50 years on: The family of 14 who swapped Derry for new life in Australia

It's a truly remarkable story. The tale of a family of 14 - including four sets of twins - from Derry's Creggan Estate who upped sticks and set off on the 14,000 mile journey to the other side of the world to begin a new and, hopefully, better life.

Friday, 22nd July 2016, 9:12 am
Updated Thursday, 25th August 2016, 5:37 pm
The Doherty family pictured outside their Benevenagh Gardens home just days before leaving for Australia.
The Doherty family pictured outside their Benevenagh Gardens home just days before leaving for Australia.

Australia in the early 1960s must have seemed like another planet to a young family living in a sprawling housing estate perched high on a hill overlooking the historic city of Derry.

A terraced house in Benevenagh Gardens was home to the Dohertys - all 14 of them! There was dad Edmund (42), mum Margaret and children Michael and Mona (7), John and Gerard (5), Brian and Desmond (11), Marie and Ted (14), Christoper (15), Raymond (12), Ann (9) and baby Neil (14 months old).

The house in Creggan included three small bedrooms, a living room, a kitchen and a bathroom - it must have been a tight squeeze for the Dohertys!

The Doherty family - dressed for the heat of an Australian summer - on board the passenger ship 'Canberra' en route to their new home.

But they didn’t complain. It was their house. Their home. Something to call their own.

Anyway, just around the corner in Dunree Gardens, there lived a family of 21. Plenty of room, then, for the Dohertys!

This was the set-up in 1964 when Edmund took the decision to emigrate to Australia - a move that was to have life-changing results, in more ways than they could ever imagine, on the family.

l Fast forward 52 years and the ‘Derry Journal’s’ search for the Dohertys started after we printed a photograph of an unnamed family in the nostalgia pages of a recent edition of the paper.

The extended Doherty family pictured recently in Australia.

The striking image of a smiling group of kids with their mum and dad obviously piqued people’s interest. We received a string of telephone calls from readers telling us: “That’s the Dohertys from Benevenagh in Creggan. They emigrated to Australia in the 1960s.”

Strangely enough, just a few years previous, the ‘Journal’ had printed a different photo of a Doherty family emigrating to Australia in one of its best-selling ‘Lost Archives’ books. The two photos were compared and it was, indeed, the same family.

One ‘Journal’ reader was able to tell us that one of the Doherty boys, Des, was living and working in Melbourne, not far from where his daughter lived.

“I’ll see if she’ll drop round and get a contact address for you,” the caller said. Just days later, the man was back on the phone with both a postal and an email address. Derry people are so helpful.

The Doherty boys pose for the camera at a recent family gathering in Australia.

In the meantime, a quick scan of the November 1964 archives of the ‘Journal’ turned up a photo and small news item about the Dohertys impending departure for Australia.

In it, Edmund Doherty revealed that the principal motive for the decision to emigrate was the lack of opportunities for his sons.

“We have nine boys in the family,” said Edmund, “and, with the lack of work here, it was obvious that we would have trouble getting the boys placed in jobs.”

Skip forward once again to 2016 and an email was dispatched to Des Doherty who, a few days later, replied to say that he would be happy to chat about what had happened to his family both before and after they relocated to Australia half a century earlier.

The Doherty family - dressed for the heat of an Australian summer - on board the passenger ship 'Canberra' en route to their new home.

Des takes up the story: “Back in the early 1960s, with dad in and out of work, and nine boys in the family, our parents couldn’t see any future work prospects in Derry and, as a result, looked to emigrate, first to Canada, which was unsuccessful and then, to Australia.

“We have been gone from Derry for 51 years now - however, the older members of the family remember it like it was just yesterday.

“We had a lot of fun growing up in Derry, despite the fact that times were hard financially. The kids of that era were very inventive at entertaining themselves and we spent many hours playing football in the street or a local park, with sometimes 20 or 30 a side. Every year, on cue, we would find ourselves playing marbles, conkers or, simply, wheeling a hoop around with a stick. We would walk miles to jump into someone’s orchard and steal as many apples as we could fit up our jumpers.

“With more than 150 kids living in our street, the atmosphere on those long summer nights was wonderful. We cherish the memories of living in our small terraced house in Creggan where, despite the fact that 14 of us were crammed into three bedrooms, often two up and two down in a bed, we had a lot of fun and laughter and unforgettable memories.”

The reaction of the kids, said Des, when told they were going to Australia was one of “jubilation.”

“We thought it would be a huge adventure. The day we left Derry was one of excitement not sadness. Though, I do recall that, when we boarded the train to leave, our mother was very upset and was crying. I wondered why until I looked out the train window and saw our Aunt Annie on the platform also in tears and I then realised they might never see one another again.”

The extended Doherty family pictured recently in Australia.

The trip to Australia kicked-off with a train trip to Belfast, followed by a ferry to Heysham and next, a train journey to London where the Dohertys were met by relatives with whom they stayed for a week before their ship sailed to Australia.

“On December 1st, in Southampton, we boarded the ship “Canberra” for our trip to Australia,” recalls Des. “For the next 19 days, the five eldest boys, aged between 11 and 15 years ran riot on the ship. This included sneaking into the first class dining room for afternoon tea, which was fantastic until they checked our bona fides and discovered we were only tourist class passengers, so a quick exit was made.

“What we thought was the adventure of a lifetime was a nightmare for our parents who were tasked with trying to control 12 children on a huge ship.

“The ship eventually arrived in Fremantle, then Melbourne and, finally, our destination Sydney.

“As we docked in Sydney Harbour, we were summoned to the promenade deck as all the newspapers were there to take photographs of our arrival. It was front page news the next day with the headline, ‘Doherty sails in with his dozen’.

“We had left Derry four weeks earlier, where it was sleeting and to arrive in Sydney to a temperature of 106 degrees farenheit was disconcerting, to say the very least. On December 19th, we arrived in Newcastle (New South Wales) where we were staying in temporary accommodation in a government run hostel.

“The first couple of months were extremely difficult, trying to combat the heat and the mosquitoes; attempting to assimilate into new schools and a very different way of life. Six months after arriving, our parents were able to put up a deposit for a house which we moved into in June, 1965.”

Edmund secured a job with BHP, one of Australia’s biggest companies, and remained with them throughout his entire working life in Australia. Life, says Des, became much easier when the family moved into its new home and his parents met other emigrant families from Ireland and Scotland who became lifelong friends.

Life, however, changed irrevocably on November 1, 1972: All Saints Day.

Des continued: “We were all at Mass and, after the service, mum was tragically killed by a car outside the church. Life was very difficult for some time after this tragedy - five of the kids were still at school. Dad became very reclusive after mum’s death but, eventually, he got back to his old self with the help of our family friends. He worked at BHP as a fitter and turner until his retirement and lived in Newcastle until he passed away, aged 80, in 2003.”

The Doherty family, which originally comprised 14, is now down to nine, as one brother, Neil,and two sisters, Anne and Marie, have passed away.

“Of the nine family members left, we age between 56 and 66,” said Des.

“Six of us are married and three are single. There are 14 grandchildren and one great grandchild. We keep good contact with one another and socialise a lot together.

“People are quite amazed that, even though we have been here 51 years, we still carry Derry accents. We all call Australia home but, once a Derry man, always a Derry man.

“Australia has been a very good country to all of us. Many in the family have had successful careers, own beautiful homes are are the parents of lovely children.

“We have all been back to Derry at various times over the last 30 years or so and have marvelled at the huge changes since we left.

“During our half century of living in Australia, we have met lots of Derry people who emigrated and now call Australia home and we are always pleased to run into new arrivals from Derry to catch up with what’s happening in the old home town,” he concluded.

The Doherty boys pose for the camera at a recent family gathering in Australia.