Linking the City of Bendigo with Nottingham

Our research has revealed some fascinating 19th Century history. We have discovered a family with links to the cities of Nottingham, England and Bendigo, Australia.

Thanks to the archives at the University of Nottingham (Manuscripts and Special Collections) we have had access to papers belonging to John Lawson (1878-1969). John trained as a pharmaceutical chemist and was asked by Jesse Boot to join Boots the Chemists as a manager. Lawson lived in West Bridgford Nottingham. On his death, some of his personal documents were given to the Boots Company and these were handed to the University of Nottingham. Of particular interest are letters between two brothers, William and Thomas Lawson. They provide an insight into the early settlers in Australia.

William fled England in 1851 after some financial problems. He left his wife and child behind. William travelled to New Zealand and then to Australia, where he was part of the Australian Gold Rush. William did not appear to make his fortune and he never returned to England. He did write to his brother occasionally, promising to return (although often ask for money). He appears to have married again and had children. His son (from his marriage in England) even travelled to Australia to find his father. It is not clear whether he did.

Letter from William to Thomas dated 17th Dec 1851, from York Farm, Christchurch Plains, Canterbury, New Zealand.

He describes his arrival at Port Lyttleton, and his journey on foot to Christchurch. He initially worked in farming, then as a butcher in Wellington. He intends to make his fortune and then return to England. He describes the abundance of wild life and food. He describes the anniversary celebrations of the first settlers with horse races, Maoris running races, catching pigs, wrestling and cricket.

He thanks his brother for looking after his wife and having to leave England to escape his debts. He mentions the lack of women in New Zealand and wants his wife to come out and join him.

Letter (draft) from Thomas to William Lawson dated 10th Oct 1852.

Thomas asks William why he felt he had to leave England and questions if he is any better off in New Zealand. He hopes he will make money and pay off his creditors. He urges him to wait until he has made some money in Melbourne before bringing his wife out there. He explains the financial arrangements for his wife, who has no desire to join him in Australia.

Letter from William to Thomas Lawson dated 20 Oct 1856, from Snake Valley, 9 Mile Creek, The Ovens, Victoria, Australia.

William describes how he has lived among murderers and states that ‘all the villains in the world I think are here’. He complains that he is miserable because he is lonely, even though he has money.  He explains that he did not send any money home or write as he assumed family in England no longer thought of him and so he had tried to forget them. He apologises for this. He states that he intends to stay in Australia with the wealth to be made from gold. He ends by asking if anything ‘disrespectful’ relating to his wife ‘has come under your notice’.

Image (date inknown) taken from the Snake Valley Facebook site

Letter from William to Thomas Lawson dated 22 May 1857 (from 231 Elizabeth St, Melbourne, Australia).

He justifies why he left England and discusses amount of money he could earn in Australia on the gold fields. He wishes Thomas would speak to his wife and promises to send Brother Tarbotton the money he owes him. He hopes to see his mother again and complains of the lack of charity shown to his wife. There is mention that she was forced into the workhouse. He hopes relations between the brothers will improve.

Elizabeth Street Melbourne in 1870

In July 1857 William sent Thomas a number of prints showing buildings and locations in Australia that he had visited.

He reports that they have just sunk a large shaft to search for gold but found nothing. He mentions that he worked at Pall Mall in Sandhurst four years earlier.

Engraving of Creswick Creek from Spring Hill with note that it is a large goldfield which he had worked twice ‘but always lost money there’.

1 Image of Houses of Parliament, Melbourne

Engraving of New Houses of Parliament, Melbourne with handwritten comment about the fine buildings.
Engraving of Pall Mall, Sandhurst with note that it is a view near Bendigo but that it has been four years since he worked there.
Map of Victoria Gold Fields.

Letter from William to Thomas Lawson dated 13 Mar 1874

William reports that all the money he made in Victoria has been lost in mining transactions and he is now working at his trade in Melbourne. He asks for money to help him come home in three years.

Letter from William to Thomas Lawson dated 10 Aug 1874

Thanks him for letter and praises ‘my Ellen’ and remarks on his children. Promises to send information on them in his next letter. Asks for loan of £50 so he can get home otherwise he will stay in Australia.

Letter from William to Thomas Lawson, dated 8 Sep 1874

Sends details of his marriage to ‘Ellen’ and his 6 children, 3 of whom died in infancy.

Letter from William to Thomas Lawson, dated 9 Sep 1874

Remarks on his work in Victoria and that ‘all esteem him in Victoria. He insists he has never disgraced his name since leaving home 22 years ago.

Letter from John Lawson (William’s son) Thomas Lawson (1876)

Reports that after arrival in Freemantle he discovered there was no work as a mechanic, despite what he had been told. He states that he has taken work carrying coals for P&O Steam Navigation Company. He wishes he had not brought his family out and considers there is little chance of him getting to Melbourne to see his father. States that he has been imprisoned for six months for being on board a steam ship after sunset without a certificate proving he was not a convict. He claims he was only on the ship asking if it could give him passage to Melbourne. He describes working as a navvy creating fish-ponds.

Thank-you for reading. We hope you found this of interest. Follow the links or contact us for for more information.

Heritage Trail Booklet Published

We recently commissioned Porchester Press to publish a Heritage Trail Booklet for us.

The booklet is a fantastic way to advance the culture, heritage and social history of his legacy. We now have a short guide about the story of William Thompson, that will be accessible to visitors to Nottingham and its tourism.

Most of the locations in the booklet are in the commercial area of the city centre. People visiting Nottingham for the first time will be able to get to know something about it’s history whilst enjoying the shops, restaurants and attractions.

The Nottingham of Bendigo’s time could not have been more different. The slums were rife with disease. Life expectancy was 22, less than half the national average. One government official even labelled Nottingham as the ‘Worst town in England’. The people of Bendigo’s childhood home were said to ‘be the poorest of all Queen Victoria’s children’.

The booklet is titled ‘Ten Bells For Bendigo’. This is taken from the tradition of the Ten-Bell Salute, given to honour a boxer or wrestler who has died.

It contains 28 pages of interesting facts, quotes and photographs.

It can be ordered from Porchester Press for £4.50 plus £1.00 postage

William Thompson v William Parsons

During our research into Bendigo, we have found a fascinating piece of history that links our hero to a wealthy Nottingham solicitor named William Parsons.

William Parsons and William Thompson may have lived very different lives, but they lived to a similar age. Both were born and died a year apart, and both moved to Beeston in later life.

Parsons kept a diary and he makes an entry on 11th and 12th February 1839 about attending Bendigo’s fight with Deaf ‘n’ Burke at Appleby near Ashby de la Zouch in Lecestershire. He also writes about betting on Bendigo and winning £70 on the fight.

The entry in the diary reads

Shrove Tuesday.

Fight between Bill Thompson called Bendigo of Nottingham and deaf Burke, won in ten rounds by Bendigo in about 25 minutes. Tho Tate sent £50 to Londo yesterday to make good a bet and he will win about £70 or £80 upon the fight.

Attended meeting of the Corn Law question but did not stay till it was over.

Pancakes for dinner.

This reference to Bendigo highlights the significance of his reputation in the country at the time. The sport of prize-fighting was popular with both the rich and the poor.

Parsons’ diaries are preserved in the Manuscripts and Special Collections of the University of Nottingham. There are eight diaries written by William Parsons. There is also a letter book and a memoranda and address book that belonged to William Parsons and his son Frederick. The collection provides details about the life of a solicitor and gentleman in Nottinghamshire in Victorian times and depicts legal cases, politics, leisure and family life.

William Parsons joined his father and younger brother Samuel as a solicitor the family firm of Parsons and Sons based in St James Street, Nottingham. Parsons’ diaries record his day to day activities although he sometimes grew tired of keeping a regular account part way through the year.

He wrote about his social engagements, often followed by a resolution to live a more sober and serious life, and his professional activities, and makes general comments on life in Victorian Nottingham from the perspective of a well-off and politically engaged young gentleman.

By 1844, William had his own office in Park Row and by 1853, he was operating from Wheelergate and living in College Street. William tried unsuccessfully to become a junior councillor for the Corporation of Nottingham in 1834 in a bid to push through land enclosure that would have benefited his family. He was finally elected in November 1835 as one of the councillors for Park Ward.

In 1864 William Parsons was Mayor of Nottingham and a portrait of him is held at the Nottingham Castle collection.

By 1869, William had moved to Clifton Villas, Beeston, Nottinghamshire where he remained until his death in November 1881.

William Parsons, Mayor of Nottingham (1863–1864)
James Luntley (1827–1887)
Nottingham Castle Museum and Art Gallery