State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 9 April 1972


Our Short History*

Australia's short European history is unique in the world of ancient and deep civilizations, in Asia or in Europe. Because of our brief occupation of this continent we rest lightly upon the soil here; not yet have we become a part of it, not yet acclimatized.
The history of our Australian States is disparate. Look at the names that fringe the coastline of Western Australia, left by Europeans who came and went away! Flemish, German, Dutch, French—Wessel, Houtman, Abrolhos, Dirk Hartog, L'Evěque, D'Entrecasteaux, Espérance amongst them. The names in each State tell some of its story; many of them are British, some are Aboriginal. From us they are mainly those of individuals; from the Aborigines, names of birds and animals and those that evoke the story of places and the passage of time.
Victoria's history is almost the shortest of all our States. Therefore, for those of us whose forbears came here early, there is a special responsibility to preserve and build up our records through words, paintings, sometimes through music. We need to crystallize not only the distant past but to record the near past and the contemporary present while they are close to us.
Out of need for human communication our forbears wrote and drew, kept diaries and sent long descriptive letters. Few of us now do so, and because of our manner of living, we keep few papers.
Princess Bibesco in one of her books on Marcel Proust refers to ‘survival in the fight against oblivion as the confessed or secret goal of all human effort’.
It first occurred to me in Cairo in 1942 when the Germans were advancing towards us that, when I could, I must try and put into shape for our children some picture of their forbears in Australia, and particularly of those whom I myself had known and loved. It took me nine years to do this.
Some of these early forbears I will mention briefly because they contributed a little to the history of their time.
My great-grandfather John Jones Peers sailed from Liverpool to Van Diemen's Land in 1834 and came to Melbourne as a builder and friend of John Batman's in 1837. He began the foundations of the Customs House in Flinders Street and built at his own expense the first Methodist Chapel in the town at the N.W. corner of Swanston Street and Flinders Lane. His two loves were architecture and music.
My grandfather Theodotus John Sumner, who married the Peers’ daughter, came to Victoria from Cornwall in 1842. He became a partner in the firm of Grice, Sumner and in 1873 member for the Central Province in the Legislative Council of Victoria.
My grandfather Charles Ryan sailed from Dublin to Sydney and overlanded to Melbourne in 1839. He was an agriculturalist and helped establish the pastoral firm of Ryan and Hammond. Later with the help of W. R. Guilfoyle he created the unique garden of Derriweit Heights on the slope of Mount Macedon. He married the eldest daughter of my great-grandfather John Cotton, a naturalist and an artist and writer, who sailed to Victoria in 1843 in the Barque Parkfield with his wife and nine children. They left Plymouth in January, coming by Brazil, Trinidad, the south cape of Africa, through the Great Australian Bight into Port Phillip Bay on May 14th. Nearly four months’ sailing at about seven nautical miles per hour!
We know more about John Cotton than we do of other forbears because he was articulate and his diaries, letters, drawings
and water-colours have been preserved, although dispersed among his many descendants.
I quote a few extracts from his diary in the La Trobe Library of the voyage to Australia. In each entry he gave the latitude and the longitude.
March 23rd 1843: The constellation of the Southern Cross is now vertical in the sky.
May 11th: This morning I was on the poop before sunrise and saw the Australian coast. It appeared low and flat with here and there a bunch of trees…. We are approaching Cape Otway. A little bird with a flame-red breast flew past the stern of the ship towards the land.
May 13th: The coast appears well-wooded to the water's edge. We are approaching Cape Patton. A butterfly and some small birds were seen about the ship today.
May 14th: Most lovely weather. We are in sight of Arthur's Seat and Schanck Point. Saw the headlands of Port Phillip, Point Nepean. [He did a sketch of the small barque entering the Heads.] Pilot came aboard. Passed the tide ripplings and cast anchor at 4 p.m. for the night. God be praised! With thankful hearts.
The sketch-books of John Cotton of the Birds of the Goulburn River (1843–49) are at this moment being organised for publication; we are fortunate that Mr. A. R. McEvey of Melbourne's National Museum is doing the ornithological side of it. This book will help to fill in some of the John Gould period.
To turn to the physical side of life here: we are trying to preserve our environment and our birds and animals; as for our cities we are nearly too late. Buildings are beginning to look alike, concrete and glass. Already it is difficult to find one's way in Melbourne by known landmarks because so many have gone. At nearly every corner there is a petrol station where often there had been a charming pub. Those that are still there have been mutilated. Churches are overshadowed, trees are going. Melbourne is becoming a faceless city, one amongst the other faceless cities of the world.
There are two pleas that I, with many others, would like to make. One, to preserve what we can of the buildings, small and large, that are part of our history and the simple beauty of our early development, in the cities, in the townships, in the country districts. It is not sufficient to have photographed and recorded what we had.
In the English Coronation Service, during the Girding On of the Sword of State, comes this prayer: ‘With this sword do justice. Restore the things that have gone to decay, maintain the things that are restored … reform what is amiss and confirm what is in good order.’
The second plea: to continue to record not only the distant past, but the near past and the present — stories of recent generations of worthwhile persons while those of us who have known them are still alive. Few individuals of late years have kept diaries in which to reveal themselves. Alas! Some of us must seek to do this for them. The even more fascinating task is for contemporaries to write of their own living contemporaries who are contributing to our Australian life. Only those who are living amongst them can know their flavour and their quality. This cannot truly be done later, off the drawing-board. Some of this writing need not be published during the lifetime of the subject. It can be laid by for the record, in our growing historical libraries that preserve the structure, the detail and the human side of our valiant short history.
Maie Casey


An address by The Lady Casey to a gathering of The Friends of the La Trobe Library on 9 November 1971.