Category Archives: Melbourne history

My November Brunswick (again)

For someone who has rarely been to Brunswick, I found myself back there again for the third time in November. This time we were there for the ‘Marking Time‘ art project, produced by Jessie Stanley, artist-in-residence as part of the MoreArts program of the Moreland City Council. Based in Moreland Railway Station waiting room, the project runs between October 23 and December 19 and involves a number of site-specific works and events (see the project’s Facebook page for more information). Today was a Timewalk – the first of two- that went from Jewell Station to Gilpin Park.

It would probably be more correct to think of this walk as a performance rather than a historical walk as such (partial as I am to historic walks). Ms Stanley read from a carefully and quite beautifully written script, starting off with a contemplation on the nature of ‘place’ and ending, some 45 minutes later and about 1/2 kilometre away, with an enacted description of deep time.  She asked that we undertake the walk in silence, focussing on the bricks that surrounded us, with any interaction only at the end.  I’m not really sure that this stricture was necessary, although I suppose that it enabled her to control the event as an integrated performance.  Her presentation concentrated on the brickworks of the area in particular, and not a generalized history of Brunswick that might have been given, for example, by a member of Brunswick Community History Group.  Instead, her focus was on the brickworks, most particularly Hoffman’s Brickworks, and the dominance of clay and bricks on the economic and social fabric of Phillipstown (the earlier name for Brunswick).  Certainly, walking around the post2000 redevelopment of the former Hoffman’s Brickworks site, you get a sense of the dominance of the chimneys and sirens of a large brick factory.

The walk ended at Gilpin Park, built on the site of one of the former quarries that provided the clay for the brickworks.  It was here that she returned to her reflections on deep time, and the wafer-thin segment of white settler time in what we know now as Brunswick.  Somehow the newness of the park with its adolescent-aged gum tree plantings captured this well.

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There is a second  walk, covering different places but similar themes,  on Saturday 10th December, starting from Clifton Park at 11.00 a.m.  It is free, but you need to book through post@jessiestanley.com  (0419 441 195)

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Celebrating 1916 in Brunswick in 2016

Even though it’s only fifteen kilometres from home, apart from a brief house-sitting stint in Brunswick about twenty years ago, attending my doctor’s surgery and the occasional visit to a Turkish restaurant, I have very rarely been to Brunswick. Yet in the last three days I’ve been there twice, both times for events organized by the Brunswick-Coburg Anti-Conscription Commemoration Committee 1916-17.

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On Saturday night we attended the Metanoia Theatre at the Brunswick Mechanics’ Institute to see ‘1916’, written by local playwright Neil Cole as part of the centenary of the successful ‘no’ campaign during the two referenda over conscription during WWI.  Of course, a play written with an intent to inform and based on real events (as this play was) faces constraints in characterization and plot that a play written purely for entertainment does not. That given, the performance rocketed along for sixty minutes, tracing the activities and perspectives of three women in the months leading up to the referendum in October 1916. Adela Pankhurst, the estranged daughter from the famous English Pankhurst suffragette family arrived in Melbourne, where she appeared in anti-conscription rallies alongside local suffragist and peace activist Vida Goldstein,  the first woman to stand (albeit unsuccessfully) for Parliament. However, fellow suffragist Milly Woods (the playwright’s grandmother) broke with her former colleague Vida  out of a desire to support ‘our boys’ in the war, when her own family members enlisted and were sent to the front. The interplay between these three women demonstrated the rupture of relationships between activists who had fought for women’s votes as just one manifestation of the general fracturing of public opinion during the referendum. The play consisted of multiple scenes, depicted chronologically, which were supported by visual images on a slide show, and separated by songs of the time, very ably sung by girls from the Brunswick Secondary College.  The lead singer of the chorus, in particular, had a beautiful voice and the three main female characters were well drawn, especially, I thought, the older woman Milly Woods.

Then on Monday, over to Brunswick we went again for a history walk conducted by Michael Hamel-Green, seeing places connected with  local Brunswick anti-conscription activists John Curtin, his mentor Frank Anstey and local schoolmistress and activist Julia Guerin.  Brunswick and Coburg were hotbeds of anti-conscription activities, largely because of the strong dominance of Irish Catholics in this working-class neighbourhood.

We started off in St Ambrose Hall, the hall that was attached to the Catholic primary school next door. One of the few 19th century church halls surviving in Moreland, anti-conscription meetings were held here even though the Town Hall was just next door.  The council worthies tended to be pro-conscription, as were most of the major institutions of the day (schools, churches, local newspapers etc) and so meetings were held in the more amenable surroundings of the Catholic church hall.

John Curtin, the future WWII Prime Minister shifted to Brunswick with his family as a young boy in approximately 1899. For a short while he attended St Ambrose Primary School, until leaving school at age 14, as was common at that time for working-class lads.  When Archbishop Daniel Mannix opened a wing of the school on 28 January 1917 (maybe the one with the 1916 foundation stone?) he made his famous ‘trade speech’ where he characterized WWI as “like most wars- just an ordinary trade war”.

The Brunswick Mechanics Institute, constructed in 1868, was used as the recruiting centre for the war during 1914-18. (It was here that we saw the play 1916 on Saturday night). I’m a little surprised that it was used for recruiting, rather than the town hall across the road, although often the committees of Mechanics Institutes tended to be stalwart and ‘respectable’ men of the district and perhaps they were happy to lend their premises to the enlistment effort.

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Then into the Town Hall itself and its stunning vestibule covered on all four sides by the names of the 3575 Brunswick men who enlisted.  Those who died were commemorated in a special panel, but it is notable that all enlistees were named, including those who enlisted but did not embark, in alphabetical order, irrespective of rank.

We visited two of the many homes that the Curtin family rented in Brunswick. They lived in the house below for five years between 1903-8 (the longest that they stayed in any one home). By then Curtin was working in a regular job as an estimates clerk with the Titan Manufacturing Company in South Melbourne and his weekly wage of 35 shillings ensured that they could now confidently meet the rent each week- something they had not been able to do previously.  They lived in the cottage on the left hand side, with the arched window.  The four-dwelling terrace has these rather ecclesiastic windows on three of the houses, but the fourth window next door to the Curtin residence has been replaced by a rather unprepossessing aluminium window.  There is no plaque outside this house.  There is now a park beside the house (which has been renumbered since Curtin lived there). The MMBW map shows that during Curtin’s time this was a clay hole, which would have provided clay for the brick factories in the surrounding area.

Not far away is another of the rental properties occupied by the Curtin family (below).  John Curtin lived here with his family between 1913-1915 and it was at this house that he was arrested for refusing to attend the call-up on October 9, just prior to the referendum. At this stage he was working for the Timber Workers Union.  There is a plaque here in the footpath, the only one in Brunswick marking his presence.

Finally, and rather poignantly, we ended up outside the Union Hotel, one of Curtin’s favourite watering holes, close to home and a favourite of the Irish brickworkers.

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The walk over, I headed to Jewell Railway Station to catch a train into town. Ah! here’s one of the artworks created along the Upfield railway line out to Fawkner cemetery.  I read about these.

Inside the abandoned ticket window at the unmanned station there’s another little art installation.  It’s of a chemist shop window, but when you look more closely, they’re rather subversive products on sale

And so, as the train bore me the remarkably few stations into the CBD, I bade farewell to Brunswick for now, and its referendum commemorations.  Although, from the sound of the activities that the Brunswick-Coburg Anti-Conscription Commemoration Campaign have planned for next year, I think I may be back….

Exhibition: Moving Tongues 5-30 October 2016

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Once again, here I am talking about an exhibition that’s about to close in a few days so if I pique your interest, you’re going to have to hurry up to catch it.  It’s called ‘Moving Tongues:Language and Migration in 1890s Melbourne’ and it’s on at the City Library branch in Flinders Lane, close to Ross House, until 30 October.

The first image that you encounter is that shown  in the poster above: the rectilinear street-grid imposed onto British settler colonies with little regard to topography or earlier use, conveying the impression of a single, replicable British culture.  However, this display argues that a multiplicity of languages and cultures existed within that grid, and it draws from the proceedings of Melbourne courtrooms in the 1890s to illustrate the point.

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And so we meet Charles Hodge, the long-standing interpreter in Chinese cases and the ‘Chinese oath’ that was accepted by Victorian courts for many years which involved the lighting of a flame and the recitation of a pledge to tell the truth. We read of the ultimately tragic case of young Norwegian servant Louisa Fritz who accused her employer Theodore Ulstein of rape.  We read of the presence of Syrians and “British Hindoos” and see their sleeping arrangements in the terraced shops of Little Lonsdale and Exhibition Streets, and the alliances formed with indigenous people, especially at the Cummeragunga mission.  We see the November 1898 Parliamentary hearing called by the Victorian government, in order to hear opinions of the Immigration Restriction Act that was one of the first legislative acts of the newly federated Parliament of Australia.

The print-based display is supplemented by a small number of artefacts and replicas of courtroom documents, poetry  based on the Melbourne Poetry Map and artwork.  One large art piece by John Young is based on selections from the diary of Jong Ah Sing, who was incarcerated in lunatic asylums for 33 years. He wrote his diary in an attempt to prove his sanity.

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It’s a small, modestly presented display that conveys a broader linguistic and aural view of Melbourne than that presented in the Sentimental Bloke and other depictions of the underside of Marvellous Melbourne.  But hurry up- it closes on 30 October.  The City Library is open Mon-Thurs 8.00am – 7.45, Friday 8.00 to 5.45, Saturday 10.00 to 4.45 and Sunday 12 noon to 4.45.

Splish splash! Water Stories at PROV

The Public Records Office of Victoria (PROV) website has some thoughtfully curated online exhibitions.  They’ve been designed with school curricula in mind, but they’re interesting in their own right.  I’ve been enjoying one on Water in Melbourne called Water Stories. It starts with the Yarra River,( as all good narratives of Melbourne must!) then extends into the various water supply, navigation and sewerage schemes that were developed in the wake of the prosperity of the Gold Rush. Some were far-sighted (Yan Yean, for example in 1856) and others were more reactive, driven by the determination to shrug off the epithet of ‘Smellbourne’ that critics attached to Melbourne. The display then shifts to the major parks and gardens that were planned to beautify the city, several by La Trobe back in the 1850s, which are treasured by Melburnians today.

Click the link below:

https://embed.culturalspot.org/embed/exhibit/water-stories/lAIyzP8Lo1pmKw?hl=en-GB

 

‘The Boyds: a family biography’ by Brenda Niall

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2002, 387p.

In this book we are in the hands of a master biographer.  Not many biographers would have the courage to take on a whole family as a unit, but Brenda Niall does here. The sprawling, artistic Boyd family has representatives in nearly every branch of the arts (literature, painting, architecture, sculpture) and its family tree is studded with seemingly endless iterations of ‘Boyd’ and ‘a’Beckett’ in their names.   Only an experienced biographer would even attempt such a complex group biography across five generations and nearly two centuries,  and she   handles it with consummate ease.

She owes much of her success to the very careful structuring that she has used to organize this unwieldy and voluminous information. She starts with four men: the emancipist-entrepreneur brewer John Mills; the wealthy pastoralist Robert Martin (of ‘Viewbank’ and ‘Banyule’ fame); William a’Beckett the Chief Justice of Victoria; and Captain Thomas Boyd, career militarist and settler. Even though the first section of the book is called ‘The Matriarch’ (referring to Emma Mills, later a’Beckett), Niall firmly embeds these four patriarchs as the founding fathers, so to speak, of the Boyd dynasty.  She takes forty pages to do so in her opening chapter, and she returns to them as touchstones throughout the book. The tainted convict source of the money that Emma a Beckett (nee Mills) brought to the family was a secret, but it  bestowed on its members the time and space to explore their artistic passions across multiple generations.

The second thematic device she uses is that of the house.  Houses were important to the Boyds. Emma’s husband W. A. C. Beckett had the ‘a Beckett coat of arms emblazoned on two houses: the first was The Grange in Berwick (since demolished for a quarry), the second was the lost manor Penleigh House in Wiltshire, England (later sold out of the family). Above the front door of the Grange he placed a stained glass window with the motto “Immemor Sepulchri Struis Domo” (Forgetful of the Tomb, You Build Houses).  Niall uses the house as an organizing device for her narrative, but it was one suggested through the family’s actions rather than the biographer’s imagination.  It works well, both as a means of organizing such an unruly venture, but also in highlighting the paradox that the Boyd family, so embedded and synonymous within Australian cultural life, were also drawn ‘home’ to an earlier ancestral myth of gentry glory. There is a string of Boyd Houses: the light-filled Grange so beautifully captured in Emma Minnie Boyd’s paintings,  the tatty, faded grand Penleigh in UK, Tralee in Sandringham, the architect’s home in Walsh St South Yarra; Open Country in Murrumbeena and Bundanong in Nowra NSW.

The focus is firmly on the Boyds, but it is just as much an exploration of Australian, and especially Melbourne, cultural life as well.  There are connections with other artists and their colonies, architectural commissions for major cultural figures, and networks branching across Melbourne society. At the same time, there is that siren call of “overseas”. Women are certainly present, even if they sometimes subjugated their role as muse behind that of wife and mother.

This is a marvellously complex but disciplined biography. This is how a group biography is done!

aww-badge-2015-200x300I have posted this review to the Australian Women Writers Challenge  site.

Celebrating wetlands for Melbourne Day!

Happy Melbourne Day! 30th August. Not a day emblazoned on our consciousness, I must admit. It seems fitting that the RHSV’s Melbourne Day lecture last Friday should focus not so much on ‘founders’ but more upon what was ‘found’ i.e.  the wetland landscapes of  such fundamental importance to the Kulin people who were already here.   Rod Giblett  spoke at the RHSV on ‘Lost and Found Wetlands of Melbourne’  acknowledging the ecological richness of the wet lands surrounding the bay, the crucial part they played in the Kulin diet and ceremony and highlighting the changing perceptions of settlers to these areas that were at varying times embraced as clear, open landscapes, or derided as boggy swamps.

Melbourne is just one of many cities that is surrounded by wetlands. Giblett’s forthcoming book deals with Melbourne as one of a list of other such cities including Toronto, Perth, London, New York and (as we are even more aware of this weekend with the 10th anniversary of  Hurricane Katrina), New Orleans.  The early naval surveyors of Melbourne noted the swamps and coastal landscapes on their early maps. The presence of large bodies of water immediately surrounding Melbourne is obvious on early maps that show little more than the Hoddle Grid and the prominence of the Yarra.

The pastoralists who streamed into the Port Phillip prized  the wetlands for their open meadows of grass, the fecundity of the soil, and the ease of access they promised for grazing.  The large lake of water in West Melbourne known as ‘Batman’s Swamp’ was praised for its beauty. Gordon McCrae recalled the sight of the lake, at the base of Flagstaff Hill  in his childhood:

a beautiful blue lake… a real lake, intensely blue, nearly oval and full of the clearest salt water, but this by no means deep.  Fringed daily all round by mesembryanthenum (vulg ‘pigs face’) in full bloom, it seemed in the broad sunshine as though girdled about with a belt of magenta fire…

In his presentation Giblett took us on a “scenic tour of the highlights and lowlights” of the wetlands that surrounded Melbourne. Batman’s Swamp (where Etihad Stadium now stands) was filled with the soil that came from the levelling of Batman’s Hill, thereby topographically extinguishing Batman from the maps of Melbourne (with the exception of Batman Ave). The South Melbourne swamp was transformed into Albert Park, a recreational lake now lapped by Formula One racing cars.  The name Fishermens Bend has undergone both linguistic transformations (alternating between Fisherman‘s and Fishermen‘s Bend) and geographical shifts,being taken  from a bend in the river  near Coode Island to a development precinct that borders South Melbourne.  The artificial Coode Canal cut off the original Fishermens bend, created Coode Island,  and is now West Gate Park.  Bolin-Bolin swamp in Bulleen (the only one of these wetlands to use its aboriginal name) is now used as playing fields by Trinity Grammar.  There are other wetlands too: the Carrum  and Cheetham  wetlands, both prized for their birdlife, the Banyule flats, and the wetlands that became incorporated into the Botanical Gardens.

Attitudes towards wetlands have changed, swinging from appreciation at first for their beauty to a desire to ‘reclaim’ them once they had been polluted by noisome industries and sewage, or if they hampered development.  The few remaining are increasingly being recognized for their ecological diversity and their function as ‘the kidneys’ of a city. There is a world-wide movement to ‘daylight’ rivers and wetlands that have disappeared through development, especially in Toronto which is rediscovering the Don and Humber Rivers.

The RHSV makes its talks available online and you can find this one (along with other talks as well) at http://www.historyvictoria.org.au/whats-on/lectures/podcasts .It was a fitting Melbourne Day talk (albeit delivered two days early) that reminds us of the use of language in describing landscape and the effects both human and ecological of ‘settlement’.

‘Nail Can to Knighthood’ exhibition RHSV 15 July-18 December 2015

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The Royal Historical Society of Victoria have a fantastic exhibition at the moment that draws on their collection of material about Macpherson Robertson – the source (bless him) of Australia’s oldest, and my very favourite chocolate bar: The Cherry Ripe (now produced by Cadbury)

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Titled “Nail Can to Knighthood”, this exhibition covers the life of Sir Macpherson Robertson and the significance of his factories in Fitzroy, Melbourne.   Australians, it seems, are always being berated for their lack of philanthropy, especially in comparison with the American tradition, but Macpherson Robinson was a Philanthropist with a capital P, and several Melbourne landmarks associated with the centenary of Victoria in 1934 bear his name to this day.

A child of the goldfields, Macpherson Robertson was born in Ballarat in 1859 to a Scottish father and Irish mother.  The family returned to Leith, Scotland when his father moved to Fiji in search of work and as a photograph in the exhibition shows, this was not a wealthy family at all. To help the family finances, Macpherson took odd jobs, including working in two confectionery factories.  When the family returned to Melbourne in 1874, he started an apprenticeship at the Victoria Confectionery Company.  At the age of  21 he started his own business in the family home in Argyle Street Fitzroy, using a nail can and tin pannikin to boil up the syrup that he poured into moulds and rolled in sugar that his mother wrapped in paper cones.  Macpherson  went on foot to distribute his lollies for sale.  From these humble beginnings (and the original nail can and pannikin are on show), he built up a huge enterprise that dominated the suburb of Fitzroy and made him enormously wealthy.

He certainly had entrepreneurial flair and knew the benefits of good advertising. He realized that the name ‘Macpherson Robertson’ was too long to fit onto a lolly wrapper, and so he shortened it to ‘MacRobertsons’.  Often his advertising and personal interests converged.  When promoting chewing gum (which he brought to Australia after living in America for several years) he spruiked it as being of particular benefit to cyclists.  He established a Cycling School, presided over by “Professor Eckenstein” who had taught no lesser luminaries than the Prince of Wales, the Duke and Duchess of Connaught and Lord Lennox! He was fond of cars and sponsored the Round Australia Competition in 1928, and established MacRobertson- Miller Airlines.  A croquet aficionado himself, he contributed the land from his own estate in Station Street Fairfield to establish the Fairfield Bowling and Croquet Club, and the MacRobertson Shield is still the most prestigious tournament on the International Croquet scene.  He knew how to market his own story as well, with several publications issued during his lifetime that drew on the legend of the nail can.

His philanthropy really hit its straps during 1934, the Centenary of Victoria.  He sponsored the London to Melbourne International Air Race in 1934, Mac.Robertson Girls’ High School, MacRobertson fountain near the Shrine and MacRobertson Bridge.  As you can see, he was not shy in having his name attached to his gifts, and Sir Douglas Mawson likewise thanked him for his sponsorship of the Antarctic Exhibitions of 1929 and 1930 by naming MacRobertsonLand in Antarctica after him.

The RHSV has a wonderful collection of material, supplemented by material on loan from a variety of sources.  As well as the original tin can, there’s a cabinet of lolly samples which are displayed one drawer at a time for conservation reasons, showing the different sorts of lollies produced by MacRobertsons in test-tubes. There’s some fascinating video footage, complete with sound, and I was interested that, considering he left school at such a young age, he had acquired over his lifetime an upper class, albeit completely Australian, accent.  Most intruiging of all was a bust of Macpherson Robertson that turned out not to be as it seemed.

The exhibition will be open until Friday 18th December, Mon-Thurs 10.00-4.00 and Friday 10.00-3.00.  Gold coin donation entry

If you can’t make it, there’s an excellent site (so excellent, in fact that I wonder if it doesn’t pre-empt the exhibition?) at  http://www.culturevictoria.com/stories/built-environment/macrobertsons-confectionery-factory/