Daily Archives: December 21, 2016

This Week in Port Phillip 1841: 8-14 December

A night at the Debating Society

The December meeting of the Debating Society turned its attention to the rivetting question “Whether the conduct of Elizabeth was justifiable towards Mary Queen of Scots”( which strikes me as a particularly irrelevant question to be asking on a meeting at the Scots Church schoolhouse on a summer’s evening on the other side of the world some 254 years after the event.) Nonetheless, a large audience was in attendance.  I’ve already written about the Debating Society here and here.  According to the long Port Phillip Gazette report of this meeting, the opening speaker read his delivery “in preference to committing so important a task to the support of his unassisted memory and impromptu talent.” His speech was “fairly written” and delivered with considerable spirit but  “the speaker, however, had to struggle with the disadvantage of reading under a bad light and without any convenient rest for his papers.”

Then -shock!- one of the speakers uttered the word “bigamy” in describing the crimes of the Queen of Scots

and although it could only be objected to on account of its want of refinement where a choice of terms existed, yet it appeared to be received by a certain set, who showed even less taste than the speaker, with a titter of mysterious amusement; the interruption occasioned might, however, have shortly subsided, had it not been rendered worse by the request of the chairman that the learned gentleman would be guarded in his language in the presence of females.  The women, poor dear souls, for the first time made aware of any impropriety having been committed, got fidgety and restless, and finally took their flight under the guardianship of a gentleman, who brought matters to a climax by abruptly observing that he was satisfied the attendance of the ladies must be a clog on the proceedings.[PPG 11/12/41 p. 3]

The Port Phillip Patriot in its much briefer report didn’t think much of this appeal to hilarity:

We cannot forebear alluding to the ridiculous personalities resorted by to [sic] sundry of the speakers; we would beg to remind such that, however much satirical allusions, utterly irrelevant to the discussion, may excite the laughter of the inconsiderate, they cannot but be unpalatable to every person anxious to witness so laudable an institute prosper, and that while such conduct may provoke the mirth of the passing hour its permanent effect will be to inflict a vital stab at the well being of the society. [PPP 13/12/41 p.2]

Meanwhile, in criticizing the facilities of the school house for use as a debating chamber, the Port Phillip Gazette gives us a glimpse into the way the meeting was run:

At present a small table is placed at the upper end of the room, where the chairman occupies a seat, flanked by the secretary and a visitor, each in a chair- benches are then placed so as to form an oblong before the table, where the spectators take their seats as they can obtain them, and upon these benches the ladies are allowed to scramble for their positions. [PPG 11/12/41]

The report writer recommended that there should be at least a dozen chairs surrounding the table for the convenience of female visitors, and the benches should be placed to afford a larger space.  He suggested that the table should be big enough for the speaker while he is standing beside the chairman, to face the audience and rest his papers and books.

The Brighton Estate

During December advertisements appeared in the newspapers for suburban property in Henry Dendy’s Brighton Estate.  As I mentioned back in February, Henry Dendy was one of a handful of land speculators who were able to take advantage of the short-lived Special Survey scheme to snaffle land close to Melbourne for suburban subdivision.  These landowners purchased the right to select and subdivide land  for a set price while they were still in England. The land probably wasn’t as close to Melbourne as they would have liked, as the regulations were changed to prevent any Special Surveys within five miles of central Melbourne – hence, the Special Surveys that did proceed were Dendy’s survey at Brighton, Unwin’s survey at Templestowe and Bulleen and Elgar’s at Box Hill and Balwyn. Incidentally, all these suburbs are now leafy and well-to-do, although Box Hill has been blighted with high-rise buildings.

The proprietors of the Brighton Estate having placed that property under the care of the undersigned for sale, parties desirous of enjoying the fine sea breeze and a beautiful summer’s residence, five miles from Melbourne, on the shores of our beautiful bay, have [?can?] know all particulars of sale, and see a plan of this already fashionably-esteemed watering place, by applying to Henry B Foot, Surveyor; Merriang Cottage, Bright or at Mr Ker’s Jun. Collins-Street. [PPG 11/12/41]


George Alexander Gilbert ‘View of Hobson’s Bay looking North from Brighton’ c. 1847. State Library of Victoria


When Henry Dendy was claimed by the 1843 depression (the first clouds of which were by now lowering on the horizon), his business partner J. B. Were took over. But even at this early stage, Were was very much involved in selling the land.

Brighton Estate- The special survey of H. Dendy Esq.  The above property is five miles from Melbourne, in a most healthy situation, being on the margin of Hobson’s Bay, possessing a fine soil, with a great variety of pleasing scenery.  This Estate having been surveyed and Subdivided into Country Sections, Town Allotments, and Suburban Portions for Marine Villa Residences, is now open for Sale by private Contract, at the counting-house of the undersigned, where a plan of the property can be seen. WERE BROTHERS & CO. [PPG 11/12/41]

Squabbling doctors

The first medical board was established in Port Phillip in 1844, but the medical profession had acted as a self-managed supervisory and appeal body before that date.  The doctors had approached Governor Gipps with a petition to form a medical board during his visit in October 1841, and now in December 1841 a professional dispute was played out through the newspaper columns of the Melbourne and Geelong newspapers.

In November, Mr John Highett of Geelong, brother of Mr William Highett the Melbourne banker,injured his back when falling on a stone from his horse. The injury was not serious enough to stop him riding and he treated himself,  using some simple lineaments and ointments. He ran out, and so went to Dr Clarke in Corio who examined his back and found a “flesh tumour with an inflamed base” which led him to believe it was an abscess. Dr Clarke lanced it with two or three incisions and added a blister on the diseased part. Mr Highett rode home but “so violently, however, did the pain increase” that on return to Geelong he called on Dr Shaw who gave his opinion that it was a “bloody tumour, and not an abscess” and so he altered the treatment. The patient learned that some difference existed between the doctors and so he called for a third opinion.  Both Drs Shaw and Clarke agreed that Dr O’Mullane from Melbourne should be sent for. He decided in favour of Dr Shaw.  Mr Highett “continuing a great sufferer…and probably in a moment of irritability” declared that he would bring an action against Dr Clarke. On hearing this, Dr Clarke called a board of professional members residing in Melbourne to investigate the case.  Mr McCrae sat as President, alongside Drs Clutterbuck, Wilmot, Cussen, Thomas, Sanford and Wilkie.  They decided on relieving Dr Clarke from the charge of unprofessional conduct.

Then followed a succession of letters in the Geelong Advertiser and the Port Phillip papers, with each man huffily defending his professional and gentlemanly reputation.  I’m not really sure how this played out, but I’m sure that the newspaper editors were happy to fan the flames to keep those column inches coming.

A suicide

There was no such thing as ‘trigger warnings’ in the 1840s newspapers and suicide was frequently reported.  [I live in a different time- and so, the article below concerns a suicide] I’ve noticed several suicides mentioned in the press, but haven’t been keeping a tally.  They were often attributed to madness, and alcohol seemed to be involved in many of the suicides involving men. However, in early December one particular suicide attracted attention, probably because of the age and social standing of the young man involved.

On the 13 December the Port Phillip Patriot reported a “Melancholy Suicide” when on Friday morning Mr G. W. A. Gordon, who had  been residing at the Caledonian Hotel, cut his throat from ear to ear. According to the report, he was believed to have been a native of Edinburgh and was at one time in the service of the East India Company.

He had arrived by the Catherine Jamieson on 22nd October and after staying at Seymours Hotel in Lonsdale-street, had shifted three weeks earlier to the Caledonia Hotel. He represented himself as being merely here on his way to India whence he intended to return overland to Britain, but was delayed in Melbourne because of the non-arrival of the William Mitchell by which he expected his servant and his luggage.

Since his arrival he had been drinking excessively and  suffering from pecuniary distress.  He seemed to be in possession of usual health and spirits up to Wednesday, although a few days ago he asked a fellow lodger when preparing to shave whether he ever felt an inclination to cut his throat.  He stayed in his room on Thursday, taking only a slice of toast and a glass of milk in the evening.  Early on Friday morning some of his fellow lodgers knocked on the door and asked if he wanted anything but were answered in the negative. Because he didn’t make his appearance at the breakfast table, the waiter checked his room but found the door locked and no answer.  The landlord burst open the door and found him on the floor.  Found a letter addressed to a fellow passenger from Leith “My Dear Freer- You will be astonished but ‘tis true that I am mad- yes have been mad… I am becoming more mad every moment.” The letter left instructions to Freer to write to Arthur Forbes of Edinburgh.

Inquiry found that he travelled under a false name and had debts in England and Scotland. At Bahia where the vessel put in, he led a rather wild life and must have squandered whatever money he had. Mr Gordon was about twenty five years of age, of pleasing manners and appearance.  The jury (yes, there was a jury) in the coroner’s inquest found that he died through ‘temporary insanity’. (PPH 17/12/41)  His  remains were interred in the Presbyterian burying ground on Saturday, presumably allowable on consecrated ground after the passing of the Burial of Suicide Act of 1823 in Britain.  On 16 December the Port Phillip Patriot reported that

Since the publication of our last number we have ascertained that Mr Gordon, whose melancholy fate was then recorded, was the son of John Gordon, Esq of Cairnbuly, Aberdeenshire, a natural son of the late Earl of Aboyne [PPP 16/12/41]

Georgiana McCrae who also had a Gordon family connection that is too complex for me to untangle (Brenda Niall does it beautifully in Georgiana) obviously knew Mr Gordon and felt regretful that things had turned out as they had:

Heard of the death of a son of Gordon of Cairnbuly. Had I known the poor fellow came from Sydney among utter strangers his father’s son should have had proper attention. [Georgiana McCrae Journal 11 December 1841]

The flagstaff and signal station

The signal station was positioned on top of Flagstaff Hill in what is now the Flagstaff Gardens. I knew that a system of flags indicated when ships moored or departed Hobsons Bay, which is visible from Flagstaff Hill but I must confess that I wasn’t sure how it worked.


Henry Gilbert Jones ‘Signal Station’ c 1841-45. Source: State Library of Victoria


Fortunately, the Port Phillip Patriot of 9 December explained the system of flags and pennants when the new Town Code of Signals was received.

CODE OF SIGNALS.  Mr Harvey, the Government Meteorologist has kindly obliged us with the following descriptive account of the new Town Code of Signals, which, we are happy to learn, will be speedily adopted. The system strikes us as being exceedingly compendious, far more so than anything of the kind which has ever come under our observation  [PPP 9 December 1841]

Red England
Red over white (horizontal) London
White over red (horizontal) Liverpool
Red over blue (horizontal) Scotland, east coast
Blue over read (horizontal) Scotland, west coast
Blue Ireland
White Continent of Europe
White over blue North America
Blue over white South American
Blue and white (vertical) Africa
Red and white (vertical Asia
Red and yellow Sydney
White and yellow Hobart Town
White red and yellow Launceston
Yellow blue and white South Australia
Blue yellow and red New Zealand
Blue, Yellow ball Swan River, King George’s Sound or Port in Australia not named
Blue and yellow Port Phillip District, east of Melbourne
Blue yellow and blue Whaling or South Sea Islands.

Note: Vessels from long voyages are indicated by flags; from short voyages by pendants.

A vessel in sight is indicated by a chequered flag, hoisted at the mast end.  If  there is more than one vessel, a pendant is hoisted below the flag for each additional vessel.

When the class of vessel is ascertained, the flag is hauled down and a ball hoisted on the yard- for a ship or barque, on the eastern extremity; for a brig, in the middle of E yard arm; for a schooner or large sloop, in the middle of W yard arm; for a steamer at its western extremity.

When the place of departure is known, the flag or pendant indicating the same in the list is hoisted beneath the all.

If the vessel should have touched at an intermediate port, the flag or pendant of such port is hoisted below that of the original place.

When the vessel arrives during the night, or too late to be signaled in the evening, the flags are hoisted the ensuing morning as soon as the particulars are ascertained, and remain up two hours.

For a Queen’s ship, the Union Jack, was positioned below the ball over the indicating flag. An emigrant vessel, a chequered flag was displayed below the ball over the indicating flag.

When a vessel put back, a red flag was displayed on the mast till the vessel anchors. If a vessel ran aground within the port,  a red and white flag was posted on the mast.

The weather

It continued warm, with the top temperature for the month of 94 degrees (34.4) recorded on 12 December.