May 1870; ‘gentle giant’ William Kopsen arrived in missionary ship John Wesley at Levuka

Described as ‘a giant, elegant both in appearance and manners’, Kopsen had great personal charm, humanity and optimism, with the ability to organize, act quickly and take command. He had been brought up as a Lutheran, believing in the virtues of thrift, industry and self-discipline; in Australia he was a Congregationalist.

Born on 29 December 1847: William Kopsen(1847-1930), manufacturer and ship-chandler, was born on 29 December 1847 and baptized Gustaf Wilhelm at Vaxholm, Sweden, only son of Erik Gustav Kopsen, marine customs house porter, and his wife Anna Greta, née Ohrstrom. His early childhood was marred by family discord and straitened circumstances. Orphaned at 15 he lived in 1862-64 on a farm at Osteraker where he was tutored by the rector Dr Samuel Ponten who encouraged Kopsen to study geography and anthropology.

‘seized by a longing to see the Fiji Islands’: From 1864 Kopsen worked as a shop assistant and book-keeper in Stockholm. He migrated in 1868, reaching Sydney on 10 September. After working as a cook and shepherd on sheep-stations near Bathurst, he went next year to the Clarence River where he bought a small boat and traded. But, ‘seized by a longing to see the Fiji Islands’, he joined the missionary ship John Wesley and reached Levuka in May 1870.

1873 became a book-keeper in Levuka; For two years he transported cargoes round the islands and early in 1873 became a book-keeper in Levuka, while acting as commission agent for Swedish planters. In 1875 he established W. Kopsen & Co., with J. C. Smith, to import and trade in textiles and general merchandise. By the late 1870s he was a member of the hospital board, secretary of the yacht and rifle clubs, and consul for Sweden and Norway from 1881.

1877 married Laura Theresa Turner from Sydney; Britain had annexed Fiji in 1874 and in 1877 Kopsen was naturalized. In Levuka on 20 October he married Laura Theresa Turner from Sydney. He had sent articles about native customs, flora and fauna to a Stockholm newspaper, and donated artefacts from the South Pacific to a Swedish museum — in 1882 he was elected to the Swedish Society for Anthropology and Geography. When the capital was moved to Suva that year, Kopsen moved too and in 1883 became an alderman and mayor. He was a member of the Marine Board and in 1885 formed and was chairman of the Fiji Fire and Marine Insurance Co. Ltd.

Axe and oar manufacturer in NSW: In 1889 Kopsen settled in Sydney, carrying on business at 70 Clarence Street as Smith & Kopsen, ship-chandler. After Smith retired the firm of W. Kopsen & Co. Ltd was registered in December 1905. On a cycling tour of the Snowy Mountains he became interested in a timber which locals called ‘mountain ash’. Foreseeing its commercial potential, Kopsen in 1906 built a plant at Auburn, where tests indicated its suitability for oars and implement handles. When transport of the timber proved difficult and costly, a factory was built at Laurel Hill, near Batlow, where ‘Pioneer’ oars and handles were made. By 1927 W. Kopsen & Co. Ltd were contractors to government departments and always had 10,000 oars ready for delivery within Australia and shipment to the Pacific Islands. He did much to revive the Australian timber industry and to reduce domination by American imports. In 1983 William Kopsen & Co. was carried on by a grandson.
Select Bibliography
Sydney Chamber of Commerce, Commerce in Congress (Syd, 1909); L. Nordstrom, William Kopsen (Stockholm, 1933); Australasian Manufacturer, 30 July 1927, p 28, 39; Swedish-Australasian Trade Journal, 18, June 1931, p 363; Sydney Morning Herald, 18 Aug 1930.  Author: B. Dale Print Publication Details: B. Dale, ‘Kopsen, William (1847 – 1930)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, Melbourne University Press, 1983, pp 634-635.

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