Andrew Houison: RAHS Foundation President

100 Years On

by John McClymont (Fellow)

The influences that shape the destiny of some people are often fascinating. What motivated Andrew Houison, a highly trained, successful medical practitioner, to develop a passion for Australian history and become the foundation president of the RAHS?. Was it his Parramatta background of the mid 19th century or some other influence?

Andrew Houison (1850-1912), was born in Parramatta on 1 January 1850 and not surprisingly was named for Scotland's patron saint by his Scottish parents, James (b.1801, Nairn, Invernesshire) and Ann (nee Stark, b.1804, Perth, Fifeshire). They met in 1835 whilst James was in charge of the construction of Hannibal Hawkins Macarthur's new villa, the famous 'Vineyard' (later 'Subiaco'), to the design of architect John Verge. Andrew and Anne married and lived at Parramatta where they raised ten children, five girls and five boys, of whom Andrew was the youngest.

Trained as a carpenter and joiner with extensive experience in Georgian London as a clerk-of-works, James Houison became a builder and architect in Parramatta. He was educated and was the dominant force in a partnership with a skilled and experienced stonemason, Nathaniel Payten. Payten, a convict stonemason's son, could gain local contracts but was illiterate and needed a partner such as Houison. Houison possessed business acumen, was shrewd with money, honest, able to write letters, estimate costs for tenders, draw plans, write specifications, keep accounts and organise tradesmen. The partnership flourished and was responsible for the post-Macquarie building growth of Parramatta, making the partners moderately wealthy men.

James, aware of the benefits of a sound schooling, determined on educating his children, particularly his sons. The King's School at Parramatta was then under the charge of Rev. Frederick Armitage (1827-1906), an English gentleman of good family and a well qualified classical scholar of both Oxford and Cambridge. Andrew and his elder brothers attended The King's School; Alexander (b.1838) and David (b.1840) followed in their father's vocation, Alexander became a clerk-of-works and architect, and David, a civil engineer. James (b.1842), who had been a brilliant scholar at King's, was sent to Edinburgh to study medicine. Andrew, after attending Mr Mills' Briar Cottage Academy in Parramatta, then commenced his King's School education in 1858. When the school temporarily closed, he completed his last two years at the Rev. J Manson's newly opened Newington School at Silverwater.

Andrew, at 16, joined his brother James and Charles Byrnes, the brothers Neale, Samuel Payten, Robert Ritchie and George Suttor, mostly friends from The King's School days, and for two years they became enthusiastic volunteer soldiers. They drilled in the old Greenway designed Commissariat Store building (1823-24), shortly afterwards given over to the military.

In February 1866, aged 16, he enrolled at the University of Sydney and gained a BA degree in 1869. He then followed brother James to Edinburgh where he too graduated in medicine, MB. ChM (MSurg). Post graduate research in the medical field of antisepsis with Professor of Surgery Joseph Lister at the University of Edinburgh added significantly to his experience but he declined the offer of a permanent research assistant to Lister, preferring to marry and return to Sydney. After a year in private practice in Macquarie Street, he accepted the position of Secretary to the NSW Medical Board. In this prestigious position, Houison became well known in medical and government circles in Sydney.

Whilst in Edinburgh, Andrew took a great interest in and undertook some research on his Scottish forbears which led to his applying to the Scottish College of Arms for his family's 'coat of arms'. However, his abiding hobby was philately, probably influenced by collecting stamps from his family's overseas correspondence. This led to positions as president of both the NSW and Australian Philatelic Associations. His researches into the early history of the 'Postage Stamps, Envelopes and Post Cards in Australia' led to correspondence with the Philatelic Society of London. With the approaching 50th anniversary of the introduction of the Postage Stamps in Great Britain in May 1890, Houison conceived the idea of an Australian component to the planned exhibition.

At this time community sentiment was riding high on the tide of nationalism following upon the 1888 Centenary and, Federation was in the air. With the official assistance of the Premier, Sir Henry Parkes, and the Postmaster General, Houison prepared an Australian exhibit. Parkes, a former philatelist himself, was enthusiastic and approved the scheme as an official government project. Houison undertook the research with the help of the Government Printer, and within a month or so the display was prepared and dispatched to London. The display resulted in a prestigiously printed and prepared illustrated book, The History of the Post Office of New South Wales, completed by March 1890 with Houison credited as author. Those interested in Australian history were no doubt impressed. Was this the catalytic influence on future events?.

When a 'meeting of gentlemen interested in Australian history was held in the Town Hall, Sydney 30th October, 1900 present [were] Dr. Andrew Houison, (who was called to the chair), Messrs Edward Dowling, Frank Walker, John McGuanne and Edward Stack'. Further provisional planning meetings attracted other history enthusiasts such as Rev. WH Yarrington MA LLB, JF Mann, Norman Selfe (prominent engineer), the Ven. Archdeacon Gunther of Parramatta, Frank Bladen, Frederick Phillips, the Rev. AA Aspinall and A. Lee. Meetings of the Provisional Committee were held, with papers read by members, including one on 5 March 1901 by Andrew Houison on 'The Old Tank Stream'.

On 15 March 1901, the inaugural meeting of the Australian Historical Society was held in the Queen's Hall, Pitt Street. Dr Houison gave an opening address which included a history of the inception of the Society and the work of the Provisional Committee. The meeting elected him as their president and accepted the nomination of bibliophile David Scott Mitchell as the Society's patron while the Council comprised the other stalwarts who had proposed and planned the birth of the Society.

If his philatelic interests played a part in Houison's concern for Australian history, his Parramatta background did not escape attention. As part of the Society Syllabus (Programme), he led two field trips to Parramatta to visit numerous old houses and buildings known from his youth, including the Commissariat Store where he undertaken army drill almost forty years earlier, Elizabeth Farm and of course, some of his father's architecture, which with few exceptions, still remains.

Andrew maintained his interest in the Society until his death in 1914. He accepted nomination to the Council after completing a year as President and even accepted the Presidency again during 1908 and the Treasurer's position in 1912. He continued to join Society excursions, research and read papers, particularly about his other historical interest, the history of Anglican churches in the Sydney Diocese.

Andrew Houison's upbringing and education in Parramatta, his overseas travel experience, his interest in family history, philately, church history, publications and papers combined with his leadership abilities, made his election as the Society's founding president a wise choice by his peers.