Historical Donor Stories

Local historian and Maitland parishioner Dr Michael Belcher has been diligently researching the stories of those who contributed to the building and furnishing of “old St John’s” in 1843. The donors were a remarkable mixture of Catholic, Jewish and Protestant people from across the Colony. Many were ex-convict and some still convicts. Their stories, some of which appear below (and more will be added regularly), are fascinating. Please bring this site to the attention of people who may have a connection to these people or to the St John’s story, and contact Dr Belcher if you can add to the story by emailing michael.belcher@bigpond.com


George Bowman and his family

George gave twelve shillings in three donations and his four year old son James gave sixpence. This would have been about four days’ wages for a labourer (around $600-$700 in today’s rates), a very substantial sum especially in the midst of a recession.


George Bowman, the son of George and Sarah Bowman (according to his death notice), was born in London around 1820, a Protestant shoemaker.  It appears he arrived free on the “Prince Regent” in 1833. This throws his birthdate into question as he already had a trade, the “Prince Regent” of this time was a schooner operating between Launceston and Sydney, and he would have been only 14 at this time and 18 on marriage. So it’s possible his birthdate, taken from his age at death, is inaccurate (his wife’s age at death was also inaccurate). Other researchers put his birthdate as 1813. George ended up in prison in April 1834 after appearing before the Sydney Police, possibly because he was so young with no apparent means of support. 


He recovered quickly and must have moved to the Maitland area in the late 1830s. He married the Catholic convict Bridget Donahoe (or Donohoe/Donaghoe) in September 1838.  Bridget was born c1812 in County Clare, Ireland (daughter of John Martin Donahoe and Hannah).  In 1833 she was working as a dairymaid and needlewoman when convicted of stealing from her mistress. She arrived in 1834. In 1837 she was assigned to James Flood in Maitland and this is most probably how she met George.  They were married in St Mary’s Sydney because no Catholic clergy were available in the Hunter at that time.


George holds a special place in the history of St John the Baptist because he was one of the very first men to convert to the faith and be baptised by the Dean in May 1843, probably in the slab hut chapel that preceded St John the Baptist.


A more tragic first was the death of his son John in July 1845 aged four years. He was burnt to death when his nightshirt caught alight while retrieving a shoe from the fire where it had been thrown by his little brother. His is the second entry in the Burial Register of St John the Baptist.


They had at least seven children:  James 1839, died Armidale 1896; John 1841-1845; George 1843, died Inverell 1923; Mary 1846, m John Mannix, 1867 at Warialda, died Tamworth 1913; Frederick 1851 (this could be William Frederick who married Mary Golthorpe in Warialda in 1878); Henry 1855, died Bingara 1935; and, Christianna (or Christina) born 1857 in Warialda and died there aged 14.  John, George and Mary were all baptised in St John the Baptist.


After leaving Maitland around 1845 they moved to Black Creek (Branxton), then to Singleton and finally to Warialda in the mid 1850s. In 1857 he was advertising his boot and shoe business in Warialda. Bridget became the licensee of the Racehorse Inn in Warialda around 1856.


George died in Warialda in April 1868. Bridget left the town for Tamworth (presumably to reside with her daughter Mary) in January 1872 and died there soon after. 


Mr Owen Cusack

A significant number of the convicts who came to New South Wales, both male and female, were quite clearly mentally unstable. A number of those who donated to St John’s subscription had mental problems themselves (manifested in strange behaviour, being “soft in the head”, “going beserk” [sic], drunkenness, suicide etc).  Some of their children also had issues, some clearly a result of the age of the mother when giving birth, again illustrated by incarceration in asylums and suicides.


The very trying conditions in these pioneer regions, and the sheer hard work involved in developing the land, was particularly trying on single men who, without benefit of hearth or family, resorted to drink and other escapes.


A very sad case in point is Owen Cusack who made two donations of one shilling, one in July and the other in September of 1843.


Owen was born 1814 or 1819 (his age varies in the records) in Killaloe, County Clare, Ireland.


Killaloe is now a large village in east County Clare, Ireland. The village lies on the River Shannon on the western bank of Lough Derg with the "twin town" of Ballina on the eastern bank of the lake.

Owen left before the Famine really bit but in the late 1830s, other than farming and fishing (eel weirs as well as a salmon fishery), there was little employment. The principal employer, The Shannon Steam Navigation Company who had its headquarters there, employed a great number of people in the construction and repair of canals, docks and warehouses but most of this was completed by the mid 1830s. During the famine years the town of Killaloe lost 191 people. Between 1841 and 1851 the number of inhabited houses in the parish dropped from 1,253 to 920. In Killaloe 50 houses were listed as unoccupied in 1851. By 1861 the parish had lost a total of 441 families.


Owen, on his ship’s indent, lists his parents as Patrick Cusick (Labourer) and Margaret Rogers.  The Irish records are so fragmented it is almost impossible to track them down.


Owen came to Australia as a single male emigrant arriving in March 1841 on the “Susan” listed as Cusick. He is listed as 22 years of age, a Roman Catholic, a labourer, 5’4”, with a strong build, brown hair and blue eyes. Like most poor Irish workers he could neither read nor write. He provided no proof of baptism but his character was attested by Mr William Elliot and Mr James Ryan.


It’s impossible to determine what Owen did after he arrived but he must have been with some sympathetic people because by the time he started getting into trouble he could read. Presumably he worked as a labourer. In his long list of appearances before the Bench he seems to have roamed from Singleton down to Raymond Terrace and Newcastle. He was reported to have had a home in Lochinvar at one stage.


He never married.


His first brush with the law came in 1851.

VAGRANCY.-On Thursday a man named OwenCusack was brought before the bench, charged with vagrancy. It appeared that Cusack was apprehended by constable M'Manus on Wednesday; Cusack had applied to a hotel keeper for a bed, and being refused he became very abusive and would not leave the house; M'Manus, who was sent for, had previously noticed Cusack idling about the streets, without any apparent employment or residence, and Cusack refused to give any account of himself; M'Manus then took him into custody. Cusack was convicted of vagrancy, and was sentenced to one month's imprisonment.

MM 25/1/1851


After his first stint in Newcastle Gaol things went downhill rapidly.

INDECENT EXPOSURE.-On Thursday OwenCusack was brought before the bench, charged   with indecent exposure of his person in High street, West Maitland, on Tuesday. It appeared from the evidence of Mr. Michael Lester to have been a most gross case of wilful exposure, accompanied with disgusting expressions. Cusack was convicted, and sentenced to three months' imprisonment with hard labor.

MM 29/10/1853


He was convicted on a string of vagrancy, drunkenness, obscene language, exposure etc charges in 1855, 1856, 1857, 1858, 1859, 1861, 1862, 1867, 1869, 1870, 1871, 1872, 1873, 1874, 1875. Perhaps the most telling was this report in 1865.

ATTEMPTING TO COMMIT SUICIDE -Owen Cusack was brought up at the West Maitland police court, on Thursday, charged with attempting to commit suicide. It was stated by constable Farmer that prisoner had gone between two horses being ridden down High-street on the previous morning; Farmer asked him what he was doing; and he said the devil would protect him; he acted in such a manner that the constable took him into custody for being of unsound mind. It was stated that the prisoner had been under the influence of drink. He was discharged, on promising to go home to Lochinvar.

MM 30/12/1865


Owen died in Maitland 1879 aged 65 years. Although he is said to have died in the Maitland district there is no record of his grave in any Maitland cemetery. 


Ellen Chordeth

On the 26th February 1843, an Ellen Chordeth is listed as having donated two shillings and sixpence to the subscription to erect St John the Baptist Chapel in Maitland.  Strangely (and possibly insultingly) she was not even given a title of Mrs or Miss: just Ellen Chordeth.


Ellen Chordeth is one of those women who appear to have a short but convoluted and mysterious path through the early years of the colony. There appeared to be no records of such a woman until it became apparent that she was the wife of Vincent Chiodetti, a Music Teacher who resided in High St. near Letts Store. In an early reflection of the difficulty the Anglos had with these “foreign” names, Vinchenzo Chiodetti was to appear under numerous spellings over the time of his life in New South Wales. According to a Sydney Herald advertisement in 1839 Vincenzo Chiodetti (from the City of Rome) was the former Band Master to Her Majesty's 28th Regiment, “Master of the first class of Music, knowing also Full Harmony, Legate e Fúgate, having likewise a stamped Certificate to this above effect”.  He had married his first wife Maria (surname unknown) in Rome in 1810 when she was 22. They had one son born in Rome in 1811, Alexander Antonio Marie Domenic. He also ended up being a bandmaster of another English regiment and died on service in India. How Vinchenzo came to be recruited into the 28th is unknown but he arrived in Sydney when the regiment was stationed there in 1835. It moved to India in 1842 but Vinchenzo and a number of others left and remained in New South Wales. His wife Maria died in Parramatta on the 6th April 1840.


It took Vinchenzo only one month to marry Ellen M McCabe (married 20/5/1840) at St Patrick’s Parramatta.


Both gave £2/10/0 each to appeal for St Patrick’s Parramatta (listed in the Catholic sympathising paper the Australian Chronicle 7/7/1840) when finances may have been more fortunate. By 1843 the financial crisis was in full swing and this may be reflected in the amount given to St John’s.


In April 1842, announced by an advertisement in the Chronicle, they moved to Maitland.

MUSIC. SIG. VINCENT CHIODETTI, Professor of. Music, having been Band Master of the 28th Regiment for the last fourteen years, and having left the service to avoid going to India, has resolved to settle in High-street, West Maitland, in which town, and throughout the vicinity, he will teach the Pianoforte, Guitar, Violin, and other instruments, and give complete instructions in Bass and Composition. He will also tune pianofortes. April 4, 1842

Aust Chron 7/4/1842


Vinchenzo obviously suffered professional jealousy from other music teachers as he was constantly issuing challenges to those who belittled his expertise.


Their only child Maria Sancta Fortunate was born on the 22nd June 1842 and was baptised on the 26th June 1842 by Dean Lynch in the old chapel in Plaistowe Street Horseshoe Bend. The Dean at least got their names right. The godparents were Lorenzo Cetta (an exconvict Italian carver and guilder who was sentenced to 7 years for stealing silverplate in York in 1834) and Ann (who may have been his wife who joined him in the Colony after his Certificate of Freedom in 1841).


It appears the family stayed in Maitland until around 1844 when yet another challenge was issued from his residence in Windsor (SMH 7/2/1844).


Ellen was finally granted a town allotment in Parramatta in 1846 and they must have moved back to that lot in that year. It’s possible that because Vincenzo was an alien he was not allowed to purchase property. The application was submitted in 1841 and took five years to resolve.

She died November 1852 aged 39 at Parramatta.


Vincenzo went on to marry Anne Winter, a widow, on the 23rd January  1853, at St Patrick’s Parramatta.

Vincenzo died 5/12/1858 aged 72 at his residence in Phillip St, Parramatta.


Ellen’s background before this marriage is even harder to discover.


If the age of 39 on death is correct then she was born about 1813. There are several Ellen McCabes (both single and married women) listed in various sources but none of them fits.


The closest is the Ellen McCabe listed as a teacher in a Catholic School in the Parish of St Phillip’s, Sydney, in 1836 with 77 pupils. Another Miss M.A. McCabe was listed in 1839 as a teacher in a Catholic School in Parramatta. One wonders whether they were the children of Mr McCabe who was the schoolmaster at Port Macquarie before perishing in a boating accident in 1821.


Master Thomas Cook

Thomas Cook (Coke) made two donations of one shilling each.


He proved to be an elusive subject but it’s highly probably that he was the son of Thomas Cook, JP who was the Police Magistrate in Dungog and a farmer on Auchentorlie (originally an area outside Glasgow). A Scots Episcopalian and ex army man (ex Indian Officer (Captain)), he was a dour, resolute, humourless, unyielding, uncompromising disciplinarian.


Thomas Cook married Mary Wright, High Church, Paisley, Renfrew, Scotland, 31/3/1811.



  • Mary 18/3/1812
  • Peter Wright 7/8/1815
  • Rebecca 9/5/1817
  • Henrietta 1821
  • Sarah Rome 15/7/1823
  • Francis Orr 11/5/1825
  • Thomas 18/2/ 1827
  • Mary Janet (Janet) 4/12/1828
  • Snodgrass? 6/3/1831

Thomas and some of his family arrived on the “Eldon” into Sydney in April 1834. On board were Thomas, Mrs Mary, Miss Henrietta, Miss Janet Cook, Master Thomas Cook and a Mr Robert Cook. Some of the children had stayed in Scotland and others had died in India.


He was appointed Police Magistrate of Port Stephens in November 1834 on the basis of his military background. At various times he also held the positions of Magistrate, Coroner, Commissioner of Crown Lands, etc He was involved in a number of notorious skirmishes with bushrangers and aboriginals where he shot before asking questions. He retired from these positions in 1858 after 20 years but does not appear to have left the area. He continued to work on his farm.


Thomas Sn caused an outcry when he posted a note on the Dungog Court House in November 1840 stating that only Protestants may apply as constables. Dungog had a heavy Catholic presence. The dispute with many prominent members of the Dungog community caused him to wash his hands of the town. On the 15th November 1842 his daughter Henrietta died aged 20 and was buried in the Stroud Anglican cemetery because he refused to bury her amongst the people of Dungog.


His son’s donation could have been an attempt to repair this relationship after this episode.  Thomas Jn would have been 15 in 1843. Making the donation himself would have been a major blow to his dignity and standing. It must not have worked because when Thomas Jn  died on the 2nd June 1853 at his father’s property in Dungog, aged 24, he also was buried at Stroud.


It is reputed that Thomas Sn died late in the 1850s alone and unmourned by the people of Dungog at least. He certainly has no known resting place.


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