Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Charles Henry William Kinsela (1886–1944)

by D. B. Waterson

This article was published:

Charles Henry William Kinsela (1886-1944), funeral director, was born on 8 April 1886 in Sydney, second son of native-born parents Charles Kinsela (d.1900), undertaker, and his wife Ellen Elizabeth, née Milham. His paternal great-grandparents were both convicts. Educated privately and at Rockdale College, young Charles served (1903-08) in the 1st Light Horse Regiment (New South Wales Lancers). In 1906 he became manager of the undertaking firm (founded by his grandfather in 1830) which was under his mother's proprietorship. At St Michael's Anglican Church, Surry Hills, on 26 October 1910 he married Beatrice Veronica Hope De Bello, a milliner.

Shrewdly moving away from the Victorian image of undertaking as a somewhat seedy but necessary craft, the family prospered through a combination of service and respectability. When Kinsela took control of the firm in 1914 he claimed to have 'the most up to date plant in the Commonwealth providing Reform Funerals at a LOWER RATE than any other in the trade'. As a lucrative sideline he provided carriages or motor vehicles for weddings. The first undertaker in Sydney to purchase (1920) motor hearses and a mortuary ambulance, he established a large complex at 116 Oxford Street, near the Victoria Barracks.

After World War I Kinsela transformed himself from undertaker to funeral director and visited California several times, bringing home some of the most advanced manifestations of the American way of death. His son Russell designed a gleaming, open-cabined Packard hearse and deployed a cortège of glassed-in Cadillac motorcars. He engaged the architect C. B. Dellit to convert (1932-33) a multi-storeyed building in Taylor Square into Art Deco funeral premises containing Protestant and Catholic chapels, offices and 'storerooms'. This 'building with a soul'—with its Rayner Hoff statues, 'Fan of Life' shrine, 'Sunset of Life' amber glass, delicate colours and cinema-style lighting—was a veritable secular temple 'to help the bereaved bear their trouble by a greater understanding of the mystery of the great Beyond'.

On 6 May 1938 the firm was registered as a private company, Charles Kinsela Pty Ltd, with a capital of £100,000 in £1 shares; it had thirty-eight branches and agencies (mainly in the eastern suburbs of Sydney), modern equipment and a solid reputation. Moreover, the firm's metropolitan market-share had expanded from about 9 per cent in 1920 to 15 per cent in the late 1930s when Kinselas conducted between 1700 and 1900 funerals a year. A relatively stable price structure after 1921 produced increasing profits through added volume and government and military contracts, despite the decline in infant mortality.

Kinsela was a dynamic, flamboyant and affable businessman. A foundation committee-member (1935-44) of the Australian Funeral Directors' Association, he did what he could to 'control . . . erroneous public opinion about the funeral director'. He was 5 ft 10 ins (178 cm) tall and solidly built, with a square face, and blue eyes framed by spectacles; his wavy grey hair was complemented by a toothbrush moustache. Immaculately dressed in a double-breasted suit and luxuriant buttonhole, Kinsela combined the service traditions of the family firm with the skills and business attributes of a Californian funeral director. His expansive traits and expensive tastes were restrained by a shrewd company secretary. Kinsela was a keen motor yachtsman, a lawn bowler, a show-horse judge and a trotting-horse owner who belonged to Tattersall's, the New South Wales Masonic, the St George's Motor Boat and the Rose Bay Bowling and Recreation clubs.

Survived by his wife, daughter and two sons, he died of chronic nephritis on 24 November 1944 at his Bondi home and was cremated with Anglican and Masonic rites. His estate was sworn for probate at £21,924. Following internal disputes, Charles Kinsela Pty Ltd went into voluntary liquidation in 1982. The Taylor Square edifice became a restaurant and then a bar and nightclub, still with 'Kinselas' in neon lights above the entrance.

Select Bibliography

  • Australian Funeral Directors' Association, Report of Conference (Melb, 1936)
  • Australian Funeral Director, May, July, Aug 1935
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 5 June 1883, 22, 23 Oct 1900, 20 Dec 1932, 25 Nov 1944, 5 Dec 1981, 17 Feb 1982
  • Propeller, 11 Oct 1934
  • Charles Kinsela Pty Ltd records (held by Australian Securities Commission, Sydney)
  • Charles Kinsela Pty Ltd funeral registers, address and account books (State Library of New South Wales)
  • private information.

Citation details

D. B. Waterson, 'Kinsela, Charles Henry William (1886–1944)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 5 March 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (Melbourne University Press), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


8 April, 1886
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


24 November, 1944 (aged 58)
Bondi, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.