Author and historian Martin Greenwood is perhaps best known locally for his books about village life in the fictional county of Banburyshire.

These include books inspired by Flora Thompson’s Lark Rise Country, such as The Real Candleford Green, The Story of a Lark Rise Village.

In his new book The Promised Land he has written a lively and knowledgeable story of emigration from Oxfordshire and its neighbouring counties from 1815 to 1914. The story begins with the voyages of Captain Cook and the discovery of Australia In 1770. In 1787 the First Fleet of 11 ships and about 1350 people under the command of Captain Arthur Phillip sailed for Australia. On 26 January 1788 a landing was made at Sydney Cove. The new colony was formally proclaimed as the Colony of New South Wales on 7 February.

Other transport fleets bringing more convicts as well as free settlers followed - to Van Diemen’s Land (later renamed Tasmania) in 1803 and at Moreton Bay (which became Queensland) in 1824. Some 20 Wycombe men were transported to Tasmania after riots in 1830 when paper-making machines were smashed.

As a result of agitation by the free settlers in Sydney, transportation of convicts to Sydney ended in 1840. By the end of the penal transportation in 1868, approximately 165,000 people had been sent to Australia as convicts.

Emigration to the mainland of Australia gathered steam in the 1830s. It was expensive at more than £30 per person, so remained beyond the reach of the vast majority of working people, certainly beyond the unemployed and disadvantaged. This was followed by what has become known as the Great Exodus.

The discovery of gold, beginning in 1851, first near Bathurst in New South Wales and then in the newly formed colony of Victoria, transformed Australia economically, politically and demographically. The gold rushes occurred hard on the heels of a major worldwide economic depression. As a result, about two per cent of the population of the British Isles emigrated to New South Wales and Victoria during the 1850s.

The story told in the book evokes the bustle and confusion of migrants at the port of embarkation, Liverpool, and the emotions of departure. It looks at their shipping, health problems, costs and shipwrecks, and at their experience on arrival.

The Britnells of Bledlow and Radnage

A notable example given in The Promised Land is the extended Britnell family. In 1850 newly-weds, 18 year old Jonah Britnell and his wife Sarah nee Gough embarked aboard the 874 ton vessel Statesman for their new life in Australia, arriving in Port Philip on March 17, 1850. They had married on October 25, 1849 at the parish church in Bledlow.

The Britnells were the only passengers on the ship, which was mainly carrying cargo. The voyage on such a small ship must have been terrifying at times. This was unlikely to have been an assisted passage, so possibly the community of Bledlow provided financial assistance to the couple. Jonah was a baker, so probably would have had no difficulty in finding a job on arrival in Australia, and Sarah had been employed as a domestic servant at the Vicarage in Bledlow. Their six children were all born in Victoria. The family prospered, Jonah becoming a farmer with his own farm at Nunawading, a suburb of Melbourne. He died on October 9, 1879.

Fourteen years after Jonah and Sarah, 36 years old Rebecca Britnell nee Eggleton and her 6 children aged 2 to14 emigrated. They left London on March 7, 1964, sailing on the ship Red Rose, whose Master was John Spratley, with the voyage expected to take 140 days. Her husband John had emigrated about two years before, presumably to get established before being joined by his family. Unfortunately it did not work out like that.

When John Britnell had married Rebecca on May 11, 1848 at Bledlow they must have thought they were set fair for a comfortable life. Both were children of farmers, John’s father Jonah being the tenant of Callow Down Farm in Bledlow and Rebecca’s father Thomas tenant of Radnage Bottom Farm. By 1951 John, aged only 24, was the tenant of Bennett End Farm in Radnage and employing two farmhands.

In 1856 Lord Carrington, the owner of Bennett End Farm, decided it should be sold. The 88 acres were disposed of in eight lots by auction at the Red Lion Hotel in High Wycombe on September 12, 1856. By 1861 John and Rebecca, who now had four children, had had to vacate their farm. Presumably in search of employment for John they had moved to live at 61 Edward St, Chorlton upon Medstock, near Manchester. John was working as a corn-miller.

Tragedy then struck the family. Their eldest son Thomas was killed in a freak accident. In August 1861 he was standing with friends watching a lorry reverse out of a yard near their home in Chorlton when a wall collapsed onto them, killing Thomas and injuring the others.

At about this time, whether because of the death of Thomas or because his job as a corn- miller was not to John’s liking, and having heard about the fortune which could be made in the Australian Gold Rush, it was decided that he should emigrate. His family would join him later.

Life in Australia

Rebecca Britnell and her six children arrived in Melbourne on June 15, 1864 the voyage lasting only 100 days instead of the expected 140 days. There were many other passengers on board, one woman gave birth during the voyage but concealed the baby, who died. She appeared in court in Melbourne the day after the vessel arrived, being remanded on a personal recognisance of £50 to re-appear in court if summoned.

We next learn about Rebecca when on April 15, 1869 she was admitted to the Yarra Bend Asylum by her eldest daughter Sophia. The entry in the asylum record states “husband has deserted patient who has 5 children dependent on charity”. Sophia was working as servant at the Woodland’s Hotel, Melbourne Rd, Ballarat. The asylum was located in a suburb of Melbourne, now the capital of the State of Victoria, about 70 miles from Ballarat, which was at the centre of the Gold Rush in that state.

On learning about the desertion of the family by Rebecca’s husband the authorities took prompt action. John appeared in court In Victoria on May 6, 1869. The charge was “John Britnell is charged, on warrant, with deserting his wife and children at Warrenheip, in February, 1864. He is English, aged about 44 years, 5 feet 7 or 8 inches high, stout build, and is said to squint with one eye. He is supposed to be living with a woman named Beatrice Eggleston, at a boiling-down establishment on the Saltwater River, and said to have 3 or 4 children by her.”

Warrenheip is about 5 miles from Ballarat, now being a suburb of that city. In the 1860s it attracted gold prospectors, but within 10 years developed into an agricultural community. We do not know the outcome of the court hearing.

Rebecca was discharged from the asylum on June 6 1869 as having “recovered”. However she was readmitted on July 1, 1870 to another asylum in the same locality, this time by her children Robert, George and Sophia. Once again they state that their mother has been deserted by her husband, but add that they can only support themselves. Rebecca was discharged from there on September 11, 1870.

It seems that Rebecca then moved to Victoria St in Ballarat and managed to support herself by working as a Laundress. However in 1876, on February 4, she was admitted to the local Kew Asylum by her youngest daughter Caroline, who had been born in Manchester.

At that time Caroline was only 16 years old. Two years later she was a “pupil teacher“ at Brown Hill School in Ballarat, so she had decided to pursue a career in education. In 1886 she was appointed a “State School teacher”, and in 1890 as Head Teacher of a school in Bullarook, Victoria.

There is no record of Rebecca’s discharge from the Kew Asylum, but she must have been because in January 1882 she is listed in Victoria government records “Applications for Licences Approved – a garden of one acre in Ballarat East, fee 5s”, and again in 1883 and 1886. On October 17, 1890 the licence was “revoked or declared void”.

It seems possible therefore that Caroline lived with her mother, so that aided by support from her daughter enabled Rebecca to achieve a level of independence and something like a normal life. All her other children also seem to have thrived.

Rebecca Britnell died at Ballarat on April 10, 1902, aged 74. Let us hope that the last 20 or so years of her life were lived in peace and tranquillity, surrounded by her children and grandchildren.

The Promised Land is available from Martin Greenwood by writing to him at: Sarnen, Main Street, Fringford, Bicester, OX27 8DP, with a cheque for £9.95 plus p&p £3 - £12.95.