Daily Archives: October 7, 2016

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

‘Scrutator’ fall-out

One of the problems of writing a libelous letter against the only Judge in town is that, when you’re hauled over the coals for it, it will be before that very same Judge. So 21-year-old George Arden was to learn, after publishing the Scrutator letter in the Port Phillip Gazette. At the next sitting of the court, the Crown Prosecutor made an application grounded on an affidavit made out by the Acting Crown Solicitor against George Arden for “false, scandalous and malicious libel, reflecting on the administration of justice and upon His Honor [Judge Willis] personally”.  Willis made a long speech in his own defence, then, after quite properly declaring his unwillingness to act as a judge on his own case, turned proceedings over to the Police Magistrate Major St John and three other magistrates on the bench: Powlett, Verner and Lyon Campbell.  The personalities of these magistrates is important:  William Verner and James Lyon Campbell were strong supporters of Willis and his neighbours in Heidelberg. They announced that Arden should be bound over with recognizances of 400 pounds and two sureties of 200 pounds each (in effect, a form of good-behaviour bond) and attend the Police Court the next day.

Arden fronted up as required at the Police Court on Saturday morning, where Major St John was joined by a different group of magistrates: McCrae and Were.  Now these magistrates were no friends of Willis’, each coming into conflict with him in their own right.  In Willis’ absence, they decided that it was not necessary to enforce the order (a rather ‘brave’ decision, one would think, given Willis’ combativeness).  On hearing of this decision, Willis immediately launched an appeal which was heard in Quarter Sessions on the following Monday before the same magistrates as on Saturday, but this time they were joined by six other magistrates of the district, including Powlett, Verner, Lyon Campbell.  After much discussion, they re-affirmed the order about recognizances.

The three newspapers devoted columns and columns to these events, framing it as a liberty of the press issue which, indeed it was.  All three were scathing of Willis’ actions, with even the pro-Willis Port Phillip Patriot under the proprietorship of John Fawkner declaring that Willis should “resign the office of Resident Judge into the hands of one or other of his brethren on the bench” (PPP 7/10/41).

As it turned out, Arden was released from his recognizances a month later amongst all the bonhomie surrounding the visit of Governor Gipps- but, oops!- that hasn’t happened yet. But rest assured, this matter isn’t going to go away, and we’ll revisit it in February next year.

St Francis’ Catholic Church

On 4th October 1841 Fr. Geoghegan laid the foundation stone for St Francis’ Church which still stands on the corner of Lonsdale and Elizabeth Street, looking much as it did in the 1840s.



St Francis Church 1845 from stone by Thomas Ham. Source: State Library of Victoria

The major denominations were hard at work in these early years of the 1840s building their first permanent churches to replace the rather makeshift structures had had been quickly erected as the population of Melbourne began to boom.  There was nothing that Melburnians liked so much as a good ceremony (in fact, that’s still true) and the Masons were usually on hand to make an occasion of it.  But not so when it was a Catholic chapel, notwithstanding the general co-operation between the denominations at this stage.

On Monday last the foundation stone of the new Catholic Church was laid by the Rev. Mr Geoghegan on the ground set apart for that purpose in Lonsdale-street, and upon a portion of which the temporary edifice at present stands.  In consequence of the reverend gentleman being a member of the order of St Francis, the church was dedicated to that saint.  It was contemplated that the Masonic body should have proceeded in due form, and assisted in the ceremony; but the opinions of others being at variance with this suggestion, it was dropped to prevent a schism. About £200 was collected on the ground.  The following inscriptions upon parchment were deposited, along with some coins, in the foundation stone:


PPG 6 October 1841

The Port Phillip Herald, which gave more attention to news of the Catholic church than the other two papers, carried a full report of the ceremony and the addresses given in its 12 October issue.  The crowd, it seems, was smaller than might have been hoped:

The day was unfavourable, being tempestuous and showery, besides many of the congregation and persons of other religious persuasion were prevented attending by reason of occupation at either of the two Courts which were then adjudicating [on the Arden case above!] nevertheless a considerable assemblage was present at the sacred ceremony.[ PPH 12/10/41]

Fr. Geoghegan finished his oration praising the ecumenical spirit that generally existed in these early Melbourne years (the absence of the Masons notwithstanding). I’ve often wondered if it was the arrival of the bishops that hardened the sectarian lines in Port Phillip society, or did it just reflect the increasing size and complexity of a town outgrowing its frontier status?

Thanks to God we live in a country of liberty where it is the recognized right of everyone to worship God according to his conscience: Australia Felix! a country happy and true to its name, where we can appeal even to our Dissenting brethren to defend us from an encroachment on our religious freedom as if it were their own [PPH 12/10/41]

Unfortunately it seems that the coins did not stay for long in the foundation stone. On the 7th October the Port Phillip Patriot carried this report:

SACRILEGE. On Monday night last some paltry ruffians removed the foundation stone of the new Roman Catholic Chapel, which had been laid during the day, and carried away the bottle containing the inscription and the different specimens of the coins of the realm, which were deposited in the stone.  The whole value of the property stolen is not more than thirty shillings and to accomplish this notable feat there must have been at least six thieves employed, the dimensions of the stone being such as to preclude the likelihood of a smaller number being able to accomplish the theft without the aid of machinery.

How’s the weather?

Light winds 1st and 2nd, gale on 3rd, afterwards fresh and strong winds; weather damp and cloudy until 4th, afterwards bright and clear.  Top temperature 74 (23.3C), lowest 41 (5.0C) and the coldest day of the month was on 5th October.