John Cottrell

The other grandmother of my grandchildren, Beverley Cottrell, told me that her Cottrell ancestor came on the first fleet and was from Cornwall. Like many oral traditions of family history, there is some truth in this. There was a Cottrell on the first fleet, but he was not Beverley’s ancestor. And, as you will see, she did have ancestors from Cornwall, but they were not called Cottrell. Her ancestor was John Cottrell, a man from the Wirral, the little bit of Cheshire that sticks out of the northwest coast of England, a peninsula opposite the great city of Liverpool to one side, across the estuary of the Mersey, and separated from Wales on the other side by the estuary of the Dee.

Around 1858, John Cottrell left the Wirral for Victoria, where, in 1895, he died by his own hand, in poverty. His life was shaped, for good and ill, by developments in transport.


The Wirral was for centuries a rural by-way. But over the 1800s, it was transformed by improvements in transport. In 1816, the first steam ferry across the Mersey linked it to Liverpool. This began huge changes on the eastern side of the Wirral — there’s even a song about the ferry. By the 1830s, good roads linked the whole of the Wirral to Chester and the rest of England. And in 1840, a railway line from Chester reached Birkenhead, the closest point on the Wirral to Liverpool. The Wirral was no longer a rural backwater but linked to industrial Britain and to Britain’s overseas colonies.

John Cottrell was born in the village of Oxton, on the edge of Birkenhead, in 1839, just a few months before the railway opened.

The improved transport led to the development of industry, docks, and housing on the eastern side of the Wirral. In 1852, the Birkenhead Emigrant Depot, England’s largest base for migrants to Australia, began operations just 3 km from Oxton. By his teens, John saw the fields around his home built over and his region becoming a suburb of Liverpool.

Two maps, one from 1831, and one 1896. Oxton is ringed. In 1983 it's small villages and fields. Many more streets, houses, docks and industry in 1896.
Change around Oxton in John’s lifetime

In 1851, John was still in Oxton with his parents and five siblings. His father was an agricultural labourer, but was probably of higher status than most agricultural labourers. John’s father had signed his own marriage registration, and at John’s birth gave his occupation as “Farm bailiff”. In later life, John was able to sign his name too and he appears to have been literate, as was beginning to be possible for working class children at this date. I was surprised to find that John probably did not come to Australia as an assisted migrant, but this slight social superiority makes it possible that John’s family could have raised the money for passage to Australia, especially with contributions from the wider family. John Cottrell’s father was born in Neston, on the Western side of Wirral, and was living there at the time of the birth of his first four children. In 1851 there were 5 Cottrell households in Neston and Little Neston, all related to each other and to John Cottrell’s father. They included William Cottrell, schoolmaster, Thomas Cottrell, shopkeeper, and David Cottrell, publican. We can imagine them clubbing together for John’s passage.

Many rural workers of nineteenth century Britain rejected agricultural work for employment in one of the industrial towns of Northern England. Some of John’s siblings left the Wirral for work outside agriculture. Others remained in the rural economy of the Wirral. John chose a third alternative, and, before the 1861 census, migrated to Victoria. Migrants came to the Birkenhead Emigration Depot from all over Britain, often spending time in exploitative lodgings, but for John it was just a short walk to get to the ship that would take him across the world.

We can’t know why John, alone in his immediate family, decided to migrate. Was he especially unhappy with the urbanising of the Birkenhead area? Or was there a thought that he would see what it was like and then be followed by other relatives?

We don’t know exactly when he migrated either. His death certificate states that he had been in Victoria 40 years, but that may be a rounded figure. Taking all documentation into account, it is likely he migrated between 1855 and 1861. There is only one migrant with his name that I have been unable to eliminate: John may therefore be John Caterill, the 19 year old ‘farmer’ (a plausible upgrade) arriving (unassisted) on Albion in 1858, one of the 21,172 who migrated from Birkenhead to Australia that year in steerage alone. “Caterill” is unlikely to be a spelling variant, but the ‘a’ could arise from a copying error. This is not a firm identification, however.

John came to the Victorian goldfields during the peak of the goldrush, but seems not to have tried mining. Every single document in which he appears identifies him as a groom. He is first attested in Victoria in 1863, a groom for Cobb & Co, winning a footrace behind Ingelwood’s Pelican Hotel in “plucky style”.

 Bendigo Advertiser (Vic. : 1855 - 1918)  Sat 17 Jan 1863 Page 2 INGLEWOOD.

FOOT RACING.--A footrace was run yesterday afternoon, between John Cottrell, one of the grooms in the employ of Cobb and Co., and a person of the name of Simins, a fruiterer, residing at
Tarengower, who is reckoned a "don" at it -- the race was ran at the rear of Pelican Hotel, and much to the admirers of Cottrell's plucky style
he came in a winner by nearly three yards.
John wins a footrace

John is next recorded, still a groom, between 1874 and 1889, as the father of eight children, four of whom died in infancy. Their mother, who is always identified as John’s wife, was Alice Elizabeth Mathews, ‘Mat(t)hews’ being both her maiden name and the surname of her first husband.

Alice’s origins are not entirely clear as she sometimes says she was born in Geelong and sometimes says she was born in Truro, Corwall, and I have found no record of her birth in either place. She was from a large and intermarried Cornish family. Even her mother was a Mathews both before and after marriage! Alice was the source of Beverley’s Cornish ancestors.

John married Alice in 1882, after the births of their first four children. They travelled 260 km from Warrnambool, where they had lived for at least 3 years, to Collingwood, in Melbourne, in order to marry at the Collingwood Registry. This was presumably because in Warrnambool, where they had already registered two births and two deaths, they were known as a married couple.

The marriage certificate identified Alice as having been a widow since 1878, with one living child from the first marriage. She did indeed have one living child from the first marriage, but she also had a living child from the relationship with John, born in 1881. John and Alice understandably did not declare the three dead children from their relationship. However, the birth registrations of all their children — born both before and after marriage — do name all the children and also declare they were married in 1867, around the date of Alice’s first marriage. We can assume that John and Alice felt that it was safe to marry in 1882, without risking prosecution for bigamy, but we cannot know whether Alice’s first husband was actually dead. He may have died, remarried, or returned to England.

John worked as a groom for Cobb & Co, moving from one of Cobb & Co’s changing stations to another, until Cobb and Co ceased to operate in Victoria in 1890. This stability of employment is unusual for migrants. As long as Cobb & Co operated in Victoria, John had security. He was a valued worker in a job requiring skill and responsibility – this was a real career in which he was retained and, at some point, promoted to head groom. Cobb & Co had introduced their coaching system in Victoria in 1854, using changing stations that were often run by a single groom. The groom had to care for the horses to keep them in top condition. He also had to manage the fast changeover of teams. Fit horses and fast change-overs were essential to the speeds attained by Cobb & Co coaches. Changing stations usually provided refreshment and lodging, typically managed by the groom’s wife. Alice, raised in the goldfields, probably had experience in hospitality — although in 1862 she states her father was a miner, in 1882 he is said to be a brewer.

Old photo of a team of 4 or 5 horses standing in from of a stage coach. Two men stand at the head of the leading horse. There is a huge amount of luggage hangimg from the back of the coach and visible inside. An arm is visible of a passenger inside. At least 10 men, of Chinese appearance, are on top of the coach (with more luggage) and a coachman sits at the front.
A Cobb & Co coach in Victoria, 1853, just before John arrived

During the period of John’s employment with Cobb & Co, the railways of Victoria were spreading. The dense network of railways and the declining state of the roads required constant adaptation from Cobb & Co, and progressively reduced their routes. John left Ararat soon after the railway reached it, but finally, in 1890, the railway arrived in Warrnambool, linking Melbourne to Port Fairy. At this point Cobb & Co became unable to compete with railways withdrew from Victoria, costing John his employment as head groom. The 1890s recession was another factor impacting on their business, but the consequences of that recession would be worse for John.

John and Alice attempted to run a boarding house, but, in the poor economic climate, it failed, and John was declared insolvent in 1892. Poverty and depression followed, and three years later, unemployed, depressed, and living in lodgings, he cut his throat.

Two newspaper reports.
1.
 The Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 - 1957)  Mon 13 May 1895 
 Page 6 
 SUICIDE AT WARRNAMBOOL.

John Cottrell, aged 57 years, committed suicide this morning. At one time he was head groom here for Messrs. Cobb and Co., but latterly had been out of work, and had
been much depressed. Doctors examined him and found him to be bordering on insanity, and they warned his relatives to watch
him. This morning he entered an outhouse, and cut his throat, dying shortly afterwards.

2.
 The Age (Melbourne, Vic. : 1854 - 1954)  Mon 13 May 1895 
 Page 5 
 SUICIDE AT WARRNAMBOOL.

John Cottrell, aged 57, committed suicide here to-day by cutting his throat with a razor. He went to an outhouse, and Mrs. Gaul, with whom he was lodging, suspecting something wrong,
called two young men from the yard of a neighboring hotel, but they refused to interfere. A man named Downey then went to Cottrell and 
found him sitting with a razor in his hand. He was then not quite dead, but he expired in a few minutes. Deceased had returned from South
Melbourne recently in a depressed condition and could not get work. Doctors had examined him and advised that he should be watched as he was bordering on insanity. He leaves a wife and a number of children.
John’s death

John’s biography suggests a conscientious man. After migrating, he had a long career in a responsible role for an exacting company. He and Alice took care to avoid prosecution for bigamy, but also carefully crafted a convincing narrative of respectability. At 55, crushed by the forces of technology and recession, John was unable to face a precarious future.

[If you want to see the sources for the information, you can read the academic essay.]