Alfred Shearsby as a young man. (Sketched by Kim Nelson from a photograph)
Alfred Shearsby as a young man. (Sketched by Kim Nelson from a photograph)

Alfred was born at Leamington, named after the Warwickshire birthplace of his father William, a tailor and robe maker.  The cottage is now 130 Glebe Point Rd between Mitchell St and St Johns Rd, and not to be confused with other houses built on Glebe Point Rd: Lymington in the same area and a later Lymington on the Toxteth Estate.

Aged 21 William Shearsby had landed in Melbourne in 1855 aboard the Ralph Waller with his mother Elizabeth Barris Briley, stepfather John and half brother Edmund, having survived a near shipwreck when the migrant vessel struck an iceberg in the Southern Ocean. By 1859 William had moved to Sydney where at St James’ Church in the city he married Irish-born Margaret Chapman, a niece of Michael Nason Chapman, painter and paper hanger, Glebe MLA and Sydney Mayor. Margaret had arrived with her parents on the Calcutta in 1838.

The couple’s first four children were born at Surry Hills and George St in the city: William Edward (1863-1939), Florence Marian (1865-1931), Edward Jasper Chapman (1867-1934), Margaret Mary (1868-1910) and Edith Victoria (1870-1955). Born at Leamington were: Alfred, Kate Charlotte (1874-1948) and Joseph John Nason (1877-1955). Sydney Cook died aged three months in 1876 and a premature son was stillborn in 1881. By 1903 William and his wife had left Leamington. They then lived with their daughters Kate and Edith at 35 Avona Ave and 208 Glebe Point Rd, and by time of their 50th wedding anniversary the four were at Berylea, 50 Ross St Forest Lodge. Here Margaret died aged 76 on 16 May 1913; her widower died aged 84 on 14 September 1919 at Hazeldean, Hereford St. They were buried in the Anglican section at Rookwood.

Alfred was educated at the overcrowded Glebe Public from 1879-84 when Charles Flashman was headmaster. In contrast to a fellow pupil who was handcuffed by his father to a desk every morning, Alfred was a keen student. He went on to Fort St, making the long trek to Observatory Hill on foot. After leaving school he joined the Australian Joint Stock Bank and was in 1899 posted to its branch at Yass, where he settled permanently. Both Alfred and his older brother Edward Jasper, who moved to Melbourne as an employee of the Union Bank, became skilled amateur artists, their usual subjects bushland scenes. 

In 1903 Alfred left the bank. Five years later he married Ethel Grace Chambers at Wargeila, near Yass. Their daughter Grace Ethel was born in 1910. After she retired from teaching his unmarried sister Edith went to live with her brother in Yass.

In partnership with Yass businessman Charles Howard, Alfred founded Howard and Shearsby photographers, a firm which rescued and republished the work of earlier Yass photographers, recorded events such as the building of the Burrinjuck Dam and the founding of Canberra, and attempted to capture the image of every Yass recruit for the First World War. Alfred Shearsby was a keen philatelist, secretary of the Yass/Canberra/Jervis Bay Railway Decentralisation League, secretary of the Yass District Chamber of Commerce, and a supporter of the Yass Mechanics’ Institute.

Alfred developed a passionate interest in geology after meeting Professor Edgeworth David and his students at Euralie outside Yass in 1900, an encounter which led to a lifelong association with Sydney University and museum geologists and palaeontologists. In 1906 his Operculate Corals from NSW was published in the Geographical Magazine and in 1912 The Geology of the Yass District appeared in the journal of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science. The A J Shearsby Prize for Geology was set up in 1958 for a top secondary school student.

Glebe geologist Anton Crouch met Alfred in the mid 1950s: ‘In those days geology students were a sturdy lot and, on a Friday night, I and a couple of friends hitched a ride on a goods train to do our own Yass excursion. We slept at the railway station and sought out Mr Shearsby on the Saturday. He was quite old – I’d say late 70s. He was very proud of the fact that Edgeworth David had been a friend and he was happy to take us on a brief fossil-hunting walk to find some trilobites. Even then the sites had been thoroughly picked over and we found only a few tail fragments. He was a keen amateur palaeontologist – he identified two new species of the Silurian coral Rhizophyllum and has species of Spongophyllum and Cyathophyllum named after him. The geological feature “Shearsby’s Wallpaper” is named after him. Near Yass, it is an outcrop of Lower Devonian limestone that is world famous for its assemblage of vast numbers of the fossil brachiopod Spirifer (Spinella) yassensis. The stratum was originally horizontal but is now sub-vertical due to tectonic activity. Hence the name “wallpaper” ’.

Alfred Shearsby’s story is planned for publication in a forthcoming book A J Shearsby, Yass. Life and times of Alfred James Shearsby 1872-1962, historically important photographer, geologist & citizen by local historians Peter R Bindon and Anthony J MacQuillan.

Sources: NSW cemetery records; NSW electoral rolls, NSW registry of births, deaths & marriages; newspaper entries retrieved through the NLA Trove website; personal information; Sands Directories.