Friday, 23 March 2018

The First Philip Charley

Early Days

I don’t remember when I first heard the story of my ancestor, the original Philip Charley (as opposed to his several Philip Charley descendants).  At some time during my childhood, I was told about Philip Charley who came from Devon to Ballarat in Victoria, Australia, lost his wife, abandoned his children and then disappeared; no keeping skeletons in the closet in my family.  Perhaps this is one of the stories that sparked my interest in family history, wanting to know what happened to him.

Philip Charley was born in North Molton, Devon, a town not far from the edge of Exmoor.  He was the youngest child of James Charley, a tallow chandler (candle maker and seller), and his wife, Mary Cockings. Philip was baptised in the parish church on 19 Mar 1820.  His older siblings were Anne, John and William.  I wonder if there were more children who were not baptised and who may have died young – there are four to six year age gaps between each child, which is unusual in an era when a child every two years was the norm.  The name Philip appears to have come from the Cockings family. Mary had two brothers named Philip (one died in infancy).  I don’t know any more about Philip’s childhood.

In the 1841 census, Philip was still living with his extended family, including brother William’s wife and child, and working as a wool comber.  I have not been able to find Philip Charley in the 1851 census.

Married Life

At some point before 1854, Philip Charley moved to the East End of London and became a coach painter – possibly not in that order.  In the East End, he met Catherine Thompson. They were married on 24 August 1854 at St Mary’s Haggerston in London.  One of the witnesses was Catherine’s brother-in-law, Thomas Archbold, who was also a witness on several other family records.

A few months later, on 9 December 1854, Philip and Catherine set sail on the Caldera to Melbourne, Australia.  The ship arrived four months later on 7 March 1855.  Both had siblings who left England around the same time.  Philip’s brother William migrated with his family to Canada.  Catherine’s brother, also William, was living in Ballarat by 1857.  Two more of Catherine’s siblings ended up in New Zealand.

On 23 November 1855, Philip and Catherine’s first child, William Joseph Charley, was born in Geelong.  He was soon followed by Harriet Catherine Charley, also born in Geelong, in 1857.  The family then moved to Ballarat where their remaining children were born: Mary Ann, Rebecca, Philip George, John Joseph (my ancestor) and William Thompson.  The oldest, William Joseph Charley died in 1862 and his names were reused for his younger brothers, a common occurrence in times past.

Philip Charley continued working as a coach painter in Ballarat, his place of business is shown in this old photo (I have no idea if any of the people in the phot are family).  I am not sure how successful his business was. 

Photo found on 
I don't know where it originally came from. 
I assume that due to it's age it is public domain.
An 1866 street directory shows Philip Charley, coach painter, next door to William Thompson, carpenter in Dawson Street, Ballarat. A 1872 newspaper report (in The Ballarat Star) of an attempted arson indicates that Mr P Charley owned several houses, one of which has been set on fire, living in one small residence and renting out the others.  Perhaps this indicates that at some point, his coach painting business was successful.  What I do know is that Philip made his mark in Ballarat in other, less fortunate, ways.  The less savoury parts of his life can be tracked in “The Star” and “The Ballarat Star” newspapers (the name changed about 1865).

In November 1862, Philip Charley was charged with beating his wife and threatening to take her life.  The newspaper describes Catherine as a formidable looking woman; I don’t know if this was the press trying to downplay the seriousness of domestic violence.  This is the only description I have of Catherine.  Philip said that he was sorry and was told by the judge to find sureties for his good behaviour or go to gaol for a month.

Little more than a year later, in January 1864, Philip was arrested for using obscene language in a public place.  When he was being arrested, he ran away from the constable, only to be re-captured.  He then offered the policeman £2 and “a shout” at the hotel (pub, for non-Aussies).  He was charged and given a fine or a few days in gaol.  I assume alcohol was involved in the offenses.

Another few months later, in March 1864, Philip was once again charged with threatening his wife’s life.  In this instance he was bound to keep the peace for 3 months.  From a modern view point, this seems like a very mild sentence for a repeat offence of domestic violence but, on the positive side, it was taken seriously enough by the authorities to make it to court.  After this, Philip seems to have settled down and behaved for a while.

On 30 Jul 1870, Catherine died from pyemia, which is a form of blood poisoning.  She was buried in the Old Ballarat Cemetery on 2 August 1870.  Philip arranged a funeral procession from their house to the cemetery, inviting friends to join the procession.  In spite of their volatile relationship and the death threats, Philip’s life seems to have fallen apart after his wife died.  I don’t know whether this was because he was grief stricken or couldn’t cope with his young children or a bit of both.


In November 1871, The Ballarat Star records that a Charley girl aged 14 ½, presumably Harriet Catherine, was found by the court to be neglected and was sent to a Reformatory school.

Less than a year later, in October 1872, Philip’s daughter, Harriet, again appeared before the court, charged with being idle and abandoned.  She asked to be sent to a reform school or convent.  The judge told Philip that he was unfit to have charge of his daughter, already having four children in Industrial schools.  From the Victorian Police Gazettes, it appears that the four children were Rebecca, Philip, John and William.

By November 1872, Philip Charley was out of work and in trouble for neglecting to pay maintenance for his son who was an inmate in an industrial school.  Philip told the court that he was about to start work on the railway and the Judge told the police to confirm this.  Philip ended up being sentenced to 1 month in prison in December that year, so maybe he didn’t have work after all.

In 1873, Philip Charley was remanded again for not paying maintenance.  Multiple times prior to this, Philip had tried to have the amount owed reduced.  From 1871 until 1879, Philip Charley was regularly mentioned in the Victorian Police Gazette as owing money for child maintenance.  The sum eventually came to £144, a vast sum in those days.
From the Victorian Police Gazette, I have a couple of descriptions of what Philip Charley looked like.  In 1872, when going to gaol, he was described as 5ft 6 ½ inches tall, sallow complexion, brown hair, grey eyes, a mole on his left cheek and small finger on his right hand injured.  I find the second description from November 1873 more fascinating as it hints at his attitude: 5ft 7 or 8 inches, fair complexion, fair hair inclined to curl, fair whiskers turning grey, light blue eyes, point of nose turned up and walks erect with head thrown back.  It also mentions that he wore shabby clothes.  The two descriptions could be of different men.

It would appear that before the end of 1873, Philip had absconded from Ballarat, hence his description in the Gazette.  My guess is that Philip knew he would never be able to pay his debt and having had enough of the courts and gaol, decided to run away from his responsibilities.  In spite of the debt, the children stayed at school and were educated.  Philip went to Melbourne where he may have continued working as a painter; that is the occupation on his death certificate.  He died from renal (kidney) disease on 31 August 1876.  I assume that his family had no idea that he had died and the authorities were certainly unaware as they continued to pursue him for another 3 years.


One of the most the things I find most fascinating about this story is that in spite of the children being placed in care, they managed to stay in contact with one another and most of they ended up living near each other around Wagga Wagga, NSW, for a time as adults.  Perhaps their uncle, William Thompson tried to keep an eye on them.

Given that Philip was no role model for his children, you may wonder why the name Philip was passed down through subsequent generations.  I assume they were named after the son, Philip George Charley, who, as one of the founders of BHP, was a success. Philip George’s son, Philip Belmont Charley was knighted.  Between them, they redeemed the name.

This blog post is inspired by the #52Ancestors prompt “Misfortune”.

Notes on lineage:  Me > Mum > John Macdonald Charley > Walter George Charley > John Joseph Charley > Philip Charley