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John Oxley Library

John Henry Paul Berthon Photograph Albums and Sketchbook Digitised @SLQ

By JOL Admin | 6 November 2014

In April this year the John Oxley Library was fortunate to receive a wonderful donation of two photograph albums and a sketchbook compiled by a young Welsh engineer who arrived in Australia in the mid 1880's to work on railway projects in central and northern Queensland.  John Henry Paul Berthon was a man of many talents.  He was a keen musician, he played banjo and sang and was also a talented artist, photographer and sportsman.

He immersed himself in colonial life and became an integral member of the communities in which he lived, including Cairns, where he owned an auction house and was involved in sporting teams and musical societies.  Jack, as he was universally known, worked on railway projects in the Rockhampton district and helped plan the route of the Cairns to Kuranda track.  The photograph albums and sketchbook are annotated by Jack, providing a fascinating insight into colonial life, in his own witty and humorous style.





The albums, also, are a treasure trove of wonderful images, providing an intimate portrait of Berthon's personal and working life in the Cairns region and North Queensland.







The following information was provided by J.H.P. Berthon's granddaughter who lives in England.  She very kindly brought the collection into the John Oxley Library whilst holidaying in Australia.

John Henry Paul Berthon, universally known as Jack, was born in India in 1865, third child and only son of Major General John Frederick Berthon of the Bombay Staff Corps.  His mother, Maria, sadly died en route home from India when Jack was only four, and is buried in Cannes, France.  Jack and his sisters were then mainly brought up by their uncle, the Dean of St Asaph in North Wales.  Jack, a keen sportsman, initially went into the army but according to family legend he failed his religious exams (embarrassing if you are brought up in a deanery) so he became an engineer.  He had an aunt who lived in Geelong, Victoria, so that is probably how he came to be in Australia. 

In 1890, en route back to Australia from England, Jack was shipwrecked in the Red Sea, aboard the steamship Dacca.  He swam to the Daeldalus lighthouse with his banjo on his back and then drew a picture of the ship going down.  Mercifully everyone was saved, but Jack lost all his belongings, including his precious "references" which he had to reapply for.  Jack's description of the event, together with his drawings, subsequently appeared in the "Illustrated London News", and various other newspapers including the "Times".



His grand daughter continues the story:  After leaving Queensland in the mid 1890s Jack Berthon went to America, prospecting and mining for gold in Oregon.  By the time Jack was 40 he was back in Wales where he married Elsie Lyddon from Cardiff in 1905.  In 1908 their only child, a daughter, Violet, (my mother) was born.  The family originally lived in Wimbledon on the outskirts of London, but later returned to Cardiff where Jack took over an uncle's engineering company, J.B. Saunders, which specialised in railway equipment.

Jack Berthon was a much respected, talented and popular man, an excellent engineer, and a much loved husband, father, and grandfather, but not a terrific businessman.  According to my mother he had started many enterprises over the years, including an experimental farm, but none provided much in the way of financial reward.  He died near his daughter's home in Bristol, England, in 1952.

Jack Berthon has left a lasting legacy to the people of Queensland in these beautiful albums and sketchbook which, thanks to his family, have come back to their place of creation.  The John Henry Paul Berthon Collection, Accession 29440, may be viewed at the John Oxley Library or online at:

Lynn Meyers

Original Materials Librarian




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