Shadows of family history: Strikes on the waterfront, gold rushin, freed slaves, revolution & still as yet unmarked graves

I didn’t do any thesis writing today but thought of and searched for information about my Mum’s family history instead.

I am staying with one of my older brothers in his now-hometown of Kyneton (Victoria) at the moment, which also happens to be the final resting place of the late John “black” Byng, who is one of my Mum’s more colourful and enigmatic ancestors. The sad thing is, there is no way of knowing where exactly, his grave might be.

I know a great deal about my paternal family ~ Dad’s family. My siblings and many cousins and I were lucky enough to grow up Dad’s folks ever-present and ever loving. Indeed, much of our childhood was spent on their wheat and sheep farm in Kojonup, S.W. Australia.

I’ve blogged about Kojonup previously (in brief), here. I’ve blogged about my dear late Poppa (Dad’s Dad), here.

In contrast, however, I know very little about my maternal family ~ about Mum’s family. This is partly because Mum et.al. are from New Zealand and also, in part, because her folks were relatively quite old when they started their family together.

This being so, Mum was only nineteen when her Dad, Eric Purchas Anthony, died of a stroke. And I was only a one-year-old when Mum’s Mum, Kathleen May Anthony (nee Bilbrough), died of cancer.

Mum’s Mum, (Nanna Kathleen May) was a nurse in Christchurch. Mum’s Dad (Papa Purchas as I’ve retroactively decided to call him), was a waterfront worker in Lyttelton, NZ. From the little I know about him I like to think that Papa Purchas and I had a certain few things in common. I know, for instance, that he fought alongside his fellow workers as part of the now historical waterfront dispute of 1951.

It’s difficult to know much more about him because Nanna Kathleen May literally burnt everything and anything that reminded her of him after he passed away (out of grief no doubt) gumurr djararrk.

It seems also though, as my Mum recalls, that Nanna Kathleenwas more than a little nervous about her husband’s dark skin (or at least the potential of her children having dark skin also). She would insist, as Mum recalls, that Mum and her two siblings cover and hide their skin from the sun at all times in case they ‘tan’ ~ lest someone ‘mistake’ them as somehow derived from ‘dark’ heritage.

Papa Purchas

See, Pappa Purchas Anthony was a descendant of the late John Byng ~ the aforementioned late John Byng whose unmarked grave lies right here someplace here in Kyneton Victoria.

Said Mr. John Byng was well known “pioneering figure” around Mt. Gambier, South Australia, where he established the very first business in region – a Hotel where those folks who were chasing gold could stop, drink, stay & rest a while.

There are a number of historical documents from the time that refer to John Byng as a strikingly handsome “thick set, black man” who rode through town on “a beautiful white steed” etc. etc. However patronising these descriptions may be, he must certainly have had some kind of social spark and skill about him to have become such successful business owner and public personality during such racist period in Australia’s settler-colonial history.

Not only did Byng enjoy success and social standing in Mt Gambier but he also established one of the first Hotels here in Kyneton. He and his then-wife ‘Mary Ann Byng (nee Wallace), established what was then known as ‘The Gold Diggers Arms’ here in Piper St Kyneton, which still stands today as the ‘Royal George Hotel.’

Despite the fact that John Byng and Mary Anne had nine children and an (apparently) successful business, however, both were laid to rest in unmarked graves, which is both sad and difficult to account for (in terms of historical documentation).

Thomas signed-off as a 'free-man' in 'The Book of Negroes'

It is even still saddening for someone like me so many generations removed to think that John & Mary Anne lay right here some place alone (except in each others company) in unmarked graves.

Surely they both deserve, at the least, a nod of “marηgi ga dharaηan ηilimurru, marrkap’, yo, ma.” Balanyara-wu.

John Byng, I should note, skipping back briefly one generation before I end this post – was the son of a certain Thomas Byng (alt. ‘Bing’), a Black Loyalist and freed slave from South Carolina who joined and fought alongside the British in the American War of Independence (1775–1783). Thomas was apparently promised his freedom along with 50 acres of land in Halifax, Nova Scotia by the British forces. After the war was over he was granted a mere one single acre. No wonder his son John Byng set sail to make a life for himself across the sea o’er this way.

To end this note on a contemporary n’ lighter note, I found the following video clip on Youtube. It is a clip of the young ‘De-Railed Theatre Collective’ rehearsing a scene and song about the conditions that the Black Loyalists were faced with when they moved to Nova Scotia.

34 Comments

Filed under Current social issues, Incidental

34 responses to “Shadows of family history: Strikes on the waterfront, gold rushin, freed slaves, revolution & still as yet unmarked graves

  1. Ralph

    Cool story, like many others in this hybrid nation run by stinking white people

    • Paula

      I see..”stinking white people”…what a “colorful” term. I being a descendant of “Black Bing” am..white..but do not hold such silly regard for colour as you do.

  2. damselfly58

    john byng is also my relative. 4 or 5 x great grandfather. lost count.🙂

  3. How lovely! I’m glad that you stumbled across the post. I am in Kyneton for another day or two and will make one more visit to the old section of the cemetery to see if I can find anything of interest. I will write another post if I do.

    Warm Regards

  4. I should clarify that John Byng and Mary-Anne did have quite dignified funerals according to the newspapers of the day. Apparently John’s funeral was delayed in order to wait for the right ‘feather plumes’ to arrive from Melbourne.

    The problem with identifying their graves arose because the cemetery was not gazetted until years after they were buried. Further, the headstones in the ‘old section’ of the cemetery (on the right as you drive in at the bottom of the hill) are so weather worn that most are unidentifiable.

  5. Nici

    Dear distant cousin, I had an email exchange with Prof Cassandra Pybus, who is researching the Australian end of the African diaspora, just before Christmas. She said she thought John Byng was one of the rare Canadian convicts transported to Australia but didn’t have the details on her. I should chase her up. There was a Canadian uprising in the mid-1830s and the rebels were transported to Australia. They got quite short sentences. But I have not found John Byng’s name on the transport lists. Nici

    • Dear Nici,

      Thank you for your comment and the tip-off regarding the Canadian uprising. I did not know of such an historical incident but it may very well be consistent with Thomas Byng and comrades having been diddled out of the land that was promised to them after the war.

      I would dearly love to hear any further information you find.

      Kind regards, B.

  6. Laurie Lindsay

    Hi Bree
    I was about to take a drive to Kyneton to look for the grave, however, I will not bother. You can get a copy of their wills and probates at http://210.8.122.120/indexes/index_search.asp?searchid=54

    • Fantastic! Thank you so kindly for the link – what a beautiful old document. Thank you!!

      I am glad you did not make the unnecessary trip to Kyneton. I am beginning to wonder, given there are so many descendants of Byng and Mary-Anne seeking to learn more about about them, whether it might be possible to petition the local council in Kyneton to undertake a thorough search for their respective graves. I would love to see some form of memorial plaque/headstone made for them some time in the future if we can all organise ourselves.

      • Laurie Lindsay

        Bree,
        There are about 20 of our relatives in Australia, New Zealand and the USA interested in Thomas and John Byng and their history. I have a pile of emails that have have flown back and forth over the past 12 months. I am quite happy to pass them on to you with attachments.
        My email address is avionics@alphalink.com.au

  7. Glottal stop

    Paula’s comment and actually all the comments to this ‘page’ of Bree’s blog are interesting. I bet Paula lives in a place where “race” is not an issue.l would bet that Paula’s greatest cross cultural issues are whether to get a single or double latte. It is easy to make ideological stands when you are not involved in them. Doesn’t it interest you Paula that 20 years ago you couldn’t talk about these things? Or does the fact that today we can now make you some kind of hero? It’s interesting that the most comments that I’ve seen on ever seen on this blog are in regards to Bree’s ancestry, yeap you’re all realated to a black guy. Get over and do something for black people. .

  8. Ursula

    My husband came in from cleaning out the shed today and told me he had found some family tree information which places John Byng as his grand mothers grand father (great-great grandfather?). It would be great to share info.

  9. Wow, how lovely! Are you within or outside Australia? (There is now a Byng/Bing family history page on Facebook I’ve been told, too!)

    • Ursula

      Australia .. SW Victoria

    • Kristina Purvis

      Hi Janis we both have Louisa as our gt grandmother i am from the Purvis family in Wanganui . Have visited her grave a few times. Sure do want to know more about the family. Tina Purvis
      Hi Bree as you can see above i to have a link to John Byng. Have you learnt any more about him lately Tina Purvis

      • Pat Wright

        My Great grandmother was one of John Byng’s daughters (Jane Ann Byng) In the early 1990’s just by accident we discovered my (and my sister’s) relationship with “Black Byng”. My husband Barry, my sister and and I researched as much as we could about the family, finding a lot about John, his family and his father Thomas Byng. Finally in 2010 Barry and I went to Canada (Digby, Nova Scotia, John’s birth place) and to Halifax. We also visited South Carolina in the US. We did this to try and verify some of our “knowledge” and heresay. We verified quite a bit of information but have still to compile it all to make sense of it. We discovered some more information and most interestingly we found out was that John had had a family in Nova Scotia ( a wife and five children). We had had some inkling that there was more to the story as we knew a baby girl named Jane Ann Byng had died in Digby some time before John came to Australia. John left his wife and other children behind in Canada when he came to Australia. Never to return. We all have relatives in Nova Scotia. We actually met up with one of John Byng’s (Canadian) daughters ancestors. It was very emotional. We met many relatives some very dark and some not. We did not find out why or how John Byng came to Australia. My Great Grandma, Jane Ann Byng married a Thomas Crowle and had 14 children. My grandma being one of them. Jane Ann and Thomas took over John Byng’s pub in Kyneton. I promise when we finally compile all our resources, (factual and other) we will notify all the Byng relatives. Fond regards from another Byng cousin. Pat Wright
        PS: You have a lot of information that is correct.

  10. Wendy Jarvis

    Hi, not sure if this thread is still active but I am also a descent of John Byng. My Grandmother was a Byng, her father was Isacc Byng, not sure if he was son or grandson of John Byng. Why they used the same names generation after generation makes it hard to follow sometimes. Years ago my great aunty received letters from a relative in New Zealand and I have copies of the documents somewhere here at home. My father said that they were always told that their grandfather was a ‘south seas islander’ and that was why there was some colour and curly hair in the family. One great aunty who was very fair never told her husband the family history and when their daughter was born and looked very dark at birth my poor aunty was quite worried. It all seems a little strange now.

    • Ursula

      Glottal stop, Having a black ancestor is less about chest beating or rooftop crowing but of recognising that there were problems to overcome that related to Black Byng’s skin colour. Personally I’m loving the story and am excited to hear a story of overcoming in a harsh time of pioneering. And it’s all the more real and relatable because of the personal family link. There was no welfare nor were there political activist zealots. Black Byng overcame and was a rocking success. It’s a story to inspire! Carrying on about helping black people now is such a useless and irrelevant argument in this blog. As long as black skin colour is raised as an issue by people like you it will remain as an issue. Let’s focus on celebrating achievements and ignore skin colour as deserving of special treatment. Black Byng was an overcomer at a time when skin colour mattered. My “doing something” for black people today will be to ignore their being black as the sole reason to treat them any differently from my neighbour. I owe “black people” nothing but the same respect I give everyone else for their own personal story. Go find someone else’s soapbox to cry “black-foul” from.

      Bree. How much more were you able to find out? If you’re interested I could scan what my husband found in the shed and send it to you? btw how much do you know about Digby (SW Victoria) and it’s relationship to Black Byng? He was born in Digby, Nova Scotia so we suspect he named the community Digby such when he was the first registered publican of the Hotel that still stands there.

      u h l i g i t e – p o s t [at] y a h o o [dot] c o m
      (you’ll need to remove all the spaces and symbolise the words in square brackets in order to send)

      • Nici

        Wow Ursula. That’s big news. I’m also a 6x great granddaughter of John Byng. I’m writing a book about him and his place in early Melbourne and Western District society. I would love to see your stuff from the shed. I’ll send you an email. cheers Nici

    • Grant Tenni

      Hi Wendy, My aunt Joan Crowle would like to get in touch with you as she has been doing heaps of research on the Byng Family tree for years. Years ago she contacted a woman who was also a descendant of Isaac. Possibly his daughter Louisa. She provided lots of scraps of information that don’t mean a lot to Joan, but may mean more to you.
      Joan can be contacted on 9350 2073 or you could write to her at 11 Davern St Pascoe South Vale VIC 3044. (No email for Joan unfortunately LOL)
      As may be obvious, we are descended from Thomas Crowle.

      Please feel welcome to contact myself.
      Thank you Grant Tenni

  11. Nici

    Hi Ursula, I’m keen to get in contact with you but I can’t make your email address work, even with the spaces removed and symbols inserted.
    Re Digby: the Digby Hotel is in Melbourne. It’s now called the Coopers Inn and is still standing on the corner of Exhibition and Little Lonsdale streets.
    I find the Digby, western Victoria connection really interesting because the Byngs were in the area in the late 1840s. They nearly opened a pub in Coleraine but ended up in Mt Gambier instead. Hope to hear from you soon.
    nicolejlindsay@gmail.com

    • Grant Tenni

      Hi Nicole,
      Would love to hear more of your information regarding your book. Joan Crowle would also love to hear from you in case she may be able to add some further information to your data
      Grant Tenni

  12. JAnis GArrett

    I too am related to John byng. My great great ma was a daughter of
    John byng .Her grave isin the WAnganui cemetery .She went to New
    Zealand to gold mine at Greymouth. She married first as a Copley,
    then as a DIggle,and finally as a Purvis. Would love to connect with
    Family who have more info.

  13. Scarlett Anthony

    Dear cousin🙂
    I found this amazing seeing as dad isn’t to great with details!
    Please keep me informed with all you have found🙂

  14. Caral

    John Byng’s daughter Louisa is my Gt Grandmother. I still live in Wanganui and am following this blog with interest as keen to learn more about this side of the family.I am descended from Louisa’s third marriage to George Purvis and my mother was Pat Martin (nee Purvis).

    • Gail

      Hi Caral
      Are you on Laurie’s email list? I am coming to NZ on a cruise in March 2015. Perhaps we could get together.
      Gail Milton

      • Caral

        Yes Laurie has been in touch. Where is your cruise docking. We are closer to Wellington 2 1/2 hrs than Auckland 6 hrs away. Great that there is so much interest in the family tree.

        Caral

    • Gail

      It is the Sea Princess. Leaving Brisbane on 4 March. I will have to get the itinerary. You are quite a way away though.
      Gail

  15. Gail

    I am guessing there will always be prejudice as long as people keep referring to it. Most of our family have only known about John Byng for a short while. We were told as children that a great great grandmother came from Mauritius. I don’t think they were lying, maybe they did not know. We have many ancestors from many parts of the world, but we are all fascinated with our Negro heritage and I would love to know more about what tribe and where in Africa or even maybe Mauritius, Thomas’s family haled from. My guess would be that they did not go willingly to America. I am from the Goldie arm of the family.

  16. gary crowle

    i have a feeling i may have history heregrandson of alfred crowle also jane anne byng i think is my grandfathers relations plse let me know i am garry crowle son of joe —mabel and alfred crowle

    • Laurie Lindsay

      Hi Gary,
      I am the great grandson of Ann Crowle, third child of Thomas Crowle and Jane Ann Byng. I have a pile of emails regarding the history of our family. I will provide them if you can send me your email. My email address is avionics@alphalink.com.au

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