Category Archives: Women in Port Phillip

‘Family Fortunes’ by Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall


Some time ago, I read Michael Roe’s ‘Quest for Authority in Eastern Australia’.  Roe argued that the tenor of Australian society appeared to be set on a paternalistic, conservative path dominated by a landed elite who had been dealt with generously in the carve up of land and authority in the former  penal colony.  By the 1820s, however, a diversion from this path occurred with the influx of mainly British settlers who were shaped by what Roe called  ‘moral enlightenment’,  a philosophy drawing on 18th century thought, combining Romantic, utilitarian, Protestant and liberal values.  He did not claim that this was an intrinsically Australian characteristic- instead it was a ‘transplanted species’, drawn from similar currents in Britain at the time.

As I wrote in my post on Roe’s book, I was nudged into reading it by a friend’s dissatisfaction with the sterility and abstraction of his argument, which was largely a roll-call of local colonial male-dominated politics, with no ‘real’ people.  This didn’t trouble me so much, but I found myself wanting to dig back even further into the mental baggage of new settlers- where did this ‘moral enlightenment’ come from?  This led to me onto reading Davidoff and Hall’s ‘Family Fortunes’- a book that seems to have been cited everywhere!- a sure sign of the ‘landmark’ and ‘seminal’ text!

The full title of the book is ‘Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class 1780-1850’.  Its time-frame is important for considering early Australian society because it encapsulates the settler phase of Australia so closely, and even though this book is set entirely in Britain, I found resonances in Australian history as well.  Every white settler carried with them the sensibilities of their home society, not necessarily replicated in the new society, but present nonetheless.    The authors argue that the middle class mentality of the early 19th century (later overwhelmed by the dominance of later Victorian bombast) was centred in the religious revivals of the late 18th century, manifested through the non-conformist and  evangelical Anglican middle class families that prospered in the early years of the Industrial Revolution.  They based their argument on the study of four locations: Birmingham and its satellite suburb Edgbaston; the market town of Colchester, and the villages of Witham in Essex, and Suffolk.  Their book is studded with people, met again and again, who exemplify the embeddedness of religion in family, business and public life: here are the fleshed-out personalities so absent in Roe’s book.

They draw an interesting distinction between adult converts in the religious evangelical fervour of the 1780s and 90s, and their own children, born as natives into evangelical Christian families.  Many of my Port Phillip pioneers are here among this group: particularly those public men who expressed their respectability and masculinity through the Debating Society, the balls, the subscriptions and churches in the new town of Melbourne.

The full title of the book emphasizes family and the role of both men and women in the economic milieu of middle-class English society.  They argue that during the first half of the 19th century, middle-class women were removed from the ‘establishment’ that supported the family- in terms of both role and location.  They moved to less visible, ‘back of house’ roles within the family business and the enterprise itself became town-based, while the family shifted to outlying satellite housing suburbs.  Male and female roles became increasingly separated into public and private spheres, that varied during the life cycle, with women’s contribution to the family capital and success increasingly sidelined.

I find myself thinking of Port Phillip’s development, starting with a blank slate as it were.  In the earliest days, housing and enterprises were intermingled- Georgiana McCrae and her family started off in Argyle Cottage in Little Lonsdale Street West, and many public men lived ‘in town’ as well as having other properties further out.  As part of the 1840s land boom, suburbs like East Melbourne, Fitzroy and Brighton were being subdivided and sold as residential property. Yet among the ‘public’ families, however, in a social and economic sense the  separate spheres seems to have been established almost from the start- although this would no doubt be less true amongst smaller trading and shop-keeping enterprises.  I’m also very much aware of the phenomenon of brothers emigrating together and business partners becoming -in laws: that web of family connections that was elastic enough to stretch across the globe, and yet was still stitched closely together where it caught at the extremities.

‘Family Fortunes’ is exhaustive (and exhausting!) in the sheer weight of evidence drawn from a variety of sources including diaries, letters, hymns, memoirs, family and local histories, minutes, business documents, wills and tracts- this is a BIG, important history drawn from small, domestic, often ephemeral, lived-in documentation.

Happy (un)Birthday, Your Maj


Yes, Ma’am, another un-birthday- although given that your birthday is celebrated on multiple days in multiple countries, and you have your ‘real’ birthday and your ‘official’ birthday, you must be about 428 years old by now.  We’re celebrating it today in Australia- although not all of Australia mind you- Western Australia celebrates it on the last Monday of September or the first Monday of October. This is because Western Australia celebrates its Foundation Day on the first Monday in June, and we can’t use up all our Public Holidays at once, can we ma’am?

Her Maj’s birthday is actually on 21 April, but after George V died they decided to keep the ‘official’ birthday on or around 3rd June, which was his birthday.  England celebrates the Trooping of the Colours on the 1st, 2nd or 3rd Saturday in June, but this actually commemorates the anniversary of Elizabeth’s coronation on 2 June 1952.  And it doesn’t really count because it’s a Saturday.  Anything worth celebrating is worth a day off, I reckon.

Up until 1936 the Monarch’s  birthday was celebrated on the actual day.  So up until 1820 that would have been 4 June for George III; between 1820-1830 it was 12 August for George IV; between 1830-1837 King William IV’s birthday was celebrated on 21 August, then 24th May for Victoria’s birthday between 1837-1901.  You’ll note that these are all in summerish months in England.  Edward VII’s birthday on 9 November was celebrated between 1901-10 and both he and his people came to appreciate the idea of birthday celebrations in summer rather than winter.  George V’s birthday was honoured on 3 June between 1910-1936- a more favourable date for Northern Hemisphere climes than November.  It’s been 3rd of June or thereabouts ever since.

New South Wales celebrated King’s Birthday right from the start.  David Collins described the first celebration of King’s Birthday in 1788

His Majesty’s birthday was kept with every attention that it was possible to distinguish it by in this country; the morning was ushered in by the discharge of twenty-one guns from the Sirius and Supply; on shore the colours were hoisted at the flag-staff, and at noon the detachment of marines fired three volleys; after which the officers of the civil and military establishment waited upon the governor, and paid their respects to his excellency in honor of the day. At one o’clock the ships of war again fired twenty-one guns each; and the transports in the cove made up the same number between them, according to their irregular method on those occasions. The officers of the navy and settlement were entertained by the governor at dinner, and, among other toasts, named and fixed the boundaries of the first county in his Majesty’s territory of New South Wales. This was called Cumberland County, in honor of his Majesty’s second brother; and the limits of it to the northward were fixed by the northernmost point of Broken Bay, to the southward by the southernmost point of Broken [sic] Bay, and to the westward by Lansdown and Carmarthen Hills (the name given to the range of mountains seen by the governor in an excursion to the northward). At sunset the ships of war paid their last compliment to his Majesty by a third time firing twenty-one guns each. At night several bonfires were lighted; and, by an allowance of spirits given on this particular occasion, every person in the colony was enabled to drink his Majesty’s health.

Some of the worst among the convicts availed themselves of the opportunity that was given them in the evening, by the absence of several of the officers and people from their tents and huts, to commit depredations. One officer on going to his tent found a man in it, whom with some difficulty he secured, after wounding him with his sword. The tent of another was broken into, and several articles of wearing apparel stolen out of it; and many smaller thefts of provisions and clothing were committed among the convicts. Several people were taken into custody, and two were afterwards tried and executed.

The following year was slightly more decorous:

The anniversary of his Majesty’s birthday, the second time of commemorating it in this country, was observed with every distinction in our power; for the first time, the ordnance belonging to the colony were discharged; the detachment of marines fired three volleys, which were followed by twenty-one guns from each of the ships of war in the cove; the governor received the compliments due to the day in his new house, of which he had lately taken possession as the government-house of the colony, where his excellency afterwards entertained the officers at dinner, and in the evening some of the convicts were permitted to perform Farquhar’s comedy of the Recruiting Officer, in a hut fitted up for the occasion. They professed no higher aim than ‘humbly to excite a smile,’ and their efforts to please were not unattended with applause.

Thomas Keneally drew on this for his novel The PlaymakerWatkin Tench has a description of it too:

The anniversary of his majesty’s birth-day was celebrated, as heretofore, at the government-house, with loyal festivity. In the evening, the play of ‘The Recruiting Officer’ was performed by a party of convicts, and honoured by the presence of his excellency, and the officers of the garrison. That every opportunity of escape from the dreariness and dejection of our situation should be eagerly embraced, will not be wondered at. The exhilarating effect of a splendid theatre is well known: and I am not ashamed to confess, that the proper distribution of three or four yards of stained paper, and a dozen farthing candles stuck around the mud walls of a convict-hut, failed not to diffuse general complacency on the countenances of sixty persons, of various descriptions, who were assembled to applaud the representation. Some of the actors acquitted themselves with great spirit, and received the praises of the audience: a prologue and an epilogue, written by one of the performers, were also spoken on the occasion; which, although not worth inserting here, contained some tolerable allusions to the situation of the parties, and the novelty of a stage-representation in New South Wales.

By the time our Judge Willis arrived in Port Phillip, it was Queen Victoria’s birthday that was being celebrated on 24th May, as it was to be for sixty-five years.  From the 1820s onwards, Sydney society had celebrated the Birth Day of the monarch with  a levee and ball at Government House, and by 1841 a similar practice was proposed for Melbourne.  However arrangements broke down in acrimony in 1841 over whether the ball should be a public or a private event.

The private ball (sneering described as the ‘Dignity Ball’ by its critics) was defended by the Port Phillip Herald as a private occasion that had been postponed from the race-week earlier in the year, and that it just happened to occur on the Birth Day.  The Herald argued

When the Government give a ball, which is generally on the birth day of the sovereign, cards of invitation are issued to the public and to different classes of society and this is as it should be for a simple and substantial reason- the expenses are defrayed out of the public purse. (PPH 7 May 1841)

However, this was a private occasion, overseen by stewards prominent in Port Phillip Society at the time: Simpson, Powlett, Meek, James McArthur, J. Lyon Campbell, Verner and Major St John.

The Port Phillip Gazette and Port Phillip Patriot, affronted at these “upstart exclusives” and “ill-bred puppies” proposed a truly public ball to be held at Yarra Yarra House in Flinders Street on 24th May, with admission tickets for a gentleman and a lady priced at 2 guineas.  Messrs Abrahams, Langhorne, Kerr and Sullivan were stewards, with Connolly and Urquhart’s disputed involvement.

So who won the Battle of the Balls? The private ball was postponed until 4 June, then later until 8th June to accommodate Presbyterian families who would not have been able to attend on the 4th because that week had been set aside for religious observances.  The Public Ball went ahead on 24th as planned, but it rained.  The Private Ball took place on 8th June, attended by 44 ladies and 67 gentlemen; the stewards provided a most magnificent supper, which was done ample justice, and festivities continued until 5.00 a.m.  In a coup for the  more exclusive Private Ball,  Superintendent La Trobe and his wife attended: they had not attended the Public Ball.

The next year only one private ball was held.  I find myself wondering why the fuss of the preceding year was not repeated: perhaps it had been just newspaper hot-air. The Port Phillip Herald of 27th May devotes half a column to it:

THE BALL. The most splendid entertainment that has ever yet taken place in the province was held in the long room of the Royal Exchange on Wednesday evening, in honor of the Queen’s birth-day.  The ball, although got up by private subscription, and as one of the regular “private assemblies”, was attended by nearly all the rank and fashion of our rising town.  Notwithstanding the very unfavourable  state of the weather, and the almost impassable state of the roads, the ball room was crowded at an early hour.  Several of the gentlemen appeared in rich fancy disguise, and some of the dresses were very much and deservedly admired.  The gentleman who appeared as an Italian Brigand was perhaps the most successful in attracting the fair notice of the visitors, although there were other parties very elegantly attired.  The enlivening colour of the different fancy dresses added much to the brilliancy of the entertainment, which was considerably increased by the fascinating beauty of several of the ladies, who, believing that “beauty unadorned is adorned the most,” trusted to their usual tastes in not appearing in fancy costume.  His Honor Mr La Trobe and Lady honoured the Ball with their presence, and dancing was kept up with the greatest spirit throughout the whole evening; the arrangements altogether were excellent.  The music gave evident satisfaction, and was only eclipsed by the management of the supper, which met with deserved encouragement, and reflected great credit upon the caterers of this very necessary appendage to a dance.  Nearly three hundred persons, it is calculated, graced the scene, and all departed to their homes highly delignted with the evening’s amusement.

Georgiana McCrae attended the 1843 Queens Birthday Ball and describes it as follows:

Dr Thomas drove out in his gig and took me to town.  At 10 p.m. we went en masse to the Mechanic’s Institute.  All the elite of the colony assembled, and in full swing, including Mr and Mrs La Trobe; the Mayor, Mr Condell and his niece, dressed in Mantis green, not unlike the insect itself in the waltz attitude. Mr C. H. Ebden’s movements somewhat eccentric, now and then cannoning among his neighbours…Dancing was kept up briskly till after 1.a.m.

Well, ma’am no dancing any more.  In fact, it’s a dead loss as a celebration of anything except perhaps the opening of the ski season and a few football matches.  And a very merry un-birthday to you ma’am.


Paul de Serville Port Phillip Gentlemen

Hugh McCrae (ed) Georgiana’s Journal

Ken Inglis Australian Colonists Ch.4

On the road from Heidelberg

From the Port Phillip Herald 6 Dec 1842

BLACK OUTRAGE. As a woman was coming to town the other day from Heidelberg, carrying a bundle in her hand, she was met by two black lubras, who attempting to take the bundle from her, the woman screamed out for assistance, whereupon she received a severe blow over the temples with a waddy, and the two blacks made off.  She complained of the assault at the police office, but no redress could be afforded, as she declared she could not identify the offenders.

Heidelberg was about seven miles out from the centre of Melbourne, but generally viewed as being ‘in the country’.   There was a road out to Heidelberg by this time built from donations and public subscription lists by the Heidelberg Road Trust , representing the interests of  the gentlemen who lived there (Judge Willis himself, Verner, the Boldens, Wills, Porter etc).  Heidelberg Since 1836 describes the route as:

…an extension of the great Heidelberg Road, which commenced in present day Smith Street Collingwood, winding through the Edinburgh Gardens and then crossing a ford in the Merri Creek.  The track to the village was approximately along the present Heidelberg Road, along Upper Heidelberg Road, and then branched off down to the village from the top of the hill at Heidelberg.  The road continued on along the ridge of the hill, down to the Lower Plenty and then on to the Upper Yarra.  (p. 12)


By 1842, over 500 pounds of local money had been spent on the road, and log bridges were built at the Darebin Creek and the Plenty River.  Late in 1842 the Government paid the wages of unemployed labourers to clear stones and stumps from the road.  From 1845, as a result of the deterioration of the road, a levy was placed on landowners and a toll was established.

Not that our “woman” (note- not a lady) would necessarily be using the road.  I’m astounded by the distances that even ladies would walk- Georgiana McCrae seemed to think nothing of walking across the paddocks into the city from her house ‘Mayfield’ near the corner of present-day Church and Victoria Streets Abbotsford.  Abbotsford is of course much closer to the city than Heidelberg, but even a lady of one of the most prominent families in Melbourne would be prepared to hoof it through the bush.

This is also a reminder that the “blacks” were not only up-country but relatively close to Melbourne .  In fact, there are fleeting mentions of aboriginal people still visible on the streets of Melbourne itself.  I’m not sure what the significance is- if any- of these two women accosting another woman. Would they, I wonder, have approached a man, who was more likely to defend himself?


C. Cummins Heidelberg Since 1836: A Pictorial History.

Good on you, Mrs Mac

From the Port Phillip Gazette 1/1/42

BIRTH EXTRAORDINAIRE! On Thursday Mrs McDonald, the wife of a respectable settler, presented her husband at Mr Mortimer’s Crown Hotel, with a Christmas box consisting of two girls and a boy, whom with the mother, are doing well. Advance Australia Felix.  The girls were christened Victoria and Adelaide, the boy Albert.

My, what regal names!  The Port Phillip Herald of 4/1/42 adds the alarming detail that Mrs John McDonald of River Plenty had presented her husband with twins about 12 months earlier!! Five under about eighteen months……

I wonder whether she came into the Crown Hotel specially for the birth or whether she just happened to be there.  Ironic, really, that maternity hospitals today shove their new mothers off into hotel suites to clear the hospital beds.

There were only occasional birth notices in the Port Phillip newspapers of the 1840s, and generally only for the wives of “highly respectable” professional men, rather than the wives of  humble “respectable settlers” like Mrs McDonald.   I noticed that the Insolvency Commissioner’s wife Mrs Verner had a baby, then about two weeks later there was an advertisement for a wet nurse with the instruction to apply at the Insolvency Court- surely not the first place one would think to make such a contract. [I feel a bad joke about milking people dry coming on…..]

Well, I wonder what happened to Mr and Mrs McDonald and their little ones?

The Drunken Nurse


The Port Phillip papers are certainly full of drunkards.  Judge Willis himself has plenty to say about the perils of alcohol, and the Police Court is dominated by brawls and crimes connected with alcohol.  But I was particularly taken with this  Sairey Gamp character from the Port Phillip Herald 1 July 1842.

AN AFFECTIONATE WIFE.  For several months past, a man of the name of Henry Hayward a much valued servant of the firm of Campbell & Woolley, had been seriously ill, so much so that it was thought advisable by his medical attendant, Dr Campbell, to send for his wife to take charge of him, who, at the time, was following her occupation of monthly nurse in the family of his Honor Mr La Trobe.  This woman had hitherto been engaged as a nurse in some of the most respectable families- Captain Lonsdale’s, and many others.  The poor sufferer, whom we personally knew as an excellent and faithful servant, was at this time in a most precarious state, being attacked with that frightful disease, dysentry, and although a strong robust man, was evidently sinking fast: the attention of his wife, of course, became necessary, and his Honor the Superintendent being apprised of the circumstance, forthwith sent her to her husband, and himself kindly called to see how the sufferer was doing.  At this stage of the disease the doctor was sanguine of success; but to his extreme mortification he found on each visit that the wife, who had hitherto been supported by the first people in the colony in her vocation as nurse, was a confirmed drunkard; and that she was in the habit of not only getting beastly intoxicated and lying on the bed of her suffering husband, but made it a practice to drink the port wine and brandy, which the medical attendant had ordered for his patient, and thus leave the poor sufferer without succour.  Enraged at this atrocious conduct, Dr Campbell, at his own expense, engaged a respectable woman as nurse, to see that his orders were attended to, and that the wretched wife should not ill use her husband, which he had been informed she was in the habit of doing.  The nurse was unremitting in her attentions, but was frequently obliged to flee the house in consequence of the violent and drunken conduct of the dying man’s wife.  Often has Dr Campbell called upon his patient and seen the wife in a state of intoxication, lying almost senseless beside her husband! and often has he endeavoured, by every means in his power, to prevent such heartless conduct; but his exertions were all in vain; the poor man still lingered on, and the depraved wife pursued her unnatural conduct till the sufferer died! and this took place but a few days ago.  We have been particular in mentioning these circumstances to prevent ladies being imposed upon by such a wretch as the wife of Henry Hayward- a woman who has hitherto gained her living in the first circles as  “a monthly nurse” but who ought, in our opinion to be publicly and soundly whipped through the town for her fiendish conduct to her departed, and as far as she is concerned, her murdered husband.  We have the authority of the doctor for stating that had the wife performed her duty properly the deceased would in all probability have recovered!

There’s not many references in the papers of the time to women working- although how much work Mrs Hayward would gain after this exposure is doubtful! I was intrigued to find out what a “monthly nurse” was,  wondering if it was a nurse engaged for “that time of the month” but instead, it seems that a monthly nurse was a kind of mothercraft nurse who would move in after the baby’s delivery to care for the mother and baby for a month after confinement.  There’s a fascinating article called “The Remembrances of a Monthly Nurse”  in Fraser’s Magazine for Town and Country (1836)that manages to combine celebrity gossip with a quite affecting account of the birth of a baby with cleft lip and palate, all from the perspective of the monthly nurse.

I had seen advertisements placed in the Port Phillip Herald by doctors calling for wet nurses, but this was the first mention of a monthly nurse that I had seen.  It appears that she gained her work largely through word of mouth between the “first families” of the colony.  The reference to His Honor Mr La Trobe, the superintendent of Port Phillip, relates to the birth of his daughter Eleanor Sophia La Trobe born 30 March 1842.  It seems, therefore, that Mrs Hayward was still with the La Trobes longer than the usual month, but as Georgiana McCrae noted, her friend Mrs La Trobe was often in poor health, and the La Trobes would have been first among first families!

I wonder how this marriage between the employee of Campbell and Woolley, a prominent mercantile firm in Port Phillip at the time, and a monthly nurse would play out.  No doubt she would be absent from home for extended periods of time. There’s no mention of other family.

It’s hard to tell what the actual outrage is here.  Was it her drunkenness- taking the port wine and brandy meant for her husband, leading no less to her “murdering” him by not doing her “duty” for him?  Was it her slatternly behaviour, lolling around the bed drunk with the dying man?  Was it her violence to the respectable nurse paid for out of Dr Campbell’s own pocket? Or was it, perhaps, the scandal and trickery by which this drunkard had worked her way into the  domestic households of respectable families, placing them all unknowingly in peril?  Whatever- publicly and soundly whip the woman around the streets- that’ll teach her!


Dianne Reilly La Trobe: The Making of a Governor

Port Phillip Apostle No. 4 Alexander McKillop

What’s Blessed Mary MacKillop doing here amongst a consideration of Port Phillip entrepreneurs of the 1840s???  I asked myself the same question when researching Alexander McKillop and finding links to Mary MacKillop.  But the Australian Dictionary of Biography helped  things come clear: she changed the spelling of her name, and ‘my’ Alexander McKillop was, in fact, her father.

All of a sudden one of the two ‘settler’ Apostles is catapaulted very much into the public eye, not in his own right, but as part of the story of his daughter, Mary MacKillop.  I found myself reading two hagiographic- in the true sense of the word- narratives of Mary’s life: In Search of Alexander MacKillop by Victor Feehan and Ann MacDonnell, and The Black Dress , a young adult fictionalized biography by Pamela Freeman.  Of course, narratives devised with a view to her beatification or eventual sainthood have their own logic and agendas.  It is to be expected that her life will be framed in terms of a struggle that she overcame, and  Alexander’s financial incompetence fits in well to that theme.  But at the same time, in terms of her own development of character, her parents’ devout Catholicism needs to seen as a facilitating rather than hindering factor, (especially in books written for Catholic teenagers and children).

Alexander McKillop had arrived alone in Sydney from Scotland as a bounty migrant in 1838 and through family contacts, obtained a position with Campbell and Sons, the Sydney merchants.  After his family joined him, he shifted to Melbourne to work in the Campbell and Sons agency in Little Collins Street.  Presumably this would have given him some experience in commercial transactions (Ville’s third category of colonial entrepreneurs included men with previous commercial experience).  He purchased a house in Brunswick Street Fitzroy for 700 pounds in 1841, and is listed by Billis and Kenyon as the owner of a property on the Merri Creek between 1840-1.  But his daughter Mary’s biographers emphasize his fecklessness.  His involvement with the Twelve Apostles imbroglio contributed directly to his insolvency in 1844, on the same day as fellow Apostle John Maude Woolley.   In May 1843 he admitted to losing more than 7000 pounds over two and a half years.  And there was a sixteen month trip alone back to Scotland in 1851 to accompany an old friend that seems curious, if not self-indulgent, requiring him to mortgage his property in Darebin Creek to his brother to raise the fare, possibly unbeknown to his wife.  When his return was delayed, his own brother foreclosed on the property, evicting his sister-in-law and young family (ah, there’s nothing like family!).  There was a string of unsuccessful jobs, futile relocations to Sydney and New Zealand and back, and a slow slide into dependence on family support from his extended family and his children’s wages.  Eventually the family splintered, with Alexander alone in Hamilton; his wife Flora running a boardinghouse in Portland, one son in New Zealand, other sons at school in South Australia and daughters in Penola (South Australia) and Coburg (Victoria).

However, the tension in creating the Mary McKillop narrative lies in balancing this financial and paternal incompetence with the strong Catholicism that Alexander shared with his family.  I’ve been too much influenced by the Scotch Presbyterian and Orange influence in Melbourne, because I initially assumed- incorrectly- by his name that he would be Presbyterian.  Instead, his family came from Lochaber in the Highlands, a region once known as ‘the cradle of the faith’ through the  ministries of  St Columba in 563AD and Coirell around 600AD, and supportive of Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1745.  At the age of twelve Alexander McKillop left for Rome to study for the Catholic priesthood, but was sent home in 1831at the age of nineteen because of ill-health.  On his return to Scotland he studied theology at Blair’s College in Aberdeen for a year, but left without completing his course.

On his arrival at Port Phillip he became deeply involved with the nascent St Francis’ Church and its priest Fr. Geoghegan.  He was a Trustee and Treasurer of the church; Fr Geoghegan travelled to the Darebin Creek to perform Mass for the family, and all family weddings and christenings took place at St Francis’. He instructed his children and encouraged them in their religious vocations.

His strong allegiance to the Church in some way explains his political involvement in Port Phillip at the time.  When the fiery Protestant preacher and politician John Dunmore Lang came to Melbourne as part of his electoral campaign for a seat on the Legislative Council, Alexander publicly remonstrated in letters to the Press against him and his sectarian and divisive attitudes.  Alexander came out in petitions and meetings in support for Edward Curr, Lang’s Catholic opponent for the Legislative Council.  His clerical training- incomplete though it was- gave him the literary and oratorical skills to engage in defence of his Church in the political realm.

But his political and civic involvement was even wider than this.  He attended the Levee to greet Governor Gipps when he visited in 1841, attended the Melbourne Debating Club, served on the committee of the Mechanics Institute and was a member of the St Andrews Society- a fairly pricey society with a one-guinea subscription fee.  He served on juries and occasionally on Special Juries, which is interesting because to qualify as a special juror a man had to be an Esquire or a person of higher degree, a Justice of the Peace, a Merchant not keeping a general retail shop, a bank director of a member of the Sydney or Melbourne Town Council- although the reference to the Town Council suggests that this legislation must have been promulgated after 1842.   He qualified as an elector in the Legislative Council elections of 1843, and stood very unsuccessfully for election in his own right in later years.  He was involved in the major political debates of the time, signing petitions in favour of Curr, George Arden and- most importantly for me- signed several petitions against Judge Willis.

I think that this public involvement is overlooked in the Mary McKillop biographies, and it could hold the key to Alexander’s otherwise puzzling involvement as one of the Twelve Apostles.  Even if he was not in the league financially, his social interactions on juries and committees enmeshed him into the political and financial milieu of the time.  The November 1841 Port Phillip Herald carries a small paragraph about a horse-riding accident at Heidelberg where Mr Boyd, the head of the Union Bank was injured while out riding with Rev Mr Sproat (of whom I know nothing) and Mr McKillop.  It was the Union Bank that lay at the heart of the whole Rucker scenario- was this one of the connections?  There were many other opportunities for McKillop to socialize with Fellow Twelve Apostles:  Chisholm and Carrington both attended the Debating Club; he sat on juries alongside Abraham Abrahams; Power was a Catholic who must have attended St Francis’; Were, Carrington and Welsh were all involved in the push to remove Judge Willis.  This is not merely a manifestation, as depicted by the Mary McKillop biographies,  of Alexander McKillop’s hotheadedness and querulousness : in a province where political “excitement” was making both Governor Gipps and especially Superintendent La Trobe uneasy, the networking and public visibility of this political and civic interaction was an integral part of masculinity in  Port Phillip public life.

So what’s the Entrepreneurial Lesson for Alexander McKillop?  None really, except perhaps that God works in mysterious ways. The whole Alexander/Mary McKillop scenario is ripe for “What if?” history.  Would Mary have been the woman she was had her family not been plunged into penury? How did her financial history affect the way she perceived her vocation?  What if Mary McKillop had not become involved in grassroots Catholic educational provision- who else might have instead?


  • Victor Feehan and Ann MacDonell In Search of Alexander MacKillop
  • Pamela Freeman The Black Dress
  • Edmund Finn (Garryowen) Chronicles….

On this day in September 1841

From the Port Phillip Herald 24th September 1841


On Wednesday, one of the scenes which occur so frequently in this town and which tends to exemplify so strongly the dogma frequently advanced, that a great portion of the Emigrants landed on these shores are immoral, was to be witnessed in King street.  A female of rather prepossessing appearance, who arrived a short time since as an emigrant, was proceeding towards the Flag-staff enjoying the serenity of the morning in the company of a tall moustached being of the male gender.  Arm in arm the parties progressed along the streets now and then exchanging sundry symptoms of mutual affection.  Unfortunately however for the equanimity of all parties concerned, the scene was destined soon to be interrupted.  There was seen to advance from a contrary direction a two legged animal, one of that species expressively denominated “a man” but what kind of one our readers will soon learn.  A creature about four feet nothing, whose body was any thing but resembling that of our Melbourne Falstaff, whose frontispiece was a conglomeration of parts, more appropriate to the frame of larger beings.  With rapid but not extensive strides the little man sidled along, till a walk was changed to a run.  Fire flashed from his eyes and fury from his mouth, on a near approach to the loving couple, his feelings found vent in the following expressive words, “What! is it to be a witness of this, that I have come to Australia, to see my wife the leman of a false and ignorant puppy, oh! would that I was in England, I would have justice, but here these things are fashionable,  and I am to be a miserable being for the rest of my existence; oh! villian I will be revenged.”  A storm of words ensued, rapid as the gushing torrent, abuse fell from one party, and threats of vengeance from another, which at length was ended by the man wot wore the moustachios saying, “what! is it a diminutive creature like you that dares insult me in the street and endeavour to force from my society a lady; begone!”  Actions followed fast upon the words, the little man was seized, raised aloft, and hurled with impetuosity into one of those clean spots with which Melbourne abounds.  During the scene, the lady gave vent to her feelings in tears, but on the completion of the above mentioned feat of bravery, she seized the arm of her chere amie and hurried him affectionately from the spot, leaving her husband bruised, and injured both in body and mind, to console himself as he best might.

A couple of observations about this little vignette:

1. Although there are often descriptions of street scenes in the newspapers, there are very few describing women.  Where a woman appears at all, it is often a 2 or 3 line description of some accident and misadventure befalling her. In fact, this is the only lengthy article of its type that I have found,  where there is mention of public affection between a man and a woman, and where she seems to have some (albeit limited) agency in the episode.

2. It takes place in King Street, near Flagstaff Hill.  In the early 1840s, the centre of Melbourne was located more to the west than it is today, in the square roughly bounded by King, Lonsdale, Elizabeth and Flinders Lane, with a concentration around Market Steet and Collins Street.  By walking up King Street to the Flagstaff Hill, they were walking out of the city up to its highest point- the Flagstaff- where flags were displayed showing the ships that had come into harbour.

As Garryowen says, Flagstaff Hill

“was the pleasantest outside place in Melbourne for a Sunday or week-day evening stroll.  The reported incoming of an English ship would draw crowds there, and they stared with anxious, wistful gaze as the ship beat up the harbour, yearning for the home letters, of which she might be the bearer, of good or evil news, the harbinger. (p. 570)  … It was “where all the Melbourne ‘world and his wife’ used to take their outings on Sundays and holidays, and on every other day when they had the time or inclination to inhale the fresh country air (p. 9)

3. There’s moral judgements at work here.  Moustaches were viewed with some suspicion- certainly Judge Willis castigated the “dandified solicitor” Edward Sewell for wearing a moustache in his courtroom.  The public displays of affection would be frowned upon by respectable readers, and the description of the woman as “prepossessing” is ambiguous.  The language also slips between “female” and “lady”, suggesting uncertainty about her social status.

4. The article as a whole reflects the anxiety that Port Phillip inhabitants felt about emigrants.  While rejoicing in the fact that Port Phillip was not a convict settlement, the inhabitants – or at least the Port Phillip Herald- remonstrated when too many emigrant ships arrived at one time, particularly when their passengers embarked into an economic situation of unemployment and insolvency.  There were criticisms of the emigrants who hung around the emigrant tents for too long, disdainful of wages that they felt were too low- the 1840s version of “dole bludger”.  In particular, there was anxiety over unaccompanied female emigrants.  In general emigrants were encouraged to go ‘up country’ as soon as possible to work as farm labourers or domestic servants.  At the same time, though, the growth of the economy depended on the influx of new settlers and their demands for housing and consumer goods.  Come to think of it,  I think I hear echoes of the debate about Melbourne’s growth today…..