Can’t see the Woods for the … Woods – The search for one Henry Woods

Mount Wellington standing sentinel over Hobart

I took my first steps into family research about fifteen years ago when I inherited my father’s papers. He had only made intermittent attempts to trace his family history so all I found was a small collection of letters and certificates along with a very basic family tree. I also discovered that Dad had committed the genealogical sin of ignoring the female lines.

Bridget Branagan Merrick (1861-1942)

The male lines (Merrick and Reader) were traced back to their arrival in Australia and the names of mothers and wives included but no research into their families. In the case of Dad’s great-grandmother Margaret Horigan/Horgan (1836-1924) the wife of Isaac Merrick (1826-1904), the only note he had written about her was ‘Brother James Horigan, Lieutenant RN visited Hobart – Flying Squadron’. While this would later be useful in identifying Margaret’s parents, it would have been good to have something remembered of the woman herself. With both his grandmothers, Dad had written their parents names and little more. This is excusable in relation to his paternal grandmother, Bridget Branagan (1861-1942) as there was some deliberate obfuscation by other family members that I have only managed to partially unravel through the use of DNA matches.

Elizabeth Woods Reader (1881-1947)

Dad had written a large question mark beside his maternal grandmother, Elizabeth Woods. Although there were names for Elizabeth’s parents, Henry Woods and Sarah Ellen Thompson, there were no dates or certificates. There was a certificate for Elizabeth’s marriage to Edward Charles Reader on 25 Sep 1898 at Chalmers Church Hobart with Elizabeth’s father named as Henry Woods, a surveyor.[1] Her mother, one of the witnesses to the marriage, had signed the register with an X. Her name was written as Sarah Ellen Thompson but the Thompson had been scratched out and Doran written after it. It seemed straightforward – she had married twice.

While I knew I would need to recheck all of Dad’s research, I thought Elizabeth Woods would be as good a person as any to begin with. I sent off for her birth certificate and the certificates for her mother’s two marriages and immediately hit a wall. There was no marriage for a Sarah Ellen Thompson[2] to a Henry Woods. On her marriage in 1891 to American seaman, James Augustus Doran, she had described herself as a spinster. It got worse, there was no birth registered for an Elizabeth Woods in on 27 August 1881, my great-grandmother’s birthday. A child was born to Sarah Ellen Thompson on that date, registered as Elizabeth Thompson, no father named.

Among Dad’s papers was a letter written by his mother Myrtle (Reader) Merrick in 1964. In this she stated that her grandfather was an Englishman called Henry Woods. This information must have been passed down from Sarah Ellen via Elizabeth. Henry had clearly gone from Sarah Ellen’s life by 1886 when she gave birth to her first child by James Doran and was calling herself Mrs Doran.

When I visited Hobart in 2009 to meet Dad’s two remaining sisters, photos of all sorts were brought out. There among them were two 19th century photographs – these, I was told, were my grandmother’s grandparents. I recognized them, from my research so far, as being that of Henry Woods, ‘the Old Man of the Mountain’ and his wife[3]. My aunts also said that ‘Grandfather Woods’ ran a ‘teahouse’ on Mt Wellington. I must admit, I was a bit sceptical; I had in mind Dad’s statement that his mother claimed to be related to anyone who had the same surname (I am slowly coming to the view that, if we go back far enough, that just might be true). Still, when I got home I found what I could on Henry Woods of Mt Wellington. He was born in England around 1803 and lived at the Springs on Mount Wellington from around 1860 to his death in 1882. He kept the paths and waterways clear and acted as a guide to day-trippers on their way to the pinnacle and he and his wife provided them with refreshments and, occasionally, basic accommodation. He would have been 78 when my great-grandmother, Elizabeth was born. The woman in the photograph, who was supposed to be Sarah Ellen, looked to be quite old too – Sarah Ellen was 23 when Elizabeth was born.

At the Springs, Mount Wellington c.1880
Jane and Henry Woods to left of door with Sarah Ellen Thompson (1858-1910) on far left.
Sarah Ellen is holding her daughter Jane Woods(1879-1915) on her lap.

Myrtle had named an aunt Jennie and while I could find no birth registered for a Jennie Woods or Thompson, there was one in 1879 for a Jane Woods who had been born at the Springs on Mount Wellington, the daughter of Sarah Ellen ‘Thomson’ and ‘Henry Woods the younger’. That, at least, put paid to niggling thoughts that Henry Woods might have been a fiction created to give respectability to Elizabeth’s illegitimate birth.

The National Library of Australia was in the early stages of digitizing historical newspapers and a number of issues of the Hobart Mercury had been added. Without much hope of success, I searched the names ‘Sarah Ellen Thompson’ and ‘Henry Woods’ together. To my delight a series of articles appeared for the years 1881 and 1882. They were only in preview form so I had to wait almost a week until I had a day off work to take myself to the State Library of Victoria which holds the Mercury on microfilm. And there it was in all its scandalous glory – court appearances for maintenance of illegitimate children, as well as a nasty domestic altercation at the Springs in January 1882. It appeared that Elizabeth Woods’ father was the son of the Old Man of the Mountain and he had come to Tasmania around 1878 leaving a wife behind elsewhere. When his wife turned up several years later, Sarah Ellen, pregnant with Elizabeth, was ejected from her home of two and a half years at the Springs. She then successfully pursued Henry the younger through the courts for maintenance of his illegitimate children. When he failed to pay, she again resorted to the courts and he was imprisoned at the Campbell Street Gaol. Thanks to the Gravesites of Tasmania site, which includes information from the gatebook of the Campbell Street Gaol, I discovered that Henry the younger was 47 years-old, a labourer, Protestant, with no prior convictions and literate[4]. He had arrived in Tasmania on the SS Southern Cross.

The Mercury provided a wealth of information about the life of the elder Henry Woods at the Springs but apart from the maintenance case, there seemed to be no other information on Henry Woods the younger, either in the newspapers or in other Tasmanian records. The next best approach seemed to be to determine exactly who the older Henry Woods was. Using my last resort of a google search I discovered the Springs Interim Conservation Policy Draft 2006 which revealed that in 1859, when Henry applied for the land at the Springs he had been ‘resident in Vauxhall Gully and a tenant of Mr McRobie and Mr Cooley’[5]. At this point I had discovered the Rootsweb AUS-Tas mailing list and posed my first question regarding the location McRobie’s Gully. I was told that this was at the base of Mt Wellington. Also I received an email from Irene Schaffer, one of Tasmania’s most respected family historians and researchers. Although Irene had no information on Henry the elder’s origins, she was able to provide me with a great deal of information on his life at the Springs. Contact with Irene spurred me to sort thoroughly the list I had made of prospective candidates for my Henry Wood/s – over thirty men, in the main part convicts. She was also a valuable sounding board for my theories and questions.

After working my way diligently through my list of Henrys, I though my most likely candidate to be Henry Woods transported on the Champion from Western Australia in 1845. He was a shingle splitter and fencer from Fremantle. Born in Cheltenham, England in 1803, he had originally been transported to New South Wales in 1822 on the Shipley(4). Although his family was respectable, Henry had, at the age of sixteen, been sentenced to a year’s imprisonment at Bristol Gaol and to be trice whipped for a number of thefts. He was not long out of prison when he was again arrested for theft and this time sentenced to seven years transportation. After completing his sentence in New South Wales, Henry arrived at Swan River on 15 January 1830 on board the Leda. (He was a Swan River pioneer – the colony having been settled only six months earlier.) He married sixteen-year-old Elizabeth Robinson of Manchester later that year and, by 1841, they had four children. Henry was convicted of burglary in 1845 and sentenced to transportation to Van Diemen’s Land for seven years. Elizabeth and their two youngest children went with him, leaving behind eleven-year-old Henry and thirteen-year-old Sarah Emma. Once the authorities in Hobart realized that Henry was a recidivist, his sentence was increased to ten years. Elizabeth did not stay in Hobart and by 1849 she and her younger children were living in Sydney.[6] There was nothing to indicate what had become of Henry after he received his Ticket of Leave. There were similarities between the sons called Henry of both Henry Woods (Champion) and Henry Woods (the Springs) including their age and the name of their wives (Eliza). But that was not enough. I had the beginning of one story and the end of another but did not know if they were the same story. I had to find a way of conclusively linking the two.

It was at this point that I found a reference on the Tasmanian Archives site to an Alphabetical Register of Male Ticket of Leave Holders, showing Places of Residence[7]. Unable to look at this myself, I requested that the Resource Centre at Port Arthur look at it to see if Henry Woods (Champion) was listed there. They were able to tell me that Henry Woods had resided with a person called Cooley at Cascades. A check of the general index at the library had also revealed that Horace Cooley resided at Cascade Road. That was getting near to Mt Wellington but it was not the conclusive proof I had hoped for. That came in an article in the Launceston Examiner, written with entertainment in mind as much as reportage, which described the domestic dispute at the Springs. This stated that Henry, the son of the Old Man of the Mountain had come from Western Australia.[8] So the two parts of the jigsaw clicked into place.

Launceston Examiner 24 Feb 1882 p.3, c6

Since then further bits and pieces have come to light some which have provided more information about Henry Woods the elder’s life and others that confirm the story.

Following the death of Henry Woods the younger’s sister, Sarah Emma Poland,[9] in Perth on 25 May 1910, her photograph and that of her father were published in Perth’s Sunday Times under the title ‘Two Old Pioneers’.[10] The photograph of Henry is a cropped version of the photograph I was shown by my aunts on my visit to Hobart in 2009. It seems that both Henry the younger and Sarah Ellen had a copy of this photograph. I have wondered if photographs were also taken of Henry the younger and Sarah Ellen as a couple at this time – if they were, they have not survived.[11] Henry and his wife, Eliza, returned to Western Australia in 1883 and ran a fruit shop and confectioners in Murray Street, Perth until Henry’s death in 1908.

So this was my introduction to family research and it was an excellent one because of the lessons learnt – never ever take anything at face value, never discount anything without investigating it first, leave no piece of evidence unturned, if something doesn’t make sense look at it sideways, gratefully accept the advice of more experienced researchers and persist until you have the truth, no matter how long it takes.

My father, ‘Alan’ Merrick (1929-2001)

And, interestingly, it is Elizabeth Woods’ line that I have been able to trace back the furthermost through her paternal great-grandmother to an Ann Salt born at Tatenhill, Staffordshire in 1681. Female forbears are not to be ignored.
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©Catherine Anne Merrick.
Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Catherine Anne Merrick and https://catherinemeyrick.com/ with appropriate and specific direction and links to the original content.

This post is an expanded version of an article published in Tasmanian Ancestry June 2013, vol.34 no.1 pp.9-12. ‘Who is this Henry Woods? The search for Henry Woods, father (1803–1882) and son (1834–1908)’
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[1] The registration of the birth of Elizabeth’s elder sister Jane was completed by Henry Woods ‘the younger’ who described himself as a sawyer. Perhaps, over time, ‘sawyer’ was transformed into ‘surveyor’.
[ 2] Daughter of William Thompson and Elizabeth Miller/Millar born 15 Sep 1858 in Hobart. William Thompson is the subject of the book The Career of William Thompson, Convict PAHSMA, 2009
[3] Henry’s wife was Jane McCurrie (1820-1882), a convict from Glasgow per the Sea Queen in 1846. They married in Hobart in 1853, Henry availing himself of the poor man’s divorce of absence and distance. Authorities seemed to take little notice of this, having more pressing matters to attend to.
[4] I doubt Henry’s claim to literacy was tested. Although he signed the register at the time of his marriage to Eliza Hines in 1865 with an X, he may have been able to read.
[5] LSD 1/32/496 Lands and Surveys Department (pc)
[6] POL354/1/1
[7] I suspect that Henry and Elizabeth expected that Henry would be able to get himself assigned to Elizabeth after his initial period of probation and they would be able to live as a family. This would usually have been six months but once the authorities realized that Henry was a recidivist, his sentence was increased to ten years and his probation period increased to two years at Port Arthur. Elizabeth was clearly ill-prepared for life in chilly Hobart after the warmth of Perth. They arrived in Hobart in August (winter) and by October Elizabeth was described as living in a single room with no furniture or bedding, and very little clothing, surviving on charity. She fell ill and was admitted to the Colonial Hospital. She petitioned the Lieutenant Governor for permission for her daughters to be admitted to the Queen’s Orphan School so that she would be free to find work. Permission as not finally granted until March 1846. For whatever reason, she did not take the offer up. I suspect she left Hobart for Sydney before the winter of 1846 set in. In 1849 she married a John Nelson, using the same form of ‘divorce’ as her husband Henry did in 1853.
[8] Launceston Examiner Friday 24 Feb 1882 p.3, c.6
[9] Sarah Emma Woods married Thomas Strang Poland at Perth on 21 May 1846
[10] Sunday Times Sunday 19 Jun 1910 p.6S. Sarah Emma is incorrectly labelled ‘Mrs Henry Woods’.
[11] I have been unable to locate any photographs of either Sarah Ellen Thompson or Henry Woods the younger. There are photographs of a young couple who are described as Henry’s children in the Allport Collection of the Tasmanian State Library but I have been unable to identify them. The young man is far too young to be Henry the younger and the inscription on the back is written by someone who was clearly not a member of the family. There are no baptisms recorded or births registered for children of Henry the elder and his second wife Jane.
I suspect copies of photographs of Elizabeth Woods’ father existed up until her death in 1947. Family stories are that she kept the ‘family secrets’ in a suitcase under her bed. When she died, her second husband, having no fond feeling for the children of her first marriage, burnt the lot.

8 thoughts on “Can’t see the Woods for the … Woods – The search for one Henry Woods

  1. I find it fascinating. Unfortunately, some European countries are not so rewarding with genealogy research. Information which cannot be remembered by a grandparent or grand aunt is lost and most of it cannot be retraced. Documents burnt in too many wars and revolutions, not much is on computer…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, it can be difficult depending on where you are searching. The Family Search site run by the Latter day Saints is putting up increasing numbers of European records these days though.
      I have found that even family stories are not always accurate. They can be out by a generation or something done by one person is ascribed to a sibling or a cousin.
      We do have problems with Irish records as well. The penal laws enacted by the British government in the late 17th century forbade the keeping of sacramental registers, so most Irish Catholic parish registers don’t begin until around 1830. And then during the Irish Civil War there was a fire at the Public records office that destroyed all the 19th century censuses.
      And then there are some forebears who just want to keep their secrets to themselves.

      Liked by 1 person

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