By Chris Childs
Werribee Park, Victoria, Australia 25 June 1887
‘Careful, Constable that might be important evidence!’
‘It is just a wad of papers, Sergeant. Old letters I think. The blood has made a bit of a mess of them I am afraid’.
‘Still, treat them carefully, there might be a Will in there. This is a very wealthy man we are dealing with. Fancy, he’s got all these beautiful grounds and a big mansion and he chooses to shoot himself in the washhouse. Went to a lot of trouble to make sure it happened, too. See the string tied around his big toe and the rifle’s trigger? This was no accident’.
Haddington, Scotland, December 1845
My Dear Cousin Thomas,
I am so sorry that I have upset you. Your proposal came as a surprise to me and I fear my response was impolite. I have enjoyed our outings over the past months while you have been back in Scotland, dear cousin. Hearing about your ventures out in the colony and future plans for expansion made me quite giddy with excitement. However I think our temperaments are quite different. You are very serious and stoic. I am more social and frivolous. You deserve a wife who will suit you, more than I would. I am sorry if I inadvertently indicated that I wanted to be part of your plans and subsequently misled you. Please do not feel badly towards me. I would hate for you to return to Australia with any ill feeling between us.
I remain your loving cousin, Mary.
Haddington, 3 March 1846
Please accept this as a final refusal and desist from leaving gifts and notes. I have given the flowers and chocolates to the servants, but I must return the brooch and other trinkets.
Papa has made it clear that he would never agree to a match between us. I am only seventeen years old and won’t reach my majority for another four years. You are a grown man of thirty-seven years of age. The thought of living thirteen thousand miles away at the bottom of the world and never seeing Mama and Papa again quite distresses me. You have not a proper house for a wife to live in. It sounds very wild and adventurous out there. Fine for men, but no place for a lady. I am afraid I like my creature comforts too much. Besides we are first cousins, it would never do.
Please Thomas, do not ask me again as my answer will be the same.
I wish you a safe trip back to Australia.
Your cousin, Mary.
Carranballac Station, Port Phillip, Australia, 2 July 1846
I’m glad to hear that you are preparing for your return to Australia and that you have purchased some fine Scottish sheep and a few thoroughbred horses to start our racing stable in earnest. The thoroughbred stallion, Delapre, sounds like a beauty.
All is well out here, but I miss your quiet counsel. I rode over to your Werribee property a fortnight ago and all was in order. More land is being released in the colony soon and I hope that we can start to expand our holdings as we have always dreamed.
I am truly sorry that you were unable to secure our cousin as your wife. She certainly sounds to have grown into a bonnie Scottish lassie from the awkward bairn she was when I last saw her. I never thought I would see the day that my elder brother would wax lyrical about chestnut curls and skin like alabaster. She’s turned you into quite the poet, dear Thomas.
Never mind, there are plenty of healthy young women out here and once the Chirnside brothers establish themselves as lairds of the manor in Western Port Phillip, you will be spoiled for choice, I’m sure.
Hurry back, dear brother.
Yours etc., Andrew.
Haddington, Scotland, 12 January 1849
Dear Cousin Thomas,
Thank you for your last letter. I am sorry to have taken so long to respond to it and all of the previous.
I had thought to hear of your marriage to some colonial beauty by now. You and cousin Andrew are becoming quite the local celebrities, I hear.
We are constantly hearing about your successful endeavours in Australia in the local Berwickshire newspapers. It appears your dreams are coming to fruition. All the Scottish Chirnside boy cousins talk of nothing else but joining you in Australia to make a fortune.
You are correct in identifying that I am still a spinster and no longer seventeen. I have had many offers of course, but none that interest me.
Papa’s cough is no better I’m afraid. The Scottish winters have been particularly bad these last few years. What I would give for a little of your antipodean sunshine, to warm my damp bones?
Your devoted cousin,
Williamstown, Australia, 11 July 1849
Dear Brother Thomas,
Just taking the opportunity to write a few lines before embarking for our homeland.
I’m concerned that you are pinning all of your hopes on a whim. ‘Bring Mary back to you, whatever it takes’? I fear you are going to be disappointed again. I’ll do my best, dear brother, but please prepare yourself for an unsuccessful outcome. I don’t relish having to spend too much time with an unwilling lass when I could be riding and hunting on the Scottish moors.
Affectionately, your brother Andrew.
Hoprig, Cockburn’s Path, Scotland, Jan 1850
You were right! By Jove our cousin is a beauty. She has blossomed into a comely young woman from the mere child of seventeen that you last saw. Cousin Mary is a delightful companion, entertaining and amusing. She’s a very accomplished horsewoman, which – of course – is essential in our line of business. I think Mary would keep a good house. She seems very practical and level headed. I will do my best to follow your directive, bring her back at any cost, although I suspect that Uncle will still be unwilling. Mary has almost attained her majority, however, so she will be able to make her own decisions soon.
Affectionately, your brother Andrew.
Hoprig, Scotland, July 1850
Please do not count your chickens before they are hatched.
I think our dear cousin is becoming more amenable to the prospect of living in Australia, but I suspect she would be horrified at our frugal and isolated existence.
Mary deserves a grand home where she would be the ‘lady of the manor’ and society hostess. I fear a humble farm cottage would be a great disappointment.
Uncle is very reluctant to let her go and has said in no uncertain terms that no daughter of his will be travelling half way around the world, without a wedding ring on her finger.
Please do not harbour false hopes.
Liverpool, England, January 1851
Sorry I haven’t written for a long time. I’ve been very busy completing preparations for my return. You’ll be pleased with the livestock that I have purchased. It is already on route to Australia and should be with you by late summer.
The bluestone house sounds delightful and I cannot wait to see the cottage garden you talked about in your last letter.
I confess to being a little concerned with your future plans for a massive mansion, ‘the likes of which the colony has never seen’. Thomas, have you taken leave of your senses? We have not moved into the bluestone yet and you are already planning an even grander abode.
Nevertheless, I placed your order for floor tiles and parquetry as instructed.
My God, it will take decades to build, Thomas! Are you sure our funds will stretch that far? Business must be thriving. Still, I have never known you to be a spendthrift, dear brother. I trust your judgment in all things financial.
I am pleased to report that things have developed considerably regarding the other matter. Thomas, you did say bring Mary back to Australia, come what may, did you not? Whatever it takes? I have always taken you as a man of exact words and intentions. I pray that I have not misread them in this instance. I would hate anything to come between us.
Your loving brother, Andrew.
Werribee Park, 25 June 1887
‘Sergeant, should we give these letters to the grieving widow?’
‘She’s not the widow, Constable. She’s the sister-in-law, Mrs. Andrew Chirnside. Old Thomas Chirnside never married and chose to live with his brother Andrew, sister-in-law Mary and their offspring.
Fancy that, eh? All his wealth and him still a childless bachelor. Prone to fits of melancholy the local gossips say. Loved a woman forty years ago, but she rejected him.
Still, he’s got a younger brother, four nephews and two nieces to leave all his land and earthly possessions to. They will inherit a pretty packet, Lucky sods!’
James, K, & Pritchard, L, 2008, Werribee The first 100 Years, Revised
2nd ed., Werribee District Historical Society, Australia.
Murray, E, 1974, The Plains of Iramoo, Henwood & Dancey, Victoria.
Ronald, H.B, 1978, Wool Past the Winning Post – A History of the Chirnside Family, Landvale Enterprises, Victoria.
Image by: Mahir Uysal