From The House (2018)

Danish architect Jørn Utzon’s design won the 1957 competition for the Sydney Opera House. In July, he set foot in Australia for the first time, accompanied by his business partner, Swedish architect Erik Andersson. When they first saw the Bennelong Point site they were accompanied by Gavin Souter, features writer for the Sydney Morning Herald:

Model of Opera House shell, 1966 (City of Sydney Archives)

Perched high above the site on the Tarpeian Way, the path above the sheer rock face cut along the north-west side of Macquarie Street in the Botanic Garden, they took in the splendid view of both the harbour and the promontory.

Utzon was blown away by the location and almost literally by the nor’-wester coming in off the harbour. ‘It’s right,’ said the Dane as his hair and gabardine coat blew wildly in the wind. Like a good sailor he scanned the horizon, from the Sydney Heads to the Circular Quay ferry terminal. He took in the vista of the harbour, the clouds, the Harbour Bridge – everything he could from this high vantage point. ‘It’s okay. This is the way they placed temples in the old days. It’s absolutely breathtaking. There’s no opera house site in the world to compare with it….This site is even more beautiful than in the photographs from which I worked.’

…Utzon explained he wanted a house that seemed to grow organically out of the landscape. To find such a shape, he had looked at flowers and insects.  He spoke about Mayan platforms and Kronborg Castle, which stood on a point only a few miles from his home.

‘It was not really the same. At Kronborg, part of the horizon is open; here the site is more intimate because the other side of the harbour is so close. Kronborg Castle is a big heavy structure with high towers and, as the ferry runs around it, the towers seem to move,’ he explained to Souter, as he watched a Manly ferry rounding the point on its way to Circular Quay. ‘The House will have several shells behind each other so that when you move past, they seem to move too…’


Model of Opera House interior, 1966 (City of Sydney Archives)

‘What do you think of Frank Lloyd Wright’s criticism?’ Souter asked.

‘He would not bother attacking it if he were not interested in it,’ Utzon replied, noting the praise from architects such as Richard Neutra, whom he’d visited in Los Angeles on his way to Sydney.

‘Don’t let me be a self-praiser,’ Utzon cautioned. ‘Self-praise stinks in Denmark.’ In Denmark, Jante’s law, a concept similar to Australia’s tall poppy syndrome, downplayed individual success.

To those who dismissed his design as ‘modern foolishness’, he said their criticism didn’t interest him, echoing his own father’s openness to the spirit of the new. ‘We ride in automobiles and we fire rockets. Why should we build in the Victorian style today?…’

‘This is how it will be at Bennelong Point. You must belong to your surroundings. When we design for Copenhagen, we are Danes; when we made this scheme for the Opera House, we camped on Bennelong Point. We were Bennelong Pointers.’

 -Helen Pitt, Australian


From The Mirror of the Sea (1906)

Born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski in a Polish-speaking part of the Russian Empire, Joseph Conrad went to sea in 1874, and drew on his experiences as a merchant seaman for his fiction. In his memoir The Mirror of the Sea, he looks back on the Sydney of the 1870s:


Watermen and their boats at Circular Quay, c.1890. (City of Sydney Archives)

These towns of the Antipodes, not so great then as they are now, took an interest in the shipping, the running links with “home,” whose numbers confirmed the sense of their growing importance.  They made it part and parcel of their daily interests.  This was especially the case in Sydney, where, from the heart of the fair city, down the vista of important streets, could be seen the wool-clippers lying at the Circular Quay—no walled prison-house of a dock that, but the integral part of one of the finest, most beautiful, vast, and safe bays the sun ever shone upon.  Now great steam-liners lie at these berths, always reserved for the sea aristocracy—grand and imposing enough ships, but here to-day and gone next week; whereas the general cargo, emigrant, and passenger clippers of my time, rigged with heavy spars, and built on fine lines, used to remain for months together waiting for their load of wool.  Their names attained the dignity of household words.  On Sundays and holidays the citizens trooped down, on visiting bent, and the lonely officer on duty solaced himself by playing the cicerone—especially to the citizenesses with engaging manners and a well-developed sense of the fun that may be got out of the inspection of a ship’s cabins and state-rooms.  The tinkle of more or less untuned cottage pianos floated out of open stern-ports till the gas-lamps began to twinkle in the streets, and the ship’s night-watchman, coming sleepily on duty after his unsatisfactory day slumbers, hauled down the flags and fastened a lighted lantern at the break of the gangway…

Circular Quay, c. 1888. View from the water looking south to Mort Co. (Woolbrokers) with banners “Many Happy Returns of the Day” (possibly on the occasion of the Centenary in January) and showing people gathered on the quay and a number of launches or ferries and tall ships. [Photo by Henry King 1880-1890] (City of Sydney Archives)

A stupid job, and fit only for an old man, my comrades used to tell me, to be the night-watchman of a captive (though honoured) ship.  And generally the oldest of the able seamen in a ship’s crew does get it.  But sometimes neither the oldest nor any other fairly steady seaman is forthcoming.  Ships’ crews had the trick of melting away swiftly in those days.  So, probably on account of my youth, innocence, and pensive habits (which made me sometimes dilatory in my work about the rigging), I was suddenly nominated, in our chief mate Mr. B—’s most sardonic tones, to that enviable situation.  I do not regret the experience.  The night humours of the town descended from the street to the waterside in the still watches of the night: larrikins rushing down in bands to settle some quarrel by a stand-up fight, away from the police, in an indistinct ring half hidden by piles of cargo, with the sounds of blows, a groan now and then, the stamping of feet, and the cry of “Time!” rising suddenly above the sinister and excited murmurs; night-prowlers, pursued or pursuing, with a stifled shriek followed by a profound silence, or slinking stealthily alongside like ghosts, and addressing me from the quay below in mysterious tones with incomprehensible propositions. The cabmen, too, who twice a week, on the night when the A.S.N. Company’s passenger-boat was due to arrive, used to range a battalion of blazing lamps opposite the ship, were very amusing in their way.  They got down from their perches and told each other impolite stories in racy language, every word of which reached me distinctly over the bulwarks as I sat smoking on the main-hatch.  On one occasion I had an hour or so of a most intellectual conversation with a person whom I could not see distinctly, a gentleman from England, he said, with a cultivated voice, I on deck and he on the quay sitting on the case of a piano (landed out of our hold that very afternoon), and smoking a cigar which smelt very good.  We touched, in our discourse, upon science, politics, natural history, and operatic singers.  Then, after remarking abruptly, “You seem to be rather intelligent, my man,” he informed me pointedly that his name was Mr. Senior, and walked off—to his hotel, I suppose.  Shadows!  Shadows!  I think I saw a white whisker as he turned under the lamp-post.  It is a shock to think that in the natural course of nature he must be dead by now.  There was nothing to object to in his intelligence but a little dogmatism maybe.  And his name was Senior!  Mr. Senior!

Circular Quay , with ruins of Dawes Battery in the foreground with a small steamer berthed in (now) Campbells Cove. The spire and lookout of the AUSN building is at far right. Campbell’s bond stores below the AUSN tower. (City of Sydney Archives)

The position had its drawbacks, however. One wintry, blustering, dark night in July, as I stood sleepily out of the rain under the break of the poop something resembling an ostrich dashed up the gangway. I say ostrich because the creature, though it ran on two legs, appeared to help its progress by working a pair of short wings; it was a man, however, only his coat, ripped up the back and flapping in two halves above his shoulders, gave him that weird and fowl-like appearance. At least, I suppose it was his coat, for it was impossible to make him out distinctly. How he managed to come so straight upon me, at speed and without a stumble over a strange deck, I cannot imagine. He must have been able to see in the dark better than any cat. He overwhelmed me with panting entreaties to let him take shelter till morning in our forecastle. Following my strict orders, I refused his request, mildly at first, in a sterner tone as he insisted with growing impudence.


Circular Quay, c. 1890. (City of Sydney Archives)

“For God’s sake let me, matey!  Some of ’em are after me—and I’ve got hold of a ticker here.”

“You clear out of this!” I said.

“Don’t be hard on a chap, old man!” he whined pitifully.

“Now then, get ashore at once.  Do you hear?”

Silence.  He appeared to cringe, mute, as if words had failed him through grief; then—bang! came a concussion and a great flash of light in which he vanished, leaving me prone on my back with the most abominable black eye that anybody ever got in the faithful discharge of duty.  Shadows!  Shadows!  I hope he escaped the enemies he was fleeing from to live and flourish to this day.  But his fist was uncommonly hard and his aim miraculously true in the dark.

 -Joseph Conrad, Polish-British, 1857-1924

From The Argus (1908)

The American writer Jack London and his wife sailed across the Pacific from San Francisco to Sydney in his ketch the Snark in 1907-08. While in Sydney he reported on the world heavyweight title fight between Jack Johnson and Tommy Burns.




Full credit for the big fight must be given to Mr McIntosh, who has done the unprecedented, and had the nerve to carry it through. But equal credit must be given to Australia, for without her splendid sport-loving men not a hundred McIntoshes could have pulled off the great contest of Saturday.

The stadium is a magnificent arena and so was the crowd magnificent. It was managed by that happy aptitude which the English have for handling big crowds. The spirit of the stadium crowd inside and out with its fair-minded and sporting squareness was a joy to behold. It was hard to realise that those fifty or sixty thousand men were descended from the generations that attended the old bare-knuckles fights in England, where partisan crowds swarmed the ringside, slugging each other, smashing the top hats of the gentlemen promoters and backers, and swattting away with clubs at the heads of the poor devils of fighters whenever they came near to the ropes.

Never in my life have I seen a finer, fairer, and more orderly ringside crowd, and in this connection it must be remembered that the majority were in favour of the man who was losing. That many thousands of men could sit quietly for forty minutes and watch their chosen champion hopelessly and remorselessly beaten down and not make the slightest demonstration is a remarkable display of inhibition. There is no use minimising Johnson’s victory in order to soothe Burns’s feelings. It is part of the game to take punishment in the ring, and it is just as much part of the game to take unbiassed criticism afterward in the columns of the press. Personally, I was with Burns all the way. He is a white man, and so am I. Naturally I wanted to see the white man win. Put the case to Johnson. Ask him if he were spectator to a fight between a white man and a black man which he would like to see win, and Johnson’s black skin will dictate a desire parallel to the one dictated by my white skin…


Burns was a little man against a big man, a clever man against a cleverer man, a quick man against a quicker man, and a gritty, gamey man all the way through. But all men are not born equal and neither are pugilists. If grit and gameness should win by the decree of natural law then Burns, I dare to say, would have won on Saturday and in a thousand additional fights with Johnson he would win. But unfortunately for Burns, what did win on Saturday was bigness, coolness, quickness, cleverness, and vast physical superiority.

From any standpoint the fight between Cripps  and Griffith last Wednesday night was a far better contest. The men were evenly matched and the result was in doubt from round to round and from moment to moment. And this delicate balance was due to their being equally matched. Each man had opportunity to show the best that was in him. That opportunity was denied Burns…


The fight. The word is a misnomer. There was no fight. No Armenian massacre would compare with the hopeless slaughter that took place in the Stadium. It was not a case of too much Johnson, but of all Johnson. A golden smile tells the story, and the golden smile was Johnson’s. The fight, if fight it can be called, was like unto that between a colossus and a toy automaton; it had all the seeming of a playful ethiopian at loggerheads with a small and futile white man, of a grown man cuffing a naughty child; of a monologue by one Johnson, who made a noise with his fists like a lullaby, tucking one Burns into his little crib in sleepy hollow; of a funeral, with Burns for the late deceased and Johnson for the undertaker, grave-digger, and sexton.

Twenty thousand men were at the ring side, and twice twenty thousand lingered outside. Johnson, first at the ring, showed in magnificent condition. When he smiled a dazzling flash of gold filled the wide aperture between his open lips. And he smiled all the time. He had not a trouble in the world. When asked what he was going to do after the light, he said he was going to the races. It was a happy prophecy. He was immediately followed into the ring by Bums, who had no smile whatever. He looked pale and sallow, as if he had not slept all night, or as if he had just pulled through a bout with fever. He received a heartier greeting than Johnson, and was the favourite with the crowd….

Lindsay Johnson Burns

The Jack Johnson and Tommy Burns fight, 1908 by Norman Lindsay, cover of ‘The Lone Hand’ (State Library of NSW)


Burns never struck a body blow that would compare with Johnson’s, nor a cross, nor a straight, nor an uppercut; while, as for kidney blows Johnson’s most frivolous and pensive taps were like thunderbolts as measured against Burns’s butterfly flutterings in that painful locality…

The mouth fighting on the part of both men must have seemed bizarre to the Australian audience. Nevertheless mouth fighting as a ring tactic has won more than one battle. But Saturday it neither won nor lost anything. Burns’s remarks failed to ruffle his opponent’s complacence in the slightest: while there was no need for Johnson’s airy verbal irritations, for Burns was as angry as could be from the stroke of the gong. And though Johnson proved a past master in the art of mouth fighting, even his pre-eminent ability in that direction failed to make Burns angrier by one jot or tittle…

One criticism, and only one, can be passed upon Johnson. In the thirteenth round he made the mistake of his life. He should have put Burns out. He could have put him out. It would have been child’s play. Instead of which he smiled, and deliberately let Burns live until the gong sounded.

And in the opening of the fourteenth round the police stopped the fight, and Johnson lost the credit of a knock-out.

But one thing remains. Jeffries must emerge from his alfalfa farm and remove that smile from Johnson’s face. Jeff, it’s up to you. And, Mclntosh, it’s up to you to get the fight for Australia. Both you and Australia certainly deserve it.

            -Jack London, American, 1876-1916


From UNSW: A Portrait (1999)

Patrick O’Farrell, the pre-eminent historian of the Irish and the Catholic Church in Australia and New Zealand, was long associated with the University of New South Wales, arriving in 1959 ten years after it had been founded as Sydney’s second university. Originally ‘The New South Wales University of Technology’, it grew out of Sydney Technical College, expanding rapidly in the 1950s and 60s:

The commencement of medicine in 1961 was, of course, a major extension of the university’s persona. But it was not until its actual establishment that the university fully realised how costly it was, particularly in relation to teaching hospitals, and this
in a university already, because of its scientific and technological nature, a high cost academic environment. The initial teaching hospitals were Prince Henry at Little Bay and Prince of Wales at Randwick, with specialised arrangements with some other metropolitan hospitals. For the first time in Australia clinical professors in the university medical school were directors of the clinical departments in the teaching hospitals. At every point in this enterprise there was criticism and contention, professional and public. The queen’s opening of the first building, in 1963, went forward with due pomp and apparent tranquillity, but in fact it was not until 1967 that the university itself felt relatively easy about its medical financing and teaching hospital provision.

Even by 1965 Medicine had gained an attractive reputation amongst those students not constrained by family traditions dictating continuance at the University of Sydney. And it offered advantages in other ways. If you took Maths as an option, and decided doctoring was not for you, you could transfer to Science, even Engineering at the end of first year. University of New South Wales courses were acquiring a superior reputation among informed parents by the 1970s. To a student reminiscing of entering in 1965 (won over by the Open Day comparisons), Sydney seemed entrenched in tradition, behind the scientific times. The University of New South Wales seemed new, with excellent teachers, much better equipment, and much more ‘modern’ in its attitude towards the science of the time. Experience in the medical school confirmed this. And also an atmosphere of happy harmony between students – male and female; impressionistically one-third Jewish, one-third ‘average Australians’, one-third Asian – with a staff significantly Catholic. Or so it was believed, though precise actualities suggest perhaps otherwise. Is it also apocryphal that at the Roundhouse medical ball in 1964 a professor stripped naked and danced around on the table? As in all medical matters, stories abound. As also in matters of students living very hard, experimenting with drugs, magic mushrooms, and the like. What seems to be the case, however, is a certain degree of pro-doctor prejudice among staff, who tended to anticipate in students a medical family background and a private school education. Correctly, by and large, in that many of the students were doctors’ sons who could not get into Sydney.

First Committee of Society of Students (forerunner to Students’ Union), including my father Bob Morgan standing third from left, 1951 [GK Cranny/UNSW Archives Collection]

So what? Medical students at the University of New South Wales were well aware of their superior facilities – for instance, four to a cadaver as against around thirty at Sydney, where facilities were ‘grim’. Those in a position to compare – in microbiology for instance – found a much closer relationship between students and tutors: in practical classes each tutor had ten or twelve students; at Sydney, thirty, with no chance to get to know students. And at the University of New South Wales the emphasis was on modern teaching methods – defining goals and what to know to get there. Set against this was the faculty’s policy for choosing the better students from first year Science at the cost of excluding their own bottom students, a practice which raised some vigorous parental objection. Even among staff there were those who protested, to the point of resignation, against the severity of standards. Indeed they were severe: anatomy and obstetrics held weekly examinations; other subjects demanded large ‘holiday’ tasks, physiology for instance. At the University of New South Wales determination to be equal to the best sometimes took it too far. The government was to intervene to allow more students to progress – leading to staff protest. And internal rumpus – the first professor of Physiology resigning in conflict with the dean, Rundle. Of the 117 who enrolled in the second intake in medicine, 26 reached the finals in December 1967. Over 75 per cent of the Class of 1968 were in specialty positions thirty years later. The student costs at university amounted to fatigue and some feeling of deprivation that there was not sufficient time to grow and enjoy  university life. In fact, in the clinical years the system and requirements of the course meant living in, in a variety of hospitals – little time or opportunity for ‘university life’.

There was some professional resistance to this new wave of intensive training. The 1950s and 1960s were dominated by anecdotal as against evidence-based medicine. Thus, there was some antipathy to academic, science-oriented medicine among general practitioners and hospitals – and it was there that the emphasis of the teaching of medicine at the University of New South Wales lay. However, the faculty had the initial advantage of hard men in charge, first-rate men of great ability and reputation, but, above all, deciders, autocrats with it – master builders of a new, complex, medical edifice. Within the rules of the institution, though. Evolved from public service and Sydney Technical College backgrounds was a rigid teaching hourage requirement: at the top, tutors around sixteen hours a week; graduating down to  professors at four to six hours, with allowance for evening classes. Strict adherence to this was the basic requirement for any argument for
additional staff. Medicine was no exception to this rule. The university’s reputation for hard-working teachers in all faculties sprang in part from youth and commitment but also from this simple measure of coercion.

As to Medicine, a major influence was the relationship (if that is the right word) with Sydney University: dead hostile initially to the University of New South Wales medical school; then anger, resentment, regret, and finally acceptance – though not without using its old boys’ network to secure the new Westmead Hospital in the 1970s, and attempting to outstrip the University of New South Wales in its decision to introduce the five-year degree in 1973-74 (the six-year course came back in 1988). Medical politics tended to be petty, competitive, and nasty: in no area did the University of Sydney-University of New South Wales rivalry last longer, or be as intense, as in medicine. Meanwhile, John Hickey and Doug Tracy were putting St Vincent’s ahead on the medical map. And major developments focussed on Prince of Wales, to make it the major hospital it is today.

Professor Fred Hollows, 1978 [UNSW Archives]

At the University of New South Wales were lateral-thinking, teaching doctors, destined to be leaders in their fields: Penny, Dwyer, HollowsBeveridge, McCloskey, and so on – men who did not wish to stay with the establishment, but to create and mould a new medical world of their own. As human beings. Their attitude to patients – listen, talk – was very different from the superiority affected by Sydney. At that early stage, entry was not determined by an astronomical, competitive Tertiary Entrance Rank (TER) performance, a situation of requirement which many medical staff were to deplore: students offering no people skills, indeed anything beyond being good at getting marks.

-Patrick O’Farrell, New Zealander-Australian, 1933-2003

From The Home (1939)

In ‘The Palm Beach Myth’, David McNicoll looks at the beach on the northern edge of Sydney as it becomes increasingly accessible, and fashionable:

The discerning amongst us are agreed that the summer season at Palm Beach, N.S.W., reaches an all-time high in the offensiveness of its habitués.

I was ruminating about it at length the other night, as I lay half-asleep on the verandah of a secluded hide-out, well up on the Hawkesbury reaches, where we have been driven by the advancing horde of the tripper and the pseudo-socialite. There, while the vigorous mosquitoes passed the haunted hours in doing power dives down towards my face (pancaking with considerable force on the netting) I thought of the grim tragedy of it all.

Do you remember, not so many years ago, when that over-rated, but at least protected, sand-spit was a comparative paradise? It was not frightfully well known, and there were about twenty houses tucked about in its wooded hills. On the beach foreshore were the store and one or two houses. The sand was clean, and, I am convinced, not as viscous as to-day, when it is permeated with the treacly sweetmeats of the unwashed.

You would wander down to the surf about ten, and maybe make a merry morning crack at the local cop, who had pedalled all the way from Narrabean [sic] to see that all was well with the residents and to drink a bottle of beer at various cottages. On the beach would be about fifty people, most of whom you knew, the majority of whom you liked. There would be a dozen gay umbrellas, and lots of laughter and talk, and lots of swimming, and a terrific amount of just lying in the sun.

And in the evenings there would be cool verandahs and cocktails, and visits to other cottages. And maybe launch trips on Pittwater, or walks up Barrenjoey. A fortnight at the place was the best tonic to be found anywhere within fifty miles of Sydney.

Frank Hurley, Palm Beach, showing Barranjoey [i.e. Barrenjoey] Lighthouse, Barranjoey Head, Lion Island, Pittwater, ca. 1940 [National Library of Australia]

But to-day people are prepared to pay up to 30 guineas a week just to spend the summer days in the centre of an odour. Do you see the subtlety of those words, “pay up to 30 guineas”? It means that the owners of the houses are well away from the place, thanking their stars that such people exist as will hire their homes while they themselves are enjoying a holiday somewhere among reasonable people. I know a couple of house-owners in Palm Beach—and they vow that they would no sooner think of spending Christmas or New Year within 40 miles of the joint than they would fly to the moon.

Any normal morning at Palm Beach to-day the beach is littered with cars by 11 a.m. By 12 noon it is packed, and the wafts of air which rise from the hot car bodies and bonnets almost obscure the foreshore houses. At 12.30, when the heat is really on, the insidious smells from the acres of consolidated campers begin to creep around the corner and on to the beach: smells of cans which once contained camp pie, smells of prawn shells, of potato peelings, of primus stoves, of baby food, of humanity, of all the things which, en masse, are offensive.

And in the afternoon, as the parking attendant is walking along the cars extracting sixpence from each driver (shades of Bondi!), the beach is so crammed that one can hardly turn over. The campers have descended on the place, and sprawl around in dirty shorts or long pants. Mothers chase their errant children about the beach, and, having caught them, start to dry and dress them in the public view.

Inside cars men and women attempt to undress themselves and to struggle into bathing costumes. Under hastily erected canopies they open their lunches, one long line of picnic lunches, and with the sand lowing in the raspberry jam, they eat. And eat. And eat. Then they systematically dispose of paper by crumpling it into little balls and throwing it on to the beach. Here it lands, unfolds, and blows about during the afternoon.

On the hot, steamy asphalt road, leading along the foreshore, humanity parades all the day, clad in every sort of attire. There are people in their Sunday best, blue serge suits, stiff collars. There are the best collection of hideous blazers ever gathered in any Christian country. There are screaming, yelling children, and gawky girls whose backs have nearly been burnt off them by the sun, so that now they present red, raw spaces, steaming with coconut oil.

People everywhere are eating ice creams, chewing sandwiches, or munching sweets. In the grassy plots between the foreshore houses they are even doing a bit of peaceful summer noonday necking, locked in one another’s arms.

But what, you say, what about the occupiers of the houses? Are they willing to take all this? Are they in the middle of it, moving and having their being? Are they not in retreat, in the hills, hiding from the fury of Suburbia? Of course not. They love it. They are no better than the trippers, no more to be commended or condemned. They are at home among them. They are Suburbia just as much as the trippers, the difference being that the tripper can afford a day or a week-end, bus transport, and a tent, while the Palm Beach holidayer can afford a car and the price of a cottage.

Picture from ‘The Home’, February 1939 [Trove]

That is the dreadful part of it, perhaps even more distressing than the trippers and the campers and the smells. It is the pseudo-socialites, lying on the beach in their gay wraps, imagining themselves the be-all and end-all of exclusiveness.

Who are they, and from whence did they come? Who knows? It is obvious why they come. They, in the first place, were attracted by the Palm Beach myth; they imagined people of great wealth and power, lying on the beach picking at caviar and getting stuck into magnums of champagne. They came, they saw, they were disappointed. But they stayed, because they had the wealth to turn on the luxuries which the real people did not trouble to turn on. They came in greater droves, formed their own society, their little cliques, their unpleasant groups. And the more they came the more the real people fled, content to let their houses to the nouveaux-pseudoes. And so the new people found they had the beach to themselves. It became their domain; and they ruined it. Now they can keep it.

-David McNicoll, Australian, 1914–2000

From Letters and Journal of W. Stanley Jevons (1886)

Economist and logician William Stanley Jevons was nineteen when he arrived in Sydney in 1854 to take up the position of assayer at the new Sydney Mint. During his five years in Sydney, his work left him time to pioneer meteorology, geology, photography and political economy in Australia. His letters to his family give an insight into daily life in the young colony:

Petersham, N.S.W., 18th January 1856.

I know that at any time you will be glad to have a letter from me, and so, without any particular prospect of a mail, I am going to write you a few pages. I have been much occupied the last twenty-four hours with an incident that occurred to me last night, and which I shall not easily forget. On going upstairs to bed about 10.30 p.m., with a candle, I had got but a short distance into the room when I saw a long irregular black thing lying on the floor. I was puzzled at first to think what it was, but a very few moments of examination were required to decide the question, for it was without doubt a black snake, and still further to convince me, the thing began to move and to hiss! To tell the truth, I then went out of the room quite as fast as I came in (as people say), and, to have him in safe keeping, shut the door. On returning with Mr. O’Connell, provided with sticks, etc., for his destruction, we could see nothing of him, but ultimately discovered him hidden in a corner under the bed, from which being displaced, Mr. O’Connell soon killed him with a few good knocks, but not before he had made a great display of his wide-opened mouth and forked tongue. The fellow was then found to be over a yard long, but though he be no wonder himself, everybody acknowledges it to be the most singular fact they remember of a snake getting into a house, for besides crossing the yard, he had to go up several stone steps into the lobby, and then up long, steep, and rather awkward stairs into the room. Everybody says, too, that he is a regularly poisonous rascal. It is well, however, that it was as it was, for if he had simply moved under the bed before I came in, I should have probably gone to bed with him under me—a very disagreeable thought. I have thus been giving you an account of the affair as lengthily as if I had been talking to you, and I do not know what for, unless for my own satisfaction and amusement, but I hope not to your alarm. It is singular that this is the first snake of any size that any of us have met this summer, and in all probability I may go to bed every day of my life and not meet a second.

The drawing room at the house where Jevons lived in Double Bay [John Rylands University Library, the University of Manchester]

…Though often rather tired with assaying in the midst of hot winds and the present awfully close weather, I am very jolly and well. Last Monday I went a long walk through the bush and swamps to the shores of Botany Bay, but it is rather an uninteresting place, except for its associations, and I got back without anything worth relating. …

Portrait of Jevons holding cupels and tongs – some of the assayer’s tools, 1857 [John Rylands University Library, the University of Manchester]

Sunday, 27th January.

In many of your letters, some months since, you noticed my having been to a déjeûner at Dawes Battery last year, and seemed to take pleasure in it. The same thing came off yesterday again, being a general holiday for the anniversary of the foundation of the colony; but as Captain Ward, of course, knows ten times as many people as he did then, it was on a much more extensive scale. It was most excessively formal; but I found it easy to get on without being noticed for any peculiarity among the number of people, and I was somewhat pleased to have an opportunity of observing the Australian aristocracy. That you may understand the occasion of the whole affair, you must know that the Sydney people, liking holidays, make the anniversary day a good excuse for one, and the whole town turns out in a way unknown in England, unless it be a Good Friday or a Fast-Day. The chief attraction is the regatta, the principal one of the year, and the points at Fort Macquarie and Dawes Battery are crowded with people, as well as all other places within sight. Captain Ward’s house, on the top of the point, has the best view of the whole; and from the pictures you have of the harbour you can imagine what a really beautiful scene it is to see it covered with different yachts and sailing boats, innumerable row boats, many of the large coasting steamers strolling about with bands, and full of visitors, and all the shipping and flag-poles fully decorated with flags. Any one arriving from sea on a regatta day must indeed think Sydney a fine place.

View from Dawes Pt, Sydney 1859, looking east, Captain Edward Wolstenholme Ward, Deputy Master of the Sydney Branch of the Royal Mint [Historic Houses Trust of NSW]

-William Stanley Jevons, English, 1835–1882


From The Evidence to the Bigge Reports – The Written Evidence (1971)

Surgeon William Redfern went further in a letter to Commissoner John Thomas Bigge after their unhappy interview:

5 February 1821

At length, Sir, when you had examined all the underlings of the Hospital, & acquired the information you deemed necessary from sources whose purity & respectability I shall shortly delineate, without once intimating either to Mr. Wentworth or Myself the course of procedure you had adopted, I was by your desire introduced at 9 O’Clock at night – on the 26th June – the depth of winter – into your presence.

The appearance of the Room, – the Piles of Books, the dress of yourself & Secretary, the gravity of your countenance, the awful Solemnity with which you made your opening speech – the threatenings you denounced, the dreadful charges you had to exhibit against me, not forgetting the stale trick in imitation of Banquo’s Ghost, forcibly impressed on my mind the introduction of some unhappy victim, Clothed
in his Santo Venito, with his own picture pourtrayed [sic] thereon, surrounded with the figures of flames & Devils, to the inquisitorial Hall at Madrid, preparatory to the Auto Da Fe.

That memorable speech, conversation, & questions, so artfully calculated to wound & insult my feelings, have made too deep an impression on My Mind ever to be forgotten. The quiver of your lip, the curl of your nose, the expression of your eye – in short, your tout-ensemble, revealed to me your very thoughts & intentions, as a Mirror exhibits the person of him who stands before it. I clearly perceived your intention was to alarm and intimidate and in the event of a failure in that object, to irritate me to a breach of good manners. How far you succeeded in either the one or the other, I must leave you, Sir, to Judge. On calmly considering, at this distant period, the scene, the language you made use of, the manner in which you uttered it, I feel amazed that I could have remained one moment in your house, or that I could ever have been induced again to enter it. Nothing, Sir, but the high respect I entertain for His Majesty’s Commission, which you have the honor of holding, could possibly have induced me to listen for a Moment to such insulting language.

You were aware, Sir, that I had expressed my opinion on the arrest of Govr. Bligh in strong terms of reprobation & condemnation of that measure. You questioned me on it, by way of conversation; Nor did your sarcastic sneer on that occasion escape my observation…

We conversed, & you questioned me, on My appointment – My Commission – my remission of Sentence – by whom granted – whether it had passed the Great Seal – the Hospital, the Contract – the Specification – its mode of finishing – My Medical education. But how you noted down my remarks on these subjects, I shall have an opportunity of noticing in the emendation of My evidence in examination before
you – and which you caused to be transmitted to me on the 3d instant.

At length, Sir, when you went so far as to tell me that I had appropriated large quantities of Medicines Tin ware, & Spices to my own use & emolument; that I had written an insulting letter to your very redoubtable & Manly Protegé, Mr. Bowman, expressing My Sentiments of his ungentlemanlike conduct in visiting the Hospital whilst in my charge, unattended by Mr. Wentworth or Myself; and in questioning My Apprentice relative to the treatment of My Patients; and desiring him not to repeat his intrusion. Writing this letter was heresy & treason not to be forgiven. When you went so far Sir, as to question me respecting my chastising my apprentice & one of my servants; and when you told me that if there were an Attorney General in the Colony, you would proceed against me in a different way; It became high time to resist – and I then determined no longer to submit to such a course of proceeding.

The only regret I now feel on the subject, a regret I shall feel to the last Moment of my existence, is, that, when you, Sir, in my estimation, descended from the dignity becoming His Majesty’s Commissioner of Enquiry, to a mode of examination by Menaces of heavy charges to be preferred against me, in order to confuse, perplex, & intimidate me, in a Manner More becoming a Spanish Inquisitor, I did submit to it for a Single Moment; – that I did not make you a low bow, and instantly retire from your presence.

-William Redfern, English, 1774-1833