From Cotton to Gold:The Journey to a New World

We have all heard-tell  of “The Industrial Revolution.”  Images  scurry through our imaginations: assembly lines clanking in Detroit, smokestacks befouling London skies, Dickensian ragamuffins going about “picking a pocket or two.”   We end up, almost inevitably, among the poor of England, their existence hanging barely by dehumanizing strands of cotton:


Basement Dwellings of the Working Poor of Manchester, England

Yet somehow these shabby folk inhabit another planet, the detritus of history, to become responses in a history exam or measures of our intellectual alacrity in a New York Times puzzle. They fit into our memory banks alongside black slaves posing like beasts at auction or bending for blazing hours in fields of  Southern  white  planters.    Darn . . . too bad . . . pretty awful  . . . how could they do that? . . . how could they have borne such desperate lives riven by humiliation and ground down by demoralizing poverty?

The distorting tapestry of remoteness parts when your own people inhabit the story.

In 1808 George Dawes entered the world in Sheffield, in the north of England, in Yorkshire County. With age he married a woman known to me only as Jane, probably in the late 1820’s, most likely in Yorkshire or adjoining Lancashire. Throughout the next decade the  couple lived in Sheffield; there they fathered and mothered sons and daughters, two apiece. One of the girls, born in 1832, given the name of Mary Ann, would grow up to establish her family, one of which I am an inheritor.

In the 1840’s George transferred his wife and children to the Lancastrian center of the thriving cotton industry, Manchester, and its ring of toiling communities, especially along its northern and eastern boundaries. He set his family into one such, Ardwick. He could not have been financially in danger, comparatively speaking, as it attracted the working middle class of its day. He supported his own, either there or in adjacent Ancoats, the mother lode of cotton manufacturing, as an engine driver, the operator who oversaw the transforming of canal water into steam that powered the spinning wheels of progress. 

In the meantime, Denis and Catherine Lynch, a young married couple born in Ireland, migrated to the English midlands in search of work, troding the path of generations of Irish peasants pursuing promises of hope. They joined crowds of their countrymen ekking out a subsistence in the mills of Ancoats. Denis placed himself at the end of the industrial chain, using  woolen and cotton materials to fashion and repair clothes: even the poorest seek a tailor now and then. He must have succeeded reasonably well. Catherine bore four children, two boys and two girls, and the family escaped from Ancoats to nearby Openshaw, and by 1852 upgraded to Ardwick. In that year their oldest child, William Frederick, then twenty-two, married his twenty-year-old neighbor, Mary Ann Dawes. They set up house in Ancoats; he entered energetically into the cotton industry; she exercised her skills as a shopkeeper.

Cotton manufacturing developed through the parceling of a host of jobs, one following upon the other, each depending on its predecessor, each banking on its successor to carry the raw cotton forward to useable thread.

The process moved relentlessly from cleaning the raw fiber, to combing it into flexible strands, to spinning and treating, to storing. Labor intensive, each step demanded the muscle of, or at least the supervision of, someone. William Lynch engaged the process as a spindle and fly maker, one who fashioned and repaired the moving parts of the spinning machine which took up the cotton thread. He labored, therefore, as an artisan and a mechanic, not just as a random set of hands and eyes.

He and his wife lived at 10 Lawton Lane in Ancoats.  An old map  locates their residence:


 Laurent’s Map of Ancoats in 1793

The mapmaker outlined the town boundaries in red; it nestled between Butler Lane on the left and Ancoats Lane on the right, between Newton Lane on the bottom and the River Medlock on the top. Manufacturers of necessity positioned their mills near sources of water, like Shooters Brook that slices through the town or the River Medlock that frames it and the canals they constructed off from their natural sources. By 1851 close to 304,000 people inhabited  Greater Manchester, 53,737 dwelling near the mills in Ancoats’ 404 acres. In this period a writer in Littell’s Living Age described “Cotton Metropolis” in this fashion:

“The oldest and worst working district of Manchester is the region known as Ancoats . . . . Ancoats, in fact, is Manchester fur sang–Manchester ere sanitary improvement and popular education had raised and purified its general social condition. . . . but the thousands of by-lanes and squalid courts, the stacked up piles of undrained and unventilated buidings, swarm with the coarsest and most dangerous portions of the population. Here the old and inferior mills abound; here the gin-palaces are the most magnificent, and the pawn-shops the most flourishing; here, too, the curse of Lancashire–the “low Irish” congregate by thousands; and here principally abound the cellar dwellings, and the pestilential lodging-houses, where thieves and vagrants of all kinds find shares of beds in underground recesses for a penny and a twopence a night.” 

In 1793, Lawton Lane stretched for two blocks off to the left from Ancoats Road,  the last cluster of habitations above Shooters Brook, next to some refreshing open fields. By 1861 ten houses located on it, five on each side. The Lynchs dwelt among folks of some stature in this community of worker bees swarming over its cotton: on one side of them lived a plasterer, on the other a “joiner” or skilled carpenter; next to them we find a bookkeeper and a rag dealer, then an “iron moulder” (he made moulds for casting iron) and a laborer, and finally a carter (a carman, carrier, drayman or wagoner), a file cutter and a beer-house keeper.  In a town notorious for simply housing  mill employees, one without the ordinary amenities of communal living, like butcher shops and grocery stores and gathering places other than saloons, these neighbors on Lawton Lane displayed some independence from the grinding clutches of the cotton barons.

Yet Michael and Mary Ann lived as children of their time and place. In a hard world they had to respond quickly so as not to squander opportunities. Even their marriage appears in this light. They wed, officially, on the 7th of February in 1852; just one month later, on March 11th to be exact, she gave birth to a daughter, Mary Jane. They would have no other children. William  would enjoy his wife and daughter for only a decade. Although only thirty, he would die of tuberculosis–a disease spread in cold, damp, crowded conditions, especially among the poor–on February 2, 1861.

His widow and her nine-year-old girl continued on in their home on Lawton Lane. Mary Ann supported them, first as an shopkeeper, then as a mangle keeper (one who rents out her mangle to poor neighbors).  She would not have had the close support of her family. Her father had died sometime in the 1850’s; her mother had moved herself and her other three children back to his home town of Sheffield, one imagines in order to have the support of any family members still living there. William’s family, however, remained in the Manchester area. His father, Denis, had also passed on the previous decade; his mother taught school in Ardwick;  his sister, Margaret, would for thirty years work as a paper strainer (one who makes or uses a strainer made of paper) and end up consigned to a county poorhouse in Crumpsall; a brother, Thomas, followed him as a spindle maker; and his youngest sibling, Caroline, labored as a weaver, married, became a mother, and eventually turned to sewing shirts as her children grew older.

With William’s death, circumstances for his family would inevitably change. His widow, only twenty-eight or twenty-nine at his death, had to get on with her life. And Ancoats failed miserably as a community in which one would hope to raise a daughter by herself.  In addition, the mills of Lancashire were experiencing a “cotton famine,” a severe shortage of raw cotton because of the Union blockade of Confederate ports in the cotton-producing Southern states of  America. Mills were closing, laborers were being laid off, jobs were vanishing across the industrial landscape. Other than the proximity of William’s family, one can hardly conjure up any compelling reasons for staying on in this worst of Manchestrian suburbs in what was becoming the leanest of times.

So she moved, both she and her daughter. Where did they go?–to New Zealand!  I have been unable to unearth the reasons for choosing this distant destination other than the manifest desire of its government to lure women there by offering assisted passage.  I may, however, speculate.

In 1870 she and Mary Jane showed up on New Zealand’s South Island, in the booming town of Dunedin. Gold had been unearthed in the Otago region, of which Dunedin served as a major port and a thriving support community.  The occasion?–the marriage of Mary Jane Lynch at St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Dunedin to Michael John Fleming. One of the signed witnesses of the ceremony was “Mary Ann Tippett, (her Mother).” Events had been moving swiftly since a notice in the Ancoats trade directory of 1863 that informed us of Mary Ann Lynch’s new line of work as a mangle keeper.


 Marriage Certificate of Michael Fleming and Mary Jane Lynch

 I have discovered no further documents to illuminate these changes between 1863-1870.  When did the family move there? Note that the marriage certificate states that Mary Jane Lynch is “of Dunedin”; that is, she has been in town long enough to make it her home. She also must have had some time to meet, know, and be courted by, a future husband. Moreover, in that era a voyage from Liverpool to Dunedin could take up to five months. At the earliest, then, the family could not have reached New Zealand until late in 1863; at the latest, in the fall of 1869.

Did they come alone? Possibly. Unaccompanied females were being sought by New Zealand’s governors, especially with the wild influx of young, male prospectors into the gold fields of Otago in the 1860’s. That leaves, however, a question about the suddenly appearing “Mr. Tippett.”  Where did Mary Ann Lynch meet him? The name “Tippett” does not appear in the census lists for Lancashire in 1851 or 1861; it does, indeed, seem common in the southeast of England, in Devon and Somerset and Cornwall. In the latter census for Ancoats we find a “John Tibbett,” an older man and a widower; he is no longer enumerated there in 1871. Could he and Mary Ann have wed in Ancoats and then traveled as a family to this distant outpost of Great Britain? We can only say, perhaps. Three other possibilities present themselves: 1) She had known him previously; in far-off New Zealand he heard of her husband’s death; he summoned her to come join him there; 2) She met him on the boat that was taking them both to New Zealand and the chemistry worked in the close quarters of a protracted voyage; 3) Both she and Mary Jane fell to the lures of courtship as they grew accustomed to Dunedin society, and the mother preceeded her daughter to the altar.

How did Mary Jane come to choose Michael Fleming as her husband? We need to glance at his previous life to venture a response.

Captain John Joseph Fleming and wife brought Michael into the world of Dublin, Ireland, in 1837.  Family legend relates that he was orphaned early, a fact I cannot document. As a boy he would have attended a parochial school there; he also apprenticed to become a bootmaker.

In the mid-1850’s, probably because of the finding of gold in the province of Victoria in Southern Australia, Michael sailed to Melbourne. There he set himself up making boots. He remained till late in 1862. By that time, the  rush had dribbled down in the nearby gold fields, and stirring discoveries were being shouted across the Tasman Sea–a 1,250 mile body of water separating Australia and New Zealand–from the Otago region of New Zealand’s South Island. Among hoards of others, Michael succumbed to the excitement of the fresh finds.  By 1863 he located into another, yet similar, existence in Dunedin: gold miners needed boots there too!

In 1848 the Lay Association of the Free Church of Scotland established a settlement at the head of Otago Harbor, thirteen or so miles long and sheltered. It christened their town “Dunedin,” “city on the hill,” after the Scottish Gaelic name for Edinburgh, Dun eideann. It would grow into one of the South Island’s major cities after Gabriel Read lucked upon rich gold deposits in 1861 just forty-five miles into the interior, in “Gabriel’s Gulch,” within the courses of the Waitahuna and Tuapeka rivers. At the beginning of 1861, Dunedin had 2,925 residents; six months later it numbered 5,850; by 1864 it boasted 16,520. Today, it records over 120,000 citizens.

Two pictures eloquently portray the transforming of a dirt-tracked outpost into a city, one taken in 1861, the other just nine years later. I include them as Michael Fleming arrived near the beginning of this transformation, early  in 1863, and he and Mary Jane married in September of 1870.

Princes Street, Dunedin, in 1861

Princes Street, Dunedin, in 1870

The couple wed in the chapel of St. Joseph’s Cathedral. This meant that they did not have a public ceremony as theirs would be what Catholic theologians term a “mixed marriage,”  one between Catholic Michael and Protestant Mary Jane. Such was allowed, then and now, as long as the non-Catholic solemnly swore to raise any children as Catholics. Obviously, Mary Jane made and kept this promise as is attested by the baptismal records from that parish of her children born there over the next ten years. In addition, family legend designates her as “the convert,” as one who at some point embraced the Catholic religion as her own. This probably happened right off  in Dunedin. Her mother in accepting William Lynch had married an Irishman; her daughter’s marriage to another Irishman, Michael Fleming, would not seem strange. Whether her mother married a practicing Catholic in William, we can hazard a negative answer: she was bearing his child already eight months before they married; she does not appear to have raised the child as a Catholic. In the eyes of the Church, at least, the daughter would surpass the mother on both counts. 

Michael had a cobbler shop on Princes Street. He had been in the community enough time by 1870 to be both known and regarded.   Since it appears doubtful that “they met in church,” it seems likely that mother and daughter entered his shop one day looking for new shoes or needing some repairs. The mother probably got what she needed as regards shoes; her eighteen-year-old daughter undoubtedly met her desires as regards a hardworking, thirty-three-year-old tradesman.

After their wedding, officiated by Rev. C. F. Maloney, C.P., the couple lived, initially, on Stafford Street. They soon conceived their first child: Michael Joseph saw the day’s light on October 1, 1871, and was baptized by Bishop Moran at St. Joseph’s Cathedral on October 22nd.  A sister, Amelia Annie (who as a woman would become my grandmother),  increased the family by one on April 9, 1873, and the Catholic community by her baptism on May 18th.

In the meantime Michael was busily promoting his business. This sign hung above the entrance to his shop; it unabashedly touted his credentials:

“The Pink of Fashion”

This phrase would become his hallmark, one that would bring remarked-upon recognition. He took to placing weekly advertisements in The Otago Witness that underlined his particular excellence:


Customary Advertisement of the Cobbler, M. Fleming

But a minor disaster occurred. The Otago Witness (11/8/1873, pg. 19) reported the following: “At about three o’clock on Monday morning (11/3) another alarm of fire was given. The fire proved to be in the shop of Mr. Fleming, bootmaker, Princes Street, where it was discovered under the counter. Fortunately the discovery was made before the fire had got much hold, and it was soon extinguished with water conveyed from the Criterion Hotel in buckets.” One may question the relative fortune of this event: just two months later, on January 5, 1874, Michael Fleming filed for bankruptcy. By January 31st the Supreme Court had declared him insolvent, and had set a meeting of his creditors for the 3rd of February.

Those months must have been difficult. He did, however, pull through. On November 17th the Bruce Herald ran a fresh advertisement, alerting the public that M. Fleming was back in business at a changed address, this one on “George Street, next Hirsch’s Dunedin dye works.” The fire did not  dampen his poetic urges. He soon produced an expanded paeon to his trade:


“M. Fleming Came to Live on George Street”

Proclamations alone proved insufficient. With a new year approaching, he pubished this announcement:  “M. Fleming begs to inform his kind supporters and the public at large that he is prepared to make the neatest and most fashionable style of Ladies’ and Gentlemen’s  Boots to order, up to the full pink of fashion, at 15 per cent less than his usual price, at the beginning of the year 1878. One trial, and he is bound to please the eye and fit the foot.” Perhaps a discount could lure more customers.

During this period the young family moved to Cargill Street, perhaps because of their financial straits.  This did not, however, negatively affect their interpersonal creativity: Bernice Daisy arrived on June 25, 1875; Augustus Frederick two years later, on the 11th of August in 1877; and Marcella Imelda on January 24, 1879. By the time of Marcella’s appearance, they had relocated, this time to Hanover Street. One may hope that the increase in numbers from two children before the bankruptcy to five during the struggles of recovery occasioned  expanded living quarters. We need not wonder what was consuming Mary Jane’s energies while Michael was rebuilding his business reputation.

But the financial hole still sucked him down. Michael re-filed for bankruptcy late in November of 1879. He announced debts totaling 303 pounds, 17 shillings, and 1 pence; he claimed assets to the amount of 144 pounds.  A year later he came up with a scheme to sell off land that he owned in a lottery, by what was called a “Grand Art Union”:






















 Money Raising Through A Land Lottery

 Michael would later on sweeten the pot by announcing that the first six prize winners would, in addition to the land, divide 30 pounds: 1st: 10 pounds, 2nd: 7 pounds, 7 shillings; 3rd: 5 pounds, 5 shillings; 4th: 3 pounds, 3 shillings;  5th & 6th: 2 pounds, 2 shillings @. He also remarked: “The public are respectfully requested not to forget to secure their tickets in time, as the list is rapidly filling up. Tickets, 10s.” The sell was on!

I can find no report of the tickets bought, land sold, lucky winners, or profits made. One hopes that energy plus entrepenurial risk-taking paid off, even handsomely. He would need it even more now that Mary Jane was pregnant with their sixth child in ten years. Mae Agnes stretched both housing and budget  when she arrived that June 22nd.

In this context a startling announcement appeared on the front page of the Otago Daily Times for Thursday, September 15, 1881:  “Personal. If this should meet the eye of Michael John Fleming, native of Dublin, the only son of the late Captain John Joseph Fleming, he will hear of something to his advantage by communicating with the MANAGER, Daily Times office. The said Michael John Fleming was following the occupation of a bootmaker in Melbourne in 1862, left for New Zealand in 1863, and has not been heard of since 1866.” Clearly, the manager or someone else at the paper leaked the news to Michael before this announcement reached the public. In the same edition, on an interior page, came this explanatory comment: “By the will of his uncle (Sir Arthur William Fleming), who died at his residence, Montreal,  in 1878, Mr. Michael J. Fleming, who has been well known as a bootmaker in Dunedin for many years, has become entitled to a fortune of 30,000 pounds, and also to a large amount of property in South Africa. We understand that Mr. Fleming is making the necessary arrangements for proceeding to Montreal to obtain the money and property.” Now that is winning the land lottery!

The news flashed around the South Island: the Manawatu Times declared that he “has been left property worthy of some 500,000 pounds”; The Marlborough Express pronounced him to be “A Lucky Son of St. Crispin,”  the patron saint of cobblers; even a paper in Nelson, at the top of the Island, carried the glad tidings; while competitors across the Otago region quoted the original statement of the Otago Daily Times. What a story! Local boy strikes it rich! That hadn’t happened in these parts since the early 1860’s! Who says there is no more gold in them there hills!

Mary Jane and Michael hustled their family off to America that fall. As the  Padishah departed from Dunedin for San Francisco on October 28th, I’d wager they shipped out on it. They would, eventually, make a home in Portland, Oregon, but, then, as the saying goes, that is another story.



  1. Lynette Hartgill said,

    Good Morning!

    I was wondering where you found the first image of Dunedin in 1860? I was hoping that I might be able to get permission to use it as an interim image for an exhibition taking place in Dunedin in the New Year?

    Warm regards
    Lynette Hartgill

    • rjjwillis said,

      Lynette, I found this image at the following url: . As I was not using it for any commercial purpose, I did not ask for permission to reprint it on my blog. I have no idea if you would need to get permission to put it in your exhibit. I take it from the url that the picture, or at least its showing, belongs to the New Zealand Government. Best regards, Bob Willis

      • Lynette Hartgill said,

        Thank you!

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