Books: Colonial Consorts, by Marguerite Hancockby A.V. Pagliaro (reviewer)News Weekly
, July 14, 2001
COLONIAL CONSORTS: Wives of Victoria's Governors 1839-1900
by Marguerite Hancock
Melbourne University Press
Rec. price: $39.95Grandeurs and miseries
This book is a well-woven tapestry of stories, being sometimes intertwining accounts of the 11 ladies who were Governors' wives in Victoria between 1839 and 1900.
The period begins with the start of gubernatorial rule in the colony, and ends with its eclipse. After 1900 the Federal Governor-General had his seat in Melbourne and, in the person of the Earl of Hopetoun, outspent anything that a prudent colonial Governor could do to hold up provincial prestige.
It is a tapestry showing an exciting background. As the capital of a young colony, Melbourne was something between a wild "frontier" town and a quiet county capital. With the discovery of gold it acquired a precocious cosmopolitan character.
Things settled down; but there were sudden flashpoints of political volatility, and a further period of immense prosperity and investment in the 1880s.
Victoria avoided becoming a series of ghost towns by imposing sufficient economic safeguards to ensure the development of an infrastructure. At the peak of this well-found and well-founded society were the Governor and his lady.
At one level - looking up - the Governor's role was closer to the function of a republican President than to that of vice-regal office-bearers today. It not only had social prestige; the Governor had to take hard decisions and give some direction to the Premiers and Cabinet.
Hence this book is instructive for aspirants to any future Presidential job. Obviously the comparison does not totally hold up - the Governor had to be able to work in with the Colonial Office. And if there were dissatisfied politicians - even in the minority - they could work mischief on him by pulling strings in England. As with Sir Charles Darling (Victoria's Governor from 1863 till his dismissal in 1866), local popularity did not avail.
The author has given a full account of the 11 ladies and their doings. She has been fortunate enough to gain access to the writings of Mrs La Trobe and Lady Loch, and close personal accounts of the otherwise shy and unforthcoming Lady Hopetoun.
We read about how the Loch family members, upon arrival at the new Government House (Lord Loch was Governor 1884-89) were dismayed at its size and decor, and softened some of its harsher aspects with discreet planting, indoor and outdoor.
Their dog, however, had to remain in the stables on quarantine for six months, and so was unable to repeat his entertaining exploit in Hobart, where he slipped his chain and found a butcher's shop.
There is also a satisfying depth to the research. For example, we read about how Lady Darling had her revenge upon Parliament by living long enough to collect £30,000 in annuity payments - the legislature had voted down £20,000 as a departure package to her husband, after organising his sacking.
Most of the consorts to the Governors enjoyed good health and were able to bring something of their personality to bear on community life.
However, we should spare a thought for Lady Normanby, who was hardly able to stir from Government House due to heart problems; Mrs La Trobe, who visibly declined over the years and had to be repatriated; or the first Lady Barkly, who died of puerperal fever.
Even pictures of the cultured Diamantina Bowen (who was on a second tour of duty in Australia, having moved down from Queensland where her husband Sir George Bowen had been Governor), show how the unhealthy conditions rife in those days could so soon take their toll. The well-placed were not immune.
Many Governors' ladies made an effort to lead and to encourage good community leadership, and won respect for it. It was not an easy task. There was a chessboard of protocol. The Colonial Office (perhaps so as to avoid rivalries) had made a ruling that vice-regal families should not be seen to mingle excessively in the local social life of a community.
So a Governor's wife could be "At Home" to the public for a couple of afternoons a week; these occasions could then lead to larger formal engagements, such as receptions or balls.
Not everyone who attended an "At Home" could be invited to more formal events; they might not be eligible, being "in trade" or the like. But a wholesaler was not considered to be in trade.
Again, people who had risen to parliamentary or municipal representation in the socially mobile Victorian community could not (whatever their background) be ignored. A parliamentarian invited to dinner at Government House might feel free to remark that as a tradesman he personally had installed some of the fittings.
In general, there was a steady increase in freeloaders who slipped through the net. The business of meeting the people progressively got out of hand - La Trobe had nothing to spend, but was not thought the less of because of it.
Yet by the time Lord Brassey came into office during the depressed 1890s, the Argus was laying it down that a Governor should spend double his salary out of personal funds in entertainment.
This was an elitist line in many ways, and led inevitably to the material to be found in Smith's Weekly in the 1920s - satires on people attending these functions, as undeserving social climbers trampling each other down around the buffets.
A Governor's consort who wanted to help in the community looked to assist the economically challenged or handicapped. (She, and they, would have said "through charity": it was an age of plain speaking).
The reader will be surprised to find how many causes were encouraged from the very outset by these consorts. Nor will the reader fail to find a feminist consort, who won her husband's support for female suffrage.
At a time of aggressive young Australian nationalism, these representatives of the outer royal court did not always have a good local press. Nonetheless a reader will get a sense that on the whole, they served the Victorian colony well.
In an age of laissez-faire capitalism and brutal Social Darwinian life, vice-regal culture proclaimed a sense of responsibility and imperial duty. This attitude stands the test of time in these days of a more recent internationalism (and less plain speaking), when all manner of retrograde steps are applauded in the name of "best practice".