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Herbert John Rumsey (1866–1956)

by K. A. Johnson

This article was published:

Herbert John Rumsey (1866-1956), seedsman, horticulturist and genealogist, was born on 4 February 1866 at Leamington, Warwickshire, England, eldest child of John Herbert Rumsey, plumber and gasfitter, and his wife Mary Ann, née Downes. He reached Sydney with his parents and sister in 1872 and attended Gilchrist's school at St Leonards and Fort Street Model School. His father taught physics and electricity at Sydney Technical College and installed the first electric lighting on the North Shore. Herbert was apprenticed to a plumber, then worked as a printer before setting up a printing business at St Leonards about 1888. Next year he opened a circulating library in Parramatta, but soon became a bookseller, stationer and newsagent.

By 1895 Rumsey had started a nursery and seed business on his father's selection at Barbers Creek (Tallong) near Marulan. At the Wesleyan Church, Bowral, he married Mary Jane Rippon (d.1918) on 7 April 1900. Next year he moved his operations to Dundas, where he lived for the rest of his life. His principal interest was importing and growing seeds. Rumsey was honorary secretary of the New South Wales Chamber of Agriculture (1904-05) and president of the Australasian Association of Nurserymen and Seedsmen (1912) and of the Australian Nutgrowers' Association (1932-33). He wrote books on growing fruit and vegetables including Australian Nuts and Nutgrowing in Australia (1927), and contributed several articles to the Agricultural Gazette of New South Wales, in January 1897 pointing out the value of crimson clover for restoring the fertility of worn-out soils. From 1896 he also regularly published seed catalogues and in 1920 a fictional work, The Pommies, or New Chums in Australia. He was a fellow of the Royal Horticultural Society, London. Active management of Herbert J. Rumsey & Sons Ltd (set up by 1930) had passed to his sons by 1940, but he remained general manager until his death.

Rumsey visited the United States of America in 1915 and Britain in 1924, 1931-32 and 1938 where he indulged his interest in history and genealogy and in 1932 was elected a fellow of the Society of Genealogists, London. He was the principal founder in 1932 and first president (until 1943) of the Society of Australian Genealogists in Sydney. Under his presidency the society increased in membership and importance, and the library, started with Rumsey's own books, expanded into a valuable reference collection. From mid-1933 until December 1943, he edited (and wrote much of) the Australian Genealogist. Rumsey was the prime mover behind all the society's initiatives for over a decade. The disturbed time at the end of his presidency, which resulted in his leaving the society and the consequent loss of his fellowship (bestowed in 1938) can be partly attributed to his opposition to the incorporation of the society and to conflict with several fierce critics, including his successor G. F. V. Cole.

In 1937 Rumsey produced Pioneers of Sydney Cove in a limited edition of 150 numbered copies, privately printed by Ernest Shea. Priced at three guineas it sold quickly, achieving notoriety when the sesquicentenary (1938) celebrations proceeded without reference to convicts. Rumsey campaigned vigorously in the press to change this attitude.

A teetotaller and non-smoker, Rumsey was a trustee of Dundas Methodist Church. He had a thatch of thick hair and a grizzled beard. While working in the District Censor's Office in 1941-45 he made a collection of postage stamps, taken from letters to prisoners of war and internees, which he gave to the Australian War Memorial in 1948. Survived by two sons and three daughters, he died at Dundas on 1 February 1956 and was cremated. Rumseys Seeds Ltd was sold to Arthur Yates & Co. Pty Ltd in 1966 but his sons and grandsons continued as nurserymen and seedsmen at Galston and Dural.

Select Bibliography

  • Golden Jubilee History: Society of Australian Genealogists, 1932-1982 (Syd, 1982)
  • Australian Genealogist, 8, pt 3, 1956, p 52
  • Descent, 3, pt 3, 1967, p 86
  • Society of Australian Genealogists, Sydney, Archives.

Citation details

K. A. Johnson, 'Rumsey, Herbert John (1866–1956)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 17 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (Melbourne University Press), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


4 February, 1866
Leamington Spa, Warwickshire, England


1 February, 1956 (aged 89)
Dundas, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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