In Search of Grandad Walker

I never knew my maternal grandfather, but if Mum’s Mum had not been sweet on a young farmer named Charles Herbert Walker, there would have been no Irish Catholic blood in our family. Her side was Protestant from the north, and Dad was from pure Skyvington English stock.

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It was in 1910. Grandma had eloped with her Charlie, after he got her in the family way, down in the long grass one balmy night in summer. There was a photo of this Charlie on the farmhouse wall when I was little. Like the other Charlies in the family tree, he died young. Mum said it was from a chest weakness passed on down the male line. I see a proud and manly fellow, almost regal-looking, in a smart dark coat, a wide-brimmed hat and white collar showing above the jacket. I will call him ‘the third Charlie’, in order to distinguish him from those that preceded him.
They had rolled in the velvety clover verge at Riverview, out of sight of her father, stiff and proper, who hailed from Orangeman country.
‘I want you, Mary-Jane. Say you’ll marry me, an’ never leave ‘til death us do part’, he said, which is what they promised each other in front of the cleric in Sydney, when she was carrying their first born.
***
Mary and Charlie III had run off together, first stealing along the Clarence River on a cane boat, then through the headlands at Yamba on a cargo vessel and out into the rough seas. Bound for the cover-up of the big smoke; Mary nauseous all the way; shaken about by the surging waters and sick with guilt. She was carrying the burden of her lover’s guilt as well, since he was Irish Catholic to the core and accepted, at least on a subconscious level, the church’s premise of female culpability.
When they got back from Sydney with the baby, the old folk on both sides just had to accept it. A bitter pill to swallow, especially for the Catholics on the Walker side, since the son was now joined to the daughter of a protestant from Northern Ireland, while their ancestors hailed from Tipperary in the South.
‘We’ll call him Eric Sydney, Mary said, since he was born in this city, an’ no-one’ll know anything ‘bout the timing of his arrival and all that. We’ll jus’ say he came early, adding, as she contemplated the gargantuan size of young Eric’s head ‘An’ he was big’.
Charlie III took over the older Charlie Henry Walker’s dairy farm, and they lived there in a ramshackle house with bare boards and no sewage or electricity.
Over and over he would enter his Mary during the years that followed, filling her with seeds in the only way he knew how. He never learnt how to prolong the act, despite his devotion and her faithful generosity in allowing him to come inside her again and again without complaint.
The babies came on thick and fast, Mary as fecund as the teeming seas, one after the other, year after year, until she was fat and spongey from both kinds of labour.
‘I can’t do it tonight, Charlie’, she told him sometimes. ‘I’m too tired.’
It was more and more difficult, as the brood grew, to keep their love-making secret from the older kids. He had to be quicker at the thrusting, and she had to bear it more silently than ever.
Mary later warned me: ‘Never marry a ‘big’ man, my girl’, by which I deduced, in time, that she was referring to the sexual appendage of the man, not to the man himself. And that Grandad might have had a whopper!
***
In 1837 another Charlie, the English Charles Darwin (no relation), was agonising in London over heretical theories of transmutation and the descent of man. Darwin had spent months sickening in a hammock on a water-logged journey to the South Pacific Seas to look at the strange creatures found there, in order to support his ideas  
on natural selection.
My father had read of Darwin’s theories in the Readers’ Digest booklets his parents kept: ‘It’s the survival of the fittest, Leena, all you need is a good feed in the belly and a warm dry place to sleep at night’, he said in a vain attempt to rein in his wife’s willful spendthrift ways.
In 1939 Dad had taken Mum to this little fibro shack opposite Grandma’s farm on the Clarence River. Dad hailed from the opposite more urbane side of the bank, but he planned to make a go of it on the land himself. It was at a place called Waterview, although there was not a drop of water to be seen at this point, because of the lie of the land.
Despite this irony, water was everywhere around us: caught in the alluvial soils and in the humid air, and trapped in bulging green frogs that scared the daylights out of us kids. The fat pregnant belly of the river was there, too, just below our back yard.
‘Don’t come at me with your silly jungle stories!’ Mum said. She felt that she’d gone down in the world, not up, as she had hoped when she married Dad. But underneath she was impressed with his greater learning, he having finished the Intermediate Certificate and gone to tech in Sydney as well.

At the same time as Darwin’s voyage, my original Irish ancestor, Charles Denis Walker, worked his way out as a steward on the Caroline, bringing wives and children of convicts to New South Wales.
Charlie I looked after the poor wretches under his care, trying to make the hellish trip out to the South Seas more bearable for them, cleaning up the vomit and diarrhoea, getting the sick and dying to the ship’s doctor, and ensuring there was adequate food and drink to go around. In so doing, he fell fiercely for the large dark eyes, fringed with butterfly chrysalis lashes, of one of his Irish charges. When they got to Sydney, he wooed her and flattered her mother: ‘I’ll look after you both, my girls’, he said, ‘along with your father and the whole brood. And when your dadda gets his ticket-of-leave, he can come and live with us, too.’
This Charlie was a dashing sort, a bit of the rake about him, with his dark hair and eyes and an adventurous spirit that showed in the way he comported himself. No wonder, then, that a young woman half his age should fall for him.
He accompanied the family to Major’s Creek where the convict father was stationed, and secured a promise of a grant of land, based on a letter of support from his employer.
There he asked for the daughter’s hand in marriage stating: ‘I am Catholic from Cork in Ireland, Sir, and in love with your daughter, Ann.’
‘Take her then’, said Patrick Hickey, ‘so long as you wed in the church. And can pay for the service and all. For you’ll get no help from me.’
The sly fox of a man realized that this so-called Irishman had connections with the English landlords, and could be of help to him in his situation as a commissioned convict, and to his family in distress.
Charlie I, on his knees in landed gentry clothes, borrowed from his English patron, proposed to the seventeen-year-old Ann Hickey at Reidsdale in the south of the colony, at the same time as Charles Darwin was proposing marriage to his cousin in Shrewsbury.
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Ann Hickey repaid the Braidwood Charlie, with eleven children from her verdant womb, he being a successful farmer, then a respected, if inebriated, publican, when the long drought set in and ravished the farms.
‘You keep me pregnant like this, I’ll never have time to do anything. Apart from wash and cook and clean’, she moaned after the birth of yet another Charlie in 1851. ‘I want to help out. Make a go of it serving in the pub. But am forever with child.’
 ‘Arrgh, you’ve no need to be worrying about it. I’ll get a girl to look after the house for you. You can help out serving in the bar if that’s your wish, my girl.’
As luck would have it, there was a space of three years before the next child arrived, and Ann took her place behind the bar of the Farmers’ Inn, with renewed vigour. She sparkled and shone, and it was not long before she knew the names of all the customers and had charmed the lot of them.
‘And what will it be today, Patrick O’Malley? The same again? And how is the mis’ess and children, eh?’
The men liked her spirit, and the pub’s reputation grew as a refuge for farmers, and gold prospectors, as well as for a smattering of shady characters from around the place.
***
Charlie I had developed a love of whisky and was in the habit of imbibing the same, every hour on the hour, as the day fell and night came on. Sometimes he started in the wee hours before dawn.
‘It’ll be the death of you’, his wife warned. She had started to flirt more and more with the livelier clients from the goldfields of Araluen and Majors Creek, some of them less than honest, as her husband faded and wheezed, under the weight of whisky and guilty secrets from the past.
Some of the drinkers at the inn had connections to the cattle and horse thieves, to Ben Hall and to the Clarkes and Connells, who’d been coming to the pub from time to time. Ann warned her younger brother, Billy about the company he was keeping:
‘Don’t bring those ruffians here! I’m a respectable married woman, as you know. Don’t want no trouble. Do you hear?’
She worried about her old man too: ‘If you don’t get off the grog, the no-gooders’ll take over this place, and me with it.’
Charlie at last sat up and listened to his wife’s pleas: ‘All right, my lovely girl, I’ll cut it out and clean this place up. No more filthy bushranger trash in here. From now on it’s honest folk like us, or the police’ll be called in to sort things out.’
‘I’ll help you buck the drink’, she said, ‘but I’ll have no filthy trappers here. We’ll manage ourselves to rid us of the vermin. I’ll not do the dirty on my brother, neither. He’s a pig-headed upstart for sure, because he’s young, but he’s not a crook like those Clarkes and Connells are.’
So Charlie went cold-sober. Ann watched him throughout the day and night. For five days she kept one eye on the bar, the other one on her old man, to see that he did not fall into his whisky sipping habits once again.
Within twenty-four hours he began to shake; it looked like a fever, he was starting at last to convulse: ‘I’ve caught something bad, it’s rattling my body to the bones, my lovely Ann.’
She watched in anguish her husband’s body shaking like a rattlesnake, his chest rising and falling, deep rasping sounds emitted as from a drowning throat.
‘I’ll call the doctor, Charlie, hold on there: Whoa!’
By the time the doctor arrived on his black horse, the patient was about to succumbe, his body giving one last terrible tremor and shake before sinking into the stillness of death, his mask a mixture of relief and shocked surprise that Old Man Death had taken him when he was cold bleeding sober.
Ann let out an awful scream, then sobbed, her legs crumpling beneath her, her head falling onto his now sunken chest.
‘He’s dead from the tremors’, the doctor proclaimed, dropping the dead man’s wrist. ‘His heart’s given out. From over-indulgence in spirits, no less, I presume.’ And he scribbled the words “delerium tremors” on his doctor’s pad.
Ann had a sense that she might have killed him out of kindness, but she had no time to worry about such quivering sensitivities, there being a pub to run, and a family of eleven to support. And there were plenty of those ready, in her hour of need, to step in and take the place of her Charlie, who would take some hard-won secrets to the grave.
Charles Henry, at the time, was a healthy, strapping, yet sensitive sort of lad with a secret need to be loved. When his mother remarried Tom Gleeson the gaoler, it was rumoured that the latter had helped Tom Clarke, the bushranger escape from his cell, not long before the ring-leader and his mates were finally hanged for their murderous deeds. At school Charlie II was teased: ‘Son of dirty convicts, lovers of crooks and slit-throats! No-good family, die in hell!’
‘The kids are pickin’ on me in the playground, Mumma!’  His mother did her best to protect him: ‘Your grandfather Hickey is a good man, a rebel, that’s all, who tried to provide for his family in hard times, back in Ireland. Same for your step-Dadda, too. An honest man, Tom Gleeson. Without a blemish to his name. As was your father, may his soul rest in peace. In heaven where it belongs.’ And she crossed herself at these words.
Later on, through connections in his mother’s pub, Charlie II, of a more sober disposition and look to his late father, heard of the rich coastal plains of the far north coast of the colony, and decided to move to the Clarence Valley, as far away as possible from his place of origin.
‘Let’s get the hell out of here, Jimmy’, he said to his brother.  ‘We can do farming up there where the soil’s good and rich.’
The two brothers met two sisters in South Grafton, Charlie settling down on a dairy farm on the South bank, the other becoming a publican.
One of their younger sisters married into the Braidwood bushranger family, said by many to be the bloodiest ones.
It was this connection with the bushrangers that would ultimately tear the Walker family apart, with the two adult offspring, one of them my direct ancestor, fleeing their hometown.
And this is how my grandfather, Charles Herbert Murphy, whom I missed out on meeting by a mere six years, came to live and to procreate in the Clarence Valley.
***
Charlie III, like his grandfather before him, died young, succumbing in his early fifties. He had the chest weakness, and started to fade quickly, propped up in bed on pillows filled with the husks from the home-grown corn, gasping for breath.
Grandma heard the tell-tale rattle of death approaching, and fell on her knees at his bedside, threw her head on his chest and, with great sobs emitted from deep within her breast, begged him: ‘Please, Charlie, don’t go, don’t leave us, here alone. We need you close by here with us.’
‘Geez, Mary mer love’, he wheezed through her sobs, seeking her plump hand with his weakened one, bringing it to his blue lips, and gulping for air like a fish out of water. ‘Look after the little one.’
Then he seemed to crumple, the wind leaving him like a deflated brown paper bag, and he died in his fifties, as if his destiny had been fulfilled, along with his wife’s dried-up fertility.
  

 


charles walker grave from anne skyvington on Vimeo.

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