James Coffey: Railwayman

Memorial on the Coffey family grave at Cheltenham, 2021.

1 James Coffey, who was born in Melbourne on 15 June 1842, joined the Victorian Railways at 35 years of age in 1877 and served as a railwayman in several locations in Victoria. Prior to joining the railways, he worked in several mining locations surrounding and beyond Ballarat. His final appointment in the railways was to Mentone where he served for nine years.

As a young boy James lived with his parents in Melbourne opposite one of the first gold buyers when gold was about £2‐10‐0 or £2‐12‐6 per ounce. He recalled the gold ore was cleaned very crudely, and the dust and debris were swept out onto the footpath. He and his mates would gather and ‘get down on all fours to search and gather scaly specks of gold amongst the dust.’ His first paid work was in 1847 at Jennings cordial factory in McKillop Street Melbourne corking bottles. He was five years old. 2  Little time to attend school!

By the age of ten he was both fatherless and motherless. His father went to the diggings and disappeared and possibly died.3  His mother was broken hearted and died leaving her family orphans. At first Mrs Gloster, a friend, cared from them but with the responsibility of her own family could not continue. Being unprovided for, the Coffey children were cared for by a series of guardians. In the early 1850s James and his brother Jack were admitted to the Melbourne Benevolent Asylum.

James said he and Jack were

fairly happy and settled down to the new life ‐ we were on good terms with the female attendants and servants owing to our running about and doing many little things for them. 4

James left the asylum to work for Penders but being mistreated escaped to Prahran walking across country to avoid running into his former employer. He walked from Darebin Creek to Princes Bridge, crossed the Yarra and then on to the canvas town of Prahran and subsequently Gardiners Creek (Hawthorn). There he lived with several families working for his board and keep.5

Joining a gold-fields party to the diggings in Maryborough James fossicked about and got a bit of gold for his effort. It was there he worked at a ten-pin bowling alley, pin sticking, which was hard work for a small boy. James wrote in his reminiscences that the early diggings were characterised by nothing but drinking, fighting and robbing.6  He next worked as a stable boy in Ballarat followed by a spell working in a hotel at Fiery Creek lpar;near Streatham) which he described as a den of thieves. Yet despite this situation agreed that he was well treated personally, even by people who were clearly criminals.7

Moving to Ararat he again worked in a hotel and dance hall. It was there that a customer was robbed of his watch. James recalled that the alarm was given, and some person was tactful enough to block the door and have all present searched. The result of the search?

The watch was found in my coat pocket. Everyone exonerated "Jimmy" on the grounds not being smart enough. … Somebody cleverly escaped by using my pocket.8

St James’s Church and School, Little Bendigo, Ballarat c1868


Back in the Maryborough district James was generally engaged in hotels, boarding houses, concert halls or theatres. On his return to Ballarat he boarded with Mrs Whitaker and became romantically attached to her eldest daughter, Adelaide Sophia Whitaker, who was two years younger than James. They married at St James Church, Little Bendigo/Nerrina on 6 August 1868.

James recalls the church,

was first lighted for services by myself with kero lamps from Conways big rooms …the lamps were fixed by myself… and record re the Old Church, the first marriage in the church was between me and my dear old wife.9

While living in Little Bendigo James worked at Speedwell Hotel as a storeman and barman.

Eight children were born to Adelaide and James

Name Birth Registered at
William James Coffey 1869 Ballarat East
Victoria Georgeanna 1871 Melbourne
Christopher Gloster 1873 Bungaree
Elizabeth Sophia 1875 Bungaree
Frederick Joseph 1877 Bungaree
Adelaide Frances 1879 Bungaree
Albert John 1882 Bungaree
George 1885 Grassdale

At Speedwell Hotel James was paid twenty-five shillings a week plus keep, for working very long hours. With an expanding family to keep prospects were not great, so he went back to working in the mines. A local politician suggested James should join the railways but later failed to support his application. James was turned down. However, he received a position as a ‘casual hand’ after renewing his application but was seen to be too old, lacking in railway experience and with poor penmanship so was rejected for a permanent position.

After an interview in Melbourne in 1877 he was told to report to the foreman of the lamp room and paid six shillings a day. This he saw as ‘big pay’. He boarded in Carlton while his wife lived with the children in Ballarat. Then followed nine months in the lamp room at Gisborne before transfer to Ballarat where he remained for six years, first as a platform porter and then as a parcel porter. On leaving Ballarat on 31 May 1884 to take up a promotion to station master at Grassdale he was presented with a gold locket and chain by his colleagues. Grassdale was a new station and the accommodation was in portable buildings.

While at Grassdale it was reported in the Hamilton Spectator that Adelaide Frances, James' sixth child had died of diphtheria, a highly contagious childhood disease and one that generated concern in communities where it occurred.10  She was 7 years and 6 months of age and was buried at the Digby cemetery. James objected to the inaccuracy of the newspaper report of the child's death. He wrote a letter to the editor of the paper pointing out that the correspondent was

led astray by Dame Rumour.… my poor girl dies, but not from diphtheria … I can most positively assert that none of those who saw her either before or after death would say that she showed the least sign of symptoms of diphtheria. She peacefully passed to her long sleep not a struggle or a choking symptom as in diphtheria, nothing offensive from her breath, she died with a most beautiful expression on her countenance.11

After a little over four years stay in Grassdale, James was farewelled by eighty plus members of the small community at the State School on a night of inclement weather - a measure of the regard in which James was held.12  He was presented with a beautifully chased silver tea and coffee service described as a magnificent specimen of the silversmith's art. In the speeches by local officials prior to the delivery of the gifts, reference was made to James's willingness to contribute to all social movements and his valuable assistance in establishing the Grassdale Sunday School.

Taking up his promotion position at Henty in Western Victoria in July 1888 James found himself earning the best pay he received while a railways employee. In 1893 he was paid £42 for conducting the post office and telegraph service, gates £18, and sanitary £9 p.a. plus £146 p.a. railway pay. While at Henty, James called upon the agricultural community to donate sheep to the distressed poor of Melbourne. He arranged the transfer of the sheep at a time when banks and other businesses were going into liquidation with the economic recession. (James personally had his ‘nest egg’ locked up in the Colonial Bank at Merino.) This charitable action gained him some prominence in the railway service and his career boomed.13

In 1893 he was promoted to the very desirable charge of Mentone station, ‘a busy and beautiful place on the Frankston coast’14  With the promotion, the salary was more than he received at Henty but without extras it failed to reach the total of the Henty wage. He wrote that the start at Mentone was not as smooth as he wished because the expectations of the heads of department were excessive and harsh.15  Yet, after some years at Mentone he received his ‘gold band’ which involved a promotion to the salaried staff. He was pleased with the small increase in pay, but particularly proud of the increased status and privileges gained. Unlike earlier years, he was now entitled to sick pay and other entitlements.16

Image: Mentone Station Aerial view of Mentone Railway Station c1910 Courtesy: Mordialloc and District Historical Society James had planned to retire on reaching 60 years of age and twenty-five years of service but this proposal was not accepted by railway authorities. They requested James to work for another year. Notwithstanding their wishes he ultimately implemented his plan. During his time at Mentone he was proud of his team's unblemished and accident free success. This was achieved despite the large number of people who used the station: sixty to seventy thousand locals annually, ten race meetings bringing nearly 20,000 people annually, and picnics attended by 100,000 a year. James was concerned not to blot this unblemished record. In addition, he realised promotion opportunities after 60 years of age were a rarity.

To mark his retirement from the Mentone Station and the railways a ‘Smoke Night’ was organised at the Mentone Hotel. A musical program on the night included a ventriloquist, an imitator of well-known actors, recitations as well as contributions by notable locals. This was followed by splendid refreshments catered for by Frank Scudds, the publican at the Mentone Hotel. During the speeches James's good qualities as a private citizen, his tact and trustworthiness were acknowledged. In his response to the praise offered James asked the audience to excuse a little egotism as he disliked ‘blowing his own trumpet’. A voice exclaimed, ‘You never blow yours’ to which James received loud cheers when he responded, ‘I must have once, or I wouldn't be married.’ James was presented with two handsome gifts in recognition of his service; a liquor stand and a marble clock inscribed:

Presented to James Coffey by the residents of Mentone as a token of their esteem and regard, on his retiring from the railway service. 24 October 1902. 17

Back in 1888 prior to his retirement James had purchased an allotment of land in Barkley Street (later renamed Rogers Street’. Three years later, on 19 September 1891 he added an adjoining substantial brick property on 11 Como Parade East, purchased from Mrs E. Ward for £325. About £100 was spent on alterations and improvements. At the time of purchase, properties in Mentone were cheap due to the 1890s financial crash, failure of banks, and the forced closure of many housing loans thus creating a glut on the housing market. The house was named ‘Nerridale’. Before the Coffey family occupancy in 1902 it was leased to a tenant because as a station master he was provided with a railway house.

James had a very successful life. An attribute of this success was his ability to learn from life experiences in mining, hotels, dance halls, and various railway positions, and apply them in new situations. With little formal education he taught himself to write, organise his thoughts and gain certification for mastering technical equipment associated with communication. He recognised the importance of education and he and his wife saw that their sons attended school. The two younger boys, Albert and George completed Merit Certificate at Cheltenham State School before undertaking careers in finance. Their older brothers also followed that career path becoming bank managers with the Bank of Adelaide and the E.S.& A. Bank.

While James was conscious of his lack of formal education he did not shirk writing to editors of newspapers to express a concern or promote a cause. As mentioned when his daughter died at Grassdale a reporter of the Hamilton Spectator incorrectly attributed her death to diphtheria. This ‘false rumour’ James quickly corrected.18  Some years later while retired James wrote to the editor of The Argus seeking support for the construction of a memorial on the Casterton Road to honour the contribution of the Henty family as Western District pioneers.19  A more substantial and demanding piece of writing occurred in 1914 when James commenced a hand-written record of his life to give to his children. This was a compilation of 17,000 words by a man who claimed to be a ‘poor penmanrsquo;.20

An unusual action during his retirement was the promotion of indigestion pills in a host of Australian newspapers. The small paragraph noted the benefit of Chamberlain's tablets:

’I was for many years with the Victorian Railways, but am now retired. In the rush of work one is apt to neglect oneself and fly to all sorts of alleged remedies. In Chamberlain's Tablets I have found the best remedy I have ever tried’ Sold by all chemists and Storekeepers. 21

On 6 August 1928, Adelaide and James celebrated their diamond wedding anniversary. At the time it was recorded they had four sons, two daughters, fifteen grandchildren and four great-grand-children.22  Most of their family joined them for the special occasion.

It was only two months after reaching sixty years of marriage that James Coffey died. This occurred on 28 October 1928 at Merlswood, a small private hospital, at 40 Moorabbin Road, Mentone (later renamed Warrigal Road). He was in his eighty seventh year and it was twenty six years since he had retired from the railways.23  For several months prior to his death he had been suffering from exhaustion.24  James was buried privately at the Cheltenham Pioneer Cemetery. His wife, Adelaide Sophia died 29 September 1930 at her residence in Mentone aged 85 years.25  She was buried with James at the Cheltenham cemetery.26

  • 1. Assistance of Ewan Coffey is gratefully acknowledged.
  • 2. Coffey, J. Reminiscences, June 1914.
  • 3. Ewan Coffey commented: ‘A newspaper at the time reported a body was found on Mt Buninyong Road. Family lore held that this was probably him.’
  • 4. Coffey, J. Reminiscences, June 1914, page 5.
  • 5. Coffey, J. Reminiscences, June 1914, page 7.
  • 6. Coffey, J. Reminiscences, June 1914.
  • 7. Coffey, J. Reminiscences, June 1914, page 12.
  • 8. Coffey, J. Reminiscences, June 1914.
  • 9. Coffey, J. Reminiscences, June 1914.
  • 10. Hamilton Spectator, 21 March 1887 page 3.
  • 11. Hamilton Spectator, 21 March 1887 page 3.
  • 12. Portland Guardian, 27 July 1888, page 4. The gift is still held and valued by descendants.
  • 13. Coffey, J. Reminiscences, June 1914.
  • 14. Hamilton Spectator, 2 December 1893, page 3.
  • 15. Coffey, J., Reminiscences, June 1914.
  • 16. Brighton Southern Cross, 1 November 1902.
  • 17. Brighton Southern Cross, 1 November 1902.
  • 18. Hamilton Spectator, 31 March 1887.
  • 19. The Argus, 4 March 1925, page 9.
  • 20. Coffey, J., Reminiscences, June 1914.
  • 21. Warwick Examiner and Times (Qld), May 1912.
  • 22. The Register, Adelaide, 23 October, 1928. Two children had died prior to this event – Adelaide France 21 March 1887 and Christopher Gloster 30 November 1921.
  • 23. The Age, 24 October 1928.
  • 24. Death Certificate, Cause of death noted as Epithelsism of lip, Taxsomia and exhaustion for several months.
  • 25. Register News Pictorial, 30 September 1930 page 7.
  • 26. Cheltenham Cemetery Records. Church of England, Section 50, Grave 3.
18 June 2021
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