Well, New Years Eve in Melbourne came and went, as it always does, last night. Many police in the city, and just a handful of arrests apparently.
(Update: Well, more than a handful. The Age today reports that there were 1147 arrests across the state, double that of New Years Eve 2007 when there were 511 arrests. “The tougher stance produced ‘the quietest New Year’s Eve on record’, with no repeat of the riots that marred past New Year’s Eves at Rye and St. Kilda.” 136 people were taken off the street for offensive behaviour, indecent language and minor assaults, and 485 motorists were booked for a range of traffic offences, well up on 248 last year).
What about in Port Phillip in 1841? Here we are, in the Port Phillip Gazette of 1/1/41 in the Police Intelligence column- where else?
POLICE INTELLIGENCE. William Porter, Charles Aldgate, David Holmes, John Walsh, John Percival, Charles Major and Richard Bennet were driven into the box like a flock of sheep, having been found suffering from the effects of the season.
Bench: Well, what have you to say?
Chorus: Christmas, Your Honor, Christmas!
Bench: Silence! We neither countenance nor approve of drunkenness, but making a little allowance for the season, we discharge you all
Chorus: Thank you, Your Honor: hurrah! a merry Christmas and a happy new year!!
The Port Phillip Patriot was a little less charitable about the lads hauled in a couple of days later:
The first day of the year 1841 must evidently have been auspicious to the publicans of Melbourne if we may judge from the number of persons, amounting to twelve who made their appearance at the bar of the Police Office on Saturday morning. Nor was the offence confined to the male kind solely, one female being charged for the fifth time. If we may judge from appearances, we should say that the potations of many were not pacifically concluded, the physiognomies of many bearing sanguine and sable traces of having done battle ( Patriot 4/1/41)
Given that Christmas seemed such a fizzer, I thought I’d look up to see if New Year was celebrated with any more gusto. I checked out the chapter on Christmas in Ken Inglis’ Australian Colonists (1974) to see if my hunch about the relatively low-key, domestic nature of Christmas was sound. He took a wider chronological sweep than I did and so includes information from later in the century (as well as the sources I found) but he did note the prominence of New Year. He speculated whether it was the influence of the Scots and their emphasis on hogmanay but was aware of the relatively low proportion of Scots in Australia generally. However, there were proportionally more Scots in Port Phillip (40%) than elsewhere in New South Wales (30%) so perhaps that explains why the extended pieces I found on Christmas came from Sydney and South Australia respectively, rather than Port Phillip.
Inglis writes of Australia as a whole:
Here as at home the new year was welcomed with church bells, and people resolved to do and be better for the next twelve months. Governors held levees, citizens played or watched games, went for picnics, listened to bands. From the first years of the settlement it was customary for men to stay in towns, to stay out late carousing and larking, lighting bonfires and fireworks. (p. 113)
The Port Phillip Gazette celebrated New Year by presenting its town subscribers with “an engraving by our late talented and eccentric friend John Adamson” which although falling short in conveying the size of Melbourne, “will help to convey to distant friends the position, appearance and style of the town of Melbourne.” I think you can see the engraving here. All three papers made much of the coming of 1842, far more than they did in 1843 when the depression was obviously biting and press columns were preoccupied with elections and politics. All three papers in 1841/2 indulged in a bit of backward-gazing self-congratulations and worthy and jovial exhortations for the coming year, but there was none of this the following year.
So, what was there to do on New Years Eve and the following New Years Day in that party-year 1842? On New Years Eve, you could have gone to a concert at the Pavilion
The concert held on Saturday evening last to welcome in the new year, was numerously attended and came off with considerable eclat. Although, as might have been anticipated at the season of general jubilee, a number of rather suspicious characters were loitering about the Pavilion, many of whom endeavoured to obtain admittance, yet they were very properly excluded, and in consequence, if those favored with an entre were not all of the upper ranks of society they were respectable and conducted themselves with the greatest propriety. The evening’s entertainment was, upon the whole, little, if any thing inferior to any similar display in the colonies and if equal attention for the future be paid to the general arrangements by the Manager, and the performers exert themselves in an equally laudable manner for the gentrification of the audience, the Pavilion will soon be a most fashionable place of resort as it is as yet the only one of rational amusement. The “star” Miss Sinclair, fully realized the most sanguine anticipations, she has an excellent command of a good voice, and with a little more practice her success as a vocalist is certain. Her “Kate Kearney” was sung with a spirit and national feeling which told she was at home in giving effect to an Irish air. Miss Lucas’ “Meet me by moonlight” was good, but it was evident she labored under the effects of a bad cold; but although in consequence she had been previously recommended to resign her part, she preferred making her appearance to disappointing her previous admirers. Master Eyles’ performance was generally good, but the concluding part of the “Bay of Biscay” was excellent and promised well for future fame. Mr Miller, as a comic singer, would not disgrace the provincial boards of the first class in Britain, and was no better received than he deserved. In all his actions he was happy, but particularly in “Biddy the Basket Woman”. To supply the hiatus in the performance caused by the necessary retirement of Miss Lucas, an amateur entertained the audience with a variety of dances, expert gesticulations &c. and deservedly stands a favourite. Port Phillip Herald 4 Jan 1842
The next day, you might have attended a cricket match where “a party of civilians were duly stumped out by their opponents the government officials”. But it sounds as if THE place to be was Williams Town beach, attracting crowds from Melbourne arriving by steamer with bands playing, and spilling onto the beach to enjoy sail boat races, whale boat races, sack races, footraces, shimmying up a greasy pole, blindfold wheelbarrow races and a greasy pig chase.
At 1.30 a free lunch was served for 200-300 people- sheep, beef, cabbage- (mmm, mmm) accompanied by the popping of corks and music. The crowds had all melted away by 6.00 when the town worthies had their own, more select gathering of fifteen gentlemen who sat down for a much more dignified dinner.
Of course, if you were of a more spiritual bent, you could have attended the opening of the Independent Chapel on Eastern Hill- a building that could accommodate 500-600 people, splendidly lit with chandeliers.
And so, “Thus ended the amusements of a New Years Day in Australia Felix”
Ken Inglis Australian Colonists
A. G. L. Shaw The Port Phillip District.