On 4 May 1807, Michael John Quinn was born to Thomas Quin(n) and Ellen Quinn née Cleary in St John’s Parish, Limerick city.  In 1825, at the age of 18, Michael left his family and occupation as a nailer and began his career in the armed services as a Drummer Bugler in the 21st Regiment of foot, he later became a sergeant.

In 1832, when his mother Ellen Quinn wrote the letter below, he was on his way to or stationed in Chatham Barracks in Kent (now the University of Greenwich). Within the year he would travel to Tasmania, via Sydney, to guard convicts serving in Port Arthur. Quin was transferred to the Swan Colony, Perth, in February 1835 aboard the ship Caroline.

The first few months spent on the other side of the world were tough, even for the guards, as can be seen by Michael’s imprisonment for one month for the theft of 3 planks of mahogany in 1835. He was not alone during his travels, as he had married Margaret (Mary) O’Brien from Wexford on 20 August 1829. She and their children accompanied Michael as he was posted around the world. On 22 October 1838, his wife would pass away due to an ear abscess, leaving him with 4 children under the age of six.

He was discharged from the armed services on the 31 July 1840 at the Swan Colony, Perth. He then set himself up as a farmer. Having never remarried, Michael John Quinn passed away on the 6 September 1876 in Perth, leaving a legacy of at least 29 grandchildren in Australia.

Chapham barracks where the letter was sent

Chapham barracks where the letter was sent


September 16th 1832

Dear Son,

I take the opportunity of writing these few lines to you hoping to find you and Margaret in health as we are at present thank God for it.

Dear son you mentioned to send you account of John Ryan the number of the house where he lives. He lives in Compton place Brunswick Square London. The cholera still raging here and business is bad. There’s no means of reaching to you through the means of idleness and sickness.

You mention business to be good where you are and the wages you mentioned the men could not believe it. Send me a correct account your next and make a strict enquiry into the wages. Your mother has very poor health one day up and another down. All enquiring friends are well.

No more at present from your loving mother.

Ellen Cleary

(letter courtesy of Jenny Addison)

It is interesting to note that Ellen Quinn signed her letter with her maiden name and that she was most interested in the wages. The cholera epidemic which began in Limerick in May 1832 and continued throughout the year saw the deaths of hundreds of people. There were tales of carts in the streets hourly removing bodies from the plague that caused a thousand deaths in eight weeks.