George Challis arrived in Australia in 1858 with his parents William and Harriett and two brothers – James aged nine and Thomas aged two, who arrived as bounty immigrants on the ship Grand Trianon from Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, England. A year later his father drowned at Mort Dock in Balmain leaving his mother to raise three boys alone, George was five years old.
It must have been difficult for a newly arrived widow without a husband and family support to have survived those early years, with Harriett and ten year old James having had to find work. The family settled in Balmain where James became a carrier. Thomas later became a welder at Morts Dock and was one of the first welders to work on the new steam ships being built and refurbished there. Harriett Challis died in 1892.
It seems likely that when he was old enough, George was apprenticed to a builder. He became a successful in this trade and was said to have built many homes in Balmain. He married Matilda Robinson in Windsor in 1874. Matilda was the daughter of John Robinson, a carpenter. George and Matilda had 11 children.
Having sold his home in Birchrove Road Balmain in 1882, George moved to Sydney Street in North Willoughby. He later purchased land on the corner of Quondong and High Street in that suburb.
The severe economic depression of the 1890s depression saw widespread unemployment in the colony. It would have been about this time that the older Challis sons were seeking to enter the workforce, and they must have found work in the local tanneries rather than in the building trade. The Challis sons Frederick John, Herbert Milller and Harry Jubilee became tanners, George was a postal worker at Chatswood post office before serving in the Boer war, Thomas worked as a labourer and the youngest son, Hedley, followed his father’s footsteps and became a builder.
In 1898 George’s eldest son, Frederick John, married Emily Gates daughter of Thomas Gates, a partner in the JB Forsyth, Pizzey and Gates tannery in High Street, Willoughby. The family connections between the tannery families continued when Thomas Gates’ son Oliver married Fredrick and Herbert’s sister, Edith, in 1904; and subsequently Emily Forsyth, daughter of James Brown Forsyth, married another Challis brother, Harry Jubilee, in 1915.
George’s sons Frederick John and Herbert Miller registered Challis Brothers as tanners of Quondong Street, Willoughby and leather merchants in Kippax Street, Sydney, As documented in the Tanneries section, the Willoughby tannery was destroyed by fire on 8 September 1905.
The heavy losses of the fire combined with the worsening economic depression of the 1930s, must have weighed heavily on Herbert Challis. On 6 March 1931 he died in hospital of severe burns, apparently self-inflicted. His wife found him running around the back yard with his clothes on fire.1
This was the second tragic death that George and Matilda had endured. In 1902, their second son, Corporal George Challis died of enteric fever whilst serving in South Africa during the Boer War.
The Willoughby tannery doesn’t appear to have been rebuilt, but FJ Challis and Son continued business in Kippax Street. The store was run by Frederick Challis and later his son, George Frederick Francis Challis.2 George Challis snr moved to Suffolk at 22 Mabel Street, Willoughby, about 1920 where he died in 1932.
Frederick John: b 6 October 1875 Balmain; m (1) Emily Florence Gates (youngest daughter of Thomas William Gates, partner in Forsyth Pizzey and Gates tannery); m(2) Emily Robinson, d 16 Oct 195, Willoughby.
Matilda Florence (‘Flo’): b1877, Balmain; d 1964 Auburn.
George: b1878, Balmain; d 19 Feb 1902, South Africa (Boer War).
George Challis snr moved to Suffolk at 22 Mabel Street, Willoughby, about 1920
Herbert Miller: b 1880, Balmain; m Emily Harriet Stiff 1903; d 1931, Willoughby.
Violet May: b 17 Jul 1881, Balmain; m Joseph Monahan Stiff, 1909; d 25 March 1978, Bathurst.
Edith Emily: b 1883, Willoughby; m Oliver John Gates 1904 (fourth son of Thomas William Gates); d 1972.
Alice Ada: b 1884, Willoughby; d 1946 Punchbowl.
Harry Jubilee: b 1887, Willoughby; m Grace Gertrude Forsyth (fourth daughter of James Brown Forsyth), d1937.
Thomas Claude: b1889, Willoughby; d 1964 Melbourne.
Hedley Marmion, b 1891, Willoughby; m Constance Eloise Beetson, 1910; d 1950, Katoomba.
Eunice Mena: b1892, Willoughby; m Herbert Hodgson, 1915; d 1966, Temora.
–Maureen Challis Mitchell
2 Sands Sydney directory.