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© John Flatt 2015

In the mists of time Ivan Slade Photography

Although every man,

to a very great extent, is the architect of his own fortune, there are many things over which he can have no control and for which he has no responsibility; such as, the country of his birth, the character of his parentage, hereditary disadvantages, his early environment, and the neglect of his education.

Peter McCann

Preface to History of Descendants of Peter McCann...

     Just a decade after the First Fleet sailed into Sydney Harbour Peter McCann and his wife, Mary (Fitzgerald) arrived in New Holland (1799) where, under the prevailing bounty system and through diligent labour, they helped establish the early colony. Unfortunately, Peter McCann, drowned in 1806 while crossing a flooded waterway leaving his wife, Mary,  his son, Nicholas (1803-1880), and his younger daughter. Nicholas was literally adopted by his godfather and Peter's closest friend, John Norris, a successful stonemason. Norris taught Nicholas well and in time, age 20, he established his own stonemasonry business, and in 1824 married Catherine Johnstone, and had three children - Charles (), Peter (1828-1908) and Ann ().

     As Peter grew he became his father, Nicholas' "dearest friend and most confidential companion" (p.3). In time Nicholas moved to the new colony of Tasmania. Catherine, a three-year old Peter and his sister sailed to Tasmania six months later leaving Charles with their grandmother. Nicholas secured a government grant of land, a property having substantial deposits of limestone, freestone and a good supply of timber. But, tragedy struck. Only three months after joining Nicholas in their new home (1831), Catherine contracted a malignant erysipelas (bacterial skin infection) which quickly moved to her brain resulting in her death. During his six years in Tasmania, Nicholas built homesteads, a hotel, watch-house and a bridge. 

   In 1850 Peter, now in partnership with his father, went to England to bring back his sister. He returned with a wife, Elizabeth née Begley, whom he had married on 26 September in Grantham, Lincolnshire. In 1854 he established his home at Ceres in the Barrabool Hills where he and his father opened a sandstone quarry.

     Though Nicholas cared for his children as best he could, his eighteen-month old daughter, Ann, was adopted finally by Mr. and Mrs. Hopkins from Launceston. Young Peter, well as he says, "The little hardy urchin represented by the pronoun 'I' had a roving commission for the next twelve months" after which he was sent to a boarding school about which he observed, "Looking back on it all, I am amazed that parents could be induced to send their children to such a place of starvation and neglect" (p.7). Fortunately Peter's stay was a for only one year after which he rejoined Nicholas who had re-established himself as a stonemason of repute. Still only 33, Nicholas re-married - to a twenty-one year old Catherine Nelson in 1836 in Georgetown. She died in 1850 leaving Peter with six step-brothers and sisters. 

     After a meeting with John Batman, Nicholas initially considered moving to a new settlement called Melbourne. In 1837 the small family embarked from Georgetown  in a small ship, along with 50 settlers, on a somewhat hazardous journey not for Melbourne but for Port Fairy. At one stage during the trip Nicholas was washed overboard. Peter describes how, "Poor Dad was now lifted aboard our vessel and covered with plenty of blankets. With a good drop of the indispensable, he went to sleep and in an hour or two got up, looking very little the worse for his experience" (p.14). It was only after a circuitous voyage lasting six weeks (not the planned-for six days) that they arrived in Port Fairy where Nicholas was to assist in the establishment and early operation of a whaling station on Griffith Island. As for Peter, "From four o'clock in the morning till seven o'clock at night I had to follow this delectable occupation, ankle deep in oil. With my clothes saturated with fish oil there was no possibility of my skin cracking...." (p.17)

     After the whaling season finished Nicholas moved on spending the next few years building homesteads for cattle and sheep stations; facing a multitude of ongoing difficulties and hazards all associated with squatting in new frontiers. Finally in May, 1841, the McCann entourage found themselves arriving in Geelong. Peter writes, "I remember this occasion perfectly, for here I was to find my resting place and safe anchorage for the remainder of my life, and I do not think one's lot could be fixed in a more beautiful spot, outside of Eden". (p.25). It was about 8 o'clock "... dark and wintery. We crossed Fyansford, jolting over the rough Ford, in a bullock draw at an average speed of two and a half miles an hour.... When we had passed Fyansford we came to the Precipitous Heights of Fyansford Hill, which had never been touched, I suppose, since the days of Adam. In the dark it seemed to be almost perpendicular, but the whips were laid on heavily and the poor, patient beasts of burden scratched and scraped, sometimes on their feet and sometimes on their knees, till finally, to our delight we reached the summit...." (p.26).

     And so Peter's story, as recorded by his grandson, concludes with their early days in Geelong. Wesley Burrett Peter McCann (1874-1961) proceeded to document the family history. Peter became a member of the Ceres Roads Board and a justice of the peace. Nicholas carried on as a builder and stonemason working on the first stone building in Geelong (a watch-house in South Geelong, Geelong Jail, the old Geelong hospital and Christ Church. 

     Nicholas bought land and built his home on it in Ceres  in 1850-51 and about this time took on his son, Peter, as a partner working at developing Ceres sandstone.

     In 1850 Peter went to England to bring back his sister, Ann, to Australia. Wesley's aunt had been taken to England by the Hopkins when Nicholas left Tasmania following the death of his first wife, Catherine (Johnson). During his time in England Peter met Elizabeth Begley, whom he married, brought back to Australia where they raised their family including John Nicholas, Sidney Herbert, Ernest Wesley and Wesley Burrett Peter McCann. After Peter's return, he and his father worked together in the building industry as contractors in Geelong. 

     In 1888 a parcel of land (1,200 acres, i.e. 486 ha) that formed part of the Dryden Estate at Batesford, outside of Geelong,  was bought  by Peter McCann. While using the limestone to manufacture filters and as a building stone, Peter investigated its suitability for the manufacture of cement. He found that what they lacked was the shale necessary for the method then used to manufacture cement. Subsequently the most suitable material was found on the Moorabool River flats at Fyansford. This lead to the establishment of their works at Fyansford. In addition to the ready availability of shale, the slope of the nearby Fyansford hill lent itself to the type of kiln then required. They eventually opened sandstone quarries in the Barrabool hills near Ceres with stone from the quarries being used in the construction of numerous famous buildings throughout Victoria. Following Nicholas' death in 1880, Peter took his son, John Nicholas, into partnership, trading as P. McCann & Son. They continued to grow the business opening the Waurn Ponds Limestone Deposits on the Colac Road about 9 miles from Geelong and constructing kilns producing building and agricultural lime. In time the limestone deposits south of the Moorabool River were opened. The Batesford Quarry north of the Moorabool were also opened.

     Back in the 1750s Smeaton, an English engineer, had discovered that to build a structure better able to withstand the ravages of time and exposure to elements, it was necessary to improve the quality of cement. Thus, Portland Cement was invented. It has since become the most common type of cement in general use around the world. Its name derives from its similarity to Portland stone which was quarried on the Isle of Portland, England. 

     In 1890 a company, P. McCann & Sons, was registered.to supply the limestone from the Dryden Estate with the Quarry being placed in the hands of Sidney Herbert McCann. Fifty horses, all housed in a stable by the quarry, were used to transport the limestone to the mill. Because there were no decent roads, with mud often up to the axle of the drays, a horse tram was later introduced. Thus, the stone was carted part-way by horse-drawn drays and the other part by horse-drawn trams. 

     The technology employed involved six bottle-shaped shaft kilns being erected on the sloping side of Fyansford Hill which requiring extensive excavation work; all flued to a common stack. It was very labour intensive and expensive. Wesley has since observed, "The operation of the old type of kiln was a risky process owing mainly to the escape of fumes, which are well known to be very dangerous" (p.36). The Australian Portland Cement Co. Ltd was registered in 1889 with the works established at Fyansford. The company continued to operate intermittently until 1902 when the business was deemed unprofitable and the company liquidated.

     In 1905 Peter McCann purchased the property and persuaded three of the old directors to join him. Wesley McCann, who joined Australian Portland Cement straight from school, was appointed Secretary and Manager. He, along with a small syndicate including Peter and Sidney Herbert McCann, kept the works in operation from 1905 to 1910. After Peter's death in 1908 and with machinery becoming obsolete it was increasingly difficult to keep the plant viable. More capital was required and so a new company was registered under the same name on 17 August, 1911. The old works was scrapped and a more modern plant installed. By 1924 the business had become too large to operate as a private company and so in January, 1925, Australian Cement Ltd was registered. Ongoing plant and process improvements continued alongside expansion involving the purchase of other businesses. In 1928, acting for several leading cement companies, it bought out the Tasmanian-based National Portland Cement; the following year, after an amalgamation with Kandos Cement Co. Ltd, New South Wales, a new parent company, Australian Portland Cement Co. Pty Ltd, was registered. McCann was chairman and also general manager (managing director from 1946) of Australian Cement Ltd until shortly before his death.

     Wesley supervised modernization of the plant, including installation of the company's first rotary kiln in 1912 and of a second, using the superior 'wet' process, in 1914. Horse-drawn transport of raw materials gave way to an aerial ropeway in 1912 and to a company railway in 1928. He continued

modernisation until in 1961 plant capacity stood at 500,000 tons a year compared with an output of 2,000 tons in 1905. Wesley maintained interests in pastoral and farming industries and many social organisations until his death on 20 January 1961.

I welcome comments and corrections

by members of the McCann family.

I believe our Fyansford community benefits greatly

from an increased awareness of your contributions.

Man seems to be poised

between the animal Kingdom and the Heaven of the Angels. He may descend to the level of the animal or he may rise to the heights of an Angel. To use another and more terse simile, he may be bvrn mud, yet die marble.

Peter McCann

Preface to History of Descendants of Peter McCann...

Remember to click image to enlargen

Sharing McCann family Images From The Past

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Most businesses begin as very small enterprises. That’s how it was when Peter McCann established the Australian Portland Cement Co. Ltd. in 1889 and then Australian Portland Cement Co. Pty. Ltd. in 1905. This remarkable series of early photographs of the original Batesford quarry, show Peter’s sons, Sidney and Wesley in the quarry.

Just as man

is always anxious to find the sources of great rivers, the beginning of great fortunes, the founding of great nations and cities, and indeed, the origin of everything, so I feel impelled to write these few facts concerning my somewhat eventful life I feel that the story will at least be interesting to the members of my own family when I have passed away. As the facts of my life are known only to me they would unless recorded, die with me.

Peter McCann

Preface to History of Descendants of Peter McCann...

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A unique perspective that is well worth reading...

 

I found this to be a remarkably detailed insight into one chapter in our history; written from the personal perspective of key players in Fyansford’s development.

It reflects the attitudes and mores of a culture that prevailed at that moment in time with the content spanning the period from the late 1700s, a mere eleven years after the first settlers arrived, to the early 1900s.

 

These writings should be viewed through the eyes of the writers. This story describes in very human terms the adventures of Peter McCann Snr and his subsequent family ~ as recorded by his grandson, Peter McCann Jnr, with assistance from, and a posthumous contribution by McCann Snr’s great-grandson Wesley Burrett McCann.

While I  appreciate the need for family privacy, I trust contemporary McCanns will understand the importance of such documents as historic markers. If, however, they do object to my drawing attention to this piece of history I shall withdraw the link.

McCann Memorials

Primary sources:

  • History of descendants of Peter McCann who landed in Australia in 1799 and the establishment of the cement industry and its development in Victoria

           W.B. McCann

            Self-published: Geelong, 1943

            National Library of Australia

  • McCann, Wesley Burrett (1874–1961) 

             Philip McKay

                  Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • A Journey to Destiny ~  1890-1990 

             John McNeill

                  Australian Cement Limited

 

 

Background Credits

John Mayall and The Bluesbreakers ~ Mists Of Time   My own love…