Threads of Fate: Unraveling Lena’s Legacy

Once upon a time, Lena Johnson, née Condon, resided in the vibrant area of Hotham, now known as North Melbourne, surrounded by her loving family and her own children.

Provost Street, a name steeped in history, was a testament to the Scottish immigrants who settled in the early days of Melbourne, their legacy echoing through the bustling city streets.

In April 2022, Hotham History Project received a mysterious letter, bearing two intriguing certificates, courtesy of Sue Barnett from the Surrey Hills Historical Society. The first document unveiled an 1888 wedding certificate for Lena Johnson, a housekeeper in Villiers Street and a bachelor named William Stewart, both proud residents of Hotham. The second certificate held a secret yet to be unraveled.

Sue’s note hinted at the enigmatic origins of these certificates, donated by Arthur Lyons of Surry Hills, a man with no living relatives to inherit his possessions. Before Sue could uncover the connection, Arthur’s passing left the mystery unsolved.

Delving into Lena’s past, the wedding certificate unveiled her journey from the slums of 1860s Manchester, England to the vibrant streets of Hotham. Born in 1856 to Maurice Joseph Condon, a tailor, and Mary Anne Condon, née Halliday, Lena’s path intertwined with that of William Stewart, a blacksmith hailing from the same Manchester streets.

But who was Lena, and what drove her from the bustling city of Manchester to the shores of Melbourne?

Christened Selina Condon in 1850, Lena emerged from the heart of Hulme, known as ‘Little Ireland’ in Manchester, amidst the turmoil of the industrial revolution. Faced with the harsh realities of factory life, Lena’s family dared to seek a better future across distant oceans, boarding a ship bound for new horizons.

Their journey, however, was fraught with peril, as the Netherby met disaster in Bass Strait. Their lives hung in perilous balance on the Netherby as it lay smashed against submerged rocks before it sank into the deep, near King Island. Miraculously among the survivors, Lena’s family chose to make Hotham their home, a sanctuary amidst the chaos of mid-1800s England.

Manchester, in the early 18th century, had a population below ten thousand people but by the 19th century, it grew unabated to four hundred thousand people by 1850, from the expansion in cotton manufacturing.

Manchester reached a tipping point, when that city grew so overcrowded, it resulted in a reduction of amenity. Overpopulation and reduced quality of life its inhabitants once enjoyed, forced many to leave.

The Condon family moved to Provost Street in 1869, the same year Maurice and Mary Ann’s daughter Selina (Lena) married, James Cunningham Johnson. That same year Selina, gave birth to the first of seven children. Lena was nineteen years, and her husband was twenty-three. Also, the same year Johnson’s bakery business in Hotham became insolvent.

Saying life for Lena was hard would be a complete understatement. The death of her father in 1876, plus Johnson was a bad husband. Selina was mistreated and eventually deserted by him, fleeing creditors and making off for a life in Sydney.

As Lena’s story unfurled, it revealed the hardships and trials she faced, the societal pressures that led her to claim widowhood upon her union with second husband William Stewart.

But amidst the adversity, Lena found fleeting moments of joy, particularly in the birth of her seventh child, Agnes Beatrice Stewart, a beacon of hope amidst life’s trials.

Yet, tragedy struck with Lena’s untimely passing, leaving behind a blank space on her death certificate, a stark reminder of the mysteries that lingered in her wake.

Lena Stewart died from a broken heart, a condition called mitral regurgitation, all alone in an East Melbourne hospital.

As the story unfolded, the fate of Agnes Beatrice Stewart emerged, her journey intertwined with that of her enigmatic mother Lena, weaving a tapestry of family ties and untold secrets.

Agnes Beatrice Stewart had lived in Victoria Street, Abbotsford in 1914. She passed away in 1964 at Surry Hills, 75 years of age. Perhaps therein lies that missing link between Lena Condon’s certificates and the reason why Arthur Lyons of Surry Hills, once possessed them.

With each revelation, the streets of North and West Melbourne whisper tales of resilience, courage, and the enduring spirit of women who dared to defy the odds.

story by Stephen Hatcher, member of the Hotham History Project. 2024




Story title: Echoes of Resilience

Episode 1: A Journey Begins

Scene 1: Manchester, England – 1860s We meet Selina Condon, a spirited young girl living with her family in the slums of Manchester amidst the industrial revolution. Determined to escape the hardships of factory life, Selina’s parents and siblings embark on a perilous journey away from England to seek a better future in Australia.

Scene 2: Hotham, Victoria – 1866 The Condon family survives a harrowing shipwreck off the coast of King Island, finding refuge in the vibrant streets of Hotham. Selina, now known as Lena, navigates the challenges of her new life with courage and resilience.

Episode 2: Trials of Adversity

Scene 1: Provost Street, Hotham – 1869 Lena marries James Cunningham Johnson, but her dreams of marital bliss are shattered by his betrayal and desertion. Alone and with seven children to care for, Lena faces the harsh realities of poverty and societal shame.

Scene 2: Melbourne – 1888 Lena’s path crosses with William Stewart, a kind-hearted blacksmith who offers her a glimpse of hope and companionship. Despite the shadows of her past, Lena finds the courage to embrace a new beginning and marries William.

Episode 3: Echoes of Hope

Scene 1: Provost Street, Hotham – 1889 Lena finds solace in the birth of her seventh child, Agnes Beatrice Stewart, a symbol of hope amidst life’s trials. But tragedy strikes once again as Lena’s health deteriorates, leaving her with a broken heart and unanswered questions.

Scene 2: Melbourne – 1894 Lena’s untimely passing leaves a void in the hearts of those who knew her, but her legacy of resilience lives on. As Agnes Beatrice Stewart is raised by grandma, she grows into adulthood, she embarks on a journey to uncover the truth about her mother Lena’s past and find her own place in the world.

Episode 4: Unraveling Secrets

Scene 1: Abbotsford, Melbourne- 1914 Agnes Beatrice Stewart, now a woman in her own right, delves into the mysteries of her family’s history, uncovering long-buried secrets and hidden truths. With each revelation, Agnes discovers the strength and resilience that has been passed down through generations of women like Lena.

Episode 5: Echoes of Resilience – Finale

Scene 1: Melbourne – Present Day The streets of Provost Street echo with the stories of Lena Johnson and Agnes Beatrice Stewart, two women bound together by a legacy of resilience and courage. As the sun sets on the city skyline, their voices rise above the noise, reminding us all that the echoes of the past can shape the future.

by Stephen Hatcher, member of the Hotham History Project, 2024.