I would love to have met my step great-grandmother, an amazing woman named Amelia Frances Byworth Atkinson. Writing about her is easy; distinguishing the fact from folklore is very difficult. I grew up with stories about this incredible woman and when I started to research my family tree, some of the stories were supported and some became exaggerated “Chinese Whispers”!
Here is the background to her story. My great-grandfather, William Henry Atkinson Snr, was born in Tipperary, Ireland in 1844. In 1854, at the age of ten, with his parents, Thomas and Eliza, and four siblings, he emigrated to Tasmania. On the ship, he met his future wife, Eliza Spooner, the daughter of the ship’s mate, who was the same age – maybe childhood sweethearts! Twelve years later, they married and then had five children in the next seven years. The saddest part of this love story is that Eliza died of puerperal fever, within a month of the last child being born. William Henry was left behind with five children under seven years old, living in the bush behind Burnie.
So, this is when Amelia Frances Byworth comes into the story. The daughter of a Master Mariner, she was born at sea in 1853. According to family folklore, she was introduced to William through the friendship of her father with William. Poor Amelia had been thwarted in love and needed somewhere to hide away to nurse her wounds for a while.
At William’s invitation, she travelled to Burnie by ship, and landed on shore in the bosun’s chair! She became a companion for William’s mother, Eliza. I think William had a plan in mind from the beginning as he had not long lost his wife, Eliza! Just seventeen months after his wife’s death, they married. Amelia, at just twenty-one years old, took on William’s brood.
Let me describe where they lived. The Atkinson clan, who had arrived in Tasmania in 1854 had been sponsored by a Captain H. B. Stoney (his brother, the Rev, Ralph Stoney, lived in a house called “Firmount”, had baptized the Atkinson children in Ireland and had employed Thomas Atkinson!). He had acquired a large tract of land and employed Thomas to manage 640 acres on Round Hill in the Burnie area (Highest hill in linocut below from 1835). This land proved useless for farming. Thomas then acquired land from the VDL company.
The boundaries of this land today are Mount Street, Three Mile Line, Mooreville Road and Linton Street/Malonga Drive – nearly 1800 acres (720 hectares) (Look it up on Google Maps)! It was completely bush, and the Atkinson men cleared it. They mostly ran cattle, and of course, grew potatoes, but it was still a very tough life. It still took nearly a day on a bullock dray to go down the hill to the rudimentary settlement of Emu Bay, about four kilometres away and approximately a six-minute drive now.
So not only did Amelia take on William’s five children but also the harsh reality of living in a tough neighbourhood! She raised the five children as though they were her own and bore eleven more children to William, ten of whom survived till adulthood. She was renowned in the district for the care and attention she bestowed on all the fifteen children. Once a month, they would all make the journey to Burnie to get supplies and it was always noticed that every man in the family displayed starched white collars and cuffs and the women and girls always had stiffly starched white aprons. How she managed and maintained that kind of standard in the conditions in which she live is unimagineable.
Now this is where the story becomes interesting. Family folklore says that before she married William, she made him change his will to the effect that if she had any children then they would inherit any property that William acquired or already owned, thus disinheriting the first family. He agreed and that is what happened. The males in the first family toiled and created a prosperous empire but when their father died, they inherited nothing. Amelia’s ten living children, however, split the inheritance between them. Amazingly, the half siblings remained as family, such was the love and devotion she had imbued into their lives.
Even though my great-grandfather, William Henry Jnr was disinherited, he apparently never spoke ill of Amelia and only ever spoke with affection of her – a truly amazing, intuitive, practical and clever woman. I would certainly loved to have met her.