter’s committed suicide when she was 18. Her husband lost his leg (I am sure I have the details somewhere but can not find them) and mining disasters were common in the community in which they lived. Another depression in the 1930’s when she was running her own business in Sydney …. times were tough.

No wonder there was little room for sentiment.

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One Response to 52 Ancestors Wk4 – Eliza Johnston

  1. Pingback: 52 Ancestors: Week 4 Recap | No Story Too Small

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