MR. LOOKE, BOAT BUILDER, BALMAIN
I have developed a penchant for covers which have short title for the address as they frequently uncover an interesting story. Certainly the appearance of this cover did not enthrall me or produce a single bidder on Ebay in spite of the fact that the stamp was an imperf 2d blue Plate 1, NSW QV stamp with four margins, and was postmarked with the earliest type of a Sydney G.P.O. blind barred obliterator, first used 7 February 1850 (Figure 1).
The reverse had a SYDNEY/ [CROWN]/ OC * 12/ 1853/ NEW SOUTH WALES postmark (Figure 2).
With such limited information to go on, it was not surprising that information was hard to come by on the internet. The total information obtained were a reference to Lookes wharf, Lookes avenue and Lookes reserve. I contacted Leichhardt Municipal Library in Sydney and by mail received a copy of the Leichhardt Historical Journal No. 12, 1983, pages 6-9. The remainder of this paper is a synopsis of the article Lookes Avenue, Balmain, in 1866. There is a preamble to the article for Looke was the second boat builder at Balmain, and Joseph Looke in 1839 founded a dynasty on land that now bears his name, Lookes Avenue. His family lived there from 1839 to, at least, 1928. In addition to his boat building he was Balmain’s first estate developer.
A descendant of Joseph had provided a photo which was described as follows: the house at left is thought to be Looke’s first weatherboard cottage of about 1840 (later replaced by a house built by his first son William about 1868, now numbered as 17 Lookes Avenue). In the mid-ground is Looke’s Cottage, built by Joseph in 1844, or even earlier, now number 15. In the background is 11-13 Lookes Avenue, the nucleus of which was built in 1844 (Figure 3).
Joseph Looke was born in England in 1803, the son of a small coach driver. Looke took advantage of the British Government’s bounty scheme to assist worthy tradesmen to come to NSW, and his boat building trade qualified for selection. He came to Sydney in the Arundel on 11 September 1832, with his wife, Hannah Shepherd, whom he had married in London in 1824, and with two sons and a daughter. After setting up as a boat builder on the Darling Harbour waterfront of Sydney Town, Looke bought the Balmain land at the end of 1838 for £400.
The site had obvious advantages for the hillside yielded good building stone and the deep water frontage had a small inlet ideal for his trade. His family was expanding (by 1843 he had 8 children), so that there was progressive building to house them. As well as the timber cottage, by 1844 he had completed the boatyard, a wharf and a timber yard. Later he completed and moved his family into a good stone cottage at 15 Lookes Avenue, and the later two small stone cottages at 11-13 Lookes Avenue brought in rent.
Boat building was not his only interest for he bought 52 acres at Port Stevens and the property almost certainly gave rise to the timber for his timber yard that he established at the foot of his property at Balmain. He bought a farm which probably was his entry into the coal trade, as it was located near the developing coal fields. Because steamers needed bunkering in Sydney, he set aside a part of his waterfront as a coal yard. He reclaimed part of the harbour by a sea wall made from stone reclaimed on his site, to give himself a more generous wharf area.
An advertisement of the time gives an insight into Looke’s dour, forthright nature: ‘wanted, an active man to make mortar and attend on a rubble builder. To a sober man, and one that knows his business, 50 shillings per week.’ There was a remarkable amount of extra building information available of considerable interest, but it was probably more than a philatelically inspired reader would want to now. I will end on a sad note for on the 30th May 1868 at the age of 65, Joseph Looke was found floating off his wharf at the foot of the street that still bears his name.
I am indebted to the members of the Local History Team of the Leichhardt Municipal Library for providing a wealth of material about one of Sydney’s pioneers. It still amazes me where a cover posted in 1853 can lead me.