Of Bridges and Chapels

From Coal River Valley Historical Society Inc. Journal 1, 1999, pp. 8-17.

Edited text of a speech given by Laurie Wilson at the 175th Bridge Celebrations, December 1998

Richmond Bridge
photo: Len Gay 2016

Richmond Bridge, famous as Australia’s oldest masonry bridge, is arguably one of Australia’s most attractive early structures with distinction of colour, line and design, and it is certainly amongst our most popular landscape sites for the photographer and artist alike. Equally of note, its continuing use today, 175 years after the laying of its foundation stone, highlights its quality of construction. The names of many noted people, now cast irreversibly and justifiably into Australian history, have long been associated with its building – names which include such historical notables as Sorell, Bigge, Lambe, Arthur, Evans, Bell and Archer – the Lieutenant-Governors, Engineers, Administrators, Architects and Surveyors of the pioneering era in Van Diemen’s Land, whose collective vision, energy and leadership established the foundations of the Sovereign State of Tasmania that would duly emerge. But there were others too, who built this bridge, who participated with their intellect, their artisan skills or simply with their long, onerous physical toil in the creation of this bridge which stands testament today to their effort. Regrettably, most of these souls remain nameless, and will perhaps do so forever, being for the most part convicts, whose toil under duress earns them no mention in history.

This is a very great honour for me and a very nice tribute to my great-great-grandfather, William Wilson, who so long ago toiled here with many others to create the beautiful structure, Richmond Bridge, which continues to grace this fair town today. It must be, I think, one of the most photographed and painted landscapes in Australia, as is the bridge in England on which it is based, at Stourhead in Wiltshire.

I should acknowledge that there is one amongst the descendants of William Wilson who is more correctly the person to enjoy this privilege here today, as he is truly the patriarch of our Wilsons, certainly on Tasmanian turf, and that is William Wilson, a grandson of William, in his 80s, and born and bred here in Tasmania. William Wilson lives at Blackman’s Bay. So I pay appropriate tribute to him.

If I may turn to my stonemason great-great-grandfather, William Hartley Wilson. William Wilson and his wife, Margaret (Williamson) arrived in Van Diemen’s Land on 27 November 1820. William, aged thirty-eight, and Margaret, aged twenty-three, were married in Monikie Kirk, near the little village of Monikie, just a few kilometres north east of Dundee, in Angus, Scotland, in June 1820. They sailed two weeks later from Leith for Van Diemen’s Land on board the Skelton, in the charge of Captain James Dixon. They travelled cabin class, at a cost of 70 guineas each, on their three-month one-way honeymoon cruise to the Antipodes. Their voyage was notable for being the first direct sailing of emigrants from Scotland, stopping only at Portsmouth to take on more passengers and water; and also because the Captain, James Dixon, later wrote a book about the voyage, and of his observations and experiences whilst in Australia between 1820 and 1822. The book, Narratives of a Voyage to New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land in the Ship ‘Skelton’ during the year 1820, was published in Edinburgh in 1822.

William and Margaret Wilson were to have just three children, William Sorell Wilson, named after the Governor and born in Sorell in 1821; Frederick Langloh Wilson, born in Richmond in 1823, no doubt whilst William was engaged on the Bridge, and my great-grandfather, J W B Wilson, born down the road at Cambridge in 1830. Later, in the late 1850s, William Sorell Wilson and J W B Wilson left Tasmania and went to Victoria, where, after some time on the goldfields, they settled to life on farms in the Mornington Peninsula. Frederick Langloh Wilson and later his wife, Jane Stevens, stayed on with the family in Tasmania, and went subsequently to their Sorell farm where William and Margaret Wilson had their initial grant. They then went farming at Prosser’s Plains (Buckland) and then finally at Mt Nassau near Granton, where they both farmed and operated a limestone kilning business.

William Wilson died in 1856, and Margaret in 1875, and both are buried at Hestercombe Cemetery near Austin’s Ferry. In 1995, a group of Wilson clan from Tasmania and Victoria commemorated the 175th anniversary of their arrival with a service at Hestercombe, placing a bronze plate of commemoration on the grave.

I would like to comment on the two aspects of William Wilson’s life that have probably caused the greatest fascination to our group of researchers in Tasmania and on the Mainland. These two areas concern firstly the question of why they came to Australia – and I hasten to add here that they were not convicts, although that sort of heritage seems to bestow a certain standing today. Rather, they were free immigrants, part of the first direct sailing of free settlers from Scotland. As it seems that William and Margaret Wilson enjoyed a quite comfortable situation in Scotland, we wonder why they took all the risks entailed in venturing this way. Why would anyone want to do that? Inherent in the answer we think we have to this question is the sort of difficulty which must confront many family history researchers at some stage, when they uncover information that turns out to be sensitive to living family members even four or five generations on. Not that our discoveries are really all that dramatic.

The second issue focuses on the question of just who was the first Colonial Architect of Van Diemen’s Land – was it the man to whom that credit has been traditionally given, David Lambe, or was it indeed William Hartley Wilson?

Now before you all start throwing your chairs at me for uttering such unspeakable heresy, let me give you the highly abbreviated answer to that proposition, based on the collective research of our group over the past ten years or so. The short answer is that David Lambe was indeed the first Colonial Architect who was an architect, while William Wilson was the first Colonial Architect who wasn’t an architect. Another way of viewing it is that William Wilson was indeed the first Colonial Architect of Van Diemen’s Land, and David Lambe was therefore only the second. But David Lambe was in fact the first Colonial Architect of the Colony of Van Diemen’s Land, which came into being in 1825, a year or so after Lambe’s appointment. It is interesting how a simple word, inserted here or deleted there, can allow such an array of non-competing claims. But I do believe all these claims to be valid.

Legend and Reality

When our little Victorian-based group of researchers renewed contact with our Tasmanian branch some five or six years ago, our knowledge and understanding of William and Margaret Wilson, and their life in Scotland, advanced substantially. It appears that contact between our Tasmanian and Victorian family branches ceased sometime after WW1, a lapse of seventy-odd years. In that time, the Victorians had lost most of the knowledge they would have originally possessed about William and Margaret Wilson’s early life in Van Diemen’s Land. We had retained only some oddments about William having been an architect or a stonemason, and that he had had some involvement with Richmond Bridge and other early buildings in Hobart. And that was about it. We were also quite sure that there were still some of the family living in Tasmania since we had not at that time accounted for the family of Frederick Langloh Wilson, whom we knew to have existed. There was no sign of his descendants on the mainland.

From the Tasmanians we learnt of William Wilson’s intimate involvement not only with the Bridge but also with other early Hobart Town buildings such as the original Scots Church in Bathurst Street (today the St Andrew’s Hall); at least one brewery (said to have been that in Davey Street where the Royal Tennis Court is today, and whilst he may well have been involved there, it also seems possible he was involved with another on the Hobart Rivulet behind Surrey House); and the original Court House.
It was also new to us that William and Margaret Wilson had been farmers here, and quite successful ones too, on the basis of the properties they owned and the value of their estates at death.

We also learnt of the Tasmanians’ belief that William Wilson came from near Dundee, Monifieth parish – to be precise just a few kilometres from Dundee – and that his family in Scotland were believed to have been very well-to-do farmers who, from interpretation of some early records, may well have owned a large and prosperous farm in that area. Indeed, a property called Laws Farm was the prime suspect. However, our most recent research shows that the family did not own this farm, and it is more likely that they were significant tenants or perhaps managers of the property on behalf of the wealthy landowner. Further research will no doubt shed more light on this.

William Wilson, they were aware, was well-known to Governor Sorell, and had become the Colonial Architect and Superintendent of Stonemasons prior to receiving a good land grant on Sorell Rivulet, near Mt Orielton, where he and his family settled down to farming life and raising their family. This property is owned today by Mr and Mrs Stokes, who kindly allowed our reunion group to visit in 1995 and view the site and remnants of the old homestead there.

I might add that one of William Wilson’s descendants in Tassie, his great-grandson David Stevens Wilson became a noted architect, and to his credit are a number of structures, including the original Wrest Point Hotel, as I recall.

We also learned that William Wilson was a competent watercolourist and violinist, attributes which are also suggestive of a fairly cultured upbringing, and supportive of the notion of coming from a well-to-do family.

Finally, it is true to say, we were absolutely delighted to find the Tasmanian families had preserved some of William and Margaret Wilson’s personal things, in particular, William’s violin, Margaret’s cosmetic box, a small Bible William gave Margaret in Scotland as a wedding gift, and, most exciting of all, his embroidered and initialled wedding shirt, said to have been made by Margaret, Margaret’s white kid wedding gloves and her pearl studded wedding bonnet. These latter items have been given in perpetuity to Narryna [a house museum] in Battery Point. The curator, Mrs Ashbolt, observed that these garments were of very high quality and style and were typical of the garments of people of refinement and means of that time.

Their legendary tale continues that William Wilson was a very large man (6ft 4 inches – confirmed by his wedding shirt) and that he was a very popular figure around early Hobart who was known as ‘Bonnie William from Dundee’. Margaret Wilson was quite tiny, but with an iron will; indeed, in the legendary words, after William’s death ‘she ruled the family with tight rein’.

What neither Victorian nor Tasmanian branch knew – and which we have now learnt from research of the past two years – is that William Wilson’s father in Scotland was also a stonemason. Most notably to his credit is the 1789 Presbyterian Church in the little village of Newbigging, which is adjacent to Laws Farm just into the adjoining parish of Monikie in Angus. Inside the Newbigging church is a stone tablet dating from 1789 on which are chiselled the names of the founders and builders of the church, John Wilson, father of William, and possibly John’s brother, David. However, just as William Wilson was a mason who became a farmer in Tasmania, it is considered quite possible by our researcher that his father, John Wilson ‘of The Laws’, as he dubbed him, was also both mason and farmer as well.

Much of our research in Scotland has been conducted by professional researchers or local historians, the most recent in respect of William Wilson’s family there being conducted voluntarily for us by Rev W Douglas Chisholm, retired former minister for many years of Newbigging/Monikie Parish. Rev Chisholm initiated extensive research on our behalf after we made contact through the Parish’s website. In fact, they were so interested in the story of William Wilson that they published it on their website.

Rev Chisholm is an experienced social historian who has published several books and articles on the social history of the Angus area and its church parishes, his specialty being Monikie/Newbigging Parish. One of his works, The Monikie Story, which refers to John Wilson and the Newbigging Church, was recently republished at the initiative of our active group of Australian Wilson descendants. Rev Chisholm’s book also gives extensive coverage to the series of schisms which took place in the Church of Scotland during the 18th and 19th centuries, and which led to the establishment of several breakaway church groups – nonconformists or secessionists as they were called.

Indeed, it turns out that the Newbigging church was one of these, in fact the first in Monikie Parish, and John Wilson and his colleagues of the stone tablet were the leaders of that particular secessionist congregation, leading to the building of their church in 1789, followed by a school in 1820.

From Rev Chisholm’s book it is obvious that there was quite a lot of angst associated with these divisions in the ranks of the National Church of Scotland, and secession continued through the 19th century until a progression of negotiated reunions led to virtually complete reconciliation in 1929. Apparently, one of the major reasons for the secession movement related to selection of the minister for a parish, the secessionists wanting to have this power rather than the traditional system of patronage by royalty, nobility or wealthy absentee landowners.

All this brings me back to the question of why William and Margaret Wilson left Scotland. The other slab of legendary information we acquired on re-meeting our Tasmanian cousins was that William Wilson had left Scotland under a cloud, that a major falling-out had occurred with his family, to do with his having perhaps married ‘below station’; Margaret, it was said, having been either a lowly governess and/or being from a non-conformist church congregation. The legend continues – by inference – that William Wilson, such was his profound love for Margaret, went against his family, resisting all their pressures to give her up and finally, at the expense of his own family relationship. William, it was said, had been finally disinherited by his father – usually the domain of a well-to-do family – and the level of bitterness was such that he had married Margaret, packed up and left Scotland forever. Our Tasmanians tell us that William had a frequent saying in his vocabulary, that he ‘had shaken the dust of Dundee from his boots forever’.

Indeed, the story goes further. An attempt to make contact with William Wilson’s Tasmanian family occurred late in the 19th century, with an advertisement placed in a Hobart newspaper by a firm of solicitors from Carnoustie (near Monifieth), asking for contact to be made. The family refused to respond, such was the ongoing depth of residual feeling.

What we have now found out, however, is that William and Margaret Wilson were actually married in the National Church of Scotland in Monikie and not in the secessionist church in Newbigging, to which his father and family belonged, nor in the secessionist church in the adjoining parish of Barrie where Margaret had lived, and these can only be seen as actions which fit with a major split in the family. So, we surmise that reason number one for the legendary family breakdown could well have been religious in nature, except that, in reality, William and Margaret Wilson are in the ‘conformist’ roles rather than the reverse, as per the legend.

But the plot thickens further, with a second likely reason for the breakdown and their eventual departure – one which turned out to be somewhat sensitive. Our Scottish researcher discovered in the course of his work that in 1818, William Wilson had had another affair of the heart with a young lass named Mary Archer aged nineteen, a servant in his Newbigging household. Each of them subsequently admitted to this ‘liaison’ in the church (Monikie Kirk) enquiry that took place after it became apparent that Mary Archer was pregnant. Formal church censure and imposition of a fine was quite a common occurrence as the records show; indeed, Rev Chisholm points out in his book that such ‘liaisons’ (my choice of word) were by far the most common offence recorded. In due course, Mary Archer gave birth to William Wilson’s son in Newbigging about August 1819; he was named John Wilson fairly obviously after the child’s grandfather. It goes without saying that William Wilson and Mary Archer never married. Nor was Mary Archer to marry another, living out her life in Newbigging with her son and later with his family. In the records, she is described as ‘retired schoolteacher’; later, her son was also a schoolteacher in Newbigging. We have surmised that this may be the governess connection of the Tassie legend, so that again legend merges with the facts – but again, possibly reversed, whereby William Wilson broke with his family not because he married a governess, but perhaps because he didn’t marry a governess! Of course, it remains possible that Margaret was a governess; this is neither proven nor disproven.

This revelation, which the local researchers presented in a pretty matter-of-fact but honest way in summaries periodically issued to interested family members, may have caused a little upset with some of the older members of the family. They had, in effect, from their earliest childhood – from stories they had heard from their parents and grandparents – built up a rather lovely mental image of William and Margaret Wilson in which this type of information had no acceptable part. It tarnished the imagery a little. Some folk, and perhaps not without some justification, would have much preferred that their childhood legendary images should not have been so disturbed. I must say I have some sympathy with this point of view. The facts are the facts, but sometimes perhaps we need to be a little more circumspect in the way we present them, even when we are four or five generations along the way.

However, these two factors – the religious factor and the Mary Archer factor – taken with the word of mouth legendary evidence of our Tassie cousins, seem to give us good understanding of what prompted William and Margaret Wilson’s permanent departure from Scotland, although positive opportunity cannot be ruled out as an enticement.
William Wilson: First Colonial Architect of Van Diemen’s Land
Firstly, let me say that I think the family is quite convinced that William Wilson was not a trained architect, rather a very skilled mason as was his father before him; like his father, he was a mason who had the ability to do considerably more than must source and prepare the masonry.

It has been acknowledged for some time now that William Wilson received an appointment as Superintendent of Stonemasons possibly even before embarking for Van Diemen’s Land or shortly after arrival in November 1820. It also seems clear that he became, at least de facto, the first Colonial Architect of the Colony, preceding David Lambe, although he may never have been formally appointed to that role. Rather, it seems more likely that he served as such with unofficial sanction by Lieutenant-Governor Sorell because no other suitably qualified person was available and through being able to rely on his considerable skill and experience as a mason to adequately fulfil the expanded role. The evidence for this exists in both family lore and record, but no doubt more significantly, within official records.

We have, in several arms of the family, a note written by his first son, William Sorell Wilson believed to have been written about the time of Margaret Wilson’s death. It declares:

My father William Hartley Wilson landed in Tasmania in the year 1820 by the ship ‘Skelton Castle’, Capt. Dixon being the owner. My father was the first architect in Tasmania and in the Government employ. He had his grant of land in the parish of Sorell where I was born on 17th September 1821, being the first male child born in the township of Sorell by the then Governor being Colonel Sorell after whom I was named and with whom my father was a great favourite.

The Governor promised me a grant of land, and a good one, but my mother would not go to Government House to accept it, as she wished to go back to her father who was a widower and hence I did not get my grant.

By way of explanation, this note was believed to have been written by his son towards the end of his life in the late nineteenth century, and he therefore writes from memory of events and what his parents told him.

Dixon’s ship was actually called the Skelton, ‘Skelton Castle’ being the name of Dixon’s property on the River Isis west of Campbell Town. Contrary to what William Sorell Wilson’s note says, however, later family has always held the view, passed down, that the real reason his mother refused to go to Government House was that Governor Sorell had at that time dispatched his wife and was living with his mistress, a status totally contrary to William’s mother’s strict Presbyterian principles.

Evidence of a far more official nature is revealed in the following despatch of Lieutenant-Governor Arthur to Lord Bathurst (sourced from the Mitchell Library):

Re. Mr. David Lambe.

Appointment. – Appointed Colonial Architect 3rd June, 1824; pay 100 pounds per annum; succeeded to Mr William Wilson, who also received 100 pounds per annum.

Remarks. – Mr. Wilson would not continue upon the Salary, and Mr Lambe will also resign unless it is increased. 50 pounds will therefore be added after the present Quarter, subject to Lord Bathurst’s approbation.

It is impossible to proceed with the Works unless some competent Person designs and directs them; the whole Work and Labour is otherwise thrown away.

List of Exchanges and of new Appointments, between the 14th of May, 1824, and 1st of September, 1825.

Finally, in support of my proposition, I refer again to Captain James Dixon’s book about the voyage of the Skelton. He lists all the passengers, and, in respect of William Wilson, describes him as ‘Architect of Pittwater’ (Sorell). Dixon’s book was published in 1822 in Edinburgh, after he had returned to Scotland in December 1821. So, from this we might conclude that William Wilson had been appointed Colonial Architect for Van Diemen’s Land by British authorities prior to departure from Scotland, or that Dixon was aware he had been so appointed shortly after arriving in Van Diemen’s Land and prior to Dixon’s departing Australian waters.

Dixon, by the way, sailed again to Australia in the Skelton, arriving in December 1822 and returning to Britain in September 1823. He then returned to live in Van Diemen’s Land, building a beautiful mansion home on the River Isis west of Campbell Town. His house, Skelton Castle, is no more but there is a painting of it in the Dixson Gallery in Sydney.

All of this, we believe, seems quite clear evidence that William Wilson held not only the role of Superintendent of Stonemasons but also the more esteemed role of Colonial Architect. We have not found a direct despatch advising his appointment as such; it may exist and may yet to be discovered, but for the moment, we suspect he may well have been officially appointed by Sorell or perhaps given unofficial sanction to perform the role in the absence of anyone else more qualified to do it.
And there I rest my case and thank you again for your invitation for my wife and I to be your guests today, and to enjoy these celebrations. My very great appreciation.

Laurie Wilson, December, 1998

Further Reading:

The first colonial architect of VDL: Lambe or Wilson?
Wilson, Lawrence A. Tasmanian Ancestry. Vol 25, No 4, March 2005 pp. 205-209.