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Dowell Family Link To Gold Rush

When gold was discovered in Australia in the early 1850s, ships carried goods for the new settlers direct from Gloucester to Melbourne, and Thomas Dowell from Berkeley took the opportunity to seek his fortune. This page draws on a remarkable series of letters sent to Thomas by members of his family in Gloucestershire, which give some very personal glimpses of life at Sharpness and in Australia.

Taking the Chance of a Lifetime
     Thomas Dowell probably began work on the small sailing craft that brought coal to his home town of Berkeley, but in November 1853 he set off on his big adventure. He signed on as an ordinary seaman on the Gloucester based barque Rory Brown, on which his uncle William Smith was cook. When the ship reached Melbourne the following March, he and two other men ‘jumped ship’, leaving his seaman’s chest on board. His mother Sarah later wrote that William Smith had 'sold your chest for 5s and brought the money for me. He told us the Captain did not say very much about your leaving – only [that he] was in a fine way when he first found it out’. Thomas was evidently owed money by a pilot when he left, but the port went through a bad time during the early 1850s as the Crimean War reduced trade, and his aunt Elizabeth Smith wrote ‘Your mother cannot get the money from J Pick that was owing to you [as] there is no work for the pilots at the port, I suppose owing to this War'.

Life in the Goldfields
     Thomas evidently found life was hard in the Bendigo goldfields, as his aunt Elizabeth  wrote ‘I beleave you greatly where you say a fourtan is not got so easy as people may think so here in England. How can you work so many feet below the the earth I cannot think. I do hope you have done yourself some good by this time, as you say in your letter to me you was 93 feet deep then and only sink a foot a day - it must be down right hard work.' Elizabeth also reminded him of a scale model boat he had left behind in England 'I saw your Old Ship up in John Dowell's roam. It is often lookid at I assure you’.

Life in Berkeley
     The letters show that life was hard for Thomas’s family back in Berkeley. His father provided haulage services, but Mr Jones had 'got such a big Man ... to hall the cole about the town, so there is no work for any one [else] in that way, and you see your Father only having two horses he cannot go to timber hauling for the want of more horses. We have a little stone hauling now and then. When Thomas's father died in 1862, his mother Sarah was left to carry on the business. Her letters to Thomas illustrate how much she missed her eldest son and the struggle she had to keep going, and there were regular requests for a little speck of gold, or money, to help the family back in Berkeley to get by. In 1865, she wrote about her two sons at home: ‘Moarse is 9 years and Bill is 11 years hould. I should bee so glad if I could keep them at scool but I cannot get the moane to do that. Poor Bill was in the Gloster infearmeary [for] 3 months and Moarse was as bad, but I could not let im go ther’. However, she did receive help from her brother William Smith who gave her some of his seaman's pay and worked the horses when at home.

Sharpness New Docks
     In 1872, Sarah wrote to Thomas about the new docks being built at Sharpness and the smallpox epidemic there that claimed the life of her brother William Smith: ‘Your poor Uncle died at the Small Pox hospitable at Sharpness Point. They have commenced new docks there for bringing in large bessells, and about five or six hundred navies [are] employed there besides other work men. Those navies first had the small pox and it stayed about here a great deal, but thank God it is better there.  Pox hospitals [were] put up in Sharpness, one for the navies and the other for the people of the parish'. Five years later, she reported on the arrival of the railway and the building of the Severn Railway Bridge. ‘We have a railway at Ladymead as will lead over the Severn as soon as the bridge is a cross - they are half way cross the Severn with it. Very large steamers and ships come to Sharpness now, [but]  the trade is very bad at present ever since the strikes’.

(Charles) Morse Dowell
     When Sarah’s sons, Bill and Morse, left school, they began to help their mother with the family haulage business, but then Morse got a job on the new dock at Sharpness. In 1877, Sarah reported to Thomas: ‘I have the two boys at home with me - two men I must say, they are grown tall. Morse is work with a carpenters at Sharpness. He has carpenters shop and all his tools. He has made a new cart for me, and he frames picture, make work boxes and makes mony boxes for his little nieces. He has never been prenticed but he gets on very well’. She also mentioned that ‘William Price is a captain of a steamer [but] he had is licence taking from him for drunkenness’.

Hard Times at Sharpness
     In 1881, Sarah reported on the lack of shipping at the new dock due to competition from new docks down river at Avonmouth and Portishead. ‘It as been very bad this winter for poor people. The poor men could not work for weeks [as] the weather so bad [and] there is no work here for them. The people thought when Sharpness Docks were done [and] the bridge across the Severn, it would be the making of the place, but I think it is worse. Most all the ships goes in Avonmouth Docks down by Portshead for they have so long  to waite for the tides to bring up the ships to Sharpness. ... I am afraid it will be a bad job for the Gloucester pilots. Them that have not made their don’t get much now not enough this winter to maintain them’.

Thomas Takes Up Engineering
     Meanwhile Thomas and his family had moved from the Bendigo area north to Echuca on the Murray River, where he studied and became an engineer. This led to work at a local sawmill and then as an engineer on some of the paddle steamers which plied the Murray River hauling wool and timber - becoming what was known colloquially as a 'mudbank sailor'. The lure of gold led to another move in the early 1890s when new discoveries were made at Kalgoorlie in Western Australia, and it was from here that he travelled back to visit his mother in Berkeley. Following that visit, he returned to Australia with the scale model boat that was referred to in the earlier letter.

Model Boat
     The model boat is still treasured by the Dowell family in Australia. From the dimensions and hull shape, it appears to be based on the sloop Berkeley, owned by Thomas Dowell's grandfather, also named Thomas, who was a mariner and coal merchant based in Berkeley. When Thomas senior died in 1840, the model evidently passed to Thomas junior, then aged about five.

      Back in Australia, Thomas Dowell eventually died of Fibroid Phthisis (a form of TB) in 1901. His brother Morse continued his carpentry work at Sharpness and eventually became foreman of the Maintenance Department there. He died in 1925.

      Thanks are due to Gordon Dowell for making available transcripts of the letters sent to his great grandfather and for providing the photographs. The log of the Rory Brown is in TNA BT98/4152.

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