The Merchant family story includes travel across the world and a romance ‘as good as a novel’
When Thomas Merchant was in his early 20’s he sailed over to America to farm, he settled in Canon City, Colorado. While there he became friendly with two brothers and two sisters, Anne Houle, Eliza Shapand Houle, Richard Houle and George House from Bishop’s Tawton, Devon. The family were also there with their distant cousin ‘Ned’, in an interview for the local Herald over 60 years later Thomas recalls that Ned showed him a photograph of ‘a very handsome girl’ and said “That’s my sweetheart”. Thomas told Ted that he will return to England and marry his girl within six months, and to this Ned replied “If you do I will blow your brains out”.
Thomas kept true to his word and when he returned to England in 1877 he went to visit Mr and Mrs G Houle, who were farming at Wellesley Barton, Bishop’s Tawton, Devon. He came with news from America of the passing of two of their children, Eliza Shapland Houle and George Houle. While he was there the couple introduced him to two of their daughters, Ellen and Hannah.
Thomas recalls his meeting the family in his interview “I saw at a glance that neither was the girl of the picture. Haven’t you got another daughter I asked, and Mrs Houle told me there was another daughter called Margaret, who was working in the brewery house.” So he met the girl of the photograph and keeping to his word six months later they were married in Bishop’s Tawton Church by Rev. H F Baker on 12th September 1877. Just 16 days after they were married they set sail for Australia. When Thomas had finished his account of their courtship Margaret added to the interview by saying “Ned was very fond of me, but I did not think much of him. He was not smart enough. Tom was the smart one”.
The journey to Australia could have taken them up to four months, in Australia they settled on a large sheep farm at Gostwyck, near Uralla, New South Wales which is about 6 hours to either Brisbane or Sydney. While farming in Australia Thomas kept a pack of Kangaroo hounds, which ran by sight like greyhounds and it took a good horseman to keep up with them. Thomas was noted for the way he was able to keep up with them and his exciting duels with kangaroos, his employer’s sons were very fond of going out hunting with him in the early hours before they started the days work.
At the end of 17 years in Australia Thomas wanted to return to England, with his wife and three children. His employers were anxious to keep his employment and offered him 12 months’ holiday, but Thomas preferred to take his family home and settle in England. On their journey back to England they recalled how they passed by the Cuzgo, the vessel they had sailed to Australia 17 years before.
Back in England they settled in Eastleigh Barton, near Bideford, where Thomas became a well-known sheep breeder. He introduced a new drench to the farming community for weakly lambs, which he marketed for many years as “Merchant’s Australian Lamb Drench”. This became a well-known remedy among sheep farmers and at the time of his interview in 1937 the product was still being produced and sold by his son.
After 17 years at Eastleigh Barton, they retired to live at “The Laurels”, Rumsam, Barnstaple where they stayed for 25 years before moving to “Uralla”, Fremington next door to their daughter Gertrude who’s house had been called “Gostwych”.
Thomas still kept the photograph of a young Margaret which he brought back with him from America 60 years earlier. Among Margaret’s treasures is a heavy gold ring which on her return to England she had made from a gold nugget that she herself had washed from a friend’s gold mine while in Australia.
Both aged 85 years of age when they celebrated their 60th Wedding Anniversary in 1937, both were still in good health. They were both Conservatives and had always been devoted Church of England members. Most of the family gathered at their son’s home at Bridgewater for the celebrations, among all their well wishers was a telegram from the King and Queen.
Sadly in December of 1937 merely three months after their anniversary Thomas Merchant passed away. His wife Margaret lived on a few more years and died while visiting her daughters’s family in Ashford, Kent. Margaret’s body was taken to Somerset to be buried with her husband and his family in Wiveliscombe churchyard, Somerset.