Category Archives: Women in Port Phillip

Article: Artists in Society 1850-1880

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.

Caroline Clemente ‘Artists in Society: a Melbourne circle 1850s- 1880s’ Art Bulletin of Victoria, 30,  (2014) freely available online here.

The focus of this article is on three colonial artists whose works can be found in the NGV’s collection of colonial period art: Edward La Trobe Bateman (1815-97), Louisa Anne Meredith (1812-95) and Georgiana McCrae (1804-90). Although the works discussed in this article were all created during the period 1850-1880s, the networks and family/friendship connections between the artists reach back into 1840s Port Phillip.  The Howitt family are the linch-pin here as the centre of cultured Port Phillip society, in their large house at No 1 Collins Street and  at Barragunda, their retreat at Cape Schank. [See a photograph of their Collins Street residence here in 1868, showing the presence of large residences and gardens in what is now the centre of the city.]

At the same time, the links between these artists and their works and the cultural influences in the metropole are clear.  Bateman‘s work featured at the Pre-Raphaelite exhibition held in Melbourne in 2015 and Louisa Anne Meredith’s books and illustrations attracted attention in London as part of the empire’s fascination with the flora and fauna of ‘the colonies’.  Even Georgiana McCrae, whose professional life was largely stifled by her emigration to Port Phillip,  was trained by some of the best masters in England and, thankfully, continued her work within her family circle even though it was deemed unseemly for her to work commercially.

This article takes each of the three artists in turn, highlighting the links between them. As the closing sentence of this essay notes:

This circle of friends and artists thus provides a unique insight and testifies to the breadth and vigour of the cultural life of early Melbourne.



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

Marry in haste, repent at leisure….

Assigned convicts in Port Phillip might only have had to attend one muster every New Year’s Day, but they were still convicts.  This was reinforced by the regulations involving marriage.

THE CONVICT SYSTEM — To prevent bigamy, and also to secure the government against being burdened with the support of the families of convicts, it has long been a standing ordinance of the government that no convict shall be married without leave first had and obtained from the Governor, and any evasion of this law is punishable as a misdemeanor. On Thursday last, a convict named William Beresford, who is assigned to Mr. W. H. Dutton, one of the largest importers of this detestable species of labour, was brought before the Melbourne bench, charged with offending against this law by marrying one Mary Hall, without the sanction of the Governor. The prisoner, it appeared, was married in February last, by the Rev. Mr. Forbes, of the Scots Church, to whom he represented himself as a free immigrant by the Thomas Laurie. The prisoner admitted his guilt, but alleged he had the consent of his master, who had advised him should any questions be asked, to pass himself off as a free man. Mr. Dutton when examined, admitted that he had given his consent to the marriage, but he denied altogether having advised the prisoner to deceive the clergyman. Mr. Simpson, who was on the bench, expressed in strong terms his disapprobation of the conduct of Mr. Dutton, who, as a magistrate, and for many years an assignee of convict labour, could not be ignorant of the enormity of the offence of which the prisoner was guilty. Beresford was informed that his marriage was a nullity, and sentenced to expatiate his offence by working for six months in irons. During the examination it transpired that on a previous occasion Mr. Dutton had given his assent to the marriage of another of his assigned servants named Spicer, but that worthy having been insolent to the clergyman who was to have united him to his ‘cara sposa’, the ceremony did not take place. The bench directed Mr. Dutton to bring Spicer before them forthwith that he might be dealt with also. Mr. Dutton’s conduct in this affair is altogether so inexcusable that we think the bench scarcely did their duty in failing to deprive him of the whole of his assigned servants. — Ed. P. P. P.  [Port Phillip Patriot, 11/4/42]

It was no doubt to warn young women about the dangers of hastily and ill-advised marriages to convicts-under-cover that the Port Phillip Gazette issued this warning on 20 April, directed particularly to female immigrants, new to the colony:

CAUTION TO FEMALE IMMIGRANTS.— The facilities for concealment which the free state of society in this district holds out to prisoners is often an inducement to runaway convicts to settle under the guise of emacipated or originally free characters. Bolters from Van Diemen’s Land and Sydney make their way to Port Phillip, and seduced by the means of earning an independence, are so incautious as to take up with some pursuit in towns or their vicinity, where contact with the police is certain to lead sooner or later to their detection. In some instances these men have the folly to marry, and thus entail misery and disgrace upon the unfortunate women with whom they become connected. Examples have come within our knowledge in which a “Bolter” at the time of his re-capture was to all appearance in the virtuous enjoyment of a livelihood industriously acquired and pursued. In such cases the question whether Government should not let them remain undisturbed so long as they continue good and useful members of society, has been sometimes raised, but so dangerous might the precedent prove, to the control of the convict population of neighbouring colonies that severity becomes unavoidable. Where free women have had the misfortune to be deceived into linking their fate with runaway convicts, the hardship of their position is extremely distressing, and should be a caution to them to avoid hasty marriages, and particularly with men, who, acknowledging that they have been prisoners are unable to produce their certificates of freedom. We have been led into these remarks by learning that two men are now in custody at the Eastern watch-house, one suspected to be a “bolter” from Van Die-men’s Land, the other a runaway convict from Sydney, both are married, and the unfortunate women are in great tribulation on account of the arrest of their husbands. If the suspicion be verified, the marriages are illegal, the children illegitimate, and any property acquired by their joint industry becomes forfeited to the crown. The women will be cast adrift under the stigma of having formed bad connections, and their fortunes; in all probability, will be for the future under a cloud. It is not without reason, then, that female immigrants should be careful of using the facilities which the state of society holds out to an early marriage. [PPG 20/4/42]


This Week in Port Phillip 1841: 15-23 December

The Tasmanians, ‘the Van Diemen’s Land Blacks’, ‘Robinson’s Blacks’

The newspapers during this week were dominated by the trial of Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyheener which was heard before Judge Willis on 15 December 1841.  The women were acquited, leaving just the two men to face punishment. I will soon review Kate Auty and Lynette Russell’s book on the trial, and will no doubt say more about the case there. After my frequent mentions of this case on this blog, I’m sure that the outcome is no surprise. (See  here, here, here and here  )

Suffice to say, Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyheener were found guilty by the jury, with a recommendation to mercy on account of the “peculiar circumstances” of the prisoners’ situation. The Port Phillip Gazette thought that the jury’s recommendation would prevail:

…the verdict of condemnation was delivered a recommendation to mercy on account of the good character given of the condemned by the Chief Protector, and of the peculiar circumstances in which they stood. This rider is the most important point for our consideration and whatever may be the amount of dissent, we heartily rejoice that the province has thus been saved the disgraceful exhibition of a legal murder; for there can be little doubt that the recommendation of the jury will be attended to, so far, at least, to gain a respite for the criminals until the pleasure of the Queen in Council shall be known; and should, even then, that last decision be unfavourable to the principle of leniency, the long suspense endured by the prisoners and the [??] taken by lapse of time from the “force of example” will plead in favour of its practice  [PPG 22/12/41]

Then the Port Phillip Gazette reverted to a more familiar trope. Noting that the jury had pointed to “peculiar circumstances in which the prisoners stand”, the editorial went on

Wild and untameable from their nature, silent in their resentment, quick in their [indistinct] and fearful in their revenge, who can presume to say what notions slumbered in their untutored minds, ready to burst forth on the earliest opportunity that presented itself to their desires?  [PPG 22/12/41]

For now, the Port Phillip Gazette, along with the people of Port Phillip had to wait until the case reached its final conclusion in January.

To market, to market

The Melbourne Market opened on 15 December. There were, in effect, three locations of the Market:

  1. The General Market, situated between Williams and Market-streets, adjoining the Custom House and Police office, and facing the river was appropriated for the sale of 1. Fruit and vegetables. 2. Potatoes, 3. Dry goods 4. Poultry, butchers’ meat and fish
  2. The Hay and Corn market, situated in Flinders and Swanston-streets, was established for the disposal of hay, corn, fodder, straw, grass, grain and pulses.
  3. The Cattle Market, intended ultimately to be erected and opened for the sale of horned cattle, sheep, horses, pigs, goats, mules and asses; would for some time be held at the place known as the Auction Company’s yards which were leased for 6 months for the purpose.

Yesterday being the day appointed for the opening of the General Market; at an early hour drays loaded with vegetables &c. began to make their appearance, and shortly after the “gudewives” followed by little “gelpies” carrying the market baskets made their appearance.  The day altogether was an eventful one at the west end of the town, and created almost as much stir as would a coronation, an execution or even a Lord Mayor’s day in London.  [PPP 16/12/41]

The market provided a service, but it also sidelined small-time vendors who sold goods on the street.  In the Port Phillip Gazette of 25 December (yes- on Christmas Day), James Simpson J.P., Chairman of the Market Commissioners warned that

In pursuance of Section No 23 of the 3rd Victoria 1, No 19- Notice is hereby given, that any person or persons selling or exposing to sale any butchers’ meat, poultry, eggs, butter, vegetables, or other provisions usually sold in markets, in any of the street, lanes, entries, or other public passages, other than the market places appropriated for such purposes by the commissioners, shall, on conviction thereof before a justice of the peace, for every such offence forfeit and pay the sum of five pounds. [PPG 25/12/41]

Steam away!

The vast majority of communication between the various Australian colonies took place through steamer rather than roads.  The regular schedule of steamer voyages was as follows:

Steamers plying between Melbourne and various parts of the colony: The Seahorse– weekly to Sydney; the Corsair, three times a fortnight to Launceston; the Aphrasia, twice a week to Geelong; the Governor Arthur daily to Williams Town; and the Fairy Queen (which is now laid up undergoing repairs) daily to the shipping at Hobson’s Bay. [PPG 18/12/41]

Actually, the Governor Arthur wasn’t to ply between Melbourne and Williams Town for long, because a fire on the 23 December destroyed the craft at her moorings at Queen’s Wharf at 5.00 am.   Some bark had been placed on board near the boiler the previous evening in order to light the fire in the morning and the vessel burst into flames at 2.00 a.m.  Although the steamer was damaged, all the property on board was saved. The whole of the property on board has been saved. [PPP 23/12/41]

A grisly find

In the first week of December, the Port Phillip Gazette reported:

“MYSTERIOUS- On Thursday last, in consequence of the burial ground being found disturbed in one or two places, it was examined by the sexton who found the bodies of three infants.  They were surgically examined, but nothing found in the appearance of the bodies led to the supposition that anything unfair had caused death. They were again consigned to the earth. There is no doubt that the bodies were those of the children of poor people who could not pay for a more regular interment. This course is however fraught with danger, and might bring parties, although innocent, into serious difficulties.” [PPG 8/12/41]

The Port Phillip Patriot reported the discovery of another infant’s body the next day, making a total of seven children buried clandestinely during the previous two years.

…decency revolted at the bodies of infants being placed only a few inches below the surface, without any coffin, liable to be torn up by dogs and to become offensive and obnoxious in the burial ground. [PPG9/12/41]

Was it infanticide?  Or poverty?

The plea of poverty, if such a plea were offered, is no excuse for conduct so very reprehensible, and so open to suspicion of guilt, for there is no such poverty existing in Melbourne, and even if it did exist, there would be no necessity for resorting to an expedient so revolting. [PPP 9/12/41]

On 23 December the Patriot reported on an inquest held on 21 December at the Crown Hotel in Lonsdale street on the body of yet another baby found that morning (bringing the total to eight, perhaps?) The newly born male child had been deposited in a box and laid in a newly dug grave in the Episcopalean burial ground.  The child was three or four days old and a medical examination found a large quantity of water on the brain.  The verdict was

died by the visitation of God, to wit, of congenital hydrocephalus and not by any violent means whatsoever to the knowledge of the said jurors.

These jurors, too, criticized the way that the baby’s body had been interred. Still, at a time when there was no compulsory registration of births and deaths (which didn’t occur until 1853- there’s a fascinating podcast by Madonna Grehan about the implemention of the Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Act of 1853 here) , and with no lying-in hospitals (or any hospitals for that matter at this stage, except for one for convicts) then it would be very possible for children to be born and die without a documentary trace.

Arrival of immigrant ships

The economy was becoming wobbly and after a much-publicized labour shortage for farm and domestic workers during 1840 and the first part of 1841, now wages were dropping and unemployment was rising.  And still the immigrant ships kept arriving, full of immigrants gathered either through privately-sponsored bounty schemes (which acted as a handy little earner for the immigration agent) or through government schemes.  Arrangements were made and departures had occurred months ago, at a time of economic optimism that was now rapidly fading.  I wouldn’t vouch for the accuracy of my transcription of these figures as the font on the newspaper is very fuzzy, but the almost simultaneous arrival of so many ships with so many immigrants must have been daunting:

Nov 4                    Diamond                             from Cork            336 imms

Nov 27                  Alan Kerr                             Greenoch            250

Nov 27                  Wallace                                Liverpool             320

Nov 29                  Francis                                  Liverpool             194

Nov 30                  Marquis of Bute                  Greenoch            234

Nov 30                  Mary Nixon                          Cork                       134

Dec 4                     Brackenmoor                        Cork                       136

Dec 16                   Ward Chipman                  Bristol                   370

Dec 16                   William Mitchell                Leith                      23

Dec 17                   Agostina                              Cork                       195

[PPG 22/12/41]

The Port Phillip Herald of  17/12/41 noted that the Ward Chipman had recorded 21 deaths, 19 of them children from dysentery brought on by the change of diet and want of nourishment  consequent on the long detention of the immigrants in Bristol.  I can only imagine the recrimination and sorrow among the families on that ship.

Picnic Time

On Tuesday 21st December Captain Cole held a picnic at Brighton. Obviously the ladies and gentlemen of Port Phillip were already in holiday mode on a Tuesday.

A splendid fete champetre was given on Tuesday last by Captain Cole of Melbourne, to nearly one hundred and fifty ladies and gentlemen.  Nothing could exceed the style in which it was got up; it is the first of a series of fetes to be given during the present season the fashionables of Melbourne.

Georgiana McCrae, whose sister-in-law Thomas Anne had become engaged to Capt George Ward Cole on the 11th, wrote about the picnic:

 Dr and Mrs Myer arrived in their carriage to take me to the picnic but on account of the wild-appearing sky, I elected to stay at home, and it was well I did because at three o’clock a southerly gale sprang up, which continued until five, with such a hurricane fore that the gentlemen of the party had to hold on to the tent with all their might to keep the canvas from being blown away.  Returning at dusk, there were upsets and bruises, even broken limbs…yet the Myers and our people escaped unhurt.[ Journal 21 December 1841]

Actually, it was just as well Georgiana didn’t go- a week later she gave birth to a baby girl.

How’s the weather?

The top temperature for the period was 92 degrees (33 C) but as Georgiana McCrae’s journal notes, it was pretty wild and changeable (as December can be, as we know)

Fresh and strong winds daily, variable and squally; very heavy squalls 15th and 21st, the latter accompanied by heavy rain, the weather otherwise fine. [15-21 Dec]

At a time when so many people were arriving – both immigrants and self-funded arrivals- it was no doubt fitting to give advice on how to cope with Melbourne’s weather. It’s rather amusing to see that obviously workingmen coped better with the heat, even though ladies, children and “parties who could escape from business for a couple of hours” benefited from a siesta.

THE WEATHER.  — Summer with all its sultriness is with us. The heat during several different days has been excessive; the drought, however, which usually accompanies its progress his not yet become so great, as to be a matter of Complaint. The supply of water, which for the want of a properly constructed weir  in the river to prevent the ingress of the salt tide from the bay -is commonly inferior, retains its sweetness. The sickness which was prevalent during the last season has been rarely witnessed in this; but the greatest caution should still be entertained in the matters of diet and exercise. The abundance of vegetables and fish will naturally make them common articles of consumption, but no article will be found so injurious as either of them when at all tainted or stale; and under any circumstances if eaten to excess diarrhoea will ensue. Exercise must consist of bathing, and riding or walking in  the cooler hours of morning and night ; exposure to the sun more than is necessary should be avoided, although it is certainly found that workmen may freely pursue their vocations during the greatest heat without apparent injury. Cleanliness and temperance are in such a season the greatest preservatives of health, and a residence, if it can conveniently be managed, by the sea is greatly preferable to the low heated atmosphere of the town. A siesta at midday for females,-children, and parties who can escape from business for a couple of hours, will be conducive to strength and cheerfulness. [PPG 18/12/41]

Mind you, gentlemen needed to be careful when bathing, lest they be fined up to one pound. Swimming was illegal:

within view of any public wharf, quay, bridge, street, road or other place of public resort within the limits of the town between the hours of six in the morning and eight in the evening. [PPP 20/12/41]

This Week in Port Phillip 1841: 8-14 October 1841

Governor Gipps’ visit

I let slip last week that Governor Gipps was to visit the Port Phillip District in October 1841. There had been hints and rumours but now it had been confirmed: Governor Gipps was to visit for the first time.  He hadn’t been to Port Phillip, but he had already met the superintendent Charles La Trobe, who stayed with him in Sydney before coming down to Port Phillip.  The warmth of their relationship is reflected in the Gipps-La Trobe Correspondence, edited by A.G.L. Shaw.

The newspapers didn’t know whether to gush with excitement or to continue with their ongoing litany of complaint about the Governor and  New South Wales generally.  i.e “we provide all the money through land sales and they give us nothing back”; “why doesn’t Sydney give us more for infrastructure?” etc (not unlike the State Premiers in Australia today, come to think of it).  In the end the glamour of vice-regal ceremony won out and whole columns were devoted to the visit.

We’re not at that stage yet: they were still knee-deep in planning, and a public meeting was held at the Exchange Rooms to plan the visit. First question: how should he arrive? Mr Verner suggested that

the meeting should nominate a deputation to wait upon the Governor on board the steamer on her arrival in the Bay, and to request his Excellency to land publicly at the Beach at such time as might suit his convenience.  Mr Arden was of opinion that the better mode would be for the deputation to proceed in the Aphrasia to meet the Governor, and that His Excellency should be brought in the steamer to the wharf where the colonists could assemble to receive him on his arrival.  A lengthy discussion on this topic ensued, the one party maintaining that it was desirable that His Excellency should land at the Beach, because the approach to the town from that direction was calculated to give him a much more favourable impression of its beauty and extent that the approach by the river, and the other party insisting that if subjected to the necessity of wading through the swamp, His Excellency would scarcely have leisure or inclination to survey the opening beauties of our metropolis. (PPP 11/10/41)

In the end, it was decided to leave it up to the committee.  Next question- the public dinner. Who should be the chairman? It was decided that La Trobe should be asked to do the honours, to which he promptly agreed. And so, soon this advertisement appeared:


The social calibre of the stewards and the two-guinea-a-head ticket price indicated that this would be a thoroughly respectable gathering.  None the less, a correspondent to the Port Phillip Patriot (who, you may remember could well have been one of the authors of the Patriot itself) wrote to ask “is the Dignity Ball farce to be played out over again?” Certainly not, the Editor replied:

Character- not wealth or the fanciful distinctions of birth and station- is to be the test of exclusion from the dinner to the Governor, and that test no reasonable man can object to. [PPP p.2]

A night at the theatre


William Liardet’s depiction of the Theatre Royal (formerly The Pavilion) shown as it stood before its demolition in 1845 and  sketched from memory in about 1875. Source: State Library of Victoria

Not quite so respectable was the prospect of a night at the theatre. It’s easy to lose sight of how closely the theatre was scrutinized in early Melbourne. The Pavilion in Bourke Street, opened in April 1841 went through several name changes.  Edmund Finn, writing as Garryowen gives one of his typically colourful descriptions of the building:

Its dimensions were to be 65 feet by 35 feet, the sum of £11ooo was to be expended on its construction.Its dimensions were to be 65 feet by 35 feet, the sum of £11ooo was to be expended on its construction,…it was one of the queerest fabrics imaginable. Whenever the wind was high it would rock like an old collier at sea, and it was difficult to account for it not heeling over in a gale.The public entrance from Bourke Street was up half-a-dozen creaking steps ; and the further ascent to the ” dress circle,” and a circular row of small pens known as upper boxes or gallery, was by a ladder-like staircase of a very unstable description. Internally it was lighted by tin sconces, nailed at intervals to the boarding, filled with guttering candles, flickering with a dim and sickly glare. A swing lamp and wax tapers were afterwards substituted, and the immunity of the place from fire is a marvel. It was never thoroughly water-proof, and, after it was opened for public purposes, in wet weather the audience would be treated to a shower bath. (p. 451)

Apparently it was licensed to hold concerts and balls, but no ‘theatre’ as such and the violation of its licence conditions led to a rather rambunctious night :

THE PAVILION. There was a tremendous ‘flare up’ in this establishment on Monday night last. Major St John had countermanded the entertainments in consequence of ballet dancing being introduced, that being contrary to the express rules laid down for their guidance. Application was then made to His Honor the Superintendent, but without it being stated to him the decision at which Major St John had arrived. His Honor, in ignorance of this circumstance, said he had no objection to the performance taking place as usual.  The time arrived, the doors opened, and the house filled to the ceiling; the leader of the band flourished his bow, a crash followed and the overture was gone through in good style; the curtain rose, and a song by a lady succeeded. At this critical juncture the chief constable, Mr Falkiner, stepped forward and caused a halt, upon the order given by the Major; an awkward pause followed, which the audience filled up by smoking cigars and sipping from stone bottles; a gentleman in top boots, accompanied by a ruffianly looking groom,  cleared the orchestra at a bound, and commenced a reel; Mr Miller quickly served upon them a writ of ejectment, by propelling them into the pit. Thus passed about an hour, when Mr Miller came forward and announced that His Honor the Superintendent had forbidden the performance- and the curtain dropped again. Then commenced a scene which we never hope to witness again- the hubbub was immense- Waterloo was a fool to it. After the house was cleared, which was with considerable difficulty, in consequence of the demand of the auditory for their money, a servant of His Honor rode up and announced that the concert might proceed; it was however too late, the public had dispersed. The parties interested in the success of the pavilion may thank themselves for this failure, having broken the rules laid down by the police magistrate for their guidance.  Until this place is under the control of respectable parties it never can prosper.[ PPG 13/10/41]

Rude servants

Reading through the Police Court columns, it comes as a jolt to realize just how draconian the N.S.W. “Act for the better regulation of Servants, Labourers, and Workpeople”(1828) legislation was,  even exceeding  the English Masters and Servants legislation on which it was based.Not just content with dismissal, employers could (and did) take their employees to court where they could be imprisoned, sentenced to hard labour or fined.  And so we read in October 1841 of Captain Smyth of Heidelberg taking his servant Ruth Robinson before the court for gross misconduct in what Smyth clearly intended as an exemplary punishment. I haven’t been able to locate any information about the Hired Servants’ Act, but it seems to have restrained Captain Smyth somewhat – although the punishment was still harsh when servants’ wages were about £15 per annum.

HIRED SERVANTS. Ruth Robinson, a hired servant in the employ of Captain Smyth, of Heidelberg, was charged with the following gross misconduct.  The previous day she wished to leave his service, when Captain Smyth said he would go to Town, and when suited with another servant, she was at liberty. During his absence the conduct of the woman Robinson towards Mrs Smyth was most abominable. She gave her mistress to understand that, the master being absent, she should not obey orders.  Upon being requested to bring in the dinner, she said that she would not, until she had dressed herself, then she would bring in the dinner, after which it was her intention to walk into Town; and as she said, so she acted.  The woman also had put herself into so violent a passion that Mrs Smyth had reason to fear personal violence. Captain Smyth said, that he brought the woman before the Bench upon public grounds; here were a number of females coming to the colony, honest and well behaved no doubt, but totally ignorant of their duties as servants; when they had obtained the necessary degree of knowledge, they became insolent, and endeavoured by every means in their power to obtain their discharge.  They were however particularly cautious not to commit themselves before their master, fearing that he might appear against them, but taking advantage of his absence abused their mistress, well knowing the objection of ladies to come into a public Court. He hoped the Bench would make such an example of this woman as to deter others from offending in like manner.

The Bench regretted that under the 10th section of the Hired Servants’ Act, they were forbidden to imprison females for misconduct in their hired services. By the 8th section of the same act they were empowered to inflict a fine, and sentenced her to pay the penalty of £5; if not paid in a fortnight her goods would be levied upon. She was ordered to return to Captain Smyth’s house, and deliver to Mrs Smyth what articles had been placed in her charge.

How’s the weather?

Winds mostly strong; a gale on 12th, weather frequently cloudy, threatening rain at times but none fell. Top temperature for the week was 70; lowest 45.

‘Miss D and Miss N’ by Bev Roberts

If I were a well-travelled person, at this point I would wave airily and announce that I always try to read a book set in a place that I am visiting.  Alas, I am not;  I can claim that I read Henry James’ The Bostonians while in Boston, and Dickens while in London…but that’s about it, I’m afraid.

So, a couple of weeks ago when we went down to Geelong (a whole 100 kms away!), I decided that of course I must read a Geelong book!!  But where to find a Geelong book? you ask.  The answer is: Miss D. and Miss N.  In fact, there’s a chance that if you’re on the Bellarine Peninsula that you’ll drive right through the areas named for them: Drysdale and Newcomb.


2009, 326 p.

The two women share an entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography.   Drysdale was twenty years older than her friend Caroline Newcomb.  Anne arrived in Port Phillip in 1840, aged forty-seven, with the experience of farming in Scotland under her belt, capital at hand, and determined to take up sheep farming in the booming pastoral industry of early Port Phillip.    Caroline Newcomb had arrived in Hobart in August 1833 and found a position as a governess with the family of John Batman, one of the members of the Van Diemen’s Land- based  Port Phillip Association that looked across Bass Strait to establish pastoral runs in what they perceived (incorrectly) as land for the taking.   When she arrived in Port Phillip on April 19 1836, she was one of only thirty-five women in the settlement, out of a white population of 177.  In March 1837 she shifted to Geelong, presumably as governess to  Dr. Alexander Thomson.  The two women met at Dr Thomson’s house where they formed a strong friendship, despite the twenty year age difference between them.   This friendship became a partnership that lasted twelve years when Anne asked Caroline to join her as a pastoralist on Boronggoop, a squatting run on the Barwon River at Geelong.  In August 1849 they achieved their wish “to have a piece of land &c a stone cottage” when they moved to Coriyule, a beautiful stone house that they had built (and which, it seems, still exists).

This, then,  is Anne’s diary, commenced from on board ship in Scotland in September  1839 going through to 1852 and 1853 when she fell ill and the writing of the diary was taken over by Caroline. Continue reading

Fashion outlook April 1842

Here’s a heads-up for the new fashions for December 1841, taken from the New Monthly Belle Assemblee and reproduced in the Port Phillip Herald of 22 April 1842. Of course, the news was already outdated by the time magazines reached Port Phillip, although I guess that it was fortuitous that descriptions of winter fashion (if indeed there was such a thing) reached Melbourne as it was moving its its own, much milder winter.   I’m not sure how the fashion described in a magazine like the New Monthly related to the clothes that people actually wore. I think of the catwalk fashion that we see  from the major designer houses todayand it seems to bear little resemblance to ‘real’ clothes that ordinary people wear.  As you can see- I am no expert on fashion at all- not then, not now!


London Public Promenade Dress- Violet satin robe; a high corsage, tight to the shape, trimmed with three rows of cord and tassels to correspond; a single row is continued down the centre of the skirt.  Long tight sleeve, ornamented from the elbow to the wrist with a succession of knots to correspond.  Drawn bonnet, of deep orange-coloured satin; the brim edged with a ruche of dark green ribbon, and the interior and exterior trimmed with flowers.  Embroidered muslin collar.  Grey velvet scarf, bordered with sable fur.  Sable muff.

Demi-Toilette. Pink pou de soie [sic- should be peau de soie] robe; corsage en gerbe, and long tight sleeve.  White satin chapeau, a round open brim; the interior trimmed with small pink flowers; the exterior with a torsade of white satin ribbon, and a bouquet formed of the tops of white curled ostrich feathers. Green velvet mantelet; it is of a large size, sits close up to the throat, with a falling collar, trimmed with green fringe of a light pattern; a heart lappel, edged with fringe, forms it to the shape of the bust; it falls low behind, descends in front in long and very full scarf ends, and is bordered with fringe.

The promenade dress sounds very colourful, with deep orange, violet and dark green.  I’m finding it hard to shake the image of a rainbow lorikeet.

I’m not sure if the picture below relates to the description or not. It apparently came from the New Monthly magazine, but I’m finding it hard to match the illustration with the description. (I think it embiggens if you click on it).

‘This Errant Lady’ by Penny Russell

2002, 207p.& notes

Now here’s a way to decide which book to read next-  what goes well with your decor?  It gave me great pleasure to see Penny Russell’s This Errant Lady lying on my bed, matching so well with my doona cover!  Martha Stewart, eat your heart out!

I was drawn to read this after finishing Ken McGoogan’s Lady Franklin’s Revenge recently.  I’d forgotten that Jane Franklin visited Port Phillip and Sydney in 1839 and I was interested to see what she said about Port Phillip in particular, even though Judge Willis, the Resident Judge of Port Phillip had not arrived at this stage.  I’ve been writing a chapter the last few weeks on Judge Willis’ involvement in colonial politics, which has taken me back to his relationships with Sydney colonists, and as a member of the government elite (albeit of a neighbouring colony), Jane Franklin was well-placed to comment on political events and personalities in Sydney.

Having now read her journal of her overland trip to Port Phillip and Sydney in 1839, I can now see why Ken McGoogan wrote the biography he did, quite apart from any other propensities that a writer on arctic exploration might have.  Jane Franklin’s journals are travel diaries in the true sense of the word- lots of information about routes taken, facts gleaned, people met etc. but not much about her own inner world.  I share the frustration of Penny Russell the editor in her preface:

In recording this epic adventure, Jane Franklin treated her diary essentially as a notebook, producing a compendium of often unrelated scraps of information.  This was in keeping with her general habit in travel writing.  Despite her enthusiasm for knowledge, Jane Franklin rarely ventured to express her opinions, speculations, or interpretations in writing.  The judgments offered in this, as in all her diaries, are generally borrowed from guidebooks, histories or local inhabitants.  Whether she agreed with them or not, she did not see her diary as a space for formulating her own opinions.  She confined her attention to the external, the observable- to what could be ‘fixed’ on the page (p. 16). … Her opinions, her thoughts, her own personality must be deduced as much from what is unwritten as from what is written- her character sketched in the space left vacant in her accounts. (p. 17)

This utilitarian approach can be partly explained by the fiction by which her trip was justified, both to her husband and to Tasmanians generally- that it was a research trip into a sister-colony that would be of use to her husband Sir John Franklin, Governor of Van Diemen’s Land, and would be a form of diplomatic representation of VDL at a governor-to-governor level.  The reality was that she was restless and curious and liked nothing better than getting away from her husband and the scrutiny of a small colonial society.  Mind you, she liked her comforts too- the iron bedstead came on this trip, just as it did on all her journeys.  But she revels in ‘roughing it’ and escaping amongst people who were only vaguely aware of who she was, and you sense the increasing tightening of protocol and deference as she moves from the outlying areas into the more settled districts surrounding Sydney.

The editor, Penny Russell, has excluded much of  the weight of detail that shackled Ken McGoogan’s biography, but she has tried to keep enough in

to preserve the rich texture of Jane Franklin’s portrayal of a colony arrested at a particular moment of development: a moment of optimism for the future, in a society still built on convict labour and pastoral expansion, in which progress rested upon the sufferings of the chain gangs and the brutually dispossessed Aborigines…But the catastrophic pastoral depression that would destroy the hopes of so many in the early 1840s had not yet made its mark, and the grandeur of half built churches and suburban villas, the growing concern over education, and the diversity of experiments in agriculture and industry all suggest an overall confidence. (p. 16-7)

Russell  has also worked hard, though, to preserve the human aspects of Jane Franklin’s interactions with the people she met.  Her trip was a long one- from April to July 1839- and she was quite devious in her excuses to cut it short as Sir John wished her to do.  But she probably should have come home earlier: it was quite clear by July that she had outstayed her welcome with the Gipps’, and it is her discomfort at this knowledge that makes her more likeable.  We have the intimacy of her coming into Mrs Gipps’ bedroom for a chat, thinking that she was alone, and finding Governor Gipps stretched out on the bed; we have the cringing, walking-on-eggshells  embarrassment when Gipps was furious that she had allowed his carriage to become soaked while she was using it.

For me- and I admit that this is probably an acquired taste- I enjoyed finding characters from “my” Port Phillip and Sydney strolling onto the stage.  So we meet Mr Verner (who was to become Judge Willis’ good friend and neighbour) bowling along in his carriage with two friends;  there’s a ship with Protector Robinson’s Van Diemen’s Land aborigines on board (some of whom were to be sentenced to death by Judge Willis two years later);  Captain Lonsdale (who was to become one of Judge Willis’ targets) taking them to a corroboree but arriving late so that it was all over by the time they arrived; there’s Chief Justice Dowling and his wife, and Justice Alfred Stephen (Judge Willis’ brother judges with whom he was anything but ‘brotherly’).  In fact- and this is important for my purposes- conspicuously absent is Judge Willis and his good lady from the balls and levees and receptions that were laid out for Lady Jane Franklin.

And so, eventually Jane headed for home. What a trip that was!  As with all journeys, once you’ve decided that yes, you’re ready to go home, it seemed to take an age.  But in this case it did-  five weeks from leaving the heads to their arrival back in Hobart (a trip that can take about 3-4 days for the Sydney to Hobart yacht race today).  Buffeted by storms, and with food and water supplies running low, their ship bobbed around; once almost glimpsing the coast of Tasmania before being swept out into the seas again over towards New Zealand.   Relieved, no doubt to be back, you still sense Hobart society swallowing her up again, with criticisms of her recklessness in even embarking on the trip and sniffy comments about petticoat government.

Penny Russell has intervened quite a bit in this book.  She has, by her own admission

emphasised particular stories, bringing into bolder relief images that are blurred, tangled or broken in Jane Franklin’s original. (p.17)

From the original transcript, retrieved and recorded by Roger Millis (who wrote the huge tome on Waterloo Creek), she has favoured people over trees or buildings, but not reproduced “the exhaustive and inexhaustible coverage of the original”, she has omitted hearsay information, and trimmed wordiness and detail “to give them greater narrative cohesion and more dramatic immediacy.”  She has supplemented the text with lengthy footnotes, giving a biographical sketch of the people Franklin mentions in passing, and interspersed Jane Franklin’s own text with clearly marked corroborating information from letters and other people’s diaries.  The book is given a clearer structure by its division into chronological chapters, many of which are prefaced by an italicized introduction.  You are aware, and Russell makes no secret of the fact, that you are reading a mediated text.   Which is probably a good thing: as the back cover blurb notes:

An intrepid traveller, Jane Franklin was consumed by an unquenchable curiosity. She looked, questioned, listened and wrote- pages and pages of minuscule notes on every topic that came to hand.  This edition, carefully abridged and introduced by Penny Russell, makes the diary available for the first time to general readers.

And while it’s probably not exactly a ripping yarn,  we general readers (and more specialized ones too)  should be glad that she has.

Miss D’s big New Year Celebrations

You might remember that I’ve snaffled myself a copy of Miss D and Miss N, edited by Bev Roberts.- and yes, you’re still waiting for a blogpost that reviews it.  So, how did Anne Drysdale see in the New Year?  Well, definitely her New Year celebrations on the ship out were the feistiest she wrote about!

January 3rd 1840- New Year celebrations

I feel very thankful that all the rejoicing days are over.  Monday the 30th December was the 6th anniversary of Mr and Mrs Gibson’s marriage.  On that account the Capt ordered a better dinner than usual & the gentlemen had an extra quantity of wine & grog.  The consequence was they all got tipsy.  Mr Baird very drunk.  There was a great deal of fighting.  Mr Clark &  the Dr. revived the subject of their duel, which they still intend shall take place when they get on shore.  The drinking this day was a beginning of what was so soon to follow on New Year’s morning, & such a scene that was!! The ship was running right before the wind at 7 1/2 knots.  Whenever 8 bells rung, intermediate & steerage passengers rushed into the cabin with bottles of spirits & all who were in their beds were roused out, then such a noise & drinking went on.  Passengers of all ranks & sailors fighting & flying about. It was fearful.

The 2nd mate was I believe the only sober man on board, mercifully the wind was aft & [the ship] drove before the wind as there was none to manage it. While it was yet dark one of the steerage passengers discovered a ship close to us.  The 2nd mate got a light put up & we escaped & have great reason to be thankful that all passed over without any serious accident.  Nearly all are cut and bruised more or less & their cloathes in tatters, but it might have been worse.  (p. 50)

Her partying days over,  and it’s God, church and work from here on:

1843 [January] Monday 2nd- strong resolutions

Yesterday wind variable, thunder & a little rain.  All went to church except myself. Made strong resolutions, with the grace of God, of amendment for the future.  This day fine, wind S. Men finished reaping wheat & oats.  Armstrong worked with pegs for hurdles & lounged Betty. Dr & Mrs Thomson & Jane came to dinner.  Capt. P… (p. 154)

Made strong resolutions, eh? Hah! don’t we all?

1844- Monday January 1st

Yesterday all went to the chapel, Mr Smith preached.  In the evening, Dr B gave us a beautiful & most impressive address on the necessity of being regenerated.  All the men & the shearers attended.  This day fine. Shearing lambs began. Robert gone to look for horses…  (p. 179)

1846 January 1st Thursday- An unfortunate day

Storm of thunder & lightning all day with heavy rain.  Ned kept holy day but rode to Corio to know if Mr Cunningham’s cattle had come.  Mr Sproat came to dinner.  Robert came up from the marsh & announced that Di was killed by the lightning.  Colin also died & 18 young turkeys & chickens were drowned in the pen. An unfortunate day… (p207)

No, I don’t know who Di and Colin are either.

1846 Thursday 31st [December]- All things richly to enjoy

Gloomy, hot & a little rain. Again we have come to the close of another year & by the blessing of God, are still surrounded with comforts & have all things richly to enjoy.  We have indeed much cause for gratitude.  May we continue to grow in grace & in love to God & our neighbours.  Ned & Robert jobbed, Moylan went. Henry remains. (p. 215)

And so say all of us.

Anne Drysdale’s Christmas 1841

There shall be more about Anne Drysdale anon, as I have bought Bev Robert’s recent book Miss D & Miss N: an extraordinary partnership.  Enough for now to say that, emigrating at 47 from Scotland and taking up land near Geelong in partnership with another woman (Caroline Newcomb) ,  Anne Drysdale is an inspiration to  ladies of a certain age like myself.

So, picking up on my timeworn (well, last year’s) theme of Christmas in Port Phillip, how did Anne Drysdale spend her Christmas in 1841?

On Friday last Dr & Mrs Thomson came down to tea & insisted on our going with them as the next day was Christmas, so we drove up with them, had roast goose & plumb pudding. Mr Tuckfield and Capt Pollock dined, the latter was with us on Thursday night.  As the next day was Sunday we remained & went to church.  On Monday morning Caroline rode down early.  Jane & I walked down after breakfast.  Dr & Mrs Thomson have given Caroline as a Xmas box the present of a mare called Fanny which she had been riding for some time.  It had a filly foal some days since.  She is to return the foal when it is weaned.  Fanny is a handsome black mare, a very pleasant ladies horse to ride & has been tried in harness & is perfectly quiet, so if we ever get a pony chair she will do nicely.  On Monday we expected Mr & Mrs Fisher to dinner to bring down Charlotte.  After dinner Mr F &  she arrived on horseback.  They had all got into a gig with in the intention of coming to dinner but the horse wouldnot go.  Mr F remained to tea & left Charlotte.

… Mr & Mrs Love & 2 children came to tea.  Capt Pollock was here Monday night. This morning before breakfast a party from Corio arrived on their way to the lakes for a pic nic. The 2nd carriage or cart had not come up, so the contents of the 1st 8 in number, breakfasted with us.  They have had a very hot day for their pic nic.

So-  a traditional hot Christmas dinner on a hot Australian day and people popping in on the way to a pic nic.  Sounds familiar really.  But this is the only Christmas day described in any detail in the diary, which becomes more business-like each year with sheep, sheep, sheep.

No sheep for me- Happy Christmas everyone

And I’ve now read Bev Roberts’ book Miss D & Miss N and you can read my review here.

‘Sex and Suffering’ by Janet McCalman


1998, 368p

I’d already worked out what I was going to say in reviewing this book.

I am not keen on institutional histories.  I dislike their celebratory nature and the way that their authors obviously feel compelled to doff their hats and gush over the institutional big-wigs and stalwarts.  You can often sense the shadowy presence of the steering committee in the back-ground and that a publicist and risk-management expert are hovering in the wings.

However, I was drawn to read this history of the Royal Women’s Hospital after hearing a Radio National Hindsight program on it, available for download hereJanet McCalman, from the University of Melbourne ( I see that she, at least still works there, given the University’s decimation of its Arts faculty) wrote Struggletown: Public and Private Life in Richmond 1900-1965 – a history of the working-class suburb of Richmond,  and Journeyings: The Biography of a Middle Class Generation 1920-1990, which followed the No 69 tram through the middle-class suburbs of Melbourne.  She’s obviously drawn to writing larger social histories by focussing her lens on a small patch of inquiry.

And so Sex and Suffering: Women’s Health and a Women’s Hospital carries on an approach that she obviously feels comfortable with.  As the title might suggest, this is not just a history of an institution: instead it deals with sex and the experience of being woman, health and institutions.

The experience of childbirth is intimately woven into the hidden parts of private lives and soon overlaid by the other experiences and achievements of a growing person.   It is common to us all, and for a short period of time is overwhelming in its effect on the mother at her exposed, most basic core and on the people closest to her.   So it was fascinating to consider the act childbirth- that most intimate and personal of events- as part of a social phenomenon that can be handled at the structural level in so many ways.

The book itself follows a chronological approach, with seven sections covering roughly 20-30 year periods.  The emphasis varies in the sections, from the clinical (particularly in the sections discussing sepsis and antisepsis) to the social and structural (where the judgments of upper-middleclass doctors and the Board of Management were trained onto the predomiantly working-class and migrant clientele).   Throughout most of the book, she draws on the case notes of individual women- helpfully supplemented with a glossary of medical terms in the margin- to make real her discussion of anaesthesia and surgery and its effect on horrendous labour situations, the horror of clostridium welchii which could kill a woman in hours, and the changes in attitudes towards labouring women and their partners.  Ye Gods- some women had enormous babies- particularly in the post-Gold Rush period when women who had suffered malformations of the pelvis through malnutrition themselves as children, especially in Ireland,  gave birth to large babies when their own diets had become carbohydrate-heavy in a new country.  There’s something stark in reading the case notes reproduced at the end of the book that chart the death over a number of days of a woman, knowing that there are mothers and fathers, husbands and other children who have been left bereft.

I know that when I was in labour with my children, I was very conscious that I was part of a chain of labouring women in my family and thought -even then!- about how absolutely dreadful it would be to die in childbirth. Hormonally, physically and from an evolutionary sense, every sinew of your being is focussed on giving birth to that child then and there, even if it is your twelfth or illegitimate.  I felt as if I was surrounded by generations of women who had given birth before, and that I was stripped down to my essential female-ness.  In reading this book I was made conscious of the effects of bad births- those fistulas you now only know of in Third World countries,  the lifelong invalidism that followed some births, and the amount of pain that lingered on year after year.  It made the knowledge of my maternal grandmother’s seven births and several miscarriages, and my paternal grandfather’s first wife’s death in childbirth, more meaningful.

There are wonderful photographs and diagrams in this book.  The photographs of Melbourne in the early chapters from both the La Trobe Picture collection and the Royal Women’s Hospital Archives are clear and showed perspectives of my city that I hadn’t seen before.  The internal photographs of the hospital, again from the hospital archives,  while deliberately posed, speak volumes about hospital discipline and nurses’ roles.

A second thread that runs through the book is a commentary on class and gender in Melbourne. The more feminist, women-centred  Queen Victoria hospital stands as a counter-point to the more traditional, male-dominated Royal Women’s Hospital, and the class perspectives of the charity-oriented upper-middle class female board members run through the attitudes towards sexually-transmitted disease, abortion and adoption that the hospital had to deal with.

Well, this is what I was going to say until I got to the last part of the book.  The last section, unfortunately, descended into that boosterism and oily fulsomeness of the standard institutional history.  Probably for privacy reasons, the case histories dropped out of the narrative.  Although they were replaced by oral history reminiscenes of experiences in the Women’s, they lacked the immediacy and contingency of those earlier case notes.   Judgments about individuals who are alive and likely to read this book need to be tempered, and as a still-operating (though re-located) hospital , there is the equivalent, I guess, of the doctor’s  “do no harm” in writing about the institutional culture.  The management-speak of the final pages reflects the funding and political milieu in which institutions now exist, but I also suspect that it has been carefully vetted by the current hospital administration as well.

So, if you read this book- and I exhort you so to do- you might want to stop after Section VI in 1970.  To that point, it’s fascinating.