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Robert Coveny (1809–1878)

by C. J. Duffy

This article was published:

Robert Coveny (1809-1878), merchant and philanthropist, was born on 2 April 1809 at Springfield, County Cork, Ireland, son of Robert Coveny, landowner, and his wife Margaret, née Boswell. The family claimed descent from the de Courcys and had migrated to Ireland from Hinxhill, Kent, in the eighteenth century. Robert and his brother Thomas Bossuet arrived in Sydney on 3 February 1835 in the Undaunted. In May 1837 they opened in Market Street the 'New Holland Grocery Warehouse', dealing in colonial produce such as Derwent seed potatoes, sperm candles and wax lights, and Bathurst cheese. Because of the financial depression they went bankrupt in June 1843 with debts of £30,479 but were cleared by August 1844. The brothers then parted company. Thomas opened a grocery in York Street while Robert expanded the Market Street business as a wholesale and retail grocery dealing in Indian and China teas, wine and spirits, and imported soaps, sugar, spices and tobacco.

Both brothers were active in public affairs. In November 1840 with other auctioneers and shopkeepers they petitioned the chief justice to disregard a claim by bankers and merchants to allow attorneys to file pleas without affidavit. In September 1842 Thomas stood unsuccessfully for the Macquarie ward in the Sydney Municipal Council, and in December Robert was a member of Captain Maurice O'Connell's election committee. In November 1844 they were among the petitioners to the mayor of Sydney on the closing hours of business premises. In April 1865 Robert was appointed to a committee which reported adversely on the book-keeping and domestic efficiency of the Sydney Infirmary.

In public and private life Robert was an active and devout Roman Catholic. As early as 1838 he contributed to the building fund for St Mary's Cathedral; in 1841 he sold tickets for the St Patrick's Day dinner, was a member of the presentation committee to Roger Therry, received subscriptions for John Hubert Plunkett's testimonial and with his brother joined the protest of the Irish community against sectarian passages in the Legislative Council's report on immigration. In 1856 he was an organizer of the public welcome to (Sir) Charles Gavan Duffy. After retiring from business in the 1850s Robert devoted himself to the establishment of St Vincent's Hospital (1857), to which he was a subscriber after 1861, secretary in 1869-70 and joint treasurer in 1869-78. In 1870 he stood guarantor for the building of the verandah and balconies, and later put up a laundry, mortuary and wall enclosing the entire infirmary. One of his sons succeeded as treasurer in 1879-82. Robert died on 16 November 1878, leaving an estate of £2000. His requiem at St Mary's Cathedral was largely attended by Roman Catholic clergy and laity of Sydney.

On 6 July 1839 at St Mary's Robert had married Emma Tallon, aged 25. She was also from Cork and member of a military family; she had come to Sydney after being diverted by threats of war from joining her mother and stepfather in India. Robert made his home above the shop in Market Street until his retirement in the early 1850s, when he built Glanworth, Darling Point. His wife died on 4 July 1868 leaving four sons and six daughters, all of whom inherited her artistic talent.

One son, Robert de Courcy, born in Sydney on 4 November 1842, was educated at the seminary of St Mary's Oscott, near Birmingham; in September 1862 he bought a commission in the 42nd Regiment, became lieutenant-colonel in May 1875 and was killed in action on 10 February 1885 in the Sudan war. His 'singularly dexterous' sketches of camp life and the Nile were reproduced in the London Pictorial World. His brother Christopher (b. 3 August 1846) was destined by his father for the law, qualified in London and in Sydney became an associate of William Bede Dalley. In 1875, to his father's displeasure, he became classics master at the seminary and college established by Bishop Matthew Quinn at Bathurst. There he composed a series of letters to his sister, a satiric commentary on provincial life, illustrated by pen and ink sketches. In 1877 he went to Sydney and was appointed crown prosecutor but soon turned to artistic work. When his father objected, he became a teacher at St Patrick's College, Goulburn. After his father died, he devoted his talents to art and became noted for his water-colours and etchings; in 1883 he published Twenty Scenes from the Works of Dickens. In 1886 he went to London but suffered much ill health. In his last years he retired to the St John of God Brothers at Stillorgan near Dublin. He died on 14 May 1941.

Select Bibliography

  • St Vincent's Hospital (Sydney), Annual Report, 1857-83
  • Catholic Historical Society, Centenary of St Stanislaus College (Bathurst, 1967)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 17 June 1843
  • Freeman's Journal (Sydney), 11 July 1868, 23 Nov 1878
  • manuscript catalogue and newspaper indexes under Coveny (State Library of New South Wales)
  • family records (Roman Catholic Archives, Sydney).

Citation details

C. J. Duffy, 'Coveny, Robert (1809–1878)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 26 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (Melbourne University Press), 1969

View the front pages for Volume 3

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


2 April, 1809
Springfield, Cork, Ireland


16 November, 1878 (aged 69)
New South Wales, Australia

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