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Private John Olliffe (Olive//Hiffe) (c.1786.....1871.)

John Olive (1786 – 1871)

My great great grandfather, John Olive was baptised at St Mary & St Leonard at Broomfield on 30th March 1788, just two months after the first convict settlement at Sydney, half a world away.  Little can the child’s impoverished parents have known that he was destined to participate in this most unusual form of nation building.

Young John never did learn to read or write, nor to advance beyond the most modest levels in anything he attempted; but, swept by the tide of 19th Century British expansion, he managed to be among the cast of some great historical events.

In 1812 he joined the West Essex Militia as part of the quota from Foulness.  The Militia was assigned to Ashby de la Zouche in Leicestershire, where he met and married Hannah Gilbert on 16th February 1813.  How could they have imagined then that the next 60 years would see them battling the French in the Peninsula Campaign, suppressing Irish unrest,  travelling as far as man had travelled, raising eight children to adulthood, suffering the loss of seven others in infancy, surviving the high seas while guarding 160 thieves and murderers, living in shacks in the remote Tasmanian wilderness while being harassed by bushrangers,  joining in one of the world’s great gold rushes in Victoria, and creating rich pasture out of untamed Australian bush?

By any reckoning it was an amazing journey for the boy from Broomfield and the girl from Ashby, in a rough, cruel and unforgiving world.  But tough they were:  John lived to age 85 and Hannah to 95.  They probably were seen as, and saw themselves as, nobodies, people of little achievement or distinction.  But I see them otherwise.  In the Australian ethos we pay homage to “the little Aussie battler.”  John and Hannah were quintessential battlers, survivors against the odds.  In a way which they never imagined, they did indeed contribute to the fabric of this nation:  their hundreds of descendants include members of all the professions.

So, dear folk of Broomfield, remember your humble son John Olive in your prayers.  He has neither plaque nor memorial.  In all likelihood, before this note no mention has been made of his name in Essex in all the two centuries since he departed.  But the world has been created by the many small deeds of lowly people.

With every respect, from his great great grandson,

Richard Olive,  Melbourne, Australia


The above article was  prepared  at the request of the Vicar of the parish of St Mary with St Leonard at Broomfield, Essex, for inclusion in the parish bulletin.  Of necessity, it is a précis of what is known of the life of John and Hannah.  The following notes flesh it out a little.

·      The spelling of John’s surname was subject to much variation prior to 1850.  He was baptised at Broomfield on 30 March 1788 as Olive; married at Ashby de la Zouch on 16 February 1813 as Oliff.  The name appears as Olliffe in military records and as Oliph in a Tasmanian census.  The problem was that both John and Hannah were illiterate and the name got recorded as the scribe heard it, without verification.  With improved literacy among their children in the mid-19th century, the spelling settled down to Olive.

·      John’s parents were Daniel Olive and Mary Ford.  He had at least four siblings, Mary, Daniel, Rosanne and Fanny.

·      Hannah’s parents were Thomas Gilbert, a carpenter, and ??? Tufton.  Hannah was born in Nottinghamshire in about 1790.

·      John joined the West Essex Militia on 6 January 1812, as part of the quota from Foulness.

·      Over a period of three weeks in 1813, three weddings involving members of the West Essex Militia, including the marriage of John and Hannah, took place at the parish of Ashby de la Zouch, Leicestershire.  The three couples alternated as bridal couples and witnesses, and included Sarah Gilbert who married James Hainsworth and Hannah Williamson who married Simon Childs.  It may be conjectured that Hannah and Sarah Gilbert were related, and the same may apply to Hannah Williamson since the marriage registers of Notts county list several Gilbert-Williamson marriages during the middle and late 1700s.

·      John was discharged into the regular forces on 11 July 1813 as a member of the 48th regiment, which later became the 1st Batallion of the Northamptonshire Regiment.

·      John was awarded a service medal for his participation in the Battle of Nivelle (Peninsular Campaign), under the Duke of Wellington, 10 November 1813.

·      On Christmas Day 1815 the 48th was deployed to Ireland, and served at Dublin, Naas and Fermoy.  Most of the 48th was sent to Sydney in 1817, but John and others were held back and saw service in Canterbury and other towns in England and Ireland, before he and Hannah embarked from Cork on New Year’s Day, 1818, under Captain Allman on board the convict transport “Minerva” for Sydney.

·      The Minerva, 530 tons, had been built in 1804, and  carried 160 Irish convicts, three of whom died en route.  The ship arrived in Sydney on 30 April 1818, but the Governor, Lachlan Macquarie,  immediately directed it and another transport, the “Lady Castlereagh”, to proceed to Hobart.  The Minerva arrived in Hobart on 7 June 1818, after a total journey of 157 days.

·      The total number of passengers on the Minerva, and the number of females, has not as yet been ascertained.

·      The Minerva was just the second of hundreds of convict ships to discharge its human cargo in Hobart, which at the time was still only a small township.  The white population of Van Diemen’s Land (later to be known as Tasmania) was only some 3000 people at the time.

·      The 48th Regiment pay sheets list John as a private, paid one shilling a day with an “allowance in lieu of beer”.  This was however reduced to sixpence per day whilst at sea.

·      From the Regiment, John was “discharged Hobart Town 31st March 1820 having completed limited period of service.”

·      John and Hannah’s eldest child to survive infancy, John junior, was born in Hobart on 18 March 1819, ie, 9 months and 11 days after their arrival.  Seven more of their children, all born in Tasmania, were to survive to adulthood.  The eight comprised six boys and two girls.

·      Hannah, who was to outlive four of these children, actually had seven other children, all listed as “unknown” – presumably stillbirths or neo-natal deaths –on her death certificate.  On John’s death certificate, two of these “unknowns” are named Hannah.

·      Thus Hannah experienced 15 pregnancies between her marriage in 1813 and her last child, Frances (“Fanny”), in 1838.  By constructing a timeline with the known eight births, it is fairly easy to slot in the seven others with a fair degree of confidence.  Three of them preceded John Junior, during the England/Ireland phase of their marriage.  It is quite possible that Hannah suffered one of her losses during the five and a half month passage of the Minerva.

·      Van Diemen’s Land must have seemed an extremely raw habitat, populated by a very unrefined, even terrifying, society at the time (1820) when John took his leave of the military.  The rugged wilderness surrounding Hobart, populated by escaped convicts and feared aboriginal people, must have been highly intimidating to a couple with two babies.  But for whatever reasons they chose to stay.  These reasons, or whether they had any choice, are the subject of ongoing research.

·      The family stayed in Hobart until at least 1827, when the Hobart Children’s Census lists John (9), Robert (7), Daniel (4) and Mary (2) as being children of “parents of good character”.  It is likely that Hannah had lost one of the “unknowns” between Robert and Daniel.

·      By the time of the next extant census, in 1842, the family consisted of John, Hannah and eight children, “all born in the colony”, under the name of Oliph, living at Buoys, d’Entrecasteaux Channel, in a “completed wooden house”.  All five adult males were recorded as mechanic/artisans.  Buoys no longer exists as a place name, but it was near the present little township of Woodbridge.  Although only about 35 km from Hobart, the intervening country is very rugged, and certainly no road would have existed at the time.  Contact would have been by boat.  The area is still very heavily wooded, and the channel scenery is very attractive.

·      Also in 1842, the baptisms are recorded of the two youngest children, Thomas Gilbert and Frances, who were aged seven and four at the time.  The family’s name is given as Olive, and the address as Huon River.  John Senior was listed as a sawyer.

·      The forests in parts of the Huon River valley are still very much frontier country.  Any habitation in the area before 1850 would certainly have been subject to harassment by bushrangers, as escaped convicts were called.  The terrors imposed upon settlers at the frontier by these desperados, who faced execution if captured, are legendary.  It must have been an extremely challenging environment for John and Hannah in which to raise their eight children.  Hannah gave birth to at least the last three of her children there, and most probably to the last three of the “unknowns” as well.

·      The area along the shores of the d’Entrecasteaux Channel, which separates Tasmania proper from the offshore Bruny Island, was the home country of many of the lamented  Tasmanian Aborigines. 

·      In about 1851 the family moved to South Australia.  The reason is unknown, but it may well have concerned an escape from Tasmania’s convict heritage, the promise of less arduous work or the appeal of Adelaide’s warmer climate.

·      After about five years around Adelaide, John and Hannah followed some of their sons to the Kyneton/Malmsbury area of Victoria in 1856.  Victoria was then the boom colony/state in Australia, following the discovery of gold at Ballarat and Bendigo, not far from Kyneton.  Presumably the move was motivated by economic improvement, although John was aged 68 at the time, and Hannah 66.  John farmed for the next fifteen years until his death in 1871, aged 83.  Hannah lived on for another 12 years.  Her death certificate lists her age as “about 95 years”.

·      They are both buried at Kyneton, about 80 km north-west of Melbourne.