This Month in Port Phillip in 1842: April 1842 (Part III)

What about poor George Arden?

You might remember that since February 1842, the young editor of the Port Phillip Gazette had been languishing in the Eastern Watchhouse, sentenced to a year’s jail and a £300 fine for contempt of court over an article he had written in his newspaper.  During March, his imprisonment had become increasingly controversial, spurred no doubt by articles in his own paper, the Gazette, and through the support of the Port Phillip Herald.  Competing petitions were circulating Melbourne:  a petition to Her Majesty had been put up by Arden’s friends, while a counter-memorial, addressed to Judge Willis, pledged the support of the signers for Willis’ actions and performance as Resident Judge. Another petition to Governor Gipps admitted Arden’s wrongdoing but argued that after two months, Arden’s business and health were suffering badly and called on Gipps to remit the remainder of the twelve month sentence.

On 15th April, Judge Willis announced in court that, owing to Arden’s poor health and having succeeded in stopping the libels appearing in the press, he was willing to remit the rest of the sentence. “Your imprisonment has been as painful to me as it must have been to yourself” he claimed (PPP 18/4/42)- something that I very much doubt! He said that as the £300 fine rested with the Executive, he was not able to remit that part of the sentence, and gave him twelve months to pay it. The editor of the Port Phillip Herald, George Cavenagh, and George Thomas from the firm Thomas, Enscoe and James, stood surety for Arden’s appearance in twelve months time to pay the fine. Willis questioned them severely in court over their ability to cover the £300 should they be required to do so.  As it turned out, the fine was remitted after all. Gipps turned the whole question of what could/couldn’t and should/shouldn’t be remitted over to the Attorney-General and Solicitor-General in Sydney, who said that Willis did not have the authority to remit any part of the sentence because that authority rested completely with the Governor. On 14 May Governor Gipps remitted the whole sentence (jail and fine) and reported on the whole affair to London. The Secretary of State for the Colonies approved of Gipps’ actions and expressed regret that Willis had behaved as he did.

The Port Phillip Herald, which had supported Arden throughout,  applauded Willis’ actions:

we sincerely thank His Honor Judge Willis for the important act of mercy which has been extended to a brother editor.  To say that we do not feel grateful to His Honor for this act of grace would be to belie our conscience; and most sincerely do we trust- in recording our determination to bury the past in oblivion- that our future course as an impartial and fearless chronicler of passing events, may be cheered onwards by bearing testimony to the fact that our Resident Judge has gained the united esteem of a happy people. [PPH 19/4/42]

The Port Phillip Patriot, no friend to Arden and a strong supporter of Judge Willis wrote:

Mr Arden certainly does not deserve, and we should think cannot expect further grace, for he had not even the courtesy to offer his thanks to the Resident Judge when unexpectedly released from a ten month’s confinement, and neither in word nor deed since has he shewn himself in any degree grateful for an act of spontaneous kindness on the part of his Honor, which has excited the admiration of every one in the province but him whom it most concerned.” [PPP 25/4/42]


Even though there were accusations that the British government was ‘shovelling out its paupers’ to Australia, at first the emigration schemes were meeting a real need for labour in Port Phillip.  By early 1842, though, the ships kept arriving into an economically worsening situation.  Although Governor Gipps was no fan of government work schemes, infrastructure was needed and there was now excess labour available, and so a number of projects were commenced including the construction of roads and jetties. The newspapers kept up a steady stream of complaints about the expense of government works and the indolence of the labourers employed on them.

On 19 April 1842 La Trobe announced that the wages for unemployed immigrants would be reduced from twenty shillings a week to eighteen shillings a week.  Martin Sullivan in his Men and Women of Port Phillip (p. 219) suggests that about two hundred men went on strike.

IMMIGRANTS On Tuesday last, a large party of the Irish emigrants, who have hitherto been employed by Government on the new road to the beach, “struck” work, and mounting a loaf on a long pole crossed the breakwater when they were joined by another party of the same class, and then proceeded to the Superintendent’s Office to resist the reduction of their wages as intended on Saturday last.  Failing to see His Honor, they paraded past the new Church in the direction of the Flag Staff evidently in a state of excitement and bent on mischief.

The intelligence was communicated to the Bench, whereupon the Major hastily adjourned the Court, and putting the Riot Act into his pocket, mounted his Bucephalus, and galloping after them, overtook these gentry on the outskirts of the town.  The matter spread like lightning through the town and parties were seen in all directions hasting to “the row”.  The Major rode in amongst them, and enquiring their complaint, was told that the reduction in their wages deprived them of the means of getting bread. By the good humour and coolness of the worthy magistrate, most of the insurgents drew off, but a few of the more refractory spirits breathed “battle, murder, and sudden death.” In fact, we heard one fellow exclaim – “wouldn’t it be better to fight an’ die, than to live and starve,” by which sentence he punctuated by sundry gyrations with a black-thorn shillelagh.

On the Major’s return to the Police Office, the overseer of emigrants was in attendance and a list of their names handed into Court; he said he could not mention any of the ringleaders names, as they appear to rise en masse, the whole affair having the appearance of a previously concerted determination. The first four names on the list were taken and warrants issued for their persons. If prompt measures are not taken in this matter at once, serious consequences may ensure.  The origin of this disturbance arose from wages of the single men and men of small families being reduced from twenty shillings to eighteen shillings per week, and from this reduction of two shillings, they anticipated starvation. [Port Phillip Herald 22 April 1842]

The strikers didn’t get a lot of sympathy from the newspapers.  There was a strong anti-Irish undercurrent running through the commentary. The Port Phillip Herald, which was the most critical of the three newspapers didn’t hold back:

… in speaking of the whole generally, we may safely say that such another specimen of ignorance, and everything that can render human nature degraded, could scarcely be again witnessed in any other part of the globe. They must have come from the inland – almost impervious recesses of the mountainous districts of the south of Ireland, knowing little except what untutored instinct teaches, and directed by no other law than the impulse of a savage passion. We are well aware that many have been seduced from their homes by the misrepresentations of emigration agents and other interested parties, but we also know, and these very men who have been the ringleaders in the late “strike” cannot be ignorant, that scarcely one of them was ever before in a situation where they might be so comfortable. Even the ablest and best labourers of the peasantry of England, Ireland the Scotland, do not receive more than one shilling a day, out of which they have to pay house rent, and provide food and clothing for themselves and families, and, besides, work hard from morning to night; here they have 3s 4d a day, and food as cheap as in almost any part of the world; only a very moderate quantity of work is required in return, and they are at liberty to make their present situation a conveniency until they can enter into a better arrangement. As a proof that they are themselves aware of the present advantages, we may mention what we ourselves know to be a fact, that one of the men, who was the most prominent of the disgraceful characters who figured on Tuesday last, refused, only a few days previously £35, with free house, rations &c for himself and wife, and to shew also that they do not consider themselves hard wrought, we may adduce another example of one- also of the ringleaders, going to a ship-mate and endeavouring to persuade him to get upon the public works, as “he would only have to pass a part of the day with a shovel in his hand and come home with £1 in his pocket on Saturday night. [PPH 26/4/42]

The Port Phillip Patriot, which could perhaps be described as the most ‘radical’ of the three newspapers, didn’t have much time for them, either:

At least three-fourths of these fellows would have considered themselves happy in their native country if in the receipt of six shillings a week, and many of them scarcely ever saw a loaf of bread, or tasted butchers’ meat, before they embarked for Melbourne; it would be serving the ungrateful rascals but right therefore to turn them every one adrift, and let them shift for themselves. There is no fear of their starving, for there is abundance of employment and good wages to be had in the province by every body that is able and willing to work , and it would be wrong to encourage such black ingratitude by inducing the fellows to think they can’t be done without. When the immigration season re-commences we trust care will be taken to send us no more of these fellows. It is a notorious fact, that while these men have hung on, some of them for many months, every English, Scotch, and North of Ireland immigrant has been engaged immediately on arrival, and such, we feel assured, would be the result were half a dozen ships of well selected immigrants to arrive to-morrow. The importers of immigrants, who inundate us with this description of men, have much to answer for. [PPP 21/4/42]

I’m surprised that the Port Phillip Gazette ended up being the most sympathetic

… the event, we presume, is one of little moment, as regards the peace of society; for considering the badness of the times, few will say that the men have not been as well treated as possible; but as there certainly have been grounds for complaint, we ought not to look with indifference upon these evidences of discontent, however untutored. [PPG 20/4/42]

As it turned out, the strike was of little moment.  The men went back to work for eighteen shillings; more unemployed men kept being employed on government projects and the newspapers stopped talking about it.  For now, anyway.

A night at the Assembly Ball

Back in June and October of 1841 Melbourne hosted two assembly balls.  Now in April, there was a third subscription ball, although it was a much less anticipated event than the ball in October had been when Governor Gipps was in attendance.

THE ASSEMBLY BALL. “On Tuesday evening the 5th of April, the third of the annual subscription meetings, under the name of Melbourne Assemblies, was held in the long room of the Exchange Hotel, the decorations and refreshments under the able management of Mr Howe, confectioner, of Queen-street, were as brilliant as on former occasions, the party however was much thinner, not exceeding seventy ladies and gentlemen; but the last, we must recollect, was indebted for its superior attractions to the presence of His Excellency the Governor and suite. Owing to the delicate state of his lady’s healthy, His Honor the Superintendent was not in attendance. Messrs Airey and Cuninghame and Major St John were the stewards for the occasion. [PPG 9/4/41]

A night at the theatre

On 11 April the Port Phillip Patriot reported that the Colonial Secretary had granted an extended licence for three months for the performance of amateur theatricals.  The theatre generally was a source of anxiety about the ‘low types’ amongst ‘professional’ thespians and the boisterous, immoral behaviour of the patrons. To head off these criticisms, the license was granted to relatively ‘respectable’ men to act as stewards: Hon Mr Murray and Messrs Cavenagh (editor of the Port Phillip Herald), Kerr (editor of the Port Phillip Patriot), Stephen, Ebden and Baxter.  The theatre would only operate on Monday evenings, with surplus funds applied at the discretion of the stewards to such bodies as the Benevolent Hospital, the Mechanics Institution etc.

They engaged the Pavilion, (interchangeably called the Theatre Royal) a theatre that I’ve written about previously here and here. An advertisement duly appeared in the newspapers


[PPP 14/4/42]

Well, the evening went off with a ‘bang’. Literally.

The Aristocracy. — During the performance of the amateur theatricals on Mon day evening, a couple of Melbourne aristocrats, one a member of the Melbourne, and the other of the Port Phillip Club, amused themselves, and annoyed the audience by throwing fireworks among the ladies in the boxes, and otherwise conducting themselves so disgracefully that the Clubs to which they respectively belong, cannot, if they have any regard to their own reputation, allow them to continue members. One lady had her bonnet burnt through, and her face severely scorched by a burning squib thrown into the box by these worthy scions of the aristocracy ; and another was so dreadfully alarmed by one of the burning squibs bursting on her dress that she fainted, and has since had repeated fits of hysterics. Fortunately, enough of evidence has been obtained to bring home guilt to both of the ruffians, who, it turns out, are actually making their way through the Insolvent Court, and were therefore spending in this way the money which belonged to their creditors. Summonses have been issued to compel their attendance at the Police-office, and we trust Major St. John will deal with them in such a manner as will prove a warning to others.  [PPP 21/4/42]

Sure enough, the ‘Melbourne aristocrats’ fronted up to the Police Office to face charges of creating a disturbance by throwing fireworks into the boxes.  It was young Peter Snodgrass- and remember that name because we’re going to meet him again next month. He had written to the stewards and apologized and so none of the stewards wished to proceed against him. Major St John, in quashing the information, remarked “that he was not surprised that young men should misconduct themselves in such a manner when, as he was informed, the boxes which should have been reserved for families were filled with women of improper character” and threatened to write to the Colonial Secretary to withdraw their licence. Mr Kerr (one of the stewards) denied it and “though not himself in front of the house of the occasion referred to, he was aware that there were no females of improper character admitted, but the three who were brought there by the persons concerned in this disturbance, and they were prevented re-entering the Theatre when their characters became known”. In a little aside, the editor of the Port Phillip Patriot added that the Major should be more careful issuing such statements. “There were many highly respectable families in the boxes on Monday evening who of course will not feel greatly flattered by the Major’s complimentary remarks.” [PPP 25/4/42]

The Eagle Tavern and Theatre Royal

‘The Eagle Tavern and Theatre Royal’ by W. F. E. Liardet (1799-1878) Source: State Library of Victoria

And all’s well that ends well, as they say in the theatre, with the second performance the following Monday regarded as a complete, and highly respectable, success:

Amateur Theatricals.-— Monday night, the second occasion on which the theatre has been opened under the present license, was a night of complete success; the house was filled to excess before the expiration of the first piece. During the week which intervened since the previous performance, an alteration had been made in the interior with regard to the arrangement of the pit and boxes, which was obviously superior : the front boxes had been brought to the same level with the pit, and the division taken away so as to form one arena from the entrance to the stage: the side boxes were reserved exclusively for the parties by whom each had been engaged for the night, with the exception of the two nearest the proscenium, which were indiscriminately filled with respectable parties making choice of the situation. The agitation which had been made respecting  the questionable system of admission allowed by the stewards, on the last occasion, has effected, through the instrumentality of the Police Magistrate, a most commendable reformation; and respectable families have to thank Major St. John for the pleasure they enjoy of visiting the theatre, without being mixed up with scenes and persons of an objectionable class. The boxes were patronised by several ladies among whom were Mrs.D. S. Campbell, Mrs. David M’Arthur, Mrs. Hazard, Mr. Erskine, Mrs. Addis, Mrs.Harrison and Mrs St. John, besides Maj of St-John, Capt. Lewis, Mr. Ryrie, J.P., Mr, Commissary Erskine, Mr. Ensign Freeman, of the 80th, Hon. Mr. Murray, and a great number of gentlemen who filled the passages at the back of the seats, until standing room was lost. This, by the way, might be amended for the better: the backs of the boxes should be taken down, and another row of seats carried up, leaving only sufficient width between the wall and the uppermost seat for entrance and exit.  The passages at present are crammed, to the Inconvenience of the gentlemen themselves, who, to judge by their conversation, would prefer sedentary accommodation and in some cases to the serious annoyance of ladies, who have to crush through the ranks of coated and hatted loungers [PPG 27/4/42]

How about the weather?

Melburnians know that April is a changeable month. Our 1842 Melburnians found that out too.

THE WEATHER Since our last notice, has exhibited one of those sudden extreme contrasts for which, in these regions, it is so remarkable. The oppressive heat has been succeeded by squally weather and stiff sea breezes; considerable quantities of rain have fallen during the past week, bringing relief to nature, animate and inanimate. Through the whole of Wednesday and Thursday, it blew a fresh gale from the south-west which is now succeeded by a more genial state of atmosphere. [PPG 9/4/42]

On the 9th of April, it was 79 degrees (26C) but by the 27th of April, it was still only 49 degrees (9C) at lunchtime.   Ah- Melbourne! You wouldn’t be anywhere else for quids!

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