Tag Archives: Melbourne history

‘Redmond Barry: An Anglo-Irish Australian’ by Ann Galbally


1995, 228 p.

As a Melburnian, it’s difficult to get past the image of Redmond Barry as a strong, imperious philanthropist.  He is still very much a visible presence:  a large statue of him rears up in front of the State Library (one of his projects); his name adorns prominent buildings at the University of Melbourne (another of his projects), and of course his reputation has been forever intertwined with that of Ned Kelly, whom he sentenced to death.  This is the stuff of myth-making: the pompous Supreme Court judge cursed by the fearless bushranger “I will see you there when I go” (or words to that effect), only to die 12 days later of “congestion of the lungs and a carbuncle in the neck”.  [ Can you die of carbuncle? Dear Lord, if I should die, please let it NOT be of a carbuncle!]

Ann Galbally’s biography covers, of course, his whole life but my interest is mainly on his early years in Port Phillip and his relationship with Judge Willis.  Barry was born into the Anglo-Irish ascendancy.  The peace that followed the Napoleonic Wars cruelled his chances for a military career, so he entered the law instead only to find the Bar crowded with other young men who had made the same vocational choice.   When his father died in 1838, he emigrated to Sydney where there was less competition.


On the journey out, he embarked on a relationship with a Mrs Scott- and worse still, continued it when he reached Sydney.  News of the affair reached the ears of Governor Gipps, and he was awarded few government briefs as a result.  He continued to suffer from disapprobation even after leaving Sydney for the small town of Melbourne because, although he socialized and got on well with Superintendent La Trobe, the more prominent legal positions were in the gift of Gipps rather than La Trobe.   His unorthodox relationships with married women seem to be an ongoing theme: in 1846 he took up with a Mrs Louisa Barrow, with whom he had four children, in a  public, lifelong relationship that was never regularized by marriage.

Barry was only 26 when he arrived in Melbourne, and Galbally paints an engaging picture of Barry socializing with the other predominantly-Irish members of the Bar:  his good friends Sewell, Foster and Stawell and fellow Trinity-college and King’s Inn  graduates Brewster and Croke.  Although a member of the Melbourne Club and welcomed to all the vice-regal social occasions, he had little capital behind him and thus was not caught up in the land speculation of the early 1840s and  “perhaps for this reason his managed to maintain civilized relations with Willis for longer than most of the legal fraternity” (Galbally p. 49).

Not that Barry found Willis easy.  His diary records a succession of entries where he “argued with Willis“, “fought with Willis” or had a “blow-up with Willis who threatened to suspend me“.  He greeted the news of Willis’ suspension with relief  “Supreme Court Willis suspended + removed, Te Deum Laudamus” (24 June 1843).

In spite of this, Barry did not seem to have been exposed to the same personal insults or attacks that other barristers and officers of the court suffered.  Willis seemed to greet his appointment as the Commissioner for the Court of Requests in January 1843 with genuine approval, and at times their sparring in court (complete with historical allusions and Latin jests)  seemed to be equally relished by them both.   Although Barry had a reputation as a bit of a dandy who wore an old-fashioned Beau Brummel style suit, obviously Judge Willis did not take exception to this as much as he did the trimmed moustaches of Edward Sewell, Barry’s friend and erstwhile housemate.


Unlike Judge Willis, Barry was noted for his “dignified deportment and invincible politeness” (Garryowen p. 867). Galbally captures this quality well.   Against such a man, Willis’ own failings of temper and demeanour would have been even more marked.


Ann Galbally  Redmond Barry: An Anglo-Irish Australian

Barry, Sir Redmond, Australian Dictionary of Biography (online)

‘The Little Community’ by Robert Redfield


1962, 168

I read this book alternating between a feeling of  “Toto,  I’ve got a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore” and “Aha!!”.   I felt like Dorothy because this book is steeped in the language, methodology and publications of anthropology.  It took a number of important studies of little communities, including those written by the author himself, and examined the ethnographic methodology and questions  they utilized.  These studies were all unfamiliar to me, and because of the publication date of the book (1962), they were all fairly dated.  The book was not so much about the content of these studies, as of the role of the anthropologist and his/her methodology in that study.

But when I felt “aha!” was when he spoke about the nature and limits of the “little community”.   His “little community” has four qualities, that may exist in different degrees:

  1. it is distinctive-  where the community begins and ends is apparent
  2. it is small enough that it can be a unit of personal observation that is fully representative of the whole
  3. it is homogenous and slow changing
  4. it is self sufficient in that it provides all or most of the activities and needs of the people in it.

So does Port Phillip count as a “little community”? I’ve been conscious all along of the small size of Port Phillip- about 5000 people (although there’s no hard and fast population figures).  But was there a clear sense of “we?”. I rather think there was, in the push towards Separation from New South Wales, and distancing Port Phillip from the penal origins of Van Diemens Land and Botany Bay. Certainly, the Port Phillip press tried hard to foster a sense of  “we” (although I think that provincial presses always do this).  I think that the relatively late date of settlement indicates that geographically it was a separate entity to the two older colonies.

Redfield speaks about a “typical biography” among members of a little community- the life-path that most people in the community followed. Prominent, middle-class, public-oriented men can be traced quite easily through their involvement in different organisations in Port Phillip.  I think that you could probably construct a typical biography for Port Phillip during  the 1840s that would be triggered by a migration, involve an economic enterprise of some sort,  a financial setback, and the building of a home.  In fact, I’m about to embark on “Letters from Victorian Pioneers” and I’ll see if I can find the barebones  of a typical biography for Port Phillip there.

But Redfield warns that the descriptor of “little community” doesn’t fit comfortably with a society undergoing rapid change, especially a frontier society.   I think that whatever homogeneity there was in Port Phillip was challenged as the 1840s went on.   Change was rapid, and becoming even more so.  As such, perhaps the term “little community” is of limited usefulness in describing Port Phillip, but as he says, the question is not so much “Is this community a little community?” but “In what ways does this community correspond with the model of a little community?”

On Rhodomontade

It would seem that there is no longer a Melbourne Debating Society. I’ve found the Debaters Association of Victoria Inc. but no sign of a Melbourne Debating Society. Which is rather a shame, as it was one of the earliest civic and ‘intellectual’ societies of Melbourne.

Edmund Finn writing as ‘Garryowen’ tells us that the debating society commenced in 1841 with a Managerial Board consisting of President: Hon. James Erskine Murray; Vice-Presidents: Rev. James Forbes and Surgeon A. F. Greeves; Chairman: Mr J.G. Foxton; Committee: Messrs James Boyle, G.A. Gilbert, R. V. Innes, D.W. O’Nial and J. J. Peers; and Treasurers Messrs. Thomas B. Darling and E. C. Dunn. The Herald of 12 October 1841 reports its first meeting. It appears to have met weekly, on a Wednesday evening, although sometimes on a Friday.

In his book The Capacity to Judge: Public Opinion and Deliberative Democracy in Upper Canada 1791-1854, Jeffrey McNairn highlights the importance of voluntary organizations in the development of “democratic sociability” i.e. that it was possible for men to deliberate in public, using argument. In particular he highlights literary and debating societies as a site for this development. So perhaps it just wasn’t that there wasn’t anything on in Port Phillip on a Wednesday night….

Garryowen continues:

This Society attracted to its ranks most of the talent of the town. Weekly meetings were held at the Scots’ Schoolroom on the Eastern hill of Collins Street, and considerable debating power was rapidly developed. It was not a mere ordinary school-boy exhibition of vapid declamation and puerile rhodomontade, but an intellectual gathering, where questions of interest to the community were good-humouredly, intelligently, and patiently discussed.

Rhodomontade??!! Now there’s a word to conjure with!!! Merriam-Webster tells me that it means “bragging speech, vain boasting or bluster”. Well, there was certainly scope for some rhodomontade at the Melbourne Debating Society because here are the topics that I’ve found in the Port Phillip Herald so far

  • Topic in October: “The motives which actuated Brutus and other conspirators in the assassination of Caesar”. The meeting came to the conclusion that “the death of Caesar resulted from patriotic motives”
  • Next topic “Whether America or any other nation will ultimately supplant Great Britain in the scale of nations”. Conclusion- no, Britain reigns supreme
  • November topic “Whether India has been befitted by British Connexion?” No clear cut result here – the meeting adjourned after a long discussion.
  • The November topic“Was the conduct of Elizabeth towards Mary, Queen of Scots, justifiable?” provoked a “long an animated discussion” but the meeting was all but unanimous for the negative. I suspect that the strong presence of Scots emigrants held sway here- there’s a heavy preponderance of Scots on the committee (President, and both Vice-Presidents at least), and the meeting is being held in the Scots school room
  • December: “Whether the character of King Charles the First is entitled to respect? The question was decided in the affirmative.
  • January “Is the practice of dueling justifiable?” also decided in the affirmative
  • February “Are literary and scientific pursuits suited to the female character?”, again decided in the affirmative
  • “Is Phenology founded on reason and the evidence of acknowledged facts?”.

At the stage I’m up to in my reading, the Phrenology debate in late February was postponed because of the imprisonment for contempt of court of one of the members of the society, the young Port Phillip Gazette editor George Arden, on the orders of Judge Willis, the ‘real’ Resident Judge of Port Phillip. The night was spent discussing the imprisonment, and a petition and address signed to George Arden (although from what I can find at the moment, not actually made public)

Here the Melbourne Debating Society spilled over into Politics with a capital ‘p’. As McNairn pointed out in relation to the Canadian debating societies:

P. 90 “The political significance of debating societies thus lay more in their guiding principles and in the skills and sociability they fostered than in the content of their meetings. Since most brought together men from various religious and partisan affiliations, denominational and political controversy was shunned and, in most cases, prohibited. Societies provided a haven from the less-controlled debate of public politics, but as training grounds their political role was undiminished.”

The Melbourne Debating Society had been grappling with the issue of religious and partisan affiliation from its commencement.Within the first months, there was discussion over whether rules should be promulgated for the quoting of scripture, and one of the December meetings was turned over to a discussion of ‘the expediency of countenancing the discussion of polemical and political subjects by the society’. At its 31 December meeting (no New Years Eve frolics here!) it was decided to prohibit  religious and political discussions.

Am I surprised by the topics chosen? It seems that they draw on a shared knowledge of British and classical history (a knowledge that could by no means be assumed today) and an awareness of Britain’s wider empire- at least in the United States and India. It’s important to remember that these debates are conducted within the politics of their time: the 1857 Sepoy rebellion in India had not occurred; the United States at that time included the original 13 states and the states ceded through the Louisiana Purchase, but the western 1/3 of what we now know as the United States had not been annexed at this stage. Australia hadn’t seen the last of dueling: Sir Thomas Mitchell and the politician Stuart Donaldson fought a fuel over allegations of extravagance in the Surveyor-General’s department in September 1851!! (and I thought politics today was all theatre!)

I was fascinated by the “female question” debate, which was reported in some detail on 8th February 1842. It’s very hard to find reports of public activities of women in Port Phillip in the 1840s, but on 30th November, the Debating Society decided that in future ladies will be admitted, “their fair presence and patronage being secured, victory is certain.” They were certainly present for the Charles the First debate, which was “graced by the presence of ladies”. However, there is no further mention of a female audience in later reports, which seems odd given that the February debate centred on “Whether literary and scientific pursuits are suited to the female character?”. Certainly, if they were there, they didn’t contribute to the debate- only men ever spoke.

The Hon. President James Erskine Murray opened the debate in the affirmative by enumerating various females of literary distinction, and asserting that they were rendered “more sensible and conscientious in the discharge of their domestic duties” than women of limited capacity and neglected education- “in short, that it was easier to direct the intelligent than the ignorant”. The respondent, Mr Osbourne, contended that woman was not by nature intended mentally or physically to sustain the labour of acquiring that superior extent of knowledge, and that it would interfere with her devotion to domestic affairs. Women would no longer be fascinated by respected individuals of the other sex “upon whose opinions she rests with confidence as the safest code of general direction”- instead of being fascinated, they would actually take a part in literary and scientific discussion! Thoroughly modern SNAG as he was, however, Mr Osbourne commended the more beneficial system of education that has become prevalent in Britain, America and Europe where “all the pretty nothings which at one time formed the almost entire course of female education” had been replaced with general principles of science and useful literary studies. The Hon James Erskine Murray, in reply, decried this education that made women “in many instances as only fit to hearken to the insipid babblings of young men in preference to intelligence and rational conversation” He instanced Mrs Somerville, Lady Jane Grey, Mrs Clarke, Johanna Billie, Edgworth and others. Mr Smith, speaking for the negative, accounted for the difference in ability between men and women by a description of the respective skulls of the two sexes. Mr Stafford, for the affirmative, brandished Mary Stewart, Elizabeth, Catherine II and the Countess of Pembroke to shew that the sex gave evidence of genius , which no system of exclusion could obscure.

The warmest applause of the evening went to Mr Smith who “alluded to the domestic happiness to be experience by a Benedict, who, returning to dinner after the duties of the day, instead of finding the rump steak and oyster sauce &c. smoking a welcome to his appetite, finds his lady so deeply immersed in Euclid, or buried in the mysteries of Algebra, as to let him cater for himself.”

And so the evening ended. As the Herald concluded:

The subject of debate, as far as opinion went, had, we imagine, been decided in the breast of every one ere the discussion commenced. The question was too loosely and generally given for an advantageous discussion, and was decided in the affirmative.

So there you have it.


 Finn, Edmund The chronicles of early Melbourne, 1835 to 1852 : historical, anecdotal and personal / by “Garryowen”, Melbourne, Fergusson and Mitchell, 1888

McNairn, Jeffrey, The Capacity to Judge: Public Opinion and Deliberative Democracy in Upper Canada 1791-1854, Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 2000.

Hey, I used to work there!!

I see from an article in the Age that the Fitzroy artist Alexander Knox has created a light installation on the old Royal Mail building, on the corner of Bourke and Swanston Street.

Wow! That looks better! By light of day it really is a rather unprepossessing modernist building. Whenever I see that AC/DC film clip of the band travelling down Swanston Street on a flatbed truck, I notice ‘my’ building and try to imagine that it was ever viewed as anything except ugly.

What was there before? Apparently, the Royal Mail Hotel, built in 1848 and named because its owner E. B. Green had the contract for carrying mail by stagecoach throughout Victoria. Its second licencee was William Johnston Sudgen, previously Melbourne’s Chief Constable – nice little career shift there.

According to Robyn Annear’s A City Lost & Found, construction works to modify the building during the 1930s uncovered a wall containing bricks bearing thumbprints- generally considered to be a mark of convict manufacture. The brick-clay was examined by a visiting Tasmanian, who asserted that it was of Port Arthur origin, and the bricks were declared to be among Melbourne’s oldest.

(I am ashamed to confess that I have wasted nearly half an hour investigating when convicts were withdrawn from Port Phillip- a wild-goose chase prompted by my failure to finish reading the paragraph in Robyn Annear’s book! Stopping mid-sentence at the words “convict manufacture”, it struck me that 1848 was very late to have convicts still working in Melbourne. Half an hour later: I was right. Convict transportation from UK to New South Wales was suspended in 1840, and on 28 Oct 1843 Governor Gipps instructed LaTrobe to send the remaining convict gangs in Port Phillip up to Sydney. But they were still here 0n 13 December 1844 because Gipps again proposed withdrawing all the convicts, in exchange for the receipt of a cargo of Exiles- prisoners who had served 1-2 years in Pentonville prison before being issued with conditional pardons to take up as settlers (not prisoners) in New South Wales. A.G.L. Shaw writes that 1727 Pentonville exiles had landed in Port Phillip between 1844 and 1849 until popular protest against them culminated in the turning away of ships containing exiles and redirecting them to Sydney. So- Port Phillip convicts didn’t make the bricks in 1848. As, of course, Robyn Annear went on to say, had I read further.)

According to the excellent Walking Melbourne site, the old Royal Mail hotel was sold to the British company Hammerson Property and Investments Trust for 455,000 pounds. In October 1960 the hotel was demolished and this wonderful structure erected in its place.

I worked on both the fourth and third floors from about 2003-6. At first I was on the third floor in an office without windows located just behind the blue billboard at the bottom of the picture at the top of the page. At the time, there was a television screen mounted on the building, and I used to fantasize, in moments of extreme boredom, of sticking my head through the wall and emerging in the middle of the screen to survey the people below. I later moved onto the fourth floor to the rear of the building where my window overlooked the rooftops of the rather unsavoury cafe/restaurants fronting Swanston Street. However, it did give me a new appreciation for the copulatory habits of pigeons who inhabited the ‘pigeon brothel’ there.

On the other hand, working there did give a wonderful view of Melbourne. The Melbourne Cup march would go straight past, and political marches would stream by. Unfortunately the AFL Grand Final march turned up Collins Street instead, so I couldn’t watch that one. There’s a great little ‘structure’ of a pig with wings mounted on a pole on the corner which you can only see if you look up, but was directly in our line of sight. When the building across the road (that in my childhood had a rather evil Santa beckoning children onto the Foy’s rooftop garden each Christmas) was owned by Nike, we would watch spellbound as huge advertising posters were erected obscuring the building completely. However, the metal-man busker with his synthesizer loses his appeal after listening to him all day, and dog-lover though I am, a bait would be too good for the cattle dogs who bark twice at the end of each line of ‘How much is that doggie in the window?” sung ad nauseum for hours by the Slim-Dusty lookalike on the corner opposite.

So, good on you Alexander Knox. It looks beautiful, and I can’t wait to see it.