John Britty

John Britty North (1831-1917)
Clarissa Mary Hack (1832-1906)

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John Britty North was born in Taunton, Somerset, England and baptised in St Mary Magdalene Church, Taunton on 31 Aug 1831; he was the middle of three children born to John Britty North (Sen.) and Mary Willie:

John’s life is nicely summarized in Suzanne Edgar’s North, John Britty (1831–1917) that appeared in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, though published first in hardcopy 1974:

John Britty North (1831-1917), stockbroker and mining agent, was born in Taunton, Somerset, England, son of John Britty North, merchant, and his wife Mary, née Willie. At 9 he moved to London with his parents and at 13 went to work for Self, Coles & Co., warehousemen, and stayed for seven years. He reached Sydney in the barque Senator in February 1852.

In 1853 North visited London with £1000 to buy goods for North, Rutherford & Wilson, merchants, a partnership he joined that year. He returned to Sydney in the Windsor on 2 November with some of his family. In 1855 he left the firm before it was declared bankrupt in 1856 and North, who had contributed little capital, received a certificate of discharge in 1857. He probably spent five years in Queensland but by 1861 he was again working in New South Wales, first as a commercial traveller. Later he became a wholesale wine and spirits merchant, at first with G. S. Leathes & Co. and in 1864-67 on his own in Wynyard Street, Sydney. In 1867 he added the business of an auctioneer and commission agent and as J. B. North & Co. borrowed the price of his auctioneer’s licence from his sister-in-law, Mrs Weynton.

In 1871 ‘heavy amounts paid for interest and the depression of the times’ made North bankrupt again, but by 1872 he had discharged his debts, and twelve months after its foundation joined the Sydney Stock Exchange. In the 1870s with Robert Henry Reynolds, whom he later bought out, he began to mine for coal in the Jamieson Valley near Katoomba. Once, without machinery and with only a few men, he hauled a 4-cwt (203 kg) block of coal 1100 ft (335 m). up the slopes to exhibit it in Sydney where it secured for North a government contract. An exacting employer, North had over a hundred men at his Katoomba Coal Mine which in 1878 he registered as a company. It was awarded a certificate at the Sydney International Exhibition of 1879 for the excellent steaming qualities of its coal.

In 1880 North located a seam of the reddish purple kerosene shale at the Ruined Castle in the Jamieson Valley and in 1882 sent his manager to prospect it. North and his son John took up 1392 acres (563 ha) as mineral conditional purchases. In 1885 North bought £36,000 worth of equipment, formed the Katoomba Coal and Shale Co. Ltd and became managing director. To remove the shale he employed a Scottish engineer to build an elevated tramway 200 ft (61 m) high for two miles (3.2 km) across the valley but it was a structural failure and the company went into voluntary liquidation in February 1892.

The tenacious North had reconstructed the Australian Kerosene Oil and Mineral Co. Ltd. It leased the Jamieson Valley property and worked it successfully with T. S. Mort‘s Glen Shale mine on the western side of the Megalong ridge, which North had bought in 1890. The two mines were linked by tunnels and continued to yield good quality shale until 1895. The 20,000 tons of shale exported, worth £4-£10 a ton, yielded up to a hundred gallons (455 litres) of oil to the ton. It was refined in Italy and shipped back to the colonies as kerosene. For some time coal lying above and below the shale was extracted but by 1897 it proved unprofitable and the mine was closed; all the machinery had been removed by 1903. After the mine closed North continued as a Pitt Street stockbroker and colliery agent for many mining companies with his sons John and Alfred as partners at different times. In 1917, although retired, North was governing director of Main Range Collieries & Estate Ltd and Alfred was chairman of the Stock Exchange.

Probably from commercial motives North actively promoted the growth of Katoomba, especially its development as a tourist resort. Chairman of the progress committee which achieved the incorporation of Katoomba in 1889, he served briefly as an alderman on the council. He was also a trustee of Katoomba, Leura, Banksia and Echo Parks. He died at his home, Lynton, Wahroonga, on 14 October 1917 and was buried in the Gore Hill cemetery beside his wife Clarissa Mary Hack (d.1906), a niece of David Jones; they had married in 1855. A Nonconformist, he was survived by two sons and six daughters. His estate was sworn at £19,660 and the firm, J. & J. North, was still operating in 1973.

[NB. David Jones married Jane Hall Mander who was the younger sister of Clarissa’s mother Susanna Mander, hence Clarissa was a niece by marriage.]

John Britty North’s marriage to Clarissa Mary Hack on 13 Feb 1855 was announced in The Sydney Morning Herald on Thu 15 Feb 1855:


On the 13th instant, at the Congregational Church, Pitt-street, by the Rev. Dr. Ross, Mr. John Britty North, formerly of London, to Clarissa Mary, second daughter of the late Mr. Paul Hack, of Blackheath, Kent.

John Britty North and the tracks he built to get the coal from the base to the top of the cliff. From about 1945 the Hammond family ran what has become known as the Scenic Railway, taking visitors up and down what has been dubbed the steepest passenger railway in the world, an incline of 52 degree at its maximum.

In 2016 there was an archaeological investigation into possible causes of the collapse of the elevated steel cable system (known as the Bleichert Ropeway) that brought the kerosene shale across the valley from the so-called Runined Castle to the coal tramway before collapsing after about six months of use. The report can be read online here. This photo of the ropeway was published in the Lithgow Mercury on 25 Jan 2019:

The Blue Mountain Echo paid tribute to J. B. North in its edition on Sat 06 Mar 1909:

“The Father of Katoomba.”

No more appropriate portrait could adorn our pages in this issue than that of John Britty North, so aptly, termed “the father of Katoomba.” Nature is not prolific of strong characters, and it is only once in a lifetime that a man of his stamp appears on the horizon, and when such a one does eventuate he leaves his mark for all time. Coming here thirty odd years ago, Mr. North found what had been a hidden mystery for untold ages—the rugged grandeur of the Mountain scenery, the beautiful Falls and charming valleys, and with a prophetic vision saw what was to be. Possessing an energy and incomparable courage coupled with an indomitable will, he determined to lay the foundation of a great and glorious future for this, the most picturesque and magnificent portion of this country. Hastily constructing an unpretentious little cottage under difficulties and obstacles which only such as he could overcome, he determined to search among the hills and valleys for treasures which his keen and deep penetration told him must lie hidden in the solitudes of the Mountains. Less than a twelvemonth slipped away when his labours were rewarded by the discovery of the Shale and Coal deposits which have since proved to be of such vast extent in this district. These opened the way for his unbounded energy, and within a few months time he had a number of men at work opening up the mines. On the spot known as South Katoomba a little village sprang up composed of over a hundred cottages, the residents of which soon had their own School of Arts, and a public school for the children was rapidly constructed. A tramline was constructed to convey the coal and shale from the mine to the shutes at “Essendene,” where coal was supplied to the railway. The Intercolonial Exhibtion was then in its initial stages, and Mr. North decided to send an exhibit which would demonstrate to the world that these Mountains contained coal in abundance. A huge pillar was raised from the mine, and sent to the Exhibition, where it arrived in a somewhat damaged condition after its rough handling on the way. Its admission as an exhibit, however, met with a flat refusal, but Mr. North was not to be baffled in his determination to set that pillar up in that building, and up it went – and stayed there. Returning to the Mountains Mr. North started upon the serious object of his life – the development of the mines and the opening up of the whole district. He discovered the beauty spots and made them accessible by the construction of roads, and considering Nellie’s Glen the most beautiful of all named it after his daughter Nellie, by which name it has become known and admired by a vast number of people. The opening of the mines was the signal for the rapid advancement of the town and district, and so stupendous an undertaking by a single individual is without parallel in this country. Mr. North paid over three hundred pounds a week in wages to the miners he employed, and had not subsequent events intervened to check further development of the mines, it is impossible to imagine what might have been. But if we read the signs of the times aright Mr. North will live to see his fondest hopes realised, though the winter of life preventing him from participating in their realisation.

Of the esteem and estimation in which Mr. North is held by a large circle of friends and admirers it is unnecessary for us to speak, but we feel convinced that posterity will recognise his work and his worth, and on a conspicuous spot in Katoomba a monument will arise as a fitting tribute to the memory of one of the most worthy, the most generous and kindly natures in human history.

Joseph Ralph Bennett wrote a paper The Katoomba Coal Mine, published in March 1972 and written for the Blue Mountains Historical Society, who own the copyright. It details the involvement of John Britty North in the coal and shale mines and in the foundation of the township of Katoomba. The paper was reprinted in 2007; the first two parts of the paper are reproduced here with the Society’s permission. Part 3 deals with the mine subsequent to 1923. The complete paper can be sourced from the Society.

The Hammond family developed the tracks used to haul the coal from the bottom to the top of the cliffs into what has become a major tourist attraction, the Scenic Railway. The modern cable car descends at an incline of 52 degrees through a cliff-side tunnel. A book The Burning Mists of Time, A Technological and Social History of Mining Katoomba, written by Phillip J. Pells & Philip J. Hammond with contributions from Amanda Mackie, Karen Carlson and Brian Fox, was launched at the base of the Scenic Railway in 2009. Interestingly the author’s wife, Christine Wheeler, was contracted to provide music for the event. She was unaware of what the book was about until the event herself. She recalls chatting to a person acting the part of John Britty North, exclaiming she was a descendant of J. B. North and was subsequently introduced to a cousin she had never met.

Phil Hammond was also instrumental in an archaeological survey in 2014 of the Bleichert ropeway which was installed in 1888 to bring the oil shale 3.2km across the valley from the Ruined Castle Shale Mines to the base of the cliff before being hauled up along the dual tracks and via the ropeway to the railway at Katoomba. As mentioned above, the ropeway collapsed within months of its operation. A copy of the report of the survey can be downloaded here. There was a subsequent archaeological dig in 2017 of one of the tension pits to ascertain what was used for maintaining tension on the wire cables. Christine’s daughter Isabel, and Isabel’s husband Ceda Byrne, both archaeologists, flew down from Brisbane to be part of the team: it was Isabel’s great-great-great-grandfather’s industrial complex she was digging! Sadly nothing was found: presumably lead was used, and after the collapse and disuse of the ropeway the lead was taken for housing.

North Lookout, Katoomba, NSW, named after John Britty North

Nellies Glen, named by John Britty North in honour of his daughter, Ellen Mary North. The track into the Glen commences alongside North Lookout and descends into the valley with a what seems like an interminably long series of stairs. John Britty North actually offered money to the Council for the construction of a road into the Glen. The Council declined this offer.

Nellies Glen marks the Katoomba end of what has become the Six Foot Track, what used to be the old bridle trail that from about 1884 was a short cut from Katoomba to Jenolan Caves. It’s now a popular 44 km walking track and takes the average walker 3 days to reach the Caves. It is also used for marathon races.

Clarissa death was announced in The Sydney Morning Herald on Mon 22 Oct 1906:

NORTH. – October 21, at her residence, Lynton, Wahroonga, Clarissa Mary, the dearly loved wife of John Britty North, aged 74 years. Friends are requested to meet the Funeral at Gore Hill Cemetery at 4:30 to-day (Monday).

John Britty North outlived his wife by 11 years; from The Sydney Morning Herald, Tue 16 Oct 1917:

NORTH.-October 14, 1917, at his residence, Lynton, Lane Cove-road, Wahroonga, John Britty North, aged 86 years.

Lane Cove Rd (now the Pacific Highway), Wahroonga, dated 31 Dec 1908 (courtesy of NSW State archives)

John & Clarissa family:

01. John George (b. 15 Dec 1855 in Newcastle, d. 08 May 1939 in Roseville, Sydney)

02. Ernest W (b. 1858 in Newcastle, d. 1859 in Sydney)

03. Clara Minnie (b. 1860 in Chippendale, Sydney, d. 09 Aug 1939 in Manly, Sydney)

04. Ellen Mary (b. 1862 in Chippendale, Sydney, d. 24 Jan 1936 in Manly, Sydney)

05. Lilla Mander (b. 1865 in Chippendale, Sydney, d. 1938 in North Sydney)

06. Alfred Herbert (b. 29 Jan 1868 in Brisbane, d. 18 Dec 1941 in Killara, Sydney)

07. Emily (b. 1870 in Sydney, d. 23 Feb 1928)

08. Ethel Susie (b. 1872 in Glebe, Sydney, d. 1947 in Chatswood, Sydney)

09. Lucy Grace (b. 1875 in Concord, Sydney, d. 1944 in Manly, Sydney)

Clara, Ellen, Emily and Ethel did not marry; the four, plus their sister Lucy, lived with their parents at Lynton, Lane Cove Rd, Wahroonga (Electoral Rolls, 1903-4). Probate of Emily’s estate was granted in June, 1928, although to date we have not located her death NSW record . The following image is the index to Emily’s probate record, showing that she lived in Sydney, was not married and died on 23 Feb 1928. The administrator, Harry Davey, was her brother-in-law.

05. Lilla Mander North married Harry George Davey at Ashfield on 24 Nov 1891; from The Sydney Morning Herald, Sat 12 Dec 1891:

DAVEY—NORTH. – November 24, at the Presbyterian Church, Ashfleld, by the Rev. John Auld, M.A., assisted by Rev. John Walter, Harry George, fourth son of William Samuel Davey, late of Leyton, Essex, England, to Lilla Mander, third daughter of John Britty North, Cooringa, Summer Hill.

Harry was born in Hackney, London, in 1862. He came out to Australia as an assisted passenger, arriving 05 Apr 1884, aged 21. In the 1913 electoral rolls his profession was given as conveyancer and Lilla’s as home duties; they lived in Cooringa, Bennett St, Neutral Bay. According to the 1930 rolls they still lived in a house named Cooringa, although the address then was shown as 3 Bannerman St, Neutral Bay. Lilla passed away in 1933, and Harry lived in Cooringa until his death in 1955, aged 92. Lilla and Harry had two daughters. From The Sydney Morning Herald, Fri 21 Oct 1938:

DAVEY-October 20, 1938, at No. 3 Bannerman Street, Neutral Bay, Lilla Mander, beloved wife of Harry George Davey, and mother of Ethel (Mrs. P. E. Browne), Phyllis (Mrs. F. E. F. Alderson).

06. Alfred Herbert North was known as Phillip, born in Brisbane, Queensland (record 1868/B/8098, at the time of his birth registration he had not been named). He married Emily Gertrude Walker at Petersham, Sydney, on 11 Dec 1896, as described in the Evening News (and elsewhere) on Fri 20 Dec 1895:

A pretty wedding took place at Petersham on December 11, when Mr. Alfred H. North, son of Mr. J. B. North, was married to Miss Emily Gertrude Walker, daughter of Mr. David Walker. The bride wore a pretty toilette of white silk, with a wreath and veil, and was attended by four bridesmaids, the Misses J. and G. Walker, and the Misses E. and L. North. They were becomingly dressed in white shower of hail muslin over buttercup, with hats en suite, and pretty brooches presented by the bridegroom. After the ceremony the guests adjourned to the residence of the bride’s parents, when refreshments were prepared in a large marquee. Among the guests were the Rev. John Walker (who performed the ceremony), Mr. and Mrs. J. B. North, Mr. and Mrs. H. G. Davey, Mr. and Mrs. H. Weynton, Mr. and Mrs. J. G. North, Mr. and Mrs. Goodlet, Mr. and Mrs. A. Simpson, Mr. and Mrs. Scott, Miss Nellie Grabham, Miss Arnott, Mr. B. Vicars (best man), the Misses North, and many others.

Alfred was given a share in his father’s mine at Katoomba and they worked it together. After his father’s death Alfred purchased the mine, the land and the tramway from his sisters (who were the beneficiaries of J. B.’s will). Alfred was active in business in Sydney, was chairman of the stock exchange and a member of the newly formed Australian Associated Stock Exchanges; from The Sun, Fri 21 May 1937:

Australian Associated Stock Exchanges. Ten members. To represent the view of the Adelaide, Brisbane, Hobart, Melbourne, Perth and Sydney Stock Exchanges. Subscribers: Eric G. Blackmore, Alfred H. North, Alan D. Abcrcromblc, Alexander Corrie, Andrew D. Young, Walter Gurnor and Frank L. Langford. Registered office, Sydney.

Alfred and Emily had five children:

01. Gwendoline Enid (b. 1896 in Burwood, d. 11 Jul 1985) married William Trevor Wignall at Chatswood in 1928; they had two sons

02. Doreen Gertrude (b. 15 Sep 1899 in Burwood, d. 24 Oct 1927) married Francis C Ibbott at Chatswood in 1926; they had one son

03. Kathleen Joyce (b. 1904 in St Leonards, d. 1978) married Albert H Gray at Chatswood in 1935; they had two sons

04. Kenneth W (b. 1911 in Chatswood, d. 1911 in Chatswood)

05. Philip John Walker (b. 13 Nov 1912 in Chatswood, d. 18 Apr 1994 in Tamworth) married Joan Elizabeth Walker at Coolah in 1940; they had a son and a daughter; from The Sydney Morning Herald, Sat 23 Apr 1994:

09. Lucy Grace North married Alan Percy Vernon (b. 04 Apr 1877 in Concord, d. 29 Jan 1966) on 02 Aug 1905. Alan was a dental surgeon. In 1903 he was practising at 13 Palace St, Petersham. He then moved to Lane Cove Rd Wahroonga and practised there between 1904 and 1910 (at least). The years 1921 to 1924 the family had moved to Hay. In the early 1930s the practice was back in Sydney, in Waitomo, Pittwater Rd Collaroy. During the second half of the 1930s they were in Denison St, Crookwell. Lucy died in 1944 in Manly. By 1963 Alan had moved to Albury, passing away there in 1966, aged 88. The couple had two children:

01. Lucy Miriel (b. 14 Aug 1906 in St Leonards, d. 1996)

02. Alan Malcolm (b. 16 Jul 1911 in Scone, d. 29 Nov 1985 in Cabrini Hospital, Malvern, Victoria)

Lucy lived with her parents throughout her life. In the early electoral rolls she is shown as having “home duties” but from 1963 she is shown as a librarian.

Alan (known as Max) married Nance Elizabeth Chambers in Goulburn, New South Wales, on 16 April 1936. They had three children.

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