A Colourful Past ……………….
as written by author (retired) Neil Jillett and as appeared in the Melbourne Age
Neil has asked that we make apologies for any errors in what he had written, but nothing much has changed even with all research! Except nowdays it is quite fashionable to have "convicts" and "First Fleeters" in the closet!
There were no massed bands and choirs, no prime ministerial speeches, no visiting royalty. It was even a public holiday. Yet, for those who knew about it, it was a bi-centenary just as important as the one that 11 years ago marked the 200th anniversary of Australia's conversion into a barbarous outpost of European civilisation.
On 26 July, 1799 when the transport Hillsborough arrived in Sydney, Governor John Hunter, successor to the New South Wales settlement s founding father, Arthur Phillip, complained to the Colonial Office in London that the ship's cargo consisted of the "most miserable and wretched convicts I ever beheld". On the 280 day voyage from England, 95 of the 300 people on board had died, most of them from typhoid (jail fever brought aboard before the ship sailed). Four more died soon after landing.
Among Hillsborough's survivors was 39 year old Robert Jillett, shoemaker and thief. He had already survived one death sentence (imposed in London s Old Bailey), and - before he sired the son from whom I am descended- he was to dodge the hangman a second time.
Robert s colourful life is the sort of stuff that most people would love to find in the family tree; but for many years my branch of the Jilletts found it too colourful. This was because we have what used to be called a touch of the tarbrush, and so the family's past was hidden by silence and evasions.
My father Leslie, a journalist, brought his wife and my sister and me from New Zealand to Melbourne in 1935, the city's centenary year. Nearly 20 years later while studying history at Sydney University, I go my first glimpse of the family's history. It was in "The Sydney Gazette" report of Robert Jillett's journey by cart to the gallows on 13 April 1803. He had been sentenced to death for the theft of 77lbs (pounds) of salted pork from the government store. The weeping Jillett was attended by the Reverend Samuel Marsden, who "emphatically performed the duties of his function." Then after Robert "had been delivered over to the executioner", a reprieve was announced.
"Convulsed with unspeakable joy and gratitude, for so unexpected an extension of mercy, he fell motionless, and for some moments continued in a state of insensibility…."
Robert's partner in crime, James Hailey, a cooper, read the Bible to him during the cart ride; but this piety did him no good. He was still punished, 200 lashes.
When I showed the Gazette article to my father, he did nothing to discourage my assumption that the New Zealand branch of the family was probably begun by a miner who had crossed the Tasman Sea to join the mid-19th century gold rush in the South Island. The truth, which he must have known, at least in part, was more interesting.
It began to emerge in 1965, when my father's younger brother Douglas, who was in charge of Maori education for New Zealand, died in Auckland. As part of the tribute to him by the Maori community, Kiri Te Kanawa, then 21 sang "I know that my Redeemer liveth" at his funeral. Sixteen year later she was to have another ceremonial outburst of Handel "Let the bright seraphim" at the Charles-Diana wedding in St Paul s Cathedral, London.
Doug s son, John was surprised when his mother Phyllis told him just before the funeral that he was part-Maori. This ancestry may explain Doug s interest in Maori education, but he does not seem to have revealed it to his departmental colleagues. Phyllis confessed to John that because of the Jillett family s heritage she had nearly jilted Doug; she and her English parents imposed the strict condition that the marriage would go ahead only on condition that the Maori ancestry was never acknowledged.
As children, my cousin John and I met our paternal grandfather, John Robert Jillett (1878-1950) whose "career highlights" were running, coaching and saddle-and-harness businesses as a young man.
Although grandfather was dark, it never occurred to John and me that he was part (a quarter) Maori, but it was evident enough for Phyllis, John's mother to be horrified by it.
Although my father knew that Phyllis had broken her own undertaking by revealing the family s secret, he apparently never told our English mother. Nor did he tell my sister and me. We learnt of it from cousin John, but we never let our father and mother know that we knew."
Meanwhile, John, a marine biologist who lives in Dunedin, decided to trace the link between convict Robert and the Maori blood. As a result of his research, much of it carried out in Hobart s archives, we now know that the convict Robert Jillett was born in England about 1760. At least six different spellings of his surname are used in records, and he also had an alias, Thomas Elston.
At the Surrey Assizes in 1795, Robert, who had a wife and five children, was sentenced to seven years transportation for the theft of curtains and other bedroom furniture. Part of his sentence was to be served on a hulk moored on the coast. In 1797 he was charged with being "feloniously at large" (he had escaped before the end of his term), a capital crime. His death sentence was commuted to transportation for life.
Wives, having sometimes made big cash payment were allowed to accompany their criminal husbands on the journey to NSW. There were six or seven such women aboard "Hillsborough". Jillett's first wife was not among them, but his futures second wife, the sturdy Elizabeth Bradshaw, was. Her husband Thomas, whom she nursed through fever, survived the journey, but disappeared soon after the ship reached Sydney.
As a free person, Elizabeth could own property and be assigned convict servants. Robert who was presumably one of them skippered a small boat owned by her that traded between Sydney and the Hawkesbury River. His return to thieving temporarily interrupted Elizabeth s business career. When his death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, on Norfolk Island, she, again standing by her man, sold her property and accompanied him.
Robert, who described himself as a widower, and Elizabeth lived on the island as a man and wife, and in 1808 (in conformity with the slowly implemented policy of closing the first Norfolk Island settlement) were moved to Tasmania. There, funded by Elizabeth s property deals on Norfolk, they set up as farmers and stock-keepers. Robert was conditionally pardoned in 1814 and died in 1832. Elizabeth, who was 15 years his junior died in 1842. The couple had six children before their marriage in 1812 and four after it.
Cousin John and I are descended from Robert (1812 -1860), their last child conceived out of wedlock and the first born in it. Robert II established himself in New Zealand as a shore whaler about 1836. His timing gave ham a status in New Zealand, pre-Waitangi settler, similar to that accorded 1788 First Fleeters in Australia.
British whalers, sealers and timber-getters had been working in New Zealand since the 1790 s but it was not until Samuel Marsden (the parson who had comforted the gallow-dodging Robert Jillett) began his missionary work among Maoris that the country s potential was appreciated. Its attractions as another outpost of empire, coupled with a few bloody encounters between settlers and Maoris, led to the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi between Queen Victoria and most Maori chiefs. The treaty, usually described as the founding document of New Zealand nationhood, declared that the country was a British colony in which the native people were made British subjects, but retained rights over land and fisheries.
Robert the whaler entered a common law marriage with a Maori, Etara Ta Kaea (Sarah). They had six children.
Cousin John and I feel that the Jilletts lack only one element to make them antipodeans in every respect. It may be, John suspects, that the element is still to be uncovered. His research suggests there is an unsolved ethnic mystery to do with Robert the whaler's early manhood in Central Tasmania.
Aboriginal blood in the family! That could cause a ruckus in Tasmania where there is the biggest concentration of convict Robert's descendants.
Fifteen year ago, on his first research trip to Hobart, cousin John met a leading member of the Tasmanian Jillett clan. "We were only two minutes into our conversation", John recalls, "when he made a point of reassuring me that there were no convicts lurking in our family tree".
A great story, thanks to Sue Collins for unearthing it, so that we can share Neil's writings