Born at the village of Warsaw, in New York State circa 1852, Mr Coffee began his career as a journalist with the New York Herald and subsequently worked for several other American newspapers. He developed a passion for travel and his experiences became a theme of his writing.
Frank Coffee moved to Sydney in 1881, leaving behind his journalism career for business. He established the Oceanic Publishing Company, a publishing and indent business with offices at 89 York Street in the city. Frank Coffee was the permanent manager and a director, together with Samuel Coffee, Arthur Wood and Eva Coffee. The company later moved to 191 Clarence Street, while Coffee was also co-founder, with JP Garvin, of the Citizens’ Life Assurance Company Ltd, which later became the Mutual Life & Citizens’ Association Company Limited (MLC).1
In 1888 Coffee built Iroquois, a grand Victorian mansion at 240-260 Mowbray Road, Artarmon. It is thought that he chose the name because of his association with the USS Iroquis, a warship that visited Sydney in 1884 and again in 1916. During the latter visit, the captain presented Coffee with a painting of the ship. The Coffee family lived at Iroquois until 1930. It was later renamed Windsor Gardens.
His success in business enabled Coffee to maintain his passion for travel from his base at Chatswood. He made almost countless voyages between Australia and America and he went round the world several times. He was one of the first members of the Circumnavigators Club of New York.2
Frank Coffee never lost a flair for writing. He decided to set down impressions of ocean travel, places he visited and interesting sidelight of life that came to his attention. His initial writing was a series of letters to friends, followed by a number of newspaper interviews. Finally his autobiographical book, Forty Years on the Pacific: The Lure of the Great Ocean, was first published in the autumn of 1920 by the Oceanic Publishing Company and A. M. Robertson, Stockton Street, San Francisco, CAL. (evidently a US branch of his Sydney publishing venture).3. There were a number of errors in the first edition, so the second edition of 1925 corrected these and incorporated additional information. He is best remembered for this work, which has considerable literary merit and is a recognised work of reference.
Frank Coffee was an enthusiastic gardener and he planted a number of feature plants in the grounds of Iroquois, many of which are still there today. By 1900 he was operating a six acre nursery in Smith Street, now the East Chatswood Industrial Area. His Warrawee Estate in the suburb of that name was auctioned in 1902 and he subsequently operated the Universal Nursery at Wahroonga for 15 years. In this period he imported many fruits from Luther Burbank in California and is credited with introducing Valencia oranges to New South Wales.
The Coffee family comprised his wife, Sarah, and three boys and three girls who grew up at Iroquois. Frank stood as a Protectionist candidate for the Willoughby electorate in the 1894 election and his name regularly appeared in Sydney newspapers as attending various functions.4 As late as 1928, Frank attended a civic reception in Sydney for the visiting Stamford University baseball team. He was a generous supporter of the local Catholic community and made generous donations toward the building of the first Our Lady of Delores Church in Archer Street.5
Frank’s sons, Frank Jnr. and Jack both fought in World War I. Frank Coffee, who was in the 24th Battalion of the AIF was killed in action at Brown’s Dip at Gallipoli and was buried at Lone Pine Cemetery on 18 November 1915. Driver Jack Coffee returned to Sydney in 1919, having served in the Australian Transport Corps for three years.6 A daughter, Mildred, married Dr Daniel Kelly at St Marys Catholic Church in North Sydney in 1905, while Molly Coffee married Dr Charles Hughes in December 1910.7
Frank Coffee died on 17 March 1929 aged 77 years. A requiem mass was celebrated at St Marys Cathedral, Sydney two days later and he was interred in South Head Cemetery that day.8
–Terry Fogarty and Joan Antarakis
2 Coffee, Frank, Forty Years in the Pacific, San Francisco, Oceanic Publishing, 1925, p xiii. Coffee compares himself to Mark Twain who turned from publishing to authorship, Coffee states ‘I am a publisher venturing to become an author’.
3 Coffee, Frank, 1925, as above, p xi.
4 Sydney Morning Herald, Tuesday 3 July 1894.
5 Antarakis, JN, Changing names; changing faces, Chatswood, self-published, 2001
6 Sydney Morning Herald, 29 November 1915, ‘Heroes of the Dardanelles.
7 State Record Office of NSW, NSW Government Register, BDM.
8 Sydney Morning Herald, Wednesday 29 March 1929.