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Family history writes its own mysteries

Translucent blue seas on a calm day
Mullion Cove, Cornwall (courtesy Geograph UK/Wikiwand)

TRACING one’s ancestors is akin to joining Poirot as he unravels the threads of an Agatha Christie mystery.

Except that the little Belgian detective eventually provides acceptable answers.

Not so with family history. So many detours and distractions. So many loose ends. So much that is left unexplained.

Such was the case when on the trail of my Cornish cousins, the Jose clan from the Lizard area.

This took a fresh twist when I discovered one branch had put down their roots a little more than an hour’s drive from where I had made my home in the Australian state of Victoria for more than forty years. Their remains lie in the same former gold rush region where my daughter until recently ran a country pub that has little changed since being built in those turbulent gold rush times.

The patriarch of this adventurous offshoot was Richard Jose, born in the Lizard Peninsula fishing village of Mullion in 1821 and a great-uncle of my cousin and lighthouse-keeper’s wife, Mary Ann Sidonia Jose.

He was also the brother of two ne’er-do-wells, Stephen and James Jose, sheep-stealers and general thieves. The former having drowned when fleeing the law and the latter was deported for life for his crimes.

Early exploration of Richard’s story indicated enough raw material to weave an entire book – probably a novel, as so much of it seems steeped more in fantasy than fact, especially as happened long before international travel became measured in hours or days rather than weeks and months.

In 1841 Richard was a farmer at Little Trethveas at Landewednack, on the Lizard Peninsular. In October that year, and still only twenty, he married Matilda Jago Cocking (or Cockling) from Wendron.

The first surprise comes two years later when they registered the birth of daughter Jane Jose in, of all places, Quebec, Canada. No record has been found of how or when the couple made their trans-Atlantic voyage, nor of the equally surprising return trip less than two years later. This brought them back to Little Trethveas where a second daughter, Christina Jago Jose, was born in 1845.

In all subsequent family records one intriguing fact remains constant, and unexplained: that Jane Jose was born in Quebec during her parents’ two-year absence from the Lizard.

Maybe Richard had thought there were better opportunities in Canada but was disappointed by what he found. Or perhaps the spur for their move to Quebec was a family dispute over their relationship, even a child conceived out of wedlock.

Perhaps Matilda was the trigger for their return to Landewednack. She would have felt acutely homesick, which would have been worsened by having a baby at her breast that none of her family were otherwise likely to see.

And so they returned to face whatever music awaited.

Richard resumed work first as a labourer and then as a farmer, doing well enough to be recorded in the 1851 census as having fifty acres at Little Trethveas. By then, their family had increased with the births of Elizabeth, Emily and James Henry.

But the lure of a new life overseas persisted, even though Matilda was far from convinced by Richard’s enthusiasm for making a fresh start in faraway Australia.

The thought of the long, arduous journey was enough to add further stress to a mind and body already strained by motherhood and the daily struggle of life on the Lizard.

To go all that way seemed more like the sentence handed down to her brother-in-law, James Jose, deported and gaoled for life. She remained unimpressed even when James wrote that he had been given a pardon, married a free woman and was “making a go of things”.

And so Richard, Matilda and their five children paid £12 and joined the convict ship Neptune as assisted migrants on its voyage from Ireland to Australia. The ship had sailed from Cork on 26 October 1843, under the command of William Ferris, with 308 bounty emigrants aboard. On arrival in Sydney on 11 February 1844 she was placed in quarantine for three days because of an outbreak of smallpox.

Ten people died during the voyage, among them the Joses’ year-old daughter Elizabeth.

By arriving in Sydney, Richard had the chance to reunite with his brother James, now a freeman and living with his wife Jane (Curtis), also a former convict.

And now, as mystery writers would wish it, the plot thickens – at least until further information comes to light. Richard’s story becomes wrapped in mystery. Several facts emerge:

  1. Sometime over the next few years he and Matilda return to England. But only Richard returns, departing Liverpool on 30 December 1857 on a 140-day voyage back to Australia.
  2. Matilda remains in England, dying in Bodmin Lunatic Asylum in 1873 from a catatonic seizure.
  3. Accompanying Richard on his return to Australia is Charlotte ‘Jose’, who is later revealed to be Charlotte Yendell (or Yendall), born on the Lizard Peninsula in 1827 at Ruan Minor.
  4. They arrive in Melbourne where Richard describes himself as a miner, not the farm labourer and groom of earlier times.
  5. Between 1859 and 1865, Richard fathers four more children with ‘wife’ Charlotte. They are now living at Epsom and Sandhurst, communities deep in the state of Victoria’s booming gold-mining region.
  6. On 16 March 1889 (well after the death of Matilda in the Bodmin Asylum) Richard marries Charlotte at St Paul’s Church, Sandhurst. This brings legitimacy to what had clearly been an almost lifelong, but clandestine, relationship.

In Sandhurst, Richard – described by one who knew him as ‘a big large man who settled at Antimony Creek’ – gained a certain amount of fame as a wrestler at the many Cornish wrestling matches held throughout the state.

The couple remained here for the rest of their days, raising their children and establishing yet another foreign outpost of the Joses of Landewednack, none of who returned to Cornwall.

There were others who never returned for far sadder reasons.

**An abridged extract from Celtic Skeletons, now available at Waterstones and online. Corrections and additions welcomed.
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