Friday, June 26, 2015



Crikey!  A horse thief in the family!  You can never be sure what  turns up when you poke your nose into the family's  history;  as I soon found out when I delved into the life and times of my great grandparents John and Betsy Marshall, circa 1869, and found a young Scottish lass from a law abiding Protestant family wed to the delinquent son of convict parents.

 I’ve written earlier stories about John’s parents Catherine Spalding, the Irish convict’s daughter, and Samuel Marshall the convict turned explorer, Catholic by religion, Australian residents by force and making the best of a tough life in a raw new country.

Betsy’s parents Duncan and Ann Cumming by contrast had arrived in Sydney as free settlers from Culnakirk in the Scottish highlands of Inverness.  They spoke only the Gaelic and brought with them the tradition and strong clan ethics of their homeland.  Betsy was only six years old when she and her brothers and sisters arrived in Patricks Plain a farming area in New South Wale’s Hunter Valley.

Within twelve years her mother would be dead, her older brothers and sister married and her father and kin resettled in the lush farming area of Scone some 85 miles distant from Patricks Plain; a settlement which in time to come would be known as Singleton.


In Scotland’s Glen Urquhart valley, within sight of Loch Ness.


If young Betsy could tell us now what she best remembered of her home land she would probably volunteer her grandmother and cousins left behind in the green tree studded hills of Culnakirk where the Cumming family could trace their family history back many centuries to a time long before the English to the south had taken hold of their country.  If her grandmother, the family’s matriarch Isabella Cumming nee Fraser, still alive in 1855 when her son and his brood left for the great unknown land to the south, was asked to comment on their departure she would no doubt voice her sorrow that her beloved Duncan and her precious grand children were leaving her side, abandoning their birthright and would never again see the land of their forebears.

And the small village of Culnakirk itself, no more than five resident families one of them Duncan’s brother John, all eking a precarious living from their small holdings, would join the mourning and wailing of the countless other towns and farms throughout Scotland, struggling to come to grips with the steady migration of their brethren to foreign parts. 

When the Cumming family, father Duncan, mother Ann and their children, Alexander, Donald, Duncan, Eliza, Hugh, baby John and 6 year old Elizabeth boarded the small vessel Anna, you could be sure they felt within their hearts the mournful sound of the bagpipes farewelling them reluctantly yet resolutely on their way.

Ahead lay a long and perilous sea voyage and an unsure future.  For young Betsy’s brothers and sisters the gods of fortune and favour would shine bright, they would embrace their new land, and carve a happy future.  Betsy though would not be quite so fortunate.


In the Hunter Valley of New South Wales-not all that far from Patricks Plain and Scone 

Patriarch Samuel Marshall’s grave stone Branxton Cemetery.

The feisty and capable Catherine Spalding’s marriage to convict Samuel Marshall heralded the start of a welcome new life for this Sydney town born daughter of an Irish Convict.  In her short life she had known hunger, desperation and drudgery as her parents, Irish born Bryan and Mary fell in and out of favour with the law as often as Bryan could dance a drunken jig. More times than most he was granted his freedom only to have it swiftly rescinded. 

As early as 1804 he had been sentenced to hard labour in the coal fields following the short lived rebellion at Rouse Hill.  As a child young Catherine had sat in a court of law determining the theft of sheep as her parents and brother’s guilt was debated, had seen her step sister’s marriage to a much older man end in murder with 10 year old Catherine herself a witness to the brutal crime.  As a 12 year old she had worked as a servant in grand houses.   There wasn’t much of Sydney Towns debauched early days that the young Catherine hadn’t witnessed firsthand.

And then aged 17 she met the much older Samuel Marshall; they married and reared a family creating a reasonably decent life style.  The Marshall family, and Patriarch, Samuel himself weren’t exactly squeaky clean in their dealings with the law but they raised six children, all of them relatively law abiding…except for one.
And he was the one who married Betsy Cumming.


March 24th 1869 Gowrie, Patricks Plain– Elizabeth Cumings to John Marshall
Witnessed by Elizabeth Austin and John Lonsdale
Ceremony performed at Gowrie Church of Scotland.

Gowrie is now part of the town of Singleton

The official entry of the young couple’s marriage began a lifetime of misspelling for Betsy Cumming and a great deal of guesswork by family historians.  Officially described as being unable to read or write they signed the certificate with two X’s.

But was the ceremony attended by members of both families?  Did the widowed Duncan Cumming and his eldest son Alexander mingle politely with the Marshall Clan?  Catherine Marshall’s husband Samuel had been dead the past nine years and his Last Will and Testament had mentioned all his sons bar one, the problem child John.

A later family tree details all the Marshall children and their marriages, with four of them marrying into the same family named Balls, and one to a lady named Mary Freestone, but for John, the middle child, he is described as single, with nary a wife to his name.

Was this because he married out of the Catholic church, was it perhaps an oversight of a misinformed historian, or was it because John Marshall was simply too wayward to include him in an official gathering of the Marshall clan?

But in 1869 John did marry Betsy in her church, and in the vicinity of Patricks Plain where many of her Cumming family still resided.  Duncan her father was still alive then, so too her brothers Alexander, Donald, Hugh and John. It is difficult to understand though why Duncan Cumming didn’t object to the marriage; Son in law John Marshall had after all run afoul of the law many times over.

So much so that his own mother, Catherine Marshall had been forced to publish in a local paper a warning to anyone foolish enough to deal with her son…

I rather think young John over the years had proved to be quite a handful.

Samuel Marshall, John’s father appeared by all accounts to be a strict disciplinarian and tough in business.  An early pioneer in the Patrick's Plain district and an outstanding horseman he was transported to Sydney on the vessel Ocean in 1816 aged 17 years,  obtained his freedom in 1828,  married 18 year old Catherine Spaulding in the Christ Church Cathedral Newcastle in 1832,  granted 50 acres of land in the Northumberland county in 1838,  acquired the Shamrock Inn 1840, subscribed to the Irish Relief Fund in 1846, was assigned numerous convict servants over the years to work his various properties, died in 1860 at the age of 60 years  and left a sizable estate to his wife and sons, excepting by omission one son, John.

Father Samuel was also cited on numerous occasions for assaulting employees, along with some questionable dealings at the local pound of which he was at one time in charge.  In an age when women were expected to remain in the confines of the house his wife Catherine proved the exception.  Feisty and handy with a rifle she brooked no nonsense and when Samuel died Catherine took over the running of his affairs.


There were other unrelated John Marshall's alive in New South Wales at the same time as our lad, one or two also in trouble with the law and another clearly a toff whose crimes seemed to lean to tax evasion and the like.  It wasn’t all that difficult to isolate the crimes of our family renegade from the others.  For a start he operated mainly in his own back yard.

That son John was a constant thorn in his mother’s side was obvious.  These are just a few random examples of his dealings with the law…no doubt there were other misdemeanours that didn’t reach the pages of the Maitland Mercury.





A clear indication that John Marshall and cattle duffing went hand in hand:  But far worse was to come…


Maitland Jail.

Young Betsy had barely a month to enjoy married life before husband John is carted off to jail on the usual charge of stealing cattle.

                                   SINGLETON. April 1869.

Police Court, Tuesday, 13th. Cattle Stealing.-John Marshall and William Marshall, of Bowman's Creek, were

charged with stealing a cow and a heifer, the property of Thomas Spencer, of Rouchel Vale.

Evidence is given by the arresting policemen and the two prisoners.  Brothers John and William Marshall are committed for trial in the next Singleton Quarters Sessions, with bail allowed to each prisoner in the sum of £80.


Tuesday, the 15th Instant before his Honor Judge Dowling. NEW MAGISTRATE. Mr. Ralph Millar, of Corinda, is duly sworn and John Marshall andWilliam Marshall are indicted for stealing two bulls, two cows, and two heifers, the property of Thomas Spencer  at Dry Creek, on the 2nd April last. The prisoners plead not guilty, and are defended by Mr. Wisdom, instructed by Mr. Thompson.
 After a great deal of evidence the Crown Prosecutor made his reply, and then his Honour summed up and the jury retired.
Inexplicably the jury, after only half an hour returned a verdict of not guilty and John was able to return home to his young bride: Which was just as well because around that time their first baby, John Marshall Junior was conceived… a son who in time will take after his father in more ways than one.


This map shows only too clearly the general area covered by John Marshall in his unlawful ventures.  Gowrie was once Patricks Plain and is now known as Singleton.  Black Creek and Bowman’s Creek, where Betsy lived near her mother in law Catherine while husband John was in jail, is in the vicinity of Goorangoola.  Anvil Creek is where his father Samuel bought the Shamrock Inn.  Scone and Rouchel Brook the towns where the Cumming father and sons settled after leaving Patrick's Plain.  And Narrabri, a fair distance away is where John Marshall and Betsy finally moved with their eight children… which should perhaps have been nine.


It seemed not even a newborn son could curb the activities of a prolific thief and it’s not long before John Marshall again finds himself in trouble with the law.


(Before His Honor Judge Dowling ) Barristers present: Mr Manning, Crown Prosecutor, and Mr Pilcher. Attorneys:Messrs. Thompson, Abbott  and Quaiffe.
John Marshall and John Cummin appeared in custody, charged with having
stolen a steer, the property of Donald Cameron of Rouchel Brook.

It would seem John Marshall had a fixation on purloining other people’s stock from the general area of Goorangoola and nearby Rouchel Brook, which in itself isn’t surprising; Betsy’s brothers have purchased holdings there, so too his own brothers and sisters. He knows that part of the world very well indeed.

  Perhaps the Judge is aware of these family connections and is in sympathy with Betsy’s kin at least; or perhaps he was just having a difficult day because he delivers a similarly harsh sentence to John Marshall that he had already given to a prisoner in an earlier case.

In his sentencing the Judge states that the prisoner Marshall, “who has the reputation of being a noted cattle stealer,” is found guilty and sentences him to three years imprisonment with hard labour.

You can almost hear the sharp intake of breath from the courtroom.

However his alleged accomplice John Cummins is acquitted. (Just who Cummins is we don’t know; however there was a Cummins family living for a time at Patricks Plain.)

But for the purpose of this story it is with this 3 year long jail sentence that the scene is set for a tragic chain of events that will not only involve his young wife but cause further trouble with the law for her husband as well.


Maitland Mercury: On the 8th February 1873 an inquest into the death of a newborn baby was held before the Coroner Dr Glennie at the Northumberland Hotel in George Street, Singleton and adjourned to Tuesday the 11th for deliberation.

This news item is our first hint that Betsy Marshall has suffered a grave injustice.  Piecing together events that occurred, both prior to and following John Marshall’s release from jail relies mainly on conjecture.  No diaries or journal entries kept by the largely illiterate couple to help explain or even deny what transpired or even pre-empted the events of a certain night in February 1873.

With her husband incarcerated presumably in Maitland’s jail one would think either or both families, Cumming and Marshall would step in to protect her and the infant son John, named after his father. But Betsy stayed on at the Goorangoola property living in fairly basic housing with her mother in law Catherine in a similar building nearby.  Though John had been sentenced on March 3rd 1870 to 3 years hard labour it appeared he had obtained early release in September of 1872.


A newborn female child has died and rumour and innuendo abound in this small community suggesting it was caused by violence.  An inquest into the death is brought before the Coroner, Dr Glennie on the 8th February 1873 and no doubt without a suitable court house available it is held in Singleton’s Northumberland Hotel.

Senior Sergeant DuVernet presents his deposition:  I am a senior sergeant of police stationed at Singleton; in consequence of certain information I received I proceeded yesterday afternoon the 7th instant with Constable Lott to the head of Bowman’s Creek and went to John Marshall’s residence.   I saw Elizabeth Marshall his wife.

I told her I had come to make inquiry with regard to the birth of a child.  She replied she had a child and that it died soon after its birth and that she had buried it.  She showed me the place where it was buried about 150 yards from the house, buried under some slabs in a soap box.

I opened the box and found the female child.  (Which incidentally was then viewed by the jury.)  It was lying on its back with the arms crossed and much discoloured.  I could see no marks of violence,
I took a statement from the mother and brought the body of the child into Singleton in the box in which the child was buried.
Catherine Marshall deposed:  I reside at Bowman’s Creek; I am the mother of John Marshall.  On Tuesday evening last my son’s wife, Elizabeth Marshall complained of being ill.  She went to bed at the usual time.  Sometime during the night my son came to me and said his wife was very bad.  He thought from the fright of a snake she had trod on in the afternoon.  She was suffering from cramps.  I went over to my sons place; I found she was in labour. 
 I thought she was going to have a miscarriage, I did not think she was at her full time.  The child was born within hour after I arrived.   It was a female child, apparently come to the full time, appeared to be healthy, and after washing and dressing the child I took it home to my place which is about fifty yards from my son’s and gave it some milk and water and sugar.
I then took it back to its mother and told her to take it into bed which she did and I went home.  I shortly after wards heard the child crying and I went over and brought it back with me, I then gave it a little more food, and laid it down on my own bed, the child was afterwards sick more than once. I took it up and cleaned its mouth, I then took the child back to its mother at daylight, about half an hour afterwards I heard the mother calling, I went to her, and she said she thought the child was choking or being suffocated, she had it lying on its face across her lap, trying to get it to go to sleep, I took it, and tried to give it more food, but it would scarcely take any, about an hour afterwards I heard the child was dead, and I went and found it was the case.
 I brought it over to my place, and examined it to see if there were any marks of violence on it, the mother came and stopped at my place on Wednesday evening, and the next day she took the child away and buried it, my son had been away more than two years, and returned home on the 23rd September last.
Dr Newton deposed:  I am a duly qualified medical practitioner of New South Wales, on the 8th instant I made a post-mortem examination of the body of the female child unnamed, there were no external evidences of violence on the body , on removing the scalp, I found a large effusion of blood over the left parietal bone, due to pressure during its birth, the brain, the heart and lungs were healthy, the stomach contained a small quantity of mucus, and was perfectly healthy The Uvei and intestines were healthy There were no indications anywhere of the said child having died from violence or poisoning.
The statement made by the mother of the child before senior-sergeant Du Vernet and referred to in the deposition of that officer was as follows –
Elizabeth Marshall states:  I am the wife of John Marshall, of Bowman's Creek, labourer, on Tuesday night last, the 4th instant, I was delivered of a female child, it was as far as I know about eleven or twelve o'clock at night when it was born alive and continued alive for about an hour or an hour and a half afterwards, it was born in a hut, just above my mother-in-law's hut, my husband and mother-in-law were present when the child was born, my mother-in-law took it from me, and brought it into her own hut, to wash it and give it some drink, the child after birth looked slimy, and used to get black in the face, its sides also were black, the child was like choking and looked weakly and ill.
 There was no one in the humpy but myself when it died; my husband did not have the child in his hands that I am aware of, I never told anyone that I was in the family way until I got bad with labor pains. I never mentioned to my mother in law that I was pregnant. About a month since I was bit by a black snake , I got ammonia from a man named Thomas Eather, who lives close by, I took the ammonia inwardly and applied externally , I also took brandy, the body now produced is the dead body of my child, I buried it myself  yesterday evening (the 6th instant), the child had been dead about thirty hours when I buried it.
The initial Inquest was then adjourned until Tuesday the 11th when the jury returned a verdict that a child had died from natural causes.
The only lingering evidence that a child had existed rests with its Birth registration…
All in all a harrowing experience for Betsy Marshall.   The jury heard the above evidence and returned a death from natural cause verdict.  But are there holes in Betsy and Catherine’s story? Why the emphasis by both Catherine and Elizabeth that no violence had occurred, or that John Marshall had at any time handled the infant? And the mention of a black snake appears to hover between a month before and that very afternoon. Why was no evidence given by John Marshall?
Perhaps we can make an educated guess from the safe distance of a hundred and more years when we read what transpired immediately before that Singleton Inquest… and shortly after the birth and death of the baby.


SINGLETON POLICE COURT, TUESDAY, 7TH FEBRUARY, 1873. (Before Messrs. W. C Browne and George Jarman )
VIOLENT ASSAULT. John Marshall, in custody, was charged with having committed a violent assault on Thomas Eather. Mr A J Gould appeared for complainant Constable Malarkey proved the arrest of the prisoner, by virtue of a warrant signed by W C Browne, JP.

Thomas Eather deposed: The assault took place on Wednesday morning last, the 5th instant, about 5 o clock, at Goorangoola, the first words I heard defendant speak to me were ' Get up you b----- w----- it is you I want and no one else," I said “All right, I will get up if you will  wait a bit; I put on my clothes, and no sooner had I got outside in the verandah when prisoner hit me and I then hit him, and we both fell to the ground , prisoner got up, and directly I was on my legs he kicked me on various parts of the body; I got up and ran for a stick to defend myself, as I was too weak from the severe kicks received from prisoner; prisoner took the  stick from me, when I got another one; prisoner then ran away.

I told you if you did not go away I would knock your brains out with a pole, when I got it; as soon as you went away, I went inside and laid on the   bed, I did not abuse you it all.

Dr Glennie gave evidence that he had examined complainant and found bruises where he had been kicked, which proved the injuries inflicted to have been caused with considerable violence.

The prisoner was convicted of having committed a most unwarrantable and violent assault, and fined in the sum of £5, to include £1 1s. expenses for a medical witness, £1 Is professional and 5s. 6d. court costs in default, two months imprisonment in Maitland gaol.

The assault charge and subsequent court hearing explains why John Marshall wasn’t present to give evidence at the Inquest.  It also suggests that Betsy’s husband had a fair idea of the identity of the man who made her pregnant. We are left to mull over the curious wording of some of the witness statements.   The fact that Betsy’s mother in law claimed to know nothing of the pregnancy, Betsy stressing her husband had not handled the infant; The varying timetable for the snake bite or scare; The fact that Betsy was given ammonia and took it both internally and externally… and of course the naming of Thomas Eather. 

What the inquest doesn’t spell out is the truth behind the death of the unnamed infant.



John avoids gaol on the 1873 assault charge and for a while it appears he has been trying very hard to keep out of trouble; But understandably the travails of Betsy and the circumstances of her baby’s birth and death are printed indelibly on his mind.  A year passes and with Eather living close by, John Marshall is no doubt just biding his time…

The residents of Goorangoola, lulled by the passing 12 months comparative calm are reported in the local paper as “flattering themselves” that cattle stealing had been done away with in the district… but they spoke too soon.

On the 29th January 1874 local postman Thomas Eather arrived home at his property at Campbells Creek to find his cow paddocks empty.  The postman’s job back in those days involved days away on horseback and was a much sought after position with an average remuneration of £30 per annum.  In fact Betsy’s brother Duncan had secured the Rouchel Creek job of delivering mail about this same time that Eather was covering the Branxton and Goorangoola mail run.

Riding through his paddocks Thomas Eather is mightily puzzled that his herd of 21 cows are nowhere to be seen.  The paddock gates were still secured, the fencing untouched.

Eather sets out to canvass his neighbours. Later it is reported in Maitland newspapers that the postman had received a tip off from an unnamed informant and as a result set off to Goorangoola and the Marshall property; where surprisingly for him the cattle were not to be seen. 

Finally he locates the missing stock milling about on land adjacent to the property of Mr Francis Ball who claims no knowledge of how they got there.

With no proof the cattle had been stolen Eather could only move the beasts back to his property.

Bowman’s Creek of course is where John Marshall lives with his wife and son and mother Catherine, and Francis Ball is no doubt kin by marriage to various Marshall brothers and sisters who married into the Balls family.

All is quiet again until a week later, on the 5th February John Marshall is again arrested on a warrant to show cause why he should not be bound over to keep the peace towards Thomas Eather. 

It seems Eather and Marshall met head on at Bowman’s Creek and predictably John Marshall threatened to knock Eather’s teeth down his throat and in the court’s words jump on him. Eather further alleges with a touch of bravado that Marshall only threatens, uses filthy language and causes assault when he has a mob around him and would have done so on this occasion had his brother Samuel Marshall not stepped in and stopped him.

Following advice that a similar assault charge had been handed down on Marshall in February of the previous year with a default prison sentence then of 2 months, the defendant John Marshall is then summarily bound over to keep the peace with sureties of £80 in default imprisonment in Maitland gaol for six months unless in the meantime such sureties be found.


Apart from her appearance at the Inquest, Elizabeth Marshall is never mentioned in newspaper reports concerning her husband’s crimes. 

It would be easy to assume that John Marshal was a tough young hooligan whose manhood had been threatened and insulted by his wife’s public exposure:  Easy too to imagine Betsy as a cringing timid young wife fearful of his rage.

Of course John would have been enraged, and yes Betsy, young, alone and knowing full well the shame of an illegitimate baby would have hidden her pregnancy for as long as she could.  And I’ve no doubt the person responsible for her condition would have done anything to remove the evidence.  Even suggesting and providing the ammonia. Remember a tearful Betsy describing she took the potion both internally and externally.

But the proof of John and Betsy’s marriage vows and the strength of their commitment to each other is all too evident in the seven children that arrived in the years that followed that dreadful night in 1873.

Betsy and John Marshall’s family steadily grew to include another 7 children…






1880 ISABELLA (BELLA) BORN PATRICKS PLAIN (named after Betsy’s grandmother Isabella)



We shouldn’t consider as gospel the births officially recorded as occurring at Patrick's Plain; remember this settlement soon became Singleton but doubtless was for a number of years the official records centre of a vast community of smaller hamlets.
And yes it would also be foolish to imagine John, as his young family grew, turning over a new squeaky clean leaf. 


Just three years after my grandmother, Bella, was born, the Marshall family moved some 800 kilometres away to the small town of Narrabri in the far west of New South Wales.  A small but thriving settlement numbering 1,000 people and on the cattle trails to the west and north across the border to Queensland; the town would be connected to the railway line shortly after the Marshalls arrived.

Not a great deal is known about their time in Narrabri apart from a newspaper clip shown below which appeared in the Singleton Argus of July 4, 1891. ….



John Marshall sen., John Marshall jnr., and William Marshall, father and sons were on Wednesday charged at the police court with stealing three head of cattle, the property of Mr. W. F. Buchanan of Killarney and were remanded for eight days on the application of Inspector Smith.   The eldest defendant asked for bail but the police magistrate refused. The case is causing a sensation as it is understood to be a raid on an old cattle stealing camp.

The end result of the police investigation and subsequent court hearing came as a complete surprise:  Just 6 days later, after being held in custody all that time with the newspaper headlines screaming ‘sensational cattle stealing charge’, the defendants were brought before the Bench …and without further ado discharged. 

Lack of evidence; strong alibis; who knows.  The three, father and two sons may even have been innocent.


It is doubtful the Marshall’s stayed much longer than 1891 in the far western town of Narrabri.

 At the time of the Narrabri proceedings my grandmother, Betsy’s 6th child and third and last daughter Isabella was just 11 years old.  Bella will eventually move to the town of Hillgrove, a mining area where she will find employment as a hotel house maid.  She will meet her husband Charles Brown there and marry him on his return from the Boer War.

Her father, John Marshall the delinquent son and horse thief would die in Maitland in 1917… he had survived his own mother Catherine, the convict’s daughter by a mere 12 years.

 The widowed Betsy will live on until 1925 when she is buried in the cemetery at the Sydney suburb of Ryde where her youngest daughter Bella Brown and her husband Charles lived with their children, one of which was my father Guy Francis Geoffrey Brown.

And when 75 year old Betsy Marshall was buried and it was necessary to name her parents for inclusion in the death certificate, the one man who had been ever present in her mother’s family, and the one Bella Brown best remembered, was mistakenly named as Betsy’s father…. Not Duncan Cumming who died in Scone in 1875 - but her eldest brother Alexander Cumming, her eldest sibling by 16 years, who lived in Rouchel Brook with his wife and family until his death in 1920 at the grand  age of 90 years.


Robyn Mortimer  © 2015

Other stories about my long ago ancestors… the Browns, Cumming and Marshalls.  
Click on the title to view.