McMillan’s of Grey Abbey

A Tale of Two Brothers
The McMillan’s from Grey Abbey, County Down, Ireland

(A fabulous story by Ian McMillan, former Chair of the Camberwell Art Show) 

It’s an eerie feeling wandering around a graveyard in an ancient abbey across the other side of the world. Tumble down and weathered grave stones lie everywhere with no apparent order to the overgrown jumble. Then after a long search in trying to decipher the faded inscriptions of generations long past and forgotten there comes a eureka moment when one of the stones finally yields the family name McMillan. But is it ours? Does it create the link from our forefathers in protestant Northern Ireland and the fleeing population to the new world in the mid 1800s.

More scraping of moss slowly reveals its secrets and the names appear. They match those on the piece of paper you hold which was
provided by a friend with a genealogical interest. There they lie those old bones of family members destined to remain in the old world. You wonder what they would think to have a Great Great Grandson with his daughter from a different world and time come to visit and pay respect and thanks for giving them life and opportunity.

Life in Grey Abbey
The Town of Grey Abbey named after its ancient abbey is located on
the shores of Strangford Lough 20 miles East of Belfast. King Charles 1st proclaimed it a port and by 1659 the population of the parish was only 117 people. When ancestor Hamilton McMillan was born in 1776, the parish population was 1550 with 97% Presbyterians. In 1834 the village consisted of one main street about 500 metres long leading from the shore and two short ones. There were 138 one-storey houses, all slate roofed & 27 two-storey houses. There was a row of new, stone, ground floor houses on either side of the street but even with back doors, the slops
and dirt were still flung into the road. There were 7 grocers, 25 spirit shops, 1 boot maker, 1 doctor, 2 woollen drapers. There was a school for males & females near the church and one policeman.
Most inhabitants were weavers of linen cloth which was made in large quantities. The village was neither lighted nor paved and was in a hollow and not visible until approached nearby. There was a
water mill & 2 windmills in the parish.
The 3 commonest surnames in this parish were Brown, Bailie and Hamilton showing Scottish heritage from the settlers led by Hugh Montgomery who arrived from 1606.
On to the New World
The protestant McMillan’s from lowlands Scottish heritage lived for at least a couple of generations in this confined rural environment. Then the potato famine, the lure of gold and a better life in the new world enticed them and millions like them to try their luck on the other side of the world.
The McMillan line can be traced back to Hamilton McMillan (b 1776; d 22 May 1828) who married Jane (b 1784; d 15 Mar 1826) in 1804. Both are buried in the family plot at Grey Abbey.
Hamilton and Jane had 5 children –
i. NATHANIEL MCMILLAN, b. 1807, Grey Abbey, Newtonards, Co Down, Ireland; d. 03 Oct 1843, Ballybrain, County Down, Ireland.
ii. SARAH MCMILLAN, b. 1822; d. Bef. 1828, County Down, Ireland.
iii. JOHN MCMILLAN, d. Bef. 1828, County Down, Ireland.
iv. JAMES MCMILLAN, d. Bef. 1828, County Down, Ireland.
v. ELIZABETH MCMILLAN, d. Bef. 1828, County Down, Ireland.
Our direct ancestor Nathaniel McMillan married Agnes McLeod in 1827 in County Down and had six sons. Agnes was born in 1809 and raised 11 children. She died in Chewton Victoria in 1896.

i. HAMILTON MCMILLAN, b. 1830, Newtonards Co. Down Ireland (nr Belfast); d. 28 Mar 1912, Chewton, Victoria.
ii. JOHN MCMILLAN, b. 1834, Ireland; d. 14 Mar 1913, Deniliquin, New South Wales.
iii. JAMES MCMILLAN, b. 1836, Ireland; d. 23 July 1877, Victoria.
iv. NATHANIEL MCMILLAN, b. 1838, Ireland d. 11 Feb 1882, Victoria.
v. THOMAS MCMILLAN, b. 1840, Ireland; d. 23 Mar 1895, North Deniliquin, New South Wales.
vi. ALEXANDER JAMES MCMILLAN, b. 1842, Ireland; d. 11 Jul 1924, Boulder, Western Australia.
Nathaniel died in October 1843 aged 36 under suspicious circumstances in BallyBrain. The family were evangelical Presbyterians and being an Orange Man it is believed he was murdered on his way home from a gathering.
Agnes then remarried to John McCance and together they had 4
children prior to migrating and then another child born in Victoria.
The extended McMillan and McCance family consisting of 15 adults
and children sailed from Liverpool as assisted passengers on two
ships in 1852.

On the first ship the Marion Moore sailed the two older McMillan
men, Hamilton 23 with wife Mary and baby and John 19 with wife
Mary. The Marian Moore was a new ship and birthed in Melbourne in February 1853 after a quick 92 day voyage.
John and Mary went into service with a farmer on the Saltwater River north of Melbourne for 6 months on a contract of 80 pounds. Hamilton had a contract with a squatter at King Parrot Creek on the Goulburn River.
The rest of the extended family of 10 members left Liverpool on the
Confiance and had a horror 125 day voyage. Of the 400 passengers
27 died of scurvy and whooping cough and on arrival in Geelong in April 1853, a quarter of the passengers were quarantined. On the Confiance with John McCance 33 and wife Agnes 44 were 4 of their children and 4 McMillan boys, James 17, Nathaniel 15, Thomas 13 and Alexander 11.
They initially worked in Geelong then moved to Barwon Heads for 2 years.
By 1856 the whole family reassembled in the Forest Creek Goldfields at Castlemaine / Chewton.
Oceans of Consolation.
We are able to gain an intimate insight into the family fortunes for a
decade after arrival in the goldfields. John McCance corresponded
with a trusted family acquaintance in Grey Abbey by the name of
William Orr who ran a business there. Luckily 9 of the McCance letters have survived and are published by Irish historian David Fitzpatrick in his book Oceans of Consolation, Personal Accounts of Irish Migration to Australia.

We learn from the letters that in 1856 John and Mary moved to Yankee Point (Taradale) and had a store there for a number of years. In 1858 Thomas aged 18 was living with his older brother John and wife Mary in Taradale. This close association continued in their later years with first Thomas and then John moving to Deniliquin.
The unsettled nature of the younger McMillan’s meant they treated Australia as a gateway to a wider world. From a sheltered village existence in Ireland their range of wandering was extensive in Australia and the NZ Otago goldfields. Younger brother Nathaniel when aged 22 even ventured across the Pacific to South America in 1860.
Since arriving in the colony the boys wandered wide and far seeking work in the bush or gold mining. They obviously needed high bushcraft skills and ability to turn their hands to making a living
in tough circumstances to prosper. In Oct 1860 Thomas is recorded as riding his horse from Chewton to Barwon Heads visiting the area where they first lived on arrival for two years.

Thomas and Alexander were working on bush stations in 1858. In 1860 they were in NSW and by 1862 Thomas was breaking horses at Wangaratta in North Eastern Victoria while Alexander was
share mining on the Lachlan River in Central NSW.
Gold mining was very much in the family’s blood with all 6 McMillan boys and their step father John McCance at various periods engaged in mining.
Thomas also tried his hand as a miner and “worked his hole” with John Regan who was John’s brother in law. The 1860 NZ gold rushes at Otago in the South Island saw all of the McMillan brothers except Thomas, head off to work claims. In April 1862 Hamilton and James were back from NZ. They sold off their horses and cart and almost everything and returned to NZ with John. In 1863 the brothers were still in NZ and applied for a sluice licence. Nathaniel was also in Otago together with Alexander who finished up staying for a few years and raising a family there.

The move to Deniliquin
John McMillan 1834 – 1913
Just before he departed Ireland for Australia, John aged 18 married the 17 year old Mary Regan on 04 Oct 1852 in Newtownards, County Down, Ireland. He died 14 Mar 1913 aged 81 in Deniliquin,
while his wife Mary died 03 Jan 1921 aged 89 at North Deniliquin.
John and Mary had 7 children all born in the goldfields at Chewton / Forest Creek and Taradale.
i. AGNES JANE MCMILLAN (Mrs A Venn), b. 25 Nov 1854, Chewton, Victoria; d. 23 May 1935, Richmond, Victoria,
ii. JAMES MCMILLAN, b. 1857, Taradale, Victoria, Australia; d. 1925, Bairnsdale, Victoria.
iii. MARY MCMILLAN (Mrs M McLaren), b. 1860, Forest Creek, Victoria, d. 1935, Deniliquin.
iv. ELIZABETH MCMILLAN (Mrs E Oyston), b. 1862, Chewton, Victoria, d. 23 Sep 1948, Western Australia.
v. JOHN MCMILLAN, b. 1865, Chewton, Victoria, d. 1867, Chewton, Victoria.
vi. ELLEN ANNE MCMILLAN (Mrs E McMillan), b. 1873, Chewton, Victoria, d. 26 Nov 1942, Deniliquin.
vii. ADA LOUISA MCMILLAN (Mrs A Walker), b. 1875, Chewton, Victoria, d. 08 May 1927, Deniliquin.
John had multiple trades in many locations including on arrival in Australia as station hand and as miner in Victoria and New Zealand. He relied on the extended family to assist wife Mary in their
Taradale store when frequently away from home on his mining pursuits. In 1867 he is recorded as a fruiterer in Chewton. At this stage his brother Thomas had moved to Deniliquin with John following and engaged in dam building on stations in the Riverina district.
Following this John and Mary moved the family to Deniliquin
where they had purchased “Pine Farm” on the Hay Road halfway
between Pretty Pine & Deniliquin.
John died at Pine Farm 14 March 1913.
The death was reported in the papers-
The death took place in the Deniliquin district on Friday last of Mr
John McMillan at the age of 81 years. He was an early resident of
the Chewton district and was brother of the late Mr Hamilton
McMillan and step brother to Mr E. McCance of Chewton. He
had followed the vocation of a farmer for many years and leaves
a widow and grown family. His remains were interred in the Deniliquin
Cemetery on Sunday last, there being 40 vehicles in the

Thomas McMillan 1840 – 1895
Thomas was aged 13 when he arrived in Geelong with his family in 1853. By age 18 he was working on bush stations in NSW and in 1862 breaking horses in Wangaratta. Two years later in 1864 aged 24 he moved to Deniliquin and married 26 year old Annie Mulligan originally from Ballinabrackey, County Meath, Ireland. Thomas and Annie went on to have 6 children over 11 years with the first 2 dying as infants. Five children were born in the Riverina at Deniliquin, Moulamein and Hay as the family moved around the region following work.
i. AGNES MCMILLAN, b. 01 Mar 1865, Chewton, Victoria; d. 26 Mar 1865, Chewton, Victoria.
ii. JOHN MCMILLAN, b. 1866, Deniliquin, NSW; d. 1866, Deniliquin, NSW.
iii. MARY ELLEN MCMILLAN (Steel), b. 11 Mar 1869, Deniliquin, NSW,
iv. TERESA MCMILLAN (Blake), b. 02 Aug 1871, Moulamein, NSW.
v. THOMAS MCMILLAN, b. 11 Aug 1873, Deniliquin, NSW; d. 08 Jul 1940, Deniliquin,
vi. LILIAS MCMILLAN (Welch), b. 02 Oct 1876, Hay NSW; d. 13 Jun 1959.
Thomas settled back in Deniliquin and was appointed as Town Herdsman on 6 May 1878 for North and South Deniliquin. Around this time Thomas started a second family with Mary Elizabeth
Keogh with whom he had 5 children. Mary was born 1857 in Castlemaine, Victoria and died 13 Oct 1912 in Deniliquin. The Informant was her daughter Aura Marie Constance Perrin.

Story by Ian Thomas McMillan – Melbourne May 2020

2 thoughts on “McMillan’s of Grey Abbey”

  1. This is an amazing read. My name is James Hamilton McMillan and my Grandfather was Roger McMillan, he was born at Chewton in about 1893 (there seems to be some debate about his exact birth date) his Father was Hamilton and His Mother was Boyce or Bowen or something similar. Grand dad was an Anzac and fought at Gallipoli and the western front including the disastrous attack at Fromelles in 1916. After the war he moved to Gippsland in Victoria’s south east and helped clear the land for the Lake Glenmaggie irrigation project and then was one of the original workers on the State electricity commissions new coal mines and power stations in te Latrobe Valley. He died in 1971 at Bairnsdale Victoria.


    1. Wonderfull to hear from you! I found this in my notes “McMillan, Roger Private WW1
      Monday 9 Aug 1915 Mt Alexander Mail P2
      AUSTRALIAN EXPEDITIONARY FORCE LETTERS FROM THE FRONT. Private Roger McMillan, who in June last was in training in Egypt, writes as follows to his relatives in Chewton: – Selley Callahan and I, along with a lot of other chaps, went out to the Pyramids last Sunday. There is no doubt they are a marvellous piece of work. Our guide told us that they were built 5000 years ago by slaves. They used to put them on in batches of 30,000 a month, and it took years to build them, so that will give you an idea of what they are like. The original Pyramid is that of King Cheops, and it is the largest of all being 450ft. in height, and cover 13 acres of ground at the base, tapering to 20 feet square on the top. There is a tradition that the sea covered all this place at one time, and that is the reason for the Royal Families being buried in the Pyramids, and that in the event of the sea ever rising again there would be no danger of the water getting at them. The Sphinx is much older than the Pyramids. It is also a wonderful thing. Carved out of the solid rock it represents a lion’s body and a woman’s head, the expression on whose face no one has ever been able to read.
      Napoleon tried his best to read it, and because he couldn’t he was so incensed that he turned his cannons on it and partially destroyed the face by blowing the nose off it. So much for spite. I also visited Cairo, or what is termed the holy City, as it is nearly all pulled down now. There is one grand relic left of the ancient Romans in the form of a very large building standing almost as solid now as the day it was built, an evidence of their ???? workmanship. Taking everything into consideration this is a wonderful place; it makes one realise how utterly insignificant man is after all.”


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