Sisters' reunion at the goldfields

The story my grandmother told me:  The two Rochester sisters met again on the Ovens goldfields after many years apart.  The chain is a fine gold lady's watch chain made from a nugget found by the Griffiths at the Ovens and given to Elizabeth to have the chain made.  The chain is shown above with a gold bracelet for comparison.

It is only recently that the chain, which I remembered my grandmother telling me about as a teenager, fell into my hands.   It was the chain that set me off sifting through the known facts about Susan and Elizabeth Rochester and investigating them further.  We have already traced the Griffiths to the Ovens goldfields and the Hitchmans as newly weds most likely at Oaklands Junction on the Deep Creek.

Disappointingly, the Hitchmans, perhaps due to illiteracy, did not register the four known children they had in Victoria, but my grandmother told me that her father James, the eldest child, was born at Donnybrook in 1854.  The descendants of their third child, Elizabeth, had also heard Donnybrook as a birthplace for the daughter Elizabeth, about 1858.   The fourth child Anne was stated on her death certificate to have been born in Wangaratta,  circa 1862-63.  She died aged five at Wool Shed Farm, Gobbombalin in 1868, the details being verified by her father.

Donnybrook is about twenty kilometres north of Oaklands Junction, along the Sydney Road.   A cluster of businesses had grown up around a permanent water hole known as Rocky Water Holes near  the Sydney Road, including two inns, a post office, watchhouse, flourmill, coaching depot and accommodation houses.  Small mixed and dairy farms were nearby and provided more opportunities for work. (See Historic Views of the City of Whittlesea by Robert Wuchatsch and Gwen Hawke, Whittlesea Historical Society, 1988). The locality may also have included the area of Mickleham on the western side of Sydney Road.  In 1874 the name of the town was changed to Kalkallo.

The Town of Donnybrook Parish of Kalkallo County of Bourke [cartographic material] / Robt. Mason Assist. Survr.; lithographed by R. Meikle, 1855.  Courtesy of the State Library of Victoria Collection.


In October 1861 James Hitchman was charged with being drunk in charge of a team by Constable Jones of Moonee Ponds.  When he appeared at the Flemington Police Court on 21 October 1861, James was fined five shillings by local JP, Patrick Phelan.  Phelan had lost his seat in the Victorian Legislative Assembly just the year before.

Presumably James was just passing through Flemington or Moonee Ponds  with a load, after possibly stopping off for a quenching ale at the Flemington Inn, but it is some indication that he was still in the vicinity of Melbourne in 1861.  By 1863 the family had moved on to Wangaratta where a daughter Anne was born.  The Register for Births and Deaths is missing for the period, so we don't know any further details about their stay in Wangaratta. Thank you Jenny Coates for the information regarding the missing births and deaths in Wangaratta.

Leaving Donnybrook via the Sydney Road (now the Hume Highway), Wangaratta was on the way to their final destination in the vicinity of Wagga Wagga. Phil Sheather, a relative in Wagga Wagga, NSW, tells the story that the Hitchmans were accompanied part of the way north by Ellen and John (Red) Kelly, the parents of Ned Kelly.  

We don't know if they intended Wagga as their final destination when they first left Donnybrook, and we can't be sure just when they left Donnybrook.  The previous child to Anne was born at Donnybrook circa 1858, and Anne in Wangaratta in 1863.   The background to this movement north may have involved the dwindling of readily available alluvial gold in Victoria and the associated recession in the economy, with a peak in the number of bankruptcies occurring in 1862.  The through traffic from Melbourne to the goldfields in the north declined significantly, and the goods and services that a town like Donnybrook would provide to that traffic would have also declined.   The Hitchman departure may have occurred in response to loss of work.  It is interesting that they headed north at this time rather than return to Melbourne, but James' acquisition of a 50 acre conditional purchase farm at Malebo, near Wagga, in 1866 might indicate that the couple had a plan for their future.

Whether they spent any time at Wangaratta, or were resting there while awaiting the birth of their child I don't know.   We do know that the Griffiths were still in Beechworth in 1863, but had returned to Melbourne by 1865.  It would seem therefore that the fabled meeting of the sisters on the goldfields after many years' separation most likely occurred in Beechworth around 1863.  From Wangaratta, Beechworth was not overly far out of the way, with another route through to Albury north of the town, though the road may not have been as good.

The Sydney Hotel, formerly known as the Hope Inn, Wangaratta, 1868. Courtesy of  Museum Victoria, MM 6080. 
The story of the gold chain made from a nugget found on the Ovens goldfield hangs on whether or not the chain is made from gold.   This was a question recently resolved by calling in at a jeweller's in Moonee Ponds, Micheli Eurogold, and discovering that in fact the chain was machine made and gold plated.

Any number of explanations might be put forward - that the gift of gold was sufficient only to purchase a gold plated chain; that the original gold chain is in other hands in the family; that the original gold chain was sold in times of hardship (and there would have been many of those).  Whatever the case, I am prepared to believe that the lady's watch chain does represent a joyful meeting of the sisters in the northern goldfields after many years' separation.  The value is in the associations attached to the chain. (Even though my sister told me to cash it in if the chain was real gold!  There's sisters for you.)

It is indeed the case that all that glisters is not gold.

Elizabeth and Susan Rochester of Chipstead, Surrey, daughters of a labourer, would have had few enough opportunities had they remained in England, most likely becoming the wives of labourers, if they could find a husband.  By accepting the challenges of migration to a very strange and different land, among strangers, Elizabeth became a farmers' wife and with her husband James Hitchman, helped to populate the inland areas of the Riverina. Susan, on the other hand, cast her lot with a musician with gold fever, who took her at first to the northern Victorian goldfields of the Ovens River, and then a suburban life in the growing city of Melbourne.  Both lives involved hard work to sustain themselves and their families, but also offered opportunities.  The two young girls from Surrey proved to be resilient pioneers in their own way. Neither of them became particularly wealthy, but they became the mistress in their own homes, which may not have been the case had they stayed at Chipstead.

Thank you to Phil Sheather of Wagga Wagga for helping with some birth and death details for this story.

Comments