Category Archives: Australian history

Article: ‘The Snub:Robert Menzies and the Melbourne Club’ by Sybil Nolan

I enjoy reading essays and articles and so I’ve decided to briefly review them here. My criteria for selection is that they are available online, either freely or through membership of one of our State Libraries (in my case, the State Library of Victoria). Membership of a State Library is free, and it often gives you access to online journals that you would not otherwise have. Not the most recent edition, admittedly, but free nonetheless.

 

‘The Snub: Robert Menzies and the Melbourne Club’ by Sybil Nolan Australian Historical Studies, 2017, Vol 48, Issue 1 pp.3-18  (Available for Victorians through SLV)

MelbourneClub

Commander Keane: Melbourne Club 2012 Source: Wikimedia

I’d always assumed that Robert Menzies, founder of the modern Liberal Party and Prime Minister for what felt like all of my childhood, was a member of the Melbourne Club. It’s a very august institution in Collins Street Melbourne, to which Establishment men belonged (and indeed, may well still do so). However, as Sybil Nolan’s essay shows, Menzies was never a member of the Melbourne Club, even though he belonged to other clubs like the Savage, Australian, Atheneum clubs etc. both in Melbourne and in ‘the mother country’. But why not the Melbourne Club?

Ah- don’t mention the war! Because, even though Menzies’ name was put forward as a “clubbable” chap in 1939 after he became Prime Minister, he demurred. In the invitation letter, one of the club’s oldest members said that Menzies should have been invited years earlier “but three or four returned soldiers kept up the always stupid yowl and I couldn’t propose to a man in your position to take a sporting risk.” Menzies had not served in WWI (he was at university, and two older brothers went to war) and in the post-war years, the Melbourne Club did not admit men who had ‘shirked’.

But as Nolan points out, there are other forces at work too. A number of Melbourne Club men, along with the Argus newspaper, had campaigned to clear the way for anyone but Menzies – favouring instead Richard Casey- to rise to the position of Prime Minister. Menzies had been at the head of a group of conservatives called the Young Nationalists, and many Melbourne Club men disapproved of his thrusting political style and his appeal to the middle class. The fact that he had not served in WWI was yet another reason to spurn him, even though in popular memory today Menzies seems to typify Empire Loyalty.

Still, perhaps it was just as well. As Nolan points out, being a member of the Melbourne Club would have sat at odds with Menzies’ ‘Forgotten People’ speech, which appealed to the middle class and is still cited by members of the Liberal Party today. And Richard Casey didn’t miss out- he ended up being Governor General.

‘The Maddest Place on Earth’ by Jill Giese

Giese_The-Maddest-Place-on-Earth

2018, 220 p.

In the Epilogue of this book, clinical psychologist and author Jill Giese  writes that she jumped at the rare opportunity of an Open Day at Willsmere, the site of the old Kew Asylum. A little girl asked in that unfettered way that children do, ” If they were all crazy, why did they build them such a nice place to live?” As Giese notes, the most (and increasingly) visible sign of mental illness today is people lying on the streets of Melbourne, wrapped in blankets, begging for small change. Interestingly, it was the urge to give mentally ill people a shelter – an asylum- from the homelessness and penury of living in a blanket, that led to the construction of first the Yarra Bend Lunatic Asylum, and within six years, the construction of Kew Asylum, the first purpose-built asylum in Victoria. Both institutions – though plagued with overcrowding – were not established as the ‘Bedlam’-type places of horror that we might assume them to be.

KEWdraw

English: Engraving of the Metropolitan Lunatic Asylum, Kew. Buildings of Yarra Bend Asylum are seen in the foreground. c 1880. Source: Wikipedia

Victoria had what was perceived to be the highest level of mental illness in the world, hence the title “The Maddest Place on Earth”. In fact, at one of the numerous Royal Commissions held into asylums in Victoria during the 19th century, it was predicted that by 2050 every inhabitant of Victoria would be mad. A number of reasons were put forward: our meat-rich diet, the climate, the effect of the Gold Rush, excessive masturbation (although why Victorians would be especially prone to this was not explained) and the success of the Salvation Army in turning people’s minds to God.  Perhaps a better explanation was the “imported insanity” that arose from families ‘back home’ shipping their mentally-ill family members off to the colonies to avoid the scandal of madness. The Gold Rush could have both attracted and elicited madness in men who threw in everything to travel to the other side of the world, with failure more likely than success.

Giese tells the story of the Yarra Bend Asylum and the Kew Asylum but this is not your usual institutional history. Instead of taking a top-down approach, she uses  two main characters as the lens through which to view the asylum system in Victoria. Her first character, George Foley, was the son of an eminent artistic family in England. He suffered his first episode of mental illness while in art school, and suddenly “found himself” on a ship headed for Melbourne. He moved in and out of Yarra Bend and Kew Asylums, continuing to draw while incarcerated, and trying to hold together a precarious artistic existence when he was “outside”. The second character was journalist  Julian Thomas who, working under-cover as a ward attendant, wrote a series of columns for the Argus under the pen-name of “The Vagabond”.  He writes vividly and with humour, every bit the equal of a Mark Twain, or a nineteenth-century Louis Theroux.  Julian Thomas is well-known to historians of Australian (and particularly Victorian) history, but I hadn’t read his work before, and obviously Giese herself – a psychologist herself, rather than a historian-  was delighted to discover him for the first time.

Through George Foley, we catch a glimpse of the sharp edges of the itinerant artist’s life, even for a man clutching the slender thread of family reputation. At a time when there was no treatment for mental illness, he would be housed, fed and given meaningful work while in the asylum, only to flounder once he was released to his own resources again. He drew portraits of personnel within the asylum, including ‘The Vagabond’, who used a touched-up version of the portrait when he finally revealed his identity.  Through ‘The Vagabond’ we learn of meal-times with poorly cooked food, the dissonant music of the asylum band at the fortnightly balls held for inmates and staff, and the brutalizing effects of institutional life on the Kew Asylum attendants in particular.

Right from the establishment of Port Phillip, the presence of mentally ill people on the unmade streets of Melbourne was noted. Until the changes in asylum practice encouraged by the Quakers in the early 19th century in England, asylums had been dire places. Based on the new philosophy that asylums for the mentally ill should be built out of town, on hills in the fresh air, Yarra Bend quickly outgrew its construction in 1848 and was soon surrounded by a mosaic of cottages and even tents. The nearby Kew Asylum was opened in 1872 in a much grander E-shaped Italianate building,  Within five years Kew was the subject of a Royal Commission, which found overcrowding, disease and mistreatment. This was largely caused by a change in the criteria by which patients could be admitted to a ‘lunatic asylum’, which swelled the numbers of mentally ill patients with chronic patients with intellectual disabilities or dementia.  Despite the grandness of Kew Asylum, Yarra Bend stayed largely unchanged with its small cottage structure and more domestic, less institutionalized approach.  As Giese points out, Yarra Bend (despite its age and comparative neglect) came to be seen as the better model for dealing with mental illness with features like shelter, home-cooked food and meaningful, routinized work, that our mental health system could well emulate today.

Giese’s decision to use Foley and the Vagabond as her focus – one a patient, the other a staff member- is inspired. It would have been easy to have taken a patchwork approach, with small stories and vignettes stitched together into a fairly conventional institutional history, but for most of the book she avoids this methodology.  While she also traces through the career of Edward Paley, Inspector of Asylums, and recounts the numerous commissions of enquiry that, as too often happens today, masqueraded as action in themselves, she maintains her gaze on two individuals.  As a reader, you become invested in these two men. You read with a sinking heart of Foley’s struggle for mental stability and you see through the eyes of The Vagabond, in lengthy italized extracts from his columns.  Moreover, The Vagabond, too, has his secrets as Giese discovers at the end of the book.

This book won the Victorian Premier’s History Award for this book, and it fully deserves it. It is beautifully written, although perhaps a little fervent at times, and it is a deeply compassionate book. By foregrounding the long-term experience of George as patient, the Vagabond as attendant and journalist, and to a lesser extent Dr Paley as administrator, she gives a human face to mental illness as a lived experience. It’s a wonderful read.

My rating: 10/10.

Source: review copy from Australian Scholarly Publishing

AWW2019 I have included this book in the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

‘Remembering the Myall Creek Massacre’ ed. by Jane Lydon and Lyndall Ryan

myallcreek

167 p. & notes, 2018

The name should have been a give-away. “Myall” was an old term for “aboriginal” and it was to be expected that any outback station called “Myall Creek” would have – or used to have- a noticeable indigenous presence. Late in the afternoon of Sunday 10 June 1838, eleven armed stockmen, most of whom were expired or convict labourers, rode into Henry Danger’s Myall Creek station near Invernell in north-east New South Wales. Henry Dangar himself was absent; as were the overseer and senior stockmen. The stockmen dismounted and entered a hut where they brought out about thirty Wirrayaraay old people, women and children who had sought refuge there on hearing the stockmen ride in. They led them out, tied with a leather strap, and took them away. Shots rang out; then the stockmen rode away. They returned the next day to burn twenty-eight bodies.

It was an appalling crime, and we know about it because the perpetrators actually faced court, and seven white men were hanged. The massacre itself was not exceptional: massacres had occurred prior to Myall Creek, and they continued afterwards. But the case was marked with controversy,  both from observers appalled by it, and squatters and settlers outraged by its legal consequences. It was the last time in the nineteenth century  that  white perpetrators of frontier massacres were convicted and hanged.

In 2000 a permanent memorial was erected at Myall Creek. Eight years later the Myall Creek Massacre and Memorial Site were added to the National Heritage List. This book, comprising a number of essays by both indigenous and non-indigenous authors, was published for the 180th anniversary. The academic historians represented here – Lyndall Ryan, Jane Lydon, Anna Johnston and John Maynard –  are all well-respected within the academy. The earlier chapters focus on the massacre event itself.  The final three chapters focus on Myall Creek within the songlines and trading networks of indigenous groups the length of the east coast of Australia and tease out issues of memorialization and reconciliation. The book evokes the harshness of distance and the impunity it confers in Warwick Thornton’s film Sweet Country, even though that was set in a different place some eighty years later.

If you’re not familiar with the Myall Creek massacre, you will be by the time you finish this book, which gives a clear account of the event and the men involved. I did know about it – my own Judge Willis was bobbing around in the background as one of the members of the NSW Supreme Court, but I have been guilty of the “failure of imagination” that Paul Keating spoke of in his Redfern Speech.  This book shows that it was all there: unarmed, defenseless, frightened old women and children; white onlookers too intimidated to intervene; wide distances adding a sense of menace, and averted eyes that cloaked these stockmen with the arrogance of impunity.

In Chapter 1 Lyndall Ryan focuses on Henry Dangar, the absentee owner of the Myall Creek station, who chose not to support his employees who reported the crime. In Chapter 2, Patsy Withycombe points out that the ringleader, John Fleming, was the only one of the eleven stockmen who was not a serving or former convict, and he escaped punishment altogether, protected by local squatters. In Chapter 3, Jane Lydon places the international and humanitarian response within the anti-slavery context of the 1830s, focussing particularly on the widely circulated engraving of the prologue to the massacre titled ‘Australian Aborigines Slaughtered by Convicts’ by ‘Phiz’, better known for his illustrations of Dickens’ Pickwick Papers. Chapter 4 looks at the more local response where Anna Johnston examines Eliza Hamilton Dunlop’s poem ‘The Aboriginal Mother’ published in December 1838 and later put to music by Isaac Nathan in 1842. In Chapter 5 Lyndall Ryan asks of the massacre “Was it typical of the time?”. Building on her work on the Massacre Map, she points out that it was. All the perpetrators had been involved in other massacres. It was not unusual for incidents to take place in daylight, or be led by a settler. It was not unusual to tie the victims together and lead them to the site where they would be slaughtered, or burn their bodies afterwards. Such atrocities have their own sickening rhythm and recurrences.  Chapter 5, which has multiple authors, links the Myall Creek massacre with another massacre at the Wonomo waterhole, and argues that trade networks and songlines made it possible for different aboriginal groups along the eastern coast of Australia to be forewarned of the struggle which would soon extend to their area too. Chapter 6 ‘Myall Creek Memories’ is a reflection by John Maynard on being asked to give the commemorative address- the first by a non-indigenous historian – in 2015. Chapter 8 co-written by Jessica Neath and Brook Andrew is a compilation of interviews with advisors, architects, academics and scholars of cultural memory, over the question of how Myall Creek should be memorialized (if, indeed it should be) and its relation with other memory-sites related the Holocaust and Genocide. The book is framed by a prologue by Sue Blacklock and John Brown who worked on a reconciliation and covenant relationship between the Uniting Church and ATSI people in 1992. It closes with Mark Tedeschi’s QC’s address delivered in 2017, both as Chief Crown Prosecutor for NSW and the author of his own more legally-oriented account of the massacre and its legal aftermath.

This is an excellent book. The chapters are engagingly written, and if the chapter by Jessica Neath was perhaps a bit tedious in its format, it raised some interesting questions. It makes me wonder: will I live long enough for Australians and their governments to have the maturity and humility to look at the white settler past, and actually do something about an honest recognition and reconciliation that must come one day?

AWW2019

I have included this book in the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2019 database.

‘The Presbyterian Church of Victoria: Growth in Fifty Years 1859-1909’ by D. Macrae Stewart

PresJubilee

1909, 129 p.

This book was written to celebrate the golden anniversary of the creation of the Presbyterian Church of Victoria in 1859, combining the Synod of Victoria, the Synod of the Free Presbyterian Church of Victoria and the Synod of the United Presbyterian Church of Victoria. There was one section of the United Presbyterians who didn’t join until after 1870, but in terms of golden jubilees, 1859 was the date. (Mind you, the earlier book I read about Presbyterianism in Victoria dated the coming together of different strands of Presbyterianism to 1867 instead.)

Written as a celebration publication, the text is laid out quite beautifully, with red margins and decorated inhabited initials to mark the start of each chapter. Stewart has used a planting metaphor to organize his chapters, which are titled ‘Seed’ ‘Stem’ ‘Branching’ ‘Pruning and Grafting’ etc.

As this book goes up to 1909, it covers the Charles Strong controversy of the 1880s, which of course had not occurred with Sutherland published his earlier history of the Presbyterian Church in 1877. Charles Strong, who had been the pastor of Scot’s Church in Melbourne (probably the premier Presbyterian church in Melbourne)became the first minister of  the Australian Church in 1885 after being charged with  promulgating unsound and heretical doctrine and resigning his position from Scots Church.  I think that if I’d been alive at the time, I would have been attracted to the Australian Church.

the australian church.

The Australian Church at the eastern end of Flinders Street (near Spring Street). It seated 1200 and opened in 1887 but the Church shifted to more economical premises in 1922. The Australian Church was finally dissolved in 1957. From the Australasian Sketcher. SLV http://handle.slv.vic.gov.au/10381/258170

The book has several plates showing prominent churchmen, mainly of the past but with some contemporary men (in 1909) as well. So many beards!  There are few mentions of women, but there is a section on the Presbyterian Mission Womens Union, famous for its cookbook. I only now realize that I always called it the PMWU rather than PWMU.

The book is curiously silent about the 1890s depression. Perhaps in 1909 it was too soon to discuss such things.

 

Putting a price on dispossession

highcourt

Today the High Court of Australia will begin hearing a case that will consider the question of compensation for the loss of traditional land rights. This article in The Conversation explains it well.  According to the article, it’s an appeal case following two earlier decisions made by the Federal Court on the first compensation claim since the passing of the Native Title Act.  In the first of these decisions (the first Timber Creek decision) Federal Court Justice John Mansfield developed a methodology for working out how much money should be awarded as compensation for loss of native title rights. It had three steps:

  1. The value of land rights in plain economic terms, discounted by 20% because native title often brings constraints on how the land can be used economically
  2. How to compensate for the loss of  non-economic aspects of the land’s value e.g. spiritual and cultural harm (What a question! Where would you start?)
  3. Interest to award the passage of time (in this case back to the 1980s when the Northern Territory government granted land and undertook public works near Timber Creek)

The decision was appealed and the amount of compensation reduced, but the methodology for working out compensation was not challenged. But will the High Court follow the same methodology? It’s an interesting article- well worth a read, with good links.

Friday essay: the ‘great Australian silence’ 50 years on by Anna Clark

https://theconversation.com/friday-essay-the-great-australian-silence-50-years-on-100737

An excellent essay in The Conversation by historian Anna Clark reflecting on WEH Stanner’s 1968 Boyer Lectures where he coined the term ‘the great Australian silence’ to describe the occlusion of indigenous people from narratives of Australian history. Her essay comes fifty years after those essays, but also in the contemporary context of the political response to the Uluru statement and  Lyndall Ryan and others’ work on the massacre map.

I encourage you to read it.

‘Journeyings: The Biography of a Middle-Class Generation 1920-1990’ by Janet McCalman

Journeyings

1993, 301p. & notes

This book opens with the No. 69 tram travelling from Carlisle Street St. Kilda to Cotham Rd Kew on the first day of school, 1934. The tram wends its way “along the spine of Melbourne’s middle-class heartland”, with an ebb and flow of private school students who peel off as they pass the major private schools in Melbourne. Being 1934, these are the children of WWI parents and unless they have scholarships, their parents are paying for their private school education during the Depression.

The No. 69 tram in February 1934 is the opening chapter and linchpin of Janet McCalman’s book,  which explores both the antecedents and consequences of that daily commute.  Starting in the years 1850-1919, her second chapter titled ‘Inheritances’ examines the social and economic origins of what was to become the Melbourne middle class of the 1930s, starting with the ‘Seekers and Saints’ who emigrated between 1850-1870 and embedded themselves as ‘The Greedy and the Good’ between 1879-1890. Chapter 3, ‘The Lessons of Innocence 1920-1939’ explores the inter-war years in which these young school children catch their tram in 1934, oblivious to the second ‘war to end all wars’ that faced them.

McCalman then follows through with this generation, examining their war-time experience in Chapter 4 ‘Coming of Age 1939-1945’ and their post-war family and work lives in ‘The Trials of Experience 1946-1966.’ Her chapter ‘Mid-Life Crisis 1967-1975’ captures the mid-career mindset of her middle-class informants in the midst of the world-wide disruption of 1968 and the political ferment of the ascension and dismissal of the Labor Party in Australia. Her final chapter ‘The Age of Wisdom 1976-1990’ takes her right up to the ‘Journeyings’ survey conducted in 1990 amongst the former students (pre 1950) of four private schools  that were passed by the No 69 tram.

I must declare my own colours here. Even though in 1934 my father lived one block down from Glenferrie Rd, along which the No 69 tram rattled (i.e.the very years that McCalman uses in her opening image), I am proudly the product of a government school, as were my parents. I strongly oppose the social and educational distortions brought about by John Howard’s funding of private schools that no government seems to have the courage to dismantle. So I read this book with a jaundiced eye and certainly no sense of identification.

However , McCalman complicates my easy prejudices through her research. It is largely based on a 1990 survey that she conducted with Mark Peel that yielded 633 responses from pre-1950 school leavers from Scotch and Trinity, (both boys’ schools), Methodist Ladies College and Genazzano convent. There were 1235 surveys distributed, yielding a hefty 42% response rate. McCalman’s methodology combines prosopography,  survey responses, oral history interviews with 80 respondents, the judicious use of fiction and memoir, her own literature review, and statistics.

Although solidly middle-class, the financial and social backgrounds were more varied than I expected for this 1934 cohort, based on statistics drawn from Scotch senior students in 1934 and MLC students born in 1919 and 1920. Going to a private school did not guarantee a high education level:  43% of the Trinity 1919-20 boys cohort left without the Intermediate Certificate (i.e. Yr 10), while 65% of the MLC cohort left without their Intermediate.  In a rather anecdotal experiment, McCalman asked a group of retired senior teachers (who were themselves at secondary school in the 1930s and 1940s) to compare papers set for the external Intermediate, Leaving and Leaving Honours papers for 1935 and the examinations set for the  Higher School Certificate (superseded in 1992). Their consensus was that in 1935 the emphasis was on clean and accurate work, which penalized misspellings, grammatical flaws and arithmetical slips. French and German was much more difficult in the 1930s but “in most of the other humanities, the intellectual demands of the 1930s papers were lower than would be acceptable by the 1960s.” (p. 123).

As McCalman traces through this 1930s cohort, she contextualizes them within Australia’s history. Because these four schools were denominational, there is an emphasis on spirituality. I was well aware of the Split of 1955 and the influence of the Movement within the Catholic church, but completely unaware of progressive Catholic activism (which was featured recently in History Workshop). Long before History of the Emotions became a historical ‘turn’, she focuses on hearts, souls, masculinity and femininity, minds and manners.

I like her discussion of fiction and history in her preface:

…because this is a group biography, a collection of stories of actual lives, it needs to unfold in the way real lives do- which is that none of us knows what lies ahead. Perhaps one of the most important functions of fiction is to permit us to escape that existential plight – it is a rehearsal for life; in writing history, however, we need to feel life’s dreadful unpredictability, its untidiness, its ordinariness, its splendours. Art is under our control; history, like life, is not. And yet history is but our reconstructions, is but an artefact of the mind, conceived of differently by all of us, and differently by all of us at different times in our lives… We are incorrigibly historical beings; our inner histories of ourselves- private history- constitute our ever-evolving sense of identity- we are our own stories. But in constructing histories – whether private or public-  we are torn between what we would like the story to be and what the evidence insists that it really is. The novelist enjoys a licence; the historian a responsibility (p.viii)

Before writing Journeyings, McCalman had received acclaim for Struggletown: Public and Private Life in Richmond 1900-1965 which used a similar methodology in the working-class (although now gentrified) inner Melbourne suburb of Richmond.  I have read Struggletown, but did not record my response to it at the time. The two books work well as a pair. Journeyings also complements Judith Brett’s Robert Menzies’ Forgotten People, which is cited often.

By the final chapter (1976-1990) her informants were mature retirees, with a remarkably low divorce rate and generally (but not exclusively) politically conservative.  Perhaps it was my government-school-streak coming out here, but I found myself bridling at the smug moral superiority that came through many of their responses, the noblesse oblige and the disavowal of ‘old school tie’ networks when there was clear statistical evidence of its significance in ‘elite’ circles.  What was McCalman going to do with this? Did she feel the same way as I do?

I think she did. Citing Sir Robert Menzies’ ‘The Forgotten People’ speech and Judith Brett’s analysis of it, McCalman writes:

Children who are educated apart behind high walls can find it difficult in later life to become at one with those on the other side. Children who are told endlessly by their parents and teachers that they are fortunate, privileged, special, inheritors and examples of excellence, will find it difficult to be good democrats.  Even if they are imbued with a sense of service and care ‘for those less fortunate than themselves’, they can still find it difficult to feel simply as fellow Australians.  (p.301)

This is an excellent book. It’s beautifully written, it is nuanced and yet broad. The No. 69 trope works so well.

And look at this: the Public Education Campaign has just released a video that answers back to that last chapter, too.

Sourced from: my very own bookshelves, where it has sat patiently for decades.

My rating: 9/10

AWW-2018-badge-rose-199x300

I have recorded this review at the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2018