Elizabeth Jane Corbett

writing her way home

Category: history

Notes on the assisted immigration system – for Elizabeth Lhuede

A few weeks ago, I had a conversation with Elizabeth Lhuede on Twitter about my recently released debut novel The Tides Between (I never tire of writing those words). One of her forbears, Elizabeth told me, had come to Australia in 1841. Her name was Anne Bowles.

Now if you have read The Tides Between (tsk,  tsk, if you haven’t), you will know it is set in 1841, on board an emigrant vessel and that one of the characters is called Annie Bowles. Elizabeth was interested in my research on the government assisted immigration system (hurray, all those hours have not gone completely unnoticed). She wondered whether I’d write a blog on the topic.

Would I considered writing a blog?!

Err… if you are a woman and Australian and have anything to do with publishing, you will know that Elizabeth Lhuede is the founder of the Australian Women Writers Challenge. Who just happened to be reading my recently released debut novel (sorry, couldn’t resist writing it again), and wanted to know more about my research. Like, would I consider writing a blog, for someone who has done so much for Australian women writers?  I’d in fact consider it a Royal Command Performance. Or at the very least, a thank you note, from one grateful Aussie Woman Writer.

Let’s start with a brief summary of assisted immigration in the 1840s:

A colony desperately in need of labourers

When Major Mitchell described rich pastoral lands in Western Victoria as ‘Australia Felix’, men began flocking to the district. These wealthy young adventurers, paid a £10 license fee to ‘squat’ on their allocated runs and invested their capital in sheep. Ex-convicts from Van Diemen’s Land and other parts of New South Wales also travelled to Port Phillip in search of opportunities. Alarmed by this flood of illegal settlers, Governor Bourke officially recognised the Port Phillip District. In 1841, the year in which The Tides Between is set, Port Phillip was still officially part of the Colony of New South Wales – which then included present-day Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria.

Transportation to New South Wales had ceased in 1840 (it’s not all about the convicts). Squatters were crying out for agricultural labourers. In the newly surveyed town of Melbourne, the ratio of European men to women was two to one. In the Geelong region, the ratio was four to one. Whereas in the Western District, Western Port, and Portland Bay the ration was eight, nine, and ten to one. As a consequence, there was also a desperate need for single female immigrants.

The migrants

During the early years of the nineteenth century, England and Wales experienced poverty and social unrest. The population doubled between 1800 and 1850. Agricultural labourers were some of the lowest paid in Britain. Employed seasonally, they earned between seven and ten shillings a week. Out of this they had to pay board and lodgings.

Many agricultural labourers moved to the burgeoning new industrial towns. They worked long hours toiling over dangerous machinery and lived in crowded tenements. In 1833, the government passed a factory act to improve the conditions of children working in mines and factories. Henceforth, no child under the age of nine age was to be employed. Those under the age of thirteen were only allowed to work nine hours a day.

The Merthyr Riots (as depicted in The Tides Between) occurred in 1831. The Tolpuddle Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers was formed in 1833. In 1834, the New Poor Law brought in a harsh new regime of poverty relief. The Rebecca Riots commenced in 1839, the same year that the Chartists rose in Newport. Amidst these scenes of agitation and distress, circulars and newspapers advertised the benefits of emigration.

The immigration schemes

Although the Port Phillip squatters cried out for agricultural labourers, and the British newspapers waxed lyrical about the benefits of emigration to New South Wales, problems of distance and cost needed to be overcome. A passage to Australia cost five times as much as a the more popular passage to North America and the journey to Port Phillip was four times as long.

A government assisted immigration scheme commenced in 1831 and was expanded throughout the decade. From 1837, a separate bounty scheme was also run by shipping agents who were paid to select and transport labourers on behalf of the colonists. The government scheme was criticised for being too expensive and not selective enough. While the government accused shipping agents of not caring for the welfare of migrants.

In 1841, the British Government introduced reforms. These maintained the bounty concept but placed it under the control of the newly formed Colonial Land and Emigration Commission. Over ninety-five percent of all assisted immigrants to Port Phillip prior to 1851 came under this more regulated scheme. Male labourers under thirty years – such as shepherds, bricklayers, wheelwrights, carpenters and masons – were sought as migrants. Single women under thirty were sought as domestic and agricultural servants. Married adults were to be under the age of forty years. Married or single, all migrants were expected to be sober, industrious and able to provide birth certificates and character references.

Migrants were housed in emigrant depots prior to departure. At the depot, they were given a thorough medical examination, divided into messes, and taught the routines of shipboard life. Every government assisted migrant vessel followed a standard victualling schedule and carried a surgeon-superintendent who followed a strict regime of hygiene. He and the ship’s officers were paid a gratuity for every migrant landed safely in the colony. Between 1839 and 1842 over 12, 000 assisted migrants arrived in Port Phillip. The influx slowed between 1843 and 1847 due to a colonial recession. After which, prior to 1851, a further 16,500 immigrants arrived prior.

The voyage

Despite being heavily regulated, the voyage to Port Phillip, was long and arduous. The mortality rate was around 3.7% with children being the most at risk. Some vessels escaped death and diseases. On others, the mortality rate exceeded 10%. The average duration of the voyage to Port Phillip was a hundred and eleven days.

There was little difference between a migrant vessel and a convict ship. The same ship might carry convicts to Western Australia, a wool cargo on the return run, and take migrants back to Port Phillip in the following year.  As a consequence, the fittings between decks were rough and purpose built for each individual ‘cargo.’

The ships’ hulls were rounded and their bows blunt which meant they were slow, leaky, and required a great deal of pumping. Prior to 1850, these ships followed the well-established Admiralty route which called at the Cape of Good Hope and used the brisk trade winds at around 39° S to carry them east towards Australia. By this route, they typically experienced seasickness in the Channel, storms in the Bay of Biscay, rising temperatures off the coast of Africa, and a windless inertia around the equator.

On-the-ground research

I read copiously in prior to writing The Tides Between (see below). I also did heaps of on-the-ground research. I visited Flagstaff Hill Maritime Museum, Queenscliff Maritime Museum, The Immigration Museum, and the Museum of London Docklands in order to get a tactile sense of the journey. I also did a Thames River Cruise, walked the route from the emigrant depot to the Deptford watergate, spent a night on the sailing ship Enterprize (where I learned how to create a hatchway Rhys could open in a storm), spent time on both sides of the entrance to Port Phillip Bay, crossed from Queenscliff to Sorento on the ferry, and visited Williamstown. I also spent hours poring over old maps in the State Library of Victoria.

This is only the research I did for the maritime aspects of the novel. The fairy tales, Welsh language and London theatre history, are in a catalogue of their own.

Here is brief bibliography of the maritime related books I found most helpful:

  • PESCOD, Keith, Good food bright fires and civility (a great book on British emigrant depots)
  • PESCOD, Keith, A place to lay my head (a follow up book on Australian immigrant depots)
  • BROOME, Richard, The Victorians: arriving (a great summary of the era, reasons for emigrating, and the voyage)
  • CHARLWOOD, Don, The long farewell (my Bible on this topic, it includes two published emigrant journals)
  • HAINES, Robin, Doctors at Sea: emigrant voyages to Australia
  • HAINES, Robin, Life and death in the age of sail: the passage to Australia
  • CANON, Michael, Perilous voyages to the new land
  • HOPE, Penelope, The voyage of the Africaine (an emigrant journal)
  • HOWITT, Richard, Australia: historical, descriptive and statistic, with an account on four years residence in that colony
  • DANA, Richard, Two years before the mast
  • COLONIAL LAND AND EMIGRATION COMMISSION, Instructions to surgeons superintendents of Government ships going to New South Wales, 1838 (later versions of this document are available)
  • KEMP, Peter, Oxford companion to ships and the sea
  • MCCRAE, Hugh, Georgiana’s journal

I’m not sure if that is what Elizabeth Lhuede had in mind. I am open to further questions. I am in fact happy to talk at length on the topic. So, please, ask away?

PS. An emigrant is an outgoing migrant, an immigrant an inbound one. Therefore, in my case, you could say I emigrated to Australia from the UK at the age of five. However, once here, I became an immigrant in the eyes of the Australian Government.

The Fourteenth Century by May McKisack

I have been doing some plotting for my work in progress – an historical novel written from the point-of-view of Mared Glyn Dŵr. Meanwhile, I am working my way through the reading materials I amassed while in Wales. In addition to plundering the National Library’s wealth of resources, I took advantage of the UK’s cheap postage and somehow managed to get a pile of second-hand books home without paying excess baggage. The Fourteenth Century: 1307-1399 by May McKisack is my current tome of choice.

I am slowly gaining a better understanding of the the Hundred Years War, the tensions on the Scottish border during this era, war and chivalry in general (like society was built around the need to go to war, sound familiar anyone?). I also have a rudimentary understanding of the crisis and revolution that occurred during the reign of Edward 2nd, which finds its echoes in some of Richard 2nd’s later attitudes. I have also read about trade, industry and towns (all that stuff I learned about guilds as an undergraduate makes sense now) and the changing dynamics of feudalism. I am about to read about The Good Parliament, the Peasants Revolt and then the usurpation of Richard 2nd. There is so much to learn, so much more to read. But I am beginning to get a clearer understanding of this era in general. Meanwhile, is a segment about the Statutes of Kilkenny (1366) that caught my attentions, just to get your red-hot, revolutionary juices flowing. 🙂

‘… the English colony is limited to the district that was coming to be known as the English Pale and ‘Irish enemies’ becomes the official designation of the native Irish living beyond its borders. They are excluded from ecclesiastic office; the king’s lieges have nothing to do with them; they are not to parley with them, nor to marry them, nor to sell them horses or armour. But the concern of the statutes is less the ‘mere’ Irish than the descendants of the English settlers, and their principal intention is to arrest the process of ‘degeneracy’ in the areas of English influence. Recourse to Brehon Law is forbidden; Englishmen may not entertain Irish minstrels, story-tellers, or rhymers: all Englishmen and Irishmen dwelling inter anglicos must use English surnames and the English language and follow English customs; Englishmen are to forsake Irish sports such as hurling and quoits and are to earn the use of the bow and ‘other gentle games’ which pertain to arms.’

Edward 1st, issued similarly race-based statutes at Rhuddlan in 1284. Royal Castellated Boroughs (like Caernarfon where I recently did an SSiW bootcamp) were established as bastions of Englishness. The Statutes of Rhuddlan became more racially restrictive after the revolt of Madog ap Llywelyn. I have a copy of the later additions in Latin which I intend to type into Google some time (unless anyone out there reads Latin?). The Statues of Wales were applied to varying degrees throughout the fourteenth century and reinforced by Henry IV after revolt broke out in 1400. In 1432, the marriage of Sir John Scudamore to Glyn Dŵr’s surviving daughter, Alys, came to the attention of the King Henry VI. Scudamore was subsequently stripped of his honours (for having secretly married a Welshwoman). The Statutes remained in place as a constitutional basis for the government of the Principality of North Wales until 1536.

Anyway, back to the Good Parliament.


Dyddiau Olaf Owain Glyndŵr – the last days of Owain Gyndŵr

No one knows how Owain Glyndŵr spent his final days. He simply vanished. Some claim he died, his mortal remains interred in secret to prevent desecration by his enemies. But as always, when considering the ‘legendary’ life of Glyndŵr, there is much debate. My fictional character, his wife, will not, in fact, know how her husband’s fate. She would have been imprisoned in the Tower long before Glynŵr left the stage. But fiction is not real life. Meaning can be drawn by the writer without the conscious knowledge of the character. I therefore needed to know what people were saying about Glyndŵr’s exit from the world.

I wanted a scholarly book (trust me there are some wild theories out there), written by a writer who understood the poetic traditions surrounding the Glyndŵr and was keen to explore them in non-fanciful ways. Gruffudd Aled Williams appeared to be my man. He grew up in Glyn Dyfrydwy, Glyndŵr’s old stomping ground, and is a renowned scholar of Welsh medieval poetry. His book, Dyddiau Olaf Owain Glyndŵr was shortlisted for Wales Book of the Year in 2016. I placed an order and looked forward to the book wending its way across the world to my letter box.

‘Mam and Dad have read that book.’ One of my fellow Welsh tutors informed me one Tuesday evening. ‘They are in the same historical society as Gruffydd  Aled Williams.’ (like, is there anyone in Welsh speaking Wales that doesn’t know everybody?)

‘Was the book any good?’ I asked him.

‘Yes. But it wasn’t an easy read.’

Now, I can read Welsh. Of course, I can. I read I Botany Bay, didn’t I? And Fy mhobl i? And Blasu (sort of). But here’s the thing. My leaner’s Welsh is not as fluid as it was while living in Wales (sob). Added to which, when two first-language Welsh speakers who are living in Bala (the heart of Cymru Cymraeg) say the book was not an easy read, then you are facing a seriously difficult situation.

Fortunately, I live in a part of Melbourne that is densely populated with Welsh speakers. There are four of us living within two kilometres of each other. That’s right, practically a ghetto. One of them, my friend Ceri, is a Welsh woman from Harlech who studied Welsh at Aberystwyth University when Gruffudd Aled Williams was head of the Welsh Language Department (ditto, the comment about anyone and everyone). I asked Ceri whether she’d help me read the book. She took it home, perused the beginning and handed it back.

‘Have a go at reading the first chapters,’ she said, ‘then we can meet.’ (Did I also mention she trained as a teacher).

I read the first four chapters quite easily. They simply summarised aspects of the revolt I am now familiar with. But Aled’s parents were right. This was academic writing, with literary forms of verbs, multiple clauses and subtly wrought arguments. When Ceri texted, suggesting we meet in a cafe and tackle a couple of chapters together, I jumped at the offer.

We met at Padre and read aloud in tandem, not bothering to translate word for word, so much as paraphrase to confirm meaning. For example, on reading the following sentence:

O’r manna a gysylltir ȃ ddyddiau olaf Owain Glyndŵr, ei farwolaeth a’i glad – chai ohonynt a chanddynt well hawl i gael eu hystyried o ddifri na’i gilled – mae’n drawiadol cynifer ohonynta leolir yn Swydd Henfordd; one of us would say something like:

‘So, there are a few places in Herefordshire worth considering.’

‘Yr oedd rhai o’r mannau hyn o few terfynau’r sir felly bodolai yn ystod cyfnod   y gwrthryfel; daeth eraill, a leolid mewn arglwyddiaethau ar gyrion y sir, yn rhannau o Swydd Henfordd yn sgilDeddf Uno 1535-6.’

‘Because the borders were different before the Acts of Union.’

Every now and again, Ceri would insert unknown words to save me looking them up in the dictionary. Sometimes she would say, I know the meaning but I can’t think of the word in English. Still other times, we would be completely stumped and would have to consult multiple sources. I mean, we meet regular to speak Welsh in the ghetto but we don’t often discuss antiquarians (hynafiaethydd), chancels (canghellau), burial chambers (beddgellau), outlawry (herwriaeth), illegitimacy (anghyfreithlondeb) or, indeed, concubines (gordderchadon). When the cafe finally kicked us out at closing time, I felt like I’d been put through a heavily soiled washing machine cycle. I suspect Ceri felt the same. It was a sincere measure of her friendship that she offered to meet again the next week – and in the weeks following.

By week three, all sites, in Herefordshire had been thoroughly discussed. We were racing against the clock, meeting twice weekly in order to finish the book before Ceri returned to her university studies. To my profound relief, the discussion had crossed the border back into Wales. Look, I know the boundaries were different back then, that large parts of Herefordshire were in fact Welsh speaking. But hasn’t England taken enough, without adding Wales’ national hero to the body count? (yes, I take a cool-headed non-partisan approach to my research) 🙂

On the final coffee afternoon, we got kicked out of the cafe with only a few pages left to read. We sat on a sun-bright bench on Lygon Street reading about Glyndŵr’s final days with the metallic sgleen of tram-wheels in the background. It is a measure of the writer’s success that, by that point, we were reading fast and furious, desperate to reach his final conclusions. Which, although sombre, were, in the end, quite satisfying.

What’s that, I hear you say? Where was Glyndŵr finally buried?Buried! What kind of soft question is that? Glyndŵr didn’t die. He vanished. The poets all agree. He rests beneath the mountains surrounded by gold and jewels the likes of which man has never seen. When a bell tolls he will rise with a mighty army and drive our enemies beyond the sea. That’s how all good Welsh stories end. What were you thinking?

Permission to create – or ditching the fear factor

I’m a belt and braces kind of girl. Terrified of making mistakes. I’m not sure why. Hours of introspection and countless man-with-a-cardigan counselling sessions have not provided answers. But for a writer (or indeed anyone) a fear of ‘getting it wrong’ can be paralysing. I distinctly recall telling my writing group that I wanted to make sure my novel was perfect, so perfect that it wouldn’t be rejected. I still recall the silence that greeted this naive announcement.

‘Liz,’ one of them ventured gently. ‘No matter how good your work is, you are going to be rejected.’

They were right, of course. I’ve had my work rejected countless times. Sometimes more painfully than others. I’d like to say I’ve developed a thick skin. But I haven’t, not nearly thick enough. As evidenced by my fear-of-getting-it-wrong approach to my latest project.

Researching my first novel, I read countless diaries, nineteenth publications and more recent historical analyses in order to get my immigration facts straight. In terms of the Welsh fairy tales that run like a seam through the novel’s pages, well, I may have gone a little overboard. In fact, I learned a whole language. But although the conditions on board my nineteenth century emigrant vessel are as authentic as I could make them and, although my knowledge of fairy tales has grown exponentially, the voyage, the ship, characters were all fictitious. This gave me a degree of license.

Not so with my current project – a novel written from the viewpoint of Owain Glyn Dwr’s wife. You see, Marged Glyn Dwr was an historical figure, as was her husband (a national hero in fact). The revolt, the circumstances, all the supporting characters of my story, are historical. This makes the likelihood of receiving an irate letter from a Welsh nationalist informing me that I have misrepresented Wales noble history imminently possible.


I’d like to say that I’m handling the pressure well, cool as  cucumber as I pore over tome after tome in the state library, that my bookshop is not groaning under the weight of newly acquired purchases, groaning so loudly that when I mentioned to my husband that I may have ordered a few books, he politely asked whether I had set a budget.

Budget, I gulped, yes, of course, I have a budget.

With these tight (cough) budget constraints in mind, you can imagine my frission of excitement to come across this paragraph when reading a library book about the non-judicial confinement of medieval women:

Margaret, the Wife of Owain Glyn Dwr, their daughter Catherine […] and an unclear number of her children, all of whom seemed to have been without personal culpability were taken at the capture of Harlech and were held in the Tower of London from 1409 until at least 1413, when the death of Catherine and her two daughters is the last that is heard of them. Their confinement can be interpreted as a ‘family guilt’ confinement, or as a quasi-hostagehood intended to put pressure on Owain who was still at large.

I wrote to the historian, Gwen Seabourne, outlining my project, and asked whether she could recommend the best sources of information concerning Marged Glyn Dwr. Her answer was disappointing. Or was it? Apparently, that paragraph is pretty much all anyone knows about the fate of Marged Glyn Dwr. Which means, as long as I thoroughly research of conditions in the Tower, my potential for making mistakes has just considerably diminished.


Buoyed by the success of this contact-an-academic strategy. I contacted another. One whose book on The Rise and Fall of Owain Glyn Dwr is soon to be released (I have it on order – yes, part of my carefully worked out budget). I have read a number of titles on Glyn Dwr and no one seems to know why his military service terminated so abruptly in 1388. Or why he actually rose in revolt in September 1400 (apart from the perfidy already mentioned in earlier blog posts). Many theories have been posed. But none sit well with me. Least of all that he was disgruntled at not receiving a knighthood and sat wallowing in self pity until one morning, ten years later, he got up and declared himself Prince of Wales. Even if  that version was true, which I seriously doubt, you can’t develop a novel on such a vague premise. You have to give the characters conflict and believable motives. I asked this particular historian his opinion on the matter. He wrote back:

There does not appear to be any evidence which gives a firm indication at all of Owain’s feelings after the 1387 campaign, nor any reason to explain why he was not available for service in 1388. That means that there is nothing concrete to justify the notion that he was disgruntled but nothing to definitely refute it either. Effectively, you have carte blanche in that sphere.

The historian, Gideon Brough, whose work promises to be a great deal more nuanced than previous offerings, urged me to think differently to the received version of events, to “do something beautiful and creative with my carte blanche.”

Carte blanche? Did you hear that? There is a smattering of circumstantial evidence and a great deal of theorising going on, even among historians. Which means, as long as I do my research and make sure I understand the social and political issues of the time, I can add my own theories to the mix. Which just made the whole process a lot less scary in my opinion.

Welsh Australians: an unashamedly biased account of Some notable Port Phillips’ pioneer

My grandfather’s name was Hopkin James. On the basis of this extensive evidence I have always assumed Hopkins was a Welsh name. As it turns out, I wasn’t far wrong. Ancestry tells me that although the surname Hopkins is used throughout South England, it is most commonly found in South Wales. Perfect! Because today I want to tell you about Henry Hopkins, one of Port Phillip’s notable early settlers, and, although he was born in Deptford and listed as having English and Flemish ancestry, I am claiming him as one of ours.

That’s right, Welsh.

Hopkins was a merchant and philanthropist who, after emigrating, acquired extensive properties in Van Dieman’s Land (Tasmania) and Port Phillip (Victoria) (Pardon the brackets – I’m catering for an extensive world wide readership). Hopkins was also a devout Congregationalist. My Deptford born, Lowland leaning, still undeniably Welsh, Henry Hopkins was responsible for bringing the first Congregationalist clergyman to Victoria, and for subsidising his salary. But his generosity did not stop there. It also extended to the Wesleyan, Presbytarian, and Anglican denominations. In an age without social welfare, this amounted to helping widows, orphans and the destitute.

Now for those of you who can’t tell a Congregationalist from a Wesleyan, the Congregationalists were a denomination that arose out of the religious battles of the sixteenth century. Their adherents believed in a democratic church structure and the autonomy of each individual congregation. They didn’t dance. Or use musical instruments in worship. Neither did they chant or sing anthems. They confined themselves to rousing, unaccompanied, renditions of Isaac Watt’s hymns.

Port Phillip’s first Congragationalist minister was Reverend William Wakefield, formerly of Wrexham, Wales. Now if you are thinking his address makes him Welsh, think again. The Australian Dictionary of Biography gives him English ancestry and, as Reverend Wakefiled seems to have been a bit of a pedant, we’re gonna let England keep him.

According to the 1836 Churches Act, all major Christian denominations in colonial Australia could apply for a land grant, assistance with their building funds and a subsidy towards their clergyman’s salary. Reverend Wakefield was suspicious of this arrangement. Perhaps, enough to make his hair stand on end? According to the Port Phillip Pioneers group, he was unwilling to greet visit passengers on newly arrived immigrant vessels or, indeed, anyone not from his congregation. He also resented Henry Hopkins financial assistance. Though it seems his congregation had no such scruples. When they sought government funding to build a school house, Wakefield resigned and took up residence in Van Dieman’s Land. Where he is, no doubt, someone’s beloved great, great grandfather and I will face legal action for slandering their heritage.

It seems the Congregationalists weren’t only Puritans in Port Phillip. Wesleyan Methodists also eschewed musical instruments in worship. However this was not the position of John Jones Peers, an energetic, red-headed Welshman who gave generous assistance to both the Congregationalists and Methodists causes. Peers built Melbourne’s first Wesleyan chapel. Under which roof he took great delight in leading a choir. He also assumed the cost of importing a pipe organ from Liverpool. On January 9th, 1843, this instrument was used for Melbourne’s first formal organ recital. The program included selections from Handel, Haydn and Mozart, which is no more than you would expect from one hailing from the Land of Song.



Old Melbourne Town – some snippets from history

One of the best parts about researching a historical era and location in which to set a novel is that you have to read everything. The sadest part is that you don’t get to use half of what you learn. At least, not consciously. But you don’t ever know what you’ll need. So you read.

This week have been reading Old Melbourne Town by Michael Cannon. l am always struck when reading about Victoria’s early settlers at how capricious they were – coming overland and across Bass Straight to occupy the district illegally, yet calling on British law to protect their squatting interests. Despoiling the land with nary a thought for its original inhabitants, living in tiny wattle and daub huts, enduring floods, fires, noxious odours and explosions, yet having the foresight to lay out botanical gardens, race courses and cricket clubs. What vision. What arrogance.

Here are some snippets I came across this week.

  • Punt Road is called Punt Road because – wait for it – there was a punt at that part of the river
  • Living ‘south of the Yarra’ was nothing to boast about initially.
  • The inhabitants of the south bank huts and clay pits were ‘social pariahs,’ said to be ‘terrors for drinking.’
  • Elizabeth Street was originally a creek bed
  • Small wooden bridges were constructed so that people could cross from the road to the shops
  • Commercial water carriers pumped water from the Yarra and delivered it to town inhabitants
  • Carcasses from the abattoirs below Batman’s Hill were thrown into the Yarra
  • The incoming tide washed them back towards the town
  • Some wondered whether this was causing ill health
  • A dam was constructed across the Yarra to help separate the fresh water from the incoming tidal waters
  • In July 1842, flood waters swept down the Yarra were balked at the dam and flooded the town
  • Brick makers huts and kilns were washed away
  • People drowned
  • This happened in 1842, 1843 and 1844
  • Old Melbourne gaol is in fact the fourth Melbourne gaol. Aboriginals burnt the first one down in 1838
  • The majority of Melbourne’s first constables (sent down from Sydney) were dismissed for drunkenness and corruption
  • Melbourne’ first Supreme Court Judge, John Walpole Willis’ stormy background included expulsion from school, removal as Equity Judge in Upper Canada, and constant conflict with his brother judges in Sydney.
  • Governor Gipps sent him to Melbourne to get rid of him.
  • Ditto Supreme Court Deputy Registrar James Denham Pinnock (also from Sydney) who as Emigration Agent had allowed ‘many scandals to continue.’
  • Are you picking up a theme here?
  • The first mail in the settlement was hand delivered by John Batman
  • Letters took five weeks to travel overland from Melbourne to Sydney
  • One poor horseman rode all the way to Yass and forgot to exchange the mail bags, returning months later with the original letters
  • I am thinking of taking up genealogy.
  • Seriously, I think he and I must be related

The place for a village – some thoughts on Victoria’s early history

Last week in the hiatus between my fevered consumption of fairy tale re-tellings and resuming serious manuscript edits, I started researching my next project. I say started, in reality, I have been reading about life in the early days of the Port Phillip District for years. Reading, without making notes or marking maps, leaving what next in the periphery of my head.

On Wednesday, I pulled down a pile of books and shifted gears.

For me, research is the prime stimulus for my creative process. I start with characters chattering in my head. I have a vague sense of where they lived and what their inner issues are. How I work out these issues – the nuts and bolts of events and scenarios – tends to spring from research.

My next novel will be set in the Port Phillip District of the then Colony of New South Wales. I therefore decided to ‘start’ my research by re-reading A history of the Port Phillip District: Victoria before separation.

In 1842, the Port Phillip settlement was ‘officially’ only about four years old. Two earlier attempts and been made to settle the region. One at a site close to modern day Sorrento. The other in Western Port. In between, sealers and whalers plyed the coast, various surveys and explorative expeditions were conducted and, ahead of the law, men started to transport sheep and cattle across the straight from Van Diemen’s land.

I am always amazed, post Mabo – the landmark High Court case in which indigenous land title was recognised – to read the attitudes of Australia’s early settlers. Here are some thoughts that struck me this week:

The colonisers saw the land entirely in terms of its usefulness to them. Consider this 1831 newspaper quote, written in relation to the Hume and Hovell expedition.

“…discovery of a vast range of country, invaluable for every purpose of grazing, and agriculture – watered by numerous fine streams, and presenting an easy inland water course extending from Port Phillip and Western Port to the settled district of Bathurst – thus refuting the previously adopted opinion, by which this line of country had been denounced as inhabitable and useless…”

Did anyone notice an omission in that passage? Like some kind of recognition that the land was already inhabited?

Many who did recognise the indigenous land title did so from their own agenda. There were no official treaties with Australia’s indigenous people – unlike those made with the Maori’s at Waitangi and by the Quaker William Penn with the ‘Indians’ of Pennsylvania – apart from a treaty made on behal of the Port Phillip Association, in which Batman claimed to have purchased 500,000 acres of land North of Melbourne in return for blankets, knives, tomahawks, scissors and mirrors (even as a child, I wondered at the ludicrousness of such an exchange).’

Setting aside the illegality of Batman’s processes and that clan land was non-transferable, held in trust for future generations, the treaty did seem to be recognising indigenous rights to the land. Indeed, the Association expressed a desire to found a colony on ‘principles of conciliation, civilisation, philanthropy, morality and temperance.’

However, when you take into account that Batman’s treaty was made on behalf of a group of capitalists who were seeking to appeal Governor Arthur, who had repeatedly urged a such treaty on the Colonial Office, and that, in Van Diemen’s land, Batman had a record of ‘much slaughter’, it becomes apparent that they were were merely dressing their actions in a ‘philanthropic disguise’ in order to gain the support of the humanitarian lobby in Britain.

In the end, Batman’s treaty was declared void.

It conflicted with the Imperial position that Australia was terra nullis – an unoccupied territory.

There were individuals who recognised aboriginal land rights from the outset. When discussing colonial attitude towards Australia’s indigenous people’s it is not uncommon to hear sentiments such as: ‘Oh, well, were men of their time.’ It is gratifying to note that, from the outset, there were individuals who recognised aboriginal land title. These men were not saints. They were active participators in the colonisation process. Like us they had personal lists of bigotries and short sightedness. But in this respect, they saw clearly. In A history of the Port Phillip District, Shaw lists them. It seems appropriate to acknowledge them here.

  • Bishop Broughton,
  • Quaker visitors James Backhouse and G.W. Walker,
  • The Wesleyan, Joseph Orton,
  • The Presbyterian, John Dunmore Lang
  • Surveyor, Charles Tyers
  • Aboriginal Protectors Robinson and Dredge (does anyone see the irony in the appointment of aboriginal protectors in an unoccupied territory)
  • Settlers like, Gideon Lang, William Howitt and William Westgarth
  • Pamphleteer and newspaper editor, George Arden
  • Soldier and author, Colonel William Mundy
  • Under-secretary James Stephen
  • And…finally, not until 150 years later the High Court of Australia


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