From Kirkgate to Gannon’s Forest:
Thomas Smithson and the Cooks River Tobacco Manufactory.
Thomas Smithson was born in Chapel Allerton (Chapeltown), near Leeds in the West Riding of Yorkshire, England, on 26 November 1816, the second son of Miles Smithson and Sarah Dean. His father had traded as a farmer, corn factor and maltster until 1816, when he was confined to the Fleet debtors’ prison in London. Miles was released in time for Thomas’ birth. Miles worked as a miller, shopkeeper and cart owner during Thomas’ youth. During the 1830s, his uncle, Thomas Smithson, operated as a tobacco manufacturer in York and drew Thomas and his family into the trade. Thomas’ thus embarked on a life course that saw him marry in York, establish a tobacco manufactory in Leeds, emigrate to Australia and set up as a small industrial pioneer in rural New South Wales.
Thomas at YorkBy 1832, Thomas’ uncle, Thomas Smithson (1797-1870), had established a tobacco manufactory in Micklegate, York. Thomas of York’s brother, Miles Smithson of Leeds, appears to have had some financial connection with Thomas and Thomas’ apparent success must have enticed Miles to commit his family to the York enterprise. By 1841, Miles and his sons: John, Thomas and Miles Junior, had trained as tobacconists. Almost certainly Thomas and Miles Junior served apprenticeships for some time in York and both married in York.
On 29 July 1838, Thomas Smithson of Leeds married Mary Gawthorpe, daughter of James Gawthorpe and Mary Sutherland. When Mary died in 1875 in Australia, her death certificate recorded that her father, James Gawthorpe, was a ‘gaoler’. This was selling James Gawthorpe well short – he was actually the governor of the York House of Correction.
Houses of Correction were established in 1576 to suppress vagrancy, seen as a major cause of crime at that time. Vagrants, or ‘the idle’, were put to work in these Houses to learn the value of hard work. By the seventeenth century, Houses of Correction were also used to imprison debtors and those guilty of serious crimes, both male and female – although death or transportation was used to punish most serious crimes.1 Efforts were made in York to separate the various categories of prisoner in York Castle by building a new gaol building in 1701 and a female prison in 1780.
Continued overcrowding in the main York Castle gaol building resulted in outbreaks of disease and led to the construction of a new prison in 1837-8 to house criminals (the old gaol building was left to the debtors). The operation of the new prison was in keeping with new ideas concerning punishment that were gaining credence in 19th century Britain. Prison reformers argued for the limited use of the death penalty and the effective use of imprisonment as a punishment.2 The new York prison was described in the National Gazetteer of Great Britain and Ireland of 1868 as consisting of “four double prisons … with airing courts radiating from the governor’s house in the centre”.3 This was the house where Mary was staying when the first English census recorded her and her two children visiting Mary’s parents in the summer of 1841.
Thomas in Leeds
By 1841, Thomas and Mary had made their home on Kirkgate Street, Leeds, close to St Peter’s Church (now the Minster and Parish Church of Saint Peter-at-Leeds) and very near an area known as ‘Smithson’s Yard’, a name that probably harked back to another Smithson family who had business interests in the area in earlier times. Kirkgate was quickly supplanting Briggate (or ‘Briget’, as the Smithsons termed it) as Leeds’ main market area. It was a good location for a tobacconist, but it was not a good area in which to live.
Leeds, like all early industrial cities in Britain, had grown so rapidly that existing civic infrastructure could not cope and responsible authorities did not have the experience or the time to respond to the developing urban chaos. In 1832, England had experienced a national outbreak of cholera. Leeds shared the agony of this epidemic and the numerous outbreaks that followed in subsequent years; Leeds witnessed two severe outbreaks of cholera in 1848 and 1849. After the 1832 outbreak, Dr Robert Baker mapped the distribution of cases of cholera and other contagious diseases in Leeds.4 Thomas and Mary’s neighbourhood did not register any cholera cases, but only just. It was surrounded by cholera and it did have its share of other contagions and was included with the ‘less cleansed’ areas of Leeds. Thomas’ ward, North Ward, contained some of the worst living conditions in Leeds. A committee reported in 1839 that:
The condition of some of the streets and dwellings in this ward is proverbial … sometimes rendered untenantable by the overflowing of sewers and other more offensive drains; with ash-holes, &c. exposed to public view, and never emptied, or being wholly wanting, as is frequently the case, the refuse is accumulated in cellars, thrown into the streets, or piled against the walls.5
In 1841, Charles Fowler in the ‘Leeds Intelligencer’ lamented the state of Leeds’ water supply. He described the River Aire, less than half a kilometre from Thomas’ house, as being
…charged with the contents of about 200 water closets and similar places, a great number of common drains, the drainings from dunghills, the Infirmary (dead leeches, poultices for patients, etc), slaughter houses, chemical soap, gas, dung, dyehouses and manufacturies, spent blue and black dye, pig manure, old urine wash, with all sorts of decomposed animal and vegetable substances from an extent of drainage between Armley Mills to the Kings Mill amounting to about 30,000,000 gallons per annum of the mass of filth with which the river is loaded.6
Mary’s visit with her children to her father’s house in York during the summer of 1841 would have brought her blessed relief from conditions in Leeds. It was clear to English authorities of the day that there was a connection between these epidemics and the poor sanitation of cities. The exact nature of that connection was not understood. At this time, before the advent of bacteriology, some authorities believed that polluted air, ‘miasma’, spread cholera. Mary would have considered herself and her children safe and well in York. Although the prisons of the age were notorious for their unsanitary conditions, York prison was new and a model of its type. More importantly, given the thinking of the time, it was located on Baile Hill, above the ‘miasma’ of low-lying areas of the city. Thomas, who had stayed behind in Leeds manufacturing tobacco that summer, looked forward to an average life expectancy with his fellow tradesmen of just 27 years.7 But children were the most vulnerable. Although the exact cause of their deaths is unknown, Thomas and Mary lost two children in Leeds: Hannah Maria in 1843 and Sarah Jane in 1850.
In the census of 1841, Thomas was listed as a tobacconist. He was living with his sister, Sarah; his apprentice, John Gawthorpe, Mary’s cousin; and a 10-year-old female servant. Sarah would have worked with Thomas and she became a tobacconist in her own right for a time after her marriage to James Walsh at Halifax in 1850. Also probably employed by Thomas were his father, Miles, and elder brother, John, both journeyman tobacconists who lived on Templar Street, about a half a kilometre away, further into North Ward. The 1851 census shows Thomas’ family living at Gibraltar on Knowsthorpe on the south-eastern outskirts of Leeds. This was a significant shift away from the business centre of Leeds for Thomas who was still listed as a tobacco manufacturer. Perhaps it was a response to the health needs of his household, which had grown considerably to number six children and a female house servant, but it did foreshadow future business decisions.
Thomas the Emigrant
It was probably fortuitous that Thomas had married Mary in 1838. Mary’s family would have considered it a good match with Thomas being the nephew of Thomas Smithson who had sat on the York grand jury and had been unanimously chosen as Councillor for the Micklegate Ward of the York City Council in 1838. All that changed in 1842 when Thomas of York was declared bankrupt and his financial deceptions were made public. There followed another decade during which Thomas Smithson of York consistently appeared in the newspapers involved with smuggled or adulterated tobacco. There was also the scandal of his relationship with Elizabeth Ellis carried on at the expense of his wife, Phoebe, and matters came to a head with the trial of Elizabeth Ellis in April 1852 after she failed to pay a fine for tobacco adulteration. No charges of any impropriety had ever been levelled against Thomas Smithson in Leeds, but it was not a good time to be trading as a tobacconist in Yorkshire under the name, Thomas Smithson.8
It was, therefore, unsurprising that Thomas decided to emigrate. It was a little surprising that Thomas decided to go to Australia. Most British emigration was to America. In 1849, for instance, 219,450 British subjects emigrated to the United States, 41,367 emigrated to Canada while only 32,091 emigrated to Australia and New Zealand. Australia’s lack of popularity was due in part to its distance from England. Despite financial incentives offered by colonial governments to domestic servants and agricultural labourers, the journey was long and very expensive. Australia also bore a bad reputation in the English consciousness as a result of its early function as a penal colony. However, its reputation and the travel cost barrier were quite overcome in 1851 when news of the discovery of gold fields in the Australian colonies reached England. Australia became a place to seek instant wealth or, at least, a better, more prosperous life. There is no evidence that Thomas ever joined the rush to the goldfields. It is more likely that Thomas sought business opportunities in the expanding economy of the colony of New South Wales. England had less to offer. Thomas, like many small tobacco manufacturers, was under pressure as a result of the British excise regime, the growth of large-scale tobacco factory operations and the decline in snuff-taking, a trade in which Thomas specialised. Australia, on the other hand, lagged behind these trends in the tobacco industry and Thomas must have seen an opportunity to continue his trade in this new land. Of course, living conditions in Leeds would not be missed.
Thomas Smithson and his family made their way to the port of Liverpool to sail to Australia. A family tradition relates that Thomas’ eldest son, Thomas Gawthorpe Smithson (b.1840), remained behind in England to continue his education and joined his family in Sydney later. This cannot be verified because, as a family of modest means, the Smithsons travelled in steerage and were not recorded by name on the passenger list. Significantly, both of Thomas Gawthorpe’s obituaries, published in 1905, contradict this tradition. Another tradition has grown up around a claim made in one obituary that the young Thomas Gawthorpe was educated in ‘The Blue Coat School’, with some identifying this school with the Christ’s Hospital school, a Blue Coat School near London. However, Christ’s Hospital school was an exceptional, prestigious Blue Coat School. The reality was that Blue Coat Schools were located in many parishes across England where they were maintained by voluntary contributions to provide an education for poor children. To add to uncertainty, it is unlikely that Thomas attended the Leeds Blue Coat School. It is usually identified with the Leeds Charity School, which concentrated on the education of poor girls. It is more likely that Thomas attended one of the over fifty day schools that operated in Leeds city at that time, although perhaps charitably endowed in the spirit of the Blue Coat Schools.
At Liverpool, Thomas Smithson and his family boarded the Ascendant, under the command of Captain Spencer. Thomas senior seems not to have been totally among strangers. A fellow passenger went by the name Thomas Dean. He was possibly a relative, through his aunt Jane (Smithson) Dean.9 The Ascendant set sail for Port Jackson, New South Wales on 8 June 1852.10 The Ascendant was a 500 ton square-rigged bark, built in 1849, 124 feet (38 metres) long and 29.5 feet (9 metres) wide.11 Its operations were typical of the passenger ships plying the ‘Great Circle’ or ‘Clipper’ route to Australia in the 1850s. This route took a ship from England south to the Canary Islands and south-westwards towards Brazil, before turning south-east and sailing to a point below the Cape of Good Hope for the run eastwards before the ‘Roaring Forties’ to Australia. Time was money, so close to three runs – to Australia, to England (via Cape Horn), then back to Australia – would be planned for a year, each without stop-overs. This meant that the amount of supplies carried on the ship had to be carefully planned.
No account has survived of Thomas’ voyage on the Ascendant’s voyage to Sydney, Australia, from 8 June to 30 September 1852. It was certainly less eventful than the Ascendant’s earlier voyage to Adelaide from 6 September 1850 to 14 January 1851. It was recorded by Archibald Shaw, an agricultural labourer who, like Thomas, sailed as a steerage passenger.12 There was, however, one important difference between the two voyages. The Ascendant, in 1850-51, carried about 270 passengers, with 254 in steerage. In contrast, the Ascendant during Thomas’ voyage in 1852, carried 145 passengers, 135 in steerage.13 The reduction had probably been forced, at least by public opinion. During Shaw’s voyage sickness had broken out aboard and the ship’s supply of medicine was soon exhausted. The ship’s surgeon was reduced to employing opiates to ease the suffering of the dying. Mothers were giving birth as other children were dying. A total of thirteen deaths occurred, and four births.14
Thomas in New South Wales
As Thomas and his family sailed between the heads of Port Jackson and up Sydney harbour, the view from the Ascendant in 1852 was quite different to that beheld by earlier British settlers, convict and free, in the last decades of the 18th century. While the harbour foreshore was still covered in native vegetation, it was punctuated by harbourside mansions with extensive gardens. At Sydney Cove, the rock-strewn valley with its scatter of cottages and struggling gardens of convict days had been replaced by a vista dominated by ‘tiers of fine buildings’. They seemed, as one visitor remarked, ‘to rise one above the other, like seats in an amphitheatre, and towering above them all, is the tall spire of St James’ Church’.15 Sydney was now a well-established city of about 54,000 people. It had a bustling port serviced by warehouses and wharves; a busy commercial centre with streets lined with two storey buildings; public buildings of brick and stone in the gothic and classical styles; and a skyline dotted with windmills.
Disembarkation would have been exciting for the six Smithson children, if not for their parents. Artist Oswald Walters Brierly, who arrived in Australia about the same time as the Smithsons, painted a scene showing passengers disembarking from an emigrant ship anchored in the harbour. Dressed in their best clothes and some with luggage, they climbed down the side of the ship to be ferried in small boats to shore.16 Nearing land, they would have noticed reclamation work taking place in Sydney Cove that would fill in the tidal flats at the head of the cove by 1855 to create Circular Quay and provide land for buildings, such as the new Customs House.
Upon closer examination of Sydney, the Smithsons were probably underwhelmed. Although the city had developed greatly, they would have noted that the best of its infrastructure was at least thirty years behind the better parts of English cities. Only some city roads were macadamised with paved footpaths, and only the principal streets and major public and commercial buildings were lit by gas. The Smithsons would have considered that some parts of Sydney, especially the Rocks, rivalled the worst neighbourhoods of Leeds. Certainly W. S. Jevons, surveying the state of housing in Sydney in 1858, would have agreed:
I am acquainted with the most notorious parts of London … but in none of these places perhaps, would lower forms of vice and misery be seen than Sydney can produce. Nowhere too, is there a more complete abandonment of all the requirements of health and decency than in a few parts of Sydney. The evils are not of great extent here but they are intense.17
The Smithsons would have been more impressed, as were other observers, with the mood of the city. A German traveller revisiting Sydney around this time was shocked:
When I landed and walked up George Street, I first thought the place was on fire – people walked no more, they ran … Sydney was mad; you could not converse with any man in town, let him be as reasonable as possible in every other respect, except on that one topic, gold.’18
The Smithsons had arrived in Sydney at the height of gold rush when many people were leaving town for the goldfields of Bathurst. Thomas Smithson resisted the lure of the goldfields and stayed in Sydney where Thomas and Mary’s ninth child, Edith Maria Smithson, was born in February 1853. Edith was baptised the following month in St James Church, whose steeple they had seen dominating the Sydney skyline when they arrived.
First Steps in Business
We know just a little of the Smithsons’ first years in Sydney. Soon after his arrival, family or friends in England sought communication with Thomas Smithson and his fellow traveller, his possible relative Thomas Dean, and they were asked to establish contact with the office of the Sydney Morning Herald.19 What Thomas did during the next year or so is unclear. All that is certain is that Thomas and family were living in Palmer Street, in the Wooloomooloo – Darlinghurst area to the east of Sydney’s centre, at the time of Edith Maria’s baptism in 1853. In those days, the Smithson’s address was respectably middle-class. Wooloomooloo and Darlinghurst were, with Surry Hills, Redfern, Chippendale and Glebe, among Sydney’s first suburbs. During the late 1840s, Darlinghurst was considered so far on the fringe of Sydney as to warrant building Sydney’s new gaol there, and the military barracks were moved even further from Sydney’s centre to adjoining Paddington. Sydney’s working class occupied the western edge of Sydney from the Rocks and along Darling Harbour.
At some point, Thomas went into business as a tobacconist. Family tradition has it that Thomas ‘came out from England with his partner, Hugh Dixon [sic – Dixson], tobacconist and they set up business here’ and that ‘After a few years they parted, Smithson taking the snuff business and Dixon the tobacco side’.20 Much of this is mistaken. Dixson was already established in Sydney with a very successful business in George Street, having arrived in the colony in 1839. Although Dixson had been distracted by business possibilities on the goldfields, he renewed his interest in the tobacco industry in Sydney in 1862 and, within fifteen years, had become the leading tobacco manufacturer in New South Wales.21 By that time, however, Thomas had left Sydney.
While a partnership with Dixson can be discounted, Thomas Smithson did have a partner during his first years in Sydney. He was John Mason (his name probably confused with Dixson), a native of Sheffield, England, who may well have been a steerage passenger with Thomas on the Ascendant. Thomas’ obituary reported that Thomas had established himself as a tobacco manufacturer in 1854.22 This is very likely because the Smithson-Mason partnership in a tobacco and snuff manufactory was dissolved by mutual agreement in January 1855. However, Thomas continued to manufacture snuff and deal in tobacco in Sydney after the partnership was dissolved.
Thomas’ Sydney business was situated on South Head Road (later Oxford Street), opposite Victoria Barracks in Paddington, not far from his 1853 residence on Palmer Street. Sydney’s wealthy occupied terraces near Hyde Park or houses on higher ground at sparsely-settled Glebe, Darlinghurst and Paddington.23 This class, both male and female, were the snuff-takers of the colony.24 As he had in Leeds, Thomas chose once more set up on the urban fringe, this time at Paddington. This may have been a strategy to tap into the well-to-do market on Sydney’s eastern outskirts and avoid the stiff competition for snuff-takers in the city of Sydney.
The last report of Thomas Smithson as a resident in Sydney was in February 1856. In that month, Thomas had an encounter with ‘the terror of Paddington’, a ‘virago’ by the name of Lockwood. Thomas had the misfortune of being this woman’s neighbour. For some unknown reason, Lockwood knocked down Thomas’ back fence, which adjoined her residence, and threw filthy water over tobacco set out to dry prior to the making of snuff. It was not the first time Lockwood had done this and the total damage she had wrought amounted to nearly £20. The ‘terror of Paddington’ was sentenced to pay £5 plus costs for the latest damage caused, or six weeks imprisonment.
The Cooks River Tobacco Manufactory
In about 1854, Thomas made another decision to set the course for the rest of his life. He decided to move even further from Sydney and take up land in the nearer rural districts. Thomas’ search for land, according to his great grandson, Frederick Victor Richardson, took him initially to Newtown, but he became attracted to an area further south, beyond the Cook’s River, in Gannon’s Forest. This area had largely been bypassed during Sydney’s agricultural development, which had been directed westwards and south-westwards towards more extensive fertile tracts of land. The area’s development had also been hindered by difficulties in access across Cook’s River. Maria Harriett Evans, wife of Thomas’ eldest son Thomas Gawthorpe Smithson, recalled that
In 1839, a dam with a roadway on top had been constructed over the Cooks River at Tempe and this assisted greatly in opening up the country southwards for closer settlement.
The people had to find their way through dense scrub (as there were no roads) and people travelling had to wait at Cook’s River until the tide was out – when stepping stones were used for crossing. My parents would drive into town for stores and if they were late in returning and missed the tide they had to camp all night in the bush. On one occasion a foal was following the cart and was killed by dingoes which were very numerous.25
In November 1850, Michael Gannon bought up 771 hectares of Lord’s Forest, which was now renamed Gannon’s Forest, in the parish of St George. Gannon was an ex-convict who had become quite prosperous in his new homeland. He was later to play ‘an active and largely hidden role in Sydney politics’.26 Gannon’s purchase of Lord’s Forest was presumably to re-establish his finances after a controversial bankruptcy of a few years earlier. Gannon subdivided the land into three large farms and several smaller farms. Thomas Smithson obviously saw this as an opportunity. It would appear that in early 1855 Thomas leased lot 11, being 25 acres of land, at the corner of Stoney Creek Road and Croydon Road, from Gannon before purchasing it in December 1855.27 Thomas did not have the funds for an outright purchase and Gannon held the mortgage on Thomas’ farm.
Thomas became one of the pioneer settlers of the district and established a tobacco factory. However, the historical detail surrounding the establishment and running of the ‘Cooks River Tobacco Manufactory’, to give Thomas’ factory its official name, has been difficult to ascertain. According to local Hurstville historian, B. J. Madden, Thomas had set up a tobacco factory at Kingsgrove in 1854 on land he had leased and later bought in December 1855.28 This early date for the establishment of Thomas’ tobacco manufactory is probably based on Thomas’ obituary, which reported that Thomas launched a tobacco manufacturing enterprise in 1854, but that relates to his Paddington business. Another local historian, R. W. Rathbone, reported that Thomas moved to Kingsgrove in November 1855, but this would appear to relate to his purchase of the Gannons Forest land rather than its occupation.29 James Edward Smithson gave evidence in a lawsuit in 1889 that he had known the land for 34 years, that is, from about 1855.30 The newspaper report of Thomas’ encounter with the ‘terror of Paddington’ in February 1856 suggests that Thomas Smithson remained in Sydney longer than previously believed. One would also expect that Thomas’ house in Kingsgrove was constructed (to a habitable standard) after the land had been purchased in December 1855. Thus, on balance, one could say that some members of the Smithson family may have camped on and worked the leased land in 1855, but the best date that can be placed on Thomas’ actual relocation from Sydney to Kingsgrove would be sometime in 1856, after the purchase of the land; and between his brush with the ‘terror of Paddington’ in February and the birth of his son, Sydney Smithson, in the parish of St George in December.
While there is no doubt that Thomas set up a tobacco factory at Kingsgrove, there is some controversy surrounding the extent of the venture. In 1986, local historian Pedr Davis concluded that reports that Thomas had grown tobacco at Kingsgrove could not be substantiated. To some extent this is true. No documentary evidence for tobacco cultivation at Gannon’s Forest has been located, but there is some oral history evidence. Gloria Mary Flynn (nee Smithson, b.1913), great granddaughter of Thomas Smithson, who was interviewed around 1980, stated that Thomas grew tobacco ‘down on the flat’ and had drying sheds as well as a factory on his land. B. J. Madden recorded that one of Thomas’ granddaughters was taught by her mother to plait her hair in six strands, the method used on Thomas’ farm to plait tobacco leaves after drying.
Although questions can be raised concerning the reliability of the oral evidence, it is difficult not to accept that Thomas Smithson had conceived a business plan in 1854-1855 to grow and process his own tobacco at Gannon’s Forest and market tobacco products wholesale into Sydney. This plan was put into action when Thomas leased the Gannon’s Forest property and dissolved his Sydney partnership with Mason in January 1855. There appears no other explanation for the Gannon’s Forest land purchase. Why would a tobacconist, who had been carrying on a tobacco manufacturing business in Sydney (and who continued to carry on that business at Kingsgrove), buy and move to a 25-acre farm, situated more than 20 kilometres from his prime market, if not to grow tobacco. A tobacco factory did not require such an acreage; and there is no evidence that Thomas worked the property as a small mixed farm similar to those surrounding him at Gannon’s Forest. Nor was Thomas prosperous enough to buy the acreage for a country residence.
It is understandable that some doubts have been expressed concerning reports of tobacco cultivation by Thomas. Indeed, it would seem to be an overly ambitious undertaking. Tobacco had been grown for some time in New South Wales before Thomas Smithson’s arrival. From the first plantings at Emu Plains in 1818, tobacco cultivation spread to the Hunter Valley and then throughout the colony and into Victoria and Queensland.31 Many agriculturists attempted the crop, but it was demanding of nutrients, water and labour. It required large-scale plantings to be profitable, although some small settlers had been able to extract an income from plantings.32 Thomas’ land, located in a shallow valley on the upper reaches of Bardwell (Broadarrow) Creek, a tributary of Wolli Creek in the Cooks River catchment, gave him access to water and a fairly fertile section of alluvial and light clay soils, but it was not extensive or fertile enough for a tobacco plantation. The key to this puzzle may lie in the product Thomas aimed to market.
It would appear that Thomas was not planning to grow and process pipe tobacco for the larger market – at least, not as a main product, for it was an endeavour well beyond the capacity of his small acreage. Instead, he concentrated on the production of snuff and, later, cigars. Snuff was a luxury product whose manufacture required a high degree of skill to produce the range of granule sizes, flavours and scents demanded by discerning consumers.33 He had already proved to be a specialist in its manufacture and it required only limited plantings of tobacco. Thomas’ business strategy was echoed in Frederick Victor Richardson’s recollection many years later: ‘After a few years [Smithson and Dixon (i.e. Mason)] parted, Smithson taking the snuff business and Dixon the tobacco side’.34
Thomas Smithson was able to produce tobacco products at Gannon’s Forest for the Sydney market for nearly three decades. The 1860s were especially good years for the tobacco industry in Australia, when the American Civil War disrupted the importation of tobacco.35 Thomas must have shared in this windfall. There is evidence that Thomas was able to expand his operations by the end of the decade. In evidence given in a supreme court case, McFarlane v. Lord in 1889, Thomas Gawthorpe Smithson, Thomas’ eldest son, stated that he had been building a tobacco factory ‘on his land’ in 1868 and it had commenced full operation at the start of 1869. As Ron Hill and Brian Madden have concluded:
this suggests that either father and son both grew and processed tobacco, or that they were working together and this was a rebuilding or an expanded factory under construction.36
Thomas’ manufactory was a family affair: at least one daughter worked with the tobacco and Thomas’ sons, Thomas Gawthorpe and James Edward, both described themselves as tobacconists or tobacco manufacturers from the 1860s to the early 1870s.
Despite Thomas’ hopes, the Kingsgrove enterprise ultimately did prove to be overly ambitious. As Frederick Victor Richardson concluded, in the aftermath of the Smithson-Dixon (ie. Mason) partnership, ‘One man prospered and the other didn’t’. After twenty years of work, Thomas had not been able to pay off his land and Thomas’ 25 acres were repossessed in 1878-1879.37 The loss of his land must have dealt a blow to Thomas’ tobacco manufactory; and one can only speculate as to the additional impact on Thomas of the death of his wife, Mary, in 1875. Yet, Thomas appears not to have allowed these reverses to defeat him. Putting his loss behind him, Thomas was able to occupy twelve acres in the same locality around 1885 and entries in the Sand’s Directories show him still trading as a tobacconist until 1887.
The ‘Cooks River Tobacco Manufactory’ had faced several problems. Firstly, Thomas probably faced real challenges in cultivating tobacco, including poor seasons and problems maintaining soil fertility. One wonders if Thomas’s home-grown tobacco was increasingly supplemented with purchased tobacco leaf until he finally abandoned cultivation altogether. Perhaps this is why his tobacco factory, rather than his efforts in tobacco cultivation, was invariably recalled in community memory. More fundamentally, his main product, snuff, was falling out of fashion. There was still a niche market in snuff; snuff boxes were still offered for sale and regularly presented as gifts, but newspaper articles just as regularly reported snuff-taking as old fashioned. It is telling that the large tobacco firm, Dixson and Company, declared in 1877 that they ‘do not care about the manufacture of snuff, their assertion being that it does not pay, and that enough snuff could be made in a week to last the colony for a year’.38 Thomas turned to the manufacture of cigars, as had his brother, Miles Smithson Junior, in Bradford. This, rather than snuff, was the product identified by Mrs Gloria Flynn as being produced by Thomas in his manufactory.
However, it is likely that Thomas’ career as a tobacco manufacturer was finally brought to an end by the passing of the Tobacco Act (NSW) of 1884.39 The Tobacco Act instituted an excise regime similar to that endured by the Smithson tobacconists in England and from which Thomas had been liberated by immigrating to Australia. Tobacco products were now taxed in the colony of New South Wales. The premises used by Thomas to manufacture tobacco products were subject to regulations that included the provision of secured and separate areas for the manufacture of tobacco products, storage of leaf tobacco and storage of manufactured tobacco prior to excise being paid. Thomas had to pay an annual licence fee to manufacture tobacco, payable quarterly in advance. He could only move cigars from his premises for sale in lots weighing 20 pounds – 10 pounds for snuff. These regulations could almost have been designed to crush the small manufactory in Kingsgrove. Indeed, one small tobacco manufacturer lamented the impact of a similar act in the neighbouring colony of Victoria:
This licence fee of 150 per annum has completely annihilated for the present over 60 deserving small manufacturers, who are at their wits end to know the best to do for themselves and their now valueless machinery … it has forced over 20 journeymen tobacco makers to leave Melbourne and go to the neighbouring colonies in order to get work at their trade… why should the present small manufacturers be stamped out, and deprived of their living, for the purpose of enabling a few large manufacturers to make fortunes?40
It is not surprising that Thomas Smithson had retired by 1888.
Life beyond Tobacco
Life in Gannon’s Forest was vastly different from that experienced by the Smithsons in Sydney, and especially that in Leeds. Aboriginal people still used the area for ceremonies and Maria Harriett Smithson (nee Evans) recalled Aborigines from Georges River and Como holding week-long corroborees twice a year close to her parent’s house at Kingsgrove. In 1847, the district around Gannon’s Forest, bounded by the Cooks and Georges Rivers and the Liverpool Road (Hume Highway), had a population of only 611 persons living in 132 houses. It was a heavily forested area and had for some time been the haunt of sawyers and charcoal-burners, many of which were ex-convicts. Timber may have been the first cash crop produced on what was known as ‘Smithson’s Paddock’.41 In 1861, Thomas Gawthorpe Smithson was working as a wood carter when he was fined for ‘not having his name and address legibly painted on his dray’.42 Gloria Flynn recalls that the alluvial flat was cleared of its ironbark trees and the wood sold. However, the area began to change when the Smithsons moved in. Michael Gannon’s subdivision increased the population of Gannon’s Forest and provided the Smithsons with close neighbours.
Thomas appears to have put a lot of effort into the construction of his house at Gannon’s Forest. While other dwellings in the area were made of timber, many merely rude bark huts with bag doors, Thomas’ house was described as ‘a comfortable and substantial stone house’ when it was sold in 1878. Nonetheless, by modern standards it would have been quite cramped for a family of about ten persons. Gloria Flynn described it as ‘an oblong brick or stone (probably stone) building, white rendered, with a fire place at each end and a door on each side. She produced a floor-plan sketch of the house which was located ‘further down the hill from [Smithson’s Wine Bar] and in from the road a bit’ – a description consistent with the recollection of Frederick Victor Richardson and a map drawn in 1865. Less comfortable were the conditions under which domestic tasks were carried out at the Smithsons’ residence. Gloria Flynn relates that, around 1867, her grandmother, Martha Jane Smithson (nee Craven), had to wash clothes in a creek below the Smithson house, kneeling on a large flat rock to perform the task.
Life at Gannon’s Forest was not all work and hardship. There was time for sport and Thomas Smithson’s interests lay with horse racing.43 Thomas served as steward for the Cook’s River Races held on Anniversary Day (later, Australia Day) in 1872.44 The program of four races included the Forest Stakes, run over ¾ mile for grass-fed horses owned by residents of Gannon’s Forest and Rocky Point for a prize of five sovereigns. Thomas also served as secretary to the race committee on the occasion of the Prince of Wales’ Birthday Races held at the Gardeners’ Arms, Kogarah, in November 1877. The program of five races included a race for district horses and the Prince of Wales Handicap that offered a prize of seven sovereigns. Other entertainment was organised in the form of foot races and other sports.45 In 1880, Thomas and certain other gentlemen of the district established the Moorefield Racing Club.46 There were other diversions. James Edward Smithson also served as steward for the Cook’s River Races and was a noted shooter. Both he and his son, Charles, kept dogs for hunting. The Smithson tobacconists were keen fisherman and they won some publicity by hooking and landing a 100-pound sea turtle while line fishing in Port Hacking.47
Beyond his business interests, Thomas Smithson became a respected member of his community and worked for its development. Transport was a key concern for residents south of Cook’s River. Residents had to take road maintenance into their own hands and, in one instance, ‘brought their own saplings and laid the first corduroy road, giving an approach to Cooks River’.48 In July 1862, Thomas Smithson and four other men, including Michael Gannon, were elected trustees of the new Illawarra Road that provided access from the Cook’s River dam and bridge, through Gannon’s Forest to Lugarno, where a punt carried traffic bound for the Illawarra across the Georges River.49 Road trustees were established in 1840 with the passing of the Parish Roads Trust Act (4 Vic No 11). Comprised of local landholders, they were responsible for the maintenance of roads and were empowered to levy a rate on local landowners and fix tolls.50 Thomas was held in such esteem that he and Michael Gannon were appointed as assessors to assist the presiding magistrate at public meetings held in July 1864 and 1867 for the purpose of deciding whether trustees were needed to be elected to manage parish roads leading from the Cook’s River.51 Thomas was re-elected as a trustee of the Illawarra road, renamed Forest Road, in October 1871.52 According to his obituary, he “held the trust ‘til the time of his death”.53
Politically, Thomas was known as ‘a staunch supporter, both in England and New South Wales, of the Freetrade Party’. Freetraders did not constitute a formal political party in Australia until after 1889, when it was led in New South Wales by Sir Henry Parkes and Sir George Reid. It was anti-Socialist and worked for the abolition of protective tariffs and other trade restrictions in order to create general prosperity. During Thomas Smithson’s early decades in New South Wales, Freetraders in the Australian colonies were a loose group of moderate politicians with strong beliefs in parliamentary institutions, stable economic management and the British imperial system, and an abhorrence of radicalism.
The first evidence of Thomas taking an active role in politics dates from 1859 when he, and a long list of electors headed by his mortgager Michael Gannon, publicly supported the election of Samuel Henry Terry as member for Canterbury.54 Terry, a landowner, was classed as a liberal free trader and was a supporter of Sir John Robertson’s Land Acts that sought to break-up the pastoral properties of the colony’s large landholders, the ‘squatters’, and redistribute them to small farmers to foster social and economic progress. Robertson, himself, was a supporter of manhood suffrage, secret ballot, electorates based on equal populations, abolition of state aid to religion, government non-denominational schools and free trade. Robertson went on to form a government in 1860, but Terry failed to win the Legislative Assembly seat of Canterbury in 1859.
Thomas’ next recorded public foray into politics was in 1882, when he and his son, Thomas Gawthorpe, mobilised Gannon’s Forest supporters of William Hilson Piggott in his bid for election to the New South Wales Legislative Assembly. Piggott, a solicitor, was a champion of railway expansion. He supported the ‘Education Act’, which aimed at the provision of compulsory education, state involvement in secondary education and withdrawal of State aid to denominational schools; and the ‘Licensing Act’, which ensured that liquor licences were processed in the area in which they would operate, giving local communities some voice in the decision. He opposed the ‘Land Bill’, which marked him as a supporter of Sir John Robertson, who had refused to acknowledge the need for the fundamental reform of his original land laws.55
Thomas’ support for non-denominational public schools, while characteristic of the stance taken by liberals and religious non-conformists (among whom, Thomas could be counted), was also based on the specific needs of his community.56 From the earliest times in the colony the State had provided assistance, especially to the Church of England, to provide education. However, local communities had to shoulder much of the burden in establishing and maintaining schools. These demands on the community continued even after the colony adopted the Irish National System in 1847 and passed the Public Schools Act in 1866, which saw the State become the prime provider and administrator of education services.
Thus, early residents of Gannon’s Forest took charge of the provision of education themselves, assisted by the Anglican Church. Maria Harriett (Evans) Smithson related how her father, Evan Evans,
had a School Master (Mr George Cheesewright) sent out from Town to teach myself and three sisters. The school teacher made his home with us. The locality was being populated fast. Large families settled at Peakhurst, Gannons Forest and Georges River. The residents built a house of heavy slabs (with bark roof) for the Schoolmaster, who was a very good teacher, and the children came a long distance to attend the school. Dr. Steele (a Minister) visited for miles around at Christmas and also inspected the school.57
Another report that the school was built by Evans suggests that the schoolmaster’s house was probably under the same roof as the school. It was described as ‘a slab school, whose floor was the plain earth, while the school furniture and apparatus was of the roughest and most primitive kind’.58
In 1875, the Church of England decided that it could no longer support a school in the Gannon’s Forest area. Local residents formed a committee to establish a public school and Thomas Smithson and George Preddy collected the names of 104 children of school age in the district and presented a petition that was favourably received by the government. 59 It was suggested that it could be located on a site, just under two acres in area, that had been purchased from Michael Gannon for the Council of Education for 30 pounds.60 In February 1876, tenders were called for the construction of school buildings capable of accommodating sixty pupils. The school was completed in October 1876 at a cost estimated at 600 pounds. In 1877, Thomas Smithson was appointed as one of five additional school board members of the Hurstville public school.61
Thomas spent the last years of his life in premises at the rear of his son James Edward’s house and wine bar on Stony Creek Road, next to the family’s first 25 acre property. In 1894, on the occasion of his 78th birthday (not, as the newspaper reported, his 87th birthday), the residents of the St. George district gave Thomas a testimonial. Presiding over the gathering was the mayor of Hurstville, Alderman J. G. Griffin. Mr John Bulmer JP, a fellow district pioneer, lay Methodist preacher and long-time West Botany alderman and mayor, praised the role Thomas had played in the local community during the forty years he had known him. Among the guests was the Hon. Joseph Hector Curruthers, solicitor, parliamentarian and future Premier of NSW. He acknowledged Thomas as ‘one of his oldest supporters and … one of the most consistent freetraders’ and presented him with a ‘silver-mounted walking stick, made of colonial wood, and suitably inscribed as follows: – “Presented to Mr. Thomas Smithson, sen., on his 87th [sic] birthday. 23-11-94” ‘62
In 1908, Thomas died of senile decay, aged 91 years and six months.63 Perhaps he never achieved the level of success that he had hoped for when he left England – he left a small businessman and, in Australia, he remained a small businessman. On the other hand, he achieved an enviable reputation in his new land and won the esteem of his local community. His funeral was reported as ‘one of the largest seen in the district’ with mourners conveyed to Moorefields Cemetery in fifty-two vehicles. While his siblings’ and cousin’s families had dwindled back in England, Thomas’ branch of the Smithson family flourished in Australia. At the time of his death, his family numbered 122 persons: six sons, three daughters, 35 grandchildren, 71 great grandchildren and seven great, great grandchildren.