(last updated: 20 February 2021)
The Wright Family
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John Saunders, Sarah and their daughter Jane Elizabeth Wright emigrated to Australia in 1852 where John was contracted to work at Philip Russell's sheep station at Carngham in the colony of Victoria. They left London on the CLEC-appointed sailing ship, the SIR ROBERT SALE, on 18 March 1852 and arrived at Point Henry at Geelong on 5 July the same year. The ship was commanded by William Loader with William Bainbridge as Surgeon-Superintendant. It carried 92 male adult passengers, 94 female adults and 113 children (five of whom, including John and Sarah's eldest son Joseph Robert Wright, were born during the outward journey). Fourteen children and one adult died during the 95-day voyage. The ship's report showed that John was a 25 year-old agricultural labourer and Sarah a 28 year-old housekeeper. The family was said to be of the Episcopalian faith, had paid £4 10 shillings towards their passage, and were the only ones on the ship to come from Huntingdonshire. The report further noted that John and Sarah had been engaged at home, were to be employed by a 'William Russell', had no relatives in the colony, and left the employment depot at Geelong on 17 July 1852.
After journeying overland from Geelong, the family lived initially near Mount Cole (shown above in 1842) which had been named by Major Mitchell on his trek through the district in 1836. Their first home was a rough squatter's hut, made of 'wattle and daub' and located near a creek from which they drew their water. At this time much of the area was covered with virgin forests of Messmate, Blue Gum, Manna Gum, Stringy Bark and Yellow Box, and local aborigines far outnumbered the few white people living there. Family reminiscences written down in 1970 by one of John and Sarah's granddaughters, Theresa Kerr (nee Krick), provides a flavour of what life was like for the new arrivals:
The aborigines were friendly but curious. They came up to the hut to see the white baby and to gather milk thistles for their sick piccaninies. They were delighted when Sarah put a white bonnet on a piccaniny. John taught the boys to fight like white men. Sarah was terrified when she saw the gins throwing their babies into the creek. However it was only their way of teaching their children how to swim.
Carngham (a derivation of the aboriginal hunting ground they called 'Kurnam') had been named as a site for a new township in March 1852 but remained as an adjunct to Philip Russell's sheep station until around 1857 when gold was discovered near the town. According to Hugh Anderson's A History of Ripon Shire (1985: 64-5), the pre-gold rush (white) population at Carngham comprised just 459 persons, of whom 132 were children or 'scholars'. 'Of the male adults', Anderson continues, 'one third were alluvial miners ... there were three squatters and twenty-seven farmers employing respectively ten and twenty-nine labourers'. Other occupations listed by the census were those of shopkeeper (12), butcher (7), carrier (6), and wood-splitter and fencer (5). The discovery of gold resulted in the main street of Carngham becoming 'completely honey-combed with shallow holes' while in the side streets, 'weatherboard stores and shanties were going up rapidly, and a couple of hotels with some pretensions both to neatness and substantiality were being erected' (cited in Anderson, 1985: 52-3). It also brought to an abrupt end the near Arcadian atmosphere of the early settlement by attracting the notorious 'Ararat contingent'. As Hugh Anderson describes:
As December began, reports appeared of the growing number of rowdies and thieves, of tent robberies, and of the desperate characters crowding in from Ararat. The prevalence of drunkenness was also noted, with 'votaries of the bottle lounging about, and money exchanging fast for that wicked commodity'. The police detachment from Ballarat arrived on 10 December, and immediately rumours began to spread of a possible 'collision' over mining on private property (p. 53).
It seems that John Saunders Wright resisted the lure of goldmining and worked for the Scottish grazier and sheep breeder, Philip Russell for all of his life, initially as a bullock driver and carrier and then as the overseer of Russell's Carngham station (a position his oldest son, Joseph Robert Wright, would later also occupy). Carngham station had been established in 1839 by two brothers, James Dennistoun and Thomas Baillie, who had sailed from Scotland to Hobart in August 1838 and thence to Point Henry near Geelong from where they trekked northwards in search of a suitable property for grazing sheep. They settled on a 30,000-acre parcel of land located some eighteen miles west of Ballarat. There they built a four-room timber house, plus a garden and associated stables, on a hill beside a creek which came to be known as Baillie's Creek. In 1843, confronted by an ongoing drought and associated financial difficulties, the Baillie brothers were declared insolvent and Carngham station and its stock were auctioned off. The new owners were Philip Russell and his Scottish cousin Robert Simson who later built a new and much grander homestead a few miles away from Baillie's original dwelling. In 1853 Philip Russell acquired his cousin's share of the property and became the station's sole proprietor. He set about improving both the property and its sheep-breeding capabilities with some considerable success The following description of Carngham station and its surrounds around the time of Philip Russell's death in 1892 was published in Melbourne's Leader:
The northern boundary of Carngham abuts on Lake Burrumbeet, and the property then extends in a southerly and westerly direction to the low ranges which stretch away westward from Smythesdale. The site of the homestead is in the valley of Bailie's Creek, an overflow of Lake Burrumbeet and a tributary of Mount Emu Creek, which in turn flows into the Hopkins River. Bailie's Creek . . . [also] provides a splendid supply of water for stock. The homestead, which is created at a spot where the valley widens considerably occupies a remarkably pretty site, and the natural surroundings have been greatly beautified by the judicious expenditure of money. A background of hills and forest shelter the house on these sides, while from different parts of the extensive shrubbery and garden charming views are obtained of the estate. The original house, erected early in the forties, still remains as a portion of the homestead, but its unpretentious dimensions have been greatly added to, the result of the improvements being a handsome and commodious country residence. At the back are very fine brick stables, coach house, harness rooms, &c. and men's quarters [pictured in the photo on the right], in which each man has a room to himself. A short distance away is the shearing shed . . . a portion of this is an old building, but additions have been made, and the shed is now large and conveniently arranged for working, accommodation being provided for 14 shearers (21 October 1893).
Both sketches are from Phillip L. Brown, The Challicum Sketch Book, 1842-53 (NLA, Canberra 1987). The top drawing is of
Carngham Station in 1852. The second is of the view from Langi Kal Kal/Trawalla across Lake Burrumbeet towards
Mount Warrenheip and Buninyong (near Ballarat). Carngham Station is on the right-hand side of the lake.
When he first began working at Carngham, John Saunders Wright carted wool from the station to Geelong. Theresa Kerr's memoir states that during one of these trips he and his companions were held up by the bushranger Captain Moonlight. 'John handed over the tucker bag and a small amount of money. The bushranger gave it back, saying "I never rob an honest man"'. Moonlight then asked one of John's companions, Mike Woods, whether he knew who he was. Woods replied that he had never seen him before but later confided to John that he and Captain Moonlight had traveled to Australia on the same ship and that 'he would know him anywhere'. In spite of his convict origins, Woods remained a close friend of the Wright family and trusted employee who lived at Carngham station for most of his working life.
Another descendant of John and Sarah Wright, Colin King, remembers being told the same story by his grandmother, the older sister of Theresa Kerr, Vera Renfrey nee Krick, where in that version, John offered to fight the bushranger who replied "you're a brave man, go home to your wife and children". 'A few years ago', Colin tells us, 'I decided to investigate [the story] a little more deeply, and am now certain that the bushranger John encountered was not Captain Moonlight, but Captain Melville'. He continues that Melville (real name Frank McCallum)
...gained notoriety when he and his accomplice Bill Roberts engaged in a spree of robberies, bailing up travellers on the Ballarat-Geelong road just prior to Christmas 1852. Their career came to an end when they were discovered in a brothel in Geelong on Christmas Eve. Interestingly, in the Russell family papers at the State Library of Victoria, I found a ledger entry stating that they were sending a driver to Geelong, on or around Christmas Eve 1852 ... [Unlike Moonlight who was said to have had a vicious temper and sometimes beat his victims] Melville is reported to have been the epitome of a "gentleman bushranger" ... someone whose character seems more in keeping with the family legend than that of Moonlight.
Colin adds that 'the version of the legend told by my grandmother also says that John's hair turned white after the encounter'. His grandmother also claimed that she and her siblings were taught by Walter Curnow, the man who turned in the Kelly gang. 'Apparently he used to tell them what a terrible man Kelly was. In their turn, it must be said, my grandmother maintained that the teacher was a horrible man.' In a subsequent addendum to the story, Colin informs us, that Moonlight was not an ex-convict whereas Melville was. While it seems Woods and Melville were not transported together, as the former suggested, they may both have been tried and convicted in Perth in Scotland and possibly served time together in Van Diemen's Land.
Family folklore also claims that John was at Ballarat at the time of the Eureka uprising (indeed his wagon was said to have been used by the miners as part of their stockade). He also is said to have ridden to Ballarat in 1860 to witness the departure of Burke and Wills on their ill-fated inland expedition. The story goes on to say that when he returned to the station John discovered one of the property's prized rams, valued at 4000 guineas, was missing. 'Black trackers were called to help with the search, but the ram was never found'. One of the trackers was 'King Billy' of the Mount Emu tribe, 'a faithful friend who died in 1912, the last of his tribe'.
While at Carngham John and Sarah (pictured in the photo on the left which was taken around 1887) had eleven children of their own and fostered three additional children, Helen Woods, Clem Daniels and Thomas Wilshire. According to Theresa Kerr, in the early days when her babies were due, 'Sarah would walk to Beaufort to be with the white women. Her first white friend, Mrs McKenzie, lived five miles away at Morchip'. Their older children 'were taught their lessons by Miss Douglas who received 1/- a week for her service. Mrs Hamilton, who taught [John and Sarah's youngest daughter] Julia received 1/6d per week'.
In 1865 John and Sarah bought a block of land near Carngham station and the family settled there the same year. Theresa Kerr's memoirs state that John built a house on the land and 'grew elderberry trees from which they made ink and wine. These trees are still standing today' (the block and remains of their house are shown in the photo on the right). He was also said to have built the Carngham Post Office and store for his daughter Sarah Ann. Wherever they lived, John and Sarah 'were well known for their kind hospitality. A meal and a shakedown (a bed in the shed) were always offered to anyone in need. One beggar always asked for [and was given] a pennyworth of bread and a pennyworth of tea. He was also given clothing. When he died he was found to be a wealthy man'.
John Saunders Wright senior died on 25 November 1888 of sanguineous apoplexy and was buried in the Carngham cemetery. The inscription on his tombstone, erected by his wife Sarah, reads:
'A light is from our household gone,
A voice we loved is still
A place is vacant at our hearth
Which never can be filled.'
John bequeathed the whole of his 'real and personal estate' to his 'dear wife Sarah'. His will showed that at the time of his death, he owned two blocks of land: a 1.6-acre block which was surrounded by a post and rail log fence and on which was located a six-room weatherboard cottage and a number of outbuildings, and a similarly fenced 22-acre block on which there were no buildings. The two blocks were together worth a total of £420 and contained personal property that was valued at £220. According to Theresa Kerr when John and Sarah's son, Joseph (pictured on the right with his mother in around 1909), 'was promoted to overseer at the station, he exchanged John's selection for a block of land on the Carngham road. The family home was shifted to this block. Joseph built a cottage for his mother in the valley below the Post Office'.
Sarah Wright nee Bodger died on 25 Jan 1910, aged 81 years. She was buried next to her husband in the Carngham cemetery. The Ripon Shire Advocate published the following notice on 29 Jan 1910:
'The death occurred at Beaufort on Tuesday of Mrs Sarah Wright, aged 81 years, an old and respected resident of Carngham and mother of Mr Charles Wright, Snr and Mrs A. Cheeseman of Beaufort. The cause of the death was senile decay. The deceased's husband ... came out to Australia under engagement of Mr Russell of Carngham estate. He and his wife resided in Carngham for 58 years. She had a family of 11, all of whom are living, and leaves 70 grandchildren and 25 great grandchildren ... The coffin was borne by Messrs Chas Wright, Snr, Wm Wright and Jas Wright (sons of the dec); the pall being carried by Messrs Thomas Wright, F. Cheeseman, Chas Wright, jun, P. Wright, Geo Wright (grandsons) and F. Haggis (g. grandson).'
John Saunders Wright and his wife Sarah had eleven children between 1849 and 1871. As we have seen, the first of these, Jane Elizabeth Wright, was born in England and the second, Joseph Robert Wright, en route to Australia. Their third child, James Henry Wright, was born at Batesford near Geelong. Their remaining eight children were all born at Carngham. Remarkably for the times and circumstances, all eleven survived childhood. All also married and had children of their own, providing their parents with at least 68 grandchildren.
Click here to read about their lives, times and families.
'First station and huts, Mount Cole & the Pyrenees in the distance, October 1842', watercolour by D. E. Cooper 1813-1904, courtesy National Library of Australia.
'Men's quarters at Carngham Station', from Hugh Anderson, The Flowers of the Field: A History of Ripon Shire (Melbourne: Hill of Content Publishing Company, 1969).
Sarah Wright (nee Bodger) and son Joseph Robert Wright c1909, private collection.
John Saunders and Sarah Wright nee Bodger and the Wright's block of land, courtesy of Helen Bretherton.
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