Glebe baker JG Purves was lauded in doggerel in Truth in 1913 when he was vice-president of the Victoria Park Bowling Club:
He was a baker long ago
And in his biz you know
Not for a moment did he loaf
For he made lots of dough.
He worked in fashion mighty lusty
And you would seldom find him crusty.
He’s most enthusiastic at
Ye ancient game of bowls.
He was a baker, so he’s an
Authority on rolls.
Twas splendid dough he used to bake
Sure, J G Purves ‘takes the cake’.
John George Purves lived in Glebe for over 50 years. His name has been given to the short street near the site of his 93 St Johns Rd steam bakery. In 1885 JG became one of the few Australian bakers to mechanise bread-making, replacing the old hand-made method. He imported plant from London: a Thomson “differential motion reversing and double action dough mixing and kneading machine”, a Baker”s sifting machine, and a Baker”s potato pulper and refrigerator. The sifter removed foreign matter, including handfuls of fluff from inside each flour sack, and what had taken two men 40 minutes could now be done in seven. Purves also trademarked his Montgomerie’s Malt Bread, ran the London Pie House in Market St in the city, and was president of the Master Bakers’ Association. Six of his sons became bakers.
Born at Deptford Kent on 22 October 1842, John George migrated to Queensland in 1857 with his brother Archibald and their mother Elizabeth and was in Sydney by 23 September 1865 when he married Isabella Dunlop Small. Born at Lambeth London on 14 April 1847, Isabella had arrived in Australia in the 1850s with her brother John Sutherland (1849-1923) and parents Margaret (died 1857) and James Kirk (died 1897) Small. Her father, brother and nephews were staunch Methodists and longstanding employees of the Sydney Morning Herald where John Sutherland Small worked as a compositor for over 60 years.
Isabella and JG had 13 children: Margaret (1866-1955); John W (born 1868, became a baker in Manly); James Kirk (1870-1943, a baker); George Young (1873-1938, a baker); William (1875-1957); Donald Ernest (1878-1949, a baker); Elizabeth (1879-80); Charles Alfred (1881-1926, a baker); Wallace Bruce (died aged 10 weeks in 1883); Albert Edgar (1885 – 1954, a baker); Elizabeth J (1887-1977); Ethel May (1888-1940) and Isabella (born 1892).
In 1900 John George Purves applied for a judicial separation and parental custody on the grounds of his wife’s habitual drunkenness and neglect of domestic duties. He maintained he was a teetotaller and she denied the charges. A weekly alimony payment of £2 was settled on after which Isabella’s movements are uncertain until her death at 93 St Johns Rd. JG lived with some of his children elsewhere in Glebe before moving to Haberfield where he shared a house with unmarried daughters Ethel and Margaret. Two of his baker sons Albert and Charles lived with their wives close by. JG speculated in goldmining at Hill End, was a member of the Royal Australian Historical Society, and a keen bowler at the Wentworth Park and Victoria Park clubs.
Isabella Dunlop Purves died on 27 October 1921 and was buried with her two deceased babies and mother-in-law Elizabeth (who had died in Glebe in 1886) in the Presbyterian section at Rookwood. After his death on 23 March 1932 her widower was interred in the same grave, as were daughters Ethel, Margaret and Elizabeth (married at age 68 to Harold Ernest Wells). The Small family were buried in Waverley Cemetery.
JG’s older brother Archibald was born in the Scottish village Yetholm in November 1832. In 1863 he married Amelia Ernestina Greenaway in Queensland and was in Glebe by 16 April 1876 when eight-year-old Henry Albert died, leaving eleven-year-old Elizabeth Lillian Jane as their only child. (Henry was buried in Balmain Cemetery.) The family lived on the corner of Glebe Point Rd and Mitchell St. Here Amelia Purves also set up shop as a grocer and fancy goods dealer in toys and Japanese wares, while Archibald tried to make a living as a carter. The family was in constant debt; an insurance payout following a fire brought only temporary relief.
While JG was occasionally fined for selling underweight bread, Archibald did not have his brother’s flair for business, drank heavily, and was in the headlines more than once. In 1863 he spent four months in Brisbane Gaol for paying for clothing with a forged cheque. In 1886, giving his occupation as stationer, he took over the business of drowned sea captain Carl Julius Neuhaus. The next year he was declared insolvent and goods from the shop and household furniture were seized. JG stepped in to help and Amelia successfully recovered her items under the Married Women’s Property Act. In 1888 Archibald was thrown from his cart and a wheel ran over his leg, fracturing it. In 1889 he was arrested for stealing whisky but the charge was dropped.
The shop continued to do poor business and most weeks the takings didn’t cover the rent. After Archibald let slip that the only solution was to have “another rattling good fire”, a blaze conveniently broke out in suspicious circumstances and an inquiry was held. Here a jury found Archibald guilty of arson with his wife as an accessory. However, the judge at the subsequent trial ordered that jury to find Amelia not guilty, and after she left the dock crying bitterly, the jury also acquitted her husband.
Added to “The Glebe Fire” story which ran for weeks in the newspapers was a new headline: “Too Much Marriage”. Key testimony at the trial was that of Archibald’s friend of 12 years Charles Augustus Wilkins who recalled being told that a better job would be made of the fire this time. Wilkins had been interviewed at Darlinghurst Gaol where he was serving a sentence for bigamy. The bride, half his age, was Archibald’s daughter who secretly married Wilkins at the Glebe registry office on 21 November 1889, unaware that he had a wife still living and five children. Like Archibald, Wilkins had a past record of forgery.
Archibald died at Catherine St Leichhardt on 29 September 1913 and Amelia on 10 January 1914. They were buried in the Presbyterian section at Rookwood. Her first union declared void, Elizabeth Purves subsequently married Frederick Vaughan; she died in 1947 and was buried in the Catholic section at Rookwood.
Sources: Evening News 11.8.1885; NSW cemetery records; NSW electoral rolls; NSW online registry of births, deaths and marriages; Qld online registry of births, deaths, marriages; Sands Directories; Trove website; Truth 28.9.1913.