James Brownlee 1846-1892

The story of James Brownlee who was born in Wishaw and migrated from Scotland to New Zealand and then on to Sydney, Australia.


James Brownlee, born 24 May 1846 in Wishawtoun, Lanarkshire Scotland. He was a very well educated man and chose his trade as a stonemason. James married Catherine Bell Duncan on 21 July 1874 at Glasgow. They were married by the Reverend Robert Gibson, at the Manse of Partick East Presbyterian Church. Catherine was born 3 August 1854 at Edinburgh. It is believed that her father was the Head Gardener of the Edinburgh Castle.

James and Catherine Brownlee’s first child, named Catherine, was born at their residence at Smith’s Land, Hill Street, Wishaw at 11.30 p.m. on 24 June 1875. Soon after Catherine’s birth, the small family moved to Hamilton, a town with a very rich and long history, with records dating back to the 6th Century. It was originally known as Cadzow, which may mean ‘Rocky Height’ or ‘Beautiful Dwelling’, and was so named until 1445, when by a charter of James II, it was officially changed to Hamilton. Hamilton is probably more famous for the now extinct ‘Hamilton Palace’ the once majestic building, demolished in 1927. This was home to the Dukes of Hamilton and stood in the Low Parks on the north east side of town. The original part, a small tower was built in 1591 and added to in 1705. Further additions were made in 1822 and in its heyday, was one of the largest buildings of its kind in Scotland.

James and Catherine's first home in Hamilton was at 21 Portland Square (now demolished). Baby Catherine’s health was ailing and at the age of 16 months at 12.00 noon on 30th October 1876, she passed away. Her death was certified by Doctor Robert T .C. Robertson – the cause, Cirrhosis of the liver. The following day she was buried at Bent Cemetery, only a few blocks away from their home.

The following year, on 5 April 1877, Catherine gave birth to her second child, a boy, James Brownlee. Soon after James was born the family was on the move again, this time to 52 Union Street, Hamilton. It was here on 25 January 1879 at 5.00p.m. that Robert Duncan Brownlee was born.

Sometime between February 1879 and March 1881, James and Catherine Brownlee, along with their two children, James and Robert, bade farewell to family and friends to emigrate from Scotland to New Zealand.

After leaving Scotland, James and Catherine Brownlee settled in Dunedin, New Zealand and their two children, James and Robert. “Dunedin” is the Gaelic form for Edinburgh and is known by locals as ‘Edinburgh of the South’. Founded in 1848 by Scottish Presbyterian settlers, Dunedin was, until 1881, New Zealand’s largest city. There were many Brownlee/Brownlie families on the South Island when James and Catherine arrived, including a saw milling operation at Havelock, known as Brownlee and Co. This company was founded in 1863 by William Ross Brownlee, a brother of James Brownlee, the founder of Brownlee and Company Limited, City Saw Mills, Glasgow, Scotland. Both of these saw milling operations are still operating today, 1988.

On 19 March 1881, James and Catherine had their fourth child, John Brownlee. According to the 1883-1884 New Zealand Directory, James, working as a bricklayer, lived in Eden Street, Dunedin. William Somerville Brownlee was born at Rothesay, Dunedin on 12 June, 1883.

In 1884 James and Catherine were on the move again. Although not as yet proved, it is thought that James Brownlee left New Zealand for Australia on his own, perhaps to seek the work prospects in another new country. The S.S. Manapouri, 1020 tons, burthen from Dunedin, New Zealand to Sydney, New South Wales arrived on 22 December 1884. According to the New South Wales shipping lists, of the twenty three passengers on board this vessel, one was a Mr. J. Brownlee – this may have been James.

In 1885 James and his family had settled at 49 John Street, Leichhardt in New South Wales. They rented this property from Patrick Harper. On 30th July of the same year Elizabeth Mary Somerville Brownlee was born. The witnesses to her birth were the nurse, Mrs. Howlett of Charles Street, Petersham and Mrs, Brown of Ravensbourne, Dunedin, New Zealand.

James Brownlee, in 1887, had secured a job working as a bricklayer for the railways. He was living away from home at Maitland House in Katoomba, and on June 11 he wrote this letter, presumably to his sister, Mary and her husband Robert McCartney, living in Motherwell, Lanarkshire, Scotland.

"Maitland House, Katoomba
Sunday June 11th 1887

My Dear Brother & Sister,

You will see by my address above that I am from home. I suppose you will have heard of the Blue Mountains of Australia, well am working on them. Just now Katoomba is the favourite resort of the aristocracy in summer and there are few who pay New South Wales a visit without going to see the great zig zag railway, as this is the way we have to get to the top of the mountains. When starting from the bottom the train runs in the ordinary way with engine first. It runs so far like crossing the hill and then it comes to a standstill. The points are shifted, the engine whistles and then she makes a further ascension pushing the train and so on until she gets to the top. I think you have the photograph of the railway in that book of views that was sent to you, if not this is the way in which the train has got to wind its way pulling one time and pushing the other. Katoomba is 4,000 feet above Sydney and 66 miles distant. It is the midst of winter and we had one night’s frost as severe as to freeze up all the exposed water pipes of 2" diameter and we had also 2" of snow. I am only at this level half way to the top, but quite far enough for me in a winter day. It is only 20 miles from here to the highest point, whither I should go, only for the cold. I have quite as many clothes on me here, if not more than I would at home in the winter. Only, in the day, it is somewhat warmer than it would be in the winter in the old country, but for scenery it excels all I ever witnessed before, from Sydney to the bottom of the hills, are just rise enough to run the waters and here the orange orchards, the trees ladened with fruit in both sides of the railway. I do not say that this surpasses, nor yet equals the Clyde from Dalserf Bridge to Lanark, only to see oranges and lemons growing is foreign to the eye and the fruit yellow with the very dark green leaves, as the leaves of those trees are as dark in the hue as that running plant we used to call Speeling Ruby, but as we arise the scenery improves. No more orange orchards as the climate is too cold, but in the season, gooseberries, currants and fruit that are grown with you can grow here. The first week I came up to it rained pretty well at the time, but I ventured out, rolled up in a good waterproof coat and had a look at some of the places of interest, but as you are either running down hill or climbing up, you cannot go very far in one day. My first place of call was what is known as the Cascade and secondly the meeting of the waters. Here there is a fall but there is not much water running but the fearful distance it has got to fall makes it look grand. Following Sunday my first was what is known as the marked tree, this tree is built round to mark the spot the first three explorers of Australia reached in the first attempt to cross the mountains. Their respective names Blaxland, Wentworth and Lawson are hewn out on stone. My next was Nellie Glen, this excels all I ever seen before, like the railroad the paths are made down a valley in a zig zag manner. Having no one with me I wondered when I should get to the bottom, this road, sometimes over hung with rocks, thousand of feet overhead and nearing the bottom, the track is cut through fallen rocks, which tells of the dangers in travelling in such places. All down this path, some miles in length, to beautify it is the crystal water running, that you …”

This is where the letter ends, unfortunately we may never know what else he wrote nor whether the letter was actually posted, but we can see that James was a reasonably intelligent man, in these times of high illiteracy.

William Gow took over ownership of 49 John Street, Leichhardt from Patrick Harper on 13 December 1887. On 22 August 1887, James Brownlee purchased a property at 75 John Street, Leichhardt from Patrick Harper, butcher, for the sum of fifty seven pounds and fifteen shillings (Old system Deed – No. 931 Book 369). Thomas Duncan Brownlee was born here on 7 February 1888. Witnesses to his birth were the nurse, Mrs. Howlett of Charles Street, Petersham and Mrs. Turlon, Piper Street, North Annandale. James and Catherine’s last child was born on 25 August 1890. She was named Christina Brownlee.

On 26 June 1892, James Brownlee died of a Chronic Ulcer of the Duodenum and Acute Peritonitis. He died in Prince Alfred Hospital in Camperdown and was buried the following day at Rookwood Cemetery. The following funeral notice was placed on page 10 of the Sydney Morning Herald on Monday 27 July, 1892.

“The friends of the late Mr. James Brownlee are respectfully requested to attend his funeral; to move from his late residence, John Street, Leichhardt, this (Monday) afternoon, at 1.45, to Petersham Station, thence to Necropolis. W.J. Dixon undertaker, 42 Ross Street, Forest Lodge, 183 George Street West.”

Back in Scotland, James' sister, Mary, placed a memorial to James on his daughter, Catherine Bell Brownlee’s tombstone. The inscription read:

“James Brownlie Who died at Sydney 26th June 1892 aged 45 years.”

James Brownlee, a man who had taken his family half way around the world in search of a new home, was now dead. He had died so tragically, leaving his young wife to fend for their seven children. James was 15, Robert 13, John II, William 9, Elizabeth 7, Thomas 4 and Christina only 2 years old.

James was buried at Rookwood Cemetery, then known as Necropolis. The original headstone has now been covered by a marble plaque, the inscription reads: “Our Dear Father. James Brownlee, Died 26th June. 1892, aged 45 years.”

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