Open House in Brisbane 2016

Next weekend (8-9 October) is Open House, Brisbane, when a wide variety of buildings are thrown open to the public.

open-house-2016

The idea began in England, where there has been an Open House London since 1992, but in the last few years the idea has spread more widely. Melbourne has been involved since 2008, and in all other capitals as well – Brisbane, Sydney, Hobart, Adelaide and Perth now have open days as well. Nothing yet in Darwin, by the look of it, and I haven’t checked out our regional cities.

The aim is to open up interesting buildings that are not normally accessible to the general public. Private institutions such as clubs and societies, government offices, commercial buildings that are old, or beautiful, or interesting – or all three – are open for us, the curious public, to have an annual snoop around.

I was lucky enough to be in London one year, quite accidentally, on its Open House weekend. With more preparation and more stamina, I might have seen more, but as it was, I spent a happy hour or so pottering around Marlborough House. The building is now the Commonwealth Secretariat, and usually closed to visitors.

Marlborough House was built as a town house for John and Sarah Churchill, first Duke and Duchess of Marlborough, and is just the sort of pied-à-terre you might expect from a couple whose idea of a country shack was Blenheim Palace. Marlborough House wallows in stucco ornamentation, gilded cornices and chandeliers. Sarah Churchill first hired Sir Christopher Wren – as you do – but sacked him, presumably for not being sufficiently over the top. John Churchill may have beaten Louis XIV’s armies on the field, but Louis got his own back architecturally. Along the rear of the building is a long gallery which was clearly influenced by Versailles’s gallerie des glaces.

This room is now the main conference room, and it is almost entirely filled with an enormous table, large enough so that every member of the British Commonwealth can sit down together in a round table discussion. Except that the table is not round, but an extended oval. The seating is arranged alphabetically around the circumference, from A to Z, starting at the middle of one long side. This arrangement means that M for Malta can happily chat across the narrow axis to A for Antigua or Z for Zambia, but G for Guyana might have difficulty communicating with S for Singapore along the long axis.

When I was there about 15 years ago, relations between Australia and Malaysia were still tetchy* after years of very personal antagonism between Prime Ministers Paul Keating of Australia and Mahathir Mohamad of Malaysia, and visions of them glowering at each other across the table during heads of government meetings really made my day. So it was a bit of a disappointment to learn that Keating and Mahathir never met there, and the seating is laid out as it was at a much earlier Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in 1969.

As the role of the Commonwealth inevitably declines, no doubt eventually Marlborough House will be recycled once again. Goodness knows what they’ll do with that table. They will need to break it up to get it out the door, but I suppose that’s how they got it in there in the first place.

Meanwhile, Brisbane’s Open House day offers some interesting possibilities, though there will be fewer nymphs, and less stucco generally. Tattersall’s Club has a splendid Daphne Mayo frieze, the Masonic Memorial Temple has terrific black and white marble decorations, and the former Treasury Building, now the Treasury Heritage Hotel, includes a tour of the office of the Minister for Lands.

It should be a good weekend.

*They are again, thanks to the Hooray Henrys at the Formula 1 race the other day.

Apologies – this is an update of my post from 2013. Three years ago I was complaining that neither Sydney nor Hobart had Open House days – now they do🙂
On the other hand, the Irish Club, which I urged people to visit 3 years ago, has since closed😦

For another, architectural, perspective on the Open House phenomenon, this article by Susan Holden in The Conversation is worth reading.

The Currency of Corruption

The Labor Party has now lost 2 shadow ministers since the election on 2 July, which suggests a high level of carelessness. Nobody seems to know yet just why Stephen Conroy decided to leave, but the reasons for Sam Dastyari’s resignation are hideously clear – accepting money from a Chinese donor to pay a $A1600 travel bill – and 2 bottles of Grange. He listed these in the donor register as ‘two bottles of wine’ and says he subsequently gave them to a charity auction.

It’s all a bit sordid, not least because the sums involved are so small. It reminds me a bit of that line in A Man for All Seasons, when Thomas More learns that Richard Rich has given perjured evidence against him in return for the job of Attorney-General for Wales: ‘It profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world – but for Wales, Richard?’

For $1600 and a couple of bottles of Grange, Sam?

One can only hope that Andrew Leigh is finally getting an appropriate salary, which he missed out on when, for arcane factional reasons, the size of the shadow ministry blew out to 31.

Political gifts are curious things, and you can waste a pleasant hour at the moment googling the name of any Australian politician and the word ‘Grange’. In a depressing number of cases, up pops a gift bottle. The most famous recent examples are Dastyari and, before him, the NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell, who says he forgot all about the gift, but nonetheless resigned when his thank you note popped up. Other recipients, though, include Peter Costello, who received ‘a 6-pack’ in 2008, Kevin Rudd in 2006, and just maybe Tony Abbott in 2015/6.

Women don’t seem to get bottles of plonk in the same way – Julie Bishop and Tania Plibersek seem to be cleanskins, and the top item under ‘Julia Gillard + Grange’ shows her visiting the Milford Grange Retirement Community before the 2011 election – which is either admirable or sad, depending on your point of view.

grange2001

Penfolds Grange, for anyone living on another planet, is widely touted as Australia’s best wine. It is expensive, but it can always be described, on the politician’s register of gifts, as ‘a bottle of wine’, just as a Rolex can be just ‘a watch’.

Naturally it is very expensive, especially the older bottles, so Penfolds has designed a dinky little website to let buyers type in the date they want – here. O’Farrell’s bottle of Grange dates from 1959, his birth year, but sadly the system crashes if I enter my birthdate, which dates back earlier than the first Grange production. Sigh.

Unlike cash, a political gift is not intended to buy a politician outright, but to sweeten him up, to remind him – as he sips his wine or glances at his watch – of good old so-and-so. Often, the gift is an investment in the future. A strategic gift to a rising star in the opposition – Kevin Rudd, Tony Abbott, Sam Dastyari – is like laying down a bottle of good wine to drink at some time in the future.

There are fashions in political gifts, as in other things. Sometimes cash is king. Lawyers still wear robes with a feature known as the ‘money bag’, a thin strip of material trailing down the front of the gown and the remainder of a ‘pocket’ on the back. Once upon a time – say, in Thomas More’s time – the lawyer would turn his back and pull on the strap to jingle the bag, ‘reminding’ the client that payment was due. English wigmakers (and professional spoilsports) Ede and Ravenscroft say the money bag is just the remnant of a monastic hood.

Usually though, the idea is to gently remind the recipient of a mutually advantageous friendship.

In the early 19th century, the Macarthur family perfected the art of the political gift. In 1804 John Macarthur’s fortunes turned when the Colonial Secretary, Lord Camden, authorized a land grant, which he named Camden Park. Keeping sweet with Lord Camden and his secretary George Watson-Taylor was important, so when his son Edward sailed to England in 1808, he took with him a menagerie of Australian wildlife to distribute strategically to potential allies.

Emus and chicks

Emus from John Gould, The Birds of Australia

Lady Castlereagh (wife of the Colonial Secretary) got two emus. It’s unlikely the poor birds survived for very long at Mount Stewart, the Castlereagh estate in Northern Ireland. A black swan and a goose also survived the voyage to be presented to Lady Camden – since Camden was no longer in office, she didn’t rate a matched pair. But they missed out on a pair of bronze-wing pigeons because Watson-Taylor thought ‘that too many presents at one time would overdo the business’ – and possibly coveted the birds himself, for Edward gave him ‘a very handsome present in the bird way’. ‘I have made several [presents] to different people’, Edward added, ‘and have not parted with all yet’.

More than a decade later, the Macarthurs were still greasing the wheels. George Watson-Taylor finally got a pair of black swans in 1821, and two years later John Macarthur Jr sent the junior minister at the Colonial Office, Robert Wilmot Horton, a number of kangaroo skins to make into boots: ‘It resembles dog skin, but is much more durable’.

Boots and swans; wine and watches. Fashions change but the objective remains the same – a valuable and exotic gift that will remind the politician of his friends, but if necessary can remain virtually anonymous. When Robert Wilmot Horton climbed the stairs of the Colonial Office in his kangaroo-skin boots, he could revel in their uniqueness, but nobody else would know. It was just a friendly gift, after all, without a hint of corruption. The gift of shares in the Australian Agricultural Company, on which he turned a quick profit of £12,000, were perhaps another matter.

References: Edward Macarthur’s gifts are discussed in S.Macarthur-Onslow, Records of the Macarthurs of Camden (1914)
John Macarthur Jr.’s gifts are recorded in the Macarthur Papers (Mitchell Library) and the Willmot-Horton Papers (Derbyshire Record Office).

An 1840 Wedding at Parramatta

On 9 September 1840, Patrick Leslie married Kate McArthur in the Anglican church in Parramatta. Kate was 22, Patrick would be 25 in a few weeks, and they had been engaged for over 3 years. Their marriage had been delayed again and again because Patrick and his uncle, my Walter Davidson had quarreled. Davidson sacked Patrick as manager of his property, leaving his nephew without a suitable home to which he could bring his bride.

The details of the quarrel are too complicated to go into here – you’ll have to read the book! – but Davidson sold the property – Collaroy station, in the Upper Hunter – to a cousin, Edward Hamilton, who arrived in New South Wales in early 1840. Meanwhile Patrick set out to find a new squatting run for his younger brothers on the Darling Downs. Leaving Walter Leslie and some servants on their new station on the Condamine, Patrick rushed back to Sydney to register their squatting run, which he did in August.

Then he finally married Kate.

I’ve spent most of the last week struggling to read the 13-page account of her wedding written by her sister Libby to send to Patrick’s mother in Scotland. I suspect I may be the first person who has read the letter since it did the rounds of the Leslie family during 1841. Libby’s handwriting is dreadful, and most pages are crossed, a method of squeezing as much as possible onto the page to save on the cost of postage. ‘Are you tired of this scrawl,’ Libby asks at one point – and I most definitely was.

But Patrick’s wedding is a key set piece in my book, the final scene in in the second-last chapter, the point at which the two families I have been following – the Macarthur family in New South Wales, and Walter Davidson’s extended family in Britain – were united in marriage.

Kate’s parents were Hannibal McArthur (nephew of John Macarthur) and Anna Maria King (daughter of Governor King), so she belonged to the colonial elite, but the wedding was a surprisingly low-key event, probably because they had very little time to plan ahead for the big day. The wedding was held in the morning, followed by a big celebration at the Macarthur’s estate, Vineyard, a few miles out of Parramatta.

The Vineyard, Hannibal Hawkins Macarthur's estate at Parramatta

The Vineyard, Parramatta, by Conrad Martens, 1840, from Wikipedia

The bride and groom soon left, but the party continued, with many of the guests staying overnight. Patrick and Kate spent their first few nights at Hannibal’s holiday home at Clovelly before going to Dunheved, Uncle King’s estate, which Patrick had rented while King was the resident commissioner of the Australian Agricultural Company at Port Stephens.

Phillip Parker King's estate, Dunheved

View of Dunheved, New South Wales, by Conrad Martens, 1837, from Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales

I’m intrigued by the similarities and differences between this wedding in 1840 and a wedding celebration these days. In some ways they are quick alike. The toasts and speeches haven’t changed much, nor has the sense that the groom, with one best man, was outcompeted by the bride with her host of bridesmaids. The fashionable clothes are much the same, even to the mother-of-the-bride’s outfit in – yurk – violet. Kate didn’t throw a bouquet, but the business with ‘Papa’s wedding ring’ seems to follow the same rules of pre-planned prediction – everyone knew that Mary was going to marry Patrick’s friend Hugh Gordon as soon as he returned from China.

I think in the days of My Kitchen Rules, we are more preoccupied with food than Libby seems to have been, although I suspect their ‘cold collation’ was pretty similar to our rubber chicken – and prepared without refrigeration, too. Less similar is the sheer size of Kate’s family – she had 5 sisters and 5 brothers, most of whom were present.

There’s something about family celebrations that brings out the best and worst in the human condition. That’s why suicide rates go up around Christmas, people fall in love at their friends’ weddings, and fights break out after funerals. Libby’s letter is full of the joy of the big event – but below the surface were a seething mass of tensions, only some of which were evident at the time.

The most obvious tension was between the two branches of the Macarthur family. The ‘Camden Macarthurs’ and the ‘Vineyard McArthurs’ took opposing positions in the quarrel between Patrick Leslie and Walter Davidson, and the families were becoming estranged. They even used different spellings of their name! But Hannibal was John Macarthur’s nephew, so John’s children should have been at their cousin’s wedding. John Macarthur’s widow, Elizabeth, was a friend of ‘Grandmama’ – Anna Josepha King – but she was also an old lady, and could be excused attendance, and her eldest daughter was always treated as an invalid. James’s absence was another matter, and his wife Emily could surely have got there too, though her baby was only born the previous May.

There were other tensions too. The Leslie brothers, the McArthur brothers and Robert McKenzie were all beneficiaries of the squatting boom, but the economic situation was about to go very bad indeed. Their friend Stuart Donaldson was a businessman in Sydney, supplying their stations and selling their wool on consignment. This made him their creditor – and it would be many years before he ever got his money back.

Finally there were the absent brothers. Walter Leslie missed the wedding because he was holding the fort on the Darling Downs – pretty much literally. The first building they put up there was made of stone, the better to resist attack by Aborigines, with windows just large enough to fire a gun. ‘It is a lovely place & there have been no blacks seen on our run for 18 months’, wrote Patrick ominously less than 2 years later. Meanwhile the oldest brother, William Leslie, was in Macao where he was a partner in Dent & Co, one of the biggest opium traders in the business. News from China was scarce in September 1840 because of the First Opium War. Libby clearly thought this war with China would be good for trade.

For those who may be interested, I’ve attached the whole of Libby’s letter below – there are still a few words that defeat me, and I’d be grateful for any clues/guesses as to what they may be. Libby’s punctuation is erratic. I’ve adjusted accordingly, and added paragraphs to make it easier to read.

Continue reading

Heather Radi (1929-2016)

The Australian historian Heather Radi died recently in Sydney. She taught Australian history at the University of New South Wales and University of Sydney for many years, and she was on the board of the Australian Dictionary of Biography.

I only met Heather a few times, but I knew of her from when I first began work in the History Department at the University of Queensland in 1970, for Heather had preceded me there during the 1950s, as a student and as a research assistant, and long after she left on a scholarship to the London School of Economics, people still talked about her fondly – and sometimes rather nervously.

photo of Heather Radi

Heather Radi, portrait in Dawson and Radi, Against the Odds

Heather was born on a settler block at Mt Tamborine in 1929. Now it is just an hour’s drive from Brisbane, but then the area was quite remote. She was the first of her family to get to university. Unlike most historians, she was good at mathematics, and might have done maths rather than history at university but for the flip of a coin.

After graduating, she went teaching briefly, and hated it. So did I. Then she worked as a research assistant for Professor Gordon Greenwood. So did I.

Those were the days of the God-Professor, whose power within his (with only one exception* always his) department was absolute. Professors like Greenwood kept a stable – I use the term advisedly – of female research assistants who prepared the raw materials for his work. (Greenwood was not the only one – I’ve always wanted to know more about the near-invisible research assistants who helped shape Manning Clark’s multi-volume history.)

In 1984, Heather wrote, ‘The professor exploited me of course as it was my work which enabled him to publish as much as he did, with a few words of acknowledgement in the final paragraph of the preface.’ When I joined the history department it was common knowledge that Heather had written most of the chapter on the 1920s that appeared under Greenwood’s name in Australia: A Social and Political History (1955). This was particularly unfair, not just academically but financially as well, because Australia was a text book that sold widely, went into a second edition, and no doubt earned Greenwood a good deal of money.

The upside of the arrangement was that Heather could write a thesis at the same time. She says:

To compensate for my low salary, I was permitted one day a week to work for a postgraduate degree. I was allowed to enrol for a topic so close to that which I was employed to research that the distinction of when I worked for the professor and when I worked for me was merely a notion in my mind.

I had a similar experience, though by the time I worked for Gordon Greenwood, his powers were waning. One of his earliest and most imaginative books was a study of Australian-American relations in the early 19th century. I was put to work gathering material for a second volume that would take the story of Australian-American relations through to 1901. I spent my time happily enough transcribing reports from American consuls in Sydney and Melbourne, chasing down the Americans at Eureka, and tracing the fascinating story of the Singer sewing machine. No book ever resulted from my labours, but many ideas that I have later played with came from those months of research. A few years after my job as research assistant ended, I snuck into the office one day and nicked all my notes from the filing cabinets. Nobody ever noticed.

One reason why Heather Radi stirred nervous memories at the University of Queensland was because, during her 5 years there, she was involved in a complicated sexual entanglement with two men within the department. In the 1950s she worked in a deeply sexist environment where women were barred from the Senior Common Room, employed in lowly positions on short-term contracts, and very vulnerable. Things had not changed a great deal by the time I arrived; I still clearly remember all of us women – secretaries, tutors and research assistants – reluctantly lining up to kiss the professor goodnight after an ANZAAS conference party in the early 1970s.

Heather was used, and abused, by her experience. She wrote about it openly in 1984, but since she did not mention the men concerned by name, I won’t either. Both are dead, but their children are not.

Many years later I realized that possession of my body had been a minor part of a bitter male relationship, between one man who was eminently successful and widely respected and another subordinate to him, less successful, less capable and resenting loss of patronage….

The men who had made me part of their rivalry each fathered a child in these years and I knew that whatever place I had in their lives it was secondary. I do not pretend that this was other than a bitter discovery but it supplied the incentive for me to complete a Ph.D. and to leave.

She got away. She won a travelling scholarship to the London School of Economics where, as ‘a quaint colonial hangover’, she was required to enrol in a second Ph.D.

I first encountered Heather Radi in the flesh in 1976. By then she had returned to Australia. She taught at the University of New South Wales, then moved to the University of Sydney. She and Peter Spearritt organized a conference on Jack Lang, the remarkable depression era New South Wales Premier. I had never been to a proper academic conference before and I loved every minute of it. I’ve been a bit of a conference junkie ever since.

Heather went on to organize more conferences, and write more books and chapters. She was a generous teacher and mentor. Reading her work again after so many years, I am saddened that I didn’t know her better. I’d like to tell her that things have changed at the University of Queensland – at least a little bit.

Update: Heather’s memory lives on in the Dr Heather Radi Scholarship ‘for Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders who display outstanding potential’. Details here.

Heather Radi, ‘Thanks Mum’, in Madge Dawson and Heather Radi, Against the Odds: 15 professional women reflect on their lives and careers (Hale & Iremonger, 1984).
Gordon Greenwood, Early American-Australian relations: from the arrival of the Spaniards in America to the close of 1830 (1944)
Gordon Greenwood, ‘The 1920s’, in Gordon Greenwood (ed), Australia: A Social and Political History (1955)

*The only female professor at the University of Queensland in the 1950s was Professor Dorothy Hill in the Geology Department, but she was not immediately made Head of Department because the selection committee thought a woman would not have the requisite leadership abilities. One member of the selection committee was Gordon Greenwood.

The South China Sea and Freedom of the Seas

The Permanent Court of Arbitration has just reached a decision arbitrating the case brought by the Philippines against China in the South China Sea. The court has decided that the ‘9 Dash Line’ drafted by China back in 1947 is invalid. China has angrily rejected the ruling, and there’s really not a blind thing the Philippines can do

about it, no matter how gleeful they may be at present.

South China Sea 9 Dash Line

From US Central Intelligence Agency, would you believe, via Wikipedia

It’s appropriate that this decision as made in The Hague, because international maritime law as we know it began in the Netherlands, 400 years ago, when a Dutchman, Huig de Groot, wrote an unpublished treatise De Indis (On the Indies) in 1604/5, and followed up by publishing Mare Liberum (The Free Sea) in 1609. These laid down the concept of the freedom of the seas, on which the South China Sea decision is based.

Freedom of the Seas sounds both worthy and universal, but even apparently universal legal concepts occur in a particular context. Huig de Groot, better known by his Latinized name Hugo Grotius, was dealing with a very specific event that occurred not all that far from the South China Sea. In 1603, Dutch merchant adventurers seized a Portuguese caravel near Singapore, and subsequently hired a smart young lawyer – Grotius – to provide the legal backing for their action.

Hugo Grotius, legal theorist

Michiel Jansz van Mierevelt, Hugo Grotius (1631), from Wikipedia

To understand the background, we need to go back before Grotius’s birth to 1568, when the Dutch rose in rebellion against their Spanish rulers. The Netherlands had been incorporated in the Hapsburg Empire when the last Duke of Burgundy died on the battlefield, leaving his only daughter Mary the greatest heiress in Europe. After tense diplomatic negotiations, she was quickly married off to Archduke Maximilian of Austria. Their son married the heiress of the Spanish kingdoms, so their grandson, Charles V, found himself ruling an empire that stretched from the Netherlands (i.e. Burgundy) to Austria to Spain to Spanish America.

The arrangement worked more or less under Charles V (1500-1558), who was brought up in the Netherlands, spoke Dutch, and spent most of his life racing from Kingdom to County to Duchy around his crazy empire, but his son, Philip II, settled down outside Madrid, a Spaniard through and through. Add in the complexities of the Protestant Reformation, and the whole tottering edifice began to crumble.

Then in 1580, the legitimate Portuguese royal line died out. Philip’s mother had been a Portuguese princess, so he claimed this throne as well. The Hispanic Peninsula was combined under a single ruler – and so were their trade and territories overseas.

During the 16th century, Europe slowly digested the amazing implications of Columbus’s discovery of a whole New World. In a supreme act of European hubris, in 1494 the Pope divided the globe between Spain and Portugal in the Treaty of Tordesillas.

tordesillas map

Carved up like an orange – the Treaty of Tordesillas and later modifications. Note that the Portuguese managed to scrape in Brazil. From Wikipedia

Spain (actually Castile) took the Western Hemisphere, while Portugal – which had been expanding down the African coast and soon entered the Indian Ocean – took the Eastern Hemisphere. No one outside Europe, of course, knew that the carve up had taken place – and even within Europe, it took some time for other nations to pay attention. After 1580, the Hispanic domination of the world seemed complete – at least from the European perspective.

Except that, like mammals evolving during the age of the dinosaurs, smaller maritime powers were beginning to emerge.

The Dutch had nothing like the economic or military power of the Spanish/Portuguese Empire – but they were sailors and businessmen, and they knew how to use their maritime power to hurt. The Dutch – and the English under Elizabeth Tudor, who backed the Dutch Revolt – attacked Philip II’s combined empire through its shipping. Dutch and English privateers bled the Spanish state of its bullion, attacking the heavy galleons that brought the gold and silver back to Europe.

They also began to challenge the Hispanic monopoly, setting up trading posts in West Africa and the West Indies to draw trade (including the slave trade) away from the Spaniards. It was Portugal’s bad luck that, from 1580, another dynastic accident meant that its trade in the East Indies was also fair game.

In 1603, the newly created Dutch East India Company [Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie or VOC] seized the spice-laden Santa Catarina off Singapore and sailed it back to Amsterdam. The shareholders were delighted, but there were some uneasy consciences amongst them, and Grotius was given the task of demonstrating that the seizure had taken place in open waters and was therefore legal.

Grotius argued that the sea belongs to no one. Any state has the right to sail across it, and in the 1603 context, the Dutch were not trespassers on a ‘Spanish lake’. (As rebels, they were entitled to the seizure as an act of war). Of course, Grotius’s treatise, especially the published 1609 version, has a much wider context, but he was also dealing with a particular situation and its implications.

It was at every level a very Eurocentric perspective. No one in the Netherlands had a clue that Polynesians had sailed the Pacific – the so-called Spanish Lake – for centuries, or that Malays, Javanese, Vietnamese, Cantonese and Filipinos all shared the waterways of South East Asia, including the South China Sea.

This sharing was not, of course, necessarily good-natured. In the South China Sea, for instance, there was a very long history of Cantonese clans and families competing with each other, building levees and planting barriers strategically across the outlets of the Pearl River estuary so that they – and not their neighbours – could hold on to the precious silt that poured down the river. Ironically, perhaps, the Netherlands has a similar tradition of reshaping their estuarine landscape with canals and river mud. Such historic ‘terraforming’ is, of course, very different from the massive earthworks China is undertaking today.

China’s ambit claim to control of everything within the ‘9-dash line’ has now been rejected, but perhaps it is time to abandon Grotius’s doctrine of Liberum Mare. According to Grotius, and by implication in the recent decision in The Hague, nobody owns the open sea, and freedom of navigation should be protected at all costs.

What needs protecting today, though, is not just freedom of the seas, but the seas themselves. The oceans are dying – from overfishing, pollution, acidification and rising temperatures. What belongs to no one is cared for by no one. We need to move on to a new way of sharing a precious common resource.

Note: I’m sorry I’ve been silent for so long. My excuse is a bad reaction to a yellow fever shot, and a broken rib. Normal transmission is now resumed.

One degree of separation: Roger Rogerson and me

Rogerson was finally found guilty today, so I’m reblogging this from 2014 (even though nobody will remember the significance of the last line, which refers to Frances Abbott’s scholarship).

Historians are Past Caring

Yesterday, a 73-year-old former policeman with a bad hip was arrested and charged with the murder of a young drug dealer. Roger Rogerson has a long history of brushes with the law, and he has spent some years in prison, but the New South Wales courts have never yet succeeded in nailing him for murder.

The Sydney Morning Herald this morning describes Roger Rogerson as ‘the state’s most notorious former cop’. Perhaps a part of his notoriety always lay in his memorable name. A dodgy cop with an unmemorable moniker like – say – Terry Lewis might not enter the popular consciousness in the same way.

I know nothing personally about Roger Rogerson’s career, but in a funny sort of way, I’ve known about him for much of my life, because he and my husband went to school together, first at Bankstown Primary School, and later at Homebush Boys High.

View original post 520 more words

Money Matters

The other day I saw one of Australia’s most famous coins for the first time, Governor Macquarie’s Holey Dollar, on display at a Brisbane Money Expo for numismatists.

The story is well known. In 1813, faced with a serious shortage of circulating coins, Governor Macquarie imported 40,000 Spanish silver dollars, which were then a common currency across the Pacific and East Asia. When they arrived, Macquarie oversaw their conversion into 2 coins, by punching out the centre, and gave them the arbitrary value of 5 shillings for the large outer ring, and 1 shilling and 3 pence (1/3d, or one-and-threepence) for the central ‘dump’.

I know all that already – I’ve written about the holey dollar before, here – but as I don’t approach these things from the perspective of a numismatist, there’s a lot I didn’t know.

For a start, Macquarie was a godsend to later collectors, because he didn’t care where his 40,000 coins came from, so there are holey dollars based on Spanish dollars from mints in Mexico, Peru, Bolivia, Spain, Guatemala, Chile and Colombia. Nor did he care about how old they were, so there are coins with dates ranging from the 1750s (Ferdinand VI) to the recent past (1810, from the Lima Mint).

Holey_dollar

Some coins are much rarer than others, and the Dump is rarer than the Holey Dollar. That’s not really surprising. Large denomination coins tend to be hoarded, while small denominations are more likely to stay in circulation, get more worn as a result, and are lost more easily.

Two of the specimens on display at the Expo had the name T KNIGHT stamped across the surface. Apparently this name pops up from time to time on colonial coinage – and nobody has discovered who he was. I made a brief search of Trove in search of him, but it yielded nothing – the name is too common, and the word ‘Knight’ appears in too many other contexts.

My guess is that T Knight used the coins as tokens of some kind, perhaps a pastoralist who paid his workers in tokens for the company store, though why he would use real coins in this way is puzzling, especially since defacing coinage was a serious crime – treason.

I am not now, nor ever have been, a collector. I have no desire to own these coins, or any of the other objects that were on display, I just love them for the stories they tell. Apart from Macquarie’s defaced currency (it’s not treason if you do it to your enemy’s currency) there were plenty of other stories too.

Coins have often been used for propaganda purposes, and there was a coin struck by Charles I during the siege of Newark in the English Civil War in 1646. There were even older Dutch coins found on the Abrolhos Islands off the West Australian coast that come from the Batavia shipwreck.

My favourite was a Spanish silver dollar with a faint etching of Chinese characters – the chop mark of the official at Canton [Guangzhou] who checked that the coin contained the full weight of silver before it was accepted, probably in payment for tea. This practice was known to Europeans by its Indian term, ‘shroffing’, and a neighbouring coin bore a shroff mark. I’ve written about the practice here.

While I am not a collector, I’m always fascinated by collectors’ deep knowledge of their subject. Philatelists have helped me several times over the years, and perhaps we historians need to talk to numismatists more often as well. One of the bit-players in my biography of Walter Davidson, his brother-in-law, Gilbert Farquhar Mathison, worked at the Royal Mint during the 1840s. He seems to have been quite senior, and was involved in the developing science of metallurgy. He travelled to France at one stage to study new methods of assaying gold coins.

After writing a travel book as a young man, he slips off the radar, and I can find almost nothing about his years at the Royal Mint. He’s not in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, for instance. After visiting the Money Expo, however, it occurs to me that I may be looking for knowledge of him in the wrong places.

Gilbert Farquhar Mathison, Narrative of a visit to Brazil, Chile, Peru, and the Sandwich Islands during the years 1821 and 1822 (1825) is online here