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Henry Knight
Brickmaker of Macdonaldtown,
1840s - 1880s.
(July 2003)


The right of Bruce Baskerville to be identified as the moral rights author of this work is hereby asserted in accordance with the Copyright Amendment (Moral Rights) Act 2000 of the Commonwealth of Australia.

When Henry Knight died at his home Camberwell House in Erskineville in 1887, he was surrounded by the fruits of his labours; and when he was buried a few days later in the churchyard at St Peter's Cooks River he remained in the shadow of his work. Today Henry Knight's legacy, although diminished, remains a part of the cultural landscape of South Sydney although the man is almost forgotten.

Henry Knight and his wife Elizabeth arrived in New South Wales as transportation was coming to end in the early 1840s. In the 1841 census Henry and Elizabeth were living in a brick cottage with two young daughters and a servant girl at Kings Clear (a locality on the boundary Erskineville and Alexandria). Henry was operating a dairy and garden, employing several free men. The Kings Clear district was known at that time for its gardens and dairies, and also for a few new brickyards as the evicted brickmakers from Brickfield Hill began seeking clays and timber to continue their businesses, and Henry soon turned to the brickmaking and building business.

Henry Knight purchased three large allotments in Rochfordıs 'McDonald Town' township, south of Kings Clear, in 1846, a few years after he had established a brickworks near the site. The lots formed a single property bounded by new streets such as Knight and Rochford streets - there were several buildings - very nice cottages on one lot, a steam mill on another, and beautiful sites for villa residences on the third. Sale advertisements were aimed at the mechanics and industrious classes, and noted the presence of a private road, independent of Rochford Street to access some of Knight's allotments. They also noted the availability of Knightıs superior bricks, just at hand, convenient for labour and materials.

Knights brickyard was one of anly a few then operating in Sydney - in 1839 there were 26 private brickmakers, but only 5 by 1855 after a decade of depression and then gold rushes far from Sydney. Knight however prospered, continuing to make bricks and construct buildings, including supplying bricks for Lyons Terrace at the end of Hyde Park, and for St Peter's Church of England on the Cooks River Road . He and Elizabeth had six children between 1842 and 1859, and remained living in Macdonaldtown, continuing to build and rent or sell cottages and terraces in the Macdonaldtown, Newtown and Erskineville areas. In this way the slow but steady growth of their family reflected that of their brickworks and the little township. The consolidation of the townscape was reflected in Knight's 1872 construction of a shop and post office building on the corner of Knight and Rochford streets which was operated by his son Henry Knight junior, and of a terrace of rental houses along Amy Street in the 1870s. The subdivisions reached their peak in the 1880s and early 1890s by when much of the present street and subdivision pattern of the area had been formed.

The development of Knight's McDonald Town cottage also illustrates the development of both the Knight family and of the village. About 1847 Knight built a two roomed dwelling with a gable roof in Knight Street. By about 1858 further additions to the cottage of four rooms, with separate hipped roofs illustrate the growth of the family, and then in the 1860s further additions to the cottage of 2 rooms and veranda to the front were made. The cottage, and all of its additions, were built with Knight's distinctive sandstock bricks on sandstgone rubble footings - orange coloured, about 6-7 cms in depth, and handmade - all characteristics that suggest they were locally made during the 1840s or 50s.

In 1872 Knight was elected the inaugural mayor of the Borough of Macdonald Town, joining other brickmakers in their civic lives - Robert Fowler was Mayor of Camperdown from 1870 to 1872, and later of Sydney; Waratah, Mereweather and Liverpool also had their brickmaker-mayors. Henry Knight was also a stalwart of St Peter's Church of England at Cooks River, emulating brickmaker Ebenezer Vickey, of the Vulcan Brickworks (near Knight's), benefactor of the Methodist church and the Central Methodist Mission.

About 1879 Henry Knight built his final and grandest home, Camberwell House, in Rochford Street. The old cottage was rented to a Mr Haydon, a bricklayer. The older children had now married, but at least five or six children moved into the new house. Henry's eldest son, Henry junior, was operating his store, and one of his daughters, Amelia, had married into the Hudson family of builders. During the early 1880s Henry Knight retired from his business affairs. In 1883 Elizabeth died at their home, and in 1887 Henry died aged 87, ...leaving a large, affectionate family to mourn their loss.

Henry Knight has not been one of the better remembered industrialists of colonial South Sydney and NSW. He established his brickyard and building business just as a building boom was ending and a long period of depression beginning. Nevertheless he prospered by not just making bricks, but then building with them as well. His McDonald Town developments were aimed at the artisans of Sydney, and were offered for sale on generous time payment systems. Some of his latter developments were rental properties, especially as railway-induced industrialisation spread through Macdonaldtown, Newtown and Erskineville in the 1870s and 1880s. None of his children seem to have taken on the brickmaking business, as happened with some of the other brickmaking dynasties such as the Fowlers and Gentles, but like the other brick magnates Knight actively contributed to the civic and religious life of his local community. The cottage in Knight Street survives (just) and in its fabric can be read stories of mid-19th century brickmaking, suburbanisation and family relationships. His legacy has been solid rather than grand but nevertheless significant. Sadly, Henry Knight's grave lies shrouded in weeds, his headstone decayed and broken, in the churchyard of St. Peter's, a man no longer remembered in the place that he did so much to create.


the original two-roomed cottage, c1842

Knight's Cottage, 23 Knight Street, Erskineville, as it appeared c2002 after a failed property development.

The 1860s addition on the western end of the old cottage

A site plan from 1957, showing the cottage, with an older structure at the back of the site, and a box factory in the south west of the site.