Mortimer (‘Morty’) Gleeson was born in Ballinoe, Silvermines district, County Tipperary, Ireland in 1831. At some point, as a young man, he eagerly set sail for America, where he befriended a German migrant, Adam Eisemann. Little is known of their activity in America, but by the age of 24, Mortimer and his business associate set sail for Australia, after hearing of gold discovery. They arrived in Melbourne on 25th August 1855, and immediately set off for Beechworth. Both men dabbled in mining, but then quickly diversified into more sustainable and reliable work. Eisemann set up a boot business, and Gleeson pursued the dairy industry.
When the Indigo gold rush began around Chiltern, they set off there, and by 1859 had established a butchery business on Conness Street West. This location is today marked by Gleeson Street, and next to the War Memorial.
There were several butchers located in Chiltern at that time, servicing the hungry miners. Gleeson seems to have had much experience in agriculture, farming, butchery and dairy. By 1864, Chiltern was established as a Borough in its own right, and soon after its creation, Mortimer Gleeson was elected as Councillor on 9th August, 1866. At the time, he was the first Catholic to be elected on to the Council.
Mortimer Gleeson (right) with staff outside his Butchers Shop on what is now Gleeson Street
On the 1st June 1869, Morty had enough wealth to buy sub-divisions from the Crown, including this one on the corner of Oxford Street and Albert Road for which he paid £15. Now, at this stage, its not known if the current cottage was built or brought here by Morty, but it is thought to have been transferred to this location from Melbourne by bullock train. The block originally contained the house that stands at 22 Oxford Street, but was sub-divided at some point, reducing the size to the current 1003m².
Mortimer frequently dabbled in gold prospecting, often investing his new-found wealth in gold mine company shares. After all, his Irish homeland area was known for mining silver. There are records of him owning shares in a number of local Mining Companies in the Beechworth, El Dorado and Chiltern areas. These included the South Wellington Gold & Tin Mining Co., Beechworth, Magnum Gold Mining Co., the ill-fated Doma Mungi Mining Company, and also the aptly named ‘Sons of Freedom and Royal Standard Gold Mining Companies’. Sadly, whether he was ill-advised or a bad prospector, Morty’s investments and interested in mining never made him rich. He lost a fortune in these speculations through bad mine managers & unjust partners. Mining continued in the area until the early 20th Century, and by 1911, most mining around Chiltern had ceased.
Mortimer was a prominent investor in several mining companies
Although an established & prosperous businessman, there are Court Notices in the local papers from 1866 onwards of several locals being in debt to Mortimer. It will have been a tough existence for miners in those days, and kind-hearted businessmen will have provided much-needed credit which was never recovered.
In the 1870’s Mortimer’s business interested continued to prosper, despite locals owing him money. He mixed in influential circles too, and by 1876, he was nominated as one of the provisional Directors of a newly formed bank, the North Eastern Mortgage Bank Company Limited, with a nominal capital of £20,000.
In the late 1880’s, Gleeson and Eisemann purchased 150 acres north-west of Chiltern and by 1891 established a winery there, planting thousands of vines and building a substantial cellar. In 1893, they sold the Winery, Vineyard and 30,000 gallons of wine in the cellar and by 1903, it was owned by the Burgoyne family, who at the time were renowned wine producers. The Mt Ophir Estate, as it was known, was once the largest and most sophisticated winery complex in the Southern Hemisphere. It had Royal Approval from King George V. Wine was transported by rail & ship to England, served to the British aristocracy, and at the dining tables of Buckingham Palace. The winery closed in 1955, and reduced in size from 740 to 140 acres.
Mt Ophir Estate, established by Gleeson, and expanded by Burgoyne's
Morty acquired blood poisoning from a finger cut, and Dr. Charles Fitzmaurice Harkin (a later owner of this property) successfully operated on him and amputated the infected finger on Wednesday 18th June, 1902. However, sadly, at the age of 71, Morty Gleeson passed away on the 27th June 1902. We know he had siblings in the district, with his brother (Thomas) and sister (Bridget) having migrated here too, and we know that his nephew Michael, from Gundagai, drowned while trying to ford a river in 1896. Mortimer’s last Will and Testament shows that he was a caring and charitable man, bequeathing his Estate to local establishments, hospitals, the Chiltern Parish Church, and even £50 to the priest of his old Parish Church in Silvermines, Co. Tipperary to for the erection of “pews for the free use of all”. Hence, you'll find two church pews outside the front door to recognise Mortimer's donation to his hometown church. These pews are from the Chiltern Presbyterian Church, St Andrews, and its steeple can be glimpsed from the cottage and garden.
Mortimer Gleeson, a young Irish migrant who established business acumen and life-long partnerships with Adam Eisemann in America, before travelling and settling in Chiltern, north-east Victoria, made his agricultural roots his mainstay, won and lost in mining speculation, and yet also created what would become one of the most prestigious and sophisticated wineries in the world. Ending up a comfortable and charitable businessman, Morty was convinced that honesty and perseverance are the surest road to wealth.
The last Will & Testament of Mortimer Gleeson