Upping Sticks: the Black family

Updated: 25 October 2013 with a another rewrite!

This year has revealed a lot more details about the Black family and their journey.  Figuring out the best way to write it up has been a bit of a challenge.  So I’m going to tell their story in chronological order.  I discovered it in backwards order but it’s less confusing the right way round!

My starting point

I’ve had the advantage that my Grandad did a lot of research into his family after he retired in the 1980s.  So what I knew at the start was entirely due to his efforts.  And you’ll find me quoting from his notes along the way.

My ancestors the Black family came from County Tyrone in Ulster.  Grandad used to joke that the “Blacks cleaned the toilets for the MacDonald’s” – implying that they were originally from Scotland and part of the Ulster Plantation.  My (English) grandmother preferred the idea that she was married to someone of Scottish origin!

Whether or not my Blacks came from Scotland has yet to be proven (a cousin recently met every Black family in Co. Tyrone but not ours, so we’re no further back).  What we do know is that Robert Black was the son of Joseph Black, farmer of Co. Tyrone.  In 1847, Robert married Rachel C Greacen of Co. Monaghan, daughter of Nathaniel Greacen.  They proceeded to have 7 children (listed below) and in 1863, aged in their 40s, they and their children immigrated to Queensland on the Fiery Star. From Grandad:

… at age 43 he seems to have emigrated somewhat late in life. It is therefore surmised that he may have inherited money at about this time, perhaps from his farmer father.

In late 1865 or early 1866, they move onto Christchurch, New Zealand where they opened a drapery shop called the “Criterion”.  Grandad further notes:

It seems unlikely that he would set up a drapery and clothing business, apparently of quite substantial size, without some prior experience in this trade.  If he had such experience, it is not known where or when he acquired it.

So this is what I knew.  Now onto what I’ve found.


Robert and Rachel married on 3 Nov 1847 at the First Monaghan Church in Co Monaghan.  On their marriage certificate  they are both listed as being shopkeepers, but resident in different towns.  This is the first confirmation that they had retail experience before New Zealand.  Rachel’s father Nathaniel Greacen is listed as a ‘stationer’ so she may have worked in his shop.

Street directories found online at the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI) website give further details of their retail business.  In the available Belfast and Province of Ulster directories from 1852 to 1863 there is a Robert Black, haberdasher, Market Square, Dungannon.  In 1865 he’s not there.

Confirming this is the 1860 Griffiths Valuation which lists Robert Black in Market Square, Drumcoo, Dungannon occupying a property which consisted of “house, offices, and yard”.  There are no references to shops, so the “offices” could have been retail premises.  The Valuation Revision Book for 1860-63 shows the name of Robert Black being crossed out and replaced with Joseph Henry Burgess.

The Belfast News-Letter is the only online newspaper I’ve found with reference to Robert (available through Find My Past for a fee).  The first reference is an advertisement listing his business for sale in March 1863:



Haberdashery Goods, Fixtures of Shop, Wareroom and Storeroom, in which the Subscriber has carried on a large Wholesale (and Retail Cash) Business for the last fifteen years.

The situation for the business is one of the best in town, being No.1, Market Square.

As the Stock has been bought from the best houses on the best terms, and is well assorted, such an opportunity seldom offers to any person wishing to commence the Drapery Trade.

The Subscriber is retiring only on account of his health.  For terms, &c, apply to ROBERT BLACK.

As will become apparent, Robert knew how to advertise!

Another item in the Belfast News-Letter on 13 August 1863 gives further insight into Robert’s life in Dungannon and his standing within the community:

A public dinner was given to Mr Black by the Town Commissioners, and other friends of his, in Mr Moore’s hotel, on the occasion of his leaving for Queensland with his family.  Mr Black has long been a Town Commissioner, and has invariably taken a leading part in everything that has had for its object the welfare and prosperity of Dungannon.

Mr Brook gave the toast of the evening, “Mr Robert Black and his wife, and may success and prosperity attend them in the land of their adoption.” It gave him much pleasure to bear witness to the very superior character Mr Black had always borne for manly integrity and uprightness.  He had been much respect by his fellow-Commissioners; and he would say that if he should think of again returning to Ireland after the restoration of that health, which was the chief cause of his removal from among them, he should be kindly and cordially welcomed among them. (prolonged applause.)

The Blacks were on their way!

I’ve yet to find anything about Robert’s father Joseph so Grandad’s speculation on an inheritance is still speculation.  From the above, it could be that Robert was very successful and had enough money from his own efforts to immigrate.

Getting to Queensland on the Fiery Star

The Black family – Robert, Rachel and 7 children and their maid Susan McGurke left Queenstown (Cork) on 18 August 1863.  The voyage was not a happy one for the family.  The ship was overcrowded and the journey took 94 days.  The Blacks were in the second cabin which is usually a pretty good place to be.  However, they had the cabins closest to the ‘water closet’ and spent the journey damp and ill.  And tragically their youngest daughter Sarah died at sea on 22 September aged 2.

There has been much written about the Fiery Star and this voyage, so I’ve put it into a separate post Upping Sticks: The Black Family on the ‘Fiery Star’ which has many specific details of the Black family’s experiences.

The Black family’s brief stay in Brisbane

A search on Australia’s answer to Papers Past called Trove has uncovered some information on Robert’s commercial activities in Brisbane.  Less than 3 months after they arrived, this from The Courier, 20 Feb 1864:


DRAPER, &r-,

BEGS to say he has OPENED in that New Building, corner of Edward and Elizabeth streets, with a well-assorted stock of ENGLISH and SCOTCH GOODS brought out by himself, which he will sell for very Small Profits.

Come and see the Value!

Men’s Ready-made Clothing very cheap,

Advertisements for their wares continue until November 1865 when the clearance sale begins:


         In Consequence of Returning to Europe.

ROBERT BLACK, corner of Edward and Elizabeth streets, BEGS to inform his Customers and the Public generally that he has commenced to SELL OFF his Entire Stock of DRAPERY, HABERDASHRRY, and CLOTHING, at an IMMENSE REDUCTION; and, as he proposes clearing all off as quickly as possible, parties in want of Cheap Goods should call at once. P.S.-Note the   Address- Corner of Edward and Elizabeth streets. 6333

Returning to Europe?!  By mid December, the advertisements were demanding that creditors settle their accounts as soon as possible.  The last notice in Brisbane regarding their shop is the final auction on January 11 & 12 1866.

New Zealand, here come the Blacks!

But why leave Brisbane?

Life in 1860s Queensland

Cotton growing became a big industry in Queensland in the early 1860s with the American Civil War cutting off supply from the US.  Investment was encouraged as was immigration of cotton workers.

However, reality for these immigrant cotton farmers was a stark contrast to life back in Ireland.  They were expected to cut fields out of the bush.  Most had little farming experience and little success.

In 1864, Queensland had what Wikipedia describes as it’s ‘annus horribilus‘  “In March of that year, major flooding of the Brisbane River inundated the centre of town, in April, fires devastated the west side of Queen Street, which was the main shopping district and in December, another fire, which was Brisbane’s worst ever, wiped out the rest of Queen Street and adjoining streets.”

The state was heading into a depression.  Robert and Rachel could obviously see which way things were going and decided to up sticks again.  Why they picked Christchurch is unknown.

The maid?

You might be wondering what happened to Susan McQurke?  in 1865 a Susan McQurk marries John Anton Crayn in Queensland (BDM ref 1865/B1197).  I’ve search both Queensland and NZ records to see if there are any further births, marriages or deaths but have come up blank.  There are newspaper references to a Crayn family in northern NSW in the 1890s which may be her descendents or her husbands family.  There is no evidence to suggest she continued with the Black family to New Zealand, yet.

The last stop – New Zealand

From my Grandad’s notes:

On 29.6.1866 Robert opened in High St, Christchurch, a drapery shop which he called the “Criterion”. This was situated on the southwest side of High St., one door north from Lichfield St corner. The business must have quickly grown, since a photo taken in 1868 shows that he then occupied the corner shop also with a combined frontage to High St of about 14m.

He appears to have trained at least his three eldest sons in the business, since Greacen and Henry later established drapery businesses of their own, while Robt Wm (the eldest son) remained and eventually took over the “Criterion” from his father in 1883.

The shop on High St and Lichfield St corner was a single storey building with a wooden shingle roof and a corrugated iron verandah over the footpath.  It was demolished in or before 1896, when a large four storey brick building (still there) was erected on the site.  Robert Black never own the land (part of Lot 3 DP 3779) and occupied the property as a lessee.

Here’s that photo from 1868 (thanks to the Jackmans):

“GJ Black himself, on the left side, arms folded, with dog beside him; RW Black, with shiny belltopper and spreading beard, on road near the third post; Mr Black senr., at his side; F Gabites, with hands crossed, near door and to the right of the fifth post” (from Old Christchurch in Picture and Story by Johannes C. Andersen, 1949).  I think Robert and Robert William are the other way around as RW would have only been about 20 at this point and I have a picture of his father with that beard.

Here is the opening ad for the premises from the Lyttleton Times, 30 June 1866 (Papers Past/National Library):

Black Advert - Lyttleton Times - 30 June 1866

Grandad continues:

In 1882 a decision was made to move to a different site a few doors up High St towards Cashel St, in a new building to be erected by Robt Wm.  While this building was under construction, Robert appears to have formally retired in August 1883 and the further history of the business is continued under Robt Wm’s name.

This was the point where the partnership with Robert Beattie was formed creating Black Beattie & Co.  Beattie who was a draper from Dunedin. Robert William managed the shop in Christchurch while Beattie traveled the South Island as the company’s sales representative.

According to my Jackman cousins, the new Criterion Building:

was the first building in New Zealand to be fitted with a pneumatic document carrying system, which connected the shop counters with a central cashier to whom the customer’s payments would be dispatched. The cashier would then return the change and receipts to the shop assistants in cartridges that were driven along overhead pipes by compressed air.

The Criterion shop was the site of an accident in 1894 which injured Margaret Horne Pyne and led to her premature death.

Their days in New Zealand

There are many references to Robert on Papers Past – although having a son of the same name, sometimes things are confusing!  The most frequent are ads for their shop – promising a sumptuous array of products not dissimilar to the one above.  There are also a few appearances before the local magistrates for various misdemeanors.

Grandad did a lot of research into Robert and Rachel’s life in New Zealand.  He was particularly interested in their homes (he was an engineer). Here’s his summary of their homes:

Where Robert Black lived during his early years in Christchurch has not been traced.  In 1872 he lived in Montreal St. South, but the house number and location are unknown.  On 11.6.1872 he bought a large section (Town sections 511 to 514, CT 2/85) running between Kilmore St and Chester St, just west of Barbados St corner, area 0.4 ha.

On the northern part of this land he built a house, 65 Kilmore St, financed by the un-Presbytarian act of borrowing £500 at 8 percent from the (C of E) Dean of Christchurch, which he later repaid.  Before the house was completed, Rachel’s fatal accident occurred, so she never lived in it.

George had died in 1869, Greacen had moved to Akaroa in 1871 and Robt Wm was now married.  So early in 1873 Robert moved in, presumably with Henry (20), Richard (17) and Elizabeth (16).  He lived there until his death in 1887.  After his death the 0.4 ha land was subdivided and sold in three lots, one including the house.

In 1981 this house (renumbered 214 Kilmore St) still existed and the writer has been in it.

It is a single storey timber framed weatherboard house with a slate roof.  As there is no slate in NZ, the slate would have been imported from Britain. [Deleted: With increasing availability of other materials, this practice had ceased before the end of the century, so slate roofed houses are now rare.] There is a roofed verandah across the whole front with cast iron filigree ornamentation between the posts.

It is quite a large house, about 200m2, but the interior shows signs of considerable past alterations, so how it was loud out originally remains doubtful.  In 1970 the property was compulsorily acquired by the Ministry of Works, apparently with eventual intent to erect a public building on the site.  Meanwhile it remains in use as a tenanted dwelling, but it is very dilapidated and really fit only for its prospective demolition.

I have yet to ascertain if the house is still standing after the 2010/2011 Christchurch earthquakes.  There does appear to be a building still there on Google Streetview taken before the earthquakes.

Robert and his wife were staunch Presbyterians and were associated with St Pauls Presbyterian Church in which over the years Robert held various offices.

As noted above, the death of Sarah was not the only tragedy to befall Robert and Rachel.  In June 1869, their fourth son George Wilson Black died aged 15 of consumption.  He died at Akaroa which suggests he was sent there for the sea air.

Three years later in 1872 Rachel was killed when her buggy fell off the road to Akaroa.

Robert died in 1887:

He died at his Kilmore St home on 25.2.1887.  His death certificate attributes his death to “Paralysis”, time from onset 20 years.  What that means in modern terms is uncertain.  Possibly he died of a cerebral hemorrahage (stroke) with some history of an earlier stroke.

He is buried in Plot 591, Addington Cemetary, Selwyn St, Christchurch, with his wife Rachel and their son George.  Curiously, his wife is named on the headstone as Rachel Greacen (not Black), apparently and Irish practice.

In 1981, the grave was in good order.  The white marble headstone, presumably 112 years old, has weathered dark grey, but is otherwise unimpaired and the inscription is sharp and clear.

Again I don’t know what state the grave is currently in after the earthquakes.

I am still trying to work out who the old lady seen in the garden by Johannes C. Andersen in the early 1880’s.  It wasn’t Rachel.

Robert’s ‘Ill Health’

It is a recurring theme in the news articles from Ireland that Robert and his family immigrated because of his bad health (above and the report of Rachel’s death).  But how bad was it?  It certainly didn’t seem to have prevented him from engaging in a business that would have involved much heavy lifting.  And there is no mention of it in any of the New Zealand news reports.

It has been speculated that it was an excuse to leave Ireland.  I think there may have been an element of truth in it.  As Grandad noted Robert’s death certificate says he had ‘paralysis’ for 20 years.  While this is likely to indicate a stroke that he most likely had in New Zealand, there is the possibility that he might have had a mini-stroke (or TIA) while still in Ireland.  But as usual, it’s all speculation!

Robert and Rachel’s Children

  1. ROBERT WILLIAM BLACK was born in 1848 in Ireland and died on 28 Jun 1931 in Auckland. He married EMILY KINLEY WILSON on 27 Nov 1872 in Magherafelt, Londonderry, Ireland, daughter of WILLIAM E WILSON and MATILDA BUSHE WILSON. She was born on 24 Oct 1853 in Cressona, Pennsylvania, USA. She died on 05 Mar 1939 in 249 Queen St, Onehunga, Auckland.
  2. JOSEPH GREACEN BLACK was born on 02 Jan 1850 in Dungannon, Co Tyrone, Ireland. He died on 24 Jan 1932 in Gisborne, New Zealand. He married MARY MCKAY (1851-1927) in 1879.
  3. HENRY BLACK was born in 1852 in Ireland and died in 1899 in Tasmania, Australia.
  4. GEORGE WILSON BLACK was born in Feb 1853 in Dungannon, Co Tyrone, Ireland and died on 04 Jun 1868 in Akaroa, New Zealand, aged 15.
  5. RICHARD BLACK was born in 1855 in Ireland.  He allegedly went to theological school in the US and was never seen again.
  6. ELIZABETH RACHEL BLACK was born in 1857 in Ireland and died on 03 Sep 1901 in Hobart, Tasmania. She married CHARLES FREDERICK CRESWELL on 02 Apr 1879 in Christchurch, Canterbury, New Zealand. He was born about 1855.
  7. SARAH BLACK was born in 1861 in Ireland and died in 1863 on the “Fiery Star” while on voyage to Queensland.

I’ve detailed more about the children on their own Upping Sticks page.


4 thoughts on “Upping Sticks: the Black family

  1. stuart angus

    Hello , My wife Virginia is the daughter of Robert Franklin Black of Wellington NZ and his descendants were the one that had the drapers shop in Christchurch. Photos you can find on the Webb.

  2. MJ Erber

    There is an obituary of Mr Greacen J Black in the Akaroa Mail and Banks Peninsula Advertiser for 29 January 1932 p.2 Goggle Papers Past. Mhairi Erber

      1. MJ Erber

        I should perhaps explain that my interest in J Greacen Black arises from the recent purchase by my daughter and her partner of Garfield Farm in the Okuti Valley, Little River. i have discovered that JG Black once owned the Garfield Estate in that area and am guessing that Garfield Farm is a remnant of this. Any light which the Black family could throw on this would be most welcome. The name is of particular interest – a friend has pointed out that naming a farm after President Garfield is rather like naming it after President Kennedy ! Would you? …Mhairi

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