Monday, 23 May 2016

Clifton Percival - born in Auckland but raised in Coburg




1379 Private Clifton Eric Percival, 39th Infantry Battalion, D Company. Image taken from Coburg State School's Soldiers Record Book, part of the Coburg Historical Society Collection.

When I began my research into Clifton Percival's life, I thought perhaps that there was not much of a story to tell. He was born in Auckland in 1897 but two years later his family had moved to Australia and were living in Prahran. When he was 12 his family moved to Coburg where he attended Coburg State School. He survived his war service despite being gassed and sent home in December 1917 with pulmonary fibrosis and gas poisoning. He married, had children and moved to Canberra where he worked as a surveyor and he died suddenly in December 1948 of heart problems.

However, as I began to unfold the story of the Percival family in New Zealand and then in Melbourne, an interesting picture of the wider family group emerged. 

The first suggestion of something different was when I discovered from his attestation papers that Clifton Percival had been working as a Biograph operator when he enlisted. You can read more about the Biograph Company here. You can see an example of a Biograph silent film here. It's a 1911 D.W. Griffith film called 'The Lonedale Operator' and runs for about 16 minutes. 

What I don't know is where Percival was working, but it might have been at Lake Hall in Coburg which by 1912 was operating as Coburg's first picture theatre. 

Lake Hall, one of Coburg's many bluestone buildings, was built in 1860 as the Presbyterian Church. This image, taken in 1916, shows it during its time as a picture theatre. Image courtesy Coburg Historical Society.


From electoral rolls I know that Clifton Percival worked in surveying after the war and that he had moved to Canberra by 1930. I later discovered that his father's brother, Arthur Percival, was a surveyor of some note and rose to become Australia's Surveyor-General. He was part of the team that surveyed Canberra. You can read about him here and here

Portrait of Federal Capital site surveyors at Camp Hill, Canberra, 1910. Rear (L to R) – J.Morgan, W.G.Chapman. Front (L to R) – F.J.Broinowski, Arthur Percival, Charles Scrivener, Percy Sheaffe. Image courtesy The Mouat Tree


And if you're interested in reading more, you should check out this link to 'Some Historical Aspects of Australian Capital Territory Mapping and its Map Grid'  by Paul Wise and Kevin Wellspring, May 2015. 

I also discovered from electoral rolls and from a death notice that Clifton's father William James Bradley Percival (known as Bradley Percival) worked as a draughtsman for the Public Works Department in Canberra in the early 1930s, so the Percival family were well represented in the development of the ACT.

From electoral rolls in New Zealand and in Australia, it is possible to follow the changing career paths of Clifton Percival's father William James Bradley (WJB) Percival and his grandfather William James Sims (WJS) Percival. 

From the  early 1870s to the 1890s WJS Percival (Clifton's grandfather) lived on the south island of New Zealand and is described variously as an artist, an architect and a draughtsman. By 1896, he was living in Auckland but still calling himself an artist. Although it is unclear whether he ever made a living from his paintings, he was one of the founders of the Otago Art Society in 1876 and exhibited watercolours and oil paintings of southern scenes during this period. 

If you are interested in 19th century New Zealand artists, here's a link to a very useful online copy of Una Platts book, 

'Nineteenth Century New Zealand Artists: A Guide and Handbook'



Some examples of WJS's work can be seen here. By 1912 he had moved to Elsternwick in Melbourne's south and was working as a draughtsman and no further mention of his artist pursuits has been found.

Clifton Percival's father William James Bradley Percival, known as Bradley Percival, first appears in New Zealand records in 1896 when he is described as a violinist living in Beach Road, Auckland. A year later he is listed as a violin teacher and in 1899 and 1900, his first two years in Australia, he is listed as a musician living in Prahran. Clearly there was no living to be made out of music and with a growing family to support, Bradley Percival took up his father's occupation as draughtsman. 

I guess you can see from all of this why I love the serendipitous nature of historical research. I begin my day researching the war experiences of Clifton Percival then find discover an uncle who was part of the team who surveyed Canberra. I look a little further into the past and find a father and grandfather who worked as draughtsmen but who clearly identified as artists - one a painter, the other a musician.

Life is never dull!


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