Category Archives: Melbourne history

‘Swanston: Merchant Statesman’ by Eleanor Robin

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Swanston Street is the main thoroughfare of Melbourne, extending from Melbourne University in the north down to the Yarra, whereupon it becomes St Kilda Rd. It’s a rather unloved road, for many years blighted with dodgy discount basements and even dodgier long narrow cafes with desiccated dim-sims. The street is now blocked with huge sheds and scaffolding hiding the tunnelling works for the new metro line that will run under the city.

Swantston Street was one of the original streets on the Hoddle Grid, but the only one of the north-south streets to be named after anyone associated with the ‘over-straiter’ settlement of Melbourne from Tasmania.* It was NSW Governor Bourke himself who suggested naming the street after Charles Swanston, banker, entrepreneur, member of Legislative Council, and ‘merchant statesman’, but Swanston seems never to have actually crossed Bass Strait to see Melbourne for himself.

As Eleanor Robin explains rather late in the text in this biography of Charles Swanston (Ch.15) , Swanston has not been treated kindly by Tasmanian historians. In 1948 W.H. Hudspeth regaled an after-dinner audience with an entertaining sketch of Swanston’s rise and fall that became the accepted view for the next seventy years.  Other historians, like Kathleen Fitzpatrick relied on the evidence of contemporary detractors and the discomfort of colonial settlers over Swanston’s ignominious end to depict him in a negative light. This book, which conceptualizes Charles Swanston as a ‘merchant statesman’, places him within a wider imperial mindset, and assesses his intellectual and social capital against the financial business mores of the time.  Drawing on the archives of the Derwent Bank papers, which were only fully catalogued in 2017,  Robin concludes that Charles Swanston was

a vital cog in the rapidly turning wheel of change. He was a man of the world who played out his life boldly in exotic and far-flung regions of the 19th century British Empire (p.198)

Charles Swanston was born in England in 1789 and at the age of 16 was commissioned in the East India Company army. The wide-reaching networks of soldiers involved in Wellington’s armies have been described by historians, most particularly Zoe Laidlaw and Christine Wright . Importantly, Robin alerts us to a different, parallel set of networks that connected India and Australia, first through military men in the East India Company, and then through them to the trade market between the two countries. This connection with India played out in the lives of two of Swanston’s sons too, when they also joined the Indian army before eventually retiring to England.  There was a strong presence of Scots in the East India Company as well, and if the Indian networks were the warp, then the Scots influence -which also ran through Swanston’s family- was the weft running through his financial and mercantile activities.

Swanston first visited Van Diemen’s Land in 1829 for a temporary visit on leave from the East India Company.  He was quickly embraced by the Hobart ‘genteel’ society, several of whom shared Indian ties with him. He quickly found favour with Governor Arthur who declared that he wished that the colony were stacked with “a hundred settlers such as Captain Swanston from India” (p.24) Even before permanently settling in Van Diemen’s Land, which he was to do in 1831, he purchased several estates, including New Town Park at New Town, and under the patronage of Governor Arthur, purchased shares in the newly established Derwent Bank, which he was to eventually control.

Colonial port cities during the nineteenth century were marked by their cliquishness, gossip, social claustrophobia and instability of ‘respectability’, and this was certainly true of Hobart during Swanston’s time.  As an appointed, non-public-service member of the Legislative Council in a colony with no popular representation, he was embroiled in the partisan politics of governor-against-Council, especially after his patron Governor Arthur departed the colony and Sir John Franklin was appointed in his place. Apart from political maneuverings  Swanston was involved in the gentlemanly pursuits of many other elite public men in a small colony: the orphan school, infrastructure schemes in water, coal and smelting, insurance companies, church warden, board member for the Mechanics Institute and vice-President and Treasurer for the Royal Society. Like many gentlemen of his time and milieu he had a particular interest in horticulture and viticulture.

In her title, Robin identifies Swanston as a ‘merchant statesman’, one of those class of men with the British education and contacts to take up the commercial opportunities that opened up in the colonies.

Those around him recognised his global outlook. He had the eye of an army strategist and, as financier and legislator until his last tumultuous days, he operated in the national interest, as well as for his own good. (p.101)

His control of the Derwent bank gave him contacts with merchants and entrepreneurs, and he leveraged his Indian and Scots networks in the importation of manufactured goods from both India, the Far East and ‘home’. Most particularly he acted as agent for  Edinburgh-based George Mercer, encouraging Mercer to invest in Van Diemen’s Land and to  purchase land and properties for his children who emigrated to Australia, and most importantly, like Swanston, to become involved in Melbourne as a new investment opportunity.

As Robin demonstrates, Swanston provided much of the financial and intellectual muscle behind the Port Phillip Association’s attempt to ‘purchase’ huge swathes of land through a ‘treaty’ with the Kulin nation.  He was “the chief strategist and spearheaded the Association’s campaign for legal title to the ‘new country'” (p. 114) It was probably Swanston, along with Gellibrand or Wedge, or all three, back in Van Diemen’s Land who took Batman’s diary and wrote it up into a more polished report. It was Swanston who acted as a conduit between Governor Arthur and the members of the Association, as a lobbyist with the New South Wales government, and who briefed George Mercer to lobby the British government. The treaty was always legally dubious, but there was a concerted and well-co-ordinated lobbying campaign at local, colonial, and metropole level to have it, and the claims of the Port Phillip Association, recognized.

Even though the treaty was disallowed,  along with other members of the syndicate Swanston lost no time in sending his own flocks over the strait, and arranging for Mercer to deploy his finance in the same way.  He organized the shipping, taking shares in ‘The Adelaide’ to convey the sheep, and organizing all up twenty sailing vessels. The Colonial Government, in rejecting the ‘treaty’ allowed remissions up to the value of £7000 (a sizeable amount!) for any expenditure that had been forfeited. Swanston took up any of the shares in the now-discredited Port Phillip Association and established the Derwent Company, a new entity.

Robin is non-committal about the intent of the treaty for the men in the Port Phillip Association, beyond commenting on the entrepreneurial spirit from which it emerged and pointing out the flaws in their reasoning. It struck me that we tend to think of frontier conflict in terms of spears and guns and the physicality of violence, and not so much the mindset of the capitalists who were financing the expansion. Swanston himself stayed in Tasmania, arguing that his business and legislative commitments precluded crossing the Strait. I have read much about the frontier conflict later in Port Phillip, but I was particularly struck by the violence and resistance to this first wave of men and sheep, including amongst Swanston’s own overseers (p.134) In this recounting of those very early years, focusing closely on the experience of those first syndicate members, there was no period of benign wariness.  The deaths and outrages on Swanston’s own properties made it harder to argue that the ‘treaty’ was an alternative approach that could avoid bloodshed.

As Robin shows, Swanston was a man of his time, and those times were both exhilarating and challenging for entrepreneurs and merchants.  Profits and investments expanded dramatically in the 1830s,  and they contracted the same way in the 1840s.  It is likely that his own actions as a banker contributed to the collapse of the Van Diemen’s Land economy, when he changed the Derwent Bank from a bank of issue to a mortgage bank. He, and bankers in NSW alike, assumed that because land was finite, an investment in land was “safe as houses”- an assumption that was rendered untrue with the opening up of Port Phillip.  Those networks and connections that had bolstered his reputation in Hobart were now a burden as friends and acquaintances who had once approached him for advice now approached him for relief. As Robin says, “With hindsight, the collapse of the Derwent Bank, taking Swanston with it, was inevitable.” (p. 184)

Kirsten McKenzie has pointed out in Scandal in the Colonies, the question of personal integrity in business was vital to economic success (p.79). As economic historian Syd Butlin wrote, while not doubting Swanston’s good faith, “[Swanston] had simply ceased to distinguish the policy and affairs of the bank from his own interests and business”(p.184). Robin admits that his business operations occasionally shaded into ‘sharp practice’, but that this was not unusual. His business model was based on growth,  which could not be sustained in a changed economic environment. (p.196)  Disgraced and depressed after the failure of both the Derwent Company and the Derwent Bank, Swanston left Van Diemen’s Land to join his son on the Californian goldfields. Their paths crossed, and Swanston died at sea, aged sixty. He was not to know it, but the ‘new’ colony which had dominated his lobbying and financial acumen was about to undergo its own transformation through gold.

Robin closes her book noting the lack of acknowledgment of Swanston in the town with a main street named in his honour. She’s right, and her book goes a long way towards filling this vacuum. In a narrative sense, she has walked around Charles Swanston, profiling him from different perspectives: military man, legislator, merchant statesman, Port Phillip Association member, financier and family man.

In recent years there has been increasing discomfort about the role and behaviour of the ‘over-straiters’, most particularly John Batman, as seen by the renaming of the ‘Batman’ electorate to ‘Cooper’ to honour William Cooper, the Yorta Yorta activist and community leader. There is now a question over whether the statues to Fawkner and Batman that previously stood in the now-demolished National Mutual forecourt will see the light of day again.

Additionally, the opprobrium directed towards ethically questionable economic ventures now  tends to extend to the financiers as well, as seen by the pressure on financial organizations not to invest in the Adani coal mine. In Charles Swanston we see colonization in its white-collar guise, and an abstract concept like ‘settler capitalism’ exemplified in an individual. After Robin’s book, Swanston will not be so invisible. Time and politics will tell whether that’s a good thing or not.

Sourced from: review copy Australian Scholarly Publishing

Eleanor Robin will be speaking about her book at the RHSV on Tuesday 16 October.

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I have posted this review to the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2081.

 

 

*[An aside: Spencer St was named after 3rdEarl Spencer, the Chancellor of the Exchequer under Lord Melbourne 1830-1834; King St after Philip Gidley King, 3rd governor of NSW; William after King William 4th who reigned between 1830 and 1837- the years of Melbourne’s white settlement; Queen after Queen Adelaide, William’s wife; Elizabeth after the wife of Governor Richard Bourke (contested); Swanston, Russell after Lord John Russell, then Home Secretary, Stephen after Sir James Stephen Permanent Under-secretary for the Colonies (later renamed Exhibition Street) and Spring for Thomas Spring-Rice, Chancellor of the Exchequer 1835-1839]

‘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

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

‘The Place for a Village: how nature has shaped the city of Melbourne’ by Gary Presland

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2009, 233p plus appendices

“This will be the place for a village!” John Batman wrote in his journal after he sailed up the Yarra River in June 1835 (whenever he wrote it – you never know with John Batman). But what was it that made him decided that THIS would be the place, instead of THAT? Gary Presland argues that it was the geology of Melbourne, and its effect on river courses and soil quality that led him to that decision.  In this book Presland adopts the rather old-fashioned practice of natural history, an omnibus 19th century term that encompassed geology, meteorology, botany and zoology, to recapture the lost landscapes of Melbourne.  Just as the adage goes about everything old becoming new again, natural history closely approximates environmental history, a ‘big’ history,  and one which is prominent at the moment.

By looking for a “lost landscape” Presland goes back even further than the 40,000+ years of indigenous activity in Melbourne.  As books like Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu and Bill Gammage’s The Biggest Estate on Earth make clear, indigenous people both responded to but also manipulated the environment so that early settlers did not see a virgin landscape, even though they may have perceived it that way at the time.  Both indigenous people and the white settlers who supplanted them have had to operate within features that were laid down millions of years ago through the geological formations that have shaped Melbourne’s topography.  But, in order to draw in other features like climate, weather, flora and fauna, he has selected 1800 as his nominal Year Zero, as he integrates  written and painted historical information and remnant vegetation data to reconstruct Melbourne’s lost landscape. By choosing a date close to European arrival (1802 for the Port Phillip bay area), he captures the conditions that both indigenous and European people had to contend with.

This book is essentially a reconstruction. The shape and nature of the original landscape of Melbourne, as well as the wide range of natural resources they contained, were a fundamental part of the Aboriginal world. They formed not only the physical context where people lived, but also supplied the very means by which Aboriginal society flourished. The arrival of Europeans placed different demands on those resources but also imposed different influences. The same nature that had sustained a rich Aboriginal society, determined the location of European settlement, even if later it needed to be massively altered to better accommodate the ongoing demands of that settlement. p.14,  15

The book is divided into two parts. Part I, which is by far the longest, reconstructs Melbourne’s natural history in five chapters: Ch 1: The Shape of Melbourne’s Landscapes, Ch,2: The nature of Melbourne’s climate; Ch. 3 Melbourne’s Streams and Wetlands; Ch.4 Pre-European vegetation of Melbourne; Ch. 5 Pre-European Animal Life of Melbourne.

Chapter One contains two geological maps of Melbourne, and I found myself turning to them often throughout the book. Presland gives a thorough, if somewhat technical, account of the geological formation of Melbourne over millions of years. He then moves across Melbourne’s landscape by geological formation, but also roughly from east to west: The Nillumbik terrain, the older volcanics, the Brighton coastal plain, the lava plain and the areas of Quaternary deposit.  You do need to know your Melbourne suburbs for this chapter to make sense.

Chapter Two looks particularly at rainfall patterns across Melbourne and the disparity between the east and west, factors which of course have implications for vegetation and fauna distributions. The chapter also contains historical information about the collection of weather data.

Chapter Three, Melbourne’s Streams and Wetlands was my favourite chapter in the book.  Again, Presland moves from east to west in his analysis, and again assumes a degree of familiarity with Melbourne, but I found it fascinating to read of streams and waterways (some even without names) that have either dried out or been subsumed completely under drains and roadways.  It was this chapter that made me feel closest to a “lost” landscape- as if it was still here, but invisible.

Chapters Four and Five that deal with vegetation and animal life I found less engaging. They tended to read like a long list. Chapter Four follows the geological features of Chapter one, while Chapter Five is divided into categories like mammals, birds, reptiles, fishes etc.

In Part Two of the book, Presland calls “The Influence of Nature on Culture”. For me, this was the hub of the book, and I was a little disappointed that it was only thirty-one pages in length. He starts this section by talking about why and how he came to undertake this book. He then moves on to consider the Aboriginal connection to the Port Phillip area, then returns to the question I asked at the start – Why THIS place for a village? He highlights the significance of the Falls, and European efforts in shaping the Yarra. He then moves to briefly consider future development.  The book closes with a methodology chapter and lists of indicative vegetation in different types of woodland, and fish in the Yarra River.

This book was based on his PhD, which comes as no surprise although he has subverted the usual PhD structure (introduction, methodology, data, analysis). I’m not sure that this reorganization is completely successful. Although it does keep the most technical information at the back of the book, away from a general reader, the narrative itself is fairly technical and abstracting, despite its adoption of “we” language.  Chapters Four and Five are too “list-y”, with little overarching argument.  I wished that Presland had stepped onto the stage himself earlier, instead of waiting until Part II and page 197 to do so.  I found myself wondering what a writer like Tom Griffiths would do with this material.

Having said that, I really enjoyed this book, most particularly Chapters One and Three. The book was published by Museum Victoria and it is replete with beautiful coloured plates right throughout the text. It’s always satisfying to read a book that shifts you in your perception somewhat, and Chapters One and Three did that for me.  The blurb on the back says that “Gary Presland will literally change your view of Melbourne”, and I think that’s true.

Sourced from: my own bookshelves

 

Museo Italiano, Carlton

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In January we had a day off from caring for Dad. It was a stinking hot day (41 degrees) and coming out of the air-conditioned comfort of Cinema Nova, we weren’t quite ready to head home yet but didn’t want to relinquish our undercover car park. What could we do? Then I remembered the Museo Italiana at the CoAsIt building in Faraday Street, which I’d promised myself I’d visit one day.  Was it open? Yes! open Tuesday to Saturday.  Was it air-conditioned? Yes! Beautifully!

It’s a good little museum, documenting the Italian migrant experience right back to convict days and the gold rush, but focussing on post-war migration.  During the 1950s and 1960s, Carlton was known as the Italian part of Melbourne, a small remnant of which remains in Lygon Street today.  The displays are professionally mounted, and there’s good use of music and video.

And if you need any further encouragement- it’s free!

Exhibition: ‘Remembering the ‘Burbs 1850-1960’

I know that I always write about exhibitions just as they’re closing the door and turning off the lights, but with this one, there’s still a month to go see it. It’s at the Royal Historical Society in a’Beckett Street (close to Flagstaff Gardens) and it’s called ‘Remembering the ‘Burbs 1950-1960’

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It’s a tie-in with the book that RHSV released just prior to Christmas ‘Remembering Melbourne’, which draws on images from RHSV’s own collection and the collections of twenty suburban historical societies to capture ‘Lost Melbourne’.  As their website says,

Remembering the ‘Burbs showcases the images supplied by these historical societies.
The images of suburban housing, work, industry, commerce, community service and
recreation – collectively trace the development of Melbourne’s suburbs between 1850 and 1960 as its population expanded from the city’s confines.

The exhibition has a snapshot of each of these twenty suburbs. Walking around, you can do a historic perambulation of suburban Melbourne, all in the same room!

Well worth a look if you’re in Melbourne in April.  It closes on the 28th April – see! plenty of time!

My November Brunswick (again)

For someone who has rarely been to Brunswick, I found myself back there again for the third time in November. This time we were there for the ‘Marking Time‘ art project, produced by Jessie Stanley, artist-in-residence as part of the MoreArts program of the Moreland City Council. Based in Moreland Railway Station waiting room, the project runs between October 23 and December 19 and involves a number of site-specific works and events (see the project’s Facebook page for more information). Today was a Timewalk – the first of two- that went from Jewell Station to Gilpin Park.

It would probably be more correct to think of this walk as a performance rather than a historical walk as such (partial as I am to historic walks). Ms Stanley read from a carefully and quite beautifully written script, starting off with a contemplation on the nature of ‘place’ and ending, some 45 minutes later and about 1/2 kilometre away, with an enacted description of deep time.  She asked that we undertake the walk in silence, focussing on the bricks that surrounded us, with any interaction only at the end.  I’m not really sure that this stricture was necessary, although I suppose that it enabled her to control the event as an integrated performance.  Her presentation concentrated on the brickworks of the area in particular, and not a generalized history of Brunswick that might have been given, for example, by a member of Brunswick Community History Group.  Instead, her focus was on the brickworks, most particularly Hoffman’s Brickworks, and the dominance of clay and bricks on the economic and social fabric of Phillipstown (the earlier name for Brunswick).  Certainly, walking around the post2000 redevelopment of the former Hoffman’s Brickworks site, you get a sense of the dominance of the chimneys and sirens of a large brick factory.

The walk ended at Gilpin Park, built on the site of one of the former quarries that provided the clay for the brickworks.  It was here that she returned to her reflections on deep time, and the wafer-thin segment of white settler time in what we know now as Brunswick.  Somehow the newness of the park with its adolescent-aged gum tree plantings captured this well.

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There is a second  walk, covering different places but similar themes,  on Saturday 10th December, starting from Clifton Park at 11.00 a.m.  It is free, but you need to book through post@jessiestanley.com  (0419 441 195)

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Celebrating 1916 in Brunswick in 2016

Even though it’s only fifteen kilometres from home, apart from a brief house-sitting stint in Brunswick about twenty years ago, attending my doctor’s surgery and the occasional visit to a Turkish restaurant, I have very rarely been to Brunswick. Yet in the last three days I’ve been there twice, both times for events organized by the Brunswick-Coburg Anti-Conscription Commemoration Committee 1916-17.

1916

On Saturday night we attended the Metanoia Theatre at the Brunswick Mechanics’ Institute to see ‘1916’, written by local playwright Neil Cole as part of the centenary of the successful ‘no’ campaign during the two referenda over conscription during WWI.  Of course, a play written with an intent to inform and based on real events (as this play was) faces constraints in characterization and plot that a play written purely for entertainment does not. That given, the performance rocketed along for sixty minutes, tracing the activities and perspectives of three women in the months leading up to the referendum in October 1916. Adela Pankhurst, the estranged daughter from the famous English Pankhurst suffragette family arrived in Melbourne, where she appeared in anti-conscription rallies alongside local suffragist and peace activist Vida Goldstein,  the first woman to stand (albeit unsuccessfully) for Parliament. However, fellow suffragist Milly Woods (the playwright’s grandmother) broke with her former colleague Vida  out of a desire to support ‘our boys’ in the war, when her own family members enlisted and were sent to the front. The interplay between these three women demonstrated the rupture of relationships between activists who had fought for women’s votes as just one manifestation of the general fracturing of public opinion during the referendum. The play consisted of multiple scenes, depicted chronologically, which were supported by visual images on a slide show, and separated by songs of the time, very ably sung by girls from the Brunswick Secondary College.  The lead singer of the chorus, in particular, had a beautiful voice and the three main female characters were well drawn, especially, I thought, the older woman Milly Woods.

Then on Monday, over to Brunswick we went again for a history walk conducted by Michael Hamel-Green, seeing places connected with  local Brunswick anti-conscription activists John Curtin, his mentor Frank Anstey and local schoolmistress and activist Julia Guerin.  Brunswick and Coburg were hotbeds of anti-conscription activities, largely because of the strong dominance of Irish Catholics in this working-class neighbourhood.

We started off in St Ambrose Hall, the hall that was attached to the Catholic primary school next door. One of the few 19th century church halls surviving in Moreland, anti-conscription meetings were held here even though the Town Hall was just next door.  The council worthies tended to be pro-conscription, as were most of the major institutions of the day (schools, churches, local newspapers etc) and so meetings were held in the more amenable surroundings of the Catholic church hall.

John Curtin, the future WWII Prime Minister shifted to Brunswick with his family as a young boy in approximately 1899. For a short while he attended St Ambrose Primary School, until leaving school at age 14, as was common at that time for working-class lads.  When Archbishop Daniel Mannix opened a wing of the school on 28 January 1917 (maybe the one with the 1916 foundation stone?) he made his famous ‘trade speech’ where he characterized WWI as “like most wars- just an ordinary trade war”.

The Brunswick Mechanics Institute, constructed in 1868, was used as the recruiting centre for the war during 1914-18. (It was here that we saw the play 1916 on Saturday night). I’m a little surprised that it was used for recruiting, rather than the town hall across the road, although often the committees of Mechanics Institutes tended to be stalwart and ‘respectable’ men of the district and perhaps they were happy to lend their premises to the enlistment effort.

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Then into the Town Hall itself and its stunning vestibule covered on all four sides by the names of the 3575 Brunswick men who enlisted.  Those who died were commemorated in a special panel, but it is notable that all enlistees were named, including those who enlisted but did not embark, in alphabetical order, irrespective of rank.

We visited two of the many homes that the Curtin family rented in Brunswick. They lived in the house below for five years between 1903-8 (the longest that they stayed in any one home). By then Curtin was working in a regular job as an estimates clerk with the Titan Manufacturing Company in South Melbourne and his weekly wage of 35 shillings ensured that they could now confidently meet the rent each week- something they had not been able to do previously.  They lived in the cottage on the left hand side, with the arched window.  The four-dwelling terrace has these rather ecclesiastic windows on three of the houses, but the fourth window next door to the Curtin residence has been replaced by a rather unprepossessing aluminium window.  There is no plaque outside this house.  There is now a park beside the house (which has been renumbered since Curtin lived there). The MMBW map shows that during Curtin’s time this was a clay hole, which would have provided clay for the brick factories in the surrounding area.

Not far away is another of the rental properties occupied by the Curtin family (below).  John Curtin lived here with his family between 1913-1915 and it was at this house that he was arrested for refusing to attend the call-up on October 9, just prior to the referendum. At this stage he was working for the Timber Workers Union.  There is a plaque here in the footpath, the only one in Brunswick marking his presence.

Finally, and rather poignantly, we ended up outside the Union Hotel, one of Curtin’s favourite watering holes, close to home and a favourite of the Irish brickworkers.

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The walk over, I headed to Jewell Railway Station to catch a train into town. Ah! here’s one of the artworks created along the Upfield railway line out to Fawkner cemetery.  I read about these.

Inside the abandoned ticket window at the unmanned station there’s another little art installation.  It’s of a chemist shop window, but when you look more closely, they’re rather subversive products on sale

And so, as the train bore me the remarkably few stations into the CBD, I bade farewell to Brunswick for now, and its referendum commemorations.  Although, from the sound of the activities that the Brunswick-Coburg Anti-Conscription Commemoration Campaign have planned for next year, I think I may be back….