Hyde Park Barracks. G W Evans c1820. Courtesy State Library of NSW
James Oatley was the man who gave his name to the suburb of Oatley. As is fairly well-known, he was transported to Sydney in 1815 as a convict. Learning that Oatley was a watch-maker, Governor Macquarie gave him the task of constructing a turret clock for the Prisoners’ Barracks in Macquarie Street (pictured above). Thereafter, Oatley set up in business as a watch and clock maker in George Street, and was conditionally pardoned in 1821. As his prosperity grew, he acquired large land grants, one of which encompassed most of present-day Oatley suburb. On his death in 1839 his death notice described him as ‘the celebrated watchmaker’, and a biography of him borrowing this phrase, Mr Oatley the Celebrated Watchmaker was published by D J Hatton in 1983. Hatton stated: “In Sydney town the Oatleys were a well-known family who associated with the leading citizens in commerce and administration.” A rosy picture was painted, the convict made good.
All very well – but what sort of a man was he to work for? Oatley was assigned a number of convicts to whom he gave employment. In the 1828 Census, five men were listed as being employed by him. One of these five, John Wilson, aged 34, although otherwise well-behaved, was by his own admission a drunkard. When he was drunk, he absented himself from work. For being absent from work, he was flogged by his employer. On 31 May 1837, Wilson wrote to the Sydney Monitor newspaper to plead to be assigned to a new master. He stated that in the eleven years he had been employed by Oatley, he had been flogged fifty or sixty times, totalling upwards of fifteen hundred lashes. Oatley could have had Wilson re-assigned to another master, but persisted in trying to correct him with corporal punishment.
Sydney Monitor 31 May 1837, p2
Part of a letter to the Editor of the Sydney Monitor from John Wilson, unfortunate servant of James Oatley.
A few days later, Oatley wrote to the Sydney Gazette, a rival newspaper to the Monitor. He candidly agreed that he had indeed flogged Wilson at least fifty times, but that it should have been three times as much! He still hoped by further flogging to be able to amend Wilson’s behaviour. This letter, which presents a grimmer side to Oatley’s character, was not noted by Dr Hatton.
This is one of two or three occasions when we hear from James Oatley in his own words. In March 1833, he discovered his troublesome convict employee John Wilson entertaining a woman in his bedroom. The court proceedings were reported in the Gazette on 26 March 1833 and in the Monitor on 30 March 1833; both newspapers treated the matter as a joke. The Monitor compared it to Romeo wooing Juliet. The Gazette referred to the large carving-knife which the lovers had put in the middle of the bed to ensure matters did not go too far. Oatley described Wilson on this occasion as “One of my lads, and a rum customer he is.” Yet again, Wilson was flogged for his amorous night.
Dr Hatton’s biography of Oatley is excellent for its portrayal of Mary Oatley. She was the partner of Joseph Lycett, the convict artist and engraver, who was transported in 1814. It is thought that Mary came out to New South Wales to join him, masquerading on the voyage as the wife of James Oatley. Arriving in Sydney, circumstances obliged her to maintain the pretence, and she moved in with Oatley, later having two sons with him, James junior and Frederick. (James junior was to become Lord Mayor of Sydney in 1862.)
But by 1832, Mary Oatley had moved out, and James Oatley’s eye had been caught by a younger woman, Mary Ann Bogg, whom he married in September 1833. He was 63, she was 27. Perhaps unsurprisingly, not quite five years later she too moved out, and Oatley placed notices in the newspapers warning tradesmen not to give her credit in his name.
But Mary Ann was not having that, and, very unusually for the time, placed her own notice in the press, charging him with having driven her from her home.
This notice was not noted by Dr Hatton, but it again reveals a harder aspect to Oatley’s character.
Another newspaper item not available to Dr Hatton when she researched her monograph relates to the offence for which James Oatley was transported. This was the theft of a large quantity of bedding and household furniture, which was found on Oatley’s premises in Portsea, Hampshire. The circumstances of the theft are revealed in a report in the Englishman journal for 12 September 1813. From this, it appears that Oatley was operating as both a thief and a fence, not unlike Fagin in Oliver Twist. Interestingly, his street address in Portsea – Mile End Road – was also that of Admiralty clerk John Dickens, who in 1813 had a one-year old son, Charles, whose earliest years were spent in Portsea. Did Dickens draw on childhood memories of the local watchmaker’s arrest and transportation for Great Expectations??