A challenge for Bill

BILL Slee’s family has a history of building things they can be proud of.

Mr Slee was an electrician and woodworker before he retired and his father and grandfather were both blacksmiths.

It was his father and grandfather’s trade that lead him to his latest project.

Mr Slee and his brother are on the look out for any objects built or struck by their family and among their searching, the brothers found a piece of Bendigonian history.

“My brother lives in Shepparton and we’re sons of blacksmith family,” Mr Slee said.

“My grandfather had the Rushworth smithy and my father worked with him until he went with the World War I lighthorse to Egypt. 

“He returned and took over after his dad died and finally settled in Stanhope.”

The wood is rotten and much of the metal ruseted but the horse-drawn carriage the brothers found is believed to be more than 100 years old and built in Bendigo by JC Morrison.

“We came across it and saw it had been out in a paddock for years.

The woodwork is degraded but it is still recognisable,” Mr Slee said.

“Woodwork has been my other lifelong occupation (after being an electrician). I built my own houses and furniture.”

Aside from his two main trades, Mr Slee also has a great knowledge of smithing.

“Although my father wasn’t blacksmithing when I was young we still talked about it a lot,” he said.

“We had an anvil and blacksmith’s drill in the family and it was a subject I always liked to question (my dad) about.”

According to Mr Slee, the carriage has had an unusual style of construction.

Instead of building the wooden stokes first and shrinking a metal tyre around it, Mr Slee believes the stokes were made to fit the tyre.

“It’s more complicated because it can alter the circumference of the wheel,” he said.

“If you jam a spoke in too tight you can end up with an egg-shaped wheel.

“There’s also no short grain on (the remaining wood). This grain seems to run continuously parallel.

“I assume it means the wood was steam bent, which is quite a task.”

The 83-year-old has already looked into getting materials to rebuild the carriage and knows he has quite a task ahead of him.

“I know it’s going to be an expensive business and I have to a lot of recalculations and measurements to get the brackets and ironwork in fair condition.

“Then I have to lay it out and work out where to drill the holes in the wood.

“It’s a lot of thinking.”

All that effort and Mr Slee isn’t sure what he will do with the finished product.

“I’m not a collector and I don’t have a horse,” he said.

“After it’s done, if I’m satisfied with the end result, I will think about donating it somewhere.

“I reckon it’s got quite a lot of interesting history behind it.”

Mr Slee isn’t wrong with JC Morrison having his own story in the carriage-making business.

According to information found by the Bendigo Historical Society, Morrison started a partnership with Harry Sanneman in about 1893 at 234 Williamson Street.

The pair build first-class buggies, dog and goat carriages and phaetons like what Mr Slee is planning to rebuild.

But business went wrong in 1908 and the partnership was dissolved, leading Morrison to continue on his own .

At his peak, Mr Morrison had 30 people working for him but he died in 1941 and his business folded shortly after.

The picture above features Bendigo Historical Society member Ian Fenslau’s grandparents in a buggy purchased for their honeymoon in 1905.

Carriage makers played an important part in Bendigo’s history and the development of the region in the late 19th cenutry and early 20th century.

At the height of the carriages’ populatiry, exhibitors would showcase their products at the Bendigo Agriculture Society’s annual show.

Other makers included Scholten and Marsh, the Rolling Stock Company, Donnellan’s and Pickle’s.

Wes Hammill, Bruechert, Cavagna, Flood, Hogan and Brown were also prominent names.

While the popularity of horse-drawn arriages peaked in the 1890s and faded with the invention of the automobile, Mr Slee recalls the necessity of the horse-drawn vehicles during the World War II.

“There were still a lot of horse-drawn vehicles used,” he said.

“A lot of farmers bought stuff out (on horses) because they couldn’t get petrol. My first job was on a large farm near Shepparton and we still worked horses there, so I remember what it’s like to drive one.”

Bill Slee is hoping he can restore a 19th -century carriage to its former glory

We came across it and saw it had been out in a paddock for years - Bill Slee

Mr Slee is also hoping descendants of JC Morrison might know some historical details or back story about the carriage or the maker.

“I’m hoping some descendents are within cooee of Bendigo or that people may know somebody who had a Morrison cart or carriage at some stage,” he said.

Limited numbers of the wooden carriages remain intact in museums and restorer’s hand.

Brass handplates (like the one picture above) are often the only tangible record of the existence of such establishments.

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