Peter Lane, Laina Hall and Susannah Helman, National Museum of Australia, 13 June 2009
MICHELLE HETHERINGTON: Good afternoon, everybody. My name is Michelle Hetherington and I have recently rejoined the Australian Journeys team. I would like to welcome you all to the National Museum of Australia this afternoon. The series of three talks today are by people who are closely involved with the Australian Journeys gallery and who will be telling the stories of sadness and loss associated with three of the particular modules.
Australian Journeys is the first of the Museum’s five permanent galleries to be redeveloped, and the plan is that that redevelopment will be going on over the next few years until the Museum is completely re-formed.
Australian Journeys tells the story of the movement of people to and across and from Australia to other places around the world. It is what is called transnational history. It is a fantastic way of looking at the individual stories of the people who have contributed to the development of Australia and who have been part of our history, and we tell that story through the objects that relate particularly to these people.
The first of our speakers is Mr Peter Lane. Peter has been collecting love tokens since the early 1980s and has been a collector of coins, metals and tokens all his life. He is currently working as a numismatic consultant and has been the past president and current secretary of the Numismatic Association of Australia. He is a fellow of the Numismatic Society of South Australia where he lives and is a life member of the Australian Numismatic Society and Australiana Society. He collects all sorts of materials - including coins, of course - relating to Australia and specialises in exploration, cartography, love tokens, religion, fauna and flora, science and military. He’s a very generous lender of his collection to institutions around Australia. The beautiful collection of love tokens up in Australian Journeys comes largely from Peter’s collection. I would like you all to welcome Peter.
Convict love tokens
PETER LANE: Thank you, Michelle. I take it that you’re from all walks of life, and I thought I should just explain exactly what convict love tokens are before I delve into the personal lives of some of the token issuers. There are some six which I’m talking about. There are 53 love tokens on exhibition upstairs.
Love tokens are keepsakes that are given on special occasions like birth, marriage, death and departure or, colloquially speaking, hatch, match and dispatch. Their heyday was between 1750 and 1850, but obviously they were before that date and after that date. The most recent spurge was during the First World War when the Australian troops went overseas. They were in the tool shops and had letter punches and punched out their serial number and their name and ‘To Mother’ or something like that.
The convict love tokens were made in British prison workshops. Villains filed down copper pennies and engraved messages on them and gave them to loved ones shortly after they were sentenced. The main coin which they used was the 1797 cartwheel penny made by Matthew Boulton in Soho manufactory], which is in Birmingham. Probably 80 per cent to 90 per cent of the tokens were made from that particular coin. It’s an unusual coin in as much as it wasn’t struck by the royal mint; it was outsourced. So they did that 200-odd years ago - outsourcing for governments. The convicts got hold of them, filed them down and wrote their messages on them.
They were always naïve in style. There are two basic methods: one by stippling, which is a series of pinpricks, and the other by hand-carved engraving. The prison officers, in one instance, referred to them as ‘leaden hearts’ - for obvious reasons. I’ll be talking about six of the tokens. Here’s the first one, which is on display [image shown]. Some of them are harder to read than the others. You may notice a little bit of white fleck through them, which suggests that at one stage the wording was coated with paint or some sort of material to bring them out.
This token of Thomas Alsop was actually the first love token that I’d ever acquired, and I researched and then published it. As a consequence, another collector learned of my interest in these love tokens and told me that he had one that Thomas Alsop gave to his mother. I was anxious to reunite these pieces in my own collection, but it was not to be. My friend’s collection, the Millett collection, was acquired recently by the National Museum of Australia here. So happily they may still be reunited some day, although very sadly not in my own collection.
Thomas Alsop was a member of a gang of three, and all were charged in 1833 for stealing a sheep. The following day after the theft, he was caught while wearing blood-stained trousers and in his pocket was a cord stained with blood. In addition, mutton that had been secreted away in his home was found, and the meat was identified as coming from the carcass left in a field. Perhaps DNA? I don’t know how they did it in those days.
The arresting constable also found mutton at another gang member’s home. Alsop was tried along with the other two in a Staffordshire court and was found guilty. The two others were acquitted, and he was sentenced to transportation for life.
At the time of the trial Thomas Alsop was 21 and was recorded as being an illiterate brick labourer. So as he could not read or write, he would have had to employ another prisoner to make his token. So we learned that they didn’t necessarily make their own, but they got another prisoner to make them for them. How they paid them I don’t know, but that certainly is the case.
Six months after the trial he was bound for Hobart in the Moffatt and arrived there after a journey of exactly 100 days. Of the 400 convicts on board, six died during the voyage. Immediately upon his arrival, Alsop was assigned to a chain gang. He was no model prisoner and was dealt with harshly, as was the custom in those times.
Alsop’s convict record reveals that he absconded, disobeyed orders, stole cattle, impersonated a constable, being in town without permission and not raising the alarm when convicts escaped. His sentences for these offences included 72 lashes, time on a treadmill, being placed in irons and assigned to a road gang. He had one last offence: he was caught in bed with a woman. He was given hard labour for that.
Despite his record and being given a life sentence, he was given a conditional pardon after serving 15 years of his sentence and two years later was granted a full pardon. Some four years later after being totally free, he married an Irish woman some 15 years his junior and they had two children. He worked as a fish hawker in Hobart and died there in 1891 at the age of 79. So with all those horrible episodes that he had in his earlier life, he still lived to quite a long age.
The next one we go to is one of my favorites. I’d like to talk a little about the actual piece and a little bit about the history of this one here. This token has the oldest provenance of all known convict pieces. I’ve been able to trace it back to 1918, so it’s over 90 years. It had belonged to Mrs Ella Pierrepont-Barnard who listed her collection in the British Numismatic Journal at the close of World War I. Also, I should note that that was the same year that women were given the vote. It was the only occasion that love tokens of any description have been recorded in that prestigious paper. They have generally been recorded as inferior objects.
Coin collectors like pristine condition. Here we have a coin that has been filed smooth, graffitied and done by a prisoner. How horrible! So you can imagine there was no interest. But when one reflects back on her, we can see that Mrs Ella Pierrepont-Barnard was really 100 years ahead of her time and we are only just starting to recognise the significance of all sorts of love tokens.
When she died in 1930, her collection was broken up and sold by auction. In the early 1950s, the British Museum acquired half of her collection from a dealer who had acquired the bulk of her love tokens for a pittance as there was virtually no interest in them at the time, and I believe he was glad to relieve himself of them after a period of 20-odd years.
Whilst Thomas Brownhill’s token is undated, we have been able to confirm that it was made in 1831, as the token records his age and the initials and ages of his family enough to confirm the details of the convict. All these facts correspond with Thomas Brownhill from the 1831 voyage of the Isabella.
‘TB’ and ‘SB’ up at the top of the token and age 52 and 51 respectively are his parents, Thomas and Sarah. The other initials and ages on the token refer to his siblings. Brownhill probably made his own token as he was literate. He was a fancy plater, very useful skills for engraving tokens. The other information gleaned from convict records tell us that he was born in Birmingham, a Protestant and was 20 at the time of his trial.
He had a tattoo of a man and a woman and the initials ‘TB’, his own initials, on his right arm. His offence: he was caught housebreaking and was tried and convicted at Warwick in 1831 and sentenced to transportation for life. His first eight months were spent on a prison hulk before being shipped out to Sydney in the Isabella. Its cargo was 224 male convicts and, while all survived, it was recorded that the temperatures in the convict hold reached 92 degrees on many, many occasions. One can only imagine the tension this would have called for all on board. Some of the crew refused to take orders, and upon arrival in Sydney 14 of the crew were charged and tried in Sydney for disobeying orders or refusing to take orders.
Brownhill, along with another Isabella convict, was assigned to WT Morris of Batemans Bay where a lot of Canberrans have their holiday houses now. In 1837, a New South Wales muster reveals that Morris had eight convicts working for him and they all brought with them their farming skills, except Thomas Brownhill whose original occupation was that of a factory worker. In late 1840, he died while still assigned to Morris.
George Abbott and George Kirby
Here we have a unique group of three love tokens [image shown]: one to a George Abbott, another to a George Kirby and a second one to George Kirby. This is a rather unique group. These two convicts were involved in a gang of four. They stole 30 bushels of globe onions and were tried and convicted in 1830 at the Old Bailey in London. All four were found guilty and sentenced to seven years transportation.
The other two members were a Henry Abbott, probably an older brother to George, and a William Pendrer. They were sent to Tasmania and spent much of their time there in chain gangs. Apparently, New South Wales was a better place to go to if you had the choice, but they never had choices.
George Abbott’s records tell us that he was 19 at the time of his trial, an illiterate gardener/labourer of no religious background, and he had a tattoo of man and a woman on his right arm. Abbott was transported four months after his trial and he sailed from the Downs on the Lord Melville which carried 176 convicts. The ship arrived in Sydney in October 1830 without the loss of a single convict.
George Abbott was fortunate in being assigned to a William John Dumaresq, a relatively kind master who had just married the daughter of Alexander McLeay, the Colonial Secretary. Abbott was sent to Dumaresq’s 13,000-acre property at Scone called St Aubins and he served out his time there. His life after completing his sentence has yet to be discovered.
We now go on to Kirby’s life. George Kirby’s convict records reveal that he had two previous convictions and was 21 years of age when tried. He was literate, a gardener, and a Protestant. He sailed from Portsmouth in April 1830, just two months after his trial, with 166 other male convicts on the Adrian. He was assigned to Richard Rouse at his Windsor property. That property now belongs to the Historic Houses Trust and is known as Rouse Hill House and Farm. When he completed his sentence he was permitted to remain in Windsor.
We will now move on to Edward Holmes. In 1818, Holmes was a 22-year-old labourer when he was given a life sentence in Surrey. The details of his crime appear to have been lost. Some three months after his trial he boarded the General Stuart bound for Sydney via St Helena where Napoleon Bonaparte was held captive at that time. Upon arrival of the General Stuart in Sydney, Holmes, along with all the other convicts, was sent to Windsor to either join working parties or to be assigned.
I’ll just explain what ‘assigned’ means for some of those who may not be aware of it. The local free settlers had the opportunity to use convict labour at no cost provided they housed and fed them – in other words, extremely cheap labour - and they didn’t have to pay anything. If they bought a slave, they would have had to pay, but this way they got them for so many years at no cost.
Holmes’ convict record shows us that he was an habitual criminal or a man continually victimised by the authorities - I think the former. He was employed by the government at Port Macquarie either building roads or building buildings. By 1828 he committed another crime and was given a secondary sentence of seven years and was shipped out to Morton Bay. His offense was not recorded. Both Port Macquarie and Morton Bay settlements were regarded as ‘Botany Bay’s Botany Bay’.
When Holmes completed his secondary time, he was assigned to the widow Eliza Broughton of Appin, which is near Sydney. Within a few years he was granted a ticket of leave at Yass, and eventually he was given a conditional pardon. He died in Sydney at the age of 51, and his death certificate recorded him as being a bullock driver.
The last token is that William Mollet. I think that is the most powerful image of all the pieces [image shown] and it was stippled. Mollet was just 13 years of age when he was tried and convicted at Norfolk and his sentence was seven years transportation. His crime was stealing tea, a valuable commodity in those times. Exactly how much was not recorded, but it would have been a small amount as it was the minimum sentence that the courts could hand out for stealing.
Two love token examples for this convict are known. This specimen that is on display in the Australian Journeys gallery upstairs and the other is in the Millett Collection, which is the Museum’s collection, and both are made by the same hand. It appears that Mollet spent his first 30 months, or two and a half years, on a prison hulk probably on the Thames awaiting transportation.
He was then shipped out to Tasmania on the Pestongee Bomangee. The sloop sailed from Woolwich and in December 1845 arrived in Hobart. The ship’s cargo was 300 male convicts of whom two died during the voyage.
Mollet was described as being a tailor, Protestant, literate, 4 foot 7.5 inches tall - bear in mind when that height was recorded he was 13 years of age. He was in good physical health but his convict record was bad. He had a total of 23 tattooed dots on his left hand and fingers. The significance of these is not quite clear, but we think it may relate to some form of gang membership. That is still under discussion.
Shortly after arriving in Hobart he was sent to Point Puer, a juvenile penal station on the Tasman Peninsula just a short distance from Port Arthur. Port Puer opened in 1834 and closed 15 years later in 1849. At the time of his arrival there were about 730 inmates, and at the close of the institution 160 boys were still living there.
Mollet remained there until it closed and only became free the year after. The concept of a juvenile settlement was to train young offenders in a trade so that when they completed their time they were able to take up employment in the colony. Some of the trade skills included blacksmithing, cooking, sawing, boatbuilding and gardening. Initially everyone went into the labouring gang, which meant cultivating ground, making roads, cutting and carrying firewood, washing, cooking and general barrack duties.
A little bit about Mollet’s time there. Mollet would have slept in a hammock in a room with seven other boys. At 5 a.m. he would get out of bed and wash himself and attend a religious service before breakfast. He would work a seven-and-a-half hour day, five and a half days a week. After supper some basic education was given that concluded with a prayer. Sunday morning was devoted to prayers and he was given a clean shirt. Those that committed offences, of which many were of a petty nature, were punished by being placed in isolation cells for three to seven days. I just can’t imagine that.
Today Point Puer is a major tourist destination with emerald green lawns and beautiful stone and brick remnants of buildings. It appears to be an idyllic location for wayward boys to learn to become useful citizens. In reality, it was a lonely, horrid and loveless place for those who spent their formative years there.
In summary, these six convict lives that I have touched upon are representative lives of the convicts shipped out to the Australian colonies. None returned to their homeland or ever saw their loved ones again. Individually they made little impact in our colonies. Their names do not appear in Australian historical books. They are all but forgotten, except for their ‘leaden hearts’ frequently inscribed with the words ‘when this you see remember me’. Thank you.
MICHELLE HETHERINGTON: You and I are going to sit down and we’ll be able to take questions in just a minute, but there is a question I want to ask first. That was very interesting. Most of those love tokens would have been left behind in England by the convicts. So where did you buy your convict love tokens?
PETER LANE: Mainly in England and mainly in London. I bought a few in Sydney and Melbourne from various auction houses. I would have had a lot more in my collection, which is some 47 of the 53 on display, but running parallel to me collecting was Tim Millett, who unfortunately – whilst he is a good friend of mine - was a member of the Baldwin family who had had an old established coin business for 100 years and -
MICHELLE HETHERINGTON: The coins came to him.
PETER LANE: Everything sort of filtered through and I just got the remnants. But I’m very pleased with the remnants I have got. The price has varied dramatically. Fifteen years ago I was buying them in scrap trays that you could buy for a few dollars. A company called Noble Numismatics had four in one lot for $100. The Museum and the other people have paid considerably more since. I don’t see these as an investment; I just enjoy the hobby and the research of these pieces.
MICHELLE HETHERINGTON: Yes, the research is fascinating, because the lives of convicts were incredibly well documented. You are talking about tattoos and their height, whether they were literate, their education and their state of health. But their internal life, how they felt about things, is virtually not in the record at all. So for me that’s what I particularly love about these coins. Although the phrase is very stereotypical, they are an expression of longing, I think, and of a great sense of loss.
QUESTION: This is not so much a question as a comment. When you said 30 bushels of onions transported to Hobart my ears pricked up. I’m a family historian. Sitting beside me is the great-great-great-grandson of William Pendred, and I’ll bet we never thought that this would come out at this particular moment.
MICHELLE HETHERINGTON: We’ll be wanting to have a word with you.
PETER LANE: I will say that that the George Abbott example, which was one which was recorded in the Love token book, which is not available at the moment but you can place an order for it at the bookshop. I have just found out that they are $30 each. They’ve got eight left, but they are in storage at the moment in the transition. In the book I think it was Harris that was done by the same hand, the same year, the same month. And I was hoping that all three were by the same hand but the Kirbys were distinctly by a different hand and much cruder.
What I like about them is they are so crudely done - you always have to worry about forgeries of these sorts of things - and so poorly executed that I feel safety because if you’re going to have a forged example, you would have all the lovely details and you would have it magnificent looking. You wouldn’t have a pretty ordinary one. But that’s fascinating. I would love to catch up with you afterwards.
QUESTION: I’m interested that you touched on the person who had actually made the coins because that’s what I was going to ask about. I was very interested to see the variety of work that was in them. Some of them were very ornate; some of them were less ornate; and some, as you say, quite crude. What do we know about the people in the prisons who were doing it because they must have been people who were literate enough and have well enough writing, drawing and drafting skills to be able to make these beautiful pieces?
PETER LANE: At that time of the convict transportation there were quite a number of forgers of either documents or coins, and I think that these were the ideal people to make them. In fact, the first person to make Australia’s first distinctive coinage - the ‘holey’ dollar and dump – was a William Henshall who was forging Bank of England dollars. So it was more than likely a forger or a person like Brownhill that was a fancy plater and was literate. So people like that.
But then when you see some of the crude ones, you think semi-illiterate with little skills. I’ve tried to make them myself just as an exercise and I don’t think I would be very good, because I haven’t got the skills. So you do need certain sorts of skills to make them.
MICHELLE HETHERINGTON: And there was an absolute crisis with the currency at that time. In Australia they didn’t have enough coinage but they didn’t have enough coinage in England either, that’s why they were using Boulton’s manufactory in Soho as an outsourcer to produce coin for the realm. So there were promissory notes and all sorts of bizarre coins from around the world. There was a huge demand, obviously enough, but also there was enough variety for things that would not normally pass as coins to be accepted. So yes, it was a major industry.
PETER LANE: One thing which I haven’t touched on is: why a penny? A penny was probably one of the cheapest and largest things that you could actually work. Wealthy people usually gave lockets of hair in a gold frame, beautiful pieces of jewelry, whereas these were very humble of origin and obviously reasonably affordable.
QUESTION: Were there any convict tokens from women that you found? There are two parts to my question - probably a short answer to that one. The second part is: with these coins, I can understand the picked-out design, the stippled design, but how was the writing done on the one - it appears to stand up when you look at the token? How was that done?
PETER LANE: They are incised. They are carved in. I have fiddled with the colour a bit to project the clarity. If you go up to the Australian Journeys gallery and see them with a torch, you will see them exactly to the size. You need to sort of modify them to come out with the quality. All these images I’ve literally scanned on my home computer, rather than photograph them, because I have found that scanning it and then putting them through Photoshop is the best way to do them.
MICHELLE HETHERINGTON: They appear to be raised but in fact they are actually incised, and that pushes a tiny amount of copper up to make a little lip, doesn’t it?
PETER LANE: Yes. And getting back to your first question: no, I’m not aware of any that women made. I think the reason for this is that these were pieces of metal and they would have been made in workshops, whereas women would have had stitching and things like that to consume their time. I just don’t think they had the opportunity because of those things.
MICHELLE HETHERINGTON: There is at least one in the Millett collection. The Millett collection has 307 tokens of which at least one, possibly two, are by women. So yes, they are very, very rare.
PETER LANE: They were probably made by men for women, I would think, but that will come out.
MICHELLE HETHERINGTON: Yes, and occasionally there is a strange occurrence. There is one love token from a man with the initials ‘MS’ and it’s from ‘MS’ to ‘MS’, who is his wife. He was caught for coining and sent this coin to her. He went to Tasmania, and she was arrested shortly thereafter for coining. She too may have been ended up in Tasmania but we don’t know. That’s one of the great things about the tokens, they lead you on to greater research, as Peter has clearly shown. There is so much you can find out.
QUESTION: Have you decided to follow through on this research and find anyone living today who is related to those people on the coins?
MICHELLE HETHERINGTON: That would be a fantastic thing to do. Peter is widely published and the National Museum is quite keen on putting as much information out there as possible about these. And as family historians are renowned for their capacity and skills at finding these things out, we’re hoping that they will come and find us. So if we put the basic information up, we hope that that will help people who are hunting for their families and that they will then contact us.
PETER LANE: I would like to think that perhaps one day, you can always live in hope but it is too hard to track back because it’s such a wide net the one on George Abbott to the politician Abbott, and the George Kirby ones to the legal man Kirby. Wouldn’t it be lovely to have those all in the same gang? But we just don’t know. The chances are admittedly remote but probably just as much chance as William Pendred too. You just don’t know.
MICHELLE HETHERINGTON: In fact, there was a gentleman called Thomas Burbury who came to Tasmania. When the exhibition of Timothy Millett’s collection was on display in Sydney there was quite a bit of media on that, and it turned out that Thomas Burbury’s direct descendant had become the first Australian-born governor of Tasmania. I think in the 1980s?
PETER LANE: Yes, around that time.
MICHELLE HETHERINGTON: And his grandson, the grandson of the governor, had contacted Peter Millett. He had been so excited to find out that this was the family line. So he was one of the convicts who made good. Thank you again, Peter. That was fantastic.
MICHELLE HETHERINGTON: Our next speaker is Dr Laina Hall. Laina has been a curator here at the National Museum of Australia since early 2006. She worked on a number of the exhibits up in the Australian Journeys gallery and is part of the redevelopment for the Nation gallery. This is part of that rolling redevelopment that I referred to at the beginning. Along the way, she has researched the gold rush, World War II, wobble boards, nineteenth-century coach travel, the Melbourne Cup and satellite tracking.
LAINA HALL: Thank you very much for coming this afternoon as well. Sometime in early 1865, Thomas Mussen, a well known and prosperous merchant in Montreal, received a letter from the small goldfields town of Pyramul in New South Wales. Upon opening the letter, Mussen would have read the following words - and this is actually the letter which is in our collection:
The most melancholy task devolves upon me that I have ever had to perform during my lifetime, which is to communicate to you the severe loss yourself and family have sustained in the death of your son Alexander Mussen, who was shot dead by a bushranger in my house.
One can only imagine the shock of losing a son not only to the other side of the world but in such a violent manner. What I want to do today is to give you some insight into the story and life of Alexander Mussen, one of so many who came to Australia to try their luck on the goldfields. It is a story of loss, but in many ways it is also a story of connections and of redemption.
We know about Alexander Mussen’s life and times in New South Wales thanks to a collection of objects purchased by the National Museum of Australia in October 2006. The collection consists of numerous items: a suite of letters between Alexander and his family back in Canada as well as letters sent by his friends after his death; a portrait of Alexander produced in about 1854; three sketches of places relating to his life and death in Pyramul; and a number of newspaper clippings. Some of the items are currently on display in Australian Journeys.
This is a picture of Thomas Mussen’s establishment in Montreal - Alexander’s father [image shown]. As you can see, it’s a very large building. It’s located in quite a prime area of Montreal. Alexander Frazer Mussen was born on 24 February 1834 in Montreal. He was the second son of Thomas Mussen Esq. and Eliza Susan Mussen. They were married in December 1831. His father was a well known and successful merchant, and his older brother Thomas became a reverend in the Church of England in Canada.
At the time, Montreal was developing rapidly in terms of industry, and by the 1860s was the leading cultural and economic city in the Dominion of Canada. It seems from research that the Mussen family was part of the growing upper-middle class in Montreal. Alexander, as a young man of some standing, would have benefitted from the opportunities provided by commerce, prosperity and polite society. Yet there were also temptations along the way, and we know from our collection of letters that he fell into debt and managed to bring the family name into some disrepute. We don’t know exactly what Alexander got up to in Montreal, but it seems that the anonymity of Australia and the potential of striking it lucky on the goldfields must have been appealing to both family and Alexander, because sometime after 1856 Alexander Mussen left Montreal for the New South Wales goldfields.
In a letter dated to his father in February 1856 while he was actually still in Canada, Alexander apologises for his recent and wrongful behaviour. He writes:
For my own part I imagine it is the best day I shall ever witness for by leaving my native city, I shall leave many young friends behind that are of no credit to anybody. It remains in my own power what company I shall now choose. I hope, and I shall use my best endeavours to make friends of those, that shall be a credit both to me and to my family, and if I should ever return to Montreal, I hope by that time to have conducted myself in such a manner that parents and friends/good ones/ shall meet me with smiles and cheerful countenances on my return home. I cannot but acknowledge that I have been decidedly in the wrong, still I hope you will pardon me and forgive and forget.
That’s the end of the letter. I like the fact that he signs off, ‘I remain your son Alexander.’ There’s a certain hopeful element in there, I think.
It seems from this letter that Alexander saw travelling to Australia as an opportunity to reinvent himself and to turn over a new leaf. But what did life on the goldfields of New South Wales offer Mussen? We can learn a little from the letters that he sent back to his family. The letters in our collection date between 1855 and 1867. The first two were actually written in Canada, but the first letter from Australia that we have is dated August 1862, and it’s written by Alexander to his father Thomas.
While the letter from Alexander to his father, written before he left Canada, gives us some understanding of how he came to be in Australia, it is the correspondence between Alex and his younger brother William that really provides some insights and immediate connections between Montreal and the goldfields of Australia. William’s response to Alexander resuming contact is one of great pleasure. Replying to an August 1862 letter, William writes:
I should have undertaken this pleasure long before, had I known your address. Your first letter has been answered by Mamma some time ago and I have undertaken to answer the last, which we received on the tenth of last month. We had almost given up hope altogether of ever hearing from you, as it is now a little over five years since you left us, but now we have heard and are able to correspond I hope it will continue.
So there’s quite a gap between Alexander leaving Canada and resuming correspondence. You can imagine the sort of fearful nature and wonder that his family must have had of what had happened to him.
Pyramul and Montreal were not only a world away geographically but they would not have had very much in common, I would imagine, in terms of Montreal as a bustling cultural, economic city and a small settlement about 52 kilometres south of Mudgee, which at that stage was quite isolated, even in terms of goldfields.
The news that Alexander and William write about helps to paint a picture of the world that each inhabits. William writes news of family and friends, the construction of the Victoria Bridge in Montreal, sweltering summers, maritime and train disasters, the Civil War, the prince’s visit to Montreal, the running of the store, and even the new fad of stamp collecting that he was quite partial to.
Alexander provides details of mining news, how luck related mining was, the background to the gold discoveries in New South Wales, observations about quartz mining and he even mentions bushrangers. He has questions about the Civil War in America. What’s going on back home? There are anecdotes about his time spent with the Sharpe family, whose children he tutored. He also writes of the local landscape, commenting on the beauty of spring. He also requests for some seeds and plants to be sent from Canada. So there’s this sense of connections through the letters but also through objects, wanting a piece of home with him.
Unfortunately, Alexander didn’t strike it lucky on the goldfields. Indeed, as early as 1862 he had left the gold diggings to try his hand at sheep farming. He writes:
I am entirely disgusted with the searching for the precious metal for when one’s luck is out, it is high time to give up digging.
But it seems that sheep farming didn’t actually suit Alexander Mussen much either, because he was back on the diggings not too long after that, still not doing too well. He wrote:
I have not worked my claim out yet, nor cannot for some time, being flooded out with water for the past 11 weeks I have not been able to get near it, but up to that time it did not pay barely paying my expenses in tools, provisions and clothes.
I think these letters are quite amazing in that they give a sense of an individual’s experience on the goldfields, the hard work that it would have been, and that sense of never knowing if you were actually going to have any luck.
There is an intimacy between the two brothers. It is clear that, while Alexander may have strayed, he is still thought of and cared for by the family. William writes in one letter, actually the last letter before Alexander’s death:
Though you are away from us, we always think of you and try to picture you, before our eyes, as you would look now. In dreams I often see you, and talk with you, but when I wake, I find it is only a dream.
These letters helped maintain a connection between family members and provide insights into how life is going in two very different places. They not only provide information for us but they’re an incredibly tangible link between two individuals: the handwriting that you can see, the delicate nature of the paper, and knowing that these documents travelled either from Australia to Montreal or vice versa, and indeed have now actually all travelled back to Australia. Sitting down and reading them, and being able to be that close to these objects, is quite thrilling in a way and for me provides an incredible link to not only the past but individuals in that past.
While he may not have been successful on the goldfields, it does seem that Alexander made good in his attempts to associate with respectable people. This is most amply demonstrated through his relationship with Joseph Sharpe and his family. Sharpe was a local storekeeper, and Mussen not only spent time there but helped to tutor Sharpe’s children. He writes of this relationship in his letters home, and he must have written of the family fondly for his brother William comments, ‘May God almighty grant them ten fold blessings for their kindness to you.’ As it turned out, it was his friendship and indeed loyalty to the Sharpes that contributed to Alexander’s death.
On the evening of 2 November 1864, Joseph Sharpe’s store at Lower Pyramul was bailed up by three bushrangers. According to letters from Sharpe and local newspaper reports, Alexander had attempted to shut the door against the bushrangers as the entire family, including children, was present at the time. In the fray, Alexander stumbled and was shot. Mr Sharpe retaliated and shot one of the bushrangers at which time they retreated without having taken any money. Joseph Sharpe actually pursued them, accusing them of cowardice for shooting an unarmed man.
Alexander had already died from his wounds. He was buried in the local churchyard at Upper Pyramul. His funeral, it is recorded, was well attended, and there was general dismay at the violent nature of his death. This was expressed in indignant letters to local newspapers. George Gibson and James McGrath were tried for Mussen’s murder with Gibson being found guilty, partially due to the wounds sustained from Joseph Sharpe’s fire. Gibson was hung on 20 May 1865.
There is a certain amount of poignancy in the fact that Alexander, the son of a well-known merchant in Montreal, died penniless while trying to protect the family of a local store owner on the other side of the world. After Alexander’s death, both Samuel Bromley, the local minister, and Joseph Sharpe, whose store had been held up, wrote to Thomas Mussen in Montreal, informing him of his son’s death. In these letters there is a genuine remorse and affection towards Alexander who at the time of his death was well known in the area, regarded by all as a kind-hearted gentleman. The fact that Alexander’s actions in Canada had weighed heavily upon him is apparent in a comment made by Samuel Bromley when writing to Alexander’s father in June 1865:
Perhaps I ought to say that Mr Alexander frequently expressed his regret that he had given you some pain of mind, but I never asked particulars: I supposed he had been a little unsteady. He was proverbially harmless on our gold field. Will you do me the honour to present my Christian sympathy to Mrs Mussen, your sons and daughters and accept the same yourself? Mr Alexander always spoke of you all with the warmest affection.
As I mentioned, the earlier letters informing the family of Alexander’s death must have been devastating. It is clear from the ongoing correspondence that the family wanted more information to try and get a sense of Alexander’s life and death on the other side of the world. Sharpe and Bromley both sent newspaper clippings regarding his death and the trial of the bushrangers.
In a 1867 letter to William Mussen, Joseph Sharpe also included three sketches. He mentions that while he had been unable to get particular places photographed, he had managed to have sketches done of a number of places relating to Alexander’s life. The first one, which is up here [images shown], depicts Sharpe’s store where Alexander was shot. It has a handwritten note on the back identifying the door at which Alex was murdered, which I think is in the smaller building next to the large store on the right.
The second one shows Alexander’s hut, and the third one is the site of his grave. There’s actually a transcription of the headstone which reads:
Here lies the body of Alexander Mussen aged 31 years. Second son of Thomas Mussen Esq. of Montreal Canada by his first wife Eliza Sarah. He was born on the 23 February 1834 and was shot dead by a bushranger in resisting an attack made on the store of Mr J Sharpe Lower Pyramul on the night of the 2 November 1864. Deceased was respected by all who knew him and leaves many relatives to mourn his loss in Canada.
It seems that the Mussen family had requested these images to give them some sense of the places that Alexander was associated with, and perhaps try and make his death more real to them. The fact that these images were produced and sent back speaks to the esteem in which Alexander was held in Pyramul.
All the sketches are done in pencil with touches of watercolour, and they’re quite amateurish in their depiction but there’s a real sense of honesty and an attempt to capture these places for the family. They’re also interesting in that they do give a bit of a sense of the different goldfields’ landscapes. In the one of Joseph Sharpe’s store you can see how the trees have been felled, the land has been cleared, and there’s what looks like an orchard established in front of the store. Then with the grave, I find it quite amazing that the grave seems to dwarf the people around it as well. But the neatness of how it’s being kept with the well-dressed people - perhaps one of them is Mrs Sharpe and one of the children as well.
Also in the collection is a photographic portrait of Alexander Mussen created around 1854 [image shown]. This is the leather housing in which it’s cased, which you can see is quite worn, and then we open it up. In the portrait Alexander is fashionably dressed with what is a rather showy cravat, I have to say. He looks very serious and perhaps quietly confident of his place in the world. He would have been around 20 when this portrait was taken, ten years or so before his death. I have not been able to establish whether the portrait was brought to Australia with Mussen and then sent back by Sharpe or Bromley with some of the other things, or whether it actually stayed in Montreal with the family, perhaps creating that sense of remembrance through an object as well. Either way, it would have provided the family with a visual memento of Alexander.
In the very first letter that I quoted, Alexander had hoped that his father could forgive and forget his wrongdoings. He finishes that letter writing:
Hoping I shall have your forgiveness for past offences and I shall try for the future to be a credit to the Mussen family.
I remain your Son,
Through the ongoing correspondence between family members, the requests for the sketches after his death, the existence of this portrait and the obvious esteem in which Alexander was held, it seems that Alexander did manage to redeem himself in the family’s eyes. While he never made it back to Canada and he didn’t strike it lucky on the goldfields, his selfless actions on the other side of the world saw him pardoned and I think forgiven, but I would say probably never forgotten. Thanks.
MICHELLE HETHERINGTON: The National Museum is in the process of building its collections all the time and the work that curators like you do in researching these amazing stories helps bring material into the collection. How did you actually acquire the Mussen Collection?
LAINA HALL: This was one of those very surprising and kind of serendipitous moments where I had been assigned to work on the goldfields exhibit for Australian Journeys and was looking for stories where there was a wonderful connection between someone here in Australia and overseas. Someone else in the Museum brought my attention to an auction catalogue, and this collection of material was actually up for sale through Christies in London. From looking into the items and into the provenance, I worked out that it was actually being offered from the family in Canada for sale. It seemed to capture, amazingly, exactly what I was wanting to do. It was one of those nice kind of combinations of chance, luck - and need as well - which worked out very nicely. Though I have to say that in some ways it makes me a little bit sad that it did come up for sale after being in the family for so long and obviously holding that sense of connection and memory for Alexander that eventually it did end up on the auction circuit.
But then again I am very happy that we were successful in bidding for it and bringing the story back here to appear in Australian Journeys. It is one of those things where you could do a fair amount more research on it too.
MICHELLE HETHERINGTON: Yes.
QUESTION: Just bearing on that, could I ask what price it went for or whether it was very popular?
LAINA HALL: That’s something that I wouldn’t know exactly, how many people were bidding for it. But it went for a decent price, should we say. I think we acquired the whole collection for about 20,000 Australian dollars.
QUESTION: You would have to be someone with some other connection to want it, and it was ideal for here of course.
LAINA HALL: Yes. I think it was a little bit more than I thought it would have gone, so I would say there was probably someone else bidding for it as well. But I wouldn’t know who that was. There are 12 letters in the collection, some envelopes as well and the newspaper clippings. And actually this particular item, the photographic portrait, we think was actually produced by Matthew Brady who was an American photographer. This is an ambrotype, which is a glass plate negative that you have to put a dark background behind to create a positive. In some ways I think it might have been this particular item that was drawing attention, because Matthew Brady was very well known. He was also a Civil War photographer, which is another nice link in that Mussen was asking about the Civil War, and you have a portrait taken by the person who became probably the best-known Civil War photographer at the time as well.
QUESTION: When you bid for these, do you do it over the phone - it is overseas so how do you do it?
LAINA HALL: I personally don’t get to bid for the items. I don’t think they’d let me anywhere near it, if I was bidding for it. Within the Museum one of our general managers is responsible for bidding and, yes, I believe this was done over the phone. Occasionally we put absentee bids in where we know sort of what price we’re willing to go to, and that’s it. But on other occasions we do have someone doing a phone bid.
MICHELLE HETHERINGTON: And of course often it’s very late at night over here when the auction is being held in England. I remember one of the general managers was up at about three in the morning after a particular collection one time, and she didn’t get it so that was very sad.
One of the things I love about this collection is that it achieves what the gallery set out to do so well, and that is to make the stories of the people of the transnational experience real. To make it so fascinating that people will feel transported as they read the stories and look at the images - there are some things up there that you can even touch – and have that sense of identification with. This is one of the saddest and very moving stories, but it captures that. And I assume for the audience as well there’s that real sense of identification with his plight and perhaps for his family’s sadness as you hear about it. It is beautifully done.
LAINA HALL: I think too it is interesting in many ways it is a bushranger story as well, but who’s heard of George Gibson and James McGrath unless perhaps you have a particular interest in that area of New South Wales? It opens up another facet of that aspect of history too, this sense of bushranging and being on the frontier. But it’s a story that is a footnote of that larger one, but because of this collection we get an insight into that too.
MICHELLE HETHERINGTON: Thank you very much, Laina, that was lovely.
Muriel McPhee’s trousseau
MICHELLE HETHERINGTON: Our last speaker today is Dr Susannah Helman, who was at the National Museum for four and a half years where she worked on the Eternity gallery and on the Australian Journeys gallery where she was involved in a number of stories, but she’s now a curator over at the National Library of Australia. We miss her very much, so it’s lovely that she’s come back. Thank you, Susannah.
SUSANNAH HELMAN: Good afternoon. Thank you very much, Michelle, and thank you to the Museum for inviting me back. It is great to be here.
Today I am talking about a young Australian woman who sewed at home near Grafton, New South Wales, thinking of a young man far away. Piece by piece, between about 1916 and 1918, this young woman, a teenager, Muriel McPhee, crocheted and sewed a large amount of table linen, underwear and nightwear. It became a trousseau, a collection of linen she planned to bring to her marriage. The word ‘trousseau’ comes from the French for ‘little bundle.’ Muriel made her little bundle, her trousseau, because she had an understanding with a young man. This is Muriel on the left [image shown].
Like many other Australians, this young man left his loved ones to serve overseas in the Australian Imperial Force. He didn’t return. She never used the trousseau; she packed it away and lived the rest of her life on her family’s farm called ‘Arulbin’ at Southgate, a town near Grafton, Northern New South Wales. As time passed, the family’s memory of Muriel’s romance faded. Muriel herself burnt many of her personal papers. Yet throughout her life, Muriel kept two rings and two photographs of soldiers on her dressing table. One of these photographs was of her brother; the other is believed to be her lost solider.
Who he was or where he served is unknown. It is even possible that he was a cousin; we just don’t know. All attempts to identify him have failed. The family believes that he might have served on the Western Front. The only certainly is that this photograph was taken by a commercial photographer whose address was Doughty Street, West London; a street near Kings Cross - Charles Dickens lived there at one time. It was probably taken while he was on leave during the war. There is a number for the negative, but no name. I tried but failed to trace the records for that firm.
After Muriel died in the 1980s, her relatives Ian and Judy McPhee, who are here with us today, found the trousseau in oat and flour bags hidden around Muriel’s house, behind a wardrobe, in a dresser, in the laundry and with the horse brasses. They donated the trousseau, the bags and other material to the Museum. The donation was formalised in 2003. From early this year Muriel’s story has formed an exhibit in the Museum’s new Australian Journeys gallery.
As Michelle has mentioned, I was one of a number of curators working on Australian Journeys, a gallery about Australia’s connection to the world. This exhibit was one of mine. The exhibit’s international connection or journey is the emotional link or tie she had to the man she spent such care sewing for. She undoubtedly thought of him while she sewed her trousseau.
Today I want to do three things: outline Muriel’s story and the collection; explain the thinking behind the exhibit; and finally to welcome Muriel’s relatives Ian and Judy McPhee to the stage to tell you their memories of Muriel.
Muriel’s story and the collection
Born in 1899 and dying in 1986, Muriel McPhee was a quiet woman who led a very quiet life. I’m sure she would be amazed if she were here today. Her trousseau and story is an extraordinary legacy. Her loss, however, was fairly typical. Almost every Australian living in the 1910s probably lost someone they knew, knew of, or loved in the war.
Many young Australians answered the call of Empire, and enlisted in the AIF to fight for ‘King and Country’ at Gallipoli, the Middle East and on the Western Front. Like those of other nations involved in this bloody confrontation, Australia’s losses were severe. Australia’s population at that time was just under five million, 416,809 joined up and 60,000 lost their lives. Losses had impacts on those left behind at home. Many women never married. Many all over the world never recovered from their grief.
In making a trousseau, she was expressing and conforming to what society and what she expected her future role would be. She was making linen to run a home and clothe herself. To her, marriage must have signified a new stage in her life, a point beyond which she would need these beautiful tablecloths, doilies and underwear. Without wanting to sound too clichéd, but doing it anyway, she would be entering a new phase in which her role and purpose were defined. She would become like her mother and grandmother.
What is unusual about the trousseau is that it is so extensive. It is also missing the wedding dress which was considered to be part of a trousseau. Did she ever make or have one? Putting together a collection of linen for marriage was common practice in Australia until about the 1960s, according to historian Jennifer Isaacs. The term in itself was generally used for the fine linen that the bride brought to her marriage. In general, material was white, but not necessarily so. Items could be handed down, purchased or handmade. A couple of fairly random references to trousseaus can illustrate this.
In Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1855 condition of England novel North and South, the main character Margaret Hale hears her aunt talking about her preparations for her daughter’s trousseau: ‘I have spared no expense in her trousseau ... She has all the beautiful Indian shawls and scarves the General [her husband] gave to me, but which I shall never wear again.’
Fast forward and back in Australia, an advertisement in the Argus newspaper from May 1917 shows that this Melbourne retailer was expecting women to purchase for their trousseau. It says: ‘This sale will provide an exceptional opportunity for ladies contemplating the purchase of a trousseau. The following are typical offerings...’
Muriel has expended enormous energy making herself such a large and lavish trousseau. What does this say about her expectations of the marriage? Was she just an accomplished and fast-producing seamstress or was she making a trousseau for a future she believed would last?
The trousseau runs to over 100 items. There are eight white cotton nightdresses. Other items are corset covers, petticoats, knickers, camisoles, gloves, tablecloths, egg warmers, antimacassars, pillowcases and doilies. There are over 30 doilies in the collection. I’m sorry that I don’t have more photographs to show you, but these are a selection on the next few slides [images shown].
The garments and manchester have been carefully made. She has used particular motifs repeatedly. For example, the medallion motif, which you can see on the bottom left of this slide, and it is actually on most of the garments that are on display at the moment in Australian Journeys. It was used on a camisole, cami-knickers, a tablecloth, a couple of nightdresses, a doily, gloves and other items. In itself, it is a pattern that was undoubtedly sourced from a magazine or pattern book. One kind fellow staff member and crocheter found a very similar looking pattern dating from the mid-twentieth century. It was most probably a pattern that had been in vogue for some time. You can see why - it is so attractive and she does it so well. Techniques throughout the trousseau include filet crochet, pintuck embroidery, drawn threadwork and broderie anglaise.
When it came to the Australian Journeys gallery, Muriel’s story was one of a number of ideas that were developed around World War I. It is one of two World War I related stories in the gallery. They sit back to back in a showcase halfway down.
The McPhee collection was an ideal candidate for an exhibition: a very rich and large collection enables a long display life - something that curators love, and the public. Its strong provenance and story leads to an interesting exhibit. It also had the great advantage of allowing us to play to our strength, using our own collection to tell a broader World War I story of separation and loss, doing it in a different way perhaps, from how other institutions may.
In developing the exhibit, I looked at what objects were available to tell Muriel’s story. I called the family to ask if any objects were available for us to borrow. They kindly lent us a number of personal items that had belonged to and been used by Muriel. Stepping back, I weighed up what the objects told us about her.
To me, Muriel’s story fell easily into three parts: hope (her making the trousseau); loss (his failure to return); and consolation (her long later sewing life). As each exhibit in the gallery had a key or a group of key objects, I had to look at Muriel’s objects and determine those that were pivotal to their story. The exhibit itself is divided into two sides, with a central column running down the middle.
In that column are those objects that tell the crux of the story: a photograph, a ring, an oat bag and a nightie. The photograph and ring are hope; the oat bag and nightie, loss. The designer brought my vision to life. This is one of my very crude ‘mud maps’, we used to call them [image shown]. It wasn’t easy to make it happen. It’s quite hard to display objects this way. I should say that the tablecloth that is behind the exhibit was stitched very carefully and painstakingly by one of our conservators.
On the left of the exhibit is a ghostly assemblage of accessories: a velvet black hat Muriel made in the 1940s or 1950s, a handbag she owned and black shoes she wore. She made the shoe trees within the shoes. Near the base of the case is her hatbox with hatpins as she left them. On the right-hand side are cami-knickers, a camisole, a doily and all the egg warmers in the collection.
Overall what really struck me about the story is that Muriel McPhee spent her life sewing. The trousseau was just the beginning. One door closed for her, but it didn’t mean that her life was an unproductive or an unfulfilled one or that she associated her disappointment with sewing and couldn’t touch a crochet hook again.
Muriel often made christening gowns and wedding dresses for family and friends. In order to make that point, the other objects on display, borrowed from her family, largely relate to her ongoing sewing interests. Her family remembers her sewing on the homestead’s verandah, using oil lamps, including the one on display. The sewing machine in the exhibit belonged to her mother and was used by Muriel throughout her life. The table she used still bears the tracks created by her cutting wheel. Her relatives still use the table in their kitchen.
Muriel also spent her life working on the farm with her brother Bill who had himself served in the First World War. I wanted that aspect of her life to come through. Unfortunately, there wasn’t space to explore that further and most of the objects had related to her life indoors. Each morning at 4 o’clock, Bill would whistle the dogs up, and soon after Muriel would light the fire and start to milk the cows by hand. These are some of my favorite photographs borrowed for copying from the McPhees [photographs shown]. Ian McPhee remembers her as an expert milker. After the milking, Muriel would start to separate the milk.
Theirs was a dairy farm, although they also had chickens, watermelon and corn. They sold cream to the cooperative or co-op, gaining cheques once a month, and bartered their eggs at the general store. The invoice in the exhibit shows, in red, that they were gaining credit for their produce. Through credit for their eggs, Muriel could buy haberdashery for her sewing.
To finish, Muriel was a woman of few words and has left no written thoughts. We don’t how she viewed her life, who her soldier was or how his loss affected her. Ultimately, the trousseau and its story is a poignant reminder of the ripple effect of war, even at a great distance. It illustrates the emotional ties severed by the First World War. It is an expression of one young Australian woman’s expectations of a marriage, a marriage that never came to pass, expectations that were packed away.
MICHELLE HETHERINGTON: Thank you very much, Susannah.
SUSANNAH HELMAN: Now we would love to invite the McPhees to come and talk to us. Thank you very much for joining us. I have a couple of questions for the McPhees. Would you like to start off with your questions, Michelle, or should we go straight through?
MICHELLE HETHERINGTON: No, I think we should go straight to the McPhees.
SUSANNAH HELMAN: I was wondering, Mrs McPhee, if you could tell us how you found the trousseau.
JUDY MCPHEE: Ian’s dad was brought up by Muriel’s mum and dad. His mum was killed, or died, in a buggy accident. So that’s our link with the family. When the last daughter died, we were informed and we went up there and found that Ian and his brother had inherited the property. While we were clearing up, found in the furthermost cupboards in with the horse brasses, in with everything, wrapped up in sugar bags, flour bags, just old sheets - I found all this trousseau. I had been a needlework teacher. I would come out to Ian and his brother and say, ‘Look what I have found. Look what I have found’. My brother-in-law would say, ‘St Vinnie’s! St Vinnie’s!’. I’d say, ‘No, no, no St Vinnie’s’. I’d go back to clearing up and I’d come out with another one - ‘St. Vinnies’.
Ian said, ‘Look, if Judy says keep it, we’ll just take it home. Don’t worry about it. We’ll do something with it’. So that’s what we’ve done with it and that’s the main story. I love every piece of it. We still have quite a lot. I have brought some more pieces with me. If anyone would like to have a look later, you are welcome to. Thank you for your time.
SUSANNAH HELMAN: Thank you very much. Now a question for you, Mr McPhee: I was wondering if you could tell us what Muriel was like.
IAN MCPHEE: Muriel was very much a product of the times and certainly of the circumstances under which she lived, a third-generation Australian born in 1899 on a dairy farm. If there is any particular aspect of agricultural pursuits which demands a lot of time and energy, without be able to lift your horizons very far - it’s dairy farming.
Muriel, as I say, was a third-generation Australian but despite that she didn’t speak English until she went to school, as did my dad neither. He was quite a fluent speaker of Gaelic, even until the day he died. That was the common language of that particular farm, and scattered up and down the Clarence River were groups of McPhees. There were red McPhees and black McPhees. I’m a black McPhee and Viking stock. The red McPhees are the original Picts and the Celts, you see.
This particular thing of language I wouldn’t say stultified her educational growth but certainly it slowed it up. She went to school probably at the age of six and was taught there by a fellow called Hayes. Those of you who know your history of blackbirding in the Solomon Islands realise that he would promptly have been christened ‘Bully Hayes’ by the kids.
She went to school until she was about 12 and then went to very much the closed environment which is a dairy farm. She would get up at 4 o’clock when you hear the cows being brought in by brother Bill and go and light the fire using the sticks that had been brought in. A very common device in these places is to have the wood heap beside the toilet. Brother Bill used to split the wood, and every time the women went to the toilet they used to bring some wood in for the box beside the stove.
Muriel used to light the fire for Aunty Em, who’d get up and start breakfast. About this stage Bill had the cows in and was milking and she would go over and help him. At the end of the time when the cows has been milked, Muriel used to take down the separator and do all the washing up of the different parts of that separator, while Bill cleaned out the bales.
She was a great reader as I remember. My contact with her, by the way, was infrequent. I was born in 1928 and Dad used to take me back to the farm for holidays with the rest of the family once a year. The fortnight that I was up there in those times I used to follow Bill around mainly like a puppy. It was great, he smelled of sweat and cows and he could yodel like nobody’s business.
If I went over while they were milking, Muriel used to demonstrate her skill by saying ‘Bend over,’ and I’d bend over with my mouth open and she’d squirt a stream of warm milk down my mouth. But every now and then she might decide to have a bit of fun and squirt my ear or my eyes, and then she’d giggle furiously. That was the kind of contact that I had with them. Later on, when the war was on, it was pretty difficult for us to get from Sydney up to Southgate, and contact then was very spasmodic.
Later on when I was older, I was out in the central west of New South Wales, and the distance was somewhat greater and eventually I was down in Eden and I had all of New South Wales between us. Nevertheless, Muriel was essentially a shy person, intensely interested in what was happening in the world around her, particularly just over the other side of the neighbour’s fence.
IAN McPHEE: Yes, that’s right - you probably come from that kind of area, do you, love? You’d be sitting down on the front verandah wondering what was about to happen next because you could generally predict what was going to happen. A sulky would go down the road, and you’d hear it coming from some considerable distance with the rattle of the wheels on the cobbles and the horses’ feet and so on. Muriel would get up and walk to the edge of the verandah and have a look across the paddock and say, ‘That looks like Leekus’s horse. I wonder what they’re going to town for. It’s only Tuesday.’
Then she’d sit down. After a while the sulky would go back up, and she’d say, ‘They’re going back. They couldn’t have gone far. Must have just gone down to the store to get something they forgot.’ But she’d store that up, and the one social outing of the week that she really had was going to church. Not because it was a truly Christian thing to do but this was the gossip exchange, and then you found out why the Leekuses went down to the store.
This was the kind of environment in which the woman lived. When she got older she became senile, unfortunately, but she had these moments of clarity. I was up there on one occasion - I resemble my father very much - and she looked at me and said, ‘Ronnie?’ - my name being Ian of course - ‘how’s Ian’s wife getting on?’ So I had to tell her my father’s viewpoint on my wife. Dad had been dead for 15 years. Nevertheless, I’d give Muriel the latest news about Judy as though I was my dad. In those later years she did become quite senile, and she used to get up in the middle of the night and wander around.
Essie, the youngest sister, who had come back to live with her after the brother had died, was quite used to this wandering about. But one morning Essie woke up and Muriel wasn’t in sight. She didn’t turn up by mid-morning, so Essie got in touch with the local constable and rounded up a few people. They didn’t find her by dark, but the next day they found her in the swamp where she had got tangled in the weeds. I don’t know why she went down there. The supposition is that there was a cow bellowing or a calf caught, and she went down there to try to get this animal out of the swamp - or imagined animal, one or the other - and fell over and drowned. The thing that gets me about it is how a person who lives such a... [speaker becomes emotional] circumscribed life could create such wonderful bits of art.
MICHELLE HETHERINGTON: I think it’s very kind of you to share your family’s story with us, as you’ve been so kind with the collection coming to the Museum.
IAN McPHEE: I still have myself on every now and then. I’m just trying to get a bit of tear jerking going.
MICHELLE HETHERINGTON: That’s OK. Don’t worry.
SUSANNAH HELMAN: Thank you very much to you both for coming in and being so generous - I went to visit the McPhees on several occasions, and we had long, lovely afternoons of looking through Muriel’s exquisite work - in lending items to us and for indeed donating the entire trousseau to us those years ago.
JUDY McPHEE: I’m just so pleased.
MICHELLE HETHERINGTON: That’s good. Are there any questions from the audience?
QUESTION: The pictures don’t tell you what those items feel like. What was the fabric used in the trousseau and in the crocheted doilies, antimacassars and those things?
JUDY McPHEE: Most of it was lawn, I think. If you’d like to have a look afterward, I’ve brought some things that I still have. But it was a very fine cotton, and I think it’s lawn. Mostly crochet cotton rather than the nylon-y stuff we get these days. The tablecloths and things like that were crocheted or done with a fabulous stitch - I think it’s called herringbone - on a central piece with little loops, and then you join the loops together to make a garment or a table piece, or something like that. That’s as much as I can -
QUESTION: On the film, it looked very much flatter and it looked as if it might be something thinner than wool.
JUDY McPHEE: I’ve actually got a pair of free traders, they were called, if you know what I’m talking about.
MICHELLE HETHERINGTON: No.
JUDY McPHEE: They’re the combination knickers. They were open from about here to around the back, and they were colloquially referred to as free traders.
MICHELLE HETHERINGTON: A teddy is a more modern term, perhaps, but not with all those openings.
JUDY McPHEE: Not quite as ornate or covering quite such a large - but I do have one with me, if anybody would like to see it. You didn’t get quite everything that was there. I decided I’d better keep something for the kids. But apart from that, you didn’t have a big enough space, did you?
IAN McPHEE: One question nobody has asked is what’s that horrid tie I’m wearing? That’s the McPhee clan tartan.
JUDY McPHEE: And today we’ve just discovered a gentleman who lived just over the road from Muriel. He’s sitting up in the audience as part of the Museum curators. Isn’t that incredible?
MICHELLE HETHERINGTON: That’s great. So two very useful contacts we’ve got today. If there are no more questions, I’d like to thank you all for coming. I hope you’ve had a lovely afternoon and learnt more about the Australian Journeys gallery. It is, of course, just up the hallway. You’ll be able to see each of these stories in situ and the way we’ve realised them. Thank you very much.
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Date published: 20 July 2009