1891: James Ferguson Williams (1877-1959)

James Ferguson Williams (1877-1959), Stained Glass Artist and former member of the Ferguson & Urie stained glass company of North Melbourne circa 1891-1898.

James Ferguson Williams is recognised as a member of the historic Ferguson & Urie stained glass company of North Melbourne circa 1891 – 1898.

In my early research of South Australian stained glass I had seen many references to a stained-glass artist named “J. F. Williams” in relation to the H. L. Vosz and later the Clarkson Ltd stained-glass company, but it never occurred to me at the time that he was the grandson of James Ferguson (1918-1894) from the historic North Melbourne stained-glass firm Ferguson & Urie.

The key to this family history revelation was found by pure chance in the guest book of St George’s Anglican Church at Queenscliff in Victoria. I had taken an Aunt & Uncle there to see the magnificent cycle of stained glass windows by our ancestor James Ferguson of the Colonial Victorian stained glass company Ferguson & Urie 1853-1899.

I had been to St Georges many times, and also signed the guest book. On this occasion, my aunt had been looking at the names further back in the book and found a vital clue. On the 13th of March 2014 there was an entry by visitors named Marion Ferguson Cullen and Gavin MacSwiney from London:

“…we were tracing James Ferguson my great-great grandfathers’ history, knowing about his stained glass window business & were incredibly fortunate that Wendy gave us access to this magnificent church with the best exposition if his windows. Stunning beauty – & wonderful to have this link with my g-g-gfa. Marion F. Cullen”[1]

My first question was, who is this? I have been researching the family tree for more than a decade and this name hadn’t been revealed to me in any branch. Could this visitor hold some more clues to the Ferguson & Urie company?

A snail mail address was supplied in the guest book but no email and so I began the long slow process of written communication via the traditional post. By the time I had packaged up my parcel for the UK it was quite an epistle.

Nearly a year passed before I received a reply. Marion & Gavin had been traveling the world and their mail had been piling up at their home in London.

Amongst Marion’s first correspondence was this significant clue as to where James Ferguson Williams gained his experience in the stained-glass business:

“I had known about the stained-glass business from an early age as my mother had told me family stories, although some of them were a little vague or inaccurate as family memories passed on tend to be. I was unaware that there was a partner Urie[2], until some years later. Although James Ferguson was my Gt Gt Grandfather, he always seemed a familiar person to me as my maternal grandfather James Williams had moved to live with him when his father, Edward Williams, died.  Edward’s widow, Marion (nee Ferguson), who lived in Royal Parade Parkville, was left fairly destitute and the story we were told was that the lawyers handling the estate disappeared with all the money. She and all her six children moved to live with her father in “Ayr Cottage” Parkville.  I was told there were other cousins also living there but don’t know any more about this.  I am not sure how old my Grandfather was when he moved, as currently I don’t have the date of death of his father Edward, but he spoke warmly of being there, and developed a life- long interest in stained glass.  He studied at the Melbourne School of Art and specialised in design and stained glass in particular.  For most of his career he worked as a designer and then a director for Clarkson[3], a specialist leadlight company in Adelaide.” [4]

On the 20th March 1889 Edward Williams[5] died at Inglewood Victoria leaving his wife Marion with no further financial means. Marion’s six children were Edward Sydney (c.1875-1946), James Ferguson (1877-1859), Jane Grant, (1872-1908), Annie (1873-1948), Elsie Marion (1882-1966), and Percy Alexander (1883-1952). A seventh child, Francis died in infancy in 1884.

Edward was buried in the family plot at the Melbourne General Cemetery. His wife Marion and the children moved back to Melbourne to live with their grandfather James Ferguson at his home “Ayr Cottage” at Leonard Street in Parkville.

The two eldest Williams boys, Edward and James, were apprenticed to their grand-fathers stained glass firm, Ferguson & Urie. James had the artistic talent to become a stained-glass artist in the firm. His elder brother Edward’s trade in the company is not known at this stage but in later years in Adelaide he was specified as “Glass Estimator”.

In 1894 their grandfather James Ferguson had died and it was now increasingly obvious that the Ferguson & Urie Stained Glass company was in decline. In mid-1898 Edward and James Williams left Melbourne and headed for Adelaide in South Australia.

James enrolled as a student at the Adelaide School of Design to continue his art education.

At the Students Exhibition in September 1898, attended by the Governor of South Australia, he received accolades in the Figure Detail and Anatomy section as well as the Charcoal art section. He was also mentioned alongside another, soon-to-be-famous, art student named Hans Heyson. [6]

Adelaide’s “Century Exhibition”, held in March 1899, gives the first indication that James, and presumably his brother Edward, had joined the H. L. Vosz firm in Adelaide.

“…The first two entries in the catalogue – embossed glass, and painted and fired glass, by Mr. J. F. Williams, are to be found in Mr. H. L. Vosz’s stand. From point of merit they justify the position they take in the catalogue, and they do much to make Mr. Vosz’s stand the artistic exhibit that it is. A portion of the wall has been removed to show the stained glass and lead lights off to advantage, and one cannot but notice the fine effect that has been produced. The large leadlight window that has been formed is most brilliantly coloured. The principal panel represents a figure on horseback, clad in ancient picturesque costume, leaving his home, with two hounds running alongside the horse. For a bright piece of work the colours chosen are most suitable, and these, as well as the designing and drawing, reflect great credit on the taste and ability of Mr. Williams, the firm’s artist. Below this is a picture of St. Patrick driving snakes out of Ireland, a cathedral showing in the distance. Two other excellent panels are charming landscape pictures, and show to what a high degree the art of glass-staining has been brought…” [7]

A tabloid article published in August 1915[8] indicates the year 1898 is likely to be the accurate year as to when the Williams brothers were engaged by the Vosz company. James is credited with starting up the new stained-glass department of the business where he became the chief designer and glass painter.  Given the very close timeframe from when they left Melbourne and joined H. L. Vosz, it seems likely that they may have arranged their employment via correspondence with the firm before they left Melbourne.

James was still studying art at the Adelaide School of Design whilst simultaneously running the stained-glass department for H. L. Vosz. In April 1899 one of his stained-glass window designs was selected as the best in the art section. [9]

In April 1900, James was awarded a Silver Medal for his “stained glass, painted and fired glass, and Lead Lights”. Controversially, one of the judges in this section at the exhibition was E. F. Troy, an Adelaide artist, and decorator with his own firm producing stained-glass windows in competition with H. L. Vosz. [10]

Two months later In June the H. L. Vosz company took advantage of their accolades and prizes awarded at the Century Exhibition by shining a light on the skills of the employees;

“My Employes Secured Three First and Three Second Prizes at the late Century Exhibition for LEADED LIGHTS AND STAINED GLASS, also First and Second Prize for BEVELLED GLASS…” [11]

These accolades were the kickstart the Stained-Glass department required, and the business began receiving significant commissions. The stained glass designs of J. F. Williams began appearing in Churches and private homes all over South Australia.

At the age of 28 James married Nellie Clark Burgess on the 25th of March 1905 at the Pirie-street Methodist Church in Adelaide[12]. They had three children, Jack Corbin in 1906, Jean Ferguson in 1908, and Marion Ruth in 1913. Jean was the one that had artistic talents like her father and her daughter Marion recalled:

“…She won a scholarship to the Adelaide School of Art…She did not pursue a career in art for very long, although she told me she spent some time in stained glass window design…She completed nursing training and spent 6 years abroad with the Australian nursing forces in WW2, and later in life returned to her first love of painting and drawing[13]

Nothing more is known about Jean’s return to her love of painting and drawing after WW2.

Some of the significant windows in South Australia by J. F. Williams during the H. L. Vosz period include:

1902: St Bede’s, Semaphore. H. L. Vosz Ltd. Depiction of St Bede by J. F. Williams.

1903: Good Shepherd, Bowden, Adelaide. Trooper Horsfall Boer War memorial window, H. L. Vosz Ltd by J. F. Williams.

1903: Adelaide School of Mines. Depicts the Armorial bearings of Sir Langton Bonython, the Marquis of Linlithgow (Earl of Hopetown), Lord Tennyson, and the Lieut-Governor (Sir Samuel Way). Other depict the images of Watt, Newton, Stephenson Bessemer, Lord Kelvin, Faraday and Wren. H. L. Vosz Ltd by J. F. Williams.

1906: Immaculate Conception, Port Adelaide.  H. L. Vosz Ltd, twelve windows designed & executed by J. F. Williams.

1908: St Albans, Gladstone.  H. L. Vosz Ltd, three light window executed by J. F. Williams. 

1909: St Raphael’s, Parkside. H. L. Vosz Ltd, designed by J. F. Williams (also other works at same church).

1909: Methodist ladies College, Wayville. H. L. Vosz Ltd. Four windows depicting Literature, Art, Poetry and Music under supervision of J. F. Williams.

1909: All Saint’s, Hindmarsh. H. L. Vosz Ltd under supervision J. F. Williams. Three light Window depicting the Nativity, Crucifixion and Ascension.

1910: Methodist Church, Kent Town. H. L. Vosz Ltd, under supervision of J. F. Williams. The “Lathlean” family memorial window depicting the enthroned Christ holding the Globus Cruciger.

1911: St Raphael’s, Parkside. St Patrick & St Bridgid windows by H. L. Vosz Ltd under the supervision of J. F. Williams 1911.

1912: St Laurence’s, North Adelaide. H. L. Vosz Ltd, under the supervision of J. F. Williams. The Rev Bannon & MacLean memorial windows.

1913: St Raphael’s, Parkside. Two windows depicting Archangel St Raphael and Gabriel.  St Laurence, North Adelaide. Six Sanctuary windows depicting St. Catherine of Sienna, St Catherine De Ricci, St Rose, St Vincent, St Thomas, and St Dominic.

Under increasing anti-German sentiment in the lead-up to WW1 it was decided to change the name of the Vosz company. In August 1915 an Extraordinary General Meeting was held and it was resolved to change the company name to that of the Managing Director, Mr. Alfred Ernest Clarkson, and trade under the name Clarkson Ltd.[14]

“BRITISH NAME PREFERRED. CLARKSON INSTEAD OF VOSZ… A smoke social was held at Bricknell’s Cafe on Friday night to celebrate the changing of the name of the firm to H. L. Vosz, Limited, to Clarkson, limited. There was a large gathering of shareholders and employees, and the chairman of directors (Mr Alfred Wilkinson) presided… Mr. J. F. Williams, an employee of the firm for 17 years. also spoke to the toast…” [15]

From circa September 1915, all the stained-glass windows produced by the Vosz company would then be recognised under the name of Clarkson Ltd.

Some of the stained-glass windows made under the Clarkson Ltd company name include:

1918: Adelaide Tourist Bureau Windows

1920: Malvern Methodist Church, Soldiers Memorial window.

1920: The Honour Roll at the Peace Exhibition containing flags, laurels, and wreaths.

Outside of the stained-glass business, James was a keen Lawn Bowler like his brother Edward. A few months after the company name changed to Clarkson Ltd, the Governor of South Australia and his select team played bowls at the Sturt club against a team Captained by J. F. Williams. The Governor’s crack team supposedly gave them a thorough flogging on the rink [16]

James was still the head of the stained-glass department in 1915 and in 1922 another change in the company structure occurred which meant a significant promotion for James:

“In a recent re-adjustment of the directorate of Clarkson, Limited, Mr. J. F. Williams, of the Wallpaper and leaded light departments, was appointed to the board, which now comprises Messrs, A. E. Clarkson (Chairman), W. Douglas Ure, Robert Weymiss, and J. F. Williams.” [17]

The following year, in January 1923 Clarkson Ltd celebrated the 75th Anniversary of the firm:

“The directors of Clarkson, Limited, of Adelaide, entertained employees and other guests at the Arcadia Cafe on Friday night in a celebration of the seventy-fifth anniversary of the firm…” [18]

In the first quarter of 1924 James and A. E. Clarkson did a world tour to discover the emerging trends in decoration, wallpapers, and stained glass;

Mr. A. E. Clarkson and Mr. J. F. Williams, who are on a world tour, had an exceptionally good time in America, and were overwhelmed with invitations to dinners and receptions. They are now touring England.”[19]

In September 1927 James was appointed to the Industrial Board for Glass Workers[20]. Less than a decade later, on the 26th April 1936, tragedy struck the Clarkson family and in turn everyone at Clarkson Ltd;

“Mr. A. E. Clarkson, managing director of Clarkson Ltd., disappeared from the deck of the motor ship Moonta in the early hours of yesterday morning while the vessel was at sea on its way to Port Lincoln…” [21]

Albert Clarkson’s cruise was supposed to be a convalescent holiday voyage to recover from a recent bout of double pneumonia. Two weeks earlier he had celebrated his 60th birthday. At 04:30am on April 26th, 1936, he was last seen on the deck of the ship Moonta in his dressing gown and afterward never seen again.

Two months after the tragedy the Clarkson board convened;

Sir Wallace Bruce was appointed chairman of directors of Clarkson Limited, and Mr. L. S. Clarkson has been made managing director in succession to his late father (Mr. A. E. Clarkson). Other directors are Messrs W. D. Ure, J. F. Williams, and Robert Wemyss.” [22]

On the 27th of May 1946, James’ brother Edward died. Edward had been in a car accident on the 22nd of April and suffered a significant but not life-threatening injury to his leg (at the time). His cause of death a month later was later specified as heart failure. His role in his department at Clarkson was “Glass Estimator” but his original trade when at Ferguson & Urie is not known.

In 1948 Clarkson’s celebrated their Centenary Year. In the photo below, James Ferguson Williams sits prominently in the center of the photo in the lighter grey suit.

Strangely enough the famous cricketer Sir Donald Bradman was a director of the firm in 1952.

On the 24th of July 1959, James Ferguson Williams died of a heart attack whilst visiting his daughter Jean at Glen Iris in Victoria[23]. He was 82 years old.

James was cremated, and his ashes were interred at the Adelaide Centennial Park cemetery in South Australia [24] next to his wife Nellie Clarke (nee Burgess) who pre-deceased him a year earlier in 1958.

It’s quite remarkable to think that James Ferguson Williams began his career in stained-glass with his grandfather’s historical firm, Ferguson & Urie, in North Melbourne.

Ferguson & Urie was the oldest recorded commercial stained-glass company in Australia. James took his skills with him to South Australia and continued his art education and started up the Stained-Glass department of H. L. Vosz which later evolved into Clarkson Ltd where he became a director.

James was not only an enthusiastic pioneer in his stained-glass craft, he can rightly be attributed with paving the way for women to enter the medieval craft. A young aspiring artist named Nora Burden (1908-1992) was one of the earliest South Australian female artists to have been accepted into the field of stained-glass at Clarkson’s. In turn, Nora mentored Vanessa Rose Smith 1907-2005 (nee Lambe) as an artist at Clarkson. This may never have occurred if not for James Ferguson Williams.

Clarkson Ltd closed in 1960.


[1] Guest Book, St George’s Anglican Church, Queenscliff, Victoria, 13th March 2014

[2] In reference to James Urie of the Ferguson & Urie stained glass company of North Melbourne.

[3] The E. L. Vosz company became Clarkson’s in 1915.

[4] Marion Ferguson Cullen – via email 20170602

[5] Edward Williams (1843-1889). Came to Australia from Northern Wales circa 1854 aged 11.

[6] The Advertiser, Adelaide, SA, Thursday 8th September 1898, page 8

[7] The Advertiser, Adelaide, SA, Wednesday 21st March 1900, page 6.

[8] The Advertiser, Adelaide, SA, Saturday 14th August 1915, page 19.

[9] The Express & Telegraph, Adelaide, SA, Monday 10th April 1899, page 2.

[10] The Adelaide ‘Century Exhibition’ Chronicle, Adelaide, SA, Saturday 14th April 1900, page 19.

[11] The Advertiser, Adelaide, SA, Saturday 2nd June 1900, page 2.

[12] Chronicle, Adelaide, SA, Saturday 11th March 1905, page 50.

[13] Email from Marion Ferguson Cullen to Ray Brown 20190304

[14] The Advertiser, Adelaide, SA, Thursday 5th August 1915, page 2

[15] The Advertiser, Adelaide, SA, Saturday 14th August 1915, page 19.

[16] The Advertiser, Adelaide, SA, Wednesday 8th December 1915, page 10

[17] The Register, Adelaide, SA, Saturday 9th December 1922, page 8

[18] The Register, Adelaide, SA, Saturday 20th January 1923, page 13.

[19] Adelaide, SA, Wednesday 12th March 1924, page 16

[20] The Advertiser, Adelaide, SA, Tuesday 27th September 1927, page 21.

[21] The Advertiser, Adelaide, SA, Monday 27th April 1936, page 15.

[22] The Advertiser, Adelaide, SA, Wednesday 10th June 1936, page 20.

[23] 4 Hortense St, Glen Iris, Victoria (then listed as Burwood).

[24] Centenial Park, East Area, Rose Bed N7, Position 011. (tenure expired 31st July 2009).

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2 comments on “1891: James Ferguson Williams (1877-1959)

  1. Thanks for your comment Bronwyn. The Ferguson & Urie connection with James Ferguson Williams was under my nose the whole time and I had been sitting on a mountain of research notes for a long time so I’m glad I finally got it posted. By all accounts, J. F. Williams was a very talented and friendly man, and as a director of Clarkson Ltd in later years he certainly paved the way for women to enter the stained-glass trade with Nora Burden and Vanessa Rose Smith (Lambe).

  2. Shining a light not only on Ferguson & Urie, but on their significant influence and legacy through the Vosz/Clarkson connection in Adelaide. I might suggest that this was South Australia’s opportunity to develop a local industry, as Victoria and NSW had already done. (I know there were other firms before and after, but many windows continued to be imported from Britain, long after that practice was on the wane in other states.) Possibly the 1930s depression brought it all to a halt once again. James Williams certainly did them proud.

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