Ballarat's first town clerk
On the 14th January 1856 Joseph Comb was appointed town clerk at an annual salary of £200 on the casting vote of the Chairman of the Ballarat Council James Oddie. The other appointment at this meeting was a building surveyor James Baird. The names of these two long serving officers appear frequently in VPRS 2500/P0 Council Correspondence which is in the process of being indexed by volunteers at the Ballarat Archives Centre of the Public Records Office of Victoria. They were the executive officers who laid the foundations for the City of Ballarat and both have streets named after them to the east of the Ballarat Old Cemetery either side of the railway line. Unfortunately neither of these gentlemen rate a mention in the history of Ballarat which was commissioned by the Ballarat City Council in 1978 but they do appear in earlier histories such as History of Ballarat by WB Withers published in 1870 at which time both the town clerk and building surveyor were still serving in their original positions.
Shortly before his resignation in 1870 Joseph Comb made the remark that a quarter of a million pounds had passed through his hands. He was in charge of the offices and dealt with the financial affairs of the municipality which by 1870 were becoming precarious because of the huge overdraft and contingent liabilities. The council was committed to expensive projects such as the construction of water reserves and the building of the third and present day town hall but the major difficulty was a loan for the building of the Daylesford Road for the Bungaree Road Board. The Ballarat Council guaranteed this loan in 1867 but Bungaree defaulted on the repayments and Joseph Comb was required to attend the Supreme Court in Melbourne on the 15th of March 1870 in the case of 'The Mayor etc of Ballaarat versus The Bungaree District Road Board'.
Just two weeks earlier in a letter dated 2nd March 1870 the Mayor Thomas Cowan had written 'with much pain' to Joseph Comb requesting his resignation, as a council resolution had instructed the mayor to do so. It seems that Joseph may have held onto the position until the following year when The Ballarat Star of 9 May 1871 reported as follows: "The City Council yesterday voted £800 - £200 cash and £600 by bill at six months - to be placed in the hands of Messrs R Lewis and James Oddie, trustees, to be invested for the benefit of the family of Mr Joseph Comb, who now retires from the office of city-clerk. In connection with the proceedings, the members of council moving in the matter spoke of the ability and honesty displayed by Mr Comb during his fifteen years of office as town and city clerk."
The same edition of The Ballarat Star also reported: "The election of a clerk for the Ballarat City Council in the room of Mr Joseph Comb, took place on Monday, when there were fifty-three applications opened. As may have been anticipated, the choice of the council soon fell upon a select few, when the voting commenced and when two had to be put to the vote they were Mr Richard Ford and Mr Thomas Morres. The vote was at last in favour of Mr Richard Ford, who is to resign all his present offices, and commence his new duties within a week."
A week later a letter to the editor of The Ballarat Star of 17 May 1871 by 'Ajax' began: "Sir, - Some weeks ago I had the honor to call your attention to the then premeditated, and since perpetrated, act of flagrant injustice of the City Council, viz, the exacted resignation and subsequent compensation of the town-clerk." 'Ajax' was critical of the council but not of Joseph Comb - "I do not wish to insinuate by this that Mr Comb is not entitled to consideration at the hands of his townsmen for his long and honest servitude; but it is to be regretted that the consideration should take to all appearance the shape and hue of hush-money from the people's representative. It is now currently reported, and as implicitly believed, that the offer of £800 to Mr Comb is to insure his silence on that very fishy affair, the "Grimmitt slaughter-yard business," and other matters, that it is not politic to be made public." In his concluding statement, 'Ajax' wrote, "I trust that when the members of the council thoroughly understand how unpopular their late innovations are, to avoid the threatened impeachment, they will at once, and with good grace, rescind them."
So Joseph Comb's 'golden handshake' became a matter of public controversy and on the 22 May 1871 The Ballarat Star reported that Councillor WC Smith had given notice of motion to rescind the vote of £800. He also proposed calling a public meeting of ratepayers to consider the council vote.
The Ballarat Star stated that, " ... we have no doubt that the generosity of the burgesses would have acted fairly by an old officer who, whatever were his foibles, did not betray his trust so scandalously as some men in office have. Whatever the late town-clerk was, he was honest, and that is, we are sorry to say, something noticeable in these times. The burgesses would remember also that their late officer is past his youth, and has a wife and family dependent on him and in taking leave of so old an official, they would not weigh with carping niceness or a too rigorous equity his claims upon their consideration, but would be inclined to do the handsome as well as the reasonable thing."
The editor of The Ballarat Star also speculated that, "The burgesses may say - "Well, we have just seen go out of office our old town-clerk, who was with us from the beginning; we will say nothing of what might have been, but will mark our sense of a man who never tampered with our funds, if he was sometimes remiss in his office, and we will give his wife and little ones some token of our respect for honesty in money matters in an age when swindling, embezzlement, and robbery are not too severely regarded." All other considerations apart, so old an official would, had he been a civil servant, have been entitled to a retiring allowance. ... We advise the council ... to comply with Councillor Smith's motion [to] suspend the vote and to convene a meeting of burgesses for the purpose of having the matter disposed of by a vote of those who have to find the money."
The size of the payout was questioned when many people were experiencing financial hardship due to a downturn in the economy. It is likely that a compromise was reached but the year of the following document is not certain. It appears to 1870 but 1871 may make more sense.
On the 16th of May 'last past' Joseph Comb signed a release and did 'forever discharge the corporation styled the Mayor, Councillors and Citizens of the City of Ballarat' from further liability on the consideration that a sum of £460 pounds be paid to trustees James Oddie and Robert Lewis at the request of and by the direction of Joseph Comb. This was thought to be the equivalent of his annual salary at that time.
What amount of money Joseph Comb actually received, if any, is a matter for speculation but he was certainly not wealthy. For the rest of his life until his death on the 14th March 1890 at the age of 71 years Joseph Comb remained in Ballarat but lived well away from public life.
Obituary of Joseph Comb
The Ballarat Star 13 Mar 1890
"A well-known resident of Ballarat, Mr Joseph Coombe (sic), first municipal clerk in the city of Ballarat, died at a late hour on Friday night after a lingering illness. For a long while past the deceased had been in poor circumstances, and he was at times compelled to seek assistance from the friends of early days. When in good health, and when things fared well with him, Mr Coombes (sic) was physically a splendid specimen of manhood, and many in Ballarat have expressed regret at the great change brought about in his appearance by declining health and reverses in fortune. Deceased, who was advanced in years, leaves a widow."
Letters of administration for the estate of Joseph Comb, who died without leaving a will, show that his only asset was his wooden and brick house in Errard Street. This was sold and the proceeds were distributed to his widow (£170) and four children who each received £85. Probate was declared on the 26th of October 1892 more than two and a half years after his death.
Joseph Comb was born in Guildford, Surrey, England and immigrated to Victoria at the age of 35 years in November 1855 on the Queen of the Seas to join his brother, Thomas Satchwell Comb, resident of Ballarat, printer and later proprietor of the Evening Post. On 22 Jan 1862 Joseph aged 42 and a bachelor, married a 23 year old widow, Annie Maria Rosemann (nee Westwood). Joseph stated that he was the son of a Baptist Minister although across the marriage certificate is written, 'No religious declarations made'. They were married in the house of Mrs Moile, Sturt Street, Ballarat, according to the forms of the Presbyterian Church.
Joseph and Anna Maria had five children:
1. Emily Annie Comb b 1862 Ballarat, formed relationships abt 1887 with John Parker (Qld, NSW), and abt 1893 with John Jacob Hayhoe who she eventually married in her 40s.
2. Walter George Comb b 1864 Ballarat, m 1899 Cottesloe WA, Maud Mary Unwin. Walter died 4 Mar 1910 aged 43 of the Perth suburb of Claremont, buried Karrakatta Cemetery WA.
3. Charles Joseph Comb b 1866 Ballarat. (Informant at his father's death aged 24)
4. James Comb b 1869 Ballarat, died aged 2 hours, 6 Dec 1869, Errard Street Ballarat and lies in the same grave as his father.
5. David Comb b 1871 Ballarat. (Informant at his mother's death aged 44)
When Joseph's widow Annie Maria Comb died on the 6th of April 1915 aged 72 years, a magisterial inquiry found that her death was due to natural causes. Her son David who lived with his mother at 303 Windermere Street South stated that she had been ailing for many years with spinal and stomach troubles and had been confined to bed for the past twelve months. She had refused to be taken to the hospital and when a doctor attended her on the morning of her death she had already passed away.
A letter from Dunedin, New Zealand, from a family descended from Joseph's brother Thomas Satchwell Comb said that Thomas had immigrated to Victoria aged 27 years in 1843. To his first wife Catherine Ann (nee Barbor) he had at least 6 children and to his 2nd wife Ellen Rebecca (nee Dean) he had another 8. It is thought that there was a total of 17 children, 11 of whom died in infancy.
Joseph Comb was the last of six to be buried in the same grave in the Ballarat Old Cemetery. First was Ellen Comb the six month old daughter of Thomas Satchwell Comb in 1859, followed by Catherine Ann Comb (first wife of Thomas) aged 36 years in 1861, George Alfred Comb aged 6 mos in 1867 and Ernest Albert Comb aged 13 mos in 1869 (both sons of Thomas and his second wife Ellen), and James Comb aged 2 hours s/o of Joseph and Annie Maria Comb. Anna Maria Comb was buried in the Ballarat New Cemetery. It seems that her surviving children left Victoria.
Thomas Satchwell Comb left Ballarat about 1870 for Bendigo where he became a gold smelter. The NZ branch of the family immigrated in 1900.
Researched and written by Jennifer Burrell
Ballarat Old and New Cemetery Indexes.
Ballarat Post Office Directories, 1857, 1862, 1866, 1875, 1894, 1896.
The Ballarat Star, 9 May 1871, p2; 17 May 1871, p3-4, Letter to the Editor; 22 May 1871, p2, Editorial; 15 Mar 1890, Obituary.
History of Ballarat, WB Withers, first published 1870, facsimile edition 1999, , Ballarat Heritage Services, p 153, appointment of Joseph Comb.
PROV, Unassisted Immigration to Victoria 1852-1923, fiche 100, page 001, arrival of Joseph Comb.
PROV, VPRS 2500/P0, Item 20; 2 Mar 1870, resignation request; (undated) resignation; 14 Mar 1870, Supreme Court attendance; 16 May 1870/71 settlement.
PROV, VPRS/P2, Unit 347, File 50/202, 26 Oct 1892, Probate.
PROV, VPRS 24/P0/920, Inquest Deposition Files 1915/104.
Spielvogel Papers Vol 1 third edition, 2004, Ballarat Historical Society, p 135, appointment of Joseph Comb.
The Town Hall Ballaarat 100 years, 1970, Mary Sandow, Ballarat City Council, p 7 reproduction of a letter by Joseph Comb, 12 Feb 1856; p 22 Joseph Comb's remark about a quarter of a million pounds.
Victorian BDM Indexes, marriage certificate 1862/654, death certificate 1890/21446.