Book Review: Making Australian history by Anna clark

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

The photos are all mine.

Ragbag on road- Maldon

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.

Ellen

References:

Site visit 2022

A Walk in the Reserve (Booklet)

Maldon’s Historic CBD (Booklet)

Historic Churches of Maldon (Booklet)

The Maldon Athenaeum Library (Booklet)

Historic Town Walk Maldon (Booklet)

History of Maldon (Booklet)

Maldon Historic Drive: Beehive Mine (Booklet)

https://djadjawurrung.com.au/giyakiki-our-story/#malamiya-yu

https://maldonmuseum.com.au/?page_id=368

http://tours.maldonmuseum.com.au/index.php/mobile/walks/4

http://maldonbaptist.org/about-us/#history

https://www.flickr.com/photos/31967465@N04/33925037822/

http://www.vgr.com.au/homepage.php

The photos are all mine.

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.

Susanna Gale

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.

Reynolds, Joshua; Colonel Isaac Gale (thought to actually be Francis Gale); National Trust, Montacute House; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/colonel-isaac-gale-101861

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.

Vice-Admiral Lord Alan Gardner (1742-1809) *oil on canvas *76 x 73.5 cm *1780-1809

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.

Reynolds, Joshua; Susanna Gale (1749-1823), Lady Gardner; National Trust, Clandon Park; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/susanna-gale-17491823-lady-gardner-216831

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.

References:

Images:

Leonard French Ceiling: Ellen Coates

Banquet of Cleopatra National Gallery of Victoria: https://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/explore/collection/work/4409/

Susanna Gale National Gallery of Victoria https://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/explore/collection/work/4299/

Francis Gale National Trust UK https://www.nationaltrustcollections.org.uk/object/597959

Admiral Lord Alan Gardner https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/b1/Vice-Admiral_Lord_Alan_Gardner_%281742-1809%29%2C_by_William_Beechey.jpg

Mrs Thomas Riddell https://www.wikiart.org/en/joshua-reynolds/mrs-thomas-riddell

Elena Grimaldi National Gallery of Art https://www.nga.gov/collection/art-object-page.1231.html

Susanna Gale National Trust UK https://www.nationaltrustcollections.org.uk/object/1441498

Bertram Currie https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Bertram_Wodehouse_Currie.jpg

Alfred Felton https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alfred_Felton#/media/File:Longstaff_felton1.jpg

Susana Gale The Argus https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/rendition/nla.news-article10975964.3.html?followup=47ff0cf3a10a59d0cdb69e5d3a63ed02

General references:

Felton Bequest:

https://www.eqt.com.au/philanthropy/the-alfred-felton-bequest

The Felton Bequest National Gallery of Victoria by Ursula Hoff

Mr Felton’s Bequest by John Poynter

Miss Susanna Gale painting:

The National Gallery of Victoria by Ursula Hoff

Painting and Sculpture Before 1800: In the international collections of the National Gallery of Victoria by National Gallery of Victoria

National Gallery of Victoria: Painting drawing sculpture by Ursula Hoff

A History of the Works of Sir Joshua Reynolds Volume I by Graves and Cronin https://archive.org/details/historyofworksof01grav

The Quarterly Bulletin of the National Gallery of Victoria Vol.10 No.3 1956 https://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/The-Quarterly-Bulletin-of-the-National-Gallery-of-Victoria-vol-10-No-3-1956.pdf

Work of the Week https://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/work-of-the-week-miss-susanna-gale-c-1763-1764/

Works of Art Loaned by the NGV: https://www.yumpu.com/en/document/read/10561634/works-of-art-loaned-by-the-ngv-national-gallery-of-victoria

Quadrant: Grand European Paintings of NGV https://quadrant.org.au/magazine/2012/12/grand-european-paintings-of-the-ngv/

Bertram Currie: https://www.natwestgroup.com/heritage/people/bertram-wodehouse-currie.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bertram_Wodehouse_Currie

The Argus reporting on Susanna Gale portrait: https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/10975964?searchTerm=%22miss%20gale%22#

https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/10986282?searchTerm=%22susanna%20gale%22

Susanna Gale and Family:

Lord Alan Gardner https://morethannelson.com/officer/alan-gardner-1st-baron-gardner/

Gale Families https://web.archive.org/web/20131213052300/http://gale-gaylefamilies.com/gale-gayle-families-of-the-west-indies.html

Debrett’s Complete Peerage of the United Kingdom and Ireland https://books.google.com.au/books?id=Ru4UAAAAQAAJ&pg=PA323&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=false

Baron Gardner https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baron_Gardner

Susanna Gale http://artothings.blogspot.com/2008/06/miss-susanna-gale.html

Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slavery: Francis Gale https://www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs/inventory/view/3468

Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slavery: Susanna Hyde Turner then Gardner (nee Gale) https://www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs/person/view/2146637755

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Book Review: Vera Deakin and the Red Cross by Carole Woods

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.

Vera Deakin and the Red Cross by Carole Wood can be bought from the Royal Historical Society of Victoria https://www.historyvictoria.org.au/product/vera-deakin-and-the-red-cross-by-carole-woods/

Or borrowed from the PMI Victorian History Library

https://library.pmi.net.au/fullRecord.jsp?recno=31737

Flinders Street Station Ballroom

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.

References:

http://vhd.heritage.vic.gov.au/places/result_detail/752

https://www.vri.org.au/about

https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/flinders-street-station-ballroom

https://www.flindersstreetstation.com.au/third-floor.php

http://wiki.prov.vic.gov.au/index.php/File:12903-P0001-000364-085.jpg#filelinks

https://www.development.vic.gov.au/projects/flinders-street-station?page=overview

http://search.slv.vic.gov.au/permalink/f/cjahgv/SLV_VOYAGER1795533

https://miracle.rising.melbourne/the-ideas-behind-a-miracle-constantly-repeated

All the photos and videos are mine- unless attributed elsewhere in the post.

There are still tickets left to A Miracle Constantly Repeated- if you’re in Melbourne, I highly recommend you go

https://rising.melbourne/festival-program/patricia-piccinini

Book Review: Vida: A woman for our time by Jacquline Kent

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

https://historicalragbag.com/2016/01/06/vida-goldstein/

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:

https://www.penguin.com.au/books/vida-a-woman-for-our-time-9780670079490

you can also loan it from the PMI Victorian History Library

https://library.pmi.net.au/fullRecord.jsp?recno=31308

And most likely your local public library.

References

https://historicalragbag.com/2016/01/06/vida-goldstein/

Vida Goldstein image State Library of Victoria

https://viewer.slv.vic.gov.au/?entity=IE1543426

Churchill Island

57 hectare Churchill Island is the knobbly little bit, on the already fairly knobbly Phillip Island, which creates one of the heads of Western Port Bay. Hopefully you can can see what I mean in the image below.

It is also one of the earliest farms in Victoria and today operates as a heritage farm. I have to admit, as well as the history, one of my primary reasons for visiting was the highland cattle so I’m going to start with a photo of them, and then move back into the history of the island and its farm.

So, the history of Churchill Island starts with the indigenous history. For the Bunurong; Churchill Island is known as Moonahmia. The name comes from the Moonah tree, a type of Melaleuca, that is prevalent on Churchill and is the subject of a really interesting Bunurong legend. It tells of two young lovers who spent all their time embraced in each others arms, they were told that they had to break their embrace to take part in the community and to work. When they refused, they were banished so they went off and they sank into their embrace and froze there. Their entwined bodies became the first Moonah tree on the island. Their children spread across the island covering it in Moonah trees. You can see some of them in the photo below. The trees below are heritage listed and over 500 years old.

The Bunurong used Churchill Island for its abundant marine life and coastal resources, they would have used the island for tens of thousands of years before the advent of European settlement. This was Bunurong land and it is worth noting that when Europeans colonised it, the Bunurong were not consulted.

The indigenous history of the island is worth more than the explanation I have given here, but sadly there isn’t a lot of information available, middens have been found on the island and the first European to land on the island- Lt James Grant- recorded seeing canoes and fires but didn’t record sighting any Bunurong themselves. As with much indigenous history in Victoria the oral record was shattered by European invasion, I have written about this before and you can read it here.

Writing about the early colonisation of Victoria is always fraught, but with a place like Churchill Island where the early European history is of statewide significance, it very much worthwhile exploring. I do so with the disclaimer that as a descendant of early settlers, not in this area but in other parts of Victoria, I have benefited from this colonisation and invasion. In the current climate I believe it is fundamentally important to acknowledge this legacy, that all descendants of early settlers hold. It is the only way to start a real conversation about the true and complex history of the colonisation of this country, and in these discussions we can come to a better understanding of our own history as a country, rather than a glorified fairytale.

But to return to Churchill Island. As previously stated, the first European to land on the island was Lt James Grant. He left England on the Lady Nelson in 1800 to travel to Australia in what would ultimately become several survey expeditions. I won’t go into detail about his travels, you can read his log book on Project Gutenberg, but he arrived in Western Port Bay in 1801 and disembarked on Churchill Island. He named it after a Mr. John Churchill from Devon, who “when the Lady Nelson left England, had given her commander vegetable seeds, the stones of peaches, and the pips of several sorts of apples, telling him “to plant them for the future benefit of our fellow-men, be they countrymen, Europeans or savages.””

Grant followed through on this command, he felled trees, built a block house and sowed a garden. They had no tools though, so he had to use a coal shovel. He described it as “I scarcely know a place I should sooner call mine than this little island.” He didn’t stay though as he continued on, and surveyed the coast down to Wilson’s Promontory before heading back to Sydney.

The next Europeans to settle on Churchill Island were Samuel Pickersgill, his wife Winifred and their three children. They did not own the island and travelled there by boat from French Island in roughly 1860. They built a small house and garden, but left by the middle of the 1860s, before John Rogers bought the lease rights.

So the first Europeans to ‘own’ Churchill Island were John Rogers and his family in the 1860s. He leased it as well as two other islands in Western Port. Churchill was supposed to only be used for grazing stock, but Rogers farmed the land in the face of government prohibition. No action was taken against him by the government though. He lived on the island with his wife Sarah and two of their three children were born there. Their original cottage is still standing and you can see it and some of the interior in the photos below, they also began the gardens.

Rogers mortgaged the Island in 1872.

The next person in Churchill’s story is Samuel Amess. He was a well known stonemason in Melbourne and he built Amess House in 1872, as a holiday house for his family. It remained as a holiday house for the next 57 years through three generations of the Amess family. You can see the beautifully preserved house and its interior in the photos below, the furniture is not original to the house and the rooms are an amalgam of different owners throughout the years.

Amess also introduced farm animals, including highland cattle which he said reminded him of home. A tradition that has continued in the animals at the heritage farm today.

Amess planted this amazing Norfolk pine in celebration of the completion of his house. It was probably propagated by the first Director of the Botanic Gardens Ferdinand Von Mueller

It was under the Amess Family that much of the gardens were laid out as well, and Samuel Amess was a diligent gardener, even extending the orchard.

He is also responsible for the canon from the Confederate warship the Shenandoah which stands in the middle of the garden, he claimed it was given to him by the ship’s captain in return for his hospitality.

Leaving the Amess family for the moment, in 1929 Gerald Neville Buckley bought Churchill Island. Buckley was the son of Mars Buckley who was one of the founders of the Buckley and Nunn drapery store. Buckley never lived on the island, employing brothers Bob and Ted Jeffrey to run the farm. The Jeffreys worked hard to improve the farm on the island, digging a dam and in the 1930s, winning Phillip Island Council’s Better Farming competition. The Comet windmill you can see in the photo below comes from the Jeffreys’ tenure.

As well as expanding the farm the Jeffreys laid a path to the mainland with guideposts indicating the tide level, so you could drive a horse and cart across to the Island at low tide. Buckley promised the brothers that Churchill would go to them on his death, but unfortunately he died suddenly before he could change his will and his relatives in England inherited it, selling off a lot of the furniture and then selling the Island itself to Doctor Harry Jenkins.

Dr Jenkins was a prominent Melbourne dentist and he bought Churchill Island partly as a haven and place of rehabilitation for his son Ted, who’d become paralysed from the waist down after an accident diving when he was 16. They didn’t live on Churchill full time, and employed Eve and Ern Garrett to manage the farm. Another resident was Sister Margaret Campbell, who was Ted’s nurse, but also helped to manage the farm and look after the family when they did visit. it was in this era when the first wooden bridge across to Churchill was built.

During World War Two Ted lived on the Island full time, helping Sister Campbell with the farm. Ted died in 1960 at the age of 41 and Dr Jenkins died three years later at the age of 80. The Island was left to Sister Campbell. She stayed on the Island until 1973 when ill health forced her to leave. Churchill Island was bought by Alex Classou, he was best known for Patra Orange Juice, and he intended to turn it into a horse stud. He was approached by Victorian Conservation Trust and asked if he’d sell Churchill Island to the government. He agreed in 1976 and over the next 30 years the volunteers looked after the island and helped preserve its heritage.

In 1996 Churchill Island was incorporated as part of the Phillip Island Nature Park and restoration of the buildings and the establishment of a working heritage farm commenced. During this period a concrete bridge was built to replace Mr Jenkins’ wooden bridge which was completely full of worms.

You can see the fruits of all the hard work today, as Churchill Island doesn’t only have the buildings, the gardens and the heritage animals it is very much a working farm. You can see some of the agricultural buildings and equipment in the photos below.

Today Churchill Island is part of Phillip Island Nature Parks and is run with the help of the dedicated Friends of Churchill Island Society. It’s a fascinating place to visit, with an excellent visitor’s centre. I also really loved the small details, like the shells as gravel in the gardens, and beautiful lavender hedge and birdbath.

I was also really pleased to discover, what looks like an Annis and George Bills water trough, though the usual epitaph isn’t present. You can read more about the history of these troughs here.

The history on this tiny island is multifaceted and it gives real insight into Victoria’s beginnings. If nothing else, the view is lovely.

References:

Site visit 2020

https://victoriancollections.net.au/items/4fe43e3d2162ef0df8275194

http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/grant-james-2117

http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks/e00066.html#ch06

https://penguins.org.au/

https://historicalragbag.com/2015/12/01/surprising-horse-troughs/

The photos are all mine

Port Arthur

The world heritage listed Port Arthur settlement in Tasmania was part of Australia’s extensive convict network. It was established in 1830 as a timber camp that used convict labour and in 1833 it began to be used as a punishment place for repeat offenders. It was an incredibly harsh environment with the land itself serving as a secondary prison layer. This post is going to explore the physical world of Port Arthur, as well as the story of the site over the years beyond its life a prison camp. I want to begin by acknowledging that when the colonisers moved in to establish Port Arthur, it was not unoccupied land and was the home of the Paredarerme indigenous Australians.

As you can see from the map above the Tasman Peninsula, which Port Arthur sits on, is a natural defence. As well as having to traverse a heavily forested unfamiliar landscape, without supplies, it is connected to the main land by two very thin isthmuses which were guarded. Eaglehawk Neck (the second isthmus) was guarded not only by human guards but by a line of dogs. A military barracks was established there in 1831 and and in 1832 the dog line was installed, and the number of dogs was increased after probation stations opened on the peninsula in 1840. The dogs were set up at intervals along the land with a shelter, a chain, and a lamp. The ground they stood on was shells so it would reflect the light of the lamp. The aim was that any convict that tried to sneak past would alert the dogs who would then start barking and alert the guards. They were also installed on platforms on the water. In 1837 the dogs were described by Harden S. Melville as “every four footed black fanged individual among them would have taken first prize in his own class for ugliness and ferocity at any show” . You can see a statue of what the dogs might have looked like, and a picture of Eaglehawk Neck below.

Port Arthur is not the only convict site on the Tasman Peninsula and it was part of a broader system throughout Van Dieman’s Land (now called Tasmania). Most convicts were sent to work for free settlers or the government to start off with. By 1840s a probation system was established where groups of roughly 200 men were stationed at government sites around the state to work. There were a number of these sites on the Tasman Peninsula, as well as Port Arthur. Female convicts coming into Hobart were processed at the Cascade Female Factory and usually sent out to work for free settlers. I will write in more detail about the Female Factory later, but you can see some photos of the remains below. For now it’s enough to say that the conditions were horrendous.

Port Arthur was used for convicts that had committed other offences in the colony, but the other site I wanted to talk about briefly is where the convicts who offended at Port Arthur were sometimes sent. The coal mines. They are on the Tasman Peninsula, but further north than Port Arthur.

They were operated between 1833 and 1877 (though they were in private hands from 1848) and deserve a post in their own right, something I hope to do at some point. At its peak in 1845 there with 576 convicts, 27 military personnel, 125 civilians (this included 14 women and 90 children) living at the station. 11 375 tons of coal were produced. The coal was sold but was said to be bad quality. You can see photos of the buildings that housed the convicts at the mines below.

The quality of the stonework is remarkable, but it was a hard life where punishment involved isolation cells, which you can see the passageway for on the bottom left. Convicts did try to escape from the mines, but most were recaptured or died in the hostile bush. Like the convicts at Port Arthur, the men who worked in the coal mines were mainly not, despite often popular myth, transported for what we would now consider trifles and they had reoffended. This is not to say that they necessarily deserved the often extremely harsh punishment meted out, but it is worth noting despite the harshness of the punishment the crimes committed were still serious. Which brings us nicely back to Port Arthur itself.

Ironically enough, Port Arthur is in a truly beautiful location (though I did have very good weather for my visit)

The natural harbour, which you can see above, was the major draw for setting up a logging camp. The site was named Port Arthur after Governor Arthur in 1828. From 1833 it became the repeat offender site and by 1840 it housed more than 2000 convicts, soldiers and civilian staff. They made everything from furniture, to ships. You can see the ship building area below.

Convict transportation to Van Dieman’s land ended in 1853, but there were still convicts at Port Arthur and it became an institution for the elderly and mentally and physically ill convicts. The site was closed in 1877 and a lot of the buildings were destroyed by two bushfires. It eventually became a small town, renamed Carnarvon, but it evolved to an open air museum by the 1920s with hotels and shops and the name returned to Port Arthur. It was listed as a world heritage site as part of the greater convict network in 2010 and occupies roughly 40 hectares. It is run by the Port Arthur Historic Site Management Authority.

Before I continue on to explore Port Arthur itself, I wanted to briefly discuss the Port Arthur Massacre. I don’t think the story of Port Arthur can be told without it, but I will not be naming the perpetrator as they should not be remembered. But the event can’t be forgotten as to do so denigrates the lives lost. In 1996 on the 28th of April a young man began firing on the crowds at Port Arthur. 35 people were killed and 21 injured. There is a truly beautiful memorial garden on the site of the Black Arrow Cafe, where most of the killings took place. It is still the worst mass shooting in Australian history and resulted in significantly stricter gun laws.

There is not way to elegantly move on from the above paragraph so I’m not going to try. It was a horrific event, but one that is woven into the past of Port Arthur, a past that has never been easy. So I thought I’d continue the story of Port Arthur by looking at some of the individual buildings and places. This is not going to be an exhaustive examination of every building and place in Port Arthur, but it will be a representative selection.

The building you can see above is the one most commonly brought to mind when most people think of Port Arthur. The penitentiary was capable of housing 657 men in seperate cells and dormitories. It also housed a bakehouse and cook house on the right which fed the men held in the penitentiary. It was originally constructed as a flour mill and granary in 1845, by 1857 it had been converted into accommodation for convicts. There were 136 seperate cells, a dining hall and a library with some 13000 volumes. When Port Arthur closed in 1877, the building was left. It was gutted by fire in 1897 and not long after many of the bricks were repurposed.

The guard tower was constructed in 1836 on the word of the Commandant Captain Charles O’Hara Booth. It was part of a much larger military complex but the remainder has been demolished. It survived the fires of the late 1800s because it has a lead roof.

Above you can see a replica of the semaphore tower. The original would have been much taller and was part of a line of sight semaphore system that stretch back to Hobart. The system ran from about 1811 to 1880 and in good weather a message, for example about an escaped convict, could reach Hobart in about twenty minutes.

The building above is the hospital. It was built in 1842, though there had been an earlier hospital on the site. It also housed the morgue.

There was also a pauper’s complex, but there aren’t any photos because after 1877 the mess hall was set aside for a school and the 1895 bushfire destroyed the rest of the buildings. It is worth mentioning, because it was part of the later use of Port Arthur. From the 1860s Port Arthur housed the men who had been in the convict system for years who has no chance of employment. In 1870 Marcus Clarke described these men as “poor scarecrows in cast off clothing”. The complex was closed in 1874 and remaining men shipped to Hobart. Part of this system was the insane asylum which is still standing in part.

The insane asylum was built in the late 1860s. The treatment was rudimentary at best, with ‘soothing’ activities like gardening. It was during the period of time when most of the prisoners in Port Arthur were becoming aged and infirm and industry at Port Arthur slowed significantly. The building was partly destroyed in the 1895 bushfires, and has been repurposed a number of times.

The seperate prison was opened in 1849 as part of a new method of punishment. It was a new style of prison system that kept prisoners completely seperate from each other. There were 50 cells measuring 6 ft by 9 ft by 11 ft as well as the truly horrifying isolation cells. By 1850 it was being used for the worst of the prisoners to bring their minds ‘to a more healthy condition’ . By 1884, after Port Arthur closed, it was purchased to be converted into a hotel, but it was gutted by fire in 1895 and ownership went back to the government in 1916. The aim of the seperate prison was the keep the men totally isolated, they were not allowed to speak unless they were addressed by an official, guards even used sign language amongst themselves. You can see the remarkable (and horrible) chapel in the photos below. The men were brought in hooded so they couldn’t see the other prisoners and the stalls were deliberately constructed so, once they were in, they could only see the priest.

The church at Port Arthur was opened in the 1830s and was capable of accommodating the majority of the prisoners. The 8 chime bells of the church were cast by an artisan- probably a convict- who has never been identified. When Port Arthur closed in 1877 the bells were stored at the New Norfolk Asylum, in 1897 seven of the bells when to the New Norfolk Municipal Council and they were hung in the tower of St Mathew’s Church, the 8th bell vanished. Over time seven bells have come back to Port Arthur, but the 8th is still missing.

Government Gardens and Government Cottage. The cottage was built in 1853 to house government officials who were visiting Port Arthur, from the beginning the cottage was surrounded by English style gardens that the officers’ wives and children used to walk in. The garden you can see today is a faithful reconstruction of the garden that would have originally existed.

The Governor’s House is a TARDIS like building with a really remarkable view.

It was the home of successive governors. It was built under Charles O’Hara Booth in the 1830s, but expanded extensively under successive governors. From the 1880s the building was repurposed as the Carnarvon Hotel and you can see one of the hotel murals in the photos above as well as the governor’s study and one of the bedrooms.

Point Puer was where the underage boys were housed. The first 60 boys were sent there in 1833. The aim was to train them in a useful trade and reform them so they would become useful citizens. It was not a hospitable place and it ended up being older convicts who were sent to the peninsula to teach the boys, which is just opposite the Port Arthur settlement itself, as they couldn’t get non convicts to undertake the job. By 1843 only boys under 15 were being sent there and in 1849 the remaining 162 boys were removed and sent to other stations. The buildings were cheaply built and subsequently crumbled.

I want to finish this post, I hope appropriately, with the Isle of the Dead. This was the cemetery for Port Arthur and is just off the tip of Point Puer.

The Isle of the Dead was originally called Opossum Island after the ship commanded by Captain Welsh who sheltered there in 1827. The first burial was in 1833 and it was of a 64 year old convict names John Hancock. Originally convicts didn’t get headstones, only a mound, but free settlers had headstones. This policy changed by the 1850s as there are some convict headstones from the later period. More than 10 000 convicts were buried on the Isle of the Dead between 1833 and 1877. For an island that has such a macabre purpose, it is actually very beautiful.

The Isle of the Dead seems to be a good spot to end this post. My next one will explore some of the people, convicts and soldiers, at Port Arthur. Like any site, the stories of Port Arthur is about more than the buildings.

References:

Site visit August 2019

Click to access Port-Arthur-World-Heritage-Factsheet1.pdf

http://tlf.dlr.det.nsw.edu.au/learningobjects/Content/R10815/object/r7529.html

https://aiatsis.gov.au/explore/articles/aiatsis-map-indigenous-australia

http://ontheconvicttrail.blogspot.com/2016/08/the-hospital-port-arthur.html

Margaret Peacock’s Isle of the Dead 958948909

The Isle of the Dead: Port Arthur’s unique island cemetery

Port Arthur’s Convict Days: An historic and pictorial review / Coultman Smith

Port Arthur: An historical survey

Prison Boys of Port Arthur / F.C Hooper

Penal Peninsula / Ian Brand 0909640084

The Media and The Massacre: Port Arthur 1996-2016 / Sonya Voumard 9780994395719

The Seperate Prison or Model Prison Port Arthur / Ian Brand

The Port Arthur Coal Mines 1833-1877 / Ian Brand

All the images are mine apart from the two maps which come from Google Maps.

Wil-im-ee Moor-ring Indigenous Stone Quarry

The Wil-im-ee Moor-ring Indigenous Stone Quarry (also known as Mount William) is just out of Lancefield in Victoria. It’s an area of green stone that was quarried by Indigenous Australians for more than a 1000 years. The name means place of the axe.

I was lucky enough to go on a tour of Wil-im-ee Moor-ring as part of the Australian Heritage Festival this year. It is land administered by the Wurundjeri Tribe Council. Last year I visited the Wurundjeri Earth Rings just out of Sunbury and wrote about them on this blog. You can see the post here:

https://historicalragbag.com/2018/05/21/wurundjeri-rings/

I want to reiterate what I said in that post about the Indigenous history of Australia and my place in writing about it. Firstly Indigenous history is something that all Australians should know more about, it’s arguably the oldest continuous culture in the world and over the years it has been (often deliberately) relegated to a footnote. This is slowly changing and I’m certainly trying to learn more and to share what I find. It’s also just fascinating.

I’d like to pause here to say that I am aware that as a non Indigenous person writing Indigenous history can be problematic. This post is intended to encapsulate the possible history of the site as was explained by a Wurundjeri Elder on the tour and laid out in the National Trust Heritage List report, and I claim no more than that. Wil-im-ee Moor-ring is just so interesting and important that I want to make sure people know about it and to help ensure that Indigenous history is a part of the history of Victoria, if only in my small way.

So to begin. I wanted to start with an analogy, it’s the best description I’ve heard of what’s known of Indigenous history in Victoria. Bill Nicholson, the Elder who took the group I was part of the round Wil-im-ee Moor-ring, described it as a 100 page book, with maybe 30 pages left that are in the wrong order. When Victoria was colonised not only were a lot of Indigenous people killed, through disease like small pox but also through massacres, but culture and language was often banned and they were rounded up, removed from Country and installed in missions. At Coranderk (one of the main missions just out of Melbourne) Woiwurrung, the language group that the Wurundjeri are part of, was banned in 1863. Knowledge was simply lost. Breaking up a culture that is rooted in oral history, is tantamount to burning libraries and archives in Western culture. Efforts are being made to reclaim Indigenous history and new information is being found in archives all the time, but by the time a lot of it was being written down, usually by the colonisers like William Thomas who was an Assistant Protector of Aborigines, what they were seeing was only the tip of the iceberg of what had existed. This is why sites like Wil-im-ee Moor-ing are so essential. Apart from being spiritually important, they are physical manifestation of Indigenous culture and history. There’s a lot more around than most Victorians know about too, and again I include myself in this. There’s scar trees, possible smoking trees, burials, other quarries and more.

Possible smoking tree. Would have been used for smoking meat to preserve it.

There’s been stone formations found in the Western District that are as old or older than Stone Henge and have possible astronomical alignments. Budj Bim, also in the Western District, with its sophisticated eel and fish trap systems and remains of housing is under consideration for World Heritage Status. Petroglyphs are being un-earthed all over Victoria and then you’ve got the earth rings like the ones near Sunbury. Wil-im-ee Moor-ring is part of a large system of sophisticated land management, language, law, ceremony, trade routes, Country and family that stretched across Victoria and Australia.

To return to Wil-im-ee Moor-ring itself. It’s roughly forty acres (though the original quarry would have covered more land), and has been fenced off since the 80s. It’s been a tourist attraction of sorts since the 1800s, visited on day trips along with the near by Hanging Rock. So it has been thoroughly picked over and much of the land was cleared. That being said, since the 1800s it has been acknowledged as a site of an Indigenous quarry pre dating European colonisation, which is very unusual in Australia (it’s much earlier than any Indigenous activity pre colonisation was usually acknowledged). The first European reference to Wil-im-ee Moor-ring comes from William Buckley, who was an escaped convict living in the bush from 1803 to 1833, he describes a hard black stone from a place called Kar-keen which was shaped into stone heads. William Barak, a prominent Wurundjeri Elder in the mid 1800s, witnessed the final operation of Wil-im-ee Moor-ring as a quarry and described it to an anthropologist called Howitt as one of the places that “a group of people claimed for some special reason, and in which the whole tribe had an interest.” This clear recorded history of Indigenous custodial rights and processes is very unusual.

To return to Wil-im-ee Moor-ring physically. The rock in is class five diorite. Simply put, it’s very hard.

Above you can see one of the rocks from which the stone was split. It was done by heating the rock up with fire and then pouring water on it to cause the cracking. The axe heads themselves were shaped on a flaking floor, one of which you can see below. You can also see what might be broken rejects.

Wattle branches were probably split to make a loop for the handles of the axes and Xanthorrhoea sap was boiled to make glue to hold it all together and it was bound with kangaroo sinew. These weren’t axes that were used for fighting, they were used whilst hunting and for things like stripping bark off trees. These specific axes have been found as far as South Australia and Southern Queensland. They were immensely valued, not only for their utility but probably for the spiritual significance of Wil-im-ee Moor-ring itself. Part of the Indigenous belief system of the area is that the ancestral spirits formed themselves into the landscape, and Wil-im-ee Moor-ring is one of these landscape features. There is also records of axes being physically traded in the 1830s when William Bradley observed one polished axe head being traded for two possum skin cloaks, and a rough head for a large number of spears. To understand the value of possum cloaks you only have to think about how small a possum is, and how many you would need and how long it would take to construct one full cloak, let alone two. The axe heads were valued.

While there is more known about Wil-im-ee Moor-ring that a lot of other Indigenous sites there is still a lot to learn and hopefully be discovered and reconstructed where it can be. It’s a beautiful place, part of a broader landscape, that more people should know more about.

References:

Site visit and tour 2019, information provided by Wurundjeri Tribe Council https://www.wurundjeri.com.au/

National Trust Heritage List Report of Mount William.

The photos are all mine.