Tag Archives: Port Phillip history

VPRS 19 online!

What a wonderful world we live in!  The Public Records Office of Victoria (PROV) has now digitized and made available VPRS 19, the inward correspondence to Charles La Trobe, the Superintendent and later Lieutenant-Governor of Port Phillip.

To see an interactive introduction to the letters, see PROV’s site here.

“What would I want with La Trobe’s  Inward Correspondence?” you may ask. Well- there’s just so much here.  There’s reports from civil servants, letters of complaint, petitions, queries- in effect, anything formal that the people of Port Phillip wanted to convey to Governor Gipps in Sydney had to go through La Trobe here in Melbourne.  Although La Trobe had very little scope and authority to act independently, all requests had to go through him.  Family historians might find letters by or about their forebears; the plans for the newly-established organizations and buildings for the new Melbourne settlement are all here; the debates and controversies in the public sphere are funnelled through here as well. It’s an incredibly rich resource.

I really can’t start to describe how excited I am that these letters have been digitized and made available in this way.  Oh that they had been available five years ago when I was spending hours at PROV, although I think back on that stage as my favourite time in writing my thesis. You still have to dig around to find what you want (and I must confess that it’s taken some fiddling for me to find the transcripts) but oh! this is fantastic! Fantastic, fantastic, fantastic!  [You probably gather that I’m rather excited….]


Thanks to Lenore Frost who has alerted me to an index to VPRS 19 which can be found on the Royal Historical Society of Victoria website under its ‘Collections‘ link.  You can get directly to the index  here.

‘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?”

An economic downturn 1840s style

What strange times we live in.  Each night, the news bulletin starts off with the financial report, extending over about ten minutes, then briefly the “other” news, then a return to the usual financial report, sport and weather.  Each morning I unwrap the paper and marvel at the increasing size of the headlines reporting on the latest falls on the Australian Stock Exchange, or Wall Street, or the FTSE,  or the Hang Seng.  How do I even know about such entities?  I think it’s probably indicative of the recent financial bubble that we’ve all been caught up in over the past 10 years,  that even before this crisis, every news bulletin has  the financial report as a staple item each night- I really don’t particularly remember it having such prominence, say, twenty years ago.  Ah, but we’re all investors now-unwittingly and sometimes unwillingly through our compulsory superannuation, and cajoled to “unlock the equity in your home” by drawing back on our mortgages to spend on the sharemarket.

And of course, it’s all on such a global scale.  There’s no shutdown period at all on a sharemarket somewhere- Australia wakes up and looks at what America has done overnight, responds by a rise or a fall on the ASX, the day moves on, that night the UK market responds, the US market responds to that, and it all goes around again.  There’s no sigh of relief of “thank God that’s finished”- although at least the weekend allows a global breather, until the whole merry-go-round starts again on Monday.

Our whole system is predicated on credit in a way that is largely unconscious and invisible to us.  With just-in-time manufacturing, there are no storehouses any more of goods waiting to be sold- instead the credit system balloons forward to buy in a consignment as it is needed right now, retracts when it’s sold only to balloon out again to replenish the shelves next week.  We’re bombarded with “buy now, no deposit!!” advertising; we’re asked as a matter of course for every transaction with a swipe card “will that be on credit?”

And so, conscious of all this, I’ve been thinking about the recession (depression?) in the early 1840s in Port Phillip, and the way it impinged on the worldview of people there at the time.  I surmise that, like me, their understanding at the time was incomplete:no doubt more so, given the four-month delay in any information from Britain compared to our instantaneous communications now, and the dependent state of a colonial economy within the Empire as a whole. What they understood of the financial situation was filtered through the newspapers, gossip, and lived economy of their own experience.

Contemplation of this- and I’m doing quite a bit of reading on this which I shall, dear reader, share with you- is not completely irrelevant to my Judge Willis thesis work.  As sole Resident Judge, he heard all of the civil cases that came to the Supreme Court; he oversaw (but was not directly involved in) the Insolvency Court, and his own propensity to “sift to the bottom of things” characterized his approach to the bankruptcy cases that crossed his bench.  I feel sure that the general ‘anxiety’ and ‘excitement’ of Port Phillip reflected both the economic and political currents of the day, and directly fed into his dismissal.

So how did the Port Phillip communications of the day portray the financial crisis?  Newspapers had always carried a column showing the price of goods on the local market -wheat,  bread, spirits, sperm candles, parsnips etc. (The parsnips have particularly taken my attention because at my local supermarket they have been $5.95 per kilo for the last few months.  For bloody parsnips!!!!! Fine words may butter no parsnips, but obviously $5.95 a kilo will!)  The shipping reports were often followed by correspondence from the wool agents in London, reporting on the wool sales- generally chiding the Australian suppliers for lack of quality, and sighing at the dearth of buyers.

Much of a four-page Port Phillip newspaper of the 1840s was devoted to Court reports, and as the judicial system expanded in Port Phillip, so did the scope for court reporting- the Supreme Court, the Insolvency Court, the Police Bench, Quarter Sessions, the Court of Requests.  The tales of drunkenness and violence that ran through these courts were increasingly supplemented by stories of insolvency, defections from debt, unemployed immigrants, forced sales etc. as we move from 1841 into 1842.

And increasingly as we move from late 1841 into 1842 there are also  the required advertisements of bankruptcy posted in the newspaper, notifying of the first, second or third creditors’ meeting of one bankrupt after another.  By April 1842 (which is where I’m up to at the moment), the Port Phillip Herald regularly published a table of insolvent debtors, their assets and liabilities, and the dates of their scheduled meetings with creditors.  Real estate advertisements spruiked  “we’re at the bottom of the market- so buy now!!” . Occasionally there would be a high-profile insolvency case that demonized a particular individual, surely read  and gossiped about with a sense of schadenfreude by the subscribers to the newspaper.

And all of this occurred within the bullishness and heightened expectations of people who thought they were coming to “Australia Felix” to make their fortunes!

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…..