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Bartley, Nehemiah (1830–1894)

by R. H. W. Reece

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

Nehemiah Bartley (1830-1894), merchant, was born on 10 May 1830 at New Cross, London, son of Nehemiah Bartley and his wife Mary Ann, née Lucas. After his parents died he was brought up by his aunt and educated at the City of London School, Cheapside. He then worked for a merchant uncle and an accountant. In 1849 he sailed in the Calcutta for Hobart Town, where his aunt who had married the brewer, Edwin Tooth, was living; his cousin, Theodore Bartley, was a successful farmer and grazier near Launceston. Unable to find suitable employment, in December 1849 Nehemiah sailed in the Eudora in charge of a consignment of timber, prefabricated houses, shopfronts, onions and potatoes for San Francisco. At Tahiti he met Benjamin Boyd and on his advice sold part of his cargo at Honolulu and the rest at San Francisco. While he stayed to dispose of a later shipment of potatoes from Hobart, he helped to save the sails and stores of a ship in San Francisco Bay and saw the city itself go up in flames.

Bartley returned to Hobart with gold doubloons from his sales, then went to Melbourne and had two months from March 1851 of 'colonial experience' on a station near Geelong. Because his remittances from England were stolen from the Melbourne Post Office, he had to visit Sydney where his aunt was spending the winter. Deciding to try gold digging he walked from Penrith to the new Turon field where he joined a party of Tasmanians and Cornishmen, some of them from California. After meagre success he took over a store and the first bakery on the field. After another unsuccessful mining venture with his brother James he returned to Sydney in June 1852 and became a teller in the Bank of New South Wales; among his duties was the arrangement of overseas gold consignments. Long working hours and a bout of influenza threatened his health and in 1853 he joined a party overlanding ten thousand sheep from Dubbo to William Charles Wentworth's Paika station near the Murray-Murrumbidgee junction. There he saw Captain Francis Cadell's Lady Augusta on her first voyage up the Murray. Travelling overland to Melbourne and by ship to Sydney, Bartley was encouraged by friends to establish commercial agencies in Brisbane. He arrived there in the City of Melbourne on 7 February 1854 and was soon representing Tooth, the Colonial Sugar Co. and other Sydney interests as well as founding his own importing business. Said to have been the first commercial traveller in Queensland, he combined business with adventure by collecting orders on horseback in the Darling Downs and Burnett districts where squatters became his friends as well as his clients. Perhaps his most profitable enterprise was a franchise on Chilean flour which he imported for £11 a ton and sold for as much as £50.

In 1856 medical advice to avoid a sedentary occupation led Bartley to refuse Tooth's offer of the managership of the Kent brewery in Sydney. However, his commercial connexions in Sydney brought him into the Darling Point set where he met and on 5 January 1858 married Sarah Sophia, daughter of William Barton and sister of Edmund; they had two sons and three daughters. A legacy from his grandfather, sometime chief clerk in the Ordnance Department, enabled him to buy land at Rockhampton, Maryborough, Toowoomba, Bowen and Cleveland as well as on many hills around Brisbane. On one of these at Hamilton, overlooking the Brisbane River, he had a house built to his own design with many doors and rooms which ran into each other; because of its isolated position the house became known as 'Bartley's Folly'. The failure of the Bank of Queensland in 1866 caused him heavy losses and after selling most of his land at deflated prices he retired from business. From this time he seems to have occupied himself in occasional journalism and in collecting from Australia, New Guinea and New Caledonia gold ore and semi-precious stones which won him several intercolonial and international prizes. His marriage was not happy and when his wife refused to endure the 'snakes, centipedes and blacks' at Hamilton, he made the house available to his brother James.

Bartley had become a member of the Union Club, Sydney, in 1857 and in 1860 he joined the Queensland Club. His diaries for 1863, 1869 and 1888, at the Mitchell Library reveal the restlessness and obsessive interest in women which characterized his life and reminiscences. In the 1870s and 1880s he was one of Brisbane's best-known eccentrics and could often be seen in Queen Street wearing a pith helmet or an old plaid shawl according to the season, and riding an old roan mare who found her own pace. A long quarrel with the Real Property Office led him many times to seek the appointment of a select committee; one parliamentarian declared him a more intolerable nuisance than 'the thistle or the Bathurst burr'. In 1892 at Brisbane he published Opals and Agates, reminiscences and observations based on his early life in Queensland. When he died suddenly in Sydney on 10 July 1894 he was preparing Australian Pioneers and Reminiscences; edited by John Knight it was published in 1896. Bartley's wealth of information, gifts as a raconteur and comments on contemporaries reveal a powerful memory and a useful insight into the behaviour of others.

Select Bibliography

  • W. F. Morrison, The Aldine History of Queensland, vol 2 (Syd, 1888)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, Queensland) 1879 (2nd session), 2, 1188
  • F. W. S. Cumbrae-Stewart, ‘Some Queensland Memoir Writers’, Journal (Historical Society of Queensland), vol 2, no 1, Feb 1920, pp 1-26.

Citation details

R. H. W. Reece, 'Bartley, Nehemiah (1830–1894)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/bartley-nehemiah-2948/text4275, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 24 November 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

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