Favourite Ancestors – Stories

The Ancestor I wish I had Met.

The ancestor I wish I had met is my great, great grandfather, Thomas Pye.

I grew up on a farm that was a small portion of novelist Thomas Alexander Browne’s 32,000 acre property, “Squattlesea Mere” near Port Fairy, Vic, but I wish I had met Thomas Pye when he lived there.  To see the land in its original state with forests and plentiful wildlife, which has now vanished.  To sit back  around a campfire and listen to Thomas Pye’s tales of his life back in England; the hardships; the poaching adventures; boxing bouts; working with the hot pottery kilns and his conviction.  Then after his arrival to Australia tales about the hundreds of miles travelled droving sheep and cattle from Sydney to Melbourne and later the trip to Squattlesea Mere’s rugged environs to start a cattle station from scratch.

He would have had a rapt audience in his teenage employer, Thomas Browne, who was later to become famous in Australia as ‘Rolf Boldrewood’ for his novels about his pioneering adventures in Victoria.  The class barriers were broken down with Browne having to rely on the skills, versatility and honesty of his servants.  Thomas and his wife, Mary earned a wage of 30 pounds a year and when Thomas received his conditional pardon, he was able to realise a positive future for his young family where the stigma of “convict” was forgotten under the respectability of being Squattlesea Mere’s overseer.

Thomas Pye was baptised on 9 July 1797 in the parish of Baswich, Staffordshire.  He was the eldest of the eleven children of Joseph and Mary Pye.  The family lived in Rickerscote where according to Thomas Browne, Thomas Pye “began to work for his living at 9 or 10 years old being then big and strong enough to wheel a barrow of clay.  In the following years he picked up a fair notion of the leading agricultural industry which he used to some purpose in the new country, in which it was his destiny to pass the remainder of his life. He was a fair shot and having incurred the enmity of the gamekeeper on the neighbouring estate in England had no doubt been mixed up in one or two poaching adventures in his earlier youth.  The fighting instinct had been developed in him earlier in life and in the village prize ring he was regarded as a dangerous antagonist.”

Thomas, aged 21, married Alice Hall on 3 May 1819 and they had five children – Charles; Timothy; Philip; Harriet and Peter.   The family moved to West Bromwich or Birmingham where Thomas worked as a brick and tile maker, and Alice died.

In July 1836 at Worcester Assizes Thomas Pye and Richard Corbett were indicted for having “feloniously stolen from the dwelling house of Benjamin Halfpenny” on 22 February, 1836.  At the time Thomas was serving nine months imprisonment at Stafford Gaol for stealing geese and ducks in the preceding month of March.   Benjamin Halfpenny gave evidence at the trial stating he was alone in his house when “he rose to open the door, three men, two of whom were armed with bludgeons, assailed him, and struck him seven or eight blows on the head with their bludgeons – they threw him down and tied his hands.”  The men proceeded to steal the packets of gold sovereigns and other items.   Corbett was Halfpenny’s nephew.

Thomas Pye gave testimony a part of which reads, “we returned to Birmingham, on the way we met Weston, police officer” and Constable Wilson, “as soon as I saw Weston, I said to Corbett, ‘By G- we are done’, Corbett pretended to be drunk, Weston said something.  I replied ‘Corbett is drunk, or ought to be’ they passed on, but we were much afraid”.

A sentence of death by hanging was commuted to transportation for life.

Thomas was held on the convict hulk “Justitia” from September to December 1836.  This was the same hulk that his younger brother, John, had been confined to for eleven months and Thomas missed seeing his brother by just four months.  John had been convicted with William Shaw of stealing malt and hops and they were transported for 7 years.  John married Elizabeth Wood (His second marriage) and they had twelve children, living in the Windsor district of NSW.  Thomas was transported to New South Wales aboard the “Prince George”, arriving on 8 May 1837.  It is the 170th anniversary of the arrival of Thomas Pye to Australia.

Richard Corbett was eventually able to obtain a large property at WesternPortBay.  In his later life he committed suicide the result of a ‘broken heart’.  He was forwarding money back to his uncle Benjamin Halfpenny to recompense the robbery.

Thomas Pye went with his employer, Sylvester Brown a pastoralist and ex-ship captain, when Captain Browne overlanded his stock to Victoria. Thomas married his second wife, Mary Sampson, an Irish bounty emigrant on 16 October 1843 in the town of Melbourne.  He was 46 years old and she was 25.

The financial depression of the 1840s ruined Captain Brown’s stock and land holdings and his mental health, leaving the responsibility of resurrecting the family fortune to his seventeen year old son, Thomas Browne.  Browne wrote of his decision to move to the south western district of Victoria and his choice to employ Thomas Pye and his wife as his servants.  “As it happened, I had my eye on the very man, whom if I had had a thousand to pick from I should have selected for that particular description of work… He could plough, sow, reap and mow, milk cows and make butter.  As a bullock driver he was not far behind the native born Australian.  He was a fair practical carpenter, could (and did) build a hut, and furnish it with the requisite tables, chairs, washstands and other necessities.  As a splitter and fencer he was not to be excelled.  In the various conditions of early pastoral life he was more than a valuable servant, he was indispensable.”

Six months later the run “Squattlesea Mere” was selected.  Tom and Mary’s first child was born whilst they were still sleeping under the dray, but soon a slab hut was built and one of the two bedrooms was allotted to the family.  Tom’s next assignment was to build the stockyard and the required timber was eight miles from the homestead.  So Tom camped out to cut and split the trees into nine foot lengths.  Tom “must have felt pretty lonely at night, camped in a bark gunyah, with the black pillars of the stringy-bark trees around him, and not a soul within reach or ken.  But he was not of a nervous temperament – by wood or wold, land or sea, on foot or horseback, hand-to-hand fight, sword or pistol, it was all one to Tom.  He was afraid of nothing and nobody.  And when, years after, his son returned from India with the Queen’s Commission and the Victoria Cross, I knew where the bold blood had come from.  Towards the end of our wood-ranging, a rumour got abroad that the blacks had ‘broken out’ and commenced to spear cattle.” (The ‘son’ was Charles.  Charles Pye had enlisted at Coventry and served 19 years in India during the Indian Mutiny.  He was awarded the Victoria Cross for bravery during the siege of Lucknow.  Charles later went to New Zealand be given the commission of Captain of the Defence Force and served during the second Maori Wars.  He tracked his father down in Victoria, but died shortly afterwards.  He is buried in the Tower Hill cemetery near Warrnambool as are his three half brothers).

The blacks did ransack the homestead when Thomas Browne was away and Tom and Mary were in charge.  Mary lamented, “It was God’s mercy, that she, and Tom, and the precious baby had not all been killed and murdered, and eaten, and all the cattle driven into the Rocks.”  They had found about 20 to 30 blacks briskly engaged in pillaging the hut.  Tom said,  “One fellow had my double gun, which was loaded; he did not know much about the ways of a gun, which was lucky for us.  He held up the gun towards me, and pulled the trigger.  The hammers were up, but there were no caps on.  I had taken them off the night before.  When the gun wouldn’t go off, he says, ‘no good, no good,’ and laughed and handed it to another fellow.”

When they left, Thomas rode to the neighbouring station and got together a party of stockmen to follow the blacks.  After several miles of hard walking they came upon the black’s camp.  Tom related, “I crept up and could see them all sitting round their fires, and yarning away like old women, laughing away now and then.  By George, thinks I, you’ll be laughing on the wrong side of your mugs directly.”  The blacks fled without harm and the stolen property was recovered, except for the food stores.

In 1845, Thomas received his Ticket of Leave then left the employ of Thomas Browne, moving with his wife and children to Port Fairy where he leased land and a home, the family later moved to the Tower Hill and Kirkstall district.  He and Mary had 3 sons and 4 daughters.  Three of the girls died young; the other remained single; however the sons all married and produced 36 children between them.  Mary and Tom both died in 1880 and are buried in an unmarked grave in Port Fairy with their three daughters.

A number of the quotes are taken from Thomas Alexander Browne’s (Rolf Boldrewood) book, “Old Melbourne Memories” in which Browne refers to Thomas Pye as “Joe Burge”.


2 Responses to Favourite Ancestors – Stories

  1. Jacqueline Harrison-Knapp says:

    What a wonderful story of my 4th great uncle. Thank you so much for sharing it.

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