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John Mills (1829-1880) wholesale grocer and governance philanthropist

John Mills was born in 1829 in Tidworth, Wiltshire, to James Mills, a farmer and his wife Charlotte nee Mackrell.[1] John was a cigar manufacturer[2] but was listed as a clerk when he came to the colony of Victoria. He arrived on the Nepaul at Port Philip Bay on 20 October 1852, while on 24 November 1852, Emily Stidolph (20 June 1826-27 June 1887) arrived on the Chalmers. John and Emily were married on 14 January 1853 at the Lonsdale Street Congregational Church[3] and were to have eight children: William Mackrell (1854-1931), Caroline Eliza (1856-1914), Stephen (1857-1948),[4] Emily (1862-1940),[5] Lucie Ellen (1863-1948),[6] Arthur John (1865-1916),[7] Evelyn Clara (1867-1954)[8] and Sylvia Hannah (1869-1927).[9]The Mills soon moved to Sydney and lived firstly at 11 Botany Street and then at 78 Albion Street, Surry Hills, from at least 1862 until 1872 when they moved out of the city to the semi-rural setting of ‘Elston Villa’, Alt Street, Ashfield.[10] In 1879, the impressive ‘Casiphia’ was constructed in Julia Street, Ashfield, and was occupied by the family.[11]

John Mills died in 1880 at the age of 51,[12] leaving Emily with eight sons and daughters aged between 11 and 26 years. He was buried in the cemetery adjacent to the Dobroyde Presbyterian Church.[13] Emily moved from their home ‘Casiphia’[14] in Ashfield to ‘Aurelia’ in Liverpool Road, Croydon, where she died in 1887 aged 61.[15]

The Wholesale Grocer

When and how John came to be employed in Sydney is unknown. He may have placed an advertisement like the one below for it fits him well; he was at that time 24 years old, married, and he did end up working in the grocery business.[16] It is known that he was in Sydney by June 1853[17] but not if he was employed in the grocery trade by that time.

SMH 7 November 1853, 1

The first ‘grocery’ reference to John Mills is in December 1854 in Sydney where he was, as a grocer’s assistant, in the employ of William Terry, Wholesale Grocer. John, along with 34 other grocer’s assistants, had petitioned their employers to rationalize the business hours that they were expected to keep.

Their argument was that

… we need not enumerate the many advantages that would be derived by us, in allowing more time for moral improvement and healthful recreation, and after carefully studying our employers,[sic] interest and making that our great desideratum, we must respectfully submit for their approval the following proposal:

Their proposal was to restrict business hours so ‘That business be closed every night at seven o’clock, except Saturday, on which night close at ten o’clock. To commence January 1st, 1855’.[18]

John worked for William Terrey as his shop man and he was conscientious. One incident in his life as a shopkeeper made the newspaper in 1855. On entering the shop, Mills had noticed a boy leaning over the counter with his hand in the till. As soon as he saw Mills he took off as did his companion cockatoo who was meant to give a warning. Mills gave chase and finally caught them both. The young thief admitted to taking 10 shillings and offered to return it on condition he be let go. This was not agreed to but the 10 shillings was handed over anyway and off to the Police he was taken. On searching him, a florin from the shop was found. As there was not enough evidence to convict the cockatoo he was sent home. The young thief, however, since it was his fifth offence in less than a year, was given three months jail; he was ten years old.[19]

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Bush Missionary Society – the early years up to World War 1

In 1861, the Queanbeyan-based newspaper ‘The Golden Age’ reported a case which it regarded as one of ‘rank heathenism’ and ‘an instance of the most lamentable ignorance it is possible to conceive of, as existing in a professedly Christian country’.[1] The ‘rank heathenism’ and ‘lamentable ignorance’ concerned a 12-year-old boy named Hobson and his lack of even a basic civilising experience of school and church or an understanding of the Christian faith. He was to testify in the Small Debts Court, but before he was sworn in to give evidence the Police Magistrate asked him a few questions:

PM         How old are you?

Boy        Don’t know.

PM         Have you been to school?

Boy        No.

PM         Ever been to church?

Boy        No.

PM         Do you say any prayers?

Boy        No.

PM         Ever heard of God?

Boy        No.

PM         Ever heard of heaven or hell?

Boy        No. [and after some hesitation] Yes, I think I have.

PM         What people go to heaven when they die?

Boy        Bad people.

The newspaper then commented on the situation and suggested a remedy:

Who the parents of the boy are, we know not; but such a specimen of rank heathenism we never heard of in a so-called Christian country. We draw the attention of the committee of the Bush Missionary Society to this case.[2]

The isolation of the ‘bush’ in colonial Australia meant that there were many, like young Hobson, who were never exposed to the Christian message, worship and prayer and were thereby ignorant of its precepts; the problem was recognised, but it was difficult to address. An attempt, however, was being made to address this lack of Christian ministry through the distribution of bibles and religious literature by colporteurs, and it was to this ministry of the Bush Missionary Society (BMS) that the Queanbeyan newspaper ‘The Golden Age’ looked in order to address the problem.

The BMS was, however, not the first in the colony of NSW to seek to deal with the issue of the spiritual neglect of the bush through the use of colporteurs.  This honour belongs to James Robinson, colporteur with the Bible Society, who was the first to provide a ministry of bible distribution to the sparsely populated rural districts.  In 1852, Robinson began his work in ‘the bush’ and in his helpful article Gladwin says that:

Robinson’s journeys were the first of many undertaken by dozens of colporteurs—across the Australian continent—on behalf of Australian Bible Society agencies during the second half of the nineteenth century. They provided important pastoral and evangelistic ministry to sparsely populated rural districts in the decades before the creation of dedicated ministries such as the Anglican Bush Brotherhoods (1897–1920) and the evangelical Anglican Bush Church Aid Society (BCA, founded 1919).[3]

Well before the commencement of the Anglican bush ministries that Gladwin mentions, and only a few years after the commencement of the work of the Bible Society, the ministry of the non-denominational Juvenile Missionary Society (JMS), later known as the New South Wales Bush Missionary Society (BMS), was inaugurated.[4]

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