Monthly Archives: December 2008

The Yarra in flood August 1842


View from Dalvey Street Heidelberg showing Yarra in flood

It’s been a long, long time since I’ve seen the Yarra in flood.   As a child, we lived in a house on top of the hill overlooking Warringal Park in Heidelberg.  Justice John Walpole Willis- the first resident Supreme Court judge-  would have walked around our very site because that is where he lived (and hence my first spark of interest in him).  We could always see when the Yarra flooded from our front garden, as you can see from the photo above, taken probably in the late 60s-early 70s.   I can remember the school buses having to slosh through the floodwaters to get to my now-demolished school, Banyule High School.

The Yarra has always been a focal point for the village of Melbourne.  It was the availability of fresh water above “the falls” at the bottom of William Street that determined the location of the settlement.  It’s been a major transport route to Port Phillip Bay; it’s been an industrial sewer; it’s still used recreationally (although I wouldn’t swim in it), and it’s now the site for the casino, exhibition centre, restaurants etc.

Until it was so heavily dammed and flood mitigation works completed, the Yarra used to flood quite regularly.   Although the worst flood was in 1891, the last great flood was in 1934. My father, who lived in Hawthorn, recalls the houses beside the river being flooded up to their roofline, and seeing the four legs of a dead horse being bashed by the floodwaters against the top of  the Wallan Road bridge which only just escaped inundation.

The first recorded flood of the Yarra River was in 1839, but Judge Willis would have also seen the flood in August 1842.  Here’s what the Port Phillip Herald of 2 August 1842 had to say:

During last week, owing to the very heavy rains of Monday and Tuesday, the Yarra has risen to a height altogether unknown to the oldest resident, and overflowed its banks, inundated the wharf, and substituted one sheet of water on the other side of the river for the green grassy fields, which [indistinct] that locality have hitherto opened up to view and even the new road from the Beach to the bridge, which, it was supposed, from its elevation, to be free from inundation, was flooded in many places.

Mind you, “the oldest resident” would only have been in Port Phillip for seven years anyway, so this is no great claim.  In an interesting twist on public memory, the Port Phillip Herald of 6th September 1842 reported that the aborigines of the town designated this particular flood as only a ‘picaninny’ with worse to come, and indicated that a flood about twenty years ago had flooded the area occupied by the Market Square.  The elevated, but flooded road was being built by the labour of unemployed workers as part of the limited public works program.

On Sunday crowds of the inhabitants were to be seen promenading on the new wharf looking with intense interest to the breakwater overflowing in rushing torrents, in humble imitation of the falls of Niagara.

Very humble imitation , I’d say.  The “falls” were not particularly high-  more a ridge that separated the fresh water from the salt.   The governor, George Gipps, even harked back to his engineering background in the military by drawing up plans to build a larger breakwater across the falls.  But Niagara?  “Tell ’em they’re dreamin'” (Source: The Castle)

The damage to the brickmakers has been very great, all of them having been compelled to seek other habitations at a moment’s notice, their houses being now flooded three feet deep.

The brickfields were on the south side of the Yarra.  The location was derided by the more respectable inhabitants of Port Phillip as being the source of vice and degradation.  You sometimes see “the brickfields” given as the address for people facing the Police or Supreme court.

All the beautiful gardens on the banks, including Messrs. Orr, Curr, Welsh, the Hon Mr Murray, and Major St John &c &c are also completely under water, as well as those at Heidelberg.  Captain Cole’s wharf, which has been raised several feet by the earth cut out from the dock, presents the extraordinary appearance of a “dissolute island”, being completely surrounded with water.

The floodwaters at Heidelberg meant that Judge Willis could not make it into town from Heidelberg to attend court.  And somehow, I don’t think I’ll ever see the Yarra in flood again.


It would seem that the Aborigines were right when they predicted even higher flooding.  The Port Phillip Herald of October 28 1842 reports:

The prediction of the blacks that the flood of August was but a picanniny one compared with that yet to come, by which the water would reach the custom house was nearly realized, the water reaching within a few feet of that building, and we hear that it rose to the amazing height of fifty feet at Heidelberg.

‘The Little Community’ by Robert Redfield


1962, 168

I read this book alternating between a feeling of  “Toto,  I’ve got a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore” and “Aha!!”.   I felt like Dorothy because this book is steeped in the language, methodology and publications of anthropology.  It took a number of important studies of little communities, including those written by the author himself, and examined the ethnographic methodology and questions  they utilized.  These studies were all unfamiliar to me, and because of the publication date of the book (1962), they were all fairly dated.  The book was not so much about the content of these studies, as of the role of the anthropologist and his/her methodology in that study.

But when I felt “aha!” was when he spoke about the nature and limits of the “little community”.   His “little community” has four qualities, that may exist in different degrees:

  1. it is distinctive-  where the community begins and ends is apparent
  2. it is small enough that it can be a unit of personal observation that is fully representative of the whole
  3. it is homogenous and slow changing
  4. it is self sufficient in that it provides all or most of the activities and needs of the people in it.

So does Port Phillip count as a “little community”? I’ve been conscious all along of the small size of Port Phillip- about 5000 people (although there’s no hard and fast population figures).  But was there a clear sense of “we?”. I rather think there was, in the push towards Separation from New South Wales, and distancing Port Phillip from the penal origins of Van Diemens Land and Botany Bay. Certainly, the Port Phillip press tried hard to foster a sense of  “we” (although I think that provincial presses always do this).  I think that the relatively late date of settlement indicates that geographically it was a separate entity to the two older colonies.

Redfield speaks about a “typical biography” among members of a little community- the life-path that most people in the community followed. Prominent, middle-class, public-oriented men can be traced quite easily through their involvement in different organisations in Port Phillip.  I think that you could probably construct a typical biography for Port Phillip during  the 1840s that would be triggered by a migration, involve an economic enterprise of some sort,  a financial setback, and the building of a home.  In fact, I’m about to embark on “Letters from Victorian Pioneers” and I’ll see if I can find the barebones  of a typical biography for Port Phillip there.

But Redfield warns that the descriptor of “little community” doesn’t fit comfortably with a society undergoing rapid change, especially a frontier society.   I think that whatever homogeneity there was in Port Phillip was challenged as the 1840s went on.   Change was rapid, and becoming even more so.  As such, perhaps the term “little community” is of limited usefulness in describing Port Phillip, but as he says, the question is not so much “Is this community a little community?” but “In what ways does this community correspond with the model of a little community?”

Evan Thornley resigns

So Evan Thornley has resigned- ah, I knew he was too good to last.  Politics is a seductive siren: on the one hand, it is in the arena big-p Politics that things actually get done, and yet the compromises and conflicting priorities mean that good people are emasculated once they get there.  Look at Peter Garrett– on a hiding to nothing.  I don’t know what he’s going to do about Gunns in Tasmania, where the politics with the state ALP are ugly.   My perception is that he rarely upholds environmental concerns about infrastructure developments, but I don’t really have any figures on that.  Even his interventions in the arts are rather equivocal: I guess that if the intent was to get rid of  the board of the Australian National Academy of Music in South Melbourne, then he succeeded but at a heavy public-relations cost.   I wonder whether he feels good about what he’s achieved in either the environment and the arts, and how he’ll look back on this time in politics.

And then on the other side we have Ian Campbell who always seemed to me to be rather wishy-washy and captive to the energy-company lobby groups- who would have believed that an ex- Liberal politician would throw his support behind Sea Shepherd’s anti-whaling campaign?

I guess that there are different ways of exerting pressure, but good people seem to be  hemmed in by a political career and less able to influence change than they would be outside.

‘The Christmas Tree’ by Jennifer Johnston


1981,  168 p.

Kimbofo at Reading Matters gave this book five stars, and I felt like reading something Christmas-themed.  It was a good choice: not too long, tinged with sadness,  seasonal enough without being mawkish.

I’m coming to have a great respect for the novella as a genre.  Its extra length encourages you to climb into the characters’ skins in a way that the short story doesn’t; the art of providing back-story and present action is even more demanding, and its brevity allows an intimate, close-up look at a particular circumstance without the need to tether it to a wider narrative sweep.

In this book  Constance, suffering from leukemia diagnosed soon after she has given birth to her daughter as an intentional single mother, returns home to her parents’ house to die.  Both her parents have already died, and her judgemental sister veers between officiousness, support, and pre-occupation with her own life and children.  It is a couple of days before Christmas and ill, and left alone for much of the day, Constance decides that she would like a Christmas tree.  Her sister is pushing hard for Constance to go to hospital to die: Constance refuses, but does accept the offer of  ‘a girl’ to come from the nearby orphanage to look after her.  Very quickly, I came to appreciate Constance’s clear-sighted and rather sardonic humour, and the young exuberance of Brigid, the young girl relishing the relative freedom despite the demanding task she has been asked to take on.  Her doctor and ex-boyfriend, Bill, is just the sort of doctor you would want in such a situation and his friendship goes beyond just the professional relationship.  The Christmas tree itself is small and covered only with blue lights that glow steadily on the otherwise bare tree.

There are three narrative threads, and Constance’s own delirium provides a useful narrative tool to weave them together.  We are living and breathing the slow process of dying in present time, she remembers meeting Jacob the father of her child, and she thinks back  and tries to make sense of her strained relationship with her parents.

This all sounds rather gruelling, and to a certain extent it is.  The book reminded me in many ways of Helen Garner’s The Spare Room, which was likewise short, intense and painful.  By the end of its 167 pages, you exhale with relief that it’s over, not necessarily in a negative sense, but because it’s time.

‘The Danish Girl’ by David Ebershoff


1999, 310 p.

I’d been meaning to read this for some time, but was spurred into action to read it before Nicole Kidman gives it the kiss of death when it is filmed next year (see Update below).  I hadn’t realized that it was based on a true story until reading the author’s notes at the end of the book, which made me re-think some of my initial skepticism about the details of the ending.

The book is set in various European cities in the 1920s and 30s, and explores the marriage of two artists, Einar Wegerer and his American wife Greta Waud.  It was at Greta’s suggestion that Einar first cross-dressed within their marriage, and his increasing excursions as ‘Lily Elba’ culminated in the world’s first sex-change surgery.

There are a series of triangles in this book: Greta and her relationship with her husband Einar/Lili;  the relationship between Einar/Lili and his childhood friend Hans, who himself took up with Greta; the relationship between Einar/Lily and his wife’s twin brother Carlisle.   There’s another triangle too- Greta has to work through her grief from the death of her first husband Teddy and her loss of her husband Einar as he transformed into Lily.  The complexity of their marriage raises questions about love, acceding to and anticipating a loved one’s wishes, sexuality, gender, loss,  identity and friendship.

The book has a quiet, restrained tone, and falls to its ending with a sad inevitability.   I wonder how it will come over on the screen- the ending is very cinematic.  I hope that Kidman is more in “The Hours” mode rather than “Australia” mode, but I think she’ll need more than a prosthetic nose.

Update: When I wrote this post several years ago, there was talk of Nicole Kidman playing, no doubt, the Lily role that is played by Eddie Redmayne in the film that has just been released.

Christmas in Port Phillip 1840s

There is a rather rueful adherence to English Christmas customs in Australia even today. We have Christmas trees, holly, Santa and carols about dashing through the snow. Tomorrow my family will sit down to turkey, ham and plum pudding for Christmas dinner wearing our little paper hats unfurled from Christmas bon-bons; even as I am writing this I am eating a fruit mince pie. Although there is a shift to seafood and ice-cream plum pudding or berries, all the iconography of Christmas decorations evokes a winter Christmas that we just don’t have- unless you have “Christmas in July” which we have done occasionally just for fun.

But what about in Port Phillip in the early 1840s? I had assumed that these early immigrants would have brought over all these English customs intact. However, my suspicions were alerted when I found a letter dated 25 December 1841 that was part of a series of letters between J. B. Were and Farquahar McCrae over a dispute with Judge Willis. “Good grief”, I thought, “do these men have nothing to do on Christmas morning but exchange letters about Judge Willis?”  But, the more I think about, maybe they didn’t have anything else to do because Christmas didn’t have all the trappings that it does today.  This was confirmed looking through the newspapers at the time, which made very little mention of Christmas.

A warning here about methodology.  The three newspapers of Port Phillip were published on regular days throughout the week, and a fourth paper The Melbourne Times was published on a weekly basis during 1842-3.  I have only consulted the Port Phillip Herald (published on Tuesdays and Fridays) and The Melbourne Times, which depending on the day that Christmas fell, varied in their proximity to December 25.  Therefore, in 1840  the Port Phillip Herald was actually published on Christmas day itself; in 1841 the closest issue was 21/12/41; in 1842 it was 23/12/42 and in 1843 22/12/43.  I consulted two issues before Christmas and the one immediately after. The only pre-Christmas Melbourne Times available was dated 24/12/42.

Nonetheless, there does seem to be a dearth of Christmas good cheer.  I wasn’t looking for headlines as such, but I did expect some mention of church services, festivities, excessive drunkenness in the police court on the days following, advertisements for goods and effusive Christmas wishes from the editors.


The Port Phillip Herald was published on Christmas Day itself.  No mention of Christmas at all, but there is a land sale scheduled for 1 January which is styled as a “New Year Gift”, and the Independent Chapel will be opened for services on New Years Day.

1841 (Judge Willis was in Melbourne by this time)

Captain Cole had a picnic and fishing party to which he invited 150 of his friends on 21 December, commencing at 11.00.  Lieutenant La Trobe and his wife were invited, but I’m not sure if they attended- or even if the picnic had anything at all to do with Christmas.

1842 (Judge Willis still in Melbourne)

Port Phillip Herald 23/12/42

A little more here.  There are advertisements for “Christmas Novelties” to be conducted at the Royal Victoria Theatre on  26th December- a Monday evening, which was a popular night to attend the theatre.  “The Vampire or Bride of the Isles” was the theatrical fare for the night.

“The Vampire, the name of the first piece for Monday night’s representation has taken nearly a month to prepare, and will be brought out with a degree of splendour only to be witnessed in the mother country at Christmas time.”

For something a little less secular,  the Independent church may have had something for you.

“Clifton Independent Chapel, Richmond.  On Saturday next (Christmas Day) two sermons will be preached on the occasion of the opening of the above place of worship. 3.00 p.m. Rev Waterfield.  6.30 p.m. Independent Chapel Melbourne Rev. John Ham. “

Meanwhile on 24th December, at the Town Council Proceedings, there was discussion about the timing of the next meeting.

The Mayor wished to gain the opinion of the Council as to whether it would be expedient to hold a meeting of Council next week, it being Christmas time.  He knew several members who had made engagements to go to the country and could therefore not be present.

The next meeting was scheduled for 2nd January 1843 as a result.

Melbourne Times 24/12/42

An advertisement advised that owing to Christmas falling on a Sunday, the following day Monday would be observed as a holiday at all the banks.

The TeeTotallers were to hold a meeting on 26 December

“…for the purpose of celebrating the festivities of the season over a bag of hyson skin…Who, fifty years since, would have contemplated the arrival of that day when the good old Christmas cheer of roast beef and plumb pudding, accompanied by the various spiritous and vinous drinkables, would be exchanged for the meagre fare of tea and toast?”

Even though the tee-totallers were missing out, this does suggest that others, at least, were enjoying good old Christmas cheer of some sort.

In Georgiana McCrae’s diary, she doesn’t mention Christmas Day 1842 at all, but does have an entry for 26th December that Captain Murchison,  Dr Thomas and his wife, Ward Cole, Donald Mackinnon,  Mr Simpson and Jones Agnew Smith all came for dinner.

1843 (Judge Willis was arriving back in England by this stage)

There’s quite a bit more mention of Christmas here.

From 15 December forward, there is a large advertisement for Annard, Smith and Co. for Fruits for Christmas- sultanas, muscatels, and pudding raisins; nuts, walnuts, figs, bottled fruit.  This advertisement appears each issue including 26/12/43.  There’s also an advertisement for currants and raisins by a competing merchant, but this is a small advertisement that only appears on the 15th.

The market report of the Melbourne Market printed on 26th December noted a good deal of animation on 24th December,

but there was not that bustling activity in all the various departments of buying and selling that might have been expected in a town boasting upwards of 10,000 inhabitants on the day previous to Christmas, when it might be supposed that many would be anxious to testify their joy on the advent of an occasion generally dedicated by almost immemorial custom to feasting and festive enjoyment.

On 26th December, the Herald has a bit of a dig at its nemesis, the Port Phillip Patriot which had been published on Christmas Day.

“The Patriot of yesterday, by way of a Christmas Box we presume, has obliginingly furnished its readers with a six column report of the proceedings of the Insolvent Court…”

The court case reported actually took place in August, which the Port Phillip Herald thought rather strange.

The Herald reported that Mr Geoghegan, the Roman Catholic priest, administered the holy sacraments to no less than 250 members of his congregation on Sunday and yesterday (Christmas Day).

The theatrical spectacular of 1842 must have been a success because the Victoria Theatre advertised that “this being Christmas week” the theatre would be open this evening (ie. 26th), Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday.  On 26th ‘The Two Queens or Policy and Strategem’; on Wednesday ‘Michael Erle or the Fair Lass of Lichfield’ and an appearance by The Somnabulist, on Thursday ‘The Bandit Host or  The Lone House of the Swamp’, then again on Saturday ‘The Two Queens’.


This doesn’t come from the Port Phillip papers, but it is  a report of Christmas in Sydney by Mrs Charles Meredith (Louisa Meredith) written in 1844 as part of her “Notes and sketches of New South Wales during a residence of that colony from 1839 to 1844.”


We now made a few weeks’ sojourn in Sydney, which, could we have laid the dust, moderated the heat, and dismissed the mosquitoes and their assistants, would have been very pleasant; but as it was, my colonial enjoyments were limited to our usual drives, and when able to walk at all, an idle languid stroll in the beautiful Government gardens.  For some days before Christmas, in our drives near the town, we used to meet numbers of persons carrying bundles of a beautiful native shrub, to decorate the houses, in the same manner that we use holly and evergreens at home.  Men, women and children, white, brown and black, were in the trade; and sometimes a horse approached, so covered with the bowery load he bore, that only his legs were visible, and led by a man nearly as much hidden; carts heaped up with the green and blossomed boughs came noddingly along, with children running beside them, decked out with sprays and garlands, laughing and shouting in proper Christmas jollity.  I liked to see this attempt at the perpetuation of some of our ancient homely poetry of life in this new and rather too prosaic Colony, where the cabalist letters L.[pound] S.[shilling]D [pence] and RUM appear too frequently the alphabet of existence.  It seemed like a good healthy memory of home, and I doubt not the decked out windows and bouquet-filled chimney in many a tradesman’s house gave a more home-like flavour to his beef or turkey, and aided in the remembrance of old days and old friends alike numbered with the past.


The shrub chosen as the Sydney ‘Christmas’ is well worthy of the honour (the rough usage it receives rendering the quality of the post it occupies rather problematical, by the way). It is a handsome verdant shrub, growing from two to twelve or fifteen feet high, with leaves in shape like those of the horse-chestnut, but only two or three inches broad, with a dark green, polished, upper surface, the under one being pale.  The flowers, which are irregularly star-shaped, come out in light terminal sprays, their chief peculiarity being, that they completely open whilst quite small, and of a greenish white colour; they then continue increasing in size, and gradually ripening in tint, becoming first a pearl white, then palest blush, then pink, rose-colour, and crimson: the consant change taking place in the, and the presence of all these hues at one time on a spray of half a dozen flowers, has a singularly pretty appearance.  Their scent when freshly gathered is like that of new-mown hay.  Great quantities of the shrubs grow in the neighbourhood of Sydney, or I should fear that such wholesale demolition as I witnessed would soon render them rare.

The ‘Christmas dinner’ truly seemed to me a most odd and anomalous affair.  Instead of having won a seasonable appetite by a brisk walk over the crisped snow, well muffled in warm winter garments, I had passed the miserable morning, half-dead with heat, on the sofa, attired in the coolest muslin dress I possessed, sipping lemonade or soda-water, and endeavouring to remember all the enviable times when I had touched a lump of ice or grasped a snowball, and vainly watching the still, unruffled curtains of the open window for the first symptom of the afternoon sea-breeze.

So, what then can I say about Christmas in Port Phillip?  It seems that the prominence of Christmas seems to be increasing as we get further into the 1840s.  I wonder if the Meredith extract reflects the influence of 1844 more than her experience five years earlier.  It’s important to remember that the trapping of Christmas as we know them- the trees, the carols etc- were themselves being constructed in Victorian Britain at the time.  The term “Christmas Tree”  was first used  in English in 1835; Prince Albert decorated the tree at Windsor Castle in 1841 thus bringing a German tradition to England; Christmas cards first appeared in 1843,  and many of the hymns we know we written in the 1840s and 50s onwards- O Come All Ye Faithful in 1848, or Once in Royal David’s City in 1851 for example.  And then, of course, we have Charles Dickens’  A Christmas Carol, published in 1843 which seems to exemplify everything we think of in a ‘traditional’ English Christmas.

And as for Louisa Meredith’s fear that the Christmas Bush would become extinct- well, I must say that I’m not at all familiar with the Christmas Bush and especially its use as a substitute for holly and evergreens today, but it still seems to grow in the Sydney area at least.  There are certainly other descriptions of Australian Christmases- Henry Lawson,  Edward Sorensen, and many engravings of Christmas activities but many of these seem to date from the 1880s onwards, and probably reflect the spread of the ideal of the Victorian English Christmas across the empire.  But 1840s Port Phillip was part of an early 1840s world with a lower profile of Christmas than in the years following, right up today.


Geoffrey Rowell ‘Dickens and the Construction of Christmas’ History Today, 43, Dec 1993

‘Christmas in the Colonies’ Australian Heritage Summer 2007

The Australian Christmas In Days Gone By


I did find this reference to Christmas in South Australia in 1836 from The Diary and Letters of Mary Thomas. Mary Thomas wrote up the diary she had kept from early settlement days (Dec 1836) in 1867, expanding her entries with reminiscences- always a bit dangerous because later memories can overlay earlier ones, particularly of an event that occurs on an annual basis:

We kept up the old custom as far as having a plum pudding for dinner, likewise a ham and a parrot pie

Source: Michael Symons One Continuous Picnic: A history of eating in Australia.

(He also notes that Ken Inglis has a chapter about Christmas in  Australian Colonists)

Ships and Whales

Every edition of the Port Phillip Herald has a “Shipping Intelligence” column on Page 2.   We have to remember that Port Phillip was literally a “port” city, and the comings and goings of shipping was the communication thread to the rest of the world.


As it happens, I was in the Flagstaff Gardens on the weekend on an absolutely beautiful Melbourne afternoon.  I walked up to the top of the hill and even today you can see right across to the water, in between in the high-rise buildings.  I tried to imagine all the other people who must have walked up this same hill, straining their eyes to see the boats making their way up to Port Melbourne.  A flagstaff on the top of the hill, visible from the village down by the river below, notified of the progress of ships making their way up the bay.

The Shipping Intelligence for 15 July 1842 had no arrivals (which is a bit unusual), but three boats were listed for clearing out.


July 12. Sally Ann, schooner, for Portland Bay and Port Fairy.  Passengers, Messrs Cameron, Phillips and Barnet; ten in the steerage.

14 Ellen and Elizabeth, schooner, for Launceston

14 Corsair, steamer, for Launceston. Passengers, Mrs Doddery, Mr and Mrs Lamb, Miss Gavon, Major Fraser, Messrs. Thompson, and Hill.

The steamers in particular are frequent visitors, plying back and forth across the Victorian coast (Portland and Port Fairy) and across to Launceston or Hobart in Tasmania (then known as Van Diemens Land), as well as up and down from Sydney.  Not a lot of privacy here- everyone knew where you were off to- unless, of course you were steerage. I wonder who these passengers were, going to Launceston. Did they already live there, I wonder?


On Tuesday (12th) Adelaide for Hobart Town

On Wednesday (13th) for Portland.

To be honest, I’m not really sure at what point it was considered that a ship had finally ‘sailed’.  Perhaps when it had cleared the Heads at Port Phillip (a fairly treacherous stretch of water that separates the bay from Bass Strait)? There’s always a gap of at least a day- sometimes several- between ‘clearing out’ and ‘sailing’. Often ships had to wait some time to broach the Heads:  the  second shipload from the David Collins expedition down at Sorrento in 1803 had to wait weeks until the conditions were right to get through the Heads and sail on to Van Diemens Land.


July 12- Sally Ann for Portland Bay and Port Fairy- 9 chests tea, 5 half chests ditto, 4 quarter casks wine, 1 bale slops, 12 cases gin, 16 bags flour, 7 bags bran, 2 cheeses, 1 box, 1 paper parcel, 12 casks porter, 17 bags oats, 16 bags potatoes, 2 tins turps., 1 barrel oatmeal, 1 ditto cheese, 7 cases slops, 10 bags sugar, 1 case split peas, 1 ditto pearl barley, 1 ditto rice, 1 ditto turpentine, 1 ditto oateal, 1 trunk apparel, 7 cases, a press and types, 1 case drugs, 9 cases geneva, 1 chest apparel, 2 trunks ditto, 1 can oil, 2 cans, 3 kegs, 1 case, 1 scraper, 1 keg tobacco, 1 case soap, 1 bag salt, 1 cask whisky, 2 cases glass, 1 keg, 1 case, 1 cask.  For Port Fairy: 4 bags flour, 1 bag sugar, 1 bag potatoes, 3 cans turps.

14- Ellen & Elizabeth, for Launceston- 7 bales wool

16 – Corsair- for Launceston- 310 sheep, 1 bale slops.

We’re seeing the internal economy at work here.  Many of these goods would have arrived earlier either direct to Port Phillip, or by steamer down from Sydney, or across from Van Diemen’s Land- especially things like sugar, tobacco and alcohol (of which there seems to be a great abundance).  The Port Phillip merchants would then forward them on to the smaller ports.  I’m a bit surprised by the sheep going to Launceston, given that during the early Port Phillip years, the sheep were coming from Van Diemens Land.  Perhaps someone bought up big at one of the auction sales.

Actually, this Shipping Intelligence is pretty boring because there’s no international shipping. When a ship comes bearing imports from overseas, the person who ordered the goods it is named, then the goods are listed.  Again- not a lot of privacy.

The real reason I’m writing up this one comes in the SYDNEY SHIPPING section!

ARRIVED- June 30 Rebecca Sims, from South Sea Fisheries

The Lord Saumarez was to have sailed from Sydney for Port Phillip on the 3rd inst.

The American whaler Rebecca Sims, of New Bedford, has been very fortunate, having in 24 months procured 1600  barrels sperm and 300 barrels black oil; but hs been obliged to put into this port in consequence of having lost her rudder and false keel in a severe squall, and for the purpose of having which replaced, she will have to hove down.  She reports of having spoken the following vessels:- October 1, 1841, the Ofley, of London, off Ocean Island, with 900 barrels sperm, out 25 months.  Oct 4, the Onyx of London, six weeks from Sydney, with 100 barrels of sperm oil.  November 22, the Caernarvon of Sydney, with 500 barrells, and a whale alongside, out 36 months (since which she has put into Hobart Town, discharged her cargo, and refreshed).  January 22, 1842, the American ship Francis Hussey, with 750 barrels sperm, out 17 months.  The Rebecca Sims touched at Rotumah, on the 8th February, where she found the American barque, Fortune, with 350 barrels sperm oil, out 17 months; the barque Louisa, Wright of London, with 40 barrels; and the Mary, of London, with 200 barrels, out 9 months.  She afterwards touched at Chatham Island, where she found the Gem, of Sydney, a total wreck, having ran ashone.  Heard of the American ship Franklin being at Chatham Island 22nd May, with 2300 barrels black oil, 10 months out; and of the American ship Chariot also being there,  April 20th, with 1400 barrels sperm; also of the American ship Omega, Captain Gardner, cruising off Chatham Island, 1st June with 1600 barrels sperm oil. Spoke the schooner Kitty, from Chatham Island, bound to Port Nicholson on the 25th May, having lost her anchor and part of the chain inthe same squall that she sustained the damage which caused her to put into this port.

The Victoria is at present refitting off the Commercial Wharf, and is about to proceed to Manilla to be sold; if not purchased there, she will proceed to China.  Her owners are fitting her out in a superior style, and we understand she will carry eight or ten brass guns.- Australasian Chronicle, July 2.

One of the problems of a catch phrase like Geoffrey Blainey’s ‘Tyranny of Distance’ is that it can obscure just how connected Australian ports and ships were into the seafaring, whaling and maritime culture.  The Shipping Intelligence often carries reports of which ships “spoke” to other ships, conveying news of yet other ships that they had each spoken to, wrecks, rough journeys etc.

Here, too, we’re seeing the internationalized  whaling oceans around Australia and New Zealand, with English and American ships, as well as Australian ones.  I can’t really find any hard and fast figures of how many barrels of oil the ‘average’ whale provides (after all, what’s an ‘average’ whale?).  I have figures from the 1900s that had 18, 660 barrels from 559 whales (about 33 barrels per whale); a figure of 60 barrels from the ‘right’ whale ( I’ve seen that they produced the ‘black’ oil, but then another website said that black oil came from the Arctic White Whale); and Save the Whales gave a figure of 47.6 barrels from a sperm whale.

No matter how much oil the whale produced, a load of 1600 barrels is pretty impressive, as is the amount of time that these ships stayed out at sea- up to three years!  But seeing the way that these ships communicated with each other, within the whaling fraternity it wasn’t a matter of sailing off into the wild blue yonder, even though it must have felt that way for the families left at home (shades of Ahab’s wife here).  The seas had their own communications channels.

Whalers had been plying the Victorian coastline since the very early 1800s, and the first temporary settlements were seasonal whaling stations.  It was generally believed that whalers often took Aboriginal women (especially those from Van Diemen’s land) as virtual slaves, but recent work by historians like Lynette Russell suggests that the women brought important survival skills to the whalers, and acted with more agency than previously thought.  (I suspect that this link takes you to a paid site, so I don’t know if you want to follow it).

Then that last little section reminds us that there was an important Asian trade going on between the colonial ports there as well.  There was a Chinese war going on at the time, hence the brass guns, I guess.

‘Men and Women of Port Phillip’ by Martin Sullivan

Reading this book evoked memories of undergraduate history out at La Trobe in the mid-70s:  sitting around the Agora drinking bad coffee from yellow and orange plastic handled mugs; peering through the smoky fug in tutorials held in the tutor’s own room; posters of  Splitz Enz playing on campus;  the sweet waft of marijuana; the opening up of the world in those halcyon Whitlamesque days.

When I see that Martin Sullivan submitted his  Ph D. thesis “Class and Society in the Port Phillip District” to Monash University in 1978, then I realize where all these 30 year old reminiscences are coming from.  The thesis, and this book that no doubt sprang from it in 1985, are all imbued with the language and frameworks of Marxist historiography that look rather – well-  strident, earnest and  somewhat dated today.   In fact, I was a little surprised by the late-ish publication date of this book (1985) because it had the fingerprints of the 1970s all over it.

Which is not to say that it’s not a useful book- on the contrary.  I’m finding myself frustrated that it is so difficult to ‘hear’ the people of Port Phillip who were not middle-class and socially and visible on the one hand, or thrown up from the stews of criminality into the courts on the other hand.  Surely there’s another group of people here.  I think of the school children who marched in the public parade for the laying of the foundation stone to the Supreme Court- who were their parents who no doubt craned their necks to see their children as they marched past?  Who were the people who mobbed around the first public hangings up on the hill above Lonsdale Street? It appears that it was a heterogenous group- who were they?

Sullivan has used much the same sources I have: court reports, newspapers, government dispatches, Garryowen and other contemporary writers.    His focus is different to mine, and he has struggled with it. He wants to draw out  his working-class men and women of Port Phillip from the vignettes of the middle class, public actors that I’m finding myself working with, but they are such shadowy figures that they are easily overshadowed and  don’t ever emerge fully.  So they remain fuzzy, largely unnamed (except for those who turn up in the courts) and largely undifferentiated from the group.

He argues that a capitalist, market-based system was not necessarily found in Port Phillip from its inception, but that it quickly developed once propertyless, wage-earning immigrants and former convicts came to the colony.  Classes emerged fairly quickly, whereby capitalists and wage earners lived out their lives in different ways according to their relationship to the means of production.   However, although the capitalists tried to control the law and the state, they never had complete control over them, or indeed over the labouring population which was, from the start, ungovernable and obstinate.   In this regard- and I don’t know how Martin Sullivan would feel about this- the book leans towards John Hirst’s view of the subversion of authority right from the inception of the colony.   He points out that after 1844 there was a more concerted and political program of protest, rather than the undirected dissatisfaction of  individual men and women previously. It also confirms the feeling that I have that there was a general heightening of the political climate around the mid 1840s, even before the Gold Rush.

This book felt a bit unbalanced in its structure. There is barely an introduction as such, as the book launches straight into an examination of the course of events that led to its settlement by the Port Phillip Association, and its relationship to a market economy.  This is followed by a 73 page chapter about the formation of a labour market, then a shorter 40 page chapter about convicts in Port Phillip which could have easily been a second chapter.  Chapter 4 is another long one- 86 pages, followed by a 26 page chapter on the stuctures of dominance, then a rather thin two page conclusion.  I felt as if the book was lumpy, and that it didn’t draw me along with a clear argument.  I don’t need each chapter to be a homogenized length, but the book felt as if it lacked unity.

Nonetheless, by consciously looking beyond the more easily-accessed public, middle-class realm, he has set himself an ambitious target: I know because I’m puddling around in the same sources as he did.   Those more sweeping “people’s history”-type books have the advantage of a larger timespan to draw and extrapolate from.  It’s much harder to start at the origins of a settlement, as he does, and know that you end up ten years later with a system that has been almost- not quite, but almost- undetectable in its emergence.   We’re only looking at a small society, for a small slice of time- why is it so hard to see it happening?

‘Family and Social Network’ by Elizabeth Bott


Elizabeth Bott Spillius

The historian I admire most, Inga Clendinnen,  once said that

“history requires no special training other than curiosity, sharp wits and scrupulous attention to detail- plus a determination to honour the mysteriousness of the people you are studying”

I like that.  I particularly draw comfort from the worthiness of curiosity, and claim ‘curiosity immunity’ when I am being particularly observant (i.e. nosy) about other people around me.  And I think that ‘Family and Social Network’ by Elizabeth Bott satisfied my [prurient? scholarly?] curiosity about family interactions and networks with the wider community.

The book itself was written in the 1950s and has now taken on a historical edge that it certainly didn’t at the time.  It describes a team-based study undertaken by an anthropologist and psychologist and a team of researchers who aimed to interview twenty ‘ordinary’ families with young children.

It was refreshingly honest about the methodological problems they faced: making contact with their 20 families;  reconciling the different disciplinary perspectives of the two lead researchers;  resolving issues about researcher role and the formality and comparability of the research process.   You don’t often read an admission that methodology that

The anthropological method basically consists of messing about with a lot of variables and bits of information in a condition of acute uncertainty, in the hope that eventually one will see relationships one had not thought of before (p309)

Only one of the case studies was written up in great detail, but it was a fascinating one of a working class family with very strong family roots in a particular street in London.  The wife did not work, and saw her mother on a daily basis, and was thoroughly enmeshed in her kin relationships in a way that her husband was not.  The husband and wife had completely different networks, with no joint friendships or social activities.  This was contrasted with a middle class, more mobile family with weaker kin ties and shared friendship patterns.

In the acknowledgments Bott quoted Dr John Bowlby as remarking “It has the merit of being obvious once one has thought of it.  One wonders why one hadn’t…”, and this is very much true of this book too.  For  instance, she observes (and I find myself thinking I knew that… without actually knowing it) that there are ‘connecting’ people in families who bring together other more separated family members; that if there are two or three generations of mothers living in the same place in the same time, a matrilinear stress is more common; that friendships (especially friendships of men) are ‘trimmed” when a couple marries so that they can be joint friendships; that intense identity-forming friends tend to be absent after marriage so that they do not threaten conjugal loyalty and new friendships tend to be join and diminished in identity.  All the stuff of a million soap operas and novels.

At the end of the 2nd edition of the book is a lengthy chapter called ‘Reconsiderations’ where she returns, decades later, to the original study.  She talks about how her categories and opinions have been challenged, changed or firmed, and the relationship of later research to her original work.

At one level, the book seems far removed from Port Phillip in the 1840s but it’s stimulated my awareness of the effects of migration on kin and friendship networks, and how this might be described.

The rehabilitation of Ben Cousins


So, Ben Cousins is to be a Tiger now.

I bet you thought that I couldn’t make a link between a footballer and the Resident Judge of Port Phillip, but of course I can.  The original Resident Judge John Walpole Willis was in Melbourne too early to witness the ‘invention’ of Australian Rules football by Tom Wills in 1858.  Ironically Wills ended up suiciding in Heidelberg, which was where Judge Willis had lived some 37 years earlier.  There was another Thomas Wills who lived in the Heidelberg vicinity, down by the Yarra River, while Judge Willis was in Port Phillip, so it’s all rather confusing.

There was speculation that Ben Cousins would be drafted by St Kilda, my favourite team, but it did not eventuate.  I was pleased. To be honest, St Kilda has a lurid enough history of bad boys and there is no need to perpetuate it with Ben Cousins who is described as a ‘recovering drug addict’.  For me, the final straw was when he shaved his head and waxed all his body hair to avoid a drug test in November this year.  This is not the act of a recovered drug addict who desperately wants to play.  It smacked of arrogance and a misplaced sense of invincibility.

So, Richmond has taken him on instead.  Fair enough: their decision.  But I was interested in the front page article in today’s Age that examined the public rehabilitation process that has been set into train, largely driven by his manager Ricky Nixon.  Mention was made of ex-Richmond player and acclaimed coach Kevin Sheedy‘s influence, and more interestingly for me, that of football commentator Gerard Healy.

[Club President Gary] March says Kevin Sheedy’s role in bringing Cousins to Tigerland has been exaggerated at the Richmond end, but that the influence of another Cousins’ supporter Brownlow medallist and media commentator Gerard Healy, has been understated.  Healy is a mentor to Cousins and was one of the five people Nixon had engaged to protect and advise him in the event that he was drafted by the Saints.

Healy’s major role was not simply to lobby Richmond and the league, but to turn the tide of public opinion through his media outlets, especially 3 AW’s ‘Sports Tonight’ which became command centre of a shameless “Give Ben a Fair Go” campaign.  (Age, December 17 2008)

Ah, that’s right, ‘engage’ (i.e. pay) the media to smooth the path.  And when Gerard Healy gets behind a young player next season, shall we assume that he has been ‘engaged’ to promote him, too?  He’s a radio announcer: should he, like fellow radio announcers Alan Jones and John Laws be required to disclose the players that he has been ‘engaged’ to support?