Monthly Archives: June 2009

The boys go to Port Phillip

As part of examining Judge Willis’ interaction with Port Phillip society, I’ve read folder after folder of official correspondence, column after column of newspapers, memoirs  and several diaries.  But one thing that I have barely dipped into is personal correspondence.  So it was armed with a few names that I headed into the State Library yesterday- off to read the correspondence of the Burchett brothers who arrived from 1839 onwards to their family ‘back home’, and a thesis based on the correspondence of  Alexander F. Mollison who visited Melbourne in its earliest days, then settled in the Port Phillip district from about 1837.

The survival of any cache of correspondence is  a mixture of luck, diligence, intent and circumstance.  There are those rare individuals who keep copies of all correspondence both sent and received, but it’s more likely that an archive of correspondence is likely to be largely one-sided, usually consisting of  letters received, with the letters sent reflected only obliquely.  The preservation of letters within a family depends largely on the importance placed on them by the recipient, and the custodians to whom they pass when the recipient dies.  Then there is another  step between private ownership and their availability to a wider public through a museum (where they can linger undiscovered and uncatalogued for years) or publication.

Moreover, the practice of mail correspondence between New South Wales and the metropole,  particularly during the 1840s, reflected the realities of a 4-6 month time lag with a swag of letters arriving in one dispatch, or likewise, no mail appearing at all.  No doubt the receipt of letters would trigger off a frenzy of response, with the minutae of day-to-day life telescoped into a potted narrative that would reassure loved ones who were totally unfamiliar with the sights, smells and local personalities on the other side of the world.  On both sides, the pictured recipients would be kept in a mental time-warp that kept them as they were when last seen, with shared acquaintances and memories given more prominence than perhaps they merited. I tend to think of this correspondence as similar to the word-processed  Christmas updates we all started to include in our Christmas cards a few years ago,  up until they fell out of favour for being homogenized, impersonalized and too cheery and cheesy.  (Mind you, I enjoy receiving them and still do send them- cheesy and impersonalized though they may be).

So, with these constraints in mind, how likely is it that any of this correspondence would mention Judge Willis?  I guess that it depends on how personally involved the writer was with the agitation to either remove or support him, which in turn might reflect the political engagement and interests of the intended recipient of the letter.  How much of any politics would filter through, say, into the Christmas Update we might send today?  I suspect that 2001 Christmas Updates reflected the shock of September 11;  we may have written to overseas correspondents about a change in government.  But, unless personally involved, it’s not likely that day-to-day politics is likely to find its way into correspondence intended for an overseas readership, even in our connected, globalized world, and probably even less so from 1843 New South Wales.

The Burchett Brothers

And so to the Burchett letters.  The copy of the letters I saw had been typewritten and photographed.  Now, there’s nothing quite like the pleasure of the looped, cursive script, the browning ink and the texture of the paper of the original.  But I’ve been there, and done that, and there’s also nothing quite like the regularity and ease of a typewritten transcript!!  They were catalogued under “Burchett family”, and the collection includes letters written by Charles Gowland Burchett (1817-1856), Henry Burchett (1820-1872), Frederick Burchett (1824-1861) and Alfred Burchett (1831-1888).   The boys arrived out here over a period of time, with the 22 year old Charles and 19 year old Henry arriving first in 1839, followed by their younger brother Frederick, aged 16, the following year.   I’m not sure when Alfred arrived.   There were obviously other children still left at home- Henry’s letters in particular are full of high-spirited and affection  in-jokes with his younger siblings.   All the same, it must have been hard to have your three eldest boys heading off across the globe at such young ages.

Charles, in particular, seems to have been of a slightly more political bent than his brothers.  In his letter to his father on 12 June 1841 he writes about a meeting to petition the Home Government for separation from New SouthWales, and mentions the Resident Judge obliquely in reference to Sydney’s neglect of Port Phillip- a comment by then obsolete given that Judge Willis had by that time arrived in Melbourne.

Even in Sydney they know little of us.  Fancy the wilful blindness of a tardy determination to allow us the services of a Supreme Judge three times in two years.

This was to be his only mention of Judge Willis.  He goes on:

The principal evidence of the moral advance of this place may be enumerated as follows- a Society lately formed on the plan of the “Highland Agricultural Society” for the promotion of Agriculture, Horticulture and Breeding, William Mackenzie Esq, the son of a Scottish Baronet is the Chairman.  Two or three hundred chapels; the church, however, on account of its ambitious pretensions, is at a standstill for want of funds, a considerable part of the edifice completed evidently exhibits the intention of the Trustees to make it a handsome structure- it is of stone.  And last, but not least, the Mechanics Institution.  Among the lectures at this last has been one “On the Influence of the Press in disseminating knowledge” by George Arden, the Editor of the Port Phillip Gazette.  This said G. A. (the Boy Editor, as he is called) I have known since my arrival here; he gave a splendid speech at the meeting.

The boys established a run called ‘The Gums’  near Mt Rouse in the Western District.  In a letter dated 1 Oct  1841,  Frederick was not pleased by the news that Charles Sievewright was to establish the Western District  Aboriginal Protectorate nearby:

There is a rumour that a Black protector is coming to take up his station at Mt Rouse, with his tail of 4 or 500 blacks, if he does we shall have to keep a sharp lookout, as the gentleman of his suits have been playing up a hurricane (colonial phrase) down below, and they are not very remarkable for their honesty

Five days later his brother Henry added:

How little do the good people at home, who are instigators of benevolent systems of civilization understand the character of these barbarous cannibals.

The financial depression of the early 1840s hit the Burchett boys badly, and Frederick returned home, followed by Charles who arrived back in England  on the Glenbervie on November 24 1843.  They obviously did not stay: Frederick returned to Van Diemens Land in March 1844 and the others must have returned at some stage too.  Charles died in 1856 at their property St Germain’s (near Echuca); Henry died in 1872 at “Albert Road, Regent Park” (not sure where); Frederick died in 1861 in Melbourne, and Alfred in 1888 at St Kilda.

Alexander Mollison

And so on to the second batch of letters from Alexander Mollison, this time as part of a thesis written by Marie Hyde who transcribed and annotated the letters as part of a Bachelor of Letters degree in 1988.  Alexander Fullerton Mollison (1805-55) has a higher profile that the Burchett brothers with a shared entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography with his brother William Thomas.

Alexander arrived in Sydney in 1834 at the older age of 29, and did not ever marry.  After an exploratory trip to Port Phillip in 1836, he overlanded down from his property at Uriani (near present day Canberra) with his flock of 5000 sheep, 634 cattle, 28 bullocks and 22 horses, to establish Colliban Station, near Malmsbury.  He was joined by his brothers Patrick, who was based in Sydney, another brother Crawford, and William aged 22, who arrived in 1838 who joined Alexander at Colliban.   A fifth brother, James, aspired to be an artist and several of Alexander’s letters warn him specifically not to come to the colonies, as there were few prospects for artists here.   Two sisters were left at home: Jane, to whom many of the letters are addressed and for whom Alexander obviously had a great affection, and Elizabeth.  Again, I find myself thinking about the parents left back in England with their daughters, with the ‘boys’ of the family so far away.

The early letters reflect Alexander’s interest in the  zoological and botanical sciences- and I assume that sister Jane shared this interest too.  Although he didn’t send her actual specimens- as Judge Willis was wont to do with patrons he wanted particularly to impress- he did write long descriptions of rainbows he noticed at sea and his first sighting of a platypus.  Zoe Laidlaw, in her book Colonial Connections 1815-45:  Patronage, the Information Revolution and Colonial Government, highlights the importance of scientific networks, and the overlap between amateur colonial naturalists and visiting scientific professionals.  It also evokes for me the burgeoning interest in science more generally reflected in another book I’m reading at the moment- Richard Holmes’ The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science.  It seems that Alexander was very much a man of his times.

As Hyde points out, the shipboard voyage

had positive benefits as an interlude between the old world and the new in helping to establish that network of connections with the well off and influential that would serve him well in years to come.(p. 5)

He travelled with the Rusden family, little realizing that the 12 year old son George would later become Clerk of the Executive Council and a member of the National Board of Education.   He became friends with Charles Nicholson, who was later become Sir Charles Nicholson,  statesman, landowner and businessman.

In an odd conjunction, he wrote to his father that Henry Burchett (of the letters above) had arrived at the station to learn sheep farming before striking out on his own.  The Burchett letters also resonate when the Aboriginal Protector Parker took up land on the Loddon to establish a Protectorate.  Unlike the Burchetts, Mollison willingly gave up land for the Aboriginal station, and assisted Parker in running it.

Alexander obviously spent some time in Melbourne where he mixed with the other ‘respectable’ pastoralists.  On 26 December 1839, he wrote to his sister Jane about the Melbourne Club:

I do not remember having told you about the Club House in Melbourne. The Inns were found to be so dirty and disordered that several respectable settlers and townsmen formed a club about 18 months ago.  William and I are members.  There are now eighty permanent members.  The house affords twelve bedrooms, a dining room, drawing room, library and smoking room or [?].  The bedrooms are rather small but exceedingly comfortable and well-kept.  Each member is allowed to occupy a bedroom one week and then must make way for another if required…The yearly subscription is five pounds and the charges are the same as at the inns.

His respectability gave him access to the political sphere.  Soon after La Trobe’s arrival in Melbourne,  Alexander and his brother Crawford called on him.  To his father, Alexander wrote:

Mr La Trobe arrived at Melbourne some weeks ago.  He told me that he had been introduced to you.  I called once at his offices with Crawford but came away as soon as our business was finished, as Mr La Trobe seemed to be very much occupied.  He is so far in public favor here and seems to be candid, sincere and unostentatious.

He also met with Governor Gipps when he visited Melbourne, and was one of the five men deputized to make a welcoming address to him.  In October 1841 Alexander wrote to his father:

We have had great doings this past week in honour of Governor Sir George Gipps’ first visit to this district, but I have not time to relate them.  I may however say that I was one of a deputation to draw up and present an address and also the president of a public dinner of one hundred and fifty people.  Sir George is frank, clever, and a ready and pleasing speaker.  I was introduced to him during my late short visit to Sydney.

When his friend Charles Nicholson put himself up for election as the Port Phillip member for the first District Council, Mollison seconded his nomination.   Nicholson was elected the representative for Port Phillip on the part-elected Legislative Council in 1843, served as Speaker in 1846 and twice more before the granting of responsible government.  Mollison was one of the inaugural members of the Melbourne branch of the Australian Immigration Society in 1840 (Garryowen p. 492); he addressed a meeting against the resumption of transportation (Garryowen p. 524); he presided over a Squatters Meeting in June 1844 and a committee member of the Separation Association (Garryowen p 907).  He was made a Justice of the Peace.

It’s not surprising, then, that Mollison does mention Judge Willis’ suspension, albeit briefly, with the terse comment that “he certainly deserved it”.  Mollison does not seem to have been particularly heavily involved in the movement against him, however, declining to sign the anti-Willis petitions.  Both Alexander and his brother William did , however, sign a letter in support of Lonsdale who was under attack by Judge Willis, and another letter on 14th June 1843 directly before Judge Willis’ amoval complaining about aspersions raised in the court in relation to the magistracy generally.

The sheer distance between the colonies and the family at home was reinforced for me by the report of Patrick’s illness in Sydney.  Charles Nicholson notified Alexander that Patrick was gravely ill, and within days Alexander was writing a second letter to say that he had died.  In his will, Patrick left his colonial assets to his sister Jane and Alexander, although they did not cover his debts.  Jane had obviously advanced money to Patrick, and Alexander later made an investment of Jane’s money in land on the portion bounded by Highett, Lennox and Erin Streets, Richmond.   Davidoff and Hall’s book Family Fortunes notes that the daughters of a family often made their inheritance available to their brothers for investment, in return for a roof over their head and keep.

Although he suffered financially during the Depression, he did not go under, which is a testimony to his good management and frugality.  By 1845 he was writing “I now begin to feel that my home is here.”  He did return to London in 1850, where he stayed for 8 1/2 years.  A photograph held by the State Library of Victoria taken in London during this time, describes him as

Seated, wearing three-piece suit with fringed black and white paisley patterned tie (probably a scarf). He has a full brown and gingerish beard speckled with grey, and wears a light coloured top hat with a very high crown.

He returned briefly to Victoria, then went again to England where he lived for another 13 years.  After the death of his beloved sister Jane, he and his remaining sister Elizabeth returned to Victoria in 1873.  They settled together, unmarried brother and sister, until he died after years of ill-health in 1885.


Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class 1780-1850

Edmund Finn (Garryowen) The Chronicles of Early Melbourne

Richard Holmes The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science

Marie Hyde Letters from Port Phillip:  the letters of Alexander Mollison 1833-1859 (thesis)

Zoe Laidlaw Colonial Connections 1815-1845: Patronage, the Information Revolution and Colonial Government

A. G. L. Shaw A History of the Port Phillip District

‘Family Fortunes’ by Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall


Some time ago, I read Michael Roe’s ‘Quest for Authority in Eastern Australia’.  Roe argued that the tenor of Australian society appeared to be set on a paternalistic, conservative path dominated by a landed elite who had been dealt with generously in the carve up of land and authority in the former  penal colony.  By the 1820s, however, a diversion from this path occurred with the influx of mainly British settlers who were shaped by what Roe called  ‘moral enlightenment’,  a philosophy drawing on 18th century thought, combining Romantic, utilitarian, Protestant and liberal values.  He did not claim that this was an intrinsically Australian characteristic- instead it was a ‘transplanted species’, drawn from similar currents in Britain at the time.

As I wrote in my post on Roe’s book, I was nudged into reading it by a friend’s dissatisfaction with the sterility and abstraction of his argument, which was largely a roll-call of local colonial male-dominated politics, with no ‘real’ people.  This didn’t trouble me so much, but I found myself wanting to dig back even further into the mental baggage of new settlers- where did this ‘moral enlightenment’ come from?  This led to me onto reading Davidoff and Hall’s ‘Family Fortunes’- a book that seems to have been cited everywhere!- a sure sign of the ‘landmark’ and ‘seminal’ text!

The full title of the book is ‘Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class 1780-1850’.  Its time-frame is important for considering early Australian society because it encapsulates the settler phase of Australia so closely, and even though this book is set entirely in Britain, I found resonances in Australian history as well.  Every white settler carried with them the sensibilities of their home society, not necessarily replicated in the new society, but present nonetheless.    The authors argue that the middle class mentality of the early 19th century (later overwhelmed by the dominance of later Victorian bombast) was centred in the religious revivals of the late 18th century, manifested through the non-conformist and  evangelical Anglican middle class families that prospered in the early years of the Industrial Revolution.  They based their argument on the study of four locations: Birmingham and its satellite suburb Edgbaston; the market town of Colchester, and the villages of Witham in Essex, and Suffolk.  Their book is studded with people, met again and again, who exemplify the embeddedness of religion in family, business and public life: here are the fleshed-out personalities so absent in Roe’s book.

They draw an interesting distinction between adult converts in the religious evangelical fervour of the 1780s and 90s, and their own children, born as natives into evangelical Christian families.  Many of my Port Phillip pioneers are here among this group: particularly those public men who expressed their respectability and masculinity through the Debating Society, the balls, the subscriptions and churches in the new town of Melbourne.

The full title of the book emphasizes family and the role of both men and women in the economic milieu of middle-class English society.  They argue that during the first half of the 19th century, middle-class women were removed from the ‘establishment’ that supported the family- in terms of both role and location.  They moved to less visible, ‘back of house’ roles within the family business and the enterprise itself became town-based, while the family shifted to outlying satellite housing suburbs.  Male and female roles became increasingly separated into public and private spheres, that varied during the life cycle, with women’s contribution to the family capital and success increasingly sidelined.

I find myself thinking of Port Phillip’s development, starting with a blank slate as it were.  In the earliest days, housing and enterprises were intermingled- Georgiana McCrae and her family started off in Argyle Cottage in Little Lonsdale Street West, and many public men lived ‘in town’ as well as having other properties further out.  As part of the 1840s land boom, suburbs like East Melbourne, Fitzroy and Brighton were being subdivided and sold as residential property. Yet among the ‘public’ families, however, in a social and economic sense the  separate spheres seems to have been established almost from the start- although this would no doubt be less true amongst smaller trading and shop-keeping enterprises.  I’m also very much aware of the phenomenon of brothers emigrating together and business partners becoming -in laws: that web of family connections that was elastic enough to stretch across the globe, and yet was still stitched closely together where it caught at the extremities.

‘Family Fortunes’ is exhaustive (and exhausting!) in the sheer weight of evidence drawn from a variety of sources including diaries, letters, hymns, memoirs, family and local histories, minutes, business documents, wills and tracts- this is a BIG, important history drawn from small, domestic, often ephemeral, lived-in documentation.

‘Modern Interiors’ by Andrea Goldsmith


1991, 242p.

This is Andrea Goldsmith‘s second book, and one that I hadn’t heard of before.  I read it for my C.A.E. bookgroup – a night of wine, laughter, affection amongst the women my daughter has dubbed “The Ladies Who Say Oooooh” (because apparently we work ourselves up into a chorus of  ‘oooooh’ at some stage during the night. I’m not sure if this is a compliment or not).

The book’s main character, Phillipa Finemore, is a wealthy widow whose adult children expect her to share the family money with them and subside into a well-heeled widow’s existence as their mother and grandmother.  Instead she sells the big family home, shifts into a terrace house in Carlton, starts a charitable foundation, travels with her deceased husband’s lover and secretary, and befriends a Jewish bookstore owner and then a 25 year old university student.

The goodies and baddies are stereotyped and one-dimensional.  There’s the grasping daughter and embezzling son-in-law; the insipid and incompetent son, and the good gay son who gets on well with his mother.  There are overdrawn parodies of the self-aggrandizing business school and a grasping evangelical preacher and his young wholesome wife.  The slabs of Goldsmith’s own opinions about the perils of family and the commodification of university education, voiced through the characters, became laboured too.

In spite of all this, though, I enjoyed reading the book.  It was almost Anne Tyler-ish in places, and although very wordy, captured emotions and descriptions well.  I felt glee at the come-uppance of such unpleasant people, so I must have been engaged with this book in spite of myself.

‘Talking Books: Novel History’

I found a terrific site called ‘Backdoor Broadcasting Company’, which contains a number of free podcasts from seminars, many of which seem to have been held in London.

The ‘Talking Books: Novel History’ seminar was held at Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities at the University College, London on 6th June 2009 and what a delight to hear something so current! What wonderful times we live in – I could barely be back here in Melbourne writing this now if I’d actually attended it!  The seminar was introduced by the historian Joanna Bourke who started with a quote from Sir Leslie Stephen that historical novels were either pure cram or pure fiction.  The question is, however, how can historical novelists and the historical profession more generally attempt to remain true to the core, brittle narratives and images emanating from a complex and perplexing past?  She introduced Hilary Mantel and Sarah Dunant, both of whom have recent historical fiction releases.  Hilary Mantel writes about real characters: Sarah Dunant’s characters are composites, but both approaches rely on archival research to flesh out their characters.  The best historical novelists, Bourke said,  like Mantel and Dunant can teach historians that there can be a different kind of fidelity to individuals in history, one that acknowledges the power of motives over the power of institutions, and the role of contingency as well as causality.

Hilary Mantel’s academic background is in law, not history.  Her historical fiction draws on authentic characters- her most recent book Wolf Hall centres on Thomas Cromwell; her Place of Greater Safety (which was released in  1992  but written much earlier) presents different revolutionary characters as a collage throughout the French Revolution:  Camille Desmoulins, Danton and Robespierre.  She dislikes, but grudgingly accepts the term ‘historical fiction’ because it raises expectations that its practitioners will have something in common.  She sees her writing more as contemporary thinking about past events; she writes about real people who happen to be dead.  Historical fiction, she says, is a way of re-creating what has slipped from the historical record and of seeing justice done by giving a voice to the voiceless, and representing the mis-represented.  Her work emphasizes the role of chance and contingency, where historians are more often wedded to causal links.  What she writes of could be true: she excludes impossibilities and refuses to rearrange history to suit the dramatic process.

Sarah Dunant, on the other hand, was trained as an historian at Oxford University some 30 years ago, where she was discouraged from making up what we didn’t know.  She was taught the grand narrative of big events, prior to the changes of historiography beginning with Christopher Hill that raised questions about women, the poor, the other.  This more recent historiography gives rise to the potential for a new sort of historical novel.  Her characters did not actually exist: they are composites, based on deep secondary research which has delved deeply into the primary sources.  As an historian, it is the fidelity of this research that gives her confidence to develop her characters, using her sources as a pointillist painter might in representing a larger painting.

The two historical novelists were followed by John Sutherland, the Lord Northcliffe Professor Emeritus at UCL, author of a number of works on fiction, the fiction industry and best-sellers.  In contrast to the earlier speakers, he questioned whether fiction could recover the past, and claimed that fiction dies if you overload it with too much material (something I tend to agree with).  Good historical fiction, he says, defines our relationship with the past- it tells us about where we are.

I’ve been grappling with the perils and pleasures of historical fiction for some time- some of the posts on this blog reflect this :  the 21st sensibility and unwise (and modified)  claims to better understanding debated with Kate Grenville’s The Secret River; the right to traduce a reputation of a true-life individual while disavowing a work as ‘historical’ in Richard Flanagan’s Wanting; the ‘flim-flam’ of biography in Louis Nowra’s Ice;  the hedgehogs and foxes suggested to Isaiah Berlin by Tolstoy’s War and Peace; the deceptive selectivity of Nicholas Baker’s Human Smoke;  the distinction between ‘voice’ and ‘ventriloquism’ in Rose Tremain’s Restoration.    I keep reading historical fiction because I enjoy it, but every time I’m drawn back to the questions of technique that keep arising and that I never can quite answer.

‘Colonial Improver: Edward Deas Thomson’ by S. G. Foster

PortDeas Thomas2

Once you’ve got some little way into your research, it’s quite amusing to look back at the things that puzzled or amazed you right at the beginning.  For me, it was coming across so many letters addressed to ‘E. Deas Thomson’.  Who WAS this man, I wondered, who seemed to write with such authority on so many topics- and why had I never heard of him?

Edward Deas Thomson was originally appointed clerk to the Legislative and Executive Councils under Governor Darling in 1829, then went on to serve as  Colonial Secretary for Governors  Bourke, Gipps, Fitzroy and Denison between 1837-1856.   The term ‘Colonial Secretary’ is a little confusing, as it was used both  for the Secretary of State for War and the Colonies in London (e.g. Marquess of Normanby,  Lord John Russell, Lord Stanley during Judge Willis’ time in NSW) as well as for the chief adviser and second administrator to the Governor here in the colonies.  In my focus on the empire-wide peregrinations of colonial civil servants and judges as they crisscrossed between Upper and Lower Canada, Newfoundland, Cape Colony, the West Indies, New Zealand, Australia, Sierra Leone etc., I have tended to forget that their mobility was supported by an ongoing administrative structure that remained more or less stable, despite the comings and goings of Governors.   This was the case with E. Deas Thomson who served under four governors, of varying political stances and administrative habits.

E. Deas Thomson was born in Edinburgh in 1800 to a family with naval and merchant connections.  His father was  the sometime accountant-general of the Navy, and family drew heavily on the patronage of Sir Charles Middleton (Baron Barham) , First Lord of the Admiralty, and his family after Sir Charles’ death.    His mother was from South Carolina, where Thomson’s father had worked as a plantation agent for his uncle.  After marriage, the couple moved back to Scotland but Deas Thomson’s mother seems to have not settled well and returned alone to South Carolina after suffering a period of paranoia, leaving the 5 year old Edward with his father.  Edward was educated at Harrow, then spent two years in France,  returning to London for a period before travelling to America, then Canada after attending  to business arising from his mother’s death in 1826-7.  The French and American connections, though not necessarily out of the ordinary, do suggest a broader experience than many other civil servants may have been exposed to.

Through his contacts with Sir Charles Middleton’s family, he appealed to Huskisson, then Secretary of State for War and the Colonies for a position in the colonial civil service.  At first he was offered the position of registrar of the Orphan Chambers in Demarara, then a second offer of Clerk of the Council of New South Wales, which he accepted, despite the lower salary, on account of the healthier climate.  This consciousness of the tropical climate, and its deleterious effects, is an ongoing theme in the English imagination of Empire.

He came to his position as Clerk of the Councils via a circuitous route.  The previous incumbent, Henry Grattan Douglass had been removed from the position, and Darling tried to replace him with his own brother-in-law Henry Durmaresq. However the appointment was vetoed by the Colonial Office after complaints of nepotism and Darling was warned against the appointment to public office of  ‘any relative or near connection’.  The position was then open for Thomson’s appointment.

Thomson was not particularly impressed with the drought-striken New South Wales during his first year in 1829, but his perceptions improved as the drought lifted and his friendship with Governor Darling developed.     He maintained a good relationship with Darling’s replacement, Richard Bourke ,and dined frequently with him, despite differences in political stance.  He married Bourke’s daughter Anna, which then placed him in a similar position to his predecessor Dumaresque when Bourke recommended Thomson (his son-in-law) as a replacement Colonial Secretary in place of Alexander Macleay– an erstwhile friend whose nephew ended up marrying Thomson’s own daughter in 1857- ah, the tangled intermarriages amongst colonial ‘gentry’ family!

Despite Bourke’s qualms about nepotism, the appointment went ahead, and as it was, Thomson remained Colonial Secretary for twenty years, long outlasting his father-in-law’s stay in New South Wales.   As such, he acted as confidant, advisor and spokesmen for the succession of governors.  His role changed after the 1842 Constitution introduced a partially-elected Legislative Council, and again with 1856 responsible government when, relucant to engage with electoral politics, he became a life appointee of the Legislative Council where he came to be aligned with the conservative element.

My own awareness of E. Deas Thomson, however, arises from his position as medium between Governor Gipps (the governor in charge during Judge Willis’ time in Port Phillip) and official and individuals in the community at large.   The protocols of communication were an important means of control:  individuals and government officials were instructed to direct all communication with the governor through his Colonial Secretary, and all communication with the Secretary of State in the Colonial Office in London also had to be channelled through Governor Gipps in Sydney (and hence, his Colonial Secretary E. Deas Thomson).   Certainly individuals could, and did, circumvent this process by writing directly to the undersecretary at the Colonial Office , but by Judge Willis’ time this practice, overtly encouraged by Undersecretary Robert Hay in the mid 1820s, had been regularized by the new undersecretary  Sir James Stephen.   Likewise,  there was an off-record back channel of communication within the colonies as well:  Gipps wrote personally to Superintendant La Trobe, and Thomson himself maintained long-standing communications with Denison in Van Diemen’s Land who was later to become Governor of New South Wales.   Indeed,  Thomson became increasingly critical of Governor Gipps’ carelessness in communications with local politicians,  and his inability to recognize when to speak and when to remain silent.  At the same time, leading members of the community recognized that it was better to sound out Thomson before approaching the Governor directly. (Foster, p. 62).

E. Deas Thomson himself has been cast as ‘conservative’ in his politics, particularly when he became a political actor in his own right after representative and then responsible government was granted to the colonies.  Certainly he came to be  seen to represent the interests of the squatters,  and expressed wariness and distaste for universal suffrage and wanted the constitutional backstop of a conservative upper chamber on a restricted franchise.  However, other aspects of his politics are less clear-cut.  He was a lifelong Free Trader, right from his time back in Scotland where he attended lectures by J. R. McCulloch.   He supported the idea of ‘improvement’- a theme picked up on in Foster’s title to his book- through schooling, universities, postal communications, railways, and his involvement in a range of benevolent societies and educational instutions including the Australian Museum and Sydney University.

The lives of E. Deas Thomson’s surviving children illustrate major themes in Thomson’s own life.  His eldest son suffered an ‘unstated ailment’ and could not hold down a job and drew on large sums of his father’s money- shades, perhaps, of Thomson’s mother’s ‘instability’; or maybe just colonial waywardness??? A second son became heavily involved in the Church of England and the temperance movement- the ultimate ‘improvement’ activity.  His three daughters’ marriages are a microcosm of empire: one married a nephew of Thomson’s own predecessor as Colonial Secretary, Alexander Macleay; another married a member of the Indian civil service, and the other married a naval officer.

Thomson’s own early career demonstrates once again the importance of patronage in embarking on a colonial role.   Patronage seemed to make the world go round, but it’s easy to overlook its infantalizaing aspects.  Thomson’s own father, dismissed from his position as accountant-general in the Navy by the incoming Whig Government, turned his attention to a rich widow.  To his son he wrote:

The party I have had in view and still have, if it can be accomplished is a Mrs C a person about 50, being neither (of course) young nor handsome but with more good temper than falls to the lot of most people in life- She is the widow of an army surgeon who has been dead about 7 years- Her father left her about 15,000 pounds which has not been decreased but rather added to… Lord and Lady [B]arham approve the Match  & have visited & paid the necessary attention (quoted Foster p. 36)

Shades of Lady Catherine de Bourgh in Pride and Prejudice??  I suspect, but am not certain, that by now the Barham influence rested with 1st Earl of Gainsborough– or perhaps Lord and Lady Barham are a different branch of the family?  Ah, it’s hard to shake my 21st century perception that there’s something rather demeaning in all this deference and condescension.

Foster paints a picture in this biography of a public servant who was not just a cipher for the Governor but who had influence in his own right.  He was in the mould of 19th century gentlemen improvers: he was concerned to ‘maintain balance’ between the forces in society, and he embraced technology, communications and education as a way of improving society.  His efficiency as public servant and administrator in many ways blunted the calls for responsible government: had the position of Colonial Secretary been filled by someone less capable, there would possibly have been more political agitation for constitutional change, much earlier.


S. G. Foster Colonial Improver: Edward Deas Thomson, Carlton Vic. Melbourne University Press, 1978

Vale Constance E. Little

Trawling through the death notices today, as is my wont, I noticed that Constance E. Little (formerly of Swan Reach and Eagle Point)  died yesterday.  For regular Age readers, Constance E. Little has been a mainstay of the Letters column where she aired her opinions on everything from John Elliot to global warming.  In December 2008 she announced that she would be capping her pen because of ill-health after a stroke.

Most of her letters were sent from her sheep and beef farm on the Tambo River at Swan Reach in south-east Victoria, but her interests and observations ranged far beyond that. She was born on 30.11.1919 in Benalla, and apparently began writing letters for her school paper at the age of 14, later contributing to local, country and metropolitan newspapers over many years.  She sounds some lady: her funeral notice asks those planning to attend the Bairnsdale service to “please wear a dash of pink in Connie’s honour”.

Her death notice says “Constance loved all her readers and thanks them and her editors over her lifetime.”  I think it is equally true that her readers loved Connie and thank her over a lifetime.  If she’s a believer, and if she’ s right, then no doubt she’s giving those beyond the pearly gates a piece of her mind as well.   If not, we’re all the better for her writing and her engagement with more earthly things.   Vale Constance.

‘My Year Without Sex’


Terrific film.  Set in the western suburbs of Melbourne, it’s a  slice of suburban life that is  Melbourne through and through, but also broadly human. It’s the experience of a young mother who suffers an aneurism and is warned that lifting, constipation, stifling sneezing and orgasms could trigger another bleed : as her doctor said, there’s one of those you can avoid. And so, she and her husband do, over a one year period punctuated with tooth fairies,  nits, football finals and Christmas raffles.  All this domestic clutter continues as Natalie returns to her role as mother, fragile and teary, reprieved and troubled by her own mortality; her husband Ross is rocked by her near-death, anxious about the constant restructuring in his own workplace, quailing in the face of financial troubles and resentful of his wife’s tentative explorations of spirituality.

The acting was wonderful:  Sasha Horler (Natalie) would look at her children and crumple into tears- and so did I.   I held my breath as she lay in her hospital bed, so still and so very, very ill.  When Bubblehead the fox terrier was attacked by a larger dog, I found myself shaking like a leaf, just as I did when my own little Ellie was monstered by the dog down the street.  A look; a comment tossed over the shoulder- it was like watching someone else’s life unfold before you.

This is Sarah Watt’s second film after Look Both Ways.  There are similarities between the two: both are set in Melbourne; both are intimate slices of a set period of time (a weekend; a year); both use animation as structural devices although there was less of this in ‘My Year Without Sex’. I do find myself wondering whether she will move beyond such up-close explorations of illness and mortality: it’s obviously a theme that is important to her.

This film is not unlike ‘The Castle’ in that, as a Melburnian, you can identify instantly with so many aspects of their daily life- even if MY house is much neater, my children are older, we’re on the other side of the Westgate etc.  It’s such an affectionate film. I’m delighted that it’s doing so well.

‘Queen of Fashion’ by Caroline Weber


2006, 292 p + notes

If I’d written this book, I couldn’t have resisted her subtitle: ‘What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution’.  Although to be fair to any humourless editor who may have insisted on the more staid title, the first half of this book does deal with Marie Antoinette as Queen, and only the second half is devoted to the Revolution.

A French Queen’s clothes were never neutral: the young bride-to-be  Marie Antoinette was stripped of her Austrian clothes on the border, despite her mother’s care in making sure that they were of the latest French design, and clothed in authentically French court fashion, including a wicked boned corset and the ceremonial grand habit de cour – the court dress of Versailles with a tight-fitting bodice, voluminous hoopskirts and long train.  The clothes were not enough, though, to encourage her diffident husband, the future Louis XVI and it was in the in-between phase, before he bolstered her position at court by bedding and impregnating her, that she began experimenting with court fashion.  She scandalized the court by refusing to wear the corset; she introduced the English-style redingote (riding coat) and wore trousers while riding.



Once Queen, her own style set the standard for fashion at court.  She introduced the pouf– huge, towering hairstyles built on scaffolding made from wire, cloth, gauze, horsehair, fake hair and the wearer’s own hair, teased off the forehead.   In amongst this would nestle an elaborate miniature still-life- for example ‘ a three-foot high pouf that replicated a verdant garden, replete with flowers, grass, a bubbling stream, and a tiny windmill edge with jewels and powered by a clockwork mechanism’ (p. 104.); or more political poufs, like one that depicted the French frigate that won a key victory against the British in June 1778.

pouf a la Belle Poule

pouf a la Belle Poule

Away from the court, at her Petit Trianon garden shed, she broke away from the formality of the court by wearing a lightweight chemise dress known as the gaulle, made of airy, ruffled muslin with a wide sash at the wait and ribbon bracelets at the elbows. The gaulle was popular not just in France, but across the Channel in England as well.

The Princess de Lamballe, Marie Antoinette's BFF, wearing a gaulle

The Princess de Lamballe, Marie Antoinette's BFF, wearing a gaulle

This earlier section of the book was interesting, but rather laboured.  Perhaps this reflects the long waiting-around time that Marie Antoinette had to endure before her husband managed to ‘do the deed’.  Weber draws heavily on Antonia Fraser’s biography of Marie Antoinette throughout her book- I don’t know why, but I’d mentally placed Fraser’s meticulous work into a different category from a scholarly (but popular) book like Weber’s.  At times I felt like saying “Okay- I get it! Clothes matter!” during the early chapters.

For me, the book really took off with the Revolution.  Weber spends little time discussing the Revolution per se, but instead looks at it through the lens of Marie Antoinette’s clothing, and just like the Revolution itself, there is a dizzying array of statements being made in the clothes she wears.  During the early days of the Revolution she adopted the cockade in blue, white and pink (not red) worn by the people in the streets, to express her sympathy in the movement.  In trying to escape to Varennes, she adopts an unassuming dark brown dress with a black shawl and hat, but in the pictures portraying their escape, she is depicted wearing the gaulle she made famous.  Once arrested, she adopted again the colours of royalty- purple and green, and sometimes the Austrian colours of yellow and black: at the risk of a bad and anachronistic pun, surely a ‘red rag’ to the Revolutionaries.  She insisted, over her jailers, on wearing black once her husband had been executed, a dress that became progressively more tatty and threadbare as her imprisonment stretched on.  Finally, taken to the guillotine, she pulled out a white dress that she had kept carefully hidden throughout her imprisonment, and died in that.   Even the fact that she had saved this white dress highlights her awareness of appearance: she had been suffering very heavily from uterine bleeding for months, was desperate for rags to staunch the flow, and to have kept this dress intact speaks volumes.

Weber draws on other biographies, the memoirs of royalists written at the time and small ephemeral documents like receipts and accounts with her dressmakers and milliners.  It is a beautifully written book that she has obviously enjoyed writing- so much so that there is a personalized narrator-centred introduction and afterword- as if she can’t bear to let the topic go. And yet I wish she had integrated her afterword into her introduction, because it detracted from the masterful closing paragraph of the book that encapsulated everything that had come before:

Even before she had reached the guillotine, this aspect of her history, her body, her being, had been erased- leaving only white.  But the erasure reveal even more than it concealed, condensing as it did the whole of her perilously fashionable past.  White the colour of the fleur-de-lys and of a young bride’s complexion. White the colour of costume parties and sleigh rides in the snow.  White the color of a powdered head, coiffed by Bertin and Leonard- or by the mob.  White the colour of a muslin gaulle, imported or otherwise: pretty at Trianon, perverse in Paris.  … White the simultaneous coexistence of all colours: revolutionary blue and red, royalist violet and green.  White the color of the locks that she saw the executioner slip into her pocket as he sheared her head to prepare her for her fate.  White the color of martyr-dom, of holy heaven, of eternal life.  White the color of a ghost too beautiful, or at least too willful, to die.  White the color of the pages on which her story has been- and will be- written. Again and again and again.

Happy (un)Birthday, Your Maj


Yes, Ma’am, another un-birthday- although given that your birthday is celebrated on multiple days in multiple countries, and you have your ‘real’ birthday and your ‘official’ birthday, you must be about 428 years old by now.  We’re celebrating it today in Australia- although not all of Australia mind you- Western Australia celebrates it on the last Monday of September or the first Monday of October. This is because Western Australia celebrates its Foundation Day on the first Monday in June, and we can’t use up all our Public Holidays at once, can we ma’am?

Her Maj’s birthday is actually on 21 April, but after George V died they decided to keep the ‘official’ birthday on or around 3rd June, which was his birthday.  England celebrates the Trooping of the Colours on the 1st, 2nd or 3rd Saturday in June, but this actually commemorates the anniversary of Elizabeth’s coronation on 2 June 1952.  And it doesn’t really count because it’s a Saturday.  Anything worth celebrating is worth a day off, I reckon.

Up until 1936 the Monarch’s  birthday was celebrated on the actual day.  So up until 1820 that would have been 4 June for George III; between 1820-1830 it was 12 August for George IV; between 1830-1837 King William IV’s birthday was celebrated on 21 August, then 24th May for Victoria’s birthday between 1837-1901.  You’ll note that these are all in summerish months in England.  Edward VII’s birthday on 9 November was celebrated between 1901-10 and both he and his people came to appreciate the idea of birthday celebrations in summer rather than winter.  George V’s birthday was honoured on 3 June between 1910-1936- a more favourable date for Northern Hemisphere climes than November.  It’s been 3rd of June or thereabouts ever since.

New South Wales celebrated King’s Birthday right from the start.  David Collins described the first celebration of King’s Birthday in 1788

His Majesty’s birthday was kept with every attention that it was possible to distinguish it by in this country; the morning was ushered in by the discharge of twenty-one guns from the Sirius and Supply; on shore the colours were hoisted at the flag-staff, and at noon the detachment of marines fired three volleys; after which the officers of the civil and military establishment waited upon the governor, and paid their respects to his excellency in honor of the day. At one o’clock the ships of war again fired twenty-one guns each; and the transports in the cove made up the same number between them, according to their irregular method on those occasions. The officers of the navy and settlement were entertained by the governor at dinner, and, among other toasts, named and fixed the boundaries of the first county in his Majesty’s territory of New South Wales. This was called Cumberland County, in honor of his Majesty’s second brother; and the limits of it to the northward were fixed by the northernmost point of Broken Bay, to the southward by the southernmost point of Broken [sic] Bay, and to the westward by Lansdown and Carmarthen Hills (the name given to the range of mountains seen by the governor in an excursion to the northward). At sunset the ships of war paid their last compliment to his Majesty by a third time firing twenty-one guns each. At night several bonfires were lighted; and, by an allowance of spirits given on this particular occasion, every person in the colony was enabled to drink his Majesty’s health.

Some of the worst among the convicts availed themselves of the opportunity that was given them in the evening, by the absence of several of the officers and people from their tents and huts, to commit depredations. One officer on going to his tent found a man in it, whom with some difficulty he secured, after wounding him with his sword. The tent of another was broken into, and several articles of wearing apparel stolen out of it; and many smaller thefts of provisions and clothing were committed among the convicts. Several people were taken into custody, and two were afterwards tried and executed.

The following year was slightly more decorous:

The anniversary of his Majesty’s birthday, the second time of commemorating it in this country, was observed with every distinction in our power; for the first time, the ordnance belonging to the colony were discharged; the detachment of marines fired three volleys, which were followed by twenty-one guns from each of the ships of war in the cove; the governor received the compliments due to the day in his new house, of which he had lately taken possession as the government-house of the colony, where his excellency afterwards entertained the officers at dinner, and in the evening some of the convicts were permitted to perform Farquhar’s comedy of the Recruiting Officer, in a hut fitted up for the occasion. They professed no higher aim than ‘humbly to excite a smile,’ and their efforts to please were not unattended with applause.

Thomas Keneally drew on this for his novel The PlaymakerWatkin Tench has a description of it too:

The anniversary of his majesty’s birth-day was celebrated, as heretofore, at the government-house, with loyal festivity. In the evening, the play of ‘The Recruiting Officer’ was performed by a party of convicts, and honoured by the presence of his excellency, and the officers of the garrison. That every opportunity of escape from the dreariness and dejection of our situation should be eagerly embraced, will not be wondered at. The exhilarating effect of a splendid theatre is well known: and I am not ashamed to confess, that the proper distribution of three or four yards of stained paper, and a dozen farthing candles stuck around the mud walls of a convict-hut, failed not to diffuse general complacency on the countenances of sixty persons, of various descriptions, who were assembled to applaud the representation. Some of the actors acquitted themselves with great spirit, and received the praises of the audience: a prologue and an epilogue, written by one of the performers, were also spoken on the occasion; which, although not worth inserting here, contained some tolerable allusions to the situation of the parties, and the novelty of a stage-representation in New South Wales.

By the time our Judge Willis arrived in Port Phillip, it was Queen Victoria’s birthday that was being celebrated on 24th May, as it was to be for sixty-five years.  From the 1820s onwards, Sydney society had celebrated the Birth Day of the monarch with  a levee and ball at Government House, and by 1841 a similar practice was proposed for Melbourne.  However arrangements broke down in acrimony in 1841 over whether the ball should be a public or a private event.

The private ball (sneering described as the ‘Dignity Ball’ by its critics) was defended by the Port Phillip Herald as a private occasion that had been postponed from the race-week earlier in the year, and that it just happened to occur on the Birth Day.  The Herald argued

When the Government give a ball, which is generally on the birth day of the sovereign, cards of invitation are issued to the public and to different classes of society and this is as it should be for a simple and substantial reason- the expenses are defrayed out of the public purse. (PPH 7 May 1841)

However, this was a private occasion, overseen by stewards prominent in Port Phillip Society at the time: Simpson, Powlett, Meek, James McArthur, J. Lyon Campbell, Verner and Major St John.

The Port Phillip Gazette and Port Phillip Patriot, affronted at these “upstart exclusives” and “ill-bred puppies” proposed a truly public ball to be held at Yarra Yarra House in Flinders Street on 24th May, with admission tickets for a gentleman and a lady priced at 2 guineas.  Messrs Abrahams, Langhorne, Kerr and Sullivan were stewards, with Connolly and Urquhart’s disputed involvement.

So who won the Battle of the Balls? The private ball was postponed until 4 June, then later until 8th June to accommodate Presbyterian families who would not have been able to attend on the 4th because that week had been set aside for religious observances.  The Public Ball went ahead on 24th as planned, but it rained.  The Private Ball took place on 8th June, attended by 44 ladies and 67 gentlemen; the stewards provided a most magnificent supper, which was done ample justice, and festivities continued until 5.00 a.m.  In a coup for the  more exclusive Private Ball,  Superintendent La Trobe and his wife attended: they had not attended the Public Ball.

The next year only one private ball was held.  I find myself wondering why the fuss of the preceding year was not repeated: perhaps it had been just newspaper hot-air. The Port Phillip Herald of 27th May devotes half a column to it:

THE BALL. The most splendid entertainment that has ever yet taken place in the province was held in the long room of the Royal Exchange on Wednesday evening, in honor of the Queen’s birth-day.  The ball, although got up by private subscription, and as one of the regular “private assemblies”, was attended by nearly all the rank and fashion of our rising town.  Notwithstanding the very unfavourable  state of the weather, and the almost impassable state of the roads, the ball room was crowded at an early hour.  Several of the gentlemen appeared in rich fancy disguise, and some of the dresses were very much and deservedly admired.  The gentleman who appeared as an Italian Brigand was perhaps the most successful in attracting the fair notice of the visitors, although there were other parties very elegantly attired.  The enlivening colour of the different fancy dresses added much to the brilliancy of the entertainment, which was considerably increased by the fascinating beauty of several of the ladies, who, believing that “beauty unadorned is adorned the most,” trusted to their usual tastes in not appearing in fancy costume.  His Honor Mr La Trobe and Lady honoured the Ball with their presence, and dancing was kept up with the greatest spirit throughout the whole evening; the arrangements altogether were excellent.  The music gave evident satisfaction, and was only eclipsed by the management of the supper, which met with deserved encouragement, and reflected great credit upon the caterers of this very necessary appendage to a dance.  Nearly three hundred persons, it is calculated, graced the scene, and all departed to their homes highly delignted with the evening’s amusement.

Georgiana McCrae attended the 1843 Queens Birthday Ball and describes it as follows:

Dr Thomas drove out in his gig and took me to town.  At 10 p.m. we went en masse to the Mechanic’s Institute.  All the elite of the colony assembled, and in full swing, including Mr and Mrs La Trobe; the Mayor, Mr Condell and his niece, dressed in Mantis green, not unlike the insect itself in the waltz attitude. Mr C. H. Ebden’s movements somewhat eccentric, now and then cannoning among his neighbours…Dancing was kept up briskly till after 1.a.m.

Well, ma’am no dancing any more.  In fact, it’s a dead loss as a celebration of anything except perhaps the opening of the ski season and a few football matches.  And a very merry un-birthday to you ma’am.


Paul de Serville Port Phillip Gentlemen

Hugh McCrae (ed) Georgiana’s Journal

Ken Inglis Australian Colonists Ch.4

Off with his/her head

I see that the Royal Australian Mint is considering a general overhaul of Australia’s coinage.  Now, I reckon that the most dangerous job in the world must be The Depictor of the Queen’s Jowls.  We started off with a yoof-ful Queen in 1953, then every 10 or 20 years there’s an update.  Just how would you present the Queen with these depictions of increasing decrepitude?  Present them early in the morning before she’d worked up her grumpiness for the day?  Perhaps slip them to her late at night after a G&T or two?  Would you make a selection of jowls and ask her to select one?

Apparently there have been five depictions of the Queen on the obverse of Australian coins.  In 1953, the year of the Queen’s coronation,  the effigywas designed by Mary Gillick. ‘Effigy’ is the Royal Mint’s term, not mine.  I thought that an effigy was something you burnt.


Gillick design 1953

My! She’s looking very French Revolutionary there.  Or perhaps Greek Goddess.  Then, with the introduction of decimal currency in 1966 a new effigy designed by Arnold Machin was used.  Apparently her portrait always faces to the right to conform with a convention, started with Charles II that the new monarch’s portrait would face in the opposite to their predecessors.  As well it might in his case.

Machin design 1966

Machin design 1966

The Machin image was designed for the British Royal Mint, and approved in 1964.  It did nearly 20 years service until the new Raphael Maklouf design was used in 1985.  Apparently 17 artists were invited to submit designs, and a set by Maklouf was selected. (Wonder what happened to the other 16 designers?)  A ‘revised’ model was accepted by the Queen for circulation.

Raphael Maklouf design 1985

Raphael Maklouf design 1985

The Ian Rank-Broadley design of 1988 is a brave one.  Is that a hint of jowl we detect?   She only had a choice of three designers this time!

Ian Rank-Broadley 1988

Ian Rank-Broadley 1988

And then, finally, an even braver man- Vladimir Gottwald. This design is only seen on the Royal Visit 50 cent coin.   He’s our very own man this time- the first Australian designer since Sir Edgar Bertram Mackennal to have his design on the observe of an Australian coin.  Do you like her crown?  It’s called “Girls of Great Britain and Ireland” , a wedding gift from Queen Mary in 1947.  Good to see that the old “girl” is bringing out the old stuff.

Vladimir Gottwald 2000

Vladimir Gottwald 2000

And so, a new Queen effigy perhaps?   A poisoned chalice if ever there was one, I reckon….

Some old Queens might serve as inspiration….