State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 83 May 2009


Angus Trumble
A Letter of Introduction ‘for Mr Andrew M McCrae and his four sons’

Front cover of Hugh McCrae, ed, Georgiana's Journal: Melbourne a hundred years ago, Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1934. State Library of Victoria collection.

Anyone Who is interested in the history of Victoria must be indebted to Brenda Niall, whose magisterial biography of Georgiana Huntly McCrae does so much to illuminate the close-knit society of early Melbourne, and, incidentally, repair the damage done to the published version of her dairy by the well-meant but over-sanitizing editorial exclusions of her grandson, Hugh McCrae.1 However, a curious and melancholy sidelight is cast on the McCraes’ precarious situation in 1853–54 by the recent discovery in the Public Record Office of Victoria of a letter of introduction sent by Georgiana McCrae's widowed stepmother, Elizabeth, Duchess of Gordon, to Beaumont Hotham, third Baron Hotham of South Dalton, who evidently forwarded it to his cousin, the recently appointed Governor of Victoria, Sir Charles Hotham:2 It reads:
Huntly [Castle] Lodge
N[orth]. B[ritain].3
Duchess of Gordon
Dear Lord Hotham,
Altho’ it is so long since I have had the pleasure of seeing you I venture to ask you a favor—It is to give letters of introduction to Sir Charles Hotham for Mr Andrew M[urison]. McCrae and his four sons [George, William, Alexander and Farquhar]. Indeed his wife [Georgiana] may be included as she is the person in whom I am specially interested but Mr McCrae is a man of Talent who was a Scotch Solicitor in London [writer to the signet] in that pleasant line of business which consists in presenting Scotch Suits to the House of Lords that is, turning Scotch into English—at the time of a great change being made in the arrangements & all his family—brothers and sisters going to Australia he determined to Emigrate [in 1838.] he has been there 12 years I think [it was actually fifteen] & was latterly Police Magistrate in [Alberton] Gippsland—I hear an excellent character of the 4 boys who are all but the youngest doing something—they had the blessing of an excellent Tutor [John McLure] who devoted himself to them as a true Friend—Mr McCrae's brother [Alexander] is the Postmaster General at Melbourne [appointed on 15 July 1851]—I believe I am not asking favor for unworthy objects but if the introduction extended no further than to make them known as worthy people to Sir Charles I shall be very much obliged—I take a deep interest in Mrs A M McCrae who lived with me for a time at Gordon Castle [c. 1825–1830] before she was married—I hear of you sometimes from the Cornwallis's5 & always with pleasure[.] Believe me dear Lord Hotham
Yours very truly E[lizabeth]. Gordon
Sir Charles Hotham was besieged with numerous letters of introduction of this kind, as indeed was Charles La Trobe before him. However, in Melbourne at the height of the gold rush the currency of such claims to patronage and preferment was widely understood not merely to be seriously devalued, but actually in free-fall. According to a long, garrulous, but emphatically blunt article entitled ‘Letters of Introduction’ in the Melbourne Morning Herald (possibly written by Edmund Finn or George Cavenagh), which was reprinted in The Times on 11 July 1853,6
There is something to our minds most touching in the breaking up of those delusions to which ‘letters of introduction’ have given birth. We can imagine how many a time during the long and weary voyage, when home and its loved remembrances have rushed upon his heart, and the land of strangers has risen cheerlessly in their place, the possessor of these delusive missives has, in the solitude of his cabin, brought them forth, and blessing secretly the affectionate solicitude that procured them, has taken courage from their goodly array, and appeared again on deck with a pleasant feeling of independence and importance. Many a time, we doubt not, have passengers confided to passengers the possession of these imaginary treasures, and have indulged in mutual congratulations upon their colonial prospects…
At length the emigrant lands, and his eye can rest on nothing which does not tell of such as he thought would be endured by none but those who, from pride alone, would not seek for shelter within the workhouse walls. It is clear his ‘letters’ must be at once brought into action, and, with a forced appearance of ease and cheerfulness, he enters into the presence of the prospective patron and friend. The letter is presented, the seal broken, the signature glanced at, and the affair is over…
Again and again the experiment is made upon fresh people with the same effect, until at length the mockery of the whole affair becomes clear as day; the letters are mere hoaxes—courteous insults cloaked in smiles. The bruised spirit can bear no more the oft-repeated blow—the man retires, sickened with his fellow-men, bewildered with anxiety, and passing half unconsciously through the crowded streets to his poor tent in Canvas-town [Emerald Hill or South Melbourne], he closes in its scanty curtain, and, throwing himself upon his little heap of worldly goods, he hides his face in agony, and thinks of home…
Let not, however, the poor gentleman in his tent, with literally nothing but the world before him, imagine that for him there is here no sympathy; there is much—very much, but we can show it only by words of counsel, of encouragement, and hope; you must be up and doing. Forget at once the conventionalities of the highly artificial society from which you are now separated; set yourself at once to work. If you have some small stock of money, purchase at once therewith a horse and dray, a water cart, or some machine which can be put to some useful purpose, and you will earn money for yourself and benefit others. If you are penniless and can do nothing better, set to work and help to make a road; if you are not strong enough for this, rather than be idle, employ yourself in catching fish, for which your sales will be rapid and your returns handsome. Here no one need be ashamed to work, and work is wanted sorely…
We have yet a word for those who are away, and whose eyes may fall upon this paper in our fatherland. To those who are colonially connected we would say, in all earnestness,
suffer not your unwillingness to refuse, what seems a small request, to make you instrumental, perhaps, in breaking up homes and sending forth many to misery and disappointment; and to those who found their hopes upon other's influence, we say at once, that until you have learnt to put your whole confidence in your own good arm, your honest heart, and God's good Providence, remain at home.
No doubt the grim prospects of new arrivals at Melbourne were well known to the Colonial Office in London and, through the pages of The Times newspaper, to those readers sufficiently clear-headed not to be fooled by the uncertain prospect of making a fortune from digging for gold. However, from the vantage point of Huntly Castle Lodge in freezing Aberdeenshire, whilst busying herself with various local charities and Evangelical ‘good works’, the Duchess of Gordon knew, or thought she knew, that as settled and relatively longstanding members of colonial society the McCrae family enjoyed considerable advantages which made this long-delayed gambit worth pursuing through a new and well-connected Governor, whose cousin she discovered she knew well enough to make a polite appeal for preferment. She outranked him by a considerable distance.
We do not know whether the Duchess's letter made any impact on Sir Charles Hotham at Toorak. It must have reached him in about August 1854, at the earliest. In one sense the Duchess was shrewd, because of the hundreds of letters of introduction that survive in the Public Record Office very few were written on behalf of settlers who had been in the colony for any length of time, and in this sense it must have been a welcome change of tune. In any case, Hotham's private secretary filed it.
The Duchess may actually have done Georgiana a disservice both by making the McCraes’ situation seem stabler than it actually was, Andrew McCrae less incompetent, and by conveying the lukewarm hint that should Lord Hotham do no more than make the family known to Sir Charles, and vouch for their worthiness, the Duchess would be amply satisfied.
As Niall has shown, chillingly the Duchess of Gordon also knew what the McCraes did not, that under the terms of Her Grace's meandering will Georgiana McCrae would receive not a farthing of the legacy which she had clearly been given to understand would eventually come to her, an acknowledgment of the undisputed fact that the late fifth and last Duke was Georgiana's natural father.7 True, from Scotland in 1847 the Duchess advanced £400 to secure Arthur's Seat having also responded to an earlier request for an advance of £1,700 (to buy Mayfield) by sending a draft £100 instead ‘for immediate wants’8 but Georgiana had to wait until 1864 to discover that there was not going to be any more, and she was obliged to live with the consequences, frugally, for the rest of her life.


Brenda Niall, Georgiana: a biography of Georgiana McCrae, painter, diarist, pioneer North Carlton, Vic: Melbourne University Press, 1994.


Public Record Office of Victoria, VPRS 4021/PO Unit 1 File 91. See also Angus Trumble, ‘The Final Farewell’, in Patricia Tryon Macdonald, Exiles and Emigrants: epic journeys to Australia in the Victorian era, Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 2005, pp. 42–3, where the front and back pages of this monogrammed note are reproduced.


The old terms ‘North Briton’ and ‘North Britain’, meaning ‘Scot’ and ‘Scotland’ respectively, came into vogue after the Act of Union (1707) but were thoroughly revived in the Regency period thanks to the advocacy of Sir Walter Scott. The use of ‘N.B.’ in personal correspondence up to the mid-nineteenth century (when the Post Office tactfully pointed out that it was too easily confused with [London] ‘N8’) was largely confined to Scots of the Duchess of Gordon's class and generation who were inclined to see Scottish identity as bound harmoniously to the concept of a greater Britain, and not fiercely autonomous or proudly anti-English. It was especially useful when addressing English gentlemen such as Lord Hotham whose traditional tendency was to be deeply suspicious of anything and anybody north of the border. I am grateful to Emeritus Professor David Bindman of University College London and Harvard University for shedding light on this small but telling detail.


The annotation is presumably Lord Hotham's.


That is, the (second) Marquess and Marchioness Cornwallis. Lady Cornwallis was the fifth Duke of Gordon's sister, and therefore the Duchess's sister-in-law.


‘Letters of Introduction’, The Times, July 11, 1853, p. 8.


Niall, pp. 91–7, 219–36.


Ibid., p. 184 and 171 respectively.