Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 10, 2009

Maldon 1880 and Henry Handel Richardson

maldonPostOfficeHere I am in the Maldon Community Centre (a somewhat austere building which used to be the Temperance Hall), listening to local social historian Peter Cuffley present a lecture on Maldon in the 1880s and the Richardson family. That’s the family of Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson, better known as Henry Handel Richardson, author of the classic Australian novels Maurice Guest; The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney trilogy (Australia Felix, The Way Home, Ultima Thule), and the novel best known to film goers, The Getting of Wisdom. The Spouse and I are here for the weekend, to celebrate HHR’s time here in Maldon between 1880 and 1886 when the town was a busy gold mining centre and HHR lived in the Post Office.

Born in Fitzroy, HHR actually spent a good part of her life overseas, and did most of her writing there. Australia, however, shapes her novels, especially the trilogy, which Associate Professor Brain MacFarlaine has described, ‘faults and all…the nearest approach to that mythical beast, the Great Australian Novel.’ [1] However it seems to me that even in Maurice Guest which is set in Europe, her strong female characters, Laura and Madeleine are independent and assertive as Aussie women could be, to some extent, in the country that was first to give women the vote. (Yes, yes, I know that Laura was soppy about the lost boyfriend, but she was still directing Maurice’s destiny.)

Anyway HHR had fond memories of Maldon, and it’s easy to see why. It was for her the most congenial of places where her family lived as their fortunes declined. Here she had intelligent and lively conversation with her neighbours the Calders, enjoying card nights and musical gatherings. Today Maldon is an attractive little town, its gentle hills enclosing a near intact 19th century streetscape, enchanting historic housing with pretty cottage gardens, an enticing collection of antique shops, and great places to eat. It’s in the second smallest municipality in Victoria, one of a number of small towns covering a wide area, and they all compete for the tourist dollar.  This celebration is a great initiative at getting literary tourism happening here, and Maldon has done itself proud.

The Gold Rush, says Cuffley, was enormously important to Victoria from the 1840s onward, and at the end of 1851 when the news got to Europe and the UK, the scramble to the goldfields was on. The enormous wave of immigration was said to be the largest migration in history up to that time. Thousands of ships from all over the world set out for Australia (NSW also having its own rush) because the idea of making a fortune was very appealing at a time when there were no social safety nets. A fortune meant security, and dreams of picking up gold where it lay sent all sorts of people here, despite the risks and the cost of the voyage.

The expense of getting here meant that there were many young lawyers, doctors, ‘younger sons’ and middle class emigrants, not just the get-rich-quick scoundrels we imagine. Once here, they responded to one spectacular find after another, so that towns sprang up within a week of a major find, with instant populations of 10000 not uncommon. Rapid declines were just as common once the gold ran out.

Maldon began in just such a way, but because of the shortage of water here, the mine workings were quite different. Water infrastructure had to be set up, which encouraged men to build permanent shelters, not just shanties and tents. In contrast to most places where there was a marked gender imbalance, women were more willing to come to Maldon, which soon developed a different sort of ‘tone’.  And where other towns declined as the gold ran out, or people left to seek excitement elsewhere – for example, to volunteer to fight in the Maori wars – Maldon had salt mines as well as gold, and so had a permanent reason to exist. It went on to thrive.

The town’s layout was initially determined by the gold mines, and early establishments included the usual brothels, hotels, churches and shops, but residents who wanted to make it a good town set up civic infrastructure, and established a shire. Respectable people mingled with the riffraff and set the direction of the town. People wanted to ‘get on’ and in Australia that meant that enterprising characters could transcend the restrictions of class that existed in England – as long as they didn’t waste the money they acquired. (Which of course some of them did, on wine, women and song, not to mention gambling). Shrewd sober church-going people, however, went on to develop successful businesses and investment in the mines so that Maldon was able to survive the 1890s depression and flourish.

Even though people worked six days a week, there was a rich cultural life based around the churches, hotels, schools and various sports days. Lodges were strong in Maldon, and there was a theatre. One of the big excitements was in 1884 when the railway came to town. People were great travellers in those days, sometimes travelling around the world three times in a lifetime, but in the days of dependence on the horse, for most people travel was slow and laborious. So when the coach service was replaced by the train, all the notables turned out: politicians, the shire president, hundreds of school children, a school choir, and a brass band. (The present-day Maldon Brass band in their new rotunda entertained us during our picnic lunch in the gardens!)

Maldon’s status as an historic town has encouraged a great deal of research about its early says and Cuffley talked about the successful and the less so, some of whom feature in HHR’s novels. George Macarthur, for example, was a wealthy man, who went on from setting up a prosperous bakery to become a great collector and benefactor to the state .   His bakery is still operating today.

The social network in Maldon was very important – it is said that Mary Richardson got her job in the post office because of her connections in society before the family’s embarrassing downfall. Women’s suffrage was promoted here too: Helen Hart came up here and horse whipped the editor of the Castlemaine News because he tried to put her ‘in her place’. The Richardson girls were included in adult conversations and would have known about her and other radicals here in Australia.  The battle between the hotel crowd and the temperance movement was ongoing – hotel and chapel battled for supremancy in the struggle between freedom and respectability.  But it was not always a safe place:  there was typhoid – for there was no sewage, not even a pan service,  and a lack of running water.  It took quite a while for a pipeline to be built.  Even the wealthiest could be brought low by misfortune, illness or death.

IMG_1205By the 1950s Maldon was in steep decline, and property could be bought for a song.   There were many splendid new buildings when HHR was here, and fortunately many survived the cull in the 1950s. Peter Cuffley guided a walk past many sites of significance to HHR enthusiasts, including

  • Calder House (1874) where Thomas Calder and his family befriended the Richardsons

  • IMG_1213the Maldon Post Office (1869/70) where the widowed Mary Richardson supported her family as postmistress – much to the derision of the editor of the Tarrangower Times who failed to note that not only did Mary Richardson’s accounts show that she was very capable, but also that she was paid less than half the rate that a male postmaster was paid to do the same arduous job).

  • The Maldon Athenaeum(1934) which replaced the old wooden Athenaeum and Mining Museum from HHR’s time, which was destroyed by fire in 1933. The current building houses a wonderful library staffed by volunteers, and it has a brilliant collection of classics as well as contemporary literature and children’s books.

  • The Holy Trinity Church, (1861) where HHR had her youthful crush on the Reverend Jack Stretch. This building has a truly lovely pipe organ, the prettiest one I’ve ever seen. We also saw the Holy Trinity Vicarage (1868) where young Ettie was tutored by the somewhat eccentric Reverend Stretch in his pyjamas – something that would surely never been allowed today!

  • The Bank of New South Wales, shops and some lovely houses, including Robinson’s bizarre 1875Gothic revival house and Tresidder’s 1859 Cottage which is being restored.

Alas, the corner bank known to HHR was pulled down in 1958 just before the National Trust identified Maldon as being so significant.

What was striking in the photos that Peter showed us was the extent to which the need for timber denuded the forests, and the regeneration of those forests today.  This was due to the foresight of the government in setting aside gums in the surrounding forest in the area which is now a reserve.

[1] Quotations, unless otherwise noted, are from posters, photocopies and brochures on display at the Maldon Community Centre.

I welcome any corrections to any errors I have made in summarising Peter Cuffley’s lecture.  Please contact me or comment below.


  1. How lovely Lisa … sounds like a real treat of a weekend. And how apposite given what you are reading at present! Hope the weather is nice.


  2. It’s been lovely so far. We took a carriage ride recreating HHR’s ride from the post office to the train station when she set off for PLC, and now we’re just home after the night’s festivities – we had a reading from HHR’s Myself When Young and a slideshow of important people in her life, and then a dinner at the community hall where there was a really brilliant shadow puppet show about the life of HHR and a trivia quiz about HHR – Q10 was to write a 4 line poem about her. (Les Murray has nothing to worry about!) A great day, and more fun tomorrow!


  3. Sounds wonderful…I look forward to hearing more anon!


  4. […] This pretty little town’s literary credential is far less arguable as the significant Australian writer Henry Handel Richardson spent part of her childhood here, and the house, Lake View, in which she lived, still stands. In her autobiography, Richardson says this is where she first smelt wattles in bloom. (For more on Henry Handel Richardson in Victoria, check out ANZLitLovers here). […]


  5. I have been reading in Encyclopaedia Britannica/Australian Literature, that from 1883 ’til 1887 HHR was a pupil at Presbyterian Ladies’ College, Melbourne.


    • Hello Anne, thanks for sharing this, PLC has some very distinguished alumnae!
      I have read Nettie Palmer’s study of HHR but I haven’t yet read Michael Ackland’s bio, published in 1997, I think. I do try to read at least one literary bio each year, but I have promised myself that this will be the year of Marr’s bio of Patrick White. If I get that out of the way, I’ll try to read the Ackland as well…


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