Saturday, 7 September 2013

A Question of Truth - William Kerswell and Hannah Maria Rymes

When looking into your family history, have you ever found something that has made you furious? Something so audacious or brazen or just wrong, done by an ancestor, that made you want to reach through history and give that person a good slap? Last week I was visited by just such a feeling.

We grew up knowing that my third great grandfather had abandoned his family in Australia and gone to America. My grandmother had always said he was a Mormon, but that was about all I knew as a child. In my teens I found out a little more of the story, and then in the last ten years I got the full story, partly from Owen Pearce's "Rabbit Hot Rabbit Cold" and partly from research. Last week another piece dropped into my lap.

First, the story so far, and a photo of the culprit, William Kerswell (1827-1916)
William Kerswell, from the Hunting Bagley Collection, digital image from L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University
I wish I had a better photo of his wife, Hannah Maria Rymes, my third great grandmother, but that's the way of it.
Hannah Maria Rymes from Rabbit Hot Rabbit Cold by Owen Pearce
William and Maria were from Devon. Both had become members of the LDS Church while in England. William could read and write, Maria could not. The couple married in August 1848, then in March the following year made their way to Australia aboard the Florentia, landing in Adelaide on 20 June 1849. During the voyage their first child, Elizabeth, was born. The family lived in Norwood, South Australia, where William worked as a brickmaker and three more children were born - George, William and Hannah. Both parents continued in the LDS Church. After about eight years William decided that the family would move to New South Wales to seek greener pastures. They did the sensible thing and travelled to Melbourne, with plans to continue up the coast to Sydney. The land between Adelaide and Sydney is particularly challenging, even now. I have done that trip in a car - twice. We stripped a tire the second time and were stranded all day in the baking heat. Never again. I can't imagine it with a horse and cart.

In Melbourne things went badly wrong. The family split over an argument. Owen Pearce was told that William was asked by members of the local LDS Church if he would take his family to Utah. He said yes, but when he told Maria she flatly refused. They had a huge fight and William went anyway, leaving his wife and four young children behind. The date is unclear, but going by other records this would have been some time in 1857.

Maria and the children continued on to New South Wales. By February of 1858 they were in the Burragorang Valley, where Maria gave birth to her fifth child, a boy named Heber1. Maria worked in Camden and in Burragorang, doing what she could. She worked for a while as a housekeeper to Joseph Folden, unitl his early death. Members of the LDS Church helped out, with the Mannerings of Goulburn taking in George and seeing to his schooling. Each child obtained work as soon as possible to contribute to the family's survival. Heber died in 1871. 

So what happened to William? He sailed first to England (Owen Pearce was told he stowed away in a barrel - this is unlikely) and from there to the US, leaving Liverpool aboard the Empire on19 February 1858, bound for New York2. On the 1860 US Census he was living in Springville, Utah with his new wife Sarah (ni Garlick), her three sons from previous marriages and her mother. He owned a farm valued at $100 and had a personal estate valued at $1503

In 1866 he served in the Indian Wars for 42 days (or at least there are three sworn affidavits to that effect from 19104).

In 1877 William travelled back to England where he visited his family and Maria's. He also on this trip copied a letter written from Maria to her mother after William's disappearance. He travelled back to America aboard the steamship Wisconsin, leaving Liverpool on 19 September, 18775.

Between 1860 and 1876 William and Sarah had seven children, four boys and three girls. All these children attended school and could read and write. He had a difficult relationship with his stepsons. A letter from one of them, John Albert Strong, transcribed in “Rabbit Hot Rabbit Cold”, is very acrimonious and outlines a number of serious grievances the boys had against their stepfather6.

Meanwhile, back in Australia, Maria and the elder Kerswell children managed as best they could. The children married and had families of their own. Maria lived with Elizabeth and her husband, George Pearce. Then, in 1894, more than thirty five years after William's departure, a letter arrived out of the blue from Mapleton, Utah. This must have been something of a shock. It certainly caused waves. Over the next few years there was a strong flow of correspondence between Utah and New South Wales, with Maria's children and grandchildren reading her the letters and writing her replies. William claimed, amongst other things, to have left Australia because of “important business”7. He also wrote that he had given up hope of ever seeing his family again, that he had thought them lost in a shipwreck, but also that he had been in contact with Maria's family (in 1877) when he had copied her letter (but not thought to write to her?). He outlined all the things he had – land and livestock and interest in a mine. After about 18 months of writing William finally told them he had a second wife and family. All this and then he asked Maria to consent to be sealed to him so that they could be husband and wife in eternity. It was carried out by proxy.

In most of the letters William expressed his dislike for Australia and exhorted his Australian family to sell up and move to Utah. According to Owen Pearce and others, this caused divisions within the family. William Jnr's wife, Margaret (ni Maxwell), left him for a while until he came to his senses. George Pearce demanded Elizabeth make a definite decision and then inform her father, which she did (she chose to stay in Australia). Her branch of the family took firmly against the LDS Church (members of the local branch had been asked by William to stick in their oar, which was not well received - although I doubt he told them the full and unvarnished truth). My mother remembers Elizabeth's daughter Hannah and her husband George Shoobridge being fiercely opposed to any visits from Mormons. I understand this reaction, but personally I think it was misdirected. That William was a Mormon merely dictated where he went, it didn't dictate that he went. That, I think, would have happened regardless.

When William Jnr's wife died as a result of complications in childbirth, he determined to take his children to Utah and see how things would go. His two eldest children, both boys, flatly refused, but William, his four daughters and his mother, Maria, set sail aboard the Mariposa, landing in San Francisco on 25 May, 1903. They made their way to Provo, but William Snr did not meet them, nor arrange for them to be met, which I always thought was strange.

Then last week, as a result of a Legacy Webinar, I was made aware of the Harold B. Lee Digital Collection on the Brigham Young University website. I searched “Kerswell”, hoping to find out some more about William Jnr's four daughters, who made their life in the US and never returned home to Australia. Well, I did find some things pertaining to them, but I also found a newspaper article, which I have transcribed below. As you read it, bear in mind the actual course of events as outlined above.

Happy Ending to a Sad Story.
Were Separated by Fate for More Than Forty Years.
Reunion Brought About by Meeting of Father and Son at Mormon Conference.
Seventy-six and seventy-five years were the respective ages of a bride and groom who took train for their future home at Springville a few days ago. Not until after their departure from Salt Lake did the romance of their marriage come to light. It then transpired that William Kerswell, the groom, had led the same woman, then a blooming girl, to the altar nearly half a century before. She became the mother of his four children; they listened to the strange teachings of the Mormon elders and were won over to the new faith; together they started for the holy city of the West. It was then that fate forced them apart – a separation lasting for thirty-seven years and which ended with their remarriage in Salt Lake. Fiction affords no stranger histories than theirs.
Were Married in England
William Kerswell and his wife lived for the first two years of their married life in England, after which they sailed to the northern part of Australia. Here they lived for eight years with their little family of four children, two boys and two girls. About this time they were converted by missionaries to the Mormon religion, and became at once possessed with the desire to make Zion their home. To this end they saved, and were finally able to make the trip down to Melbourne, from which place they were to take ship for America. What was their sorrow to find that they were too late for the vessel on which they wished to embark! They could only stand in a huddled group on the wharf, the children crying miserably as they clung to their mother's skirts, and watch the vessel fade away to a speck on the horizon.
Somehow, in the unaccustomed rush and excitement of the city, the little family became separated from the father, and the mother, with her four little ones, found herself hedged on every side by strangers to whom she felt she could make no appeal.
Sought Husband in Vain.
She made her way through the crowd vainly trying to find her husband, but the quest was useless, and, with her children, she seated herself where she thought he might most easily find her. Here the little group waited until darkness fell, the little ones beginning to sob and cling to their mother, whose heart beat with even wilder fear then their own, but without anticipation of the pitiful fate which had even then overtaken her.
For, while she had been seeking her husband, another ship had arrived. He had previously purchased their tickets. When the ship was about to depart, and he could not see his little family on the wharf, he concluded that the mother had taken them aboard, and hurried upon the vessel. When he discovered his error he was frantic with grief, and being a simple countryman, supposed that he might easily go ashore, but this was impossible, and the next land upon which he set foot was America.
Son Comes to Zion.
It is needless to picture the heartsickness and grief of the desolate woman in a strange city. It never came into her mind that her husband might have taken the outgoing ship. She gave him up for dead or a deserter, but she never ceased to love him.
A volume might be written concerning her struggles for the existence of herself and children. It is enough to say that the brave woman succeeded, and about forty years after the fateful night when the family found themselves deserted on the wharf at Melbourne, seemingly doomed never to reach the loved Zion, the woman's son set sail with his own young family for Utah, where he made his home in Provo three years ago. The mother remained in Australia.
A Remarkable Meeting.
The most remarkable part of the story comes at this point. The son, being a Mormon, was attending conference in the tabernacle at Provo one Sunday, when he heard the name of “William Kerswell” called from the speakers' rostrum. Turning at once to see who might bear the family name, the son came face to face with his father, whom he had not seen for thirty-six years. After a few words, father and son recognized each other and were overjoyed at the reunion.
Then the old man explained how he had tried to reach his family by letters, and, having failed in this, without money to return to Australia, he had given them up in despair. Some years after he married again and by this marriage had several children. His wife was now dead.
Sent for His Aged Wife.
When the situation was understood, the old man communicated with his former wife in Melbourne. Finding that she still loved him after all these years of uncertainty, the old man and his son set to work to save enough money to bring her out to Utah. The old couple wanted to be married again, and last Wednesday this event took place after a delay of one day which the old lady took very much to heart.
When the ceremony was actually performed, reuniting the husband and wife, it was the old man who shed tears of joy, while both old figures trembled with the stress of their feelings.
From the Salt Lake Tribune, 31 August, 1904, page 108.

I have little doubt that the information for this article was supplied by William, possibly as a letter to a journalist. That it is full of lies built on kernels of truth is obvious enough. Some may have been as a result of confusion by the journalist (exacerbated by poor knowledge of Australian geography), but the level of detail goes beyond that, points to inside information. There is a subtle air of blame over Maria's reported actions on the Melbourne wharf. That the couple converted in England is rewritten so that the drive to head for Utah is readily understood as newly converted zeal. William's supposed impoverishment in Utah is belied by US Census returns, which repeatedly show him with property and assets, and by his trip to England. If he was so desparate to find his family, why didn't he go to Australia instead, or, failing that, ask Maria's family where she was, or write to her after he copied her letter?

I do wonder if Sarah ever found out that she was supposedly dead when William Jnr arrived.  And as to that arrival, without his mother, and the VERY public reunion in the Tabernacle in Provo, suddenly William Snr's lack of a welcome to the Australian party made sense to me. William Jnr seems always to have been the one most wanting to meet his father again, and the one most likely to be gracious and warm at such a meeting. So William Snr made sure that that first meeting was where everyone could see, where he could get material for his own spin on things. If the journalist went asking, he would be told of a surprise meeting in the tabernacle, where father and son warmly embraced. Why muddy the waters with the truth, or the knowledge of lengthy correspondence? And why diminish William's heroism in the matter by making it clear that he had not paid a cent for Maria's passage, that the money had instead come from William Jnr selling all he had?

Remember, Maria couldn't read. She would be relying on others to read the paper to her. William Jnr had settled in Provo, while Maria and William, along with Sarah, were living in Springville. Once they had "taken train", Maria would be at William's mercy in regard to what parts of the paper were read to her, if that particular issue of the Tribune happened to make its way to their home.

It is an arch piece of propaganda, but totally in keeping with what I and others have found that reveals William's character. Owen Pearce tried to find something good to say about William, but I find myself unable to be so gracious. He seems always to have put himself above his family and to arrange life to suit his own needs. And that article really irritates and angers me. William tried to make sure that there was a public record of his own version of the truth, where he was painted as a pitiable yet noble figure. Annoyingly, he has probably succeeded. He got his article in the premier newspaper of his state, and now it is digitised, increasing its life span. The real truth is out there, but is in bits and pieces, needing to be pulled together. This blog post is an attempt to do that in a small way, but its life span will not be the same as the Tribune article.

1 Wesleyan records, Camden, NSW BDM V18586010 121C/1858

2 James Lovett Bunting (MS, Provo, Utah, 1857-1877), p. 214; digital images, Brigham Young University, "Overland Trails Diaries," (accessed 4 Sep 2013).

3 1860 U.S. census, Utah, Utah, population schedule, Springville, p. 270, dwelling 2409, family 1894, William Kerswell; digital images, FamilySearch (; citing National Archives and Records Administration microfilm M653, roll M653.

4 "Indian War Affidavits," database and images, Utah Sate Digital Archives ( : accessed 24 Oct 2012); Affidavit of William Kerswell in 1910.

5 "The Emigration: List of Passengers per Steamer "Wisconsin"," Deseret News, 10 Oct 1877, p. 16, col. 1-2; digital images, BYU Harold B. Lee Library Digital Collections ( : accessed 17 Aug 2013), Deseret News Collection.

6 Owen W. Pearce, Rabbit Hot, Rabbit Cold: Chronicles of a Vanishing Australian Community (Woden, ACT, Australia: Popinjay Publications, 1991), pp465-466

7 Letter from William Kerswell to Maria Kerswell, 23 Feb 1896, Mapleton, Utah, cited in Owen W. Pearce, Rabbit Hot, Rabbit Cold: Chronicles of a Vanishing Australian Community (Woden, ACT, Australia: Popinjay Publications, 1991), p 454

8 "Old Folks are Wedded Again," Salt Lake Tribune, 31 August 1904, p. 10, col. 3; digital images, Utah Digital Newspapers (http:// : accessed 17 Aug 2013).

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