Sunday, 20 April 2014

John O'Toole - Diving into Life

I have had paralysing anxiety about writing this, probably because I know a few people who fondly remember John O'Toole. So I am keenly feeling the responsibility that goes with this post. There is a responsibility with every post – make sure it is accurate and fair, well sourced, well written. I just am acutely aware this time.

John O'Toole was my great grandfather. He died before my mother was born, so hopefully this will shed some light on his life for her. If I make mistakes in this, or if you have extra recollections of John, please post a comment.

John O'Toole, c. 1927. Have a better or earlier photo? Please let me know.
 John was born in Chippen Street, Redfern on 22 June 1867. Mrs. Pike was the midwife in attendance. But beyond that I know very little about his early life. I know he went to school, but I don't know where. I know that when he was about three years old the family left Redfern and went back to Sydney proper, moving into 29 Clarence Lane1. The O'Tooles moved at least twice more within Sydney before relocating to Balmain in 1880. John's father died in Callan Park Hospital in 1882 when John was only 15, but for some reason John is left off the list of children on the death certificate and instead listed as his father's father2. The doctor responsible for filling in the death certificate got a little confused, it seems.

The death of Laurence had a lasting impact on the family. Everyone had to pull together, but they stayed afloat, thanks in no small part to William, Laurence and Archer, who were all working. John went to work as soon as he was able. He was a journalist at the Balmain Leader with his brother, Archer. He had an aptitude for numbers and kept the books for his brother, William. He also worked in O'Toole Bros. Tobacconists behind the counter as needed and went on to have a part share in the business. According to his son, Leslie's birth certificate, John was a clerk in 1901, although I don't know who for. Whatever he turned his hand to, he did to the best of his ability, be it journalist, clerk, accountant or tobacconist.

When it became known that Callan Park was to become a dedicated Mental Asylum, closing its doors to local medical patients, the people of Balmain began a campaign for the establishment of a cottage hospital. John became a subscriber and an active campaigner. I do wonder if this was partly motivated by his father's death in Callan Park. In March 1887, aged not quite 20, and two years after the hospital opened, he nominated for a position on the committee, but was unsuccessful. However, in 1888 John became an auditor for the committee, a position he held on and off for over a decade. The hospital is still in operation, in its original premises in Booth Street, Balmain.

The O'Toole boys were known for their service to their community and John was no exception. As well as his work for the Balmain Hospital, he was also a keen member of the Balmain Working Men's Institute and regularly served as an auditor for that organisation. He also held other positions, including vice-president in 19073. The Working Men's Institutes provided a place for working men to relax and to further their education. The education aspect was important as many had been purposefully locked out of education opportunities when younger. Wide-spread, free, secular education was just coming in, improving the lot for the children (a system of public education we now see being undermined). The Institutes filled the gap for the fathers at least. The Balmain Institute had in its purpose-built premises on Darling Street (built 1887) a 400-seat lecture theatre, a six-table billiard room (billiards was an important source of income), smoking rooms, card rooms, meeting rooms, class rooms, a large reading room and the largest library of the Sydney institutes, boasting 6540 books, against the 2000-2500 in each of the other four (Glebe, Leichhardt, Newtown and Rozelle). While many of the books were fiction, there were also “the standard works of contemporary Socialist thought”4. The lecture program also featured socialist speakers, supporters of workers' rights and the betterment of the working classes and supporters of the ideas of Charles Darwin and Thomas Huxley. The institute members as a whole were Protestant and mainly independent Protestant at that. Most members were also trade unionists or at the very least supporters of their brothers in the unions. Many were also members of the temperance movement and of fraternal lodges. The lecture theatre was also used for political rallies and suffragist meetings. As a member of the committee and then of the executive, John would have been in the thick of all this activity. I think it is fair to say he would have been left-leaning in his politics.

Balmain Working Men's Institute, Darling Street, Balmain. Photo by author.
John was also an active member of the Rechabites. The Rechabites were a Friendly Society and part of the temperance movement. Friendly Societies were first established in the late C18th to help working class people. Members paid in a nominal fee and the money was used to provide funds for health insurance, sickness benefits and death benefits. Many Friendly Societies met in public houses. The Rechabites were established in 1835 by a group of Manchester Methodists to counter what they saw as alcoholic threat to the income and health of Friendly Society members. The first branch in Australia was set up in 1843 and maintained a strong membership into the C20th. William, Larry and Archer O'Toole all had strong temperance ties and now John was following suit. I wonder if Laurence's drinking during his sea-going days had contributed to the family's aversion to alcohol.

Along with the Rechabites, John was a member of the International Order of Good Templars5, another temperance organisation. He belonged to the local branch “We Hope to Prosper No. 177”. The Good Templars was started in the United States in 1850 (it is now based in Sweden) and, while similar to the Masons in structure and regalia, had no gender or race restrictions, welcoming all equally. Think about that. The C19th and all races were welcomed equally. The C19th and women were welcomed on an equal footing with men. This was fairly radical. Whether everyone was TREATED equally I cannot say - culture is a very strong force.

There were two Johns O'Toole in Balmain, just as there were two Williams (and for the same reason). The one repeatedly mentioned in the newspaper court reports for obscene language, theft, drunk and disorderly and “riotous behaviour” is not my John O'Toole.

And then there was swimming. John was one of the founding members of the Balmain Swimming Club and also their founding Secretary. He served for three years, receiving an inscribed gold medal at the end of that time6. He was unanimously re-elected to the position in 18887 and served on and off for many years.The Club was formed in 1884 and is still going (Dawn Fraser was a member and did her training at the Balmain Baths). John was the club's distance diving champion (swimming underwater) and unofficially held the Australian record for a short time. Unfortunately, on the day of the official meet he was pipped by D. Landeyon. John swam 80 yards, but Landeyon managed 85 yards and 2 feet. However, the matter was not so straightforward, as the Sydney Morning Herald reported:

In the contest for the Distance Diving Championship, a mishap occurred that nearly proved fatal. D. Landeyon, of Newcastle, was diving, and had gone the length of the baths, when he came almost to the surface. It was then seen that he was exhausted, but notwithstanding he turned and made a start back. He had gone about half-way back when he turned towards the sand. At this time he appeared to be in difficulties, his head being still under water, but his feet were just above the surface. Messrs. R. Fergusson, J. O'Tool, [sic] and J. Trelevan immediately jumped in and helped him out. Landeyon was then speechless, but on recovering somewhat he explained that he was so exhausted that he was unable to lift his head out of the water to get air, and in reality was drowning.8

This incident was reported in papers across the colony and even as far as New Zealand.

Balmain Swimming Club meet 1902 from "1884-1984 Celebrating a Centenary - Balmain Swimming Club"
Balmain Swimming Club, as well as having the standard races and the distance diving, also had novelty events at their swim meets, such as Diving for Saucers. The idea was to dive down and retrieve as many objects as you could before you had to come to the surface. The Balmain Baths is an ocean baths. The water is not clear, there is seaweed, so it is not like diving for objects at your local council pool. John frequently took the honours in this, which is not surprising, given how long he could hold his breath. He also regularly won prizes in other races and events, as did his younger brothers. The club prizes were usually items donated by local businesses or people “of note”, and included things such as lamps, biscuit barrels, silver platters. On one occasion John won a microscope9.

I visited the Club archives, hoping to find a photo of John from those early years. There were photos of the rest of the executive, but none of him. When I asked why this was I was told that some years previously a number of photographs and documents were stolen from the archive, including every photo of John. If the person who did this ever reads this post, I ask you to quietly return them to the archive so that EVERYONE can enjoy them. They are club property and should be where they really belong – in the Balmain Swimming Club archive.

One of the many lovely things about genealogy research is the surprises one often gets. While going through my records to check some references for this post, I came across something I had not taken in before. As well as his involvement with the Balmain Swimming Club, John was also a founding member of the NSW Swimming Association. He was the pro tem secretary until the first formal meeting to form the association10 and was then a member of the committee11.

I know John loved singing. I know he loved playing the piano. I don't know if he had lessons or was one of those lucky freakish people who can just sit down and play. But he was well known for his ability and his fine voice. Whenever there were social nights for the Rechabites, or the Working Men's Institute, the Balmain Swimming Club or the Templars, John featured on the list of entertainments and was reviewed in the Sydney Morning Herald and the Balmain Observer with words of high praise. It got to the point where his performances were being used, along with those of some other members, as incentive to the public to attend12. He was also known as a lively MC. There are family stories (which I have only heard in the last year since I got in touch with Mum's cousins) of John playing the piano and singing at home, and the house and street filling with those who had come to listen. His favourite song was “The Holy City”, which was written in 1892.

One of my favourite clippings only mentions John in passing, but it has to be loved:

The Balmain Observer, 8 April 1887, page 5, column 3. From Trove
“General friskiness”. Just beautiful.

So there was John, very active in the community, very civic minded, very busy. And then a lot of his activity stopped. Why? Very simple. He got married. But that is a story for another day.

1City of Sydney, "City Assessment Books 1845-1948," database, City of Sydney Archives ( : accessed 26 Feb 2013), entry for Laurence O'Toole Rates assessment 1871; Citing City of Sydney Assessment book CSA 027334.
2New South Wales Department of Attorney General and Justice NSW, death certificate 1882/002774 (1882), Laurence O'Toole; NSW Registry of Births Deaths and Marriages, Chippendale.
3"Balmain Workingmen's Institute Visit to Newtown," The Balmain Observer, 28 Sep 1907, p. 3, col. 3, 4; digital images, Trove ( : accessed 6 mar 2014), Digitised newspapers and more.
4Morris Roger K, PhD “Working Class Learning One Hundred Years Ago: Workingmen's Institutes in Inner City Sydney”, Paper presented at the Midwest Research-to-Practice Conference in Adult, Continuing and Community Education, University of Missouri-St. Louis, 2006, p4
5"We Hope to Prosper, No. 177," The Balmain Observer, 17 Aug 1889, p. 6, col. 3; digital images, Trove ( : accessed 6 Mar 2014), Digitised newspapers and more.
6"Sporting” The Balmain Observer, 12 Nov 1887, p. 3, col. 2; digital images, Trove ( : accessed 17 Apr 2014), Digitised newspapers and more.
7"Balmain Swimming Club" The Balmain Observer, 14 Apr 1888, p. 5, col. 3; digital images, Trove ( : accessed 17 Apr 2014), Digitised newspapers and more.
8"Balmain Swimming Club" The Sydney Morning Herald, 15 Apr 1889, p. 5, col. 6; digital images, Trove ( : accessed 6 Feb 2012), Digitised newspapers and more.
9"Balmain Swimming Club Races" Australian Town and Country Journal, 23 Jan 1886, p. 40, col. 2; digital images, Trove ( : accessed 6 Feb 2012), Digitised newspapers and more.
10"Meetings" The Sydney Morning Herald, 22 Sep 1887, p. 14, col. 2; digital images, Trove ( : accessed 27 Aug 2012), Digitised newspapers and more.
11"Swimming" The Sydney Morning Herald, 27 Sep 1887, p. 5, col. 5; digital images, Trove ( : accessed 27 Aug 2012), Digitised newspapers and more.
12"Current Items" The Balmain Observer, 30 Jun 1888, p. 4, col. 4; digital images, Trove ( : accessed 6 Feb 2012), Digitised newspapers and more.


  1. Megan. The R.(Ronald) Fergusson mentioned is my great grandfathers brother. My great great grandfather was James Allan Fergusson lessee of the Balmain Baths. Thanks for sharing your story

    1. Wow. Thank you for sharing our ancestors' connection :)