State Library of Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 54 March 1995

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Wilbraham Frederick Evelyn Liardet
Romantic Visionary of the Beach
1839–62

Wilbraham Frederick Evelyn Liardet was born in Chelsea, England on 17 July 1799, the son of Wilbraham Liardet and Phillipa Evelyn. His mother was the daughter of Frederick Evelyn, Baronet, and the widow of Major Haughton. Caroline Frederica Liardet, Wilbraham Frederick's wife, was the daughter of John William Tell Liardet, former Secretary to the British Legation in Madrid, and Perpetue Catherine de Paul de Lamanon d'Albe of distinguished French Huguenot country gentry. Perpetue was born near the family estate of Lamanon outside Salon, Provence in 1768. Wilbraham and Caroline were jointly descended from John George Liardet, who came to England from Vevey, Switzerland, in 1772 as chaplain and tutor to the Dysart family.
Wilbraham and Caroline took passage on the so-called ‘first-class ship’ the William Metcalfe bound from Plymouth to Sydney on 24 July 1839. The Liardets travelled with their nine children in fairly cramped quarters, Wilbraham's scanty capital ensuring that the family's shipboard accommodation was ‘between decks’; Caroline and the five youngest children travelled intermediate class, while Wilbraham and the four older boys travelled steerage. The less than congenial quarters affected the usually flamboyant and cheerful Wilbraham. Trouble erupted when the pious and arrogant Ship's Doctor O'Mullins asked Wilbraham ‘to desist playing the flute while prayers were being read’1. The proud spirit of a Swiss montagneur emerged when the doctor's nose was pulled and he was given a few body cuffs. The steerage passengers nearly rose in mutinous defence of Liardet and only the Captain's tactful understanding of Wilbraham's continental pride prevented a shipboard riot.
The otherwise uneventful voyage of nearly four months was concluded when the William Metcalfe dropped anchor in Hobson's Bay on the 15 November 1839. Arriving in the still pristine surroundings of Port Phillip Bay, Liardet was delighted with the mild climate and attractive foliage of Melbourne's landscape in late Spring. The unbroken belt of tea tree that surrounded Williamstown and the acacia-and-eucalyptus-clad banks of the Yarra were seen at their most benign. Liardet's plan to take the family to Sydney was changed; he left the family in the charge of his oldest son Frank and sailed for Sydney with his second son Frederick. A few weeks later Liardet returned to Port Phillip and to the little family group he had left in their primitive tent accommodation, discretely shielded by blossoming tea tree behind a ‘bea.jpgul clean white sandy beach’2 — the beach that was to become so much part of the
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Liardet mystique and so ide.jpgied with his flamboyant, romantic character.
The Liardet's beach camp was the beginning of a long and charmed relationship with the foreshore near Melbourne; Liardet's Beach became known later as Sandridge and it was here that Wilbraham built the first town pier (the mailbags were landed there on the crude jetty and delivered to the post office by horse from the Beach). The tea tree-built jetty was quickly constructed and followed by the erection of a ‘magnificent house’, Liardet's Pier Hotel, a rambling building which became a resort for the holiday crowds and Melbourne's small establishment society. Liardet and his sons, having gained the contract for the delivery of the mails for Melbourne, assisted in the development of a regular carriage service from the Port of Sandridge to the town centre.
While carrying the mails, Liardet and his sons are credited with saving many people from drowning, in many instances displaying great valour. Liardet is properly accorded the honour due as the Founder of Sandridge.3
The image of Wilbraham Liardet in the early 1840s is one of a dashing bohemian character, ‘like a navvy in his white duck trousers, a jersey and a big sombrero or Spanish hat’4. Liardet's ‘Brighton on the Beach’, the Pier Hotel and its environs, was the focus of a slightly raffish community composed of fishermen hauling their large nets, the odd beachcomber, the contracted mail carriers and officialdom in the form of custom agents. At the end of 1841, just as Liardet and his Brighton Pier Hotel seemed to have set the foundations of a flourishing community, the young Melbourne colony was hit by the severe Depression of 1841, which in the next two years took a heavy toll on Wilbraham's resources, eventually leading to the Insolvency Court in 1844. In spite of the financial misfortunes of the early forties, the Liardet family carried on with optimism in their rather prosaic surroundings. In idle times Liardet played on both guitar and flute, entertaining the small beach community and various visitors to the Port. Fishing operations were also carried out on moonlit nights in a way which combined the elements of utility and aesthetic enjoyment. Josephine Macdonald writes:
When my father was going to take out a large fishing net called a seine he would go out with his guitar and play a piece called ‘The March Round the Village’ and that was the call for all our neighbours to come and see the big net drawn in, with a good-sized cartload of fish of great variety, and looking very pretty sparkling on the sands. We had an American coloured man as a cook and he used to bring down a harrow and take what fish he wanted to cook, for supper and next morning's breakfast; and then my father used to invite his friends to come in the boats for a row in the bay, leaving the men who hauled in the nets to put them away.5
The beach and the bush from Liardet's Pier Hotel to Point Ormond (near St Kilda) and beyond were the focus of Liardet's restless enterprise; the small drifting community of beachcombers, rough fisherfolk and the odd itinerant
6

Ill.: Top: Bagdad Brown's house, Little Bourke Street, North (1839); bottom: ruins of the late Timothy Lane's ‘Builders Arms’ in Little Collins Street West (1840).

7

Ill. 2: Pen sketch of ‘The Marine Hotel’ Sandridge, built by Capt. Coombs and Walters 1852 or 1853. The lower storey was the deck house of a ship.

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was expanded with the addition of new immigrants towards the mid-1840s. Liardet took on more official duties as the little community grew. For a brief period he took on the role of Superintendent of Water Police; a little later in the decade he ran the first steamer service to Williamstown. But probably his most colourful official role during the early 1840s was his leading of the procession to welcome the Governor Sir George Gipps on October 23 1841, a description of which is in Georgiana McCrae's journal recorded by her son:
Grandest of all not even omitting the majors and captains who rode on his Excellency's staff was the Father of Sandridge and of Sandridge Pier, the progenitor of post offices and carrier-general of Her Majesty's mails, Mr W. Frank (sic) Evelyn Liardet. This gentleman attired in a white cavalry uniform, and mounted on a smart little grey, shone like a glittering star.6
The severity of the 1841–44 financial crisis did not turn the versatile Liardet from his favourite pastime, sketching. Liardet now devoted much of his formidable energy to a major project, a panorama of Melbourne from the south bank of the Yarra River. The city Liardet painted was not a modest settlement struggling to survive economic depression, but a thriving one with a paddle steamer and a river full of shipping. On 9 December 1843 Sir John Franklin, ex-Governor of Tasmania, was returning to England and arrived for a brief visit to the Port Phillip colony. During the visit Liardet consigned to the cultivated British proconsul his painting of the thriving young settlement, to take with him to London. The Port Phillip Gazette was very enthusiastic:
We have no claim to rank as connoisseurs in the fine arts, but we can say in praise of the work, that it is a correct view of the Town. The figures of His Honor the Mayor, and the Late Police Magistrate are exquisite.7
The view was engraved in London by J. W. Lowry in 1845 as a ‘View of Melbourne, Port Phillip 1843’ and supplied to subscribers at a guinea apiece.
As Liardet devoted more time to his interest in art and building up good relations with the local community, including the McCraes and the Baxters, a day's journey from Melbourne on the Mornington Peninsula, he left more of the management of the Pier Hotel and the contract for the mail business to his sons Frank and Hector. Hector, on the marriage of Frank to the widow of the licensee of the Albion Hotel, Williams-town, took over the licence of the Pier Hotel in 1849. Later in 1860 Hector took over the licence for a boarding house at the north-west corner of Albert and Gisborne Streets. ‘The following year it became Liardet's hotel according to the Directory and from 1863 to 1868 the Halfway House.’8
In 1845 Caroline Liardet with the five youngest children including John returned to England, remaining there for nearly five years. John Liardet, before commencing a career in law, was caught up in the Chartist disturbances around London in 1848. Josephine Macdonald (Liardet), one of the five children who accompanied Caroline,
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speaks of her brother Jack ‘having been one of the young men compelled to turn out and guard the city of London during this period … because some trouble was feared … with the French’.9 Fighting off bankruptcy was the main problem for Liardet and his two older sons Frank and Frederick in the mid-late 1840s; the contracted mail service was continued by the Liardets into the late 1840s being modernised on the lines of a French carriage service. Frank Liardet with modest success tried his hand at hotel-keeping and held the licence of the Albion Hotel, Williams-town. But Hector, with his interest first in the Pier Hotel and later with enterprises in East Melbourne, seemed more cut out to be the hotelier. The last years of the decade 1848–50 brought some prosperity to Liardet and his three sons; but the naturally restless Wilbraham was reluctant to remain settled at Sandridge Beach and was happy roaming the still primaeval bush-covered shores of Port Phillip, particularly the sparsely inhabited gum-and-banksia slopes of Arthur's Seat where the MacCraes now lived. Georgiana McCrae has left a lively account of Liardet in her manuscript journal during one of these wanderlust epics:
… A drizzlingly cold day — sat down to darn socks … Just as ‘blind-man's holiday had begun — and I had put away my work to prepare for tea-time — Heard a footstep on the Verandah — then a rapping on the door — I rose to open it and beheld — two wayfarers! Mr Liardet who begged a night's lodging for himself and his son Michael (St Clere) … We made Messrs Liardet welcome & tea soon was served — afterwards we were very much amused by Liardet père's conversation.
Liardet is not only thoroughly educated, but even a highly accomplished as well as Aristocratic looking man. He sketches horses most admirably and was a Keen fisher and sporting man in old days … he is anxious to lease a portion of ‘Jamieson's Survey’ to have a Boat and Seine-net etc. His good nature — and seemingly inexhaustible store of Little Anecdotes' would make him a pleasant neighbour for us …10
Georgiana and her husband Andrew McCrae arrived in Melbourne in 1841 two years after the Liardets. Georgiana was an artist specialising in miniature portrait painting, although both in Scotland and in her watercolours of Australian landscapes she showed her draughtsmanship. She was a more accomplished watercolourist than Wilbraham Liardet, but her charm was of the softer English school, while Liardet's style showed strong links with the early 19th-century European tradition of Romanticism. The warm and spirited Georgiana had during her childhood, some association with London's French emigre community and therefore shared a sort of bond with the Liardets. The McCraes moved from the Arthur's Seat homestead in 1851, three years before the Liardet's took up Ballam Park near Frankston. Frederick Liardet lived for a brief period in the mid-1850s at Ballam Park, before the senior Liardets moved in with their younger son St Clere in the late 1850s.
Liardet's flamboyance was contrary to the more restrained etiquette of the largely Anglo-Scottish majority in
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Melbourne ‘polite society’. Paul de Serville in his analysis of Port Phillip society before the Gold Rush has captured the essence of Liardet's character as a gentleman on the fringes of society:
a man of culture and attainments surviving precariously, squatting with his family on the beach at Sandridge, regarded with suspicion by the newspapers …11
His relations with Governor Joseph La Trobe, whose family origins were also Huguenot French and whose wife came from the Lakes region of Switzerland like Liardet's own grandfather, was not as convivial as might have been assumed from these shared continental affinities. Liardet's ‘Swiss Family Robinson’ existence as a beach entrepreneur, probably put him somewhat at odds with the Lieutenant Governor.
La Trobe certainly had reservations about Liardet's unorthodox lifestyle on the beach, obviously there was a brittle-ness about their relationship, perhaps complicated by Liardet's inherent restlessness and the more cosmopolitan and contemplative nature of the Lieutenant Governor; however Liardet's View of Melbourne in 1843 was dedicated to the then Superintendent La Trobe, an indication that whatever the difference between the two men there must have been some mutual respect. The discovery of gold in Victoria in 1851, brought the major impact of a new society and different values to the former Port Phillip colony. Wilbraham Liardet and his sons Frank, Frederick and Hector with their beachhead investments in the hotel trade, stood to make considerable financial gains during the hectic years of the Gold Rush. Liardet had sold out his interest in the hotel at Sandridge at the end of 1850 and sailed for England, but within two years he was back again with a consignment of machinery for use in the goldfields.
In 1853 Frank and Hector Liardet set up the Chusan Hotel at Port Melbourne. They were assisted in this project by Wilbraham who had now returned to the scene of his former activities. The hotel business boomed and for the first time the Liardet family enjoyed real prosperity; according to St Clere Liardet during the height of the ‘gold rush’ the turnover amounted to £1,000 a week.12
‘The expansion of the city of Melbourne into a rambunctious middle-class society, left Liardet with his idiosyncratic European eccentricities rather out of place in the new order.’
The next two years 1853–55 provided the ideal environment of hectic prosperity for Wilbraham's astonishing energy; the gold rushes had transformed old Melbourne society and brought a wave of new immigrants. His romantic adventurism placed him in the centre of the new changes on Melbourne's waterfront; even he was amazed at the amount of shipping that now clogged the bay of Sandridge. ‘He was there to see the opening of Australia's first railway in 1854 and threw himself enthusiastically into all sorts of schemes of improvement’.13
The rapid mercantile growth of Port Melbourne and the expansion of the city of Melbourne into a rambunctious middle-class society, left the senior Liardet with his idiosyncratic European
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eccentricities rather out of place in the new order. The depression that hit Melbourne in the late 1850s caught Liardet once again unprepared and jeopardised the temporary gains both in property and investment he had made in the mid-fifties. By 1860 Wilbraham Liardet was faced with the real prospect of bankruptcy; all his Port Melbourne investments had been passed to his sons or had been sold to pay debts. Wilbraham and Caroline moved into Ballam Park with their son St Clere; Frank moved out and joined his younger brother Hector to try his luck on the goldfields of New Zealand. Faced with financial adversity, Liardet responded in the fashion of a Romantic gentleman of the times by taking to painting again. In this period he produced two watercolours both dated 1862: one showing a bird's-eye view of the small St Kilda resort township dominated by a long curving foreshore with a sensitive rendering of detail, and the other a more prosaic view of the railway at North Williamstown, the ship-masts and Williamstown harbour in the distance. Liardet, employing all the resources of his excellent memory of an earlier era with a touch of historical drama for the heroic present, produced a huge painting later lithographed as a ‘View of the North Shore of the Port of Melbourne’ in January 1862 and dedicated it to Sir Henry Barkly, the Governor of Victoria. Here the past was evident in the foreshore setting, with its hinterland of houses and buildings reflecting the pioneering spirit, while the present, with the harbour full of tall-masted shipping, was evidence of Melbourne as a mercantile boom town. ‘For the first time Liardet was attaching his own family's ‘spirit and gallantry' to the story of Melbourne’.14
‘… the presence of such notable vessels … together with every puffing hissing steamer that Melbourne possessed … provided a scene that kindled a light in Lairdet's artistic eye.’
The lithograph of Port Melbourne depicts a defining moment in the epoch of Melbourne's development; the traces of the older town with its origins in agriculture and the dominance of the gentlemen colonists disappearing under the progressive forces of Victorian industrial society, with its emphasis on free trade and manufacturing. Liardet was the old style entrepreneur tinged with a certain romanticism. He was proud to be part of Melbourne's grand growth of the decade of the 1850s, but a symbol of his link to an earlier less complex pioneering past is the cask buoy with W. F. E. Liardet and the date January 1862, a somewhat ironic commentary. Like E. M. Curr the literary squatter15 and later writer on aboriginal society, Liardet forges a link with the idyllic past of Port Phillip, through the portraying of the Anniversary Regatta on 26 January 1861 with its many sprightly yachts mixed with the commercial shipping in the 1862 lithograph.
This regatta appears to have made a good impression on the founder of Sandridge, W. F. E. Liardet. It seems probable that he was invited on board the Loelia and given the honour of firing the gun for the first event, as he had done in 1853 eight years before … the presence of such notable vessels as the Marco Polo, Lightning, Empress of the
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Sketches from Liardet's notebook …

Ill. 3: Pen sketch with watercolour. Primitive buildings of wattle and dab (daub). The primitive residence of Messrs J. J. Peers, builder and James Jennings, first class leader of the Wesleyans, Superintendant of the Sunday School, who arrived from Launceston 10th March 1837. The cottage faced the south side of the West market.

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Ill. 4: Pen-and-ink sketches of early Melbourne, including Reverand Clark's house and streetscape; profile ofSt Francis's Roman Catholic Church; and Mechanic's Institute.

Ill. 5: Native structures (1875). Top row L to R: Adelaide Wirlie Adelaide; Mi Mi; Gunyan Murray. Bottom row: tree burial. Includes the comment ‘Par excellence’.

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Seas, Kent, the old Owen Glendower and others, together with every puffing hissing steamer that Melbourne possessed, all gaily dressed in flags of every colour, provided a memorable scene, a scene that kindled a light in Liardet's artistic eye.16
The end of Liardet's connection with the Beach came rather abruptly at the end of 1863. The Ballum Park homestead was sold to the Long family and Wilbraham and Caroline departed for New Zealand; where they joined other members of the family, settling with Hector around 1864–65 at Picton, in the South Island. Liardet was to return to Melbourne 10 years later in 1864 for a brief stay, during which he was to paint his evocative series of 40 watercolours of early Melbourne.
He spent his final years in Wellington (briefly interrupted by his 1874–77 sojourn in Melbourne), where he was joined for a short time by my great-grandmother, his daughter Leonora and her husband Charles Broad in the late 1860s. Later Leonora and Charles settled in Hokitika on the west coast of the South Island, where some descendants of the family still live.17 Wilbraham Liardet died in Wellington on 21 March 1878; his wife, the redoubtable Caroline, lived another four years, dying on 30 April 1882.
By Michael Hiscock
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Ill 6: Watercolour by Cogné, Sandridge from Hobson's Bay, 1863. It is interesting to compare Cogné's interpretation of the scene with that ofLiardet's, executed at about the same time (see cover).

Ill 7: It's watercolour Liardet's Beach and hotel in their heyday (Courtesy of the La Trobe Library).

1

J. B. Were, A Voyage from Plymouth to Melbourne in 1839, Melbourne, 1964, p. 7.

2

Josephine Antoinette Macdonald (nee Liardet) quoted in A. W. Greig, ‘The Liardets of “The Beach”’, Victorian Historical Magazine, vol. 5, no. 1, March, 1916.

3

‘The Liardets: a Famous Family’, the Evening Post, Wellington, New Zealand, 1 July, 1933.

4

A. W. Greig, ‘Liardet's Jottings: Some Happenings of the Forties’, the Argus, September, 1913.

5

Ibid, p. 8.

6

Hugh McCrae (ed.), Georgiana's Journal: Melbourne 1841–1865, Sydney, 1983.

7

Quoted in Susan Adams and Weston Bate, Liardet's Watercolours of Early Melbourne, Melbourne, 1972.

8

Winston Burdett, East Melbourne 1837–1977: People, Places, Problems, Melbourne, 1978, p. 142.

9

Greig, op. cit., p. 10.

10

Georgiana McCrae, Ms Journal quoted in Brenda Niall, Georgiana: a Biography, …

11

Paul de Serville, Port Phillip Gentlemen and Good Society in Melbourne before the Gold Rushes, Melbourne, 1980, p. 180.

12

Greig, op. cit., p. 11.

13

Adams and Bate, op. cit., p. 7.

14

Catherine Snowden, ‘Wilbraham Liardet’ in Barry Pearce (ed.), Swiss Artists in Australia 1777–1991, exhibition catalogue, Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney, 1991, p. 26.

15

de Serville, op. cit., p. 202. For commentary on E. M. Curr's career.

16

Ralph P. Neale, Jolly Dogs are We: the History of Yachting in Victoria 1838–1894, Melbourne, 1984, pp. 105–10.

17

Information provided by author's sister, Penny Blazey.