Friday, September 19, 2014

Return to Oz: Matthew Drummond Wed

And so we return at last to Australia, and to the fateful intersection of the Blackwell and Lillies lines, an intersection that produced, with a few additional genealogical detours, the baby-boom Blackwells and Breens, and their progeny.

On July 26, 1916, a cool, cloudy day in Melbourne, Matthew Blackwell, businessman, married Vera Lillies, spinster. The Argus, Melbourne’s newspaper of record, reported the event in fullsome detail, if a little late. Under the heading “Marriages,” this account appeared on September 2:

“BLACKWELL-LILLIES – On the 26th of July, at St. George’s, Malvern, by the Dean of Melbourne, Matthew Drummond, elder son of Mr. and Mrs. R. H. Blackwell, Kooyong road, Toorak, and Vera, younger daughter of Dr. Lillies, Armadale.”

Impressive, I think, that Matthew and Vera were married by the Dean of Melbourne. Deans, though, are not bishops or archbishops. They fit in a different church hierarchy, that of the church “government.” A dean, according to Wikipedia, is “the chief resident cleric of a cathedral or other collegiate church and the head of the chapter of canons.” Other sources note that the dean is responsible for the day-to-day running of the cathedral and its finances. This marriage wasn’t solemnized at the dean’s cathedral, however. It was held at a suburban church, St. George’s, Malvern, established in 1865.

St. George's, Malvern
The Dr. Lillies mentioned is Dr. Herbert Lillies, first-born son of George William Lillies, the naval surgeon whose 1840s African journal I dissected in recent posts. I also wrote about Herbert earlier, here. In the latter post, I mentioned that he had remarried in 1917, presumably after his first wife, Charlotte, whom he’d wed in England before emigrating to Australia, had died. At the time of writing, I didn’t know for sure if or when this had happened. The marriage notice, mentioning only Vera’s father, is another clue that Charlotte was dearly departed before this date. In fact, I now have a record of her death, on December 3, 1911 in  Australia, Victoria, Index to Probate Registers, 1841-1989.

R. H. Blackwell is Richard Henry, founder of R. H. Blackwell & Son, Commission Agents, sole representatives in Australia, New Zealand and the South Sea Islands of champagne maker George Goulet & Co. of Reims, France. I’ve written at some length about R.H., our great grandfather and founder of the Oz branch of the family, starting here.

The Blackwells and Lillies lived not far apart in the same middle class suburban district just east of Melbourne’s centre. The Lillies were at 878 High St., Armadale, also the address of Herbert’s medical practice. The Blackwells lived several blocks away on Kooyong Rd, Toorak.

The Kooyong Rd. residence may have been the house at number 42, where Matthew and Vera were definitely living in 1954, the year Vera died. We know the couple did live other places, i.e. not on Kooyong Rd., in intervening years, but it was here they ended up. Was it the same house as R. H. and Kate and the boys lived in in 1916? 

The house with that number today certainly doesn't look like the home of a successful businessman. (See Google Streetview image below.) It’s more like the home of a modest working man: a middle unit in a low four-wide row house. It’s a marked contrast to the imposing two-storey mansion in which the Lillies lived.

42 Kooyong Rd. (second from right)

I seem to remember stories about the Blackwell family falling on hard times during the Depression. Were Matthew and Vera forced to buy down when the money ran out and just coincidentally chose a smaller house on the same street as the family had lived in 1916, or did they move back into a home the Blackwells had owned all along and rented out during the good years when they were able to live somewhere more opulent?

Perhaps our Australian cousins know the story? Rob? Sally?

I’m assuming too that this 42 Kooyong Rd. house is the one I remember Matthew living in when I met him as a five-year-old in 1955. It has the same low-ceilinged Victorian cottage-y look I recall, but I always assumed it was a single-family dwelling. I do remember our Canadian family being thrilled that citrus trees grew in the back garden. 

But I’m getting ahead of the story again.

Matthew – Matthew Drummond (the origin of whose middle name we looked at earlier in this post) – was at the time of his marriage a mature businessman of 32, with 15 years experience in the family firm under his belt. He was named a junior partner in 1910, when, presumably, the “& Son” was added to the company monicker. According to the 1929 Who’s Who in Australia, Matthew had been educated at Cumloden Grammar School, Melbourne. I can find little about the school. It appears to have closed in 1905, a few years after Matthew left at age 17 to work for his father. He apparently didn’t go to university, or if he did, didn’t finish.

Matthew Drummond Blackwell, as shown in 1929 Who's Who in Australia
About Matthew’s early life before his marriage, I can find little else. We do have a passport for him in the Blackwell Archive, issued in London on March 3, 1915. He was evidently on his way to France, presumably to consult with the George Goulet company, although he may also have been there to talk to the French Mission to Australia. We have a letter from this French government agency, dated a few years later on July 16, 1918, with a retun address of 50 Rue de Vaugirard, Paris. In any case, Matthew presented his passport to the French consulate in London two days after receiving it, and to the British vice-consul in Paris a week later on March 11.

Page from Matthew Blackwell's 1915 passport with stamps from his trip to wartime France
But wait. Wasn’t there a war going on in France at the time? Wasn’t the country over-run by Huns? Certainly the Germans had invaded and were fighting in France, but Paris had not fallen. In fact, unlike in WWII, it never fell  – although the national government did move to Bordeaux, along with the Louvre’s masterpieces, in 1914. (This may be why only a vice-consul was left to look after British affairs in the capital.)

Civilians were apparently still moving freely at least in parts of western France, but in the Champagne region, where George Goulet & Co. was based, there was fairly intense fighting through the first few months of 1915. And the famous Reims Cathedral had earlier been damaged by German shelling in 1914. We can only assume then that the business Matthew needed to transact could all be done in Paris. His passport is clearly stamped, “…not valid for the zone of the armies.”

Reims in 1916 showing bomb damage to houses and cathedral
There is no indication Matthew was anything other than a businessman, or involved in any branch of the military. Still, I’d like to think (on no evidence whatsoever) that he was a spy, using his business dealings as a convenient cover. Why else would he risk life and limb by entering a war-torn country perpetually on the verge of collapse? To secure a supply of bubbly? (As a side note, Matthew's 1929 Who's Who entry notes that he supported the Nationalist Party, which had promoted conscription during the First World War, against strong opposition from Labour. And Matthew's younger brother, our great uncle Richard Marsden, went overseas in 1917 with the Australian Imperial Force and saw action in 1918.)

But back to the wedding.

Matthew’s bride, Vera Isabel Marion Lillies, was 24 when they wed. About her early life, we know even less. She does appear in an electoral roll in 1914, likely the first election in which she was eligible to vote (she would have been 21 or 22). Vera was occupied in 1914, according to the enumerators, with “home duties.”  By the time the next election rolled around, she would have been Mrs. M. D. Blackwell. And no doubt still occupied with home duties.

How did the couple meet? Were the Blackwells patients of Dr. Lillies? Did the Dads, or Mums, belong to the same clubs? The Who’s Who entry for Matthew mentions that he belonged, at least by 1929, to the Athenæum Club, the “V.R.C.” – probably the Victoria [Horse] Racing Club – and the V.A.T.C., probably the Victoria Amateur Turf Club. We know the family was involved in racing, and that the firm stumped up for a race prize at one point.

The Athenæum is a private gentleman’s club, established in 1868. It’s still going strong and sounds very posh. Its website says the Athenæum “is one of Australia’s oldest and finest clubs, confident in its heritage and traditions, yet enlightened and contemporary in its outlook.” Meaning presumably that it no longer excludes Jews and people of colour. But would a suburban general practitioner like Herbert Lillies have belonged to a club located in the heart of Melbourne’s business district? Who knows?

Again, do our Australian cousins remember stories about how the two families came together? My sense is that Lillies and Blackwells didn’t have a lot to do with each other after the fact, but I could be completely mistaken about that.

I’ll leave off here, and hope to come back with more about Matthew and Vera and R.H. Blackwell & Son in future posts, as I learn more.


  1. This is fascinating stuff Gerry.
    I am sure that is the first picture of grandfather Blackwell that I have seen.
    I always knew about the Champagne importing business, but never realized that it was a family firm...but if the firm died or had problems because of the depression it would explain the reduced circumstances of Matthew in later life.
    The house in the Google picture is definitely not the one we visited in '55 that had the little lemon trees in the backyard.

  2. Ah, interesting. So if that is not the house we visited, did the street numbering change, or did Matthew move from this house to the one you remember between 1954 and 1955? Curious. We have a letter from Matthew to John in Canada at the time of Vera's death with the return address of 42 Kooyong Rd. by the way.

    There is another picture of Matthew in this post - - taken from his 1915 passport. And Rob sent me yet another, of a very young Matthew, which I'll post at some point. None found so far of R.H.