State Library of Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 44 Spring 1989

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SETTLERS: George Ross Reid's Long Letter

George Ross Reid, a printer by trade, emigrated from England to Victoria in 1853. He had promised his multitudinous family and friends that he would send them a “long letter” describing his experiences in Melbourne. He did so — by pasting together many sheets of paper in a scroll about 10 feet long. The complete letter, of about 5,500 words, was presented to the Library by Reid's descendants in 1987. Three brief extracts, describing Melbourne's inhabitants, their religious practices and their livelihoods, are printed here.
…The Streets are miserably lighted with oil lamps, so dull that you cant see the posts on which they hang sometimes) and they are about a gunshot from each other, so that on dark nights it is dangerous to walk or rather slide along. You must remember that I am speaking of winter time; the men wear every and any clothing they think fit, those that like them wear boots half up their thighs looking like half made Lifeguard men, but few wear hats, the majority being tipped with Jenny linds, Billycocks, Wideawakes &c. or in fact any thing that fancy dictates, I go at present in a cap and jacket that Uncle Thomas gave me, for
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which I thank him, however I must have a Billycock shortly. The women when dressed carry on most alarmingly, anything that money can purchase, they have. It is not difficult to get a Wife here, but the trouble is to Keep her, when got. What with diggers running away with them and they with diggers it is no easy matter I assure you. Now I will quote the case of Cramer (you will recollect the bird concerning that accordion business, he was not authorised to ask for the money) Now you must know that he brought a Wife out with him, but no sooner fairly ashore, than off she goes. I might mention more cases, but not now…
I think I may as well inform you that very few that I am acquainted with have seen or know any body that have seen or heard of the strange things you read of in the London papers. There is no Diggers ordering butts of Port and requesting passers bye to drink their health; no knocking mens eyes in or out with nuggets; no giving halfcrowns to have their teeth picked for them, &c. that I can hear, and I can find no one knowing any thing of the young Lady who dressed in the boys rig; the case made so much of in the London papers. The only thing I thought rather strange was this I went to the Office to post Tom Fords letter, where they give no change, I had nothing less than 6d, while waiting, a man came up in the like predicament, the receiver took one 6d for the two; I then said to the man here, head or woman oh no said he never mind &c &c &c on each side, and off he went.
The Papists here go on rather strangely at times; for instance Father Geoghegan, when money was required for building St Francis' Cathedral, actually volunteered to dance a gig so long as the people would throw money in his hat, this was said and done at the same time at a meeting about 5 years ago. (the Cathedral is not built yet). Henry himself whilst passing the Catholic schoolroom on a Sunday evening about 15 months ago, heard the Priest obliging with a song; a parody of the, Fine old English gentleman, and all the people joining in Chorus; “like a fine old Catholic Gentleman, one of the olden time”, such part of the song as he recollects being, “he damned all the heretics and turned them from his door”, &c &c. Rather queer isn't it. We have people of all faiths here and some of no faith at all; there seems a vast number (in proportion) of Unitarians here. We have spiritual rappers, and spiritual humbugs of all kinds. A sect called Beardies from not shaving; a pecular faith; they believing they will go to heaven just as they are (minus clothes) like Enoch if they have faith. Westleyans a good number; Baptists in fact all sorts…
There are many, very many in this Colony walking about hardly knowing where the next weeks board and lodging is to be obtained. I might with truth say in some cases the next days; they principally belong to that class who have been brought up to no trade or profession; many by reason of their impaired constitutions (brought on in some cases by intemperance,) being unfit for such laborious work as mending the roads &c. Clerks and other light professions are below par here.
Smiths, Bricklayers, Carpenters, Masons, Labourers, &c are the men who stand the best chance out here. Tinmen get excellent wages, that is to say good workmen they get as much as Builders &c. But many I dont mean Tinmen are obliged to knuckle down considerably. It is nothing to see a Clerk driving a dray or water cart; the pay is good, but the work is rather rougher than quilldriving. It is rather surprising to see the readiness with which some manage to become initiated into the mysteries of a profession quite foreign to their usual pursuit. Tailors turn brickmakers &c in a very short-time, Commission Agents hawk fish about, Engravers drive bullock drays, Shop-men turn their hands to carrying stone for the masons &c &c in fact you must do something here for a livelihood; or starve. Many wish themselves home again in fact I was told that some of our passengers came home by the Eagle, having had enough of it in a few days…