Monthly Archives: January 2016

Death or Liberty on television

Tune in, readers, for Death or Liberty on ABC1 at 9.30 on Thursday 14th January.

I reviewed the book here in 2014.

Splish splash! Water Stories at PROV

The Public Records Office of Victoria (PROV) website has some thoughtfully curated online exhibitions.  They’ve been designed with school curricula in mind, but they’re interesting in their own right.  I’ve been enjoying one on Water in Melbourne called Water Stories. It starts with the Yarra River,( as all good narratives of Melbourne must!) then extends into the various water supply, navigation and sewerage schemes that were developed in the wake of the prosperity of the Gold Rush. Some were far-sighted (Yan Yean, for example in 1856) and others were more reactive, driven by the determination to shrug off the epithet of ‘Smellbourne’ that critics attached to Melbourne. The display then shifts to the major parks and gardens that were planned to beautify the city, several by La Trobe back in the 1850s, which are treasured by Melburnians today.

Click the link below:


This Week in Port Phillip 1841: January 8-15 1841

The habit of kicking back over January was established by 1841, and it was all happening this week! On Tuesday 12 January there was the Regatta on the bay.

High indeed were the expectations of our fellow colonists of every rank and age and bustling the scene of general preparation to celebrate the first Regatta, but the pleasure of the reality and the fond reflection upon its varied and enchanting amusements have eclipsed the brightest anticipations of its most sanguine admirers and rich and abundant is the fund which Memory has [?] stored up for future enjoyment (Port Phillip Herald 15 January 1841]

There were four races in all for different crafts:four-oared gigs; first class boats and five-oared whale boats.  As is the case today, there was just as much interest in watching the spectators as watching the spectacle:


(Port Phillip Herald 15 January 1841)

Then on Wednesday 13th it was the Hurdle Race at 1.00 p.m. “The course marked out is selected on the other side of the river Yarra Yarra, near the beach, and about half a mile to the left of Mr Liardet’s hotel“. (PPH 12 January 1841) Mr Liardet’s hotel was at Port Melbourne.

A “ vast assemblage had collected to witness the sports” at the beach where a limited number of horses competed against each other in three heats.  The writer for the Port Phillip Herald became very excited about the whole thing but it really doesn’t bear repeating 175 years later.  More interesting was the ball that was held that evening:


The presence of Superintendent La Trobe and Mrs La Trobe is important because they conferred an aura of respectability to the proceedings. If they were there, then all the Port Phillip worthies would have wanted to be there too.  Just like our clubs today, these balls went until late at night (or rather, early the next morning), with this one breaking up at about 4.00 a.m.


The cricket match was held on Thursday 14th January, “on the usual ground” .This was, at this stage, at the foot of Batman’s Hill, near the site of the present day Southern Cross station.  However, the match was abandoned “owing to the boisterous state of the weather“, to be continued on the following Saturday.


So how was the weather?  How frustrating- it doesn’t go up to 14th January!


Port Phillip Herald 15 January 1841.

It was 92 degrees (33 celsius) on 7th January, followed by a 67 degree (19 celsius) on the 8th.  How Melbourne!

And according the report of the week from the Meteorological Journal for Port Phillip, published some two months later (19 March 1841)  in the Government Gazette,

Weather generally dull and cloudy; rain in small quantities 9th, 10th and 14th; strong winds and squalls from S continuing frequent; N. W. gale 14th.

The highest temperature for the period 8th-14th January was 89 degrees (31.7 celsius) on 7th January, and the lowest was 51 degrees (10.6 celsius).

‘In My Mother’s Hands’ by Biff Ward


2014, 288p.

Look carefully at that front cover. A well-dressed, attractive woman stands in front of a suburban house, her hair permed, in a stylish dress with white gloves.  Those gloves are important: they encase the gouged, ravaged hands of Biff Ward’s mother Margaret.  Despite the nostalgia-infused image of Margaret Ward on the cover, this is the story of a troubled and desperate woman and mother, told by her daughter.

Biff ( a childhood rendering of ‘Elizabeth’) Ward is the daughter of Russel Ward, the noted Australian historian who wrote The Australian Legend. This book was a hugely influential study of the Australian Character (the question that keeps on giving), published more than fifty years ago. Although perhaps not so well known today, The Australian Legend and its author were examined anew at a symposium in 2007 (proceedings found in the Journal of Australian Colonial History 10.2 (2008) with a summary here) and re-addressed each year through the Russel Ward Annual Lecture  (see Babette Smith’s lecture here)

Although Biff’s memoir focusses on her mother, it is just as much a study of her father and of the family dynamics that operated when dealing with mental illness, shame and fear in the context of  the 1950s and 1960s. Biff and her brother Mark had always known of the existence of an earlier child, Alison, who had died at the age of four months,but the conditions surrounding Alison’s death were murky. What was clear, though, was that their mother Margaret was a deeply disturbed woman.  Those gloved hands, torn and rubbed raw by Margaret herself, also throttled Biff as Margaret crept to her younger daughter’s bedside one night, and it was when Margaret threatened the lives of her two remaining children while her husband was absent at a conference, that Russel Ward finally had her committed. Although Biff felt that they were dealing with the nightmare of their mother’s illness in secrecy,  many people were aware of it, as Biff herself recognizes later.  In reading a short story ‘Friends in Perspective’ published by Gwen Kelly in a Meanjin article  in 1990 (available for Victorian readers through SLV), Biff realizes that  both Russel and Margaret were the topic of gossip and judgment throughout the small academic communities at ANU in Canberra and UNE in New England.  She has the maturity and grace to recognize that the academic wives may well have been reaching out to her mother as well, instead of just gossiping about her.

She captures small university-town life well, and places her father within the academic milieu of the  communist-phobic 1950s and 1960s.  She draws on Russel Ward’s own letters to his parents and sisters that documented Margaret’s progress, and to a lesser degree on Ward’s own autobiography which largely elides Alison’s death and Margaret’s illness. I found it interesting to read about the smallness of the Australian History fraternity at the time, and the intellectual isolation of local academics in a  world where international conferences and networks were luxuries.

Biff did not write this memoir until both her parents had died. She is well aware that she is exposing her mother, and perhaps from a sense of moral even-handedness, she exposes her father’s sexual addiction as well. Even writing as an adult, as Biff does, it is impossible to tease out cause and effect in this addiction, but it does raise the issue of omission in memoir. Is there more? or less? of an imperative to reveal the flaws of a public figure, as distinct from someone unknown? (I’m reminded here of journalist Laurie Oakes’ exposure of politican Cheryl Kernot’s extramarital affair when she omitted it in her own autobiography).  Although Ward’s revelations about both parents are startling, the tone is wistful rather than vindictive, and while she censures both parents at times, her compassion shines through.

There’s a fairly lengthy extract from the book here, which will give you a taste of the easy  narrative that, at the same time, reveals so much darkness and pain. You’ll spend quite some time turning to that image on the front cover.

Other reviews:

Sue at Whispering Gums and Jonathan at Me Fail? I Fly! have written sensitive reviews of this book

aww2016 I’ve reviewed this as part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2016.

My rating: 9/10

Sourced from : Yarra Plenty Regional Library e-book . Read in one sitting on an international flight!


Movie: Suffragette

It’s been a long time since I saw the 1974 BBC series Shoulder to Shoulder about the British suffragette movement. I watched it myself on television at the time and the next year our lecturer in Women’s History screened it for us at special night-time viewings (class timetables then didn’t stretch to watching videos).  As noted by a recent article noting the 40th anniversary of the BBC series on the LSE blogsite and a report on the accompanying symposium celebrating the anniversary, the story of the suffragettes was largely forgotten in 1974 and has languished in the BBC archives since.   Hah! the wonders of YouTube! (Apparently the whole series is available).

It’s precisely because the suffragette story is so rarely depicted on the screen that I’m more willing than many to cut the current movie ‘Suffragette’ some slack.  My 87 year-old father had not heard of the suffragettes; I don’t think my daughter would know about them either. The gasps at the end of the film at the rollcall of dates when female suffrage was achieved internationally suggests that it’s a battle that we overlook.

The film- and let’s remember that it is only a 2 hour film- focusses on a fictional working-class laundress who becomes swept up with the suffrage movement, culminating at the racecourse on the 1913 Derby Day. The movie deals with the Pankhursts only obliquely; it consciously chooses a working-class protagonist instead of one of the more articulate middle-class leaders.  It does not, it’s true, deal with women of colour, or the colonialist attitudes of the leaders; nor does it deal with the philosophical splits between the leadership.  It tells the story of one woman, and in a nod to our everywoman sensibilities today, she’s a fictional, bit-part woman.  I’m satisfied that the film takes a broad sweep at a plot level, even if at an emotional level it didn’t explore Maud Watt’s change in sensibility sufficiently. Let’s not drown this movie with expectations and our disappointment in what it is not.

Let it just tell the story. All of the nuances and disputes and historical arguments can be explored in detail once the suffragette story is  worn smooth with retelling.  Forty years on from the first BBC telling in Shoulder to Shoulder, with the story largely forgotten and so many people completely unaware of it, the time for complexity is not yet.

By the way there’s some silent British Parthe footage of British Derby day in a 7 minute clip, showing both before and after. It’s silent, and it shows  the day from the start, leading to an odd buildup in tension, knowing , as we do, how it ends.  I encourage you to watch the whole thing but if it’s spectacle you want, it’s at 6.04.

‘The Convent’ by Maureen McCarthy


2012, 418

You know, the tourism industry should fall to its knees sometimes and thank local activists who save significant buildings and places from being privatized and subdivided into exclusive housing that most Melburnians will never set foot in.  Then somehow it becomes a tourist precinct, and money can be made from it, and people forget and wonder that it was ever under threat.

Abbotsford Convent is such a place. On a bend of the Yarra River, the land was valued by the Wurundjeri people who frequently met nearby where the Yarra River and Merri Creeks merged.  John Orr built Abbotsford House there and Edward Curr (who was a prominent opponent to Judge Willis) lived at the nearby St Heliers property  between 1842-1850.  By 1863 the Sisters of the Good Shepherd had consolidated their purchases of Abbotsford House and St Heliers and established a convent there.  In 1900 it was the largest charitable institution in the Southern Hemisphere, housing up to 1000 residents. For a century it provided accommodation, schooling and work for female orphans, wards of the state and girls considered to be in “moral danger”, financing its activities through farming, its industrial school and the Magdalen laundry service.  It was a place of dedication for the nuns who lived there, but many of its residents- particularly those in the laundry- had sad and bitter stories to tell.  In 1975 it was sold and used for the following 20 years by different education providers.  In 1997 it was onsold to developers, who planned to build 289 apartments on the site.  The Abbotsford Convent Coalition fought hard against this plan, and in 2004 it was gifted to the public by the State Government.  It now houses studios, office spaces and cafes and is the site for a lively program of performances and markets.

The Abbotsford Convent is the setting for Maureen McCarthy’s book named, appropriately enough, The Convent.  Based on her own family history, the book covers four generations of women whose lives intersected with the convent and the nuns who lived there.  Nineteen-year old Peach takes up a summer job at the convent when she receives a letter from her birth-grandmother, Ellen.  Peach has always known that she was adopted, and has until now felt no real curiosity about her birth-mother.  We learn that her grandmother Ellen had been raised at Abbotsford Convent after her mother Sadie had been declared an unfit mother in WWI Melbourne.  Ellen’s daughter Cecilia had been a nun at the the same convent.  The book shifts from one character to another, and between time periods spanning the early decades of the twentieth to the twenty-first century.

Books that rotate their focus between characters  call on a certain amount of goodwill on the part of the reader.  I found myself far more engaged by the stories of Cecilia and Sadie, and almost resented being brought back to the rather quotidian life of  19 year old Peach (and is it too trite to complain that I really disliked the name ‘Peach’ even though I know why it was used?) I felt that Cecilia, the nun, was sensitively drawn and McCarthy’s research into cloistered life, although somewhat heavy-handed, made Cecilia a rounded and nuanced character.

McCarthy is best known as a Young Adult writer.  The subject matter of the book transcends that genre, but the book was weighed down for an adult reader by the rather too obvious narrative scaffolding that supported the dialogue, and the rather laboured descriptions.  It reminded me very much of Rod Jones’ The Mothers (which I reviewed here) and it’s interesting that I found both these books, so similar in their content, to be too simply told.  Could it be that because both these stories had their origins in their author’s own family history, the overriding concern was to treat the story with respect, and that this affected the telling?  I have no idea, but with the exception of Cecilia’s chapters, I couldn’t shake my awareness that this book was written for a much younger audience than I.

There’s an interview with the author at:

aww2016 I have read this as part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2016.

‘You’ll be sorry when I’m dead’ by Marieke Hardy


2011, 295 p.

Celebrity is a trade-off.   The celebrity figure gaily trumpets “look at me!”, and accrues public recognition, freebies, attention and the aura of self-possession. In return s/he is subjected to the audience’s misplaced sense of identification and friendship, or conversely, approbation and smug censoriousness. And so I sit watching ABC’s Book Club (until a few years ago the First Tuesday Book Club, a handy reminder to tune in) alternately tut-tutting at Marieke Hardy’s fey girlishness with those plaits and tats one minute, and wishing a moment later that I was so winsome and witty myself. It was probably this ambivalence that led me to pick up her book You’ll Be Sorry When I’m Dead. Having read it, I’m still ambivalent, although probably with a more affectionate glow than previously.

As you might expect, it’s well-written and funny. Its chapters are similar to long-form pieces that you might read in a Saturday newspaper magazine  and indeed several of them have been published in that format previously. She’s self-deprecating and self-assured; she delights in being wicked and revels in her exhibitionism. She tells of her obsession with prostitution, her fumbling attempts at swinging, and her mortification at travelling with her parents at the age of thirty-five. Many of her stories are Melbourne-centred, as in her tribute to VFL footy ‘Maroon and Blue’, one of my favourite stories. She flits around the edge of showbusiness through  her family pedigree and her own child-actor CV and laughs at her own adolescent pursuit of one of the ‘stars’ of Young Talent Time. Some stories have more depth: her story ‘Forevz’ reminded me of Helen Garner’s The Spare Room – in fact, there were quite a few stories here which evoked Helen Garner for me, for some reason. The placement of the stories seems quite random, as does the insertion of testimonials from some of the people she has written about (an affectation I could have done without, really).

Like the celebrity persona she projects, there’s a mixture of show-off and razor-sharp penetration. I found myself laughing out loud in places, tearful at times, and rolling my eyes in other places. It’s a good dip-into book, and just as in ABC Book Club, you don’t really know what she’s going to come out with next.


Movie: 99 Homes

If you’re in Melbourne and if you hurry, you’ll catch 99 Homes at the Nova in Carlton. It’s brilliant.

Set in America in wake of the sub-prime housing market crash, it’s about decent people losing their houses.  It’s a mixture of Mephistopheles, Zola and Thomas Hardy combined as a recently-unemployed single father struggles to regain possession of his home and becomes forced into becoming something and someone he detests.

Brilliant, but sick-of-your-stomach, anxious, clammy, rage-inducing viewing.

This Week in the Port Phillip District 1841: January 1-8 1841


Even though Superintendent La Trobe and the people of Port Phillip didn’t realize it, on 1 January 1841 Governor Gipps took up his pen to formally notify the Secretary of State at the Colonial Office in London that Justice John Walpole Willis had been appointed to Port Phillip as the first Resident Judge of the Supreme Court of NSW for the district. Gipps’ letter to La Trobe informing him of the appointment was actually written on 29th December, but it hadn’t arrived in Melbourne yet.  So, let the period of the Resident Judges begin!


The year started with a bang, literally, for the steam-ship Clonmel which ran aground on a sand spit at the entrance to Corner Inlet  200km south-east of Melbourne, at 5.00 a.m. on the misty morning of 2 January 1841.


See also:

The five-year old Clonmel was a new addition to the shipping route   between Launceston, Port Phillip and Sydney, having only arrived in Sydney in October 1840. This importance of this intra-town communication through shipping at this time cannot be overstated.   A wooden-hulled, masted paddle steamer, it carried 75 passengers and crew, and this was only its second*  voyage on its circuit between the three ports.  Daybreak revealed that the beach was about half a mile away, and that a heavy surf was running. Several trips by whale boat initially, and then with the assistance of quarter boats, deposited every soul in safety on the beach by 2.00 p.m. that afternoon. Sail awnings were brought on shore and a camp of tents was established for the ladies.  Provisions sufficient for ten days were also brought from the boat, including livestock, hams, bread, flour, biscuit, rice, tea, sugar and wine.  A sketch by Robert Russell showing the huts of the Clomnel survivors can be seen here.  [Accession number: MS 9555]

Water was located, but found to be brackish.  Safely onshore, the Captain harangued the passengers about the need for discipline and the punctual obedience of orders. Two-hourly watches were posted and the provisions were securely stowed under a boat turned upside down to guard against petty depredations and the effect of the weather.

The next day,  two passengers Mr D.C. Simson and Mr Edwards and five unnamed seamen headed off to get help. First they inspected the wreck of the ship as they passed, and then headed towards Sealers Cove where they rested overnight. At 3.00 a.m. on 4th January, they awoke early to fill buckets with water to continue their journey when they observed “the natives coming down upon us.” They hurried on board and headed for Wilsons Promontory, which they sighted at about 10.00 a.m.  They arrived in a small bay at Westernport at 8.00 p.m. that night.  The following day they reached Port Phillip Heads by 2.00 p.m. but because there was a strong ebb tide, they needed to wait for a flood tide.  They were approached by a cutter The Sisters which towed them into Williamstown at 11.00 p.m. making a total of 65 hours since their departure from Corner Inlet.

All passengers were safe, although Mr Robinson lost the £3000 of Union Bank notes he had in his custody.  The newly-wed Mr and Mrs Cashmore lost a large quantity of goods that they were bringing for their new establishment to be opened on the corner of Collins and Elizabeth Street.  (Source: Port Phillip Herald 8 January 1841; )

See the Victorian Heritage Database entry for the wreck of the Clonmel (which still lies on the ocean floor) here.


Even though the people of Port Phillip prided themselves that they were not a ‘convict’ colony like Van Diemens Land or Sydney, there were convict gangs, ‘assigned servants’ and ticket-of-leave prisoners in Melbourne.

On New Years Day a general muster of the ticket of leave men of the district took place at the Police office. They presented the appearance of a clean and orderly set of men, and were each passed in review before the police magistrate; such of them as resided in the town were sworn in special constables, a very excellent and salutary arrangement (Port Phillip Herald 5 January 1841)

It’s hard to know what to make of the final sentence- sarcasm, most likely. Nonetheless, many of the early police in Melbourne were of convict background and many were quickly dismissed for drunkenness. Edmund Finn, writing as ‘Garryowen’ in his Chronicles of Early Melbourne describes the ordinary policemen of the first few years as “mostly convicts freed by servitude, with now and then a ticket-of-leave holder.” (p. 52)


On 1 January the new Independent Chapel was formally opened for Divine Worship. “The design of the Chapel is both neat and tasteful, and its internal fittings up render it extremely commodious.” Three sermons were preached on that day by Reverends Waterfield, Forbes and Orton.

A booklet called The Collins Street Independent Church (available here) shows a small brick church building 20 X 30 ft in size, erected at a cost of £231. It was later extended, but pulled down in 1866 to construct the current-day St Michael’s on the corner of Russell and Collins Streets.


According to the Port Phillip Herald, in the days between 29 December- 4th January, there was a fairly mild start to the year, with the first of January the warmest day with a top temperature of 86 degrees F (30 degrees C)


The Abstract of the Meteorological Journal kept at Melbourne, Port Phillip was reprinted in the Government Gazette at roughly monthly intervals. The January report is in Gazette 22, Friday March 19 1841.  It reports that in the week 1st-7th January, there was “dry weather, frequently cloudy” with “strong southerly winds”. The highest temperature recorded on this week was 92 degrees on the 7th.


*The Victorian Heritage Database and other sources say that it was its third journey. I can only find two.  The plan was for the Clonmel to run a circuit between Sydney, Melbourne, Launceston then return.  The first journey from Sydney was planned to terminate at Melbourne, but was extended to Launceston after all (which might be where the confusion lies between two and three journeys). The wreck occurred on the second journey from Sydney.


Port Phillip Herald 1, 5 and 8 January 1841





2015 in review and a new feature!

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2015 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 36,000 times in 2015. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 13 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

Ah! The posting about the eggs of the conical sea-snail- the blog-post that keeps on giving! Who would have thunk that so many people wondered what the squishy jelly on the beach was?

I’ve been blogging since July 2008 and like any long-term endeavour, my blog has changed direction over those eight years. It started as a research blog to support my thesis on Justice John Walpole Willis, the first Resident Judge of the Supreme Court of NSW in the Port Phillip District. Hence the name,  “The Resident Judge of Port Phillip” which I must confess is rather cringe-inducing at times. The blog has since become a repository for book reviews and comments about films I’ve seen, the odd history-based discussion, and observations about life in Melbourne now.

I’ve decided as a New Years Resolution (and we all know how long they last!) to start a weekly feature looking back at what was happening in Melbourne and the Port Phillip District more generally 175 years ago. Why 175 years? Because that’s when the first Resident Judge was appointed, and a Resident Judge continued to preside between 1841-1852, when the position of Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Victoria was gazetted. That gives me eleven years of posts, should I not abandon the project (which may yet come to pass!): twelve if I want to extend it to the actual issuing of the formal commission.

Meanwhile, the book reviews and commentaries on film, history generally and Melbourne in particular will continue.