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North, John Britty (1831–1917)

by Suzanne Edgar

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

John Britty North (1831-1917), stockbroker and mining agent, was born in Taunton, Somerset, England, son of John Britty North, merchant, and his wife Mary, née Willie. At 9 he moved to London with his parents and at 13 went to work for Self, Coles & Co., warehousemen, and stayed for seven years. He reached Sydney in the barque Senator in February 1852.

In 1853 North visited London with £1000 to buy goods for North, Rutherford & Wilson, merchants, a partnership he joined that year. He returned to Sydney in the Windsor on 2 November with some of his family. In 1855 he left the firm before it was declared bankrupt in 1856 and North, who had contributed little capital, received a certificate of discharge in 1857. He probably spent five years in Queensland but by 1861 he was again working in New South Wales, first as a commercial traveller. Later he became a wholesale wine and spirits merchant, at first with G. S. Leathes & Co. and in 1864-67 on his own in Wynyard Street, Sydney. In 1867 he added the business of an auctioneer and commission agent and as J. B. North & Co. borrowed the price of his auctioneer's licence from his sister-in-law, Mrs Weynton.

In 1871 'heavy amounts paid for interest and the depression of the times' made North bankrupt again, but by 1872 he had discharged his debts, and twelve months after its foundation joined the Sydney Stock Exchange. In the 1870s with Robert Henry Reynolds, whom he later bought out, he began to mine for coal in the Jamieson Valley near Katoomba. Once, without machinery and with only a few men, he hauled a 4-cwt (203 kg) block of coal 1100 ft (335 m). up the slopes to exhibit it in Sydney where it secured for North a government contract. An exacting employer, North had over a hundred men at his Katoomba Coal Mine which in 1878 he registered as a company. It was awarded a certificate at the Sydney International Exhibition of 1879 for the excellent steaming qualities of its coal.

In 1880 North located a seam of the reddish purple kerosene shale at the Ruined Castle in the Jamieson Valley and in 1882 sent his manager to prospect it. North and his son John took up 1392 acres (563 ha) as mineral conditional purchases. In 1885 North bought £36,000 worth of equipment, formed the Katoomba Coal and Shale Co. Ltd and became managing director. To remove the shale he employed a Scottish engineer to build an elevated tramway 200 ft (61 m) high for two miles (3.2 km) across the valley but it was a structural failure and the company went into voluntary liquidation in February 1892.

The tenacious North had reconstructed the Australian Kerosene Oil and Mineral Co. Ltd. It leased the Jamieson Valley property and worked it successfully with T. S. Mort's Glen Shale mine on the western side of the Megalong ridge, which North had bought in 1890. The two mines were linked by tunnels and continued to yield good quality shale until 1895. The 20,000 tons of shale exported, worth £4-£10 a ton, yielded up to a hundred gallons (455 litres) of oil to the ton. It was refined in Italy and shipped back to the colonies as kerosene. For some time coal lying above and below the shale was extracted but by 1897 it proved unprofitable and the mine was closed; all the machinery had been removed by 1903. After the mine closed North continued as a Pitt Street stockbroker and colliery agent for many mining companies with his sons John and Alfred as partners at different times. In 1917, although retired, North was governing director of Main Range Collieries & Estate Ltd and Alfred was chairman of the Stock Exchange.

Probably from commercial motives North actively promoted the growth of Katoomba, especially its development as a tourist resort. Chairman of the progress committee which achieved the incorporation of Katoomba in 1889, he served briefly as an alderman on the council. He was also a trustee of Katoomba, Leura, Banksia and Echo Parks. He died at his home, Lynton, Wahroonga, on 14 October 1917 and was buried in the Gore Hill cemetery beside his wife Clarissa Mary Hack (d.1906), a niece of David Jones; they had married in 1855. A Nonconformist, he was survived by two sons and six daughters. His estate was sworn at £19,660 and the firm, J. & J. North, was still operating in 1973.

Select Bibliography

  • H. Wood et al, Mineral Products of New South Wales (Syd, 1887)
  • E. Digby (ed), Australian Men of Mark, vol 2 (Syd, 1889)
  • J. E. Carne, The Kerosene Shale Deposits of New South Wales (Syd, 1903)
  • P. W. Spriggs, Our Blue Mountains Yesterdays (Leura, 1962)
  • J. R. Bennett, The Katoomba Coal Mine (Blue Mountains Historical Society, Katoomba, 1972)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1879-80, 4, 327, 1887-88, 7, 296, 1888-89, 1, 46, 1889, 2, 91
  • Shipping Gazette (Sydney), Feb 1852
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 16 Oct 1917
  • Blue Mountain Echo, 26 Oct 1917
  • bankruptcy files 3646, 10526, 10526/7 (State Records New South Wales)
  • private information.

Citation details

Suzanne Edgar, 'North, John Britty (1831–1917)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/north-john-britty-4308/text6981, published in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 2 August 2014.

This article has been amended since its original publication. View Original

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

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