Blandford (Forum) in Dorsetshire is today
acknowledged as one of the best preserved Georgian market towns in England,
having been rebuilt in 1732 by an Act of Parliament after a fire all but
destroyed the town. Enhanced by a substantial bridge of six arches over the
River Stour, the 1849 Post Office directory of Dorsetshire describes
Blandford as follows:
“The streets are
regularly formed, well paved, and lighted with gas, the houses modern, and
uniformly built of brick, and the inhabitants plentifully supplied with
water…Behind the town-hall a neat and commodious market-place has been
recently erected, which is a great accommodation to the inhabitants, the
market having been formerly held in the open street”.
But the county of Dorsetshire and Blandford
in particular was far from a prosperous thriving place. In 1846, a member of
the House of Commons contended “that the distress existing in the county of
Dorset rivalled that of Ireland”, an assertion which elicited a strong
reaction. What followed was a series of investigative reports into the
living conditions of Dorsetshire by a correspondent of The Times. It was a
sobering picture indeed. The typical agriculture labourer was paid 7s to 9s
a week of which 1s went to rent and the rest to purchase “grist” from his
master to feed a large family “...often crowded to such a degree that
everything like decency must necessarily be entirely disregarded…” in a
house where “..it is by no means an uncommon thing for the whole family
to sleep in the same room, without the slightest regard to age or sex, and
without a curtain or the slightest attempt at separation between beds”.
The correspondent provided a graphic description of the severe shortage of
“In the back streets of
Blandford...there are living at this present time as many as 90 labouring
families, who have been driven into the town by reason of the impossibility
of procuring dwellings in the country”.
Over the next six years, there was little
change to the appalling conditions of Dorsetshire, conditions which were
likely to have affected the family of John Simmonds (1793-1860). If man is
given half a chance to improve the conditions of his family, he will take a
gamble and trust Providence in search of a better future. For an articulate
man as Simmonds, a builder of Salisbury Street, Blandford, news of the
attractive prospects coming from America and Australia was to provide a
window of opportunity for a better life. And so it was that the family
decided to migrate to Australia. Arriving in Victoria as unassisted
immigrants in November 1852 on the Lady Eveline with his family of ten were
his wife Ann nèe Pond (45) whom he married on 9 May 1827 and children John
jnr (24), Emma (21), Sarah (20), William (19), Charles (15), Samuel (13),
Edward (11), Lydia (10) and Lucy (5). Four children born before 1852 had all
died. (Also travelling on same ship were Thomas (26) and Harvey (22)
Simmonds, but it is not known if they were related).
It would be difficult to fathom a man in
his mid-50s with a large family even considering heading for the goldfields
to take part in the great golden harvest. Perhaps John junr tried his luck,
or did family loyalty come first? But if ever there was a place in the
vicinity of Melbourne that was least affected by the upheaval caused by the
rush to be rich, it was the seaside town of Brighton. And so it was that
John senr lost no time in constructing a small house in St. Andrews Street,
Brighton which was followed later by a larger home in William Street. As a
skilled builder and stone mason, Simmonds would have been in demand at a
time when money was plentiful and such skills were in shortage - a far cry
from life in Dorsetshire.
Just a few years after arriving, John snr
was a respected civic leader in the district who would later become Deputy
Register of Births and Deaths for the Brighton District. On 29 May 1854, a
public meeting was held at the Little Brighton Hotel to elect Trustees for
the “Elsternwick New Cemetery” after 29 acres of land to the north of
Dendy’s Special Survey had been set aside by the Government the previous
year. Simmonds was nominated to represent the Independent/Congregational
denomination and at the first meeting of the Trust held on 13 September, he
was appointed to fulfil the position of Secretary. Salary was fixed at £200
per annum “with an additional 2½ per cent on all outlays connected with the
Cemetery as Surveyor to the Trust”. In the days when the terms ‘touting’ and
‘conflict of interest’ were unheard of, John Simmonds jnr was a monumental
mason with the firm of “Huxley and Parker” as early as 1856 and later in
partnership with “Marsh, Grout & Co” before establishing his own firm “J.
Simmonds”. It was an occupation that John jnr would continue until at least
his mother’s death on 16 February 1880 before moving to Queensland.
For the first two years, Simmonds senr was
to play a significant role “...in dealing with the tortoise-like officialdom
of the Colonial Office” overburdened with the ever increasing problems
associated with the gold rush. In difficult circumstances Simmonds was able
to procure a total of £600 towards establishing the cemetery and at one
stage had to resort to political lobbying. That Simmonds was to accept a
reduction in salary of £50 on two occasions (June 1855 and May 1856) is a
measure of his commitment to see the cemetery through a difficult period.
John Simmonds died on 11 March 1860 from
senile marasmus aged 66 a much loved family man and respected citizen of the
locality. With the passing of time, it’s often easy to overlook the
significance of the events of 150 years ago and the role played by one man.
written by Travis M. Sellers and originally published in The Cemetorian -
Brighton Cemetorians Inc.
(above) Family grave of John
Simmonds. Buried in the same grave is S. P. Simmonds (1839-1907) who
succeeded his father as Secretary of the Brighton General Cemetery Trust and
served the longest term in the history of the Trust 1853-2007.
(above) S. P Simmonds’ House
& Land Agency business on the corner of Bay and Asling Streets, Brighton.
The building served as the Brighton General Cemetery office until circa July
John Simmonds' signature
The Times (London) 18 June p5, 25 June p3, 2
July p6, 9 July p5 & 10 July p5 1846.
Brighton Southern Cross 26 October 1907 p6.
Minutes of Trustee Meetings of the Brighton
Letters dated 16 March 1978 & 10 October 1984
from N. Simmonds held by the Brighton Historical Society Inc.
1851 SDFHS Census Index data.
PROV Immigration to Victoria 1852-79 (fiche
98, page 005).
Victorian Electoral Roll (1856).
Sands & McDougall directory.
Will of J. Simmonds dated 25 Feb 1860.
Death Certificate of A. Simmonds (1880 No.
Research by Lois Comeadow, Elizabeth Hore &
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