by Ada Cambridge

Ada Cambridge’s fourth home in Australia was Ballan, where she and her husband, George Cross, arrived in 1875. This extract is from Chapter X of Cambridge’s memoir Thirty Years in Australia.

Sad indeed was the breaking-up of that pleasant home at Y—— [Yackandandah]. It followed upon, and was a consequence of, the death of our little daughter, when she was nearly a year old…

It was the first of these almost insupportable bereavements, and the effect on my health was so severe that a complete change of surroundings was considered necessary—to get me away from the house whose every nook and corner was haunted by such agonising visions of what had been. G., for his part, could no longer stand the Murray journeys, involving such long and complete separation at a time when we needed so much to be together. So he cast about for a more compact parish, and one offered that fulfilled the requirements—and more.

It was so far away from Y—— that we had to sell our furniture and begin at the beginning again. At this auction the amateur sofas went, and from that time I bought sofas. The new drawing-room was graced with a “suite” in green rep—such was our taste in pre-exhibition days—and the sofa was of that curly shape which prohibited repose. By filling the upper concave end with my big cushions I could make head and shoulders comfortable, but then there was no scope for legs and feet; and one had to anchor one’s self with the right hand to the sloping and slippery framework of the back to keep from rolling off. I never did appreciate that ingenious design, and the suite was no sooner in its place than I found even the colour of it annoying. To improve the effect I made holland covers for every piece—pretty chintzes were unprocurable—and at least a fresher and brighter air was imparted to the room; but I was not sorry that we had to have another auction at the end of three years’ companionship with the suite.

In other ways this fourth home was a great change from the other three. We were now down in the flat, settled, macadamised country, only twenty miles or so from Ballarat and fifty from the metropolis—quite “in the world.” I say “down,” but it was a colder, wetter, snowier place to winter in than any other that we have known on this side of the globe—seventeen hundred feet above sea-level.

Apart from the trouble I have spoken of, and a bitterer one of the same nature that was soon to follow it, and the further misfortune of a carriage accident from the results of which I suffered for many years, my life at B——, [Ballan] socially considered, was more to my taste than had been the case before in Australia, or than has been since. For there I first discovered the resources of the colony in its intellectually-cultivated class, and enjoyed the society and friendship of some who represented it at its best—members of a small, inter-related, highly exclusive circle of about half a dozen families, who had had time and the means to read, travel, and generally sustain the traditions of refinement to which they were born.

Chronologically, they were the first gentlefolk of the land—”Rolf Boldrewood” speaks of some of them in his Old Melbourne Memories—and they still merit the title in another sense. The clans have dwindled, indeed, but not all the original heads have fallen yet, and I have not heard of a mésalliance amongst their descendants. If they do not marry with each other, they marry with their kind. As with the Salisburys and Buccleuchs and modern London Society, they remain uncontaminated by the influences which have made our own little world of fashion a faint copy of the big one at home. Money, which “runs the show” elsewhere, is no passport to those dignified homes, dating from “before the gold,” in which I have spent so many happy hours.

My own passport to it was a little tale in the Australasian—my first to run as a serial in that paper. It is gone now, and was never worth keeping, but as a story about the colony, written from within, it aroused interest in its anonymous author at the time, amongst those whose eyes were keen to note literary events, small as well as big. My friend, “Rolf Boldrewood,” had not yet received the worldwide recognition that he now enjoys; he was a “Sydneysider,” and supposed to belong to his own colony. Poor “Tasma” had scarcely begun her brief literary career; Mary Gaunt, and others now on the roll, were mostly in their nurseries or unborn. So that I had the advantage of a stage very much to myself, which of course accounted largely for the attention I received. And of all the pleasure and profit that I derived from my long connection with the Australian press, nothing was more valuable to me than the uplifting sympathy of those readers I have mentioned, who were also as fine critics as any in the world.

The first night at B—— gave me the key of the position. The one socially “great house” of our new parish entertained us. Its owner, an old Wykehamist and cadet of a noble Scottish family, who, having practically built the church, and being its main supporter, stood for what would have been the patron of the living at home, himself fetched us from Ballarat, driving the wonderful “four greys” that were as well known as he was. Never shall I forget my first sight of that sweet old house in its incomparable old garden—of the sunset from the plateau along which we drove to it from the lodge gates, the picture that has delighted me so many, many times. And never shall I forget my reception, the dinner, the evening, the sensation of finding myself suddenly and unexpectedly in a place where brains and good breeding alone counted, and nothing else was of any consequence. From the hour that I set foot in that house the situation, as it concerned me personally, was completely changed. I found, if not my level, the level which suited me.

Another house of the charmed circle began to help to make life interesting for us both. It lay within comfortable driving distance, and its family had recently returned to it from extensive travels about the world. The actual structure, to which I paid my first visits, was a modest relic of the fifties, but already there was arising from the crest-of a neighbouring hill the most desirable country house, in its own style, then built or a-building—to my thinking, at anyrate—the final dwelling-place of the owner of the surrounding land, who had been its owner from “before the gold.” It was after this home of taste had been completed that we held our famous International Exhibition of 1880, which first taught us as a community the rudiments of modern art; and I remember the satisfaction with which the mistress of G—— .[Gordon?] wandered from court to court, and found no exhibits more pleasing, in their respective classes, than the treasures she had gathered for herself in foreign parts. Whether it were a Persian rug or a Venetian wine-glass, her specimen was, in her opinion, unsurpassed by any picked model of the like manufacture; in which I agreed with her. There is no lack now of what are generally described as artistic things; hundreds of Victorian homes, big and little, may in the tastefulness of their appointments outshine G—— to-day; but it was otherwise twenty years ago. At that date, when we stay-at-homes were all for gold and white wall-paper and grass-green suites (but the reader bears in mind that I put holland covers over mine) in our drawing-rooms, I believe G—— was unique in the colony as the first example of the new order. I may say here that we became rapidly æsthetic afterwards, because it is our constant habit to follow English fashions ardently as soon as we get an idea of what they are

I had not been long in B—— before I heard of the flattering notice excited by my story—Up the Murray was its name—and by the discovery, on the part of our neighbours aforesaid, that the humble author was living where she was. Arrangements, unbeknown to me, were made for mutual introductions and acquaintanceship, and one day I was invited to join a driving party from our “great house”—which I wish I could describe in less vulgar terms (but to call it B—— would be confusing)—to meet half-way upon the road a driving party from the other. The day was beautiful, and I see now before my mind’s eye the panorama of the spring landscape. We halted on the brow of a hill—the four greys dancing themselves into complicated knots and being dramatically disentangled with the whip-thong—and down below the carriage from G—— toiling up the stony Gap track towards us. How well we learned that road afterwards, going to and fro continually either in the vehicles of our friends or in our own. If I have ever done anything to earn a respectable place in my profession I owe it to the awakening and educating influences that surrounded me at this time. My intellectual life was never so well-fed and fortified.

Of Melbourne Society, so called, I knew little as yet. My “set” held much aloof from it, gathering only its own affinities into the charming house-parties that brought whiffs of the gay world to us from time to time. Although I was now so near to it, I do not think I paid one visit to the metropolis while we lived at B——; invitations I had, but the inclination was lacking. I was satisfied as I was. We made expeditions occasionally to Ballarat, then, as now, the second city of our state, where a small group, long since vanished, of the old families still resided, to attract our particular old family thither, and where on our own account we had a few clerical and other friends to welcome us. One of these expeditions was typical of several.

The date it stands against in my diary is September 10th, 1873—the time of budding spring. Our “squire,” with a part of his family, arrived at the parsonage in the lovely morning, with the “old carriage,” as it was called—a deep-seated, roomy vehicle that I can hardly give a name to, but which was the easiest and cosiest that I ever rode in. G. and I joined the party, and we started on our long drive. It took us about three hours if we did not stop by the way, but these excursions would have been very incomplete without the roadside picnic. Picnics were our joy, also our forte, and the country is made for them. So we stopped when we met the groom who had been sent ahead with fresh horses—the “old carriage” was heavy, and not built for Australian roads—and we lunched under the gum-trees with that exquisite appetite that we never know indoors. Then, at our leisure, on again until we trundled into the streets of the golden city—which, I may remark in passing, is a truly charming city, and to my mind ought to be the Federal Capital, if only because of its cool and bracing climate (although it is also almost exactly central for all the states as well). But in discussing sites for the future Washington, no one seems to take into account what an effect upon legislation a languid air and mosquitoes of a night may have.

We spent the balance of the afternoon shopping, and were then deposited, with our evening clothes, at the house of one of the historical few—perhaps the most witty and world-cultured of them all, certainly the brightest company. He had been much in France, I think; he spoke often of Paris, with the air and knowledge of a born Parisian; his singing of French songs was as un-English as it could be. It was always said of Colonel R. that he would never be old, and I met him the other day on a tram, and in the course of our ride together found him as mentally alert as ever, although he confessed to me, with a comical dolefulness, that he was some years past eighty. He still wore his smart, “well-groomed,” gallant air (accent on the first syllable of this adjective, please), and was as ready as of old with his pretty compliments.

We dined with him and his wife, and then went all together to the Academy of Music (newly built) to hear Ilma de Murska. She was a small, fair-haired, glittering person, with a frilly train like a pink serpent meandering around her feet, and the way she trilled and rouladed was amazing. After the concert we had a merry supper, and then—by this time indifferent to the flight of the hours—changed our clothes and prepared for the homeward drive. We had but one pair of horses now for the whole journey, so that it was necessary to take the hills at a walk, and we reached B—— at about four in the morning. We inside the carriage could have slept almost as easily as in our beds, but we were obliged to keep awake to watch the swaying bodies on the box. It was funny to see us winding scarves round our squire’s ample waist, and tying him to the low rail behind him, without disturbing his slumbers. These precautions would have been useless, however, had not one of us stood ready to clutch his sleeve at critical moments. On finding himself too sleepy for our safety, he had given the reins to his little son, who was a perfectly competent substitute. But that it was thought well to tie him into his seat to prevent them from dragging him over the dashboard, he could at nine or ten years old drive four horses so well that I preferred to trust myself to him rather than to any casual man, if I was to ride behind them.

photo: St John’s Anglican church, Ballan – original slate roof has been replaced with tile.