Abigail Lowe (1832-1896)

The Irish Diaspora: Abigail Lowe

Diane Granger, Calgary, Alberta, Canada

My Ancestral Aunt Abigail, as I like to think of her, was born into a military family in County Offaly. Two of her brothers entered the British army, and one studied medicine at Apothecaries’ Hall in Dublin, but she and her two sisters had little choice but to find husbands. With nothing to offer but their fading gentility and possible charms, they were unable to make financially or socially advantageous matches, and their fate was to leave their home in Ireland and die in a faraway colony.

Life in Ireland and England

Abigail, the second-youngest daughter of Addison Lowe and Abigail Shawe, was born in Tullamore, Offaly, on 5 February 1832 and baptized in the Church of Ireland at nearby Killeigh. When her father died in 1846, she was not quite fourteen years old. Although he had retired with full pay as lieutenant of the 47th Regiment of Foot, his widow was in pecuniary distress and had to apply to the army’s “Compassionate Fund” for relief, since she had two young daughters at home and no other means of support. The family was renting a house in Tullamore High Street when Abigail’s mother died in 1854.

Killeigh Church of Ireland
Killeigh Church of Ireland, May 2016

Since Abigail’s married older sister had been living in Manchester for ten years, it was natural for Abigail to cross the water as well. She may have taken up dressmaking to support herself, because somehow she met Gustave Jacques Masquelier, a tailor from Belgium. They married in Manchester Cathedral on 22 December 1856, the parish register recording that Gustave was a 23-year-old bachelor and Abigail a 23-year-old spinster, although he was probably 22 and she was actually 24. It was the first instance of Abigail’s diminishing ages on official documents.

Life in Victoria and South Australia with Gustave

Two weeks after their marriage, Gustave and Abigail boarded ship at Liverpool and sailed for Australia, where two of Abigail’s brothers were already living. The ship, James Baines, had previously made the voyage from Liverpool to Melbourne, Victoria, in the record time of 63 1/2 days. The Masqueliers, however, arrived at Port Phillip, the port of Melbourne, after eleven weeks at sea. It could not have been a comfortable journey for Abigail, who was in the family way.

Abigail and Gustave then travelled to South Australia, where one of her brothers lived and her younger sister had recently married. Their first child, Gustave Adolphe, was born in Adelaide just five months after the marriage, and their daughter, Abigail Mary Ann, was born in Hummocks (an area of hills and scrubland north of Adelaide) in 1859. Perhaps because of the lack of amenities or prospects, the family returned to Melbourne not long after Abigail Mary Ann’s birth. The parents must have been devastated when both children died there in 1861, and the couple separated within the next two years. Abigail stayed in Melbourne, whereas Gustave went to the Otago region of New Zealand, where gold had been discovered.

The further activities of Gustave help to put the subsequent adventures of Ancestral Aunt Abigail into context. He returned to Melbourne and, in1873, bigamously married a Frenchwoman sixteen years his junior, Mathilde Pascaline Vigneron. By 1880 he was a tailor and draper in Sydney, New South Wales. He and Mathilde sailed to London two years later, and to New York from Antwerp the next year. After crossing the continent, Gustave became the manager of the Los Angeles Steam Dyeing and Cleaning Company, and he died a “widower” in 1919. Coincidentally, Mathilde became a “widow” in a mining town north of Los Angeles, where she worked in a saloon and ran a boarding house. About 1889 she married Thomas J. Preston, a former miner, and eventually she became known as “Ma Preston, Queen of the Desert” because of her imposing presence. In 1910 Mathilde sold her properties and retired with her husband to France, where they both died in 1926.

Life in Victoria with Robert

Meanwhile, on 21 December 1863, Abigail Lowe married Robert Usher in Smythesdale, Victoria. According to the marriage certificate, the bride was a spinster aged 24, whereas Ancestral Aunt Abigail was actually a married woman aged 31. The certificate also showed, however, that she was the daughter of Army Captain Addison Lowe and Abigail Shawe and had been born in Tullamore, Ireland. Robert Usher was a bachelor policeman aged 24 and born in Dublin. No doubt because it was not considered seemly to be older than one’s husband, Abigail declared herself to be the same age as Robert Usher, just as she had with Gustave Masquelier. Since it was considered even less seemly to marry a second husband when the first was still alive, Abigail conveniently omitted to mention her previous marriage. She would have required another husband for financial support and, as a young man with a steady job, Robert must have seemed like a good candidate.

About a month after the marriage, however, the Police Gazette printed the grim announcement that Robert Usher had been dismissed from the force, along with further unwelcome news: he had left Smythesdale for Melbourne without paying £12 8s 6d to a local draper (a dealer in cloth or clothing), and his former colleagues were looking for him. Why had he been shown the door? During the night of 21 December 1863 he absented himself without leave from the barracks in Ballarat, and on 22 December he did it again. The fact that he had married Abigail on 21 December might have had something to do with his nocturnal absences. Finally, on 3 January 1864, he absconded definitively. Why did Robert owe money to a draper? He was said to be of “smart appearance” and probably obtained his spiffy clothing on credit.

In February, Robert and Abigail were supposed to take passage on a boat sailing from Melbourne to Auckland. The passenger list shows Mrs. Usher age 34 and Rob Usher age 37 (they were actually 32 and 25), a married couple travelling in steerage as settlers, but Robert’s name is crossed out. He must have absconded again before the ship set sail, because only Abigail is recorded as arriving in New Zealand. It’s possible that Robert had intended to become a miner in New Zealand but was prevented from going with Abigail by the presence of guards or authorities. If so, his abandonment of Abigail would not be a reflection on her character or his steadfastness. Robert became a miner in New South Wales and died in the Gladesville hospital for the insane near Sydney in 1894.

Life in Sydney with Charles

Abigail arrived in Auckland in February 1864, but it wasn’t very long before she returned to Australia. On 16 July 1867 she married Charles Williams, a 35-year-old vocalist, in Sydney. The marriage certificate recorded Abigail Masquelier as a 25-year-old widow, although she was 35 and had two living husbands. Charles was in fact a comic singer who had been in Australia since 1855 or earlier. His profession didn’t necessarily qualify him as a good husband, but he may have been attractive. The Victoria Police Gazette provided his description in 1859 because he had obtained 10s under false pretences: he was 30 years of age and 5 feet 10 inches tall, had a fair complexion and rather large weak eyes, and light brown hair worn in ringlets. By 1860 he was singing in Sydney with a group of blackface minstrels, who specialized in stock characters and comic songs. That he often performed as the character Lucy Long might explain his hairstyle.

About the time that Abigail and Charles were married, Charles became a publican. In March and May 1870 a Mr. Glue advertised for a married couple, cook, and laundress for 162 Pitt Street, and shortly thereafter Charles was seeking patrons for the City Bank Hotel and Restaurant at that address: CHARLEY WILLIAMS’S City Bank Hotel and Restaurant, 162 and 164, Pitt-street, Sydney, near King-street. Board and residence. Meals at all hours. N.B. Private room for Ladies. The name was chosen because the City Bank was on the corner of King and George Streets, near Pitt Street, and would have served as a landmark for finding the hotel.

Evidently the business was not to Charley’s (or possibly Abigail’s) taste, because in November 1870 the City Bank Hotel and Restaurant was advertised as “to be disposed of, a bargain”, although it was “doing a very large trade in bar and restaurant, and full of lodgers”. For the skeptical, “satisfactory reasons for present owner leaving” could be provided. There were no takers, for three weeks later there was a notice in Charles’s name about the luncheon served at the hotel’s restaurant. The hotel and restaurant were again advertised to let in May 1871, although still “doing a very large trade in Bar and Restaurant, and always full of lodgers”; because of the ill-health of the proprietor, the house would be sold at a bargain. It was still to let in June, and in April of the following year Charley tried to dispose of only the restaurant, described modestly as “in working order”. Finally there was some action: Public Notice. Restaurant Francais, next City Bank Hotel, 164, Pitt-street. Auguste Fauvel begs to inform the inhabitants and friends of Sydney, that he will open the above premises, on Monday next, the 4th August, and hopes by every attention and civility, keeping a good table, to merit a share of their support.

Charles Williams died suddenly of apoplexy (probably a stroke) on the premises of the City Bank Hotel on 11 October 1876. Since he hadn’t seen a medical attendant, the coroner had to give permission for burial. His death merited two notices in The Sydney Morning Herald. One invited “the friends of the late Mr. Charles Williams” to his funeral, which was to move from his residence at City Bank Hotel on Friday afternoon, at 2 o’clock, to the Necropolis. The other invited the members of the volunteer fire companies to attend the funeral of “of their late Brother, Charles Williams, of Sydney Volunteer Fire Company No 2” in full uniform. Charles was therefore a volunteer firefighter while running the hotel and restaurant with Abigail.

The burial took place on 13 October at the Rookwood Necropolis, also called the Rookwood Cemetery, which is 17 kilometres west of Sydney’s central business district and is the largest necropolis in the Southern Hemisphere. Charles’s death certificate gives his age as 46, although it is deficient in not specifying the length of time he had spent in Australia, his age at marriage, or the religion of the officiating minister. According to the death record, he married Abigail Maquelier [sic] in Sydney and they had two children, a boy and a girl, both deceased — but they would actually have been the children of Abigail and Gustave Masquelier.

Rookwood Cemetery
Rookwood Cemetery, April 2012

A subsequent notice in the Sydney Morning Herald stated that an application to the Supreme Court of New South Wales would be made to grant Letters of Administration of the “goods, chattels, credits and effects” of Charles Williams, licensed victualler, late of the City Bank Hotel in Pitt Street, to his widow Abigail Williams. Charley thus died without a will, and Abigail was to apply for authorization to administer his estate. Unusually and unfortunately, no trace has been found of any Letters of Administration. One possible explanation is that Abigail discovered that her late husband’s estate consisted of debts and not assets.

I have been unable to trace any of Ancestral Aunt Abigail’s movements after the death of Charles Williams. There is no record of a fourth marriage in Australia, although she was only 44 in 1876; no newspaper reports mention her; no directory listings definitely refer to her. She could have made a living by dressmaking or giving music lessons, or her experience in the hotel and restaurant business might have allowed her to find a position as housekeeper. On the other hand, she might have been reduced to doing “slopwork” (rough sewing), or working as a chambermaid or servant. Since she died in Sydney, it’s likely that her travelling days were over after her third husband died. The first two, though still alive, would hardly be willing or able to provide support.

162 and 164-166 Pitt Street, April 2012
162 and 164-166 Pitt Street, April 2012

The End

On 22 December 1896, at 64 years of age, Abigail died in Sydney’s Newington Asylum of chronic nephritis and exhaustion after a long illness. The Asylum was primarily for the elderly, but it also served as a hospital for the poor and those who had incurable conditions or required convalescent care. Abigail may or may not have been considered old, since her age was 51 on the death certificate, but likely she would have been poor and her illness incurable. Her parents were given as Addison Roe [sic] and Abigail Shaw, and her birth place as Dublin, so that some truth emerged from the fog of deceit and error. The certificate noted that “Mary Abigail Williams” had married Charles Williams in Sydney at the age of 24 and that two children of the marriage were deceased, as on Charles’s death record.

Abigail Lowe was laid to rest in Rookwood Church of England Cemetery on 23 December. Her plot is among the public graves because her body was not claimed by a family member and was buried by the Crown. If it had been claimed, she could have been buried with Charles Williams. (In fact, one more person can still be buried in his plot, if a relationship can be proven.) The area, in the northwest part of the cemetery near a small canal, is now neglected, and the exact position of most graves cannot be identified. It is sad to see Abigail alone and unknown, but she is in a quiet woodland and at peace.

Rookwood Cemetery
Rookwood Cemetery near Abigail’s Grave, April 2012

Abigail’s unconventional life was a result of personal and historical circumstances: the decline of her family’s fortunes in Ireland, the prospect of a better life in Australia, the gold rush that lured men away from their families, the need to survive under unfavourable conditions. Various sources reveal the events and the context of her life, but her character remains unknown. Since she had no descendants and outlived all of her known siblings by more than twenty years, she had no family to remember her after she was gone. She must have been adaptable and hardy to travel from Ireland to England to Victoria, South Australia, New Zealand, and New South Wales; she must have had some attraction of person or personality to marry three times while keeping her real age a secret; she must have possessed some accomplishments in order to make a living. I like to think that she would be happy to have a distant niece tell her story, and I salute her and all those Irish pioneers who left their homes to make new lives in strange and distant lands.

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