Old fiction, old newspapers

Recently I’ve been reading a Lucy Sussex novel built around the attempt to identify the story around the anonymous author of a newspaper serial published in a local paper in goldrush Australia.

Coincident with this, Katherine Bode launched a rediscovered novel, and incidentally publicised her work on ‘lost’ novels of nineteenth century Australia.

This isn’t something new, we’ve always known that in the nineteenth century many short stories and serialised novels were published in newspapers, and that many ‘serious’ authors were published in this way.

And we know that half a world away, in the north east of Scotland, vernacular tales of regional life were frequently published in local newsapers, which as well as giving authors such as Lewis Grassic Gibbon a start in the writing business, also helped preserve north east Scots dialect against a tide of well meaning Englishryness and received pronounciation through the education system.

So it’s not really surprising that we find a lost novels stories and other Australiana in the nineteenth century newspapers of colonial Australia.

Books were expensive, and in the main printed overseas. Doubtless the squatocracy could afford them but the miners in the camps and battlers out on sheep stations almost certainly couldn’t, not that it mattered as most would hardly have seen a bookshop from one year to the next.

But they could afford a weekly newspaper. And as well as news, the newspaper offered entertainment, and a diversion from life’s labours.

So it’s not surprising that these stories existed. Like all writing, some was doubtless better than most, and some was doubtless turgid and completely uninteresting, except that as well as the pleasure or not in rereading it, it tells us how people felt about life stuck on a goldfield or a sheep station somewhere that probably felt like the edge of the known universe.

Just as the Brontes reflected the social concerns of the poor would be middle class, and Wilkie Collins based his complicated and convoluted plots around inheritance and property law, these novels reflected the concerns of their audience, and tell us, by implication how their lives were.

Of course, the information was always there, hiding in plain sight in the old newspaper archives. But, until recently these archives were really only used extensively by historians, family history hobbyists and genealogists. Not for any bad reason, simply that these were the only people motivated enough to trawl through long, and sometimes incomplete archives in dusty vaults in inconvenient places.

What has made it infinitely easier to find and trace these  ‘lost’ novels if the wholesale digitisation of Australian newspapers via the NLA’s Trove, which has made the process of reading and searching the nineteenth century corpus one that can be done by anyone from anywhere …

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Charlotte Bronte and Patience Kershaw

The moors round Halifax and Bradford are for ever associated with the Brontes.

But there’s also another history there, as for example in the Chartist inspired near insurrection of 1842 sometimes referred to as the Pull Plug riots, which saw soldiers fire on protesting strikers in Preston and Halifax and perhaps in other places.

The moors were not wild places but where coal was find close to surface, the site of small scale mining, and it was at one of these mines that Samuel Scrivener, investigating the employment of women and children in the mines encountered Patience Kershaw, a 17 year old hurrier, who routinely dragged wagons full of coal out of the mine for the miners who employed her.

And of course the Brontes, living in Haworth, could not have been unaware of both the 1842 insurrection or of conditions in the mines, even if Charlotte and Emily Bronte were both living in Brussels in 1842. They would doubtless have been kept informed of events by letters from home and from newspapers sent from home.

The miners for the most part lived among the community, besides the silk weavers (like J’s family who gradually made the transition from self employed weavers to mill worker), the wool combers and weavers, and the farm workers, rather than isolated mining villages, so the miners, the hurriers and the rest must have been a familiar sight going to and from the pit

In fact Charlotte, the most politically astute of the sisters, appears to have visited the village of Wilsden on the moors researching for a projected novel based on the Chartist events and certainly her 1849 novel Shirley, set against a background of Luddite machine breakings in the early 1800s could well have been inspired by the pull plug riots.

Charlotte Bronte most probably never encountered Patience Kershaw in person. But her father, a parson, must have officiated at their weddings and funerals, and Charlotte must have known who they were, and at least an inkling of the conditions that they lived in …

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Miss Dickinson …

I tried to find out what happened to Kate Dickinson after Valentine Baker’s trial for rape and assault, but I’ve drawn a near total blank.

Secretly I wanted her to become a campaigner for women’s rights or alternatively one of these indomitable Victorian lady botanists who strode the jungles of south east Asia, armed only with a botanical press.

But no. Only in my dreams.

The only reference I’ve found is in Richard Hall’s 1980 biography of Samuel and Flora Baker, in which he states that Miss Dickinson withdrew from public life after the trial, never married, and devoted the rest of her life to painting watercolours, and that she died in 1915.

Irritatingly, he doesn’t give a source for this information, but given the accuracy of much of the rest of his research, I’m prepared to assume it’s accurate …

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Victorian short door mailbox still in use

We were in Port Fairy a few days ago and parked outside of the Ederle restaurant, and there it was, an 1870’s short door receiving pillar still in use by Australia Post

short door 1870 mailbox port fairy

The design is slightly more ornamental than the later long door type with a wreath of roses around the middle of the pillar and again round the mail slot.

Interestingly it doesn’t say “Receiving Pillar” on the body of the mailbox – I’m guessing that’s a later feature, but at the moment it’s only a guess ..

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Wreck Beach

We’ve just had a few days away at Apollo Bay, originally with the intention of doing some walking, swimming and sketching.

Of course, with unerring talent, we neatly managed to coincide with a howling storm that blew up out of the Southern Ocean, which curtailed these activities somewhat.

wreck  beach 1

However we did manage a walk on Moonlight Head and down to wreck beach. On a good day, at low tide, you can walk out on to a rock platform and see the remains of the Marie Gabrielle (lost November 1869) and the Fiji (lost September 1891). In the picture above you can just see some of the wreckage including the anchor of the Marie Gabrielle behind the raging sea.

When we visited it was only safe to walk to within about 100m of the wreck site but it certainly showed just how treacherous these seas could be.

Both ships were a total loss.

In the case of the Marie Gabrielle it seemed at firts that everyone survived despite being trapped on a wild rough coast in what was then very isolated and remote country

marie gabriell the argus 18691130(The Argus 30 November 1869 via trove.nla.gov.au)

with the crew eating limpets until they were found and brought to Cape Otway light station.

However, if you expand the search into 1870, the following year, the tale turns grimmer with allegations  that the crew were deserted by their captain. There also seems to be some suggestion from later news reports that some human remains were found in the area a few months later. There is some suggestion that the remains were of Maori or South Sea Islander origin and it may be that they were travelling alongside the European origin crew, either with or without the captain’s knowledge

The Fiji’s wreck was a rather less fortunate affair with several men being lost

fiji wreck the age 18910908fiji wreck inquiry evening news sydney

(reports from the Age 8 September 1891 and the Evening News in Sydney both via trove.nla.gov.au)

and charges of incompetence being laid against the captain.

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Sophia Duleep Singh–the empire strikes back

This week saw the hundredth anniversary of women getting the vote in the UK (and Ireland which in 1918 was not yet a separate polity). It was at best a partial victory in that the vote was restricted to women over 30 who met a property qualification, but it was a victory of sorts.

I’ve been retweeting a series of articles from the University of St Andrews that give a taste of just how acrimonious the struggle was and how women were forced into direct action to make their point.

Another interesting aspect of the struggle is that a number of the key players were not born in the UK. I’ve already mentioned the wonderful Muriel Matters who among other coups de theatre, hired a dirigible with the intent of disrupting the opening of Parliament by dropping pro women’s suffrage leaflets over the procession.

Muriel Matters, was of course from Adelaide, where women got the vote in 1894. There’s no actual date for women’s suffrage in Australia, with the some of the colonies granting women the vote before Federation, and others after despite the Commonwealth giving women the right to vote in federal elections in 1902. Victoria was the laggard, not granting women the right to vote in state elections until 1908.

But I digress, I’d like to introduce you to Sophia Duleep Singh, daughter of the last Maharajah of the Sikh Empire, who after being deposed by the British, was kept in a gilded cage, at first in Perthshire, and later in Norfolk, and forever forbidden to return to India. (I’ve mentioned Duleep Singh before in connection with Sam Baker and a hunting trip in the wilds of Ottoman Europe where Sam ‘acquired’ the woman later to be his wife from an Ottoman slave market. According to Richard Hall’s account of Sam and Flora’s Nile expedition, Duleep Singh had acquired himself a mistress in Vienna and might have been less interested in hunting than he might otherwise have been.)

Strangely, Queen Victoria was fond of Duleep Singh and his exiled family and was Sophia’s godmother, as well as granting her a grace and favour apartment in Hampton Court.

Sophia was allowed to travel to India after her father’s death, and was radicalised by the experience, meeting many anti-British Indian revolutionaries. On her return she joined the Women’s Social and Political Union, selling their newspaper outside of Hampton Court much to the annoyance of George V.

Sophia was more radical than that, supporting the use of bombs to bring about women’s suffrage. During the first world war she worked in a hospital caring for Indian soldiers wounded on the western front, and camapigning always for better treatment for Indian soldiers.

After the war she continued to campaign for women’s suffrage both in Britain and in India, and was true radical all her life …

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A Chinese coin in Chiltern

I’m still working away on the Dow’s Pharmacy documentation project, but to be honest the last few weeks have not been that interesting, basically enumerating and classifying the stock of empty unused medicine bottles that had been left behind.

However yesterday I found a little brown paper envelope from the State Savings Bank in among the bottles


Now we know that decimalisation happened in 1966 and the Pharmacy closed for good in 1968, so the fact that the bag is printed $2 – 5 cent coins, puts it at some date between 1966 and 68.

I opened it, hoping we might have a mixture of 5c coins and some old 6d coins, but no it contained a mixture of screws and grommets,


and a single Chinese 1 cash coin


which is rather corroded and worn. Unlike the imitation ones sold as lucky charms today it’s got a design on both sides, and looks genuinely old and worn.

Not being an expert on Chinese coins that’s about as far as I can go, as to what it is, but why would it be in a pharmacy in rural Victoria?

Well, Chiltern was a gold rush town and like Beechworth and the other gold towns round about had a community of Chinese miners in the mid to late nineteenth century. My guess, and it is only a guess, is that one of these miners dropped a coin, and old Mr Dow found it about a hundred years later, didn’t know what to do with it and put it in a bag of bolts, perhaps even thinking it might stand service as a washer ….

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