The colourful character who helped build Heathcote

January 12, 2024 BY

Poor construction: James Crowle’s 1863 courthouse and shire hall. Photos: FILE

JAMES Crowle was a prominent nineteenth century Heathcote identity and his exploits featured regularly in the pages of the McIvor Times and its predecessors.

Born in 1831 in Cornwall, England, he emigrated to Australia in the late 1840s with his father and siblings after the death of his mother in 1846.

He was variously a builder, storekeeper, undertaker and local politician, and was responsible for the erection of many of Heathcote’s public buildings.

In 1853 Crowle, along with his brothers, was awarded the contract for the government camp at the new McIvor diggings.

However, he soon gained notoriety for poor workmanship and slapdash shortcuts as the structures were was so poor that repairs totalling £200 were needed by 1857, and in 1860 the original courthouse also required a £100 patch up.

Crowle’s 1860 post office was a leaky wooden building which lasted only a few years.

In spite of this track record, he managed to win the tender for the 1863 courthouse and council building which still stands at 123-125 High Street.

Substandard construction and materials resulted in significant issues, many of which continue to be a problem to this day.

The conflict between Crowle and the Clerk of Works, a Mr Orr, played out in the pages of the McIvor Times and the McIvor News with allegations and aspersions bouncing back and forth between the two men.

Crowle maintained Orr was acting entirely in self-interest.

“Mr Orr gets £4 10s per week; and…every delay he has caused, or may cause, prolongs that nice little sinecure,” he wrote in July 1863.

Orr had also been notably unimpressed by the quality of Crowle’s previous work and had claimed that the foundations of the 1859 Masonic Hall needed to be bolted together.

The McIvor Times supported Crowle throughout this incident, but by 1866 the relationship had soured.

Crowle had been accused of misconduct on several issues and had begun a campaign of blustering self-defence.

A July editorial was succinct in its view of the matter.

“We are glad to see Mr Crowle in the character of a correspondent, we shall not in the slightest degree limit the supply of rope, and he is at perfect liberty to make good the old proverb,” McIvor Times read.

But Crowle’s actions did not stop him being elected to the Heathcote Borough Council in 1867, and he was in and out of office for many years with three stints as mayor between 1878 and 1890.

He was also on a number of local boards including those of the hospital and the Mechanic’s Institute.

In 1868 he was outraged when the hospital committee awarded a contract for funerals to a rival tender whose price was slightly higher than his.

It had based its decision on an 1860 resolution that Crowle would not be awarded any further tenders after he had previously provided substandard goods.

Various extracts from the minute books were reproduced on 10 July 1868 in the McIvor Times, including the key item that had led to the original motion to exclude Crowle.

“September 18th, 1860… The committee’s attention having been called to the mattresses stuffed with chips, shavings, straw and rubbish, instead of coir, the committee felt it their duty to condemn the mattresses and return them on the contractor’s hand,” the minutes noted.

And from 25 September 1860, “that all the mattresses and palliasses but those that had been used, be returned to Mr Crowle, and that the secretary be instructed to express the indignation the committee feel at his impudent attempt at fraud.”

However, it was a letter from “Observer” in the same edition that pushed Crowle to the limit.

“The whole matter appears to me to resolve itself into a simple question-were the committee justified in the course taken?” said the letter writer.

“I for one, say they were, and for this reason, that whereas it is pretty generally now known in Heathcote that Messrs Ford and McDonald always make their coffins of good, new, sound wood, and also that Mr Crowle does not, his being sometimes made partly of new wood and the bottoms (at all events) of pieces of old boxes, and when covered over with a slight gauze, is not noticed.

“For this reason, sir, I think the committee did right, they knew from past experience, that Mr Ford would carry out his tender in its integrity, and considered it doubtful if Mr Crowle would.”

Crowle served a Supreme Court writ for £500 on the McIvor Times printer, Robert Foyster, claiming that the allegations in the letter had hurt his business.

The case dragged on for over a year but Crowle’s claims were not upheld and his actions were ultimately self-defeating.

A pithy editorial summed up the situation eloquently.

“Mr Crowle, like a baffled scorpion, stings himself in the absence of a more eligible enemy… proverbially sweet revenge made sour by excess.”

But despite Crowle’s ongoing capacity to seek out confrontation, he managed to maintain a number of successful local businesses until his death in 1905 at the age of 74.

His estate was worth a total of £4609 with real estate to the value of £3824 which included the Federal Hall at 61 High Street, his own store and many other residential buildings.

James Crowle was spruiking cures for diphtheria in this 1874 advertisement.