Philanthropists and Philanthropy

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James Comrie (1816-1902) Literary Philanthropist

In 1902 the Hawkesbury Herald wrote that

No man more truly deserved the name of philanthropist than Mr Comrie … he busied himself during the later years of his life by doing good by stealth. The perfume of good deeds, however, always betrays the doer sooner or later…[1]

James Comrie

Another paper described James Comrie as a ‘literary philanthropist.’[2] What were his activities ‘the perfume of good deeds’ that that led him to be deserving of the designation of ‘philanthropist’ and that of a ‘literary philanthropist’ in particular?[3] How was he able to be a philanthropist of note and “Who was James Comrie?” for he is, to-day, a largely unknown figure.

James Comrie was a Scot, born in Edinburgh 1 May 1816 and he died at Kurrajong Heights at Northfield on 2 November 1902.[4] He was the youngest of eleven children born to Peter and Helen Comrie[5]. James’ father died when he was two years old and he was raised by his pious Presbyterian mother. Though his mother was a ‘strict Presbyterian she had a catholic spirit, and took her children sometimes to hear Dr Thomas McCrie, Christopher Anderson,[6] and Wesleyan ministers’.[7] James himself was to emulate this religious catholicity, interacting and enjoying the company of Christians of all persuasions. His schooling must also have added to his non-sectarian outlook for he attended a Quaker school.

At sixteen he joined a group who would distribute religious tracts in Edinburgh in the area between High-street and the Cowgate ‘where each room was tenanted by a family, and the poverty, squalor, and vice increased as the stories rose.’[8] In 1836 he became a communicant of Lady Yester’s Church, Edinburgh under the evangelical ministry of the Rev. Archibald Bennie. He later spent some time in Tulliallan where under the ministry of the Rev George Hope Monilaws[9] he at the young age of 22 became an elder of the Church of Scotland. At the time of the Kilsyth revival in 1839 Comrie’s minister asked James to approach William Chalmers Burns[10] to come to the parish to preach. This meeting began a friendship between Burns and Comrie. Just prior to his leaving for NSW James was present at the 1842 General Assembly of the Church of Scotland but had left Scotland by the time of the Thomas Chalmers led exit to form the Free Church in 1843.

Prior to leaving Scotland on 2nd January 1843 to take up an opening in a mercantile house in Sydney James attended a communion service in St Luke’s Edinburgh where Robert Murray McCheyne, Horatius Bonar, William Chalmers Burns and Moody Stuart took part. This event left a life-long impression on him.

Business Life

James arrived in the colony of NSW on 2nd of June 1843 on the Emma [11] and commenced work as a general merchant. Initially, James worked at Moore’s Wharf at Miller’s Point, Sydney but soon afterwards was advertising as the Manager of Miller’s Point Wharf, late Moore’s, whether this was a change of position or simply

Moore’s Wharf, Millers Point, Sydney

of venue is unclear.[12] In 1846 he was of sufficient prominence to be appointed to small committee of ship-masters, owners and merchants to petition the government for the purpose of ‘procuring a reform in the maritime laws and port regulations’ concerning the port of Sydney.[13] James was involved in business life for 12 years, importing goods such as pianos, clothing and books and seeking to sell them.[14] He does not appear to have become particularly prosperous or noteworthy in business during this time. Confirming this assessment is a comment, in 1850, by a family member that James ‘is trying to get into a commission business, and has a good deal of spare time on his hands.’[15] He did, however, have some very helpful business connections through the Pitt Street Congregational Church which he, although a Presbyterian, had joined when he arrived in Sydney. He did so due largely to his appreciation of the ministry of a fellow Scot, the Rev Dr Robert Ross.[16]

George Alfred Lloyd was a close friend and in 1848 named a son after James and so Comrie knew and was known by other prominent members of the business community who were influential members of the Pitt Street church.[17] This could only have been of benefit to Comrie for as Souter observes ‘David Jones with his fellow Pitt Street Congregationalists, Ambrose Foss, G.A. Lloyd and Robert Bourne, frequently formed a “mutually protective association”, they were industrious and commercially adventurous, and they stuck by one another’.[18]

Captain James Comrie Lloyd (1848-1914) was GA Lloyd’s son and so close were the Lloyd and the Comrie families that James Comrie Lloyd was James Comrie’s ‘name-son’.[19] So it was fitting that the name-son returned the favour for when he had a ship built he called it the ‘James Comrie’. It was launched on September 6, 1877 [20] and sailed under that name until about 1908.[21]

The James Comrie

The 1850’s were to prove to be very eventful and life changing years for James. In 1850 along with other influential business figures he was a shareholder and guide at the turning of the first sod for the Sydney Railway Company [22] and was in the same year seeking shares in the new Commercial Banking Company.[23] In July 1854 he was appointed a Justice of the Peace[24] and began to sit regularly on the Police Court from September 1854 and continued to do so regularly until July 1857.[25] In December 1855 he was advising that he was a candidate for the vacant directorship of the Australian Joint Stock Bank.[26] He was unsuccessful but was appointed a joint auditor.[27] In the same year he was appointed an auditor of the AMP having the previous year on a visit to Tasmania helped establish AMP agencies in Hobart, Launceston and Melbourne.[28] In March 1856 he was nominated for the constituency of Gloucester and Macquarie in the Legislative Assembly [29] he did not appear in the electorate nor campaign and not surprisingly was not elected. He was appointed, in 1856, to the Legislative Council instead, indicating that he had a good deal of social credibility and some very influential supporters. [30] In 1856 he was also a founding member of the Union Club[31] and the Royal Society of New South Wales.[32]

James served in the Legislative Council from 22 May 1856 -13 May 1861 and was part of the ‘conservative representatives of the professional, landed or merchant classes’ that ‘clashed repeatedly with the elected Assembly’. The Council defeated various government bills including ‘the Chinese Immigration Bill 1858, the Electoral Law Amendment Bill 1858, the Appropriation Bill 1860 and the Robinson land bills of 1860’.[33] James served only one five year term and seems to be have been diligent in his attendance.[34] He was not one of those who resigned in protest at the attempts to stack the Legislative Council in order to get legislation through it.[35] The reconstituted Council, which met for the first time on 3 September 1861, had 23 members appointed for life by the Governor on the advice of the Executive Council. Twelve were reappointed from the previous Council but James was not one of them.[36] There is no evidence that he desired to continue in its membership and it appears he was not asked, possibly at his own request, to do so.


Phillip Russell

Sophia Louisa Russell nee Jennings (1813-1895)[37] arrived in the colony of Van Diemen’s Landon the Medway on May 31, 1832 in the company of her widowed mother Hannah, sister Sarah and cousin Sophia Gellibrand.[38] She married Philip Russell, a successful pastoralist of Bothwell at Newtown on October 27, 1836.[39] They had no children and Philip died on July 5, 1844 leaving Sophia a wealthy woman.[40]

In April 1847 Sophia accompanied her sister Sarah Tice Beazley nee Jennings and brother-in-law Rev Joseph Beazley from Tasmania to Sydney.[41] Her sister Sarah needed to move permanently to Sydney for health reasons and Joseph had been asked to minister at the newly formed Redfern Congregational Church[42] of whose building, James Comrie was a Trustee.[43] It was at the Congregational Church that Sophia and James met and six months later they were married by Joseph Beazley at the Pitt Street Congregational Church on October 12, 1847.[44] The union was to produce one child, a daughter, still born on August 9, 1849.[45]

James’ marriage to Sophia Russell in 1847, with among other things the financial resources it brought, was to be pivotal to his life. With their marriage a deed of settlement[46] was drawn up between Sophia and James which consisted of one third of Philip Russell’s estate which was to be for the benefit of Sophia and James and any children of the union during their lifetimes. This was an arrangement that was to continue should Sophia predecease James.[47] With the marriage James received not only wealth which allowed James a comfortable life in which he could pursue his interests but also a godly companion. Their marriage from all testimony was a happy one and they appear to have been well suited. When apart, such as when Sophia travelled to Tasmania to visit family for five weeks in 1854-5, she quipped ‘Mr Comrie is an admirable correspondent; whatever he neglects, he never omits writing to me. I almost fancy it worthwhile to have a little separation to endure the receipt of such letters.’[48]

Sophia was described as ‘a Christian helpmeet … and intelligent, like-minded and genial wife, and who has not only made his home comfortable but attractive by her grace of character – “the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit”’.[49] The genuineness and strength of her Christian commitment was a matter of some comment. She was, according to Rev James Cameron, who knew he well, an example of the power of the Gospel to ‘transform and adorn the character’ and that the ‘spirit of the Lord appeared so to rule her spirit as to dominate the whole of her life’.[50]


James involved himself in philanthropic activity very soon after his arrival in the colony. In 1844 he was associated with the building of Mariner’s Church, Erskine Street, Darling Harbour[51] being appointed to the first Committee of Management of the church and he served in this role from April 1844 – February 1850.[52]

He joined the governing body of the NSW Auxiliary of the Bible Society in 1847 and became a joint secretary in 1849 a position he held until 1857.[53] Upon his resignation he was appointed a Vice-President of the Society. At the end of his time as joint secretary he was able to report that the Bible Society and the Australian Religious Tract Society, another of Comrie’s interests, had ‘seen fit to revive the connection with the Tract Society, in the employment of colporteurs.’[54] Comrie began his association with the Tract Society in 1848 as its secretary and continued in the position until October 1856.[55]

The Religious Tract Society[56] existed for the purpose of disseminating the truths of Christianity in accordance with the Word of God, by means of tracts and small religious books for gratuitous distribution, and for sale at the lowest possible prices.[57] Comrie said that its

publications possess a worldwide fame for their sound and scriptural views of religious truth, their strict adherence to the great doctrines of the Reformation, and their entire absence from all those controversial points upon which the Protestant evangelical community may occasionally differ.[58]

What this meant was that

every book and tract shall, if possible, contain within its pages a certain simple statement of a sinner’s recovery from guilt and misery by the atonement and grace of the Redeemer, so that any person reading even one of the smallest of their publications …. Might yet be plainly taught that, order to obtain salvation, he must be born again of the Holy Spirt, and justified by faith in the perfect obedience unto death of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.[59]

John Fairfax remarked at a Religious Tract Society meeting that

Mr Comrie, who in the course of a year did a vast amount of work in drawing up the reports of the various religious societies with which he was connected. These reports were always drawn up with admirable care, displaying great research, and affording the most delightful reading to everyone who took an interest in the progress of Christianity.[60]

Advertisement SMH May 30, 1854 showing Comrie’s busy life

When Comrie resigned as Secretary the Society expressing its thanks said that ‘the best thanks of the committee are due to James Comrie, Esq., M.L.C. for the long, patient, persevering, and Christian services he has rendered to the society during the last eight years as its honorary secretary.’[61]

In 1848 a meeting was held at James B Laughton’s house to draft a set of rules [62] for a house of refuge later to be called the Sydney Female Refuge of which Comrie became both Treasurer and Secretary[63] and his wife, in 1850 and possibly from the commencement of the work, became secretary of the ladies committee.[64]  Mrs Comrie also took one of the girls into her home as a servant where she continued creditably for 10 months before leaving to be married.[65] James and Sophia were to serve in these capacities until 1857, at which point James stepped down and was made a vice-president.[66]

Comrie became the founding treasurer of Destitute Children’s Society from 1852-1857[67] with Mrs Comrie acting as a lady visitor.[68] The society was formed to respond to

the number of destitute and deserted children of all ages, who crowd the streets and alleys of this city’ and of the ‘pressing necessity that some measures be adopted for their reclamation from the state of wretchedness and vice in which they are now living, before they attain an age when reformation is more difficult.[69]

Sophia did not just involve herself with the charities in which James was involved. Sophia was a member of the Dorcas Society, along with her sister Sarah Beazley, at least from, and probably much earlier, 1855 until 1857.[70] Indeed many of James and Sophia’s early philanthropic activities arose from the milieu of the members of the Pitt Street Congregational Church in conjunction with the Ross, Lloyd, Beazley, Jones and Fairfax families.

At the Jubilee meeting of the YMCA in 1894, J R. Fairfax noted that in the first minute book of the association there appeared on its first leaf the name of James Comrie.[71] James was the foundation Treasurer in 1854 and maintained that position until he stepped down in January 1857.[72]

Such philanthropic activities and organisations were clearly at this time central to Comrie’s life and activities. He was described by a guest in his house as one who

takes an interest in all religious subjects & Church matters, preachers, Tracts, Bible-Societies, Religious Books, Ticklish points of Theology or doctrinal matters, Church Government, &c.; has not much to say on other subjects unless to intimate friends.[73]

It was not just in organised philanthropic organisations that James acted philanthropically. He had what he termed a ‘bank of faith,’ to aid needy and respectable immigrants in their first efforts in the colony. Through his bank of faith he kept loans to the total of £200 circulating without interest and without security, and only ever lost £20 though a default and was only because of death of one of his borrowers. [74]

In January 1856 James was due to time pressures reconsidering his various involvements and he resigned from the Secretaryship of the Religious Tract and Book Society[75] and as Secretary Treasurer of the Sydney Female Refuge.[76] By January of the following year due to ill health and the pressure upon his time he also resigned as Secretary of the NSW Auxiliary of the Bible Society and also his Treasurership of The Destitute Children’s Society.[77] In May 1857 James retired from active business, such that it was, and from charity governance and the Comrie’s quit their comfortable three story Millers Point residence in Crown Street and moved to Kurrajong.[78] The Kurrajong[79] property was called Northfield and was purchased in 1856 which James was probably able to do, though the money that came as a result of his marriage to Sophia Russell.[80]

Literary Philanthropy

James always had a great interest in books and literature having quite a passion for good reading himself. He had more than a personal love of books but also developed a habit of providing and donating them to others. James came to regard it as his mission in life to disseminate high-class literature. It was his chief hobby to buy books and give them away.[81]

He began such activities when he first arrived in Sydney and books were scarce and in his retirement to Kurrajong he seems to have increased his activity. He was constantly importing books and he purchased for distribution and resale to the general public copies of the Hogg’s Instructor. The Instructor covered a wide range of general knowledge and from James’ point of view did so in conformity with his evangelical faith for it ‘disowned the cold, stern neutrality which other magazine have preserved towards the Cross, and instead of looking askance with a scarce subdued sneer, has laid down the rich spoils of Science, Art, and Letters, at the foot of Calvary’.[82]

Comrie’s advertisement for Hogg’s Instructor

He also set up a book society and the members had a ‘Good Supper Society,’ as it was facetiously named by themselves, at the gatherings of which they compared notes, arranged for supplies of books, and promoted intellectual fellowship.[83]

He also organised a colportage for the sale of religious books throughout the colony, and got a series of tracts printed and circulated, which proved of great service during the rush of people to the goldfields. He even procured books for the Chinese, distributing them as he travelled through the country.[84]

He made donations of books to various organisations 2,000 volumes to the library of the Sydney Young Men’s Christian Association, [85] 300 volumes to the Goulburn Y.M C A., and 300 volumes to the library of Moore College, The Scots College[86] besides ‘handsome gifts’ to the Presbyterian Sabbath School at the Kurrajong and the Workingmen’s Club at Riverstone. [87] The residents of Kurrajong were a special focus of Comrie’s literary generosity and it was said that ‘Kurrajong residents … are the best supplied people as to books in the State’. [88]

Theology and Churchmanship

Comrie was a Presbyterian though it appears he was not inducted as an Elder of the Session with oversight of Kurrajong Heights but he served in that role on numerous occasions, preaching, leading services and assisting in the Lord’s Supper[89] and

while a Presbyterian by conviction, he loved all the Lord’s people. He associated with other communions in Sydney; and at his beautiful country-seat he and his like-minded wife have welcomed bishops, presbyters, evangelists, missionaries and friends of all communions with great cordiality… he was a Calvinist and evangelical, and was a genial and spiritually-minded Christian.[90]

This willingness to associate with all communions did not include an accepting attitude towards Roman Catholicism as he maintained a strong protestant critique of the claims of the jurisdiction of the Pope. This can been seen in an eloquent and passionate speech he gave to the NSW Auxiliary of the London Missionary Society[91]  in 1849 which is revealing of his views when he said:

The mightiest empires of earth had recently been shaken to their foundations. France, Austria, Prussia, and many of the German States, were now undergoing great and important changes. Nicholas of Russia, with his eagle eye and his iron heart, surrounded by his teeming myriads of slaves, felt the diadem of his vast and dreary empire tottering upon his brow. The Pope it was said weeps! Hear it ye Protestants of every name and of every clime! Hear it ye Protestant missionaries of the Cross, who have had so lately to resist the deceitful aggressions of that proud usurper! Hear it ye Protestant politicians of every land! Hear it ye men of wisdom and of wile! The Pope weeps! Weeps because liberty of conscience is suppressed in his dominions? Or because the truth which maketh every man free is in his hands inert and powerless? No! He weeps because the thunders of the Vatican are powerless, and because his once sovereign and almost universal sway is now nearly curtailed within the precincts of his own palace, The sceptre of his temporal power, which had so long swayed the empire of Christendom, was being wrested from the enfeebled grasp of the ”Man of Sin.” Surely a crisis of mighty moment was at hand. The tide of human affairs ran high. Wave succeeded wave in rapid and continuous succession, each bigger than his fellow, with the wrecks of ancient dynasties, the ruins of mighty empires, and the crash of a hundred revolutions! See how they swell and dash upon the shores of time, shaking the very foundations of human society, paralysing to a great extent the commerce of the world, and, by the hoarse thunder of their roar, startling alike the statesman and the merchant, the Christian and the philosopher. “Who among them can still the raging of the sea, the noise of the wave, and the tumult of the people.” The statesman flies to his politics, the merchant to his finance, the philosopher in haste betakes himself to his natural causes, and his natural cures, but all with equal disappointment. The Christian alone can pour oil upon the troubled waters, and hush their tumultuous billows to a calm. He possesses within his bosom a saving knowledge of the religion of Jesus Christ, which … furnishes the only principles upon which personal peace and public safety can securely rest.[92]

When reporting on the situation in the colonial churches to the Home and Foreign Missionary Record of the Church of Scotland in the 1850s he said of the challenge for the churches that the gold rush posed, that

Australia is becoming the receptacle of the off-scourings of all the earth. People from every clime, and of every tongue, as well as every hue, are flocking towards the land of gold, eagerly searching after the treasures which, for so many generations, have been hidden in the bosom of the earth.[93]

In the face of this influx of people he says that though

an intense spirit of worldliness pervades all classes of people … there is a little good doing, – an attempt to stem the torrent of ungodliness which is sweeping over us with such resistless energy. But our efforts are feeble, indeed, when compared with the mighty forces that oppose them; and we are only encouraged to press onward, and make use of the means at our disposal , by recollection , that greater is He who is for us than any who can be against us.[94]

His report of the ’little good doing’ mentioned positively the work of the Tract Society making particular reference to the provision of bibles and literature to Roman Catholic families in the remote areas of NSW.

His association with the Church of England, on the other hand, was a cordial one which was reciprocated. It probably initially arose as he lived in Crown Street, Millers Point as a neighbour to Frederick Barker the Bishop of Sydney.[95] He and Barker had mutual friends in ‘the old country’ and became friends, the bishop being the Comrie’s first visitor when they moved to Kurrajong. This friendship goes a long way to explaining the Comrie’s gift of eleven acres of land at Kurrajong to St Catherine’s Waverly in 1861.[96] He also became much later in 1899 a Vice President of the Church of England Association.[97] The breadth of Sophie Comrie’s bequests, no doubt advised in part by her husband, included Congregational, Wesleyan, Presbyterian and Anglican Churches also demonstrates their protestant catholicity.


On his retirement to Kurrajong James’ primary interest was in the development of his impressive gardens and property which were made available to visitors and for various activities. Visitors were captivated by the views it presented and the gardens he had developed.

There is a well-kept avenue leading through a natural forest of eucalypti, myrtle, acacia, and fern trees, three-quarters of a mile long, leading to the second gates, and opening unexpectedly to view a far more magnificent sight than before. It presents a splendid panorama of almost unrivalled beauty, and burst suddenly on the sight, stretching over the whole valley of the Hawkesbury three thousand feet below, towards the coast line, with distant Sydney in front; and away towards the mountains of Wollombi and the Hunter on the north, and to those of Illawarra and Kiama on the south. [98]

Sophia and James Comrie in their gardens at Northfields

His interests in retirement were largely horticultural and he also penned letters to the newspapers commenting on such things as; the introduction of crested quail of California, sometimes called the Arizona Quail on his property; [99] the value of Turpentine as a wood being white ant resistant.[100] He contributed to science in providing rainfall measurements and making observations on sunsets.[101] Above all, however, he developed his magnificent gardens about which poets wrote lauding not just the gardens but their owners:

Northfields – on the Kurrajong heights

Sweet garden of my story.

Most beautiful and fair

Art thou in all thy glory,

A paradise so rare.


Where choicest of fruits

And rarest of flowers,

Commingle their fragrance

In the sunshiny hours.


A vision of Eden,

On the wild forest hills;

Whence zephyrs come laden

With songs from the rills.


Midst grassy avenues,

Fringed with ferns and palms,

And foliage of all hues

Whose beauty ever charms.


There stands a rustic home,

Bowered with leafy vines,

Beneath whose sheltered dome

A loving old age shines.


Where live the pioneers,

Whose hands subdued the soil;

Reaping the fruit of years,

Which comes to honest toil.


As with the rising sun.

From early morn till night,

Each busy task is done,

Each Cheery heart is tight.


Not merely for themselves

Or an inglorious ease,

As a miser who delves

Himself but to please.


Nor theirs a bannered hall,

Where lordly princelings live,

They, generous to all,

A homely welcome give.


And thoughtful of others,

Some bounteous deed perform,

Which links men as brothers

To their hearts deep and warm.


Such lives a garden seem,

Wherein are fruits most rare,

And flowers that we deem

Celestial fragrance bear.


And may a green old age

Be theirs, undimmed by tears

Or winter’s stormy rage,

Through all the fleeting years.[102]


James died in 1902 and was buried at Rookwood beside his wife who had died before him in 1895.[103] Now that James had died Sophia’s estate could be finalised for she had, simply put, left her estate to James with a lifetime benefit and on his death her bequests took effect.[104] Sophia demonstrating the wide sympathies of both herself and James left 30 bequests of £100 each to various charities to be invested and with the interest, less administration fees, to be donated as an annual subscription. These charities were:

Sydney Female Refuge Society
Sydney Night Refuge and Soup Kitchen
Destitute Children’s Asylum, Randwick
Deaf Dumb and Blind Asylum, Newtown
Sick Children’s Hospital, Glebe
Prince Alfred Hospital, Sydney
Sydney Hospital, Macquarie Street
Sydney City Mission
Ardill’s Rescue Home
Salvation Army, Sydney
Dr Barnardo’s Homes for Children, London
Boys Brigade Late Sussex Street, Sydney
London Missionary Society South Sea Missions Sydney
British and Foreign Bible Society (Auxiliary Office Sydney)
Church Society of the Church of England (Diocese of Sydney)
Congregational Church Union
Sydney Benevolent Asylum
Carrington Convalescent Hospital
Thirlmere Consumptive Home
Sydney Ragged Schools
Church of England Mission to New Guinea
Wesleyan Mission to New Guinea
Wesleyan Mission York Street (Mission to the neglected children of colony of NSW)
Congregational Home Mission
London Missionary Society Mission to New Guinea, Sydney
Presbyterian Mission to the New Hebrides
Presbyterian Mission to Australian Aborigines, Sydney
Bethel Union

The interest from £250 pounds was left to the Presbyterian Church at Kurrajong Heights to augment the stipend of the minister with the condition that if at any time within 20 years of her decease services not be held for two consecutive Sabbaths then the bequest would cease. She also left £100 to the Bothwell Presbyterian Church, Tasmania.

She left £500 to the City of Sydney for a drinking fountain for ‘the use of man and beast’ to be constructed. The fountain made of Bowral trachyte and called by the Council of the City of Sydney, the Comrie Memorial Fountain, was erected in Queen’s Square, Sydney[105] and unveiled in July 1904.[106] It bore the inscription: ‘This fountain, erected AD 1904, is a gift from Mrs S L Comrie, of Northfields, Kurrajong Heights, to the Citizens of Sydney.’

The Comrie Memorial Fountain, Queen’s Square, Sydney

Sophia also left bequests totalling almost £6,000 to some 23 relatives. All told her specific bequests totalled almost £10,000 which is approximately $1.3million in today’s values.[107] At his death, it was James, rather than Sophia who was lauded as a philanthropist but it would appear that it was largely Sophia’s money from her first marriage that allowed James in his later life the leisure and finance to be a philanthropist. Sophia’s willingness to allow her resources to be used in this way and the gifts she bestowed through her estate qualify her to also be regarded as a philanthropist.

Memorial Tables placed in the Presbyterian Church at Kurrajong Heights

The memorial of twin tablets that was placed in the Presbyterian Church at Kurrajong Heights to celebrate their lives contains, apart from the biographical details, three inscriptions which sum up Sophia Louisa Russell and James Comrie. The first is above both tablets and speaks of their shared faith and trust in Jesus and reads ‘Our faith looks up to thee, thou lamb of Calvary, Saviour Divine’ the other two are at the foot of their individual tablets and are to be read together and they say ‘Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord’ and ‘They rest from their labours & their works do follow them’. These inscriptions were an appropriate epitaph for both Sophia and James Comrie.


I am indebted to Sue Pacey and Daryl Lightfoot of the Ferguson Library and Archive of the Presbyterian Church in NSW and Professor Ian Jack for their assistance in researching this article. Thanks also to Gillian Doyle. The photos of James Comrie and his wife Sophia are from the Scott family albums and may be found in Doyle, G. (2008). Reverend William Scott, M.A.: First government astronomer and first director of Sydney Observatory / researched and written by Gillian E. Doyle. Pymble, N.S.W.: Gillian Doyle.

 Dr Paul F Cooper, Research Fellow, Christ College, Sydney

The appropriate way to cite this article is as follows:

Paul F Cooper. James Comrie (1816-1902) Literary Philanthropist. Philanthropy and Philanthropists in Australian Colonial History, March 21, 2017.  Available at

[1] Hawkesbury Herald (Windsor, NSW), November 7, 1902, 5.

[2] Windsor and Richmond Gazette (Windsor, NSW), November 8, 1902, 6.

[3] Windsor and Richmond Gazette (Windsor, NSW), November 8, 1902, 6.

[4] SMH, November 4, 1902, 1.

[5] Peter Comrie died in 1818 and Helen in 1847.

[6] Thomas McCrie (November 1772 – 5 August 1835) was an anti-burger secessionist, Christopher Anderson (19 February 1782 – 18 February 1852) was a Scottish Baptist theological writer and preacher.

[7] The Presbyterian (Sydney, NSW), July 9, 1892, Supplement.

[8] The Presbyterian (Sydney, NSW), July 9, 1892, Supplement.

[9] Proceedings of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, 1842, 306.

[10] For further information on Burns see

[11] Australasian Chronicle (Sydney, NSW), June 3, 1843, 3; Hawkesbury Herald (Windsor, NSW), November 7, 1902, 5; SMH, June 3, 1843, 2. The SMH, however, incorrectly gives the year as 1842. The Presbyterian (Sydney, NSW), July 9, 1892, Supplement.

[12] SMH, July 31, 1844, 3; November 4, 1844. These wharves were in close proximity to one another and James lived in Crown Street, Miller’s Point which was also close by the wharf.

[13] Shipping Gazette and Sydney General Trade List (Sydney, NSW), March 7, 1846, 64.

[14] Pianos SMH, March 20, 1848, 3; February 21, 1852, 7; clothing  SMH, February 4,  1854,  3; Spices and  gold rush equipment SMH, February 4,  1854,  3;  Books SMH, August 16, 1851, 5.

[15] George Russell to William Lewis, October 9, 1850, Vol IV, Clyde Company Papers, Edited by P.L. Brown, (London: Oxford University Press, 1941-1971), 561-2.

[16] It appears James requested and was granted admission to the Congregational Church on the condition he could remain a Presbyterian. The Presbyterian (Sydney, NSW), July 9, 1892, Supplement.

[17] James Comrie Lloyd (1848-1914) sang at Mrs Comrie’s funeral in 1895. The Presbyterian (Sydney, NSW), May 4, 1895, 5.

[18]  Quoted in Curthoys, Patricia, Emilsen, Susan E., Emilsen, William W, and Skerman, Ben. Pride of Place: A History of the Pitt Street Congregational Church (Beaconsfield, Vic.: Circa, 2008), 45.

[19] The Presbyterian (Sydney, NSW), May 4, 1895, 5.

[20] Australian Town and Country Journal (Sydney, NSW), September 22, 1877, 10; The Register (Adelaide, SA), June 1, 1926, 6.

[21]  The Advertiser (Adelaide, SA), May 26, 1909, 9.

[22] SMH, June 17, 1850, 3. Others were Thomas Barker, G. W. Allen, W. Bowman, Alexander Campbell, S. A. Donaldson, John Fairfax, John Gilchrist, G.A. Lloyd, T.S. Mort, T.W. Smith, A.W. Young.

[23] SMH, February 4, 1850, 4.

[24] New South Wales Government Gazette (Sydney, NSW), July 25, 1854, 901, 1588.

[25]  SMH, July 27, 1857, 4.

[26] SMH, December 28, 1855, 1.

[27] Empire (Sydney, NSW), January 26, 1856, 4.

[28] Empire (Sydney, NSW), January 30, 1856, 3.

[29] Empire (Sydney, NSW), March 14, 1856, 2.

[30] In 1855 a system of responsible government was established in New South Wales with a bicameral Parliament comprising a Legislative Assembly, in addition to the Legislative Council. The new Legislative Council was appointed by the Governor on the advice of the government of the day (rather than being partly elected as it had been before). Members of the Council were to serve an initial five year term, following which the Council’s membership would be appointed for life. [accessed 9 December 2016.].

[31] Arthur Dowling, Notes on the genesis and progress of the Union Club, Sydney (Sydney, 1924), 54.  The Union Club served as an address for him when away from Kurrajong and staying in Sydney. Empire (Sydney, NSW), May 16, 1857, 1.

[32] SMH, June 14, 1856, 3. Members List in Transactions of the Royal Society of New South Wales, Volume 9, 1876, ix.

[33] Lynn Lovelock and John Evans. New South Wales Legislative Council practice, Annandale, N.S.W.: Federation Press, 2008, 22.

[34] Minutes of NSW Legislative Council, 1856-1861.

[35]  Illawarra Mercury (Wollongong, NSW), May 14, 1861, 2.

[36] Lynn Lovelock and John Evans. New South Wales Legislative Council practice. 24.

[37] Windsor and Richmond Gazette (Windsor, NSW), May 11, 1895, 6.

[38] Colonial Times (Hobart, Tas), June 5, 1832, 2.

[39] Brent’s News and Tasmanian Three-Penny Register (Hobart Town, Tas), October 29, 1836, 4. Russell (1796 – 1844 had arrived in the colony in 1822 on the Castle Forbes. Hobart Town Gazette and Van Diemen’s Land Advertiser (Hobart, Tas), March 2, 1822,  2.

[40] The Cornwall Chronicle (Launceston, Tas). July 27, 1844, 2.  His grave inscription reads: Philip RUSSELL who settled in Van Diemans Land 1822 Died 7th July 1844 aged 47 years. [accessed 5/2/2017]

[41]The Sentinel (Sydney, NSW), May 6, 1847, 2.  Joseph and Sarah had married in 1839 and had a number of children. The Asiatic Journal and Monthly Register of British and Foreign India, China, and Australasia Vol XXIX 1839, 153. She was unwell and the family on medical advice took up residence in Sydney. The Courier (Hobart, Tas), February 6, 1847, 4. While her sister’s health was sufficient reason to leave Tasmania there may have been another reason which made this a desirable course of action. Reference in Sophia’s correspondence is made to letters which had passed between herself and a Mr Clark. She had returned his packet of letters to him but he had refused to return his to her. She said that this was ‘another striking proof that I have a perfect gentleman to deal with in the writer of them. His false assertions & misrepresentations are extraordinary.’  Mrs Philip Russell to George Russell 27 August, 1846, Vol IV, Clyde Company Papers, Edited by P.L. Brown, (London: Oxford University Press, 1941-1971), 91. In a further letter she says of the letters that ‘Mr Clark has refused to give back my letters, but promises that no use hurtful to my feelings shall ever be made of them. He also promises Maria that he will not think of intruding at my house; & surely he would scarcely dare to offer such an affront to society even as to do that!  Mrs Philip Russell to George Russell, Green Ponds, 3 September 1846, Vol IV, Clyde Company Papers, Edited by P.L. Brown, (London: Oxford University Press, 1941-1971), 94.

[42] Joseph had brought his wife to Sydney in 1846 and supplied the pulpit during Rev Dr Robert Ross’ absence and had impressed the congregation though his ministry. The Courier (Hobart, Tas), May 17, 1848, 2.

[43] SMH, March 18, 1847,   2.

[44] Launceston Examiner (Launceston, Tas), November 6, 1847, 6.

[45] SMH, August 11, 1849, 4.

[46] It was dated 11 October 1857. Joseph Beazley, John Fairfax and George Alfred Lloyd were appointed Executors and Administrators. Last Will and Testament Sophia Louise Comrie 9702 dated November 15, 1894.

[47] Last Will and Testament Sophia Louise Comrie 9702 dated November 15, 1894.

[48] Mrs James Comrie to Mrs Williams, Launceston January 13, 1855, Vol VI, Clyde Company Papers, Edited by P.L. Brown, (London: Oxford University Press, 1941-1971), 238

[49] The Presbyterian (Sydney, NSW), July 9, 1892, Supplement.

[50] Windsor and Richmond Gazette (Windsor, NSW), May 4, 1895, 6.

[51] The Colonial Observer (Sydney, NSW), April 25, 1844, 4; The Australian (Sydney, NSW), October 23, 1844, 2.

[52]  SMH, February 21, 1850, 2 he did not seek reappointment in 1850.

[53] SMH, March 25, 1847, 3; Empire (Sydney, NSW), January 31, 1857, 4.

[54] Empire (Sydney, NSW), January 31, 1857, 4.

[55] SMH, October 28, 1856, 5.

[56] This organisation was popularly known under a number of different names: Religious Tract Society; Religious Tract and Book Society; the Australian Religious Tract and Book Society

[57] SMH, February 27, 1850, 2.

[58] Empire (Sydney, NSW), May 29, 1855, 4.

[59] Empire (Sydney, NSW), May 29, 1855, 4.

[60] SMH, February 22, 1854, 2.

[61] SMH, October 28, 1856, 5.

[62] The Presbyterian (Sydney, NSW), July 9, 1892, Supplement. There appears to have been an initial meeting at the home of Counsellor Neale. Sentinel (Sydney, NSW), May 25, 1848, 2.

[63] SMH, August 23, 1848, 2.

[64] SMH, May 27, 1850, 3.

[65] Empire (Sydney, NSW), May 31, 1860, 5.

[66] Empire (Sydney, NSW), January 1, 1856, 5; SMH, March 25, 1859, 9.

[67] Empire (Sydney, NSW), March 27, 1852,1; SMH, January 20, 1857, 3.

[68] SMH, May 9, 1856, 5.

[69] Empire (Sydney, NSW), March 27, 1852, 1.

[70] Annual Report of Dorcas Society 1857, 1855.

[71] SMH, June 12, 1894, 7.

[72] SMH, January 10, 1854, 2; September 1, 1857, 4.

[73] George Russell to William Lewis, October 9, 1850, Vol IV, Clyde Company Papers, Edited by P.L. Brown, (London: Oxford University Press, 1941-1971), 561-2.

[74] Windsor and Richmond Gazette (Windsor, NSW), November 8, 1902, 6.

[75] SMH, October 28, 1856, 5.

[76]  SMH, November 17, 1856, 8. He was appointed a Vice President.

[77] Empire (Sydney, NSW), January 31, 1857. 4; SMH, January 20, 1857, 3.

[78] George Russell to William Lewis, October 9, 1850, Vol IV, Clyde Company Papers, Edited by P.L. Brown, (London: Oxford University Press, 1941-1971), 561-2. Their household goods were auction on May 5, 1857, Empire (Sydney, NSW), May, 1857, 7; and the house let by 15 May; SMH, May 14, 1857, 8. See also SMH, May 14, 1857, 8; Empire (Sydney, NSW), May 4, 1857, 7.

[79] SMH, June 3, 1843, 2.

[80] Register of Deeds, NSW Department of Lands, 2 September 1856 45, 854, 856, 625 from Patricia Downes [accessed 6/12/2016] The Clyde Company of which Sophia’s husband Philip had been a partner was sold in 1857-8 and perhaps a considerable sum of money came to Sophia at that time.

[81] Windsor and Richmond Gazette (Windsor, NSW), November 8, 1902, 6.

[82] SMH, August 16, 1851, 5.

[83] Windsor and Richmond Gazette (Windsor, NSW), November 8, 1902, 6.

[84] Windsor and Richmond Gazette (Windsor, NSW), November 8, 1902, 6.

[85] Windsor and Richmond Gazette (Windsor, NSW), April 30, 1892, 6.

[86]Windsor and Richmond Gazette (Windsor, NSW), July 22, 1893, 5.

[87] Windsor and Richmond Gazette (Windsor, NSW), November 8, 1902, 6.

[88] Windsor and Richmond Gazette (Windsor, NSW), November 8, 1902, 6.

[89] Presbyterian and Australian Witness, March 19, 1897, 5. He had of course been ordained as an Elder in Scotland and this was clearly sufficient for him to be accorded such roles at Kurrajong Heights.

[90] The Presbyterian (Sydney, NSW), July 9, 1892, Supplement.

[91] He and his brother in law the Rev Joseph Beazley were to become joint Secretaries in 1853/54. Empire (Sydney, NSW), April 26, 1854, 3. The Evangelical Magazine and Missionary Chronicle, Vol 31, 1853, 572.

[92] SMH, April 4, 1849, 2. The idea of ‘The Pope weeps!’ over a European decline and Britain’s ascendency seems to have come from newspaper articles circulating at the time cf. South Australian (Adelaide, SA), February 13, 1849, 3.

[93] Home and Foreign Missionary Record of the Church of Scotland, No. IV, Vol IX, April 1854, 75-77.

[94] Home and Foreign Missionary Record of the Church of Scotland, No. IV, Vol IX, April 1854, 75-77.

[95] SMH, May 17, 1859, 7. Barker arrived at Sydney on 25 May 1855. M

[96] SMH, April 20, 1861, 7. It was not, however, finalised until 1872. Register of Deeds, NSW Department of Lands 22 Jan 1878 191, 79 Lot 48 to the benefit of a certain institution known as ‘The Clergy Daughters School’ at Waverley from Patricia Downes [accessed 6/12/2016]

[97] SMH, November 14, 1899, 6.

[98] Australian Town and Country Journal (Sydney, NSW), May 13, 1871, 16.

[99] SMH, April 24, 1876, 3.

[100] SMH, July 7, 1870, 5.

[101] SMH, May 8, 1884, 11.

[102] Windsor and Richmond Gazette (Windsor, NSW: 1888), December 16, 1893, 19.

[103] Windsor and Richmond Gazette (Windsor, NSW), November 8, 1902, 6.

[104] Last Will and Testament of Sophia Louise Comrie, Northfield Kurrajong Heights 9702 dated November 15, 1894.

[105] It currently is at the end of Federation Way in Moore Park, Sydney. It was dismantled as part of Eastern Distributor works in 1995, restored and reopened in 2011 with new sustainable water features at the end of Federation Way in Moore Park, opposite Robertson Road Gates, Moore Park (corner Lang Road and Robertson Road).

[106]  SMH, July 28, 1904, 7; The Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser (Sydney, NSW), July 20, 1904, 155.

[107] Sophia’s Estate Papers and those of James suggest that their combined estate may not have been quite enough to cover the full value of Sophia’s bequests. NSW State Archives, Estate Papers, James Comrie 19/10215 and Sophia Louisa Comrie 20/83

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