Eliza Thomasina (Walsh) Briscoe (1808-1875)

Among my less recent female ancestors, Eliza is one who stands out in my mind.

It is a fact in history, and particularly genealogy, that we tend to know less about the women in the past than about their fathers, husbands and sons. As a result, much of what we know about Eliza comes to us through the records associated with the men in her life. But when we can discover details about the lives of our female forebears it can be all the more rewarding.

It appears that much or Eliza’s life centered around her own and her extended family although she didn’t have a very auspicious start. Census records show that Eliza was born in the West Indies, a long way from the British Isles where she spent most of her life.

She was the daughter of Lt. Col. Thomas Walsh of the 56th British Regiment. Thomas came from a very distinguished Irish Jacobite emigre family who had made their home in Brittany, France after their association with the Stuart insurrection led to the confiscation of their large estates in Kilkenny. For a number of generation before Thomas, his family had had a close relationship with French royalty as privateers, merchants and particularly slave traders. Thomas had turned his back on that latter “family business” and opted for a career in the military.

While Thomas was stationed in Jamaica with the 56th British Regiment and as Deputy Adjutant to Sir Eyre Coote the Governor of the island, Eliza was born on 8 March 1808, the illegitimate daughter of one A.E. French. All indications from the wording of Eliza’s baptism records are that A.E. French was not only of European but also of African descent, ironically the descendant of a slave. In his will (part of which is below) Thomas not only acknowledged his daughter but also made provision for her future back in Ireland (seemingly illustrating his desire to firmly establish a home there and distance himself from France).

Thomas Walsh part will (dated 1809)

His will indicated Thomas’ desire for Eliza to be returned to Ireland when she was four years old and to be cared for by his friends and relatives Peter and Sarah Walsh of Belline, Kilkenny. We do not know exactly when Eliza did travel to Ireland, but by that time her father would have been dead, killed in an accidental fall from a gig in Surrey, England in 1810. Peter Walsh had converted from Catholicism to become a Protestant but whatever his religious beliefs he was regarded as a complete gentleman with a cultivated taste and appreciation of the arts as well a patron. At Belline Eliza would have had a comfortable upbringing.

Belline, Home of Peter Walsh in Pilltown, Kilkenny

The next record of Eliza is when the Waterford Mail announced that she had married Henry Harrison Briscoe of Cloncunny on 2 June 1830. Both the Walsh family of Belline and the Briscoe family of Cloncunny had close relations with Lord Bessborough in Kilkenny among the Protestant gentry. Eliza was twenty-two years of age and Henry ten years older when they married and the date may have been specially chosen because it was also Henry’s birthday.

Over the next fifteen years the couple had six children. Thomas Anthony was born in 1831 but died shortly after. Then there were five other children: Edward William, Caroline Elizabeth Henrietta, Alfred Philip, Henry Harrison jr. and Thomasina Marian.

As well managing the Cloncunny estate, Henry was a local magistrate and became an Inspector of Poor Laws. It is assumed that the latter role was at least partly to provide additional income as the economic and social changes in Ireland at the time made living off the land less sustainable. It appears that he was an absentee landlord for much of the time and away in the Poor Laws role in County Mayo and County Clare between 1848 and 1852 during the latter part of the Great Famine.

Earlier in 1846, Henry is recorded in the Slater’s Directory (under Nobility, Gentry and Clergy) living in The Crescent, Onchan on the Isle of Man indicating that this could have been the family’s usual residence. Their youngest child Thomasina was christened in Onchan in 1845 and both Eliza and Thomasina were still at The Crescent, mentioned in the 1851 census living with her father-in-law Edward Briscoe at Onchan on the Isle of Man presumably while Henry was in County Clare. It is not known how long Eliza stayed with Edward but it may have been to care for him as he died there in October 1851.

Henry subsequently took up the role of Superintendent of Poor Laws in Scotland from 1857 until his death in 1864 and he was buried in Inverness. The 1861 census for Inverness shows a Marion Briscoe as a scholar, aged 16 years, which if it is our Thomasina Marian suggests that Eliza was with Henry during his years in Scotland.

After Henry’s death, Eliza spent some time in Devonshire with her older daughter Caroline but she was back living in Cloncunny with Thomasina Marian when she died in 1875. Her other four surviving children were spread far and wide with Edward living in Surrey, Caroline in Devonshire, Alfred a sea captain and Henry in outback Australia. Thomasina was still living at Cloncunny when she died in 1881.

One of my own memorable family history experiences was locating Eliza’s grave in Kilkenny. Within the deserted Church of Ireland churchyard at Graigavine the memorial stands proud indicative of the family’s love and the esteem in which Eliza was held.

Grave of Eliza Thomasina (Walsh) Briscoe
Old Graigavine Churchyard, Kilkenny

Sacred To the Memory of Elizabeth Thomasina Relict of the Late Henry Harrison Briscoe Esq. Of Cloncunny Co. Kilkenny And daughter of the Late Lieut. Col. Walsh of H.M. 56th Regt. Died 13th February 1875 in her 66th Year. and below  
Also to the memory of Marion Thomasina Briscoe Youngest Daughter of the Above Who Died at Cloncunny in Her 35th Year Feb. 6th 1881

My great great grandmother, Eliza Thomasina Walsh, will always have a special place in the Briscoe-Walsh branch of our family tree.

Ma Belle

What joy a three year old can bring

When tis our own precious flower’s first bud.

With nearby friends and family from afar

Gathered in our southern capital’s port,

Celebrating toddlerhood as petals unfold.

Our beautiful little one. Ma Belle.

The Truth about Aunty Ruby

Aunty Ruby was initially somewhat of a mysterious figure to the current generation, so uncovering details of her life and ancestry was a worthwhile challenge. She was a contemporary of great grandparents growing up with the Bruce family in the gold mining town of Hillgrove, 32 kms east of Armidale, in the Northern Tablelands of New South Wales. Oral history suggested that her father had murdered her mother and was hanged as a result, but her exact relationship to the Bruces was unclear.

She was a much loved figure and when she died in 1948 the following obituary appeared in Wollongong’s Illawarra Mercury newspaper:


Mrs. Ruby Amelia Grant, of 248 Lawrence Hargrave Drive, Thirroul, passed away suddenly at the Bulli Hospital last Thursday night, following a stroke which she suffered earlier in the day. The late Mrs. Grant, who was 54 years of age, was born at Petersham and was the only child of Mr. and Mrs. William J[ames] Dummer, both of whom predeceased her when she was seven years of age. Soon after her parents’ death, she went to live with her aunt, Mrs. Thomas Bruce, of Hillgrove, via Armidale and she was reared up as a sister to her cousin, Clyde Bruce. From her early childhood, the late Mrs. Grant studied the piano for 12 years, and between the years of 1907 and 1913 earned several honours certificates included in which were the Certificate of the Associated Board of the Royal Academy of Music and the Royal College of Music, and completed her studies of music by gaining honours in the London College of Music examination. Soon after gaining the latter certificate, she commenced teaching music and continued to do so until she married Mr. Bruce Boswell Grant at Perth Western Australia, in 1922. She had lived at Perth for seven years, between 1919 and 1926. Whilst a resident of Hillgrove, the late Mrs. Grant was organist at the Presbyterian and Methodist Churches. In 1926, with her husband, she came to live at Austinmer, later moving to Thirroul, where she had lived ever since. Up until a few years ago she was an active member of the Austinmer Parents & Citizens’ Association. Besides her husband, she is survived by three sons, Thomas David, Douglas Bruce and Kenneth William. Two sons, Allan and Robert John, predeceased her by 15 years and four years respectively. Following a service conducted by Rev. Harrison (Presbyterian) and Rev. Walker (Methodist) at her late home, on Saturday, the cortege moved to the Presbyterian portion of the Bulli general cemetery, where the remains were laid to rest beside those of her late son, Allan.

A young Ruby with Clyde and Thomas Bruce


Ruby’s aunt, Mrs. Thomas Bruce, was born Amelia Maud Roach, a younger sister of Ruby’s mother, Elizabeth Anne Roach (known as Annie) and one of the eleven Roach children from Rocky River, near Uralla. Both the Bruces and Roaches were miners attracted to the gold fields at Hillgrove and Rocky River respectively. Thomas and Amelia Bruce had only one child, Clyde Alexander, and he and Ruby became very close, such that Ruby was a bridesmaid when Clyde married Josephine Davies in December 1918. Clyde had gone into partnership in a motor garage in nearby Guyra for a number of years but after getting married and having their first child, the young family had moved to Austinmer south of Sydney by 1920. This was undoubtedly one of the reasons for Ruby and her husband moving to Austinmer on their return from Perth.

A hunting party near Hillgrove – Standing on the right, Amelia and Thomas Bruce and Ruby Dummer

But how exactly was Ruby orphaned and what was the truth about her parents’ deaths?

Her parents Elizabeth and William were married at Uralla in 1892 and Ruby Amelia was born nine months later. William was born in 1867, the oldest child of James Dummer and Amelia Frances Firth. He had a twin sister, Ada, and eight other siblings, so when Ruby was “orphaned” there must have been a good reason why she went to live with the Bruce family rather than one of her Dummer relatives.

Little is known about William and Elizabeth’s life other than what was subsequently published in newspapers. Some time after Ruby Amelia was born, in the Sydney suburb of Petersham, the family moved to the Newcastle. William earned a living as a boot salesman but was reputed to have “drifted into intemperate habits” while Elizabeth had apparently been conducting a boarding house. The couple apparently “did not live happily together and Dummer was seldom sober”.

An incident on September 14, 1900, changed all their lives when William was supposedly under the influence of alcohol. The Daily Telegraph reported that William claimed that although he had “never lifted his hand to her [Annie] before, but that on the evening”…“she tantalised me and struck me across the stomach with a broom” and said she was going away. He then apparently hit her on the head near her temple with a stove rake. Although not realised at the time, her skull had been fractured and the brain membrane damaged. Annie however “went about her usual business after meeting the injury”, and against advice, “neglected getting proper medical treatment until the evening of September 24” when she was admitted to Newcastle hospital. She died the following day and the post mortem identified an abscess on the brain that had burst as the ultimate cause of death.

The death (and subsequent trial) received widespread publicity in newspapers throughout Australia. William was arrested and stood trial for murder in the Central Criminal Court. William did not call any witness in his defence and stated “I have nothing to say, your Honour, with regard to the case. I know nothing about it.” He was found guilty of manslaughter on 29 November 1900 and sentenced to one year hard labour following a strong recommendation for mercy from the jury.

William Dummer’s Gaol Record (from Ancestry.com)

It is not known whether William had any further contact with his daughter, or what he did and where we went after his release from gaol. The Bruce family certainly appears to have lost contact with William after that, and Ruby went on to live a normal and presumably happy family life as described in her obituary.

I have now received a transcription of William Dummer’s death certificate

He died in Newcastle Hospital on 24 December 1914 of chronic Bright’s disease aged 48 years. He was buried in the General cemetery, Sandgate, two days later.

Interestingly the certificate lists Ruby aged 23 as his daughter, but it is still not known if there had been any contact between the two in William’s latter years.