Lake Macquarie History

The Fennell Letters: record of a pioneer life

Richard Fennell, his wife Louisa and brother Nathaniel (Tom), were early settlers of the Western side of Lake Macquarie in the 1850s.

It is unknown why the brothers left a relatively comfortable life and a family business back in England for the "desert wilds" of Australia, but Richard arrived on the Ann in 1833, and Tom arrived 14 years later on the Agincourt in 1847. They were both excellent writers, and penned many letters back to their family.

photo: shipping flyer

These letters were kept by the family back in Yorkshire for over 125 years and only came to light in 1976 ,when Fos Strudwick, a descendant of Richard Fennell visited England and made contact with one of his relatives, Reggie Fennell. Much to Fos' delight and amazement the letters were gifted to him. Many of the letters have cross-hatched writing, which was a technique where two separate sets of writing are included on the same page - one written over the other at right-angles. This was done during the early days of the postal system in the 19th century to save on expensive postage charges, as well as to save paper. The transcriptions included here were made from the original documents by Fos and his wife Olive, and are as accurate as the writing would allow. It is a testament to their tenacity and hard work that this was completed before the days of digitisation and computers, using only magnifying glasses to help decipher the wording.

Sometimes immensely uplifting, sometimes deeply despairing, these letters give voice to the struggles of farming life, including cattle diseases, floods, droughts, fierce storms, the lure of the goldfields and the daily grind of sheer hard work.

From the intense pleasure derived from opening a box of simple gifts from England "I believe we shall be some months discovering the full extent of our riches.... I entirely forgot to mention the delight of the kids with their wooden shoes. Dick made wonderful progress but the girl was awkward at first. I was sure to get a tumble if Dick could cause her to run after him to the immense delight and satisfaction of Master Hopeful they are most excellent things and well suited, for our dirty location."

to the despair of failure "as I hardly know how to keep the wolfs from the door and for the first time since I have had children, they have asked for bread and none to give them.",

these letters were as essential to sustaining life in those early years as food and water. As Richard so aptly put it in one of his letters "Like an Oasis in the Wilderness, Like the shadow of a great rock in a weary land was the sight of your much-loved handwriting to me."