[Clare Williamson of the State Library of Victoria stands at a lectern branded State Library of Victoria: Dome Centenary 2013. Seated on leather chairs to the right of the lectern are the presenters Robyn Annear, Kristin Otto, Robin Grow, Dr Tony Moore and Dr Michael McKernan. In front of the chairs are two small, round tables holding water glasses and jugs.]
Clare Williamson: It gives me great pleasure to welcome Robyn Annear who will be leading tonight’s discussion. Robyn is no stranger to the State Library and until recently she was on the Library board of Victoria. Robyn is the author of several books about the history of Melbourne and Victoria, including Bearbrass: imagining early Melbourne and A city lost and found: Whelan the Wrecker’s Melbourne which grew out of research undertaken here as a State Library Creative Fellow in 2003–4.
In 2006 Robyn was invited by the Library to be a guest curator. Her exhibition titled Naked democracy: governing Victoria 1856–2006 marked the anniversary of responsible government in Victoria and provided a window into how our democracy evolved. Now exhaustingly employed at Castlemaine library, Robyn finds time only to write occasional contributions to the Monthly magazine and to recall, as if a dream, her comparatively idle days as a fellow under the dome.
We have an outstanding panel tonight, so please join me in welcoming Robyn to lead the discussion.
Robyn Annear: Thank you Clare for that introduction, and for keeping such a straight face while you read my mischievous words, I thank you.
I was fascinated to hear Clare say then 1913 was such an interesting time in Melbourne’s and Victoria’s history because until I was called on to play a part in this panel, I would not have thought so. So this has been a revelation to me. If you’d said 1914 or if you’d said all sorts of other years, I’d have thought yeah, but 1913 is just a year, a number. But not any more and I hope you’ll be surprised too by what you hear tonight from our glamorous panel of speakers, because they will blow your minds with what was happening in that year.
Just to give you a few of my own highlights of things that took my fancy that happened that year: the Lost Dog’s Home was opened in North Melbourne. Hector Crawford was born so there you go, the birth of television was taking place even though nobody then could have seen that coming – Homicide, Division four, Matlock police, all those great TV series of my youth. My great mates Whelan the Wrecker were in the process of dismantling the St James old cathedral down at the corner of Collins and King streets and shifting it stone by stone to its new and current location at Batman Street, West Melbourne, where you’ll still see it. Its somewhat truncated bell tower will appear over Flagstaff Hill as you walk through the gardens there and very attractive it is, courtesy of Whelan the Wrecker.
I discovered that in 1913 the British Antarctic expedition found that the measurement of gravity in Melbourne was different, although I haven’t been able to ascertain in what way different, from it in Potsdam in Germany. So if anybody’s able to either speculate or possibly even tell us by the end of this talk, whether there would have been more gravity here in Melbourne or less; perhaps we’ll all have an idea of that by then.
[Looks towards Dr Michael McKernan, sitting on the leather couch.]
Robyn: You think more, Michael! Because Michael’s putting his number on more, thank you Michael.
Something like one in ten Melburnians went to the pictures every Saturday night, there was no talking then – I think there was, people threw their voices from the wings I think – but there was no actual talking on the films, from the audience too I suspect.
But here is my best story from 1913.
[Holds out a lengthy hat pin in the direction of the audience]
Robyn: This is a hat pin and it’s about a foot long I reckon in the old money, and they came even longer than that. And as a result of hat pins like that worn through the very large crowns of the hats that were in fashion then, to accommodate the very large hairstyles of the ladies in 1913 and thereabouts, a series of by-laws was passed in Melbourne and its suburbs and in cities throughout Australia and throughout the entire world at that time, including Potsdam I dare say, even though gravity was different, to outlaw the wearing of pins like this without a protector on the end. And a cork like this one was one suggested protector but there were commercial varieties available, and if asked by a policeman you had to produce a packet of protectors to show them not only were you currently protected but you were ready for whatever was going to come next.
The first woman who, in Melbourne, who was prosecuted under that Melbourne by-law, which I might tell you wasn’t rescinded until 1994, her name was May Hussey appropriately enough and she was a nurse, a trainee nurse at St Vincent’s Hospital and she was apprehended in Victoria Parade wearing an unprotected hat pin. And it was no joke, even though, I mean, it is a joke, but it was no joke at the time because picture yourself at the footy where things like this were actually used to stick umpires if you weren’t happy with their decisions – but apart from that, being in the crowd, being at the turnstiles or on a crowded train or tram or the turnstiles at one of the busy metropolitan stations or being the innocent babe in arms of a woman with a hat pin like this, or possibly a visiting relative with it. The newspapers bristled every day with tragic stories of babies with their eyes poked out by their mother’s hat pins, of men who had their noses inadvertently pierced at the turnstiles at Flinders Street station and such things and there was much outrage; so May Hussey got what she deserved. There were women fainted in court rooms around Australia the first time they were hauled up before the courts and charged with a misdemeanour or whatever it was for having unprotected hat pins and you know the husbands had to cough up the fine money. But anyway it was an entertaining time for me at least to read about, if not to be on the receiving end of this. And this was such a hat pin.
So you know, all good stuff, but that is just a taste of what is to come. Now one thing I haven’t mentioned, the Violet Crumble was first made in 1913 by Hoadley’s, I suppose they were a Melbourne firm. I think they were one of those confectioners that used to cluster down on the banks of the Yarra there, near where the Arts Centre is now, down where the old Allen’s sign used to be.
[Holds up a Violet Crumble chocolate bar in its wrapping]
Robyn: This is our talking stick tonight, this Violet Crumble. I’m not sure who, we’ll break it into four at the end, five sorry, five at the end.
I am going to throw now to our first panellist for the night, Dr Michael McKernan, and he is going to be the first holder of the talking stick. Dr Michael McKernan is a historian and writer. He has formerly been deputy director of the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, he now works as a consultant historian but he’s written and edited many books, many of them on military history, including this one, I think this is possibly one of your latest, Gallipoli: a short history, held here in the Library and readily available. He is currently working on a book about Victoria during the Great War to be published in association with the State Library in August next year. Please welcome Dr Michael McKernan. Thank you.
Dr Michael McKernan: Thank you Robyn for that nice introduction and I was taken with the coincidence of the name of Ms Hussey. I was looking yesterday at Victorian school children in the Great War as part of the research I’m doing in the book that I’m writing, and one of the activities they were encouraged to perform was to collect leeches for the Melbourne General Hospital for sick and injured soldiers whose blood needed to be thinned or something. Thousands and thousands of leeches were captured, but they were to send them to the Melbourne General Hospital care of Dr Leach [laughing] but spelled L-E-A-C-H. It’s remarkable isn’t it, I mean you’d think, you’d think you’d change your name!
Michael: I hope some of you at least looked at the pictures on the screen outside as you were coming in. There were two pictures from Henley-on-Yarra, photographs that were taken in 1913. If you didn’t look at them maybe on your way out you could have a look at them.
Henley-on-Yarra was an extraordinary event. It was unashamedly taken from Henley-on-Thames and it only started in Melbourne in 1904. But in 1913, and I can’t get an accurate reading because there are different suggestions, but there were no less than 200,000 people at Henley-on-Yarra, a one-day rowing regatta, and possibly as many as 300,000 people. It took place in October, so it’s before the spring carnivals and before the Melbourne Cup, it was at least as popular as the Melbourne Cup and the thing about, well both the Melbourne Cup then and possibly even today, and Henley-on-Yarra is, that it was a real opportunity for the favourite pastime of Melburnians. And when you think of Melbourne in the 19th century and early in the 20th century, Robyn has said that people went to the picture theatres on Saturday night and they did, but one of the things that they absolutely loved doing was promenading. And they would walk the block, they would walk Collins Street, they would walk Bourke Street, in their finery to see and to be seen. And 200,000 people or more walking on the banks of the Yarra River, looking at some rowing races, looking at all the various decorated crafts and boats and so on, and in their finery – all of them with a hat pin like Robyn’s.
Michael: No sorry, all the women with a hat pin like Robyn’s, because they were wearing very elegant and very big hats. The ladies were wearing flowing dresses right down to the ground, most of the men were hatted as you would expect, and if you look at the photographs you’ll see that there is about equal number of men wearing boaters as well as bowlers. The men were in suits and they’d have a boater on their head or a bowler hat on their head. So it was elegant, it was wealthy; it was extremely sociable and enormous fun.
I will be putting, in the book that the State Library has commissioned for Victoria in the Great War, I’ll be putting those two photographs right at the front of the book, right in the early stages on the book. Because we know that we can’t look at those pictures now without knowing what is to come. And here I believe are photographs that speak of the height of Edwardian Melbourne, a city that is confident, that is wealthy, that is completely at peace and pleasure with itself. And within a year they will be debating whether Henley-on-Yarra 1914 should go ahead. And the debate is fierce and there are passionate views on both sides and eventually it is agreed that yes, it will go ahead but the proviso being that all the money raised will go to the patriotic funds. And then Henley-on-Yarra ceases and is not revived again until 1919.
We are looking I think at Melbourne in 1913 at the peak or at a peak. Melbourne was the city that gold built; we all know that Melbourne was a marvellous, marvellous city. It lost some of its glitter and glamour in the1890s; it regained it because, with due regard to Kristin Otto, it was the federal capital of Australia and that lifted Melbourne’s spirits. It was the biggest city in Australia until 1902, but it was wealthy and happy and confident by 1913. And those two pictures of Henley-on-Yarra show that.
One thousand, two hundred and thirty oarsmen from the Yarra enlisted in the first AIF; 230 of them were killed. But have a look at the people on the riverbank, the 200–300,000, half of them probably men. Many, many of those men would have enlisted. Many of them would have come back, if they did come back, would have come back damaged in some way.
I discovered today – research history is a wonderful thing – I discovered today that the Automobile Club of Victoria gained the title ‘Royal’ in 1916. What we have always known as ‘the RACV’ met with cars 282 troopships bringing home wounded soldiers and nurses, and 93,000 of them were transported in ACV members’ cars to the Caulfield Military Hospital and to other places. That was the reality of 1915, 1916, ‘17 and ‘18, that was the misery, the grief and the fearfulness that Melbourne had fallen into. And so when we look at Henley-on-Yarra we see the peak of Melbourne at its best and we look at those pictures and can see what is to come to this society. So while everybody else will be celebrating 1913, for me it’s just the end of something really grand and the beginning of something really awful. Thank you.
Robyn: Thank you, Michael. Interesting to hear from someone who’s a military historian, who’s gone as deeply into war things as you have, that you still say ‘the beginning of something really awful’. Somehow you imagine that somebody who’s dealing in that stuff every day comes to think of it as an everyday state of affairs, and no, never, yes. I, thinking about what you were going to be talking about tonight, I revisited a poem by Philip Larkin titled, well it’s 1914, but it’s really MCMXIV and the final verse of it is: ‘Never has such innocence, never before or since has changed itself to past without a word. The men leaving the gardens tidy, the thousands of marriages lasting a little while longer, never such innocence again.’ And I thought of that looking at the photo out the front there. Thank you, Michael.
Next, Dr Tony Moore. Tony’s a writer and historian, the director of the National Centre for Australian Studies at Monash University. His career though has spanned political activism, journalism, book publishing and documentary making at the ABC. Couple of years ago, Tony was here at the State Library as an honorary Creative Fellow, where he completed this book, Dancing with empty pockets: a history of Australian bohemia and also a documentary treatment on the life of Marcus Clarke which I guess is a pleasure we have yet to come, the fruits of that. I’m going to throw to you now and here is the talking stick, thank you Tony.
Dr Tony Moore: Robyn can you whack me with this about one minute off ten, we’ve got ten minutes. Thank you for having me at this fantastic occasion, 100 years of the dome and it was terrific to create a book on Australian bohemia in this library where Marcus Clarke had been a librarian, sub-librarian, in fact the assistant librarian and not a very good librarian. He was in fact a founding bohemian in Australia and founded the first bohemian club, the Yorick Club and drank and ate his way and scandalised his way around Melbourne before dying at 35 from a lot of things, but probably the drink, opium and marijuana did not help.
Now Marcus Clarke kind of created a template which inspired subsequent generations and my book looked at a bohemian tradition in Australia from then till today, so spanning, you know, 150 years really. And his heyday was the year of lairy hair and sideburns, the 1870s. But we’re here to talk about 1913 and you’ll be pleased to know his legacy was alive and well. In fact it really reached full bloom in the chaos and clashes on the 1890s and we had a bohemia of writers, based on people on the Bulletin and people like Henry Lawson, and also a bohemia of painters, of artists, which had its focus really in Melbourne. Think of Tom Roberts, Conder who came to Melbourne, Streeton, the Heidelberg School.
But it didn’t stop with the 1890s and in the 1900s leading up to 1913, we can look to that big family from Creswick, I hope I said that correctly because I’m actually from Sydney ...
Tony: Cres-wick, I have to say but – I’ve moved to Melbourne – the Lindsays. The Lindsays hit Melbourne like a meteorite and we had Norman, Lionel and Ruby in particular and older brother Percy – totally involved in a bohemian life of cafés, clubs that they formed, illustrating everything from Sunday school literature to risqué journals to satirical magazines. I had hoped to show some slides and I’ll get them put up on the website if that’s possible with copyright but, I think so because the Library own the best image I’ve found of this which is of the Ishmael Club which the Lindsays were part of, it was men only so not Ruby, in the late 19th century, early 1900s. It was kind of dedicated to wine, women and song, to a very Rabelaisian idea of sensual pleasure, of a kind of celebration of all that was frowned upon at the time by what is in other ways a very progressive middle class, liberal consensus in Melbourne and Victoria. And as we know the federation based here in Melbourne as the capital was bringing in largely really great social legislation and improvements that were sort of egalitarian in a lot of ways, but the White Australia immigration restriction was the great blemish on that.
But in terms of sexual morality there was still a long way to go according to the Lindsays and they, in art and in their club, were here to kind of stir things up a bit. Their club, well Norman carved a Maori chieftain wearing a top hat that these various journalists and writers and artists would chant around, they had a toast: ‘Let us be iconoclasts, idol breakers, remembering only the present in life, for it remains for us to love wine, woman and art and live for the moment.’ So it was a shift from the bohemia of Clarke’s days to a more overt sensuality and sexual permissiveness. And Stephen Mead who’s in the audience has found many of their illustrations which are probably hidden in the Library collection here and they’re quite out there for today let me say, some of these.
So that was within the privacy of their own club at that time, but as you know Norman didn’t leave it there and he, in 1913 he brought out a book called A curate in bohemia which basically looked at those days from the late 19th century right through to then of his, Lionel’s bohemian life in Melbourne. It is a fantastic read about these scallywags cadging money off people, getting incredibly drunk, picking up models and girls of ill repute, up to all sorts of shenanigans – but also the beginning, he’s starting to work out Norman, his elitist Nietzschean theories of art and there’s kind of a little bit of a sense of that in there as well. That book comes out and it becomes a template into the 20th century of how to be a bohemian. Also a number of his artworks, such as Crucified Venus, come out in that period leading up to 1913. Some of his exhibitions are raided by police. He moves to Sydney to become the Bulletin cartoonist; he comes to Melbourne, it’s a circulation of creative workers in this time.
Now I begin with Lindsay because he’s the best known, but there are many others. There’s a fellow called Randolph Bedford known for, self-styled as ‘Randolph the Reckless’, who was a miner, a journalist, a raconteur, a bohemian gadfly who was a founding member of many bohemian clubs. He was built like the proverbial brick dunny, he wore a kind of large cavalier-style hat, he was known to brawl in the streets of East Melbourne where he had a mansion built on one of his many fortunes that rose and fell from mining, but what I like is he’s a cultured man and a miner, he combines the two. And he becomes a Labor politician, in Queensland of all places, a legislative councillor. On his first day there he says ‘which way to the bribery department?’
Tony: He’s that sort of guy and it was that sort of state, unlike the good state of Victoria. It’s interesting he went up there.
Another fellow was Hugh McCrae, now Hugh McRae was the son of George McCrae who’d been a founding member of the Yorick Club with Marcus Clarke, and Hugh lives a long life and sort of takes bohemia way into the 20th century. But he in 1907 and then 1911–1909 and then republished in 1911, has a wonderful book of poetry called Satyrs and sunlight, illustrated by Norman, which is a kind of alternative to that bush ballad realism, the Henry Lawson school, it imagines Australia and Melbourne as an Arcadian pleasure dome, if I can use the word dome – as a kind of Greco-Roman Dionysian revelry. People who study English literature praise the influence of Hugh McCrae, particularly on people like Kenneth Slessor, AD Hope, Douglas Stewart; and Norman later invites him very much into his circle. Hugh McCrae is not so well remembered now but he was an incredible man of letters, he wrote an amazing memoir of Melbourne in the 1860s and ’70s – My father and my father’s friends and he grew up in this wonderful literary salon and he was dead good-looking. And he actually, in 1916, starred in a silent film made in Melbourne on the life of Adam Lindsay Gordon who was also a friend of his father’s and a member of the Yorick Club. So I kind of, in my work, look at the tradition and how things are handed on.
So we have this group in Melbourne, but we also have the Savage Club – hands up if there are any Savage Club members here? One.
Tony: Now that’s more, again people like Tom Roberts are members of that, Theodore Fink who’s a journalist and been a land speculator, but also a patron of many artists. Later Keith Murdoch who is also a protégé of Theodore Fink, but it’s the more bourgeois end of bohemia. But also it invites into, it gives virtual free entry to writers and artists so you have people like Tom Roberts as a member, but you also have Will Dyson is a member for a time and Louis Esson, people that are quite radical socialists, people that are on the left-wing side of politics. And this was an important theme to understand and I hope we get to talk about this in our conversation but from the 1880s Melbourne has this escalating left-wing radical politics, it has labour politics which is growing in that period 1890s and particularly in the early 1900s, but it has radical groups – socialist groups, anarchist groups, anarchist bookshops and it overlaps with the bohemian world and there are characters like Bedford, who’s a Labor person, EJ Brady who is both a bohemian and great friend of Henry Lawson, but also again a left-wing agitator, what I call a cultural activist and it’s important, I guess Melbourne is very lucky in having this great civic culture, think of Deakin, think of the legislation that happens in those first federal parliaments.
But also, counter to this kind of progressive mainstream, progressive except for the racism, White Australia is an ugly look. It’s an egalitarianism of white people, and it excludes and takes away rights that were there in the 19th century. But because you’ve got this basically kind of civilised city, it develops a counter-culture of people who want even more – feminists, radical socialists, there is an equivalent of an Occupy movement in 1907, the Victorian Socialist Party and other groups basically occupy parliament, occupy churches in behalf of the unemployed, leading unemployed marches in there; and occupy the stock exchange and enter into dialogue with the businesses, so if sometimes today we feel that talkback hosts and various loud-mouth commentators drag the conversation to the right, or if we’re always hearing, and I don’t know how Melburnians put up with this, but about Western Sydney determining all the elections – in these days, there was a kind of pull the other way and you had this progressive consensus and then on the other side these radicals, both men and women, and they’d overlap with these bohemians in the spaces of DIY publishing, publishing houses, radical magazines, Labor newspapers, a whole ecology if you like in Melbourne of bookstores like Will Andrade’s anarchist shop and EW Coles that we’ll hear about shortly. But I might end it there, thank you.