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The Petersons of Ross Street: A Nautical Family

by David F Radcliffe

Frederick Peterson and Priscilla Hume were married at St James Cathedral in Melbourne in June 1869.[1] For 53 years, the couple were active members of the Port Melbourne community raising eight children here, five girls and three boys. Both Frederick and Priscilla came from families with strong connections to ships and the sea and this nautical tradition continued through them and their children. The Peterson family came to light after a picture postcard was donated to the PMHPS in late 2023. 

1908 Picture Postcard. PMHPS Collection Cat No 4654.

Written in January 1908, this unposted postcard was addressed to Elizabeth, Mrs H.F. Proctor, in Massachusetts, USA from her Aunt Priscilla. The image on the front was of Priscilla, her (unnamed) husband and Lottie posing in their side garden. Priscilla’s address, 23 Ross Street, Port Melbourne was the clue that identified them as the Peterson family. After that, their story slowly emerged.

Two-year-old Priscilla arrived in Melbourne on the Kate in April 1853. The town was awash with newcomers seeking their fortunes on the Victorian goldfields so she began life here in the makeshift Canvas Town. Priscilla was accompanied by her older sister Emily, her mother Ann Priscilla Hume (nee Oxtoby) and her stepfather Michael Harrison. The family later moved to West Melbourne and in her teens, Priscilla worked as a domestic servant for a family in Horsham.

Priscilla was born in St Johns, New Brunswick, Canada in 1850 but christened in the port city of Hull, Yorkshire. Her father, John Hume, was a master mariner. Born in Scotland, he had lived in North America from the 1840s when his family emigrated there. John (aged 25) and Ann Priscilla Oxtoby (aged 19) were married in Holy Trinity Church, Hull in 1843. They had four children, Emily, John (jnr), Anne, and Priscilla. It seems the young family spent time living in both New Brunswick and Hull. 

John was absent for extended periods, captaining vessels on long journeys all over the world. This included skippering the James T. Foord which brought immigrants from Falmouth to Melbourne in May 1851.[2] But the following January, he died at sea while commanding a ship. That September, his widow Ann Priscilla Hume, married Michael Harrison, a blacksmith, in Hull. Then in December, they set sail for Australia with Emily and Priscilla. The other two children, John (jnr) and Anne were brought up by John’s brother Robert in New Brunswick. John (jnr) had a daughter, Elizabeth Luena Hume, born in Presque Isle, Maine, USA. She married Herbert Francis Proctor in 1897 in Littleton, Massachusetts. This explains the postcard. But what else can we discover about the Petersons? 

Frederick was born in Denmark and came to Melbourne in 1868, aged 26. Like his father before him, he was a shipwright, a ship’s carpenter. A year after arriving here Frederick married Priscilla. The couple lived in Brewster’s Lane, and later Railway Crescent before settling in 23 Ross Street, south of Graham, in the early 1880s.[3] They remained there until the 1920s. Their modest wooden cottage, which they named Thelma, was demolished in 2013. But thanks to street view in Google Maps, it is possible to see what it looked like in 2009.

23 Ross Street, Port Melbourne as it once was. Google Maps (2009)

From the late 1880s, Frederick operated a boat-building yard in partnership with fellow shipwright William Slimmon of South Melbourne.[4] Situated on the western side of Stokes Street, between Liardet Street and the New Great Britain Hotel, their yard produced a diverse range of small vessels, punts and barges used in harbour work, and a boat for the Victorian Stevedoring Co. for butchers on Port Phillip Bay.[5] They built a large steam launch in a dock on the south side of the Yarra near the entrance to the Coode Canal,[6] performed a major overhaul of the paddle steamer Ozone,[7] and constructed a new freezer chamber on the RMS Orient.[8]

One unusual project they undertook was to make a large flagpole at the Nott Street school in 1901. As part of the celebrations to mark Federation, all State schools in Australia were presented with a flag to fly. In May, a grand “hoisting of the flag” ceremony took place at Nott Street school in the presence of the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall and York and local dignitaries.[9] After William Slimmon passed away in 1910, Frederick carried on the business until around 1915, as a general contractor.

In addition to the boat-building business, for thirty years, Frederick Peterson was the shipwright superintendent for the Currie steamer line. A dour Scot, Archibald Currie formed his shipping company in the late 1870s. In the mid-1880s he transitioned to steamships, establishing a regular service to India.[10] He shipped horses there and brought back rice and tea. It seems likely that some of these imports were processed at Robert Harper’s new Oriental Mill, which opened in 1888 on the site of the former Victoria Sugar Refinery. 

SS Argus (Archibald Currie Line). Painting: Allan C Green. SLV

The lives of most of Priscilla and Frederick’s children were linked to the sea. Their eldest, Charles, apprenticed as a shipwright, a trade he pursued working with the Melbourne Harbour Trust. He was later the dock master at Williamstown and in his retirement, Charles played a leading role in the Soldiers’, Sailors’, and Airman’s Fathers’ Association.[11] Their second son, James (James Phillip Culliford Peterson) was an Engine Room Artificer (ERA), a fitter and turner with specialist skills related to running ship’s engines. He served on the HMS Katoomba and other vessels of the British Squadron stationed in Australia in the era before the Royal Australian Navy was formed.[12] In later life he was Vice-President of the ex-Naval Men’s Association in South Australia. Their third son, Frederick (jnr), was an engineer. 

Three of Priscilla and Frederick’s five daughters married ship captains. In 1899, Harriet (Hart) married Captain Horatio Fritz. It was a grand affair reported in depth in the local press.[13] Intriguingly, he was from St John, New Brunswick where Priscilla was born, and her brother and sister were brought up. In 1907, Ellen (Nellie) married Captain Peter Hansen, a native of Denmark. Their marriage took place in Oregon, USA where Captain Hansen was based. Then in 1913, their youngest child, Lottie (in the postcard) married Captain Peter Low of the Huddart Parker and Co. shipping line.[14] Later he was a ship’s pilot in Port Phillip Bay.

Taking the nautical theme in a slightly different direction, in 1894, Priscilla and Frederick’s eldest daughter, Ann Priscilla (named after her grandmother), married Frederick Dusting, a fish seller.[15] But in 1907, daughter Agnes, broke the pattern, when she married William (Bill) Close, an orchardist and later shire councillor in what was then rural Pakenham.[16]

Returning to the marriage of Harriet Peterson and Captain Horatio Fritz. He was a bachelor in his late forties. The newspaper article describing the happy couple and their marriage celebration led with the adage, “A man married is a man complete”. Less than a month later, Harriet, just 24, passed away. The Petersons were devastated but stoic. Shattered, Horatio later returned to New Brunswick. In August 1908, Priscilla and Frederick lost their daughter Ann Priscilla and a year later their son-in-law Frederick Dusting.

Harriet Peterson and Captain Horatio Fritz Wedding Party. Photo: A.H. Williams. Peterson and Hansen Family Collection. SLV

On a happier note, in June 1929, Priscilla and Frederick celebrated their Diamond Wedding anniversary (60 years) in fine style with family and friends at the home of their son, Charles, in North Williamstown where the couple now resided. By then they had fifteen grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. The following year, Frederick, and then Priscilla passed away a matter of months apart. 

Beyond the picture postcard above, the Petersons live on in a collection of over 200 family photographs (including more postcards) held in the State Library of Victoria.[17] These were donated in 2003 by their great granddaughter, Lynne Moore (nee Peterson). 

Her father, Torpedo-Gunner James Edward Peterson was one of the 645 officers and crew lost when the HMAS Sydney was sunk off the Western Australian coast in November 1941.[18] It was a major blow to wartime morale. For the families, the loss and unanswered questions lingered for two generations. The mystery around the circumstances of the sinking was not resolved until the wreck was found in 2008.[19] James Edward Peterson was a seventeen-year navy veteran, the son of James Phillip Culliford Peterson. Ironically, James survived the sinking of the HMAS Waterhen in the Mediterranean in June 1941. He only joined the Sydney two months before she was sunk. 

There are more interesting stories associated with the Peterson family of 23 Ross Street, but space does not permit. It is amazing how a simple picture postcard with just a few words can open the door to a rich family history. 

[1] Now St James Old Cathedral on King St., in 1869 it was the Anglican cathedral of Melbourne located on the corner of Collins and Williams Streets.

[2] 1851 ‘SHIPPING INTELLIGENCE.’, The Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 – 1957), 3 May, p. 2. , viewed 15 Jan 2024,

[3] It was a new house, possibly built by Frederick.

[4] The boat-building yard in Stokes Street was operated previously by shipwright Thomas Jarvie who lived on the corner of Stoke and Liardet Streets. Frederick Peterson was a pall bearer at Thomas Jarvie’s funeral in 1891.

[5] 1906 ‘New Motor Launch’, The Herald (Melbourne, Vic. : 1861 – 1954), 24 May, p. 2. , viewed 15 Jan 2024,

[6] 1902 ‘NOTES OF THE WEEK.’, Williamstown Advertiser (Vic. : 1875 – 1954), 15 February, p. 3. , viewed 15 Jan 2024,

[7] 1905 ‘EXCURSION STEAMERS.’, Standard (Port Melbourne, Vic. : 1884 – 1914), 28 October, p. 2. , viewed 15 Jan 2024,

[8] 1898 ‘Items of News.’, Standard (Port Melbourne, Vic. : 1884 – 1914), 3 December, p. 2. , viewed 16 Jan 2024,

[9] 1901 ‘THE GRAND OLD FLAG.’, Standard (Port Melbourne, Vic. : 1884 – 1914), 18 May, p. 3. , viewed 15 Jan 2024,

[10] J. Ann Hone, ‘Currie, Archibald (1830–1914)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 14 January 2024.

[11] 1948 ‘OBITUARY’, The Age (Melbourne, Vic. : 1854 – 1954), 20 January, p. 2. , viewed 15 Jan 2024,

[12] 1905 ‘WEDDING BELLS.’, Standard (Port Melbourne, Vic. : 1884 – 1914), 17 June, p. 3. , viewed 15 Jan 2024,

[13] 1899 ‘WEDDING BELLS.’, Standard (Port Melbourne, Vic. : 1884 – 1914), 29 April, p. 2. , viewed 15 Jan 2024,

[14] 1913 ‘STYLISH WEDDING.’, Standard (Port Melbourne, Vic. : 1884 – 1914), 5 April, p. 2. , viewed 15 Jan 2024,

[15] 1894 ‘WEDDING BELLS.’, Standard (Port Melbourne, Vic. : 1884 – 1914), 25 August, p. 3. , viewed 15 Jan 2024,

[16] 1942 ‘OBITUARY’, Williamstown Chronicle (Vic. : 1856 – 1954), 22 May, p. 2. , viewed 15 Jan 2024,

[17] The Peterson and Hansen family collection of photographs, [between 1850 and 1990], H2003.85/1-213. Pictures Collection, State Library Victoria

[18] 1941 ‘PERSONAL DETAILS ABOUT MEMBERS OF CREW’, News (Adelaide, SA : 1923 – 1954), 1 December, p. 8. , viewed 15 Jan 2024,

[19] A few days after the announcement that the wreck of the HMAS Sydney had been found, Lynne Moore wrote a heartfelt letter to the Age newspaper expressing the relief that families of the crew felt at the news and the uncertainty and anguish they had lived with for nearly seventy years.

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Acknowledgement of Traditional Custodians

We respectfully acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the land on which we meet and work, the Bunurong Boon Wurrung and Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung peoples of the Eastern Kulin Nation and pay respect to their Elders past, present and emerging.