Friday, 30 June 2017

Henry and Mary Marsh: Melbourne pioneers

Henry Marsh was born on New Year’s Day 1858 ‘within the sound of bow bells’, at Wandsworth, south-west of London.

Tradition dictates that only those born within earshot of the 'Bow Bells' can claim to be true Londoners - Cockneys.

 The bells of St Mary-le-Bow in Cheapside,
not in Bow, about three miles away.

Henry’s father William was said to be a ‘master osier’ – meaning basket weaver - with a willow farm in Wiltshire. This is the family story, but exactly how this worked is not clear given the distance between Wiltshire and Wandsworth is 127 kilometres as the crow flies. Nonetheless, the 19th century brought immense popularity for wicker so business was presumably good for William.

William died when Henry was young, most likely in about 1860.  By the age of twelve, he was apprenticed to Prices Patent Candle Co, a large London manufacturer of soap and candles, where he eventually qualified as a ‘distiller’. 

No, he didn’t produce gin or the like - he was a manufacturing chemist.

Prices owned a half interest in J Kitchen and Son Ltd, their counterpart in Melbourne, who were in trouble with a large contract for the supply of candles to the mines at Broken Hill, New South Wales, where silver deposits had recently been discovered.  

Well, at least that’s the way the story has been told. The timing of this description may not be entirely correct and probably mixes two separate issues. 

Broken Hill was founded in 1883 by boundary rider Charles Rasp, who discovered what he thought was tin, but the samples proved to be silver and lead. The orebody they came from proved to be the largest and richest of its kind in the world. Rasp and six associates founded the Broken Hill Proprietary Company (BHP), later BHP Billiton, in 1885 as the Syndicate of Seven. 

The demand for candles would have been underway in 1885 and Marsh certainly benefitted from it but it was not the reason for his move to Melbourne in 1880.

Kitchens had apparently been unable to extract the glycerine from the fats from which the candles were made and the candles wilted and collapsed as soon as they were subjected to the heat of their own flame.

In 1880 the 22-year-old Marsh was asked to go to Melbourne on a five-year contract. He accepted and three colleagues from Prices went with him – John Cron, an engineer, Tom Testro, an accountant, and a young man (whose name has been lost) with managerial training who later managed the catering service at Spencer Street Railway Station.

Before Henry left England, he was engaged to Mary Ann Hitchcock (or Hiscock) who was born 2 May 1858 at Lechlade Gloucestershire to John a farmer and his wife Catherine. 

Mary was an attractive young woman who, thinking there must be better ways of earning a living than living on a farm, went to London at the age of eighteen and apprenticed herself to a firm of dressmakers and milliners.

Among the firm’s customers were ladies of the ladies at Court, the most notable being the then Duchess of Gloucester. Mary was often required to go with another apprentice of her own age to the Court to deliver parcels, show the ladies samples and execute other commissions. Mary told the story of one of her companions who met Edward, Prince of Wales (later Edward VII), within the palace walls. He tried to kiss her and received a slap on the face to ‘teach him manners’.

The Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII)
taught a lesson by one of Mary's co-workers.
Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, London.

Mary followed Henry in the Chimbarazo arriving in Melbourne by 21 December 1882 when they were married. They lived in Emerald Hill, now South Melbourne. Mary also had relatives in the Colony at Ballarat and maintained some contact with them. 

Emerald Hill was a favoured place for Melbourne’s middle class, with fashionable terraced housing. The grand South Melbourne Town Hall was brand new when Mary arrived. Their first three children were born there, Edith, William and Elsie in 1884, 1885 and 1886 respectively.

William sadly died in 1887 of unknown causes and was buried in what is now the car park Queen Victoria Market.

Henry saw out his contract with Kitchens and two more years. His services were in demand, and in 1887 he left Kitchen’s and Melbourne to join W H Burford and Son Ltd in a similar capacity in Adelaide.

The broad-gauge railway linking Adelaide and Melbourne had just been completed and the family travelled to Adelaide in the first or second train to go through.

Before the Federation of the Australian colonies, Victoria and South Australia were sovereign independent entities. Customs clearance was required at the then border town of Serviceton. The station also provided for engine maintenance, refreshments and overnight accommodation: the journey took two days.

Henry and Mary Marsh in the mid-1880s.
Painting by the author.

The next post will take up their story in Adelaide.

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