Rebel or pirate? When the Civil War came to Melbourne

CSS Shenandoah being repaired at the Williamstown Dockyard in February, 1865

The scene is Melbourne in 1865, during the latter stages of the American Civil War. Colonists had been eager for news of the schism between two groups they saw as their close relatives. Their great distance from the conflict did nothing to dampen interest in what was happening on the other side of the world, and perhaps even served to magnify it.

As a British colony, Victoria had adopted a policy of strict neutrality towards the warring parties in America, but that policy hadn’t really been tested. In Britain, the upper classes tended to support the South, especially at first, as the North was seen to be fighting to establish its own empire. Others saw the cause of the North as about freedom, especially for slaves. But some saw the cause of the South as having parallels with the Eureka Stockade uprising and the aspirations of colonists for self-government.

On 25 January 1865, a combination steamship and sailboat calling itself the Shenandoah and flying the 13-star Confederate flag came through Port Phillip heads. The pilot station at Queenscliff notified officials in Melbourne by telegram and news got around quickly. By the evening, as the Shenandoah dropped anchor off Sandridge pier (now Port Melbourne), she was rapidly surrounded by a flotilla of small boats, while hundreds of people watched from the shore.

The Captain, a dashing and somewhat aloof man named James Waddell, sent Lieutenant Grimball ashore to present himself and a letter to the Governor, Sir Charles Darling, in Toorak, requesting that the ship be allowed to make repairs to a propeller shaft, and to take on coal and provisions. The Governor consented, as this was within the rules of neutrality.

Over the next few days, the Shenandoah became a major attraction. The Hobson’s Bay Railway Company put on special trains over the weekend to take thousands of sightseers down to Sandridge (on what is now the Port Melbourne/Beacon Cove light rail).

What we might call the “tabloid” or gossip press of the day were all over the officers:

The men are a fine and determined looking asset of fellows.” (The Herald)

“They are dashing fellows and seem to take a great pride in their flag and in their fine ship.” (Illustrated Australian News)

Captain Waddell is a six-foot North Carolinian with thick black hair and a weather-beaten face, the colour of deep mahogany. He limps slightly from a dueling wound which he never discusses. … a gentleman of most prepossessing appearance and bears about him the frank expression of a sailor.” (Illustrated Melbourne Post)

Yes, the Confederate officers made a great impression. Many of Melbourne’s young men rapidly converted their British-style full beards to the “Colonel Sanders” style moustache and tuft favoured by the Southern gentlemen.

Some of the officers moved into Scott’s Hotel in Collins Street – where they were generally well-received, although a fight or two did break out – and they were seen at the Theatre Royal and occasionally in the vicinity of Mother Fraser’s brothel in Stephen Street (now Exhibition Street).

They apparently also enjoyed a drink on board. As well as asking for fresh meat, vegetables and bread, Waddell also requested “sea supplies” including “brandy, rum, champagne, port, sherry, [and] beer”.

The officers attended a ball staged in their honour at Craig’s Royal Hotel in Ballarat and – rather controversially – they were guests at a special dinner at the exclusive Melbourne Club, attended by about 60 of Melbourne’s leading citizens, including (as The Age reported) Judges of the Supreme Court, politicians, public servants and senior police.

Governor Darling soon found it increasingly difficult to justify the welcome and assistance being given to the Shenandoah. Firstly, there was pretty clear evidence that the Shenandoah was actually a British merchant ship called the Sea King, which a Confederate agent had purchased under false pretences, and then Waddell had modified and armed in a Spanish port. Visitors to the ship at Sandridge could still see remnants of the words “Sea King” on the bow and on many other fittings – even on the cutlery in the Officers’ Mess. The crew were the very definition of motley – hardly an American among them.

There was a strong argument that, as the Shenandoah had never been to a Confederate port, she didn’t actually qualify as a Confederate ship, was therefore not entitled to the usual courtesies extended to a “belligerent” and could even be liable to seizure on behalf of the British government.

Then there was the Shenandoah’s track record. It emerged that the ship had raided up to a dozen Northern ships, or ships carrying cargo from the North, at sea in the Atlantic and Indian oceans on its way from European waters to Melbourne. Several of the vessels had been burned, theirs crews put ashore in foreign ports and the officers and their wives taken prisoner, while others had been “ransomed” for tens of thousands of pounds.

In contrast to the hero-worshipping gossip newspapers, The Age took a stern view of the Shenandoah’s activities:

We cannot regard the Shenandoah as other than a marauding craft, and her officers and crew than as a gang of respectable pirates. (She) is built for running away from anything more powerful than herself and for overtaking heavily laden and peacefully voyaging ships of the American Republic. Her vocation is not to fight, but to plunder; not to shed the blood of her crew in their country’s defence, but to fill their pockets with prize money.

A group of prisoners from the Shenandoah turned up in the office of the US Consul to Melbourne, William Blanchard: they were the captain and crew as well as the Captain’s wife and son, from a merchant ship called the Delphine which Waddell had raided and burned in the Indian Ocean. Blanchard began sending a barrage of letters to the Governor and other officials claiming that the Shenandoah was nothing more than a pirate ship and demanding that it be seized. Then there was the case of “Charley”, a local Melburnian who was found on board the Shenandoah while still in port, having signed on as a cook. Recruiting crew in a neutral port was strictly against the agreed terms of neutrality.

Finally, under great pressure from Blanchard and critics like The Age, Governor Darling was forced to act. He sent troops to the Williamstown dry dock where the Shenandoah was undergoing repairs and had the ship surrounded, ensuring that no assistance could be given and that no locals could go aboard.

After Waddell gave an assurance that he was not recruiting or enlisting crew, the seizure was lifted, the Shenandoah was refloated and Waddell was instructed to leave port at the earliest opportunity. Reports surfaced of up to 70 local men having been rowed out to the ship at various times under cover of darkness, but after the Shenandoah sailed out of Port Phillip on the 18th of February, 42 “stowaways” were “found on board” and enlisted as crew. From Victoria, she steamed north and continued to wage “war” on Union merchant shipping, and especially the whaling fleet in the North Pacific.

Clearly the men recruited in Melbourne – almost all of whom were not “Australians” but from a variety of countries, probably having been in Victoria to try their luck on the goldfields – were of great assistance in the ship’s further activities. And even after the South surrendered, the Shenandoah continued its depradations for several months, Waddell claiming later that he had not yet received official orders to stand down.

Eventually, after the dust of the Civil War had settled, an international tribunal found that the British government had breached the rules of neutrality by permitting Waddell to recruit personnel in Melbourne, and awarded damages to the United States of around 800,000 pounds, a hefty sum indeed for the times.

Not much physical evidence remains of the Shenandoah’s sensational visit to Melbourne in 1865, although one intriguing mystery continues. One of the people said to have entertained Waddell and his officers was a Scottish stonemason and builder named Samuel Amess (as in Amess Street, North Carlton), who had built the Treasury building in Spring Street and Customs House in Flinders Street, among other fine public buildings, and was in the process of constructing the Kew Lunatic Asylum. He was a Melbourne City Councillor at the time of the Shenandoah’s visit and later served as Lord Mayor.

In the 1870s, Samuel Amess bought Churchill Island in Westernport Bay, and there he installed a cannon that family tradition says was given to Samuel by Captain Waddell in recognition of his hospitality. The cannon is still there, but Civil War and cannon buffs now say there’s no way it could be from the Shenandoah… but no-one has been able to say where it did come from, if not from the rebel vessel.

Sources and further reading: Pearl, Cyril (1970). “Rebel Down Under: When The Shenandoah Shook Melbourne, 1865.” Heinemann.

Going up! How Yarra-powered lifts raised Melbourne into the modern age

The idea that Melbourne might have had the world’s first “skyscraper” seems most unlikely. It turns out that this claim was entertained seriously for a time in respect of the 53-metre high “Australian” or APA Building on the corner of Elizabeth Street and Flinders Lane, as seen above. Completed in 1889 (and, sadly, demolished in 1981), it was certainly one of the world’s tallest buildings – probably third or fourth tallest – for a time.

But once buildings started reaching for the stars, there was a problem: how to get people from the ground to the twelfth floor, safely, without using the stairs. Among all the world’s cities, far-flung Melbourne was one of the first to take full advantage of lifts.

A visit by the Vice President of the American Otis Elevator Company is said to have convinced several developers in Marvellous Melbourne that they would get additional rents for higher floors if they installed passenger lifts. Melbourne had a few lifts by the early 1880s, in buildings of 4 to 6 storeys.

In the days before electricity, the only two realistic options to provide the energy to lift people and goods were steam and hydraulics, i.e. water pressure.  Early hydraulic lifts were powered by “Yan Yean” water, from Melbourne’s first reservoir. Naturally, this was constrained by the maximum pressure at which water was delivered to homes and buildings. On the many occasions when the town water pressure was low, the lifts wouldn’t run, so some had their own steam systems as back-up.

However, a 12-storey skyscraper for the modern age needed a power source that was more reliable. In 1886, recognising a commercial opportunity, a group of Melbourne businessmen including George Swinburne, the founder of the eponymous College (now University), formed the Melbourne Hydraulic Power Company, ostensibly with the goal of providing high pressure water for fighting fires. Duly authorized by Parliament, they then spent thousands of pounds building more than 7 miles of privately-owned hydraulic mains, linked to a pumping station on the Yarra, under city streets as far as Parliament House.

Some architects and building developers opted to use the hydraulic power via a “direct action” mechanism, in which the water-driven piston carries the lift upward. Naturally, for a 12-storey building, this piston had to be 12 storeys long and had to be able to descend as far into the earth as it rose above ground. This meant lift shafts being excavated below the level of the Yarra! Hydraulic lifts were also subject to leaks, broken valves and failures, occasionally with fatal results. When directors of the Australian Provincial Assurance Association, including future Australian Prime Minister Alfred Deakin, inspected the hydraulic lift in their new APA building for the first time, some governing mechanism failed and the lift shot upwards 12 floors, its skyward progress being stopped only by some stout springs at the top.

Up to 300 lifts were connected to the high-pressure hydraulic system at one stage, but eventually the Melbourne City Council began connecting electric power to buildings, breaking the Hydraulic Power Company’s monopoly. By 1903, the Austral Otis Elevator Company was making ten electric elevators for every one hydraulic. Council by-laws restricted the speed of electric lifts to 200 feet per minute, but were amended to accommodate the new-fangled electric elevators installed in the new Equitable Life Insurance building in 1896, which operated at 300 feet per minute. Today, the Eureka Tower in Southbank claims to have the fastest lifts in the southern hemisphere at 9 metres per second (or over 1700 feet per minute).

All of these lifts – whether hydraulic or electric – were initially manually operated, but there’s not a lot recorded about Melbourne’s lift operators. Important commercial buildings had liveried elevator drivers, who were often reputed to know every employee by name and more about what was going on in the company than many senior executives.

In the 1920s and 1930s at the Menzies Hotel, the only place where international visitors stayed in Melbourne in the first half of the twentieth century, Harold the literary liftman impressed visitors including H.G. Wells and Poet Laureate John Masefield with his knowledge of poetry and the classics.

At the Royal Melbourne Hospital in the 1950s, lift attendant Joy Knight had a secret button that allowed her to speed emergency cases direct from Casualty to the 9th Floor operating theatres.

As has been widely reported, Melbourne’s last known lift operators – Dimitri and Joan of the 1926 Nicholas building in Swanston Street – are about to go the way of their thousands of predecessors.

But there are still some remnants of the past in the form of a handful of hydraulic lifts (using town water) still operating in Melbourne. The best known is at the First Church of Christ, Scientist in St Kilda Road and dates from the 1920s.

Some sources for this information:

  • Cannon, Michael. Life in the Cities. Australia in the Victorian Age: 3. Nelson, 1975
  • Latreille, Anne. “The ups and downs in the world of lifts”. The Age, 3 March 1981
  • Lewis, Miles. Melbourne: The City’s History and Development
  • Annear, Robyn. Notes for A City Lost and Found

White stockings and balloons: American baseball comes to Melbourne in the 1880s

As a baseball fanatic, I’ve been surprised to find that even those involved in baseball around Melbourne are often unaware of the long history of “America’s pastime” in this part of the world. Legend has it that Californian miners first played baseball on the Victorian goldfields in the 1850s, but there’s nothing documented. Over the next 30 years, small groups of American ex-pats played one-off games, occasionally involving locals. But 1888 – the centenary of landing of the First Fleet at Sydney Cove and the proclamation of the colony – was the real year zero for baseball in Australia. That year, Chicago sporting goods mogul and entrepreneur Albert Goodwill Spalding, a retired baseball player and owner of the Chicago White Stockings, put his team and an All-American team drawn from several clubs on a ship in San Francisco. Heading west, Spalding, the players and sundry support personnel and a kind of travelling circus embarked on a circumnavigation of the globe to promote baseball… and Spalding’s own business interests in the process. After stops in Hawaii and Auckland, the ship arrived in Sydney in December 1888. Attendances and interest in Sydney were disappointing. But, after a horrible overnight train trip in primitive rolling stock courtesy of the New South Wales railways, they arrived at Spencer Street Station to be met by 500 flag-waving fans. Spalding’s knack with advance publicity had served him well, and Melbourne’s love of sporting events seems to have been well established even then. The teams and their entourage paraded up Collins Street to the Town Hall, where there were 3000 well-wishers, including Lord Mayor Benjamin Benjamin. The Town Hall organist serenaded them on his giant 10,000 pipe instrument! They stayed at the Grand Coffee Palace in Spring Street – what we know today as the Windsor Hotel. There’s a bit of a hint there in the name – the Temperance movement had seen a number of hotels re-named as coffee palaces on the basis that (gasp) they no longer served alcohol! Booze and baseballers go together like Abbott and Costello, so this was seen as something of a drawback, but it’s not like they couldn’t get a drink in “Marvellous Melbourne” in the Roaring ‘80s. The players got out and about around town, visited the Melbourne Centennial Exhibition then being held at the Exhibition Buildings, and pronounced Melbourne very similar to Chicago with “fine wide streets… and a dash which makes a Yankee feel quite at home”. Their first exhibition game at the MCG drew a crowd of 10,000 who saw Chicago win 5-3. The All-Americans were no bunnies – the team included three future Hall of Famers. The local press admired their athleticism and the quick pace of the game compared to cricket – over and done with in 2 hours! The Argus declared that cricket, “if not still on the wane, is at any rate at a standstill” and that baseball was “well adapted to our climate and the disposition of our youth”. Even the secretary of the Melbourne Cricket Club was very positive about the future of baseball. The tourists played a second game in front of 6000 on Christmas Eve (the All-Americans won) and introduced Melbourne to their main travelling support act. “Professor Bartholomew” ascended from the MCG turf in a hot air balloon, performed acrobatic stunts and then leaped back to earth using a parachute, the first time such a thing had been seen in the Colony. After a side trip by train to Adelaide for further exhibition games (the Victorian Railways carriages were praised this time), the show returned to Melbourne via Ballarat, where Professor Bartholomew was badly injured when his parachute malfunctioned and he drifted into an iron roof. Back in Melbourne for the New Year, they played two more games, the last of which on 5 January also featured a short game against a local team of American ex-pats. When AG Spalding and his crew sailed on to Ceylon, and eventually Egypt and Europe, the entrepreneur left behind his young assistant, Harry Simpson, to set about getting baseball organized in Australia. Almost immediately afterwards, with the help of some local Americans, including prominent theatre entrepreneur J.C. Williamson, Simpson started organised baseball instruction and games in Melbourne. On 18 January 1889, the “Thespians”, captained by J.C. Williamson himself, defeated Albert Park 26-15.

Ham Historian as a member of the Malvern Baseball Club

During 1889 and 1890, largely at Simpson’s own personal cost, he travelled widely and assisted in the establishment of the first local teams in Melbourne  including: the Melbourne Cricket Club baseball section, Fitzroy, Richmond, a team representing The Age, St Kilda, Malvern, Carlton, South Melbourne and East Melbourne. While baseball may not have taken off in Australia the way Australian Rules football did, it does perhaps have a claim to being “Australia’s pastime”, given that some of Melbourne’s baseball clubs still playing today are older than some AFL clubs.

Does Sydney do history better?

The landing at Melbourne, 1840 by WFE Liardet. Virtually nothing of early Melbourne remains, and the city has turned its back on the site of its first white settlement

I love Melbourne’s history and think it’s very exciting. Hopefully, some of that excitement is conveyed through the posts on this blog. But I think it’s fair to say that much of Melbourne’s history is hard to find – you have to work at it, scratch the surface, do a little archaeological digging.

I was in Sydney last week and my visit only reinforced my impression that Sydney’s history is much more “in your face”, especially around Sydney Cove where the First Fleet came ashore in 1788. The head of Sydney Cove – Circular Quay – was white Australia’s first port and remains a very busy maritime location with its ferries, water taxis, harbour cruises and even huge ocean liners.

Much of white Australia’s first residential precinct in The Rocks has been preserved. It’s great to see so many original buildings and homes (yes, people still live there) so close to the centre of the CBD.

And in what I think is a really nice touch, authorities have embedded hundreds of small brass plaques in the paving around Circular Quay marking the location of the shoreline in 1788 and at some other points in history. It’s that kind of detail that helps give history life and meaning.

Contrast that with Melbourne. Our first port was on the Yarra, where the river widened just downstream of the falls (since obliterated) about level with Market Street, not that you’d know it today. Melbourne’s first settlers lived in what is now the southwest corner of the CBD, but little of that time in Melbourne’s history remains. Authorities, in their wisdom, even removed a key landscape feature known as Batman’s Hill during the 1860s in order to make more room for the Spencer Street railway yards.

Melbourne’s major Government and public buildings – customs, police, jail, law courts and even the cathedral – were at the western end of the city, but sadly today that part of Melbourne has no “feel” of it being the original centre of town.

When thousands occupied Melbourne and really ran amok

Police and citizens fight a pitched battle in Swanston Street in the heart of Melbourne. One side is outnumbered and overcome by unexpected and unrestrained violence…

Watching Victoria Police use riot gear and manifestly excessive force on Friday to break up the peaceful Occupy Melbourne protest in the absence of any threat to public order and safety prompted some obvious questions: Just how common are riots in Melbourne? When was our worst episode of rioting, who was involved and what was it all about?

My opening description of running battles in Swanston Street actually dates from early November 1923 and a few days of utter anarchy and violence in Melbourne’s streets as opportunists took advantage of a strike by officers of Victoria Police in what remain the worst riots in the city’s 175-year history.

A complex set of circumstances led to the strike (you can read more here). Chief Commissioner Alexander Nicholson had become increasingly unpopular with some rank and file police during the second half of 1923, especially through the appointment of so-called “spooks”, plain-clothes special supervisors whose duties included monitoring the activities of uniformed police. This magnified simmering resentment about the lack of pensions and wage disparity with counterparts in New South Wales.

But it took a vocal dissident officer, Constable William Brooks, to precipitate the strike on 31 October 1923 when he and 28 fellow constables at Russell Street refused to go on duty until the “spooks” were withdrawn. By Friday 2 November, more than 600 members of the metropolitan constabulary had joined the walk-out and refused to resume their duties.

The strike came on the eve of Melbourne Cup Week, as thousands of visitors were arriving in Melbourne for the spring racing festivities. By Saturday night, crowds returning from the Derby Day races were joined in the city by others intent on a spree unhindered by the presence of police. A “human sea” emerged from Flinders Street station and surged up Swanston and Elizabeth Streets, sweeping the few remaining police and some hastily-sworn “special constables” from their posts. Trams were stopped, drivers manhandled and one tram set alight.

Boarded-up shopfronts in Melbourne following the Saturday night unrest

About 6pm, the plate glass windows of shops in Bourke Street and elsewhere began to cave in (with assistance) and looting began. All told, 78 shopfronts were smashed, two people were killed and hundreds injured.

The crowd roared each time a plate glass window shattered.

Organised crime, in the form of Melbourne’s notorious local “pushes” (gangs) and even the network of notorious Melbourne underworld figure “Squizzy” Taylor, was sometimes blamed for the spree of lawlessness and opportunism. But subsequent analysis of court records suggests those charged with offences related to the rioting were typically youths and young men with no significant criminal history or gang connections.

Order was eventually restored to the metropolis with the assistance of a much more substantial force of special constables, most of them returned soldiers, of whom 5000 had been enrolled by Melbourne Cup Day under the leadership of First World War hero General Sir John Monash.

The running of the Cup was watched peacefully by a crowd of 125,000 at Flemington. The race that famously “stops a nation” probably had a role in stopping the riots, too.

Two Frank Thrings: Key figures in Melbourne showbiz history

A special moment for me as a writer came in the late 1980s when the legendary Australian actor Frank Thring read lines I wrote for him. OK, so it was only some 3RRR sponsorship announcements, but Frank brought a lifetime of experience and professionalism to everything he did… from his famous performance as Pilate launching the chariot race in the 1959 Hollywood epic Ben-Hur to frightening Australian consumers who were watching TV without a licence (yes, you needed a licence to watch TV until the Whitlam Government abolished licensing in 1974).

Showbiz was in Frank’s blood. His father, F. W. Thring (Frank Senior) began his career as a projectionist but rose to become Melbourne’s own multi-media mogul.

During the late 1920s, F. W. oversaw the construction of seven palatial Regent cinemas, which were later sold to Hoyts, of which he became managing director in 1926. The last remaining Regent, in Collins Street, was closed for many years through the 1970s as a fierce community debate raged over its demolition.

In 1931, Thring started his own production company, Efftee Films, and set up his studio in Her Majesty’s Theatre, which had closed down due to the Great Depression. He made no secret of his ambitions to build a little Hollywood down under when he introduced his studio’s “stars” in 1931.

Over the next five years, Efftee made eight feature films, nine shorts and a series about the Great Barrier Reef, including three comedies starring great Australian comedian George Wallace. Please enjoy this wonderful trailer for His Royal Highness, directed by Thring and written by Wallace and renowned Australian writer and poet C. J. Dennis (“The Sentimental Bloke”).

In 1935, Thring extended his business into another new medium by founding Melbourne radio station 3XY. Sadly, the next year F. W. Thring died of cancer aged only 53, leaving his second wife and 10-year-old Frank Junior to carry on the family tradition.

Sad days in Australian history: Some perspective, please!

Amidst all the bullshit flying in Canberra yesterday, National Party Senator Fiona Nash described the passing of the Carbon Tax legislation as (quoting from Hansard) “one of the saddest days in this nation’s history”.

My friend and sometime collaborator Mike Stuchbery posted a great video address to Senator Nash on his blog, compellingly pointing out that there are dozens, perhaps hundreds of far sadder days in Australian history, the results of violence, disasters, plagues and pestilence.

But even if we exclude wars, despicable crimes, the acts of madmen and natural disasters and just look at politics and parliaments, it doesn’t take long to generate a list of numerous sadder days in Australian political and legislative history than the passing of the Carbon Tax legislation. Here are just a few…

  • 11 November 1975 – Governor-General Sir John Kerr dismisses the Whitlam Government. A shocking, sad and very divisive day in Australian political history. Despite their apparent age, the muddle-headed “protestors” in Parliament yesterday chanting “democracy is dead” obviously had no clue or perspective on how close democracy really DID come to death back in ’75.
  • 6 November 1999 – The national referendum on Australia becoming a republic is defeated. This was a very sad day, especially so because it wasn’t the idea of a republic that failed to win support, it was just that our leaders couldn’t agree on a suitable model to put forward.
  • 23 December 1901 – On this day, Royal assent is given to the Immigration Restriction Act, which was the basis for the White Australia Policy. This surely makes it a much sadder, more unpleasant piece of legislation than the Clean Energy Bills.
  • 23 December 1905 – The Aborigines Act in Western Australia declared that the Chief Protector of Aborigines “shall be the legal guardian of every aboriginal and half-caste child until such child attains the age of sixteen years”, meaning that aboriginal children could be taken from their parents, potentially on a whim. That day – and the days on which similar acts were passed in other states – led to unbearable sadness for generations of indigenous people.

Please don’t make our political conversations any dumber

Like Mike Stuchbery, “I could go on”. And like Mike Stuchbery, the Ham Historian calls for Senator Nash and others to have some perspective, acquaint themselves with some actual Australian history and (to paraphrase Mike) not make our political – or historical -conversations any dumber.

Alfred Deakin: Politician of the people… living and dead!

Alfred Deakin was Australia’s second Prime Minister and served three terms in the turbulent first decade after Federation. He had been an MP in the Victorian parliament from 1880 (when he was only 23) and one of the key figures in the movement for Federation. He was widely respected across the political spectrum, not only for his legendary skills as an orator, but as a man who put his belief in a Federated Australia ahead of his own career aspirations in politics, and as a down-to-earth pragmatist.

It’s surprising to learn, then, that Deakin was also a man very much interested in, and for a time strongly influenced by, a belief in his ability to be guided by the spirits of those who had departed this earth.

Deakin was born in George Street, Collingwood (now Fitzroy), just off Gertrude Street, but his family later moved to Domain Road in South Yarra. In his late teens, while studying Law at the University of Melbourne, he joined a group of spiritualists. Spiritualism was of growing interest as the Victorians confronted the dawning scientific age and sought to reconcile ideas like Darwin’s with those of traditional Christianity.

Deakin attended séances and then began holding them at his home with a regular group of young spiritualists. Some authors have suggested that séances were also a convenient way for young men and women to gather in a dark room and hold hands in an era renowned for being pretty conservative and strict on such matters!

But for Deakin, it seems to have been a very serious matter. For some time, he believed that his life was being influenced by spirits or intelligences from beyond the grave. In fact, over a number of sessions with another spiritualist, he wrote a lengthy and rather rambling book called A New Pilgrim’s Progress believing strongly that he was channeling the thoughts and words of the author of The Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan.

Clearly at this time, in the 1870s, he thought of himself as a medium, someone through whom spirits or intelligences could communicate with the living, although there’s no evidence that he ever fell into a trance at a séance in the “classic” style of the medium.

Deakin also taught in the Spiritualists’ version of Sunday School and became president of the Spiritualist Association for a time. But he was already distancing himself somewhat from the Spiritualist movement when he stood for election for the seat of West Bourke in the Victorian parliament. This didn’t stop his opponents seizing on his past activities in an attempt to ridicule him with scathing descriptions of the immorality that must underlie a work like A New Pilgrim’s Progress.

The young Alfred Deakin claims to be a medium, and he claims divine inspiration, and is also the author of a disgusting book… the fantasies of an impure mind

Nonetheless, he was elected and served as a Government minister, as Attorney-General, as Minister for Irrigation, and as Chief Secretary.

Through his years as PM and in Federal parliament, he continued to write poems and prayers and to take a very strong interest in spirituality more generally, and especially in what he could learn from Eastern religions. He spent time in India on his way to and from England when lobbying for Federation and an Australian constitution, and he read a lot about Islam and was very interested in the life of the prophet Mohammed.

One area where Deakin was well ahead of his time was animal rights and the prevention of cruelty. He sponsored an unsuccessful bill on animal cruelty and, in fact, he spent some years as a vegetarian for what appear to have been mainly moral and spiritual reasons, but this was kept relatively quiet – strangely, it seems vegetarianism may have been thought of as “weirder” than spiritualism at the time!

Yet at no time does Deakin’s decision-making or leadership appear to have been strongly influenced by his religious beliefs or spirituality, and he seems to have supported moves to enshrine separation of church and state in the Australian Constitution.

It’s interesting and revealing to contrast this complex spiritual life of Deakin, a life of exploration and openness in an era that we think of as having been ruled by narrow conservative values, against the focus of the media today on pigeon-holing politicians as either believers or non-believers, as being Catholic or atheist, and as being inevitably influenced by their spiritual or religious beliefs in how they go about making decisions. Imagine the scorn and ridicule if it emerged that one of today’s politicians regularly played with a Ouija board!

The evil of the desecration of the sabbath: A Sunday reflection

The Melbourne in which I grew up had a long tradition of boring Sundays. Public debate about what could or could not be done on a Sunday without desecrating “the Lord’s day” had raged for over a century and continued for another two decades.

In his wonderful book Wowsers, writer Keith Dunstan (a living Melbourne and National treasure, if you ask me) devotes an entire chapter to the history of keeping the purity of the Sabbath Day. Despite the otherwise free and easy life of the colonies, he notes, this Anglican and Presbyterian custom thrived in Australia and especially in Melbourne.

The Melbourne Sunday was world famous, a tourist attraction really, like trams and 6 o’clock closing

Melbourne was the last city in the British Empire to open important public cultural resources including its Library, Gallery and Museum on Sundays. The Victorian Government even legislated to ban Sunday newspapers on the grounds that newsboys trying to sell them would shout out near churches “and become a perfect nuisance to all peaceful and law abiding citizens“.

At various times, Victorian Railways ran only enough trains on a Sunday to get people to and from church. The Presbyterians even suggested that it was wrong for churchgoers to use trains on Sunday and they should walk. (If they didn’t like their nearest church, then they should move!)

Sunday screenings at cinemas became legal in Victoria in 1965… but only “after Evensong”, prompting the Rev Sir Irving Benson of the Methodist Church to ask rhetorically: “What is coming next… horse racing, night trotting and the hotels open for trade?” Yep, Sir Irving. You tipped it.

And next time you’re battling the Sunday crowds at Bunnings, it’s worth remembering that as recently as the 1980s – at a time when laws on prostitution and brothels were being liberalised – Caulfield hardware store owner Frank Penhalluriack was prosecuted and actually jailed for breaching Sunday trading laws. As Derryn Hinch wrote at the time “You can now legally get a screw in Melbourne on a Sunday but you can’t get a screwdriver.”

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.