Category Archives: Six degrees of separation between Judge Willis and …

Beards are back?

I did a double-take when I passed a Big Issue seller in the city a few weeks back.  Why does the big issue have an update of a 30 year old photograph of my husband on the front cover?



Oh no! I can feel a Six Degrees of Separation between Judge Willis coming on…..


I’ll let Edmund Finn (better known as ‘Garryowen’) tell the story:

Up to 1851 whiskers were not articles of common wear in Melbourne, and moustachios and beards were unknown, unless with passing visitors from the bush, who periodically burst into town for a spell, and as suddenly burst out again when their cheques were liquified.  The early town colonists were well content with the barefacedness which prevailed in England since the time of William III and were loth to encumber the human face divine with hirsute protuberances.  [Mr Edward Sewell, a dandified solicitor] sometimes affected the exceptional, and, at the risk of being out of the fashion, aimed occasionally to be out of the common, and took it into his head to create a slight sensation.  Accordingly, going into retreat for some time, he emerged unexpectedly from his seclusion, with fiercely luxuriant moustache, which, if it did not increase admiration of him, certainly rendered him pro tem the “observed of all observers”.

Making for the Supreme Court, he stalked in with the swagger of a half-daft peacock, and gazed with solemn superciliousness around him.  The Judge was startled and stared with much wonderment.  He wriggled in his seat, and with much difficulty restrained himself until the business in hand was disposed of, and then Sewell, advancing towards the Bench, asked permission to appear for a client in an Equity suit, as all the limited Bar had been retained by the other side.  The Judge regarded him with astonishment, as if unable or unwilling to recognize him in his disguise.  At length he roared out that his Court was not a place for “A whiskered pandour or a fierce hussar!” If the person who had spoken was desirous to appear as counsel, he ought to have assumed the semblance of one.  As it was, his physiognomical get-up was enough to frighten a man out of his wits! He had better clear out, or he would not be long an officer of that honourable Court.  The astounded Sewell, scared by such an unexpected reception, hastily retreated from the precincts of the highly irritated dignitary, and, fearful of being struck off the rolls if he put in a second hairy appearance, dashed away for the nearest barber’s shop, submitted to a thorough tonsorial operation, and returned with a face and a conscience equally clear to the presence of the offended impersonation of Justice, where he was received as a repentant sinner, obtained solution, and was taken (metaphorically) to the Judicial arms.

I’d always wondered about Willis’ term “whiskered pandour or fierce hussar”.  I’ve since found that he’s quoting from a poem ‘The Battle of Maciejowice’ by Thomas Campbell, which mourns the Russian defeat of the Poles in October 1794.

Oh sacred Truth!

Oh sacred Truth! thy triumph ceased awhile,

And Hope, thy sister, ceased with thee to smile,

When leagued Oppression poured to Northern wars

Her whiskered pandours and her fierce hussars Waved her dread standard to the breeze of morn,

Pealed her loud drum, and twanged her trumpet horn:

Tumultous horror brooded o’er her van

Presaging wrath to Poland and to Man!

Anyway, Mr Sewell would be gratified, I’m sure, to know that beards are back, and that he could venture into court again today with his fiercely luxuriant mustachios and be embraced as being at the height of fashion.

Six degrees of separation between Judge Willis and….Oscar Wilde

Can I link Judge Willis and Oscar Wilde in fewer than six steps?  Easy.

1. Oscar Wilde’s very good lifelong friend was Robbie Ross.

2. Robbie Ross’ full name was Robert Baldwin Ross. He was named for his maternal grandfather, Robert Baldwin.

3. Robert Baldwin was a lawyer and parliamentarian in Upper Canada and aan ally and friend of….

4.  Judge Willis, Puisne Judge of the King’s Bench, Upper Canada!


2016 Update: I have rather cheekily linked to this post as part of the National Family History Month Blogging Challenge which, during Week 1, asked for a post about things people had learned about their ancestors through the Census.  Well, as you’ll see, this posting isn’t really about a family at all, but rather it looks at the controversy over one of the questions in the 1841 census. So, here’s my posting from 2011:

15 August 2011.

My census paper is all filled in, waiting to be collected.  I quite enjoy filling in surveys and doing interviews.  I note that several of my Facebook friends with young babies were amused at the inappropriateness of many of the questions to their babies (“How well does the person speak English?” “Does the person ever need someone to help with self care activities?”).  At the other end of the parenting spectrum, I found myself feeling rather furtively curious at the replies given by adult children (Hmmm- so that’s how much they earn?! How did they answer the unpaid domestic work for the household question?)

My son was rather keen that I answer ‘No religion’ in the optional religious question.  It’s obviously a touchy subject because it, alone among the questions, is optional.  Thinking back to the rigid, unyielding sectarian prejudices of my 1950s-60s childhood, this would have always been a hot question but for different reasons.  What’s a Good Unitarian Girl to do?  Yes- I know that identifying as Unitarian will be collapsed into a bald statistic showing the increasing religiosity/atheism of modern society.  Do I want my creedless religion collapsed into a category along with fundamentalists of all shades? How religious is a creed-less religion?  Such deep questions, all for a census.

Then there’s the marriage question.  It’s when there’s such a stark choice- married/divorced/widowed/never married – that I feel uncomfortable about the many shades of grey that are blurred by such harsh distinctions.  The long term same-sex relationship that would dearly love to be a marriage but is forbidden?

And the either/or nature of language spoken at home.

Radio National’s Rear Vision program had an excellent feature recently called Who Counts? A History of the Census (podcast and transcript available).  The program highlighted that censuses (censi?) differ in their questions, format and intent in different countries at different times.  The British census of the mid-19th century, for instance,  reflected the public health concerns over ‘the household’ as an economic unit, particularly in the wake of the widespread mobility of the Industrial Revolution.  The American census was framed by a mindset of growth, particularly on the frontier.

The Australian census, first conducted in 1828, emerged out of an earlier tradition of the convict muster.   As shown on the Historical Census and Colonial Data Archive site, there were censuses in New South Wales in 1833, 1836 and 1841.  The Census Act of 1840 spelled out the process for collecting the information, and the magistrates were at the heart of it:

[Australasian Chronicle 5 December 1840]

During the 1840 debate over the Census Bill, the process was not controversial, but one of the questions in particular was:

whether he was born in the colony, arrived free, or obtained freedom by pardon or servitude?

The original census of 1828 provided several “class” categories: CF meant ‘came free’; BC meant ‘born in colony’; CP denoted ‘conditional pardon’;  FS meant’ free by servitude’ and TL stood for ‘ticket of leave’.  But by 1840 New South Wales was distancing itself ever further from its convict origins – a process which John Hirst in Convict Society and its Enemies argues began right from the start of settlement.  This question was now highly sensitive.  As the Australian Chronicle argued:

[Australian Chronicle 20 October 1840]

And into the fray steps- yes, you guessed it!- Judge Willis.  Justices Dowling and Stephen, the two other judges of the Supreme Court of NSW declared the bill to be repugnant to British Justice on the grounds that, as a witness under oath in court did not have to degrade his character by identifying himself as an ex-convict, he should not be required to do so before a census collector.  Justice Willis, as was his right, issued a dissenting opinion, arguing that the benefit of the question for the government outweighed this consideration (although he did not specify what these benefits were to be).   As was often the case with Willis’ interventions into political questions, at issue was not his dissent per se but the way in which he expressed it (although in this case, it highlighted tensions between the ‘exclusives’ and the ’emancipists’). In court he observed:

With this subtle, but nonetheless public put-down of his fellow judges, he then went on to discuss the laws of evidence in the courts and concluded:

This public jousting on a question of law was one of several issues between Willis and his brother judges, most especially Chief Justice Dowling, at the time. Along with other similar considerations,  it led to Gipps’ decision to place Willis as the resident judge of the Supreme Court of New South Wales in the district of Port Phillip, well away from his colleagues.

So, I can hand over my completed census form- minus any questions about my convict status or lack thereof- safe in the knowledge that yet again, I have operated on the principle of six degrees of separation between Judge Willis and any topic you may choose to name, and managed to bring Judge Willis into 2011, no matter how tenuous the link.

‘Stopping All Stations’ by Rick Anderson

2010, 155 p plus 59 pages fascinating notes!

I have some news for you next time you’re sitting on the Eastern Freeway with a long ribbon of red brake lights ahead of you.  Or perhaps if you’re stopping and starting, stopping and starting behind one of those grey and orange Smart Buses travelling -why! from Altona to Mordialloc- shucks, the journey only takes four hours.  And here’s the news- Melbourne almost had the makings of an inner circle railway that would delivered efficient east-west rail travel – and we ditched it!

I like trains, actually.  I live close to a station and on quiet nights if the wind is blowing the right direction, you can even hear the beep of the train doors closing and the station announcements.  I’ve always enjoyed looking at the inner-city backyards as you speed over Collingwood and Richmond on the limited express between Jolimont and Clifton Hill. They’ve changed over the decades: the outside dunnies have all disappeared and backyard living-room extensions leave just a small courtyard with enough room for an outdoor dining table and that’s it.

Stopping All Stations is a history of Melbourne’s trains, written by a suburban train driver.  He starts with the early private railways of the 1850s, bubbling along with the riches of gold-rush Melbourne.  There’s a string of acronyms here: The Melbourne and Hobson’s Bay Railway (MHBR) , our first, that ran to Sandridge (Port Melbourne) which had been so inconveniently distant from the settlement on the Yarra;  the Melbourne, Mt Alexander and Murray River Railway Company (MMA&MRR) that never really got off the ground;  the Geelong and Melbourne Railway Company (G&MR) that only lasted four years before being taken over; the Melbourne and Suburban Railway (M&SR)  that operated between Flinders St and CremorneAfter myriad re-combinations of their acronyms, they, along with later railways to St Kilda and Brighton, and Essendon had all been swallowed up by the  Victorian Railways  by the early 1880s..

The book is subtitled (rather clumsily) “Melbourne’s unfinished transport work/opportunities lost” and this was the most fascinating part for me- the little railways and circuits that emerged and then disappeared.  There was the Outer Circle Railway that in 1892 ran between Fairfield Park and Oakleigh (map here) and an Inner Circle that existed between  1901-1942, on paper at least, that connected Rushall, North Fitzroy, North Carlton and Royal Park.

You can just detect the remnants of these lines at Fairfield, near the paper mills; and along the bike track in North Fitzroy.

Closer to home, there’s the Mont Park rail spur that connected to Macleod station, battling manfully up the hill to what is now a new housing estate. Lost opportunities indeed- LaTrobe University, which opened within a year or two of the Mont Park spur closing, would have provided the patronage that the small line lacked. Our three 1960s universities- Melbourne, Monash and La Trobe, have all been poorly served by train services, and I note that there are plans for a Melbourne University station under yet another grand transport scheme that will probably never see the light of day.

One of the real joys of this book are the little hand-drawn maps that show these now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t lines.  There’s a terrific graphic of the boa-constrictor nature of Victoria Railways as it swallowed up smaller private lines, and the text is sprinkled with the author’s own paintings of trains, signals and stations.  The book is a real labour of love, and Melburnians- even those not enamoured of trains per se- can find plenty to regret when considering the public transport that could have been.

I bet you thought that I couldn’t find a connection between Judge Willis and Melbourne’s train system which, after all, was not even thought of until some ten years after he left.  But in the spirit of Six Degrees of Separation between Judge Willis and the Railways,  the house that Willis leased while in Melbourne (which, incidentally was next door to my childhood home- hence my initial interest in him)was owned by Malcolm Macleod.  Macleod provided land to the railways on condition that the station was named after him- hence Macleod station.

Read because: I wanted to learn more about the Mont Park spur line. And because I really do like trains.

‘High Tea’ at Bundoora Homestead Art Centre

‘High Tea’, Bundoora Homestead Art Centre 3 December 2010- 6th February 2011

What a hoot! We went today to see “High Tea” before it closes on 6th February at the Bundoora Homestead Art Centre.  The publicity on the web page describes the exhibition thusly:

A social ritual, the ceremony of high tea is comprised of a series of gestures governing things such as; the way tea should be stirred, the direction of a teapot spout, and the proper way to eat a scone!

High Tea explores the social, political and cultural role of high tea in contemporary culture. What has compelled and sustained this seemingly rigid practice throughout the centuries, how has it evolved and developed as a tradition that is still cherished today?

The artists present unique interpretations of this practice through various mediums and methods – glass, paper, textiles and smell! Each installation sets out to provide a contemporary appreciation of high tea.

We weren’t really quite sure what the exhibition would be, but we saw that there would be a dance installation at 1.00 pm and unsure of even what that was, we tottered along. It took a little while to realize that the performance (is that the right thing to call it?) was actually underway as we wandered around the space, partaking as the sign suggested of a scone, jam and cream in return for a gold coin donation, and then wondering if perhaps we’d misread the sign and were EATING the exhibition! How embarrassment that would be! There’s buttons to press, peepholes to squint through, a wall of cupcake papers that seemed to take on a beauty of their own and an installation of recorded admonitions (“say thank you”) that made you squirm with the memories of being squashed between grown-ups and being on your best behaviour.

Across in the main gallery itself are several displays- photographs, knitted cakes,  doodled doileys and paper cakes.  My favourite exhibit was a room redolent of the smells of high tea- one long sniff of different smells that you might encounter at a high tea in 1910 compared with its counterpart in 2010.  I’m a very smell-y person (as in ‘highly olefactorily attuned’ if there’s any such expression) with smell an integral part of how I experience the world and deeply embedded in my memories.  Smell is always part of how I perceive any work of art – the smell of the paint, the cleaning products used in the gallery, the still air-  and I absolutely relished having it consciously prodded and teased in this exhibit.

Have you heard of the Bundoora Homestead Art Centre? It’s a beautiful Queen Anne-style homestead in Bundoora which at the time was prime horse-racing stud territory.  Suburbia has crept up around it, but it would have once commanded a wonderful position- you can see the city,  the Dandenongs and the Macedon Ranges from the nearby Mt Cooper lookout.  Its most famous equine resident was Wallace, the offspring of the  legendary 1890 Melbourne Cup winner, Carbine.  In his three year old season in 1895 Wallace himself won the Caulfield Guineas, the Derby, was beaten in the Melbourne Cup but on the following Saturday dead-heated to win the C. B. Fisher Plate.  He won the 1896 Sydney Cup,  but illness forced him to retire.  He then stood at stud for 22 years (!!), siring progeny that competed in 949 races, winning nearly a quarter of a million dollars in prize money.  For those with a paranormal bent, there’s a story that on a dark night the sound of hooves can be heard around Wallace’s grave in the adjacent Bundoora Park.

It’s a beautiful house- glorious stained glass and a spectacular staircase with pyrographic panels.  It was used as a convalescence farm after World War I, later renamed the Mental Repatriation Hospital, then the Bundoora Repatriation Hospital.

But wait, there’s more! Those of you who have followed this blog  will know that one of my little interests is to find six degrees of separation between Judge Willis (the REAL Resident Judge of Port Phillip) and – well, anything you might like to name.  This one is easy- the original owner of Bundoora Park was John Matthew Vincent Smith, the only son of John Matthew Smith.  And who was he, you ask?  John Matthew Smith arrived in Port Phillip in 1839 and took up employment as a law clerk with Horatio Nelson Carrington.  There was certainly no love lost between Willis and Carrington, who was one of the ‘Twelve Apostles’ financial ring,  and Willis’ disdain extended to John Matthew Smith as well, whom Willis described as

too insignificant for an attachment; his law is as absurd and insignificant as himself.  (Finn ‘Garryowen’ p 69)

So, if the “High Tea” exhibition  or Bundoora Homestead itself, Wallace’s grave and even if the ghost horse don’t tempt you to venture out to Bundoora, the sure knowledge that you’re only two degrees of separation from John Walpole Willis will surely do the trick.

Robert Dowling, Tasmanian Son of Empire.

If you put your skates on, you’ll catch the Robert Dowling, Tasmanian Son of Empire exhibition at the Geelong Art Gallery. But be quick- it finishes on 11 July.  There’s a beautiful NGA site about the exhibition here–  go have a look, it’s a stunning site and almost as good as being there.

Robert Dowling was born in 1827 in Colchester in England, the son of a Baptist preacher.  In 1834 he arrived in Tasmania with his parents, who followed their older sons who had emigrated to the colonies some time earlier.  This Evangelical background is important because it influenced the subjects he painted  for the rest of his life.  He was apprenticed as a saddle-maker but did not follow his trade. Instead he set himself up as a painter of commissioned portraits.  He travelled between Hobart and Launceston painting portraits of many prominent figures and personal friends, including John West the Congregationalist minister and other leading Evangelicals.  In 1854 he shifted across to Port Phillip in the hope of capitalizing on the post-Gold Rush prosperity.  However he found it difficult to gain patronage in Melbourne, so he shifted down to Geelong closer to his extended family, and where he was commissioned to paint portraits by the wealthy Western District pastoralists.

In every exhibition, there’s usually one painting that you linger in front of, and often return to in order to scrutinize it more closely.  For me, it was this painting: Mrs Adolphus Sceales with Black Jimmie on Merrang Station

The catalogue described this as a ‘mourning painting’.  The exhibition catalogue (a beautifully presented book by John Jones) tells me that  Adlophus Sceales died in 1855, leaving a young widow Jane and two young daughters.  Mrs Sceales commissioned the work, and how I wish that I could eavesdrop on the conversation between subject and artist when the painting was being planned!  The riderless horses remind me of the military funeral tradition, but I assume that they were portrayed because he must have loved riding, perhaps with the two dogs shown.  I wonder whose decision it was to include Jimmie, and what his clothes and stance indicate about his role on the station- it looks very formal attire, befitting a manservant for an Englishman.  The emptiness of the picture is striking: the house is not shown, only the stables and it looks rather bleak, empty and cold. The daughters are completely absent.

This was one of several paintings that show Aboriginal people in the Western Districts, sometimes in family groupings, and at other times in close proximity to the settler families with whom they lived.

These are the children of his brother-in-law’s family and I’m struck by the easy pose of the little girl draped innocently ( but not entirely appropriately to our eyes today) over the young  aboriginal man.  What does it say about his role in the family? He’s obviously much older than the children- does he have a carer role?

In 1857 Dowling travelled to London to study art, sponsored by the good citizens of Tasmania. He stayed there for nearly thirty years, improving his technique to be sure, and acting almost as a conduit of empire.   He made copies of British paintings for an antipodean audience- a portrait of Queen Victoria, for example was sent back to the colonies as an  important official painting. He sent images of empire home, and he brought images of the colony to the metropole. On the other side of the world, he worked up the paintings of Van Diemen’s Land aborigines painted by the ex-convict artist Thomas Bock, who had possibly instructed Dowling in painting many years earlier.  Bock had died by this time, and Dowling copied Bock’s paintings and inserted them into a range of landscape settings in grand History Paintings.  He made multiple copies, with the same central figures in different groupings and with different backgrounds.

Click on the NGV website about the Dowling exhibition for a zoomable close-up and explanation of the painting.

And, true to form, I can find six degrees of separation (even fewer!) from Judge Willis and this painting.  The smiling figure on the right hand side is Tunnerminnerwait, also known as Cape Grim Jack, who was one of the Van Diemen’s Land blacks who accompanied Protector Robinson across Bass  Strait. He was sentenced to death by Judge Willis and executed in January 1842.  If you have access to academic journals at all, there’s an excellent essay by Leonie Stevens in the June 2010 Victorian Historical Journal called “The Phenomenal Coolness of Tunnerminnerwait” ( a rather phenomenally cool title for the article, too!)

In a world where a few snatched bars of “Kookaburra Sits on the Old Gum Tree” can lead to a lawsuit, we might raise our eyebrows at Dowling’s appropriation of Bock’s images in this way. Here’s Bock’s version of Tunnerminnerwait on the left, and Woureddy on the right. You’ll be able to easily locate them in Dowling’s picture above.

Dowling’s re-presentations of Bock’s images found their way to the Ethnological Society of Britain and the Royal Academy where they fed the interest in anthropology and primitive societies.  Although these paintings were created in London, using sketches from Bock’s originals, they eventually found their way back to Australia as part of the swirl of cultural artefacts throughout the Empire.

Dowling returned to Australia in 1884 and set up a studio in Melbourne.  He returned to England two years later with the intention of packing up and moving permanently back to the colonies, but died suddenly.  As Jones points out, it’s interesting to speculate how he would have responded artistically to the Australian Impressionists and their take on Australian landscapes.


Jones, John.  Robert Dowling, Tasmanian son of Empire, Canberra, National Gallery of Australia c 2010

Stevens, Leonie  “The Phenomenal Coolness of Tunnerminnerwait” Victorian Historical Journal, Vol 8, No 1 June 2010 pp.18-40.

Richard Holmes, Nerval, madness and a book not written

Have I mentioned to you that I really very much enjoy Richard Holmes’ work? I think I may have, once or twice.

You might be wondering why I am so enamoured of Richard Holmes at the moment.  I have not particularly characterized my own work as biography- in fact I think that I have consciously resisted the idea of writing biography.  Yes, I am looking at my judge, but I’m even more interested in the reaction to him in the societies in which he operated, the hot-buttons he pushed, and what that suggests about that colony.

And yet I find myself identifying with much of what Holmes says about the biographer’s relationship with the subject.  My family rolls its collective eye and  I often laugh at my ability to play Six Degrees of Separation between any possible event or person and Judge Willis.  I read court reports in the newspaper and wonder “What Would Judge Willis Do?”.  I seem to be able to find some connection, however tenuous, between Willis and practically anyone in Port Phillip in the 1840s.  I walk around Melbourne and I try to “see” it with 1840s eyes.

It was rather reassuring to find that Richard Holmes does this too. In talking about his four-year passion in writing about Shelley, he writes:

The pursuit became so intense, so demanding of my own emotions that it continuously threatened to get out of hand.  When I traveled alone I craved after intimacy with my subject, knowing all the time that I must maintain an objective and judicial stance.  I came often to feel excluded, left behind, shut out from the magic circle of his family… I was often in a peculiar state, like a displaced person, which was obviously touched off by some imbalance, or lack of hardened identity, in my own character… Indeed I came to suspect that there is something frequently comic about the trailing figure of the biographer: a sort of tramp permanently knocking at the kitchen window and secretly hoping he might be invited in for supper.  (Footsteps p. 143-4)

He talks about the biographer becoming gradually more confident about his/her subject’s character.  This is something that I’ve only recently been able to say about myself.  Just recently, I mentioned to a fellow-student something that I felt about my judge, just on the gut-feeling that, knowing what I do about him, I think he would act this way.  I was right, and even though I often bemoan that “I just do not get this man”, I think perhaps I do more than I admit.  Holmes writes:

Yet a biographer does become slowly convinced about his subjects’ characters.  After studying them and living with them for several years he finds that they become one of the most important of all human truths; and I think perhaps the most reliable….   [The subject might act ‘out of character’] Yet the biographer views and witnesses these daily human affairs in a special and privileged perspective.  He gains a special kind of intimacy, but quite different from the subjective intimacy that I had first so passionately sought.  He sees no act in isolation; nor does he see it from a single viewpoint.  Even the familiarity of a close friend or spouse of many years suffers from this limitation.  The biographer sees every act as part of a constantly unfolding pattern: he sees the before and the afterwards, both cause and consequence.  Above all he sees repetition and the emergence of significant behaviour over an entire lifetime.  As a result I have convinced of the integrity of  human character. Even a man’s failings, sudden lapses, contradictory reactions, sudden caprices, seem in the long run to fall within a pattern of character.  One could say, paradoxically, that people even act out of character in a certain way: there is always, so to speak, meaning in their madness, provided one has full knowledge of the circumstances.  (Footsteps p. 173,4)

But Gerard de Nerval nearly brought him undone.  In his book Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer, he writes of his obsession- and it truly became that- with the writer Gerard de Nerval, a French journalist and writer who was himself floridly insane and ended up committing suicide.

Gerard de Nerval

The biographical problems in writing about Nerval were daunting.  What to even call the man? (given that this was an assumed name).  How much to trust Nerval’s unverifiable telling of own childhood, given that it was written in the grip of madness?  How to write about the madness when it was at the centre of his self?  How to write about a person when Nerval himself often saw himself as two people?

All the logical and traditional structures that I had learned so painstakingly- the chronology, the development of character, the structure of friendships, the sense of trust and the subject’s inner identity- began to twist and dissolve.  It was becoming more and more difficult to tell, or to account for, Nerval’s life in the ordinary narrative, linear way. (p. 249)… As my months went by in Paris, I became more and more convinced that was exactly what could not be done, and that I had reached the limits of the biographical form, as a method of investigation.  Instead, I found myself slipping further and further into a peculiar and perilous identification with my lunatic subject, as if somehow I could diagnose Nerval by becoming him.  As if self-identification- the first crime in biography- had become my last and only resort. (Footsteps p. 264)

Holmes experimented with different techniques.  Could he write a biographical group portrait of the people who surrounded Nerval, using “a central but relatively neutral or unfamiliar figure to tell the story of a famous group of circle”? (p. 208) But the danger is that the “neutral” figure becomes the focus.  Should he abandon any pretence of objective documentation, evidence or chronology and write it as a novel instead? (p.265).  Could he use the Tarot cards that Nerval placed such credence upon as an organizing device for a life that defied chronological and developmental unity? [Personally, I think that this could have worked really well.]

In the end, his major work on Nerval remained unpublished- a book not written, so to say, – or at least, a book not read, although he did contribute an essay to a translation of Nerval’s work in 1985.   Until- voila!- Nerval reappears in  Holmes’ 2000 book Sidetracks: Explorations of a Romantic Biographer,  in the form of a radio documentary called “Inside the Tower” – or as he describes it “a radio drama based on the life of the poet Gerard de Nerval.  All Nerval’s speeches are drawn from his own essays, letters and journals.”  It was broadcast in 1977 by Radio Three, with Timothy West as the voice of Gautier.

Holmes noted:

The discovery of radio, as a vehicle for biographical story-telling, moving effortlessly inside and outside its characters’ minds, shifting with magical ease between different times and locations, was a revelation and an inspiration to me. (Sidetracks, p. 55)

And even moreso now, I would say, with podcasts that can give a program a life beyond its initial airing.  This genre solved so many problems:  he could capture the multiple perspectives of Nerval’s friends by writing commentaries for them as bit-players, so that they contribute to our understanding of Nerval without having to take centre stage themselves.  He could use Nerval’s own words- great screeds of them- to capture Nerval’s own voice, and what an acute and lyrical one it is too!  He starts with the suicide,  in the form of a police report, with eyewitnesses, mortuary assistant, police commissioner; then broadens out to include his friends, his doctors- then finally Nerval himself.  Holmes himself speaks as biographer, but he doesn’t dominate the stage.  Instead, it is Nerval’s voice, unadulterated, honoured.  Brilliant, brilliant stuff.


Richard Holmes Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer (1985)

Richard Holmes Sidetracks: Explorations of a Romantic Biographer (2000)

A day at Sills Bend


One of my favourite places to take a deck chair, picnic, glass of wine and good book on a warm afternoon is down to Sills Bend, beside the Yarra River in Heidelberg.  I’m a Heidelberg gal at heart, and down at Sills Bend I feel particularly close to the early settlers, including the Resident Judge Willis, whose rented property was on the ridge overlooking these river flats. As Alexander Sutherland was to describe it in 1888,

Heidelberg was scarcely a suburb; it was rather a favourite district for those who desire to have ample domains around their dwelling.  Until 1850 it was regarded as the distinctly aristocratic locality; the beauty of the river scenery, the quiet romantic aspect of the place, gave it an early reputation among the Melbourne men of means as the site for country residence – Alexander Sutherland Victoria and Its Metropolis 1888

The land that is now Heidelberg was offered for sale at the first land sales, conducted in Sydney. The fact that the sales were held in Sydney, meant that unless locals or their agents were prepared to travel up to Sydney, then most of the sales were to Sydney investors.  Thomas Walker, the Scottish investor, purchased several of  the available lots.  However, as is usual in land boom conditions, the estates changed hands several times in a short period of time.  And why wouldn’t they- prime land, water access through the Yarra, Darebin and Plenty rivers, and all within ten miles of the centre of Melbourne.

The river flats, with a good source of water were turned over to tenant farmers like Peter Fanning (1827-1905), who farmed the next bend of the river (Fanning’s Bend) , or subdivided from the larger estates and sold as small holdings to farmers like Mark Sill (1818-1885) who planted an orchard.  Several of the pear trees are still alive.


The gold rush had little effect on Heidelberg beyond stimulating market gardens and agriculture to supply the increased population moving to the diggings at Queenstown (St Andrews) and Warrandyte. However, during the 1860s there was a succession of ‘droughts and flooding rains’ that made sustainable farming very difficult.  As the agent for the Banyule Estate, James Graham wrote on 12 January 1865

I am quite concerned about the low rents from Banyule area the tenants are doing no good. What with this very dry season and rust and caterpillars, the crops are very poor indeed.  Fanning is both losing money and rent altogether and he has been at me several times to let him off the lease. He had worked hard poor fellow but I see and I know that he is losing money.  His wife is in very bad health, which helps to make matters worse.

The dominance of English-style estates around the Heidelberg areas means that there are quite a few stands of oak and hawthorn trees.  The oak trees down at Sills Bend are spectacular, with branches that reach right down to the ground.  There’s a little beach (very little) down on the Yarra bank



The small size of Heidelberg militated against the provision of infrastructure like water and rail, which in turn hampered growth.  It was really only with the Depression of the 1890s that the large estates began to be broken up.  Land subdivision progressed in a piecemeal fashion right up until the 1960s.

So, Melburnians, when you read of the “missing link” between the Western Ring Road and the Eastern Freeway, look very carefully at what is proposed when they start talking about the Bulleen option.  You might want to join me on the barricades.


Don Garden, Heidelberg: The Land and Its People

Plaque at Sills Bend