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What A Bonney Idea

by Mark Dodd


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For several months I have been tracing the many branches of my wife’s family in Australia. She is seventh generation Australian and descended from First Fleet convicts, Royal Marines who fathered and left children in the new colony, seekers of gold, religious zealots and humble farmers.

Tracing a family once they arrive in Australia is fairly easy. The way our BDM indexing has been done makes this a far easier task than the U.K. experience. One of the biggest hurdles is to find out how they arrived in Australia. Until you find out where and when they arrived, it is almost impossible to figure out the why.

During the mid to late 19th century there were many ways for people to gain a passage on ships arriving at the Australian Colonies. They could be an assisted immigrant, unassisted immigrant, Bounty passenger, part of the Irish Famine Relief, part of a ship’s crew that decided to stay and of course, be a convict.

"A brick wall that had stumped me for months was solved by
the excellent Family Forename Search tool on TheGenealogist
in a couple of minutes!"

They could disembark in one of several states i.e. N.S.W, Victoria, Queensland, Tasmania or South Australia. Some states had many ports you could have used such as Portland, Geelong or Port Phillip (Melbourne) in Victoria. You could come from just about any other port in the world and quite frequently it was not a port of your native land.

Most of my wife’s “non convict” relatives lived in the state of Victoria. Gold was discovered in Victoria in the middle of 1851. This started a “Gold Rush” and the population of Melbourne increased from 29,000 in 1851 to 125,000 by the end of 1854. By the end of 1860, the population was over 500,000!

So when I am searching for how a particular family arrived I might have to look at up to a dozen or more different sources of passenger lists and am faced with hundreds of thousands of passengers!
One family I was having a lot of problems with was Benjamin Bonney and his very large family from Sussex in England. After spending many days searching through the various shipping records I was almost ready to give up. Then I saw the Family Forename Search on The Genealogist.
I took the gamble and paid my registration fee and started to use the Family Forename Search. I entered the name of Benjamin and wife and four of his children and restricted the search to Sussex and up came a single hit. But the family had the surname Boniface, not Bonney! I checked the estimated years of birth and they matched!
I always want at least two different sources to verify an identity. I knew they were non-conformists so searched for them in another of TheGenealogist’s unique features, the Non Conformist Records. Using the name Boniface I found all of their baptism records which confirmed it was the correct family.

Armed with the fact they were Boniface, not Bonney, I went back to the most probable shipping lists and found them in a couple of minutes. So a brick wall that had stumped me for months was solved by the excellent Family Forename Search tool in a couple of minutes. The Non Conformist Records provided the extra level of proof.

Benjamin Boniface in RG4

Further research showed that in Sussex, many Boniface families changed to Bonney. Since this family were assisted immigrants they travelled under the name Boniface as this was how they were registered. Once they disembarked in Australia they only ever used the Bonney surname.

A large number of the Bonney family boarded the ship “Bombay” in July of 1852 and arrived in their new country in December of that year as assisted immigrants. This was a fairly large family unit and not all the Bonneys arrived on this ship. Taking a look at land grants and other evidence I knew that some members of the family were already in Victoria before the Gold Rush and at least 3 years before their other family members. It took more than a year for most assisted immigrants to be accepted and their voyage organised so I knew that for that first and second wave of Bonney were not influenced by the Gold Rush. I also knew they were fairly prosperous in England and well respected within the Presbyterian community. So why the immigration and how did the earlier Bonneys arrive?

I concentrated on their religion since I did not see money or quality life in the UK being problems for them. It is well documented that the morality of Australian colonists was always a worry for the puritans of their “home” countries. This had nothing to do with the convict population. It was simply a rejection of the class system and the fact that pioneering such large tracts of land meant you were often far away from the influence of religious guidance.

Presbyterians were in the minority for many reasons. Not that the average colonist noticed or cared. Religious differences are often forgotten when you and your neighbours are struggling to survive and must rely on each other. I have found many instances of Roman Catholic relatives being “transported” for their opposition to the English in the Irish “troubles” and then happily marrying a “non papist” in Australia. One family particularly amused me as their 13 children were divided between the genders, 6 male to 7 female. The father and mother and children would set of to church each Sunday and then divide in two as the males went to the Presbyterian Church and females went to the Roman Catholic! The father died first and they all eventually became Catholics. He is the only member of that family for many generations not buried in a Roman Catholic section of a cemetery.

When I investigated the Protestant influence in Australia I came across Reverend John Dunmore Lang. He had arrived in Australia in 1823 and saw the potential of the land but despaired at what he saw as the moral corruption of the inhabitants. He never openly blamed the Catholics but did suggest that more Presbyterians of good moral fibre would help restore balance.

He approached the leaders of the various colonies (Australia was not yet a nation but a collection of independent colonies) with the suggestion that immigration should be based on achieving religious balance and that an influx of Protestants would be beneficial. The various Governors were more concerned with getting a better balance of skills and sexes, since the disparity between the number of men and women was partly to blame for many of the moral outrages reported in the English press. England was also more interested in getting rid of the riff-raff rather than loose good moral and hard working middle class citizens to the colonies.

So Rev. Lang decided on a brilliant scheme that would end in over 1200 Protestants arriving aboard ships he organised and paid for and at least another 10,000 following in their footsteps. He used his religious zeal to bombard the Protestant population with the idea that Australia was the “Promised Land” and that, like the biblical Joshua, would lead them to it. He purchased large tracts of land in Australia and offered Protestants the chance to pay £20 per head for a voyage on the best ships available with an allocation of 30 acres of prime farming land when they arrived.
Most voluntary immigrants were paying £30 just for the voyage on questionable ships and then had to pay for land when they arrived.

Combining this deal with the feeling they would be doing God’s work and many Protestant families, including the Bonneys, decided to move to the other side of the world. So some members of Benjamin’s family arrived aboard the “Larpin” in late June 1849 as part of Rev. Lang’s recruitment drive.

The Bonney family did very well in Australia. They owned many Hotels (pubs as we call them) which did not stop them being involved in the temperance movement. One of the meanings of the surname Boniface is “innkeeper”. They also produced cordials ginger beers and other non-alcoholic beverages that were popular in the goldfields. They preached respect for the natives of Australia and religious and racial tolerance. They made a lot of money as traders of Gold and mundane occupations such as carpenters. It is a little known fact that some of the richest people in the richest goldfields in the world were humble carpenters. Who else was going to shore up the deeper and deeper mines being dug as well as provide the housing that 450,000 new residents needed?

When the gold rush died down they became prosperous farmers and businessmen. Although their early years are full of fire and brimstone religious fervour they soon appreciated the more tolerant attitudes that made sense in the colonies.
I have spent many a happy hours finding out about this branch of the tree. I think, without the use of the unique tools on TheGenealogist, I would still be trolling though shipping records looking for Benjamin and his family. Without the non-conformist records I would be wondering if I had the right family.

The Boniface family in the 1851 Census
Above: The Boniface family in the 1851 Census.

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12 Month subcription to Discover Your Ancestors Online MagazineAlong with providing access to Census, BMDs, Non-Conformist Records, Wills and more, the Diamond subscription gives you access to record collections that make it easy to find so much more about your ancestors.

You'll also enjoy a free 12 month subscription to Discover Your Ancestors online magazine worth £24.95, saving you a total of £44.95!

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