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Spark, Alexander Brodie (1792–1856)

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

Alexander Brodie Spark (1792-1856), merchant, was born on 9 August 1792 at Elgin, Scotland, the son of a watchmaker. He had a literary education at Elgin, studied French and acquired an interest in astronomy. After some experience in business he went in June 1811 to Tod's counting house in London, where he also started a small literary society. Though aiming at 'that Scottish modesty united to English confidence which is the character I admire', he found living difficult on £50 a year and sought parental help. In reply he was lectured for overspending and for bad grammar in his letters, but won his father's favour by finding supplies of low-priced watches and a design for a 'Patent Warning Clock'. In 1817 he was still with Tod, captivated by his work in the shipping department. In 1820 he went on a continental tour, during which he spent some days with William Wordsworth and the poet's wife and sister.

Confident that he could do better with a business of his own, Spark obtained a letter of recommendation as a free settler, sailed in the Princess Charlotte and arrived at Sydney in April 1823. He took over a store in George Street and was soon selling sugar, drapery and wines, and supplying salt meat to the commissariat at Sydney and Parramatta. By 1825 he was chartering ships for coastal trading and having the Sydney Packet built for him. Next year he started a shipping agency, selling incoming cargoes, sending stores to Hobart Town, colonial produce to Calcutta, and the first of his many wool consignments to London, backloading when possible with merchandise. He also acted as agent for country settlers, selling their produce and supplying them with livestock, stores, overseers and ploughmen. Although he owned more than 6000 acres (2428 ha) on the Hunter River and a nine-acre (4 ha) grant at Woolloomooloo his passion for buying and selling had extended to land.

However pressing his business, Spark had found time to serve in Sydney on the Grand Jury, becoming its foreman in 1826 and a justice of the peace in 1827. He also joined the committee of the Agricultural Society and the Chamber of Commerce, subscribed to such worthy causes as Scots Church, the Benevolent Society and the Female School of Industry, and readily signed petitions for the maintenance of law and order and congratulatory memorials to the governors. Despite two unsuccessful attempts to be elected a director of the Bank of New South Wales he joined the first board of the Bank of Australia in 1826 and became its managing director in 1832. By then his business activities had increased, especially his wool exports. He continued his court work and land dealings, and in 1836 became the first treasurer of the Australian Gaslight Co., a director of at least two insurance companies and an active investor in several steam navigation companies. Although Spark had several houses in Sydney, the site that pleased him most for a country residence was his farm, Tempe, at Cook's River. There in 1831 he had begun a garden, planted an orchard and vineyard, and carefully planned a new home. By 1836 it was a rendezvous for bankers, merchants and large landowners, among them James Mudie and other magistrates whom he also met on his regular visits to the Hunter River. Through this association Spark incurred the wrath of Governor (Sir) Richard Bourke and narrowly escaped removal from the Commission of the Peace. Unrepentant, he became the private distributor of Mudie's The Felonry of New South Wales when copies arrived next year.

Disturbed by divisions among the Presbyterians in Sydney, Spark turned to the Church of England and actively supported the building of St Peter's Church at Cook's River. It was consecrated in 1839. In that busy year he entertained 778 visitors at Tempe, was agent for twenty-two ships, had a third share in the steamer Victoria, won prizes at the Horticultural Show, extended his land dealing to Melbourne, continued his court work, imported stallions for his Hunter River stud, became agent of the South Australian Co., vice-president of the Commercial Banking Co. of Sydney and a director of the Australian Loan Co., and attended meetings of the Savings Bank trustees each month, concerts, dances, theatres, races, innumerable auction sales, and a Government House ball, where he met Lady Jane Franklin, whom he thought 'by no means the Amazon supposed, but a gentle affable woman'. He also patronized the arts, played golf, cards and chess, read widely, undertook works of benevolence, fished and bathed in Cook's River, visited outlying centres, and passed huge quantities of produce and merchandise through his stores; his only complaint was his rheumatism.

In 1840 Spark bought land in New Zealand and took pastoral leases in the New England district, although he already had more than fifty title deeds to land. On 27 April at St Peter's Church he married Frances Maria, née Biddulph, the widow of Dr Henry Wyatt Radford, who had owned Ravensfield station on the Hunter River. But the halcyon days were over. By September drought and the running down of the pastoral boom had created nervousness in the money market. Spark had guaranteed loans for friends who now became bankrupt. To find cash to help them he mortgaged, for the first time in his life, a town property, Tusculum, for £6000. He also had to sell some of his land, shares and ships to meet bills of £21,000 that fell due in March. His diary records at length the melancholy he felt at this divine judgment for his sins, but his first son was born in April and he could not fail his wife by reducing the establishment at Tempe, where he employed thirty-five servants. Unable to collect his own debts he continued to sell his assets and in 1844 he was certified insolvent. He recovered slowly and in 1846 was shipping copper ore to England and horses to India, although his fortune and his place in society were chiefly re-established by successful speculation after the discovery of gold in 1851. He died at Tempe on 21 October 1856 from a heart complaint, survived by his wife, two sons and three daughters.

Despite his activity in public affairs Spark was too patronizing to make much impact on colonists less wealthy than himself. His severe judgments on wrongdoers were rarely matched by self-criticism and his oft-expressed piety seemed meaningful only when he was distressed. His knowledge of shipping and commerce was undoubtedly a boon to New South Wales, but his personal detachment prevented any deep identity with his adopted country.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 11-12, 14-21, 24, series 3, vol 4
  • E. de Selincourt (ed), Journals of Dorothy Wordsworth (Lond, 1841)
  • A. B. Spark, diaries and family papers (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

'Spark, Alexander Brodie (1792–1856)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/spark-alexander-brodie-2684/text3755, published in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 23 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

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