Category Archives: women’s history

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.

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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.

Gladstone in Love

Even Prime Ministers were young once – even Gladstone, the ‘Grand Old Man’ of Victorian politics.

In 1835, William Gladstone was 25 years old, and just starting his political career. That year he fell in love with Caroline Farquhar, the 19-year-old daughter of Sir Thomas Farquhar, 2nd Baronet (and a cousin of my Walter Davidson). I’ve recently been working my way through a collection of letters in the Gladstone Library that document Gladstone’s affair.

In mid-1835, Gladstone asked Caroline’s parents for permission to address her – that is, to propose marriage. He also let his father know his plans – he was a younger son, and would need his father’s financial support if he got married. Backbench MPs were not paid, and his career was unlikely to take off while the Tory Party (which he currently supported) was out of power.

His father, John Gladstone, was a wealthy businessman, who had been paid £106,769 in compensation when his slaves in the Caribbean were freed the previous year. (According to Wikipedia, this is equivalent to £83m.) So money was no object, and John Gladstone willingly agreed to support his son appropriately if he married.

Sir Thomas Farquhar talked over the matter with his wife Sybella, who in turn talked to Caroline. Lady Farquhar told Gladstone that

She expressed extreme surprise at the communication, not having the smallest idea you entertained any preference for her – She told me she considered the acquaintance of so short a duration, it was impossible to form any decision as to the future, or whether on more intimate acquaintance, a congeniality of tastes & opinions might lead to any warmer sentiment than at present exists. [Lady F to WEG, 27 August 1835]

At present, then, Caroline’s ‘affections at present are entirely free’, and she was happy to cultivate the acquaintance and see where it led, but Caroline’s relatives all seem to have been dubious about whether the two young ones were really all that compatible. Caroline’s brother Walter questioned how far your ideas on the subject of Religion might be of a stricter kind than she feels it right to embrace.’ [WRF to WEG, 31 August 1835]

It is impossible to know just what lies behind this implication. They shared a common religious background, for Walter Rockcliffe Farquhar and William Gladstone had been at Christ Church, Oxford together, where they were both deeply committed Christians who joined the Essay Club, the Oxford equivalent of the Cambridge Apostles. Another member of the group was Walter’s cousin, Walter Kerr Hamilton, who later became Bishop of Salisbury.

Caroline Farquhar was a lively girl, with a reputation as a beauty – tall, dark and with a fine figure, according to her cousin Patrick Leslie. She had enjoyed a very successful season, but she also was conventionally religious. Perhaps she and the family were hanging out for a title; perhaps Caroline found Gladstone’s intense religiosity a bit overwhelming – or perhaps she just found him a little dull.

Amongst the most fascinating letters in the Gladstone Library collection is the draft of a letter Gladstone sent to Sir Thomas Farquhar in August 1835. It’s fascinating, because all the changes, scratches, deletions and insertions, show Gladstone’s state of mind in all its raw intensity, even though all the re-workings make it almost impossible to transcribe accurately:

The blinding influence of self love is sufficiently known to me, to make me believe it quite possible that by this letter I may, unconsciously, but with [?], have rendered myself with justice liable to your displeasure: but it will be very painful to me if in forming such a conception as that which has now prompted me I shall seem to have abused a favour which I do not value the less highly from knowing that I had never any claim to it.

Although I have been led to write at so much length I am well aware that I much may have been left unexpressed stated much which ought to have been said: but I did do not feel that I have a right to indulge before you the strength of my feelings which it seems an imperative duty to restrain controul as long as it is possible or likely that their expression may give pain to those whom they refer who are the objects of them. [draft of WEG to Sir THF, 25 August 1835]

Some of Caroline’s relatives supported Gladstone’s suit, including her cousin Walter Kerr Hamilton, and her father’s cousin, my Walter Davidson, but the decision was up to Caroline – perhaps with a little nudging from her mother.

In any case, the romance – such as it was – soon fizzled out. Both parties were preoccupied by the death of parents – Gladstone’s mother died in late 1835, Caroline’s father the following January. Gladstone had another knockback, before he finally married Catherine Glynne in 1839. Meanwhile in July 1836, Caroline married Lord Charles Grey, another backbench MP and younger son, but a titled one, the son of the Whig Prime Minister Earl Grey. Both seem to have had successful marriages, so far as any outsider can judge.

To our eyes, Caroline Farquhar chose the titled nobody over one of the political giants of the Victorian age – but I suspect that from Caroline’s perspective, it was the right choice. Lord Charles Grey became an equerry to the new Queen, then Private Secretary to Prince Albert, the Prince Consort, and the couple joined the Royal Household. Caroline Grey became one of the Ladies of the Bedchamber. Queen Victoria’s court wasn’t a particularly lively affair, but it was a prestigious position, and a very different proposition from marriage to William Gladstone. There is absolutely no indication that at any stage, Charles Grey attempted to reform prostitutes.

Ref: The letters between William Gladstone and the Farquhar family appear in the Gladstone-Glynne Correspondence, GG/705-707, in the Gladstone Library. My thanks to the librarian Gary Butler for his help in finding and scanning them.
See also Anne Isba, Gladstone and Women (2006)
Gladstone in the 1830s, by William Henry Mote,

The Leslie Papers transcribed

I’m currently reading my way through the Leslie Family papers at the John Oxley Library. The Leslie brothers – Patrick, Walter and George – were early settlers on the Darling Downs, with squatting runs at Canning Downs and later Goomburra. Patrick Leslie also built Newstead House in Brisbane. I’m interested in them because they are the nephews of  Walter Davidson.

The Leslie papers are a mixture of transcripts and original handwritten letters, all now photocopied and bound in 5 fat volumes. In total there are about 500 letters. They are a well known collection and have been well-thumbed by many historians over the years. Because the bound volumes consist of photocopies, I don’t need to use white gloves. This is a great advantage. I hate white gloves, though I realize they are necessary when handling fragile materials – but more to the point, my iPad doesn’t like white gloves and goes into a sulk if I try to swipe or type or scan while wearing them.

Over at Adventures in Biography, MST recently wrote about the joy that comes from finding transcriptions. It is a generous gift when someone in the past has gone through the document before and left the fruits of their labour for the benefit of later researchers. Who wouldn’t prefer to read this:

FullSizeRender

rather than this:

An example of a crossed letter from the Leslie Papers, State Library of Queensland

But I find I’m becoming a bit obsessed by these Leslie transcriptions, and the typists who made them long ago.

The Leslie papers came to Queensland in the 1940s from the Warthill estate in Aberdeenshire, which is still in the hands of Leslie relatives. (Trivial fact: Rose Leslie, who played the chamber maid Gwen in Downton Abbey, and Ygritte in Game of Thrones, grew up at Warthill) The Leslies of Warthill, bless them, never threw anything away, so the Leslie letters that reached the State Library of Queensland include – as far as we know – pretty nearly all the letters that reached the family from their sons, from the time they left for Australia, Patrick in 1834, Walter and George in 1838.

When they reached Sydney the young men stayed with Hannibal Macarthur and his family at Vineyard, Parramatta. Both Patrick and George later married two of Hannibal’s daughters, Kate and Emmeline Macarthur, so there are also letters from them as well as other members of the Macarthur family at Vineyard.

By the time the letters arrived in Queensland, Patrick Leslie already had a heroic, if undeserved*, status as ‘the first white man’ on the Darling Downs. Henry Stuart Russell used Patrick’s diary as one of the sources for his book The Genesis of Queensland (1888), but that diary had since disappeared. So when the Leslie letters reached Queensland, after years of negotiation and an inconvenient World War, they caused quite a stir. They were a valuable new resource – but they were also extremely difficult to read. So somebody decided to transcribe them.

In 1957, Kenelm Waller wrote an honours thesis based on these letters: The letters of the Leslie brothers, 1834-1854. The Waller thesis contains long quotes from the letters, typed in a similar layout to the transcriptions in the Oxley library. Both thesis and letters were typed on an old-fashioned manual typewriter, with the distinctive fuzziness that comes from making several carbon copies at once. Created in a time before computers, before electric typewriters, before liquid paper, it was hard and exacting work.

So was Waller responsible for these transcriptions? It seems likely, though whether he was the typist is more difficult to say for sure. Typing, in those pre-computer days, was a more gendered activity than it is today, so perhaps it was a loving mother, wife or sister who did the typing.

It’s all guesswork, I’m afraid, but in fact I think there were at least 2 typists involved. Even the most perfect transcription has idiosyncrasies, as the typist makes decisions: Do you scrupulously capitalize letters mid-sentence because the letter-writer uses an H or an S that looks like a capital letter? If the writer has scrawled a word that might be misspelt, are you picky or do you give them the benefit of the doubt? How do you deal with words that are totally illegible, or with tears in the paper? One of the Leslie typists uses ellipses – … –  the other uses square brackets – [blank] . Most intriguingly, Ellipse-Typist had more trouble with the handwriting, so some of his/her transcripts are full of mystery dots.

If Waller was the brain, if not the fingers, behind this huge transcription project, this helps to explain how the decision was made about which letters to transcribe. Nearly all the letters from the 3 Leslie brothers are transcribed, as are some from their wives. Even quite peripheral letters that relate to their activities on the Darling Downs are copied, so there is a long sequence dealing with the shipment of cattle from Scotland.

Other letter-writers have been ignored, most but not all of them women. Hannibal Macarthur’s wife and daughters kept up a regular correspondence with the Warthill family, especially Patrick’s mother Jane and his sister Mary Ann. These letters are delightful, full of details about Patrick and his friend dancing Scottish reels after dinner, and Mary Ann sewing doll’s clothes for the youngest Macarthur daughter. They also deal with more serious matters, such as the ‘Absyss’ on each of Kate Leslie’s breasts following the birth of her baby – which were opened and drained. Yikes.

To be fair, the letter that describes this event has been transcribed, but in general, nobody in the 1950s thought these domestic details were important. I’ve written about a similar instance from the 1950s here. So these letters have remained un-copied and therefore relatively inaccessible ever since. I am by no means the first person to look at these letters, but I do wonder how many people have overlooked them in favour of the ones that were easier to read.

Sixty years ago, someone decided that women’s words, and the domestic detail of women’s lives, didn’t matter. It’s a shame if as a result, every hasty researcher who chooses the transcripts over the scrawls is bound by a perspective that is now 60 years out of date.

* There were runaway convicts on the Darling Downs before him, and Patrick brought a servant with him anyway.

Political Partners

Niki Savva’s new book, The Road to Ruin, has just been released and is all over the news this morning. It deals with the close relationship between the former Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, and his chief of staff Peta Credlin. ‘Uniquely close’ is the term used – but was it? PM Chifley’s relationship with his personal assistant was pretty close too, while Elizabeth Chifley was sidelined in Bathurst.

Historians are Past Caring

In June 1951, Ben Chifley, the former Labor Prime Minister and now Leader of the Opposition, had a massive heart attack in his rooms at the Hotel Kurrajong.  The Hotel Kurrajong was essentially an up-market boarding house, built at a time when Canberra was still a country town without many places for its floating population of politicians and public servants to stay.  Chifley was moved to Canberra Hospital, but died later that night.  He was 65.

L. F. (Fin) Crisp was the professor of political science at Canberra University College.  He was working on The Australian Federal Labour Party, 1901-1951 (1955), and was fascinated by the story of Chifley, self-educated and rising from extreme poverty in the 1890s to become an engine driver, then a union leader, and finally Prime Minister.  Crisp was already gathering materials for Ben Chifley: a biography (1961).

Crisp knew that a lot of papers dealing…

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Medieval Power at the Queensland Museum

The Queensland Museum has just opened a new exhibition on Medieval Power. It runs until 10 April 2016. As the museum trumpets in its promo, it will be ‘the first museum in the world and the only one in Australia and New Zealand to host this incredible new exhibition curated by the British Museum.’

So – is it incredible? I’m not so sure. The exhibition contains a great many wonderful pieces. Not surprisingly, given how far they have come from one side of the world to the other, most of them are small. That’s not in itself a problem, though it does mean that the exhibits need time – and in my case reading glasses – to absorb their detail properly.

Given the problems of transportation, it was generous of the British Museum to send some fragile items, such as embroidered cloth or leather. There’s a leather shoe dredged from the muddy Thames that looks as if it could have hidden in the back of my wardrobe until recently. The cuts along the toes are so fresh that I’m sure a leather worker could recreate the design without much difficulty.

The caption says it dated from 1400-1500, but was it dated on the basis of style or some sort of chemical analysis? Carbon dating or DNA analysis would have been impossible with all that mud. I wanted to know more about that shoe, but there’s no catalogue to satisfy my curiosity – and what does it have to do with Power, the alleged theme of the exhibition?

In this exhibition, Power covers the authority of the church (papal rings, objects of devotion), the state (numerous seals, the Lewis chess set king) and the military force of the knights behind that (helmets, horse gear). Beyond that, there’s a miscellany of the stuff of ordinary life – knives and spoons, a saltcellar, items of adornment. I fell deeply in love with a small bone pin with the head and horn of a unicorn.

Unicorn pin from Medieval Power exhibition

Unicorn pin from British Museum, Museum no 1932,0307.5

There’s also a rudimentary attempt to illustrate towns and trade, and one of the final cabinets contains a number of seals and other objects associated Jewish or Muslim minorities.

The objects are lovely, intriguing, engaging. Most of the people around me seemed perfectly happy with what was on display, though none of their comments seemed to go much beyond the ‘Wow, isn’t that old!’ school of history. It is the school holidays, after all.

So why did I come away from this exhibition feeling vaguely frustrated, and regretting that I had splashed out on a season ticket?

For a start, there’s no catalogue. I’m not sure who curated this exhibition, but my guess is that most of the decisions about selection were made in London, not Brisbane, especially as the exhibition is going on to other places after this. So why is there no catalogue to cover the entire tour? A search of ‘unicorn pin’ on the British Museum’s Collection online was easy – but I’ve got Buckley’s chance of finding the shoe. Similarly, there’s a nice quiet place within the exhibition where a lot of interesting books are laid out to read – but none of them are available at the bookshop.

According to the British Museum website, this travelling exhibition is called Medieval Europe: AD 400-1500 but somewhere between London and Brisbane, the title changed to Medieval Power: Symbols and Splendour. My hunch is that some publicist thought this title would appeal more to the Game of Thrones generation, but it’s a pity, because in the conversion, the chronology – and therefore causation – have been lost. A thousand years of the ebb and flow of European history have been mashed together into a largely undifferentiated ‘Middle Ages’, sometimes within the same display cabinet.

There’s another problem with the theme of Power. It leaves women out of the discussion, even when the objects themselves do not. The King in the Lewis chess set is described in terms of his sword and throne, the symbols of his royal power. But there is no comparable discussion of the Queen who sits beside him, from another walrus ivory chess set.

Chess queen from British Museum

Walrus ivory Queen chess piece, German, 14C-15C British Museum no. 1856,0612.3

In the end, I was glad to have the season ticket because I went back at the end of the week, just to check if my original impressions were unfair. I don’t think they are, although on a second viewing the logic of the themes became a bit clearer. But I’m still disappointed. Don’t get me wrong – the exhibition is definitely worth a visit, maybe more than one, but go on a day that won’t be crowded so that you can take you your time over the smaller exhibits – and reading glasses. And don’t, like me, walk out expecting to pick up that fascinating book on medieval jewelry when you reach the bookshop. It won’t be there.

Update: Here is a very different report on the exhibition, this time from a physicist.

Coral Lansbury, the PM’s mother

I think I’ve developed an unhealthy obsession with Malcolm Turnbull’s mother, not least because he was born in October 1954, more than a year before she married his father in December 1955. These things don’t matter a damn any more, but they probably cut quite deep for both mother and son back in the 1950s.

Most Australians know the general outline of the story, now covered in more detail in Paddy Manning’s new book, Born to Rule: The Unauthorised Biography of Malcolm TurnbullMalcolm Turnbull was the only child of Bruce Turnbull and Coral Lansbury. He was sent to boarding school when he was 8, in 1963, and ‘soon after’ – as her Australian Dictionary of Biography article discreetly puts it – the marriage fell apart. Coral left her son behind, but took the furniture. Turnbull talked a little bit about his mother on Annabel Crabb’s Kitchen Cabinet – an old program, repeated on ABC recently after the leadership spill. It’s available on iView until 23 December (in Australia only).

Image 6-12-2015 at 1.00 pm

From Trove Newspapers

From her teens, Coral  worked in radio as an actress and scriptwriter. She married 3 times. Her first marriage was to radio actor George Edwards, who played ‘Dad’ in the long-running radio series Dad and Dave. She was 23, while he was 64, and this was his fourth marriage. Two days after the wedding, Edwards was hospitalized with pneumonia, and died 6 months later in August 1953.

What interests me, though, is that Coral Lansbury was a historian. She was appointed a lecturer in History and Australian Studies at the University of New South Wales in 1963, and wrote articles for the Australian Dictionary of Biography, including one on her first husband, actor George Edwards, one on the trade unionist William Guthrie Spence (with her supervisor, Bede Nairn) and – oddly – one on Charles Dickens.

It is now more than 50 years since the original Australian Dictionary of Biography was conceived, and at present discussions are going on to work out how – and how much – to update the project, just as in the UK the original Dictionary of National Biography has been updated to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Web publishing makes such an update possible, though it is still a massive undertaking. It also requires policy decisions about who does or does not get included. These days I don’t think Charles Dickens would get the cut, although the ADB has included other British figures who never came to Australia, mostly politicians and bureaucrats who had a more obvious influence on the Australian colonies.

In 1970, Coral Lansbury published Arcady in Australia: the evocation of Australia in nineteenth-century English literature (1970), in which she argued that Charles Dickens

invented the Australian Bush Legend. In 1850 he was concerned, like most English people, with a great problem: what to do with all those distressed and unemployed, the rising mob in England. Well, you know what Dickens did. He sent Micawber off to Australia, and there you have him perspiring in the sun. The most unemployable character in literature becomes a magistrate… And the Arcadian legend is born not in Australia but (because) a great many English people… wanted to impose it on Australia.
‘Mum of ‘Spycatcher’ lawyer has regrets’, Canberra Times, 23 October 1988

Coral Lansbury’s academic career followed a strange trajectory, even by the standards of clever women of her day, struggling to carve out a place in the university system during the 1950s and 1960s. She went to the University of Sydney and did a BA with first class honours, but according to her ADB entry, ‘as an unmatriculated student, she was ineligible to graduate’. Why? How could that happen? She won prizes – the George Arnold Wood prize for history, and the Henry Lawson prize for poetry – but it took 11 years from starting an MA in 1952 to appointment as a lecturer at UNSW in 1963, the year that her son Malcolm was sent off to boarding school at the age of 8.

At about that time, her second marriage began to fall apart. She began an affair with a fellow historian, J. H. M. (Jock) Salmon, and they married when both their divorces were finalized. They moved first to the University of Waikato, New Zealand, and then to America, where Coral was appointed Professor and later Dean of Graduate Studies at Rutgers University. Her later academic publications include The Reasonable Man: Trollope’s Legal Fiction (1981), and Elizabeth Gaskell (1984). She also wrote a number of novels. She might have had an even more stellar career, but in 1991 she died of bowel cancer, aged 62.

Two years ago, the Australian Dictionary of Biography produced The ADB’s Story (ed. Melanie Nolan and Christine Fernon) to mark the 50th anniversary of the ADB project. Melanie Nolan also wrote the ADB entry on Coral Lansbury, which may be why Malcolm Turnbull, then Minister for Communications, was invited to launch the book. The full speech is here – but this is how he began:

Can I say at the outset how incredibly moved I was – I nearly burst into tears at the end of this room when I came here – because you were kind enough to mention my Mother was a contributor, not a high-volume contributor, but a contributor to the ADB (Australian Dictionary of Biography). But I was extraordinarily moved talking to you three and to others here, because I was for the first time I can remember, since my Mother’s death, in the company of historians. And I had forgotten what that felt like. And it is actually very different. And I can’t quite put my finger on it but I was nearly overwhelmed by a wave of emotion. So don’t think I’m just a flinty-hearted politician!

Some months ago, Khaled al-Asaad, an 82-year-old archaeologist, was tortured and killed in Palmyra by ISIS thugs. Referring to this terrible event, Tony Abbott called al-Asaad an antiquarian. Now ISIS’s crime was so horrific that it seems churlish to mention in the same breath our former PM’s minor linguistic crime, but I must admit that it is a relief to have a new Prime Minister who knows the difference between an antiquarian and an archaeologist, and one who has expressed publicly his fondness for the company of historians.

Note: The original typescripts of Coral Lansbury’s radio plays are part of the Eunice Hanger Collection of Australian Playscripts in the Fryer Library, University of Queensland.