The Merritt Family of South Australia

The Merritt Family

Part 1

The first members of the Merritt family to migrate to South Australian were Elizabeth, a widow, with her children from Chichester, who arrived on the Eden in 1838. They moved on to New Zealand after a few years. In March 1839 John and Sarah Merritt also of Chichester and their entire family applied for assisted passage to South Australia, but the parents aged more than 40 and their younger children did not sail.

A year after the arrival from England of the first Merritt family, John and Elizabeth Merritt, née Figg and John’s brother James Merrett and his wife Jane and daughter Emma emigrated from Brighton, Sussex. Their ship Lysander arrived at Port Adelaide on 6 July 1839. John and James were the sons of John and Sarah Merritt who were both born at Bramshaw in the New Forest in Hampshire. James consistently used the spelling of his surname Merrett as it appeared on his baptism record and his descendants continued to use the varied spelling.

Elizabeth Figg and her four siblings were raised in Storrington, Sussex, England where her father was born. Her mother was born nearby at Fittleworth. The family of her eldest brother, William Figg, his wife Charlotte née White and their children George and Emma took up residence at 27 Artillery Street Brighton, Sussex after they were released from the poor workhouse at Storrington, West Sussex on 8 April 1831; three months after William’s daughter Emma was born.

Elizabeth resided with her brother William and sister-in-law Charlotte, a laundress, and their children George and Emma. Elizabeth worked as a domestic servant in Brighton until she married John Merritt on 11 March 1839, when Charlotte was one of the signing witnesses at the ceremony. Elizabeth and husband John Merritt were accepted as assisted migrants and their fares were paid out of the Emigration Fund raised from land sales in South Australia. They set sail for South Australia a week after their wedding.

Their life story of trials, tribulations and final success is similar to that of many early South Australians. It reflects the life pattern of many migrants, and the general development of the colony in its formative years. John Merritt, along with many other immigrants, arrived as an unskilled labourer. His primary reason for migrating was to escape servitude and poverty. Being part of the poor British working class he was highly unlikely to attain financial independence or land ownership in England.

The Merritt family’s fortunes improved parallel with the economic growth of the colony, especially after the early copper discoveries in South Australia, gold in the eastern colonies and the enduring liquor trade in which several of the Merritts were soon involved.

When the Merritt brothers arrived, Adelaide was in a state of rapid expansion. Cottages could be had on lease, but rents were very high, from 20s to 30s per week for two rooms. A cottage erected for £120 could produce a yearly rent of £52. The value of land was rising rapidly too, sometimes selling at £2 per acre.

The colony was far from self-sufficient yet and the scarcity of provisions resulting from a drought in New South Wales made prices rather startling; Bread sold at 1s 6d for a 2lb loaf, flour 8d per lb, salt butter 2s 6d per lb, fresh butter 3s, milk 3d per quart, eggs 3sh per dozen, potatoes 38s, rice from 3 to 8d per lb, oatmeal 6½d, bottled ale and porter 18s per dozen. Good spirits and London malt-liquors were even more expensive.

Cattle and sheep were also expensive, but falling rapidly in price, as stock coming overland from Sydney was becoming more frequent. Working bullocks sold at £50 a pair, and good horses from £100 to £150 each. Agriculture had not been fully tested either, although the soil appeared capable of producing anything, but the expense of enclosing land was very great and the price of labour and provisions was so high that only few men of large capital or practical working farmers had ventured upon agriculture on a large scale. The average wage of farm servants was up to £50 per annum with rations, and females from £12 to £18.

John and Elizabeth Merritt first settled at North Adelaide and a year after their arrival their first child Eliza was born on 9 August 1840 at Brougham Place where they lived. John had found work with Henry Jones caring for his cattle. Henry Jones farmed in partnership with his brother Frederick on the outskirts of Adelaide. The Jones brothers worked as merchants, stockholders and agents and also imported stock to the province and bought and sold stock within the province.

Henry Jones, born in 1810, arrived in South Australia on the Isabella in 1837 and a year later was appointed Justice of the Peace. He was described as a most active and enterprising colonist. He was one of the gentlemen present at the public dinner in August 1841 given to Edward John Eyre, by the colonists of South Australia to celebrate his safe return to Adelaide.

Henry Jones’ wife Amelia Harriet gave birth to Maria Jane Jones on 18 July 1841 while John Merritt was working for her husband. Maria only lived for 13 months and Amelia Jones died six months after her daughter. The double tragedy had a great impact on Henry Jones and a year after his wife’s death Henry Jones retired to his country residence at Rapid Bay.

While residing in North Adelaide John Merritt came before the courts on two occasions late in 1842. In November John Merritt gave evidence that he was in the employ of Henry Jones the previous summer and identified a cow allegedly stolen from his employers Henry and Frederick Jones by William Rogers.

A week later John Merritt was again before the court. This time he was charged with assaulting Jane Wright in her own house by catching hold of her by the throat for refusing to give up a dog which John said was his. He picked the wrong victim; Jane Wright was a somewhat quarrelsome woman married to James Wright who on 11 June 1844 was appointed a constable in the South Australian Police Force.

John Merritt’s brother James Merrett, his wife Jane and daughter Emma stayed around Adelaide after their arrival, but James found work hard to come by. A year after arriving from England he applied to the Emigration Department for assistance to support his family. Support was by way of rations: 8 lbs meat, 8 lbs flour, ¼ lb tea and 2 lbs sugar per week for James and a further half ration for Jane.

James and his family eventually moved to the Kapunda area after copper was discovered there. Here he did much better and soon purchased 106 acres of Section 1572 at Allen’s Creek in the Hundred of Kapunda. His two eldest children married there, Emma married a boundary rider, George Marsh in 1852 and would have eleven children between 1852 and 1882. She died at Kapunda in 1892. James finalised payment for his property at the time the family moved to the Yorke Peninsula copper triangle. James died at Wallaroo and Jane died at nearby Boors Plain.

Emma’s brother Henry Merrett married his first wife Maria McAuliffe at Kapunda in 1860. They had their first child at Allendale, near Kapunda. Henry and Maria had a further seven children at Wallaroo and Solomontown, Port Pirie. His second marriage was to Isabella Hancock in 1889. He and Isabella had two children.

Within five years of arrival at Port Adelaide John Merritt was a self-employed carrier. In the following few years he purchased a farm with a cottage five miles north of Adelaide and an additional nearby property upon which was an established residential house, licensed public house, stables and stockyards.

The second child of John and Elizabeth Merritt, Sarah Ann, was born at North Adelaide in 1843, and the family then moved to the Islington-Nailsworth area north of Adelaide where their third child Jane was born 1845. By this time John Merritt was a carrier with a dray and bullock team. The family relocated to Bushy Farm near Gepp’s Cross where Frank, their first son, was born in 1847 and where their last daughter Rosetta was born in 1849 and died thirteen months later. John Merritt junior was born in 1852 and William Merritt in 1854, both at the Grand Junction Inn property.

John Merritt senior took up occupancy of the southern 41 acres, Part Section 360, Bushy Farm, as a residence for his growing family, to farm, graze his team of working bullocks and as a base for his business of carrying copper ore from the Burra Mine. He subsequently purchased the 41 acres. Early in 1851 he paid £5 for an option to purchase from Charles Matthews for the sum of £55 thirteen acres, being part of section 337 in the Hundred of Yatala. Matthews’ made a failed attempt to obtain a publican’s licence for an Inn on the site in 1848. John Merritt relinquished this option after he became publican of the Grand Junction Inn about the time he finalised the Bushy Farm purchase.

On 9 June 1851 John Merritt was granted the licence for the Grand Junction Inn and took possession of the 40 acres on which it stood. It was located on the corner of Lower North and Grand Junction Road facing West on the southern triangle of Part Section 1001, in the Hundred of Port Adelaide. John and Elizabeth Merritt and their five children moved one mile west from their Bushy Farm at Gepp’s Cross to their new home, the Grand Junction Inn.

The Grand Junction Inn gave John Merritt an expectation of regular and profitable income from the hotel enterprise and ample family accommodation at the new house next to the Grand Junction Inn. John had done well. Although still a member of the working class, he was respected and certainly not poor. John and Elizabeth both took part in running the Inn with a little assistance from their eldest daughters Eliza and Sarah aged eleven and nine years.

When news of rich gold strikes in the neighbouring colonies was received, John Merritt, like many other Adelaide residents, was struck with gold fever. Together with James Pitcher and James’ son Henry, aged 18 years, they booked their fares for Melbourne on the 523 tons Asia, due to sail on Saturday 24 January 1852 under Captain Roskell.

There are no records of his success or otherwise on the diggings but by the end of 1852, when he was 34 years old he was financially secure. He had tenure of the Grand Junction Inn with a good cash flow and a 40 acre farm at Gepp’s Cross. In December 1852 he purchased the Grand Junction Inn for £400, financed by Henry Ayers, manager of the Burra mine and seven times Premier of South Australia. Ayers Rock was named for him by William Gosse. John now invited his parents, who were still living in England, to join them and get to see their grandchildren.

The end of March 1854 was hectic for the Merritt family. John’s mother Sarah Merritt was gravely ill and Elizabeth was again due to give birth. Distracted with family matters John employed Elard Hartig as substitute licensee for two months. William Merritt, the third son and last of seven children of Elizabeth and John was born on 23 March 1854. Five days later, at the age of 65 years, John’s mother Sarah Merritt died of paralysis after suffering a stroke.

On 10 November 1857 John Merritt made his will. It was his earnest hope and desire that his real property should forever remain in possession of his descendants, willing that it should be sold, or otherwise disposed of, only to members of his family in the direct line. He appointed his friends, Thomas John King of Grand Junction, schoolmaster, James Pitcher also of Grand Junction, postmaster and storekeeper and George Middleton of Section No 403 of Tam O’Shanter Plains, farmer and dairyman, as his executors.

On Christmas day 1857 John Merritt’s youngest brother Edmund with his wife Susan, née Barnes, arrived from England at Port Adelaide on the barque Caucasian. As a ten-year-old lad Edmund had with his parents applied for assisted passage in 1839, but they were denied. Edmund and Susan had married at Brighton in the County of Sussex, England in 1854. No further records about Edmund or Susan Merritt have been found.

About seven months after making his will John Merritt died at the Grand Junction Inn, aged only 39. At the time of his death he owned two 40 acre properties. His death was announced by a brief Death Notice in the Register which stated; ‘On the 7th inst, Mr John Merritt, many years proprietor of the Grand Junction Hotel, Lower North Road, aged 39 years, much respected by all who knew him’. To the annoyance of the administrators of his estate, and his descendants researching his life, John Merritt’s death was incorrectly registered under the name of John Mowitt.

The cause of death being entered as ‘delirium tremens’ within four days of death, without any coronial inquiry is compelling evidence that John Merritt was a regular customer of his own Inn. John was survived by his father John Merritt aged 74 years, wife Elizabeth aged 37 years and children Eliza 17, Sarah 15, Jane 13, Frank 10, John 6, and William 4 years. His brothers James and Edmund were somewhere in the colony but his sisters Anne and Sarah and brother Henry still lived in England.

John Merritt, born 1852, became a master butcher. On 6 September 1874 he married Mary Ann London [1855-1942] at her father’s residence in Moonta. After his first child was born at Moonta he and his family moved a short distance to Draper Street, Kadina where they added another eight children to the family. In 1885 his son Percy died after he fell from a horse. In 1894 John and his family moved to Broken Hill where he purchased the business of Mr F Polhill, in Cobalt Street, which he developed into a prosperous family butchering business. After 18 years he commenced a new business in Oxide Street, which he conducted for a further 12 years.

At Broken Hill John became the president of the Master Butchers’ Association and was a pioneer organiser of the Silver City Show. In July 1900, while yarding cattle at his slaughter yards, his horse ran him against a post, breaking his leg in four places between the ankle and the knee. His relatives stated that he was never the same afterwards and he suffered from muscular rheumatism.

As a sportsman, John was well known in Broken Hill. He had a great love of horses, and he used to recall with pride the days of the early shows when the best horses and the best horsemanship were the dominating features. He was president of the show committee for a number of years, and was proud of the fact that he had never missed a show.

When he first arrived in Broken Hill he was one of the foremost workers for the Greengrocers’ and Butchers’ Gala Day. When this became the Horticultural Society he continued to work for it. In 1930 when he was 78 his clothes caught fire and he was severely burned. He died a fortnight later and was buried at Broken Hill. William Merritt, born 23 March 1854 resided at Grand Junction and as a teenager at Boors Plain near Kadina and his Uncle James and cousin Henry Merrett. He later moved to Port Augusta with Henry Merrett and Charles Coates and their respective families where William tried his hand as a printer, labourer and teamster.

William married Mary Frances Brown known by her father’s name Coates on 12 March 1878, four months after the birth of their first child William John on 18 December 1877. A month before William’s marriage to Mary Coates the administration of his late father’s will was finalised. He shared with his surviving siblings the sum realised from the sale of the Grand Junction Inn site and the 40 acre farm at Gepp’s Cross.

William and Mary’s second child was born at Port Pirie on 2 November 1879. About this time his stepfather John Eldridge departed for the Wimmera in Victoria. With few close family ties remaining in South Australia William and his family overlanded to join his stepfather at Clear Lake. He worked as a teamster before being granted ‘Licence of Occupation’ for Toolondo allotment 18, that, when surveyed turned out to be 316 acres.

William Merritt used the last of his inheritance to take up additional land, being Natimuk allotment 141 of 320 acres, north of Toolondo between Natimuk and Noradjuha. In 1889 the Merritt family moved a short distance north to their new Natimuk property. They used Noradjuha as an address, as the property was closer to Noradjuha than the town of Natimuk. Drought and farm development costs proved to be constant worries and rents were often unpaid.

With two selection farms totalling 636 acres William was potentially better off than most other selectors in the area, but the severe drought in the early 1890s and the economic depression depleted his resources. William’s eldest son Will, aged about 12-13 years went overland to Queensland to Milo Downs on the Bulloo River where his sister Sarah’s husband, Augustus Pegler was the resident station manager.

In 1896 the Land Board District Officer W E Porter, ordered forfeiture of William Merritt’s allotments Toolondo 18 and Natimuk 141 if he did not pay within one month two additional rents for each selection. He did not have, nor could he come up with, the £127.4s required and the large Merritt family was forced off their properties with nothing to show for after fifteen years of continuous toil.


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