Skip to content

VALE MARY

Mary Higgins died on January 4th 1834, not a moment too soon.

Parish records indicate that she was eighty-seven years old – in fact she was exactly a decade younger – Mary just looked old. This is what life had done to her. She was crabby and bitter, abandoned and pissed off at the world. Mary Higgins was the last queen bee, the last matriarch – but she’d shrivelled, shrunk with the years to match her bitterness. History froze her in a final arthritic claw of rage. A couple of days later all that anger was buried in the Stephen Street Cemetery of St. Matthews, New Norfolk, under her married name of Mary Triffitt. There was more ceremony than sorrow when they interred this grand old dame – after a prayer from the Reverend William Garrard and a hurried hymn the mourners slunk away.

What an extraordinary life.

Her destiny should have unfolded in a very different way. She was meant to have an invisible life; grow up, meet and marry a boy called Sam Higgins, have seventeeen children, work like a dog – then die. What happened, Mary? Where did it go wrong?

Instead fate and her own addictions propelled her into a great, unfolding adventure; an accidental life that took her to a world she couldn’t possibly have imagined; left her bloodied, much bruised but unbowed. She had spirit, our Mary. I’d like to think that larrikin streak coloured her descendants – alas, it was her criminal streak that survived, trickling down through the generations – a determinedly petty life of crime.

She was fun to discover. The mystery of Mary – her early, invisible years eluded researchers for more than a hundred years – not that anybody much was looking. We only want the name: Triffitt, Triffitt, Triffitt – forgetting that it took two to create this tattered dynasty.

Well, Mary – I did my best – but after all of it, I do have to say – it’s quite impossible to like you.

*

That flogging in Norfolk Island was the end of her in many ways – every slash on her naked back stripped away the confident street hustler and left a silence behind. An official silence, at least.

She emerged, as we’ve seen, in the records only to bear children, travel to Van Diemen’s Land, get married and now, for her final public act, die.  How much of the saucy wench of Georgian London remained in her by the end we cannot know, but I’d like to think there was still a twinkle in her eye at the last. She died knowing that her time on this earth had borne extensive fruit. There were grandchildren of all shapes and sizes, two successful sons and that bastard of a husband – but she’d had good mileage, even from him. She was old and tired when she passed away, glad, I suspect, to go. Whether bitterness and anger consumer her that last decade is hidden in the swift flowing waters of the Derwent Valley. Let’s hope she had time to reflect on the extraordinary journey of her life and appreciate it for all the richness and experience it offered. But the inner life may have been denied her, intelligence may have been  replaced with the dull thud of the dowager drudge as hardship after hardship weighed her down. She had it tough, our Mary, now she was finally free.

*

A century later the graveyard was overrun and abandoned. Nearly sixty years had passed since the last burial, cows grazed amongst the tombs, fallen headstones were stepping stones amidst the mud, chooks wandered idly through, broken bottles littered the place, rubbish piled up around the monuments; who knows what was occurring after dark – it was considered beyond restoration and in an act of desperate philistinism known in those days as civic pride, cleared.

Now, seventy five years after that, it still remains a desperate paddock, cursed and abandoned, surrounded by suburban houses just off the main street of town, a deserted city plot with a pile of broken tombstones at the far end. Along one wall is a line of headstones, kindly preserved by the good citizens of the New Norfolk Rotary Club, badly restored and cemented into the earth. The land feels dead – so do the yawning streets of New Norfolk around it. It’s a particularly bleak ending for a graveyard, eaten into by suburbia, smothered and ignored until there was just one token block left; a last off-hand acknowledgement that there was once something there. Bleak to think that under that petrol bowser, beneath that back-yard chicken coop lie the bones of a whole generation of pioneers, lost and ignored.

One of them is Mary Higgins. Now she’s not forgotten.

*

*

IN PROGRESS

I’m still researching this.

The old fella popped her in the ground with a sigh of relief and a great deal of brandy. Only Thomas shed a tear. They turned away from the grave and got on with their lives with not much emotion – not visibly, at least. Death was no stranger to any of them, to anyone in those days. She’d had a long, long life and it was time for her to go. They had to get on with theirs.

Her death cleared the way for a reappraisal, as deaths often do. The first thing that happened, with lightening speed, was the amazing announcement that William, first son of Thomas Triffitt and Ann, first daughter of James Triffitt Jr. were to be wed.

Alert readers might notice a close family connection.

*

James Snr. had no intention of following his ex-wife to God, not in the immediate future, anyway. With that rather too frisky step common to active men in their sixties he continued apace, putting the finishing touches on his sandstone house at Catrine Vale and bouncing small children on his knee. He was a man of substance and a certain native intelligence, not to be tangled with.

It’s impossible to follow James Sr.’s wheeling and dealing without spending a great deal of time in the archives. Life is short – it’s not that thrilling. Luckily the search function in Trove brings a few juicy tidbits to light – make of them what you will.

It’s evident that James Sr. was a man of many, many talents. It is possible, however, that his skill lay in sheep, not real estate.

James, like everybody else, was buying and selling land like crazy. There are books written on this topic, the 1820’s and ’30’s was filled with enquiries, trying to trace land-ownership back through layer after layer of intrigue. Unfortunately, it’s quite dull. I also get the distinct feeling that James Sr’s finances were a lot more rickety than they should be.

Five months after Mary’s death he sold the land they’d lived on since 1808 – not one of his smartest moves.

The Courier: Friday 23 April 1841

*

THE LAST CHRISTMAS

I have no idea if the following events occurred as described – but they certainly could have…

*

Great-grandfather James Triffitt looked mighty pleased with himself. He was sixty-nine years old and, quite unexpectedly, had a real family.

Christmas 1838 saw the whole family spread along his verandah just outside Hamilton. A labrynthine operation had seen the clan arrive on houseback or on foot, in carts or buggies, all primed for the great family occasion.

The house was already crawling with children; Sophia’s and James Sr. had produced Charles – now thirteen, Richard, ten; Sophia; nine and little Mary Ann – already seven.  Once James Jnr arrived with his heavily pregnant wife Lizzie and eight kids in tow the usual family pandemonium began. It was like a bomb had gone off in the house. Twelve children, four adults – so far. Then his brother Tom and Mary arrived with their brood, another six kids that scattered upon arrival.  Thomas was twenty, Mary, eighteen – almost grown-up, sixteen year-old Susan busied herself clucking over Edward, fourteen; Louisa Matilda , twelve and John Frederick, nine. Then they all clucked over the next arrivals, our kissin’ cousins Ann and William, last to arrive with their lad; the precocious Young Solomon, just fourteen months old. Mum was five months pregnant with another Thomas, just getting ready to join the party in April 1838.

They were complete. Twenty children with two on the way, six adults, two nearly adults and chaos. The family parted on glowing terms and headed off to their respective homes.

Let’s hope they all enjoyed their time together. It would never be the same.

*

On January 10th 1839 a message arrived in all three homes. Lizzie Barnes, James Jnr’s wife, was failing, her pregnancy gone awry.

Elizabeth’s body had simply given way. The onslaught of her twelfth pregnancy, against Doctor’s orders, brought the consequences he so feared. She was dying, the baby already dead in her womb. James Jnr was distraught. He had eight children at home, a dying wife and a grief and a rage tied in together so tight he was fit to explode. The family was there within hours.

Mercifully it was brief. On the 16th January she perished, just as the Doctor said she would, with maximum grief and suffering to all concerned. The whole clan was back together much soon than they had imagined. Just three weeks after Christmas there they all were, at Elizabeth’s funeral, staring blankly at the grave.

James and Lizzie Barnes had eleven children. Two died as infants, one was already left home – this left eight. That’s a heavy load for a newly widowed father – but James is twenty, John  eighteen – they’re men; Phoebe is sixteen, Christina fourteen – both perfectly capable of looking after the little ones; Henry, ten, Ellen, seven, Samuel, five and Joshua – three. Remember, Mum did little other than incubate children, breast-feed them and procreate more. The house must have run independently of her for years.

No time to grieve. Every day, three times a day there were meals to be provided, clothes to be washed, children to be bathed. The market gardens wouldn’t wait for grief either. He was trapped.

The first dreadful month went by.

*

On the 15thFebruary Thomas Triffitt Jr. was killed in a boating accident. He’d celebrated his twentieth birthday just three months before. He’s buried in Hamilton in the grounds of St Peters Anglican church under the name of Thomas Triffet. His gravestone still exists today .

*

This left the Triffitt girls.

Six of them, a twittering amorphous mass of dolls and grubby frocks and secrets aged from twelve to sixteen. When family gatherings brought them together they disappeared in a huddle, swapping girlish stories and crushes, doing what girl children do. In the midst of them were two little boys who lived their lives surrounded by women and learnt at an early age when they were outtnumbered.

The Girls were old and young simultaneously, knew the natural world of grunt and babies intimately, raised their brothers and sisters as their own children, worked and learnt the limitied world of settler women at their mother’s side. They were being grown to have babies and tend house. That was to be their function so the less brain activity the better. They were content to sit in their circle and play their girlish games and laugh when they were together, marvel as one at the endless cycle of Aunty Ann’s children, watch the lesson on display.

The Girls were approaching womanhood with frightening speed. With the inevitability of nature the little girls became young ladies, their turn came near and when they were all of sixteen they would be drawn deeper into the real secrets of that embrace. Two by two they were sucked into that communal pulse and joined the matrix, to breed and pulse, as one.

Mary was the eldest of the six. She was right in the firing line. James’ second daughter was eighteen and glowing like a virgin peach. Susan was sixteen – she glowed, but in the way that missionaries shine,  an light unsullied by the flesh. Susan shone limply but with a determined light. Phoebe, on the other hand, radiated the pleasures of the flesh. She was born to have babies and love her husband fully while she filled the earth with children. Phoebe was the Mother Earth of the group, just fifteen and blossoming in a most attractive way. Christina, her younger sister was a big-boned lass as well, her hips were similarly made for childbirth – fourteen years old and in waiting. These Triffitt girls exuded some natural tang, something in the air. Young men from all around had started to hover on the fringes, expectant faces dashed as they ran into their brothers.

There were the two babies of the group as well – Matilda and Lousia, both twelve, both curiously hanging off an Auntie’s arm, full of mischief and laughter, feigning shyness on demand. They watched their sister’s progress through a country adolescence into the light, such as it was, of young adulthood. Watching and learning. On average, these young ladies would marry and be pregnant by the time they were eighteen. All of them were pregnant before they married – entirely normal for the time.

Their sexual lives started around sixteen. There was a lot of bush around New Norfolk but a lot of enquiring eyes. Gossip and the intrigue of courtship flashed around the district in a shot. These liasons must have happened fast and furious, when desire overcame reason or sense and left two young things tingling in a barn while the others celebrated another Triffitt occasion. There were starting to be a lot of them.

With every marriage another family was added to the fold: RICHARDSON, MORGAN,  HAY,  DALEY,  JILLETT,  WASS,  YOUNG, RATHBOND , TAYLOR,  ABEL,  SPRING,  HAYES,  O’BRIEN,  MILLER,  LARKINS,  HAYES and WHITEWAY  – the creature grew.

The grand-daughters huddled and gossiped, babies hung from every trailing limb. They all lived in utter chaos surrounded by children of every size and type – demanding, laughing, crying, pissing, shitting little Triffitts. Life was a continual grind of racing from one task to the next, from one childish emergency to the inevitable catastrophy – from the daily load of feeding and washing and  cooking to brief moments of rest, pausing only to submit to a few grunts and groans of a night from the husbands. Life lived in the shadow of exhaustion. These women knew what each other was going through, the relentless grind, the push, the shove and ‘here we go again every eighteen months’ of it. The girls knew it all. So they sat and shared secrets like every mother since time began, an unholy alliance of service to the cause.

Hovering somewhere above it all, burping grand-children on his knee, is James Triffitt the Elder, looking around at the monster he created, farting contentedly.

*FERTILE WILLIAM * SAD PHOEBE * YOUNG SOLOMON

1834: 6th January MARY HIGGINS dies

1834: A Birth – 9th November SAMUEL to JAMES Jnr & ELIZABETH

1836: A Wedding – 26th April WILLIAM marries ANN

1836: A Birth – 3rd October JOSIAH to JAMES Jnr & ELIZABETH

1836: A Birth – 27 October SOLOMON to Wm & ANN – first grandchild

1838: A Birth – 5th April THOMAS SHOLTO to ANN & WILLIAM

 

1839: A Death – 16th January ELIZABETH BARNES, mother dies

1839: A Death – 15th February in Hamilton, Thomas dies

1840: A birth – 4th April JONAS URBIN to ANN & WILLIAM

1840: A Birth – 14th July SUSANNA to MARY & JAMES

1840: A Wedding – 4th August PHOEBE marries JOHN JILLETT

1840: A Birth – ?? ROBERT ALFRED to PHOEBE & JOHN

1841: A Birth – 23rd November ELIJAH to ANN & WILLIAM

1841: A Wedding – 30th July MARY marries JAMES

*

%d bloggers like this: