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The story Of A First Fleet Australian

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A convict sent out over a 10-shilling theft left a proud legacy, writes descendant and senior correspondent Barry Everingham.

Matthew James Everingham

On January 26, 1788, a young London-born solicitor's clerk, all of 18 years of age, arrived in Sydney Cove on the First Fleet. Matthew James Everingham's sin was pinching a few books worth 10 shillings, and for that he was given seven years.

For all he knew, he could be landing on the dark side of the moon, but records show he made the most of his new life — getting early release, becoming a farmer, father, explorer and district constable. At one stage, he even owned a pub.

The English Everinghams have been around for what seems like forever. We know that in 1250, Robert de Everingham married Isabel de Birkin, and a dynasty was born. On their family tree, the names of some of the great families occupy branches — Percy, Churchill, Bowes Lyon, Montagu, Wentworth, Douglas, Seymour, Villiers.

It's likely that none of that mattered to young Matthew all those years ago and it's assumed his family didn't know where their errant son had ended up. His subsequent letters attest to that. After all, he wasn't on his own - the passenger lists of the First Fleet threw up some pretty well-known names and the young bloke was more than likely travelling with cousins.

What we do know is that he met and fell in love with an illiterate convict woman from the Second Fleet - one Elizabeth Rimes — whose crime was taking a bed sheet that didn't belong to her. But, as young Matt wrote in a letter "home", he'd met the woman of his dreams who was "a cut above the others of her kind". The couple settled at Lower Portland on the Hawkesbury River, where they farmed, survived a spearing by local Aborigines, reared their 10 children – five boys and five girls – and a local dynasty came into being.

Everingham had been well educated — family gossip says he was educated at Christ's Hospital, the famous Blue Coat School. Be that as it may, he certainly wrote well and made sure his progeny got some education, provided in the main by him.

He didn't ever discuss his parents, his siblings or his home with his wife or children — what we know has been gleaned from a package of letters he wrote to a lawyer friend, copies of which turned up in, of all places, the Western District property of Robin Ritchie, Malcolm Fraser's brother-in-law. How they got there in the first place is one of life's great mysteries.

But their contents were startling and gave historians an unprecedented picture of convict life in those early days.

They also revealed that Matt, along with two mates, was a day short of getting over the notorious Blue Mountains before that was achieved by Blaxland, Wentworth and Lawson.

Everingham's demise would come some time later. On the Hawkesbury River at that time, rum running was something to be dealt with — and as a district constable, he was the arm of the law. On Christmas Day in 1817, at the age of 48, the river took his life and he drowned after falling from his boat while pursuing criminals.

Centuries later, the family that descended from Matthew has become typical of the modern Australia – with many strands of multiculturalism entwined – and in no small way contributed to the richness of our land.

(Barry Everingham is Matthew Everingham's great great great great grandson. This story was originally published in The Age on January 26, 2008.)

 
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