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Professor John Smith (1821-1885): Theosophical Dabbler or Devotee?

John Smith (1821-1885), foundation professor of chemistry and experimental physics at the University of Sydney, was born on 12 December, 1821, at Peterculter, Aberdeenshire, Scotland, the son of Roderick Smith, blacksmith, and his wife Margaret, née Shier. From 1839 he studied at the Marischal College, Aberdeen (M.A., 1843; M.D., 1844). Smith arrived in Sydney on 8 September, 1852, on the Australian.[1]

Professor John Smith

There is a good deal of information available on Smith, but little work has been done on his philanthropic and religious views. An article from Sydney University, which understandably concentrates on his scientific work, briefly mentions his philanthropic interests but omits to make any mention at all of his religious commitments which were also an important feature of his life.[2]

The Australian Dictionary of Biography says of his religious views that ‘In the 1860s Smith served on the committees of several religious organizations’, by which is meant Christian organisations, and that

In January 1882 he had called at Bombay and joined the Indian section of the Theosophical Society, having been influenced by his wife’s spiritualism and the lectures of the theosophist Emma Hardinge Britten in Australia in 1878-79. In Europe in 1882-83 he experimented with the occult.[3]

This article’s religious emphasis falls on the last five years of Smith’s 63-year life and has little to say about his religious commitments during the previous 58 years. This is reflective of Jill Roe’s work which is mainly concerned with Smith’s interest in Theosophy[4] and, while not said overtly, she seems to want to paint Smith as a theological progressive moving from the strictures of a doctrinal Presbyterianism to Theosophy.  For Roe, Smith’s encounter with Theosophy was about ‘religious progress’ and the ‘maintenance of true religion’.

The usual paradigm for recruits to spiritualism was one of a theological ‘progress’ which moved from a nineteenth-century disillusionment with the revelation-based approach of Christianity to the intuitive approach to religious knowledge of theosophy. The disillusionment with revelation was rooted in an uncertainty about the Bible, fed by the rise of biblical criticism, the theory of evolution and an increased moral sensitivity repulsed by various biblical events. The problem with this hinted assessment of Smith is that while there is clear evidence of his interest in theosophy there is no evidence to support a disillusionment in his Christian thought, a point which Roe concedes.[5] Roe equates Smith’s interest in theosophy with a desire for ‘religious progress’, but it could equally be a case of intellectual curiosity. For a Professor of Physics, the role and reputed powers of the masters in theosophy would raise serious questions about the nature of matter and spirit. Perhaps it is from a desire for ‘scientific progress’ rather than ‘religious progress’ that Smith’s chief motivation to understand spiritualism arose. That is not to say that Smith had no interest in what Theosophy might have to say about spiritual matters. Rather, it might be better to see Smith as, to use Malcolm Prentis’ expression, a ‘dabbler’[6] in Theosophy rather than a devotee. This article seeks to examine such a possibility. (more…)

John Shedden Adam (1824-1906) Presbyterian and governance philanthropist

John Shedden Adam from Graham W Hardy, Living Stones, the Story of St Stephen’s Sydney

John Shedden Adam was born in 1824 in Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis, Scotland, to James Adam (1771-1849) and Janet Shedden (1788-1863).[1] James and Janet married on August 10, 1807, and they had eight children of whom John was the youngest son. John’s father was a man of many parts being an estate manager or factor, a land improver, a Writer to the Signet and the inventor of a screw propeller for naval ships.[2] James was originally from Lochwinnoch where he had a small property and in 1807 was appointed the factor on the great Drummond estate. On his own account, he was later involved in land improvement schemes at Barr Loch from 1813 until 1815; these proved a financial disaster.[3] Fortunately, by marrying into the Shedden family and through the wealth and generosity of Janet’s uncle, the Adam family did not face ruin and were later to inherit significant wealth.[4] These Barr Loch holdings were sold by 1820[5] and on quitting agricultural pursuits and leaving Garpel near Lochwinnoch, James practised as a Writer to the Signet (solicitor) in Edinburgh, a profession to which he had been apprenticed.[6]

Around 1821, James returned again to the role of factor (property manager) moving his family to Lewis where he worked for Mackenzie of Seaforth at least until 1826.[7] Around this date, he moved back to Edinburgh and recommenced his business as a Writer to the Signet.[8] John Shedden Adam, despite the strong family connections to Lochwinnoch where all his siblings were born and his relatives had significant landholdings, spent his childhood initially on Lewis and then from 5 years of age in Edinburgh.[9] He went to school at the Royal Naval and Military Academy, Lothian Road, Edinburgh.[10] This institution was commenced for the purpose of ‘affording education to pupils destined to serve in the army or navy, or East India Company’s service’. The Academy taught a range of practical subjects such as mathematics, science and engineering and languages but, importantly for Adam’s future work as a draftsman, it also taught landscape and perspective drawing.[11] In 1841, John was awarded the Master’s prize in senior mathematics and first prize in civil engineering.[12]

The Adam Family and New Zealand

By 1841, the extended Adam family had decided to seek their fortune in New Zealand. John’s brother James and his wife Margaret took passage to New Zealand on the Brilliant and arrived in October of that year. The Adam family had been convinced by the New Zealand Manukau and Waitemata Company to invest £1,200 in shares for land[13] and were led to believe that the wonderful city of Cornwallis was ready and waiting for energetic young immigrants, such as themselves, from Scotland.[14] The settlement was a disaster. Where settlers expected there to be a town there was nothing but wilderness, and they had been duped by exaggerated promises.[15] Sadly, the settlement leader, together with James Adam and several others, going on an errand of mercy to get medicine for a sick woman (Mrs. Hamblin, wife of the Missionary at Manukau) were drowned in November of 1841[16] and the plans of the Adam family were thrown into disarray.

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John Nicholson Mailer (1825-1892) Depository for the Religious Tract and Book Society

John Nicholson Mailer (1825-1892)[1] was born in Edinburgh to Andrew Mailer, a stone mason, and Marion Nicholson. His older brothers, Andrew and Robert, were shoemakers and John, at aged 16, was also apprenticed to that trade. John became a bookbinder, however, and married Mary Cochrane in July, 1852 in Edinburgh at St Cuthbert’s.[2] Andrew and Robert emigrated to America; Andrew in 1849 and his brother Robert and his mother Mary sometime before 1851.[3] John and Mary decided to come to Australia and arrived in the colony of New South Wales in November 1854.[4] Their eldest son Andrew (1854-1902)[5] was born in Scotland and the Mailers had four other children in Australia: John Henry (1857-1887),[6] Robert Adam Thomson (1861-1925),[7]  Mary (1862-1937) [8] and Ida Marion (1868-1868).[9]

In Sydney, John found work in his trade as a book binder[10] and became an assistant to James W Waugh in Waugh and Cox’s stationery and bookselling business in 1855.[11] In November 1862, John purchased the business operating at 286 George Street, Sydney, and advertised himself as a stationer and account book manufacturer,[12] telling potential customers that ‘his practical knowledge of the Account Book Manufacture enables him to assure those who may favour him with their patronage that nothing will be supplied but such as are of the best material, workmanship, and latest improvements.’[13] The business did not appear to prosper and by August 1864 all his assets were assigned to Trustees on behalf of his creditors[14] and by November 1865,[15] he had decided to cease trading and by December 1865, all his stock had been sold to pay off the creditors.[16]

In 1866, it had been necessary for the jointly operated bookshop of the British and Foreign Bible Society and Religious Tract and Book Society (RTS) to dismiss their depository and to seek a new appointment.[17] The Society had not been served well by its recent appointments as in 1862 the then depository, Joseph Holloway Morrison, was found guilty of embezzlement of society funds to the amount of about £600.[18] The newly advertised position attracted a salary of £250 with residence at the Bible Hall, Pitt Street, and the successful applicant was also required to post a security of £500. [19]  John Mailer applied and was appointed.[20]

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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.

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John Hay Goodlet (1835-1914), Presbyterian Philanthropist, Timber Merchant and Manufacturer

John Hay Goodlet

John Hay Goodlet

John Hay Goodlet was born in Leith, Scotland in 1835 the second son and one of eight children of George and Mary Goodlet (nee Hay). He was educated at the Edinburgh Institution for Languages and Mathematics. After he completed school he went to work for a time at the Edinburgh Roperie and Sailmaking Company in Leith.

In 1852, not yet seventeen years of age, he left Scotland for Melbourne Australia arriving in June of that year. He found employment as a clerk in the firm of some fellow Scots, Charles and John Smith who were timber merchants. Within a year he was a partner in the business. In June of 1855, possibly due to a depression in the commercial scene in Melbourne, he went to Sydney and commenced a timber yard and saw mill in Erskine Street in partnership with the Smiths which was known as JH Goodlet and Company. The business did well and by early 1859 the partnership had been dissolved and another entered into with James Smith, a brother of his former partners, and in late 1860 the name of the firm was changed to that of Goodlet and Smith.

G and S Pyrmont or Darling Harbour

Goodlet and Smith

In 1867 Goodlet and Smith expanded their interests and began producing bricks, pottery and earthenware in Riley Street, Sydney. In 1870 the site was expanded with state of the art labour saving machinery. By 1872 a Hoffman Annular Kiln had been installed and the works continued to produce earthenware until it was closed in 1915. In 1873 the Waterloo Brickworks were opened and operated until the mid 1890s. In 1884 Goodlet and Smith purchased the Junction Brick Works at Granville and later Goodlet showed his entrepreneurial attitudes by introducing the first successful colonial production of Marseille roof tiles. He also produced the first commercially viable high quality Portland cement at this site. All of Goodlet’s manufacturing activities were charactised by the use of up to date technology and labour saving devices. This enabled Goodlet to produce excellent products which sold well and produced good profits for the company.

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Ann Alison Goodlet nee Panton (1822- 1903), Presbyterian Philanthropist and missions promoter.

Ann Alison Goodlet

Ann Alison Goodlet

 Although Ann Alison Goodlet at her death attracted much praise for her charitable works, her kindness and loving concern, little appears to have been known about her background by either friends, acquaintances or admirers. Even the stained glass window that was erected in her honour at the Ashfield Presbyterian Church spelt her name incorrectly.[1] It seems to have been a characteristic of Ann and John Goodlet that neither said much about themselves. Ann is the forgotten Mrs Goodlet for while Elizabeth Mary Goodlet (nee Forbes), the second wife of John, has received some notice, Ann has been overlooked.

According to her death certificate, the simple facts about Ann Alison Goodlet are that she was born in 1827, arrived in New South Wales (NSW) in 1855 and died on 3rd January 1903. The background of Ann is, however, somewhat more complicated for Ann Alison Goodlet, the daughter of William Panton and his wife Ann Jane (nee Kent), was actually born in 1822 shortly before William and Ann left Scotland for the colony of NSW.[2]  Their ship was the Andromeda and the Reverend John Dunmore Lang, who was on his first voyage to NSW, was also a passenger. Lang noted in his diary that (more…)

Teachers of the Ragged Schools

The Misses Bowie: Louisa (1834-1884), Jessie (1836-1906), Catherine (1838-1918), and Elizabeth (1840-1922); Isabella Brown (1858-1932), Fanny Owen-Smith (1859-1932) and Violet Paterson (1871-1948)

The Misses Bowie, Isabella Brown, Fanny Owen-Smith and Violet Paterson who taught in the Sydney Ragged Schools, are examples of the dedicated, female, vocational philanthropists of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. While they gave a lifetime of devoted service to the Ragged Schools, they have hardly left a mark on the historical record of the times. This was not because their work was insignificant, but because official reports and newspaper accounts of the day gave much more attention to the governance and financial philanthropists of the charity and gave little mention to those who did the actual work of the organisation. Because of this lack of attention, their work and contribution has largely gone unrecorded and uncommented upon, and the paucity of sources makes this difficult to adequately redress. (more…)

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