Hugh Chalmers Rose (1835-1885)

My nanna Emily was always rather defensive about her mother’s family. Her father was terribly proud of his Newth and Hungerford ancestors, who stretched back through centuries of English history, and sometimes appeared to hold that up against his much younger wife. Indeed, my grandmother’s grandmother Jessie Hungerford was rumoured to have looked down on her daughter-in-law Katie Goodwin because she was a mere chemist’s daughter – notwithstanding the fact that her son Adrian Newth was himself a chemist.

It turns out that Katie Goodwin’s family was actually just as well-connected and long-descended as Adrian Newth’s. The key connection was through her maternal grandfather, Hugh Chalmers Rose, who, like virtually everyone else in that branch of the family, was a chemist and was the son, brother, husband and father of women called Emily. His life story begins and ends in tragedy, and speaks again of the possibilities and hopes that led hundreds of thousands of Europeans to try their luck in the British colonies down under.

Hugh Chalmers Rose was born in Penrose, Monmouthshire, in 1835, one of eight children of George Tower Rose and his wife Emily Cooper. Grandfather John Cooper was a prominent surgeon in the Cotswold town of Wotton-under-Edge, while grandfather John Chalmers Rose was a successful merchant in Bristol, trading in the West Indies. The Rose family lived on independent means and were well-to-do. All this changed, perhaps due to some financial disaster. In 1845 the eldest son John, an apprentice on the barque ‘Theresa’, died in Calcutta, then in 1846 Emily died at Trowbridge, Wiltshire, shortly after bearing her last child; her death certificate gave her husband’s occupation as ‘labourer’. In 1849 George died, leaving seven orphaned children ranging in age from 3 to 17. The 1851 census shows that the children were divided between friends, relatives and employers: Henry was a surgeon’s apprentice in Marylebone; Emily was a governess in Somersetshire; Hugh was a chemist’s apprentice in Canterbury; Caroline was at school in Cheltenham; Alexander was living with his cousin Tattersall in Greenwich; Frederick was at a boarding school in Lewisham; and Robert was with foster parents in Clifton, Gloucestershire.

Soon many of the children would seek lives in the colonies. Henry would become a successful GP in Hampstead, and the girls remained unmarried, but Alexander, Frederick and Robert Rose emigrated to New Zealand as soon as they were old enough to go, while my ancestor made his way to Australia. Hugh arrived in Melbourne aboard the ‘Glenmarra’ in August 1856 and began practising as a chemist. Two years later he married another emigrant, Emily Lees, and had nine children. Their married life was peripatetic: they lived briefly in Collingwood, then moved to Kyneton, and in 1863 went to Wagga Wagga in New South Wales. In 1874 the family relocated to Sydney and Hugh opened a very successful pharmacy at 531 George Street. In 1882 Hugh handed over his business to his eldest son Henry, and with his wife and their younger children returned to Fitzroy in Melbourne where Hugh took up the post of pharmacist to the Governor of Victoria.

This pinnacle of success was unpicked in a swift succession of events. First Hugh’s wife Emily died in September 1883 from jaundice and cirrhosis of the liver, aged only 45 years. Hugh moved to Eaglehawk, and in July 1884 remarried a young woman named Sarah Horn, at St Paul’s church, Bendigo. Then on 10 February 1885 Hugh took an overdose of eight grains of morphia, using the trade he had practised for over thirty-five years to attempt to end his own life. He recovered briefly after a medical attendant was summoned to pump his stomach, but succumbed to gastritis on 22 February. An inquest pronounced suicide as the cause of death, noting his general ill-health over the previous months. A will made on 2 February 1885 left his chemist’s shop to his second son Frederick, £100 and his household goods to his widow, and the proceeds of a Life Insurance policy to his five younger children.

Here was a man whose family met all the criteria of respectability, who travelled the world, achieved professional success, married well, and raised several children. So what went wrong? Death and ill-health took their toll, it seems, though the inquest was, in typical Victorian style, rather restrained in its language. We cannot know the workings of this man’s mind who at the age of 49 took his own life, leaving a 29-year old widow and a 14-year old daughter. Nor can we assess the impact on his family, although his children did well enough in making their own ways in life, becoming dispersed across Australia from Brisbane to Adelaide to Narrandera to Wilcannia. Certainly, family memory makes no mention either of the manner of Hugh’s death or the peripatetic course of his life.

Family history is not a simple story of success and pioneer sacrifice, but a complex tale of humanity, that does not change so much as it stays the same.


1 Comment

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One response to “Hugh Chalmers Rose (1835-1885)

  1. blog is brilliant. I liked the line that 1833 is not really that long ago, mark of a true family historian. Other sides of the family will have a different bunch of recollections. My great grandmother omitted her only two uncles from the tree. But a cousin, the collector, had a single un named photo which proved one uncle at least had kept in contact. The internet casts a huge searchlight on old mysteries. But remember to check the corners of the room…

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