This Week in Port Phillip 1841: May 24-31

“Melbourne” the Port Phillip Gazette announced grandly at one stage “boils over like a bush cauldron with the scum of fierce disputes.”  Of course, the Port Phillip Herald was often completely complicit in adding to the fire of disputes, but during this week in May, and the following weeks in June, we see the small colonial outpost of Port Phillip at full boil.

As I described in an earlier post, the King’s or Queen’s Birth-Day was (and still is) celebrated across the empire on different days at different times. In 1841 Victoria was on the throne, and her birthday was 24 May. The length of her reign really embedded that date on the colonial calendar.

According to the Port Phillip Gazette (PPG 8/5/41 p.3) the idea of holding a Birth-Day ball for the first time in Melbourne was mooted at the Caledonian Hotel, where a number of squatters decided that there should be a Race Ball to close the race carnival.  The stewards, however, decided that it should be held on the Queen’s Birth-Day instead, and that it should be a Private Ball rather than a Public Ball. Expenditure of 500 pounds was approved and 180 tickets put aside.

However, as the Port Phillip Patriot reported, when Mr G. G. Sullivan R. N. approached Redmond Barry and asked to be put onto the list of subscribers, he was referred to one of the stewards, William Meek.  Meek, who did not want such people to lower the tone of the gathering,  told him that the list was already full, which Sullivan disputed as he named several people who were going whose names were not yet on the list. Meek agreed to put Mr Sullivan’s complaint before the Stewards, who noted his letter but said that there was no need to comment further on it.

In the resulting furore it was decided that ball planned for the 24th May at Yarra Yarra House  would be opened up to a more ‘general’ admission with new Stewards appointed (Messrs Abrahams, Langhorne, Kerr, Connolly, Sullivan and Urquhart). The original Stewards ( Messrs Simpson, Powlett, Meek, James McArthur, Lyon Campbell, Verner, Major St John) would conduct a Private Ball instead (sneeringly characterized by the Port Phillip Patriot as the ‘Dignity’ Ball) at Mr Davis’ Exchange Rooms at a later date.

Underpinning the clash of these two Balls lay the question of colonial respectability.  Quaint as it might seem to us today, it was a question of fundamental importance to a large social stratum within Port Phillip Society, as historians Kirsten McKenzie and Penny Russell have so clearly shown. As ‘Perpateicus’ wrote to the Port Phillip Patriot on May 17

It is impossible, indeed, that society should long exist without distinctions; a line must be drawn somewhere; where choice is afforded, men will be guided by some rule in their selection.  In the colonies more especially, circumspection is needful, from the obscurity which surrounds private individuals, not to mention that many came abroad expressly for the purpose of taking up new characters, alien alike to their birth and their former habits.  In this point of view, colonial life is a grand masquerade, in which some assume stations to which they have no pretensions, while others sink those to which they justly entitled.  In such a medley, who is to judge? The members of the Club very naturally conclude that all beyond their pale are unworthy of regard.  The country settler repudiates the friendship of the Melbourne merchant. The nouveau riche derides the pretensions of his less fortunate neighbour. Latterly we have seen even the Bench itself reviving obsolete statutes for the purpose of distinctions which might better have been left to the judgment of society….[For]any man to submit his pretensions to a clique of individual who, besides being self-constituted and blessed by Club notions, have committed themselves to the egregious sentiment that gold is the correlative of gentility, would be an act of sheer folly, and a downright dereliction of self-respect. Though favourable to the distinction of society, it is important that such distinctions should be founded on some merit real or presumable. (PPP 17/5/41)

Others, like George Arden in the Port Phillip Gazette (who was highly critical of the ‘Dignity’ Ball) embraced the opportunities to do things differently in a new land:

In a new world as we may term Australia, one of the first and most important steps to greatness, is to shake off the prejudices that have so long fettered society in the father land, and in assigning any member his relative position with the mass, to be guided by character, either past or present. Birth and rank if inherited are enhanced by merit, without it these possessions are desecrated.( PPG 8/5/41)

Of course, a ball was a good opportunity to frock up with new clothes and Michael Cashmore the grocer was quick to capitalize on it as this advertisement from the Port Phillip Herald of 14 May shows:

Cashmore

And so how did it go? According to the Port Phillip Gazette

Her Majesty’s Birth Day was celebrated on Monday by a Public Ball held at Yarra House, which had been given up to the Stewards by the proprietor for the occasion.  The rooms, which are admirably adapted for a large party of this description, were arranged with every consideration to the comforts and convenience of the assembly.  The two drawing rooms were set apart for dancing, and the band being placed in the hall, enabled the votaries of Terpsichore to form separate sets in each room, whilst the suite of apartments in the left wing of the building was retained for cards.  The large room in the rear was appropriated to refreshments, which were supplied in the profusion throughout the whole evening. The unfavourable state of the weather precluded a great number from attending, especially those in the country; a dark night and the almost impassable state of the roads and streets, being sufficient to deter any but the most loyal from making the sacrifice necessary to evidence those feelings of respect to Her Majesty. Those, however, who set those considerations at nought, seemed to meet a recompense in the general hilarity of the assembly nor suffered their spirits to droop until the approach of morning warned them of the period for departure. (PPG 26/5/41)

The pastoralist-oriented  Port Phillip Herald, which was derisive of the spurious and jumped-up ‘respectability’ of the Stewards of the Public Ball, did not describe the Ball in its columns (probably because they didn’t attend). Instead, it reported on the appearance of some worse-for-wear attendees in the Police Court.  The writing style with short phrases joined together with a dash was often used by all three papers in writing comedy. Unfortunately, it’s one of those narrative styles that doesn’t travel across time well: perhaps you just had to be there.

POLICE  INTELLIGENCE John Berry, a confoundedly rakish-looking youth, whiskers awry; hair matted with damp and brickdust; neckerchief disorganized and out of set; waistcoat denuded of primitive virginity and spotted with negus; Newmarket green coat, rent to the collar; pantaloons, “a world too wide for his shrunk shanks”; speckled socks cased in patent leather; an astounding display of Mosaic jewellery; and a crushed hat and opera cane, was ushered to the bar, charged with retiring to rest that morning in one of the lakes opposite Yarra House.

Bench- Were you drunk?

Berry- To be sure I was; but permit me to elucidate. But first let me invoke (here he turned up his eyes to the ceiling and ejaculated in a falsetto voice) “Muse of the many twinkling fee Terpsichore”. Now for the elucidation. Last evening, in honor of Victoria I did forty-two shillings’ worth of Yarra House, and found it a bad bargain.  Remarkably grand display- lights glittered- eyes flashed- [?] twinkled- soft music- strong negus- foolish- stewards- Health to the Queen- three cheers- one for piccaninny-Caterer “John” slaughtered ham and beef – no poultry- plenty cigars- plenty “FANCY FAIR”- Mohawks from bush – hobnailed boots – [?infutine?] elegance- young elephant – Tartan – highly approved – blacklegs chucked – dice rattled – cards shuffled – Goat in boots – talked Bob Short – devil of uproar – lady insulted – insulter floored- black eyes- bloody noses – tumble down stairs – evaporated – talk of duel – no apology – all smoke – negus operating – dancing unsteady – dozens in corners – napping – kissing &c – all up – room, lights, fiddlers, twist round – bid adieu- there I am – damn that Charley, too bed – score worse – tipped Traps, did it snug- “that’s ALL”.

Having finished his harangue, he was ordered to pay 5s. which having complied with, this sample of the Birthday Ball mob flourished his cane and departed, vowing it to be the dearest two guineas’ worth he had ever purchased.

AND THE WEATHER?

Winter had really set in with gales and strong winds on 28th, 29th and 30th.  It rained on the 23rd (hence the wet roads on the night of the ball) and there were dense fogs on 24th, 25th and 26th.  The highest temperature for the period 22nd-31 May was 64 degrees (17C) and the lowest was 37 (2.7)

 

 

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4 responses to “This Week in Port Phillip 1841: May 24-31

  1. You didn’t provide any clues for the most important question: Which ball did the judge attend?

  2. interesting to note that the man who started this whole ruckus, G.G. Sullivan, R.N. was actually A. Abrahams’ son-in-law! A. Abrahams, one of the replacement stewards, loaned a great deal of money to the John Hodgson who built Yarra Yarra House. My how the plot thickens. Capt. George Grey Sullivan, R.N. was actually not that low-brow either: He was sent, in 1843, to be British Vice Consul in Amoy, Xiamen Shiqu, Fujian, China.

    • Thank you for this. I hadn’t made the connection between the two Sullivans and it’s lovely to have this extra information. Thank you very much.

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