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Hands holding a lit match to a burning piece of paper.

Mitchell or burn: the Thompson family papers

Penny Russell
Sifting through the ‘glorious clutter’ of the Thompson family papers offers a sense of early Sydney life and insights into several significant local families.

Some of the Mitchell Library’s treasures are buried deep, the spot marked only by the most enigmatic of clues.


The adventurers who deposited the treasure have long since sailed away, and few now can tell the precise whereabouts of the chests. Even they may know little of the precious gold they contain.

In a chest labelled only as ‘Thompson family papers’, I find gold enfolded in a sheet of paper. Across the front is written, ‘Mitchell or burn. Letters of family gossip. Of no particular importance — however the crossed & re-crossed letters too difficult to read.’

Crossed letters — where the text runs vertically as well as horizontally across the page — hold no terrors for me, and family gossip I adore. Tantalised, I open the makeshift folder. I have a feeling that no one has read the contents since the papers were deposited with the Mitchell Library in 1962.

There are many Thompson families. The Australian branch that interests me descends from Joseph and Mary Thompson, who in 1833 left their home and draper’s store on the High Street in Shadwell, east London, to sail across the world. Well into middle age (he 54, she 47), they were in quest of better prospects for themselves and their 12 children.

The youngest of those children died a few years after the family arrived in Sydney. The rest, six girls and five boys, found their destinies in and around Sydney. Between them they gave Joseph and Mary some 70 grandchildren — even with the high child mortality rates of the nineteenth century, a not insignificant contribution to the population of New South Wales.

A list of names and ages at death of the Thompsons' children.
List of names included with Thompson family portraits

The story of the Thompson family was sketched by Margaret Dalrymple Hay in 1962 at the prompting of descendants of stockbroker Thomas James Thompson (known as James), the youngest of that early family to survive to adulthood. In its 90th year of existence, the firm of TJ Thompson & Sons had wanted a brief history of the family and the company to include in a brochure for its employees.

But Hay, who became absorbed in the family’s history, produced a much more extensive 112 typescript pages, for which she humbly apologised in a letter to Gordon and David Thompson. She made 50 copies for distribution to family members who might be interested, but in a sign of just how scattered that immense family had become, she could suggest only 14 people to approach.

The typescript was deposited with the Mitchell Library in 1962. So were the four boxes of Thompson family papers, c 1777 to 1962, containing miscellaneous papers Hay had used, located or created in the course of her research. But nothing links the two sources in the State Library catalogue, which suggests they must have been deposited separately, and without explanation. No description of the family accompanied the papers, and the four boxes have remained in the Mitchell collection ever since, unsorted, unindexed, unaccounted for.

A file folder with several documents within.
Selection of Thompson family papers

The first box contains two paper folders, one headed ‘Matters connected with the Thompson family’ and the other ‘Mitchell or burn’. The logic of their organisation is hard to follow — chronology holds no place here, nor does classification by author.

Reading through the letters as I encounter them, I am taken on a dizzying journey across centuries, and back again, in the company of barely identified strangers. Joseph and Mary were my great-great-great grandparents, so these strangers are also my relatives. That sense of connection gives me the motivation to persist.

And so I begin to find gold. Gradually I piece together relationships and connections. In the ‘Mitchell or burn’ folder I come across letters that are of interest not only to the Thompson family, but to others whose present-day legacies are perhaps more notable. The firm of TJ Thompson & Sons is no more, but the name of David Jones is familiar to every Sydneysider, as is that of the Fairfax family.

An old blue stamp with a portrait of a bearded man.
Stamp showing portrait of T J Thompson

Jones and Fairfax were founding members of the Congregational Church, alongside Joseph Thompson and another forebear of mine, Ambrose Foss. Connections — of marriage, friendship, partnership and business association — unite these four families in a complex web of urban community.

In June 1853, James Thompson married Jane, the second daughter of David Jones. Soon afterwards, David Jones retired from his drapery business, putting it into the hands of two sons-in-law, one of them the still very youthful James. The store traded for some years as Thompson, Symonds & Co, but in May 1860 it went bankrupt. Jones came out of retirement, resumed the business under his own name, and restored it to prosperity before his death. (The Jones’s gave the Library a former Mitchell Librarian, Phyllis Mander Jones, whose great-grandfather was David Jones.)

In 1863, James Thompson purchased a station in Queensland, near Rockhampton, with help from a more prosperous brother. During that time David Jones wrote occasionally, and his wife Jane Mander Jones rather more often, to their daughter in Queensland, keeping her in touch with family news. Jane’s ‘crossed’ letters deterred earlier readers but after a while I find her beautifully formed handwriting not too difficult to decipher, despite her economy with paper. The content rewards my efforts.

Jane Jones writes bluntly of the relentless childbearing that was the fate of so many women in the mid nineteenth century. Of her oldest daughter, she writes in a letter dated only ‘30 July’: ‘I am sure you will be sorry to hear that poor Eliza is looking for an increase to her large family and her health is not so good as it was wont to. We ... have only just now become awake to the fact and believe me, it was a great blow.’

A letter with overlapping horizontal and vertical writing.
Crossed letter from the Thompson family papers

She writes of how ‘the blood seemed to run cold’ in her veins when told of the death of her firstborn son, David Mander Jones, on his pastoral station in Queensland. The anguish was intensified for his parents because the younger David had never become fully committed to the church. His wife had awoken to find him kneeling at his bedside ‘at the eleventh hour like the thief on the cross crying Lord be merciful to me a sinner’, before he fell, ‘a lifeless corpse in her arms. Oh weep with me’, the distraught mother adds, ‘over this sad recital of your dear brothers death’.

At a time when frontier violence in the vicinity of Rockhampton was at its height, she writes of her fears for her daughter’s safety at the hands of local Indigenous people. She was relieved to receive a letter ‘assuring us you had no fears of them although I must say I could not place any confidence in them. I view them as a treacherous people but I may be wrong at any rate I am glad you can make yourself happy amongst a barbarous race as it is your lot to be there.’

Her letter draws my attention to one by TJ Thompson that was published in the Rockhampton Bulletin on 15 June 1865. It alludes to the incident that had prompted Jane’s fears. ‘I must confess’, Thompson wrote, ‘although no advocate for deliberate murder, that when the blacks congregate in such large numbers as have been about lately in this district, it is quite imperative to have them dispersed.’

That word ‘dispersed’ brings a chill to my own blood. I have been comfortable with the opposition to frontier violence that was voiced by these Congregationalist families during the 1830s and 1840s, and with Hay’s stories of the friendly relations established by James Thompson on his pastoral station. Now I am forced to realise that he, too, drew that convenient moral distinction between ‘murder’ and ‘dispersal’ that salved the consciences of so many who contributed to the slaughter in Queensland and elsewhere. These relatives of mine came much closer to the violent face of dispossession than I had thought.


Other letters, less discomforting, move me to sadness. In search of Thompsons, I also find glimpses of the successive tragedies that marked John Fairfax’s family. His daughter Emily, who married Grafton Ross, writes long, gossipy letters to her ‘very dear Janey’. One, dated 29 May 1864, tells of the grief and isolation of her widowed sister-in-law, following the tragic death of her brother Charles. Seven years later, a black-bordered letter from Grafton Ross expresses heartfelt thanks for the sympathy of James and Jane Thompson after Emily’s own death in a carriage accident. The ‘sense of dislocation is more — almost — than I can bear’, he writes.

Did Emily ever know, I wonder, that her older brother had once hoped to marry her best friend? Some time before his marriage, Charles Fairfax wrote earnestly to ask the young Jane Jones if he might accompany her home after church one Sunday evening. Both parties knew that marriage was on his mind: the request caused Jane some heartburning and the bottom of Charles’s letter contains her carefully worded pencilled draft of rejection. He had begged her to return his letter if her answer was not positive. Instead, she kept it among her private papers until her death. It seems just possible that I may be the first person to have read it since, or to realise its significance.

Someone, I know, should sort and catalogue these letters, sifting the complex family networks and personal histories that would give sense and coherence to these scattered fragments. There is matter enough here to fill out our picture of early Sydney, and of more than one significant family. But for the moment, I am content to let my imagination roam through the glorious clutter. I am glad that someone — perhaps without appreciating the significance of these letters — chose ‘Mitchell’ rather than ‘burn’.


Professor Penny Russell is Chair of the Department of History at the University of Sydney. Her book Savage or Civilised? Manners in Colonial Australia (NewSouth Publishing) won the 2011 NSW Premier’s Award for Australian History.

Banner image by Merinda Campbell and Hamilton Churton. Note: no manuscripts were harmed in the making of this image.

This article first appeared in SL magazine, Spring 2015.