Some Hungerford Skeletons in the Australian Closet

This article was written by our founder Ron Prentice more than 20 years ago, but it contains good reminders for us about how we view our ancestors and a commitment to truth telling. Ron’s first “skeletons” were his own ancestor John Becher Hungerford and John’s brother Robert Richard Hungerford – my great-great-great grandfather. Peter Sherlock, editor at the time, encourages us to look in our closets for more skeletons. Are there topics or people or events that it’s time to talk about? Davina Best

An article by Ron Prentice, published in May 2000 Journal

At some time or another, almost all family historians find reference to the fact that one or more of the ancestors they have unearthed have been of a lesser quality in their actions than the rest. Norlaine Thomas, herself a Hungerford descendant of Winnipeg in Canada, expresses the experience in these terms:

I must add that, while the Hungerfords have played significant roles in the history, not only of England, but the United States, Canada and Australia, there were a few characters in the early history of the family whom I would not have invited round to tea. Nevertheless, the skeletons in anyone’s closet make the most interesting reading.

That renowned historian, Eric Rolls, in the preface to his wonderful book A Million Wild Acres as he speaks of the early history of Australia, reminds his readers:

The fascinating details of our forefathers were locked in secret drawers. The previous generation still shrank from our history. When the Mutch Indices and convict records were first exposed in the Mitchell Library, descendants filched the unnerving cards that bore their names. Even yet family trees are compiled with main branches excised. Entries in the Australian Dictionary of Biography are wary … I have shown no concern for those who are ashamed of their ancestors. It is a foolish shame. In the unscientific selection of human breeding, genes, good and bad, are quickly dispersed. One’s Great Grandfather has little enough opportunity to exert his influence. But what if a villainous Great Grandfather was permitted a look at those descendants who wished to disown the truth of him? Would he not be bitterly ashamed of them, so afraid of life as to deny his genes?  

In the light of these expressions, some little publicised episodes from the lives of some of our Australian Hungerford ancestors are here related. To avoid any chance of accusation that one name has been selected before another, my own ancestor has been selected to begin the disclosures and since only three of Emanuel and Catherine’s sons have been included, fear not for other branches may yet gain similar notoriety.

John Becher and Robert Richard Hungerford

Financial accounts of Robert Richard Hungerford in February 1850 reveal that claims against his estate amounted to 492.13.6 whilst his assets were claimed to be only  85.10.0. The Supreme Court of New South Wales addressed a Summons to the Chief Commissioner of Insolvent Estates calling for Robert to be brought to account from his temporary incarceration in Darlinghurst Gaol to explain more fully his assets. The prison confinement had been imposed until such time as the court requirements regarding his bankruptcy were met.

The Assignee of the estate, William Perry Esq., in a report of the examination said of R.R. Hungerford:

The Insolvent having attempted to leave the Colony without sufficient explanation as to certain furniture and a horse and gig which had been omitted from the schedule of his possessions.

It is disclosed that Robert and his elder brother John Becher Hungerford were bound for the goldfields of California, presumably in hopes of making a fortune following the goldrush there dating from 1848. On March 21, 1850 the creditors recommended that Robert be allowed to leave the Colony. John Becher Hungerford was in a similar financial strait at the time and in order to avoid detection he entered his name on the shipping passenger list omitting his surname and the entry reads simply ‘John Becher’. When challenged, he expressed the opinion that he was unaware of any illegality in this course of action.

Robert Richard and John Becher finally left for California on 14 May 1850, aboard the ‘John Munn’, both men leaving behind their wives and several young children. The Californian jaunt was an unsuccessful venture for the brothers. It should be remembered that, at this time, the Colony was moving very slowly out of the depression period which began about 1842  and which claimed many landholders in the financially disastrous times. Included was Emanuel up to the time of the arrival of his son Septimus from Ireland carrying news of the windfall from the estate of his wife’s late sister Anne Payne.

Ironically 1850 was also the year in which W. Campbell found gold near Clune, but he concealed the discovery. By 1851 gold had been discovered and was being recovered in quantity from many widely separated places in the Eastern States.

Percy Payne Hungerford

The ninth child of Emanuel and Catherine Hungerford, Percy Payne shared the birthday with his elder brother Robert Richard, 24 May. At the age of 48, Percy was to commit an act which appeared to be beyond the acceptance of legal or ethical standards. The report published in the columns of the Maitland Mercury on 1 July 1878 best tells the story:

ASSAULT CASE – Percy P. Hungerford charged Michael McGrath, at the West Maitland Police Court, yesterday, with having, on the 30th June, at Farley, unlawfully assaulted him. The complainant’s evidence was to the effect that between three and four o’clock on last Sunday week, he went over to defendant’s house in consequence of a complaint having been made to him by his servant shortly before. Complainant (Hungerford) made some enquiries as to what defendant had said about his children. Defendant came outside his house, and struck complainant in the mouth; the force of the blow knocked complainant down. He gave no provocation for the assault. Defendant said he would kick them all off the place. In cross examination complainant came over to defendant’s place, he had to cross a fence, when he saw the defendant rushing towards him he pulled off his coat, he did this to defend himself. – Florence Fox saw defendant strike complainant and knock him down. She was in the complainant’s dining room at the time. As Mr Hungerford was pulling off his coat, defendant struck him. He was backing towards the house, endeavouring to ward off the blows. – Mrs Hungerford was also examined. – The defendant’s legal representative addressed the Bench for the defence. He submitted that the complainant brought on the assault himself. He was also a trespasser at the time. The Bench thought that the justice of the case would be fully met by inflicting a fine on McGrath of ten shillings and costs.

As Michael McGrath was leaving the Court, he expressed his intentions of getting Hungerford and all his family even if it meant him serving a twenty year term. He was threatened with a further charge of contempt of court but his Irish temper was up as he walked away filled with rage and stating his intention of taking the matter further.

These threats must have been passed on to Percy Hungerford. Percy, who had been a sick man for some time, was no match in a fight with the powerful Michael. He was afraid for his own safety and that of his family and though possessed of a brace of duelling pistols which he is said to have offered to share with his neighbour, he went to a Maitland store, David Cohen & Co, and there bought a revolver and two boxes of cartridges. The weapon was tested by the salesman by firing two cartridges aimed into the swamp at the rear of the store. This demonstration of power was said to be the usual procedure when selling such a weapon. Percy then left for home.

The next chapter in this unfortunate saga is again told in the columns of the Maitland Mercury of July 9 but since that is reported in great detail, it must of necessity, be summarised as must also the news items of July 11 and October 17.

The two men left the Court house about a quarter to one o’clock, going in different directions. At two o’clock, McGrath was seen at the Campbells Hill saleyards. He remained there for some time. Mr Hungerford and his wife went towards home. About half past the hour of four both parties had reached home when the dispute was renewed and a very warm conversation ensued; McGrath, it is stated, again threatened Hungerford. This dispute occurred near a gate dividing the farms. It is said that Mrs Hungerford, hearing the squabble, ran up the road to ascertain what had occurred, and to prevent them from quarrelling, and just as she arrived her husband fired at McGrath who immediately fell to the ground. Mr Hungerford, on seeing that the shot had taken effect, rode in to Dr Pierce and summoned him to Farley. Drs Pierce and Howe started immediately and arrived shortly after McGrath had expired. They examined the body and found a bullet mark over the region of the heart. Hungerford had given himself up to the police … claiming that before the shot was fired, McGrath had picked up a stone and threatened his opponent with it.

‘The affair” the Mercury goes on to state, ‘has cast a gloom over the whole town. Mr Hungerford has a wife and three children, and the unfortunate McGrath has left a wife and six or seven children’.

An inquest was held in West Maitland the following day and the Mercury reports the matter in detail which report covers more than a full page of the paper. It discloses that the altercation on the fateful day took place along a considerable distance of the road leading up to the gate when McGrath made many swings at Hungerford who retreated backward in order to avoid the blows with a fist laden with a stone. Hungerford warned McGrath that he had a pistol and unless the threats ceased he would be forced to use it. The warning had no effect on the enraged protagonist and several witnesses at the house confirmed that Hungerford did all he could to retreat from the fight.

At the end of a long day the enquiry was brought to a close and Hungerford was committed to take his trial on a charge of manslaughter to be heard during the Circuit Court next sitting in October. Bail was allowed.

One can easily imagine the intense and widespread interest this case attracted in the Maitland District. The whole matter, however, was one which appears to have been so tragically promoted and pursued in a reckless state of bare fisted rage and though one must feel sorry for McGrath’s wife and family deprived of their hard working and respected father, there is also sympathy for Percy Hungerford faced with the obvious threats and danger, not only to himself but also to his family. From that fateful day in 1878 the lives of both families must have been overshadowed by doubt yet guilt of the utter futility of the whole affair. The case concluded when the trial on October 16, 1878 ended with a verdict of ‘Not Guilty’.

This case was brought to my notice by Harry Boyle of Hinton

It’s interesting what a reaction people had to the disclosure of those convict records in the Mitchell Library. We can now use National Library’s Trove system to gain access to two hundred years of Australian and British newspapers from the comfort of our own home. What treasures and skeletons can be found there! And it is worth noting Eric Rolls’ book A Million Wild Acres is selling in a thirtieth anniversary edition, having set in train a growing collection of books taking an hard-hitting look at the impact of British settlers. – Davina Best.

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