James Watson Rosier

A Biography

James Watson Rosier, 1834-1920,
‘The oldest established Gunmaker in Melbourne’,
by Benjamin Thomas.
Published in Caps & Flints vol 20 no 4 Jan 2008.

It has been forty years since Melbourne gun retailer James W. Rosier’s first appearance in Australian arms literature in a short article by Robert Shannon that appeared in this journal in September 1967. Writing then, Shannon expressed his intention that his brief introduction would be only a precursor to a more detailed article in a later edition, but regrettably it never eventuated. Doubtless he was consumed with other projects for in the same year—in what would again be a first in Australian arms historical research—Shannon published Colonial Australian Gunsmiths. Thin though it is, it remains the most comprehensive study on this subject.

It would be another twenty years before A.F. Harris added substantially to our knowledge of Rosier through the ‘re-discovery’ of a letter in the South Australian Records Office. The letter documented an approach made by Rosier to the South Australia Government in 1871 to convert the Colt Navy revolvers in use by their police force to accept cartridge ammunition along the Thuer patent. It was in no small way a significant insight into Rosier’s entrepreneurialism, for at the time of writing he had only recently completed the same conversion of 250 Colt Navies for the Victoria Police.

Well-known Victorian collector Maurie Albert held an interest in the subject. In a letter to Rosier’s great grandson, James Horace Rosier, in November 1983, Albert wrote:

I have not been able to locate any information what so ever with regards to Mr Rosier personally which is of the upmost [sic] importance to me (and the gun collecting fraternity) … in my opinion for such information to be forever lost is a very great pity and I feel that if a person has a chance to gain any such information he or she must try to do so …

Since the late 1960s, the numerous small articles on Rosier that have appeared across both arms and cartridge collecting publications have drawn on Shannon’s article as their primary source; a fact which both lays testament to the importance of his early contribution, but also highlights the deficiency in Australia arms research and literature that over a forty year period Shannon’s work has not been expanded upon.

Although Maurie Albert passed away more than a decade ago, this article places on the record the information that he so ardently sought. It offers an insight into the family and personal life of James Watson Rosier, and an overview of his business. A proposed second article will look in greater detail at the business practices and firearms retailed by Rosier.

Contrary to his obituary in 1920 the source of biographical information for Shannon and several subsequent writers James Watson Rosier was born the eldest of seven children in the Suffolk village of Langham on the 22 December 1834. His father, twenty-nine year old James Rosier, was a clock and watchmaker who had married Elizabeth Watson, the daughter of local ceramicist Thomas Watson, on the 4 February that year. On the 1 February 1835, almost a year to the day since his parent’s marriage, James Watson was christened at his mother’s neighbouring village of Wattisfield. Langham was ‘a pleasant village’, but even by the mid 1840s its population remained slightly less than three hundred. Thirty years later, that figure had reduced to just two hundred. Travelling through the county in July 1843, Suffolk antiquary David Elisha Davy found little to write about. He dismissed the village’s church outright as ‘a building of little interest’, and found the village’s most notable monument to be Langham Hall, a small mansion surrounded by parklands that gave ‘the appearance of a comfortable residence.’

Two more sons, George (1837) and Thomas (1839), were born to James and Elizabeth in Langham, before the family moved to the village of Walsham le Willows situated only a few kilometres north, and approximately halfway between Langham and Wattisfield where it is likely a daughter, Ann, was born. Compared to Langham, Walsham le Willows was significantly larger; Davy particularly admired its ‘large & handsome church’. The Rosier family settled in Church Street, host to a variety of the town’s other trades: a butcher, a shoemaker, painters, tailors, a milliner and carpenters. Significantly, the move to Walsham le Willows also brought a change in profession for James Snr, with the 1841 census providing the earliest reference to him practising, albeit fleetingly, as a gunmaker. Now thirty-one years old, he had taken on a young apprentice, sixteen-year-old Jeremiah Orams. The growing household meant Elizabeth Rosier required an extra pair of hands, and a female servant, Eliza Baker—probably the twelve-yearold daughter of John Baker, shoemaker, several doors along Church Street—is recorded living with the family. Orams would later establish a name for himself as a clockmaker, suggesting that his apprenticeship was concentrated primarily towards James Snr’s earlier trade.

In early 1842, with the birth of another daughter, Elizabeth, and young James Watson now approaching school age, the family moved to Bedford, Bedfordshire, where he was enrolled at the Harpur Trust Elementary School on the 1 March 1842. While it is not recorded if Jeremiah Orams accompanied the family to Bedford, it is not entirely unlikely for James Snr resumed trading as a clockmaker in Pilcroft Street.

Throughout the 1840s, the family lived at several addresses in Bedford, and it was here that the fourth and youngest son, John William, was born on the 16 September 1846. By this date, James Snr had re-established himself as a gunmaker, assisted by his eldest son. ‘Employed by his father’ is the comment next to James Watson’s name in the Harpur Elementary registers when, on the 10 March 1845, aged ten after only three years of formal education—he left school to begin his association with the trade that would become his livelihood. The graceful handwriting of Rosier’s young adult years appears to be the result of selftuition and personal determination, rather than the product of extensive schooling, and reveals an early tendency to excel. Father and son were still working together in Offa Street in late 1847 when Ann commenced at the Girls Elementary School. Among the other traders located in Offa Street was one of Bedford’s butchers, Humphrey Peers. The friendship that developed between Peers and James Snr would shortly become central to the family’s future.

In the northern autumn of 1849, for reasons that remain unclear, James Snr sold his business to London gunmaker Henry Adkins. The advertisement that appeared in The Bedford Times on the 1 September offers little insight, other than that Adkins was eager ‘to assure the public generally that no exertion shall be wanting on his part to secure their patronage and support.’ On the 26 September, Ann was withdrawn from school and within three weeks the family had sailed aboard ‘the splendid, first-class, British-built ship’ the Brothers from Katherine’s Dock, Gravesend, via Adelaide for Port Philip. The ship itself suggests something of the family’s position as they left England. A 1,600 tons ‘coppered and copper-fastened’ barque, it was both sizeable in comparison to other ships making the journey, and employed some of the latest advances in design. The fact that it also boasted a ‘well selected library on board’, and could remark upon the equality shared by all passengers—‘the poop cabins being let at the same rate as the others’—suggest that many of those aboard shared a similar level of social comfort. The Brothers arrived in Adelaide in mid-February 1850, four months after having left England, where it unloaded the bulk of its cargo and almost half of its passengers, before continuing on to Melbourne where it arrived on the 10 March. There are no records to indicate what possessions from the Old World accompanied the family to the New, but it is probable that a reminder of James Snr’s past trade in the form of a cased double-barrelled percussion shotgun was among their luggage. The shotgun, its locks finely engraved with scrolls and a dog flushing pheasants from the undergrowth, is engraved simply on both locks and the barrel rib, ‘ROSIER, BEDFORD’. It remains the only known item documenting the Rosier family’s life prior to their arrival in Australia.

James Watson was only fifteen when the Brothers docked, yet he would draw upon the date towards the end of the decade when he opened his first shop, advertising the business as ‘est. 1850’; an early indicator that he understood the value and credibility of reputation.

Within months of the family’s arrival, James Snr accompanied the former Bedford butcher, Humphrey Peers, to purchase lot numbers 158 and 159 respectively in the ‘Parish of North of Nillumbik’ at auction in August. Peers, who had preceded the Rosier’s arrival, was already settled in Eltham and it was not until late in 1850 that James Rosier moved his family to the then rural settlement on the Diamond Creek. James Snr’s lot consisted of 265 acres, just slightly larger than Peers’ adjoining lot on the northern boundary at 254 acres. Both men bought the land at the price of one pound per acre.

Rosier’s land, situated south of the present-day Diamond Creek station, straddled two hills, descending between them into a gully that in wet weather converted into a natural creek bed. Today the land is buried under recent housing development. In the early 1850s, the undulating ground was probably heavily wooded, as much of the surrounding landscape still is today, and would have required clearing before it could be put to any agricultural use. But for small-scale farming and cattle it was suitable ground, and it is probable that Rosier, like Peers, engaged in this line of agriculture. It was here too, that another daughter and their seventh child, Harriet, was born in 1851.

Suddenly, and unexpectedly, in early 1852 James Snr fell ill and died on the 30 March. In his Will, written ten days earlier, he stated that he was ‘weak in Body, but sound in mind’ before transferring his 265 acres to Peers, but leaving his wife Elizabeth 15 acres in Little Eltham itself, including their house. Significantly, he specifies to his wife that she ‘is to Give my son Jas Watson Rosheer [sic] at the age of twenty one my working tools’

Following the death of his father, James Watson assisted his mother in raising his six siblings. In 1856, having turned twenty-one the previous December, he married Nancy Richards at Heidelberg and subsequently moved to Melbourne where he opened his first shop trading as a gunmaker at 125 Little Collins Street East, then near the north-eastern corner of Little Collins Street and Russell Street. While he would not appear in the Sands & McDougall trade directories at this address until the following year, he is recorded on the Victorian 1856 electoral roll, incorrectly, as ‘Francis [sic] Watson Rosier’, gunmaker of Little Eltham, working in St Patrick’s division.

Undoubtedly this is the same address as the Little Collins Street address he is listed at in 1857.

His initial venture was short-lived. In 1858, only six years after James Snr had died, James Watson lost his mother, and two eldest brothers, Thomas and George, to consumption within weeks of each other. His disappearance from the trade directories at this time reflects the likely return to Diamond Creek where he and Nancy would look after his three surviving siblings, in addition to their own recently first born son, James Watson Jnr. It would be another five years before James Watson reappeared at 140 Brunswick Street, Fitzroy, in 1863.

His absence from the trade, and still relative inexperience when he returned, may have been one of the factors in being overlooked by the Victorian Government when they sought to equip the Victoria Police with 250 Colt Navy revolvers in 1864. There is nothing to suggest that Rosier sought the contract, but his involvement a few years later with their conversion, and his continual dealings with the police across the following decades, indicate that he was keen to obtain the security of government contracts. By the mid 1860s, he had moved back into the city’s central business district to 32 Little Collins Street East (1864-66) and then across the street a few doors down to the ‘Stone shop and Workshop’ at 45 Little Collins Street East (1867-1870).

Rosier had not yet turned thirty-two when he first caught the attention of Melbourne printed media in September 1866 for his display of the Prussian needle-gun at the first of his two Little Collins Street addresses. Framed within the context of the increasingly heated debate concerning breech-loading firearms, the invitation to an Argus journalist to view the weapon was an astute move, aimed at positioning Rosier centrally in the coming debate on the Colony’s defences. The Snider conversion of the 1853 Enfield rifle to breech-loading was the popular alternative, and the benefits over the Prussian contemporary were keenly pursued:

The “needle-gun” which we have attempted to describe, is said to be capable of being fired, at the utmost, six times a minutes the gun soon becomes unbearably hot. From a description of Snider method of converting the Enfield rifle into a breech loading, it is stated that the gun as so altered can be discharged fifteen times per minute, and be free from the defects of the “needle-gun.”

By January 1867, having recently secured the patronage of the Victorian Rifle Association, Rosier exhibited a short Enfield rifle on the Snider principle. It had been sent out from England, and was believed to be ‘the only weapon of the kind yet in the colony’ and ‘well worthy of examination. Almost annually, for the next three years, Rosier exhibited—and invited the public to examine—a selection of the latest breech-loading rifles; the BraendlinAlbini, adopted by the Belgian Government, the French Chassepot, the Snider conversion, and in May 1870 two Martini Henry rifles ‘of the pattern adopted by the British Government for general service.’ Writing in September 1870, in the early months of the Franco-Prussian war, one journalist noted that only a fifteenth of the 7,500 Government rifles were breech-loading. Despite past criticism, the effectiveness of the breech-loading Prussian needle-gun over the muzzle-loading equivalent was being demonstrated with horrific results in Europe. As attention turned to the options available to the Colonial Government, the journalist observed that local gunmakers William Henson or Rosier ‘could, as they have shown, do the work sufficiently well; but the cost would be considerable, and the process comparatively slow.’

Rosier disagreed. Acknowledging the superiority of the Martini Henry, he argued that the primary question facing the Victorian Government was what approach to take with the current stand of muzzle-loading arms, representing some £15,000 in value: ‘The answer is obvious. Convert them as speedily as possible.’

How? Shall we send them home, and leave ourselves unarmed? No, that would be imprudent. Shall we exchange them? No; for exchange is always loss; and moreover; where could a market be found for them? Shall we let them lie by? No, for that would be a dead loss . …if we possess in the colony the men and the facilities for converting comparatively useless weapons into serviceable ones at a moderate cost, and in a reasonable time, why not let it be done?

There is no record that anything ever came of Rosier’s proposal, but if his intention throughout the late 1860s had been to solidify his reputation as one of Melbourne’s leading gunmakers, the strategy worked. When he wrote to the Chief Commissioner of Police, Frederick Standish, in mid-October 1869 with an offer to convert the police forces’ Colt Navy revolvers to accept metallic cartridge ammunition along Thuer’s patent, he found a willing recipient. As Standish informed the Chief Secretary, ‘I have inspected some Revolvers to which Mr Rosier’s improvement has been applied and have no hesitation in stating my conviction that the efficiency of the arms has been much improved’.

The Victoria Police Colt Navy revolvers were converted by Rosier throughout 1870 for the total sum of £406.5.0 . It was a substantial contract, one that would herald more than two decades of Government contracts, and see Rosier move from Little Collins Street to the more prominent position of 66 Elizabeth Street, where the Block Arcade’s Elizabeth Street frontage stands today. On the domestic side, the success of the Colt contract allowed Rosier to move his family to “Roselea”, 52 Fitzwilliam Street, in the increasingly fashionable eastern suburb of Kew. As The Victorian Gazetteer had observed five years earlier, ‘the district is suburban to Melbourne, and is studded with the residences of gentlemen having business in Melbourne . … It is said to be the most picturesque portion of the suburbs of Melbourne’.

It is a statement well supported by the Melbourne Metropolitan Board of Works plans available for the area at the turn of the century. These illustrate the hillside to the east of Glenferrie Road being at one time covered with substantial Victorian homes on large blocks, and Rosier’s was no exception. “Roselea” remained the family home for the next forty-six years. Its ability to accommodate a growing family is demonstrated by the fact that by 1903, six of Rosier’s adult children were still living at home: Elizabeth Ann (born 1861), Vara (born 1865), Agnes Mary (born 1869), Louisa “Wissie” Adina (born 1871), Samuel Horace Richard (born 1874), and Ethel Ruby, known simply as Ruby (born 1878).

In 1888, with the lease due to expire on 66 Elizabeth Street, Rosier moved to the recently completed Clarke Buildings situated at 63 Bourke Street West between the corner of Queen Street and Kirk’s Horse Bazaar towards the GPO. It was renumbered the following year to 432 Bourke Street as part of a broader process undertaken throughout 1888-89 of abandoning Elizabeth Street as the demarcation line between Melbourne’s east-west streets, and adopting sequential street numbering running from Spring to Spencer Streets.

However, the move brought about a change in staff, and Rosier lost two experienced gunsmiths. Phineas Perry had been with Rosier since the late 1870s until he decided to branch out on his own, opening a well-rounded business as a gunmaker, locksmith and machinist. In 1888, the year of Rosier’s move to Bourke Street, Perry advertised his new premises at 14 Post Office Place West, and was keen to point to his ‘11 years with J.W. Rosier’ as a sign of his credibility. Frederick Morris was another who used the move, and his extensive ‘London experience and 9 years with J.W. Rosier’, to open under his own name at Barkley Street, Brunswick, before settling as a ‘practical gunmaker’ at 363 Little Bourke Street West. Of the two, Morris was the more successful following Perry’s early death aged 31 in 1891. In 1914, however, Morris was struck down by a tram and killed; Rosier outlived them both.

It may have been as a replacement to his lost staff that Rosier’s eldest son, James Watson Rosier Jnr, joined the business working in both the workshop and behind the counter. Certainly he was well entrenched in the business by the mid-1890s when, as manager for his father, he was called to testify in the Abrahams vs Greener gun fraud case, and could speak with confidence of his experience with the trade. James ‘Jim’ Rosier Jnr was, much like his father, broad-shouldered and thickset. He was not overly tall at 5’10”, had a roundish face and—adopting the fashion of the early twentieth century when this description was given was clean-shaven, with the exception of a moustache. He smoked a pipe, and had a reputation ‘of being a remarkably accurate marksman, being able to accomplish almost any kind of difficult shooting feat.’

Combined with a pleasant, good-humoured personality, his skill with a gun made him easily recognisable and well-liked among Melbourne’s sports shooting community. By his late forties, however, Rosier Jnr’s hearing had reduced to almost total deafness. Although he was still working in the Bourke Street shop in 1908, he was conducting a certain amount of work from his home in Rusden Street, Elsternwick, where he had a private range. No doubt this limitation played a role in discouraging him from continuing the business after his father’s retirement. He died in Hawthorn East aged 87 in 1945.

By 1916, aged 81, and after a staggering sixty years in business and the onset of ill-health, James W. Rosier decided to retire. Public accountants Davey, Balding & Co distributed a flyer among Melbourne’s trade of importers, hardware merchants, gunsmiths, and others seeking tenders for the ‘well-known and old-established business’ by the 10 October 1916. Stock-intrade consisted of almost £1,100 of firearms, approximately £1,000 of cartridges and related components, and £655 worth of firearm fittings, reloading tools, cases, and other accessories. Combined with the shop’s fittings, and workshop machinery, the total value came to £3,696.5.7, prompting Davey, Balding & Co. to note that the business was ‘in full working order, and owing to its great reputation, should command the attention of all interested in the trade’.

One fellow gun dealer was particularly interested. Donald Mackintosh, Australia’s first goldmedal Olympian, renowned live-bird shooter, and gun dealer at nearby 400 Bourke Street contracted the engineering firm of George W. Kelly & Lewis to assess Rosier’s workshop machinery. In their reply on the 9 October, a day before tenders were due, they described the lathes as ‘mostly old and obsolete’, but noted they would be ‘equal to jobbing work, two of the number being for foot, and one on the ground floor is worked by ½ horse power motor, and another up stairs by ¼ H.P. Motor.’ They concluded with the observation, against their own valuation of £200.0.0 for the workshop equipment, that ‘Should the plant be auctioned in detail, lower prices than the above would result’

What arrangements might have been made is unknown, however when Rosier’s business was auctioned over the 24-25 October, Donald Mackintosh walked away the successful buyer.

Throughout sixty years of trade Rosier had never produced a catalogue, rather relying on his well-established clientele and reputation. However for the auction sale, Baylee & Co., under instructions from Dayey, Balding & Co., produced first a catalogue of stock-in-trade, followed by a supplementary catalogue. This incredibly detailed record provides an invaluable insight into the arms, accessories, and development of the business over more than half a century.

For reasons that are still unknown, Rosier left “Roselea” in 1917 and is listed living at Bay Road, Sandringham throughout 1918-19 before moving to “Altona”, a two-storied Victorian brick-terrace at 25 Hawksburn Road, South Yarra. Here, on the 30 June 1920, James Watson Rosier passed away at the age of eighty-five. He was buried two days later in a family grave in the Church of England section at Boroondara cemetery alongside his wife Nancy, who had predeceased him in 1900. A granddaughter, Fanny Hilda, the daughter of James Jnr was also interred in the family plot having died tragically in 1916 aged 30, as were three of James Watson and Nancy’s daughters, Elizabeth Ann (d.1942), Ruby Ethel (d.1952), and Agnes Mary (d.1953). Appropriately, his grave is situated a short distance from where his former home of “Roselea” once stood in Fitzwilliam Street, Kew. A nearby rotunda is the work of the prominent Melbourne architect and chairman of the Boroondara Cemetery Board of Trustees between 1867 and 1909, Albert Purchas, a neighbour to Rosier in Fitzwilliam Street.

There are other colonial Melbournian gun dealerships that, for reasons of the brevity of their business and scarcity of their marked items, are arguably more collectable than those retailed by Rosier. Indeed, he remains the most prolific of all the Melbourne marked firearms that continue to appear on the private market. Rosier retains, however, a justifiably central position in our understanding of the growth of the Melbourne gun trade during the second half of the nineteenth century.