The history of the Hillis family in Australia began in 1865 when James Hillis and Margaret O’Brien migrated from County Carlow in Ireland to the Colony of Victoria. Mary Doyle the author of Hillises Scattered Twice has written a superb account of this family which has grown to over 700 people and 50 plus families. These include 158 great-grandchildren, 320 great-great-grandchildren and 158 great-great-great grandchildren and ‘two on the next level down after that’. 

This book is more than a history of one Irish family. It tells the story of the Irish famine, immigration experiences and mobility throughout Australia. The names of other families in the regions the Hillis family moved from and to are also included.

The book starts with Sheila Gravett’s 100th birthday held at Boddington Western Australia on 1 July 2007. Photographs show a lively lady Sheila checking out grandson Paul’s digital camera and talking with her great-grandson Rhys. One has to ask ‘What has Sheila Gravett got to do with James and Margaret Hillis?’ ‘What happened to James and Margaret after they came to live near Ballarat?’ ‘How many children did they have?’ ‘What is the story of this family?’ To answer these questions I was drawn in, to read more of the Hillises Scattered Twice. 

Margaret O’Brien was a 23 year old servant from Carlow. She married James Hillis a 30 year old labourer from Antrim, Ireland, only a month before they emigrated as unassisted migrants on 26 September on the Sam Cearns. They arrived in Melbourne on Boxing Day. 

Margaret and James then moved to Ballarat where James worked as a miner. Sadly on 3 September 1866 they buried their first child William who was stillborn. Their second child James Patrick was born in 1866 in Ballarat East. The birth certificate of their first girl Margaret shows that they were living at The Springs, Bungaree by 23 March 1870 and that James senior was working as a timber splitter and labourer. Seven more children were born in the vicinity of Bungaree near Ballarat.

Perhaps it was the election speech of Charles Edwin Jones who stood for the Ballarat East Electorate that prompted the Hillises to move from the district. Jones gave the now famous speech that rankled the Bungaree Irish. He began with ‘Gentlemen and Savages, men of Ballarat and fellows from Bungaree’ and he proposed sending ‘missionaries into Bungaree under strong police escort to distribute Protestant bibles to teach the ignorant crowd there to read them’. 

The Hillis family applied for and won a land grant in 1888 of 110 acres (44 hectares) of dense forest and scrub to farm in an area called Koorooman in Gippsland. On 13 January 1889 James took out a mortgage to pay the first year’s rent of ₤105.9.0. Unfortunately, as they received the news of the grant James who suffered miners’ phthisis spent time in Ballarat hospital. 

Shelia Gravett, his granddaughter, recalled that her mother Sarah Hillis visited her father and walked the sixteen miles home from the hospital with Mary Hillis, Sarah’s sister, who was the grandmother of Mary Doyle (the author of Hillises Scattered Twice). They were about 15 and 13 years old and were scared of ghosts lurking in the bush between Ballarat and the Bungaree area where they lived. 

James aged 54 years died in 1889 and was buried in the Ballaarat New Cemetery on 24 November [RCB 50]. 

A Working Bee on the Bungaree Racecourse