Ballina & Richmond River GenWeb

< Back to Surname Index


It is strange that I have found very little about the Muirhead family in Ballina. Robert Purdie Muirhead & his wife, Catherine Murdoch moved from Onebygamba (Carrington) in Newcastle to Ballina in 1891. Their move was quite intriguing as no one seems to know why they fled their "home town" & families to move to Ballina.

Robert was the youngest son of Robert Purdie Muirhead (snr) & Danney (Dinah) Riddle. Robert snr was born in West Calder, Midlothian, Scotland in 1808. He was the son of a shale minner (or quarry man) named Hugh Muirhead. Robert snr's mother was Margaret Johnston. Robert snr married twice. The first time to Isabella Smith & the second time to Danney Riddle. Robert & Isabella had 3 children: Agnes (1831), Hugh (1836), Isabella ( 1839), Elizabeth Cranston (1845), James Riddle (1847) & Robert Purdie (1850). In 1857, Robert snr, Danney & the younger 5 children sailed to Australia on the "John Bunyan". They arrived in Australia on 27th October. Robert snr had a nephew, Hugh Muirhead, already in the colony. My great grandfather, Robert jnr, was only 7 when he arrived in Australia. He was quite an enigma.

The Muirheads settled at Onebygamba (also called Bullock Island, which later became known as Carrington). Their address was latter known as Denison St, Carrington. One Muirhead family member related a tale to me with regard to Robert Purdie jnr, but he was not sure whether the originator of the story was "pulling his leg" or not.

The story goes that Robert was expelled from school at the age of 12 for breaking his teacher's arm over the desk. Robert was fiercely loyal to his family. When the teacher threatoned to cane one of Robert's sister's for something she didn't do, Robert leapt to her defence. At this stage, Robert was supposed to have become involved in the maratime industry. Some say he went to sea & learnt about sailing & building ships.

Robert jnr married my great grandmother, Catherine Murdoch, in 1882. Knaggs Nautical Almanac for 1884 describes Onebygamba, or Bullock Island, as a rising township, situated on the west side of the Newcastle Harbour. It also advertises Robert Muirhead as a builder & contracter. Robert & Catherine had 5 children: Alexina Forbes (my grandmother - 1883), James Riddle (1884), Catherine Elizabeth Cranston (1886), Barbara Doris ( 1896) & Marion May (1899). I have in my possession a variety of books which once belonged to Robert Muirhead jnr. Included is a carbon copy book of business letters.The letters begin on the 10th October 1883. The last letter is dated Dec 6th 1890. There is a comment about the family's arrival in Ballina in January 1891. The book contains mention of numerous dealers of shipping parts & people involved in ship building near Clarence Town.

From Robert's records it was obvious that he completed all types of construction work. He built houses, made renovations & built ships. Mysteriously, there is 4 years of "business" letter copies missing from the book. The entries between 1885 & 1889 are missing.

My grandmother (Ma) loved to speak of her family's sailing adventures. When she was a young girl, her father had numerous sailing ships. At times the whole family would accompany Robert on voyages.Ma would recount details of how the family would dress in their "Sunday best" during bad weather, in case they lost the ship. The children would be tied to the mast to prevent them falling overboard. The "Cushat Doo" (1881 - 1884) was one of Robert's ships. The "Ovean Rover" (1884 - 1887) was another he built. The Muirheads became quite prosperous at one stage. Robert took a small photo of his wife to China on one of his trips & returned with a large oil painting of Catherine. On one occassion Robert resorted to drawing his revolver to prevent a mutiny of his crew. Eventually, all the Muirhead ships were lost to sea. I wonder whether this occured during the "missing letters" period. Robert obviously treasured this time of his life as he kept quite a bit of memorabilia from his ships.

It was fascinating to read of the Muirhead move to Ballina in January 1891. Whether the loss of Robert's fortune prompted the move or not, I am unsure. Robert's sister Isabella & her husband John Burnes seemed to have a hand in the affair. A man named Mr Padmore also featured. There has been some speculation as to whether Mr Padmore was a relative of Robert's. My mother believes the family called him Sir Padmore & she thought he may have been a step brother of Robert.

The astounding thing is that at the end of 1890, Robert Muirhead (my maternal great grandfather) wrote a letter asking my paternal great grandfather, Charles Hancock, to prepare the land on the farm Robert had just purchased at Emigrant Point near Ballina. Little did they know that their children would later wed!

My grandmother & her siblings attended school in Ballina. When the weather was reasonable, their father would row them into Ballina, along the Richmond River. During threatoning weather, they had to walk. At some stage the Muirheads moved from Emigrant Point into Ballina.

At this time, Robert built quite a few houses. The Muirhead's fisrt house in Ballina was Ellerslie. Robert built this home in Ross Street. Ellerslie was given to Robert's daughters Kit & Doris. It was one house back from the house he built which became the "Bentick Gallery". The house that became Bentick Gallery (on the corner of Ross & Bentick Streets)was named Glenshae. It was to be Robert & Catherine's home from about 1920 until Robert died & Catherine became unable to care for herself. Glenshae was given to my grandmother, Alexina & Alexina moved there in her old age. Robert built a small house next to Glenshae in Bentick St named Heatherbrae. It was also often referred to as Bugville. Robert built a home in Swift Street named Dalkeith & another opposite Glenshae. Dalkeith was given to Jim & May, while the house opposite Glenshae & the vacant block beside it were given to May.

I am unsure exactly what position Robert held in Ballina. His oldest living grandson remembers Robert spending much of his time in his office writing. All of the older Muirhead family members believe Robert was empolyed in some maratime capacity. Some believe Robert held a position somewhat like a maratime inspector. Quite a bit of his time was also spent at the Ballina slipway.

Records can be a little confusing. There was, however, a link between James Davis & Robert Muirhead. In 1887, Robert sold the Ocean Rover to James Davis. In 1886, James Davis (of Grafton)& Robert Muirhead (of Newcastle) co-owned the "Ann & Mary". In 1887 Robert was the sole owner of the Ann & Mary. On JUne 26th 1887, the Ann & Mary foundered off Lake Tyers. It is of interest to add that the Davis Bros. ran ships from Ballina to Woodburn return.

Catherine Muirhead (nee Murdoch) was well known as a very caring but rigid lady. Young boys wishing to sell fish would only make a sale at the Muirhead house if they knocked at the tradesman's enterance (the back door). If they approached the front door they were sent away with a scolding. If they approached the back door thay were given the best price in town for their fish. Catherine became legendary for pinching her grandchildren in church, if they wriggled etc. She returned to Newcastle 5 times to nurse 5 of her brothers who died of consumption (aquired from working in the coal mines). Catherine also raised one of her brother's daughters after his wife died. In Catherine's later years she suffered from severe dementure & was cared for by Alexina & Arthur at their home at Pimlico.

Alexina Forbes Muirhead married Arthur Frederick Charles Hancock & sugar cane & dairy farmed at Pimlico. Robert built a house on Arthur's farm & named is Rosslin. James Riddle Muirhead married Ethel Maude Ainsworth. Catherine Elizabeth Cranston married James McIntyre. Barbara Dorris Muirhead married Percy Jasper Manning. Marion May Muirhead married Herbert King. May King died 3 weeks before her 100th birthday at Marylands, Sydney.

I have found record of a Sarah Jane Muirhead who died in a Psychiatric Institution in Granville, in 1938. Her parents were Robert Muirhead & Catherine. None of my Muirhead family have heard of Sarah Jane, but I have also not located "other" parents for her.

Submitted by: Donna Williams

Copy of page originally transcribed by Mandy O'Neill (content remains unedited)
2017 BalliGenWeb