I don’t know how to put it in words, but it it means so much to have this connection to our past and our common ancestors.
These are the words of Barbara Baxter, who found her cousin, Sylvia Whitmore-Jones, when they both responded to my post on Rock Island. Their common ancestors were the Burchills of Crookhaven. Here’s the story, as they have each sent it to me, and as I have put it together. It is deeply embedded in the history of this part of West Cork and directly related to the building of that iconic lighthouse, the Fastnet Rock.
Two brothers, Charles and Arthur Nicholls, experienced stonemasons, came from Penzance in Cornwall to help build the Fastnet Lighthouse. According to Aidan Power’s book on Rock Island (Available from the author, we can put you in touch), they were employed by John Albert Freeman who supplied all the granite for the Fastnet Lighthouse from his quarry at Penryn, Cornwall. Nicholls’ job was to assist in the erection of the tower.
The building of the Fastnet. I’d like to think that the Nicholls brothers are in this picture (Photo courtesy of Irish Lights)
It took five years to build the Lighthouse (read more about the Fastnet here) and during that time all the men were housed locally and it seems integrated well into the local community. So well, in fact, that the Nicholls brothers married two sisters: Charles married Elizabeth Burchill and Arthur married Sarah Burchill. The Burchill sisters’ parents, Michael and Sarah (Hegarty) were Church of Ireland, and lived in Crookhaven.
A third sister, Anne, married William Wilkinson (more on her below). If I am understanding the history correctly, her aunt, Michael’s sister, also called Anne, had herself married a George Wilkinson. That Wilkinson family had a farm at Gortnacarriga, just outside Goleen. The photo below is of Barbara Baxter on a visit to that Wilkinson farm a couple of years ago.
Let’s start with Charles and Elizabeth – they are the couple in the photograph at the beginning of the post. The 1901 census has them in House number 8 on Rock Island, with a baby daughter, Annie, who is just one. When the Fastnet project was finally over, in 1904, Charles and Elizabeth went to live in Wales where they had at least one more child, a son, in 1911. Sadly, Charles, who had served in the First World War, died in the Spanish Flu epidemic in 1919 (echoes of my own family history here – same thing happened to my grandfather).
The Rock Island lighthouse and housing, seen from Crookhaven. Charles and Elizabeth lived in one of these houses
Charles and Elizabeth’s son eventually moved to Southhampton, and worked as a draughtsman in Thornycroft’s shipbuilding firm, married and had four children. The eldest of these was Sylvia Whitmore-Jones, an active and youthful 78 year-old. Here she is.
But let’s go back to Charles and Elizabeth, living in the Fastnet housing on Rock Island in 1901. Did you notice they had a daughter named Annie? I think she was so named after yet another of Elizabeth’s sisters – Anne Burchill. Anne married William Wilkinson (I think they were cousins – not uncommon in those days), an officer in the Royal Irish Constabulary.
They had a daughter, Sarah Anne. They were great at keeping names in the family – no doubt Sarah Anne was called after her aunt, the Sarah Burchill who married Charles’ brother, Arthur, as well as the numerous Annes in the family. Sarah Anne Wilkinson must have been close to her Aunt Elizabeth Nichols because eventually, as a young married woman, she and her husband, John Miller, from Bantry, moved to Wales.
Sarah Anne Miller, nee Wilkinson, with her children
This photo (above) must have been taken then, when Sarah Anne and John had two children. Sarah Anne is Barbara Baxter’s great-grandmother and her grandmother is the little girl in the photo. Perhaps this was during the time when John was away in the war – he was apparently decorated three times for his service as a bombardier.
Eventually the family emigrated to America, finally settling in Connecticut, which is where Barbara Baxter grew up. Barbara is now 57 and lives in Virginia. She has led an active life filled with animals, especially horses. She wonders if her love of horses might be connected to John Miller – apparently before he left for Wales with Sarah Anne he worked with horses at Drombrow House, near Bantry. Drombrow, not surprisingly, was owned by the Wilkinson family.
Graveyard attached to the Church of Ireland (no longer in use as a church) in Goleen – Babara said in one of her emails: ‘I am related to all of the Wilkinsons and Burchills buried at the Goleen Church’
Sylvia and Barbara had been independently interested in their family history but had never known of each other or met (at least virtually) until both of them contacted us at Roaringwater Journal when they each saw our Rock Island post.
On her trip to West Cork in 2017, Barbara visited Three Castle Head. The Wilkinson farm is close by
I am beyond pleased that Roaringwater Journal has been the cause of bringing these two cousins together, but there’s another reason for my interest. My own dear cousin, Shauna, is also a Burchill! Although she has lived in the United States most of her adult life she is Irish and her father grew up in Bandon as a Prebyterian. She is likely to be connected to Sylvia and Barbara at some point way back in the family tree – the Burchills first came to West Cork in the 1620s as part of the Plantation of Munster. It’s a tenuous connection, but it adds an additional frisson for me – we are all connected somehow.
Shauna (right) and I, on one of her visits to Ireland
Thank you to Sylvia and Barbara for generously sharing their family stories, and to Aidan Power, whose book on Rock Island was the ultimate catalyst for all of this. It’s been a privilege to be a tiny part of it. If I have made mistakes in my relating of their stories, I hope they will weigh in with the corrected version.
Now all we need is for the descendants of Arthur Nicholls and Sarah Burchill to join the party. C’mon – we know you’re out there.