Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Henry and Mary Marsh: Coomandook and retirement

The last post left Henry and Mary in Adelaide as a well-established family touched by some tragedy but with Henry’s business growing.

Edith, Henry’s eldest daughter described him as an immaculately presented and confident man.

Her son Bob Clark knew a very different man two decades later; ‘non-descript, down at the heel and poorly dressed’, with limited income, whose views ‘no one listed to’. His ‘grown-up family revolved around their radiant mother’ Mary.

Everyone seems to have admired Mary and many remembered her support and advice to her children. 

So, how did the change in Henry’s fortunes occur? Was he entirely to blame for his fate?

His ‘descent’ commenced in 1905. Overconfidence, hasty decisions, unwise investments all contributed, but it was also external factors in particular Federation of the Australian States in 1901 that ruined him. 

Prior to that South Australia, with its enclave dependency of Broken Hill, had been an island protected from competition by the moat of tariff and customs barriers at the border. That was the reason why in the 1890s Kitchens had started an independent business in South Australia with Henry Marsh as an equal partner. The need for such a business collapsed with Federation.

It was not until 1905, with a new generation of the Kitchen family on the Board of Directors, knowing they could now supply South Australia and Broken Hill from the factory in Melbourne, that it was proposed the soap and candle business of H Marsh and Co be merged into the Kitchen business.

William Essex, Marsh’s partner and friend was not only willing but eager. Marsh refused. Kitchen thereupon dismissed him as Managing Director. Essex soon returned to England and Henry was left to face the competition of Kitchens and other business such as Buford’s alone. Although flourishing, Marsh’s business was still smaller that either Kitchens or Burfords.

Without the energetic Essex at the head of his department, Henry’s energies were stretched too far. Marsh and Co fell into trouble and the inevitable happened. Kitchens eventually purchased the business, now much reduced, at their own price. Henry was left with only The Imperial Preserving Co and an inadequate amount of money.

Quorn Mercury, Tuesday 9 August 1904.


Imperial Preserving mounted a steady newspaper advertising campaign between about 1897-1904, but after that smaller advertisements appear aiming to sell horses and drays and vinegar containers and purchase farming equipment and 100 redgum fence posts as the business declined and Henry looked to the bush.

Advertiser, Monday 26 December 1910, page 9.

James Thomas Brown was a successful building contractor in Adelaide and a business acquaintance of Henry. Brown had built or would build the Public Library and Museum buildings on North Terrance, the Nurses Home and the Royal Adelaide Hospital, the Education Building in Finders Street and St Francis Xavier’s Cathedral. His elder son Leslie would marry Henry and Mary’s daughter Alice in 1918.

In 1909 Henry was persuaded by Brown to take an interest in the new mallee land being opened for settlement at Coomandook on the Ninety Mile dessert. Henry bought the sections on either side of the road to Peak where it branched from the track to Melbourne along the railway line and, eventually selling out what remained of his reduced fortunes in Adelaide, went there to live and become a farmer.

It was his final mistake. He was no farmer and, no fault of Henry’s, the land itself turned out to be unproductive – it was in need of trace elements of copper and zinc and without that apparently good for one crop only.

It would be 50 years before that particular issue would be resolved through a scheme of mass clearing and scientific development, which transformed over a quarter of a million acres of mallee scrub in South Australia into rich pasture holdings. The project, recorded in the film Desert Conquest was focussed on Coonalypn to the south-west of Coomandook.

Henry and his family were, however, enthusiastic members of their community and at least two of his sons, Fred and Wally, as well as several other locals, were involved in building the Parkin Memorial Congregational Hall which became a meeting house for the Congregational Church and a School.  

The Hall was named after William Parkin (1801–1889) a benefactor of the South Australian Congregational Church. He founded the Parkin Trust for training Congregational ministers, building churches and schools, and supporting widows of ministers.

The opening of the Parkin Memorial Hall 1911. Members of the Marsh family were in attendance.
Henry and Mary’s daughter Doreen attended school there.

Wednesday 15 February 1911 - Opening of “Parkin Memorial Congregational Hall” (named after William Parkin). Senator Joseph Vardon, an active member of the Congregational Church, officiating and Parkin's widow in attendance.

Two days later Fred Marsh was appointed a deacon of the Congregational Church along with A S Chapman and W W Brown. The following month, a ‘Christian Endeavour Society’ was formed and the teenage Frank Marsh was named as one of the young men from the Society who ‘conducted services‘ at nearby Ki Ki under the guidance of Rev J E Creswell minister of the Congregational Church in Flinders Street, Adelaide. 

Creswell led a remarkable life, travelling across the globe as a missionary as well as a humanitarian relief worker focusing on the children of the Armenian genocide of World War I.

Frank would return 50 years later on 19 February 1961 as Rev Frank Marsh, President General of the Baptist Union of Australia, to preach at the memorial service and speak at the Pleasant Sunday Afternoon as part of the Parkin Hall’s jubilee celebration service.

On 17 April 1911, a branch of the - Liberal Union was formed at Coomandook.  Rev J McIntyre, pastor of the Congregational Church, addressed the group, A S Chapman was elected President and FGM as Secretary. The Liberal Union was South Australian political party formed as a response to Labor success in South Australia's 1910 election. The Liberal Union lasted until 1923 when it became the Liberal Federation.

The commitment of service which exemplified the Marsh children is a tribute, in part, to the example of their parents. And while Mary is credited with supporting and developing them overtly, Henry's example, however reserved, did the same.

Mary Marsh, third from left, looks bright with the other ladies at Coomandook.

Henry exerted some leadership in Coomandook with regard to seeking Government support in 1914 following a disastrous drought. However, his appeals on the behalf of the local ‘Vigilance Committee’ fell on deaf ministerial ears however which would have further dampened his self-esteem as in his previous life in Adelaide he may well have been able to get the ear of such a person when he needed to.

In 1920, Henry leased the farm to his son-in-law, Les Brown, and sank what ready money he could find in the house at 42 South Terrace, Adelaide.

His eldest grandson, Bob Clark, felt that Henry’s mistake was in concentrating on business and money to the exclusion of almost all else, and having failed he had nothing left. Bob wrote; ’He was in mute contrast with my other grandfather, Stanley Clark, who had never aspired at any time in his life to earn more than a steady income as an employee and whose horizons were limited to his work, his family and his religion. Yet he remained in old age a rich though narrow personality which no one could ignore and which held the respect of his children and caught the interest of all who met him.’

This seemed to be a common impression of Henry with a universally admiring view of Mary. However, with further hindsight it may be an unduly unsympathetic view. Henry may well have limited his focus to business but would probably have been severely tested with the death of two of his sons and the failure of his business and farm due to what may have seemed to him to be circumstances beyond his control. He clearly worked very hard and apart from competition also had some responsibilities to his staff.

Henry Marsh with his daughter-in-law Evelyn and grand-daughters Margaret and Joan in 1924.
Joan takes note of Mary's black cat.

On 26 February 1935, Henry passed away. He was 77. Six months later to the day, 26 August 1935, Mary died. She was 77. They were buried in Adelaide West Terrace Cemetery with their son Dick who had been buried there 36 years before. Their major legacy was a large family who benefitted their communities in a variety of ways including, nursing, the military, missionary work and tea planting. 

Another was possibly velvet soap.