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The Weeks family: The Poor Law, Peasmarsh and Parramatta: the story of one agricultural family

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James and Sarah Weeks were one of the many agricultural families in the 1830s trying to make a living on the Kent/Sussex border. I'm sure they didn't envisage being shipwrecked off the Cape of Good Hope on their long and uncomfortable sea voyage to Australia. Six months after setting out they eventually made it to Australia and settled in Parramatta.

I believe they are a well documented family in Australia but I hope my research in the National Archives might add something to their story.

James, Sarah and the Poor Law

On Christmas Day 1818 James Weeks married Sarah King in Ebony Church on the Isle of Oxney, Kent. According to the marriage register they were both of the Parish of Ebony. Sarah was baptised there in 1801 but James probably came from Peasmarsh, a Sussex village 6 miles away. [1]

It seems likely that James, an agricultural labourer, was a shepherd on the farms around Ebony and Peasmarsh which is good sheep farming country. Certainly once in Australia he and his sons were employed as shepherds.[2]

In the mid 1830s many agricultural labourers were struggling to make a living and there was much rural poverty. The Poor Law Amendment Act 1834 was introduced with the aim of reducing the cost of looking after the ever increasing number of poor people. It grouped parishes into unions which then had to provide a workhouse and in most cases the only way of getting any assistance was to enter the workhouse.

An additional way of reducing the cost was for parishes to pay for their poor parishioners to emigrate. Section 62 of the Act permitted the raising of funds for 'defraying the Expenses of the Emigration of poor Persons having settlement in such Parish, and willing to emigrate...' [3]

Although in the previous year James had not received any financial relief, in early 1838 he applied to the Peasmarsh Union for assistance to emigrate to Sydney, Australia with his wife and their four children [4]: 

  • James 1820 - 1897
  • Sarah 1822 - 
  • Thomas 1825 - 1882
  • John 1828 - 1896

(It’s possible there was an earlier child Esther Jane born 1819 who died in infancy.)

Five other families applied at the same time, a total of 17 males and 17 females ranging from 42 years to 6 months. [4]

In May 1838 the Overseer for Peasmarsh wrote to the Poor Law Commissioners stating 'that it was the wish of the Parish Officers and Rate payers to be allowed to borrow the sum of £80' to defray the costs of emigration and  'to ask if it will be necessary to Contract for a supply of Clothes for the Emigrants or for the Overseer to provide them in the best and cheapest manner they can'. [4] 

In October 1838 James, Sarah and their children were conveyed the 42 miles from Peasmarsh to Gravesend along with six other emigrants from the village, by Edward Bannister who was paid £4. 7s for this including 'allowances on the road'. 

In addition to the cost of the journey to Gravesend their other expenses, paid for by Peasmarsh Parish, amounted to: £10. 7 s paid to Wm McDermid for clothes for the family and £1. 13s paid to Samuel Smith for shoes, a total of £12. These two suppliers seem to have done a good business supplying emigrants and appear in several similar records. [5] 

They boarded the Emigrant Ship Juliana on 17 October 1838 and set sail for Australia on the 20th with 244 emigrants including a large number of children on board. [6] [7]

The Juliana 

In addition to the details in document [6] there is a very good description of the voyage plus the illnesses treated in the ‘Medical and Surgical Journal of the Emigrant Ship Juliana for 17 October 1838 to 21 May 1839’. [7] It is 52 pages long and can be downloaded free of charge from the National Archives and makes for interesting reading. A few extracts from both documents are given below.

‘....divine service performed every Sunday morning weather permitting. About 40-50 regularly attending. No regular school established but books were given to the parents who instructed their children. The lower decks underwent a thorough cleaning twice a week but the cleaning was performed with much reluctance by the Emigrants...’ [6]

‘the emigrants had no taste for dancing ....their chief amusement was reading and sewing.’ [6]

The following is from the Medical Journal [7]...

For the first two and half weeks of the voyage the ship encountered such severe storms it was unable to put in to Plymouth or Falmouth for shelter. 'The emmigrants were consequently in a very miserable condition, nearly all of them seasick, terrified and unable to take care of their children - the deck overhead leaking much in many places and wetting the bedding'.

The Superintendent Surgeon complained that during the voyage it was difficult to maintain the cleaniness of the decks, berths and bedding and writes that the only way of getting the emigrants to leave the lower decks so that they could be cleaned with water was by 'closing the hatches and smoking them up with fumes of sulphur, Cayenne pepper etc, ...'

When they reached the tropics many passengers including James’s 11 year old son John contracted a ‘remittent fever’.  John was in the sick bay from  25 November to 1st December and the symptoms of the fever, described on page 50 of the journal, included severe headaches and pain in the spine and groin.

Once the ship reached the Tropic of Capricorn the weather cooled and the illness subsided but it had left a lot of the emigrants 'weakly convalescence' so the surgeon asked the captain to put in at the Cape of Good Hope for replenishments. In doing so the ship ran aground at Green Point near Cape Town on 19 January 1839 and 'became a total wreck'.

The emigrants with their luggage were safely taken ashore where they were housed in barracks in Cape Town until other vessels could be found to take them to Australia. Whilst in the barracks, cases of phthisis (similar to TB) contracted on board increased and there was an outbreak of dysentery, both of which resulted in some deaths.

Ten families chose to stay in the Cape, and the remainder continued their journey to Sydney either on the Morayshire or the Mary Hay. 

Arriving in Australia 

Six months after they first left home, James, Sarah and their four children finally arrived in Sydney on the Morayshire on 20 April 1839. [8]

23 Apr 1839 - Shipping Intelligence. - Trove (

Their immigration papers describe them as [8]:

James Weeks, 40 year from Peasmarsh Sussex, son of Thomas Weeks of Bodiam, farmer, in good health, Church of England, unable to read and write. No complaints.

Sarah Weeks  36 year old from Tenterden Kent, daughter of George King, arrived on the Morayshire with her 4 children: James, Thomas, John and Sarah. Sarah was a general household servant, brought out by the Government. She was in delicate health and could read and write a little. Church of England.

My connection to James and Sarah

I believe Sarah to be my 5 x great aunt, the sister of my 4 x great grandmother Jenny King both daughters of George King and his wife Sarah nee Bayley of Ebony. Other people have suggested a slightly different relationship so my research  is continuing. 



[1] Kent, England, Church of England, Baptisms Marriages and Burials, 1538-1914

[2] New South Wales 1841 Census Parramatta, NSW.  Series NRS 1282, filn number 2222 (The entry for James Weeks seems to be the correct one except that the household contains 7 people, not 6. The additional person is an umarried male, aged 21-45 not born in the colony, a shepherd, so possibly a lodger).

[3] 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act (full) (

[4] National Archive Catalogue Refernce: MH 12/13077/102. Folios 166-170. Letter from William Morris, Overseer of Peasmarsh

[5] National Archive Catalogue Reference: MH/12/13077/192. Folios 317-319. Letter from William Morris, Overseer of the parish 

[6] NSW Assisted Immigration Passenger Lists 1828-1896, Series 5314, reel 1303 

[7] National Archive Catalogue Reference: ADM 101/77/9. Medical and surgical journal of the emigrant ship Juliana for 17 October 1838 to 21 May 1839

[8] NSW Assisted Immigration Passenger Lists 1828-1896, Series 5314, reel 1304

 (All the National Archive documents are available free of charge)




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A great story Heather! I almost felt like I was with them on the journey. And it really illustrates what can be found out by researching in the National Archives; something I need to do more of.
1 year ago
@peepso_user_1485(Suffolk Kiwi)
@peepso_user_2769(Heather B.) Great Blog. I have added it to the East Sussex group too. Any cases where you need a second, third etc group added to a Blog post, let me know. I can do this.
As soon as possible, I will make it easy for members to do too.
@peepso_user_2769(Heather Bradshaw)
@peepso_user_1485(Gregory Scowen) thank you
1 year ago