Joseph Wilson Chisholm (1831-1915)


joseph wilson chisholm 1831-1915

Photo of Joseph Wilson Chisholm. Copied from “Chisholm Cameo” written and researched by Audrey Barney. Published 2004.


Many thanks to Audrey Barney for her book the Chisholm Cameos: Joseph Wilson Chishom’s Yorkshire Ancestors and New Zealand Descendants (2004). I have drawn on her research and writing to put together this page on Joseph Wilson Chisholm.

Daniel Chisholm was a collier working in the South Yorkshire coalfields, probably the Coal Pit Lane mine close to the village of Cumberworth, in Sheffield where they lived. His wife, Sarah (nee Wilson) suffered the loss of their first child in March 1830. A baby girl named Hannah, who was just two months old when she died.

It must have been with great joy that they welcomed the arrival of their next child, Joseph Wilson Chisholm on 21 March 1831 (England Births and Christenings, 1538-1975).



Being staunch Methodists, Joseph was baptised two weeks later on 6 April 1831 at Denby Dale Methodist Chapel.

denby dale

Denby Dale Methodist Chapel

In 1835, when Joseph was barely four years of age, the family moved east to the coal mining village of Darton. By May 1838, when Joseph was seven, his father left the coal mining industry and the family moved to Attercliffe, a suburb of Sheffield  where his father worked as a refiner (birth certificate of daughter Martha, born May 1838). This decision was fortunate for Joseph as children as young as seven were sent to work in the coal mines with terrible consequences. Just two months after the record of their move, in July 1838, a violent summer storm hit and twenty six children were drowned attempting to make their escape from the underground coal workings called the Husker Pit. The children were aged between 7 and 17 and the majority had come from an area close to where the Chisholms had lived. (Alan Gallop,”Children of the Dark: Life and Death Underground in Victoria’s England” Sutton Publishing, 2003).

As the ability to read and understand the Bible was such an important part of the Methodist religion Joseph would have learnt to read and write at a young age. As well as attending the Sunday School attached to Zion Congregational Church in Attercliffe, it is likely that he also attended a grammar school which would have provided a narrow but thorough education.  Exact punctuality was one of the local Grammar School’s rule and there is a record of the students from Attercliffe being reprimanded for their tardiness around the time that Joseph would have attended.

“Four or five boys who came from Attercliffe, generally arrived in a group, had fallen into the habit at one time of being rather late. ‘Here come the Attercliffians’, was their sarcastic greeting from the head master one morning, and the delinquents were cured.” (Reminiscences of Old Sheffield: Its streets and its people. Robert Eadon Leader, Editor. Sheffield. 1875)

Aware of the less than favourable conditions of those working in the smelting industry, Joseph’s father arranged for his son to commence an apprenticeship as a tailor. No indenture documents have been found but the 1841 census confirms this information. The usual term for such an apprenticeship was seven years and I am sure that Joseph’s father felt he was giving his son a better opportunity in life. Joseph’s master was David Chapman, a young married man in his thirties who was in business in Church Street, Attercliffe. He employed three men in his tailoring business along with a servant for this wife. Joseph lived with the Chapman family during this period with his life revolving around his tailoring apprenticeship, his family and his church.

The tailoring trade was organized like the other ancient trade guilds, David Chapman, the master tailor and owner, with the journeymen and apprentices acting under his instruction. As Attercliffe was an industrial suburb it is most likely that the business catered to the lower classes rather than the nobility and gentry. The Chartist author Charles Kingsley, in his novel ‘Alton Locke’ (1850) described the terrible conditions experienced by those employed in such a tailor’s workshop:

I stumbled after Mr. Jones up a dark, narrow, iron staircase till we emerged through a trap-door into a garret at the top of the house. I recoiled with disgust at the scene before me; and here I was to work – perhaps through life! A low lean-to room, stifling me with the combined odours of human breath and perspiration, stale beer, the sweet sickly smell of gin, and the sour and hardly less disgusting one of new cloth. On the floor, thick with dust and dirt, scraps of stuff and ends of thread, sat some dozen haggard, untidy, shoeless men, with a mingled look of care and recklessness that made me shudder. The windows were tight closed to keep out the cold winter air; and the condensed breath ran in streams down the panes, chequering the dreary outlook of chimney-tops and smoke.”

Hopefully, Joseph’s master, David Chapman, was an honourable man and Joseph did not have to endure the poor conditions and misery experienced by so many of the workers in this industry. ‘Alton Locke’, particularly the chapter entitled: ‘How Folks Turn Chartists’, goes into much greater detail than this on the privations of the tailors in the 1840’s for those who might be interested in learning more. Rather than the conditions discribed by Kingsley it is hoped that the tailor shop resembled something closer to the image from the 1880’s below:


Tailor. Lithograph from the Library of Congress, Washington

Once he entered his apprenticeship Joseph was to go through one of the most difficult periods in his life with a series of deaths in the family between 1845 and 1850. Joseph’s mother died following the birth and subsequent death of her baby, Daniel, in 1846. She had also lost a baby, 12 months prior to this. About twelve months after the death of his first wife his father married Ann Bradshaw.  Two years later, in early May 1850 his sixteen year old sister, Sarah died after being ill with tuberculosis for a year and his stepmother, Ann and infant half sister Eliza also died within four days of his sister’s death. With four children aged between 15 and 1 year old it is not surprising his father quickly remarried again that same year to Martha Wilson (possibly a relative of his first wife).

sheffield smokeSheffield was not a healthy place to live. Daniel Defoe writing in the 18th Century described the town as “very populous and large, the streets narrow, and the houses dark and black, occasioned by the continued smoke of the forges, which are always at work”. (Defoe, D. A tour thro’the whole island of Great Britain).  With industry increasing in the area the smoke and pollution by the mid 1800s could only have been much worse.

These conditions may have been the catalyst for Joseph leaving Sheffield so soon after finishing his tailoring apprenticeship. Early in 1852, shortly after his 21st birthday he left Attercliffe for Liverpool to undertake a voyage on the “Lady Head” arriving in Port Phillip Bay at Melbourne in Australia in August 1852. (Unassisted passenger lists  (1852-1923) Record Series Number (VPRS): 947). It took 83 days and the conditions on board were cramped.   He was registered as a tailor on the ship’s passenger list. There were 240 single male passengers and 19 single women on board, all paying passengers. With such a large contingent of young single men, sailing so soon after the discovery of gold, the reason for their migration is fairly clear.

If he was eager to seek his fortune on the gold fields of Australia, like most of the passengers he would have only found disappointment and deprivation.  When the ship disgorged its passengers they discovered that the town was bursting at the seams with people caught up in the frenzy of the gold rush. Food prices were grossly inflated. The streets of the town had been reduced to quagmires. Shelter was scant and many were left to sleep in the street in driving rains.

canvas town

Canvas Town, South Melbourne. Keynon, A.H. Circa 1852. State Library of Victoria

It does not appear that Joseph struck it rich once he arrived in the goldfields. Not surprisingly given the conditions that confronted him, Australia did not appear to be to his liking. He considered his options and boarded another ship travelling to Wellington from Melbourne just fifteen months after arriving in Australia. (List of Pioneers Wellington Public Library 2000).

With no friends or family in Wellington Joseph joined the Manners Street Wesleyan Methodist Church quickly becoming a staunch member of the church, working hard in its development and making friends within the church community. He also saw his arrival in a new land as a chance to change direction and left his profession as a tailor to enter the building industry.  Many of his fellow church members were builders and with the demand for construction workers he decided to join them.

In January 1855, a massive earthquake (at 8.5 magnitude the largest recorded in New Zealand) hit Welllington. Movement on a fault in Palliser Bay caused the earthquake, which began at 9.11 p.m. and lasted for 50 seconds. It lifted the southern end of the Rimutaka Range by a staggering 6 m. About 10 minutes after the main shock, a 4-m-high tsunami entered Wellington Harbour, sending water surging back and forth and flooding Lambton Quay. Several buildings collapsed, including the two-storey council chambers and adjoining government offices. Most single-storey wooden buildings survived, despite damage caused by falling brick chimneys and shifting foundations. (NZ History.

As shocking as this event must have been with Joseph arriving only a few months beforehand it meant that his decision to enter the building industry was to provide him with a ready job and income.

cuba street

Photo taken from”Evening Post”

By 1858 he had moved into a house in Upper Cuba Street on the outskirts of the town and within a short walking distance to the Methodist church and close to friends he had made through the church.

Two years later when Joseph was 28, he married Elizabeth Gell, who lived just across the street. Their marriage was held in Joseph’s home on 20 March 1860 with the Reverend James Buller Officiating, and Elizabeth’s father John Gell and her brother Edward as witnesses.  In taking Elizabeth as his wife he had found a woman who like him had a strong Yorkshire background, had been brought up within a devout family and shared a commitment to the Wesleyan Methodist Church. His first son John Arthur Daniel Chisholm was born on 3 January 1861, followed in 1862 by Walter Edward Chisholm in 1862, Frederick James Chisholm, in 1864 and a daughter Annie Elizabeth in 1866 (Chisholm Cameos).

Joseph’s commitment to the Wesleyan church remained strong, and as well as attending quarterly circuit meeting, he was a lay preacher, riding out by horse on a Sunday to preach to distant congregations. The Circuit Minutes don’t indicate where he preached, but their financial report for the 1864 year showed that he was paid 40/- during that year to hire horses (Wellington Methodist Circuit Quarterly Minute books 1862 – 1877).


In 1864 he was working as a carpenter for his father-in -law, John Gell. His skills would have been respected by John Gell as he had made him foreman of a building project for the council and it is recorded in the local paper that he had appeared in court in January 1865 as a witness for his father-in-law. As foreman on the site he gave evidence to changes to the specifications required by the client and subsequent need to increase charges.
He commenced working as an independent builder around the same time and he is identified as having been contracted to construct the Market Hall in Cuba Street, Wellington (NZ Spectator and Cooks Strait Guardian, 14 Jan 1865, Pg 2)Market Hall

market hall 1

On completion of the building the Wellington  Independant (18 March 1865) covered the opening of the new market including comments made regarding the builder

Unfortunately, probably due to a loss on the construction of the Market Hall, Joseph was declared bankrupt in 1865. His father in law, John Gell, came to his aid and was appointed trustee/administrator in October 1865 (Wellington Independent, 26 October 1867, Pg 5). At this stage Joseph had moved his family to Johnsonville, in the developing area of Porirua where he leased a farm. With four young children and his wife heavily pregnant this could not have been an easy decision but it did work out to be good decision. Not long after their arrival another son Alfred Wilson was born in 1867. The family thrived with two more children born into the family during their time here, Horace in 1869 and Edith Martha in 1871.

In May 1872 the family moved back to Wellington, renting a house in Hopper Street, owned by his father-in law (Wellington Rate books for 1872-74). Joseph continued to work as a builder setting up his premises in Willis Street (Electoral roll 1874-75). His bankruptcy was discharged in October 1872 (Evening Post, 23 Oct 1872, Page 2). It was here that Joseph’s eighth child, George Stanley was born in 1873.

When the family moved again in 1875 to Wanganui, Joseph continued to work as a carpenter and had bought a house in Plymouth Street, where two more children were born, Beatrice Mary in 1875 and Leonard Gell in 1878.

Within a year of their arrival Joseph bought acreage that was to become their new home, naming the farm “Ferndale”. It was here their youngest daughter Florence Harriet was born in 1880.

Unfortunately the family’s financial situation did not improve. New Zealand was hit by a long depression starting in the late 1870s and continuing for a decade. Land and commodity prices slumped, causing widespread unemployment, high debt levels and destitution among the working classes. An item in the Wanganui Herald (5 Jan 1881, page 2) highlights the difficulties that Joseph was experiencing:


Joseph’s three oldest sons moved into the workforce, Arthur apprenticed to a jeweller and watchmaker, Walter to the Post and Telegraph Office, followed not long after by Frederick and then Alfred. Joseph had to leave his family to find work in Manaia, probably building wooden blockhouses and a watchtower. The watchtower was built in 1880 in conjunction with the Manaia Redoubt that was built on an old pa site, Te Takahe. The watchtower and redoubt were built to deal with the growing concern over Maori passive resistence leader, Te Whiti and his followers.


“Right Troop, Alexandra Cavalry, Manaia Redoubt” Museum of New Zealand.

It may have been that Joseph decided it was not safe to remain in Wanganui or they wanted to be nearer to their sons who were now in Wellington or he may not have been able to find enough work in the area to support his family. The family returned to Wellington in early 1882.  Initially the family lived in various locations until Joseph moved the family to a house in Tasman Street (Wellington Rate book 1886-1892). Joseph built a new home for the family in Hankey Street with the family moving in late in 1892 (Oral history from Chisholm Cameos page 41). This was to be the longest residence of their married life.

Joseph and Elizabeth’s eleven children all grew to adulthood, all married and all had children, a significant achievement in itself in the Victorian era. In 1909 with the family grown and moved away from their home Joseph and Elizabeth moved to Pitarua Street  in Thorndon. Joseph was 78 and his wife Elizabeth 70. In June 1915 Elizabeth died unexpectedly leaving Joseph heartbroken. He was staying temporarily with his son following her death and he died just as unexpectedly nine days later.

Joseph chisholm

The photo at left is of Joseph in his garden.

At the ending of Joseph’s story, in the Chisholm Cameos, family members spoke of Joseph as a “gentle loving grandfather” and “a steady, pious, kindly, gentle man” I can only say that my research has reinforced this image of him and I am proud to have had such a wonderful ancestor.