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Migration as an Opportunity for Reinvention: Alfred and Margaret Rich of Gundaroo

by James McDonald

Margaret Rich, c.1870

Margaret Rich, c.1870

Along with their neighbours in the fledgling Taralga, Gundaroo and Ginninderra communities in the years 1857 to 1893, Alfred Rich and Margaret Phillips made valuable contributions to local life.[1] For many years, they ran private schools and, thereby, held a key role in these communities, being responsible for the development of their children. To all who knew this couple in their adopted country, they appeared to be quintessentially English in character and heritage. When Alfred died in 1893, he was honoured with an obituary, which noted his connections to the English landed gentry.

News has been received of the death of Mr Alfred Mainwaring Rich, who died at the residence of his son at Gunning. The above-named gentleman who was highly connected - being the brother of the late Major General Rich - was formerly a resident here for many years and was well known both here and at Gundaroo.[2]

But all was not what it seemed. Alfred Rich had used his migration as an opportunity to omit certain elements from his past and to reinvent himself. Australia offered free settlers the chance to build new lives. Some took it further and built new identities. This is certainly what Alfred did, but, as will be suggested in this paper, he may have paid a price.

A rich heritage, concealed
It may be true that Alfred Mainwaring Rich’s father was indeed of minor gentry stock, but the Richs were viewed as usurpers in England. The family had Jewish origins and had won its wealth and titles during the dissolution of the monasteries.[3] As such, they were viewed as ‘Shylocks’, whose ancestors had profited from simony. They were also resented for taking the side of parliament in the English Civil War.[4] In these respects, they were considered ‘gentry’ in title only. Making matters worse for Alfred was that, on his mother’s side, he had Mughal Indian ancestry, and there is even evidence pointing to African descent via the South Atlantic island of St Helena. Alfred’s mother’s complexion was so dark that her British citizenship had to be explained to the 1851 census officer. Some of her cousins in subsequent censuses were even described as ‘African coloured’.[5] One wonders what the conservative Gundaroo and Ginninderra communities would have thought if they had discovered that they had entrusted the care and tutelage of their children to a teacher of mixed heritage; probably, for that matter, the descendant of a freed slave.[6]

Margaret Phillips also shielded a non-Anglo past. She, too, came from a Jewish family on her mother’s side.[7] Her paternal line was nouveau riche, as the Phillips family had recently prospered as merchants in Leeds and through their marriage into the very wealthy, and very Quaker, Nicholson family of Roundhay Park, Leeds.[8] Although her family was welcomed as philanthropists, employing, as it did, many locals and Waterloo veterans on the redevelopment of the parklands, it was never really embraced as an equal by the established local gentry. Margaret’s father, James Phillips, had been widowed around 1840, and was busy establishing business interests across the world in concert with a few of his brothers. They traded cloth and other goods and even travelled to Australia, where they carved-out the rural property Kareen, near Scone.[9] The family found places for Margaret and her cousins in a school for clergymen’s children similar to that attended by the Bronte sisters. [10] This arrangement lasted until they could be brought out to New South Wales.[11] Two of them, Margaret and her cousin, Sarah, were educated as school tutors. When they arrived in the colony in 1859, the Phillips girls were presented as models of English gentlewomen and were both quickly married-off to promising young school principals.[12] The marriages may even have been pre-arranged. Margaret’s uncle, Stephen Phillips, was, himself, a schoolmaster and was in the position to act as a remote matchmaker. It seems more than coincidence that both Phillips women quickly wed local teachers. Once the marriages were completed, the extended Phillips family had five teachers working in three schools across the Goulburn district.

James Phillips seems to have been a determined and energetic man who had a clear plan for his children. Margaret was virtually an orphan. Her mother died when she was an infant and she would have barely known her father, who had placed her into the boarding school at an early age before leaving the country to pursue his business interests. He only sent for her when a placement and possible marriage was arranged at the other end of the world. Remarkably, Margaret complied with his plans. It was clear that both Alfred’s and Margaret’s families had long since converted to Christianity. But while Alfred did his best to conceal his heritage, memory of Margaret’s Jewish ancestry, and her sense of difference, was retained and passed down, albeit privately. Publicly it was a very different matter.

Alfred’s father was Charles Lewis Henry Pye Rich (1784-1840), who dissolved his family holdings in Berkshire to resettle in Somerset. He was half-French and had been born and raised in the Netherlands, where his father was a part-time diplomat.[13] His mother, Maria Tippet (1798-1886), was the granddaughter of Chovvakkaran Moosa (1745-1807) a Mughal pepper merchant of Thalaserry, who was so wealthy that he had lent money to the British East India Company.[14] His mother also seems to have had African heritage through the Masons, who were planters on St Helena. Despite the considerable wealth of these families, it was hard for the mixed-race Tippets and Masons to find acceptance in nineteenth-century England.[15]

Army records show that Alfred enlisted on 12 August 1845 (aged 22) in Lieutenant-Colonel H.K. Bloomfield’s 1st/11th North Devonshires, which served in Australia from 1845-1857. Alfred’s designation at enlistment was ‘labourer’, which suggests that he fallen upon hard times and may have been estranged from his wealthy family.[16]  Upon arrival, his regiment was posted to Hobart, but due to internal discipline problems with the troops in Sydney, the North Devonshires were redirected to help restore order in the city.[17] The incumbents had become unpopular in Sydney for their rough treatment of civilians and convicts alike. In contrast, the North Devonshires proved to be a popular regiment, returning to garrison Sydney in response to a public petition in 1848. Thereafter, the regiment occupied Victoria Barracks until it returned to England in 1857. At this time, about 100 men purchased their discharge and remained in Sydney. According to the last NSW pay sheet of the regiment, Alfred was discharged at Sydney on 11 October 1857 with six-months pay, and settled at Macarthur’s property, ‘Richlands’, near Taralga, where he found employment as a schoolteacher.[18] Margaret was also soon teaching at Richlands and they were married in the house of her uncle, Stephen Phillips, the principal of the school.[19]

In Australia, Alfred had already begun sowing the rumour that his family had a castle and manorial holdings in England, and that he had only joined the army and left his native country in despair, having been blamed for a riding accident which took the life of his sister.[20] These stories were inventions, but were willingly consumed by his colonial friends and even by his own children in later years. Only after the investigations of his descendants, which began in the 1960s, was it discovered that there was no castle, no sister and no reluctant émigré.[21] Even the profession that he claimed and, on occasion, practiced (surgery), was an exaggeration. More recently, his paternal Jewish heritage, his maternal Moghul roots and possible slave ancestry, have also come to light, by virtue of electronic access to records held in the India Office and the archives and parish registers of St Helena.[22]

In his defense, it must have been difficult for someone of mixed heritage to find acceptance in nineteenth-century English society. Perhaps Alfred saw the Jewish and Moslem origin of his family as something best shed in the Antipodes. In Gundaroo and Ginninderra, Alfred’s dark complexion would not be scrutinised, as it had been in conservative and homogenous Somerset. People in the colony were perhaps thirstier for the gentler elements of life from the old country and this is what their gentrified schoolteachers, Alfred and Margaret, offered them. Moreover, in late-nineteenth-century NSW, Alfred and Margaret could hope to be judged on their merits, rather than on their race.

The Gundaroo and Ginninderra years
Around 1867, Alfred and Margaret moved to Nelanglo, near Gundaroo. Here, they combined farming, with the provision of teaching services. In the 1840s, all riverfront acreage at Gundaroo had been secured in large parcels by a small number of established families. These included the McLeods at Barnsdale, the Dyces at Tillygrieg, the Packers at Esther Mead, and the Guises at Jerrabiggery. [23] The bulk of the Gundaroo workforce consisted first of convicts, then, after transportation ceased in 1840, came a flow of ‘bounty migrants’. By the 1841 NSW population census, Gundaroo was listed as having 388 inhabitants. Convict representation had dropped significantly, with 90 still resident, about a quarter of the count. By the time the Richs arrived in the mid-1860s, the population was mainly composed of tenant farmers, or small landholders. In the 1850s, a number of the larger properties had been broken up for tenant farmers and a new influx of smaller free-selectors, who had humbler origins, but enough capital and motivation to take advantage of the opportunity to buy good land.[24]

It was into this maturing community that the Richs arrived to set up school at the northern end of Gundaroo. Just eighteen months later, Margaret’s sister, Sarah, and her schoolmaster husband, John Beresford Boate, set up school at the opposite end of the town, where they ran classes from July 1868 until May 1873.

Although the Richs and Boates were not financially influential within the Gundaroo community, they wielded significant influence in the area and enjoyed a privileged position in its civic life. As ‘local gentry’, who were also responsible for the education of the district’s children, they were viewed as cultural exemplars and intellectual leaders. Alfred was actively interested in literature and dabbled in comic verse, which he occasionally submitted to the Goulburn Penny Post under the nom de plume Jeremiah.[25] He also provided valuable ad hoc medical assistance, which may help explain the tradition that he had previously served as a military surgeon. In 1876, he is recorded as having been friendly with the local medical practitioner, Dr. Hidler.[26] Alfred was called upon, on occasion, to provide emergency medical assistance. For example, in 1879, Curtis Dyce, a workman on the Gundaroo Bridge, slipped and badly broke his leg. Alfred successfully set the fractured limb.[27]

Gundaroo in the 1860s was a relatively polarised community, and the Richs and Boates had little to do with the local Irish, many of them Catholic, Gaelic-speaking emancipists or bounty migrants, who congregated in clusters of smaller holdings at Mugwell, Back Creek and towards Tallagandra. [28] More common ground lay with the Protestant landowners and their families located along the river frontages and in the new township itself. In this context, Alfred and Margaret would have presented themselves as orthodox Anglicans. The Catholics, on the other hand, had no church, worshipping instead at makeshift altars set up by Michael Brennan, the resident priest at Yass or itinerant priests travelling from St Mary’s in Sydney.[29] The first Catholic Church at Gundaroo, St Josephs, was not built until 1881.[30] Thankfully, the intermingling of cultures and perspectives in the new country would eventually dilute these prejudices. For example, the Presbyterian Gundaroo squire, Donald McLeod junior, donated some his family’s land to be used as a non-denominational cemetery (primarily by local Catholic families), when Rev. Pierce Galliard-Smith, the parish priest from St John’s Church, Duntroon, refused to bury non-Anglicans in the general cemetery.[31]

But just as the couple had created new lives for themselves at the centre of their adopted community, tragedy visited. Margaret died unexpectedly in May 1880 at her residence in Nelanglo. The cause of death was ‘internal abscess’, for which she received treatment over a six-day period. She is buried in Gundaroo general cemetery in an unmarked grave. [32] Alfred struggled to cope after his wife’s death. As suggested previously, he had an unstable temperament, unsuited to grief. Matters may not have been helped by the fact that he was living a life of half-truths. His financial position was poor and he proved unable to provide for his five surviving children, who ranged in age from 13 years to a few months. Alfred junior, the eldest, sought farm-work in Gunning. The directories and other records show that, eventually, he became a labourer in Goulburn. Sarah (aged 10) remained with her father for a few years before taking up a domestic position with the Collett family at Queanbeyan. She later married Richard Reid, a grazier at Spring Flat, Tallagandra. The youngest children were fostered out. Honorah Cartwright (nee Reid) of Tallagandra took in Frances (aged six). Florence went to live with the Jones family at Gundaroo and later married their son. Lionel, a baby of just five months, was fostered by the Elliotts in Sydney.[33]

In August 1881 Alfred moved to Ginninderra, where he established a small private school, located on premises adjacent to the Anglican stalwarts, the Gribbles.[34] He ran this school for several years, servicing Ginninderra, Mulligans Flat and Tea Gardens, but closed it in March 1892, when enrolments waned and his health had started to fail. Alfred took the opportunity to retire to Gunning, where he lived with his son.[35] After Margaret’s death, Alfred turned to alcohol. As we have seen, the children had already been ‘farmed out’. Some financial respite came when his mother died in 1886, and he seems to have been in receipt of a stipend.[36] But at some time before he died, the payments he was receiving from England ceased. It is said that Rev. Galliard-Smith, through whom the payments were administered, had reported his heavy drinking bouts to the trustees of the estate.[37] Temperance, it seems, must have been a condition, upon which the payments were predicated.

Despite Alfred’s shortcomings, it seems that he was a well-educated and talented man, able to turn his hand to soldiery, teaching, farming and medicine. He appeared to be the sort of ‘refined English gentleman’ who people admired and whose flaws (such as his drinking) were readily overlooked. He died in June 1893 at Gunning aged 70. Like Margaret, he is also interred in an unmarked grave. Although relatively little is known about them, there is enough information to support the suggestion that Alfred Rich left England deliberately to seek out a new and obscure life, even if the detail of his circumstances was invented. We can never know what his reasons were, but it seems likely that it was a deliberate process of reinvention. What is certain is that he and Margaret were happy together and raised a fine family. But what is also apparent is that, when Margaret died, Alfred did not cope on his own.

The people of Gundaroo and Ginninderra probably had no idea that African, Moghul and Jewish blood ran through Alfred and Margaret’s collective veins. Their neighbours in England would have known, or suspected, and probably not have embraced them in the way that the Australian communities did. Overall, their reinvention in Australia was a success. Most colonials wanted to believe that, in their midst, grew scions of English gentry grafted onto rough Australian bush-stock. It may have made them feel less distant from the memory of their British homes. But on a personal level, the reinvention seems to have taken a toll. In Australia, Margaret and Alfred may have come across as a quintessentially English couple, but after Margaret’s death, Alfred found it difficult to stand on his own. He struggled to live the counterfeit life he had invented for himself. When he lost Margaret, he slipped into alcoholism, unable to meet the ongoing expectations of the community he had served so well. We can only speculate on the reason/s for his demise; perhaps it was simple grief, the pressure of self-deception, or something else altogether.

Citation details

James McDonald, 'Migration as an Opportunity for Reinvention: Alfred and Margaret Rich of Gundaroo', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/essay/18/text32361, originally published 19 November 2015, accessed 18 November 2018.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2018

Margaret Rich, c.1870

Margaret Rich, c.1870

Related Persons

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James Phillips, c.1860

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Alfred Rich, c.1890

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Sarah Reid, c.1910

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Cecil Rich, c.1914