The Turnbulls of Ebenezer

The Ebenezer Presbyterian (Uniting) Church dating from 1809.

John Turnbull was born in 1750 in Annan in Dumfriesshire, just across the border from Carlisle in Cumberland. He was already married to Ann Warr when, in 1799, the couple left Scotland with their two children for London, where Turnbull worked as a tailor’s cutter and where the couple’s next two children were born. A cutter cuts out, from lengths of cloth, the panels that make up a suit. In bespoke tailoring, the cutter may also measure the client, advise them on style choices, and commission craftsmen to sew the suit; but there’s no evidence John Turnbull did this. He emigrated to Australia in 1802, coming aboard the Coromandel at Deptford; the ship berthed in Sydney on June 13 of that year. The Coromandel was a convict ship, the first to make a direct passage from Spithead to Port Jackson. There were eight other families of free settlers aboard, mostly from the Border country. They had been offered, along with their passage, 100 acres of land per family, two assigned men (convicts) to work it, and rations from the Commissariat store for a period following their taking up of the grant. Most of these properties were out at Ebenezer, Sackville or Windsor, north west of Sydney, on the Hawkesbury River. John Turnbull was 52 years old when he arrived. According to John Dunmore Lang, the Presbyterian minister who was a regular guest of the Turnbulls at Ebenezer, Governor Gidley Philip King mustered these free settler pioneers on the quarter deck of the Coromandel shortly after their arrival, ‘in order to ascertain their respective views, resources and abilities’. Noticing a grey-haired fellow among them, the Governor is said to have exclaimed: ‘What are you doing here, old man, at the far end of the Earth, with one foot already in the grave?’ John Turnbull died in 1834, aged 86. He had spent three decades farming, growing cereals, tending his orchards of citrus and stone fruit trees. The Turnbulls supplied the Commissariat with wheat, pork and beef. On one occasion, it is said, while taking a cartload of peaches to town, old John Turnbull was held up on the Parramatta Road by the notorious bushranger Russel Crawford, but managed to keep him off until help arrived. This was just outside where the Grace Brothers buildings now stand on Broadway. Crawford was hanged in 1832. The Turnbulls were godly, hard-working, law-abiding folk. A treasured relic is a small family bible, dated 1817, with an inscription stating that he, John Turnbull, ‘agreed to contribute £5 per year to a minister for Ebenezer chapel.’ That’s it up above, at the head of this post. He also donated to the so-called Waterloo Fund, sending money to England to help care for the widows and children of men killed in that famous battle. The Turnbulls had three further children in Australia; the youngest, William Bligh Turnbull, born 1809, is the direct ancestor of our present Prime Minister who has, as do all eldest sons in the male line, ‘Bligh’ as his second name. There is a mystery here, perhaps even evidence of an old quarrel. George Johnston, whom the Richmond and Windsor Gazette in 1923 described as ‘the crusher of the Rouse Hill rebellion . . . tool of the unspeakable bully and land monopolist J. Macarthur’, was also from Annan in Dumfriesshire, leaving open the possibility that he and John Turnbull knew each other in the old country. Johnson, a Lieutenant-Colonel in the NSW Corps was, along with Macarthur and one or two others, a ringleader of the Rum Rebellion which deposed Governor Bligh in 1808. He was later court-martialled and cashiered – then offered a free passage back to Australia, where he continued to flourish as a farmer and grazier. The Sydney suburb of Annandale, and its main thoroughfare, Johnston Street, are named, respectively, by and after him. Whether or not he and John Turnbull had met before, it is clear that the latter – ‘of rugged, persevering stock, with the blood of the old Covenanters in his veins’ – was wholly opposed to the corrupt, licentious and greedy men of the Rum Corps. Bligh, too, was far more supportive of small farmers, such as the Turnbulls, than he was of rum-dealing empire builders like Johnston and Macarthur. William Bligh Turnbull farmed for many years in the Ebenezer district but, in 1868, moved with his family to a property at Kempsey, on the Macleay River. He and his wife, who married in 1838, had eight sons and three daughters. He died, aged 83, in 1892 and is buried in Euroka cemetery near Kempsey. Below is his illustrious descendant in the Ebenezer graveyard about ten years ago now, looking for the family plot.


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