Teeth or Timepieces — Choose your repairs in 1840s Launceston

During the 1840s, Launceston citizens had the option of visiting a former convict watchmaker and jeweller to obtain artificial teeth — something very difficult to imagine today. Both timepieces and humans have teeth that need repairing, and the tools used in both professions are very similar. This observation has made Launceston horologist Graham Mulligan contemplate, at times, whether he chose the wrong career.

James Courtney, ex-convict, jeweller, goldsmith, and mechanical dentist in 19th century Launceston presented as an interesting, multi-talented entrepreneurial businessman who didn’t waste time. He began his life in about 1802 in Lancaster, England, likely trained as a jeweller and goldsmith and his brother as a printer. In his early 20s, he was found guilty of stealing broadcloth from a dwelling house at Handsworth and sentenced to seven years transportation. A petition for a pardon was unsuccessful, and in May 1823, he was moved from the county gaol at Stafford to the hulks at Chatham to await transportation to Van Diemen’s Land. James departed England on 1 September 1823 on the ship Sir Godfrey Webster, one of 180 alleged criminals expelled from their homeland.

On 30 December 1823, James arrived in Van Diemen’s Land. He began his sentence as a labourer at the Government Commissariat, but by 1827, his skills came to the attention of Dr James Ross, head of the Government Printing Office. Due to the dissolution of a business partnership between Dr Ross and George Howe as government printers and editors of the Hobart Town Gazette, Ross desperately needed a skilled workman. He sought a transfer of James to his service, which was approved. James may have had some knowledge of the printing industry, with a brother in England working in the trade, and undoubtedly, he would have enhanced his skills during his time with Ross. The only punishment on James’s convict conduct record while assigned to Ross was 25 lashes for absence from his master’s premises at night.

After serving his sentence, James did not waste time setting up a business in Hobart in May 1830. He advertised as a goldsmith, silversmith, and working jeweller, starting next door to cabinetmaker Mr Woolley on Liverpool Street. By the end of the year, he also advertised rooms to let ‘in a pleasant part of Bathurst Street.’ Another move took place to a house on Liverpool Street in October 1831, opposite the old Waterloo Mill and former premises of chemist Mr Brown. James also offered plate repairs and purchases of old gold and silver.

In June 1833, James left Van Diemen’s Land for Sydney, where he married widow Mary Naylor in 1834 at St James Church. By January 1835, he and Mary had returned to Van Diemen’s Land, where James commenced business in Charles Street, Launceston, opposite Mr Sherwin’s Stores. He again advertised as a working jeweller, goldsmith, and silversmith, offering repairs and manufacture of clocks, watches, and jewellery. After six months, James relocated to Brisbane Street, opposite the Treasurer’s Office, promoting the manufacture of wedding rings and mourning rings worn in memory of the deceased. Additionally, he offered engraving and chasing — a form of embossing and decorating in silverwork.

Launceston chemist Mr Sanderson of Elizabeth Street announced in October 1841 that Launceston had an artist in residence who could replace missing teeth with artificial ones. The following year, James, now located on Elizabeth Street next door to Mr Sanderson, stated he would practice as a mechanical dentist, manufacturing artificial and natural-looking teeth — an interesting addition to the business! James also offered adjustments and ratings for chronometers, sextants, quadrants, and compasses.

Besides being a multi-talented businessman, James’s involvement in his local community was varied. For instance, in 1843, he sold tickets at his Elizabeth Street premises for a sacred music concert at the Independent Chapel on Tamar Street, and in 1849, he even signed a petition stating he would not employ male or female convicts. Furthermore, in September 1856, he gave evidence in court that helped identify stolen jewellery from a recent robbery at watchmaker Ferdinand Riva’s.

His wife Mary died on 1 December 1861, and a few weeks later, James stated he would be holding an auction at his premises in Frankland Street West and leaving Launceston. The items advertised included a dentist’s bench and assorted furniture.

James died on 26 August 1873, at his residence in Frankland Street, Launceston, from paralysis (most likely a stroke), recorded as a 71-year-old jeweller.

Despite James’s convict past in the colony, he earned respect in the community. A death notice published in The Cornwall Chronicle on 27 August 1873 described him as “a man universally estimated by all who had dealings with him, a skilful jeweller and honest tradesman whose loss will be greatly felt, and a man of large heart, and charitable to the poor.”


© Sallie Mulligan, April 2024.

Image 1: Clock teeth, Graham Mulligan, April 2024.
Image 2: Adobe S/210290401
Image 3: Extract, Ancestry, Convict Record CON78/1/1.