Daily Archives: June 21, 2009

‘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.