This Week in Port Phillip 1841: 23-31 October 1841

Well, virtually only one thing happened during this week in Port Phillip in 1841- the visit of Governor George Gipps.


Governor George Gipps. Source: Wikipedia

George Gipps was the governor of New South Wales between 1838 and 1846.  During the Napoleonic Wars  he served in the Royal Engineers, then in peacetime he was deployed in  civil servant positions (as were many Napoleonic War veterans in the first half of the nineteenth century): first as an administrator in the West Indies and then as a Commissioner into electoral boundaries in England and Ireland. As private secretary to Lord Auckland, first lord of the Admiralty, he served on the Gosford Commission in Canada for two years.  New South Wales was his first appointment as Governor.  Based in Sydney, this was his first (and only) visit to Port Phillip, where he was greeted by Superintendent Charles La Trobe, who had previously stayed with the Gipps in Sydney when he first arrived in Australia.

He came alone, leaving Lady Gipps at home.  As he explained in a letter of 29 September to La Trobe:

Lady Gipps has finally decided to stay at home though she desires me to say that she has done so with much reluctance, and that she is very sorry to forego the pleasure of seeing you and Mrs La Trobe as well as your fine District.  She suffers always so very much at see, that I cannot press her to accompany me. [ Gipps to La Trobe 29 September 1841, Shaw Gipps-La Trobe Correspondence p.105]

Gipps’ predecessor Governor Bourke had visited Port Phillip in 1837 but Melbourne was a very different place now in 1841 in size, economic importance and self-confidence. The first immediate  concern of Melburnians was: given that they didn’t know when the steamer carrying him left Sydney, how would they know when he’d arrived in Melbourne?  The Port Phillip Gazette of 23 October reported the arrangements:

The procrastinated arrival of the steamer leaves no doubt that His Excellency’s visit to the Province will take place by that conveyance, and that she has been detained on that account.  Should Sir George be on board, the instant the Seahorse heaves in sight, with the flag indicative of his presence flying, a salute of nineteen guns will be fired from Fort Drake, late Gellibrand’s Point. Upon dropping anchor, the ships in harbor will likewise fire salutes.  The inhabitants of the town will thus have timely notice of the vice-regal presence. [PPG 23/10/41]

This would be the volley of shots that Georgiana McCrae’s son Willie heard on Saturday 23 October, as she recorded in her diary:

23rd After breakfast, Willie said he heard “guns making a noise!” and I knew at once that the Governor-in-Chief, Sir George Gipps, had arrived from Sydney.  He crossed the river on the punt and, at twelve o’clock, made his public entry into Melbourne.  The sound of cheering became very loud, so that I wished to be there, but the pains in my head made it impossible

The Port Phillip Gazette of 27th October gave a description of the arrival

ARRIVAL OF SIR GEORGE GIPPS. “At 8 o’clock on Saturday morning the Seahorse hove in sight, when the distinguishing flag was hoisted at the mast head, denoting His Excellency’s presence on board, a salute of nineteen guns was fired from Fort Drake.  On the steamer’s anchoring, the Water Police Magistrate Captain Gordon, with the other officials at Williams Town, waited on his Excellency. The Inspector of Water Police, Mr Sullivan went in a splendid six-oared mahogany rig (lent for the occasion by the Captain of the Thomas Arbuthnot) to the beach, and conveyed his Honor the Superintendent on board the steamer. Shortly after his Honor’s arrival, his Excellency, accompanied by His Honor, &c proceeded to Williams Town, where he inspected the Customs, Police Office, sick camp &c. and expressed himself highly satisfied with the place.  After remaining on shore some time, his Excellency and staff, with His Honor and Captain Gordon, went to the beach where he was received by the deputation.  Mr Liardet, the landlord of the Pier Hotel, had erected a four gun battery and did honor to his Excellency’s landing by firing a salute; he also had erected a triumphal arch on the Pier, which was carpeted.  They then proceeded to town, followed by a large concourse of the inhabitants of Melbourne [PPG 27/10/41]

The Geelong Advertiser gave a rare physical description of the Governor. I’ve often regretted that, especially at a time when newspapers did not have pictures, writers rarely said what people looked like:

He [ie. Sir George] has a dignified air, and even a stranger might recognise him by that peculiar care-worn expression of countenance which marks those who zealously devote themselves to the arduous duties of a responsible trust  [Geelong Advertiser, 25 October 1841 p.2]

The Port Phillip Patriot gave more details about his reception once he reached town:

At the punt [across the Yarra, near site of Princes Bridge today], not withstanding the briefness of the notice, an immense number of people had congregated, who received His Excellency, on their landing among them, with deafening shouts of welcome.  The procession, which by this time numbered several thousands of individuals, some on horseback, some in carriages, and some on foot, then proceeded, headed by His Excellency the Governor and His Honor the Superintendent up Collins-street to the summit of Batman’s Hill, the multitude cheering as they went along, thence to the signal station [on Flagstaff Hill] and back to town by way of Queen, Collins and Swanston Streets to His Excellency’s quarters at the Yarra Cottage Hotel. [PPP 25/10/41]

That afternoon, the governor and a number of gentlemen inspected the environs of the town then retired to a select dinner party.  The dinner may have been select but the people still had their own celebrations with fireworks and lights:

In the evening, in honour of His Excellency’s arrival, many of the inhabitants of the town had the fronts of their residences brilliantly illuminated, some with variegated lamps, and others with wax candles; the Royal Exchange Hotel, the William Tell and Messrs. M. Cashmore and Co’s premises were particularly deserving of notice.  A bonfire was also kindled in the street in front of the Commercial Exchange, and sky-rockets, crackers and fire-works of every description were to be heard and seen in every direction. [PPP 25/10/41]

On Sunday 24th Sir George attended church at St James. Although there was no ‘established’ church, the Anglican church seemed to have semi-official status, at least in connection with the courts (e.g. church service to open the legal year; Rev A. C. Thomson’s regular attendance at court each month to lead the prayers at the opening of the Criminal sessions). It’s no surprise then that it was St James and not one of the other churches that hosted the vice-regal party.

On Monday 25th October Sir George was up and about at 5.00 a.m. to ride out to Heidelberg to have breakfast with the Resident Judge, John Walpole Willis.  He was back in town by 1.30 when Gipps, La Trobe, the Aid-de-Camp and the Private Secretary arrived at the New Custom House to  to receive an address  from the residents that was presented by Messrs Cunningham, Barry, Mollison, Kilgour and Manning.

Such deference and unctuousness! Here’s the residents’ address:

We the inhabitants of Port Phillip, beg leave to address you Excellency with the assurance of our unfeigned loyalty towards our Sovereign, and of our sincere respect for your Excellency, her Majesty’s representative in New South Wales.

We hail with the highest satisfaction your Excellency’s visit to this district, and we trust your Excellency’s stay will be sufficiently prolonged to offer an opportunity for that full examination into the resources, improvements and wants alike of the town and province which they would seem to deserve

To this examination we respectfully solicit your Excellency’s earnest attention; and should it result in your Excellency’s conviction that we possess the true elements of prosperity and that we are practically working them out, then we trust that your Excellency will afford us the aid which is essential to their more full and rapid development

We sincerely hope that your Excellency’s visit will have the happy effect of firmly establishing that respect and confidence which it is so desirable should exist in our mutual relations; and it is our ardent desire that your Excellency may bear with you, n your return to the seat of government, no ungrateful recollections of Australia Felix [PPG 20/10/41]

And Governor Gipps gave his prepared response:

GENTLEMEN I am happy at length to find myself in the district of Port Phillip. I feel greatly obliged to you for the very kind and cordial reception which you have given me, and I think you particularly for this address.

My stay, gentlemen, amongst you must necessarily be shorter than I could desire it to be; but it will be, I trust, sufficiently prolonged to enable me to form an opinion of the resources of your province, and of the improvements of which it is susceptible, as also of its immediate wants.

To become better acquainted with these latter is one of the chief objects of my visit; to satisfy them, as far as the means at my disposal will permit, I true I need not say is my very anxious desire

Favoured as you are with a district of exceeding beauty and fertility, I cannot doubt that the onward course of your prosperity will be as steady as the first development of it has been striking; and I shall, indeed, gentlemen, bear away with me a grateful recollection of Australia Felix, if I may permit myself to hope that my visit has in any way tended to advance your interests, or to confirm and strengthen those feelings of unanimity and mutual confidence which are no less necessary for the happiness of individuals, than for the prosperity of states.[PPG 27/10/41]

Then the doors were thrown open and the following men were presented to the Governor:



Is there anyone you should know there? Well, the press is there (Arden, Cavenagh, Fawkner, Kerr); the owner of Banyule Homestead is there;  and George Augustus Robinson the Aboriginal Protector was there along with Le Soeuf.  Reverends Thomson (Anglican), Forbes (Presbyterian), Geoghegan (Roman Catholic), Wilkinson (Wesleyan Methodist), Wilson (Anglican), Waterfield (Congregational)  and Orton (Wesleyan Methodist) were there too.

On Tuesday 26th October Gipps and his retinue travelled down to Geelong on the Aphrasia which was gaily decorated with flags. The inhabitants  assembled on the brow of the hill or hastened to the jetty to greet the Governor:

A flourish of trumpets was found wanting but  Captain Fyans made a good show with his police, and, some how or other, mustered a trumpeter who thrilled out the National Anthem, heard for the first time at Geelong, as Sir George stepped ashore.  The hearty cheers of the population made up for what was wanting in form, and the unostentatious manner in which his Excellency landed from the little Custom House boat, and acknowledged the reception he met with, from the gentlemen assembled, gave pleasure to the spectators, some of whom were absolutely astounded to see a governor shake hands. [PPG 30/10/41]

Gipps, La Trobe, Mr Fenwick, Captain Fyans, Mr Addis, Dr Thompson and others rode to the principal points in the settlement at a good speed, headed by Captain Fyans. They crossed Fyans’ Ford by Mr Seivwright’s huts, went up by the Barabool Hills, round by Dr Thompsons house and garden to the breakwater, then halted at the police officer where a body of men presented another address, numerously signed by the inhabitants. Gipps gave a good off-the-cuff reply, which the waiting press  grumbled was not presented to them in written form. He then went to Captain Fyans for a “sumptuous” lunch, to which the gallant Captain had invited a number of the resident gentry.  The remainder of the visit devoted to the examination of public works (e.g. the watchhouse at North Corio, the lock up at South Geelong) At 3.00 p.m. the people assembled again on the shore to bid him farewell, the same gentlemen attended him to the jetty, the steamer saluted with her engine and steered away .  He arrived back in Melbourne at 8.00 p.m. An illumination held that evening by Mr Robinson of the Commercial Inn, and a display of fireworks held on the hill.  The day was kept as a holiday by all.

On Wednesday 27th October he met with the press in the morning. That night was the ball- the social highlight of the trip:

The subscribers to ‘the private assemblies’ gave their second ball and supper at the Exchange rooms, in honor of the Governor, at which his Excellent appeared and in high spirits. The apartments were tastefully decorated with festoons, and the walls beautifully papered for the occasion. Upwards of one hundred and fifty of the elite of rank and fashion of the town and surrounding districts were present, Mrs La Trobe uniting with the “fair” party in adding additional fascinations to the attractive scene. Dancing was continued to twelve o’clock, when supper was announced. The company then partook of a sumptuous repast prepared in Mr Davis’ best style. The following toasts, among others, were appropriately introduced- The Queen, Sir George Gipps, Lady Gipps, Mr La Trobe, Mrs La Trobe &c. His Excellency was particularly happy in responding to the manner in which his own and her ladyship’s health had been drunk, observing that he was extremely sorry that her ladyship had not accompanied him, as she must have felt extremely gratified by the warm and handsome manner in which he had been received. Dancing was then resumed, and kept up with re-animated spirits until five o’clock, when the whole party separated, highly pleased with the enjoyments of the night. [Extraordinary 1/11/41]

Georgiana McCrae was there but, seven months pregnant, did not frock up as much as she might have otherwise. Instead, she adopted a suitably matriarchal dress:

27th….I gave Lizzie my Chellé dress and my wedding-shoes, to enable her to go to the ball in honour of the Governor, at the Criterion, this evening. Went to the ball, but not to dance. Put on my best black satin dress, and a bit of ivy in my hair, so that I felt myself comme il faut.

On the Thursday 28th October Gipps met with deputations of men, each pushing their favourite project, with first a group from the Commercial Exchange lobbying for a port, and then men from the Bridge Company to ascertain whether there was interest in the construction of a bridge over the Yarra.  That night there was yet another dinner hosted by the colonists of Australia Felix but the reports of the dinner are sketchy, as none of the newspaper editors attended when it became clear that they were not being given free entry. The Geelong Advertiser, however, did give a fuller report more than a week later and included transcripts of the various speeches made in a supplement to the paper (apparently written by Mr Meek PPH 9/11/41).

However, two events that were later to rebound on Charles La Trobe occurred at this dinner. The first was that someone- and Judge Willis was to later suggest that it was La Trobe himself- erased a toast to ‘The Press’ from the list of toasts for the evening. This was an accusation steeped in all the confected outrage of press editors at the time, but obviously had sufficient significance that the Executive Council rapped Willis over the knuckles for circulating this accusation.  The second  (and I admit that I’m not sure whether this occurred at the dinner and ball of the previous night, or this public dinner) was that La Trobe very uwisely declared his willingness to play “second fiddle” to Gipps, a thoroughly accurate statement but not one which endeared him to the increasingly bolshie citizens keen for separation from NSW.

The, finally on the morning of Friday 29th October Gipps boarded the Aphrasia at 11.00 a.m. for the last time.

At eleven o’clock, His Excellency embarked on board the Aphrasia, under a salute from the revenue cutter, and proceeded down the river to join the Sea Horse, which had been specially detained for his accommodation a few days beyond the usual period allotted for her stay in the harbour. Upon the arrival of the Governor and suite alongside the Sea Horse steamer, the Battery at Fort Drake, together with the shipping in the harbour, paid the usual compliment of firing a salute. A luncheon was prepared on board, at which the gentlemen accompanying His Excellency were invited to partake. About two o’clock, Sir George having taken leave of all who attended him to the Bay, the Sea Horse weighed anchor.  PPG Extraordinary 1/11/41]
Georgiana McCrae wrote for 29th that she “Heard the guns, announcing the departure of the Governor per Sea-Horse”. And so we, too,  bid fond farewell to Sir George, who was not to visit Port Phillip again.
How’s the weather?
So how did the weather hold up for the vice-regal visit?  Beautifully, as it happens, with “light and fresh breezes with frequent strong winds. Fine open weather generally”, with only slight rain on 29th, the day of his departure.  The top temperature for the week was 76 (24.4) and the lowest 43 (6.1)
Roy Bridges , One Hundred Years: The Romance of the Victorian People,  1934, Herald and Weekly Times, Melbourne.  [online at SLV site]
Hugh McCrae (ed) Georgiana’s Journal Melbourne 1841-1865, 1966 (2nd edition) Angus and Robertson, Sydney
A.G.L. Shaw Gipps-La Trobe Correspondence 1839-1846 , 1989, Miegunyah Press, Carlton Vic.

2 responses to “This Week in Port Phillip 1841: 23-31 October 1841

  1. Imagine cheering a vice-regal person now! Kerr ruined any chance of that happening. The details of the visit were interesting, thanks.

  2. I believe the Sullivan, Lieut. in the invitees list was the very same G.G. Sullivan, R.N. who Meek would not let into the Ball.

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