Friday, October 23, 2015

"My Grandmother, Elizabeth" by Enid Dennis

"My Grandmother, Elizabeth”
By Enid M.Dennis

A Centenary Tribute in ”This Australia” 1987/1988
(I have added photos to illustrate the story)

On an English summer day, 18 August 1887, a young girl set sail alone from the Port of London to make a voyage to developing, Utopian Australia.  Matrimony was to be the goal upon arrival.

On this day Elizabeth Saunders was twenty six years of age, a gentle very mature girl.  She was the eldest of a family of six girls and one son, people accustomed to farm life.  The mother was a fine homemaker; the father, a shepherd to a wealthy land owner near the village of Simpson in Buckinghamshire.

Elizabeth had considerable rapport with her father and, in childhood, had often accompanied him to the market towns of Bow Brickhill, Fenny Stratford and Banbury. One day as they walked the lanes together the father swept an arm in a wide arc towards the green fields and exclaimed “See there Lizzie, all that was once Saunders owned; it was lost in bad times”.  This was a life time regret.  The little girl remembered it also and in later years recollections kept coming to the fore.

Elizabeth went to the Anglican Church School until she was twelve and became proficient in reading, writing, arithmetic and lace making.  The vicar was also schoolmaster; his pupils were expected to set an example of good manners and truthfulness.  Elizabeth loved to sing.  She loved to attend the village Church.  Many Saunders nameplates were attached to the walls of the quaint little Simpson Church, also at Polsgrove nearby.  Some bore names dating back to 1600 when the Tudor English language was written in strange lettering.

In her thirteenth year it was arranged that Elizabeth should live on week days with the family of a nearby farm.  Mr. and Mrs. Garrett had three almost grown sons and a daughter had recently died.  Elizabeth was good company for Mrs. Garrett.  Here she learned the art of cooking and keeping house, of milking and the management of a large dairy.  Butter, cream and cheese was churned every day.  There was poultry and game to dress, pickles and jams to set, bacon to be cured, hop beer and parsnip wine to brew and seal in black bottles, the corks securely tied down with strong twine.  Elizabeth shared the many tasks.  She observed and remembered and enjoyed her work.

"Caldecotte" Garrett's farm house at Bow Brickhill where Elizabeth Saunders worked from 13 - 19 years

Gradually, over four years, a different love came into her life.  The rosy glow of young friendship and fun with Jim Garrett, the youngest son, grew into a full mature adoration.  Secretly they promised marriage, one with the other, when Elizabeth reached her eighteenth year.  But youthful ardour is difficult to conceal.  Mrs. Garrett had plans of her own for all three of her fine boys. Her design for Jim did not include the quiet little girl from the village.  Elizabeth was sent home to her family.  Broken hearted she begged her parents to permit her to work elsewhere.

From this experience and its acquired capabilities she went into service in several magnificent old mansions over the next eight years, each resulting in advancement of ability and status.  She secured a choice position as cook to Lord and Lady Duncombe of Great Brickhill Manor, once again near home. The names of Duncombe and Saunders appear entwined in marriage and business ventures through the centuries.  A coincidence?  It was not but that is another story.

Yet another promotion took her to Oxendon in Northamptonshire, the adjoining county and a meeting with Harry Edward Wells.  Harry was enamoured with this slip of a girl from the “Big House”, who came also to the village Church.  His introduction was a gift of red roses.  Harry was twenty none and had spent all his adult life in the service of the British Railways. He also enjoyed his work but he dreamt too, idealistically, of faraway places.  Letters came to his home from cousins in Melbourne, Australia.

One day Harry broached the subject of marriage, laced also with an exciting adventure.  He had accepted his distant cousin’s proposal to enter their Melbourne millinery factory as a third partner.  It meant a sever year term overseas and could only bring success financially.  Elizabeth accepted, at first with some trepidation, then to a marriage in Australia when her enthusiastic suitor settled into new employment and accommodation.  One Saunders girl had married and had gone to South Africa; now another was to leave for the antipodes.

Elizabeth followed six months after the departure of her man, travelling in the new steamship “Liguria”, incredibly small by present day standards, and house in its very bowels so it seemed.  The voyage took two months through Suez and the jollity of calm shipboard life walked hand in hand with violent storms and days spent in the agony of seasickness.

Elizabeth Saunders sailed on SS "Liguria" from England to Australia in 1887.

The following are two extracts from her diary:
(Quote) 24 September 1887.  We first saw the land of Australia at Cape Leewin like rocks dimly seen in the far distance of the port side.
25 September 1887.  I could have enjoyed another week or two on board for I have this week felt well.  I had more than four weeks of seasickness like many more.  We had just got the better of it.  After an enjoyable concert in the first class saloon we went on deck.  The moon was shining brightly, the air very cold.  I walked down the deck several times then went to bed looking forward to a letter from Harry in the morning” (Unquote).

Adelaide was the first port of call following the long Indian Ocean span. Here a letter was delivered to her by the Purser and Elizabeth read it with incredulity.  The prosperous millinery firm it seemed was little more than a myth and the  business faced insolvency.  In desperation Harry had sought and found employment elsewhere within a field which he knew so well.  The Tasmanian Railways were being developed through the Emu Bay Company to the north and west from Launceston along the Bass Strait coastline.

“It could be hard, dear Lizzie” Harry wrote “Nothing of it will be like the comforts we knew back home, but I will never fail you.  Sometime, when things get easier for us again, we will return.  I promise that if it is your wish.  I am a signalman at a place called Formby (now Devonport).  It’s very small but beautiful.  I have rooms with a pleasant landlady who will help you I know.  We will live very close to the Mersey River and I cross it every day by rowboat to reach the Railway yards.  I am sorry that you must wait three weeks in Melbourne, for there is an epidemic of small pox in North Tasmania.  My cousin, Mary, will meet you at the Port of Williamstown and you must stay with her until I send for you”.

The young love which had bought these two people together across the world and now somewhat in adversity culminated in their marriage at St.John’s Anglican Church, Launceston, on 8th November 1887.  That afternoon Harry took his bride proudly back to Formby.  Theirs was a true affection which grew stronger with the years. It weathered many hardships in strange places.  Challenge is the essence of good workmanship in whatever field it is found; it was wide open for the young Wells couple.

St.John's Church Launceston where Harry Wells and Elizabeth Saunders married on 8 November 1887

Elizabeth cooked and kept house as nearly as she had been accustomed to doing but with the rude implements at hand, an open hob-fire, camp oven, kerosene cans, oil lamps and candles.  Later, as two little girls joined the family she sewed and mended with all the joy of motherhood, using a Wertheim hand machine which had accompanied her on the voyage.  In their nineth year of marriage a son was born.  There had already been three moves, to Leith, Campbell Town and St.Marys, each a promotion.  Harry was now Station Master at this North-East mountain township of St.Marys, with a railway house provided.  The Station-house was somewhat isolated from the rest of the homes.  Quite often swagmen and women also, of gypsy lifestyle, would free ride on the country goods trains, only to be discovered at this terminius.  Harry frequently sent these rejects of humanity to the Station-house for a meal before hustling them on their way.  The two little girls would watch in wide-eyed wonderment from the safety of the kitchen doorway.

There was no longer talk of the seven year promise.  Both husband and wife were far too aware of the precious security of employment.  They were a happy unit, an Australian family.

Beatrice, Winifred and Gladstone Wells in St Marys, Tasmania in 1898
As noisy rejoicing and fireworks heralded the Boer War’s relief of Mafeking in May 1900, the Wells family were busy moving again, this time to the Bass Strait seaside town of Ulverstone; another home, another school and friends, another Church in which to worship.  Every year, at Christmas, there were special treats, something extra to care for and treasure all the coming year.  Every Christmas season also, gifts of money were sent to the ageing Grandparents at Simpson and Oxendon to share their bounty and to show that God had seen fit to prosper the family well. Over the years many hundreds of letters were exchanged.

Wells family at Ulverstone, Tasmania 1904
In 1905 Harry Wells was appointed Station Master at Zeehan, the third largest town in the island and at the height of the great mining boom of the West Coast.  The area was rich in silver, lead and tin; the town of 10,000 inhabitants was entirely involved in some way with the prosperity of the mines or supporting those who did.  With vast deposits of gold and copper also at Queenstown there was continuous movement of rolling stock, passengers and freighters to and from the many mines in the mountains.  Zeehan Station-house stood on a rise overlooking Peasoup Creek with a wide vista of the town and valley.  It is still there today, in good condition, weathering the lashings of rain forest storms.  The busy mother taught her now grown daughters to cook and sew as she had done.  They had lessons in piano, violin and painting.  The boy was progressing well at school.

Harry Wells with Gladstone at the Station Master's house Zeehan in 1906
A final move came in 1912 with promotion to the top, Station Master at Hobart.  This included a lovely attic style house in an old world garden; promise of a lengthy stay, superannuation, and maybe, on retirement, a holiday overseas to meet once again the loved ones who, for almost forty years, had been linked only by sea mail.

Harry Wells appointed Station Master at Hobart, Tasmania 1912 until retirement in 1924

Harry and Elizabeth Wells (seated) on their 25th wedding anniversary 8 November 1912  Standing are Beatrice & Leslie Macdougall, Gladstone Wells, Arthur & Winifred Tregear

Elizabeth Wells 55 years taken 20 July 1917

With their family married, Elizabeth and Harry turned to extensive reading, lectures at the nearby University and their beloved gardening.  Harry’s retirement came in 1924 at sixty five years.  He and Elizabeth had purchased two new travel bags, suitable clothing, and every weekend they visited the great ships in the port, in a search for good value travel-wise. At last a choice was made; it would be the next trip around.  Then Elizabeth, wise in the ways of home economy, began to doubt.  It would mean returning to a rented house and possible illness in old age.  Was this right when a small freehold home could be purchased immediately, owning their very own portion of Australia? Also the loved parents in England had all died.  Once again security and its privileges won and the holiday voyage was cancelled.

On the outskirts of the city at Glenorchy, with fine views of the magnificent mountains and Derwent River, the couple bought a neat bungalow home with sufficient depth of land to start the market garden they both lived to love and enjoy.

Macdougall family visit Harry and Elizabeth Wells 1926 in their retirement home at 8 Grove Road, Glenorchy, Tasmania

Harry and Elizabeth Wells at home in retirement

“See there, Chum” Harry exclaimed one morning from the rear verandah and just as his father-in-law had done so very long ago, “That’s OUR field, but it’s all to your credit.  Without your careful thinking and work it could never have been”.

It proved to be a clear and prudent choice.  By the late 1920’s and early 1930’s vast changes were springing into life.  There was continuous talk of frightening price rises, rumours of economic failures and unemployment, a depressant gloom unknown before in our good, green land.  It was even more so in Britain, Europe and America.

Strictly honest and generous Harry Wells lived to reach his seventy sixth year.  Elizabeth, still shy, still clinging all her life to the sombre black gowns and white high-laced collars of the past, went to live with her younger daughter also in Hobart until her own gentle death in 1950 at the age of eighty eight years.  Before Glaucoma claimed her eyesight, she returned to a fascinating interest of her girlhood.  She sent to England a request for a set of wooden bobbins, patterns and cottons and made herself a hard straw-stuffed pillow.  On this she wove many many yards (metres) of fine handkerchief lace, gifts now held by her descendants with pride.

Elizabeth Wells doing her ribbon lace work 12 February 1940

Elizabeth Wells was not one of the many Australians who will go down in history as a memorable public figure, a Caroline Chisholm, Mary Reibey, Daisy Bates or Lady Cilento.  She was a very private, upright, gently woman who stayed to play her fine Christian part in our Australian heritage and who loved this great land and became one of us.

This is the article as it actually appeared in "This Australia" Summer 1987/1988.  

The magazine won the 1987 Australian Heritage Award.

Enid Dennis was the daughter of Winifred and Arthur Tregear, therefore grandaughter of Elizabeth Wells. 
I am the grandaughter of Beatrice and Leslie Macdougall and great grandaughter of Elizabeth Wells.
If you have any comments or correction please email the author Joy Olney at

If you have enjoyed reading my blog you might like to go to my other family history blogs at   -  

In 2005, 2006 & 2008 Joy and Peter Olney visited Tasmania, and in 2007 they went to England trying to find homes, tombstones, churches etc about the family in Simpson and Great Oxendon.  If you read on you will find some modern day photos relating to "My Grandmother, Elizabeth".

St Thomas the Apostle Church at Simpson, Buckinghamshire, England
Interior St Thomas the Apostle at Simpson, England
Baptismal font where many Saunders babies were christened

A Saunders tombstone in St Thomas the Apostle graveyard at Simpson, England
In 1958 Beatrice and Winifred went to England to meet their brother Gladstone who had lived in England since 1956.  They were also able to meet up with lots of relatives that their Mother had talked about and kept up with by letter writing.  Bill Bowler remembered meeting them.  Saunders family members are still living in the area.

Home of Bill Bowler in Simpson, England - a Saunders descendant
"Wayside Cottage" in Simpson, England - an old Saunders home
Simpson, England - an old Saunders home 16th century or earlier

"Orchard Cottage" in Simpson, England - an old Saunders home

"White Cottage" in Simpson, England - an old Saunders home

"Freedom Cottage" in Simpson where Elizabeth's parents lived 1894-1916
Fenny Stratford Station near Simpson, England
House (LHS) where Elizabeth waved goodbye to Harry when he left for Tasmania 1887
Joy Olney met Eleanor Andrews - grandaughter of Elizabeth Wells' sister Kate Saunders
St Helen's Church at Great Oxendon, Northamptonshire, England where Harry Wells lived before going to Tasmania
John & Harriet Wells tombstone in St.Helen's graveyard
12th century interior St.Helen's Church at Great Oxendon, Northamptonshire, England

Harry Wells rang the bells at St.Helen's Church
Baptismal font where many Wells babies were christened
"Plum Cottage" a Wells family home built 1712
The "Big House" or "Oxendon Hall" where Elizabeth worked before going to Tasmania
Joy & Peter Olney met John Wells from Market Harborough near Great Oxendon - a Wells descendant
 Station Master's home in Zeehan, Tasmania 2005 - now a private home
Harry & Elizabeth Wells' retirement  home 8 Grove Road, Glenorchy, Tasmania in 2005

Arthur & Winifred Tregear's home 66 Montagu Street, New Town, Tasmania in 2005
Hobart Railway Station, now A.B.C.Offices
St Marys Railway Station, Tasmania 2005 - to be restored as a Museum

St John's Church, Launceston 2005 where Elizabeth and Harry married in 1887

Harry Edward Wells 25 November 1858 - 22 November 1935 and Elizabeth Wells 16 June 1862 - 19 October 1950

I suggest you take a look at my other posts relating to the Wells Family Archives, the Saunders Family Archives and the Macdougall Family Archives.

If you have any corrections or comments to make please email the author Joy Olney on:

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