When James ‘Jimmy’ Verrills died in 1946, at the age of 83, he was described as ‘one of Sydney’s oldest and best known builders’. (Sydney Morning Herald, 5/10/1946)
Jimmy had built more than 300 homes including, reputedly, the first house in Palm Beach on the city's northern most periphery in 1911. He was a long time resident of North Sydney and his name is associated with at least 75 projects in the area. No job, it seems, was too big or too small; so Jimmy built everything from blocks of flats to houses to residential additions, and even a domestic ‘tennis pavilion’.
Verrills arrived in Sydney in 1885 as a 22 year old English immigrant from Sussex. That he came with his 21 year old wife, Annie, and their two young daughters suggests an intention to stay and make a new life in the colony. By 1906 the Verrills were living in Sutherland Street, Neutral Bay, and James was described as a carpenter. The following year they moved to No. 2 Reed Street, an address that was closer to Cremorne Point and probably more prestigious. In that house James and Annie raised three daughters and six sons. And there they grew a business called JG Verrills and Sons. Two of the boys, at least, were plumbers. Ernest was apprenticed to his father and John may also have learned his trade in the family business.
The Great War (1914-1919) brought hardship and suffering to the Verrill family, as it did to many Australian homes. Ernest joined up in 1915 and his brother John followed in 1917. Ernest was killed in action in October that year.
Jimmy worked throughout the war despite the absence of these two sons, but probably with the help of his other boys and perhaps his daughters. Much of the work was very local, in and around Cremorne Point. The years 1915 to 1919, when John returned from war, must have been busy for the name Verrill appears frequently in the North Sydney Council Building Application Files as the builder of several houses, and even a block of flats, in Milson Road, Rangers Road, and Spofforth Street.
Sometimes corners were cut. James was fined on at least two occasions, in 1911 and 1917, for erecting buildings that did not accord with the plans submitted to Council. The infringements were evidence, perhaps, of the pressure of work but certainly of the regulatory role of Council that followed the 1906 Local Government Act.
A growing local population and the promise of a Harbour Bridge in the 1920s led to urban consolidation around North Sydney. With that came blocks of flats and the conversion of existing large family dwellings into flats. The Verrills took on many of those jobs. 'Ardmore' at 67 Shellcove Road was one of these. Though it had only been completed in 1920, the big single-storey dwelling got an additional floor to be rented out as a flat in 1930. By then the effects of the Great Depression were already obvious, and it may have been that the extension was undertaken as a means of generating income for the owner.
Jimmy Verrills, it was reported, worked up until the day of his death. His legacy was large for, along with the 300 or more homes he helped to build, Jimmy was survived by 31 grandchildren and 43 great grandchildren.
Audio: Listen to Nell Conran's memories of her grandfather Jimmy Verrills, in conversation with historian Margaret Park and Julian Faigan in 1993. Merle Coppell Oral History Collection, OH47a