Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Jessep, Thomas (1848–1916)

by Mark Lyons

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

Thomas Jessep (1848-1916), fruit merchant and politician, was born on 1 November 1848 at Gooderstone, Norfolk, England, son of Thomas Jessep, farmer, and his wife Jane, née Cooper. He reached Hobart Town in 1854 with his mother and elder brother James; his father had died on the voyage. In 1861 he began work as a farmhand and five years later left for the Victorian diggings. Unsuccessful, he arrived in Sydney in 1869.

Starting as a carrier, in 1874 Jessep moved into the fruit trade and by the early 1880s was a well-established wholesale fruit merchant, operating as a commission agent for intercolonial, New Zealand and, particularly, Fijian producers. His speciality was bananas, and he later encouraged their cultivation in the New Hebrides and Papua. When in 1890 the Sydney Municipal Council proposed moving the fruit market from the Queen Victoria site to the Haymarket, many merchants and growers formed a co-operative and established their own market, the Fruit Exchange, in Bathurst Street. Jessep was, until his death, its chairman. For many years he was president of the Fruit Merchants' Association of New South Wales and appeared as an expert witness before several inquiries into the industry. By the late 1880s prosperity had enabled him to build a large residence, Norfolk House, at Waverley.

An alderman on Waverley Municipal Council in 1889-90 and 1892, he represented Brisbane Ward on Sydney Municipal Council in 1893-1900. In 1896, at a by-election, he was elected to the Legislative Assembly for Waverley as a free trader, holding the seat in 1898, 1901 and 1904 as a Liberal. Although defeated in 1907 (by liquor and sporting interests) and again in 1910 (for Camperdown), he remained active in party matters.

A committed evangelical Methodist, Jessep became experienced in public speaking as a lay preacher. For nearly twenty-eight years he was superintendent of the Waverley Methodist Sunday School. His was an evangelical rather than a denominational Christianity. His arrival in Sydney had coincided with an outburst of sectarianism and the formation of Catholic and Protestant sectarian subcultures. In 1870 he joined the Loyal Orange Institution of New South Wales; he was grand secretary (1883-85 and 1911-12), deputy grand master (1886-88) and grand master (1889). In 1915 he was president of the grand council of the Loyal Orange Institution of Australasia. For many years he was a chairman of the Protestant Hall Co. Ltd and in 1901 was a foundation member of the Australian Protestant Defence Association and a member of the Evangelical Council of New South Wales. He had been secretary of the New South Wales Total Abstinence Society in 1871 and was prominent in local option campaigns in 1907 and 1916. Temperance organizations endorsed him in his election campaigns. His main political interest was moral reform: local option, control of music halls, prevention of gambling. Although he never returned 'Home' he retained a British identity: 'I am a loyal Britisher, not a loyal Australian', he once testily remarked. Both his commercial interests and his sectarianism pushed him to the Liberal side of politics, but he placed his commercial interests before parliamentary duties. He was, however, an important link between Protestant sectarianism, wowserism and commerce that provided the Liberal party with its main electoral base in the first decade of the twentieth century.

On 7 November 1916 Jessep died of cancer and was buried in Waverley cemetery. He was survived by his wife Louisa, née Drury, whom he had married in Sydney on 10 April 1873, and by four daughters and three of their four sons.

Select Bibliography

  • W. A. Stewart (ed), Early History of the Loyal Orange Institution, N.S.W. (Syd, 1926)
  • R. L. Broome, Treasure in Earthen Vessels (Brisb, 1980)
  • Parliamentary Papers (New South Wales), 1913, 3, p 467
  • Parliamentary Papers (Commonwealth), 1913, 4 (59), p 1111
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 8 May 1871, 8 Nov 1916
  • Protestant Standard, 25 Aug 1883, 5 Aug 1885, 11 Feb 1888
  • Methodist (Sydney), 18 Nov 1916
  • M. Lyons, Aspects of Sectarianism in New South Wales circa 1865 to 1880 (Ph.D. thesis, Australian National University, 1972).

Citation details

Mark Lyons, 'Jessep, Thomas (1848–1916)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/jessep-thomas-6846/text11857, published in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 26 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

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