― 227 ―

The Old G. P. O.

“This yellow slave
Will knit and break religions …
This is it
That makes the wappen'd widow wed again.”

Timon of Athens

John Elkin

IT was in the Roaring Fifties! The vast staring bay was dotted thick with dirty-white sails of countless passenger ships, filled to overflowing with the most mixed variety of human cargo. The one absorbing aim of these feverish wanderers—including the sailors before the mast—was to reach that new Land of Ophir, the far-famed “diggings” of Ballarat and Bandigo. Gold, the mightiest of the devil's magicians and agents, had lured them all those thousands of miles across the weary waste of waters, from their poverty-stricken homes and dreary avocations in the overcrowded cities or sleepy villages of the Old Country. Of the eager thousands who week by week entered Port Philip Heads, how many—or how few —would ever reach their fancied Eldorado in that dark, mysterious, unknown, gold-besprinkled bush!

On the southern outskirts of Melbourne, between

  ― 228 ―
river and bay, arose a township of tents, where those unable to find housing in the city were huddled together in the blinding sun-glare, and amid indescribable dust and discomfort. Nor did Canvas Town (as it was called) suffice. Many had to lie under the open sky, at the mercy of fierce suns and pitiless rains. Delicately nurtured women gave birth to babes beneath the wind-swept sheds of “Cole's Wharf.” The good ship, Duke of Bedford, moored alongside the pier, was converted into a huge densely-packed boarding house. “Delightful Marine Residence,” so ran the alluring legend—“Boatage Found into the Bargain.”

It was the Roaring Fifties. And Melbourne itself was simply Bedlam. Men of every race, creed, and colour hustled one another in its ill-lighted, thronging thoroughfares. At night they were packed sardinewise in foul, unventilated, dingy rooms; and the tariff of squalid Little Bourke Street rivalled the princely prices of Park Lane or the Old Court suburb. These feverish souls might roughly be catalogued under two heads—diggers “down for a spree,” or “new chums” waiting to make their plunge for Eldorado.

The lucky digger was the reigning monarch—while his gold-dust lasted! For him was the world's obeisance, and the ready smiles of the consenting fair. His pinnacle of glory was, as the Napoleon of the tap-room, to order bottles of champagne at a fabulous price, to be decanted in tin buckets, from which monstrous vessels his slavish admirers noisily drank to the hero's health. Ah! what a gloriously free-handed, open-hearted fellow he was! And how he literally emblazoned the female emigrant—erstwhile some

  ― 229 ―
lowly handmaiden or half-starved domestic “help”—in golden rings and trinkets, and so gorgeously arrayed her in feathers, flowers, and furbelows, that the river promenades, where in close embrace they walked abroad, shone with more than tropic resplendence. The language, too, of these strange lovers was often intensely tropical. Such sexual gaiety and emotional extravagance led sometimes to church—and sometimes not! Still, the average lucky digger was ecclesiastically inclined; and had Gothic cathedrals then existed in Ophir, he would have scorned to be united to his flaunting fair in any less magnificent edifice. Weddings were indeed frequent and promiscuous. Nor was the “new chum” maiden as a rule at all backward or bashful. Ancient records reveal the story of one bouncing Portsmouth lass who went through the sacred ceremony five several times, with five various auriferous swains. But perhaps a veil should be drawn over these wilder doings of the Roaring Fifties. For such disclosures may not only wound the tender sensibilities of staid and surviving descendants, but perchance tend to the upsetting of established inheritances, and proprietary rights.

And what a time it was—the Roaring Fifties!

The ancient, overgrown, and extremely unpretentious wooden bungalow which did duty as the General Post Office (a vastly different structure to the present palace, but on the same site) has long since been demolished. But in its day “The Old G. P. O.” was the glory and crown of Melbourne. For years it was the “address” of a more distinguished, if more mixed

  ― 230 ―
and heterogeneous, shoal of human-kind than almost any club in Christendom. Its low-roofed verandah was the Rialto of early Melbourne.

Old Governor Bourke and his surveyor, who laid out the city, humorously located its “hub” in a deep gully—originally the bed of a flowing creek. This creek had been dammed up, the gully filled with blocks of blue-stone, and converted into the main northern highway to the diggings—and on to Sydney itself. Sir Richard proudly called this great achievement “Elizabeth Street”—not, as is sometimes supposed, in honour of the Tudor queen, but after his own wife; at the same time very properly and conjugally naming the chief intersecting thoroughfare after himself.

And so they boldly stand—BOURKE AND ELIZABETH STREETS—to this day, “to witness if I lie.”

Had old Sir Richard and his surveyor treated this flowing creek and deep ravine æsthetically, they might have changed them into an artificial lake or lagoon, a cool and blessed Serpentine, in the midst of that parched and dust-swept city. But those high official utilitarians of the Fifties were all for straight, broad roads, intersecting at right angles, on the approved “chess-board” pattern. Hence arose modern Melbourne—a city “magnificent” to the man of commerce, and to the peripatetic journalist, but distasteful and saddening to the poet and the lover of the picturesque.

Old prehistoric denizens of the original little bush township “before the gold,” were wont irreverently to call this famous street of Elizabeth “The Glue-Pot”; and ancient colonial records are full of such preposterous stories as that of the belated traveller who in the

  ― 231 ―
pitch blackness of these lampless nights stumbled across a man's hat in the middle of this quagmire of a road. In his anger he would fain have kicked the thing into the open sewers, then muddily flowing like yellow fiends to poison the once pellucid Yarra. But his avenging foot, poised in mid-air, was suddenly arrested by a muffled voice inside the hat exclaiming, “For God's sake, stranger, lift me out. My horse is underneath.

Although Art may outwardly appear all-powerful, even to the extent of transforming things from their original uses, Nature has an awkward habit of unexpectedly re-asserting her sway, and, as it were, of rudely disclosing her primal intention. So, when the fierce tropic rains of that dry and sultry land would come down in torrents, the wide-open gutters of the new Cheapside would suddenly overflow their channels, making the entire-roadway into a raging yellow river, which, in its mad fury, would even dash itself, like a thing possessed, against the sacred portals of the Old G. P. O. itself.

'Twas a close sultry morning, that dreaded sirocco, the north wind, blowing shoals of hot dust fiercely along Elizabeth Street, when a young fellow sought shelter under the familiar low-roofed Verandah. Dick Dawlish hardly came under either of the two categories of the Fifties. He was neither a lucky digger nor a new chum. For all his loosely-fitting, slopmade, Scotch tweeds, striped flannel shirt, and broad flapping wide-awake, he was unmistakably a gentleman of the purely English or insular type, with the public school hall-mark stamped indelibly all over him. But

  ― 232 ―
if not “colonial,” Dick Dawlish was at least “acclimatised.” He had all the air of a fellow who knew his “way about,” even in these rough, chaotic times; and, indeed, he had been at half a dozen “rushes,” and dug, none too successfully, the golden gullies from Fryer's Creek to Bendigo, and from Ballarat to the Mount.

His bronzed, sunburnt face was bold and even handsome. Fine dark, fearless eyes, good big bridge to the nose, clear-cut, mobile lips, long firmly-curved chin, made up a powerful profile; while the fine muscular figure and somewhat defiant carriage of the head revealed an almost soldierly bearing. He was at that glorious period of life—five-and-twenty—when the world still has undiscovered regions to dream of or explore.

“I am,” said the young man aloud, “as one at the parting of the ways.”

And he lounged against the old Verandah post, and knitted his brow, as in a tangled meditation.

Just then there suddenly bobbed round the Little Bourke Street corner a young man who evidently recognised the meditative figure in Scotch tweeds. Any one would have guessed the new-comer to be the merrier and more light-hearted of the twain; but a really keen-sighted observer would have been tempted to declare him also the more commonplace and superficial. Yet, strange to say, he was actually the second son of an English earl. But Nature—though the most uncompromising of aristocrats—seems to scatter her favours at random, or rather where she lists; ofttimes casting her heaven-born patents of nobility into cottages and workshops, while ignoring for generations

  ― 233 ―
those who dwell in palaces and amidst the pomp of life.

The Honourable Philip Worsley was indeed the second and vagabond son of that great steadfast pillar of Church and State, the Right Honourable the Earl of Ventnor. Like many another well-born, restless wanderer, the Hon. Philip found himself in Hobson's Bay, suffering from an acute attack of “gold fever,” in the Roaring Fifties. “Phil.,” as he was familiarly styled by every man, gentle or simple, who had ever “chummed” with him, was always voted “not half a bad fellow.” Nothing ever upset him, and he regarded the varying and sometimes trying incidents of pioneer colonial life (to use his own phrase) as “a rattlin' pantomime.” Thus, when he found himself “hard up,” and in frequent necessity of calling at the Old G. P. O. for letters in the hope of “remittances from home,” he one day discovered that the newly-appointed Postmaster-General (with the full-blown title of Honourable and a salary to match) was the son of a Hampshire baker who formerly provided the Ventnor household with bread. Whereat the Hon. Phil. slapped his legs with joy and exclaimed, “That licks Joey Grimaldi.”

Making a trumpet of his sunburnt hands and creeping noiselessly on tip-toe behind the brooding figure in Scotch tweeds, the Hon. Philip let loose a “Coo-ee,” calculated to startle a blacks' camp in the remote bush. It was distinctly heard and recognised by Bouncing Bess, the popular barmaid at the “Golden Bush,” which famous hostelry stood on the other side of Elizabeth Street, in the direction of the old town cemetery.

  ― 234 ―

Dick Dawlish sprang back as if struck by a stockwhip.

“Good God, Phil.!” he exclaimed, “I might have known it was you. If ever by any chance you get within hail of the pearly gates, that's how you'll call up St. Peter, regardless of his condition of nerves, and without a thought for all the cares and worries of his perplexing billet.”

“Why so devilish theological, and so beastly glum this morning?” queried the Hon. Phil., who, like most humourists, hated his jokes to miscarry or fall flat.

“Well, I'm considering whether to take my passage home, or to go off again to the diggings. I'm sick of loafing around Melbourne.”

“There's only one way to decide these things,” said the Hon. Phil., feeling in his pocket: “the spinning of the merry coinage of the realm.”

Whereupon up went a sovereign high into the air.

Man we hump our swags; Woman we're off before the mast.”

But his companion made no response, and the coin fell and leisurely rolled into the open yellow sewer, from which in some disgust its owner had to fish it out.

“Forgive me, Phil.,” said Dawlish with a friendly smile. “I'm a devilish dull dog this morning. So utterly sick of the whole gamble of colonial life, that I don't feel disposed to put my immediate future to the hazard of a toss. But it's like you, old fellow, to offer to accompany me, and not to care a curse which way yellow-boy should point our footsteps.”

“Not much,” said the Hon. Phil. “Life's a

  ― 235 ―
pantomime, Dick, whether in Pall Mall or Elizabeth Street. But, personally, I'd rather hang on a bit longer here.”

“It's this abominable ‘hanging-on’ that I can't stand,” exclaimed Dick. “Somehow you and I, and most of the gentlemen section, never seem to get any forrader, Phil. We've no luck. We turn up at every rush but never strike the colour.”

“Oh, well, we grub along somehow, and it ain't half a bad life as long as the storekeepers give us tick—and our ‘remittances’ drop in occasionally at the Old G. P. O.,” added Phil. after an ominous pause.

“But my dear Phil., you don't seem to see we're in the colony and not of it. Besides, things are changing. This Bedlamite business will soon be over, and other people are settling down to something definite, to some fixed social position, or decent calling, while you and I, and poor Steve Dugdale—are all three on the high road to Loaferdom.”

“It all comes,” said the Hon. Phil., philosophically, “of our ungodly, extravagant bringing-up. It's the fault of our parents. We can rough it with any gipsy tinker of the lot—but we can't save a red cent, and as a rule we've no luck. Would to God I'd been born a hungry German turnip-prodder, or a lantern-jawed Scotch crofter—even a T'othersider. They're the chaps to grub along into millionaires in a country like this.”

“Our greatest curse,” said Dick Dawlish impressively, “comes in the shape of monetary assistance from our relations at home. It makes us a bye-word. Even your friend Bouncing Bess calls us ‘R.M.'s.’ —Remittance men. It's damned disgusting.”

  ― 236 ―

“So it is when the expected coin doesn't turn up, dear boy,” said the Hon Phil. “Which reminds me that my Calvinistic aunt, the Lady Letitia, seems to be getting the upper hand again in the Ventnor family. She agrees with you, and thinks these remittances sap our self-reliance. But my manly pride can stand any amount of bank drafts. She don't know how tough my moral fibre is. I'll drop on her yet with an account of my Sunday-school class, and the work I'm doing among the heathen.” And the incorrigible young aristocrat winked at the newly-imported Irish policeman, who was listening to this little confidential colloquy with an amused grin on his fine open Hibernian countenance.

How much longer these two young gentlemen would have discussed the colony and their own future prospects, it is impossible to say. But their talk was suddenly interrupted by the most penetrating noise in the world—a street Arab's shrill cry—

The Mail! English Mail! Arrival of the Mail!

And soon was heard the scramble and scurrying of hundreds of feet and the hoarse myriad murmurs, mounting to a prolonged roar, of wildly excited men, rushing down from Flagstaff Hill, where they had seen the long-wished-for signals of the mailship's arrival in the bay.

For all this was in the far-off days, which, though but forty years ago, seem like an ancient, dim-recorded, half-forgotten myth—the days before steamships and telegraph cables were known, or even dreamed of, at the Antipodes. Then, indeed, the coming in of the

  ― 237 ―
English mail—conveyed by slow sailing ships in from seventy to one hundred days—with all the wonderful accumulated budget of news, was an event—an epoch —no longer to be realised by the young up-to-date generation of 1899. Let us not, however, in our pride in the achievements of modern science, altogether despise our colonial forefathers. The men of the Roaring Fifties had their compensation for being thus plunged for some three dark months in utter ignorance of the outer world; theirs was the keen excitement of surprise, the eternal magic of the unexpected; the edge of novelty was not then blunted by the irritating driblets of the daily cablegrams, and the slow old mail boats brought ample budgets which had all the freshness of sensational news, combined with the fulness of historical records.

It was the fierce, exciting, anxious time of the Crimean War. Fancy those vagabond Britons and wandering gold-diggers rushing down from Flagstaff Hill, in utter ignorance of the fortunes of the great struggle in which the dear old motherland was plunged, and knowing not whether their own unprotected shores were altogether safe from Russian cruisers.

How they surged round the newspaper offices, and wildly rushed down towards the Old G. P. O., breathless for news from home. What an uproar and stampede! Above all pierced the shrill cries of the street Arabs—

The Mail! Arrival of the English Mail! Full Account of the Rooshian War! Home News! One Shilling!

  ― 238 ―

One shilling indeed. Crowns and half-crowns were tendered with no thought of changes for these exciting news sheets.

It had been a sullen, sultry morning, hot and dusty, the sky overhead gleamed like burnished brass. But low down on the horizon hung those small, floating, everspreading cloudlets, which often seem to grow and gather as one gazes; and in a short while cover the face of the heavens like a pall, portending sudden change and fierce storm. Soon huge drops of rain began to fall one by one on the parched and dusty street.

“Ivry dhrop,” remarked Connolly, the new Dublin policeman, “hittin' yer wid a wilt loike a five-shullun pace.”

But no one minded the coming storm. The excited crowd grew thick and thicker, and hurled itself against the old Verandah. Every man was eager for news of the war, and anxious for his home letters. It was a strange, indescribable Babel. Still, over all the roar and hubbub broke the street Arabs' shrill cries—

Argus! ‘Strornary!’ Home News! Charge of the Light Brigade! Argus ‘Strornary! Home News! A Shilling!

Men, and women too, dashed wildly across the widening yellow sewers into the wet road-way, to secure at any price this long pent-up budget or English news.

As these gold-seeking exiles tore open the papers and read of the famous Balaclava charge, hats were

  ― 239 ―
waved in the air, and Elizabeth Street was rent with mad, vociferous cheers.

“My God,” said Dick Dawlish, “I should like to have been in it.”

The rain began to come down faster and fiercer; it was a thorough tropical flood. But still the excited crowd surged across the wide and almost impassable gutters, into the slushy street for the papers, while the street Arabs, drenched to the skin, yelled more piercingly than ever—

Arrival of the Mail! Argus! Home News! Defeat of the Rooshians! All the News of the War!

For a while people even forgot that they could get their private letters addressed—as so many thousands were at that time—“G. P. O., Melbourne.” Even the Hon. Phil. had become for the moment oblivious of the fell designs of the pious Lady Letitia. However, after a while there was a fresh rush in the direction of the Inquiry Window, while the historic Old G. P. O. might well have been mistaken for Drury Lane on boxing night.

A thin, delicate, refined-looking young fellow passed by, just as Dick Dawlish and the Hon. Phil. were making for the window.

“Hullo, Stephen,” cried Dick Dawlish. “Glad to see you. Hope you feel better. Isn't the news from the Crimea glorious?”

With a faint smile and a nod, Stephen Dugdale slipped by them and managed to reach the window, where the clerk handed him his letters.

“What a crush,” said the Hon. Phil. “Why,

  ― 240 ―
there's the gay old fossils whose portraits figure in half a dozen of Aunt Letitia's story books. How very odd.”

“Ominous, I should call it,” said Dick. “Who are they?”

“Don't know; somethin' in the Sunday-school line, or else the scribblin' and poetic business,” replied his careless companion. “These Ballarat nuggets have brought some rum fish over here, Richard.”

Had the Hon. Phil. possessed the curiosity to step up behind the comely, pleasant-faced lady and gentleman, as they asked for their letters at the window he might have heard in soft Quaker tones, the query—

“Any letters for William or Mary Howitt?”

But if the Hon. Phil. was too heedless to identify this remarkable pair of Quaker exiles, a young fellow with a very marked face, who was pressing towards the Inquiry Window evidently recognised them, and was accosted by “William and Mary.”

“Why,” said the lady with delight, “if it isn't young Mr. Wordsworth. It seems but yesterday since I saw thy dear grandfather?”

This historic little group of English exiles, attracted no attention whatever from the surging crowd round the window. They were soon joined by a young digger whom Dick Dawlish evidently knew. For he shouted out, “Hullo Woolner! How's the plaster-cast business getting on?” And in truth, speaking to the grandson of the great English poet, was the future pre- Raphaelite and Royal Academician. Yes! there were some strange groups under the Old G.P.O. Verandah in the Roaring Fifties on “mail day.”

  ― 241 ―

No sooner had young Mr. Wordsworth and Thomas Woolner got their letters and hurried off than the Hon. Phil.'s attention was again arrested by the entrance of a tall, spare, dark-haired, heavy-browed, “aloof-looking” young gentleman, who looked the tourist more than the digger.

“Why,” exclaimed Phil, “I'm blowed if it ain't a friend of the governor's. Don't want him to spot me.”

And he stepped into the darkest corner of the Verandah and hid himself behind Dawlish.

“Looks rather a masterful chap,” said Dick, eying the stranger at the window.

This chance remark was not altogether a bad shot; for the young gentleman so lightly referred to was destined to become, more than once, “Master” of the British Empire.

But if none of those native exiles with historic names made the least stir as they jostled in the crowd of the Old G.P.O. Verandah, this was not the case with a black-browed, sallow-faced man who now entered, clamping his spurs on the weather-board floor, and leaning his hand heavily on a pistol in his belt. Everybody made way for this great personage, while an expansive smile of heart-felt joy spread over the jocund countenance of the Hon. Phil., who nudged his moody companion.

“Don't miss him, Dick. It's worth a king's ransom to see Cornelius O'Regan call for his mail letters.”

It was, indeed, the great Irish tragedian, whose sonorous tones had thrilled the lovers of Shakespeare and the “legitimate,” and whose name was indeed a

  ― 242 ―
household word to the stage-struck shop-boys of Drury Lane as well as to the perspiring diggers of the old Charlie Napier at Ballarat. A hero indeed! The great Cornelius inquired for his correspondence in a voice like that of Hamlet's ghostly father, audible to the entire audience under the old Verandah, and even penetrating into the recesses of the bungalow so as to thrill the very souls of the over-worked clerks of the Old G. P. O.

“There were four different ladies last mail day,” said the clerk at the window, “each demanding letters addressed to Mrs. Cornelius O'Regan. To whom am I to deliver them?”

Ah! then it was a noble spectacle to see the great impersonator of Othello and Belphegor (the mountebank) smite his mighty brow and exclaim—

“Four!—did you say four, varlet? Nay, this cannot be! And I a man of pure and stainless life!”

Then, without deigning further to parley with the official, the great man stalked majestically away, muttering in a stage whisper, plainly audible within the recesses of the building itself—

“Be thou as chaste as ice, as pure as snow,

Thou shalt not escape CALUMNY!”

And he threw such weird emphasis on the word “CALUMNY” that it sounded as some old Arabian charm—an unfamiliar thing of beauty and mystery—like unto that dear old word “Mesopotamia!” With bowed head, the great tragedian passed into the dripping streets and slowly clanked out of sight, the

  ― 243 ―
picture of a mighty soul in trouble — an injured angel in a naughty world!

“By heavens!” exclaimed the Hon. Phil., “that's too gorgeous! It means quite fifty quid in the dresscircle to-night at the old ‘Iron Pot.’ ”

“Fifty quid in the old ‘Iron Pot?’ ” queried the puzzled Dick. “What the devil do you mean?”

“Why, that's Cornelius O'Regan, and he's playing at the Olympic—the old iron theatre, you know, at the top of Lonsdale Street. It's a little ‘ad.,’ a put-up job. Don't you tumble to it? He's given the josser at the window half a dozen seats to ask him that question about the four Mrs. Corneliuses. So that he could throw the ‘Calumny’ speech off his chest when the blessed old Verandah was packed on mail day! It's magnificent, and worth quite fifty quid in the house to-night. Oh! I'm up to the whole bag of tricks, Richard.”

But the Hon. Phil. did not think it necessary to tell his friend that he himself had once assisted in a similar little dramatic scene when “business” was rather slack at the old Charlie Napier at Ballarat (where he was then going on nightly as a “super”); and how the old Eureka diggers rushed the theatre that night, and threw their nuggets at the feet of the virtuous tragedian.

The Hon. Phil. at last squeezed in front of the “Inquiry Window.” When, in reply to his eager question, the clerk curtly replied, “Nothing”; he cheerfully nodded, and remarked, to the amazement of that harassed but versatile official—

“Many thanks, old son. Thought as much. As I expected, Letitia's got the upper hand. Good day; see you at the ‘Iron Pot’ to-night.”

  ― 244 ―

Dick Dawlish's turn came; and he too had no home letters.

When the two young men attempted to pass out from under the old Verandah, they saw that the Elizabeth Street gutters had invaded the side-walk and were running frantically half across the wide roadway itself. The rain continued to come down in torrents. The rushing waters were quite impassable, even by the arched footbridges at the street corners. Men and women were being conveyed across the flooded street in carts at half-a-crown a head.

A sudden noisy splash! A man had stumbled and fallen into the midst of this madly-flowing, dangerous yellow torrent. Dick Dawlish, fleet and sure of foot as a reindeer, rushed wildly through the shallow water of the pathway, and springing with a bound on to the centre of the footbridge, swooped down and caught the drifting figure just as it was being sucked through the narrow arch. “Hold on to the sides,” he shouted; and then with a powerful jerk drew poor Stephen Dugdale out of the perilous floodtide, and landed him on the narrow footbridge—a spectacle indeed for gods and men!

“Did yez see that?” yelled the delighted Connolly, the Irish constable. “The grip he tuk av his backbone! Begorra, but he'd be an ornimint to the foorce.”

“The week afore last,” said a man, by way of comment, “a little fat cove fell in, and was jammed to death under that there very bridge. I seed them haul him out like a drownded rat.”

“But he was only a blasted Frenchman,” remarked a big rough-looking bushman, burnt to a brick. “Wot

  ― 245 ―
can you expect? Them foreigners, they ain't got the gumption to clutch on to the bridge, and haul theirselves out.”

Despite the fact that the French were then our “allies,” the colonial Briton regarded foreigners and Frenchman as synonymous — and inferiors. The spirit of Horatio Nelson still held sway.

Such “street incidents” were not at all uncommon in the Fifties. And a foreign tourist had actually been drowned in this manner, in the old Elizabeth Street gutter, at flood time.

“Come along, Dick,” exclaimed the ever-cheerful Phil. “Let us take poor Steve over to the ‘Golden Bush’ and get Bessie to hang him up do dry.”