Monthly Archives: October 2018

History Week 2018: Melbourne Footballers and the Great Depression


Remember the three old blokes who sat on the bar stools in the Prince of Prussia in the Jack Irish books and television series? They’d sit there, mentally replaying and commentating football matches concluded decades ago, yarning about footballers long gone with names like “Chicken Smallhorn” and “Captain Blood”.  I must confess that I felt a little bit as if I were sitting on the middle stool in this presentation by Timothy Lambert at Ivanhoe Library today.  But there were plenty in the audience who were  obviously just as familiar with statistics and personalities from Melbourne footy history.

Lambert took his time frame from 1929 to 1939, at a time when Richmond, Collingwood and South Melbourne dominated the VFL competition, while Hawthorn and North Melbourne almost folded. At a time of high unemployment, VFL Firsts players received £2 per match, although the seconds  didn’t receive any payment at all. As a result, there was huge competition within a team to be selected to play.  Under the Coulter Law, passed in 1930, no player could receive more than three pounds per match, but the wealthier clubs found ways to get around this e.g. John Wren’s famous ‘five pound’ handshake for the Collingwood boys after a match, or enticing players with the prospect of secure employment as South Melbourne president Archie Croft was able to do through his chain of grocery stores. He also lured so many interstate players that South Melbourne would be dubbed “The Foreign Legion”, with so many from Western Australia that it was suggested that they should be known as “The Swans”. The name stuck.

Lambert also emphasized that the VFL and the VFA were still direct competitors at this time, with both League and Association games played on a Saturday afternoon, and with the VFA untrammeled in how much they could offer a player.  Although this might suggest that the VFA would have been stronger, it was common for a player to play in the league for several years until they were picked up by a country club as a player/coach where he could earn £10 a game.

Football was tremendously popular during the Depression. Entry was 6d. It has been estimated that during the Depression years, 1:10 Melburnians attended a football match on any given Saturday.  In spite of 2018’s turnouts of more than 300,000 to a round, the ratio to population today would not be anything like that.

So all in all, a real session for footy tragics!

A day trip to …Ormond


To be honest, I wasn’t really quite sure where Ormond is. Having now visited it to see Box Cottage, which was open for History Week, I can now tell you that it’s on the Frankston train line.  Ormond station has been rebuilt as part of the Level Crossing Removal Project and looks quite a lot like Rosanna station except that it is below street level and Rosanna is high above it. I guess that there will be a legacy of these concrete and stainless steel stations, with their orange and limegreen geometric ‘decorations’.


North Road Ormond is rather unprepossessing.


We had lunch at Mountains of Bears, and it was excellent. It’s located down a little 1950s arcade with tables outside in the arcade, as well as in the cafe. We had an excellent paella- better than I had in Spain and much closer to home. They took a great deal of care with their coffee art.

We had ventured down to Ormond to visit Box Cottage Museum, which houses the City of Moorabin Historical Society.  The cottage has been reconstructed after falling into disrepair on the adjoining block. Another house had been built in front of it, and so it stayed at the back, used as a shed in what had by 1970 become a timber yard.  The timber yard owner, Mr Lewis suggested that the cottage be dismantled and relocated. It was reconstructed in the adjacent park as part of Victoria’s bicentenary, with timbers donated by Mr Lewis.

The original owners were William and Elizabeth Box, who arrived in Melbourne in 1855. At first they leased market garden allotments before they purchased two ten acre lots on what had been the Dendy Special Survey in 1868 and 1869. The cottage was built sometime in the 1850s.  They were successful market gardeners and raised 13 children in the cottage before building the larger house at the front.  From 1917-1970 it was occupied by the Reitman family who leased and then purchased the houses and land. August Reitman was a monumental mason, potter and sculptor, and was employed to carve war memorials in Victoria after WWI. His business shifted to Highett and the cottage was used as a workshop.

There is also an outside barn area with agricultural and household artefacts, including an original wagon that took vegetables from the market gardens to Melbourne. Because of the sandy road, a sort of tram line was built into the roads to assist the wheels on heavily laden drays.

Box Cottage was open today for History Week, but it generally opens on the last Sunday of the month between February and November between 2.00 and 4.00 p.m.

Six Degrees of Separation: From The Outsiders to….

I did this last month and enjoyed it, so I’ll do it again! See the ‘Six Degrees of Separation’ meme over at BooksAreMyFavouriteandBest. This month we start off with S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders. I’ve never read it and I confess that I had to look it up on Wikipedia to see what it was about. I knew that it was ‘young adult’, but I thought it was science-fiction. It’s not- instead it’s about gangs in 1960s Oklahoma.

larrikinsAh! they’re a gang of larrikins – such a beautifully Australian word!- which is explored in Melissa Bellanta’s history Larrikins: A History. Bellanta’s book takes larrikins like Steve Irwin, the forgettable (and best forgotten) Corey Worthington, the Beaconsfield miners and former Prime Minister Bob Hawke and explores the concept of the larrikin throughout Australia’s history.

hazelBob Hawke was a bit of a larrikin, and played up to the image. His America’s Cup jacket and white bathrobe were a bit cringe-inducing, but many Australians had a soft spot for his wife, Hazel. She was a dignified Prime Minister’s wife, especially after he left her for a younger woman, and she was courageous in her openness about her battle with Alzheimer’s (or ‘The Big A’ as she called it), documented in her daughter Sue Pieters-Hawke’s book Hazel’s Journey.

russell_franklinBefore there were Australian Prime Ministers, there were Governors, and Lady Jane Franklin was the wife of Governor Sir John Franklin in Van Diemen’s Land in the late 1830s and 1840s, before he sailed off into the Arctic in the Erebus, never to be seen again. On a much smaller scale, Jane Franklin was pretty intrepid too, traveling alone to Port Phillip and Sydney, and in An Errant Lady, historian Penny Russell presents Jane Franklin’s diaries.

wantingJane Franklin has spawned a number of biographies and has been incorporated into fiction as well, most recently in Richard Flanagan’s Wanting where Flanagan draws together a whole cast of mid-century ‘historical’ characters – Charles Dickens, Sir John and Lady Jane Franklin, George Augustus Robinson, Wilkie Collins – into the fictionalized rendering of the true-life story of the young Aboriginal girl Mathinna in Van Diemen’s Land.

shakespearePeripatetic English author Nicholas Shakespeare was not born in Tasmania, but felt drawn to it by its beauty, only to find that he had family connections there as well: Army officer and merchant Anthony Fenn Kemp and Petre Hordern, a failed alcoholic from a wealthy family, who submerged himself in the bush and dragged his family into poverty. In his book In Tasmania, he uses these two characters as bookends to explore a narrative of Tasmania.

lakeshorelimitedAnd with a surname like ‘Shakespeare’, of course one thinks of plays – especially ‘Hamlet’.  The play-within-a-play is a motif that Sue Miller, whose books I’ve been reading for decades, uses in her The Lake Shore Limited, set in Boston. Not quite Oklahoma where I began, but a round trip from America to Australia and back again.

‘From Strength to Strength’ by Sara Henderson.


1993, 337P.

This book made me break two of my maxims. The first is that book-group selections must always be finished. My second is that if I find a book unreadable, I generally don’t blog about it at all.  In  this case, however, I found From Strength to Strength so enervating that I didn’t finish it even though it was a book-group selection. And as for the second, well, Sara Henderson has sold enough copies of this drivel that obviously other people found something in it, even though it completely eluded me. My little blog isn’t going to change that.

Born into a fairly affluent family, Sara had dreams of being a world-class tennis player. An accident which left her with serious injuries, put an end to that. She was swept off her feet by an American ex-serviceman, who spirited her away on his yacht. Always a womanizer with big dreams but poor follow-through, her husband Charles brought her and their young daughters to Bullo River Cattle Station in outback Northern Territory, where they lived in a tin shed for years. After multiple affairs, they separated although she nursed him when he was gravely ill, only to find herself a widow with a huge debt for the station. She and her daughters turned the station around economically, and she was proclaimed Telstra Businesswoman of the year in 1991.

The book started relatively well, where the author admits that this is the second version of her memoir, having decided after finishing the first draft that she does have to tell the truth about her no-good, womanizing, irresponsible husband Charlie. But I soon realized that her commentary – it is too kind to call them ‘reflections’- on her husband became engulfed by a tsunami of anecdotes, all told in the chatty, light tone of a Christmas-letter. The cliches and minutiae mounted; important events (like, say, the birth of her children) happened almost in passing, and it was not hard to discern that this book is a completely self-serving endeavour.

And not just this book either. She went on to write another five books. Her daughters, with whom she fell out at different times, wrote their own books, challenging their mother’s narrative.  Suffice to say, I am not tempted to read any more.

My rating: 2/10

Read because: CAE bookgroup.

‘Deep Time Dreaming: Uncovering Ancient Australia’ by Billy Griffiths


2018, 296 p. & notes

For me, one of the signs of having read a really good history is that on finishing reading, suddenly the themes explored in the book seem to pop up everywhere. This is the way I felt after finishing Billy Griffiths’ Deep Time Dreaming. I pricked up my ears at the the news of the nomination of the Barrup Peninsula for world heritage listing, and it seems that I’ve had several little prods over the last couple of days that have brought Deep Time Dreaming to mind. It imbues the Uluru Statement from the Heart with new meaning.

The book has attracted a lot of attention from historians I admire, but it wasn’t at all what I thought it was going to be. I expected an archaeologist’s account of pre-settlement Australia, but  Griffiths is not indigenous, nor is he an archaeologist but a historian writing about archaeologists.  I wondered a little at his choice of title, but it was quite intentional and double-barrelled:

The Dreaming describes a varied, contoured and continually transforming tradition. But here I draw upon the word’s more common, vernacular meaning: the archaeologists in this book imaginatively inhabit the deep past; they dream of deep time. The Australian public, with their seemingly insatiable thirst for old sites, are also deep time dreamers….The revelation at the heart of Australian archaeology, as this book demonstrates, is that Indigenous history is ancient, various and ever-changing. (p. 8-9)

This book is not a history of Australia, but is instead a history of the archaeology discipline as practised in Australia, written from an outsider’s perspective, “from the fringes, steeped in the neighbouring discipline of history”.(p.4)  Moving chronologically, each chapter is devoted to a particular archaeologist (Mulvaney, Bowler, Rhys Jones), or an archaeological dig that moved out of academe into the wider politics of Australia (e.g. the Franklin River, Lake Mungo). The book documents the recognition of an ever increasing span of indigenous habitation in Australia, from 5000 years to 40,000 and now pushing 60,000. It reflects the interest in ‘deep time’, and the question of human activity in a starkly changing climate.

In Australia, over the past sixty years, we have had our own time revolution. The human history of Australia is now understood to have spanned three geological epochs: the Pleistocene, the vast period of recurring glaciations in which Homo Sapiens evolved in Africa and began to spread around the world; the Holocene, the most recent interglacial or warm period that began some 11,700 years ago; and the proposed ‘Anthropocene’, beginning around 1800, marking the era in which human activity became the dominant influence on climate and the environment. When people discovered geological time, they were themselves becoming a geological force. (p. 5)

His survey approach, moving across the work of multiple archaeologists and sites, throws up several themes.  First, it illustrates the change from the ‘cowboy-dig-it-up’ method, where archaeologists scooped up the surface to extract and spirit away the largest artefacts, to new recording and dating methods including stratigraphy, carbon and luminescence dating, and integration with written and oral history sources.  Some of these methods came from the increasing academic training, most particularly from Cambridge, which in turn influenced Australian universities when they began offering courses in archaeology.  Other methodologies emerged from the disposition and values of individual archaeologists, most particularly female archaeologists, who are well-represented in this book.  Some of the archaeologists are Australian-born, while others are from Britain and America, signposting the increasing importance of Australian sites as part of the world-wide question of early man’s mobility and settlement patterns.

Second, the book highlights the way that archaeology fed into wider political debates. Rhys Jones, for example, felt the backlash from the resurgent Tasmanian Aboriginal Community for his involvement in the film The Last Tasmanian, and from other archaeologists over his claim that Tasmanian isolation led to cultural degeneration.  In the political arena, the discovery of archaeological remains was fundamental to saving the Franklin River from being dammed, and in the declaration of Kakadu National Park.

Third, and most importantly, the book documents the increasing recognition of Australia’s first people as a living culture, that has given indigenous people a claim on archaeology, challenging the authority and proprietorship of the profession.  Some archaeologists became gradually aware of a stiffening of attitude, others  learned the hard way, as they were excluded from further excavation for years. In this regard, I’m surprised that there is no little representation of indigenous people as archaeologists in their own right in this book, even though it is often mentioned that they are working as archaeology students themselves, or alongside European Australian archaeologists. The indigenous voice ‘informs’, but it is not considered in the same professional frame. What is unmistakable is that the era of the white academic archaeologist sweeping in, digging up, and moving on is over.

This is a beautifully written book. Each chapter starts with an engaging anecdote, making you feel as if you’re starting with a clean slate each time, although the connections soon become apparent.  The narrative is broken up with three ‘interludes’ that place archaeology within the broader political and professional context. At heart, his argument is that archaeology is a human endeavour, and this humanity shines through. It’s an excellent and important book.

My rating: 10?/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.


Movie: Ferrante Fever

This is showing at the moment in Melbourne as part of the Italian Film Festival. It is a documentary about the Elena Ferrante phenomenon, exploring the universal popularity of her books and contextualizing the Neapolitan novels amongst Ferrante’s other works. It doesn’t necessarily dwell on who the author is, but instead considers the effect of having an invisible and unknown author, both on readers and the book marketing industry.  The documentary features several well-known talking heads, most particularly Elizabeth Strout and Jonathan Franzen for Western readers and translator Ann Goldstein, intercut with animations and small film clips. It has subtitles.

I also saw Nonnas on the Run, one of two ‘Nonna’ films being shown as part of the Italian Film Festival. It’s a bit of a romp with two ladies-of-a-certain-age breaking out of their aged-care hostel. It teeters on the edge of laughter and a stab of sorrow, which is a good thing.

Infanticide: an interesting article

There’s an interesting article on the Australian Policy and History website today. It’s called “‘How is this not murder?’ Infanticide and the Law in Australian History”, written by Caroline Ingram.

I hear with my little ear: 24 Sept- 30 Sept

News in Slow Spanish Latino #275 and #276. Episode #275 had a fascinating section about why written Spanish uses punctuation marks at the beginning as well as the end of a sentence. Apparently in the 18th century the Royal Academy, which guards the purity of the Spanish language, decreed that long sentences should have ? and ! at the beginning and end so that someone reading it out loud would know what the intonation should be. The definition of a long/short sentence was vague, so they changed the rule so that the punctuation appeared on all sentences. ¡Up until 2014 an exclamation mark was known as a ‘sign of admiration’ which wasn’t always true, so they changed it to ‘sign of exclamation’!

The Thread Series 1. It might be story-telling but it sure ain’t history. As a historian, I feel a bit embarrassed admitting that I listened to The Thread first series because its approach to causality is very suss and some of the claims made had me snorting with derision. It’s better to think of it as a ‘Six Degrees of Separation’, as it moved from the shooting of John Lennon to Vladimir Lenin. On the way, it passed J.D.Salinger, Eugene O’Neill, Oona O’Neill and Louise Bryant and her husband John Reed (as seen as in the 1981 film ‘Reds’). The individual biographies were interesting, but the “if only…” history behind it is a bit of a stretch.

Rear Vision. (ABC) On the tenth anniversary of the GFC, this Rear Vision episode The legacy of the Global Financial Crisis gives a really good overview.

Russia if you’re listening (ABC). The series has officially finished, but Matt Bevan issues ‘Trumpdates’ if anything interesting comes along. And, with Donald Trump, something usually does. They are shorter episodes, generally featuring Matt Bevan discussing events with a (usually Australian) commentator  This time: Will Rosenstein lose his job?