Australian Dictionary of Biography

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John Furphy (1842–1920)

by John Barnes

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John Furphy (1842-1920), engineering blacksmith, was born on 17 June 1842 at Moonee Ponds, Victoria, the eldest son of Samuel Furphy, farmer, and his wife Judith, née Hare. His parents had arrived from County Armagh, Ireland, in 1841 as bounty immigrants; his father was then described as an agricultural servant and his mother as a dressmaker. He was educated first by his mother and then at government schools at Kangaroo Ground and Kyneton. He was later apprenticed to a Kyneton firm of blacksmiths and implement makers, Hutcheson & Walker, who were pioneers in the local manufacture of farm machinery. In 1864 he set up as a blacksmith in Kyneton and stayed there until 1873 when he moved to the newly surveyed township of Shepparton in the Goulburn valley, where he opened the first blacksmith's and wheelwright's shop. His business expanded into ironfounding and by 1888 his establishment was the most extensive of its kind in northern Victoria. At the foundry he produced a variety of agricultural implements and specialized in modifications to suit local farming conditions. One of his patents was a grain stripper which won first prize at the Grand National Show in 1884 and had a wide sale before the manufacture of the combine harvester. At the International Exhibition in 1888-89 his entry of a grain-stripping machine, a furrow plough and iron swingletrees was among those gaining the highest possible award.

Furphy's most distinctive product was a simple invention which he never patented: a watercart with a 180-gallon (818 litres) cylindrical iron tank, mounted horizontally on a horse-drawn wooden frame with cast-iron wheels. The name Furphy was painted in large capitals on both sides of the tank. These carts, generally known as furphies, were ideal for the transport of water on farms, and an estimated average of 300 were produced annually for about forty years. They were used in large numbers by the Australian army in World War I. Drivers of the carts were noted for spreading gossip, and in time furphy became a synonym for idle rumour. The word was current in this sense by 1916 when C. J. Dennis used it in The Moods of Ginger Mick. By coincidence, Furphy's brother Joseph, who wrote Such is Life while employed at the foundry, had used the pen-name of 'Tom Collins', which among bushmen at the end of the nineteenth century carried the meaning that furphy now carries.

With his piety and strong sense of duty, John Furphy was prominent in Shepparton affairs. The first religious service in Shepparton was held by the United Free Methodists in his cottage behind the blacksmith's shop in 1873. In his thirty-five years of unbroken association with the Methodist Church in Shepparton he filled every office open to laymen and was well known as an effective preacher. Even his watercarts reflected his moral earnestness. Cast in the metal of one end was a rhymed exhortation to do one's best, and above it an inscription in shorthand warning of strong drink and urging the reader to stick to water.

On 25 May 1866 at Kyneton John Furphy married Sarah Ann Vaughan; they had five sons and four daughters. Furphy lived in Shepparton until 1909 when he moved to Melbourne where he died on 23 September 1920. Descendants still operate the foundry.

Select Bibliography

  • T. W. H. Leavitt and W. D. Lilburn (eds), The Jubilee History of Victoria and Melbourne (Melb, 1888)
  • Shepparton Advertiser, 27 Sept 1920
  • Shepparton News, 26 Sept 1932.

Citation details

John Barnes, 'Furphy, John (1842–1920)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 27 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (Melbourne University Press), 1972

View the front pages for Volume 4

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


17 June, 1842
Moonee Ponds, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


23 September, 1920 (aged 78)
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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