From the Northern Pennines to Northern Queensland

Gordon Ross Philipson 1959-2015
Gordon Ross Philipson 1959-2015

A distant relative of mine – a 5th cousin to be precise – died suddenly a few days ago at the tragically young age of 56. He was Gordon Ross Philipson – universally known as Ross, a well-loved and well-respected school teacher at The Citipointe Christian College in Brisbane. When I heard this awful news, I was reminded of how interested Ross had been in some family history research I’d conducted in the early 1970s for his great-uncle, Ralph Shields Philipson of New Farm, Brisbane. I thought this might be of some interest to Ross’s friends and perhaps to others too, so I’ve reproduced a slightly abridged version here.

Ross’s great-great grandfather, Nicholas Philipson, was born at Sinderhope near Allendale, Northumberland in 1809. He was the eldest of a large family and, like his father, he found work at the nearby Blackett-Beaumont Lead Mine. His male siblings: Francis, born 1812; George, born 1816; John, born 1818; and Edward, born 1829 all followed him into lead mining.

Lead miners were not, strictly-speaking, “employed” by the mine. A small group of two or three men would form a partnership and make an agreement – called a “bargain” – with the mine owners whereby they agreed that, for a year, the men would extract ore from a specified section of the mine for a specified sum per ton of ore. When and how the men worked was up to them, and most of them fitted mining in with a second job – small-scale farming – either on their own land or a relative’s. This arrangement worked well, the men could fulfil their obligations to the mine, look after their small-holdings and, most importantly, avoid working in the dangerous, dust-filled conditions which prevailed for hours after blasting. On days when they were blasting in the morning, the men would work on the land for a few hours until the noxious, lead-laden dust cleared.

The arrival of a new mining agent (a CEO in today’s terms), Thomas Sopwith, in 1847 put paid to a century or more of industrial harmony in Allendale. Sopwith couldn’t stand the idea of the men not working a full day, every day in the mine, so he insisted that they work 5 eight-hour shifts every week. This was not only inconvenient and impractical, it could be dangerous, but Sopwith insisted, and he even employed “spies” to check on the men’s arrival and departure. This was too much for the men, and early in 1849 they gathered together at the nearby Swinhope Primitive Methodist Chapel to discuss their grievances

Nicholas Philipson, a local preacher, was one of those organising the meeting, and he was also part of the delegation sent by the men to try to negotiate with Sopwith. Also in the group was Nicholas’s brother, George. Sopwith’s reaction was brutal – he fired all the members of the delegation on the spot. The entire workforce then came out on strike, but it was a hopeless cause – Sopwith wouldn’t budge. The men could return on his conditions or not at all – or rather, most of the men could return; the strike ringleaders were black-listed and would never again find work in any of the mines in the area.

Some of the strikers eventually went back to work, but many left the area. In May 1849, a party of 58 left Allendale, made their way overland to Liverpool and sailed to New York on board the sailing ship “Guy Mannering” – their intended destination, the lead-mining town of Galena in Illinois. George Philipson was in that party. It was easy for George to up-sticks and move to the USA, he had no dependants, but it would not be so easy for Nicholas; he had a wife and child.

In 1847 Nicholas had married Haltwhistle lass, Elizabeth Thompson, and they’d had a daughter, Mary Elizabeth, the following year. When he was fired from his job, another child was already on its way – and Sarah Ann was duly born in December of that year. Nicholas took on labouring jobs and they managed to scrape a living, but when a third child came along – William Harland Philipson (Ross’s great-grandfather) – in 1852, they decided on a complete change of residence and occupation. They moved to Cross Hill, near Workington on the Cumberland coast and Nicholas got a job there as a bookseller! Things looked good, but not for long. Tragedy struck – Elizabeth contracted tuberculosis, and the three children had to be sent back to Allendale, where they were looked after by family members. After suffering for several years with that terrible and increasingly debilitating disease, Elizabeth died at Cross Hill on 14 March 1857. Nicholas returned to Allendale. He was exhausted and desolate, what was he to do?

Meanwhile, brother George had been on the move. He’d initially settled, not in Galena, Illinois as planned, but rather just over the state border in the town of New Diggings, Wisconsin. He got a job in the lead mine there and even took the initial steps towards US citizenship, but he’d heard of the rich pickings in the goldfields of California and he couldn’t resist going there. He went via Panama, which was quicker and safer than joining a wagon train. This involved taking a boat down the Mississippi, a steamer down to Panama, making a comparatively short overland journey across Panama, and finally taking a steamer up the west coast to San Francisco. George stepped off the steamer “Northerner” in San Francisco harbour on 1 January 1852.

He had some limited success seeking gold in California, and he’d proudly sent some jewellery made from his gold back home to Allendale – but he soon realised he was two years too late for the richest finds. So when George heard of the discovery of gold in Victoria, Australia, he decided that was where his fortune lay. He sailed over the Pacific, landed in Melbourne and made his way up to the Ballarat area where he’d heard that prospects were good. Fortune certainly shone on George – he didn’t find gold, but he found a very good job. A mining company was desperate to find men with mining experience and the right spirit to manage their mines – and George fitted the bill perfectly in every way. So by the end of 1853, this young man from Allendale found himself in charge of a flourishing gold mine near Ballarat, Victoria.

In 1857, when George heard of his eldest brother’s tragic loss, he urged him to come to Australia. Nicholas agreed, and his youngest brother, Edward, decided to go along too. They sailed from Liverpool on 7 September 1857 on board the “Horizon” and arrived at Melbourne in December. Like George, Edward was quickly grabbed by one of the mining companies as a manager. Nicholas decided to go into farming rather than mining and soon managed to get himself established on some land. He also became a local preacher in the Ballarat Primitive Methodist Circuit.

Nicholas Philipson 1809-1882
Nicholas Philipson 1809-1882

Nicholas missed his children, so, in 1861, he decided to bring them to Australia. He couldn’t leave his farm to seek them in person, but his brother, seasoned traveller George, agreed to return to England to fetch them. George spent some time visiting friends and relatives back in Allendale, then, on 16 August 1862, he and Nicholas’s children, Mary Elizabeth, aged 13; Sarah Ann, aged 11; and William Harland, aged 9 sailed from Liverpool on board the “Matilda”. With them was George’s brother Francis and his son, William, aged 20. They arrived in Melbourne on 20 November. Both Francis and William soon found work in the mines at Ballarat.

So now there was quite a crowd of Philipsons around Ballarat – the four brothers, Nicholas, Francis, George and Edward, and four from the next generation – Francis’s son and Nicholas’s three children. All seemed to be doing well in their respective roles – but another tragedy was just over the horizon. It soon became apparent that Francis’s health was failing – he couldn’t get his breath. By 1864 he had to give up working altogether, and sadly, on 23 September 1866, he died. He was aged 54. Three days later he was laid to rest in Ballarat (old) Cemetery.

William Harland Philipson, Nicholas’s son, took up mining as soon as he was old enough. He got on well with his cousin, William, so when gold was discovered at Charters Towers in northern Queensland in 1871, it was no surprise to anyone when the two lads decided to drop everything and travel there together. They were soon joined by their uncle Edward.

Sarah Ann Richardson
Sarah Ann Richardson
née Philipson

More happy events. In 1875 Nicholas’s younger daughter, Sarah Ann, married Robert Richardson. Then, in 1879, William Philipson travelled back to England to visit relatives, and on his return to Charters Towers he surprised everyone by bringing back a new wife. While he’d been in Allendale he’d married his second-cousin, Margaret Philipson. Not to be outdone, William Harland also found himself a wife – he married Agnes Rebecca Jenkin at Charters Towers on 26 May 1881.

Back in Victoria, things were going well for Sarah Ann – by 1880 she and her husband had had two of their four children – but her happiness was in sharp contrast to the despair felt by her elder sister, Mary Elizabeth. She’d hated Australia from the start, but it was just about tolerable while her sister was with her. Now she felt so alone – no friends and no prospects. She became addicted to laudanum, and on 26 November 1880 she took the leg rope she used when milking cows, and she used it to hang herself from a rafter in the barn. She was only 32 years of age. A “Magisterial Enquiry” was held next day at the farm and the verdict was “That the deceased Mary Elizabeth Philipson died at Hardies Hill on the 26th November 1880 from strangulation by hanging and that she committed suicide whilst in a state of unsound mind.”

William Harland Philipson
William Harland Philipson

Tragedy followed tragedy. A year after Mary’s death, on 5 October 1881, George died from hepatitis and exhaustion. He was 64 years old. It was all too much for Nicholas – he died soon afterwards, on 11 March 1882. He was 73. Now the only family members left in Victoria were Sarah Ann and her husband and children. Their descendants still live in the state.

Up in Charters Towers, Edward, the only surviving brother, lived on until 7 May 1906, but left no descendants. His nephews William Philipson and William Harland Philipson, by contrast, both had large families, and their numerous descendants are now scattered throughout Queensland. They themselves died in 1920 and 1925 respectively.

2 thoughts on “From the Northern Pennines to Northern Queensland

  1. I was interested in the Guy Mannering as 2 of my ancestors were on that ship after being involved in the strike and thanks for the piece on the cause of the strike, after visiting the area in 2012 I thought the best thing the other brothers did was come to Australia. I enjoyed the article Allan Milburn


  2. Hi Allan. Nice to hear from you and I’m pleased you enjoyed the article. The aspect of this story which really irks me, though I didn’t mention it in the article, is that Thomas Sopwith, the mining agent who caused so much unnecessary heartache and disruption to the lives of our ancestors, went on to prosper in several fields and had honours and awards galore piled on him until his death in 1879. Incidentally, his grandson and namesake, Thomas Sopwith (1888-1989), was the well-known aviation pioneer who founded the Sopwith Aviation Company and built 18,000 planes for the allied forces in World War I.


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