(last updated: 24 February 2019)
James and Johanna Free and family, c1911
Rear (L/R): James Oswald, James, Eliza Jane, John William, Ernest Albert.
Front: Alice Martha, Johanna Victoria, Norman Alexander, Johanna (nursing Allan Joseph),
Harry Walter, Pearl Amelia and Frank Rowland.
James Free was born at Mount Cole near Raglan in Victoria in 1864. In around 1880 he moved with his parents and siblings to Corack East in central Victoria where he initially worked on his father's farm. In June 1884 the local land board approved his application to lease a 32-acre block of land located to the west of the property of an Emma Wakefield. In December 1888 the board seems to have turned down his application for a 160-acre block of land at Corack East, about a mile from another, smaller (and forfeited) block he was also applying for (a similar application was again refused in March 1899).
On 6 April 1891, James married Joanna Shepherd at Christ Church of England St Arnaud in a double wedding that also involved his brother, Samuel Free and Johanna's sister, Fanny Shepherd. The wedding certificate states that James, then a 27 year-old farmer from Corack, was born at Mount Cole near Raglan, the son of William Free, a shepherd, and Eliza 'Flavel'. Johanna, a 24 year-old domestic servant, was born at Donald, the daughter of John Shepherd, a farmer, and Johanna Mulchay. The wedding, which was conducted by John B. Stair, was witnessed by Benjamin Free and Elizabeth Ann Shepherd.
The newly weds lived initially at Corack where, later in the same year, Johanna won the first prize for a knitted quilt at the Donald Show (Donald Express, 4 September 1891). Their time at Corack was coming to an end however. On 22 October 1895, the Gazette Notices in the Donald Express reported that James had transferred to Arthur S. Madder the lease to his 161-acre allottment number 46 at Corack East and, on 8 February 1898, the Donald Times informed its readers that James had resigned his position as a trustee of the Corack Mechanics Institute. By this time James and Johanna and their growing family had moved from Corack to Lalbert where James, and his two brothers William and Samuel Free, farmed land in the area known as Talgitcha.
Many of James and Johanna's children, and their Free cousins, attended the Talgitcha State School No 3347 which, following petitions from the local farmers, had been opened in 1899 with John Grant as its first Head Teacher (the initial class contained James Oswald, Johanna Victoria, Eliza Jane, Robert William and Ernest Albert Free who were said to live two and a half miles from the school). James and Johanna continued to farm in the area for the rest of their lives. In January 1917 the Quambatook Times informed its readers that 'some of the farmers of the district have completed their harvesting operations, and many others are still busy taking off their crops. Everywhere the yields are splendid ... Mr James Free of Lalbert East expects an all round return of 8 bags per acre from 750 acres ... the harvest will be a record one'. Over this time James and his family continued to support their local school and were dedicated members of Lalbert's St Stephen's Church of England which had been built in around 1918. Johanna was also a long-time member of the local Red Cross which was particularly active during the First World War.
James Free died unexpectedly on 20 January 1922 during a routine operation at the Bendigo Hospital. He was 57 years old. As Win Noblet eulogised in her book Beside the Bullock Track: Quambatook 1894-1984:
The untimely death of Mr James Free of Lalbert East caused a surge of downcast gloom over the district. Although he had been ill for a short period his illness was not thought to be serious, but he rapidly sank following an operation, and died at the age of 57 years. Jim, as he was commonly known, came to the district from Corack with his brother Samuel and worked diligently, transforming a wildernest to a wheat farm. Jim Free proved to one of Australia's finest citizens, taking a keen interest in public matters and being blessed with a warm friendliness. He successfully reared a family of eleven children, his sons Messrs James Free married Emma Oliver, John married E. Rangott, Ern married M. Keating, Dick married May Jobling and then Frank, Norm and Allan weren't married. Whilst daughters, Johanna married Jack Bailey, Dolly married Robert Williamson, Pearl [became] Mrs J. Hasty, and Alice became Mrs Bill Smith. Mr Bourne conducted the funeral service at St. Stephen's Church, Lalbert and also at the graveside at the Lalbert cemetery (pp. 111-2).
In January 1922, the Argus newspaper reported that probate from James' will was paid to Johanna Free of Lalbert East, widow, and James Oswald Free, farmer, also of Lalbert East. James's estate at the time was worth over £6,900. Three years later two of his married daughters, Johanna Victoria Bailey and Eliza Jane Williamson, placed the following memorial notice in the Melbourne Argus: 'FREE - In loving memory of our dear father who passed away on 20 January 1922. "We who loved him sadly miss him as it dawns another year; In our lonely hours of thinking, thoughts of him are ever near". Inserted by his loving daughters Ciss and Dolly and sons-in-law J. Bailey and R. Williamson, Lalbert'. On 4 May 1937 James' widow, Johanna Free (nee Shepherd) died at Quambatook and was buried with James in the Lalbert cemetery.
As shown in the photo at the top of the page, James and Johanna Free had twelve children between 1892 and 1911: James Oswald, Johanna Victoria ('Cis'), Eliza Jane ('Dolly'), John William, Ernest Albert, Pearl Amelia, Harry Walter, Alice Martha, George Bruce, Frank Rowland, Norman Alexander and Allan Joseph Free. As detailed in Part II, all but one of these - George Bruce Free who died at Lalbert as an infant - grew up to adulthood, married and had families of their own.
What of James and Johanna's farm? One of their great granddaughters, Kerry Free, tells us that their farm is currently owned and run by her father, Allan Henry Free. She adds that her grandfather, James' son Allan Joseph Free, had also many years ago bought the farm that had belonged to James' older brother Samuel Free and his wife Fanny (the farm was then owned by their son Ted). 'As a kid we always called that part of the farm "Teddy's". So basically Dad's farm is now Sam and James' combined'.
Taken in 1929, this photograph of the female congregationists of the Corack Methodist Church shows
Johanna Free nee Shepherd (seated third from the right). On her left is her sister-in-law, Alice Martha McCallum nee Free.
The photo also includes two of Johanna's sisters: Elizabeth Shepherd (second from the left in the rear row), and
Mary Jane Cook nee Shepherd (fourth from the left in the front row).
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|Rootsweb site for the Free, Flavell, Finkell, Coxall, Chaffe and Shepherd families||William Free in Australia
Arrival in Melbourne 1853-1855
|William Free in Australia
Mount Hesse to the Wimmera 1856-1878
|William Free in Australia
Life and death at Corack 1878-1900
|James Free (1864-1922) and
Johanna Shepherd (1866-1937)
Part II: Family and Descendants
|Return to First Families
'James and Johanna and family c1911' and 'James and Johanna's tombstone', private collection.
'Female congregationists of the Lalbert Methodist Church', from Jan and Janine Power, Lalbert Reflections (Red Cliffs Victoria: The Sunnyland Press, 1983)