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Woolley, Alfred (1818–1890)

Alfred Woolley, by T. F. Chuch, 1872

Alfred Woolley, by T. F. Chuch, 1872

Museum of Victoria, 49205651

By the death of Mr Alfred Woolley which occurred at St Kilda on Tuesday, the colony has lost another of its earliest settlers. Indeed there can be very few people still amongst us whose recollections of early Melbourne go so far back as did those of the genial warm-hearted pioneer who has just passed away. Mr Woolley was by birth a Londoner, having first seen the light in the suburb of Peckham in 1818. He received a sound English education, but was only in his sixteenth year when he resolved to emigrate to Australia in order to join his brother Thomas, who had already settled in Sydney. Accordingly he took passage in the ship Florentia, and arrived in Sydney on January 23, 1834, more than 18 months before the little schooner Enterprise was stopped in its progress up the Upper Yarra by the Falls, and Fawkner and his party, landing on the quiet rural banks of the stream, founded the future city of Melbourne. The prospects of the new settlement attracted a good deal of attention in Sydney, and in July, 1839, Mr. Woolley entered into a partnership for trading purposes with the late Mr. D. S. Campbell, and chartering the Emma, a brig of 180 tons, sailed round to Melbourne. No attempt had yet been made to improve the navigation of the river, and Mr. Woolley used often to relate the troubles which the master of the Emma encountered as the vessel was towed up the stream by boats, nearly a day and a half having been spent in the work before she was finally made fast to a gum tree upon the site of the present Queen's Wharf, and the new arrivals were free to look abroad upon the Melbourne of 51 years ago. The embryo city had already progressed with what were then regarded as giant strides. Within the 12 months preceding Mr. Woolley's arrival the population of the town had been almost quadrupled, and signs of prosperity and activity were everywhere apparent. The place had still the appearance of a scattered village, comprising not more than 300 tenements, but brick buildings were already numerous, some boasting of two and even of three stories. The rough hotels of the first two or three years were being transformed into roomy and decently-conducted inns, and the lines of the streets had been marked and partially cleared of tree stumps, whilst here and there, in some of the busier localities, they had actually been macadamised. Branches of two Sydney banks were in operation, and a brisk trade was springing up. Messrs. Campbell and Woolley began business as general merchants at the corner of Elizabeth-street and Little Collins-street, upon the site where the head office of the Colonial Bank of Australasia now stands. They had purchased there the original half-acre block, for which the original owner had paid £28 at the first land sale, in 1837. In 1839 there were erected upon it a store and several cottages, and Mr. Woolley and his partner paid between £4,000 and £5,000 for the lot. The value of the land alone to-day is at least 40 times the last-named figure. Mr. Campbell became a member of the town council, and assisted in the agitation for improvements, but Mr. Woolley took a less prominent part in public affairs. After two or three years of speculation and excitement a reaction came, and business languished to such an extent that the firm of Campbell and Woolley was dissolved, and Mr. Woolley resolved to enter into business on his own account at Geelong, which threatened at that time to compete on even terms with Melbourne for commercial supremacy. Mr. Woolley opened his store there in 1843, and succeeded during the next few years in establishing a thriving business. His prosperity at this time was sufficiently substantial to induce him to take a trip to the old country, and he had the great gratification of witnessing the first Exhibition of 1851. While still employed in exploring the treasures of industry at the Crystal Palace, the news reached him of the discovery of gold in Victoria, and he lost no time in returning to the colony. Port Phillip was reached in January, 1852, and Mr. Woolley was fairly astonished at the change which had come over the place. The gold fever had taken possession of nine-tenths of the population, and "off to the diggings" was the cry heard on every hand. Very few of Mr. Woolley's fellow-passengers lost more than 24 hours in setting out for the goldfields, and the price of labour in Melbourne had risen to what seemed a preposterous extent. It was at once apparent that Geelong was no longer the place where the most money was to be made, and Mr. Woolley accordingly disposed of his business there, and opened a large store in Bourke-street, where he rented Degraves's bonded stores, and continued for some time to do a most lucrative trade. Among other things, he was an extensive buyer of gold, and as the diggers were glad to accept £2 10s, or less per ounce for gold which would bring over £4 in the English market, the exchange was a very paying one to the merchant while it lasted. At a later period Mr. Woolley carried on a shipping business in Market-street, and only retired a few years ago.

At no time during his long career did the deceased gentleman take a very conspicuous part in public affairs. In 1859, indeed, he was elected to represent Richmond in the Legislative Assembly, together with the late Mr. J. G. Francis, but he had no inclination for the turmoil of political life, and did not seek re-election. It was in matters of a more social and philanthropic nature that Mr. Woolley's real usefulness lay. Up to the last year of his life he was brimming over with energy and kindly benevolence, and was never appealed to in vain for assistance in any work of true philanthropy. He was perhaps best known to the public in connection with the Immigrants' Home, of which he was the honorary secretary for a quarter of a century. The Immigrants' Aid Society was founded in 1853, for the purpose of providing shelter for the large number of destitute persons whom the vicissitudes of the gold era threw into distress, and Mr. Woolley even then took an active part in collecting the funds required. In 1870, some years after Mr. Woolley became secretary, it was recognised that the name of the institution had become somewhat of a misnomer, and it was changed to that of the "Immigrants Aid Society's Home for Houseless and Destitute Persons," with separate establishments for men and women, and a division for the nightly shelter of "casuals," a sufficiently numerous class, even in Marvellous Melbourne. Into the work of the society Mr. Woolley threw himself with characteristic heartiness. He visited the different divisions very frequently, and made himself master of every detail of management and suvervision. Amongst the inmates his cheery presence was always a source of genuine pleasure, and in scores of instances he was able by his own exertions to put unfortunate but deserving persons in the way of a respectable livelihood. When funds were low–as was often inevitable in an institution whose field of operations was so extensive–Mr. Woolley was indefatigable in enlisting the sympathy both of the Government of the day and of the public at large, and he has been the means of increasing the usefulness of the society in a very great degree. The extent of its operations at the present time may be judged from the fact that the daily average of inmates, exclusive of persons to whom nightly shelter is given, exceeds 700. The appearance in the newspapers of Mr. Woolley's appeal, under the heading of "A Merrie Christmas," was a regular feature at every Christmastide, and last December he was particularly successful in obtaining from the public a generous supply of comforts for the old people under his care. Mr. Woolley was an active member of the Church of England, having been a member of the Bishop's Council ever since its formation in 1857, and one of the church-wardens of St. Paul's. Among many other philanthropic movements in which he took part, he was largely instrumental in securing the establishment of the Deaconesses' Home in Little Bourke-street.

Mr Woolley was married in 1840, and his golden wedding was celebrated with much rejoicing in February last, among other presents which he and Mrs. Woolley then received being an illuminated address from the officers and inmates of the Immigrants' Home. On that happy occasion Mr. Woolley was full of life and spirits, and his departure seemed much more remote than it has unfortunately proved to be. He leaves a number of sons and daughters, several of whom are married. One of his married daughters was lost in the wreck of the steamship Keilawarra off the Queensland coast, in December, 1886. The funeral of the deceased gentleman will take place this afternoon, leaving his residence in Wellington-street, St. Kilda, for the St. Kilda Cemetery, at half-past 2 o'clock. A large number of the inmates of the home have asked permission to follow his remains to the grave.

Original publication

Additional Resources

  • profile, Table Talk (Melbourne), 26 December 1889, p 5
  • probate, Table Talk (Melbourne), 13 June 1890, p 6

Citation details

'Woolley, Alfred (1818–1890)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/woolley-alfred-18196/text29769, accessed 25 November 2017.

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