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Coffill, Joseph Taylor (Joe) (1841–1919)

by D. B. Waterson

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

Joseph Taylor (Joe) Coffill (1841-1919), teamster, livery stable proprietor and funeral director, was born on 15 May 1841 at Kensington, London, son of Joseph Coffill, a farmer of French Huguenot descent, and his wife Margaret, née Taylor, from Edinburgh. After working as a porter at Covent Garden markets and a mortar-man on building sites, young Joe took his Irish workmate's advice, abandoned his shovel for a skillet, and became a seaman-cook in the clipper Golden City.

Arriving in Moreton Bay, Queensland, on 3 January 1865, he drew his pay, acquired a horse and cart and began transporting goods to and from the ports, first to the pastoral districts and then to the goldfields of Ravenswood and Charters Towers. He set up a carrying business based on Townsville, Rockhampton and Charters Towers, with a break when he mined for copper at Cloncurry. On some eight occasions he drove mobs of horses from Queensland to Sydney for sale. Coffill was twice insolvent but had a wonderful affinity with horses and eventually prospered as a teamster. Alone, except for his dogs, in 1878 he moved to Sydney, where he constructed expensive livery stables at Ultimo. That year on 12 February at St Andrew's Cathedral he married native-born Elizabeth Ann Bates, a farmer's daughter; he gave his occupation as drover.

Coffill's business flourished. His drags, carriages, hearses and sociables were the most opulent and lucrative in Sydney, attracting vice-regal patronage. Superb horses drew his elegant conveyances—some imported, others beautifully crafted at his own workshop. As the business of 'undertaking' evolved into 'funeral directing', Coffill branched out into a logical extension of his activities and added a funeral department to the livery stables in 1899, concentrating on 'reform funerals', with service and volume replacing more expensive Victorian display and solemnity. His masterpiece, however, was the processional funeral car, the 'Car of Death'. Designed in Italian Renaissance style, this unique hearse featured angels, the Messiah rising above the clouds and coloured wood carvings by Oscar Guinand. In 1912 Coffill merged with A. C. J. Wood to form the largest funeral-directing enterprise in Sydney. Caskets, corpses and carriages made a winning combination: Coffill received £20,000 in cash and 20,000 £1 shares on the firm's formation.

In 1879, following childbirth, his wife had died of pneumonia. On 30 July 1881 at St Peter's Church, Richmond, with Episcopalian church rites, he married Anne Ivory. She died in 1894. His third marriage was on 29 July 1897 at Christ Church, Sydney, to a widowed hotelkeeper Ada Hannah Ambler, née Morris, said to have been one of the first local female embalmers. He made two overseas tours (1909 and 1910), wryly noting after visiting the Ford plant in Detroit that 'he felt some pangs for the future of the horse'. Like many funeral directors he was a prominent Freemason, and was grand pursuivant (1890) of the United Grand Lodge, Sydney, and president (1901-04) and mainstay of the Masonic Board of Benevolence. Coffill was a director of the Royal Hospital for Women, the Renwick Hospital for Children and the New South Wales Benevolent Society. Proud of his mother's Scots ancestry, he was vice-president of the Highland Society of New South Wales.

Coffill was fond of moral aphorisms such as 'man has a big part in his own building up and he should ever be on the alert not to botch the structure'. He was a full-bearded, handsome, square-jawed, laconic man with commanding eyes and an aquiline nose who had financially surpassed his Cockney origins. Coffill died on 8 April 1919 at his residence, Curraweena, Homebush, and was buried in Rookwood cemetery with Anglican rites. His wife, the son of his first marriage, four sons and five daughters of his second and a daughter of his third survived him. The name Wood, Coffill survives as a Sydney funeral business in 2005 in other, albeit Australian, hands.

Select Bibliography

  • Australian Men of Mark, vol 2, version 3 (Syd, 1889), p 348
  • Coffill and Company, an Australian Advance (Syd, 1905)
  • Proceedings of the United Grand Lodge of New South Wales, 1919, p 225
  • Gavel, 26 Mar 1898, p 3
  • New South Wales Masonic Herald, 17 Dec 1906, p 265
  • Brisbane Courier, 5 Jan 1865, p 2, 6 Jan 1865, p 2
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 9 Apr 1919, pp 4, 12
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 9 Apr 1919, p 5
  • Col/A62, 1865/3444 (Queensland State Archives)
  • private information.

Citation details

D. B. Waterson, 'Coffill, Joseph Taylor (Joe) (1841–1919)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/coffill-joseph-taylor-joe-12847/text23193, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 17 November 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

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