DEWEY, ELLEN (1831-1916)

Full Birth Name: Ellen Varney
Married Name & Dates: Mrs Thomas Webb Dewey (1852-1898)
Profession: Proprietor, Photographer, Photographic artist
Professional Years: February 1862 to June 1864
Where Practised: Dewey’s Portrait Saloon, Hunter St, Newcastle, NSW
The Newcastle Chronicle and Hunter River District News, 26 February 1862


Mrs Dewey, Photographic Artist



Ellen Varney, who was Mrs Ellen Dewey when she and her husband arrived in Australia in 1853, would never have imagined that she would become one of the colony’s earliest female photographers. But in Newcastle, a regional town in the British Colony of New South Wales, not only was she a female photographer but she was one of the inaugural photographers for the town and the region.

In 1862, almost 10 years after her arrival, Ellen opened Mrs Dewey’s Portrait Saloon opposite Rouse’s Hotel in Hunter Street, Newcastle. Her studio would shut its doors after only 2 years and 8 months, as the Deweys had decided to move on to other ventures, yet her short time working in photography provided Ellen Dewey with an independence she would rely on in later life.

Family Background

Ellen Varney was the first of ten children born to Mary Cowdrey and John Varney in Henley-on-Thames, a town in the English shire of Oxford. She was the only daughter to survive into old age, and the only one to migrate to Australia. Ellen’s father, John Varney, was a grocer and the cow keeper on the Fawley Court Farm in Buckinghamshire.[1] He married Mary Cowdrey in 1830 and Ellen came along in 1831. She grew up with her family in the Cow Keeper’s Cottage.

Ellen’s early life may have been idyllic, growing up in the English countryside until she was old enough to attend to farm work. But it was her mother’s illness and death from cancer in June 1851 which provided a turning point in Ellen’s life. As the eldest daughter, and as a young woman at 19 years old, Ellen’s role would have been to care for her dying mother with the expectation she may need to take on maternal duties. The latter did not happen. John Varney’s response to Mary’s death was to remarry within six months, and thus had abandoned the customary 12 month mourning period. It was considered highly indecent for a spouse to mourn for less time, let alone marry. [2]

London and Thomas Webb Dewey

Both her mother’s death and her father’s remarriage may have provided Ellen with the incentive to become self-reliant and this was evidenced by her move to London. This act of independence would benefit her when she realised a career in photography in the next decade and on the other side of the planet.

In 1852, at the age of 21, Ellen married Thomas Webb Dewey in London. Webb, a 26-year-old carpenter and builder was rebuilding his business from bankruptcy. Within a year of their marriage the young couple applied for Assisted Immigration to Australia and were indentured to the Sydney Railway Company for two years to work on the building of the railway at a wage of 5 shillings a day. [3] Two years after her mother’s death Ellen was planning a new life in a new country with her new husband. They, and four hundred other applicants, left London on 11 August 1853 aboard the Herefordshire and arrived four months later in Port Jackson on 10 December 1853. [4]

New Life in Australia

For two years the couple moved wherever the Sydney Railway Company required them. In 1855, when they had completed their commitment to the railway company, Ellen and Thomas established a home on Sydney’s Elizabeth Street, and got down to the task of earning a living. Thomas established his building business, but, like many others, fell into financial trouble, unable to pay rent and failing to complete buildings works. [5]

April 5 1856 SMH Dewey
The Sydney Morning Herald, 5 April 1856, p. 7

Their fortune took a turn for the better after they moved to the new rural settlement of St. Leonards on the North Shore of Sydney Harbour. At St. Leonards Thomas Dewey invested in their future—as well as the area’s future—by building an apartment block with open verandas that gave residents views of the harbour and the Pacific Ocean. Another appealing feature of the apartment block was its location close to the ferry landing at Milson’s Point. [6]

The couple also took part in civic meetings to make the area a municipality. [7]  They helped raise funds for a local militia to protect against any French invasion, [8] and in 1859 had attended a meeting to establish a Mechanics’ Institute/School of Arts for St. Leonards. [9] The Deweys were financially, socially and emotionally involved in their community.

But once again their finances were overextended and they lapsed into insolvency, this time more seriously than the last. They had assets totalling £1175 but could not obtain finances to cover the short fall on a debt totalling £1191.16s.6d. [10]

In the second half of 1861, the couple packed up and moved north to the district of Newcastle in search of greater financial security.

Mrs Dewey’s Portrait Saloon

Within a few months of their arrival in Newcastle, the Dewey’s participated in and organised local events, notably the promotion for a School of Arts to be set up.[11] Thomas was a strong advocate and supporter of the School of Arts, which was indeed established with the agreement of the townspeople. Thomas may have hoped to become a senior committee member on the School’s board, but, despite his advocacy, had failed to be elected to any committee position.[12]

The following year, however, proved to hold in store more important events for the Deweys —and for Ellen in particular.  Perhaps she decided to ensure some level of financial security after years of financial ruin and sought her own income. Whatever the reason, Ellen opened a photographic studio in her home on Bolton Street, her first newspaper advertisement appearing on 1 February 1862. [13]

Feb 1 Dewey 1 Feb 1862
The Newcastle Chronicle and Hunter River District News, 1 February 1862, p. 1.

At the time there was one established photographer in Newcastle, Mr Alexander Smithers. Smithers opened a new studio, the ‘New Skylight Portrait Gallery’ on Bolton Street, near the office of The Chronicle sometime in late 1861. His previous studio came up for lease via auction, notifications for which appeared from mid-January 1862.

Smithers’ old studio had two shop fronts and included a private entrance and premises, plus its own fresh water well.[14] It would be reasonable to presume it also had some of the infrastructure necessary for a photographic studio, such as processing and reception rooms. The Deweys bid and won, and on 26 February Mrs Dewey’s Portrait Saloon was open for custom.

When and where Ellen—who advertised herself as “Mrs Dewey, Photographic Artist”—had gained her photographic experience is not known. She ensured that potential customers knew she was opposite Rouse’s Hotel, a popular hotel and bar. She charged 2 shillings, the equivalent today of around $5.65,[15] for a portrait.

The success of Ellen’s business was such that, almost five months later in July, she was able to refurbish and provide a “commodious” studio for the taking of portraits. She also updated her services to allow clients to have their portraits printed on paper, leather or any other material suitable for sending in the post. But then only a few months later, a surprise notice in The Newcastle Chronicle, published on 18 October 1862, revealed Mrs Dewey was ill and would have to close her Saloon.  As it turned out Ellen’s condition was pregnancy—she was three months pregnant with a son, Albert, who was born in the Hunter Street premises on 23 April 1863.

Oct 18 1862
The Newcastle Chronicle and Hunter River District News, 18 October 1862, p. 1.

During this time the photographic business was not necessarily closed but actually sublet to Maitland photographer Elija Hart, who enjoyed a good reputation. Meanwhile, Dewey’s Coffee Rooms, a confectionery business, in the adjoining shop of the Hunter Street premises was opened.

When Albert was eleven months old, Ellen decided to return to work as a photographer and re-opened her studio on 28 March 1864. Ellen Dewey was back in business with a new Portrait Gallery that had been built at the same address, as well as up-to-date facilities that made her work easier and provided the high-quality work her patrons expected. Ellen now advertised that she produced cartes de visites, which suggests she did not do so previously. [16]

A few months later in June, another Dewey business opened, Dewey’s Registry for Servants, as an adjunct to her photographic business.

It’s not clear when Ellen closed her photography business in Newcastle, although no advertising for it appeared after June 1864. What is likely however is that she closed the business because of her husband’s persistent financial woes.

Thomas Dewey’s Financial Woes

It looked like things were on the up for the Deweys but they seemed to be dogged by financial trouble wherever they settled. In the middle of 1866 and just before Christmas 1867, Thomas was again found to be insolvent. The latter occurred in Singleton, about 90 kilometres inland of Newcastle, where the Deweys had moved sometime in the previous 18 months. Thomas, now a confectioner/baker, had once again overextended the family’s finances. [17]

There were other instances of Thomas’ instability, two of them involving court appearances. The first was for allowing his horse to stray[18] and the second for malicious libel[19]. He also took off to go prospecting with a friend, and it was reported they had discovered a considerable lode of the metallic element antimony in Nundle, a mining town 200 kilometres north of Singleton. [20]   Around this time Thomas took up residency in Nundle while Ellen and their son Albert remained in Singleton. It appears that the couple had separated.

Life After Separation

In Singleton, Ellen continued running the bakery and fast gained a reputation as a competent, reliable citizen who delivered on her commitments. [21]

She also developed other businesses, but not in photography. Ellen opened a ‘Registry Office for Servants’ in 1879 from her home on George Street, and became a draper, clothier and seller of fancy goods, which she undertook until May 1884. [22] By 1886 Ellen had moved into a new home on Glenmore Road in the Sydney suburb of Paddington from where she continued her businesses, both the fancy goods repository and a servants’ registry. [23]

Ellen’s life in Paddington was busy and her son, Albert, and his family lived nearby. Her husband, Thomas Dewey, had died in Tamworth on 10 November 1898. He was 73 years old. Ellen died at the age of 83 on 6 August 1916 in the State Hospital and Asylum in Newington. Her death certificate states she suffered senility and heart disease. She was buried on 9 August in the Independent Cemetery in Rookwood.




[1] Fawley Court Farm still stands today. There were a number of farm cottages and one for the Cow Keeper’s usage.  For more on the history of the Farm see:   accessed 12.58pm 6 July 2021

[2] Randolph Trumbach, The Rise of the Egalitarian Family: Aristocratic Kinship and Domestic Relations in Eighteenth-Century England, Academic Press, 1978. Although many of the mourning customs were established by the Aristocracy, all classes participated in mourning periods.

[3] Marriage Certificate: Year 1852 Quarter Dec District Kensington, vol 1A, p. 75; ‘Labour Market’, The Goulburn Herald and County of Argyle Advertiser, 3 December 1853, p. 4. A wage of 5 shillings a day would be 30 shillings or £1 10s for a six-day week.

[4] ‘Shipping Intelligence’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 12 December 1853, p. 4. A report on the arrival of the Herefordshire at Port Jackson.

[5]Empire (Sydney), 7 April 1855, p. 1. Dewey advertised for a carpenter to work with him on a construction at the corner of Brougham Place and Castlereagh Street; The Sydney Morning Herald, 5 April 1856, p. 7. The newspaper report suggests that the Deweys had fled their Elizabeth Street home and that their landlord, William Cooper, demanded his rent or he’d sell all the work tools.

[6] ‘Advertising’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 27 Sept 1860, p. 8.

[7] New South Wales Government Gazette, no 32, 16 February 1860. ‘Municipal Institutions, St Leonard’s East Petition’. PAGE

[8] ‘North Shore Rifles’, Empire (Sydney), 1 September 1860, p. 5.

[9] ‘School of Arts for St Leonard’s’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 18 October 1859, p. 5.

[10] ‘Insolvency Court’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 17 November 1860, p. 6.

[11] ‘The School of Arts’, The Newcastle Chronicle and Hunter River District News, 19 October 1861, p.2

[12] ibid.,  p.2

[13] ‘A Card’, The Newcastle Chronicle and Hunter River District News, 1 February 1862, p. 1.

[14] ‘Capital Investment’, The Newcastle Chronicle and Hunter River District News, 15 January 1862, p. 1.

[15] Accessed 6 July 2021 2.22pm

[16] The Newcastle Chronicle and Hunter River District News, 26 March 1864, p. 1. It is noteworthy that another woman also provided photographic services at this time: Miss Turton on Lake Macquarie Road, Newcastle.

[17] ‘Insolvency Proceedings: Meetings of Creditors’, Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser, 6 February 1868, p. 4.

[18] ‘Singleton, Police Court. Allowing Animals to Stray’, Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser, 6 February 1868, p. 4.

[19] ‘Apprehensions’, New South Wales Police Gazette and Weekly Record of Crime, 12 April 1871, p. 100.

[20] Antimony is used in the creation of creating metal alloys, see: accessed 6 July 2021 12.05pm

[21] ‘Singleton’, Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser, 15 December 1874, p. 3; and ‘Northern Agricultural Association’, Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser, 10 August 1875, p. 2.

[22] Singleton Argus, 1 March 1884, p. 3; and Singleton Argus, 24 May 1884, p. 3.

[23] The Sydney Morning Herald, 1 April 1887, p. 14; The Sydney Morning Herald, 15 April 1887 p. 14; and The Sydney Morning Herald, 8 July 1887, p. 12.