Sir Francis Ronalds and his Family

Alfred Ronalds

Excerpts from The Ronalds Family of Australia (1985) by A F (Bert) Ronalds:

Alfred Ronalds. From the Fishing Gazette (1913)

Alfred's frontispiece in the second edition of The Fly-fisher's Entomology

When Alfred Ronalds (1802-1860) was only four years of age his father died, leaving his mother with seven of her children under thirteen years of age. In his school years he took an interest in the electrical experiments being carried out by his eldest brother, Sir Francis, and gave him some assistance in erecting his experimental telegraphic equipment. During the 1820s Alfred became highly skilled as an engraver, lithographer and copper plate printer and also acquired some ability as a surveyor.

However, somewhere about 1830 he broadened his interests, moved to Staffordshire, became a keen angler and commenced a very thorough study of trout and grayling, including their senses of hearing, sight, taste and smell and, in particular, their feeding habits and the types of insects they ate at various times of the year. As an aid to this study he built a fishing hut, or observatory, overhanging a part of the Blythe River (near Uttoxeter) which offered concealment for close observation of the fish in the river.

Following his study of the habits of fish he carried out many experiments on the making of artificial flies, imitating the various insects eaten by the fish, and then wrote a book entitled The Fly-fisher's Entomology, first published in 1836.

The book contains a detailed description of the art of fly fishing and of the manner of making about fifty artificial flies each imitating a different insect. It also has twenty plates showing a total of about one hundred exquisite illustrations of insects, artificial flies, etc.

The second edition of the book was published in 1839. Further editions were published in 1844, 1849, 1856, 1862, 1868, 1877, 1883, 1901, 1913 and 1921. The eleventh edition, in 1913, was an "Edition de Luxe" in two volumes; Volume 2 consisting of forty-eight actual artificial flies, in addition to the engraved representations in Volume 1.

Whereas Alfred commenced the study largely as a hobby, his decision to write the book may well have been influenced by Sir Francis' various publications on electricity and a comprehensive treatise on apples written by his uncle, Hugh Ronalds and published in 1831.

In 1831, at Tixall, Staffordshire, Alfred married Margaret Bond, a young lady from the nearby village of Draycotts. This marriage produced eight children. Alfred and Margaret established a home at Leafields in Staffordshire where they remained until about 1843. For the first five years of this period he must have spent most of his time deriving the detailed information included in the first edition of his book, writing it up and preparing the plates. Thereafter he presumably combined the further work for the second edition with farming, as in 1840 he classified himself as a farmer.

By 1844 they had moved to Dolgelly in North Wales where Alfred was occupied for at least part of his time making and selling artificial flies. By 1846 they had moved to Brecon in South Wales and in 1847 they were at Cwmbach, Llanelwedd, Wales, where Alfred classified himself as a fishing tackle maker.

In 1847, two months after the birth of baby Hugh, Margaret died at Cwmbach, aged 33. The next year, Alfred emigrated to Australia with six of his seven children ranging in age from fifteen to two, the care of Hugh having been taken over by relatives in England.

They sailed from London in the Lord Hungerford on 9th November and arrived at Williamstown on 10th February, 1849. The ship was of 736 tons and had 179 passengers including many children. In announcing its arrival, The Argus reported that:

"The arrival of this ship was anxiously looked for, as being the first trial of the mutual co-operation principle, the passengers all coming out on a level (without the customary distinctions of cabins, intermediate, and steerage) and at a uniform price… The passengers are of a very superior class, some of them being men of substance, and a considerable number ranking as small capitalists; there are also a number of superior tradesmen and a few of that unfortunately most overlooked class, mercantile clerks. There were three deaths on board. The voyage passed off pleasantly, the passengers among other amusements resorting to the publication of manuscript newspapers… it is really a credit to all concerned that the voyage has terminated so agreeably."

On disembarking Alfred proceeded with his children to Geelong. There is no evidence as to why Alfred emigrated to Australia or why he chose Geelong; one can only surmise. However it seems a reasonable assumption that, to bring his young family half way around the world to Geelong in those early days, he knew someone in Geelong and felt reasonably assured that he could make a living and care for his children there. At that time it was also a more congenial town for a young family than Melbourne.

On arrival in Geelong, Alfred set himself up in business as a "Draftsman, Engraver and Copper Plate Printer". Later that year he married Mary Ann Harlow - a spinster of thirty-two years of age who came to Australia with her aunt on the same ship as Alfred and his children. This marriage produced four more children.

Lithographic work at the time Alfred was in business in Geelong involved the use of polished stone slabs and, during his searches for suitable stone for his purpose, Alfred found a marble deposit at Limeburner's Point, at the east end of the Botanical Gardens. Alfred considered that the marble had commercial value and, on meeting Governor La Trobe during one of the latter's visits to Geelong, he showed him samples of marble stone that he had polished, and the site of the marble deposit. Governor La Trobe complimented Alfred for his industry but said that the colony was far too young to set up as an exporter of marble and that the "wooden houses of the colony would not look well with marble chimney pieces".

In 1850 Alfred again demonstrated his artistic skill by designing and striking a 2-inch diameter medal "Commemorative of the Great Charter of Self Government Granted to the Colony of Victoria, August, 5th 1850". The medal gave Alfred the distinction of being the first to have designed and engraved a medal in Australia.

Alfred carried on his business in Geelong from early 1849 until late 1851 when, like very many other Victorians, he joined the gold rush which followed the first discovery of gold in August 1851.

Immediately before doing so, he made detailed drawings of a gold-washing machine for inclusion in a treatise on a "Patent Washing Machine for Economising Labour" - published in late 1851.

His gold-seeking activities extended over about fifteen months. It is understood that he was the first to sink a shaft at Black Hill, which subsequently proved to be one of the rich Ballarat fields. Nevertheless, as illustrated by his frequent movements from one field to another and the limited period he spent on the goldfields, this occupation was not a prosperous venture for him. Late in 1852 or early 1853 he moved his family from Geelong to Ballarat, established a home in Exeter Street, and resumed his business of copper-plate printing combined with surveying some of the streets of Ballarat, providing water for part of the town by means of two large tanks which he filled from Lake Wendouree with a small engine-driven pump, and assisted in building the first hospital in Ballarat.

In 1854 he purchased a six and a half acre block of bush land on the south-east corner of Macarthur Street and Wendouree Parade. On this land he established a market garden with a wide variety of vegetables and flowers. At the Ballarat Horticultural Society Show in March 1860, he won prizes for grapes (3 varieties), peaches, cucumbers, apples (2 varieties), pumpkins, marrows, celery, red beet, leeks, peas, beans and parsley, including six firsts and seven seconds.

He also experimented with more exotic plants including cloves, pepper, coffee, chicory, tobacco, cotton, flax, tea, caraway seed, the castor oil plant and the ink plant - the berries of which when steeped in hot water and strained made a good ink - and was successful with most of them.

He also supplied a large number of plants for the initial planting of the Ballarat Botanical Gardens and for some years thereafter kept up a regular donation of further plants.

In 1858 he sold his printing equipment which, by that time, was obsolescent. Alfred died suddenly of a stroke at Ballarat in April 1860, aged fifty-eight years.

The following report in The Miner and Weekly Star gives a concise record of his movements and activities for the last nine of his twelve years in Australia:

"The Creswick Advertiser says of the late Mr. Ronalds, whose death we recorded a few days ago, that he was an old resident of the gold fields having lived under the Adelaide Hill, Forest Creek [now Castlemaine], in December, 1851, whence he removed to Eagle Hawk in 1852, and thence to Bendigo itself. He subsequently became a resident of Creswick, and settled down on Ballarat in 1853. The deceased was the first to start the surfacing west of and near to the Ballarat Cemetery, with which he persevered until a rush surrounded him, depriving him of some really good ground, almost within his grasp. Mr Ronalds shortly after purchased the land for that nursery which he cultivated with so much taste and skill, and the produce of which met with encomiums at the recent Ballarat Show. The deceased gentleman possessed considerable and varied talent, combined with indomitable perseverance. As a proof, he was a self-taught engraver, copper-plate printer, medallist and lithographer. As an ardent lover of his adopted country, and conceiving that the separation of Victoria from New South Wales deserved some permanent record, he designed and struck a medal commemorative of the event… But the people of Geelong were not so enthusiastic as the artist, and used to say that he gave away nineteen medals in order to sell the twentieth. In the old country, Mr Ronalds was an ardent follower of Izaak Walton [author of "The Compleat Angler"]. His work on Fly Fishing… still maintains its ground, and for some years the profits from its sale, he said, averaged fifty pound per annum. Lucky author! The deceased gentleman, who was twice married, has left a large family to deplore their loss. Mr Ronalds was closely related to the celebrated Martineau family."

Alfred's wife, Mary, was left with four children aged between ten and two. She and some of Alfred's older sons carried on the market garden for a time and at the Horticultural Society Show in November 1860 they won prizes for roses, gladioli, strawberries, peas, beans, culinary herbs, parsley and asparagus, comprising five firsts and three seconds.

Mary lived on in Ballarat with her daughters until at least 1875, then moved to Melbourne where for some time she conducted an antique furniture shop in St. Kilda. She died in Melbourne in 1895 at the age of seventy-eight.

In his relatively short life of fifty-eight years Alfred had been a draftsman, engraver, copper-plate printer, lithographer, surveyor, researcher, author, fishing tackle maker, gold seeker, nurseryman and market gardener, as well as being twice married and the father of twelve children.

He was obviously a very intelligent person who applied himself meticulously to all his ventures - in almost all of which he was highly successful. He also coped extremely well with his transition from England to the entirely different environment he encountered in Australia.


Further Information

Wikipedia entry for The Fly-fisher's Entomology

Sir Francis Ronalds: Father of the Electric Telegraph (2016) - published by Imperial College Press