W.F.E Liardet and the documenting of history

You may wonder about the picture I’m using as my header at the moment. It’s a picture of Judge Willis and his legal officers entering the first Supreme Court building for the opening of the Supreme Court in Melbourne in April 1841. You may think that it’s a rather humble building, and you’d be right. It had previously been used as a government store, located on the corner of King and Bourke Streets. By the following year construction had commenced on a new Supreme Court building, on the site now occupied by the closed City Court Building on the corner of Russell and La Trobe streets. Although Judge Willis took a proprietorial interest in the “new” building, he had been dismissed by the time it opened.

This painting was one of a series produced by W.F.E. Liardet who himself is an interesting character.

Born in England, Wilbraham Frederick Evelyn Liardet had inherited a fortune of 30,000 pounds which he managed to fritter away- now, this is some frittering, because Judge Willis’ wage was 1500 pounds a year so we’re looking at 20-odd years worth of Judge’s wages. Once the fortune had been exhausted, he, his wife and nine children emigrated to Australia, with good contacts with Governor Bourke in his pocket and the intention to establish himself as a pastoralist. Wilbraham and his four older sons travelled steerage to save expense while his wife and younger children travelled intermediate class. On arrival and faced with the utter chaos of disembarking in Hobson’s Bay, he recognized the entrepreneurial opportunity to establish a ferry service to the ships in the bay, connected to a carriage route along the lagoon to the banks of the Yarra in Melbourne- a transport monopoly at the time as until then people had had to row the eight and a half miles upstream. He established a hotel on the Port Melbourne beach, started up a mail run and became a noted Melbourne personality.

However, he never actually obtained land title for his beachfront hotel, he lost the mail contract and by 1845- along with many other people in Port Phillip at the time- was declared bankrupt. His wife and youngest five children returned home to London to lobby the Colonial Office for compensation but they returned empty-handed. As a result Liardet and his family returned to England, but only until news of the Gold Rush reached them, when they returned yet again to Melbourne. It strikes me that this pattern of boomerang migration was unusual for the time. Colonial civil servants, like Judge Willis, would return to England in their retirement, never to return to the colonies. Wealthy pastoralists would shuttle back and forward with a base in both hemispheres. But this pattern of pack-up-everything-and-emigrate back and forth does not seem to be common.

Another financial depression in the late 1850s again saw him insolvent, so he shifted to New Zealand. However, before leaving he had heard Johnny Fawkner, one of the two claimants to be the founder of Melbourne, giving a public lecture in Collingwood of his reminiscences of the early days. Over in New Zealand, Liardet began painting his memories of early Port Phillip landscapes, prior to the Gold Rush. Returning yet again to Melbourne, he set about on a project to comprehensively record the past, using his paintings as the core of a history of Melbourne using old documents, newspapers and pioneers letters. The task was largely beyond him- his notes and paintings are in the State Library Victoria, but the book was never produced before he died, back in New Zealand yet again, in 1878.

This nostalgic concept of documenting the past was brought home to me while browsing the early editions Victorian Historical Journals, produced by the Royal Victorian Historical Society. This society was established in the early 1900s, and reflected a concern at the time to tell “what really happened” while the original settlers were still alive. I was amazed to see presentations to their meetings by people who had arrived, albeit as children, in the 1840s. A similar imperative drove Curr, Boldrewood, Westgarth and Garryowen (Finn) to chronicle the early days in their histories- all colourful, quirky, boosterish and idiosyncratic sources, redolent with nostalgia for a simpler time.

4 responses to “W.F.E Liardet and the documenting of history

  1. Pingback: Port Phillip Apostle No.10 J.B. Were « The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

  2. Thank you so much for posting this. I am a descendant of Liardet (maybe 4 generations later) and visiting Melbourne so it was great to come across this info.

    • Hello Ruth. I’m pleased that you found it. Have you seen a copy of Liardet’s book? Although the pictures themselves may use quite a bit of artistic licence (and perhaps a memory fuzzed by nostalgia), they capture an earlier Melbourne beautifully.

  3. Pingback: The Wharf | The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

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