Monthly Archives: November 2008

Birthday girl


Happy birthday to me….

And they’re off and racing….

Garryowen lists the germs of an Australian township: first there’s  a waterhole, then a forge, then a store and grog-shop. Then there’s a Wesleyan Church, a Temperance Society, and finally a race club or a cricket club. (Finn, p. 711)

Melbourne developed that way too.  The Wesleyans and Temperance Society had already arrived by the time the first races were held by the Melbourne Race Club on what is now the site of Southern Cross railway station in 1838.  Postboy won the first race- now that’s a bit of trivia we might all need one day.  But wait- there was more!  The races had finished, people were feeling mellow, and then someone suggested a bout of the olde English sport of “grinning”- where men would stick their head through a horse collar, then spend the next five or ten  minutes pulling the ugliest faces they could.  A hat was passed around, and a prize stake of 40 shillings was soon collected.  The winner was Thomas Curnew, fifty years of age, and a carpenter by trade.

The “phizical” pantomime then commenced, and for ten minutes there was a display of physiognomical posturing, difficult to be accounted for by any deductions of anatomization.  The bones, muscles, sinews, and tissues of Curnew’s head seemed as if composed of whalebone and India-rubber.  At one time his tongue looked as if jumping out of his mouth, his lips and palate would be drawn in as if to be swallowed, whilst the chin and forehead approached as if to meet.  His antics evoked thunders of acclamation, in the midst of which he regained terra firma, secured the proceeds of the hat-shaking, and betook himself to the Fawknerian [grog] booth, where the stakes were speedily melted down through the agency of a “fire-water”.  And so wound up the first public race day in Victoria. (p. Garryowen, p713)

Now, that’s what the Melbourne Cup Carnival needs to do- revisit its ‘carnivale’ origins and bring back the “gurning” contests. In fact, there’s a World Gurning Championship too.  I don’t think her Maj is amused, though.

By 1840 the races had shifted to Flemington, named after Bob Fleming, the local butcher.  The carnival stretched over three days, reported in mind-numbing detail by the Port Phillip Herald, and years later by Garryowen as well.

It’s interesting how, for us today, horse racing has been ‘eventi-ised’ in recent years with corporate sponsorship and Government tourism funding etc.  It’s no longer about the races as such.  It seems that the drone of the race-call drifting over the back fence from a neighbour pottering around in his shed is one of the lost sounds of the 1960s.  Even twenty years ago, the news on the television would devote a good five minutes to footage of the races- a time slot gobbled up now, no doubt, by the finance report.

But much is still made of the egalitarian nature of the Melbourne Cup carnival today.  Right from its inception, the races have brought the gentlemen of Port Phillip society to the track to see their own horses run,  cheered on by the working men out for a good time.

Now, you ask yourself, can we possibly insert our Judge Willis into a day at the races?  Yes, we can.  March 1842 was the second race carnival held at Flemington.  It was hot, and in anticipation of crowd unruliness, ticket-of-leave men were called up and sworn in as special constables for the day. (Yes, ticket-of-leave men as constables).  As there was no lockup, those who were somewhat drunk and disorderly were chained up to a log and left in the sun to repent of their overindulgence.  Yet another unfortunate reveller had been apprehended and was being dragged off to the log when two gentlemen rode up, the Honorable James Erskine Murray the barrister, and Oliver Gourlay, “a fast, devil-may-carish merchant of the period”.   They remonstrated over the rough treatment of the man to the constable- “Shame! Shame! Don’t ill-use the man!”-  when Dr Martin the J.P. rode up with another justice of the peace, William Verner, to help control the crowd.  They called out to Murray and Gourlay not to interfere; Murray retorted that he was only giving the prisoner advice.  Three prisoners took advantage of the resulting contretemps to unshackle themselves from the log and disappear into the crowd. The whole thing ended up in the Police Court the next morning.  Gourlay was charged with assaulting a police constable in the execution of his duty, and the constable admitted that he would have charged Murray too, except that he was a gentleman. Gourlay was released on bail.

What does all this have to do with Judge Willis (who was not at the races himself)?  As Resident Judge, and responsible for oversight of both the bar and the magistrates, he wrote to Erskine Murray demanding an explanation for his behaviour.  He then forwarded Murray’s explanation to Verner and Martin for their side of the story.   He was not, perhaps, completely impartial here- both Verner and Martin were Heidelberg neighbours, and were to be strong supporters throughout Judge Willis’ time in Melbourne.  Murray, on the other hand, had clashed with Judge Willis in the courtroom on several occasions.

Murray applied to have Gourlay’s case heard quickly, so that he could clear his own honour.  Willis refused and postponed the case, claiming that the furore needed to die down first.  As it happened, Gourlay made good use of his time on bail.  Bushrangers were terrorizing the eastern and northern outskirts of the town and a number of gentlemen banded together to capture them.  Gourlay was shot in the melee and returned to Melbourne covered in glory.  Charges against the hero were dropped.

So, knowing that there probably won’t be a grinning (gurning) competition, or gentleman justices remonstrating with ticket-of-leave constables as they drag the tipsy off to be chained to a log, what is my pick for the races? Well, I like the young ‘girly’ on Moatize and it’s always a pleasure to see Bart Cummings and his eyebrows.  I can’t be bothered going to the TAB though, so I’ll satisfy myself with entering the sweep down at the street barbeque in half an hour’s time.  But if Moatize DOES win, you heard it here first.

‘The Children’s Bach’ by Helen Garner

1984, 96p.

Don Anderson, in reviewing Helen Garner’s book The Children’s Bach wrote:

There are four perfect short novel in the English language.  They are, in chronological order, Ford Maddox Ford’s The Good Soldier,  Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby,  Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises and Helen Garner’s The Children’s Bach.

Boy- where do you go after that???!!

I think that brevity is an intrinsic feature of this book.  Like a small Bach piece, it is short and self contained, simple and yet complex.  It takes a slice of life in 1980s Melbourne, and in this regard, Garner’s keen observations almost provide an ethnographic (and now historical!) artefact.  Athena and Dexter are 1980s people who feel like people you’ve known and  their house and lifestyle is so well-depicted that you feel you could recognize it if you walked in the door.  As a northern suburbs gal myself, I can recognize many landmarks and events that she mentions almost in passing.  In fact, I reckon you could plot a pilgrimage walk of the book!

The relationship between Athena and Dexter lies at the heart of the novel.  They have two children- an autistic son, Billy, and a bright articulate son called Arthur.  The summary on the back of my edition, and the recent rendering of the novel into an opera both make more of Billy’s autism than I was aware of in the book, where Billy is a stolid presence, but not particularly the focal point of the family dynamics.  It’s not just the strain of Billy that drags at Athena, drawing her to abandon it all: it’s also her husband’s exuberance and obliviousness to her own personhood and the dream of being someone else in another more exciting world than hers.

I’ve read this book three times now, which is easy to do as it’s so short and it tumbles over you like a conversation overheard.  It’s a book to grow up with. As I’ve grown older, I see different things in it, as if I’m revisiting my own young-motherhood at much this same time.  I sense that in Garner’s most recent book, The Spare Room, she’s also revisiting the sort of characters in The Children’s Bach, grown older.

This is not the stuff of crashing drama: it’s lived-in life, with fallible and flawed human people, mess, and making do.  Taking liberties with the final sentence, life as depicted in The Children’s Bach is the steady rocking beat of love and family in the left hand, and the flying arpeggios of “what if’s” and “maybes” in the right.

Port Phillip Apostle No. 4 Alexander McKillop

What’s Blessed Mary MacKillop doing here amongst a consideration of Port Phillip entrepreneurs of the 1840s???  I asked myself the same question when researching Alexander McKillop and finding links to Mary MacKillop.  But the Australian Dictionary of Biography helped  things come clear: she changed the spelling of her name, and ‘my’ Alexander McKillop was, in fact, her father.

All of a sudden one of the two ‘settler’ Apostles is catapaulted very much into the public eye, not in his own right, but as part of the story of his daughter, Mary MacKillop.  I found myself reading two hagiographic- in the true sense of the word- narratives of Mary’s life: In Search of Alexander MacKillop by Victor Feehan and Ann MacDonnell, and The Black Dress , a young adult fictionalized biography by Pamela Freeman.  Of course, narratives devised with a view to her beatification or eventual sainthood have their own logic and agendas.  It is to be expected that her life will be framed in terms of a struggle that she overcame, and  Alexander’s financial incompetence fits in well to that theme.  But at the same time, in terms of her own development of character, her parents’ devout Catholicism needs to seen as a facilitating rather than hindering factor, (especially in books written for Catholic teenagers and children).

Alexander McKillop had arrived alone in Sydney from Scotland as a bounty migrant in 1838 and through family contacts, obtained a position with Campbell and Sons, the Sydney merchants.  After his family joined him, he shifted to Melbourne to work in the Campbell and Sons agency in Little Collins Street.  Presumably this would have given him some experience in commercial transactions (Ville’s third category of colonial entrepreneurs included men with previous commercial experience).  He purchased a house in Brunswick Street Fitzroy for 700 pounds in 1841, and is listed by Billis and Kenyon as the owner of a property on the Merri Creek between 1840-1.  But his daughter Mary’s biographers emphasize his fecklessness.  His involvement with the Twelve Apostles imbroglio contributed directly to his insolvency in 1844, on the same day as fellow Apostle John Maude Woolley.   In May 1843 he admitted to losing more than 7000 pounds over two and a half years.  And there was a sixteen month trip alone back to Scotland in 1851 to accompany an old friend that seems curious, if not self-indulgent, requiring him to mortgage his property in Darebin Creek to his brother to raise the fare, possibly unbeknown to his wife.  When his return was delayed, his own brother foreclosed on the property, evicting his sister-in-law and young family (ah, there’s nothing like family!).  There was a string of unsuccessful jobs, futile relocations to Sydney and New Zealand and back, and a slow slide into dependence on family support from his extended family and his children’s wages.  Eventually the family splintered, with Alexander alone in Hamilton; his wife Flora running a boardinghouse in Portland, one son in New Zealand, other sons at school in South Australia and daughters in Penola (South Australia) and Coburg (Victoria).

However, the tension in creating the Mary McKillop narrative lies in balancing this financial and paternal incompetence with the strong Catholicism that Alexander shared with his family.  I’ve been too much influenced by the Scotch Presbyterian and Orange influence in Melbourne, because I initially assumed- incorrectly- by his name that he would be Presbyterian.  Instead, his family came from Lochaber in the Highlands, a region once known as ‘the cradle of the faith’ through the  ministries of  St Columba in 563AD and Coirell around 600AD, and supportive of Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1745.  At the age of twelve Alexander McKillop left for Rome to study for the Catholic priesthood, but was sent home in 1831at the age of nineteen because of ill-health.  On his return to Scotland he studied theology at Blair’s College in Aberdeen for a year, but left without completing his course.

On his arrival at Port Phillip he became deeply involved with the nascent St Francis’ Church and its priest Fr. Geoghegan.  He was a Trustee and Treasurer of the church; Fr Geoghegan travelled to the Darebin Creek to perform Mass for the family, and all family weddings and christenings took place at St Francis’. He instructed his children and encouraged them in their religious vocations.

His strong allegiance to the Church in some way explains his political involvement in Port Phillip at the time.  When the fiery Protestant preacher and politician John Dunmore Lang came to Melbourne as part of his electoral campaign for a seat on the Legislative Council, Alexander publicly remonstrated in letters to the Press against him and his sectarian and divisive attitudes.  Alexander came out in petitions and meetings in support for Edward Curr, Lang’s Catholic opponent for the Legislative Council.  His clerical training- incomplete though it was- gave him the literary and oratorical skills to engage in defence of his Church in the political realm.

But his political and civic involvement was even wider than this.  He attended the Levee to greet Governor Gipps when he visited in 1841, attended the Melbourne Debating Club, served on the committee of the Mechanics Institute and was a member of the St Andrews Society- a fairly pricey society with a one-guinea subscription fee.  He served on juries and occasionally on Special Juries, which is interesting because to qualify as a special juror a man had to be an Esquire or a person of higher degree, a Justice of the Peace, a Merchant not keeping a general retail shop, a bank director of a member of the Sydney or Melbourne Town Council- although the reference to the Town Council suggests that this legislation must have been promulgated after 1842.   He qualified as an elector in the Legislative Council elections of 1843, and stood very unsuccessfully for election in his own right in later years.  He was involved in the major political debates of the time, signing petitions in favour of Curr, George Arden and- most importantly for me- signed several petitions against Judge Willis.

I think that this public involvement is overlooked in the Mary McKillop biographies, and it could hold the key to Alexander’s otherwise puzzling involvement as one of the Twelve Apostles.  Even if he was not in the league financially, his social interactions on juries and committees enmeshed him into the political and financial milieu of the time.  The November 1841 Port Phillip Herald carries a small paragraph about a horse-riding accident at Heidelberg where Mr Boyd, the head of the Union Bank was injured while out riding with Rev Mr Sproat (of whom I know nothing) and Mr McKillop.  It was the Union Bank that lay at the heart of the whole Rucker scenario- was this one of the connections?  There were many other opportunities for McKillop to socialize with Fellow Twelve Apostles:  Chisholm and Carrington both attended the Debating Club; he sat on juries alongside Abraham Abrahams; Power was a Catholic who must have attended St Francis’; Were, Carrington and Welsh were all involved in the push to remove Judge Willis.  This is not merely a manifestation, as depicted by the Mary McKillop biographies,  of Alexander McKillop’s hotheadedness and querulousness : in a province where political “excitement” was making both Governor Gipps and especially Superintendent La Trobe uneasy, the networking and public visibility of this political and civic interaction was an integral part of masculinity in  Port Phillip public life.

So what’s the Entrepreneurial Lesson for Alexander McKillop?  None really, except perhaps that God works in mysterious ways. The whole Alexander/Mary McKillop scenario is ripe for “What if?” history.  Would Mary have been the woman she was had her family not been plunged into penury? How did her financial history affect the way she perceived her vocation?  What if Mary McKillop had not become involved in grassroots Catholic educational provision- who else might have instead?


  • Victor Feehan and Ann MacDonell In Search of Alexander MacKillop
  • Pamela Freeman The Black Dress
  • Edmund Finn (Garryowen) Chronicles….