Monthly Archives: April 2016

This Week in Port Phillip 1841: April 8-14 1841


The opening of the Supreme Court in Melbourne WAS big news- not just for this blog (which is named for the First Resident Judge of the District of Port Phillip) but for Port Phillip itself. The creation of a permanent branch of the Supreme Court of New South Wales in Melbourne (as distinct from a regular circuit court) was both a way of marking the significance of the district, and also solving a personnel problem for Governor Gipps who was having to deal with conflict amongst the judges on the bench when they were all together. In a practical sense, it meant that substantial civil cases could be heard in Melbourne rather than the parties travelling up to Sydney, and that criminal cases no longer had to wait in jail until there was a sufficiently large number of prisoners to be escorted by ship to the Supreme Court in Sydney.  From a community and social point of view, it meant that barristers and other professionals would be attracted to the Port Phillip district, and that there was a focus for public and political discourse.

I hadn’t realized previously that Good Friday was on April 9 in 1841 and that therefore the court opened immediately after Easter. Devout Melbournians could have had a glimpse of their new judge in all his regalia on the preceding Sunday, because he and Edward Brewster had attended church at St James’ Church of England in their legal robes. The other ‘gentlemen of the long robe’ must have wished that they were wearing theirs too, but they were not.

The court opened at 10.00 a.m. on what we would know as Easter Monday in the small building that had been repurposed from its former incarnation as a Works building.


William Liardet, ‘The Opening of the Supreme Court’. State Library of Victoria (

The Clerk of the Court read the Queen’s Proclamation for the Suppression of Vice to open the court. He then read the Queen’s Commission appointing Willis as a judge, followed by Governor Gipps’ proclamation appointing a judge to the Port Phillip District, then finally Willis’ commission from Gipps that appointed him to the position.  After taking the oath, Willis then swore in James Raymond as Sheriff and James Croke as Crown Prosecutor. He then admitted five gentlemen to the bar: Croke, Brewster, Barry, Holme and Cunningham.

I’ve written about the opening of the Supreme Court previously, so I won’t repeat it here. But, I will give you a little taste of Judge Willis’ opening speech, which both captured the essence of his in-court persona and also foreshadowed his dismissal just over two-and-a-half years later:

I am well aware, however, of the peculiar position of a sole presiding judge, and more especially of his liability to the suspicion of local prejudices and partialities. I have always been of opinion with a learned writer “that the less local connexion a judge may have with the place in which he exercises his jurisdiction, the more he will be exempt from the unconscious and danger influence of any collateral motives; and that even being a stranger in a particular set of advocates, otherwise than by the general intercourse of the profession, has a favourable influence on the administration of justice. Particular partialities may exist, and are much more frequently imputed, among those with whom there is a regular and constant intercourse; and although no person worthy of a judicial appointment, will purposely and knowingly act in opposition to his duty, it is certain that habits are said to have arisen of some individual with greater attention and complacency than others, and thus to have induced a feeling of freedom, and even dictatorial familiarity in the one case, and of oppression and embarrassment detrimental to the interests of justice on the other.” (See letter from Sir. W. D. Evans, late Recorder of Bombay to Lord Redesdale, anno 1812).

Lord Brougham in his speech in the House of Commons in 1823, on the administration of the law in Ireland, thus addressed himself “that if a judge be bound at all times to maintain the dignity of his exalted office; if partiality be the very essence of judicial duty, and without which no judge can be worthy of the name- any mixture in party dissensions- any partnership in religious or political disputes- anything like entering into the detail of class difference and arrangements- anything approaching, however distantly, the tool of a particular faction would be a sort of stain from which above all others the Ermine ought most immediately be purged and cleaned.  For 1st; such interference touches a judge’s dignity; 2ndly, it renders his impartiality suspicious; and 3rdly, it goes to shake that respect which is due to every just and dignified magistrate, that respect, which if a magistrate forfeit by his misconduct, the sooner he vacates his office the better; the sooner the balance is wrested from him which he can no longer be expected to hold fairly- the sooner he drops the sword, which none will give him credit for wielding usefully- the better for the community and the law.  When once he has rendered it impossible for the public to view him with confidence and respect, he cannot too soon lay down an authority the mere insignia of which are entitled to veneration.”

I thus candidly avow my knowledge of the dangers to which a Resident Judge is exposed, and I do so, trusting that this knowledge will enable me to avoid them.  But should the Resident Judge of this district ever afford just cause of suspicion, or complaint, the act whence he derives his authority by enabling his Excellency the Governor from time to time to appoint one of the judges of New South Wales to reside within this district provides an effectual remedy for any of the evils incident in this office.


The speechifying and swearing-in over, the court began hearing cases.  In this inaugural sitting, there were three cases: two of stealing and one of embezzlement.  All were found guilty.

And so this year (2016), the Supreme Court in Victoria is celebrating its Dodransbicentenary (now there’s a term to conjure with!)  Strictly speaking, it was still the Supreme Court of New South Wales, but it was the start of the Supreme Court in what was to become Victoria.  It was  such a big occasion that I’ll just let it sit here, dominating the events of the week 8-14th April.  Happy Dodransbicentenary, Supreme Court!

Movie: The Danish Girl

I caught this just in time, after declaring months ago that I wanted to see it.  I read the book several years ago and you can read my review here.  At the time, I was rather dubious about Nicole Kidman in the main role, although now having seen it, I think it could have worked.

It certainly is beautifully filmed, with almost every shot self-consciously framed as art in its own right. The real story (complete with photographs of the original Lily Elbe) can be found here.  The film felt somewhat too much like a costume drama with a sad ending and  that  a final scene that seemed too ‘storied’.  Excellent acting from both main characters, but when I re-read my review of the book, the film seems to have had much of the complexity stripped out.

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


Even in these days of international jet travel, we always tend to under-estimate the time that it takes to get from the point of disembarkation to our actual home or hotel.  Sometimes it takes almost as long to traverse the last thirty kilometres as it did the previous thousand.


Sandridge from Hobsons Bay

Sandridge from Hobsons Bay 1852, Painter unknown, State Library of Victoria , []

Emigrants and travellers to Port Phillip found a similar problem, although no doubt after the weeks spent on board ship from Britain, the messiness of the final leg of the trip was less noticeable and frustrating. Nonetheless, it was not possible to gaily trip down the gangplank of an incoming ship onto the streets of Melbourne.  Ocean-going ships could not navigate the shallow tidal Yarra River and so they moored out in the Bay or at Point Gellibrand near Williamstown. From there, there were several options. Passengers and their cargo could be brought to Williamstown by boatmen, or could be ferried across directly to Sandridge (later Port Melbourne).  From Williamstown they could catch a ferry to Geelong, Melbourne or Sandridge, or could travel by road up through Footscray to Melbourne.  If they took the Sandridge option, they could take a shallow-hulled steamship up the Yarra, or could walk or drive across the drained swamps along St Kilda Road.  The steamships and lighters would tie up at the wharves at Queens or Coles Wharf at Queens Street, where access further up the Yarra was blocked by a rocky outcrop generously called ‘The Falls’.

The early settlers of Port Phillip didn’t need Prime Ministerial encouragement to be ‘agile’ or ‘disruptive’ : anyone who had a small boat could see the opportunities to be had in offering their services to take weary travellers straight up the river to the wharf. The Yarra River was lit by beacons and stakes that marked the deepest channels in the river.  The larger steamships relied on them to navigate the river but smaller ‘agile’ boats steered by water-men had little need of them. The Port Phillip Herald fulminated at the pushiness and competitive trickery of the water-men, calling for the Water Police to control the Uber-Taxis of the day.

As respects the beacons in the river and on the bar at its mouth, self interest on the part of the lighter and barge men often operates seriously upon the trading vessels which have to proceed to the Queen’s Wharf.  Scarcely a vessel comes up the river that does not experience detention owing to the destruction or removal of the stakes which have been inserted to mark out the proper channels and although it is well known that there is a heavy penalty for the offence, yet interested motives and the uncertainty of detection and conviction encourage the continuation of the practice.  If it be known by masters or agents that these beacons are either removed or misplaced they will not run the risk of bringing up their vessels, and the small craft trading between the Queen’s Wharf and the shipping in the bay will consequently reap the advantage; or should masters venture up and get aground, a thing of almost daily occurrence, they must perhaps have to the discharge part of their cargo, and thus in all probability pay the very men who were the cause of their misfortune, thus holding out a bribe to treachery. (PPH 2 April 1841)


This article was issued as a caution to unwary benefactors, but it serves just as well as a caution not to approach the church for charity:

For the last few days a female representing herself as the wife of a man called Boucher, now confined in the Gaol for sly grog selling, has been travelling through the town and extorting sums of money from our generous fellow townsmen, on the plea of extreme destitution.  She yesterday morning called on the Rev Mr Thomson, who immediately had her taken before the Police Magistrate, who severely reprimanded her, and cautioned her how she followed such courses in future. To add to the grossness of her offence, it was proved that the wretched woman was Boucher’s concubine, and not his wife. (PPH 2 April 1841)



Dr. B. Wilmot.

Dr. W. B. Wilmot. State Library of Victoria, [

One of the very first things that Justice John Walpole did in his legal capacity was to officially swear William Byam Wilmot as Coroner. Wilmot, who had a small dispensary in Collins Street called the Melbourne Medical Hall, had applied for the position in 1840, and was appointed, on La Trobe’s recommendation to Gipps, on 1 February 1841. The position of coroner combines both legal and medical aspects, and so Willis swore Wilmot in as Coroner immediately, even before Willis’ own court was open.  For that momentous occasion, we’ll have to wait for the following week.


A wet week, with 4.7 inches of rain. The total for April was 5.8, so it seems that nearly all the rain for the month fell in this first week. The 1st April was the hottest day for the week at 78 degrees (or 25.6 C)


John Walpole Willis’ exciting week ahead

Justice John Walpole Willis and his biographer-of-sorts (i.e. me!) are about to have an exciting few days.  Tonight (Friday 8th April) is the opening of the new exhibition at the Royal Historical Society of Victoria 175 Years of Judging for the People, which is on show between 11 April and 7 June 2016 (details here) .

Then tomorrow, Saturday 9th April is the RHSV Conference marking the publication of a new book Judging for the People: A Social History of the Supreme Court in Victoria 1841- 2016 at Victoria University in the city.  I’m giving a short paper on the Bonjon case and its relationship to the Mabo judgment 151 years later.

Finally, on Tuesday 12th April, the book Judging for the People is being officially launched by the Chief Justice of Victoria on the very day of 175 Anniversary of the opening of the Supreme Court of New South Wales in the district of Port Phillip.  I wrote the first chapter of the book which starts off with the Resident Judges, who were the forerunners of the Supreme Court here in Victoria.

So, JWW and I had better both frock up for a few days of commemorative excitement!

VPRS 19 online!

What a wonderful world we live in!  The Public Records Office of Victoria (PROV) has now digitized and made available VPRS 19, the inward correspondence to Charles La Trobe, the Superintendent and later Lieutenant-Governor of Port Phillip.

To see an interactive introduction to the letters, see PROV’s site here.

“What would I want with La Trobe’s  Inward Correspondence?” you may ask. Well- there’s just so much here.  There’s reports from civil servants, letters of complaint, petitions, queries- in effect, anything formal that the people of Port Phillip wanted to convey to Governor Gipps in Sydney had to go through La Trobe here in Melbourne.  Although La Trobe had very little scope and authority to act independently, all requests had to go through him.  Family historians might find letters by or about their forebears; the plans for the newly-established organizations and buildings for the new Melbourne settlement are all here; the debates and controversies in the public sphere are funnelled through here as well. It’s an incredibly rich resource.

I really can’t start to describe how excited I am that these letters have been digitized and made available in this way.  Oh that they had been available five years ago when I was spending hours at PROV, although I think back on that stage as my favourite time in writing my thesis. You still have to dig around to find what you want (and I must confess that it’s taken some fiddling for me to find the transcripts) but oh! this is fantastic! Fantastic, fantastic, fantastic!  [You probably gather that I’m rather excited….]


Thanks to Lenore Frost who has alerted me to an index to VPRS 19 which can be found on the Royal Historical Society of Victoria website under its ‘Collections‘ link.  You can get directly to the index  here.

‘Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found’ by Seketu Mehta


2004, 497 p.

Good grief.  What on earth was my son thinking when he suggested that I (a middle-aged, inexperienced world traveller) read this book before visiting Mumbai?

The author Sekutu Mehta was born in Calcutta, and moved to Bombay where he lived for nine years. He left Bombay to move with his parents to America in 1977 at the age of fourteen. In the intervening twenty one years, he lived in New York, Paris, London, Iowa City, New Brunswick and New Jersey.  He  returned in 1998 with his wife and two young children to find that he was viewed as American rather than Indian. After struggling to find accommodation and to have services connected and after an altercation with his neighbours over his parking space he explodes:

This f*cking city. The sea should rush in over these islands in one great tidal wave and obliterate it, cover it under water…Every morning I get angry. It is the only way to get anything done; people here respond to anger, are afraid of it…Any nostalgia I felt about my childhood has been erased.  Given the chance to live again in the territory of childhood, I am coming to detest it. Why do I put myself through this? I was comfortable and happy and praised in New York… I have given all that up for this fool’s errand, looking for silhouettes in the mist of the ghost time. Now I can’t wait to go back, to the place I once longed to get away from: New York…I am an adulterous resident: when I am in one city, I am dreaming of the other.  I am an exile, citizen of the country of longing.  (p. 28-9)

A working journalist, he is drawn to the Muslim/Hindu riots of 1992-3 that followed the destruction of the Babri Masjid mosque in Ayodhya, leading to over 2000 deaths, 900 of which occurred during the gang-led Bombay riots.It is this event, and the networks of power that spread web-like from it, that are explored in the first two-thirds of this lengthy book. In  Part I, ‘Power’, he talks with both members of Shiv Sena, the far-right Hindu political party, and with members of D-Company led by gangmaster Dawood Ibrahim, who orchestrated a series of  retaliatory bombings on March 21 1993.  He interviews Ayay Lal, the policeman charged with solving the 1993 bombings who walks (and perhaps falls over) a very fine line between justice and criminality himself.  This is nasty, violent stuff that made me ashamed to feel compelled to keep reading. In Part II, ‘Pleasure’ he explores the world of bar-girls and Bollywood, transvestism and prostitution.  It, too, is a nasty,  violent, squalid world.  It is only in Part III ‘Passages’ where he focuses on individuals who skirt these worlds without being swallowed into them, that I felt somewhat less voyeuristic and complicit.

This is a very long book of nearly 500 pages. Its journalistic structure means that it could, theoretically, be any length by adding or culling yet another interview.  Despite its three parts and 500-odd pages, I found it hard to find any particular argument in it, except perhaps the rather limp view that

A city is only as thriving or sickly as your place in it. Each Bombayite inhabits his own Bombay. (p. 493)

For a good 2/3 of the book, I felt annoyed by the book’s bagginess and self-indulgence. I resented the time it was taking to read it, but I couldn’t stop doing so either. Yet while in Mumbai I found myself constantly citing this book and small things that I had learned through it. My travelling companion Jesse must have inwardly sighed as I started “In that book I was reading…” because I did so, often.

But I didn’t want to see the Mumbai (Bombay- his choice of ‘Bombay’ in the title is significant) described in this book. It frightened me.  To use a bland local example, it was like advising a visitor to Melbourne to watch the full series of Underbelly.  Yes, you would learn quite a bit about the Melbourne criminal culture, but you might view the Victoria Market, St Kilda and the Western Suburbs quite differently.  I doubt if it would add to your enjoyment of Melbourne.

So my recommendation? Yes, read Maximum City but do it long before you go there, or soon after- but just don’t read it while you’re there!