A TIME FOR HEROES Anzac Day 2020

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This year, no public events will mark Anzac Day. The COVID-19 pandemic has done what only a world war has previously accomplished, when the event was cancelled in 1942.

These random coincidences remind us that today, as then, Australia has been fighting a war, in fact, several wars. The disastrous bushfires of 2019-20 and the Corona virus pandemic, have taken on some of the characteristics of mass conflict. They include the language of war, emergency coordination between the Commonwealth and the states, deployment of the defence forces and a range of restrictions on personal and civil liberties and activities.

Like all wars, these have produced heroes.

Over a summer of flame, ash and smoke, tens of thousands of firefighters, mostly volunteers, battled infernos in New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland, as well as in other states with fewer serious blazes. Some – ‘the fallen’ –  lost their lives. Many of the survivors will have ongoing health issues due to burns, smoke inhalation and trauma. Heroes.

These brave men and women were supported by emergency services of all kinds and by doctors, nurses, paramedics and all other hospital staff. Neighbors and strangers also performed acts of dangerous generosity, saving properties and people. Heroes

Then, just as the fire wars were easing, an insidious virus began felling people around the world and in our country. Once again, medical and hospital professionals, police and other services were called to the front line as infectious passengers were unfathomably allowed to depart cruise ships and others jetted in from foreign parts. As often happens in wars, there was a shortage of equipment – masks and gowns, as well as ventilators and beds – but they went to the fight, regardless. They are at the front as I write this. Heroes.

The mostly volunteer diggers of World War 1 and World War 2 were the founders and bearers of the Anzac tradition, subsequently carried by Australian soldiers up to the present. Whatever else Anzac might be about and whatever your personal views of it might be, there is no denying that it is the predominant bearer of Australian notions of heroism. It happens that these ideas were formed in war, but it now seems that the same ideals – glorified and mythologized though they often are – have become attached to ordinary men and women just doing their jobs, or as civilians volunteering.

So, let the ‘silent Anzac Day’ of 2020 be dedicated to the unique recognition and long remembrance of our new heroes.

Graham Seal

 

 

IN PRAISE OF SMALL THINGS

 

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Unidentified Artist
Luce Center Label
Farmers created whirligigs to entertain their children and decorate their gardens. These colorful, animated devices also added an element of fun to an otherwise demanding life in rural America. This piece shows the everyday activities of churning butter and sawing wood. When the wind blows, the lady’s arms move up and down and the man’s saw moves back and forth. The large painted arrow on the back of the whirligig suggests it was also used as a weather vane.
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Museum purchase from the folk art collection of David L. Davies
1920s

 

Consider the unremarked knowing and ways of doing and saying that lie beneath even the most trivial of everyday activities.

Plants in our gardens have their unofficial names that have nothing to do with their tin scientific labels. ‘Foxglove’s, ‘kangaroo paws’, ‘Christmas bush’, etc. The list is almost endless and often varies from place to place. What is known as a ‘diaper’ in America is a ‘nappy’ in Britain and Australia. The same goes for the folk names of fish and of different types of rain. You know about these things only if you are a gardener, fishing person and/or live in a particular place, usually from childhood, or at least over a long time.

Inhabitants of the English city of Canterbury and surrounds will be familiar with the local whimsy: ‘Why kill ‘em and cart ‘em to Canterbury?’ Understanding this fragment of apparent folk nonsense proves your indigenous credentials. The saying depends on knowing that the towns of Wye, Chilham and Chartham are all located in the countryside around the county town of Kent. What does it mean? Nothing. Except to identify belonging to a place and the people who do, and have, called it ‘home’.

Natives of Hamburg have a similar trick. When the words ‘Hummel, Hummel’ are spoken, those in the now must respond with ‘Mors, Mors’. This whimsy involves yarn about a man who moved into the home of a former soldier named Hummel and was made the butt of derision by local children calling out the former resident’s name. The squatter would retort ‘Mors, Mors’. This exchange became a form of greeting between Hamburgers.

These small wordplays are the trivial tips of extensive pyramids of knowledge, identity, sense of place and belonging. For those in the know, their significance is much deeper and more intense than their apparent superficiality suggests. And so it is with many small things. The taken-for-granted banalities of all our lives actually carry vast reservoirs of fundamental meaning that, if we lost, we would find ourselves bereft. Not to have the dandling songs and play rhymes of childhood to distract and amuse our children and grandchildren and the making of the whirligig pictured above would leave an interactive hole that it is hard to imagine being filled by anything else. The rituals of birth, anniversaries, coming-of-age, marriage and our inevitable endings, all subtly structure all our lives.

The small things are almost endless. The cooking and recipes, sewing, knitting and other domestic skills we perhaps picked up in childhood. Proverbs, sayings and superstitions are things we just ‘know’. Home remedies, some more folk belief than efficacious, but nonetheless known and practiced or recommend, as required by coughs, insect stings or warts. Ways to tend the garden, what tools to use for which chores and how to drive a nail or use a saw, what knots are best and how to tie them.

There may be family and community traditions of song, music, dance or other everyday arts and crafts, not to mention feasts and festivals, sacred and secular, such as Guy Fawkes Night, Blessing of the Fleet and the dozens of other saints’ days, commemorations and folk frolics that dot the calendars of every faith.

Now, in the time of the COVID-19 pandemic, these and the many small things of life will come to mean a great deal.

 

THE WORLD FAIR IN THE DESERT

 

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Three camels in front of commercial buildings in Coolgardie in the 1890s. (National Library of Australia)

 

It was nothing but desert in 1892. Seven years later Coolgardie was the third-largest town in Western Australia. Shops lined the extraordinarily wide main street, there were seven newspapers, six banks and two stock exchanges, schools, theatres, churches, a synagogue and a mosque for the ‘Afghan’[i] cameleers who kept the 5000-or-so inhabitants supplied with goods. And much of their water. Two cemeteries held over a thousand underground residents, while three breweries and twenty-six hotels slaked the prodigious thirst of the miners. In 1896 the railway arrived and just a few years later ‘the mother of the Western Australian goldfields’ hosted a World Fair.

The first of the grand celebrations of industry and technology that began the World’s Fair movement was held in Paris in 1844. Fifty years later they were an international fad and no self-respecting country or industry could not have one. The Coolgardie event was officially titled ‘The Western Australian International Mining and Industrial Exhibition’. Nothing like it had been seen in the west and there would never be anything quite like it again.

On 21 March, the special train from Perth arrived carrying one hundred and fifty VIPs, including the Governor and the Premier with their respective families and entourages. They were welcomed by the mayor and all the dignitaries that Coolgardie boasted, together with the Mayor of Melbourne, an Archdeacon and the vice-consul of Denmark. The triumphal arch of flowers on Bayley Street had only just been completed in the early hours of the morning and there were: ‘festoons at the end of the street facing the exhibition, and these, with profuse displays of bunting at the hotels and other establishments along Bayley Street, comprised the decorations with which the town had arrayed itself for the occasion. Interwoven with the arch were the words, ‘Welcome to Coolgardie’, while similarly hospitable greetings appeared on the walls of buildings along each side of Bayley Street.’

Anyone who was anyone was there, as well as many who were not. The speeches, toasts and backslapping were almost endless. The shortest was made by a colourful entrepreneur named Jules Joubert, manager of the event. Joubert was an early example of a global organiser that we have become familiar with through international sporting networks and affiliations. He had parlayed an earlier involvement with the World Fair movement into a position of control and influence. Not surprisingly, he was happy. He claimed to have ‘managed fifty exhibitions, and the present one was therefore his jubilee. He would have liked to have stopped the sun for a fortnight, for then they would have had one of the best exhibitions ever seen in Australasia.’

And everyone else was in good spirits, especially when the official opening of the grand Exhibition Building finally took place. There were more speeches, of course. Premier Forrest was overflowing with praise, emphasising that the government was in full support of the Exhibition and ‘were most anxious that the Exhibition should do all its promoters desired it should do. There had been a great many sceptics and unbelievers, and people who threw cold water on the project, and if it had not been for the people of Coolgardie – supported, he thought, by himself and he might say the Government – this Exhibition would not have been in the position it was now.’

And there was more, rather a lot. But the topic that every miner and business-owner in the goldfields finally came:

There was one thing he missed, which he had hoped to see, and that was a river of water coming into the town-(cheers)-a river he had promised he would do his best to bring. And they were bringing it. People might say what they liked, they might be sceptical or disbelievers, but he could tell them that the great water scheme was raising itself up like the Temple of Jerusalem was raised silently. (Cheers.) There was no great sound of hammers going on. These hammers were, however, being applied, and in a very short time, like that magnificent edifice, this great water scheme would rear itself up, and fresh water would flow into the town. (Cheers).

A strike of wharfies at Fremantle meant that loads of exhibits being waggoned from Perth were still wending their way towards the glittering event. Despite this, the show went on with balls, orchestras and entertainments of all kinds – ‘Dancing was indulged in till after midnight.’ Over five thousand people attended on the first day and more than 60 000 were estimated to have visited by the time it ended almost three and a half months later. The Exhibition was pronounced a great success, particularly in the circumstances, as the press pointed out:

it may be safely asserted that no event of this nature has been attempted under more discouraging circumstances than those which have attended the present undertaking in this remote portion of the Australian continent, where eight years ago there was not a vestige of civilisation, and when the aboriginal, like Robinson Crusoe, was monarch of all he surveyed, but which through the discovery of gold has become a great mining centre and a hive of industry. It was undoubtedly a bold undertaking to induce the manufacturers of the old world to unite in displaying their wares and products to the population of these fields. Coolgardie being in the heart of a wilderness, and at a distance of nearly 400 miles from the sea coast, presented almost an insurmountable difficulty in this respect alone.[ii]

The city in the desert was on its way to even greater things!

But it was not to be. Rich as Coolgardie’s lodes of gold might be, they were outdone by the even richer and more abundant ores of Kalgoorlie and Boulder, not much further down the track, now known as the ‘Super Pit.’ Combined with the slump in gold prices at this period, Coolgardie began a slow decline. A School of Mines was opened in 1902 but closed a year later, supplanted by Kalgoorlie’s own school. In the 1930s the Grand Exhibition Building burned down, by which time the town was in terminal decline. Not quite a ghost town, Coolgardie today has around 900 people living there, but its glory days have long faded and its mainstay, like many bush towns, is tourism.

 

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William E. Fretwell (1874 – 1958)W.E. Fretwell Collection Photographs of William Edward Fretwell (1874 – 1958). Burned down 1929.

NOTES:

[i] The cameleers also came from various regions of India and what is now Pakistan; ‘Afghan’ was a colloquial term.

[ii] Quotations from The West Australian 22 March 1899, p. 5; see also Lynne Stevenson, ‘The Coolgardie International Exhibition, 1899’ in: Lenore Layman and Tom Stannage (eds). Celebrations in Western Australia, Studies in Western Australian History, No. 10, April 1989, pp. 100-106.

KITTY GRAVY WORKS THE SYSTEM, 1825

Mrs Gravy

Mrs Gravy

 

In the English city of Chester one day in September 1825 ‘an elderly-looking woman’ was brought before a local magistrate and the town clerk to answer a few questions. She had arrived back in London from Australia two years earlier, where she had ‘promptly been robbed of 170 pounds’.

In those days there were no social security welfare payments and those without other means of support had to apply to the parish for relief.

The interview began with the woman being asked her name:

‘Well my name, your Honour’s, a very ugly name – it’s Kitty Gravy, (dropping a curtsey) I come from the Vale of Clwyd.’

Next, they wanted to know if the woman was married;

‘Married! O yes; I are be married very often; I have had four husbands, and the last he is in Liverpool Infirmary with a broken leg, and his name’s John Joachim Gravy; a very ugly name, isn’t it your Worship?’

What His Worship replied, if anything, was not recorded but Mrs Gravy went on to tell the panel that she had been married at Botany Bay. They thought she meant a place in Chester near the canal, opposite Queen Street.

‘Pooh, no: I mean Botany Bay – the real Botany Bay, 30 000 miles off, your Honour.’

‘And what took you there?’

‘ ‘Pon my word, they transported me for seven years for doing nothing – nothing at all; God knows what for, I can’t tell. I never stole anything in my life.’

Kitty then put her hand into her ‘sinister pocket’ and drew out some papers. They turned out to include what purported to be a certificate from the Governor General of New South Wales dated twenty years earlier. On the back was a description of the ‘fair complexion’ of a much younger Kitty. When the clerk read it out ‘Mrs Kitty, looking very knowing, and with a shrug of her shoulders, exclaimed, “Aye, but it’s withered now”.’

Kitty went on to explain that Mr Gravy, a German, had been a free settler in New South Wales, living at Woolloomooloo. It was there that she had, presumably, met and married him.

All this time, Kitty ‘appeared to be in high glee’. So much so that she was rebuked for her levity by one of the Aldermen. She replied:

‘Thank your Honour, (curtseying), I’m much obliged: I paid 100 pounds for my passage home, and everyone loves poor Kitty. I’m all fair yea and nay, your Honours.’

It was then suggested by one of the interviewers that Kitty was in fact living with a Frenchman in Brighton ‘but she repelled the charge indignantly’ and went on to catalogue the history of her various husbands.

‘My first husband was James Miller, and he was a Scotchman; Thomas Wilson was my next, and he was a Hollander in the Navy; my third husband John Grace, an Irishman, from the County of Wicklow; and my fourth was John Gravy, a German. So you see (said Mrs Kitty with all the naivety of an accomplished punster) that for my last two husbands I had Grease and Gravy!’ Of the four, Kitty reckoned the first had been ‘worth them all.’

When asked when she had first married, Kitty replied:

‘Eh! The Lord knows, it’s a long while ago.’ She told the panel that she had a daughter aged 46 with six children and it was eventually decided that Kitty Gravy must have been seventy-six years of age.

Although she was asking for financial help, her fingers were decked with rings, some silver, and the papers in her ‘sinister pocket’ included a number of receipts for relief she had already received from other parishes. Whether the interviewers decided that Kitty was a deserving case for the Poor Books we do not know. But her practiced arts of flattering and cajoling the system to satisfy her needs, real or contrived, were certainly on display that day in Chester and they would also have served her well in the penal system of New South Wales.[i]

 

NOTES

[i] A broadside from The Australian of 1826, reproduced in Geoffrey Ingleton, True Patriots All, p. 104. A version of this story appeared in my Great Convict Stories.

THE GREATEST MONSTER WHO EVER CURSED THE EARTH

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Thomas Jefferies (Jeffries, Jeffreys), 1826

On 4 May 1826, the ‘gentleman bushranger’ of Van Diemen’s Land, Mathew Brady, awaited his imminent hanging. Brady was ready to die for his crimes but lamented that he was fated to enter oblivion together with a man he once called a ‘de-humanised monster’. Brady had a point. Suffering that day at Hobart Gaol alongside the other condemned was Thomas Jefferies (Jeffries), a ghoulish embodiment of the creatures the transportation system could produce. Even by the standards of Van Diemen’s Land his crimes were considered exceptional enough for the people of Launceston to attempt to lynch him when he was finally brought in from the bush.

Jefferies stood apart from the general rabble of convicts even before he left Britain. While awaiting transportation he accepted the role of flogger and executioner. Arriving in October 1823, Jefferies was soon sent to Macquarie Harbour after threatening a constable. Following that twelve-month sentence, he was unwisely appointed as a watchhouse keeper in Launceston. Here he again took up the task of official scourger and sexually assaulted several women. He took to the bush and began a brief but bloody career. From Christmas Day 1825 he and some accomplices carried out a number of callous murders, including that of a five-month old baby whose brains Jefferies smashed out on a tree trunk because the mother he had kidnapped could not keep up with the fleeing bushrangers. The colonial press told the tale:

It is with feelings of the utmost horror, that we have to make public the following appalling circumstance. On Saturday last, Jeffrey [sic], the notorious villain, who lately broke out of the Launceston watch-house, accompanied with the two miscreants who followed him, after having robbed Mr. Barnard’s hut, proceeded to the residence of a respectable Settler named Tibbs, about 5 miles from Launceston.  They arrived there about noon.  Mr. Tibbs and his wife, a young and respectable woman, to whom he had been married about two years, with their child, and a servant of a neighbouring Settler, named Basham, were in the house.  The ruffians attempted to bind them, but, upon their offering resistance, these diabolical murderers shot them both.  The man fell dead; Mr. Tibbs was dangerously wounded, but he escaped with his life, and contrived to give an alarm.  The whole town of Launceston, with one accord, rushed out after the murderous villains; but the unhappy female and her child were gone.  About 3 o’clock on Sunday, she returned to her forlorn residence. She was in a state of distraction. The dæmons had murdered her infant. We cannot relate the rest.  The agitation this dreadful event has excited is beyond expression.  We hope and trust the execrable monsters may be quickly brought to condign punishment.[i]

Fleeing from these appalling crimes and running short of food, the bushrangers murdered one of their group while the foolish man slept. His body kept them alive for four days until they were able to slaughter a couple of sheep. They were still carrying about five pounds of human flesh when apprehended. Jefferies surrendered without a fight and was happy to inform against his accomplices.

Captured in late January:

‘The monster arrived in Launceston a few minutes before nine o’clock on Sunday Evening. The town was almost emptied of its inhabitants to meet the inhuman wretch. Several attempts were made by the people to take him out of the cart that they might wreak their vengeance upon him, and it became necessary to send to Town for a stronger guard to prevent his immediate dispatch. He entered the Town and gaol amidst the curses of every person whomsoever.’[ii]

Jefferies was called ‘The greatest monster who ever cursed the earth’ and nobody mourned his death.

Notes

[i]Colonial Times, 6 January 1826.

[ii]Hobart Town Gazette, 28 January 1826, given in broadside form in Geoffrey Ingleton, True Patriots All, Charles E Tuttle Co., Rutland, Vermont and Tokyo, 1988, p. 107.

WIVES FOR SALE


Thomas Rowlandson, Selling a Wife, 1812 – 1814 
 

Here’s an update on an intriguing folk custom I wrote about in Great Convict Stories.

 

*
A ‘disgraceful transaction’ took place at Windsor (New South Wales, Australia) in 1811. Ralph Malkin, transported in 1801, put a rope around his wife and led her down the street seeking a buyer. He found one. Thomas Quire stumped up 16 pounds on the spot, plus a few yards of cloth.
While the better classes of society were outraged at such a ‘gross violation of decency’, wife selling was a custom practiced throughout Britain since at least the 16th century. And not only by the common folk. The 2ndDuke of Chandos is said to have purchased his second wife around 1740 and many recorded cases of the custom involve tradesmen and skilled men as the purveyors of their spouses. While the practice was not legal, it was commonly believed to be so and there was often a reluctance by magistrates to prosecute cases, particularly as, it was claimed, the women involved were agreeable to being sold.
By the time Ralph Malkin decided to offer his wife to the highest bidder in Windsor, the custom was increasingly frowned on by public opinion. The writer of the letter in which the event is recorded used words like ‘shameful’ and ‘contemptible to describe the seller and the buyer of Mrs Malkin.
 
 
But all was not as it might seem to contemporary or modern sensibilities. For a wife selling to proceed, the woman had to agree to be sold. Research on this custom indicates that in quite a few cases the women were sold to men who were already their lovers. It seems that wife selling was a form of folk divorce at a time when the average person could not afford such proceedings, or even access the legal means to achieve that state.
Prices paid for wives exchanged by this custom varied from a high of 100 pounds down to three farthings. There are even cases where wives were given away free or for a glass of beer. The price was not as important as the fact that the sale took place in public, usually a market, fair or public house. This ensured the presence of plenty of witnesses to validate the transaction. Popular participation and approval was an important element of the custom and, in some incidents, magistrates seeking to stop a wife sale were driven away by the crowd and on others the crowd refused to allow a sale to proceed if the woman was not agreeable.
An occasional reason for sale was that the wife was simply fed up with the husband, as in the case of a wife sold in Wenlock Market, Shropshire in 1830. When her husband showed signs of cold feet at the last minute she reportedly flipped her apron in his face and said ‘Let be yer rogue. I wull be sold. I wants a change.’
Selling a Wife at Smithfield Market, 1816
 
In the case of the Windsor event, Mrs Malkin (who is never named) was thought to be: ‘… so devoid of the feelings which are so justly deemed the most valuable in her sex, agreed to the base traffic, and went off with the purchaser, significantly hinting that she had no doubt that her new possessor would make her a better husband than the wretch she thus parted from.’ Which was the long-winded nineteenth century way of saying that she not only agreed to be sold but that she thought the new husband was a whole lot better than the old one.
While everyone involved in this transaction was seemingly perfectly happy with it, the local bench of magistrates investigated and determined that a breach of some law had taken place. And in any case, the three ‘base wretches’ involved quite readily admitted to their crime, if it was one. Ralph Malkin received fifty lashes and three months hard labour in irons. His wife – or ex-wife – was transported to the Coal River (Newcastle) for an indefinite period. There seems to be no record of any proceedings against Mrs Malkin’s purchaser.
Wives continued to be sold in Australia. There was a case in the Swan River colony in 1839 and another on the Mount Alexander goldfield in 1861:
‘Last Saturday week a miner residing near Cockatoo discovered that his wife was untrue to him, the gay Lothario being a miner named Sam. The latter party, a cool sort of customer, informed the husband that a row would bring no gain to either party, and that perhaps an arrangement satisfactory to both parties might be effected. The husband offered to sell his wife, tent, cooking utensils for £5.- Sam agreed to the terms, paid the money, and the husband departed.’
But Sam soon tired of his new spouse, a woman of twenty-seven years and reportedly ‘not by any means destitute of personal attractions’. He went in search of another buyer and soon found a miner willing to pay two pounds for the lady.
The belief that wife selling was legal persisted for a long time. Nineteenth century newspapers frequently pointed out that it was a ‘popular error’ but there was a recorded sale in England as late as 1913.
 

 

SOURCES

The Sydney Morning Herald, 6 March 1862, p. 2, surveying wife selling in England from 1766 to the 1830s.

Geoffrey C Ingleton, True Patriots All, Angus & Robertson, Sydney 1952, p. 58; Bruce Kercher, Debt, Seduction and Other Disasters: The Birth of Civil Law in Convict New South Wales, Federation Press, 1996 pp. 66-7; ‘Wife Selling’, Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud, A Dictionary if English Folklore, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2000, p. 390. There is a treatment of wife selling in Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge(1886) and an excellent article by Lauren Padgett, ‘Brutal exhibitions of depravity’: 19th Century Wife-selling in Literature, Illustrations and Practice’ at http://www.leedstrinity.ac.uk/blogs/leeds-centre-for-victorian-studies/19th-century-wife-selling-in-literature-illustrations-and-practice, accessed August 2018.

The Perth and Independent Gazette and Independent Journal of Politics and News, 24 January 1862, p. 3 (in article on state of the colony in 1939).Mount Alexander Mail, 7 June, 1861, P. 5 (reprinted from the North West Chronicle).

Dance’s Historical  Miscellany at http://www.danceshistoricalmiscellany.com/id-sell-my-wife-if-anybody-would-buy-her-wife-sales-in-england/, accessed August 2018.