The Keenans, A Pioneer Family of Batlow
25 October 1949 The Tumut and Adelong Times
With an association dating back to the early 'seventies and with no less than 47 members of the family, representing four generations, now living in the district, there can be no question regarding the right of the Keenans to be classed as one of the pioneer families of Batlow.
For the commencement of our story we must travel back to the other side of the world where, in famous County Derry, Northern Ireland, on a blythe summer's day in the early 'sixties one Henry John Keenan persuaded a certain colleen, Ann Jane Gamble, to take his name and join him in his search for fame and fortune in the much-talked-about colony of Australia.
They were married in the Presbyterian Church of Kilrea, near Portglenore, prior to leaving on their adventurous trip; but nothing is known of either the actual date they sailed or the vessel on which they embarked.
No information is available, either, regarding the journey or the route followed, but, of course, it is generally known that in those windjammer days the trip look anything from three to six months and it would not be difficult to imagine the pleasure of the young Keenan couple when they at last set foot safely on Australian soil at some point on the Queensland coast which has not been definitely recorded.
However, conditions in the northern State were rather hard on Henry and Ann, for the summer heat was a severe contrast to their accustomed glorious green freshness of old Londonderry, and shortly after the birth of their firstborn, a son James, the young couple decided to move south in search of more congenial conditions and better prospects.
Just what were the details of that long and arduous trip no-one will ever know.
Day after day they plodded valiantly for ward, tarrying only long enough here and there for Henry to earn sufficient to see farther along the road and no doubt spurred on by the reports of fabulous gold strikes then being made in northern New South Wales.
Eventually they arrived in the Monaro district of New South Wales and decided to stay for a while at a settlement then known as Providence.
Henry obtained work as a shepherd and they made their home in a hut provided for the purpose.
With very few fences to restrain the stock from wandering, the shepherd's job in those days was a constant and responsible one.
Wild dogs were numerous and the sheep had to be 'folded' every night.
Ann's life, too, as may well be imagined, was far from an easy one.
In addition to living under such primitive conditions, a second son, Aaron, was born on December 9, 1865, James being then only sixteen months old and the mother's only help at the time being a half-wild black gin.
With her husband's duties often keeping him away from the hut for days at a time, the wild dogs were a constant menace to Ann and her two babies and, when such jobs as gathering wood or fetching water had to be done she invariably had to take the babies along with her for fear the dogs would attack them in her absence.
After something over two years of this life the young couple were attracted by the stories of rich strikes being made across the mountains in the valleys of the Tumut, Adelong and adjacent streams.
So once more they packed up all their worldly possessions, loaded a horse they had acquired with goods and chattels in the pannier on one side and Master James riding in the pannier on the other side.
As usual, the young parents had nothing but I a good pair of legs and a stout heart to provide their own transport, whilst they shared the burden of carrying the youngest child.
On through the wilds of the mountain country they forged, until finally they descended the bridle track which was the only means of conquering Talbingo, and found themselves at last in the lush valley of the Tumut River.
Eventually they reached the banks of the Bombowlee Creek and were then befriended by the late Mr. and Mrs. George Morton and permitted to erect a slab hut for themselves on the Morton property - the site of this early home is still known as "Keenan's Point''.
Not only did the Mortons prove good friends to the Keenans, but in the years to come the families became very closely united, for both the Keenan boys, Aaron and John, returned and claimed Morton girls as their brides.
From this centre Henry was at last able to pursue his cherished ambition to search for gold, but old Dame Fortune gave him little encouragement or reward, despite extensive prospecting and much hard work throughout most of the neighboring fields, extending as far apart as Adelong and Argalong.
Disappointed with his efforts, Henry decided to try his luck upon the nearby Reedy Flat (now Batlow) and moved there with the family, which had now increased with the arrival of a third child, Eliza.
Once again luck was not with him, for he arrived too late to be in the rich gold strikes and, of course, he was too early to benefit by Batlow's later agricultural development, though it could safely be claimed that he helped to pioneer the agricultural side of Batlow's future, for he was known to dig as much as an acre of land by hand to grow vegetables to help provide a living for his growing family.
The site of their early Batlow home was where the orchard of Bowman & Sons now stands, and here eight more children were born making the total family five daughters and six sons.
Fate was not kind even in the Keenan family affairs, for no less than five of the children died at an early age. A diphtheria epidemic claimed Eliza and Ann within a day of each other at the ages of 17 and 15 respectively.
The two girls were buried on the same day, and in the course of a few days they were followed by their brother Henry, also a victim of the same dread scourge.
Bella died as a result of a burning accident and an infant son named Stuart also passed away.
A later son, the last of the family, was also named Stuart.
The continued hard life, heavy work and family worries took toll of the father Henry's health and whilst still in his early forties he suffered a nervous breakdown which brought about his death in 1885.
Fortunately the elder members of the family were able to assist their mother, Ann, over the next few difficult years, until in 1892 the widow married another Batlow resident, Robert Hobson.
It was in the later years of her life as 'Granny' Hobson that Ann became so well-known and loved in the Batlow community.
For many years she served the community in the capacity of obstetric nurse, for there were no doctors or trained nurses in the locality, and no one has been heard to dispute her claim that she never lost a baby.
Although to a certain extent she made it a business, her fee was about £2, yet a person's inability to pay would not deter her from rendering just the same service as to those who could pay, and incidentally this service included not only attention for the mother but often, when necessary, taking control of the rest of the family and running the household during the mother's incapacitation.
Many the story she told of midnight calls to patients, sometimes miles away on some isolated claim whence she would have to wend her way either by foot or horseback and sometimes through snowstorms, flooded creeks or blinding rain.
However, the hard life, disappointments and tragedies with which she was constantly surrounded did not weigh unduly heavily with her, for she went on to the fine old age of 81 years, passing away on December 7, 1926, in a hospital in Sydney, and was subsequently buried in the Woronora Cemetery at Sutherland.
Robert Hobson had predeceased her by 22 years, having succumbed to a heart attack in 1903.
Of the family which survived to reach maturity; James (the eldest) inherited his father's keenness for hunting the precious yellow metal and travelled extensively in its search.
No more successful than his father, he later turned to shearing and became a recognised expert with the blades.
This occupation took him as far afield as New Zealand on one occasion, whilst various local flock owners considered their sheep were not property shorn if Jim Keenan did not do the job.
With Batlow becoming interested in fruit growing, he obtained some land near what is now known as the Batlow Sportsground, and, incidentally, his land adjoined the small property on which his mother had previously lived with her second husband.
He planted a small orchard and marrying a local girl, Florence Skien, settled down to a quiet life divided between his own small property and working for other neighboring landowners.
There were six children born to Mr. and Mrs. Jim Keenan, one daughter (Grace) being claimed a victim by diphtheria in childhood; but the others, Fred., Hector. Wilfred, and daughters Edna (Mrs. Seigal) and Muriel (Mrs. R. Langford) survive and play prominent parts in their respective spheres.
Hector still lives on and farms the old property.
There are fourteen members of the fourth generation to this branch of the family.
'Old Jim' as he was respectfully known throughout the district died in June, 1942, and Mrs. Keenan was also laid to rest in the Batlow Cemetery in February, 1948.
Aaron, the second son of Henry and Ann, also went through the usual period of 'gold fever' and made his first home on the eastern bank of the Gilmore Creek where, in 1891, he brought as his bride Elizabeth Morton, daughter of his parents' old friends in Tumut.
Three children, Ivy, George and Henry, were born before the family moved and carried on farming at various locations in the Tumut district, at Lacmalac for a period and then to Bombowlee, but results were disappointing and in 1903 they returned to Batlow, where Aaron resumed his search for the elusive 'rich strike'.
In the meantime two more sons had been born. Stuart and Roy, and whilst at Batlow the family was brought to a total of eight with the arrival of Ray, Hilda and Neil.
Aaron found that the gold still had too much dirt mixed with it and in 1917 the family returned again to Bombowlee and subsequently successfully carried on maize growing and dairying for a great number of years.
Ray, the youngest son, still continues to farm the property, but all the other sons have prosperous farming properties in the Batlow district, and the two daughters, Ivy (Mrs. John Morris) and Hilda (Mrs. Mervyn Webb) are settled in the Tumut district.
The eldest son, George, has in recent years played a prominent part in many public organisations in the Batlow district and for the last two years has been one of the representatives for his Riding on the Tumut Shire Council.
There are 24 members of the fourth generation and 11 members of the fifth generation of Aaron's branch of the family.
Both Aaron and his wife passed their old age at their Bombowlee home, the former being laid to rest in the Tumut Cemetery in January, 1936, and his good lady ten years later, in August, 1946.
John, the third son of Henry and Ann, also returned to the old friends of the family, the Mortons, and made Emma Morton his wife.
Although they subsequently moved about the country fairly extensively, John had chosen the more stable profession of a carpenter as his means of livelihood, and his moves from one district to another were always to enable him to take part in big new development works.
Thus he returned to N.S.W. after several years in Victoria, when the Murrumbidgee irrigation project was being established.
From Lee ton he later went to the then infant Federal Capital of Canberra and spent many years on constructional work there.
The family, in due course, moved to the Sydney area and finally settled at Engadine, where its members played a very prominent part in the development of that locality.
The family of John and Emma Keenan comprises five sons, Robert, Clarence, William, James and Jock, all but William, who is in Queensland, living in the Engadine district, and two daughters, Dorothy (Mrs. H. J. Lovering) and Beryl (Mrs. Presland).
Although long since retired from active participation, John still takes a great interest in anything relating to the building trade and, despite the fact that the burden of years is starting to leave its mark on his health, he has recently patented and constructed a machine, which is proving a great success, for the making of concrete bricks in position on the wall of the building.
Mr. and Mrs. Keenan have sixteen grandchildren (members of the fourth generation).
Mary, the eldest daughter of Henry and Ann, became Mrs. John Houston and settled in Victoria, her husband being mostly engaged in work connected with gold mining.
Six children were born to them, four of whom are still living.
Grace, the younger daughter of the original Keenan family, married John Catherall and accompanied him to South Africa.
After several years there her health broke down and she returned to her mother at Batlow to recuperate, bringing with her their two sons, Eric (14) and Sidney (11).
Tragedy befell the family whilst at Batlow, as both the lads became the victims of a shooting fatality and their mother never recovered from the shock, passing away not long afterwards.
Stuart, the youngest member of the family of Henry and Ann, never married but still resides in Batlow and leads an active life in the employ of the Tumut Shire Council, being responsible for the welfare of the Batlow water supply with several miles of race-line and the town reticulation system to take care of.
Stuart, too, like other members of the family, had a period when his main interest was gold; but he later acquired portion of his mother's old property (Hobson's) and planted a small orchard.
He became a recognised expert in the various forms of 're-working' fruit trees and of pruning.
At the age of 64 years Stuart is the eldest of the 47 Keenans now living in the Batlow district and the only member of his generation here now.
Katherine Norah, the three-weeks-old daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Don. Keenan, is the latest addition to the fifth generation.
Yes, as pioneers, the Keenans came to Batlow, and subsequent generations still carry on as Henry and Ann would have wished, bringing honor and respect to the name of Keenan.