The Underwood name can be traced back to Cockneys from the London dockyard area in the early 1700’s. There were at least 3 generations of Thomas Underwood’s prior to the one addressed on this cover. The best documented of the early Thomas Underwood’s (his father was probably also named Thomas) was born in 1743 in England. Four (possibly 5) of his sons were known to have lived in Australia, the one classed as possible was also named Thomas, but he is of no importance to this story, except for the fact two of his brothers, James and Joseph, were successful figures in the early colonial days of Australia.

James Underwood (1771-1844) was aged 18 when he supposedly committed a crime and found guilty of breaking, entering and stealing of goods valued at £3/13/9d. He and his co-conspirator were sentence to 14 years, and were detained for 10 months prior to sailing for Sydney on the ‘Admiral Barrington’ on 27/3/1791 and arriving at Sydney Cove as the last ship of the Third Fleet on 16/10/1791. James’ sentence expired by 1797, and he worked and played hard, he kept a high public profile and his activities were recorded in great detail in Sydney newspapers.

James became very rich from shipbuilding, ship buying and chartering, overseas trading, sealing, and the co-owner of the colony’s first distillery, as well as the acquisition of land and properties. Governor Macquarie recognized his skills and his hospitality was welcomed by the Governor. James had an eye for younger women. He had 2 mistresses and 2 wives and he sired 12 children by them. One son, Thomas (1805-1883), the addressee of the cover, was the second child of the union with his first mistress, Phillis Pounds.

James’ brother Joseph came to Sydney in 1808 on the ‘Sydney Cove’, accompanying James who had been back in England. He became a merchant, interested in seal hunting and shipping, as well as an extensive land-owner. James retired from business and left Sydney in 1840 and died in Surrey England in 1840.

The cover that started this research was addressed to Thomas Underwood Esq, Underwood Street, Paddington and it bears the perf. 13, 1d salmon S.G. 208 QV stamp postmarked with SYDNEY/ L/ AP 24/ 73/ B N.S.W. duplex (Figure 1).

The reverse has no postmark nor description of the sender. The short enclosed letter provides the excitement and it reads:

Pitt Street Sydney 24 April 1873
Thomas Underwood Esq.
Underwood Street
Dear Sir
The Underwood Estate Act has been assented
to by the Governor
Yours faithfully Russell & Holden

As in Figure 2 below:

The Underwood Estate Act was passed by Parliament on 23 April 1873 and its preambles contained the intent to sell all James Underwood’s lands contained in his will (paddington, Homebush and Ashfield, plus the city properties and the 200 acre Fleming’s farm.

The Governor of N.S.W. referred to was Sir Hercules George Robert Robinson (1824-1897) who was Governor from June 1872 to March 1879, and who later became Lord Rosmead. The senders of the letter were William Russell and John Rose Holden of the legal firm of Russell & Holden who were initially appointed solicitors for the NSW Government during the hearings into the Underwood Estate in the early 1870’s. There were 3 Private Members’ Bills and 2 Acts of Parliament needed to settle the problems arising from the land that had been tied up in the Will of James Underwood. Later the solicitors were replaced by the firm of Norton Smith, and then Russell & Holden represented most of the family’s descendants.

“All of Thomas Underwood’s land was eventually sold (around 1,000 acres of to-day’s inner Sydney), and only the solicitors and the mortgagees made anything out of it in the end. The sagas and the court cases went on for about 30 years. Litigation went over to the privy Council in England, and disputes entailed between family members (which were legion), their solicitors, their financiers, their trustees, and so on” – quoted from Liz Parkinson, herself a descendant of Richard (1839-78) the youngest son of Thomas Underwood and his first wife, Mary Ann Powell.

Although there is still an Underwood Street in Paddington, there is no family-held property in the Sydney C.B.D.. It is often said that a wealthy man should leave his Estate entailed if he does not have much faith in his children. James was justified, as none of his 6 named beneficiaries followed in his footsteps. They had none of his entrepreneurial skills, innovative drive or his multifarious money making activities. The Thomas Underwood of the cover and 2 of his brothers went into debt for they did not see their share of the £200,000 which was suggested to be James’ assets when he left Australia in 1840.

I am indebted to Liz Parkinson for her helpful emails and her book “The Underwoods: Lock, Stock and Barrel” (1989). A longer version of this paper was published in the N.S.W. Philatelist August 2003, Volume 25, Number 3, pages 13-15.

Categories: Legal