The coronavirus epidemic has now spread to most parts of the world, and Switzerland is in the top 12 countries for confirmed cases, which may not reflect the reality of cases in countries with little or no testing. This time of social distancing and self-quarantine brought to mind my great-grandfather who lived through an epidemic of bubonic plague in Sydney in 1900, the first and largest plague outbreak in Australia. In this post, I take a look at this outbreak and his experience of it through the window of the detailed journal that he kept at the time.
Today the 16th June is Bloomsday, a celebration of the life and work of the Irish writer James Joyce. Joyce’s epic novel Ulysses is set on that day in 1904, the day of his first date with his wife-to-be, Nora Barnacle.
This lengthy novel has been highly controversial, and has been banned in various countries. It is written using a stream-of-consciousness technique, with careful structuring based on Homer’s Odyssey. Its revolutionary technique and experimental prose as well as its rich characterisation and broad humour, have led it to be regarded as one of the greatest literary works in history.
I read Ulysses as an undergraduate during my daily commutes by train to and from Sydney University. I was particularly taken with the final chapter of Ulysses in which Molly Bloom is lying in bed next to Leopold and her thoughts are reported as a stream-of-consciousness 42 pages in length. I think I read a paperback edition that belonged to my father. I remember him during that period quoting to me the following passage highlighting Leopold Bloom’s adoration for his wife Molly, because he loved the sound of the words:
“He kissed the plump mellow yellow smellow melons of her rump, on each plump melonous hemisphere, in their mellow yellow furrow, with obscure prolonged provocative melonsmelonous osculation.”
James Joyce, Ulysses, Episode 17 “Ithaca”.
My father and before him my great-Uncle John (1895-1975) were book collectors and I have kept some of their books, including a copy of the first edition of Ulysses published by Shakespeare and Company in Paris. After the initial printing of 1000 numbered copies in 1922, my great-uncle acquired a copy in 1927 from the 8th print run of May 1926.
A publishing history of Ulysses can be found at antwerpjamesjoycecenter.com
I knew that Ulysses had been banned in Australia for some time and looked up the dates. it was not banned until 1929, then released in 1937, only to be restricted again in 1941 after pressure from Catholic organizations. This ban was lifted in 1953 after it was considered ineffectual considering how many copies were already in circulation.
Just over 100 years ago my grandfather Will Mathers and his brother Tom, both in the 8th Australian Field Ambulance, took part in the Battle of the Somme, on the front line from 18 September 1916 to 8 November.
The Battle of the Somme, also known as the Somme Offensive, was fought by the armies of the British and French empires against the German Empire. It took place between 1 July and 18 November 1916 on both sides of upper reaches of the River Somme in France. It was the largest battle of the First World War on the Western Front; more than one million men were wounded or killed, making it one of the bloodiest battles in human history. Tom kept a diary throughout the war [see Endnote 1] and his diary account provides a terse but graphic account of the experience of being a stretcher bearer on the front lines.
In an earlier post https://mountainsrivers.com/2015/10/26/ancestral-tales-a-theosophist-a-thief-and-an-indian-princess/ I wrote about my great-aunt Boodie (Florence Teasdale Smith) who was a theosophist, whose father was a bank robber and she was also descended from an Indian princess. I mentioned in passing that her uncle was a famous Australian poet who committed suicide but did not give any details. So this post is about Barcroft Boake, an Australian bush poet, who committed suicide at the age of 26.
The centenary of the Battle of Passchendaele was commemorated today in Belgium. This battle lasted from 31 July to 10 November 1917 and was the third and largest of the battles of Ypres. Overall, 800,000 soldiers from both sides of the conflict died at Ypres from 1914-1918. My grandfather, Will Mathers and his brother Tom served in the Australian Army Medical Corps in France during World War I and were at the Battle of Passchemdaele. They carried the wounded out of the battlefield from around 20 September 1917 until 7th October, when both were gassed. Will was hospitalized for 8 days.
Will and Tom had two cousins John and William Melrose who both died at Ypres. Their uncle Robert Melrose lost both his children in 1917. John died on 7 June 1917 at Messines, a day on which 6,700 Australians died. The battle of Messines commenced in the early hours of 7 June with the detonation of a million pounds of explosives packed into tunnels dug under German positions on the Messines Ridge. The explosion was heard in London and Dublin and killed approximately 10,000 German soldiers, the deadliest non-nuclear manmade explosion in history. Five months later, his brother William was also killed on Oct 12, 1917 in the Battle of Passchendaele. John Melrose was the first husband of my (great-) Auntie Annie, who lived until 1989 and was like a second mother to my father. She was married to John for only two weeks before he left Australia for France.
Back in 2011, I discovered that one of my great-great- great-grandfathers (on grandpa Baker’s side) Thomas Wilson (1817-1890) had been transported to Australia in 1835 as a convict. He and two others had committed a highway robbery.
Just recently, I came across convict records that gave more information and a description of him. He was aged 21, single, a Protestant who could read and write. He came from Kent, and was a skinner and poulterer. According to the convict records, he was 5 feet 4¾ inches tall, with ruddy and freckled complexion, brown hair and grey eyes, his eyebrows partially meeting. Among various marks and scars, he had (presumably tattooed) a sun, half moon, seven stars and a crucifix inside his lower left arm. At this point, I realized I was out of my depth, and called in the renowned symbologist, Professor Robert Langdon of Harvard, who told me that the sun, moon and seven stars were a set of symbols used by Freemasons and were also adopted by the Order of Oddfellows, founded in the eighteenth century. The Oddfellows modelled themselves on freemasons though were dedicated more to people of modest lifestyle, labourers and artisans. For the Oddfellows, the “sun, moon and stars” collectively might represent all God’s creation, all that is wonderful and admirable. The seven stars recalls The Pleaides constellation representing the “seven liberal arts”, and for a skinner and poulterer would probably translate to literacy and numeracy.
Langdon concluded that a literate 19 year old working class boy who was already a member of the Oddfellows and had a distinctive set of symbols tattooed on his arm was unlikely to have been a simple highway robber. Could he have deliberately set out on a course of action that would result in him being transported to NSW? Was there any significance that after he was given his ticket of leave, he bought substantial land holdings in the Manly area in 1853? Land now worth $300 million. And in 1869 became tenants of the “Mona Vale” property belonging to William Charles Wentworth, one of the three explorers who found the first route across the Blue Mountains in 1813. Was it significant that when he arrived in Australia in 1835, Wilson was first sent to Paramatta to work for William Lawson one of the other three explorers. Could it be another coincidence that Thomas Wilson sold his land in 1877, exactly one year before the foundation stone was laid for the first Oddfellows Hall at Manly.
Langdon immediately flew to Geneva and interviewed Mathers, seeking any evidence of Oddfellows involvement in his life. Mathers was surprised at the turn this research had taken, and unwilling to believe that the location of the Oddfellows Hall in Casino just half a block from where he lived as a child was anything more than coincidence. Or that one of father’s close colleagues was the Warden of the local Oddfellows Lodge. And why did the Lodge reach out and offer Mathers a scholarship as a teenager that enabled him to visit New Zealand. Why did they try to bend his interest in astronomy towards astrology and more occult concerns? Clearly Langdon would have to follow the leads in New Zealand to see what connections were found.
Discussions with Mathers also revealed that in the 1940s, his grandfather had applied considerable pressure on his mother to get her to visit two elderly women in Mosman, the granddaughers of Thomas Wilson. Why was it so important that this contact be made? Could the Oddfellows really have had a plan, a vision, reaching centuries ahead. And what could it possibly be?
My Dad is a person I have admired from before the time I first knew him. My Dad had a wonderful sense of humour. His childhood and university days were full of harmless pranks and the nicest sound I can remember is my Dad reading or listening to the radio when something would tickle his sense of humour making him laugh out loud, infecting anyone within hearing.