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Spurling, Stephen (1821–1892)

by Christine Burgess

Stephen Spurling, photographer, government clerk, frame-maker and entrepreneur, was born on 11 June 1821, and christened on 3 August that year in Camberwell, Surrey, England. He was the elder son of Stephen Spurling senior (who was about to move from his employment in the Stock Exchange and take up a position as a purser in the Royal Navy) and Jessy Spurling, née Parkinson. In 1827, Stephen Spurling senior, who was then serving aboard HMS Hind, became ill and died in Trincomalee, Ceylon (Sri Lanka). As a fatherless child, Stephen 1st was eligible to enter Christ’s Hospital (otherwise known as the Blue Coat School) in London. He commenced his eight years of tuition there two days after his seventh birthday. In 1835, while he was still at school, his mother and youngest sister migrated to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania). Stephen 1st completed his education in June 1836, and twelve months later, around the time of his sixteenth birthday, he, and his thirteen-year-old brother Ansley (1824-1888), embarked on the five-month journey to join their mother and sister in Hobart Town. They arrived aboard the Andromeda on 14 November 1837.

Initially, Stephen 1st found it difficult to secure employment. In 1840, he presented a letter from his mother to the Lieutenant Governor, Sir John Franklin, and shortly afterwards a position became available as a clerk in the Convict Department. During this period, he also started to experiment with the newly discovered medium of photography. On 9 November 1844, Stephen 1st married Louisa Lovett (1827-1898), third daughter of ex-convict George Lovett and his wife, Esther Thurgate. They married at St George’s Church (Anglican), Battery Point, Hobart Town. The couple had three sons, Henry Edwin (1845-1906), Stephen 2nd (1847-1924) and Frederick (1850-1942).

The next two decades brought a series of career changes. For a few years, Stephen 1st continued to work in the Convict Department, while in his spare time he produced crayon portraits. Then, when transportation ceased in 1853, he transferred to the Survey Department where he worked as a clerk. While here, he may well have encountered fellow Survey Department employee, William Charles Piguenit. Two years later, Stephen 1st joined the exodus to the goldfields, but the theft of his findings on his return in 1855 forced him to seek insolvency. In May the following year, he established a business in partnership with George Shepherd producing bespoke picture frames. His next business, called Spurling’s Bazaar, carried, amongst other items, magic lanterns, dissolving and cosmoramic views. His third business, which opened in August 1860, sold a range of goods including telescopes, microscopes, stereoscopes and stereoscope slides. When this venture failed in 1861, Stephen 1st was declared bankrupt.

In 1863 Stephen 1st, his wife and two of their sons travelled to New Zealand. Lured by the discovery of gold in Otago, the family settled in Invercargill, where they established a grocery and bakery, selling supplies to those en route to the diggings. However, their stay in New Zealand proved fraught with difficulties and they left early in 1864.

Back in Hobart Town, Stephen 1st established a photography studio at 76 Murray Street. Over the next decade, he earned a reputation for quality portraiture, and he achieved a number of distinctions. For example, in 1866 he was awarded a prestigious bronze medal at Intercolonial Exhibition in Melbourne, and in 1868, he contributed to an album presented to His Royal Highness Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh. Although his work was primarily studio-based, he did undertake some outdoor work. Despite his achievements, by 1875 Stephen 1st was once again facing bankruptcy. During the subsequent sale of his assets, fellow photographer Alfred Winter purchased his negative collection. For the next decade, Winter advertised Spurling portrait and landscape prints and enlargements for sale.

From 1875 onwards, Stephen 1st’s career was in decline. In 1881, he attempted to re-establish his studio, but this venture proved unsuccessful. By 1886, the deterioration in his mental health, combined with his impending paralysis, led to his admission to the asylum at New Norfolk. It is possible he was suffering from the long term effects of chemicals, such as mercury, which he had used during his early photographic experiments. He remained incarcerated until his death, from congestion of the kidneys, at the age of seventy, on 13 April 1892. His funeral was held the following day at St Matthew’s Church (Anglican), and he was buried in the New Norfolk Old Cemetery.

Today, Stephen 1st’s photographs are held in private collections, and at the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery (Launceston) — who also hold a portrait of him, the State Library of New South Wales, the State Library of Victoria, the Tasmanian Archive and Heritage Office, the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, and the University of Tasmania.

Original publication

  • unpublished, by Christine Burgess, 2011

Additional Resources

Citation details

Christine Burgess, 'Spurling, Stephen (1821–1892)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/spurling-stephen-1578/text1651, accessed 25 November 2017.

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