Friday, May 14, 2010

'Truth is the property of no individual but is the treasure of all men.' Ralph W Emerson, Poet 1803-1882

A treasure
of information -
how newspapers
told me a story
about the life
of an ancestor.

The National Library of Australia has introduced a wonderful website called Trove ( ) where it has made available, searches of digitalised newspapers from all around Australia as well as diaries, pictures, journals, magazines and other archived materials. The wealth of valuable information that has been made easily accessible, is not only interesting, but has particular importance for family historians.

Through searches of the newspaper articles which I found on the Trove site, I have been able to tell a detailed story about my 2 times great grandfather, John Morrison. I have been researching my Morrison forebears for some time and had discovered that the family had arrived in Melbourne, Australia in 1878 on the ship 'Kent' from Northumberland in England, with four children. I had found the Australian births of five more children in Newcastle and Sydney, NSW and the death of a son, William John a year after their arrival. I knew that the Morrisons had, for some reason relocated, from NSW to Queensland between 1894 and 1905. (These are the same Morrisons that I spoke of in a recent blog, whose gravestone my husband and I cleaned in Cooroy, Queensland - posted January 25, 2010).

From birth, death and marriage records, I knew that the Morrison family had lived in Newcastle and Sydney,after arriving in Australia and that John was a builder. The Australian Electoral Rolls, showed that the family's Sydney address was Morwick Street, Burwood. I knew that this was the address where the family had remained until sometime after 1894. John and Hannah Morrison and some of their grown children then appeared on the 1905 electoral roll in Ipswich, Queensland, Between the years 1894 and 1905, the Morrison family seemed to disappear until they turned up in South East Queensland. From the Queensland electoral rolls I found that John had later managed the Stewart River Sugar Mill in Queensland and lived in the town of Cooroy. I had to assume that John had found work wherever he could and that this had been the reason for the family's move from Strathfield in Sydney to Ipswich and then Cooroy in Queensland. With no oral family history at all about the Morrison family, I was left with a bare skeleton of a story, and nothing extra-ordinary, until I discovered a wealth of information through the National Library of Australia's Trove website. The value of online, easily accessed information in newspapers became apparent, as I read article after article, as well as advertisements in The Sydney Morning Herald, the Brisbane Courier Mail. Many enlightening newspaper items which I discovered written between the years of 1884 and 1933, enabled me to sew together, colourful threads of information, into a wonderfully informative account of John Morrison' life in Australia.

The first search of Trove for 'John Morrison', resulted in my finding a Tender advertisement in the Sydney Morning Herald, August 7, 1884, which called for the delivery of 120,000 bricks and 100 tons of sand to an un-named building site and which advised the tenderer to 'Contact, John Morrison, Builder, Burwood.' This was a substantial amount of building material, obviously intended for a large project. If this was indeed my great great grandfather, I deduced that he must have been a builder of considerable note. My curiosity intensified as I read other Tender advertisements for things such as a '3 ton jib crane, 60 feet jib, John Morison Contractor, Burwood.' I wasn't certain that this builder was my John Morrison, but I had a certain 'hunch' that urged me to continue to follow this trail. Another Tender requested 900 perch of Stone to be delivered to the site in George Street. I was confident that this building project was significant, and now I had an address for it as well. More importantly, the last Tender gave the address of the Contractor, as John Morrison of Morwick Street, Burwood so I knew without a doubt that the builder was my 2 times great grandfather. With much enthusiasm, I went in search of what it was that he was building, widening my search to 'John Morrison, George Street'. I was quite excited when I found what I was looking for, in an article written in the Sydney Morning Herald, on November, 27, 1885 entitled, 'The Chapter House at St Andrew's Cathedral' which described the new addition to the well known Sydney Cathedral, George Street, Sydney, which was designed by architects Blacket Bros, and built by John Morrison for a price of 7,600 pounds, pictured below and right.

Another tender notice in the same newspaper in August, 1885, which advertised for a large amount of stone and sand to be delivered to Newtown prompted me to search futher until I discovered that John Morrison had also been contracted to build a large Presbyterian church known as St Enoch's in Newtown ( pictured below right), which was completed in 1887. St Enoch's was a beautiful stone building of Gothic design by the same architects Blacket Bros who had designed Chapter house and were the sons of the well known colonial architect, Edmund Blacket. The large church seated over 600 people and housed one of the two largest pipe organs in Australia. Unfortunately it was demolished in the 1960's when many Presbyterian and Methodist churches became redundant with the uniting of these denominations with the Congregational church. Few pictures remain of this significant stone church.
Tender notices and other advertisements in the Sydney Morning Herald between the years of 1884 and 1889 informed me of the many building projects which John Morrison undertook as a contractor. He built a number of churches, mostly in the Gothic style of architecture, including the Presbyterian Church at Burwood, as well as large villas and homes designed by prominent architects, in Manly, Woolwich and other affluent suburbs of Sydney. One particular Tender notice which interested me, invited tenders for plasterers and concretors for 'Municipal Buildings' in Strathfield. Further searching revealed that John Morrison had built the Strathfield Council Chambers ( pictured below, right). This was especially significant as it was where my husband's grandfather had spent much time as a member of parliament and as a mayor. As each building that my great great grandfather had built, became known to me, I visited the sites to take photographs. I am from Queensland and must admit that since marrying, and living in Sydney, have never really felt quite the same 'connection' to this city as I have done to my home town of Brisbane, Queensland. With the discovery of my new heritage, I experienced a considerable sense of new pride, as I realised that important contribution my ancestor had made to the built fabric of of Sydney, NSW.

Next, I read an interesting Tender notice from October, 1887 in which John Morrison invited offers to advertise on a ' large railway frontage at Strathfield Junction'. I assumed that since Morwick Street, Burwood where John lived, bounded the railway line near Strathfield Station, that he was advertising his building contracting business. Further searches revealed that between 1889 and 1890, John Morrison's Tender advertisements for building materials ceased. Then I discovered several articles written in the Sydney Morning Herald between April and June of 1890, which explained the significance of the 1887 'railway frontage' advertisement. Intrigued, I read the following words, from the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday, April, 19, 1890 'The Railway Commissioners yesterday took delivery of the second chain of railway carriages built by Mr John Morrison of Strathfield ...', and ' railway carriage factory, Strathfield'. I wondered if could this possibly be my John Morrison. My challenge was to discover whether a builder of churches, homes and council chambers could turn his skills to the industry of carriage building. As I searched the advertisements in the Sydney Morning Herald from 1887 to 1890, it became evident that John Morrison , builder, and John Morrison, carriage builder, were one and the same man. Through further searches of the advertising section of the Sydney Morning Herald, I discovered that John had a large tram and rail carriage works adjoining Strathfield Station on the site where the Tafe College now stands. The business began its operations in 1889 and was located directly adjoining his address in Morwick street, on the other side of the rail line. John Morrison would only have had to step out of his home and walk across the railway line to his workshop.

With pride, I read article upon article, which praised the quality of the fine rail carriages built by my 2 times great grandfather, the first of which was in service in 1889 on the suburban railway lines in Sydney. Through these news items I became aware that John Morrison was at one time, one of the six largest providers of rolling stock for the Australian government. My desk overflowed with printouts of news stories, photographs and advertisements for John Morrison's rail and tram carriages from 1889 to 1993. My great great grandfather, was clearly a very wealthy and prominent business man. The question remained as to why he had left Sydney and moved his family to Queensland, when he had built up several successful businesses. A large notice in the Sydney Morning Herald, in March, 1894, under Auction Sales, provided the answer I was seeking.

With dismay as I read, I realised that that due to a cancelled government contract for 180 rail carriages 'J. Morrison Carriage Builder' had lost everything he had worked so hard to achieve. A large advertisement which appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald, in 1894, advertised an auction sale of all of John Morrison's household goods to be held on Friday, July, 9, at 11 am at 'Myella', Brooklyn Street Burwood. The auctioneers announced with regret that, 'the furniture was not displayed to its best advantage due to it having been suited to the Morrisons' previous much larger home', which John had obviously lost due to his unfortunate circumstances.

Part of the advertisement read: 'Favoured with instructions from Mrs John Morrison.... the auctioneers will sell the whole of her exceedingly Handsome, modern and substantial furniture and household effects...Dining, Drawing, Breakfast and bedroom suites... Seven grand carpets, all bordered...Magnificent Overmantel and mirrors, Really splendid water colours by Huddlestone, Fletcher Watson and other artists of great ability....two pianofortes... ' On and on went the list of beautiful things that my 2 times great grandparents were forced to part with. 'Expensive jewelery, designed by well known craftsmen, Ladies riding equipment' As I read, I found myself thinking about the great wealth that John Morrison had obviously built up for his family and the even greater loss this family had sustained. I felt the pain of how devastating this tragedy must have been for them as they sold all of their possessions, ' now for sale owing to the terrible losses sustained by Mr John Morrison and family, owing to the cancellation of Government contracts and consequent closing of the carriage-building shops at Strathfield station.'

From the searches of the Sydney Morning Herald on the Trove site, I learned that John Morrison had remained in Sydney after losing his rail carriage business, until 1907, once again working as a builder, contracting his building services to architects and the contruction of homes. I found the addresses of many of these homes in Mosman, Cremorne and Potts Point through Tender notices. Finding no further information regarding John Morrison in Sydney, I turned my attention to the Queensland newspapers. An article entitled 'Overland Passengers' in the Brisbane Courier Mail, on Saturday January 27, 1900 informed me that Hannah Morrison, wife of John, and several of their daughters had left Sydney bound for Ipswich by rail, the previous day on January, 26.
On Saturday, September, 3 1910, a story appeared in the Brisbane Courier Mail under the heading; 'Carriage and Wagon Shop - XII, by W.B.D', in which John Morrison was mentioned as the carriage works foreman. Finally, I knew why John and his family had relocated to the town of Ipswich in south east Queensland. In the photograph at the top of this page, also from the Brisbane Courier Mail, John is pictured standing fourth from the right in a white suit. This is the only known photograph of my 2 times great grandfather. Pictured below, also from the Brisbane Courier Mail, is the Ipswich Carriage Workshop where John Morrison remained as foreman for some years before moving to Cooroy.

Queensland newspapers told the next chapter in John Morrison's life, after leaving Sydney, until his death in 1927, however, that tale is for another time. I have now personally seen three of the carriages which my great great great grandfather built. They are housed at the State Rail Musuem at Thirlemere. I have visited many of the buildings which he constructed and felt admiration for this man who I never met, but feel that I know through his wonderful craftsmanship. This story would not have been possible but for the enormous project undertaken by the National Library of Australia in digitalising so many of Australia's leading and regional newspapers.


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