18 August 2023

Successful business tycoon left a complicated estate that took 34 years to settle

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John Bright's Wollongong business.

One of Wollongong’s early businesses, John Bright & Co General Merchants and Importers, in Crown Street. Image: From the collections of Wollongong City Libraries and the Illawarra Historical Society – P16871.

One of Wollongong’s most successful early businessmen was John Bright, who was known to be generous to local causes and active in community organisations.

When he died in 1883, he bequeathed most of his large fortune to the Wesleyan Church in NSW.

John Bright was born in 1831 at Hawkwell in Essex, England. He was one of nine children of Charles Bright and his wife, Ann Franks.

John came to NSW in about 1852 to work for the importing/exporting and retail company, Price, Favenc and Gwyn.

He joined William Davis in running the Victoria Stores in Crown Street, Wollongong. The shop, selling groceries and household items, was next to the Commercial Hotel which was on the southwestern corner of Crown and Church Streets.

In 1857 the partnership ended when William Davis took up the licence of the Harp Hotel.

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Early in 1860, John opened the London Stores in his own building on the northern side of Crown Street. In April of that year, he thanked customers for their support and reminded them that his business philosophy was “small profits and quick returns”.

The strategy obviously worked, for when John died 23 years later, his estate was valued at more than 62,000 pounds. By comparison, the weekly wage of a man employed to care for the pit ponies at Coalcliff mine was just more than two pounds.

John Bright married Catherine Ann Osborne in Wollongong on 18 July 1860. Catherine was the daughter of Robert Osborne and Rebecca Musgrave who emigrated from County Tyrone, Ireland in 1837.

Their son, Charles Osborne Bright, was born in 1867 but sadly died on 4 October 1880. The Brights had no other children. Catherine Bright died on 11 April 1882 after suffering a stroke while visiting friends at Dapto. She was buried next to her son in the Methodist section of the Wollongong General Cemetery.

John Bright remarried on 22 January 1883 to Esther Ann Lee Dobinson, who was some 30 years his junior.

John and Esther Bright sailed for England on 2 March 1883. Before departing, John settled his outstanding debts and took David Fyfe Rudkin as a partner in the London Stores. He also wrote a will and appointed Francis Woodward (solicitor) and William Wiseman (coachbuilder) as his executors.

On their way to England, the Brights visited Naples where John contracted typhoid fever. He died in London on 14 May 1883 and was buried next to his father in the Rayleigh churchyard on 17 May.

He left a complicated estate that took 34 years to settle.

Beneficiaries included the Albert Memorial Hospital (1000 pounds) and 3000 pounds to the Wollongong Methodist Circuit to support a second minister.

The bulk of his estate, valued at around 60,000 pounds, was left in trust to the NSW Wesleyan (Methodist) Church Sustenance and Extension Society.

His trustees were instructed to hold part of his real estate in trust for his widow so that she could enjoy the rents and profits from land and buildings he owned in the block bordered by Crown, Keira, Market and Church Streets at Wollongong.

The property was valued at £10,000. The properties in Crown St were more problematic for the trustees, as much of the land was vacant and yielded no income. The trustees were constantly pressured by elements in the Methodist Church to use capital from the Bright Bequest and to increase income.

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From May 1910, the trustees offered 20 allotments for sale in Market, Keira and Church Streets. Not all were sold but most along Keira and Market Streets found new owners.

The trustees and the Methodist Church retained the bulk of the land with its increasingly ramshackle buildings.

In 1937, the church took control of the estate and two years later built an arcade named after John Bright at 184 Crown Street, with 16 shops and offices. The Bright Estate contained a total of 36 shops and offices.

In the early 1970s, the Abbey Capital Property Group acquired John Bright’s former domain in order to build a new shopping centre. (They also acquired the Royal Hotel on the corner of Crown and Keira Streets which never formed part of the Bright Estate.)

Crown Central opened on 5 November 1975 and was acquired by the GPT Group in the late 1990s.

(Courtesy Illawarra Historical Society). The Illawarra Museum, at 11 Market St, Wollongong is open from 9 am – 3 pm on Wednesdays and Sundays. Phone 4228 7770.

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