Sarah Byrne (1774-1853)

What was Sarah Byrne like? Geoff Sykes has covered the known facts about her in his book "The Sykes Family" and Dodo Sheardown has summarised the documented material in her article, “Sarah Sykes. A convict girl's success story", and her unpublished manuscript. For those who do not have access to these sources, here is a resume of Sarah's earlier career as documented. These facts are available because she came here as a prisoner of the crown, tried at the Old Bailey Court, London, as Sarah Best, also known as Catapodi and Brown. (Convict Indents 1788-1800. A.O. Fiches 614 and 624, G.R.K SZ 115; 4/4003, Reel 392, A.O. NSW.)

The photo shown left is of a Sarah Byrne, but it is more likely to be the wife of Hugh Vesty Byrne, than the wife of William Sykes.

Sarah's Story

Sarah, whose family name was presumably Best, was either a born victim or a necessarily resourceful young woman. She certainly made a success of her life in NSW. According to the records. she was born about 1774 in Bedfordshire, a small county 80 or so miles (80km) north of London. At some stage she went to live in London and, it would seem, drifted into undesirable company who took advantage of her in various ways. She is said to have married a John Roberts, known too as Colin Reculist who was sentenced to death at the Old Bailey Sessions on 13 January, 1796 for passing forged promissory notes (Old Bailey Session Papers. 2 Dec. 1795 - 29 Nov 1796. PO.S. Reel FM4 7161 M.L.). He was executed in July, aged 34. Sarah would have been about 22. Roberts' associate, known as Peter Catapodi or Brown, who apparently forged the notes, took Sarah under his 'protection'. A baby girl was born to Sarah on 11 March 1797: she was later christened Caroline (Burn).

In October that year, Sarah and Catapodi and the baby took lodgings with a John Finch at No.8 St. James Buildings, Rosomons Street Clerkenwell. About a month later, Sarah pawned or sold Mr Finch's counterpane (bedspread) for seven shillings. For this she and Catapodi were tried (Old Bailey Session Papers. 6 Dec 1797 - 3 Dec 1799. P0.5.p.50. Trial No. 37. Roll No. 18. F 47163 M.L.) but because it was she who had hired the lodgings, and presumably because Catapodi was not her husband, Sarah was sentenced to seven years transportation while her companion was set free. This sentence was probably a fortunate new start for the young woman then aged 23. She was described as 5 feet 5 inches (166 cms) in height, quite tall for a woman at that time, of fair complexion with hazel eyes and brown hair. She was a Catholic (PR.O. Reel 2731 H.O. 26/6 M.L.). Her companion Catapodi, born in Greece was aged 48, 5 feet 5.5 inches in height with dark complexion, dark eyes and brown hair.

Thus it was that Sarah Best, alias Catapodi, aged 23, born in Bedfordshire, convicted on 6 December, 1797 with a sentence of seven years, was delivered from the Newgate gaol to the ship Britannia III at Portsmouth on 23 January 1798. After seven months she and baby Caroline arrived in Sydney Cove on 17 July 1798 with 90 or so prisoners, all female. With a toddler to care for, Sarah would have been in a difficult position wherever she was assigned.

Click here for extra information about Sarah and table of Sarah's partners.

Sarah Best becomes Sarah Byrne

We don't know the circumstances of their meeting, but within 14 months of Sarah's arrival, banns for her marriage to Patrick Byrne were published and they were married in Parramatta. Patrick was not then a soldier in the Corps.

We must digress a little to explain something about this man, Patrick Byrne. He arrived here on the ship Marquis Cornwallis on 11th February, 1796. Since there were so many men with the name Byrne in the colony, nearly 30 of them from 1788 till 1800, and since there is such variation in the spelling of the name, it is difficult to do research on Patrick Byrne.

We know for certain three facts:

  1. Patrick Byrne married Sarah Best on 22nd September, 1799 at Parramatta. The St. John's Anglican register records that Samuel Marsden officiated
  2. Patrick Byrne enlisted in NSW Corps on the 10th April, 1801 in Captain McArthur's Company. He was paid a bounty of five guineas and a crown (five pounds ten shillings) for enlisting
  3. Patrick Byrne died on 1st April 1808 after being off duty sick. He was a soldier and was buried on 2nd April 1808. As the present St. John's Cemetery was the general cemetery until 1857, that is probably Patrick's resting place. (Amy Humphries in her document "Branching Out' has done great research into Patrick Byrne, I haven't the room to print it all here).

During the short time Patrick and Sarah were married, Sarah gave birth to four children and a fifth was born some months after his father's death. Life must have been busy in the Byrne household.

Shortly after her father's enlistment, Matilda was born on 21st May 1801 and baptised on 10th July 1803 as was her half sister Caroline Burn (Catapodi). Matilda later married John Cary.
John was born on the 4th October 1802 and baptised on 24th October 1802. The baptismal certificate gives his mother's name as Mary Burn which surely must have been a mishearing or a slip of the pen. John later married Ann Healey.
Mary was born on 31st January 1805 and baptised on 15th November 1812. She later married Francis Kenny.
Ann was born on 2nd December 1806 and baptised on 6th April 1807. She later married Thomas Hammond.
William was born on 24th October 1808, six months after his father's death and baptised on 15th November 1812, the same day as his sister Mary and his half brother, George Sykes. He later married Hannah Byrne.

It will be seen that the presentation of these children for baptism at the Anglican church was a rather haphazard business in terms of their ages. Sarah was a catholic but there was no priest available for most of the time. The convict priest, Father Dixon was permitted to say mass on 15th May 1803 for the first time but his ministry until he left the colony about 1808, was a very restricted one. The dates of the birth of the children given above are also open to question. If a baptism takes place sometime later, the wrong year of birth may be given or the minister may not record the details until some time has elapsed. Transcribers sometimes misread numbers or copy ditto marks inappropriately.

So they settled into normal family life in a country strange to them both, Patrick with his Irish brogue, Sarah with her English accent. Most likely to better himself, Patrick joined the army. At some stage he would have been granted his freedom. In the 1806 General Muster the military were not included but Sarah is recorded there as free by servitude i.e. her sentence had expired (1806 General Muster, A.B.G.R., S.A.G.). Unless she received an early pardon, the seven years were completed by December 1804. Did they have a special celebration that Christmas in Parramatta as they awaited the birth of their third child in January?

Sarah seems to have kept up a friendship forged on the Britannia with Rosetta Warburton, who by this time had a family too. She had been Sarah's witness at her wedding, and, as Rosetta Owen, was again to fulfil that role at Sarah's later marriage ceremony. Rosetta's husband was also a soldier.

Family life was sadly shattered in 1808. Tradition has it that Patrick's death was caused by a chill he caught on the night of Governor Bligh's arrest. There is no press account of Bligh's deposition because there was no paper on which to print the Sydney Gazette from August 1807 till May 1808. Whether the Parramatta detachment of troops was sent into Sydney Town or retained to keep order in their own area, I cannot say, but it was an eventful night. A few weeks later, Patrick was dead.

Sarah Byrne must have been devastated by the sudden death of her young husband. Deprived of the breadwinner in a secure job, possibly also of army lodgings, and left with five young children and another expected, she must have considered that life had dealt her another cruel blow. The men in the Corps were paid a shilling a day but, at this time, once they had served seven years they belonged to the seven year club and were paid slightly more. Patrick died nine days short of receiving this increment. Now there was no income.

It is recorded that Sarah Byrne was given a small grant of land, 2 rods, 30 poles (about half an acre), close to the Parramatta barracks, on 1 January, 1809 by Governor Patterson, in charge of Colonial affairs until Macquarie's arrival (Land Grants 1788 -1809. No. 239. Fiche 3268 p.218 A.O. NSW). Perhaps Sarah hoped to grow her own produce. The barracks were close to the present George and Harris Streets near the river. William Byrne in Old Times, May 1903, stated, "My earliest recollection is Howell's Mill which was opposite our cottage" George Howell's wind and water mill was built were the Gas Works Bridge (Newlands Bridge) now stands.

When the new Governor, Lachlan Macquarie, arrived in late 1809 he cancelled land grants made by Patterson but renewed leases for a number of them. That held by Sarah Byrne was surrendered 30 April 1810 but was renewed 18 0ctober 1811 for 14 years (H.R.A. Series 1. Vol 7. p.442.).

Sarah Byrne becomes Sarah Sykes

About this time William Sykes came into the widowed Sarah's life. He had been transported to NSW on the Fortune in 1806. Sykes, who kept a public house in Holborn London, was charged with receiving two barrels of stolen beer, found guilty and sentenced to 14 years transportation in April 1804 (Convict Indents 1806, 4/4004. Reel 393. A.O. NSW).

In late 1809 Governor Macquarie arrived in the colony. His policy was to encourage convicts to regain their self-respect and to rebuild their lives. He granted pardons to many and enabled them to start afresh with a grant of land. The year 1810 was a turning point for William Sykes. He received his pardon in March (List of Free Pardons Granted by His Excellency Governor Macquarie 1 Jan 1810 - 31 Dec. 1819. 4/4427. Reel 601. A.0.N.S.W. ), having served only six years, his and Sarah's first son was born in July and William was promised 80 acres of land at Appin (Copies of Deeds of Land Grants. Reel 2561 A.O.N.S.W). The Sydney Gazette, 14 July 1810 records that William Sykes received some cloth in return for wool he delivered to the Factory at Parramatta (The Sydney Gazette, 14 July, 1810. S.L.N.S.W.). Did Sarah run a few sheep on her small block?

According to the registers of St. John's Parramatta, Sarah Byrne married William Sykes on 9 December 1812 (Certificate from Reg. B.D.M.). William was not a Catholic. He became a convert later in life, receiving conditional baptism the day after John Byrne's wedding in August 1834.

The original brick St. John's church was opened on Sunday 10 April 1803 by Rev. Samuel Marsden. On that occasion the military detachment on duty in Parramatta had taken part in the ceremony, so Patrick Byrne would have been present. The church was probably the setting for William and Sarah's marriage. It did not look as it does now, for the distinctive towers were not added to an enlarged building until about 1818. The witnesses to the marriage were Sarah's friend Rosetta, now Mrs. Owen, and John Eyre, most likely the master at Parramatta Public School from 1810 till at least 1825. He was also a missionary.

In the 1814 Muster, William Sykes was recorded as a resident of Parramatta and a landholder (1814 General Muster, A.B.G.R.S.A.G.). He was very fortunate to have been a convict at this point in the colony's history, rather than later. He served less than half his sentence, was given free grants of land and was even supplied with government stock in 1812 though he probably had to pay for that.

At some stage, Sarah, William and family moved to Appin, a village established in 1793. Their home, a few miles on the Wilton Road from the present township was named Mount Britain. In the early days they must have worked very hard. On his 1815 tour of the area, Governor Macquarie was sufficiently impressed by the improvements made to the original grant of 80 acres to promise an additional 70 acres (Col. Sec. Fiche 3266 9P652. p.22. A.O.N.S.W.16 Jan. 1816.). This would have been welcome as the Sykes now had three sons, George (shown left) born in 1810, Thomas in 1812 and James in 1815. A four roomed weatherboard cottage with a shingle roof housed a family of ten, for Sarah still had her other children except Caroline, who was married to John Kennedy in 1813.

The property was obviously adaptable to various uses. It is recorded in the Sydney Gazette that Sykes supplied meat to government stores in June 1817, April 1819 and January 1820 and wheat at various times in 1821. Seemingly, Sarah would have been able to keep the family well fed. By the time of the 1821 (The Sydney Gazette . June 1817, April 1819, Jan 1820. Various dates in 1821. S.L. N.S.W.) census the property had been enlarged to 450 acres of which 150 acres had been cleared and 87 acres were under cultivation. It supported 53 cattle and 283 sheep (1828 Census S.A.G.). In that year Sykes was advertising Spanish Sheep for sale (The Sydney Gazette. Aug 1828.5.L.NSW). He employed several men to help on the farm.

Nor was Sykes involved only in farming. He decided to return to his former profession of publican if he could obtain a licence. In 1826 he applied to Governor Darling and was told that a licence would be granted and land provided if he built suitable accommodation for travellers (Sykes Geoff. The History of the Sykes Family in Australia.). This he did and the Appin Inn was born. It still stands opposite St. Bede's Catholic Church (shown to right). As one faces it, the long left hand brick section with galvanised iron roof forms the original inn building. William was able to renew the licence over the next few years probably until 1833. As the Union Revived it passed to Nicholas Carberry, licencee from 1833 to 1840. On the other side of the road, Pat Callagan's rival establishment, the Union Inn passed into the hands of John Carey, licencee from 1831 till 1836 (Publicans' Licences 1830-40 A.O. NSW.).

William Sykes was a competitor at the Campbelltown races in 1827 and earlier the same year gave evidence at the trial of Worrel for the murder of Fisher, whose name lives on in Fishers Ghost Creek. During 1829, William seemed to have experienced some financial difficulties as the Government Gazette records the sherrif's intention to sell his house at Appin, his furniture and his farm, in settlement of an action brought against him by Cooper and Levy (The Sydney Gazette . 13 Aug,1827, 5 Feb, 1827, 21, 23, 25, 28, 30 Apr 1829. S.L. NSW. ). Presumably some arrangement was made to prevent this.

Whether Sarah helped run the Appin Inn or remained at the farm to cope with the domestic duties would be interesting to know. The two establishments are reasonably close together. Those children still at home would all have been old enough to help, and convict labour was available. Despite various problems such as coping with aboriginals and a rival inn keeper, Sarah and William successfully raised the five Byrne children and the three Sykes boys (see below for a letter from Sarah to William Byrne and his wife). Two of the Sykes' boys, Thomas and James, died as unmarried young men. A clue as to what may have happened to them was given in a list of her aunts and uncles by Mary Johnson nee Byrne in her latter years. She used the name Byrne, rather than Sykes.

Thomas Byrne, deceased, drowned
James Byrne, deceased, strained throwing weights

Whatever the cause, the Sykes family suffered the loss of both Thomas and James about 1836. Soon after, although they kept much of the Mount Britain property, William and Sarah moved south to the Spring Valley area where John Byrne and George Sykes had established themselves. Sarah lived until 1853, William till 1854. George Sykes sold the Appin property in 1852.

George Sykes' wife - Catherine Crowe
The remains of George and Catherines house at Spring Valley where William and Sarah lived from about 1836 till their deaths.
The headstone from Ryansvale cemetery
The new resting place at Spring Valley

When they died, William and Sarah were buried at Ryansvale Cemetery on the property of Springfield. This cemetery fell into disrepair and so we obtained permission to remove their headstone and remains to Spring Valley Cemetery where there are six generations of Sykes buried as well as John and Ann Byrne.

When we examed the bodies of William and Sarah Sykes we came upon the coffin, mostly rotted away, but this outline was like fern roots.
We found one large solid piece of the coffin. Here Adrian Sykes, Neil Sykes, Eric Sykes and Geoff Sykes hold the piece of coffin.
We found many pieces of both skeletons which we placed in a body bag and reburied in a new coffin at Spring valley. What a privilege it was to touch our convict bones. Adrian Sykes with a bone from William.
A map showing where Sarah and William's property "Mount Britain" was located at Appin (bottom left hand corner of Lachlan Vale). We know they lived here.

I would like to acknowledge the great work of Amy Humphries for the text of Sarah's life from her manuscript Branching Out Thanks Amy!

Letter (late 1840s?) from Sarah Sykes (Best, Reculist/Roberts, Catapodi/Brown, Byrne)
to her son William Byrne and his wife Hannah (nee Byrne).

(Spelling and punctuation as in original)

My Dear William & Hannah,

I dare say you think I have quite forgotten you but that is imposible although I doe not write you are aleays in my thoughts and indeed I have nothing to say that would give pleasure for it is seldom that I can say I am well for health is a stranger to me therefore I care but little about writing.

My onely wish is to have the pleasure of seeing you once more not that I can flatter myself with such a happyness I should think myself Blest could I but see your dear family and dear Hannah but I must be content as I know it is imposible as I am gitting old and infirm and cannot last much longer but must be content with the will of God - I must trouble you my son to git me a pare of toe clogs and a pair of shoes make them (loose/same?) on the inslip as my feet some times swell sitting so much for I have not been further than the garden this many years but I dread the winter as I know the cold weather will give me great trial I am so weak George will pay you for the clogs and shoes I need not say more as you will have the news from George

Therefore I shall conclude by sending my kind love to all the dear Children William and Ellen all join in kind love to their Cousins God Bless you all kiss my dear Grandchildren for me I never go to bed without putting up a Prayre for your health and prosperity and the Blessing of the Lord which is the Sincere wish of your ever aff'ate and loving Mother

S Sykes

I forgot to say my (my) very kind respect to my ... our(?) Friends Mr & Mrs Byrne … your (blood/blessed?) Father? ... Mother? ...) 1 cannot .. are? still the same Yours Afectunly SS
1 have ...(much?) to say but if I have I will say it by ...(andy?)
I am happv for my ...?
God Bless you all Your afectate Mother

The History of the Sykes Family in Australia
Sarah's Trial