James Dalton: a tale of Green, White and Orange

Seeing as it is St Patrick’s Day I thought I would tell a story about an Australian Green albeit one with a strong Orange taint. The green is an emigrant Irishman named James Dalton and the Orange is the beautiful and prosperous city in NSW three hours west of Sydney. The white is the new and sparkling place its citizens have created on ancient grounds. I had passed through this city once before, but last week was the first time I’ve stopped to check it out properly.

The view of Summer St Orange from inside the Hotel Orange
The view of Summer St Orange from inside the Hotel Orange
James Dalton, the merchant of Orange.
James Dalton, the merchant of Orange.

The purpose of my visit was to research James Dalton. Dalton’s story is an extraordinary microcosm of Irish-Australia. Born in County Limerick, Ireland in 1834, he was just one year old when his father was transported to Australia and still a young boy when his mother died. He survived the worst of the Famine as a child orphan. Aged 15 James moved to Australia to follow his father (also James) who had finally obtained his ticket-of-leave in Bathurst and was now starting afresh at Orange. Within two years, gold was discovered at nearby Ophir, and having struck out alone as a shopkeeper, James became one of the wealthiest men in New South Wales and a leading Irish Australian whose family ended up inter-marrying with the Redmonds, one of Ireland’s great political dynasties.

I knew John Redmond since I was very young as he was Waterford’s MP and they named the town’s only bridge after him. But I’d never heard of James Dalton. Then last year a friend who edits the Irish Dictionary of Biography asked me would I do an entry on Dalton for the biography. I have until September to do it.

Dalton already had an entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography which is a great starting point. Written 40 years ago the dictionary’s editor Martha Rutledge (who sadly died last year) covers the key moments of his life. Dalton was born on a farm at Duntryleague, Co Limerick near Tipperary, the third son of James and Eleanor Dalton. Eleanor was a Ryan and her father and her brother joined her husband in the crime of kidnapping a woman. Presumably Eleanor – then pregnant with James, her third child, gave her blessing for the crime as the intention was to secure a wife for her brother. At any rate, the plan came unstuck and the three men were caught and handed seven year of transportation to Australia in punishment.  Perhaps the increasing opportunities Australia was affording, was in the back of their minds making the risks of punishment palatable.

James the Elder was on a different ship than the two Ryans who ended serving their time in the Illawarra. James nearly didn’t make it at all. His ship the Hive was shipwrecked in 1835 off the south-coast of NSW and Dalton and nearly everyone aboard made it to shore. After finally arriving in Sydney, Dalton was sent to Bathurst to work his time with a pastoralist.

Meanwhile the hard life of bringing three children up alone in a poor part of Ireland, got to Eleanor and she died early in James’ life. He was deemed too young to travel, so while elder brother Thomas and their sister Margaret were packed off to America, James remained behind in Ireland and watched in horror as the potato crop failed three times between 1845 and 1848. Their cumulative effect can only be imagined, but James took the earliest opportunity in 1848, aged 14, to join his life-long absent father, who had finally called for him. Whatever Australia and a new parent threw at him, it had to be better than dying young in Ireland.

James the Elder had been released over six years by then. When it came to freedom in 1842 after his seven-year sentence ended, he decided he did not want to come back to Ireland, and took his chances west of Bathurst.

James junior arrived in 1849, aged 15 and joined his father who was now at Summerhill, outside what would become the town of Orange. The pair were in the right place at the right time. Nearby at Ophir and then at Lucknow, miners would find gold in large commercial quantities in the next two years, the first such finds in Australia.

The gold mine at Lucknow, just outside Orange.
The gold mine at Lucknow, outside Orange.

The Daltons’ business did well as prospectors poured into the region. A township grew up at nearby Blackman’s Swamp (named for a Constable Blackman of Bathurst not the Aboriginal people displaced from the district by white settlers). The burghers preferred to give it a name that Thomas Mitchell called the area when he came through exploring in 1830. Mitchell honoured the name of a Dutchman named William, Prince of Orange who served with in the Peninsular Wars against Napoleon in 1812. This was a descendant of the famous William of Orange, the scourge of Catholics in the glorious revolution in the 1690s, an irony surely not lost on the Irishman Dalton. Not that young James had too much time to ponder. He set himself up in business alone in a small shop near the post office. It would become the grandest department store in all of western NSW.

Now the site of Myer department store in Orange, the only sign this was once James Dalton's store is the text
Now the site of Myer department store in Orange, the only sign this was once James Dalton’s store is the text “founded in 1849” above the main entrance.
Dalton's mill (now demolished) on Summer St, Orange.
Dalton’s mill (now demolished) on Summer St, Orange.

At his store Dalton would accept gold and other items in barter. Much of the gold mined at Ophir ended up in the pockets of Orange merchants. Dalton had a particularly good reputation for being able to source miners’ needs and he established a good import network from Britain and America. A young man in a hurry, Dalton would take a break from building his huge store to serve customers when they arrived. By the late 1850s he was secure enough to court another merchant’s daughter and his wealth attracted his elder brother Thomas from America. Together they called their stores the Dalton Bros and they expanded to create Orange’s first flour mill. They shipped flour to England where it fetched a premium price and they also handled wool.

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The magnificent Duntryleague home was built in 1876 and now houses Orange Golf Club.
Dalton and his wife Margaret had 12 children and he set about becoming a patriarch to the town as well as his family. He became a local magistrate and councillor. In 1865 he was the deputy captain of Orange’s first volunteer fire service and in 1869 he became mayor of Orange. He built several lavish town and country houses, most like Emly, Knocklong and Bruff named for places in Limerick and Tipperary of his youth. The most impressive Duntryleague, (1876) was named for his birthplace in Limerick, a townland near the village of Galbally, and now its namesake the home of the Orange golf club.

In 1883 Dalton and Duntryleague hosted the Irish political figures, the brothers John and Willie Redmond. The Redmonds were Westminster MPs. John Redmond was the member for New Ross and later Waterford, while Willie was elected to the seat of Wexford while he was in Australia. They were both followers of Charles Stewart Parnell and they were on a world tour to drum up support for home rule for Ireland. This is was controversial in Empire-supporting Australia, especially in the wake of the Phoenix Park murder of Ireland’s top British officials a year earlier. When the Redmonds came to Orange, they spoke at Duntryleague because the town’s Protestant establishment would not supply a hall for them. Dalton gave the welcome speech to the Redmonds and he was attacked in the Sydney press for disloyalty and sedition. Dalton was forced to resign his magistracy as were other prominent Catholic businessmen in Orange. Dalton was unabashed and built the Theatre Royal in Orange so never again would officials stop them from hosting a public meeting. Though the Redmonds moved on, the link became permanent with John Redmond marrying the brothers’ half-sister Johanna in 1883 and Willie Redmond later marrying James’ daughter Eleanor. The young emigrant Dalton was now part of Ireland’s political royalty.

St Joseph's Catholic Church, Orange where Dalton was a prominent member. One of his houses was just across the road.
St Joseph’s Catholic Church, Orange where Dalton was a prominent member. One of his houses, Emly, was just across the road. Eleven of Dalton’s 12 children were born at Emly, the last at Duntryleague.

James and Thomas Dalton would later split their business with Thomas looking after its Sydney export interests. He also followed James as Mayor of Orange and served as an MP for New South Wales. James preferred to stay in Orange where he was a leading light in the Catholic community. James’s proudest moment was to be a mitre bearer as Sydney’s Irish Cardinal Patrick Moran unveiled the foundation stone on the extensions to St Joseph’s Church. His beloved wife died in 1904 aged 64 and James died on St Patrick’s Day 1919 aged 84. The value of his estate was £73,154. Eldest son Thomas Garrett (Gatty) married an Irish girl and succeeded his father managing the store, and becoming mayor of Orange 1903-06. The Dalton family were feted in 2013 with an exhibition at Duntryleague marking 160 years of contribution to the town.The 2013 Dalton exhibition at Duntryleague, Orange (photo courtesy Euan Greer)

Photo: The 2013 Dalton exhibition at Duntryleague, Orange (photo courtesy Euan Greer, Orange Historical Society).

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