There’s a story I’m keen to tell that falls outside my perview as a fiction writer. It’s the story of my paternal family origins.
Years ago, I embarked on constructing a potted history of the Mayes family, whose origins have been traced back to 19th century Ireland by my father Stephen. Recent discoveries place 18th century Mayes ancestors in Suffolk, England and reveal anecdotal evidence of 16th century Huguenots in North Eastern France.
One of the most interesting stories involves my great-great grandfather, Joseph Ladd Mayes. My father discovered that Joseph Ladd served as a mounted trooper in the Victoria Police Force here in Australia. Not only that, it emerged that Joseph Ladd was involved in the hunt for one of Australia’s most notorious criminal figures – Ned Kelly.
With the advances in family history research and the ability to reach a wider audience, I thought it would be useful to share the story of my family origins. In doing so, I’m hoping to make new connections and perhaps fill in the many gaps that still exist in the family story.
This website is a living document – as further information comes to hand, I’ll update the entries here.
So where to begin?
The town of Headford, on the west coast of Ireland, is located approximately 20 miles north of Galway on the road to Ballinrobe (County Mayo) about 2 miles east of Lough Corrib. It is renowned as a popular fishing destination and the area is steeped in a rich archeological and monastic history. It is the site of the ruins of Ross Abbey a Franciscan friary, constructed in 1357 and the nearby Lough Corrib was considered a place of reverence by the early Christian monks.
My great-great grandfather Joseph Ladd Mayes was born in Headford, Ireland on the 20th January 1833, the second child of market gardener Joseph Ladd Mayes (Sr), a native of Suffolk, England and the daughter of a Headford farming family, Rebecca Lydon. Joining an older sister, 8 year old Sarah and her twin brother John, Joseph Ladd entered this idyllic rural township with the prospects of a good life ahead of him.
Joseph Ladd Mayes (Sr) was a successful market gardener and seems to have been something of a wunderkind. My family has in it’s possession, a sterling silver medal awarded to Joseph Sr. in 1834 at a Headford country show for growing strawberries. The elder Mayes had also been retained by a prominent Headford family as their head gardener, giving further credence to the family’s comfortable status at the time.
Sadly, the younger Joseph Ladd would barely know his father. Joseph Sr. died a mere three years after Joseph Ladd was born. His grave in Headford’s ancient cemetary is marked by a small monument that reads;
Beneath this stone lyeth the body of Joseph Mayes, who departed this life the 21st day of March 1836. He was a sincere Christian, a loving husband & a fond father. This stone was erected to his memory by his loving wife Rebecca Mayes
The death would have had a devastating effect on the young family, plunging them into grief and robbing them of their relative security at time when dark clouds were emerging for the Irish nation.
The disease that struck the Irish potato crop in the winter of 1845-46 brought ruin to tens of thousands of tenant farmers and labourers, reducing almost all of Ireland to poverty. In fact, in the four years between 1845 and 1848 the potato crop failed three times, causing what became known as the Great Famine. Making matters worse, very few farmers owned their own land or even held title to their humble dwellings, so when the crop failed they had scarcely any resources to call on. As a result, countless people faced the choice of leaving Ireland or perishing. Many travelled to Britain and Australia, and between 1846 and 1851, more than a million men, women, and children emigrated to the United States and Canada, mostly through the port of New York.
While the circumstances around their immigration remain unclear, I recently found an entry in New York shipping records for a Rebecca Mayes, aged 45, having arrived in the port of New York on a ship called the Albion in June 1851. The record has the ship leaving from the Port of Galway. The Albion started out as a convict transport in 1813, ferrying prisoners to the new colony of Australia, before passing into private hands for use as a passenger and trading vessel. Additional documents put a John Mayes on a ship called the Sirius that sailed from Cork at a similar time, however there are no records placing Joseph Ladd on either ship or, indeed, any ship. Further work needs to be done to establish their movements (as at Feb. 2020).
By 1851, Sarah – then aged 26 and married to a John Dunbar – remained in Ireland, while Rebecca, John and the young Joseph Ladd boarded a ship bound for America.
It is in New York City that reliable records of the family can be found. Arriving in the new nation, they settled in the village of Dobbs Ferry north of Manhattan Island on the Hudson River. A former staging point during the American Revolutionary War, Dobbs Ferry became a popular and tranquil rural hamlet for settlers. It remains a highly desirable locale to this day.
Emulating the Irish agrarian society of Headford, John Mayes saw opportunity in Dobbs Ferry and established himself in the horticultural trade of his father. He brought on young Joseph Ladd as his apprentice. Having endured the triple blow of losing her husband, the Great Famine and displacement from everything they knew, Rebecca Mayes carried scars that would remain until the end of her life. Cognisant of this, John was motivated to provide as tranquil an existence as he could for his mother and younger sibling.
It was in Dobbs Ferry that Joseph Ladd met the third daughter of Protestant Reverend Doctor Louis Charles Piquet. Marrian Piquet and her extensive family were expatriates of Le Brassus in Switzerland who had emigrated to America probably around the same time as the Mayes family. It is thought that the Piquet family lived initially in Boston, but more recent documentary evidence places them in Westchester County.
A certificate of marriage shows that Joseph Ladd – now a florist & gardener in his own right – wed Marrian Piquet in New York on December 3 1855. They settled in Dobbs Ferry and had every intention of putting down roots in Westchester County. Joseph Ladd & Martian welcomed their first child, a boy named Charles, in 1857, and Joseph Ladd obtained his certificate of naturalization that same year.
In the latter half of 1857, American markets were rocked by a sudden downturn that became known as the Panic. The failure of a number of high profile businesses caused a financial panic to spread rapidly. The railroad industry experienced financial declines, hundreds of workers were laid off and the effect soon snowballed.
For a family that had endured the worst of the Irish Famine and then found some modicum of comfort in upstate New York, the prospect of further hardship may have influenced the young couple to reassess their life in America.
It was likely, at this time, news of an economic boom in the fledgling colony of Australia captured their attention.
The discovery of gold in 1851 at Bathurst in New South Wales and the newly formed colony of Victoria, transformed Australia economically, politically and demographically. The gold rushes occurred hard on the heels of the metastasizing global downturn. As a result, significant populations of British and Irish nationals immigrated to NSW and Victoria during the 1850s, along with continental Europeans, North Americans and Chinese.
For a simple gardener with a young family trying to ekk out an existence in the shadow of the 1857 Panic, the calculus before Joseph Ladd Mayes was clear. Potential prosperity in Australia or destitution in America.
Shipping records show that on February 22, 1858 Joseph Ladd, Marrian and their infant son Charles, boarded the steamer Mini Har Har. Saying goodbye to his widowed mother, knowing he may not see her again, must have weighed heavily on Joseph Ladd. Rebecca Mayes had been bruised by the Great Famine in Ireland and the prospect of uprooting herself again would have caused her considerable distress. Not surprisingly she chose to remain in Dobbs Ferry with her older son John. For Marrian Mayes, leaving behind the security of her large Christian family would have been equally distressing.
In the Spring of 1858, the young Mayes family stepped up the gangplank and sailed away from New York Harbour.