James Edward Wright
(1876–1946)


James Edward Wright was the third child of Samuel Wright, an erudite Anglo-Irishman from County Cavan and the daughter of a gold miner born in America. His father had arrived with his cousin William in 1847 to live with their uncle Captain Samuel Wright. Captain Wright, late of the 3rd regiment of the British Army was then a substantial landowner and magistrate. After arriving in 1822 he had served as commandant at a number of convict stations, including Sarah Island in Macquarie Harbour, and led the expedition to Westernport to settle Victoria in November 1826. Samuel completed his education at a private school in Ashfield, Sydney, the Meads, run by Captain Wright’s uncle Rev. Frederick Wilkinson. The young men fell out with their uncle and left for the goldfields around Bathurst in mid 1851. A measure of the falling out is that neither of the cousins were mentioned in the Captain’s will that was discovered after he apparently committed suicide by jumping overboard from a ship travelling between Sydney and Newcastle in March 1852. Furthermore James knew virtually nothing of Captain Wright until his son, Stanley, did some research while stationed at Singleton in 1944.

Son of a gold miner

After working in a number of goldfields in New South Wales and Victoria the cousins arrived in the Beechworth area of north east Victoria where William retired from mining and bought the Star Hotel in Stanley. In early 1869 Samuel married 19 year old Elizabeth Ogden Whitehead in Deep Creek, half way between Beechworth and Stanley. Elizabeth belonged to a mining family and was the eldest of four children. She was born in New York, U.S.A., during her family's journey to the Californian gold fields. Failing to make their fortune they moved off to the next big gold rush and arrived in Victoria in 1858 when Elizabeth was a child of eight. Her father, Joseph Whitehead registered his claim in Stanley in June 1859. When William died in 1875 Sam and Lizzie lived in a very modest house he had built at Milkman’s Flat between Hurdle Flat and Stanley. She and Samuel had five children: Joseph born 24 November 1869, Samuel III born 12 September 1871, James Edward born 16 April 1876, Cecil born 17 October 1879 and Gertrude (Gerty) born 24 July 1883.

James Wright inherited much of his father's outlook and interest. He attended school with his brothers and sister at
Granite Creek on the gold fields near Stanley and, after 1889, on the southern edge of the Great Dividing Range at Stockdale in Gippsland. After finishing school he worked on his father’s farm and when the Boer War started he and his brother Sam attempted to enlist in the Army. He was now twenty five and had no trouble with the medical and riding tests but failed the marksmanship. He had 10 shots at 400 yards and scored a bull and an outer, but the sergeant ruled that the bull must have been a stray shot from someone else. Jim seemed to be closer to Sam and Gerty than to Joe and Cecil; he appeared to take a paternal interest in his ‘little sister’. However with his military ambitions thwarted Jim decided that to better himself he needed further education and left home to go to Melbourne for further qualifications. In 1901 Jim left ‘the bush’ for a better life ‘in town’ equipped with little more than a fierce determination to succeed.

It seems very likely that this move was a result of the influence of a young schoolteacher. Kate Sweetman had come to the area in June 1899 to teach at nearby
Fernbank . A student described her as ‘a prim little English lady’. Then twenty nine she had begun teaching in Melbourne in 1892 and was already considered a fine teacher. She was four years older than Jim, the second daughter of a solidly middle class family in Richmond, small and very pretty. (Her brother Ted was also a teacher in that area.) Two years later she was transferred to the school at Hillside, a few miles further west towards Bairnsdale. Despite Kate’s family not welcoming the idea of their clever and pretty daughter (and sister) falling in love with the son of an ex-miner with few obvious prospects, the pair became very close. Kate sent him off to Melbourne with love and a loan of £20. Perhaps she viewed this as a prudent investment for if he too became a teacher he would surely then be more acceptable to her parents and brother.

On arriving in Melbourne Jim studied with a university tutor, Rev. Dr. R Williams MA at Claremont 104 Lennox Street, Richmond. Then he joined classes in English Literature and the History of the British Empire with Herbert Hewitt in Stawell Chambers and did some teaching. Hewitt found an intelligent and painstaking worker and as well qualified as any Certified Teacher in Latin, Geography, Arithmetic and Physics. Perhaps it was Hewitt who suggested the Tasmanian Education Department as a possible employer. At that time there was no formal process for recruiting teachers and when Jim wrote to the Director in August 1902 he discovered that prospective teachers ‘need to be known personally to a member of the Service.’ Although he had no promise of a position with his Junior Public Examination Certificate and glowing endorsements from Hewitt and Williams he travelled to Tasmanian early in 1902 in search of a career. Someone referred him to Frank Solomon the headmaster of the East Devonport State School and there, in spite of his age he joined Mr Solomon’s Grade VI class.


Mr Solomon and those sitting the Public Examination from East devonport School in 1902.

He had begun his correspondence with the Education Department but was not given much encouragement. Undeterred he wrote again from Devonport in July 1902 repeating his request for a teaching position and enclosing references from Solomon and Rev S Chambers Flockhart, of the Devonport Methodist Church. Probably unknown to Rev. Flockhart Jim saw the Church as a social opportunity rather than a spiritual outlet. He had discovered that not ‘all the girls are milk & water Missys by any means’. ‘I got a great deal more fun than good out of my Sunday School connections at Devonport’ he told Gerty in a letter in May 1905. ‘Sunday School and Bible classes are so well patronised not because they teach people to be good- in fact it is often the other way – but they bring people together for a little social intercourse. Sometimes I believe other intercourse but that is by accident.’ Nevertheless he was discreet for he became Secretary to a Sunday school.

The University of Tasmania issued him a Junior Public Examination Certificate, with three credits and five passes from eight subjects, in January 1903. After 4 months he progressed from pupil to assisting Solomon in ‘routine duties’ at the school. He wrote to the Department again pointing out that his qualifications were accepted as ‘equal to a pass at the Licensed Teachers Examination. The best he got for all this writing was approval to sit for the Teachers Entrance examination in December. At the end of January 1903 he was informed that he was now qualified to enter Division B of Class IV of the teaching service – the bottom . In March he was considered for a post at Zeehan in but received a far from flattering report from Inspector A L Brockett who had examined the East Devonport School during the previous year.
‘He is a steady man but has no municipal knowledge whatsoever. He is countrified in appearance and scarcely the type of man we want to see in the service of the Department.’ Brockett reported to the Department when asked whether he should get the post at Zeehan. The next month Solomon wrote to Brockett reminding him of Jim’s presence in the school when he conducted the last examination and strongly recommending him for a teaching post. Brockett forwarded Solomon’s letter to Hobart without comment. Perhaps this intervention was conclusive for a month later an appointment as a teacher at an annual salary of £65, plus £10 house allowance, arrived in the mail.

James was away at Smithton when the letter arrived and had to apologise that he could not be at Seymour by 1 June but would go immediately. The school was 16 km north of Bicheno and had been temporarily closed due to ‘an infectious disease’ in the house of Mrs Bedgood where the previous teacher had boarded. ‘If the neighbours still feel any apprehension Mrs Bedgood will refrain from sending her children to school’. The Education Department thoughtfully arranged board for him with ‘a local farmer Mr. Jessen’ Jim reopened the school on 8 June 1903.



Staying with the Jessens

When the young teacher arrived the Jessen household consisted of Jes Hansen Jessen, 55, his wife Ann Marie, 52, a daughter Clara, 27, and two sons Tas, 25 and Hilmer 22. The Jessen’s eldest child Victoria Margaret, known as Torie, had left home when she married Charles Christian Madsen in 1895. Families of Allens and Coopers were neighbours; John Cooper lived on the northern boundary having arrived in 1867 to manage the nearby mining operations of the Australian Coal and Kerosene Co. Later his widow Bridget and her sons Edmund, Frank and George worked the farm.

The younger Jessen daughter, Clara Eugenie, was twenty-seven when James Wright took up residence at
The Douglas in 1903 . By then the Jessens were well established at Seymour. Jes had been elected to the Glamorgan Council in 1889 and appointed a justice of the peace in 1900. The owner of the land they leased, Amy Allen, had died intestate around 1899 but Jes remained the leaseholder. In July 1906 Jes purchased over 170 acres of crown land that fronted the sea roughly half way between Long Point (Seymour) and the Douglas River. This land was on the north eastern corner of the original Allen Grove . In September 1914 he purchased another parcel of almost 300 acres of second class crown land adjacent to the southern boundary . At the same time Ann Marie bought a similar block on the north west corner of the original Allen Grove. The title to this land was issued to her in August 1929.

The school at Seymour was located in a timber cottage built in 1861 by the Wardlaws as their first house on Chain of Lagoons. It was about an hour’s walk from the Douglas and also served as the Presbyterian Church. Ann Marie was a keen church goer and a regular host for the curate Charles Keays. His diary records weekly visits and occasional over night stays and the enjoyment of the odd ‘lively musical evening’. In 1895 there were schools at both Bicheno and Seymour but by 1901 the former had been closed for lack of students.

On leaving Melbourne James promised to write every week to a Kate and to his sister Gerty. He kept his promise to Kate but his letters to his sister Gertrude were more spasmodic. By the time Jim arrived in Seymour his weekly letters to Kate had already become 'an institution'. Towards the end of 1904 the 21 year old Gerty left home to work in Melbourne and the next May his youngest brother Cecil, then 25, eloped to marry Eva Hempel. Gerty boarded with her Aunt Sarah (Mrs Jack Russell) at 78 Park St. South Melbourne. James settled in to Seymour society well and was soon playing cricket, breaking horses and organising concerts. At the end of 1904 he tried for a transfer to Cornwall without success but at the end of the year passed the exam to progress to top Division of Class II. It seems that Jim was coached in his academic studies by a Launceston lawyer and law lecturer, A E Solomon, ever since he arrived in Tasmania. Albert Solomon, who was the same age as Jim, was a brilliant man with a precocious intellect; he matriculated at 13 and quickly accumulated four degrees at the University of Tasmania. Solomon 'is very kind and he has a practical and sympathetic interest in my work and welfare'. In 1909 his friend entered politics topping the poll for the anti-socialist ticket in Bass. Within two months he was Attorney-General and Minister for Education. He became Premier from 1912 to 1914 and died the next year after a long illness while only 39. He was the brother of Frank Solomon the head teacher at East Devonport when Jim arrived there.

In May 1905 Clara Jessen, described by James to his mother as 'a jolly good sort', spoke to him about 'striking out on her own'. He suggested she might go to Melbourne and team up with Gerty. In the end she just went as far as Launceston for a couple of months. James spent his free time with cricket matches in the surrounding district including a three-day trip to Swansea. He spent Easter at St. Mary’s playing both cricket and football, the latter against the visiting Hawthorn team from Melbourne! In letters to his sister, James reveals some early despondency with his new role and considers leaving the Education Department when public service salary increments were suspended in July 1905. Unable to see any prospect of being able to afford to marry he decided to break his ties with Kate. ‘She is a noble girl and I suppose I am a fool but it will be better for her in the long run’.

He continued studying for his senior certificate and enjoyed some success with the local cricket team but was rather unhappy with life. This was somewhat self inflicted for apart from his cricket he avoided other social occasions. ’Do not be too ready to make intimate friends’ he counselled Gerty. ‘I accept no invitation to tea etc. from people around the district until I find who are worth making friends with.’ However in this district I have been rather too exclusive and this leaves you dependent on one family’ he reflected to his sister in February. Within that family plans were in hand to change his status.

He had now lived with the Jessens for nearly two years and Ann Marie clearly favoured the young school teacher as a suitable husband for her unmarried daughter who was now nearly 30. On his birthday at Easter she came into his room with a pair of gold and petrified wood cuff links and in the evening put on a lavish dinner. She was also anxious to get Gerty to come across and make friends with Clara. Ann Marie had also discovered that Jim’s school inspector Arthur W Garrett was pleased with his performance. She did not pass this on to Jim immediately but it probably reassured her that despite his present low spirits his teaching career would not be stillborn. Garrett’s assessment was major endorsement for he was both eminently qualified (the winner of the Tasmanian Scholarship to Balliol College Oxford in 1862) and with years of experience in the Indian Civil Service before returning to Tasmania in 1899.

James may have been unaware that some of the aspects of the education system that he objected to had been reviewed by William L Neale. Neale proposed that a philosophy called New Education be introduced in Tasmania. The Premier had taught with Neale in South Australia and appointed his old head teacher as Director in January 1905. Garrett’s inspection of James in 1905 was based on Neale’s new objective measures. What Garrett observed resulted in a change of fortune for James. In August 1905 he was invited to see Neale in Hobart and appointed headmaster of the school at Forcett, some miles east of Sorell. The vacancy occurred when the incumbent teacher sought a transfer to Hobart to obtain treatment for a medical condition. The new position brought with it an increase in salary of £20 and a six-room schoolhouse. Now that he was in a position to marry he regretted breaking up with Kate. At the end of 1906 she had obtained a transfer to Melbourne and taught at the Prahran State School until her retirement in 1933. She never married.

A month later he wrote to Gerty saying he intended to get married ‘in a month or so when I can afford a double bed’ and would she get him a cheap translation of all of Cicero’s works. Clara was his choice 'she will make me a good wife. She can cook wash and sew that's about all I need'. It seems a decidedly second best choice. He admits that Clara has always 'had a liking for me' and although 'she can not assist me in my school work or studies, she is an excellent cook and housekeeper and good tempered and sensible'. Their differences – he was a voracious reader, deeply interested in sport, politics and world affairs who liked a drink and smoke – whilst she shared none of these interests, proved irrelevant to their union.

His future mother-in-law came down to stay with him bringing furniture and helping him settle in. Forcett was also conveniently close to Wattle Hill and Torie’s family. After further consideration (perhaps with her father) James and Clara decided to wait until after Easter when his finances would improve and he returned to The Douglas for the holidays. His cricket improved greatly and he made a century. In November 1905 James sent Gerty advertisements from the Education Department seeking teachers. The Director (Neale) wanted to place female teachers in all country schools. The pay was £60 a year and Jim judged that board should not exceed 10 shillings a week. He urged her to apply and she took the opportunity.

At the beginning of March 1906 James received a long letter from the Whiteheads giving news of home including a recent trip to ‘their old haunts at
Grant and Crooked River’. They had seen Gerty before her departure for Tasmania and heard he was getting married. They wished him well.