WALTZING MATILDA DOWN THE THAMES

AUSSIE  HISTORY ALONG THE  THAMES

For Australians exploring the  Thames Path there are  places of particular interest.  On the upper reaches of the  river  is the village of Buscot, and the National Trust owned  Buscot Park. The house was built in the 1770’s by Edward Loveden Townsend. In 1859, Buscot Park was sold to Robert Tertius Campbell, who had made his fortune in the Australian gold rush, not as a prospector but as a gold trader. In a bold move he turned the extensive estate over to the production of alcohol, made from sugar-beet and beetroot. Barrels of spirit alcohol were sent down the Thames and across to France to be used in the production of brandy.

Campbell was an innovative farmer who introduced steam driven ploughs, fitting them with lime-light flares so that work could continue after dark. Water was pumped from the Thames for irrigation and a narrow gauge railway was installed to collect the beets. Sadly, he was never able to recoup his huge capital outlay and the venture failed. This was partly because, in what I like to think of as an example of Australian egalitarianism, he provided his farm labourers with unusually generous working conditions.

At the height of Robert Campbell’s financial troubles he also faced a crisis within his family. His eldest daughter, Sydney born Florence, was involved in one of the Victorian era’s most notorious unsolved murders.

Florence Ricardo, nee Campbell; probably taken in her late twenties.

Florence Ricardo, nee Campbell; probably taken in her late twenties.

In 1875 Florence had married a young barrister called Charles Bravo. On April 18  1876, Bravo retired for the night in the couple’s London home, The Priory.

The Bravo residence as it is today.

The Bravo residence as it is today.

but became violently ill after drinking from his bedside water jug. He died in agony several days later, having ingested about 30 grams of the corrosive poison antimony. Not surprisingly, the manner of his death suggested foul play and his wife was immediately under suspicion. During the inquest it was revealed that before her marriage to Bravo, Florence had had an affair with a married man, an elderly doctor called Gully. When her paid companion, also a suspect, suddenly claimed Bravo had confessed to suicide in a fit of jealousy over Dr Gully, every lurid detail of the affair was aired, including the fact that Florence had undergone an abortion.   Robert Campbell and his wife were forced to confirm the affair in an effort to strengthen the suicide theory.

A finding of suicide would have been damaging enough, but an inquest ultimately recorded a verdict of wilful murder. There was insufficient evidence to take the matter to trial but Florence’s reputation was ruined and her parents were devastated. Florence died from alcohol abuse just two years later, still in her thirties. Her body was brought back to Buscot but the gossip and innuendo surrounding her remained so intense that she was buried in St Mary’s churchyard at midnight, in an unmarked grave. Oddly enough, her lover Dr Gully features in my first book, The Water Doctor’s Daughters.

  A LONELY GRAVE, FAR FROM HOME

In the London Road Cemetery downstream at Reading the grave of an eleven year old Aboriginal boy will soon be unmarked too, as the inscription has almost worn away.

William's lonely grave at Reading.

William’s lonely grave at Reading.

In 1846 fighting broke out between a group of squatters and the Wotjobaluk people, on the banks of the Wimmera River in Victoria. Afterwards a child of about six was found huddled against his dead mother, who had been shot through the heart. The boy was taken away by one of the settlers (reputedly the same man who killed his mother). He was treated as a servant until he ran away and eventually found his way to Melbourne, where he was befriended by a clergyman from Reading called Septimus Chase. In 1851 the boy was taken back to Reading by the Rev. Chase and christened William Wimmera.

Portrait of William Wimmera

Portrait of William Wimmera

When William developed tuberculosis, plans were made to return him to Australia but it was all too late and in March 1852 he died. Long afterwards it was discovered that he had not been orphaned by his mother’s death at all. His father and brothers had survived the battle at Wimmera River,  but no efforts had been made to find them.

AN AUSSIE HERO

The mood lightens at the neighbouring town of Henley-on-Thames, where the  River and Rowing Museum, records the history of Henley’s Royal Regatta.

Australian visitors should not miss a display of silver cups presented to Stuart (Sam) Mackenzie, a poultry farmer’s son from Sydney who won the Diamond Skulls a record six  times, (consecutively from 1957-1962).  Sam’s response to the constant jibe ‘How do you sex chickens?’ was, ‘You rattle ‘em!’ which was exactly what he did to his rivals. On one occasion he meandered along the course chatting to bystanders before putting on a last minute spurt to win the race. ‘Very bad form old boy!’ the old buffers muttered, but I doubt if Sam cared.  He used to annoy his competitors  even more by practicing on the river  wearing a bowler hat.

My champagne toast to to all Australian competitors.

My champagne toast to  Sam…and all Australian competitors. Oh dear, that charity shop hat!

 ROYAL FEAR OF AN  AUSSIE  HEIST

Downstream outside Windsor Castle, we paused to inspect Edgar Boehm’s statue of Queen Victoria, which has a humorous connection with Australia. While Sydney’s Queen Victoria Building was under renovation some years ago, a world-wide hunt began for a 19th century statue of Victoria. Nothing suitable could be found, prompting an article about the search  in the Times.  Queen Elizabeth saw the piece and jokingly told her then Private Secretary,  Australian Sir William Heseltine, that her great-great-grandmother was in danger of being kidnapped by his countrymen and taken to Sydney. She  suggested that Heseltine put a guard around the statue.   (Eventually an alternative Victoria was found, abandoned by the Irish in a Dublin field).

OLD, CHIPPED DESKS…

upper class graffiti

Upper class graffiti

 

In 1919 an Australian army nurse visited  nearby  Eton  College after serving in France during WWI. A letter home to her mother reveals a cultural divide as wide at the Gulf of Carpentaria. Completely unimpressed by the school’s five hundred year old history she scathingly described its ‘tiny classrooms’: ‘…old oak desks that are chipped and names that are cut everywhere by penknives. We would not own such schools in Australia. Nothing elegant about Eton. The floors are simply bare boards, not too clean and look worm eaten, the walls are quite bare, quite different to the Aussie schools with their nature studies and specimens in bottle, maps, and pictures.’

WILLIAM BLIGH; GOVERNOR, NAVIGATOR…..AND BOTANIST

The Thames Path continues on under the M25, and ultimately  to the city  of London. On the  South Bank is Lambeth, and the  church of St. Mary. The church  has been now converted to The Museum of Gardening History. Australians might be surprised to find that Admiral William Bligh is  buried  in the old churchyard.  Best remembered for the Mutiny of the Bounty and for his harsh governorship of New South Wales, Bligh  had a profound knowledge of botany. He collected many specimens for Sir Joseph Banks to preserve and study at Kew Gardens However, the reason   Bligh lies here is simply because was living at Lambeth when his wife Elizabeth died in 1812, and a family plot was established at St. Marys. Bligh died five years later. He  was buried beside Elizabeth and the couple’s day old twin sons.

Grave_of_William_Bligh,_Lambeth,_London_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1411728

A MASTER MARINER

The ships of another famous navigator,  Captain James Cook, were outfitted and provisioned downstream  at Deptford, before he set out for the South Seas in 1768. Along with the usual hardtack biscuits, dried peas and salted pork, the holds of Cook’s ships were loaded with large quantities of sauerkrout, which it was hoped would prevent scurvy in the tropics. The sauerkrout was probably imported from Germany but the hardtack (or ships’s biscuits) would have been produced at Deptford’s Royal Victualling Yard.

Captain James Cook

Captain James Cook

Based on information gathered during Cook’s travels, the east coast of Australia was chosen as an appropriate site for a penal colony. Sydney’s Maritime Museum displays a handful of pebbles taken from the bed of the Thames and used as shingle ballast in H.M.S. Sirius, flagship of the first fleet. Perhaps we should keep quiet about the stones; the British government may ask for their return,  just as the Greeks are requesting the return of the Elgin marbles.

Nearby, Limehouse basin was a dock built to serve the Regents canal, which enters the Thames here. A ship builder called Duncan Dunbar established a wharf at Limehouse in the mid 19th century and his name will strike a chord with Australians, especially Sydneysiders. Dunbar’s ships took emmigrants on the three month trip to New South Wales, then returned home laden with goods from the Far East.   On August 20 1857 his namesake ship The Dunbar was heading into Sydney Harbour during a violent storm and was wrecked on the cliffs below South Head.

James Johnson, lone survivor of The Dunbar.

James Johnson, lone survivor of The Dunbar.

121 people drowned, the sole survivor being a sailor called James Johnson, who clung to the rocks for thirty six hours before being rescued. Johnson was later employed at Newcastle Lighthouse and in a strange co-incidence he helped rescue the sole survivor of another wreck, nine years later. The victims of the disaster were buried in Sydney’s Camperdown Cemetery .

 

JOURNEY’S END

The Thames Path  ends at the Flood Barrier, in Greenwich.  The gleaming covers protecting the barrier’s hydraulic machinery have a skin of steel plates, with a slightly rippled finish that reflects the light. Their double curved design was influenced by the sails of the Sydney Opera House.

The Thames Barrier

The Thames Barrier

My own journey down the Thames led to my book All Along the River; Tales From the Thames, published in London by Robert Hale. It makes a great gift for Australians visiting the UK….if I say so myself!  Thanks to a mutual friend it was reviewed by  Dr James  Colthurst, a rower of the river who may well have scratched his name on a desk at Eton.

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7 Comments
  1. Pauline, that was a fascinating journey. I wish I’d had that information when I lived in southern England for nine and a half years. We lived at Haywards Heath, a southern village on the Victoria to London railway line. I enjoyed doing the usual visits, Tower bridge, Victoria & Albert Museum and other historical places. l Currently lived-in and tumble down castles were among our favorite haunts as well. I particularly liked the link with Australia. I never knew that Sir William Heseltine was an Australian. It was said that Queen Elizabeth was very close to him and enjoyed his company immensely.

    • Pauline

      Thanks Heather, your comments mean a lot, because that is just the response I hope for from readers of the book. Unfortunately, although it was published as a ‘paperback’ as I requested….it is very high quality with glossy paper etc. It is also above normal size and weighs more than my hardback Water Doctor’s Daughters! All this is fine, except that the book is quite expensive. Would make a good present for people visiting the UK though. lol.

  2. Great stories, Pauline.
    I’m always fascinated by the Australian connections in UK. When we visited I had a little paperback book that was complimentary from one of the airlines I think.
    It was rather inappropriately called ‘Royal Britain’ as there was much more than ‘royalty related’ info in it. There were dates of lots of special events for that year (1993!)and points of interest for Australian travellers in towns and villages all over UK.
    It certainly guided some of our journeys and I made notes as we went along.
    My aunt (a Brit) was very impressed with it, but unfortunately I loaned it to someone who was considering a trip to UK and never got it back!

    • Pauline

      Thanks Lorraine. It was a real joy to write the book. My sister’s friend took a copy to the UK with her a few months ago.

  3. Most interesting, Pauline. Very sad about the poor aboriginal boy.

    • Pauline

      Yes, the story of William is really tragic. The full story is on my site if you search under his name on the home page.

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