Basics on the St Joseph's/Lisgar Building Society Project

This guide is adapted from the text of "A Building Society's Records as a Genealogical & Local History Source", an article from the June 1998 issue of our quarterly journal, Descent, by Bronwyn Layton, Project Archivist

Over the past sixteen months I have had the pleasure of arranging and indexing the St Joseph's Investment and Building Society papers. These papers were donated to the Society of Australian Genealogists through the offices of Mr Richard d'Apice of Makinson and d'Apice, the firm of solicitors which represented St Joseph's throughout its lifetime. The project was initially funded by a grant from the Heritage Council of NSW and further funding was then provided by the SAG and Makinson & d'Apice to allow the work to be completed.

The History of the Building Society

St Joseph's Permanent Investment and Benefit Building Society was established in 1868 by members of the Australasian Holy Catholic Guild of St Mary and St Joseph and throughout its existence it maintained close links with the Catholic Church. In June 1889 a meeting was held in the Society's Board-room to arrange for the presentation of an address of welcome by the laity to the new Auxiliary Bishop of Sydney, Dr Joseph Higgins. (See note 1) It changed its name to St Joseph's Investment & Building Society in 1871, to Lisgar Investment and Building Society (after Sir John Young, Governor of NSW 1861-1867 and later 1st Baron Lisgar) in 1928 and remained active until its sale to National Mutual in 1979. National Mutual renamed it the National Mutual Building Society (NSW) and later sold it to the State Bank which eventually wound it up. This makes it one of the longest operating building societies in NSW.

Max Kelly wrote in his history of Paddington, Paddock Full of Houses:

      ". . . the Sydney building societies played a particularly important role in the financing of suburban Sydney in the late nineteenth century. . . . One of them was the St Joseph's Investment and Building Society... Its records are the most complete available relating to building society activity and access to them is gratefully acknowledged".

(See note 2)

Kelly wrote this of the major part of St Joseph's records which are held by the Mitchell Library. He was unaware of this Society's holdings which add to the significance of that collection.

The Depression of the late 1890s hit hard at rental returns for developers and investors. Mortgage defaults soared and many financial institutions including building societies found themselves as mortgagees in possession of the properties which secured their loans. Thus the Society became a major landlord and began to create a group of property management records. The Society is unusual if not unique in the extent to which its records have survived with their provenance intact and it is unique in their accessibility in public collections.

Upon the takeover of the Society by National Mutual in 1979, the Board decided to move the operations from the still extant Lisgar House at 30-32 Carrington Street, Sydney which it had built in 1928 (following the resumption of its buildings in Elizabeth Street for the creation of Martin Place). The Board agreed to offer to the Mitchell Library most of the records not still in use. These were accepted by the Library and the 258 volumes and records in 105 boxes covering the period 1864-1979 are now at ML MSS 4228 and ML 471/79, but most are stored off site.

The Mitchell Library did not take some of the records, and the Society of Australian Genealogists was offered, accepted and now houses 65 boxes of the Society's bills and receipts covering the period 1879-1974.

The Records of St Joseph's held by SAG

The papers fall into several main groups. Firstly there are the receipts signed by investors for interest and dividend payments and for the redemption of fixed deposits. These receipts contain the signatures of the investors, and occasionally their addresses, and it is often possible to identify family groupings, friends or related families.

This is also where the connection with the Catholic Church is most visible, with Nuns and Priests receiving payments on behalf of their orders or institutions. There seems to have been a special connection with the Sisters of Mercy and with the Society of Mary fathers. The Carmelites at Dulwich Hill and Marrickville appear to have paid many of their accounts through St Joseph's, as did, to a lesser extent, the Little Sisters of the Poor.

The Society's properties were mostly terraces or cottages situated in Redfern, Surry Hills, Ultimo, Erskineville, Glebe, Paddington, Waverley, Balmain and Leichhardt, with more in Annandale, Waterloo, Woolloomooloo, Marrickville, Petersham, Newtown and Camperdown, and a few in Manly, Hunter's Hill and North Sydney. The geographic area covered by St Joseph's from its earliest times was surprisingly large, with security over properties as far from the inner city focus of its operations as Minto. Windsor and Ingleburn. However, the majority of securities were over houses grouped in inner city suburbs, often near a local parish church or school.

Bills and receipts provide detailed record

The main part of the St Joseph's papers held by SAG are the bills and receipts sent to St Joseph's by tradesmen, municipal councils, tenants, shareholders, building material suppliers, public utilities (gas, water, etc.) and other records in respect of the Society's premises and the properties under mortgage or in its possession following default. They date from 1879 to 1974, although the bulk of the bills range from 1880 to 1948. These records have been sorted, arranged and indexed so that the wealth of information they contain is available for family historians and social researchers.

The bills cover a wide range of activities, for example, repairing slate roofs, cleaning chimneys, installing new stoves, painting and papering rooms and clearing rubbish from yards. There is even a bill for the removal of a dead horse! The biggest group of tradesmen are plumbers, with Mr John Gread's bills alone filling 4 archive boxes. Along with the tradesmen are their suppliers, including stove makers, timber merchants and brickworks.

The bills typically show the address of the job, sometimes the name of the tenant or original owner, the materials supplied, work done and the cost. It is possible to follow a series of repairs or changes to a particular house or to a locally significant building, such as the Surreyville Dancing Academy in Darlington. On a broader scale, they show common building methods, materials and work practices used during this period which might not be easily understood many years later, such as the purchase of flour to make wallpaper paste.

At times bills from suppliers contain details which can be used to identify specific products. Bills from James Sandy & Co list the sale of rolls of wallpaper by numbers which refer to catalogue entries. They also identify the colours of paints purchased burnt sienna, middle green, umber, white lime wash or brown varnish. Imagine if this amount of detail were available for a house which you hoped to restore authentically!

Other records

Other groups of records are found. The bills relating to the tenants cover a wide range, including bailiffs, auctioneers, night soil men, council rates, insurance premiums and receipts signed by the tenants for small repairs or services.

Fire insurance had to be maintained for each property mortgaged or owned by the Society, so the premium notices contain the names and addresses of owners and sometimes the names of tenants as do council rate notices, many dating continuously from the early 1890s. Some Councils no longer have copies of their earliest rate books, and so the notices in this Collection may be the only remaining original source of much of this information.

There is a small but significant group of files containing the accounts from bailiffs, dating from the 1890s depression. One can see the bailiff taking possession of houses for several days, executing warrants to distrain, lists of household items seized and at the auction, the prices obtained for their sale. The names of tenants and their addresses which appear on these records - for example, M. Boylan of Silver St, Marrickville in 1893, place a person at a specific place on a specific date. At a time when people were known to move frequently chasing the cheapest rent, records like these may he among the few where such detail is available.

The tenant repair files contain receipts for small repairs carried out by local 'handymen' or by the tenants themselves, the tenant being reimbursed by St Joseph's. Receipts for these payments were signed in indelible pencil and researchers may well find this to be the only original piece of writing available for a great-grandparent. Many of the names suggest Irish origins, such as Kelly, Casey and Moloney but there are also a few German, Italian and possibly Polish names.

Researchers should not imagine only male tradesmen will be found in these records. Women sold flour to workmen, cleaned houses, or received commissions for letting houses (usually about 5/-). In Hegarty St, Glebe, a succession of families were paid an allowance to clear a drain and often it was the women who signed the receipts.

The records concerning the Society itself detail the day to day operations of St Joseph's, such as expenses and petty cash, or time sheets filled out by workmen. Others detail advertising, stationers, lift maintenance, accountants and solicitors. There are some taxation returns, annual reports and balance sheets which show dividends paid, expenditure and so on. With the building of Lisgar House in 1928, and its tenanting, a further series of records was created, containing much indirect information which is of value.

When indexing these records, the small telling details are not always included. One can see the man whose bills were always presented beautifully and clearly written, or the man who may have been a good workman but was a little rough and ready when it came to keeping accounts. The addresses on one man's bills were so inaccurate it is a wonder he ever found his way to the work!

Different levels of education become apparent - the investor who could only make her mark, the chimney sweep who laboriously wrote with an unskilled hand, and others still using all the copperplate swirls they had been taught. Mr Perette the glazier, who wrote clearly and well in English, always used the French spelling of July!

The billheads of the accounts present an interesting study in themselves. Typefaces range from the plainest utilitarian ones to the most outrageous flourishes. Some of the more prosperous firms adopted typefaces of incredible detail, quite beautiful with swirls and motifs. It is interesting to see them change with the times reflecting current business and social attitudes. Larger businesses sometimes incorporated pictures of their premises, often showing happy satisfied customers and a positive message endorsing the quality of their product. Stove makers occasionally used the back of the bills to reproduce pictures of their products thereby making them look like a mini-catalogue. Brickworks often had detailed plans of their yards, labelled to show the position of each factory.

These billheads can be a source of images of buildings no longer in existence or now extensively changed. Billheads from Anthony Horderns covering a period of about ten years show the changes to buildings on their site. They are beautifully drawn, with labels for each department and all architectural details carefully displayed. Earlier ones show customers strolling happily in the afternoon sun, with many horse-drawn vehicles delivering and picking up both customers and purchases. Later headings have replaced the horses with trams and cars, although the happy customers are still there!

Accessing the St Joseph's records held by SAG

An important part of this project has been the detailed indexing carried out to allow researchers as many entry points into the Collection as possible. Indexing to this level of detail has not, as far as is known, been carried out before on other similar collections of records, which makes this project of extra value.

The St Joseph's records have been incorporated into the existing Primary Records collection as Series 22 (2211 - 2211805) and are housed at Richmond Villa (120 Kent Street). Researchers need to undertake searches using the Primary Records electronic catalogue, available in our library and soon online. Each item has been indexed, where appropriate, by:

  • name of the person who sent the bill or receipt
  • company name
  • occupation or title, such as tenant or chimney sweep
  • address of this person or business
  • address where work was done. After this address the word 'job' has been added to distinguish it from a home address, eg Abercrombie St, Redfern job
  • suburb of job site
  • other names mentioned

This will mean that a researcher who wishes to follow all repairs carried out on a certain house will be able to do so by entering the street name and suburb, such as 'Abercrombie St, Redfern'. If undertaking local history work, entering a suburb name will produce a list of all records relating to that specific place. Others wishing to research particular trades or individual tradesmen can enter that name or occupation. By entering 'chimney sweep', all references to any chimney sweep will be displayed.

When a reference of interest is located the electronic Primary Records catalogue, it can be consulted at Richmond Villa by prior arrangement, on Thursday or Saturday. Files can be ordered in advance.

This collection is a treasure trove of information - an intimate view of the people, houses, tradesmen and employees associated with a building society which survived through two major depressions, two world wars as well as times of growth and prosperity. There is no doubt that the collection is worthy of detailed study by historians and genealogists.

1. Freemans Journal, 29 June 1889 p. 15
2. Max Kelly, Paddock Full of Houses, Paddington 1840-1890, Doak Press, Sydney, 1978.

Thanks are extended to Mr Richard d'Apice, of Makinson & d'Apice, who provided historical background information for this article.