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From Devon to Australia: A 19th Century Narrative

Updated: Jan 19, 2019

This is a guest post from Virginia Noonan, author of From Devon to Australia: A 19th Century Narrative. This new book on the history of the Merrifield family will be launched by the author at Bookstop on Saturday 28th April between 11.00 and 14.00.


From Devon to Australia: A 19th Century Narrative explores a range of historical topics in the old and new worlds. It traces the effect of the Industrial Revolution on the lives of agricultural labourers in England and outlines the subsequent introduction of education for working-class people. The book also highlights the life of gold diggers in Australia and the harsh conditions they endured.


Through the lives of the Merrifield family of Tavistock, this is a rare opportunity to appreciate history in the words of ordinary people, working life in the 19th century and the influence on today’s society of momentous changes. It is mainly the over 140 letters written by the Merrifield family from 1856 to 1911 that provide the basis of this book.


William Merrifield (1804–1885), the son of an agricultural labourer, was destined to follow in his father’s footsteps. However, by taking advantage of the recently introduced education for the poor, he was able to change the course of his life and that of his descendants. William went on to become the teacher at Peter Tavy and then the Tavistock National School. In 1841 he was appointed librarian of the Tavistock Subscription Library, retiring in 1872. He was one of Devon’s earliest photographers, taking stereographic views that recorded the Duke of Bedford’s efforts to remodel Tavistock in the late 1850s. He also captured, in a very relaxed manner, the local Tavistock people and ventured far afield to take photos of local villages and the Dartmoors. William also recorded the historical Tavistock weather reports, now housed at the Tavistock Museum. He provided monthly reports to the Meteorological Society in London. William married Ann Sargent (1801–1873) in 1832.

The Guildhall, Tavistock, c.1860s. Photographer: William Merrifield, Source: Plymouth City Council Library Services

Samuel Merrifield (1833–1911), William’s eldest son, left England in 1854 at the age of 21 in search of gold in Australia. He obtained his Gold Licence in November 1854, four weeks before the Eureka Rebellion, which occurred on Sunday 3 December 1854, at Ballarat Victoria. Sam lived for 20 years in Clunes, Victoria, where he applied his trade and built many of the shops, which still exist today. He fought for the rights of the carpenters and joiners to obtain an 8-hour working day and was one of the Australian Labour Party’s earliest members. With his family he eventually moved to Melbourne where he continued to apply his trade and agitate for the rights of the working-class. Samuel married Ellen McNamara (1839–1919) in about 1860; the couple had 11 children.


John Merrifield (1834-1891), Samuel’s brother, was a teacher at the Mary Tavy National School from 1851 to 1862. He was then appointed the first Principal of the Plymouth Navigational School in 1862 and held the position until his retirement in 1886. He pursued a keen interest in mathematics and astronomy, enabling him to achieve great things in the nautical world. He received awards for the changes he made to the artificial horizon for use at sea. And, during his life, he had sufficient national and international stature to serve on the British Association for the Advancement of Science committee, which was concerned with the tides of the English Channel and North Sea.


John also had a keen interest in the social and political life of Plymouth. He along with his friend Richard Worth were, as John said 'regular cronies’ and were mixed up in all scientific, political and religious movements. He also sat on the local Plymouth Board of Education. Whilst on the Board he fought one of his biggest battles trying to ensure that: 'No religious catechism or religious formulary, which is distinctive of any particular denomination, shall be taught in the school.’ John married Mary Anne Venner (1829–1873) in 1856 and Anne Maria Palmer (1846–1887) in 1875. There were 10 children in all. Many of these children gained significant recognition in their own right.


William (1836–1899) undertook a carpenter’s apprenticeship and went on to build numerous houses in Battersea, Surrey and in 1884 was elected a town councillor of Clapham. William married Rebecca Larcombe (1837–1934) in 1863; the couple had four children.


Richard (1838–1917) completed a tailor’s apprenticeship. He then, for a short period, travelled to Australia to seek his fortune at the Victorian goldfields with his brother. On returning to Tavistock he was appointed relieving officer to assist the poor. Maintaining the same work he eventually moved to Islington. Richard married Mary Jane Geach (1839–1916) in 1867. The couple had five children, one of whom received the Order of the British Empire in 1924.


George (1840–1905) was the only sibling to live and work, for his whole life, in Tavistock. He undertook an apprenticeship as an ironmonger, and worked for the Duke of Bedford as a plumber. He was a well-respected member of the Tavistock community and was superintendent of the Tavistock Fire Brigade. George married Mary Jane Lucock (1840–1913) in 1866. The couple had four children.


The last member of the family was Sarah Jane (Polly) (1843–1927). Polly remained the dutiful daughter and stayed at home with her parents and cared for them until they died. She eventually married Robert Webb (1844–1931) in 1887 and moved to Yealmpton near Plymouth.


The author, Virginia Noonan, is the great-great-great granddaughter of William Merrifield. For over a decade, she has meticulously and tirelessly tracked down many historical records, family memorabilia and stories regarding the Merrifields, as well as read and transcribed the precious family letters, which are now in her keeping in Australia.



Review of From Devon to Australia: a 19th Century Narrative by the Royal Historical Society of Victoria:

"The Merrifield family tree is a giant ancient oak, with roots deep underground in Tavistock UK and countless complex branch structures, reaching as far as Victoria, Australia. Noonan is a member of this grand old tree and has told the tales of her forebears skillfully through their preserved letters and careful archival research. The immense changes of the 19th century are reflected in the generations of the author’s kin. Starting with the story of illiterate labourers who recognize the importance of education, their children and grandchildren go on to become eminent academics, pioneers, business people and land owners. It is a beautiful book and a fascinating read."