WILLIAM SHIELL, Junior (1823-1899)


By Richard Shiell & Dorothy Anderson (last revised Sept 2005). richard.shiell@gmail.com




We are about to give some details from the life of a man who was born to a middle-class colored woman on the tiny West Indian Island of Montserrat in 1923 and who died 76 years later in far-off Australia, the father of 9 children and the progenitor of an extended family that includes the present two authors, who are his great-grandchildren.[1]


Why is William Shiell included in this collection of essays about Matthew Phipps Shiel (MPS) and his antecedents? The answer is that William was born just 20 months before Matthew Dowdy Shiell (MDS), the father of MPS.[2] The two little boys were both lightly colored, illegitimate grandsons of Queely Shiell, Montserrat’s largest land-owner and probably grew up in Plymouth only a few yards apart.  Matthew’s father and mother have not been positively identified but the father was possibly James Phipps Shiell, Collector of Customs for Montserrat and the mother perhaps a slave girl, the property of Sarah Dowdy.[3] William’s parents will be discussed below.  Both boys grew up as Methodists and, living in the small town of Plymouth, would have attended the same Sunday School and possibly attended Chapel services with their mothers.[4]


Birth of William

William was born at Plymouth on the island of Montserrat in the British West Indies on 8th January 1823.[5]  His parents were Mary McNamara, a free, colored lass and William Shiell, a white planter.[6]  No birth records for William or his parents could be found on Montserrat as most early documents have been lost due to neglect or to the hurricanes, floods, earthquakes or volcanic activity to which the island is prone. Important events in the life of the Australian Shiell family were recorded in the front pages of the Family Bible during the lifetime of William and his wife Hannah. For this reason it was presumed that the data given within its pages was accurate and later data from historic records has confirmed all points.


William’s descendants believe that his mother Mary McNamara ran a ship’s chandler’s store in Plymouth, Montserrat.[7]   Little more is known about her except that there are records of her having paid taxes in the years 1822-25.[8]  British Government records from London reveal that she received £102-8-0 compensation for her slaves after their emancipation in 1836.[9]  In 1846 she was recorded as joint owner of property in Plymouth valued at £100, along with Lucy McNamara.[10]


Lucy was probably Mary’s sister and in 1834 received £34-4-2 compensation for her slaves.[11] By 1841 she was Headmistress of the only Public School in Plymouth and a record exists of her annual salary, which was £14-8-0.[12]  In 1846 she was recorded as owning land in her own right valued at £200.[13]


A William McNamara appears frequently in the maritime records of Montserrat in the 1830s and 40s as a mariner and Master of small vessels.[14]  He may have been either the father or brother of Mary.  He also seemed to be one of the residents pushing for greater recognition and opportunity for the island colored population, of which he almost certainly was a leading member.  


The names of Mary and William McNamara were sometimes written in the records with the middle name of “ Dorset” but the significance of this has not been discovered. It may have been the maiden name of their mother or a grandparent. Mary, Lucy and William may have been descended from a Richard Macnamara who was an Attorney on Montserrat in the late 18th century[15] or a Francis McNemera who, in 1811, proposed the establishment of a publicly funded school for boys from poor white families.[16] On a small island with only a small free population, it is highly likely that they were all related in some way.


It was possibly from his mother, aunt and uncle that young William Shiell received his early education and this was later extended at the only public school in Plymouth. His aunt, Lucy McNamara, taught at this school and was later headmistress in 1841. It is certain that William was bright and received a good education for the time, as he was able to quickly pass his Master’s Certificate in London in 1853. This required knowledge of astronomy, metrology, navigation, maritime law as well as seafaring skills and literacy in English adequate enough to maintain a ship’s log and pass the written examination.[17]  


William senior married Mary Cabey Semper in 1826 [18] and went on to have 8 children with her.[19] This gentleman lived with his wife and children only 2 km north of Plymouth on either the Grove or Richmond plantations, which were side by side.[20]  He must have run into his natural son and his mother Mary from time to time and, as a person of considerable influence, was perhaps able to provide business opportunities for both of them.[21] It is most likely that his many legitimate children were educated by a governess in their early years and that they later went to England for further education.[22] They may have had little or no contact with their lightly colored, but tradesman-class, half-brother.


Young William gained considerable experience as a seaman in small craft and a brief perusal of the maritime records revealed some details of his early career


9-7-1844 - 13-9/-1844. William signed on as crew on the Antigua registered 15 ton schooner Ocean Bride.[23].


7-7-1845. William was master of the 5 ton  Faithful Mary carrying beef and candles.[24]


4-8-1845. William was master of the 5 ton Letitia.[25]


7-11-1845. William was master of the 3 ton Alternative.[26]


1846 - 1848. No records found with Shiell as Master.[27]


19-2-1849 and 8-6-1850. William Shiell master of the 30 ton schooner Charlotte.[28]


Such merchant-marine work in small ships was competitive, dangerous, and probably not very rewarding but it was the only job he knew. Fortunately news was arriving in Montserrat of gold discovery in Australia and, with the economy of the leeward island in the doldrums and his newfound knowledge of gold prospecting, William must have decided to try his luck once again. An added incentive may have been the death of his mother sometime after she was recorded as a ratepayer in Plymouth in 1846 and then the death of his father in 1853.[29]  The old world that he had known for 30 years was now irrevocably changed and he could probably see no future for himself on Montserrat.


As an experienced seaman, William had no need to be a fare paying passenger.  He worked a one-way passage to London on the 138 ton brigantine Callender owned by Alexander Foreman, who also served as Master for the voyage, arriving on 20th June 1853.[30]. The brigantine was sold by Foreman on 25 July 1853.[31]


While briefly in London William was granted Mariner’s Registration ticket No. 601166 which enabled him to be employed on ships of British registration.[32] He also sat for and passed the examination for his Master’s Certificate and was granted Certificate No 46601 on 30th July 1853.[33]  


Two weeks later, on 13th August 1853, William signed on at the Limehouse Shipping Office as 2nd Mate of the 153 ton brig Gazelle.[34] She was owned by some of the passengers and was bound for Geelong, Australia. Her Captain, William Thomas Parkin,  was related to some of the passengers.[35]


William Shiell, along with his fellow crew of 11 men and 68 passengers, arrived in Australia on the 23rd December  1853,  after a long but pleasant 111 day voyage from London”.[36]  Although he had his master’s certificate he served as 2nd Mate on board Gazelle and received the token pay of one shilling.[37]   Although many families were on the ship and several persons were of above average education of the day, not one diary describing the voyage has ever been located and even the ship’s log has disappeared. The reconstructed story of this voyage to a new land and a new life and what subsequently became of the crew and passengers of Gazelle is beautifully told by Dorothy Anderson in her book “The Tradesmen of Gazelle”.[38]

On arrival in Geelong the crew was paid off and some departed for the goldfields. A Geelong Agent Frederick Champion, bought the Gazelle from her owners and Captain Parkin continued to sail in the South-west Pacific until he met an untimely end on Woodlark Island in 1855.[39]


William and some of the others from the Gazelle traversed the 100 odd miles to the new goldfields at Four Mile Creek, near the township of Avoca in the newly proclaimed Crown Colony of Victoria.[40] He had modest success on the goldfields and on 1st November 1860 he married Hannah Burkinshaw, daughter of local farmer John Burkinshaw.[41]


William never returned to sea but continued prospecting and mining and later acquired 20 acres of land at Homebush, near Avoca[42]  and with Hannah raised a family of  2 girls and 7 boys.  William spoke little about his past life although it is said that he claimed that his forebears had been privateers. If he ever discussed his own past with his children, no clear recollections of sea-faring or island life passed down to his 38 grandchildren, some of whom were interviewed by the authors. There was a vague recollection from some that he had spoken of visiting the Californian Gold Rush and had acquired some knowledge of mining techniques whilst there.[43]


William leaves an extended family of descendants including the two authors of this present article, who are his great- grandchildren. Of William’s 9 children, 6 married and 5 had families. After almost exactly 150 years in Australia there are now more than 300 living descendants of the William Shiell who was born on Montserrat in 1823.[44]




APPENDIX I (a). Letter from Dr Norman Griffin to Dr Richard Shiell 


25th August 1974

Richmond Hill,

 Montserrat, West Indies.


Dear Dr Shiell,

I was interested in reading your letter asking for information about your Montserrat family published in the “Montserrat Mirror” of 16th instant. It happens that William G. Shiell, who seems to have been the first on the scene came out from Ireland at much the same time as my great-grandfather, John Griffin who was born in Hutchin, Hertfordshire, England , in 1784 and married in Montserrat in 1815.


William G. Shiell, was born in 1784 and married in Montserrat in 1826 to Mary Caby Semper, daughter of Michael Joseph Semper.  This was in June 1826 and in August (2 months after) a son was born and named William.  We have no further record of this son and it could be that he was your great-grandfather who arrived in Australia as Mate on the brig Gazelle in 1853; maybe he ran away to sea from school either in Montserrat or in England.


Of the other children of Wm G. Shiell we have few records. Several seem to have died as children; the family lived at The Grove or at Richmond ( these two estates probably even then run as one). Another son Henry was born in 1827; John Ross was born in 1834, James Phipps in 1836, Queely in 1837, and the last, born in 1850, was also given the name of William but died at 5 months.


When Queely was born William G Shiell was President of  the Council of Montserrat; in 1848 he owned one estate called Morris’ in the South of Montserrat (small and unimportant in comparison with many others), but was Attorney for about 10 others including a number shown on a list of Montserrat estates as owned by Queely Shiell; he was also Executor, Lessee or Receiver in Chancery of another 14 estates. Presumably as President of the Council he had to divest himself of some of his properties, giving his son the titles. Wm. G. Shiell died in 1853 as did his wife Mary.


In 1849, Henry Shiell, Bachelor, married Mary Ann Wilcox, and we have reasons to believe that he emigrated to Australia but have no idea as to whether he was in touch with any of your family. In 1851, Thomas Masters Howes (of Yorkshire England) who had come out from England in 1835 married a Mary Ann Shiell (relationship not defined) and in 1879,  2 years after her husband died, she went out to Australia with her 2 daughters, one of whom married a McMaster whose son Shiell McMaster became a landowner and sheep farmer in New South Wales. It is thought that Mary Ann was some relation of Henry’s and went out to him in Australia.


Sorry that this Aerogramme does not leave room for more. There is a long story about another family named Shiel (with one l) starting with one Matthew Dowdye Shiel who came out from Ireland and claimed descent from ancient kings of that country. If you are interested I will write again.

Norman Griffin M.D. (Mc Gill 1922)



APPENDIX  I (b).  Letter from Dr Norman Griffin  to Dr Richard Shiell


29th October 1974.

Richmond Hill,

 Montserrat,   West Indies.


Dear Dr Shiell,

Thanks for your letter of 17th September received on 25th. I agree generally with some of your deductions from information available and in particular about the likelihood that your William Shiell may have been the son of the original William before his marriage to Mary Cabey Semper. Sorry I cannot check on the 1823 dates as all records of the births before 1829 have been lost.


As regards the economic conditions of Montserrat in the 1840-1860 period, the effects of emancipation of slavery which took place in 1834 was becoming felt and the labour situation was difficult. Many estates were sold for indebtedness or changed hands to newcomers at a fraction of the value a which they were rated a few years earlier.


It seems that Queely Shiell  was the only one of the original William who like his father was interested in agriculture; he followed his father as a Member of Council and in charge of the Richmond and Grove Estates.  It is suggested that the other brothers followed  some other calling, either in business or in Government, though we have no records to confirm this assumption. Certainly none of them produced a family in Montserrat.


The family history would not be complete  without the story of  the Shiels  (spelt with one “ l “) written up by Charlesworth Ross six years ago in the Caribbean Quarterly, a publication of the Extra Mural Department of the University of the West Indies.  It begins with Matthew Dowdye Shiel who claimed descent from the ancient Kings of Ireland and was living in Montserrat in 1865 and trading between Montserrat and the neighboring islands. He had had 8 daughters before producing a son named Matthew Phipps Shiel born shortly before that date.  This son went to live in England where he became a novelist and got to know many celebrities such as Robert Louis Stephenson and Wilde; he was quite a linguist  and once had a job as interpreter to the International Congress of Hygiene and Demography.


Charlesworth Ross, himself a West Indian, whom I know very well went to visit him in his later years when he was living in an Alms House near Horsham on a Civil List Pension, and had a very interesting conversation with him. He afterwards wrote up his story describing him as the first West Indian Novelist. He discovered that his Grandmother was one of the Shiel sisters. Of his other sisters we know little, except that the last surviving one was still alive in 1935 and living in St. Kitts with a niece. She was in looks much as you describe other Shiell descendants in Australia. It may well be that Matthew Dowdye Shiel was an illegitimate son of the original William Shiell in Montserrat.


 I hope this is of interest to you


 Norman Griffin.


APPENDIX VI. Petition from William Shiell to Lord Stanley, Secretary of State for the Colonies, stating his credentials and seeking assistance in procuring an Army Commission for his oldest son.


Montserrat 7 May 1842

To the Right Honorable Lord Stanley

Her Majesty’s Principal Secretary of State for the Colonies


The Humble Memorial of William Shiell  President of Her Majesty’s Council for the Island of Montserrat

Humbly Sheweth,

That your Memorialist was appointed a Member of Her Majesty’s Council, in the year 1808 and has continued to act in that capacity ever since, being a period of thirty two years, that he succeeded in the month of March 1840, upon the death of Mr President Hamilton, to the local government of the Colony, which he administered until the Month of August 1841, without deriving any Emolument from the Crown, or the Colony, to the satisfaction of those who were placed in authority over him, and with advantage to the general Interests of all classes of Her Majesty’s Subjects in the Island.


That he was superseded  in the government of the Colony by Mr Edward Dacres Baynes, the Provost Marshal of Dominica, by Mandamus  under Her Majesty’s Royal Sign Manual, and that he receives from the Crown five hundred Pounds per annum, as the Officer Administering the government of the said Colony.


That your Memorialist always anxious to support the dignity of the Station, to which he had been involuntarily called to fill, entertained at his own private expense, all public functionaries who visited the island in their Official Capacities, during the period that he administered the government of the Colony.


That your Memorialist is the Father of Eight children, three of them receiving their Education in England, and three upon the point of being sent there  for as similar purpose, that he is desirous, having served her Majesty’s Royal Predecessors, and Her most Gracious Majesty, with the strictest fidelity, in his said capacity as a Member of Her Majesty’s Council, And as President administering the Government of the Colony, during his term of office, to obtain a Commission, in the Army for his Eldest Son William Shiell, now in his Sixteenth Year, but that he is prevented from purchasing the same, from a variety of concurring causes not necessary to be enumerated here, without doing a manifest Injury to the Interests and claims of his other children.


That your Memorialist therefore most humbly solicits your Lordship to take the premises into your consideration, by using your intercession in his behalf and recommending him in the proper quarter, as one not undeserving of the Royal favor, with the view of procuring for his said Son William Shiell a Commission in Her Majesty’s Army, in any Regiment of the line, which may be deemed by those in Authority, most fitting and expedient to appoint him.


And your Memorialist as in duty bound, will ever pray.

Wm. Shiel


Copyright © 2006 By Richard Shiell and Dorothy Anderson.

Used with permission of the authors.

Return to M.P. Shiel



[1] The subject is covered in the book “Montserrat to Melbourne - the story of a Shiell Family  by the present authors  - Pakenham Press, 1984.


[2] From the certificate of William’s 1860 marriage to Hannah Burkinshaw.


[3] See the chapter on Matthew Dowdy Shiell  in this book.


[4] There was another colored Shiell boy on the island who appears in 1841 as the successful candidate for the Legislative Assembly seat of Kinsale (which included the town of Plymouth).  This was John N. Shiell, parentage unknown but it is quite likely that his father was John Shiell, also a son of Queely Shiell and later to be Chief Justice of Antigua (see biography of both John Shiell and John N. Shiell in this book.)


[5] Entry in the Shiell Family Bible (in the possession of Robert Shiell, Geelong, Vic. Australia)


[6] The keeping of a mistress was extremely common in the wealthy classes of the West Indies at that time. Indeed it was common throughout the British Empire and in England, the Duke of Clarence, (later William IV), had 10 children to his mistress Mrs. Dorothea Jordan before he finally took a bride in 1818. To this day on Montserrat marriage may still be uncommon but there are few children of unknown parentage. Although the father may not live with the mother he may visit occasionally and is expected to contribute in whatever way possible to the child’s maintenance and education.


[7] Family oral tradition. It has a ring of truth to it because the McNamaras were a seafaring family.


[8] CO 177 21


[9] Slave claim 111


[10] BPP, H of C, 1848, Vol. 45.


[11]  Slave claim 92


[12] CO 178 11


[13] BPP, H of C, 1848, Vol. 45. This land was obviously inherited as she would be able to save little, if any, from her salary.


[14] Waterguard Journals 1828 -1847 (lists vessels and owners)


[15] The difference in spelling of the name McNamara may not be important. We have seen how Shiell is spelt in a variety of ways by clerks on Montserrat. 


[16] CO 177 17. The Council tabled the plan and did not consider it again.


[17] Certificate number 46601. The Master’s examination was introduced in Britain in January 1846 and one had to be at least 21 years of age, able to write a good hand and have good moral references. In addition the candidate for the first class certificate had to pass an examination on seamanship, terrestrial and celestial navigation, map making and mercantile book-keeping.


[18] Letters from Montserrat historian Dr Norman Griffin in 1974. Appendix 1 (a & b)


[19]  Mary was one of the numerous children of a wealthy landowner Dudley Semper By 1826 he had become a  bitter enemy of William Shiell and went to great lengths in his Will to ensure that none of his estate passed to his hated son-in-law on his death in 1833. The cause of this animosity is complex and is discussed in brief in the biography of William Shiell senior by the same authors. With this in mind it may be thought surprising that this marriage ever took place. It seems to have been a love-match however, as Mary was pregnant at the time of her marriage and according to Dr Griffin, a healthy son they named William was born only 4 months later in September 1826.


[20] Letter to the author from Montserrat historian Dr Norman Griffin.


[21] By 1841, Council President William Shiell was attorney to 16 plantations owned by absentee landlords, including 5 owned by his father Queely Shiell. After the emancipation of the slaves in 1834 the productive capacity of these plantations, which had been slipping for decades, declined even more sharply and many became almost worthless. Most were heavily encumbered with debts resulting from loans by the British Government for rebuilding after the 1843 earthquake.


[22] See 1842 letter to Lord Stanley. (Appendix VI ).


[23] BT 107 527


[24] CUST  34 503


[25] BT 107 545


[26] BT 107 545


[27] This may be the period when William was in California, perhaps sailing by way of South America and Cape Horn.  No documentary evidence for this dangerous voyage has been located to date but some of his descendants claimed that William had gold mining experience in California prior to coming to Australia in 1853.


[28] BT 107 558 and 561


[29] President William Shiell’s aged father Queely Shiell died in London in 1847 leaving his now almost worthless estates to his only remaining son. There was however, a provision that Queely’s widowed daughter Eleanor, her 3 daughters and his late wife’s sister, were  to receive handsome annuities totaling £ 500 p.a. from the Estate. This must have been a cruel blow to William and within three years he was bankrupted. In 1851 he had to resign from the Council of Montserrat, where he had served for 41 years. Dr Griffin claimed that both William and his wife died in 1853.


We can only presume that with the fall from grace and later death of his father, young William felt that there was no place for him in impoverished Montserrat.  We have not located the Will of President William but under British law illegitimate children had no right to inheritance and besides, there was nothing left to be divided even if his father had made him a small bequest.


[30] Lloyd’s Daily List


[31] BT 107 109.


[32] This ticket was required by all personnel who sailed on British merchant ships, right down to the cabin boy.


[33] BT 124 8. Uncertain of his future, William may have decided that this was an opportune time to gain this qualification, essential  if, in the future, he was to take charge of vessels larger than the little inter-island craft of Montserrat.


[34] BT 98 3452 5568. The Gazelle had been built in Bremen, Germany, in 1839. She was bought by a consortium of men associated with the shipbuilding industry in Deptford, England. She was of a brig design which, with its two-masts, was much slower than a barque, but could be managed by a smaller crew. The owners and their families intended to sail her to Australia with the aid of a small professional crew and volunteers from amongst the passengers.


[35] Captain Parkin was the nephew of Georgiana Caselli, wife of  Henry Caselli, one of the Gazelle’s owners.


[36] Item in the Geelong Advertiser 24th December 1853.


[37] BT 98/3452  RC  5568


[38] Published privately in 2000, this most interesting volume was 10 years in the research and writing and  follows the preparation for the voyage and the lives of most of the crew and passengers who arrived in Geelong on Gazelle in December 1853.


[39] Captain Parkin, along with his younger brother Junius Parkin as 1st mate of Gazelle, plied the Australian coastline and ventured as far as Manila as a freight transporter for a year or two.  In 1855, during a trip to Woodlark Island off the East coast of New Guinea with supplies for the Catholic missionaries stationed there, he ran onto a reef and he and his crew were killed by the natives and the ship burnt to the waterline.


[40]   Gold was discovered at Four Mile Flat, Victoria in 1852 but the main rush to the Avoca area did not occur until late 1853 when gold was discovered in other areas nearby. Another series of rushes occurred in the area in 1860-61 and later the capital intensive quartz mining was introduced.


[41] John was from Yorkshire, England. After taking part in a unlawful protest against low wages in the linen weaving industry he, along with 22 other men, was convicted of “high treason” and transported to Hobart in 1921 “for the term of his natural life”. His story is recounted in the early pages of the book “Montserrat to Melbourne” by the present authors. (Pakenham Press, 1984)


[42] Certificate of title


[43] This absence of oral family background information is understandable if one realizes that illegitimacy carried a heavy stigma in 19th century society. Colored skin was not likely to get one easily admitted to higher social circles either.  In Australia, a newly settled country where most men spent a great deal of time working hard out-doors, a tanned complexion was not unusual. The additional “color” carried by some Shiell descendants was easily passed off as “Spanish Blood” from the West Indies. William’s wife Hannah, although white and legitimate, was the daughter of a convicted man, John Birkinshaw.  Having been born and bred in Tasmania, she was probably aware of this “moral stain” on her family but this too was never discussed with her children. It was thus “forgotten” for over a century until re-discovered by the present authors in 1982.


[44] This material is contained in “ Montserrat to Melbourne” - The Story of a Shiell Family in Australia. This small volume covers what was known of William Shiell and his wife Hannah and their antecedents at the time of the book’s publication in 1984.