John Oliver
Jane Ann Richards

Some of the mystery surrounding Jane Ann Richards has been solved with information supplied by Bob Brennan, Annette Moon (nee Richards) and from friends in New Caledonia.

I had been brought up to believe that John Oliver was a Frenchman who was lost at sea along with his ship. Well, the part about the ship what partly right, but a Frenchman he was not. Nor was the ship his. It turns out that Captain John Oliver was a merchant seaman and Captain of various ships. However, his link with the French, besides spending a lot of time in New Caledonia, was as a pilot in and around New Caledonia for the French Navy.

A number of intriguing stories have come to light about our Captain John Oliver; too extensive to go into all here, but a short synopsis is that he was:

  • A captain of ships belonging to Robert Towns (for whom Townsville, Queensland, is named after) used in bringing loads of Sandalwood, first to Australia, and then to be sold in places like China. Whether he sailed these shipments to China can only be speculation at this time. (The story gleaned of this time in his life will be added as a PDF - download here.)
  • Then his job as a Pilot for the French in New Caledonia for which he was, by all accounts, highly regarded. Sufficiently so that, to this day, he is mentioned in the Pilotage-Maritime website for being the first pilot commissioned by the French Government.

Unfortunately, John didn't make "old bones". He died at the age of 35 (in 1859) at sea, while acting as pilot aboard a French vessel, "La Thisbé", and was buried on Casy Island in Prony Bay, New Caledonia, where his grave is still mentioned on the tourist board showing the cemetery there. Interestingly, they spell his name on the board in the French manner as Captain John Olivier. There is also a low reef called Basse Oliver that, I think, must have been named by him (I assume most of these low areas were named by the various pilots who navigated the dangerous passageways).

Jane was born Jane Ann Richards, 11 November 1832, in Phillack, Cornwall, UK; the daughter of John Richards and Jane Mitchell who were married 1 March 1828 in Phillack. The Richards family came to Australia on the "Julindur" in 1849.

John and Jane were married 28 August 1850, in Sydney, NSW, Australia.

John and Jane had 3 children: John George William (b. 29 October 1852, Sydney), William Benjamin Felix (b. 1856, New Caledonia) and Louis Charles. (b. 14 October 1857, Glebe, Sydney).

Certificates of the children show that John Oliver was born in Cornwall about 1821-23. His death notice in New Caledonia states he was born on "Forway" Cornwall in 1823. This is a miss-spelling of "Fowey" Cornwall. So far I haven't been able to pin down his birth.

The second son, William B F Oliver, is recorded as the first white child born in New Caledonia - it appears much to the chagrin of the French who make reference to him being " Englishman!" when writing about it.

After John's death, Jane must have returned to Australia with the 3 children and then married Donald Lamont on 2 November 1868, in Sydney, NSW, Australia. Jane and Donald had a daughter, Rebecca Elizabeth, born 5 June 1869. Donald Lamont was born in Dundee or Perthshire, Scotland about 1833.

Rebecca Elizabeth Lamont married Robert Roberts in Sydney 29 March 1888; they had 5 children, Robert D (1889), John Livingstone (1891), Robert B (1893), Frederick (1895) and Alice L (1904). (Annette Moon is granddaughter of Benjamin Richards, brother to our Jane Ann.)

Whether John came to Australia from New Caledonia, or skippered a ship from the UK to Australia, may never be known. However, what is known is that he and Jane sailed regularly between Australia and New Caledonia and Islands (this, no doubt, is from where the stories of John being French came).

One story passed to me by an old aunt is that Jane Richards told her she was once served a human leg there; another story that there may be some kind of monument to the Oliver's as founders of a settlement in New Caledonia (I now think this may have been a reference to his burial site on Casy Island). Other rumours say he was into "blackbirding" (bringing island workers to the Queensland cane fields). This may be correct as most cane workers were brought from that region of islands, although history seems to say that this practice did not start until the mid 1860s - after John's death. Prior to that, many Chinese were brought to Australia to work in the northern heat (Europeans didn't have the fortitude), and John could have been involved in this part of immigration if he was taking sandalwood to China for Robert Towns.

Of the 3 children, John George William (1852), my g-g-grandfather, died in 1889, in Redfern, NSW, from TB; William Benjamin Felix (1856) appears to have died in Sydney about 1884 (I haven't as yet found a death certificate but his wife remarried in 1885 to Henry Springett); Louis Charles died 17 June 1915 in Cronulla, Sydney, NSW, Australia, of a "Haemorrhage from a wound to the throat -- self-inflicted". (A polite way of saying suicide.) It lists his father's occupation as "Sea Captain". It lists the Informant as Lily Hawkins, cousin. This is most likely Lilian (nee Richards), daughter of Benjamin Richards who was Jane Ann's brother. I can find no evidence of Louis marrying.

William Benjamin Felix Oliver (1856) married Louisa Connolly (1856) on 15 Dec 1877 in Waterloo, NSW. They had 4 children, Ethel Maud (1878), Louisa Pauline (1881), William Benjamin Felix (1882) and Arthur Horace (1884). Arthur died in 1890 from heart disease. William B F (1882) died in 1907 from TB.

There is a consistency of early deaths among the Oliver men. However, other than the 2 deaths from TB, I don't yet know if the hereditary heart problems, of which I have, had anything to do with these early deaths.