So, my post of Flinders Street Ballroom from 2021 needs an addendum. You can read the original post which looks at the history of the ballroom and the amazing Patricia Piccinini exhibition here:
But I’ve just been back to the ballroom (which I was very excited about) for a new exhibition which uses the space with such different and majestic grandeur that I wanted to update my blog. The exhibition is call Time and it is by Rone.
Rone is best known for his large scale murals, usually of people. These include the Lascelles silo in country Victoria, which you can see below, and which I will cover as part of my blog on the silo art trail in the not too distant future.
In Time Rone has taken the Flinders Street rooms, including the ballroom, back to an imagined past suspended in time. It’s like walking into a globe of amber. While the set up of the rooms do not reflect their specific use, they are an ode to the post World War II landscape of Melbourne and the people who lived in it. It’s almost like being haunted, but you are the ghost- in a good way. It transcends time. I won’t go into more detail as the pictures below speak for themselves. If you want to know more this is the link to the exhibition: https://rone.art/ and it’s well worth seeing. So enjoy the photos, it is truly remarkable, especially the intense detail.
It’s hard to believe it is the same space as Piccinini’s Miracle Constantly Repeating- though you can see the same bones. I love how transformative art can be, breathing life into rooms that had been relics and giving them a chance at a new story.
I’d like to begin this post by acknowledging that Murtoa, the town I’ll be talking about, is on the lands of the Jadawadjali people. It always was and always will be Aboriginal land.
Welcome to another addition of Ragbag on Road. As you can see from the above video- in this iteration you find me in the incredible Murtoa Stick Shed.
To give you some context, Murtoa is a town in the Wimmera region of Victoria. You can see it on the map below.
And as you can see from the photos below it isn’t a large town.
The Stick Shed from the outside is certainly not remarkable.
But inside it is glorious
What makes the Stick Shed so remarkable visually is its sheer size (which doesn’t quite translate in photos). It’s 270m long, 60 m wide and 19 m high, and it is made up of 560 unmilled poles, hence the name ‘Stick Shed’, officially it is called the The Murtoa No.1 Store. You can see a photo of me in the Shed below to give you some concept of scale.
But the Stick Shed is more than a folly of sticks. It had a purpose and stands at the heart of the agricultural history of the region, which is why it was added to the Victorian Heritage Register as number 101 in 1990.
So what is that history?
For that we’ll need to go back to the beginning.
The genesis of the Stick Shed lies in World War Two.
Prior to the war, Australia’s main grain export market was Europe, and Great Britain specifically. With the advent of war, and subsequent threat to shipping, this market dried up and when Japan joined the war in 1941 any attempts to expand into the Asian market was kiboshed completely. The situation wasn’t helped by the fact that there was a wheat glut as well, especially in Western Australian, so the wheat could not even be used domestically.
So the Australian Wheat Board was faced with the question of what to do with all the extra wheat? The silos were already full, they needed another option. So they started building massive grain sheds in WA (the glut reached capacity there first). They were successful, so the local Grain Elevator Boards in Victoria decided that they needed one too. Murtoa was selected as the best site. This form of mass storage wasn’t a universally popular decision, with opposition from some labour forces and the (surprisingly) influential jute bag industry.
But why Murtoa?
It’s actually a fairly simple answer: Murtoa was in the middle of a wheat producing region, it had major rail and road connections, the local town conveniences needed and was at the confluence of another rail line that fed grain to the North.
Alright, so we know what the point of the Stick Shed was, and why in Murtoa, but how did something so practical come to be so remarkable? The first reason is the sheer size needed, as discussed above, and the second is the decision to use unmilled timbers. The choice of timber was determined by a shortage of steel. The timber is mountain ash hardwood, and it all comes from Victoria. Mainly the Otways, Gippsland and the Dandenong Ranges. There is an astonishing 2000 tonnes of timber in the structure. What is even more astonishing is the speed with which the Shed was constructed. It was built in only 4 months, starting at the end of 1941 and opening on the 22nd of January 1942 when the first bags of wheat were deposited by local farmer Maurice Delahunty. The first railway load of wheat arrived in February and by May/June the Stick Shed was filled with 3,381,600 bushels of wheat. The wheat remained undisturbed until 1944.
The Shed was built largely by hand (it’s a testimony to its importance that the government managed to provide a large workforce in war time). The poles were carted in from all over the state and erected in the hard Wimmera clay largely using trucks and A-frames- no big machinery. You can see some photos below that give you an idea of the process.
One of the key features that differentiated the Shed from others was the concrete floor, others had tin that failed to keep out the vermin and was impossible to keep clean. The floor contributed significantly to the Shed’s longevity. The floor is nearly 4 acres and was laid around the poles first. As the poles were put in the 4 foot deep holes, the aggregate concrete was poured around them at about 4 inches thick, this was continued as the Shed was constructed. You can see the result below.
At this point I’d like to cycle back to the poles themselves. The ‘sticks’ that give the Shed its name. As I said they are mountain ash hardwood and unmilled, but they are also largely original. You can see their very tree like nature below.
Some have been shored up with bow trusses, that effectively act as bracing the same way that rigging helps brace a ship’s mast.
The footings have had to be replaced in some
And sadly a few have had to be replaced with metal, for safety reasons. There really aren’t many though.
I also really like that you can see the notes on the poles for their maintenance.
Overall the effect is mind-blowing.
It isn’t only the floor and the sticks, the roof is also fairly astonishing
The roof is iron, and covers 1.5 hectares, with over two hectares of actual iron when you take into account the roof slope.
The side walls are also made of iron, with over all nearly five acres of iron going into the Shed. And remember this was WW2 where metal was scarce, which just exemplifies the importance of the Shed. You can see some of the walls below.
That’s the bones of the Shed, how it was built and why. But let’s have the body, how was it used?
The above photo gives you an idea of how the wheat was piled up, but how did it get in there?
It’s actually a fairly simple process. Most of the wheat came in by train, and it was loaded from the sidings. The photo below is the current Murtoa station, you can see the Shed on the far left in the distance.
The grain was loaded on to an elevator which fed the grain into the Shed- you can see the elevator below.
Once in the Shed it was fed onto a conveyer belt that ran the length of the Shed.
Once on the conveyer belt, simple barriers pushed the wheat off into the area of the Shed it was needed. Some people power was required too. There was a worker on the walkway next to the conveyor belt to make sure the wheat was going to where is was supposed to be and one on the floor. The Shed could also be filled by individual farmers from a hopper at the opposite end to the elevator.
The pit was finished in 1947 and extends under the Shed a bit. Farmers could dump wheat either by hand or from a grain truck if they had one, it was then moved into the Shed proper.
Once the grain was in the Shed (it could take an astounding 92000 tonnes) it was largely left alone. It was treated with insecticides by people walking on the top of it when there was an infestation, but it is specifically built with the concrete floor and windows all along the side alleys and ventilators in the roof, to keep infestations to the minimum.
But the wheat didn’t stay in the Shed indefinitely. It was emptied (when needed) with sort of a reversal of the whole process. There were horizontal conveyer belts which helped move the wheat to the side of the building. People were also on hand to operate these belts.
The wheat was conveyed to the south wall, where a belt ran the length of the Shed and trundled it back out of the Shed and on to trains to be sent wherever it was needed.
The wheat in the Shed, as it came from so many sources, was classed and sold as Fair to Average Quality (FAQ).
The Shed was used until 1989, when the Grain Board declared it uneconomical. It was added to the Victorian Heritage Register in June 1990.
So now you know the story of the Stick Shed. Although it is no longer used for the purpose it was intended for, it not only stands as a monument to the history of agriculture in the area, it is a truly spectacular building in its own right.
One thing you do really notices standing in the Shed, is that it is not a silent building. Part of this is because it is still very much in a working agricultural area.
But it is also because the Shed moves, you can hear it shifting and settling, it’s almost elemental.
The Stick Shed is also not the only historically interesting feature of Murtoa. The Murtoa and District Historical Society is housed in the old water tower.
The water tower was built in 1886 for the nearby rail line. It now houses an eclectic museum, the unexpected highlight of which is a remarkable taxidermy collection. It is the work of local minister James Hill and spans 1875-1932. Hill had contacts with missions in Africa, Brazil, India and New Guinea and asked for specimens in return for donations to the missions. He also swapped with other collectors, as far away as Africa. There are over 600 specimens, and it’s one of the largest collections of its type in Victoria outside of Melbourne Museum.
So the Stick Shed does not stand alone. I just wanted to finish with the note that the Stick Shed’s survival, when other large grain stores were demolished long ago, is down to intensive effort by individuals and committees. It has survived, in-spite of the odds against it. And I think we can all agree it was definitely worth saving.
I first heard of Caroline Newcomb and Anne Drysdale on a history walk of queer St Kilda. Neither lady has a connection to St Kilda, but there was general discussion about queer stories and history that doesn’t have a wider audience and they came up. Then, the same way when you buy a red car you see red cars everywhere, I came across them again only a week later at a talk on the history of Victoria in 100 LGBTQIA+ places, and the report that the talk was based on. Caroline and Anne featured together, along with the mourning brooch of Anne and Caroline’s hair woven together that Caroline had made in remembrance for a Mrs Thomson after Anne died. It is a thing of real beauty and you can see it below.
The brooch is held at the State Library of Victoria and I will come back to it a little later.
But to return to the beginning. Who were Caroline Newcombe and Anne Drysdale, and why have I decided to write a blog post about them…?
Anne was born in 1792 in Scotland. Her family were middle class farmers and business people, but very unusually for a woman at the time she chose to go out on her own. She rented a large farm in Ayrshire from the 1820s to the mid 1830s and lived in Craufurdland Castle where she became a close friend of the family. She came to Australia in 1840, ostensibly for her health (though her ‘cough’ disappeared mysteriously quickly) determined to be a squatter not a squatter’s wife. She had money from small inheritance from her father and some other sources, and quickly secured the rights to land to run sheep that belonged to Dr Alexander Thomson on what is now the Bellarine Peninsula. She was 47 when she arrived. There is no surviving photo of Anne that I could find.
Caroline was born in London in 1812. Her family were merchants. She had a slightly itinerant early life as she was brought up in Spain with her father, but when he died she returned to England to be raised by her paternal grandmother. There isn’t much known about her early years, but she sailed for Van Diemen’s Land in 1833 also ostensibly for her health. She wasn’t part of the cadre of women brought over to be wives for settlers. In fact there is no indication she was seeking a husband. In Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania) she met Dr Alexander Thomson and his wife and became governess to their daughter. She sailed with them in 1836 as part of the Port Phillip Association’s journey to what would become Melbourne in what would become Victoria. She was one of only 35 women in a settlement of 117. She probably started the first school in Melbourne. In 1837 she moved to Geelong with the Thomsons where she could meet Anne, who came to stay with the Thomsons in 1840. You can see Geelong in relation to Melbourne below
I want to pause here to make one very clear and important point. The land that Anne and Caroline were arriving on was not empty. It was occupied by Australia’s First Nations people. This is especially important in the case of Caroline. The Port Phillip Association’s expedition was based on John Batman’s ‘treaty’ which was with the Wurundjeri people and which is incredibly problematic. The ‘treaty’ he drew up was not worth the paper it was written on. I won’t go into all the details as to why, but you can find out more here https://ergo.slv.vic.gov.au/explore-history/colonial-melbourne/pioneers/batmans-treaty.
This is also true of Anne and Caroline’s settlement on the Bellarine Peninsula. Anne came over to Australia operating under the concept that there was all this free land available. It wasn’t free. It was occupied, on the Bellarine Peninsula, by the Wathawurrung. The movement of settlers, like Caroline and Anne, into these lands continued the process of dispossession, invasion and colonisation. The Wathawarrung and the Wurundjeri (along with all First Nations people) suffered immensely at the hands of settlers and the Crown, dispossessed of their lands, killed and forced into missions off Country, their languages banned. This is the story that needs to be told alongside any ‘pioneer’ narratives of this period. Anne and Caroline were not moving into virgin territory.
The other point I need to raise here is Anne and Caroline’s relationship. As you’ll have realised from my opening Anne and Caroline were in a relationship. The nature of this relationship has to be considered through the lens of how they themselves would have viewed it. For example neither would have described themselves as lesbians, it wasn’t a term that they would likely have been aware of. But they were committed lifelong friends and partners, in business and life. We know most of what we know about them from Anne’s diary which has survived in the collection of the State Library of Victoria. I’ll be using the diary to tell the remainder of Anne and Caroline’s story. In it in 1841 Anne describes Caroline as “Miss Newcomb who is my partner, I hope, for life, is the best & most clever person I have ever met”. The diary quickly begins using ‘we’ and ‘our’ language, Anne describes her and Caroline’s life together. They lived together, built a house together, ran the farms together, shared a bed (though this wasn’t uncommon in the era) and were buried together, even though Caroline died 21 years after Anne and had married in the meantime (Caroline was 20 years younger). They were in a committed life long relationship, by any definition, but they were not the Australian equivalents of the infamous Ladies of Llangollen . This is in no way intended to dismiss the importance of their relationship, it is just to clarify.
So this brings us back to why I decided to write about Anne and Caroline. They were both unusual in their time, both for their relationship and in the roles they chose in life. Known as the Lady Squatters they were a novelty in their own time, but they were also pillars of their community, innovators and remarkable women in many way. Theirs is also just such an interesting story, I felt it fits right in with Historical Ragbag.
The other key reason I wanted to write about Anne and Caroline was the incredible house they built. I will come back to it when I continue their story, but I wanted to highlight it here. Coriyule was built for Anne and Caroline in 1849- it’s made of Barrabool Sandstone and is fantastically eccentric as well as beautiful. I was lucky enough to be able to visit and take photos and I want to give my heartfelt thanks to Isobel and Bryce, the current owners, who were kind enough to show me around their incredible home and to let me take photos. You can see Coriyule below, but I promise there’ll be more pictures later.
But let’s return to Anne and Caroline’s story first. We left them meeting in 1840. But how did this come about? Caroline had moved with the Thomsons to their sheep run at Kardina House (on the edge of Geelong) in 1837. The house Dr Thomson built is still standing, you can see it below.
Caroline was their governess. In 1840 the Thomsons were in Melbourne and they met the newly arrived Anne Drysdale. She was looking for land and sheep, Dr Thomson offered to give her one of his runs for lease. She came back to Kardina with him, to stay and to look at her new run. Her diary describes it as “Doctor drove me to see my future station, with which I am well pleased.” Anne stayed with the Thomsons while she got things sorted. And when she moved into a small stone hut on Boronggoop, her new 10 000 acre run, in 1841 she wasn’t alone. She’d invited Caroline Newcomb to join her and thus began the partnership that would last the remainder of Anne’s life.
Boronggoop wasn’t far from Geelong and Anne’s diary is a parade of visitors, especially as Caroline and Anne continued to teach some of the neighbourhood’s children. They were also both extremely devout and hosted an array of ministers and held religious services. They also took people in, including two of John Batman’s children (who were left virtually destitute after his death). At one point there were thirteen people sleeping in the hut. It’s clear that the ladies were a little bit of a novelty, with people visiting to meet the ‘Lady Squatters’. What the diary highlights more than anything else is the strength of their partnership. They arrived in August 1841 and by December ‘Miss Newcomb’ has become Caroline and the diary gives a lovely picture of how they worked. Caroline is a veritable dynamo, she’s always riding somewhere, or growing something, or building things (an energy that Caroline would carry all her life). Anne was definitely involved, but not always as physically (she was twenty years older), she keeps the practical background side of things going and the business side. It’s worth noting that the holding was Anne’s, Caroline didn’t bring money to their partnership. Their mutual respect and reliance on each other is clear, with Anne declaring how dismal it would be to be to always have to dine alone (on one night when Caroline wasn’t there). The diary is full of domestic detail of running a sheep property and their house, like the ‘tolerably good piano’ they managed to acquire and the 47 sheep who go missing much to their shepherd’s distress. They embarked on this journey together with real optimism, summed up by Anne declaring shortly after they moved in “I think with the blessing of God, we have every prospect of being very happy here.”
By 1844 they were without doubt happy, but were looking for more space having outgrown the hut. Anne also wanted to own her land not just be leasing it. She described the end of three years at Boronggoop as “We certainly have not made any money, but we keep out of debt & have much cause for gratitude to the Almighty who has furnished us with all things needful & and enables us to be to useful to many of our fellow creatures. We live very happily & have no wish except to have a piece of land & a stone cottage.”
So this stone cottage brings us back to Coriyule. Though, as you’ll have seen from the photo above, Coriyule is no cottage. Anne and Caroline were determined to own land and they took a deliberate camping holiday at Coriyule in 1846 to test it out. They returned “determined if possible to buy Coriyule.” And buy they did, they had obtained the lease for some of the land in 1843 but secured the free hold in 1847. This is where we hit a very frustrating gap in the diaries. There is one missing volume and unfortunately it is the late 1847-mid 1851 which was the years that they had Coriyule built and moved in. So we don’t have the detail we do about the rest of their lives. What we do know is that they commissioned the house to be designed by Charles Laing in 1849, and the plans are signed by both Caroline and Anne and in both their names. You can see them below.
We also know that a builder named John Henderson was contracted for the sum of 219 pounds to build the ‘cottage’. You can see the first page and final page of the contract below (including Anne and Caroline’s signatures).
Anne and Caroline probably moved in, in late 1849 (quite likely while the house was somewhat of a building site). So apart from the fact that it is one of the earliest houses in the district and built for Caroline and Anne, why is Coriyule special? It really is a remarkable house. It’s built with a basalt foundation, with the walls a mixture of sandstone, ironstone and others with the windows and chimneys dressed in local Barrabool sandstone. You can see the windows below.
In the images above you can also see the incredibly unusual windows frames as they are made from cast iron. Local legend is that this extra strength was to protect the ladies from any possible attack. You can see that the windows were an integral part of the original design in the plans for your reference below.
On this note lets take a step back from the small detail of the house to look at it a bit more broadly. You can see its beauty and idiosyncrasy below.
One of the other quirks you can see above is the roof. It’s made of galvanised iron tiles, possibly the earliest use of galvanised iron for roofing in Victoria. It was very much built for Anne and Caroline. It’s split level with a kitchen area downstairs (where you can still see the original bread oven).
A maid’s quarters was accessed by a ladder from this area (now accessed from an incredibly steep stairway- which was probably installed while Anne and Caroline owned Coriyule)
There is a set of stairs that provides access to all levels of the house
The middle level was the one used by Anne and Caroline (including the room they shared) and is truly incredible. As well as smooth heavy walls, there is an octagonal lantern, used for light and ventilation. I’ve never seen one outside of the a cathedral before.
The house is gothic revivial and it really shows it.
The doors are have been brushed with a comb to make them look like they’re oak.
It’s a little hard to make out in the photos, but there are two levels in the main house. The upper areas are less ornate than the main area, and it’s possible to lock the main area off. It’s likely the reason for this addition was the sheer number of long term houseguests that Anne and Caroline put up. Coriyule was twelve miles out of Geelong so if people came to stay, they stayed. Like their hut, visitors were clergy, local worthies, friends and people visiting from Melbourne. They continued to host children too, including again the Batman children, and the story is that Ellen and Adelaide Batman painted the flowers that survive on the door you can see in the picture below.
Other original survivors in the upstairs area include a fireplace with the original paint
As well as most of the interior walls and doors. Coriyule is very much a house that has been lived in. From remnant wall paper, to a mysterious ship called the Nelson etched into the plaster wall.
There is also an incredible cellar that runs beneath the whole building.
You can see some of the hooks in the ceiling that show it was used for hanging and preserving food.
Currently Coriyule sits in 40 acres of land, with extensive gardens and livestock. You can see some of it below. None of the garden is original, apart from the occasional tree such as the Port Jackson fig in the second last photo. You can also see the original water tank in the last image.
Although this is large, it’s a fraction of the land would have been when Coriyule was first established. Some of that land is part now part of Drysdale, named for Anne. When Isobel and Bryce bought Coriyule in 2007 it was in severe disrepair and completely overgrown. They have done an incredible job of rebuilding the house, using original materials and methods, and establishing the garden. There would have been an extensive garden when Anne and Caroline owned the house. A lot of the diary entries are recording what they plant when and what they did with it. Most of the garden sadly hasn’t survived, but Isobel and Bryce have been using the diaries to determine some of the plants that might have been there. The photo below of the gardeners cottage, gives you an idea of the state the house was in.
So I hope it is clear just how remarkable Coriyule is. It’s registered on the Victorian Heritage Database and I wanted to include the citation as I think it gives a really clear outline of why Coriyule is so important
“As one of the earliest and finest homesteads in Victoria. Its picturesque Gothic Revival style was not common in Victoria, particularly in country areas. It is significant as an important early work of the celebrated colonial architect Charles Laing. This asymmetrically planned mansion with unusual entry hall and stair-case has few counterparts in Australia.
Coriyule is historically significant as a reminder of the partnership of the women squatters Anne Drysdale and Caroline Newcomb, who were important in the history of squatting in Victoria. It is a remarkable reflection of the close involvement of women in a pioneering pastoral enterprise.”
So now we have explored Coriyule let’s continue with the life Anne and Caroline lived there. They had more crops and less sheep than their previous run and, as they were twelve miles out of the Geelong, Caroline couldn’t ride in everyday and visitors just dropping around was less common, though as I’ve noted above plenty stayed longer term. Anne’s diary from 1851 is the working life of a farm. They dealt with the labour shortage brought on by the gold rush, they planted roses and fruit and vegetables, they commented on the weather, they complained about the state of the roads and they continued with their close partnership. Then on the 8th of July 1852 about breakfast time Anne “was seized with a stroke of the palsy in the right arm & leg and she fell down in the parlour.” Anne convalesced at home with Caroline and did slowly recover, but Caroline took over the diary for about a month. Caroline’s entries are more succinct, never giving anything beyond the basic detail. Though you can see her excitement when Anne was up to weeding in the vineyard as she includes a rare !! after the exciting news. Anne took back over the diary in August and they continued their life at Coriyule. With Anne recording on December 9th after they return from a holiday at Kardinia that they are “happy to get back to our own dear house.”
Caroline takes over the diary again on the 16th of February 1853, with the faint note “Here ends Miss Drysdale’s journal.” On the 9th of April Anne has another stroke and this time she’s not so lucky. In a terse note on the 11th of May Caroline records “Fine. Men as yesterday. At noon Miss Drysdale was taken suddenly ill. I sent Frank for Dr. Bailey, but before he returned, she expired at 2 o’clock pm.”
This was the end of the extraordinary partnership between the two women. This incredibly brief line shouldn’t be taken as indicative of a lack of feeling on Caroline’s behalf, it’s typical of the succinct nature of her part of the journal. She continued writing it after Anne’s death and she in fact stayed at Coriyule. Anne was buried on the property and you can see a lithograph of her mausoleum below. (nothing remains of it now).
You can see Coriyule itself in the distance. Anne left the house and lands in their entirety to Caroline, Caroline was also her executor. You can see Anne’s probate below
This brings us back to the brooch where we began
The brooch was made from Anne and Caroline’s hair in c.1853 probably not that long after Anne died. It was made in remembrance for a Mrs Thomson, possibly the wife of Dr Thomson who introduced Anne and Caroline at Kardinia all those years ago. It is an exquisite piece and a testimony to the relationship between the two women.
Anne’s family were not happy with everything being left to Caroline. Her brothers in particular were vocal (in letters) in their opinion that as a spinster Anne should have at best left Caroline a life interest. Thankfully this didn’t happen. Caroline continued on at Coriyule for eight years, though she only continued the diary until 1854. The last of the entries are succinct but also sad. While she continues the practicalities of her life, it is clear how much Caroline missing Anne. She buries a loved pet under “dear Anne’s favourite rose” and almost her last entry is that a friend’s last child “is to be named after my dear Anne.”
This isn’t to say that Caroline was languishing at home for eight years pining. She was heavily involved in the local area. She scooped most of the fruit and vegetable prizes at the Geelong show in 1856. She was also an outspoken political activist, and through her involvement with the Roads Board was probably one of the first women involved in government in Victoria. She was also the president of the benevolent society for the women of Geelong the Western District (and she founded the organisation). All of this while continuing to run Coriyule. Then in 1857 Reverend James Dodgson came into the area and stayed with Caroline at Coriyule as he was occupying the position of minister at Drysdale. He was said to have been of a sickly constitution. In 1861 Caroline and James were married. Apparently to the universal astonishment of everyone who knew them. Caroline was known to have said that she married him for God not for herself. James was twelve years younger and for him Caroline was a catch as one of the wealthiest and most powerful women in the region. They lived at Coriyule until James was well enough to take up his calling again. In 1864 they left Coriyule as he was appointed to the Maldon circuit. Caroline was described as the perfect minister’s wife (you get the feeling Caroline never did anything by halves). Caroline died in 1874 in Brunswick and, tellingly, was buried back at Coriyule with Anne. Sometime before his own death James had Anne and Caroline re-interred in East Geelong Cemetery, where he too was buried. As you can see in the photo below Anne’s inscription feels like an afterthought (possibly deliberate) her name is spelt wrong, her date of death is wrong and James didn’t even include the bible verse that Caroline had chosen for Anne and which had been included on the original tomb- just a reference to it. For the record the verse is she opened her mouth with wisdom and in her tongue was the law of kindness.
And that brings us to the end of Anne and Caroline’s story. Caroline left Coriyule to James and he sold it in the early 1900s. It passed through a few hands, slowly sinking into further disrepair, until it was bought by Isobel and Bryce in 2007 and restored.
Coriyule in all its idiosyncratic glory is a fitting legacy to these two most unusual women.
It is not their only legacy though. As I mentioned earlier the suburb of Drysdale is named after Anne, and Caroline now has her own suburb too (Newcomb). They also have a legacy of partnership, dedication and love (however you want to define it) that through Anne’s diaries and the brooch comes down to us and still resonates. If nothing else their legacy is of remarkable women, who stepped outside the roles of their time and lived a life on their own terms. And I think that’s as good a legacy as can be wished for.
I especially want to thank Bryce Raworth and Isobel Williams for their extraordinary generosity in letting me not only come and have a look at their house, but also Isobel’s kindness in showing me around, letting me take photos, answering my questions and her enthusiasm and knowledge about Anne and Caroline. I’d like to commend the incredible job they have done and continue to do in restoring Coriyule. I also want to make it clear that Coriyule is a private home and not open to the public like a National Trust owned property for example
Making Australian History by Anna Clark is a remarkable book. Just the concept got me excited. A book about Australian historiography written for a general audience. I thought it’d be hard to pull off, but Clark surpasses all my expectations. Making Australian History is not only immensely readable, but is incredibly perceptive, timely and succeeds in deconstructing and exploring the inherently complex nature of Australian History (I’ll follow Clark’s convention of using the capital H when I’m talking about the History discipline) whilst articulating its and Clark’s position within its narrative. Simply I’ve never read another book that so clearly explains Australia’s historiography with eyes wide open to all its issues.
So it’s clear I liked the book.
I wanted to start with a quick discussion about what the history of history means for me and this blog. I am trained traditionally in the History discipline and I currently work as a librarian, both of which are structurally set up to preference a telling of History through sources held in libraries, archives and other collecting institutions. They are also both inherently colonial methods of knowledge keeping and knowledge management, which often preference a white and masculine narrative. I am also fifth generation Australian on both sides of my family, with my ancestors arriving as part of colonisation in the mid 1800s and I have benefited from the structural privilege this entails. But while I unavoidably bring these prejudices with me as part of my background, I do try to be aware of them. And on this blog I do try to find the gaps, to tell the stories that might not otherwise be part of a broader narrative. I am also very aware that History is not immutable, it is not a clear definition of fact or not. This is why you’ll find a lot of use of the word arguably on this blog, as any version of the past is very much only one argument. History is also written by those who survive to tell it, those who are doing the writing and by the structures that perpetuate it, which when you’re looking at Western and indeed Australian History are invariably white and male. So that’s the background I’m bringing to this and all my posts.
Why is this important? For this review it is essential. Making Australian History is about the history of History in Australia, how it has shaped our national identity, but also how History has been shaped. Clark firmly positions the creation of Australian History at the same time as Australia was forming a national identity, but also at the time the study of History was being formalised and professionalised internationally. This ‘scientific’ concept of History, where facts are immutable, personal opinion should not come into it, where History is unbiased, is at the core of the book. In unpicking Australian History Clark exemplifies the issues with this approach. Largely, the sidelining of non traditional sources including: oral history, First Nations history (through oral history and art work amongst other sources), family histories, local histories, non professional histories, fiction (including poetry), and other unwritten sources. By bringing these voices and sources back into the traditional view of History Clark makes the History richer, and explores how these alternative sources enable alternative voices to be heard.
Clark’s narrative is thematic, but also largely chronological. She splits the book into 16 sections: making history, beginnings, contact, convicts, nation, memory, colour, protest, distance, silence, family, gender, emotion, imagination, country and time. Each section begins with a single source that exemplifies its theme. Holding with the overall concept of the book, these sources are not all traditional written sources; they range from: First Nations art work, to convict songs, to photographs, to poetry, to fish traps. This is not say Clark excludes traditional sources with: speeches, early histories of Australia and other books also receiving the spotlight. Clark places these alternative sources on the same standing as traditional sources.
What Clark does masterfully is explain the intense complexity and contested nature of Australian History, both on a professional History stage and on a national stage. Simply put I learnt a lot about whole areas of the history of Australia that I hadn’t explored before. Clark highlights that while History is inherently colonial, and was imported to this continent, it doesn’t mean that First Nations people didn’t have a History or a method of telling it before colonisation, or that their History didn’t continue after colonisation. This last point was especially key for me, though it may seem simple. It is easy to see First Nations history as being suppressed completely once colonisation occurred, but Clark tells the story of its continuation as First Nations people continued to tell their own stories in many forms to advocate and fight for their rights. Their history is there, even in colonial sources, it is just often put aside by broader History.
Clark’s chronology follows History in Australia. She works from contact through to Federation (where the nation building drove a more blinkered version of Australia national identity that you see in the 1800s). Continues through convict stories (as in the reality not the romanticised version) and their displacement as a ‘stain’. Then through the White Australia policy and how History facilitated Australia’s national narrative as white. On to protest (with an especially illuminating looks the the extremely constructed national History on display at the Australian sesquicentenary). Along to The Great Australia Silence (the deliberate exclusion of First Nations people from Australia’s history). Into family history (including her own- Clark is the granddaughter of Manning Clark) with a special focus on Judith Wright’s work. Along to gender and women’s history, being both written into History but also looking at History overall from a domestic female lens. Continuing to emotion and ‘bias’ and the History Wars. On to the importance of imagination in History, looking especially at Tony Birch’s poems that draw on the letters of First Nations people living on reserves. Then examining Country, looking at the concept of ‘Country’ and whether it can be expressed in Western History but also the affect of landscape on History. Concluding with time looking, at the concepts of deep time and how it supersedes modern Australian History by thousands of years.
Clark concludes with “our understanding and practices of History reflects values and beliefs at a point in time as much as it does any knowledge about historical time: histories shift and change with each iteration, according to their context, author and audience. This text represents my present, as well as my reflections on History’s past.”
This succinctly summarises the over all point and what I took most from the book. History is biased, it is biased by the writer and the time. But History also should be personal, in writing History we are bringing our own views in, we can not write the past or the present dispassionately as disinterested observers. Our imagination fills in the gaps and that is OK, arguing possibilities when there is no one reality is essential as long as we acknowledge what knowledge and views we are bringing to the telling.
Making Australian History is an immensely interesting, informative and exciting book. It connected me to Australian History in all its flawed and often painful complexities more than anything I’ve ever read. As the national conversation and national identity continues to be shaped in an increasingly divisive and divided world, reckoning with our past and understanding it is vital. This is something I hope to continue to play a small part in with this blog.
I just wanted to finish with an image, a source of my own I guess. I finished reading Making Australian History in the Organ Pipes National Park. I took the book with me on a hike. It was a Monday afternoon so I had the park pretty much to myself. It’s an ancient landscape formed about a million years ago with molten larva flowing over the Keilor Plains. It was the site of First Nations grasslands and cultivation for tens of thousands of years, before it became part of a pastoral run following colonisation, and then a national park in 1972. It is a very Australian landscape and as I sat by Jackson’s Creek with dust on my boots it felt an appropriate place to reach the end of what is a very Australian book.
References: Making Australian History by Anna Clark ISBN: 9781760898519 you can buy it from any bookstore, but you can also borrow it from your local library and I can speak for the quality of the copy in the PMI Victorian History Library https://library.pmi.net.au/fullRecord.jsp?recno=32577
As I said in my, slightly unplanned, video; welcome to the first edition of Ragbag on Road. These entries are going to differ a little from my normal posts, because rather than a detailed history of a person, building, painting, book, topic etc., I’m going to take you on a wander with me through a new place. In this case I’m beginning with Maldon, a town in north central Victoria. This isn’t a full history of the town, but I’ll be talking briefly about several of interesting sights and sites and hope you enjoy this ramble with me.
I want to start by acknowledging both the Dja Dja Waurrung people on whose land Maldon stands and the Bunurong people on whose land I write from. The history of the Dja Dja Waurrung stretches back tens of thousands of years before white colonists arrived and ‘discovered’ gold in the Maldon area. The history of Australia is not new and clean and everything that was ‘discovered’ was already part of the land of the First Nations people. Australia’s First Nations’ history is ancient and in writing about recent history I acknowledge and celebrate a millennia of First Nations’ storytelling and knowledge keeping. The story of the Dja Dja Waurrung is not mine to tell, but I direct you to https://djadjawurrung.com.au/ the Dja Dja Waurrung Land Council which explores their history. I just want to be very clear that Maldon is Dja Dja Waurrung land.
To explore the town itself. This will be a little random because I tend to wander around new places and see what I can find, and I’m hoping to take you on that journey with me. I will give a little history to get us started though.
As I said in my opening video gold was found in Maldon in 1853, but that’s not the beginning of colonial history in the area. In 1836 the area was passed through by surveyor Major Thomas Mitchell. I’ve actually written about Mitchell’s survey of the ‘Australian Felix’ before you can find that post here. The land was soon settled by Europeans, and as pastoralists moved into the region First Nations people were denied access to their food and water sources and eventually forcibly moved on to reserves, including one at near by Loddon, with only a small number remaining in the area.
The Maldon region would have remained as the pastoral run of the 100 000 acre Cairn Curran property if gold hadn’t been found in 1853. The region was quickly flooded with people as part of Victoria’s gold rush with an immediate rush of up to 40 000 people. As you can imagine this massive influx of people only continued to grow and infrastructure was needed. The town as you see it now was laid out in 1856 by Thomas Adair at the behest of the Colonial government. He named it Maldon. The gold in the area proved to be a very rich seam and, while the alluvial gold petered out in about two years, mines were soon being dug. The deepest reached 75 meters and there were roughly 40 mines in the area. It’s believed that over 2 million ounces of gold were produced from the region, which in today’s money would be worth billions of dollars. The town grew quickly after it was declared a municipality in 1858 and this is the streetscape you see today. The photos below give you an idea.
This is the intact street scape that led the National Trust to declare Maldon Australia’s first ‘notable town’ in 1965. So that’s the basic history, now it’s time for our wander.
We begin, down the end of the main street (mainly because that’s where I could find a car park) with the Warnock’s Flour Mill.
This was the site of the local flour mill run by James and Samuel Warnock (the entrance was via rear lane) it was converted to shops in the early 1900s and is now famous for its Bushells sign. It is technically a ghost sign as Bushells is no longer sold there, but it’s so vibrant it’s hard to see it as especially ghost like.
You’ll have spotted the nice brick building next door. This is the Free Mason’s Hall.
This building was originally part of the Warnock’s store but the facade was added in 1908 and the Freemasons moved in and used it as their hall until the 1980s.
In our first random jump we move past some of the other high street buildings (I’ll return later). One of the key reasons I wanted to visit Maldon is its Athenaeum Library, but as it doesn’t open until the afternoon I have a quick wander to find it before going for lunch and on the way I discover two of Maldon’s many churches on the way. Both in fact Baptist churches.
The smaller building is the original church opened in 1865. It began as a Welsh church due to the large number of Welsh miners in the area. There was a division of the congregation which resulted in the construction of the larger church just round the corner in 1895. But eventually the differences were solved and the congregation reunified in 1930 into the larger building, using the small church as the Sunday school. The light you can see next to the original church is a modern replica of the lamp built in the 1880s so that passers by could read the times of upcoming Baptist sermons.
We then wander along to the Maldon Progress Hall. It was opened in 1873 as a Temperance Hall and is now owned by Mount Alexander Shire and used as a community hall.
Looking back we see Brook’s Store which was built in 1866 and run as cooperative store by a shareholding company. The Co-op never really got off the ground and the shares were liquidated in 1872. Brooks took the store over and the Brooks Family ran it until 1986- very little of the building has been changed.
Our next stop on the way to the Athenaeum is the Post Office. It was opened in 1869 and has one really interesting claim to fame. Australian author Henry Handel Richardson grew up there when her mother was post mistress from 1880 to 1886. It features in her work Myself When Young.
Ok, so we have now reached the Athenaeum. It was opened in 1863 though the current building dates to the 1930s
As you can see it is currently closed, so now that I’ve located it I’m headed off for some lunch, exploring a couple more interesting sites on my way back to the main street. Below you can see the Holy Trinity Anglican Church which is just opposite the Athenaeum.
It was built in 1861 of local stone (hornfels), which is known for its hardness. Some of the deep gutters are also built of it. It is the largest stone building in the town. It was designed by D.R Drape. You can see also see one of the outbuildings and an olive tree which was planted by Bishop Bowden to mark the centenary of the Bendigo Diocese in 2002.
The last building before lunch is the Market Building. It’s now the home of the Maldon Museum (which is closed when I visit but wrote most of the remarkable array of historical brochures which I am basing this post on). The Market was opened in 1859, but closed in 1860 because of a depression. It was converted into the Council buildings in 1865 and they remained there until 1964. In the photos below you can also see grounds around the Market building which contain two English Oaks planted in 1863 to commemorate the marriage of Prince Albert Edward to Alexandra Princess of Denmark. The rotunda dates to 2008 but it is a realisation of a long held dream with the petition to raise funds for a brass band rotunda presented to Council in 1883.
After lunch I go straight back to the Maldon Athenaeum Library and it’s open.
It was opened in 1863. The original wooden building burnt down in early 1900s with all records lost along with, apparently, the stuffed albatross in the window. The building dates to the 1930s and it is still community owned and run. It’s one of only eight mechanics’ institutes in Victorian which still have lending libraries (I work for one of the others). The Athenaeum is volunteer run and it’s a fascinating little building and collection. I hope the below photos give a good overview.
So Athenaeum explored I wander back to the main street via one more church and some hotels.
The Wesleyan Church and Parsonage which you can see above dates to 1863, it is the earliest church building still intact in Maldon. The brick chapel behind was probably the first building used as a church in Maldon. There is also a spring on the site and the stories say the minister threatened legal action against anyone who was caught removing more than one bucket of water. The building has been beautifully converted to The Cascade Art Gallery.
After the church I make my way past a couple of hotels.
Maldon Hotel opened in 1908 by Thomas Butler. Its site was originally a creek bed, but after severe flooding in the 1860s a drain was erected.
Another casualty of the creek bed was Shakespeare House, after the original wooden building was flooded the drain was built. It was delicensed as a hotel in 1910. It remains intact to the period.
At the end of the main street I head up to the Beehive Mine which I shoot my opening video from.
The chimney is 30 metres high and was built in 1863. The mine itself opened in 1859 and operated until 1911. You can see the remains of the building foundations in the second photo.
After a quick wander around the mine I make my way back to my car and drive out to the railway station.
The station opened in 1884 and was closed to passengers in 1941. It now runs as a short tourist heritage railway.
Now I have my car I head for my final stop in my wanderings, the tower at the top of Mount Tarrengower. Part of the tower is an original mine poppet head and it is still used as a fire watching tower today. It has been lit up every Easter since 1926. This was originally done with kerosene lamps but now electric lights are used. Local children grow up with the legend that the tower is the Easter Bunny’s house. The top of Mount Tarrengower is also roughly the centre of Victoria (there is a survey post I just couldn’t find it). The view from the top is incredible.
After admiring the view I head for home and the storm you can see in the last photo hits me on the way back. It’s been a fascinating day and I hope you have enjoyed wandering with me.
This post doesn’t cover every heritage building in Maldon by any stretch of the imagination. I recommend a visit and I intend to go back. Contact the Maldon Museum if you would like further information.
This blog post takes me out of my comfort zone (era wise) as I know very little about the mid 18th century and I’ve never written about an artwork before. But in many ways it is also right in my wheelhouse, exploring the lives of women in history to bring them out of the shadows. But before I introduce you to Susanna Gale, I need to go back to the beginning.
One of my favourite places in Melbourne is the National Gallery of Victoria. It’s an amazing bluestone building with the ambience of the ancient cathedrals. It’s also home to Leonard French’s stained glass ceiling- the largest in the world. It is Melbourne tradition to lie on your back on the carpet and look up at it when you visit the gallery. You can see the view below.
Anyway, as soon as we were allowed out again after lockdown the NGV was high on my list of places to visit. I started with the medieval section, best place to see reliquaries in Melbourne, and then headed for Tiepolo’s magnificent (if incredibly historically inaccurate in just about every conceivable way) Banquet of Cleopatra. It’s one of the NGV’s stalwarts and it’s nice to visit.
On my way, I noticed a new hang from the last time I’d been in the gallery, including one painting that literally stopped me in my tracks. Joshua Reynolds’ portrait of Miss Susanna Gale. Reynolds is a master painter, which is one of the reasons it stood out, but I was also enthralled by her, by Susanna. And I wanted to know more. The information on the picture didn’t tell me much other than her name, the artist and the fact it was painted in c. 1763-1764 so I did some digging. I write fiction too and originally I was intending to just use the research for a short story. I am currently working on a story about Susanna, memories, a rose and Debussy, but she captivated me enough that I thought she deserved her own post. So in all the finest traditions of Historical Ragbag here she is.
So who was Susanna and how did her painting come to be at the National Gallery of Victoria?
Let’s start with Susanna, as she is the subject of the painting and the point of this post. Susanna was an heiress, the daughter of Francis Gale and Susannah Hall. Francis Gale was a wealthy British sugar planter from Jamaica. Susannah Hall was an heiress in her own right, her father James Hall was a silver mine owner also from Jamaica. You can see what is thought to be a painting of Francis Gale below. It dates to 1763 and interestingly was also painted by Reynolds. It is held by the National Trust in the UK at Montacute House.
I want to pause here to examine something that must immediately come to mind when we’re looking at British commerce in areas like Jamaica in this era, especially sugar plantations: slavery. When I started writing this post, I only had the supposition about the time and place. I have since found the Gales listed in the database of the Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slavery. When Francis Gale died in 1775 his probate indicated that he owned 45 people: 28 men, 17 women and 8 children. In all honesty when I found this, I wondered whether I should continue writing about Susanna at all, as she definitely profited directly from slavery. When I thought about it though, I decided to continue because history should be explored in all its complexities and dark places, and her life should be acknowledged in all its parts. There is scant information about Susanna, but her family’s past is part of the tapestry of her life.
So as an heiress Susanna came to London to finish her education. And this is the moment when Reynolds painted her. She’s fourteen or fifteen in this painting, but for me it’s her face that is most intriguing. She looks like she’s poised on the edge of taking steps into a new world, a child trying to be an adult. That is certainly how she is styled, her clothing and posture very much reflect a contrast to her youthful face, there are reasons for this which I will return to later. She didn’t stay in England for long. The painting dates to 1764 at the latest and we know she married a man called Sabine Turner by 1765. There is very little known about Sabine, they were married in Jamaica but he failed to make any mark. Sabine was dead by 1766. We don’t know what Susanna did in the immediate aftermath of his death, but in 1769 she married the promising navy captain Alan Gardener in Jamaica. This proved to be a good match for Susanna as Alan would go on to become Vice-Admiral Lord Alan Gardner, he was a contemporary of Nelson’s and almost as well known in his own time. The title of Baron Gardner was created for him. You can see his portrait below.
As usual there is a Wikipedia article about her husband and his accomplishments, but very little about Susanna after their marriage. We know they had ten children, nine sons and one daughter, and that Susanna became Lady Gardner. Of those children, the eldest Alan inherited his father’s titles and followed him into the navy, the second Francis-Farrington became an admiral in the navy, the third William-Henry became a major general, the fourth Henry-Cossley died young, the fifth Herbert didn’t do anything remarkable, the sixth Edward was a resident at the Court of the Rajah in Nepal, the seventh Valentine died young, the eighth also Valentine was a captain in the Royal Navy, the ninth Samuel-Martin didn’t do anything remarkable and the tenth and only daughter Susannah-Hall married well.
With such a large family and with so many in the military we can presume that Susanna’s life was much taken up with bearing, raising and in fact burying her children, she outlived at least five of her children and her husband. Lord Alan died in 1808 and Susanna lived until 1823. As the wife of the Baron Gardner she would have had property to help manage, especially with her husband away at sea often. From this scant information we can extrapolate a life similar to most of her station in this era. But we can add no detail. Looking at the painting, it’s hard to imagine the girl depicted as a twice widowed mother of a dynasty, a military wife, and an old woman with scores of grand-children. She is captured on the cusp of a life she couldn’t have known. Which brings us neatly back to the painting itself. It is the reason Susanna is remembered at all. Which comes back to the central question, what is it doing in the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne Australia, a world away from its origins?
Unlike the details of Susanna’s life, this is a question that can actually be answered. But before I do, I want to talk a little about the composition of the painting and how it came to be painted. I preface this with the disclaimer that I am not an art historian, so please forgive any errors.
When Susanna came to London, Joshua Reynolds was the painter de jour, especially of portraits. He painted up to 150 sitters a year. With this in mind he had a streamlined process of generally three sittings of about an hour and a half each time. This would be sufficient to complete the face then as Reynolds described it in 1777 “the rest is done without troubling the sitter”. Everything else was modelled by his servants and pupils, from clothes to the hands. This might have been efficient, but does mean that you do see similarities between portraits. The best comparison in the case of Susanna’s painting is Reynolds’ portrait of Mrs Thomas Riddle painted in 1763. You can see it below and the parallels are obvious even to a completely untrained eye.
Reynolds was also drawing on a long artistic tradition, especially the work of van Dyck and specifically his painting of Elena Grimaldi, from 1623. You can see it below.
Susanna is cast into a role demarcated by more than century of artistic tradition, and I’d like to return to her specific portrait. Interestingly, the painting at the NGV is not the only version. It is the original, but there is a copy held by the National Trust in the UK in Clarendon Park. It was painted after 1763, but before the original was cut down. You can see it below.
The really interesting bit about this is ‘before the original was cut down’. The painting was taken to sea by Lord Alan on several of his voyages (I like the thought of him wanting the portrait of his wife with him-maybe it’s an indicator of a happy marriage?) and it was damaged so much that the dimensions had to be reduced. It also suffered some kind of injury when it was in transit on the Midland Railway, necessitating restoration. Close examination of the painting in 1956 by the NGV noted evidence of the painting having many skilfully mended cuts and tears especially across the top. It had also been relined and possibly re-stretched. So the painting has not lived a comfortable life gathering dust on the wall of the family mansion. And this brings us back to the question of how did it end up in Melbourne?
Once Lord Alan died Susanna gave the painting to her daughter Susannah Cornwall and when she died in 1853 it passed down to her descendant Reverend Alan Gardener Cornwall. The painting remained in the family until 1872 when it was sold and came into the possession of banker Bertram Currie you can see him below.
When he died in 1896 it was inherited by his son Laurence Currie. Laurence died in 1934 and the painting was purchased by the National Gallery of Victoria from Christies as part of the Felton Bequest. The Felton Bequest was set up by Alfred Felton who was a successful Melbourne businessman. You can see his portrait below.
Felton began collecting art from the late 1880s onwards, he lived with his art collection at the Esplanade Hotel in St Kilda. He donated paintings to the gallery during his life time, but it was his will that really shaped the gallery’s collection. The bequest continues to this day and is responsible for purchasing 80% of the NGV’s finest artworks that are valued at over 2 billion.
The will was drawn up in 1900 with trustees of a committee of five to administer the funds. The income was divided equally between donations to charity and to purchase art works for the NGV. The committee was able to appoint art advisors in Europe and around the world and the only stipulations for purchasing was that the works had “to have an artistic and educational value and to be calculated to raise or improve public taste” The overseas advisors were key to the purchasing of art under the bequest and Randall Davies was appointed the London advisor in c.1928. He presided over the bequest until 1934, and one of his final recommendations was Joshua Reynolds’ Miss Gale which was bought for 3500 pounds. The Argus newspaper at the time printed a photo of the newly hung portrait.
The Argus reported:
Referring to the picture and its history, Sir Charles Holmes, the English painter and critic, says that it bears no trace of the two accidents which overtook it-once, when Admiral Gardner took it to sea with him, and once in a railway smash. At Christies, while under a darkened varnish, the picture still left a delightful impression of dignity combined with youthful grace. After cleaning, the picture revealed an unexpected richness and glow of colour in the rose-red dress and russet background, coupled with a freedom of brushwork, anticipating the magnificent ease and breadth of Sir Joshua Reynolds’s maturity “I cannot help feeling,” Sir Charles Holmes says, “that on this occasion Sir Joshua had in mind some work by his great rival Gainsborough, an inspiration reflected in the free brushwork, the transparent colour, and, above all, in the sensitive refinement, the gentle distinction, with which the young lady is invested other works by Reynolds maybe more profound, more imposing, but I know of very few indeed that would be so desirable a possession”
She was hung on Tuesday the 7th of August 1934 and has remained at the NGV ever since.
So that brings us to the end of both Susanna’s story and the story of how a Joshua Reynolds portrait of a Jamaican British heiress painted in 1763-64 came to be hanging on the walls of the National Gallery of Victoria in 2021 to enthral me. I’ll leave you again with the painting, and if you’re ever in Melbourne, maybe go and visit her.
For the first time I’ve been sent a book for review, a somewhat novel experience for me, but one that I hope will continue as I expand my range of book reviews on this blog. I always love having the chance to talk about a woman who played a crucial role in history, but whose voice and or story has been lost to the broader narrative. In being sent Vera Deakin and the Red Cross by Carole Woods, I’ve had the chance to learn about an intriguing woman, and also about the role of the Red Cross Wounded and Missing Enquiry Bureau, which could easily have been a book in and of itself. So thank you Simone from Shebang for sending me the book.
Simone’s contact wasn’t the first time I’ve actually seen this book. I bought it for work, as I’m always keeping my eye out for any books about women in Victorian history, that can help to fill gaps in the predominantly male narrative, especially military narratives which often write out women entirely. So I’d purchased the book for the PMI Victorian History Library. Sadly, I don’t have time to read every book I buy for work (it would actually be physically impossible) and in all honesty Vera isn’t one I would have picked up and read for myself. I saw it as a reference book to be dipped in to for information as needed, not something to read cover to cover. This supposition is supported by the format, a somewhat awkward slightly oversized hardback. The book does not promote itself as a popular biography. Given this, I was intending to dip in and out for this review, but I was surprised to find how readable Vera is.
Much of this readability comes from the compelling, improbable and complex nature of Vera Deakin’s life and that’s where I want to begin.
Vera Deakin, born in 1891, was the youngest daughter of Australia’s second Prime Minister Alfred Deakin. She was many ways a deeply conventional woman, but she stepped forcibly out of the conventional mould in pursuit of what she saw as her duty to serve.
Vera begins describing her somewhat idyllic childhood, of literature, family life and education both in Melbourne and in Point Lonsdale (where both Vera and her husband chose to be buried). It explores her immediate family, and the role of both her parents Pattie and Alfred Deakin. It’s in this section that narrative lost me a little for the first time, as it skipped around in trying to create atmosphere at the same time as describing non essential people and jumping forward and back in time to allude to future events. Vera does encapsulate the world of learning and music that was the foundation of Vera’s life. However, despite extracts and comments from Vera’s own diaries and letters, Vera herself is a little lost (along with the narrative thread) in the sheer welter of new people, houses being bought and then sold, laundry listing of events, family dynamics, connections, atmosphere setting and external references.
Vera really catches you when we reach World War One. With war declared Vera, who in the preceding chapters had been travelling in England and Germany to continue her musical studies, wants to do her part, very clearly wants to serve and is rebuffed. This is where we see Vera really step into her own story. No one else (especially her father) envisions a role for her in the war other than helping at home and running canteens with her mother, so she makes one. This is where we see the Vera who would later be described as autocratic but deeply compassionate, who inspired fierce loyalty, love, but also awe and in some cases fear. If she had been a man, no doubt the autocracy would not have been commented on.
In finding her own place, Vera got on a ship to Cairo to join the Red Cross support services in Egypt. This was the beginning of her lifelong commitment to the Red Cross. It is not an exaggeration to say that she was the backbone of the organisation in Australia. Arriving in Egypt, Vera was at the coalface of the beginnings of the Australian Enquiry Bureau. Essentially this was a service of tracking down soldiers and sending news of them to their relatives, they also took requests from relatives to track down their loved ones. This might sound like a simple enough concept, but dealing with the conflagration of disorder that was World War One, it was anything but simple. By 1915 enquiry lists were stretching out to 900 pages. These were all soldiers listed as missing, or wounded, or dead. The idea was to provide context for families, the military notification was stark ‘missing’ ‘wounded’ ‘died of wounds’ ‘killed in action’, the Enquiry Bureau filled in these gaps, finding the soldiers, letting their families know of their condition, communicating with prisoners of war (a little later) and sending care packages, and if the solider was dead not only confirming the death but also how they died, usually by talking to another solider who had been there. As you can imagine this was a mammoth task, they had searchers who went out to all the hospitals and military units etc to ascertain the information, but it all had to be sorted and communicated and made useful. Vera was at the heart of this. When the action moved more to Europe, the Egyptian Bureau closed and Vera moved it to London in 1916, she remained there, running the Bureau until the end of the war. The Bureau provided comfort to thousands and thousands of families, but also soldiers, through contact with prisoners of war, helping soldiers on leave and visiting sick and wounded soldiers. Vera was again at the coalface of this side of the operation often ‘adopting’ soldiers and taking them to entertainments on leave, hosting parties, visiting them in hospital and, on one memorable occasion, taking Christmas to a particular hospital when her parents visited in 1916. She also formed relationships with the families of soldiers she was helping to trace, in several cases maintaining correspondence even after the solider was found to be dead. She kept in contact with one father until his death twelve years later.
Vera did not undertake this work alone. She was the heart of a dedicated group of some paid but largely volunteers. This included several women from a similar background to her own, who became lifelong friends, and some of whom she continued to work with when she returned to Australia. As a snapshot of the sheer volume of work that was undertaken- in 1917 the Bureau received 26953 cabled enquiries from Australia and sent back 24610 responses. They received 9175 posted enquires and another 11444 enquiries from Britain and France. 32753 reports come in from searchers and a further 4501 reports from soldiers, matrons and padres. We know these numbers, because of the meticulous records that Vera ensured were kept, and ensured went back to Australia. They are now at the Australian War Memorial and some are in the process of being digitised.
At the cessation in hostilities Vera began to close down the London office, and to move back to Australia. They continued their work right up to the last, sending searchers back on the troop ships, seeing it as their last chance to collect stories from the soldiers of others missing, or stories of how the dead died.
There was one more twist in the World War One part of Vera’s story though. One of the prisoners of war that Vera had been corresponding with early on in the Bureau’s existence was Thomas White, an Australian Aviator who had been captured early in the war flying in Mesopotamia, and held captive by the Turks. The Bureau corresponded directly with him, as he was the best contact to provide support for the rank and file prisoners. The officers were given slightly more lenient treatment. White escaped in 1918 and stowed away on a Russian freighter, making his way to England by circuitous route.
On the 21st of December 1918 another former Turkish prisoner from Geelong, Les Luscomb, came to the Bureau. He and other Turkish prisoners had been held for so long they didn’t know much about what had been happening in the world, so the Bureau helped reorient them. Vera invited Les to visit the Temple Church in London. She saw the soldiers as crusaders describing the deceased at the armistice as “the voices of those Crusader souls who have given their lives on the battlefield & the high seas” and thought he might appreciate the crusader knights’ effigies found in the Temple Church which dates to the 1185.
I just want pause very briefly here to put on my medievalist hat, as people reading this review have probably read some of the rest of this blog, and say that none of the effigies in the Temple Church are crusaders, but you can see where the sentiment was coming from. Les Luscomb met Vera at the Temple Church the following day. He brought his friend Thomas White, Thomas and Vera were engaged three weeks later and married for 37 years. Thomas went on to be a prominent member of parliament and Australian High Commissioner to London- where he was knighted- and it was in her role as his wife that Vera’s path and the book’s narrative continues.
This is not to say that Vera was only his wife. She certainly supported him, but she kept up her volunteer work. When World War II broke out, the Whites had both spoken out against appeasement, Vera set up and ran the Bureau again, but this time from Melbourne rather than London. It feels like an injustice to skate over this part of her life, which was filled with the same complexities as World War I and was instrumental in establishing structures that are still used by the Red Cross today, but like the book I can not cover all aspects of Vera’s life in a review. She was a woman of vision, determination, education, insight, incredible organisation, authority and deep compassion. She was also clearly a woman of her times, she was deeply dedicated to Empire and England, militaristic, pro conscription in both WWI referendums (a concept I can’t understand from someone who saw the suffering first hand), and I found her vision of ANZACs of noble crusaders uncomfortable, but that is again reading this book as a medievalist first. She and White dedicated the rest of their lives to the memorialisation of the ANZACS and all those who fought as heroes. She was at the core of the creation of the ANZAC legend, so it is ironic that her story and the story of the many dedicated (mainly female) volunteers has been lost from the narrative.
Vera does a good job telling the story of Vera’s life and I would like to note the excellent index, but it hovers in the difficult territory of trying to be both a readable, enjoyable biography and a useful reference book. It doesn’t quite achieve either. It is in many ways hampered by the fullness of Vera’s life, some sections feel skated over, a laundry list of achievements rather than a story and examination. Vera tries to ride too many horses; telling Vera’s story, telling the Red Cross’s story, examining her family dynamic and Alfred Deakin, exploring broader military history, Thomas White’s story, even the Bureau’s story. Any of these could have been a book by themselves, and I found myself wanting to know more, to be move involved in the narrative. I also wanted more from Vera herself in her own words integrated into the narrative (as there was clearly been a lot of access to letters, diaries etc). For me, the section that could have been sacrificed to allow more space for the others would have been Vera’s years in Germany and Budapest, and her early tours of England, which while formative, simply aren’t as interesting as her later life. At 210 pages Vera is not a long book, and this has meant the sacrifice of depth in some areas.
All that being said Vera Deakin and the Red Cross does a wonderful job bringing Vera out of the shadows and placing her back at the heart of the ANZAC story, and the formation of the Red Cross- right where she belongs.
This is going to be a slightly different post to usual, as it will not be straight history. I will cover some of the history of the ballroom above Flinders Street Station in Melbourne, Victoria, but I will be telling the story of how I experienced it for the first time (I’ve been trying to get inside for about ten years) as the exhibition space for Patricia Piccinini’s Miracle Constantly Repeated. So this piece will be part history, part personal narrative, and part art exploration. It also ties nicely back to a post I wrote some years ago about art interpreting historical spaces.
But back to the Ballroom. The Flinders Street Ballroom is one of those almost mythical places in cities, that everyone has heard of, and most people have never seen. The sort of place that pops up in newspaper articles every few years or so, with new ideas for its future, or stories of its past. These are the sort of places that strike at the heart of a city’s imagination, kind of like secret tunnels. But unlike most supposed secret tunnels, the Flinders Street Ballroom is very real.
Flinders Street Station has had trains running from roughly the same location since the 1850s, it’s the main station in Melbourne, and ‘meeting under the clocks’ remains a tradition to this day. The current buildings, you can see in the photos below, were the result of a design competition and were completed in 1910.
The Ballroom was not part of the original plan and was added during construction because of the creation of the Victorian Railway Institute. The VRI was founded in 1910 with the aim of promoting the intellectual, social and physical well-being of the members- who were largely railway staff. They still exist actually, though they have expanded beyond railway workers. The ballroom was originally the VRI’s lecture hall, and the other rooms housed, a gym with a boxing ring, a lending library which took books to members by train, and education classes at night. It was a similar concept to Mechanics’ Institutes, you can read more about MIs here. You can see members of the VRI in the then lecture hall in the photo below from the State Library of Victoria.
Much of the original lecture hall can still be seen today in the remaining fabric of the Ballroom. And you can see the activities of the VRI still reflected in the surrounding rooms. The message you can see scrawled on the wall in the final photo below, though, is thought to date to the late 1960s, once the upper floors had already begun to fall into disrepair.
By the early 1900s the lecture hall had become a ballroom, you can see an image of it all decked out in bunting from roughly the 1930s from Victorian Railways Corporation records, held at PROV, below.
By the 1950s, the dances there were so popular a mezzanine had to be added to accomodate more people. The balls always finished by midnight so everyone could catch the last train home.
By the 1970s the rooms began to fall into disuse, the last dance in the ballroom was held in 1983. It wasn’t until 1985 that the public use of the ballroom and surrounding rooms pretty much ceased completely. Every ten years or so another announcement of refurbishment pops up, there’s been ideas of locating the Melbourne City Library on the third floor (an idea I’d be in favour of as they badly need the space), of reopening the Ballroom as a ballroom, or running a school up there, along with many other concepts, none of which have come to fruition. The Andrews Government began restoring the whole Flinders Street Complex in 2015, including removing 10 tonnes of pigeon poo from the dome. The Ballroom is part of this redevelopment, but what it will be used for in the future remains very much up in the air. You can see some of development of the Ballroom (and the rest of the station) in the video below.
While the future of the use of the Ballroom remains uncertain, it has been open to the public occasionally. Either for Open House Melbourne (which ran on a ballot system which I was sadly never lucky enough to be successful in) or for artists to work in. This included the recent Rising Festival, which is where my journey into the Ballroom begins, and where we step away a little from the history and into the world of art.
As I said at the beginning, I’ve been trying to get into the Ballroom for about ten years, it’s just one of the those places that light up my imagination, and my desire to explore odd historical places (kind of the point of this blog). So when it was announced that Rising would be opening the Ballroom, I couldn’t get a ticket fast enough. Then, as has been a familiar story across the world, COVID reared its head again, forcing Melbourne into a two week lockdown, and effectively cancelling the festival, which was devastating to all involved. There was one bright light though. Miracle Constantly Repeated was being held inside in a space that wasn’t being used for anything else, so Rising managed to extend its run. And lucky enough for me restrictions lifted the day before I had my ticket. So I was one of the first groups to experience Patricia Piccinini’s extraordinary installation, in the endlessly fascinating Flinders’ Street Ballroom and surrounding rooms. For me the exploration of both the installation and the third floor rooms was a linear experience, so I thought I’d recreate it. There is just so much layered history in the rooms, that you’ll find a lot of pressed metal photography, and small corners where the origins of the stripped back rooms are poking their heads through. I hope you find it interesting, and it can give you a taste of the transcendental experience of the combination of the installations and the palpable sense of History that hangs over it all.
My journey began with the entrance to the stairs that lead you above.
I really didn’t have a clear idea of what I would find as I began the three story climb, even the stairs show a building that has lived a complex life.
Until ultimately you reach the top, and a corridor that seems to run into the horizon.
Piccinini’s installations are in the rooms along the corridor in both directions, culminating in the the full installation in the Ballroom, which really has to be seen to be believed.
As I wandered amongst their wonder, I was also exploring the building, finding the small places where time (and builders) had pulled back layers. But also looking at Melbourne literally from a new perspective.
There is also a lot of very lovely pressed metal, walls and ceilings, and I may have got slightly too excited about it, so I thought that rather than including them along the journey, I’d just do an overview.
Piccinini’s works is an exploration of nature and the urban environment, of a hybridisation between inanimate object and nature, with objects taking on natural characteristics, or nature adapting to more mechanisation, of chimeras’s who fit in both worlds and how humans find a place. But it is more than this too, she looks at elevating the notion of kindness and caring, for other humans and for the environment, of evolution and change. She creates odd creatures, that challenge how we see ourselves, she creates forests of flowering organs that tell stories of the future and the past, of rituals and ecology. She also has what has to be my favourite line for an exhibition description that “big sculptures don’t just have to be about important men in hats on horseback”.
It’s one of those exhibitions that you really need to see in person to appreciate, especially the way she has worked with the building. Everything I’ve said and will say is my own interpretation, based on the guides provided. You could view her work and experience something totally different, and that’s what I love most about art. We are seeing the expressions of someone else’s thoughts, but the pieces become our own as well, as we view them through the lens of all our own beliefs, and concepts of the world. I’m not going to include the whole installation, because if you have the chance you really should go and see it, but this should give you an idea.
You begin your journey with Diorama, an art with historic links that blurs the line between realism and the artificial.
We then move through to Sapling, where the concept of a tree’s personhood and sentience is explored.
In the same room as Sapling are the Shoeforms, which epitomise Piccinini’s concept of naturalised technology.
In a room further along you’ll find The Couple based around the central conceit of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, in this case what would have happened if Frankenstein loved the creature he created. It’s essentially a meditation on the importance of empathy and caring. I especially loved that Piccinini created the whole room around her ‘couple’ and how it felt incredibly lived in, with the aesthetic of the old building.
The following room was my favourite, ballroom aside. Celestial Field is mesmerising, the human and natural border are collapsing as flowers, like organs, grow and hang from the ceiling and in the middle is The Balance- the naturalisation of mechanisation, as two mechanical forms reach for each other.
I also shot a short video, just to give a real feel for the atmosphere Piccinini creates.
We move along to No Fear of Depths the aforementioned large sculpture of caring.
Probably my favourite of Piccinini’s individual works came next ‘The Supporter’ the idea of a natural environemnt growing out of an urban one, and a sybiotic relationship where humans, nature and the urban world, all sort of hold eachother together.
And finally we culminate in the Ballroom, which honestly I’m not going to try to describe, as the pictures speak for themselves.
As truly miraculous as Piccinini’s A Miricale Constantly Repeated is, the small parts of the building that speak with her work, the old bones that you can see, the small stories- which is kind of what this blog is about- matter to me as much, so I wanted to finish with those.
I enjoyed writing my first real book review on this blog (Joan: Lady of Wales) so I thought I’d branch out into a different area of history and write another. Also, there hasn’t been much Australian history on Historical Ragbag for a while and Vida Goldstein is always a good place to start. Vida is someone who should be much better known worldwide, a leading suffragist (they’re different to suffragettes), first woman to stand for national parliament anywhere in the Western world, rousing speaker, peace campaigner through World War I and life long advocate for social justice. She has been quite unfairly relegated to the shadows of history. Jacquline Kent’s book works to change that.
I have written about Vida before. In fact I first came across her in year eleven when I was allowed to pick any topic of Australian history and I chose the Australian suffragists. Then when I saw the movie Suffragette in 2015 I decided Vida needed her own blog post. So you can find out more about her in the link below
This is primarily a book review though and, while I’d love the chance to talk more about Vida herself, I should return to the book.
I devoured this book. What Kent does so well is explores Vida’s life as a whole, rather than focussing on her suffrage work, or her war work, or her education work, or her tilts at parliament. She situates her firmly in the narrative of her time, a time of intense change and upheaval. Kent also follows Vida through to her later life (she died in 1949) putting this remarkable woman firmly back on centre stage where she should be. Kent draws parallels with the experiences of modern day female politicians, especially Julia Gillard, which really drives home the message of how much work there still is to be done, but also how much we can learn from Vida and her experiences.
But to go back to the beginning, Kent’s book is largely chronological, the first thing I learnt is that I’ve been pronouncing Vida’s name wrong. I’d been saying Veeda Goldsteen where as Vida herself pronounced it with Viida (as in with a long I) Goldstine (again the long I). I’ve been correcting myself in my head ever since.
Kent does tell Vida’s story chronologically for the most part. Though the book begins with a prologue of sorts, exploring the most iconic image of Vida (see below)
Kent starts the narrative proper with Vida’s family history. It’s when Vida and her family relocate to Melbourne, however, that you really start getting the sense of Vida as a person. The picture Kent paints is of a woman dedicated to her ideals, sometimes to her own detriment (for example her complete refusal to join a political party limited her likelihood of being elected- though it is a position I very much sympathise with), a tireless advocate and champion for social justice, who always worked quietly (as in never violently) but incredibly persistently. She never gave up and was deservedly famous in her own time, especially with her campaigns to be elected to parliament. For her first attempt in 1903 she toured regional Victoria for two months speaking in country towns all over the state, speeches the local newspapers covered in great detail. In fact some of the commentary would be familiar to current female politicians too. The Avoca Times reported “Miss Goldstein presented a very pleasing appearance on the platform at Avoca. She was graceful, pretilly gowned and wore a most becoming hat.“
At this point Victorian women could not vote in state elections, but they could vote federally and run for parliament. Vida campaigned hard and as an independent candidate she received 51 497 votes for the Senate, about half of that of the top polling male candidate. She remained philosophical though and would go on to run for parliament (in various different areas) a further four times. She was never successful, but she succeeded in having her issues heard and paved the way for future female parliamentarians. It is fitting that an electorate is named after her (even if it is a now a bluechip Liberal seat that has only ever been held by a man).
What Kent does best in Vida: A woman for our time is to place Vida in the context of her own time. This is in many ways what I found most interesting, as it tells Vida’s story more broadly. It also means you learn a lot about Australia’s early history before the historical narrative gets hijacked by World War I as Australia’s foundation story. As I already knew a little about her role in politics, I was absolutely fascinated with her role in the anti-conscription and peace movement in WWI and the extent of the movement itself. Vida helped set up the Australian Peace Alliance in the midst of war frenzy, aiming to bring together all the disparate groups advocating for peace, including Trades Hall, quite a few unions, the Quakers and the Free Religious Fellowship. The fight for peace was, obviously, not ultimately successful, but the movements did manage to see off the conscription referendum, though the fight got quite nasty at times. This era is something I might come back and explore in a later post. Vida was at the forefront of so many movements, and her persistence (as well as the hard work of a lot of other people-which Kent very much acknowledges) was the core of her often successful activities.
Kent not only places Vida in the context of her times, but also in the context of her family. Vida was a very much a product of her upbringing and the support of her family. Her family is also the source of fascinating Melbourne history sidetracks. Her sister Elsie, for example, was married to the somewhat eccentric activist Henry Howard Champion and they ran the fabulously named Book Lovers Library, which was a Melbourne institution until 1936. This also sent me down the rabbit hole of the Book Lovers Library and other early libraries in Melbourne, which seeing as I work for one was really very interesting.
In her later years Vida became an adherent of the Christian Science Movement and withdrew more from public life, when she died at the age of 80 on the 15th of August 1949 she’s didn’t leave much of a financial or material legacy. Her legacy as a trailblazer and advocate was infinitely more important.
This is by no means a full account of Vida’s life. For that you’ll need to read the book. Essentially, in Vida: A woman for our time what Kent does is brings Vida’s whole story into the light. Kent highlights her role in the rapidly changing society, the context of her family, her activism and worldwide recognition (including a very popular US speaking tour). Kent does this at the same time as contextualising what Vida’s struggles mean for us today, and exploring several fascinating and not well known enough areas of Australian history. She brings Vida out of the shadows and places her back in the broader narrative of Australian history- right where she belongs.
Vida: A woman for our time by Jacqueline Kent can be found at: