When I saw a reference to the ”controversial Ebenezer Thorne” in the Brisbane City Council Heritage Register entry for the pretty house at 1 Gertrude Street Highgate Hill, I became interested in why this person was regarded as controversial.
I found little written about him but a wealth of references in newspapers of the time which made me even more intrigued. What had he done to warrant headlines such as the one below from 1883 ?
Ebenezer Thorne was born in 1836 in Devon to devout members of the Bible Christian sect. His maternal grandfather, William O’Bryan, had founded the Methodist influenced group in 1829. The daughter of William O’Bryan, Mary, was a minister for 60 years. Mary married Samuel Thorne who was an early leader of the sect and a printer. Their son Ebenezer in turn was a Sunday School teacher and lay preacher for all of his life.
The group sent missionaries to many places around the world including Ontario, Canada and Ebenezer was living in Orono, Ontario in the late 1850s where he ran a printing business as well as several newspapers. He returned to England in 1860.
He arrived in Queensland along with other members of his family in 1863. In 1865 he was cutting cedar near Noosa and then he moved to Gympie when the gold rush began. The first inklings of his unusual approach to life are reports of his activities in Gympie around 1867 where he reputedly captured unbranded runaway horses and kept them in a hidden location until it was safe to brand and sell them.
The early 1870s find him living in the Maryborough district and running the Wide Bay and Burnett News.
Ebenezer returned to England and married Kate Hooppell at Plymouth in 1872.
In 1873, whilst still in England, he floated a Dugong oil company seeking £60,000 of English investors’ money. He had claimed that he could obtain a government monopoly for dugong hunting, which never transpired.
At the time, Dugong oil was being touted for its health properties. It’s not clear what end the company came to, but one of the objectives was to purchase the business, goodwill and plant of Ebenezer Thorne.
John Ching, whose oil is advertised in the newspaper advertisement above, was originally recruited in England by Ebenezer to work for the new company but he left that arrangement and started his own successful Dugong oil company.
Whilst in England, Kate gave birth to a daughter Ethelwynne. The family arrived back in Brisbane as assisted passengers on board the “Western Monarch” in March 1876. The journey was not without interest.
One passenger, an actress, threw herself into the ocean, was rescued and kept under watch for the rest of the voyage as she threatened to do it again. The water condensing machinery broke down and drinking water had to be pumped by volunteers. A fire broke out in the Matron’s cabin and the Captain accidently shot himself in the hand. There was also a case of enteric fever and controversially passengers were held in quarantine on Peel Island on arrival in Brisbane, until protests regarding the over zealous action led to their release. Ebenezer is mentioned as reading evening prayers.
Baby Ethelwynne died at just 14 months old and a second daughter, Kate Carina May, was born in 1876. In the same year a book written by Ebenezer called “The Queen of the Colonies”, describing Queensland in some detail, was published.
The Thorne home was a farm in the Belmont area and it’s thought the place name “Carina” derives from their daughter’s name.
Ebenezer ran a variety of newspapers over the years including The South Brisbane Herald, The Southern Guardian, The South Brisbane and Logan Guardian, The Judge, The Southern World, The Planter and Farmer, The Border Post and the German language Nord Australische Zeitung.
The caustic headline at the start of this post relates to his pursuit of Government advertising revenue by pandering to the policies of whoever was in power at the time through his editorials. The article also claimed that Ebenezer, when running the Zeitung, offered to influence the German vote in an electorate in favour of a candidate for election for a payment of £50.
In 1881 he was tried for stealing an unbranded cow and branding it as his own. Though acquitted, the issue wouldn’t go away when Ebenezer entered politics. Frequently when he rose to give a public speech there was heckling about cows and Dugong oil.
He sued Figaro for libel in a poem they printed about one occasion’s heckling.
Ebenezer served as a Commissioner of the Peace or magistrate. In 1884 he was controversially struck off the list by the Colonial Government after The Southern World newspaper of which he was a part proprietor, published an opinion of a case he was hearing.
He also served on a number of local councils including the Cleveland, Bulimba and Belmont Divisional Boards.
There were accusations in 1886 of the allocation of money to improve a road leading to a block of land in Belmont that Ebenezer had subdivided for sale, whilst major thoroughfares in the district such as Old Cleveland Road were in a shocking state. These Council meetings must have been interesting as in 1898 he was attacked by a fellow member of the Belmont Divisional Board during a meeting of the Board!
The period around 1891 wasn’t a good one for Ebby. In that year his affairs were wound up with his bank calling in mortgages. The depression then occurring was making it hard for him to rent shops he owned in Stanley Street. He was sued for libel over an article in “The Judge”, although this wasn’t unusual for him, and in the following year his wife Kate died.
In 1893, Ebenezer married again to Sarah Elizabeh Lane. He was 58 years old and she 43. Along with Ebenezer’s daughter Carina, they lived in the Gertrude Street house which was built in around 1887 and originally called “Prospect Place”. With its double kitchen and two separate narrow and steep staircases leading to two dormer rooms, it was probably built as a duplex for rental.
Ebenezer’s father Samuel and uncle John founded Prospect House School back in Devon in 1829, which he probably attended. In all likelihood this is the origin of the house name. The school is still thriving under the name of Shebbear College and the original schoolroom stands in the college grounds .
Prospect Place bears a resemblance to Prospect House school, with its elongated form and dormer windows mimicking the schoolhouse’s gables.
Ebenezer purchased other property in the area, but with heavy mortgages he lost them in the crash that commenced in 1889. For one example, see my post Beer, Books and a Bookie – the Story of a Highgate Hill House .
Carina became known as a poet with her work published in Brisbane newspapers. Click here for an example of her poetry from 1894. She studied pharmacy in Sydney and in 1903 developed an apparatus to treat tuberculosis using hot medicated air. Ebenezer patented it for her in 1904. Carina met an early death from pneumonia.
Ebenezer wrote another book in 1903. Interestingly for a Methodist, it was entitled “The Heresy of Teetotalism”. In 1906, he travelled to England leaving his wife Sarah in Australia. There he bigamously married a widow named Mrs. Earle who subsequently died. He inherited her property to the value of £4,300, much to the chagrin of Mrs. Earle’s son Henry who was previously the benefactor of her will.
Soon after, Ebenezer headed to New Plymouth in New Zealand. He stayed in a
boarding house for travellers and invalids belonging another unsuspecting widow named Clara Berridge. She was just recovering financially after a bankruptcy and the death of her husband William. After a number of rejections, Clara finally agreed to marry Ebenezer in 1907. He’d lied to her about his age, understating it by 10 years. Ebenezer had adopted the name of Benjamin Enroth, Enroth being an anagram of Thorne. Ebenezer engaged in his customary activities of newspaper editing, Sunday School teaching and property development and became well known in the community. Ebenezer had also convinced Clara to transfer most of her property and savings to him.
After his death in 1911, Clara sought to get her property back through the courts. In the lead up to a 1914 court case, hand writing samples, certificates and photographs from interested parties began arriving at New Plymouth.
The court ruled that the marriage was illegal and Clara received her remaining property back, including the guest house. It was the first time the New Zealand Supreme Court had heard a case of fraudulently procured property. Unbeknownst to Clara, Ebenezer had made a will leaving some property to Henry Earle, who had discovered that he had been defrauded of his inheritance through Ebenezer’s first bigamous marriage in England.
Amazingly, it emerged that Clara and Ebenezer’s daughter had met in Auckland in 1908 and in an argument Carina told Clara that there was a wife still alive in Brisbane. However the silver-tongued Ebenezer talked his way out of it.
The Brisbane newspapers had a field day.
This however, is not the end of the story!
There was a complicated situation regarding Ebenezer’s will and conflicts with that of his first wife Kate. Kate had left property in a trust to their daughter Carina, however she had died from pneumonia in Melbourne in 1912 without having any children. Eventually the long suffering Sarah Thorne, second wife of Ebenezer, came into possession of the Highgate Hill property in 1920.
Sarah renamed the house “Carina’ after her step-daughter and lived there until her death in 1926.
In a final twist to the story, a women called Annie Jeffrey refused to leave the house after Sarah’s death. It had been left in Sarah’s will, along with property in Cleveland, to her niece Ellen Hamson. It transpired that there was a verbal agreement that Annie would work for Sarah without pay until Sarah passed away. At that time, in return for the years of unpaid work, Annie would inherit the house.
The dispute went to court in 1927 and the judge commented that the legal costs would consume all the value of the property. He brokered an agreement between Ellen and Annie in private. Annie gained the house and changed her surname from Jeffrey to Thorne. She lived there until her death in 1945.
This is a long post but even so I’ve had to select only highlights of Ebenezer Thorne’s unusual life. Perhaps someday someone will write a book about him.
© P. Granville 2018-2021