James Forsyth
Portrait of James Forsyth
Courtesy David Forsyth

Of Scottish descent, James Forsyth (1818-1907) was a leather tanner’s son born in London on 4 April 1818. He married Margaret Todd at Newcastle-on-Tyne on 26 February 1837. He arrived in Sydney via California in 1848. When gold was discovered at Sofala near Bathurst, he joined the rush there and made money, mainly supplying goods to the miners.

James returned to England in the mid 1850s and following his return to Sydney, he made arrangements for his family to join him. Margaret and their five children — Thomas Todd (aged 23), John (21), Robert (14), Margaret (8) and Sarah (3) — arrived in Sydney on 14 February 1863. In 1864 James opened a shop in Parramatta Street (now known as Broadway) to supply leather and other items to the boot and saddlery trade. With the success of this business, James set up tanneries at Glebe and Parramatta with his sons, Thomas and Robert; while John set up a tannery at Ryde. All three enterprises had problems due to the inadequacy of water supplies.

From 1870 James purchased land in the bush at North Willoughby, eventually aggregating 258 acres for ₤3 per acre. The land extended from Edinburgh Road to McClelland Street, and from High Street to Sugarloaf Bay. James, Thomas and Robert settled with their families in three houses on the east side of High Street between 1871 and 1874 and established the Rosewall Tannery on the site of today’s Willoughby Bus Depot. With a plentiful supply of water from creeks, and wattle bark — a vital raw material in the tanning process — from the nearby bush (the area that is now Willoughby Park), the tannery flourished.

James was soon playing a prominent role in local affairs. He was elected to Willoughby Municipal Council in 1874 and became mayor in 1875. He stood down for the mayoral position the following year, but remained an alderman on the finance committee until he retired from council in 1881. A comparatively wealthy man, James invested in land and property. In Alma Street, North Sydney, he built a pair of three-storey terraces, naming one of them Sofala. He moved there in 1880, when he retired from business. He sold the business and its 258 acres of land to Thomas and Robert. In his retirement, James made many overseas trips. He died in 1907.

–Betty Doggett, February 2010

Thomas T Forsyth at the Chatswood Bowling Club, 1920
Portrait of Thomas Todd Forsyth at the Chatswood Bowling Club circa 1920.
Willoughby Museum.

Thomas Todd Forsyth (1840-1921), the eldest of James and Margret’s children, was 23 when he arrived in Sydney with other family members in 1863. Tom joined his father and younger brother, Robert Forsyth (1848-1918) in the family tanning and leather trade business. When James retired in 1880, he sold the business and land to Tom and Robert, who prospered during the boom years of the 1880s. Both were active in community affairs, with Tom being elected to Willoughby Council in 1881 and served as mayor in 1883, 1887-88 and 1893, while Robert was an auditor for the council in the 1870s and was a member of the board that was to manage the Royal North Shore Hospital. Around 1883 they had two large two-storey late Victorian sandstone houses constructed for their families in High Street Willoughby. The Robert Forsyth family resided at Tyneside, 143 High Street, while the large Tom Forsyth family lived as Rosewall, 171 High Street.

Their fortunes declined rapidly in the 1890s depression. The brothers were unable to pay their mortgage instalments and were declared bankrupt. Relations between the families broke down and they formally split the business between them in 1897. Robert attempted to keep the struggling tannery going, but it closed in 1900 and in December 1903, the bank foreclosed on Tyneside. Robert and his wife, Stephana, moved to North Sydney.

Tom Forsyth remained in Willoughby, living Rosewall at until 1906, when he and Ann moved to a modest cottage at 38 McClelland Street. He was an active member of the Chatswood Bowling Club and retained his close ties with the local Chinese community, which had been built up though his provision of land to a number of market gardeners in the municipality. When he died in 1921, a number of members of the Chinese community attended his funeral at Gore Hill Cemetery on 3 August.

RT Forsyth first office
RT Forsyth first office Cnr Penshust and Clanwilliam Streets. Willoughby Museum.

Tom and Ann’s seventh child Robert Todd Forsyth (1877-1939), known as ‘RT’, was also to play a prominent role in Willoughby affairs. After attending Willoughby Pubic School and Sydney Grammar School, he established his own business, RT Forsyth House, Land & Estate Agent, in 1898. He operated from a small weatherboard office at the corner of Penshurst and Clanwilliam Streets in 1899. RT married Annie Bennett in 1904 and they moved into a new Federation house named Kamaina at 238 Penshurst Street.

Kamania, 238 Penshurst St
Kamaina, the RT Forsyth residence at 238 Penshurst Street.
Photo Joyce Chandle, Willoughby Museum.

RT Forsyth served on Willoughby Council from 1903 to 1931 and was elected mayor in 1911, 1915-18, 1920-21 and 1926-27. His real estate business flourished during the boom years of the 1920s. He structured the business as a public company in 1929 and it continues to operate from the site of its second office at 236 Penshurst Street which opened in 1912.

Annie Forsyth was also active in community affairs. Among her roles were president of the Willoughby Red Cross Society, Founder of the Willoughby Service League (established to assist needy residents during the Depression), president of the North Willoughby Tresillian Home, and president of the Auxiliary of the Royal North Shore Hospital. In 1939 she was awarded a Member of the British Empire honour.