Building a life in Australia

James Silver and Janet Todd.

When a young Scottish carpenter named James Silver arrived in Queensland in 1892, he was about to begin life in a country that was considerably different to the one in which he grew up.

Within months he was joined by his fiancée Janet Todd and they married in Brisbane in August of that year before heading west to begin life at Kooroongarra a settlement near Millmerran west of Toowoomba.

Before considering the lifestyle and surroundings that James and Janet had come to live in, it’s worth considering their backgrounds.

It was  at Burnside farm about 16km from Aberdeen in Scotland, that James Silver was born in April 1863 the son of Alexander Silver and Isobel Falconer. For generations, the Silvers had farmed different holdings in the district.

It’s fairly certain that our James Silver connects to the influential brothers George and John Silver who had in the 1600s significant holdings bought with the fortune George made farming sugar cane in the West Indies.

A publication records that George had “bought back the ancestral lands” when he purchased a farm known as Balnagubs. 

Descendant Alexander Silver and his son George, built Netherley House, a large holding surrounded by several acres of trees. Netherley House stands today as a reminder of a time when the Silvers enjoyed the trappings of wealth.

George also contributed a substantial sum to a church being built on a nearby hill at Cookney. He wanted to be able to look out his window and see the church. But now the building is no longer used for its original purpose as the parish sold it to a company that conducts research work for the North Sea oil industry.

Aberdeenshire connection

The countryside in which our James Silver grew up is a few miles from the North Sea on Scotland’s east coast. The land is rockier closer to the coast but more fertile around the River Dee on which Aberdeen sits. 

Burnside farm is in the Maryculter district not far from the Dee and the Silvers in various generations worked surrounding holdings such as Standingstones, Sunnyside, Blaikiewell, Crossley, Sauchenshaw and Cairnieburn to name a few.

After growing up at Burnside, James moved to the neighbouring farm, Cockley, where he was apprenticed to a carpenter named James Troup. It appears this James Troup could have been related to James Silver’s great great grandmother Margaret Troup who in the early 1700s had married George Silver who had also farmed at Burnside.

James Silver’s father Alexander Silver was born at Standingstones but farmed at Crossley which is just over nearby Stranog Hill. When he died in 1882 aged 86, Alexander had a sizable estate of  more than £1300. He had £13 in cash, furniture (£31), farm stock (£344) and £13  in his working bank account.

He also had £250 in the Bank of Scotland at Aberdeen and £109  with the National Security Savings Bank, Stonehaven.
He was also due £510 held in bond by the Lord Provost Magistrates and Town Council of the Burgh of Aberdeen.

He owed £146 to various people for goods and services and £12 for funeral expenses including £4 for a coffin that James Troup built.
The entire estate was bequeathed to the eldest son, John, who at some time in the next decade had moved further south to a farm called Harvieston near the coastal town of Stonehaven.

Harvieston farm

It’s at Harvieston that we pick up most information about James Silver’s siblings through a letter his brother Alex wrote in 1892.

Alex lived at Harvieston with John and their sister Isobel and mother (also Isobel).   It first mentions that their mother was in England presumably visiting Helen, the eldest of the Silver siblings who had married a land steward named Alexander Duncan.

Although Alexander was a Scot probably born in the area, at the time they married he was working in Wales. In the 1881 census he is listed as a farm bailiff at a property called Trefilan at Cardigan.

A picture taken in Carmarthen, Wales, seems to be of Alex and Helen and their child, probably their daughter Isabella Margaret. The 1892 letter mentions that Helen has another son but the only details we have of the Duncan children is in Isobel Silver’s will in which she left five pounds to her grand daughters Isabella Margaret Duncan and Hannah Watt Duncan.

Alex’s letter then goes on to give James details of how thing are progressing at Harvieston:

“You will be anxious to hear how we are getting on with our farm. Well we had a very good crop last year but lost a lot of our stock and a good horse (the blue one) worth about 50£ yet on the whole it has paid pretty well. Everything is looking very well this summer. There is every appearance of an abundant crop. We have taken for the summer’s grass a large haugh near Bervie (Inverbervie about 3km from Kinneff) for which we pay £105 and have 48 cattle & horses in it.”

Alex then mentions the passing of some people including their mother’s mother Jessie Falconer nee Menzies.  He also mentions uncles, aunts and cousins including their first cousin Alex Silver (born 1866 died 1954)  who’s mother Mary Ann Falconer was their mother Isobel sister. Mary Ann’s husband James Silver  (1832-1903) was also a first cousin once removed. This complication made Alex (1858-1907) and Alex (1866-1954) second cousins as well.

Alex mentions that Alex Silver who along with his brother James had gone to America had been back in Scotland for a visit and stayed at Harvieston.

Alex wrote: “He and James are getting on grandly in America. James has just got a situation worth about £300 per year.’’

Interestingly, Alex also writes that Mr Watt of Hilton passing away because in February, 1894, Alex the late Mr Watt’s daughter Helen Jane.

Janet Todd meets the Silvers

There is also a glowing mention of Janet Todd who visited Harvieston before going out to Australia to marry James. “I must say that I thought a great deal of your young lady the two or three days she stayed with us. May you both be long spared to each other and lead a long, happy and prosperous life.”

Life wasn’t to be so prosperous for Alex and Helen Silver’s family though despite the seven children they had.

Their eldest, Alex who was born in 1894, died in 1915 in Belgium in World War 1 as did his brother John (1896-1918). James, born 1898, came to Australia about 1919 and died at Southport, Queensland in 1973.

The next born, Isabella born 1900 died just after turning one and the real tragedy occurred in 1905 when Helen gave birth to twins.

In 1903, Helen junior was added to the Silver clan and was struggling with whooping cough when twins William and Isabella were born on 10 January, 1905.

Both William and his mother died on the 12th, two-year-old Helen succumbed to her illness on the 13th  and Isabella died on the 20th. Four of the family gone in 10 days devastated the Harvieston Silvers.

Within weeks Alex and John’s sister Isabella – then aged 45 – married 57-year-old widower John Duncan, brother of her sister Helen’s husband Alex.

It’s not clear when the Silvers left Harvieston but Alex hit the bottle in a major way and drank himself to death within two years of the traumatic passing of his wife and three of his children.

It appears likely that John either stayed on at Harvieston or sold up because both young Alex and John Silver were at Aberdeen University when they joined the Gordon Highlanders.