Place of migration
Migrated to/Born in Australia

The servant girl from Ardrahan - The Annie Lyons story

She was a woman of diminutive stature, not quite five feet tall. But what Annie Ernestine Lyons lacked in physical presence she made up for with an indomitable life spirit fashioned by determination, courage and resilience. Her story could be the stuff of legend, part of that fabled story of strong, Irish emigrant women who survived against the odds and left enduring legacies for generations.

Annie Lyons was my Irish Catholic great grandmother. Born in County Galway, she lived most of her years in Melbourne, Australia but much of her early life story had been lost until recently re-discovered with the aid of online public record data bases and the generous assistance of volunteer researchers in Ireland and America.


Annie’s story began in the aftermath of the Great Famine. She was born in 1850 or 1851 to Dominick Lyons and Catherine Taylor in parish Ardrahan, Co Galway. The 1856 Griffiths Valuation register for the parish of Ardrahan, Loughrea, records that Dominick was a tenant farmer in common with John Taylor on a parcel of 28 acres in the Townlands of Grannagh. Their landlord was Burton Presse from Roxborough estate. The Presse family had a reputation for being harsh landlords and, as one local Galway historian has put it, were ‘not remembered too fondly locally.’

A 1909 hand-written copy of an original parish church record declares that Dominick Lyons married Catherine ‘Kitty’ Taylor on 17th January 1850 in Ardrahan. Both bride and groom were Roman Catholic. Their parents’ names and occupations were not recorded but a John Lyons and Miss Taylor witnessed the marriage. There was a notable Taylor family in the district but they were a Protestant, Church of Ireland family who had intermarried into the Dudley Persse clan. Catherine was part of a Catholic Taylor family who were shown to be still farming in the district at the time of the 1901 and 1911 Irish Census.

Annie was the first of six girls born to Catherine and Dominick between 1850 and 1863. Their parish birth records, along with all the other Ardrahan church records from 1840 to the mid 1860s, no longer exist. But other later public records provide a credible chronology of their arrivals: Annie Ernestine (1850-51), was followed by Mary (1853), Margaret, (1855), Bridget Agnes (1857), Catherine Jnr (1858) and Sabina (1861).

The leaving of Ireland

Family lore and a story from its oral tradition, suggests that early in 1864 Dominick had made an arrangement for his eldest girl, Annie, to be assigned as a domestic servant and governess or nanny to a family 10,000 miles away in the colony of Victoria. According to the story, she was to travel as a sponsored emigrant and would be chaperoned on the voyage out by the captain of the ship. In exchange for her passage, and her work as a domestic servant and as a nanny in-residence, Annie was to receive lodging, keep and an education.

What factors shaped Dominick and Catherine’s decision making about Annie’s future? Any knowledge of these factors has not survived in the family story that Annie handed down to her young granddaughter, Patricia Brown, over seventy years later. We are left to wonder and conjecture. Perhaps, with the great famine still a vivid and lingering memory, and the threat of famine a continual presence, Dominick was simply seizing a remarkable opportunity to give his eldest girl the chance of a better life.  And, in the process, was he pragmatically reducing the demands of a large dependent family and improving the odds for all the children?

Other family events in 1864 shed more light on the possible pressures at play. By the late winter of 1863-64 the family had moved from Grannagh to the Deerpark Townlands in Loughrea district. Dominick continued to work as a farmer. It is not known if this move to Deerpark was a sign of better or worsening fortunes for the family. About the same time, Kitty realised she was pregnant again, with her seventh child. It is difficult to imagine how this news might have been received. Was it cause for joy, despair or muted dismay? Whatever the emotional response, this change in the family’s circumstance may have been the tipping point that determined Annie’s fate – the opportunity of emigration and a service position for one daughter on the other side of the world was now, perhaps, too good to refuse. It might be best for her and for the family if she went to Australia, no matter how painful her departure might be.

There is no account in the family oral tradition of precisely when Annie left her family and Ireland for the colonies. But, according to the available Victorian-based shipping records, there was only one teenage Irish ‘Ann Lyons’ ‘domestic servant’ who made her way to Victoria in 1864.  And these records suggest that Annie’s leaving was indeed difficult and painful on a number of levels. It appears that in the first days of July she farewelled her parents and her sisters, said goodbye to all that she knew, and made the journey to Liverpool. There she was listed on the passenger manifest of the Marco Polo, a three-masted wooden clipper ship, which was due to sail for Australia on 7th July. But at the last minute she, and another older Irish domestic servant, Catherine Kennedy, were rejected by the government doctor as being unfit to travel.  They were stood down and forced to bide their time for another passage. Nearly three weeks later, and presumably in better health, they were accepted to travel on the modern ironclad, Sam Cearns. On Tuesday 26 July Sam Cearns made its way down the Mersey with nearly 400 wide-eyed bounty emigrants aboard, starting out on the long voyage to Melbourne. The majority of these travellers were young Irish migrants, and many were the domestic servant girls like Ann Lyons and Cath Kennedy. Annie was about 14 years of age, alone and, to the best of our knowledge, she was never to see Ireland, or her parents or her sisters, ever again. This almost incomprehensible separation and loss was the first of many losses that this young, Irish emigrant servant girl was to confront and endure.

The family she left behind

In Deerpark the Lyons family were still coming to terms with Annie’s departure as Kitty and Dominick prepared for the family’s new arrival. Perhaps this birth would bring some joy to the sad summer the family had endured so far. On 15th July, Kitty gave birth to a boy child, their first son and a brother for the girls. They named him John Lyons, perhaps in honour of John Lyons who had featured as a witness to Dominick and Kitty’s marriage. Baby John’s birth was dutifully recorded on the new Civil Birth Register with Dominick, resident and farmer of Deerpark, as the informant.

But sadly, if their son’s arrival brought them any joy it was short lived. Seven days later, on 22 July, Dominick was back at the Civil Register informing on John’s untimely death. The civil death record did not record the cause of his passing, nor the parish or the grave yard where he was buried. But it is very likely this was a formative event in the decisions that the Lyons family made next.

It seems clear now that Annie’s departure for colonial Victoria and the premature death of Dominick and Kitty’s new born son mark the beginning of the entire Lyons family exit from Ireland. The public records reveal that by 1865 Dominick and Catherine had decided to join the hundreds of thousands of Irish who had already emigrated to America, Canada and Australia. But for some reason, perhaps forever lost, Dominick opted for USA as the destination of choice for himself, Catherine and his remaining children.

Did they seriously consider Australia as another option? Was it simply that America was so much closer and so much cheaper as an emigrant destination? Did Dominick already have Irish connections in America whom they could go too, or who had told him of the real opportunities there that made it a more certain option? Did they consider, perhaps, that once they were settled in America they could send for Annie to join them?

Whatever their ultimate reasoning, Dominick and Catherine took a careful and staged approach to their emigration. In late 1865, Dominick and second eldest daughter, Mary, set out for New York to prepare the way for the rest of the family.

Nearly a year later, on 13 August 1866, Catherine and young Margaret, Bridget, Catherine jnr and Sabina arrived in New York on the Jef Thomson out of Liverpool. The timing was not ideal. America was in the middle of the chaos of post-bellum reconstruction after the cataclysm of the Civil War. Nonetheless Dominick had already found work and a new place to call home. Catherine and the four girls were soon on a train going west to Louisville, Kentucky.

In 1866 Dominick Lyons appeared in the Louisville City Directory. It recorded that he now worked as a stoker in the Louisville Gas factory. A few years later, the 1870 United States Federal Census, captured a snapshot of Lyons family from Ardrahan settled and living together again (except for Annie) in Washington Street, Louisville. Dominick never returned to the land and stayed on in the gas factory doing the hard manual labour of a stoker. He worked and lived only a few more years and died in May 1875 at the young age of 47. Catherine did not remarry and remained in Louisville.

In the late 1870s Catherine lived with her youngest daughters Catherine Jnr, Bridget and Sabina at 205 Main Street, Louisville.  All of the girls worked at the same wholesale saddlery store and paid board to their mother. Some years later Catherine lived for periods of time with each of her married daughters and their growing families: first with Bridget and her husband George Bradley, then with Margaret and her husband Eugene Braitling. She was living with daughter Sabina and her husband Michael Quinn in Nashville Tennessee when she fell ill with liver disease and died there on 18 January 1899 at the age of seventy-three. Her daughters returned her to Louisville and buried her there in the Saint Louis Cemetery, next to Dominick.  All her five daughters lived, married, raised families and also died in Louisville. Between them, the Mary Lyons Glenn, Margaret Lyons Braitling, Catherine Lyons Sohm, Bridget Lyons Bradley and Sabina Lyons Quinn families produced seventeen grandchildren of Dominick and Catherine Lyons.

Annie’s early years in Victoria

What happened to their eldest daughter Annie Lyons, living another world away in colonial Victoria? The surviving family oral history about Annie’s lone emigration provides only a generalised account of what happened to her during her first years in the colony: the arrangement forged for her by her father with her colonial sponsor in rural Victoria, so the story goes, soon collapsed and Annie took off to work as a domestic servant in Melbourne. Vague though it is, this story includes one very specific detail which might offer more insights about her early years in Victoria: her colonial sponsor was named as a ‘Mr Breadmore’.

A search for this mysterious benefactor found that there was one, and only one, ‘Mr Breadmore’ on the public record in all of Victoria in the mid 1860s. Is it possible that this family oral history is well woven with some significant truth?

The documented record reveals that this ‘Mr Breadmore’ was George William Breadmore, an Englishman, born in Bath, Somerset.  In 1850-51 he was living in London and working as a greengrocer and later as a plasterer. At age 32 years he made his way out to Melbourne on the Calphurnia with his second wife, Alicia, and three children (two from his first marriage) in late December 1851, at the beginning of Victoria’s gold rush. On disembarkation at Port Melbourne on 29 March 1852, he was hired by Charles Swanston Esquire to work for 12 months on his cattle run at Glenelg, in the far south-west corner of Victoria over 200 miles from Melbourne.

After this stint in the far west George relocated the family to the gold fields of central Victoria and eventually settled in the small gold mining and farming district between present day Creswick and Daylesford.  A relevant feature of George’s early history in the colony is that he and his wife Alicia were quite prodigious procreators. Adding to the three children they brought from London, between 1853 and 1864 they produced another eight Australian-born children.  It was in early 1864 that he relocated his growing family to Rocky Lead where a new gold rush created opportunities for him to open a butchery, a grocery and eventually a stage coach business. It was later in 1864, on 17th October to be exact, that servant girl Annie Lyons arrived in Melbourne on the Sam Cearns. It is quite credible that Annie made her way to Rocky Lead, about 75mile north west of Melbourne, where the Breadmores had a very real need of domestic help and nanny services for the youngest Breadmore children. That need became even greater in the immediate years as George and Alicia produced another three children between 1864 and 1869.

But well before the last child was born in 1869, Annie Lyons had already left the household and had made her way back to Melbourne. Her departure, together with this profile of the Breadmore family circumstances, adds further credibility to the oral record that this was the family she was sent out to serve.  According to the Brown family legend, Annie left her sponsor family because her benefactors ‘soon began to exploit her situation’. She was required to work long hours with relentless demands on her as a domestic servant and as a nanny to the younger children (six of the Breadmore children were under eight years of age in 1864). She was also working for no-wages. And the education that was promised did not eventuate. The oral account says that she actually ‘absconded’ from her employer after ‘about two years’ and, at age sixteen, she set out on her own and made her way in the colony’s capital.

Starting out again - creating a new life

After cutting herself free of the Breadmores in 1867 or 1868 Annie Lyons arrived back in Melbourne. Now aged about 16 or 17 she was living in the light-industrial, working class, inner suburb of Richmond.  She found new work as a domestic servant, possibly with the wealthier middle class families on Richmond Hill or across the Yarra in Toorak and South Yarra. During these first years living in the city Annie meet a young Scot who had just arrived in town after living in New Zealand for a few years.

His name was William Gibb Callander. She would soon learn that he was about seven years older than her and had originally came from Falkirk in Stirlingshire, the son of a carrier. He might have shared some of his more difficult personal history too. He had been orphaned at age seven and had spent the bulk of his childhood in the Falkirk Poor House. As a young man of eighteen, in 1862 he followed his old brother Alexander and his older sister Frances to the Victorian gold fields as an immigrant labourer. There, in the gold town of Maldon, he reconnected with his sister but his brother Alexander had already died an early death from tuberculosis. Between those years in Maldon, his time in New Zealand and his return to Victoria in 1868, William acquired his trade as a boot-maker and had joined that thriving industry in Richmond. He had also adopted a social mission and became a member of the Independent Order of Rechabites. This was a friendly society committed to temperance, helping families damaged by alcohol and to supporting member families in times of sickness, death and hardship.

He was a good man and she liked him. And so on 21 September 1869, while still a teenager, Annie Lyons of Cremorne Street, Richmond married the 26 year-old Scottish boot-maker, William Gibb Callander of Dover Street, Richmond, ‘according to the Presbyterian form’. Minister John Bayley certified the union at his home in Gwynne Street, Richmond. Their matrimonial was a very small and neighbourly affair. Annie signed her name as ‘Annie Ernest Lyons’, with the rank or profession of ‘domestic’ and, with a generous stretch of the truth (neither the first nor the last of such stretches), she gave her age as ‘21 years’.

Annie’s marriage outside the Catholic Church is odd and curious. It contradicts the other fact of her strong commitment to her Catholic beliefs and practice that was evident in the rest of her life. But perhaps it more simply illustrates her pragmatism and will to survive.  

At the time of William and Annie’s nuptials, Melbourne’s population was only about 150,000 but it was growing rapidly. The mass migration and wealth from the 1850s gold rushes continued to transform the town from a rough and rudimentary settlement into a bustling 19th century metropolis. The newly weds first lived in Collingwood, another of Melbourne’s poorer working class areas but a thriving centre for manufacturing such as boot making. By 1877 Annie had given birth to four healthy children – William Gibb Jnr (1870), Catherine (1872), Annie Ernestine Jnr (1875) and James Dominick Callander (1876). Annie carefully embedded both her father’s and her mother’s memory in her children’s naming. And, despite her marriage in the Presbyterian rites, she was raising all of them as Catholics. Life seemed to have turned around for young Annie Lyons.

But tragedy was already looming. In 1877 William Callander Snr was diagnosed with ‘phthisis’ or tuberculosis. After a year of wasting from the disease he died 9 April 1878 at the age of 34, leaving the 26 year-old Annie with the task of providing for four children aged 1 to 8 years. She returned to domestic service as a ’house-keeper’ and soon remarried. This time the nuptials were conducted in the Catholic faith, at Melbourne’s new but incomplete St Patrick’s Cathedral, where she took vows with Catholic Englishman, 27 year-old Thomas Hennessy, on 17th May 1880.

Thomas was a cabman. He and Annie Hennessy set up home in Budd Street, Collingwood where she gave birth to another two daughters, Margaret (‘Maggie’) Mary in 1881 and Ethel in 1882. But if Annie felt any sense of peace and security within her new family it was short-lived. In early 1884 Thomas suffered a type of mental illness and on 19 April he was committed to the Yarra Bend Lunatic Asylum. At the time this institution – Victoria’s oldest facility for the ‘treatment’ of the insane - was under intense public scrutiny. A government Royal Commission had begun to investigate concerns about intense overcrowding, the use of physical restraints, claims of inmate abuse, inadequate and unskilled staffing and poor recovery rates. It was not a healthy place to be. On the admission register Annie was named as Thomas’s wife and in parenthesis it noted, ‘poor’. Thomas did not recover and did not survive the Asylum. He died there on 30 December 1884 of what was called ‘chronic disease of the brain’. A coronial inquest signed off on this verdict on the last day of 1884.  Thomas was only 32 years old. As the new year dawned, Annie was alone again, a widow again, aged 33 with six children to raise.

As if her resilience and faith had not been tested enough, within months of Thomas Hennessy’s death, in the middle of Melbourne’s cold winter of 1885, Annie was nursing baby Ethel with a severe bout of influenza.  The infant succumbed to the infection and died in convulsions on 9 August 1885. She was buried with her father in an unmarked grave in Melbourne General Cemetery. Soon after, Annie moved back into her old familiar haunt of of Richmond with its small but cohesive Irish Catholic community and raised her five surviving children on her own in a little timber cottage at 23 Amsterdam Street. She once again took up work as a domestic servant. 

Peace at last  

Annie did not chance marriage again but she settled into a stable home life centred around her children. In 1903 a rare picture of the family together was captured in the government electoral roll. By then Australia had left its colonial history behind and had become a new nation with a liberal democratic constitution. A federal election had been called for December 1903 and for the first time women were to have the vote. At 23 Amsterdam Street Richmond all the adult women – Annie and her three daughters, Maggie Hennessy, Annie Callander Jnr, and Catherine Callander - enrolled to vote. Annie’s two sons William Callander Jnr and James Callander were also living at home and they too enrolled to vote. Three of the siblings were working to provide for the family: Annie Jnr was a tailor, William worked as a labourer and James had become a pattern maker. Their mother and the other two girls were occupied in ‘home duties’.

Soon after, two of of Annie’s children married and left home to start up their own families. Annie finally moved from Richmond in around 1912 to live more securely and comfortably in a four-roomed timber cottage she purchased in Kensington, another suburb close to the city.

This place was the centre of the livestock and meat trade. It was dominated by the livestock saleyards which were reputedly the largest in the southern hemisphere. There were also the abattoirs, tanneries and tallow factories of the meat business. The suburb was home too to the more princely world of horse racing at the Flemington racecourse. Annie lived here with her unmarried adult daughter, Annie jnr, and unmarried adult son, James. In Kensington she was also close to her eldest daughter and her young family: Catherine Callander had married a successful wholesale butcher, Henry Brown, in October 1903 and they lived only a few streets away in a substantial two-storey brick house at 48 Wolseley Parade, Kensington.

Henry was from the gold mining town of Maldon, the seventh of ten children born into a staunch Scottish Presbyterian immigrant family with roots in Glasgow and Falkirk. A number of his siblings cruelly disowned him when he married the Roman Catholic Catherine Callander in St Ignatius Catholic church, Richmond. Such were the sectarian fault lines and tribalism of the day but this rejection must have been bitterly ironic given Catherine’s own father, William Callander, was a Presbyterian Scot from old Falkirk. 

The Wolseley Parade house is warmly remembered in family folk lore for the weekly gatherings of the Callander-Brown clans there over Sunday afternoon roasts, animated discussions and card games. Annie and her daughters also attended Mass frequently at the local Holy Rosary Catholic Church in the next street and were well known in the neighbourhood for their generous support of many poorer families who struggled to make ends meet, especially during the years of the Great Depression. After losing so much of her own Irish family in the dislocation and separation of emigration, Annie Lyons had become a much loved and respected family matriarch, a mother of six and grandmother of nine children. She died at her home in McCracken Street, Kensington on 26 July 1939, aged about 89 years, having out lived two husbands and two of her six children. While loss and grief were her constant life companions it seems they were never the equal of her resilience, resourcefulness, faith and will to survive.

Those who knew her in her later years remember Annie Lyons as strong, meticulous (renowned for the spotless floors and polished hearth in her humble homes), compassionate and generous. Her surviving great grand daughter recently vividly recalled the presence and power of ‘Ma’ Hennessy (nee Lyons): ‘She was a tiny little woman who wore black lace up boots, always wore a black dress with high neck, and a black apron … she was a very strong character and that sort of strength went through the family. She was the matriarch too: if Ma spoke everyone did as they were told … I don’t know what it was about the Irish heritage but they seemed to be really, really strong women. I’m not sure whether it was part of the way they were bought up … or part of the Irish way …’ 

Post script

This reconstructed account of Annie Lyon’s story is littered with unanswered, and perhaps unanswerable questions. There is the obvious and difficult question of whether Annie was ever had any sort of ongoing contact with her family once she left Ireland and when they, in turn, migrated to America. Did she ever know about the birth – and death – of her little brother John? And, did she ever know where her father, mother and five sisters settled in America? Did they ever try to find her and contact her? Did they ever talk about her and wonder about her separate life? We know that two of her sisters, Mary Lyons Glenn and Catherine Lyons Sohm, had daughters whom they named ‘Annie’ - Annie Sohm (b 1882) and Annie Glenn (b 1888) – but can we assume that these were conscious acts commemoration for their ‘lost’ sister? Beyond this tenuous connection, there is nothing: no mention of her, no stories of her, no knowledge of her in the oral tradition of those descendent American Lyons families with whom I have connected in recent times. Almost unbelievably, it seems there is no known evidence of any contact between Annie and the family she left behind in Ireland in 1864. Contemplating such a vast void, such an immense loss, just heightens our sense of the massive toll, the painful human cost that 19th century emigration could and did inflict.

Was it worth it? How well did these emigrants do in their new lives as immigrants in the New World? There is a growing body of research and analysis of the impacts and outcomes of 19th century Irish migration. While this has yielded powerful and insightful generalisations there is always another sort of truth in the individual experiences of the emigrants. Every story is different.

In Annie Lyons’ case it is hard to conclude that she thrived in her immigrant life in Australia. She did survive and survived well enough to give her children a better chance in the new world. She lived a long life and she knew love and attachment. But the start of her emigrant life was brutal. In her family’s quest to ‘find a better life’ it seems she was condemned go it alone. She lost her family and never found them again. Beside the emotional cost, at a young age Annie faced the functional disadvantages of being alone, so totally alone without parents, siblings or family of any sort on which to draw for emotional, physical or financial support. In this regard she was much worse off than her five sisters who, on any measure, fared so much better in their new world of Louisville, Kentucky.

Annie was also unlucky in marriage – twice. And as a woman of the 19th century British Empire she just had far fewer options than any male counterpart. If she didn’t marry well, into wealth or property – which she didn’t – she only had her labour to fall back on. And that she did, time and time again, as a domestic servant. But it seems she was never able to entirely break free of that servitude. Even in her later years, she still put her self out to work as a ‘waiting room attendant’.

Against this catalogue of loss and disadvantage, Annie did manage to shape a rich and vibrant life for herself. She lost a family but founded another. She was courageous and took risks, worked hard and took responsibility for herself and her family. Although often poor and abandoned with little but her own resourcefulness, she eventually found a measure of material comfort and security. Yes, Annie Lyons survived against the odds and lived a long and worthy life despite, what to us seems like, the bitter and cruel ticket she was handed when she was asked to emigrate to Australia alone, as a fourteen year-old servant girl.

And whatever the source of her spirit Annie Lyons left an indelible legacy for the Brown, Callander and Hennessy families of Melbourne. Of course there was the Irish Catholic heritage that she passed on but she also left a powerful, more secular moral fable about ‘the way of tackling life’ that, until now, has been only partly understood.  That said, her whole story may never be truly known. Sadly, so many of her stories and so many of the facts of her life appear to have been lost forever.  Perhaps somewhere in Louisville, Kentucky or the Townlands of Deerpark there are other remnant voices of the Lyons family from Ardrahan that might one day complete the re-joining of this family, a family torn apart by the emigrant struggle to find a better, more secure life in places far, far away from the green of Galway.

David Brown, Kensington, Victoria, Australia. 13 July 2019

Additional Information
Date of Birth 1st Jan 1850 (circa)
Date of Death 26th Jul 1939 VIEW SOURCE
Associated Building (s) Roxborough house  
Father (First Name/s and Surname) Dominick Lyons
Mother (First Name/s and Maiden) Catherine Taylor
Names of Siblings Annie Ernestine (1850-51), was followed by Mary (1853), Margaret, (1855), Bridget Agnes (1857), Catherine Jnr (1858) and Sabina (1861) and John (1864)
Spouse (First Name/s and Maiden/Surname) William Gibb Callander
Spouse (First Name/s and Maiden/Surname) Thomas Hennessy
Names of Children From first marriage to William Gibb Callander: William Gibb Jnr (1870), Catherine (1872), Annie Ernestine Jnr (1875) and James Dominick Callander (1876)
Names of Children From second marriage to Thomas Hennessy: Margaret (‘Maggie’) Mary in 1881 and Ethel in 1882
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