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Stephen Spurling (1876–1962)

by Christine Burgess

Stephen Spurling, surveyor’s assistant, photographer, motorcar enthusiast, sportsman, orchardist, cinema proprietor and pioneer bushwalker, was born on 28 October 1876 in Launceston, Tasmania. He was the second child of Stephen Spurling 2nd (photographer) and Julia Emily Spurling née Long.

Stephen 3rd was educated at a small primary school behind St John’s Church in Elizabeth Street, Launceston. In 1885, he transferred to the (private) Launceston High School – otherwise known as Nat’s High School. In 1891, he commenced work at the Citizens' Life Assurance Company and in 1893, he joined the Launceston Volunteer Artillery Corps. Later that year, he resigned from the insurance company and four days’ later, 4 September, he began working in his father’s studio. The following year he took the first photographs of Flinders Island mutton-birders at work. Then on 27 August 1896, he departed for Waratah on Tasmania’s rugged west coast. Here he worked with survey parties and twice saw the now extinct Tasmanian Tiger (Thylacine). Stephen 3rd next worked in a Zeehan silver mine, before returning to Launceston around 1897. In 1902, he and his father formed a partnership and moved into a custom-built premises at 93 Brisbane Street, Launceston. To satisfy the growing demand for landscape photographs, Stephen 3rd embarked upon a series of increasingly challenging wilderness treks.

Stephen 3rd achieved a number of photographic distinctions. For example, in 1893 and 1898, he took early photographs of the caves at Mole Creek. In 1898, he also made the first photographic record of the Mole Creek track to Barn Bluff. In 1903, he was the first to reach the summit of Ben Lomond in mid-winter, and the first to photograph it covered in snow. In 1905, he took the first published photographs of the Cradle Mountain area. These images later attracted pioneer Gustav Weindorfer, who subsequently established the Waldheim Chalet. Around 1906, Stephen 3rd took the first known photographs of the Franklin River, and in 1908, he captured the first photographs of the mountains and lakes in the Central Plateau. That same year, he photographed the newly discovered caves at Gunns Plains. In 1913, he took the first photographs of Hartnett Falls, and the first movies of Hartnett Falls, Mount Gould and Lake St Clair. In 1919, he took the first aerial photographs of Launceston, and the following year, he made a courageous attempt to reach Frenchmans Cap. Stephen 3rd wrote extensively about his expeditions and these were published in local papers and professional journals. During these expeditions, Stephen 3rd named several geographical features, including Lake Spurling, which he discovered during his 1908 Central Plateau trek. In 1955, the Tasmanian Nomenclature Board renamed it Lake Riengeena, and named a nearby mountain ‘Mount Spurling’.

Stephen 3rd’s photographs were widely distributed. From around 1906, the firm was an official government photographer, and supplied numerous images for tourist promotions. These included lantern slides and movies for local and interstate presentations, brochures, pictorial maps and magazines, and framed prints for display in the interstate offices of the Tasmanian Tourist Bureau. Spurling images also appeared in London. In 1908, thirty images featured at the Anglo-Franco exhibition, and in 1938, several Spurling images were displayed at the office of the Tasmanian Agent General. In addition, for many years, the Weekly Courier newspaper included regular spreads of Stephen 3rd’s photographs, and these were distributed to the mainland and overseas. In Tasmania, Spurling images adorned the walls of trams and trains, and the public purchased framed prints, postcards, and novelty items such as playing cards, featuring Spurling photographs. Stephen 3rd was a competent rower, athlete, cyclist, boxer, horse-rider and pioneer bushwalker. He also embraced new forms of transportation. He owned the first motorcycle built in Launceston, a 2 ¾ hp Minerva (c. 1902) and one of Tasmania’s earliest motor vehicles, an Orient Buckboard (c.1904). Vehicles made it easier to transport his photographic equipment and for four decades, he travelled throughout Tasmania, seeking locations for his photographs.

Although his first love was wilderness photography, Stephen 3rd took several highly acclaimed portraits. These include one of the few photographs of Lord Kitchener. Stephen 3rd took this photograph in 1910 when the British general visited Mona Vale, Tasmania. Another successful portrait was his photograph of HRH, the Prince of Wales (later to become Edward VIII, before his abdication) taken during the 1920 Royal visit to Launceston. Royalties from this photograph earned over £700.

On 21 March 1914, Stephen 3rd married Amelia Marie (known as Marie) Cuttle (1884-1958) at her grandmother’s home in Geelong, Victoria. Marie was the second daughter of Charles Edward (known as Ted) Cuttle and his wife, Elizabeth Ann Cuttle née Shaw. Stephen 3rd and Marie had two children, Stephen Edward (known as Ted) (1916-2004) and Hazel Marie (1920-1986). Although Stephen 3rd’s family was Anglican, in later years he became an active member of his local Presbyterian Church.

In addition to photography, Stephen 3rd had a variety of other interests. Around 1908, he and his father invested in orchards in the Tamar Valley, and in 1914, Stephen 3rd leased the National Theatre, Launceston. He was also a member of various organisations and clubs. These included, the Australian Natives Association, the Commercial Travellers’ Association, the Missing Link Association, the Fifty Thousand League, the Freemasons, the Northern Tasmanian Alpine Club, Rotary, the Royal Society of Tasmania, the Tasmanian Automobile Club, the Tasmanian Taxpayers’ Association and the Union Jack Gymnasium Club.

In 1937, Stephen 3rd sold his business to Kodak Pty Ltd and opened a new business called ‘Spurlings Scenic Photographers’ at 53 Paterson Street. He operated this venture until 1941, when he retired and moved to Melbourne. In 1957, he and Marie returned to Tasmania and settled in Devonport. Marie died one year later. Stephen 3rd remained in his own home for some years, but eventually moved to a nursing in Ulverstone. He died there from heart disease and pneumonia, on 3 October 1962, just prior to his eighty-sixth birthday. His funeral was held three days’ later, at the Presbyterian Church in Devonport and his ashes placed beside his wife’s at the Carr Villa cemetery in Launceston.

Today, many of Stephen 3rd’s photographs are held in private collections. In addition, a number of institutions, both in Australia and overseas hold collections of his images. These include the Cambridge University Library, George Eastman House (Rochester, NY), Museum Victoria, the National Library of Australia, the National Gallery of Australia, the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery (Launceston) – who also hold a portrait of him, ScreenSound Australia, the State Library of New South Wales, the State Library of Tasmania (Launceston), the State Library of Victoria, Tasmanian Archive and Heritage Office, the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, and the Zeehan Museum.

Original publication

Additional Resources

Citation details

Christine Burgess, 'Spurling, Stephen (1876–1962)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 24 April 2024.

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