Macclesfield Community History


From: "Macclesfield Jubilee 1840-1990, Families Old and New", compiled by the Macclesfield Community Newsletter Committee. See here.

Further details thanks to Cheryl AMBROSE from NSW and Barry FREEMAN from Canberra.

The Trials of Billy Freeman, by former ABC journalist Alan ATKINSON


ONE of the most colourful personalities to have lived at Macclesfield was William (Billy) FREEMAN.

Billy was respected by all, and feared by some, partly because of his shocking temper and partly because it was whispered, among the older generation, that he had been 'transported' to Australia. Most felt that this could be true and if so it must have been for some very violent crime.

However, if people of his generation did tend to recall him only because of a very bad and ungovernable temper an examination of his life reveals Bill to have been a real pioneer , hard working and honest in all of his dealings.

Now it is true that Billy was a convict but this record of his 'crime and punishment' taken from the New South Wales Archives explains why he was transported: -

No 1292 - 166, William FREEMAN, Factory Boy, Age 16
Tried: Salisbury Assizes, April 20, 1830
Single, Education R and W, Native Place, Somersetshire
Offence: Stealing cheese
Sentence: 7 years transportation

It seems likely that his age was falsified to allow for the penalty of transportation for he was only twelve and a half years old at the time of the trial, and fourteen and a half years when he arrived at Sydney Cove. Yet on both occasions his age was given as sixteen. (Had Billy taken some bread to go with the cheese his punishment would probably have been even more severe!)

On June 8, 1832 the convict ship John arrived at Sydney Cove with Billy and two hundred other convicts aboard. Having travelled overland from New South Wales he arrived in South Australia in 1840.

On September 15, 1840, Billy married Sarah STACEY at Trinity Church, Adelaide. Sarah was the daughter of James and Mary STACEY and she and her family had only arrived in South Australia on June 20 of the same year. As the STACEY's came from Stogursey in Somerset and Billy from Freshford, Somerset, all were from the same county in England.

Billy and Sarah first lived and farmed near Belvedere and later came to Doctor's Creek near Macclesfield. Billy and his bride went to Sandegrove(sp?) to farm and he was assisted at one time with a loan from Edward STIRLING, MLC, who said of Billy “I have known him for twenty-three years as an honest man of good character.”

Billy and Sarah had ten children who lived beyond childhood and all contributed something to the well-being of Macclesfield at some time or another. During his lifetime Billy was a dairy and wheat farmer, a builder, a butcher, mail coach driver and a mail cart driver. He is said to have driven the first mail coach from Strathalbyn to Adelaide, described as "a three horse coach". He certainly drove the mail coach from Strathalbyn to Yankalilla , a spring dray type of vehicle.

He conducted a butcher's shop for some time in premises just north of the Macclesfield Post Office - the building is still in use. He also did a lot of work for the Macclesfield District Council but in 1883 declined a contract to clean up the Macclesfield General Cemetery because the price was too low.

Billy was a very good runner and won many events at local shows and picnics. For the greater part of his life he wore the ’old English‘ style of smock: a loose garment worn over one's working clothes. It is said that he was one of only two or three people in Macclesfield to do so.

There seems no doubt that Billy must have been very tough as the Southern Argus reports September 14, 1882, that "...he fell from his cart and a wheel passed over his head but he sustained no injury".

Sarah, aged seventy-three, died March 6, 1896, leaving Billy, three sons, three daughters, forty grandchildren and ten great-grandchildren. One daughter, Rebecca, married into the WIRTH family who later ran the famous circus.

Billy, at the age of eighty-two, died on April 16, 1899, in the old Marra house on Cunliffe Street, then the home of his daughter Emma. He, Sarah and one son, John Henry, are buried just inside the main gate of the old Church of England Cemetery in Luck Street.

Billy was the great-grandfather of Len CHESSER who says of him that he was "..a real man, I wish I had known him."

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Further details can now be added to the FREEMAN FAMILY HISTORY, thanks to Cheryl AMBROSE from NSW and Barry FREEMAN from Canberra; both descendants of William & Sarah FREEMAN.

Cheryl contacted us in 2016 regarding her Great Grandfather, one of William and Sarah’s children, although at the time she was unable to find any record of his birth.

She said: "Sarah and William had another son not listed – my G. Grandfather was born around 1863 – his name was James William Henry FREEMAN.  During this time both William and Sarah were in Adelaide Gaol for burning down their daughter’s house so highly likely he was born inside prison and raised by an older sibling.  There is no record of his birth that I can find anywhere".

James William Henry is now included among the names of William & Sarah’s 12 children, listed below, and where known we have included their years of birth and death.

1. Maria (Myers), Bowden
2. Ellen Jane
3. Harriett Hillier
4. Emma (Chesser) (Mara)
5. William George
6. Rebecca (Wirth)
7. Elijah
8. William
9. Not recorded
10. John William
11. James William Henry
12. John Henry
1842 - 1919
1843 - 1862
1845 - 1875
1848 - 1907
29-5-1847 (Strathalbyn) - 1923
16-12-1855 - 1931
1857 - 1864
10-11-1858 (Kentucky district Strathalbyn)
27-01-1860 (Sandergrove)
30-6-1866 (Macclesfield) - 8-5-1875 (aged 10 years)

Barry obtained much of his information from the ‘really helpful staff at The National Library’ and their collection of digitised British newspapers and journals.  This is what he discovered!

The Freeman family was a Freshford, Somerset family. The information below is taken from the records from St Peters Church, Freshford. (Please note: George Freeman was William Freeman’s father)

First available records:
James FREEMAN 1755-1807 m. Ann FREEMAN 1755-1844
Their children: (dates here are baptism records, not dates of birth)
James Jnr.      10/7/1787
John               4/5/1788
George            8/5/1791
Susanna         1/3/1794
Charles           5/6/1796

George FREEMAN 1791-1843 m. Ann FREEMAN (no record)
The records of Amy and William below state that their father George was a weaver or clothier.
Their Children: (baptism records)
Harriet           5/3/1808
Rebekah        15/9/1811
Amy              26/12/1813
William         28/12/1817 (DOB 10/12/1817)

Some early history of William while he was still in England

A significant influence on the local life in Freshford, and consequently of the Freeman family, was the Freshford Mill on the Frome River, which dates back to the 17th century.

In the 19th century the fortunes of the mill (and consequently the district) fluctuated. During the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815) times were hard and the Mill closed in 1828. All the machinery was sold off by 1829 and 92 men lost their jobs. At that time George was a weaver and William was a factory boy. George worked up to 15 hours per day and as a factory boy William worked 12 hours per day. He worked 8 hours on a Saturday and had Sunday off. Boys started work when they were 9 years old.

In 1828, William went with his father to Trowbridge to get work. Trowbridge was 5½ miles away from Freshford and had 15 factories.

On the 28 January 1829 William Freeman aged 13, was facing his first prison sentence of 1 month for stealing 2 fur caps as recorded in the Devizes and Wiltshire Gazette on Thursday March 19, 1829. At his trial he is reported to have wept bitterly saying that he had ‘no mum and no friends’. William’s comment may indicate that he was left to wander the streets unable to get work, while his mother and sisters remained in Freshford. However, the 1841 census showed that his mother Ann and sister Rebekah lived in Trowbridge and his father George had returned to Freshford.

William’s major trial was in April 1830 for stealing 6 lb of cheese. This was the reason for his 7 years transportation and was recorded in the Devizes and Wiltshire Gazette under Wilts County Sessions on April 29, 1830. William spent 19 months in Devizes Old Prison before being transferred to the Convict Ship – John, to await transportation to NSW on February 7, 1832. William disembarked in Sydney on June 8, 1832.

The History Group would love to hear from anyone with connections to this old Macclesfield family.

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The Trials of Billy Freeman, By former ABC journalist Alan ATKINSON

The Trials of Billy Freeman’ is the working title of a book I am hoping to write on one of Macclesfield’s most interesting residents.

Why did I get interested in Billy FREEMAN? Because I discovered only in 2018 that he’s my ancestor.

Although I have lived in South Australia for years and have often passed through Strathalbyn on the way to holidays at Goolwa, I only knew of Macclesfield as a great little town with a couple of fine pubs on the road to somewhere else.

Imagine my surprise then when I received a text, in January 2018, from my genealogy-loving sister in England to say she had discovered we had an ancestor in Australia, and not only that but that he had lived in Macclesfield not far from where I lived in Adelaide. She told me that Billy Freeman was the younger brother of my great great grandmother Harriet (COX, nee Freeman) of Trowbridge in Wiltshire. She attached the web page about him from the Macclesfield Community History, written by the late Len CHESSER.

I read that my new ancestor Billy – or William George Freeman to give him his full name - had been a dairy and wheat farmer, a builder, a butcher, and a mail coach driver.

Apparently he also was renowned for having a fiery temper. As I read on, I discovered that although he was a hard worker, he got himself in trouble in middle-age when he and his wife were convicted of burning down their daughter’s house over an unpaid debt. Some character!

But the story became ever more interesting when exploring his origins and how he came to Australia. Billy was born in 1817 and had arrived in Australia in 1832, four years before South Australia was even proclaimed a state. He had come out on his own as a child to NSW, convicted for stealing cheese and sentenced to seven years’ transportation with hard labour.  Little wonder that he had attitude.

Delving into the detail, I read that he faced Wiltshire Assizes in Salisbury in 1829 (born December 1817, so just 11 and a half) then spent time in goal and in a prison hulk on the Thames, before sailing on the convict ship ‘John’ with 200 other prisoners, arriving at Port Jackson in 1832. He was just 14 and a half when he landed.

My interest deepened as I discovered that many other people had details of Billy on their ancestry search sites. With encouragement and help from the staff at the Macclesfield History Group, from the family history volunteers at Strathalbyn Library, the State Library of South Australia, and from other Freeman ancestors, one living in Echuca and one in Canberra, I began to research in earnest.

I collected as much material as I could, including a history of the village of Freshford in Somerset where he was born – which described the dire straits of poverty and depression of the time; court documents, convict documents, land certificates and more. I visited where he had worked, where he had farmed, where he had lived and where he was buried, at the old Church of England cemetery in Macclesfield.

And the story grew ever more fascinating. As other researchers had discovered, young convict Billy was indentured after his arrival 1832 to a well-known pastoralist in NSW, John HAWDON. After five years working for Hawdon, Billy received his Certificate of Freedom in 1837, a free man once again at age 20.

The big question was: how did Billy get to South Australia and end up at Macclesfield? Old court records held the clue. One was the court case (mentioned above) in which Billy was involved in 1862.  During his trial he received references from local identities and at his sentencing he also received testimonials from two well-known pioneers – Edward STIRLING, a landowner and MP of Strathalbyn (after whom the Adelaide Hills town of Stirling is named).  The other name was a bigger surprise: Captain STURT.

What was Billy Freeman’s connection with the noted explorer Charles Sturt, the man who in 1829-1830 explored the length of the River Murray from NSW to its mouth below Strathalbyn at Goolwa? Why would the famous Captain Sturt be giving him a testimonial?

A newspaper report of another court case involving Billy (throughout his life he was pretty litigious) gave the answer. It said he “came to South Australia with Captain Charles Sturt in 1838.”

The 1838 trip is often described as Sturt’s “forgotten journey.” Due to a downturn in farming incomes in NSW and with South Australia in desperate need of sheep and cattle, there were three big cattle drives that year – the first by Joseph HAWDON (the brother of John Hawdon, to whom Billy Freeman was indentured) and the second by another noted explorer Edward EYRE. Charles Sturt undertook the third cattle drive.

So although all the names of all the drovers are not listed in the various explorers’ journals, it is a safe bet that - as reported in a court record- young Billy was indeed hired by Sturt to take part in that third cattle drive. It’s also a safe bet that he started off working for Edward Stirling near Strathalbyn.  Indeed, Stirling’s testimonial to the court said he had “known (Freeman) for 23 years.”

Once here, Billy was married within two years – to Sarah, the daughter of a free settler James STACEY who arrived in 1840 and whose family settled (and quickly grew in number) at Doctor’s Creek, just out of Strathalbyn.  James STACEY and Sarah came from Stogursey – another village in Somerset not very far from Freshford where Billy was born. No doubt the same West Country accent helped forge the connection out here between Billy and Sarah, who went on to have at least 11 children.

There are so many interesting aspects of Billy’s life… the desperate poverty in England in the 1820s in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars; the horrors of children thrown into jail and sentenced to transportation; the tales of the sea journeys to the other side of the world; how some young convicts made good and received their freedom; how they crossed the strange new continent and first met the indigenous people on the way; what it was like to work for the “gentlemen” land-holders, pioneer famers and explorers; how they helped establish South Australia as a viable state.

While Billy Freeman may not have been a big-name explorer, he played a key role in those tough early years. And he lived to the ripe old age of 82.

I hope my story will do him justice. If any other of his relatives have any interesting information on his life in and around Macclesfield, please contact me on

Alan Atkinson
Freelance writer
June 2018


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