Being sentenced to a life far beyond the seas could be a punishment -- and it could be a blessing.
Both are encapsulated in the story of Richard Cheers, and his son-in-law, Captain John Evans.
Elizabeth Cheers, the heroine of my story, was christened in Sydney on 23 June 1816, the first child of Richard and Jane Ann Smith Cheers. Her mother was a convict who had been convicted of theft and transported to New South Wales on the Wanstead in 1814. She had married Richard Cheers 15 October 1815, a ceremony he must have been well accustomed to, as Jane Ann was his fourth wife. She gave him four children before dying somewhat mysteriously (of ‘sudden indisposition’) in March 1823. The second child was Mary Ann (‘Marian’). Two boys, James and William Smith, followed.
Richard Cheers was a remarkably enterprising man. Though sentenced to be hanged for the theft of a horse, he was recognised as being skilled in farm management, so was transported as an artisan. The ship was the Guardian and the year was 1789, when the settlement in New South Wales was desperately short of provisions. The transport, with its lifesaving load, was badly damaged on the way after striking an iceberg, and half the crew took to the boats, in a desperate effort to get to Table Bay. Cheers was one of the gang of twenty convicts who stayed on board to help the captain get the wreckage into port, so that the provisions in the hold could be largely saved. It took a dreadful month, but they managed it. Richard Cheers was transferred to the Surprise, and landed in Sydney in June 1790 as a free man, rewarded with both liberty and land for his courage.
From there, he prospered, setting up a flourishing business as the first butcher in the colony, sited in what is now the heart of the city, extending from George and Hunter streets. He built and managed the Black Bull Inn, plus two extensive land grants, one at Manly. Jane Ann died, drunk and in disgrace, in March 1823 at the age of 31, and Richard himself had passed away in February 1827, meaning that his two daughters were considered a prime catch, being heiresses to a sizeable holding. Meantime they were looked after by an older stepsister, whose husband was the licensee of the Plume of Feathers Inn.
|Elizabeth's sister, Marian Cheers Egan, with her two daughters.|
National Portrait Gallery, Canberra
The first of the two girls to be snatched up was Elizabeth, who was 17 when she married John Evans, who had been born on a farm in Wales in 1802. He was quite a catch, too. The year was 1833, in an era when whalemen and sealers were lions of settler society, as they brought furs and oil that could be sold on overseas markets and bring money into the money-starved settlement. And, what’s more, John was a highly rated shipmaster, sailing in and out of Sydney in command of the Albion. Eventually he was shifted to the whaleship Bombay, getting back to Sydney in May 1837, just in time to take command of a rather notorious ship.
This was the Alexander Henry, George Fennings master, which had left London on July 9, 1835, bound to whale off Peru. The ship (actually a snow) was reported at Lima in April 1836, and a year later at Whangaroa, New Zealand. On 16 June 1837, the whaler arrived at Sydney to be refitted — and, incidentally, reregistered at that port. Fennings took the ship out again, but was murdered by natives at Gilbert Island in the Kingsmill Group (Sydney Gazette 14 February 1837). The first mate, Ralph Lawson, took over the command, intending to continue whaling, but the men mutinied and forced him to sail to Sydney. (Ships Employed in the South Seas Trade; Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, 16 February 1837).
There the command was given to Captain John Evans. It was a matter of convenience that allowed the harried Lawson to shift ships, as he took over the command of the Bombay. And it was now, too, that John Evans started wife-carrying. He, Elizabeth, and the ship were recorded at Norfolk Island in June 1839, having left Sydney in April. The ship returned to the island on 22 October 1839, in time for the birth of their first child — a daughter, Mary Frances, on November 12, 1839. Eleven months later, in October 1840, they returned to Sydney via the Bay of Islands, as the vessel was leaking badly and the crew, as before, was mutinous.
Captain Evans then left the ship to take care of pressing family business. Elizabeth’s sister, Marian, had been abruptly widowed after her husband (Henry St John Cahuac, a convict bookseller who had turned into into successful farmer) was killed by a fall from a horse, and she needed a manager for the tract of land she had inherited. John and Elizabeth moved onto the farm, and took over for the next few years. This was when their next children were born — George St John (named after Marian’s dead husband) in 1842, and another boy, Alfred Essex, on 2 May 1847. On 6 October 1848 Elizabeth bore yet another boy, Sydney William, then finally another daughter, Kate, born in 1851.
John did return to whaling, as his next recorded command is of the Lady Blackwood, May 1851, but it only lasted until 1852. (Mark Howard, Masters of the Sydney Whaling Fleet.) Meantime, he had made the headlines by rescuing the crew of the wreck of the Thomas King in May 1852. One of the seamen was killed by a fall from the mainmast of the Lady Blackwood, but the rest survived to register their gratitude for the ‘kindness and attention evinced towards them by Captain Evans while on board the Lady Blackwood, he having supplied them with clothes from his own stock, and contributed to their comfort in every possible way.’ (Sydney Morning Herald, 10 May 1852)
Elizabeth died 30 December 1883, and Captain John Evans died the following year. They are both buried in the Camperdown Cemetery, Sydney. (Biographies of Elizabeth Cheers Evans and Marian Cheers Egan appear in the Dictionary of Sydney, both written by Annette Lemercier.)