by Jim Fleming
James Kessey's Union Hotel, Corner of Mertin and Sturt Streets, Bourke, NSW, circa 1919
This photograph was owned by Peg Rice and, on her death, went to her daughter Janet Rice. The sign on the corner of the veranda reads “(Ja)mes Kessey Union Hotel”. Janet Rice is James Kessey’s great-granddaughter, and was interested to know more about the photograph, particularly: where was it taken?
Janet contacted her mother Peg’s cousin, Carmel Hull for assistance. Carmel knew that I had done research on the Kessey family, so she passed the photograph on to me for further research. I am James Kessey’s great-grandson (and Janet’s second cousin).
We knew that grandfather Kessey had owned pubs in Brewongle, Mount David (before WWI) and Bourke (after 1918). But which one is pictured in the photograph?
We ruled out Mount David straight away, because we have a photograph of that hotel (taken in the late 20th Century) and it is quite a different construction to the hotel in this photograph.
James Kessey’s residency
I started out by establishing where grandfather lived at various times during his life.
We knew that he was born at Burnt Flat (near Bathurst NSW) in 1858 and died at Bourke NSW in 1944. We knew that he had run the hotel at Mount David before WWI and that he had also run hotels at Brewongle and Bourke at some stage. There is also information that he owned butcher shops in Orange after he left Mount David and before he moved to Bourke. Finally the family lore is that Grandfather Kessey moved his family to Bourke at the height of the influenza pandemic at the end of WWI because his local doctor told him to “go to the hottest place you can find”.
So I started with NSW census records, NSW records of births and marriages, Sands Directory records for NSW and records of the Spanish ‘flu’ pandemic that swept the globe in 1918-1919. In time I will supplement this with information from NSW land title records and publican records.
James Kessey was the eldest child born to John Casey and Mary Ann nee Hanrahan. Both of his grandfathers were convicts, but while Mary Ann Hanrahan’s father (Patrick) was the scion of a successful farming dynasty, John Casey’s father (Thomas) was less successful. Three of his sons were to be convicted of serious property crimes over the latter half of the nineteenth century. James Kessey’s father John was convicted of stealing livestock and served time in Bathurst gaol on three occaisions. His brothers James and Thomas were convicted of highway robbery under arms and sentenced to 10 years in Darlinghurst gaol and on Cockatoo Island.
Presumably the Hanrahan family was aware of the Casey’s criminal activities, because in 1857 they forced the Casey family into agreeing to a humiliating pre-nuptial agreement about Mary Ann’s dowry: a block of farming land. Perhaps this was the reason why the extended Casey family adopted the Kessey surname from that date on – in order to break with the convict and criminal past.
James Kessey was born at Burnt Flat, near Bathurst, on 18 June 1858. He came from farming families and naturally went into that business as a young man. At the age of 23 he bought land at Black Springs for grazing. He worked this land until his marriage eight years later.
He married Mary Jane Press at nearby Rockley on 22 April 1890, aged 31. She also had a very strong farming background on both sides of her family, the Press and the Baker families.
A year later, on census night 4 April 1891, James was living at Brewongle with two other males in his household. Mary Jane was not present. Perhaps she was residing elsewhere due to the birth of her first child, Mary Grace Kessey (Peg Rice’s mother-to-be). Perhaps the two males were guests or employees at a hotel run by James Kessey at Brewongle.
James and Mary Jane’s first son, James (to be known as Harold) was born at Bathurst in 1893. He was followed by Beatrice, born at Wattle Flat in 1895; Emily Bernadette, born at Oberon in 1896; and Philomena, born at Sunny Corner in 1898. It seems that the family changed residence several times during the first decade of the marriage.
The births of all of the remaining children were registered at Rockley: Joseph Aloysius (1900); John Horace (1902); Halvar Roy (1905); Jean Alice Columbia (1907); and Hilton David (1909). The family did not live at Rockley however. They lived at nearby Mount David, where James Kessey and his wife ran the local hotel.
James Kessey was recorded in the NSW census on 31 March 1901 at Mount David, with 5 other males and 6 females in the household. His family would account for all but 3 males and 1 female, who must have been guests or employees of the hotel.
The Sands Directories record James Kessey at Mount David in 1903 and through until 1913.
The events of 1914 led to James’ and Mary Jane’s divorce. They remarried each other in Dubbo in 1923, but they had reconciled before that. Family lore is that they re-married on the way to Bourke after the influenza pandemic struck Orange, where they were living. While the official re-marriage did not occur until later, it is likely that the reconciliation occurred at the time of the pandemic, or even a little earlier.
The 1919 influenza pandemic
The 1918-1919 pandemic ranks among the worst in recorded history, rivalling the Black Death of the 14th century in mortality and social and economic effects. It killed between 50 and 100 million people around the world in a few short months.
The effect of the pandemic in Australia was not as dramatic due to the advanced notice of its arrival. Europe had been devastated in 1918 and New Zealand was very badly hit in October 1918 but the first wave in NSW did not occur until mid March to late May 1919. The authorities were well prepared with quarantine and inoculation measures that moderated the impact of the virus. Nevertheless, during the peak of the pandemic in NSW, the influenza accounted for nearly a third of all deaths.
Over a six month period in 1919 more than 15,000 Australians died from influenza. Unlike other influenza strains, most of the victims of this strain (called the Spanish Flu) were in the prime of their life (aged 18 to 40). The young and the old were less at risk. This fact, and the fact that victims could die within hours of the onset of symptoms, added to the hysteria that surrounded the pandemic.
The pandemic was manifested in two waves in NSW. The first wave, in March and April 1919 killed up to 300 people per week before moderating to less than 100 per week in late May. But then there was a second wave where the death rate went as high as 800 per week during June and into July.
It was in this context that James Kessey visited his local doctor for advice on how to protect his family from the disease. Family lore is that he was advised to move to “the hottest and driest place you can find”. The family moved to Bourke by train within hours of that advice.
James Kessey was cashed up when he arrived in Bourke. Following the events of 1914 he had sold the hotel at Mount David. Since this was, at the time, a very prosperous mining village, the hotel would have fetched a good price. Perhaps he had sold other properties at this time too.
In addition, he had sued Walter Martin, the co-respondent in the divorce trial. The court awarded him a very large sum in damages against Walter Martin.
As an experience Hotel-keeper, it made sense for James Kessey to buy a hotel when he got to Bourke. Not only would it provide him with income, but it would provide employment for his extended family members who also had experience in the hotel business. Official records show that he took over the license of the Union Hotel in 1919 and held it until at least 1921. Family lore is that he also owned several houses in Bourke. His son Halvar was recorded on the 1930 census as living at the Oxford Hotel; so presumably James Kessey also owned that hotel by then.
The Union Hotel was built by Barney Dignan on the corner of Mertin and Sturt Streets in 1884. Harold Smith was the first licensee. Ten years later the licensee was George Edward Drew who transferred the license to Thomas Ralph from Gongolgon. William Dwyer was licensee for a year in 1894 before James Tobin held the lease from 1895 through to 1913 (with short breaks for Arthur James Hobson in 1900 and Richard Maxwell in 1910). Tobin used the Hotel’s Hall as a cinema in 1913 but this outbuilding was destroyed by a cyclone in 1916 when James Bye was the licensee. The licensee immediately prior to James Kessey was David Greeves in 1917.
Soon after James Kessey took over the lease an accident occurred that was reported in the local newspaper (The Western Herald). On 17 September 1919 the veranda of the hotel collapsed when three posts were hit by the wheel of a runaway cart.
Since the veranda is intact in the photograph, it is very likely that it was taken before the runway cart wreaked its havoc. And since James Kessey did not move to Bourke until the influenza epidemic struck, it must have been taken after March 1919 at the earliest. This means that it is highly likely that the photograph was taken in the winter of 1919, between April and September.
If we accept this dating evidence for the photograph, we may be able to identify some of the people in it.
The people standing closest to the door appear to form a family group. It would make sense for James Kessey to pose his family outside his business premises in a new town. The family group appears to consist of a man holding a toddler, a teenage boy, a teenage girl, a man and a primary-school-aged child holding a baby. So it may be that the children are James Kessey’s teenage boy Halvar (aged 14 in 1919); his daughter Jean (aged 12) and his son Hilty (aged 10). The toddler and the baby could be James Kessey’s grandchildren (Grace’s or Beatrice’s children). The other man in the family group could be an older son (Harold, Joe or Horace) or even a son-in-law.
Perhaps the other figures in the photograph are also family members. Or they could be customers, waiting for the bar to open!
Judging by the length and direction of the shadows it seems likely that the photograph was taken at about noon during winter or autumn. Judging by the clothing worn by the people, it may have been taken on a Sunday, after Mass.
It is interesting that Mary Jane Kessey is not in the photograph. Perhaps she was behind the camera. Or perhaps her daughter Grace was the photographer. After all, the photograph was passed down to Grace’s daughter and granddaughter.
What happened next?
It appears that the Kessey family disposed of the Union Hotel about 1921. By 1930 the family was running the Oxford hotel. James Kessey also owned a number of rental houses in the town. He bought an old bond store and turned it into a short-lived picture theatre. He bought the house that still stands at 13 Sturt Street and the family lived there for over 60 years. He stood for the local Council in 1925 and by the next year he was Mayor. Read about the “Bricks at dead of night” incident elsewhere on this site.
James Kessey and his wife travelled to Ireland for a holiday in 1932.
By 1942 his son Halvar was Mayor of Bourke. James Kessey died in 1944.
Sands Directories, 1903 – 1932.
NSW census 1891, 1901
Electoral Rolls 1930, 1936, 1937, 1943.
History of Bourke, volumes 1 to 13.
Various birth certificates.