Monthly Archives: March 2016

‘Australians at Home: World War I’ by Michael McKernan


2014 (original 1980), 224 p.

No, I haven’t come over all ANZAC-y now that the Gallipoli commemorations are over.  I’ve taken over a column in the newsletter of my local Heidelberg Historical Society, which looks at Heidelberg 100 years ago, using the local newspaper. Of course, a hundred years ago in 1916, the newspaper was full of homefront war news and I found myself wondering how typical it was- hence reading this book.

This book was originally published in 1980 under the title The Australian People and the Great War.  In the preface to this new 2014 edition, McKernan, who was a doctoral researcher at the Australian War Memorial when he wrote the original book (rather than its Deputy Director as he was later to become), explains how he was distracted from his official research on Australian churches in the Great War by the newspapers and School Papers in the AWM’s collection.   It seems odd, given the deluge of ANZACery in the last few years, that he was writing in a scarcely-furrowed field. He writes that at least one publisher at the time had shown some interest in the war by publishing Patsy Adam-Smith’s The Anzacs in 1978 but that

Few others were at all interested and I was thought, by academic colleagues, to be a bit strange for working on a war topic. How times have changed! (p. v)

That’s for sure!  But given thirty-six years and the tsunami of publication that has taken place since then, this book stacks up pretty well. McKernan can see its shortcomings:

Many things are missing from this book, but such was the state of my historical understanding then. And the state of the profession, I might add. Today, most obviously, I would seek to include the story of Indigenous Australians on the homefront, as I have done for more recent books. I should also have written about Australian nurses in my chapter on Australian soldiers.  I might also have looked more closely at unemployment and the downturn in the economy that the war caused.  I apologize to those who look to find these important themes, but such were my limitations then. (p. VI)

As he goes on to say, there have been many books since devoted to what he dealt with in a chapter in this book. I think of Janet Butler’s Kitty’s War on nurses (my review here); Rosalie Triolo on Our Schools and the War; Bart Ziino’s A Distant Grief on war graves; Marina Larssen’s Shattered Anzacs (my review here) on injured returned soldiers, as a start.  But as a book “for the broad Australian community” this is a very good broad-brush treatment, well bolstered by identified sources.  McKernan doesn’t need to apologize too much.

In his opening chapter, ‘The War in Australia’ he points out that the war had an immediate effect on the local economy through a rapid increase in prices and a sudden increase in unemployment, with many men placed on reduced hours. He emphasizes the different experience of middle-class and working-class families at home during the war, and announces his intention to concentrate on ‘ordinary people’, drawing on School Papers, parish records, Red Cross reports of local charitable activity, letters, and local papers as a way of tapping into this class-based diversity of experience.

Chapter 3 ‘Seedplots of Empire Loyalty: The Schools at War’ noted the gendered responses expected of children: that the girls would knit and the boys would play manly sports.  Victorian schools, under the influence of Frank Tate, were particularly active in fundraising.  The practice of saluting the flag daily began in late 1917 in Victoria.  Honour boards, particularly in private schools, were a form of pressure to enlist, and he notes that the Greater Public Schools were especially strong on conscription.

In Chapter 4 he examines the role of Australian women in war, and in particular the class basis of Red Cross activity. This is something that I’m noting locally in the Heidelberg district, where the very middle-class Ivanhoe Red Cross quickly outstripped the more working and lower middle-class Heidelberg and Fairfield. Because it was voluntary, unpaid work did not affect women’s status as it did in the United Kingdom, and it ebbed away quickly without trace when the war came to an end, thus confirming rather than challenging the place of women in society.

‘Muddied Oafs’ and ‘Flannel Fools’, Chapter 5, looks at sport and war. Many sports competitions halted for the duration, although class perceptions come in here too. There was strong criticism of working class ‘slackers’ who continued to play rugby and football, but the continuation of  horse-racing, a middle-class sport, was justified on the grounds that it improved the breed of the horse (and thus assisted the war effort). However, despite the heavy use of sporting analogy in promoting enlistment, sport was not a fixation amongst working-class people, and playing footy on the weekend was not the cause of the indifference to enlistment that the middle-class complained of.

Chapter 6 seemed a little out of place in this book which has the home front as its emphasis. ‘From Hero to Criminal: the AIF in Britain 1915-19’ looks at the behaviour of Australian troops in England during the war.  England was culturally familiar as ‘home’ through a steady diet of childhood literature, and the first Anzac Day march was held in April 1916 in London (not Australia)- the only march to honour a specific body of troops held like this during the war (and a cause of some resentment among the British troops who were at Gallipoli too). The march was only just one factor in the increasing wariness between British and Australian soldiers. There were misdemeanors committed in garrison towns by Australian soldiers. Those soldiers in turn were disgusted by the class distinctions and poverty they saw in Britain and the sight of women working.

The seventh chapter ‘Manufacturing the War: ‘Enemy Subjects’ in Australia’ examines the enlargement of the term ‘enemy subject’ to encompass any Australian natural-born subject whose father or grandfather was a subject of a country at war with the King. Many people had wildly exaggerated perceptions of the direct German threat to Australia. This chapter deals particularly with anti-German feeling, and here perhaps we do see the datedness of the book because it could easily have been extended to include peace activists and unionists who also came to be seen as enemy subjects.

Chapter 8 ‘The Other Australia? War in the Country’ questions the idea that country and urban Australia had separate interests. He points out that country regions felt that they had contributed to the manliness of Australian soldiers, but this is not borne out in the figures.  There was slightly higher enlistment from rural areas, but as he points out, in a face-to-face society like a country town, the pressure to enlist would be stronger. In many ways, war unified country and town, with the realization that despite all the bluster, city workers were not ‘soft’.  The referendum on conscription coincided with the first sittings of the exemption courts which highlighted how few men could claim exemption from enlistment and the severity of conscription, which may have contributed to the defeat of the referendum.

‘The Grey Years’ looks at the initial euphoria at the end of the war, but the creeping sadness of the influenza epidemic and the return of so many wounded and damaged soldiers. The celebration of the armistice on 8th November on the basis of a rumour was premature, and they had to celebrate all over again a few days later. A public holiday was called, but there was confusion over whether it was to be on Tuesday or Wednesday, so in effect, there was little work between Friday 8th November and Thursday 14 November. Three faultlines were to break open in society: i) the returned men  ii) the so called ‘patriotic classes’ and iii) the rest.  ANZAC day had a fitful start. In 1921 the Federal Government declared 25 April a public holiday, but state governments did not follow their lead. In 1925 the Victorian government made ANZAC Day a public holiday, but insisted that all shops, hotels, racecourses and theatres be closed lest it be degraded by secular pleasures. The other states joined in by 1928 and the first dawn service was held that year.

I enjoyed this book. It is generously endowed with many black-and-white pictures that take up often 1/2 the page, and I liked the vignettes of individuals and their families that are woven through the text.  It is narrated in a gentle, accessible tone, but well-supported in the footnotes.  It thoroughly stands up to republication more than thirty years after it first appeared.



Movie: Trumbo

Okay, I confess that I’d never heard of Dalton Trumbo but I had heard of the House Un- American Committee that trawled through Hollywood looking for Communist sympathizers.  I only watched the first series of Breaking Bad, so I have only warm feelings towards Bryan Cranston, who was wonderful in this movie. I kept looking at Helen Mirren, wondering if it was her or not (it was), and I enjoyed the re-creation  of black-and-white film vision which was inserted into the movie at various times.  I was amazed to think that the HUAC was only finally terminated in 1975. And I’m sure that it’s no surprise that the movie was produced during a time of surveillance and judicial control of radical Islam and ‘Un-American’ activities.

This Week in Port Phillip 1841: 1-7 March 1841

This first week of March 1841 was marked by comings and goings.


The arrival of the 700 ton barque Argyle from London via Plymouth after a journey of 120 days was big news. In reality, the ship had a rather inglorious entrance, limping into Hobsons Bay after becoming stranded near Swan Island near Queenscliff.  I’m perhaps particularly attuned to the experience of emigration after reading Roslyn Russell’s book High Seas and High Teas but this particular journey has been well-described, largely because of the presence of a number of notable female first-class passengers whose writings and work have added substantially to our knowledge of early Port Phillip society. Foremost amongst these was Georgiana McCrae and her four children. Brenda Niall has given an evocative account of the journey in her excellent biography Georgiana, drawing on Georgiana’s journal of the voyage. Also present on the journey was Susanna (Sarah) Bunbury, accompanying her husband Capt Bunbury with her two year old son, and she also conveys a lively picture of Port Phillip through her correspondence. (There’s a fantastic article by Trudie Fraser on the Bunburys and their time in Fitzroy ‘The Bunbury Letters from New Town’ available online through the Fitzroy Historical Society’s webpage at

As well as’ Captain Bunbury, Lady and Child’ and ‘Mrs McCrae and Four Children’, there were eight ‘intermediate’ passengers and 228 bounty emigrants (PPH 2/3/41). For a full list of the passengers, see The bounty emigrants, selected and accompanied by Mr John Marshall, were particularly welcome.   Anne Drysdale’s journal in Bev Roberts’ book Miss D and Miss N refers often to the difficulties in obtaining labour during these early years of the 1840s. A list published in the Port Phillip Herald on 5 March listed the skills of the labour available, inviting parties desirous of engaging their services to apply to the Surgeon:

MARRIED Labourers 23; Carpenters 83; Brickmaker 1; Shepherd 2; Painter, Gardener, Butler, Stonemason, Stockman, Sawyer, Groom 1 each

SINGLE MEN Labourers 36, Shepherds, 10, Carpenters, Ploughmen and Gardeners 2 each.

SINGLE WOMEN Housemaids 23; cooks 2; farm servants 19; dressmakers 2, laundresses 2 and ladies’ maids 3.


Although most emphasis is placed on the people who are arriving in Port Phillip, there was a steady trickle of people leaving Port Phillip as well. Some went back to England permanently, others shuttled between ‘home’ and the colonies depending on family circumstances, while others moved to other colonies and settlements within Australia. Willian Henry Yaldwyn was one of the latter. He differed from many of the other settlers at Port Phillip in that he was an English landowner in his own right who emigrated to the colonies with his family. He was a leading member of Port Phillip Society in its earliest years and prominent as a magistrate, member of the Melbourne Club, committee man for the Melbourne Fire and Marine Insurance , the Proprietary College and the Melbourne and Port Phillip Bank. He was on the organizing committee for regattas and the Committee to Welcome Lady Franklin in 1839- a journey described by Penny Russell in This Errant Lady (which I reviewed here)


In March 1841 he left for NSW and Queensland, where he ended up a member of the Queensland Legislative Council. The people of Port Phillip gave him a good send-off from Melbourne:

DINNER TO MR YALDWYN. “On Friday evening the farewell dinner to Mr Yaldwyn came off with great éclat at the Adephi Hotel. The public room was laid out tastefully and redounded much to the honor of ‘mine host’. About a quarter to eight o’clock dinner was announced and fifty-three sat down to a sumptuous feast, consisting of all the delicacies the season could afford. After the cloth was removed Mr Powlett was called to the chair, when, after the health of the Queen the Royal Family &c had been drunk, and responded to with the innate loyalty of Britons, the chairman rose and proposed the health of their respected guest Mr Yaldwyn, which was drunk with the customary honours, and one cheer more. Mr Yaldwyn returned thanks in a suitable speech in which he expressed deep regret at his departure from among them. After several minor toasts had been drunk, the party broke up about two o’clock when every one present seemed pleased with their evening’s entertainment.” (PPH 2 March 1841 p. 2)


Education at this stage was not controlled by government regulation and was delivered through sectarian schools and private enterprise. There were frequent advertisements in the papers for schools, many of which opened and closed almost without trace. Mr James Smith advertised that term would begin on 8th March at his school which would be conducted in connection with the Independent or Congregational denomination of Christians in Melbourne. The curriculum would consist of English, Reading, Spellng, Writing, mental and slate Arithmetic, English Grammar, History, Georgraphy, Elements of Geometry &c.

The pupils will be instructed as far as practicable according to the system of the British and Foreign School Society, Mr S. being thoroughly acquainted with that system, having been regularly trained at the Normal Institution, Borough Road, London. Hours of teaching from 9 till 12, and from 2 till 4.30 p.m (PPH 5/3/41)

Meanwhile, Mrs Williams and Miss Casey advertised their establishment for the young ladies of Melbourne:

Mrs Williams and Miss Casey beg to announce to the inhabitants of Melbourne that they intend opening a Seminary for the instruction of young Ladies. The course of Education will comprehend French and English in all its branches, including Writing and Arithmetic. Mrs W. And Miss C in soliciting the patronage of the public, rest their claim for support on their determination to pay the most unremitting attention to the religious and moral instruction of those pupils who may be entrusted to their care, as well as on the experience they have already acquired, while engaged in many respectable Schools and Families in the south of Ireland, where they have had opportunities of studying and adopting the several improvements in the modern system of education. (PPH 5 March)


In the early years of Port Phillip, much of the area surrounding Melbourne was quickly combed by timber-gatherers. By 1841 they were having to range further afield:

FIREWOOD. In consequence of the extension of the town and the great increase of inhabitants, this necessary article has lately become very scarce and the price has risen in proportion. The persons who procure a livelihood by supplying the town with fuel have now to go out some distance into the bush before they can get wood of a proper description for burning- the clearances in the immediate vicinity of the town are in many places converted into pleasure gardens which though devoid of the sublimity attendant upon the “mighty monarchs of the forest” yet carrying a feeling more homely, remind us of the chastened features of our native land. (PPH 2 March p. 3)

But where there’s firewood, there’s fire:

FIRE “We have often observed with alarm the idiocy of some persons in lighting large fires in close proximity to their habitations and this too, regardless of the weather and the calamitous consequences that may ensure, and we have perused with astonishment the annals of Melbourne without finding, as the negligence of the inhabitants would lead us to expect, more than one conflagration since the foundation. On Saturday evening a fire broke out in the chimney of a house situation in the rear of Mr Rushton, Little Collins-Street. The strong wind at the time accelerated the power of the flames which rose to an alarming height; fortunately the rain during the day had left an abundance of water on the [stove? stone?] which some men present assisted to draw, and the fire was soon got under. It appeared it owed its origin to the usual carelessness, a large fire had been piled on the hearth, which coming in contact with the charred timber in the chimney soon ignited, and spread through the entire: had not assistance been at hand and the flames permitted to increase, the consequences might have been serious, as the house is situated amidst a cluster of others built in the same frail manner and situated immediately behind the principal thoroughfare of the town, Collins Street. (PPH 2 March p. 3)


Meanwhile, there were increasing complaints about the quality of the drinking water that was being drawn from the Yarra. A small natural waterfall at about the site of the present Queens St Bridge separated the fresh water of the Yarra from the salt water coming up from the bay. Water carters drew from the Yarra and delivered it to householders at a cost of 6 or 7 shillings per load. On 2 March, the Port Phillip Herald published a letter written Dr Clutterbuck to Superintendent La Trobe, complaining about the brackish state of the water. La Trobe responded:

I beg leave to assure you and the gentlemen who have added their signatures, that having been subjected during the whole summer to the same inconvenience as my neighbours, and believing, moreover, that the brackish water is one cause (though not the only one) of the sickness which has prevailed of late, especially among new comers, I could neither be indifferent as an individual or as a public officer.” (PPH 2/3/41 p.3)

It was popularly believed that the poor water and drains had contributed to the illnesses suffered by many of the recent immigrants who had arrived on board the Argyle. The Port Phillip Herald pointed out that it was the duty of government to apportion some of the general revenue

to the formation of sewers with drains through the marsh into the Yarra, below the fall, to carry off the filth and excretions, which are daily collecting in the lower parts of the town, putrefying and exhaling pestiferous miasmata in a climate where it is actually requisite to fight against nature to render it unwholesome…[Recently arrived immigrants] instead of recovering from any lurking symptoms of disease they might have contracted on board ship, immediately on landing and exchanging the pure breeze of the ocean for the stagnant currents of the back slums of Flinders-lane, were attacked with what has been emphatically termed the “Yarra fever”, for the results of which we refer to the destitute widows and orphans, whose husbands’ and fathers’ remains lay mouldering in our churchyard. (PPH 5/3/41)


The weather for the week was generally fine, with light winds freshening occasionally. The highest temperature for the week was 86 degrees (30C) on 5 March, with a little rain the following day.






‘Saturday’ by Ian McEwan


2005, 308 p.

This is a re-read for my bookgroup, but I read it in 2007 and quite frankly could not really remember much about the book. What I did remember, however – and what strikes me anew on re-reading it- is how well it captures the post-9/11 anxiety about international news, and the interior conversations we tend to have about our own personal security in the face of international insecurity.

In the opening pages, successful neurosugeon Henry Perowne wakes early on Saturday 15 February 2003 to see a plane engulfed in flames streaking across the London skyline. Surely this news will saturate the media and yet, as he goes about his affairs on a normal Saturday – playing squash with a friend; buying fish for a family dinner that night- what he expected to be another 9/11 dwindles into insignificance as news. Securely ensconced in his upper-middle class, educated existence, he is thrust into a different form of terrorism when and where he least expects it.

The book has parallels with Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, or James Joyce’s Ulysses. All three books are contained within a 24 hour period, describing the interior thoughts that bubble underneath an ordinary day.

Saturday is written in the present tense, which is a tense that I generally dislike because it makes me feel unsettled and anxious.  But in this case, that is exactly the feeling that McEwan wants to convey, and it works well.  Master writer that he is, he handles shifts in time well. Much of the book is steeped in banality, but as a reader you are fearful, expecting disaster with the turn of each page.

It is this fear of imminent disaster, both personally and globally, that captures living in a internet-connected, news-saturated post 9/11 world. I identify with this. Part of my awakened interest in world events has been driven in equal part by a desire to understand but also a fear that momentous. terrifying, world-changing things are happening right now somewhere in the world, and that I don’t yet know it.  Henry Perowne feels it too:

 He takes a step towards the CD player, then changes his mind for he’s feeling the pull, like gravity of the approaching TV news.  It’s a condition of the times, this compulsion to hear how it stands with the world, and be joined to the generality, to a community of anxiety.  The habit’s grown stronger these past two years; a different scale of news value has been set by monstrous and spectacular scenes.  The possibility of their recurrence is one thread that binds the day…  Everyone fears it, but there’s also a darker longing in the collective mind, a sickening for self-punishment and a blasphemous curiosity… Bigger, grosser, next time. Please don’t let it happen. But let me see it all the same, as it’s happening and from every angle, and let me be among the first to know. (p 176)

I share his response:

It’s an illusion, to believe himself active in the story. Does he think he’s contributing something, watching news programmes, or lying on his back on the sofa on Sunday afternoons, reading more opinion columns of ungrounded certainties, more long articles about what really lies behind this or that development, or about what is most surely going to happen next, predictions forgotten as soon as they are read, well before events disprove them?…His nerves, like tautened strings, vibrate obediently with each news ‘release’. He’s lost the habits of scepticism, he’s becoming dim with contradictory opinion, he isn’t thinking clearly, and just as bad he senses he isn’t thinking independently. (p.180)

I very much like Ian McEwan as a writer and this book is no exception. It’s a pleasure to read such smooth, masterful prose.

My rating: 9/10

Source: CAE bookgroup.





This Week in Port Phillip 1841: 24 to 28 February 1841

There were complaints about the muddy state of Elizabeth Street right from the start.

During the past week we have received several communications from our fellow townsmen relative to street nuisances which at the present time, when disease and death are enacting their part among our population, would be too flagrant for us to leave unnoticed. We might refer to several which our attention has been drawn to, but we will confine ourselves to some which have come under our own immediate notice. In the principle thoroughfare of Melbourne (Collins Street) close to the Edinburgh tavern, a drain in a site of putrescence is allowed to flow into the street, from whence it shapes its course into Elizabeth Street, and after flowing for some distance through the centre of a crowded population, it finally falls into the Yarra. We would ask our man, must not the pestiferous exhalations arising from it be prejudicial to the health of the inhabitants residing in its immediate vicinity; assuredly it must, even the most apathetical would acknowledge the truth of our statement. Another crying evil is the stagnant water which is suffered to remain in the streets, and which, in the course of few days through the warm weather is in a state of decomposition- this latter evil will in time be remedied by the entire macadamizing the streets- but the former should be immediately looked to, or the consequences that may arise may be most serious. We are positive that our indefatigable police magistrate will now allow such a nuisance to exist one day when this attention is once attracted to it. (PPH 23/2/41 p.2)

Not only were the streets in poor condition, but they were infested with urchins setting off crackers. Fireworks are becoming an increasing problem in Melbourne today, after being banned for many years, but it seems that they were available in Melbourne as early as 1841. I wonder where they got them?

On Wednesday evening parts of Collins and Elizabeth streets were annoyed by the vagaries of several urchins, who to the manifest detriment of horse and foot passengers were giving vent to their love of mischief by the firing of crackers in the streets. This disagreeable nuisance some time since attracted the attention of the constables who very wisely put a stop to it. We trust that a recurrence of the evil will meet with their prompt attention. Whilst on the subject of nuisances, a short-sighted friend has requested us to give a hint to the different tradesmen on the impropriety of leaving boxes in the street opposite their respective houses at night, the result generally being some wounded limbs. We hope the practice will be discontinued. ( PPH 26/2/41 p.2)

Meanwhile, the good ladies of the Episcopal parish had complaints about dust on the pews. It seems odd that ‘drift sand’ would be a problem, especially when the beach was so far distant.

The attention of the churchwardens is particularly requested to the state of the pews or seats in the Episcopalian Church. Oceans of drift sand cover the benches to the infinite annoyance and inconvenience of the fair sex. A hint to the sexton from those in authority in church matters would no doubt have the desired effect. (PPH 23/2/41 p.2)


It sounds as if they were pleased to have a cool change:

THE WEATHER. During the past week an evident change has been observed in the temperature of the weather, the hot and scorching days have been succeeded by mild and pleasant weather, very similar to the autumn at home, the [?wind?] is free and healthy and the nerves properly braced. We are happy to understand that notwithstanding the past warmth of the season the hopes of the agriculturalist have been crowned with success.(PPH 26/2/41 p.2)

And indeed, the Government Gazette shows that the week 22-28 February was cloudy, with the highest temperature on 25th (85 degrees or 29.4 celsius) but heavy rain on the 26th and following days.  It records the rain for the week as 5.145 but I don’t know what this refers to (surely not inches??). Nonetheless, given that the rainfall. total for the month was 6.778, most of it fell in this last week of February.  Does anyone else know what these figures would be measuring?


‘High Seas and High Teas’ by Roslyn Russell


High Seas & High Teas: Voyaging to Australia

213 P & notes, 2016, NLA Publishing

With the recent emphasis on ‘illegal boat arrivals’ in Australia in recent years, it has often been pointed out that, with the exception of indigenous Australians and families who arrived within the last sixty years, all Australians come from ‘boat people’ stock. Rustle the branches of most family trees and there they are: the names of ships, the point and date of departure and the point and date of arrival. Turn to page 2 of the Port Phillip newspapers during the 1840s and there’s the shipping news, identifying the first class passengers by name, numbering the second class passengers, and dispensing with the rest as an undifferentiated group of ‘bounty migrants’ or ‘steerage passengers’.

The inside blurb of this book exhorts family historians to “get a sense of your ancestors’ shipboard experience”, and the foreword by Kerry O’Brien centres on his own family lineage reflecting somewhat of a  ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ emphasis.  Family historians often have little more than the name of the ship and its departure and arrival dates of their forebears. Sometimes they are fortunate enough to have a diary or letters penned on the journey, or on occasion, a particular trip may be so notorious that it was subjected to the scrutiny of the authorities afterwards. In all these cases,though, there are broader questions in moving from the particular to the general: how typical was this one trip? Is there a commonality of experience that linked all sea journeys to Australia?

Roslyn Russell fleshes out and contextualizes the voyage between embarkation and arrival in her book High Seas & High Teas by drawing on thirty-three diaries penned by passengers and crew during the nineteenth century.  These diaries, chosen from among the 100 accounts of voyages to Australia held in the Manuscripts Collection of the National Library of Australia, are not necessarily an accurate reflection of the demographic makeup of ships’ passengers. As she points out both in her introduction and at other places in the text, most of the diaries are written by men (roughly three to one) and fourteen of the thirty-three diaries were written by first class passengers. The voices of mothers of young children, in particular, are missing. This imbalance, she suggests, may be explained by social factors, but it could also reflect the collecting interests of the enigmatic Rex Nan Kivell and Sir John Ferguson, whose collections formed the basis of the NLA holdings (p.2).

In her brief introduction, she explains that, over time, three main routes were established between Great Britain and Australia. Most early 19th journeys took the High Seas route down to the coast of South America, sometimes stopping at Rio de Janeiro, then across to Africa and down to the south of the Cape of Good Hope and on to Western Australia, Adelaide, Melbourne or Sydney.  From the 1830s an alternative route opened up when passengers travelled across the Mediterranean by steamship to Cairo; by camel and cart to Suez, and by steamship again to Bombay. There they connected with sailing ships that brought them down through Torres Strait. By the 1850s a third, more dangerous route was developed when clipper ships passed far to the south of the Cape of Good Hope to pick up the Roaring Forties, the strong winds that blew between 40-50 degrees S latitude, which yielded a shorter journey but also risked storms and icebergs. Steamships were introduced to the route from the 1850s onwards, and the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 cut the length of the journey from more than 100 days in the early 19th century to 40-50 days by the 1890s.

Despite these technological and itinerary changes, there was a commonality to the experience of the sea-voyage, just as there is a basic underlying sameness about air travel today.  This commonality even extended to the convict ships which plied the oceans until the 1860s.  Russell has devoted the first chapter to ‘Sailing Under Servitude’, where the surgeon-superintendent played an ambiguous role encompassing both solicitude and discipline. Diary entries in this chapter from crew and surgeons underscore the isolation and fear of insubordination that ran as an undertone throughout the journey, but as her references to convict ships in the later thematic chapters of the book demonstrate, even convict ships  experienced the same combination of boredom, fear, discomfort and self-made amusement that marked the journeys of later passengers of all classes for the next century.

Chapters 2-12 follow the trajectory of the journey from embarkation at port and the often lengthy bureaucratic and nautical delays before actually setting sail (Ch.2); the provisioning and accommodation on board (Ch. 3-5); passing the time (Ch.6-9); misfortunes at sea (Ch. 10-11), and the final arrival at their destination (Ch.12) which could, once again, be delayed by bureaucracy and quarantine requirements.   I was surprised to learn of the emigration depots back in England which acted as a sort of on-land simulation of the steerage experience, with emigrants forced to sleep in dormitories and comply with Royal Navy regulations as a way of familiarizing them with the life that faced them for the next four or five months.  I had seen printed newspapers purporting to be written on board ship and wondered at how they were published. Russell explains that they were hand-written on board ship and, after a subscription was collected from the passengers, the funds were put towards publishing the newspaper on land, after arrival, as a memento. Like Russell, I had wondered about sanitary arrangements- a topic which, unfortunately, few diary-writers explored in much detail.

But the real heart and soul of this book is the diaries.  Each chapter commences with a potted biography and then a transcript of one person’s diary that illustrates the theme of the chapter, followed by a beautifully clear, double-paged image of that page of the diary.  As readers, we encounter the diary writers again in several places, and I came to look forward to Annie Gratton’s (1858) and Edith Gedge’s (1888) vivacious entries, and confess to a twinge of schadenfreude at the sour William Bethell’s whinges and complaints. Some diarists reappear often, while others have a fleeting presence, making highly pertinent observations, then disappearing into the throng of passengers again.

The book is lavishly illustrated with the small sketches that the diary-writers used to embellish their pages and the chapters are enhanced by artworks of the day described as ‘background features’ in the reference section at the back.  It really is a beautiful book to just dip into, with large, full colour illustrations on nearly every page.

I’m not aware that the book is part of any museum exhibition, but as a reader, I felt as if I were viewing a mounted display.  The trajectory of the journey provided a narrative spine, branching off into small sub-themes of just two pages in length, just as a museum display might do.  Overall, the book does not have a historical argument as such- except, perhaps, for the commonality of the voyage experience across time and class- but instead brings the journey to life through images and the voices of the diary-writers.

It was probably because I had become comfortable with the chatter of those voices that the ending seemed so abrupt. Mr W. Barringer, with whom she closes, moves into permanent accommodation and the book ends. I would have welcomed Russell onto the stage herself as author or researcher perhaps, or would have liked the book rounded off with a birds-eye view of the voyage experience more generally, or even just a fonder farewell to Mr Barringer.   I felt as if I were standing on the wharf, and that the passengers I’d met along the way had ridden away from me to their new lives without bidding farewell. We had, after all, been on a long journey together.

Source: Review copy courtesy National Library of Australia publishing.


I have posted this review to the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2016.


Farewell Ellie McPelly Belly: a tribute to a little black and white dog

You were the biggest puppy in our first litter  and you were (as far as we know) the last one standing. You were always good natured except when fighting with your sister over the meerkat dolly purchased from Melbourne Zoo. When you wagged your tail, it hit both sides of your not-inconsiderable girth.  As soon as you saw the dog-lead , you would begin yipping with joy, especially when I was trying to smuggle you out for a walk without taking your mother, brother and sister as well.



Born in 1999, we could always tell you apart by the small dot on your back


What a little sweetie. With your brothers Axel and Franklin No-Name 1999


You loved finding hidey-holes


Serves you right. One of your less endearing habits was to ‘find’ things in the bathroom rubbish bin and hide them in your outside basket treasure trove.

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You were always a well-built girl

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You even tolerated the cat. Or was it that she tolerated you?


You’re getting old.


Ellie Mac, Ellie Mac last Christmas 2015


Her last night. Goodbye little girl.

You always loved your food. You invariably knew when it was 5.30 and would jump annoyingly at us until we fed you.  You would sit in your too-small basket, waiting to be told ‘okay’ before hoovering up your dinner within seconds.  You were well known for eating a kilo of frozen chicken fillets and having to lie exhausted, stuffed and shivering with your belly ice-cold and distended, until you digested it.  You survived a Christmas packet of Celebrations chocolates which you hid all around the house for later snacks. In fact, anything special went into your little wicker treasure-trove on the back porch: tissues, dog food cans, bones and lolly wrappers.

Eventually it was just you and the cat. By now aged 17, you were blind and deaf but still managed to negotiate the house, the stairs and the garden- as long as nothing was shifted. But it’s been too long since your tail wagged and once you stopped eating – always your greatest pleasure- it was time to go.  Goodbye Ellie McPelly Belly, my little love. I never did finish the last line of your song, sung to the Postman Pat theme-song, while waltzing around the kitchen with you in my arms.

Ellie Mac, Ellie Mac

Ellie Mac is white and black.

You’ve got a big fat tummy

And you love your mummy

Perhaps the last line should be

And I loved you very, very much