The Rev. Edward D. Madgwick in 1896, wrote an ‘Historical Sketch of St. Peter’s Cooks River, 1839-1896’. In it he states,

‘Fashionable congregations were the rule in St. Peter’s in those days…. Many of the leading families of this land as well as of the locality were in some way or other connected with it…. The high chimney stacks of the numerous brickyards in close vicinity to the church tell of another period that intervened between the the time when Dr. Steele and some of his successors attended to the spiritual wants of their well-to-do congregations and the present time. Those also were prosperous times for the church from a financial standpoint, for working men support the church when they have it in their power, but we have not even the ‘brickmakers’ in sufficient numbers to sustain the church. With comparatively few exceptions they also are gone, and it is worthy artisans, insufficiently employed, who fill the houses. ‘What can we do’? We have asked ourselves and the reply comes, appeal to the wealthy churchmen at large and especially to those who were once identified with the church here or to their descendants.’

The significance of this not particularly successful fund raising effort cannot be overlooked for it may have fathered a whole school of writing about 19th century St. Peters which relied more on sentiment than fact.

Factual errors abound at St. Peters. A plaque on the wall of the church has ‘Bibbs’(sic) as its architect. Though Bibb is buried at St. Peters the more obscure Thomas Bird is its designer. At the laying of the foundation stone of the church on the 13th July 1838, Mr. Bird, Architect, was in attendance. Marking the 95th anniversary of this occasion in 1933, the grandson of John Bibb, plants a tree! If your name was King, then you just had to be related to the Gidley Kings, governor King’s family. Quoting one historian

‘the wealth and culture of these famous old colonists found expression in the beautiful church’.

What famous old colonists? It is from such errors that the suburb of St. Peters manufactures its history. Somehow those whose only connection is to be buried in St. Peters graveyard, become part of an idealised English village setting, complete with Jane Austen gentlemen and a rustic peasantry, which only at the end of the nineteenth century becomes the haunt of the the working class brickmaker. Were the gentlemen of St. Peters, truly gentlemen, just what was a brickmaker, and what impact did death have on that society are questions all too conveniently ignored.

Death and particularly infant mortality in the 19th century was something all classes lived with daily. Alexander Brodie Spark though living in the relative seclusion of Tempe House on the banks of the Cooks River at Arncliffe, during the period 1836-56, was not immune to infant sickness and death. His diary records all that is most important to him. Buried amongst his financial successes and failures, his extravagant purchases and the social whirl are the deaths of many, and particularly children. His own children seem to have avoided death but were not immune from illness. Coughs, fevers, inoculation against small pox, cholera, measles, whooping cough, suspected influenza, bronchitis and scarlet fever more than once were part of their growing up. In 1847, some nine years before his death he wrote to his six year old son,

“As I am shortly to undertake a journey, from which I shall never return to look upon you again, or to speak to you in this world…………You and I are equally hastening to the same goal, and I know not even yet whether you will not precede me to the world of spirits.”

Stanley Howard, the tubercular curate and locum tenens at St. Peters from 1872-76, in his letters to his family in England records the effects of the scarlet fever epidemic of the 1870’s. In May 1874, he visits four houses with fever. On December the 3rd he writes,

‘Everybody is talking about scarlet fever and many persons have good cause not only to talk but to weep about it. During the last three weeks I have buried five children carried off with it.’

Mr. Carpenter his fellow minister in the parish had buried another six. Substantially the children of brickmakers and labourers and covering addresses from Newtown, Marrickville, St. Peters and McDonald Town, they included a child of Mr. Lotze, churchwarden and accountant. Medical authorities now believe that, ‘during the 1800’s a particularly virulent form of scarlet fever occurred in Europe and England. The death rate was particularly high. From the early 1900s to around 1950, a much milder form of scarlet fever predominated and the virulent form was not seen again.

It is the Rev. Stanley Howard, who prompts us to ask who were the gentlemen? When he visits Tivoli, the home of the Reilly family, he describes it as a

‘nice house, in the Cooks River Road with a well kept garden and they are a nice family. One would certainly not suspect that the money all comes from a wholesale retail iron-trade in George St. Sydney, yet such is the case.’

As all Victorians of that time new, the Reillys being in trade, could not be considered the family of a gentleman. Whilst the Rev. Madgwick, at the end of the nineteenth century, promotes the idea of a St. Peters populated by the families of gentlemen, what was the reality? Will any satisfy the bench mark set by the Rev. Stanley Howard?

Alexander Brodie Spark, more often than not, a merchant in the records of St. Peters Cooks River may, on that alone, have failed the Howard gentleman test. Of course there can only be ‘gentlemen’ if there is a ‘forelock tugging peasantry’ to serve their every need. Our search for such amongst the pages of the Spark diary, must surely draw a blank. The early years at Tempe House are a litany of problems with servants, from drunkenness, petty and not so petty crime, and disputes with him and themselves. Within this rural idyll were two shoemakers, a carpenter, the celebrated Willie the boatman (a Greenock fisherman), bushrangers and two hundred convicts building a dam on the Cooks River. Sparks servants spend time on iron gangs or in prison and yet one such, Henry Richards, he nominates as the first sexton of St. Peters Church. Perhaps the most poignant moment is the death of Willie. Spark records

‘Called to his hut twice, and rendered all possible assistance’,

after Willie’s death,

‘I saw the poor man stiffening in death. It is upward of 20 years since he first entered into my service as an assigned servant, and I can bear testimony to far more fidelity than is usually met with from men of his class.’

There is an intimacy about Spark’s relationship with his staff, which if viewed through our present class consciousness will escape us. Spark’s world remains not Victorian but rather Dickensian, complete with impending financial doom, outrageously mirthful occasions, children meeting horrendous deaths and only lacking in not having Wilkins Micawber present. The references to huts in the diary cannot be ignored as they are part of the landscape and life at that time. It is distinctly Australian and owes little to a rustic England. Whether or not the wall of a slab hut found later in a cottage at Tempe, was the home of one such servant, I leave to your imagination. If Spark at Tempe House, (in Arncliffe, somewhat confusedly) is seen as one book end for defining St. Peters, Sydenham and Tempe, St. Peters Anglican Church is surely the other. Spark as one of the original trustees was active not only in seeing the church built but also supporting the minister or rector, the Rev. Dr. Steele . In Rev. Madgwick’s historical sketch Dr. Steele is described as

‘a fine old Irish gentleman often to be seen riding along the bush tracks leading to the homesteads of his scattered flock. He ever wore “Hessian boots” with tassels in front and was a stately figure on horseback, managing his steed in the style of a gentleman used to equestrian exercises. But he was a zealous pastor. During his ministry the church, parsonage, and school were built; day and Sunday schools formed; and Bible classes held in the parsonage.’

Spark himself was a Scot so we are still searching for that quintessential English gentleman.

Prior to 1856 occupations are not given in the marriage register. We could assume that marriage by licence, rather than banns was the preference of the wealthier classes. Spark was married to Maria Radford by licence. This theory is flawed in that when Alfred Toogood married by licence the illiterate Ann Collins, they were married by permission of the Governor. This meant that at least one was a convict. Of the first fifty marriages at St. Peters only twelve are by licence. The first marriage the Rev. Steele conducted in the Colony of N.S.W. was at the Chapel of St. Laurence (a chapel of ease of St. Peters), and that by permission of the Governor.

Of the first fifty marriages at St. Peters, sixteen were of convicts. The last of these occurred in 1845, when the illiterate George Potter married an equally illiterate widow Rose Kelly. Of those fifty marriages, forty of the participants signed with a cross. The first marriage at St. Peters was that of Joseph Parkes and Mary Ann Fullam. They appear to have had little time for literacy, being too engrossed in their great work of environmental vandalism in the St. George area, that is felling trees in Gannon’s Forest. Of the Parkes’ males married at St. Peters seven of nine were illiterate. Of the females only three out of fifteen could not write their name. However fertile our Victorian ancestors may have been, the two hundred children Mrs Steele entertained at the parsonage in 1851 could not surely all have been the children of the superior classes. James Hassall, locum tenens for a brief period in 1848 at St. Peters offers his insights into society at that time in his book, ‘In Old Australia’. The worse class of people to deal with were the old fishermen at Botany, and the charcoal burners between George’s and Cook’s Rivers, with the children at Canterbury school described as something worse than unbroken colts.

It appears that St Peters had a growing number of dying children, a lumpen proletariat, and those, who if we do not scrutinise their past or their parentage, might pass as the resident bourgeoisie.

The Rev. Madgwick tells us that many of the leading families of the land were at one time connected to St. Peters. He includes, the Josephsons, father a convict, Duguid slightly less than honest at the bank, Reilly an Irish ironmonger with a convict father, Burdett-Smith, likewise father a convict, the Bardens, butchers, publicans and one a squatter, the Cooks, publicans, and whilst the Kings, at least one branch, the Lethbridge Kings were in clerical circles, (that is in holy orders), another owned a boiling down works. The gentleman John Wentworth, child of William Charles and grandson of Darcy, seems a class act until one takes into account his convict ancestry and that the nearest he may have come to St. Peters is the graveyard, for he was living at Glebe at the time of his death.

To many it would appear that any convict connection was but a minor scratch on the escutcheon. For social mobility the Bardens, are to be noted as poulterers, publicans, butchers and squatters. The squatter Barden who is pictured and has a brief biography in the 19th century publication ‘Men of Mark’ appears to delight in telling how he started work as a butcher’s boy. The Gannons are the other family of convict stock who are variously carpenters, builders, innkeepers, saddlers, solicitors and gentlemen. Thomas Chalder, the draper, who came from the bleak little hamlet of Marrick and gave its name to our municipality, may be another example of social mobility.

These are mentioned because they are the exception to the rule rather than the rule, the reality of it is that when the burial, marriage and baptism registers of St. Peters church are examined for evidence of the social mobility that we would hope for, it isn’t there. Brickmakers appear to remain brickmakers. Master brickmakers they may be but in the registers they are still more often than not brickmakers. Gardeners remain as such and labourers, labourers ad infinitum.

How do we recognise from the registers the gentlemen of the area if the Rev. Madgwick’s list of leading families has within it families who are slightly less than gentry. In the burial register, Jabez Handley is described as a gentleman who died in 1883 aged eighty. Handley’s main claim to fame is that Marrickville council first met in a cottage owned by him, but occupationally he was, at times, framework knitter, convict, publican, brickmaker and butcher. Was he a gentleman, or was it that that he died before the Rev. Manning, in 1889, used the word ‘retired’ in the registers? Surprisingly the word ‘retired’ is only found four times in the burial registers at St. Peters.

During the nineteen years of the Rev. Thomas Steele’s incumbency at St. Peters 1838-57 there were thirty four children of gentlemen baptised and from 1857-96 there were only fifty five. This appears to give some credence to St. Peters, in its beginning, being an area of some quality. However if we then look at the same families during the entire period we begin to note, not only examples of some remarkable social mobility but also perhaps a different definition of just what being a gentleman meant.

Twenty one early residences are mapped in ‘St. Peters Anglican Church, Cooks River,1838-1988’ by Horton and Halls. Some are marginally outside what are now the suburbs of St. Peters, Tempe and Sydenham, but more importantly were they the homes of gentlemen? Fifteen of their names are in the registers at St. Peters.

David Chambers of ‘Leitrim’ remained a solicitor. Henry Kerrison James of ‘Petersleigh’ the slightly less than honest Bishop’s Secretary remained just that.

Thomas Boyd also of Petersleigh, was an auctioneer on his children’s baptism, but a gentleman on their death. Likewise Thomas Calder, a gentleman in death but a merchant when his children are baptised. The wool merchant Captain George Talbot of ‘Bellevue House’ died aged eighty seven a gentleman. Leslie Duguid of ‘The Poffle’ is at the time of his children’s baptism a banker but on the death of one of them a gentleman. During the last two years of his ministry at St. Peters the Rev. George King, (another Irishman) did not fill in the column for occupations in the registers, apart from those of gentlemen. On his death Leslie Duguid’s column remains blank. Whether this reflects certain irregularities associated with Duguid’s banking career, we do not know. Duguid’s friend Alexander Brodie Spark of ‘Tempe House, a gentleman at the baptism of his first child in 1843, subsequently becomes a merchant and remains so at his death thirteen years later.

The Gannons of Tempe, are associated with ‘Hurlingham’ which still stands in Union St. Michael Gannon, an Irish highwayman, convict and carpenter, and his sons, Frederick a solicitor and James a saddler, are prominent in the registers of St. Peters Anglican Church, which may appear strange to some for who have considered them devout Roman Catholics. When Mary, Michael’s wife died in 1878 aged sixty nine, she is described in the registers as ‘wife of a gentleman of Cooks River in whose grounds she was buried.’ Ten Gannons were buried from the church on their own land or in the graveyard at St. Peters, one son married there, and twenty four baptised. All this when there was a Roman Catholic church in closer proximity to Hurlingham. Another son William was proprietor of the Oxford Hotel in Sydney. The Rev. Stanley Howard in ‘Stanley, a young man’s colonial experience’, says,

‘The Oxford Hotel is the worst I have ever been in.’

The baptismal register records Richard Reilly as being either, ironmonger, merchant or storekeeper. However at his death aged seventy nine, he is a gentleman, all be it the son of an Irish convict forger, Anthony O’Reilly. Samuel Terry, whose residence was ‘Marionette’ was a gentleman when his two children were baptised in 1857-58. That his grandfather was the celebrated convict and ‘Botany Bay Rothchild’ of the same name mattered little at St. Peters. Only twenty years after his grandfather’s death Samuel, aged twenty three, knew who he was.

A baptism of a John Church child reveals the father as being a grazier. Church was the son in law of Captain George Talbot and owned ‘Grove House.’ Is John Lord of Bello Retiro, merchant and an early trustee of St. Peters Church Cooks River, the adopted son of Simeon Lord the convict and subsequent entrepreneur? That Robert Charles Lord, merchant and son of Simeon also has his children baptised at St. Peters is at present the only clue.

There appears no respite from this litany of convict ancestry for Joshua Frey Joseph of Enmore House and a judge no less was the son of a forger of banknotes and silversmith. Joshua is variously described as a gentleman, solicitor, barrister and Mayor of Sydney, whilst his father rests in St. Peters graveyard, a gentleman aged sixty two.

Roman Catholicism may have stopped the Smidmore family of Silverleigh from appearing more frequently in the registers at St. Peters but it didn’t stop the widower Frank Paul Smidmore being described as a gentleman when he married Blanche Rose Lennon. Richard Henry Way of ‘Lymerston’ in life either a gentleman or solicitor in death is a gentleman. His son Richard Cecil appears to have had a far more interesting career path being, dairyman, clerk, gentleman and finally solicitor. Frederick Wright Unwin of Wanstead sometime gentleman or solicitor, who gave his name to the second most significant road in our suburbs, is in death a solicitor, whilst his wife in dying forty six years later is a gentlewoman. Mary Reiby who rented a pew and was buried from, rather than at, St. Peters was a resident of Newtown. It appears appropriate that the legendary cross dressing, horse stealing, businesswoman should be described, in the burial register, not as a gentlewoman, but as ‘proprietor.’

So where are the gentlemen or should it be gentleman? Perhaps in ‘The Warren’ for in spite of his German wife, the man who gave us the blessing of oyster beds and the curse of rabbits, Thomas Holt, in the annals of St. Peters is for ever a gentleman. There are of course others who are recorded as being gentlemen, but, are either not living in the area, or are elsewhere known as stationers, or owners of starch or boiling down works, suggesting that they are not what we or the Rev. Stanley Howard would consider suitably qualified. What does one make of the Bucknells, squatting at Arncliffe, and cousins of the Wentworths, who started out as watchmakers? Perhaps it wasn’t such a wonderful life for one of their wives ran off with a Mormon. Thomas Breillat of Thurnby, described in one biographical sketch as being of yeoman stock, appears to have known that he wasn’t a gentleman, for in the registers of St. Peters he is always a merchant. Stanley Howard however describes him as

‘a dear old gentleman, a trifle stern for the taste of the nineteenth century, but his quiet dignified and yet genial bearing, wins for him a feeling of respect and regard in the hearts of most with whom he has to do.’

Michael Metcalfe of Petersleigh, the high churchman, whose daughter’s wedding at Christ Church St. Lawrence, was perhaps the most vulgar and ostentatious event ever witnessed by Stanley Howard, is likewise identified as a merchant, never a gentleman in spite of his being rector’s warden for several years at St. Peters. The highwayman, plasterer, publican, William Wells, owner of the Lord Nelson Hotel, in 1858 built Nelson Lodge at Tempe. The solidly sandstone building still stands today. Not the home of a gentleman however for, perhaps on the only occasion when he darkened the doors of St. Peters church, at his daughter’s wedding, he considered himself a farmer. His return to being an hotel keeper might suggest that his land disappearing as it did into the Gumbamorra swamp, wasn’t ideal agricultural land.

A look at the pew rent records of St. Peters isn’t quite a register of the gentry. The Tattersalls and Harbers are there, and whilst the latter were to become local councillors, and one built Heathcote Hall, they were essentially brickmakers. Their social mobility is to be commended in that their previous occupation, if a descendant is to be believed, was as itinerant charcoal burners. However Mrs Harriett Gibbes, as the daughter of Sir John Jamison certainly was. She may have been illegitimate, Sir John only making his housekeeper an honest woman after having seven children by her. Harriett herself divorced William Gibbes, and according to Stanley Howard had two troublesome sons. She however led a saintly existence within St. Peters as a parish visitor, helping in many practical ways to supply the needs of the poor in distress. That St. Peters church was in some way the preserve of the wealthy, is in some way in conflict with Stanley Howard recording in August 1st 1875,

‘In the evening we had a good congregation, the free seats I may almost say were crowded.’

The memorial windows in the church would in some way seem to confirm this last remark, reflecting a society which is considerably more egalitarian than the original English model. There is a window to butcher Barden, another to flour miller Breillat, (not quite a baker) and once again the brickmaking Harbers. Children baptised in the church are represented, the eastern or ascension window is dedicated to members of the parish and the ‘Good Shepherd ‘ window is in memory of the publican, William Cook of the Tempe Hotel.

What certainly destroys any notion of St. Peters being a rural idyl is the presence of brickmakers. They are seen in the records from the very first year of the church opening, though they lived outside the parish. It was the closing in 1841, of Brickfield Hill in the city, due to the amount of dust it created that doubtless brought so many brickmakers to St. Peters. The number of brickmakers children baptised as a percentage of the total baptisms at St. Peters reaches a peak of 25% at St. Peters in 1882. From 1847 onward brickmakers seem to have been in significant numbers within the community. Not surprisingly brickmakers were inclined to marry the daughters of brickmakers, much as two ironmonger families were united when Montagu Younger, the celebrated organist, married Anna Maria Reilly.

Within the registers at St. Peters the word ‘brickmaker’ is problematical, in that there are only seven master brickmakers, Burling, Harber, Collings, Cook, Curlewis, Ives and Josiah Gentle, and at times some of them are simply brickmakers. The Tye family as early as 1841, had taken to court one of their customers for non payment of a load of bricks. This points to them along with others, as being master brickmakers, but they are always simply brickmakers. For the period 1839 to 1900 there are twenty nine who are mentioned in the Sands Trades Directory as being brickmakers, and therefore operating a brickyard, who might more properly be considered brickmasters. In the baptismal registers of St. Peters, they are, along with another three hundred and sixty six, considered brickmakers.

Perhaps, unlike ourselves, these men may have had little pretensions as to what they were. In 1885 the Sands Trades Directory had a new category, that of ‘Brick Manufacturers.’ This only two years after the percentage of brickmakers children being baptised at St. Peters peaked at 25%. The thirteen Brick Manufacturers who are baptising their children at the church are, Curlewis, Dalton, Davis, Drane, Ogden, Egleton, the Gentles (Charles and Josiah), Chappell, Halverson, Harber, Ives, Tye and Tuck. Being not Anglican and having moved away explains the omission of some names.

By 1890, in the same Sands listing there are only three names with St. Peters’ connections. They are Josiah Gentle’s Bedford Brickworks, F.C. Curlewis managing the Warren Brick Co, and Edward Lotze manager of the Red Cross Steam Brickworks. Lotze is never identified as a brickmaker in the records of St. Peters, he is an accountant. By 1900, the Red Cross Steam brickworks is no more, the others are joined by the St. Peters Patent Dry Brick Co. managed by W. Edwards and the Newtown Brickworks managed by Elias J. Harber. One could speculate as to why the numbers drop after 1883, what we do know, and the Rev. Madgwick was only too aware of it, was the depression of the 1890’s.

The gentility which we assume to be part of nineteenth century St. Peters, may never have been there. Personal relationships, may at times have been quite rumbustious. The ‘common looking man’, storekeeper James King, tells Stanley Howard that,

‘The church was a swindle, religion was a swindle.’

He had refused to pay for the last burial and he would not pay for this, his wife’s burial. Equally up front was the irate father who showed Stanley a bad bruise on his daughter’s shoulder from a canning, reminding Stanley that the same man had told him the Rev. George King, (Rev. Baber’s predecessor) was

‘No minister, he was a bullock.’

Minutes of the evidence taken before the N.S.W. Government Select Committee of 1876 on the employment of children in the brickyards of St. Peters is equally revealing. Mr. George Toyer, (remembered in Toyer St. Tempe) stated

his pit at which the boys are now working is about 10 feet deep. The boys at work are his sons. The boy bringing up the clay is 10; he fetches clay for about five bricks at a time; the weight of a wet brick is about 10lbs; he does not think it hurts boys to do the work, for where will you find a stronger class of men than brickmakers. The youngest boy there (the ten year old) at pugging has been at work for about three years. Is it healthy? Well he believed it was; some time ago he had a little fellow, an orphan, with him and he seemed dwindling away, he had almost to carry him to his work at first, but after a little time he got quite strong, and would go dancing up and down the plank.

The committee met nine year old Henry Cook, who had worked as a pugger-up but now earned as much money as a water cress gatherer and liked it better. His fourteen year old brother Thomas works in the mechanised yard of brickmaker Harber and likes his present job, and can read and write, is not tired at night and gets books from St. Peters Sunday School. A working brickmaker on his own account James Cook gave damning evidence to the enquiry on the use of children in the brickyards. He also had a St. Peters connection, being in the choir, a Sunday School teacher and helper in the night school. Prior to his appearing before the enquiry he had been primed by the querulous headmaster of St. Peters Church of England School and church choirmaster, Mr. Richard Guille.

The church at St. Peters, during the nineteenth century, may have been socially more diverse and influential in the life of the community than ever we can imagine in this twenty first century. One youth, Charlie Clark, fell under the spell of the Rev. James Napoleon Manning (Rector 1892-99) and latterly called his son Manning.* The rest as they say is history, and much of it still to be uncovered.

*This isn’t strictly true, he did fall under his spell but, according to Manning, was named after another Rev. Manning, senior chaplain to the Sydney gaols, but I’m sure he’d agree, why let the truth spoil an attractive ending.


St. Peters Church Cooks River baptism, marriage and burial registers 1838-1900.
The Sands Directories.
‘Grave Reflections’ by Laurel Horton.
‘St. Peters Church Cooks River, 1838-1988’ by Horton and Halls.
‘Stanley, a young man’s colonial experience’ edited by Laurel Horton.
‘The Puzzles of Childhood’ by Manning Clarke.
Minutes of Evidence Taken Before the Select Committee on the Employment of Children 1876.
‘An Historical Sketch of St. Peters Church, Cooks River’ by the Rev. Edward D. Madgwick.
‘A Respectable Sydney Merchant’ The Diary of A. B. Spark of Tempe House, edited by Abbott and Little.
‘In Old Australia’ by Rev. James Hassall.
‘St Peters Church, Cooks River’ by P.W. Gledhill