State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 12 October 1973



Born at Dartmouth in 1797, but brought up in Exeter, George Rowe made a considerable reputation as a young man with his lithographed views of Devon, Cornwall and Somerset
1 G. Pycroft ‘Art in Devonshire’ in Transactions of Devonshire Association for Advancement of Science, Vol. 14, 1882; Rowe's published works are listed in Scenery of Great Britain and Ireland … from the Library of J. R. Abbey (London, 1952).
before moving to Cheltenham about 1834. There he practised as an ‘Artist and Drawing Master’, aided in his Academy first by his wife and later by his daughter Phillipa, and also as a lithographic printer.
2 Correspondence, Borough of Cheltenham Public Library.
At an exhibition in Cheltenham he is said to have created great interest with his daily demonstrations of the relatively new ‘tinted’ style of lithography. He produced a series of prints, Illustrations of Cheltenham and its vicinity, and Rowe's Illustrated Cheltenham Guide (c. 1845).
3 Reprinted in facsimile by S. R. Publishers Ltd., 1969.
Suffering a severe financial loss through a defaulting partner in a business enterprise, he sought to recoup his fortunes on the Victorian goldfields.
4 D. R. Burbank, A 19th century romance, being a brief history of the lives of Philippa Curtis and George Rowe …, 1937, typescript (Mss. Coll., La Trobe Library).
He arrived during 1852.
5 W. Moore, Story of Australian Art wrongly gives 1857.
and was joined in November that year by his eldest son, George Curtis Rowe,
6 Passenger list Blorange 25 Nov. 1852 (Victorian State Archives).
and later by his younger sons, Thomas and Sandford.
7 Passenger list Milliades 10 April 1854 (Victorian State Archives).
Several letters written to his wife and daughter in England have recently been acquired by the Library. They provide some description of domestic life on the Bendigo diggings during 1853–4, and of the fortuitous start of the stage career of George Curtis Rowe, later to become well known in Australia and overseas as the actor ‘George Fawcett’ (Rowe). They also reveal something of his own struggle to gather together the funds necessary to bring out other members of his family. Gold digging and storekeeping proving unprofitable but his painting more lucrative, he finally achieved some success with his views of the Bendigo and Castlemaine diggings. Fifty of his works were exhibited in an Art Union at Bendigo in 1857.
8 Bendigo Advertiser, 15 May 1857.
About 1858 he returned to England, and in 1862 was awarded a medal for a series of paintings exhibited in the Mining. Quarrying and Metallurgy Section of the London International Exhibition for ‘faithful and beautiful delineation of the country, workings, and other relations of the gold fields’. Several of these are in the Mitchell Library, Sydney, and he is represented in the National Library and in the Bendigo Art Gallery. He died at Heavitree, a suburb of Exeter, on 2 September 1864.
9 Exeter Flying Post, 1 Sept. 1864.
On p. 93 is reproduced a section of Rowe's panoramic View of the City of Melbourne from the Observatory (1858). The Argus (12 July 1858) commented: ‘the artist has availed himself of poetic licence to introduce, as completed, according to the approved designs, the new Houses of Parliament, the Public Library and the Wesleyan Church in Lonsdale Street …’
Extracts from a letter by George Rowe (December 1853–January 1854) written from the Bendigo Diggings to his wife in England.

My Beloved Wife
You will think that as I have not continued my scraps from time to time I have been forgetting you. It is not so, … but my life is from day to day so much alike that circumstances or ideas do not present themselves worthy of record. I busy myself in increasing my store and although my cash has not accumulated, my goods for sale have, which enables me to do better and I look forward with great hope if it shall please God to continue my present health, strength and activity of mind, that we shall some day meet under circumstances of independence and ease. There is a family living two stores from mine who keep fowls and goats and seem so happy that at times my mind is depressed with something like the feeling of envy — their dear little children gambling about. I often call them in to give them a few sugar plums. There are so many nice respectable children around and George is a great favorite with many of them… He is fully engaged now. The night before last he sang at the Sydenham Gardens just opened, a beautiful place, after which he sang at the Chrystal Palace for which he had 3£ from each place. Then he finished the night by going to a Masquerade Ball — from this you may judge of the gay doings on the Diggings and if it is such a horrible place as that fool Page made it out.
Last week a Wedding (a Digger's Wedding) in the flat just below us. The Bride's trousseau cost 150£ — a friend at a store near us supplied the things. After the marriage ceremony the gay party went for a ride in a nice vehicle and 4 horses decorated with white flowers — the Bride was a very nice looking young lass well and handsomely dressed and the Bridegroom a fine fellow — there was a large party at the father of the Bride's tent in the evening. Plenty of good things were provided and wines of all description flowed liberally. In the midst of the revelry the Bridegroom slipped off with his Bride to his own tent and her future home. It is not the fashion here for the happy pair to spend the honeymoon on a Tour.
Last evening, Monday, there was at the Methodist Chapel a grand Tea Meeting — about 200 attended… On the occasion of course there was a good deal of praying, preaching and spouting — a Subscription followed. 50 or 60£ was subscribed to pay off the debt of the Chapel. It was a gay affair and all the ladies came out in their best attire.
This is the dullest time of the year as the greatest part of the Diggers are gone to other Diggings. The water here getting scarce they cannot wash, and at Forest Creek the most part of the Diggings can only be worked in the Summer, there being too much water. Last Sunday being Xmas Day the Doct. Hoyle and Clint dined with us when we had roast Veal and ham with green peas and Lobsters and took our Barkly & Perkins, real bottle porter from London — enjoyed our Wine and Walnuts after dinner and be assured you and all our dear friends were in our hearts and our cups. It was a remarkably cold day… This of course with us is the hottest season of the year and we just think it cold from the contrast only of the previous days — not that it at all resembled old English Ones in its intensity but quite cool enough for us to add a waistcoat to our usual costume — for all I wear now is a pair of canvas trousers and a Shirt and pr. of Shoes. I like this warm weather and the evenings are delicious.
George has finished a small Drop scene for a Concert room which is much admired — he is to have 10.10.0 for it, they providing the Canvas. He has a large scene to paint for the Sydenham Park 25£ so we shall get along and by the time my dear children Phippy, Tom & Sandford [arrive], I reckon on their coming for certain, we hope to be in a position to do something more extended. I would that you were all here but it cannot be. I cannot raise the means yet and if I sent you home what I have now got it would prevent my being able to do so at a future period. I am anxiously looking forward for the arrival of the Mail … as I feel that my letters which you must have received from this place will ease your mind and quiet your fears of this horrible hell upon earth!!!
The Township of Sandhurst is declared and the land is to be sold in February. The site chosen is not in my opinion a very eligible one as it is on a rock hill with no water. So far as a healthy and picturesque spot it is well — it commands an extensive View of the Bendigo but the streets must be very hilly. The plan is not yet published. I shall study it and attend the sale. Although my means will not allow of any great price yet if I see a chance as far as 50 to 100£ I may risk so much.
Last eve of the year.
… May God bless you and all our Dear Children this coming year. Although alone I shall sit up to welcome the first hour of it with my earnest prayer for all. George is at the Sydenham Gardens where he sings tonight, so he finishes the year by earning 3£ for it and I am satisfied too with the Day. I have painted a sign for which I got 25/- and have profited about 3£ by the sale of goods. I feel sanguine about the future as I add from day to day to my little stock… One little trifling thing will give you an idea of the wealth of the population — I do not recollect if I named it in my last letter or not. It is this — children in England think themselves rich with a penny to spend. Here a child however young brings never less than 6d. and often 1/-. Little fellows of 10 years sport their half-crowns, a stage above will have their little leather bag as a purse with gold and silver coins and spend them liberally on anything that suits their fancy. It is extraordinary to see how money is spent here.
On Thursday evening I went to the Gardens as it was to be a private Evening, that is to say no advertisements were issued but tickets of admission were sent round as the Commissioners, Magistrate and officers of the Camp were to be there — so there was a party of 10 from just around us. Mr. Macrea and his wife (lately married) he is a large store-keeper. He ordered in champagne and it flowed pretty freely. Macrea must have spent 12–14£ as it was 20/- a bottle — our immediate party Mr. & Mrs. N., Dr. Hoyle, Mr. Mocklar and myself, George joining us at intervals as he was singing. Under the influence of the wine we were very merry. It did not cost me a penny as Macrea insisted on paying. The evening passed off well. I met Mr. & Mrs. Saunders, clerk to Magistrate. She is a very engaging little woman and I enjoyed much a long chat with her and it was all about you and my Dear Children. We got to our tent in good time and went to bed “Sober” — next morning got up early all right…
Jany, 1st 1854.
Now my dear good Wife we begin the year and I will look forward to its turning up a trump, bringing good fortune to all my dear family and a happy and a merry meeting. This very thought inspires me and I feel confident in success.
I was roused up early this morning and took 20/- before breakfast, a trifle you will say, but half if not 3 quarters was profit, a good beginning. I then cleaned up my parlour kitchen and hall, swept out the Turkey carpet, dusted the couches and polished the mahogany, got the breakfast, waked up George who sleeps like a doormouse, crammed him with a slice of bacon and tea and now devote the first leisure moment to write you.
The day is lovely — you would call it hot but to me is second nature and I now like the warm glow of the clear and brilliant sky. I have lived now long enough in the Colony to estimate the qualities of the climate and all that has been written on the subject is true…. In what country in the world can a man lay his head down at night with a rag of calico as a protection with impunity but this, and in what part of England could a man sleep with so slight a protection, with money in his pocket, without having his throat in danger and his pockets rifled. Talk of the horrid state of society at the diggings — it is only the Coward who is frightened at his own shadow that feels the insecurity and he thinking that nothing but stone walls, bolts and bars can protect him, writes home his fears and not his experience. I don't mean to say that we are here a society of innocents — there are amongst us good & bad as well as in England, but the bad have not that temptation to do evil because they can get money easily by labor whereas in England many are driven into crime through poverty and want of the opportunity to get an honest living. “Ergo”, I think that all men having nothing to do at home had better come here to keep them out of temptation to do evil.

Section of George Rowe's panoramic View of the City of Melbourne from the Observatory, 1858.

Blacksmiths and horseshoers do here first rate, 30/- for shoeing, 4£ for taking off and putting on again the tires of two wheels of a dray, 6d. for sharpening each point of a pick. There is a blacksmith here who begins each morning at 4 o'clock and his anvil rings at my ears and his bellows blows me up at an early hour. He keeps at it until night. His wife is a constant chatter box, blows him up, at the same time blows the bellows and beats both the husband and the iron which turns into tin very rapidly. They are making a fortune and the ring of his anvil and the sharp voice of his shrew put me in mind sometimes of the “Harmonious Blacksmith”. He seems to put up with the run of her red rag very good humourdly as I dare say I should with yours if I was blessed with the sound of it…
George is gone to bed, so before I retire to the attic I must have a chat with you — we dined today most sumptuously G. & I — a leg of mutton done to a turn in the camp oven, new potatoes, after which gooseberry fool. Everything is becoming very cheap — new potatoes 9d. per lb., old ones 4d., bread 2/6 the 4 lb loaf, bottle of English porter 3/-, and so on with all other things. A man down the Creek has enclosed a piece of ground and is growing vegetables, cucumbers, melons etc. fit to bring to market in a week, when I have bespoke a cucumber, a large one 1/-. I should like to live down the creek — there is some beautiful land there with trees enough to make it look a Gentleman's park — and cultivate a garden, but it is too far away for business.
I have done pretty well today — took about 4£ and an order for 2 signs 20/- each which I must do tomorrow — so you see I am all sorts of trades — and write letters on business for some diggers who come to me for advice. This I do not charge for although I am often offered a fee — but I do not take it and it brings me custom as they remark if you want to know go to the Old Gentleman at the Lion which by the bye is the sign on our flag, a Lion rampant…
George went off this morning early with the Doctr. and Macrea in a spring cart down the creek 12 miles ostensibly to cut grass but in fact a day's spree in the bush. They have taken guns to shoot Ducks, Pigeon and Parrots, or shoot at them. I have promised to eat all they kill. George will be pretty well tired I expect as he played Box in “Box & Cox” last evening at the Gardens and after that went on to a Ball at the Royal Exchange Rooms at Sandhurst. He had been in bed a very short time before he was called to start on their expedition. However in the heat of the day he will lie down and get a nap under a gum tree. The usual way of taking a day's pleasure in the bush is to start in the Evening taking a small tent, sleeping under it, and get up very early in the morning before daylight when the birds can be approached near when they are feeding for the pigeons are very shy. I understand they are capital eating. I have not tasted one yet as they ask 5/- a couple for them.
Today we have a hot north wind which comes like a blast from a furnace. It is not very agreeable…
Wednesday 4th
… The shooting partly returned last evening at 7 o'clock bringing home one pigeon, one jackass, three magpies and 20 small birds size from a tom tit to a paraquet, some of beautiful plumage. They did not reach their destination, the Campaspie river, having lost one of the linch pins, so they drove back. Within three miles of home (10 miles) at last the wheel of their spring cart came off and pitched them all out — no damage. They walked home and I was glad to see the Doctr. for a lady was crying out for him and got just in time to assist in increasing her Majesty's subjects — two other patients were waiting and he lost one, a broken leg, so he made an expensive trip.
A corps of theatricals open tonight at Sandhurst with the play “The Lady of Lyons” which is advertised for 3 nights following — all the reserved seats are taken at 10/6 each, the second seats 7/-, back 5/-. Next month the assizes will be held at Sandhurst for the first time. All prisoners ere this have been sent for trial to Castlemaine. Forest Creek, which has been a source of great annoyance both to jurymen and witnesses — to go 40 miles from their businesses for days. This day has been quite a contrast to yesterday, agreeably cool.
Yesterday there were races down the Flat a mile and all sorts of vehicles passed down filled with men and women such as you would see on the road to races in England. It must have been blazy work in such a “Brickfielder”. The Bush was on fire in many places, some a mile wide, the smoke from which towering up obscured the sky and added to the hot wind. It is the grass and scrub that catches fire and it runs along the ground but only very rarely sets fire to a tree. It merely blackens the trunk. A thunder storm and the wind dropping, it dies away…
I called today with a Dr. Seydel on a Digger. They, that his wife and another couple, were at dinner and I never saw any little room better laid out, everything so neat with a carpet on the floor, a beaufet with decanters, glasses and nick nacs, the bed at the end nicely arranged, they were Cornish people so we took a glass of wine with them. They are going to remove and come down near us. A report has come in today of new diggings having been opened half way between this and Forest Creek — have not learned any particulars. There is a good deal of ground to be opened yet in our neighbourhood and which I no doubt will be sold in the auction…
Thursday 5th.
George is busy painting Scenery. The Theatre opened last evening without a scene. The man who engaged to paint them found he had undertaken what he could not do, cut away to Forest Creek, so this morning a message came to say he was wanted. He has promised them a Scene tonight when the play “The Lady of Lyons” is to be repeated. I hope he will have a lot to do and they must pay dearly for it — he will be up all night to paint another scene. No letter today at the Post — must now look forward to the overland mail which is due.
… I have been making a few sketches for scenes to assist G. tomorrow. G. started off with his scene and materials and expects he will get there just in time to hang it up. He has to carry it 3 miles.
… I sometimes fear you would not like our manner of living if you were here, yet it has its enjoyments and when you were a little used to it you would be I am sure quite as much at home as in a cosily fitted drawing room. How many ladylike looking women I see sitting by the evening fire outside their tents laughing and merry with their husbands & children. It may be so yet with me I think to myself for I cannot seriously flatter myself that I can be so fortunate at my time of life to gain sufficient to enable me to return and settle my children in England. My dear children here can be provided for. It is a new and enterprising country, one that presents under its abundant riches opportunities of accumulation of wealth, and open to the aspiring of ambition and genius, and thank God all my dear ones have been blessed with sound intellect and good constitutions… George too has altered much his opinion of the Colony although he talks sometimes of travelling and going back to England — his ideas take him a very roundabout way to New Zealand through South America, North America etc. etc. but lately he rarely alludes to it — in fact he has become so colonized that he begins to like it so much that I don't think he will long retain a thought of returning but will want you to pay him a visit. He has said once, I should like to go home and return again. If my dear children come out and should I still be here (Bendigo) or any Diggings, I shall have a nice tent on purpose for Phippy fitted up in the same way as the one I have mentioned that I saw yesterday, so that she shall be made comfortable, next to mine and communicating with it. As to the boys, why my Turkey carpet of washed gravel must do for them. They won't care much about that I guess. After roughing it in a sea voyage, they will think my tent is a little paradise — indeed when I look round I fancy it looks very comfortable although the wind does flap the roof about…
… I am idle. I have 3 signs to paint and no black to paint them with. Can't shut up my store to go into Sandhurst for it as George is gone in there painting and is to bring it home with him tonight, that is if he recollects it which is about 10 chances to 1 if he does.
A selfish old fellow who keeps the Argus coffee house some time since he commenced a Brewery and draws all his water from where we get it in this neighbourhood. He this morning
has commenced sinking a well close to it with the intention of draining our well. My neighbours have just called on me to discuss what was to be done — I advise let him alone and as soon as he has finished his well, covered it up and put a tent over it, which is what he is going to do, let us subscribe and contract with 2 men to sink another and draw his all off, and we will lock ours up. This is agreed to, so he will go on without dreaming of his being shoed out. This is a most important subject. Water in this Country is obliged to be economised and at certain seasons of the year difficult to obtain. This fellow is so disliked by all his neighbours they will be delighted at the opportunity of putting him to expenses — to us it will be but a trifle each. The old dog now often empties the well and we are obliged to wait for water — you must pardon the soiled paper and bad writing, the dust makes the paper dirty and I can't afford to waste it — it cost me 3d. a sheet — it is one thing that Phippy must provide herself with, a Ream or two of plain large paper and a little note papers. My ink gets thick and my pens are not the finest and I feel likewise that I write worse and worse — so long as you can make it out never mind. I have just dined off 6d. of milk, innocent food. I find it agrees with me — too much meat is not good for health in this climate.
I have been thinking of Phippy and the boys coming out — as to the ship one of the Greens ships would be the best. There is I believe a stricter discipline on board of them. However that can be ascertained on inquiry. The boys must make themselves useful in getting the rations, taking it to the cabbins or cooking place and tell them it will be their duty to do that and not allow their Sister to go there among the Sailors and passengers. I believe in my former letters I have described how to provide and manage on board. What I particularly wish to impress on Phillippa is how necessary she should studiously avoid as much as possible making any acquaintance on board — be civil but reserved, and bring with her occupation — something to do — it passes away the time and will make her more happy on board — some books to read — she should wear a sun-bonnet in coming out and bring materials with her for constructing one or two here. As to the boys, it does not matter how they are dressed, the tanning of their faces won't spoil their beauty. Be sure and let them have guernsey shirts for on board they will want but little clothing. It is almost as cheap in Melbourne now as in England. A good pr. of strong shoes or lace up boots is the most important…
All day I have been busy. I cannot be idle nor do I under the circumstances in which I am placed and so many dependent on my exertion think I am wrong. A surgeon called last evening and wanted a sign “Medical Dispensary” painted if it could be done by this evening as he is going to Forrest Creek in the morning so I have finished it — £2.0.0, every little adds.
George was at work all night until daylight when he came home — he did not get up very early. I gave him his breakfast in bed — he is now in Sandhurst painting a scene which he must finish by tomorrow night — a rich Drawing room Scene. He will charge 10 or 12£ for it.
I have now in hand 2 drawings, a flag, and 2 signs — and an inscription to place on a tombstone (a wooden one). I do not fear of plenty of employment one way or the other. I wish to God I had the means to send home for you all to come to me yet I would wish to be with you to protect you on the Voyage and to care for your comforts and wants. I hope it may not be long before I shall be in a position to supply everything to make you happy… That you are happy and provided for is all I care to live for and I pray God he will grant me days and health to do it.