Family Business

Most people I know ignore the business pages of a newspaper – but for those in the know, there is as much vanity, violence and family tragedy in the business pages as anywhere else in the paper – and that’s just Gina Rinehart and family. For sheer vanity and potential for future mishaps, Rupert Murdoch’s succession plans compare favourably with those of King Lear.

Go back 200 years, and things were probably rather similar. Early 19th century Sydney merchants fought with their families (Walter S Davidson), cheated their partners (Robert Campbell), committed suicide (Edward Riley), went bankrupt (Richard Jones). Some even went into politics (Stuart Alexander Donaldson).

Janette Holcomb Early Merchant Families of Sydney

All this turmoil generated plenty of paperwork. In her new book, Early Merchant Families of Sydney, Janette Holcomb takes us in a series of forensic biographical chapters through the early history of Sydney’s mercantile elite, from Robert Campbell from the house of Campbell, Clark & Co, who arrived from Calcutta with a cargo of spirits in 1798, to Ben Boyd of the Royal Bank of Australia, who arrived from England with a cargo of credit in 1842.

Holcomb has used an impressive variety of sources. For some of her merchants, there are family papers or business records, but for others she has had to rely on indirect sources: newspapers, especially advertisements and the shipping records too many of us neglect, and the legal documents generated by all that internecine litigation, as well as more benign relationships between them, as executors of wills, trustees in marriage settlements and so on.

She has grounded her biographical chapters in detailed genealogical research. This is important, because before the joint stock company, mercantile firms were mostly family affairs, and her group of Sydney merchants tended to marry each others’ womenfolk. Some of her discoveries are fascinating. Who would have thought, for instance, that Robert Campbell, loyal supporter of Governor Bligh, was probably related through his mother Agnes Paterson to Colonel William Paterson, reluctant supporter of the mutiny against Bligh? (I wrote about the mutiny here, and Paterson here)

The rise of on-line genealogical resources has not doubt helped Holcomb to track these relationships, both within Australia and back to the United Kingdom, India and the Americas. They were a global lot.

Australian history tends to look inward: literally inward to the land and its conquest, metaphorically inward to ideas of nationalism and the search for an identity. These themes have led generations of historians along familiar pathways: the convicts, the gold rush, race, class and gender, federation. Even overseas events such as the Irish famine or world wars are too often viewed through the nationalist haze of Ned Kelly and the Anzac Legend.

This book looks at a very different colonial Australia, one that was part of a wider world of trade and shipping routes and the migration of capital rather than labour. This Australia was an integral part of the British Empire, and so were the merchants Holcomb investigates. William Walker, for instance, came from a family with interests in Newfoundland and Tobago, while his sister’s family, the Archers, had connections with Norway.

I should add a caveat. Janette Holcomb’s work parallels my own research. One of her chapters is on Walter Stevenson Davidson, the man I’m currently writing about, and the last chapter deals with Ben Boyd who I wrote about years ago. No doubt this makes her work more interesting to me than to a normal reader. It also makes me appreciate the enormous amount of research that underlies her work. Mercantile turbulence may have generated a lot of paperwork, but it is not easy paperwork either to read, to understand or to explain, and I admire the way she has distilled this complexity into a readable whole.

There are a few problems. Although Holcomb explains how the trading system worked, with its agencies, corresponding houses, warehouses and commissions, some of the detail remains needlessly obscure. What is a ship’s husband? What is a writ of fieri facias? A glossary would help.

Similarly, although there are some useful tables at the back listing the mercantile firms in early Sydney, there are no family trees, which would have reduced wordage and increased clarity in explaining family relationships. I wanted to know more about these families. Despite a nod to Davidoff and Hall, Family Fortunes (2002), there’s little here about the role of women, either as active businesswomen (some were, most weren’t) or through their marriage alliances. What effect did it have when Alexander Riley’s daughter Sophia married Robert Campbell’s nephew Robert jr? And what effect did it have when she subsequently had an affair (as I think she did, though I can’t quite prove it) with Ben Boyd?

Holcomb has also been let down by a lack of copy-editing. The fonts go haywire from time to time in the footnotes. Ben Boyd (and no doubt others) is missing from the index. In the bibliography, Historical Records of Australia and Historical Records of New South Wales seem to have been conflated.

These are faults of presentation only. In a year when our few remaining bookshops will be bulging with war histories, it’s nice to recommend a scholarly work on something completely different.

Janette Holcomb, Early Merchant Families of Sydney: Speculation and risk management on the fringes of empire (Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2013)

5 responses to “Family Business

  1. Hi Marion,

    Many thanks for your positive comments on my book! I feel honoured as I have really admired (and been inspired by) your own work on Benjamin Boyd.

    Very much looking forward to reading your book on Davidson.

    Thanks again,



    Hello, Enjoying your book. I’m a Canadian descendant of Captain BIrnie – via his nephew George Birnie. Your work confirms some assuptions I’ve made from family papers and raises other questions. Among these – it explains the copies of letters of instructions to ship captains. Also, Martha Matilda corresponded with George. Our assuption was tbat George was the heir given that he travelled to Australia from. Prince Edward Island after Martha’s daeth.

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