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Saturday 25 December 2010


I’ve had a soft spot for my Acramans since I found that single part-sad, part-humorous letter from my cousin Edward Daniel Acraman (see earlier posts). He was in Adelaide, a long way from home, when he wrote it, and never got back to Bristol.

Edward was named after his father, William Edward (my 3x great uncle), and his grandfather, Daniel Wade Acraman. Father and grandfather presided together over something of a golden age of Acraman prosperity in Bristol in the first half of the nineteenth century. They had passed like so many English families of the eighteenth century from a rural economy as yeoman farmers to urban industrial activity.

In the Acramans’ case they became iron founders and workers in Bristol, one of the most important ports in England at the time. Daniel Acraman patented a chain cable design in 1823, and by the 1830s the Acramans had a business empire of several companies and partnerships connected with marine engineering, manufacturing and supplying anchors, chains, boilers and other metalwork for shipping.

Bristol Harbour, with Acraman’s Warehouse to the rear on the left
and S.S. Great Western rear right under construction

The city was a centre for import and export, an obvious target for entrepreneurs of the railway boom of the early nineteenth century who were all racing to capture the lucrative freight market. The Great Western Railway, GWR, known to its passengers and shareholders as God’s Wonderful Railway, was formed at a public meeting in Bristol in 1833 took on the task of building a line from London to the city. The project was designed by the engineering genius Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who had already demonstrated his brilliance by his 1831 design for the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol, the longest bridge in the world at the time (although it was only completed in 1864, five years after his death).

Brunel was not afraid to think big. He chose a wider-than-usual gauge for his track – 7 feet and one quarter of an inch, compared to the Stephenson standard gauge of 4 feet 8½ inches – and he had big ideas too about the length of journey his passengers could undertake. Why stop at Bristol? Brunel began to see the possibility of buying one ticket which could take you from London to New York. Such a voyage was becoming a technical possibility at the time, and several groups of businessmen were racing to make it a reality. The Great Western Steamship Company was formed in Bristol in 1836, and Brunel set about designing its flagship the S.S Great Western.

S.S. Great Western on her maiden voyage

Of course it was to be no ordinary ship. When it was launched in 1837 it was the largest steamship in the world, intended to prove Brunel’s theory that a larger ship would be more fuel efficient. It was built in the Patterson & Mercer yard at Bristol, and it seems that most of the machinery and ironwork on the wooden-hulled vessel was supplied by Acraman Morgan & Co. (The engines themselves were supplied and fitted by Maudslay, Sons & Field of Lambeth on the Thames.) The Great Western broke all records for a transatlantic crossing and arrived with a third of its fuel unused, vindicating Brunel's design. It became the first ship to offer a regular service between Britain and New York.

The success of the Great Western in pioneering the transatlantic route may have encouraged Acraman Morgan & Co to go into shipbuilding themselves in 1839. But the Acramans were in danger of becoming overextended. They had diversified in 1834 into a different kind of shipping interest, with a  company called Acraman Bush Castle & Co which imported tea from Canton. Having only recently (1832) completed a huge warehouse to accommodate all their ironworks, they had almost immediately had to invest in a large extension to it to store the tea.

Acraman’s No.1 Warehouse, 1832, before ...
and 1836, after tea extension, 
and today, as the Arnolfini Gallery

In all, too much money was going out and not enough coming back in. William Edward Acraman wrote in 1836 to one of his investors, “I wish one of these ships would arrive with some strong cargo [of tea].” But he also revealed that Messrs Bush and Castle were among those investors who had not yet paid in full for their shares in the company. Whether the ships never came in, or the investors never paid, the tea company went bankrupt in 1842, bringing about the spectacular financial collapse of the Acraman empire. The huge Acraman warehouse was sold off in 1846 to pay for the empire’s debts – and bought by the Bush family. It has been known as Bush House ever since.

Saturday 18 December 2010


Superintendent John Sadleir of the Victoria Police is a distant cousin – my 6x great grandfather Clement Sadleir was the brother of his 4x great grandfather Samuel. Still, we cling onto such thin connections when we have stories like this one to tell.

Superintendent John Sadleir (1832-1919)

John Sadleir was born in Co Tipperary in Ireland, but emigrated to Australia in 1852. He immediately signed up with a newly formed special police corps in Melbourne and worked his way up through the ranks in a series of postings. He seems to have had a greater than usual understanding of the ordinary people whom he policed, and of their “righteous dissatisfaction” with a “stubborn and unwise central government.” He often felt uncomfortable in his role, caught between the two, for example during the 1854 miners’ uprising at Eureka.

In 1874 he was promoted to superintendent and posted to Upper Goulburn, north east of Melbourne. When in 1878 one of his junior officers, Constable Alexander Fitzpatrick, claimed to have been shot at Benalla by a gang which included the brothers Dan and Ned Kelly, Sadleir found himself at the centre of Australia’s most famous manhunt.

Ned Kelly (1855-1880), in a portrait which he requested,
taken the day before his execution

As the hunt for the Kelly Gang proceeded over the next two years, Sadleir was extremely critical of the high-handed and inappropriate tactics of the police, particularly when they decided to arrest anyone and everyone whom they identified as a sympathiser of the fugitives. Although the Kellys were thieves and murderers, they were also the focus for more legitimate anti-authoritarian resentment about the way in which Crown land was being parcelled out by recent legislation. The Land Acts of the 1860s were intended to encourage settlement, but were open to widespread abuse, something which Irish-born Sadleir would have recognised and understood. Arresting victims of that abuse, on the grounds that they supported the Kellys, only deepened resentment towards the police and made their search for Ned Kelly more difficult.

The search came to an end on 27th June 1880 when the gang were cornered, with hostages, in the Glenrowan Inn. At 5.30am the next morning John Sadleir’s superior, Supt Francis Hare was injured by a bullet to his left wrist and fled the scene. John took over command of the siege. In the exchange of gunfire which followed, it became clear to the gang that there was no chance of escape. Resigning themselves to capture and death, two members committed suicide; another was fatally injured as he poured himself a drink at the bar of the inn. Several hostages were also injured, two fatally, before the survivors were led to safety and the inn set on fire.

Ned Kelly’s last stand
(drawn by Francis Thomas Dean Carrington
only five days after the event)

Ned came out fighting, wearing a suit of makeshift armour forged and beaten from ploughshares, but it only protected his upper body front and back, and his head. He survived three direct hits on the armour, to the disbelief of the police, before a series of shots to his legs, hip and hand brought him down. As Kelly lay close to death, it was John Sadleir who comforted him, telling him, “You shall have every care and attention, Ned. Do not irritate yourself, keep yourself quiet.”

It was a remarkable act of compassion, again demonstrating Sadleir’s affinity with ordinary people, an admirable quality in a policeman. But his criticism of the handling of the manhunt must have made him enemies. In the ensuing inquiry into its conduct he was heavily criticized and demoted, receiving only the sixth largest share of the reward money for Kelly’s capture (whereas the cowardly Superintendent Hare received the largest amount).

Ned Kelly recovered from his injuries well enough to stand trial and be sentenced to death; he was hung on 11th November 1880, aged 25. John Sadleir retired in 1896 having risen again to the rank of officer in charge of the Metropolitan District of Melbourne. He published his very readable memoirs, “Recollections of a Victorian Police Officer,” in 1913.

Saturday 11 December 2010


My 5x great grandfather has a genuine claim to fame as the inventor of a system of shorthand; I don’t know why I haven’t written about this yet, and perhaps I will soon. It was while looking into the origins of Gurney, as his system became known, that I became aware of his appetite for marriage proposals.

Thomas Gurney (1705-1770)

I wrote earlier about the unpopularity amongst his many children of his second wife, whom they almost entirely erased from the family history: she is referred to only as Miss R. Their mother was his first wife Martha Marsom, daughter of John Bunyan’s prison companion Thomas Marsom (of whom I have also written). Tom married Martha in 1730. But today I was reminded of an even earlier attempt at marriage, which he used to joke about with his children.

After an evening meal, perhaps during the week (surely not on a devotional Sunday, for he was a devout Particular Baptist) his eye would catch that of Martha, Mrs Gurney. He might wink; she might blush; the children – young Martha, young Thomas, Joseph and John – might smile. They knew what was coming and had heard the story many times.

“I’ve been married to your mother these twenty years now, you know, thanks be to God. Never a cross word!” (Pause for laughter.) “But you know, I should have been married much earlier, if I’d not taken so long before I made my offer. Oh, not to your mother.” (“Oh Tom! Honestly!” chipped in mother Martha.)

“Fools rush in,” he may have added, “where angels fear to tread. Praise the Lord that I was not as fleet as I then wished I had been.” He undid a button of his waistcoat, settling into the tale.

"When I was a young man," he continued, "a dear friend of mine died while still in his prime, leaving a very smart widow." He emphasized the description, and Martha feigned offence at an insult he had feigned at every telling of this story. "I thought to myself, she would make a very desirable wife." (More tutting and eye-rolling from Martha, and grins all round from the teenage children.) "What’s more, I felt that she would not be long without an offer. 

"Therefore I called upon her the day after the funeral –  (“The day after? Really, father! So soon!” his eldest son Thomas interjected dutifully.)  – and I told her all that was on my mind. She immediately broke out, 'Oh, Mr Gurney! I wish you had mentioned this before.'  (“And we wish you hadn’t,” muttered his youngest, John.) 'I wish,' " Thomas Gurney pointedly pressed on in a comic high voice with his recital, " 'I had had any idea of your intention. There is not a man in the world for whom I have so great an esteem, or with whom I should have anticipated so much happiness.' Not a word of a lie, my children, those were her exact words." (Groans of disbelief.)

"Well, I may tell you that I expressed my surprise and confusion that, feeling thus, she should have refused me. She then added by way of explanation, “I am engaged! I am sorry, but I couldn’t help it. You remember Mr So-and-So who was at the funeral yesterday? He returned here afterwards; he stayed and took tea with me; and I could not get rid of him without making him a promise. I am sorry for it, but I must keep my word.'

"Well of course I had to consent that this was her proper course – as you know, my children, one must always keep one’s word, whether one wishes to or not. Never make any rash promises, children." (“Or proposals, father!” his daughter piped up.) "I took my leave; and at the end of three months, she put off her widow’s weeds and arrayed herself in wedding garments.

“I don’t recall,” Thomas Gurney concluded, “that I’ve ever told you that story before. But I am every day thankful that Providence ordered it so; for it has given me, by waiting, one of the most excellent of wives.” (“Only amongst the most excellent?” protested John. “To our most excellent mother!” Joseph raised a glass, and was joined by all present.)

And Martha sat back and smiled, basking in the warm love of her husband and children, but perhaps also in the knowledge that she had later met Mrs So-and-So the very smart widow, and heard her version of the story.

(The version I have, from which most of the above comes verbatim, is the one told by Thomas' grandson William Gurney, who presumably got it from his father, Tom's son Joseph.)

Saturday 4 December 2010


Joan Riviere was a first cousin of my great aunt Helen Salter née Verrall. The only description I have of her, apart from photographs, is of a “tall Edwardian beauty with a picture hat and a scarlet parasol.” She was by all accounts a forceful personality.

Joan Hodgson Verrall (1883-1962)

After a carefree, artistic childhood – attending finishing school in Germany, learning the language and becoming a court dressmaker in that country for a while – she went through a very rough emotional patch in 1909 from the combination of post-natal depression following the birth of her daughter and crushing grief at the death of her father.

It was through the work of Helen and her mother Margaret at the Society for Psychical Research that Joan was introduced at about this time to the ideas of Sigmund Freud (who more or less invented psychoanalysis) and Ernest Jones (who was the first English-language practitioner of the discipline).

Joan became fascinated by psychoanalysis, and received treatment from Ernest Jones. Jones was so impressed by her understanding of the science that he invited her to be a founder member of the British Pschoanalytical Society which he founded in 1919. At a conference in The Hague the following year she met Melanie Klein, a Viennese pioneer of child psychology whom Joan championed in later life, setting her in a Freudian context (although she eventually distanced herself from Kleinian theory).

Sigmund Freud, whose writings Joan Riviere translated

At the same conference Joan met Freud himself for the first time and asked him to analyse her. This he eventually did, in Vienna in 1922, when her therapy with Jones reached a blockage. She had already begun her work of translating Freud, and she is widely regarded as the best translator of his work, capturing not only the ideas but the character of his writing.

In addition to her translations of Freud and support of Klein, Joan wrote several important papers of her own, including Womanliness as a Masquerade (particularly in intellectual women, to cover their sense of masculinity) and Jealousy as a Mechanism of Defence. The latter predated similar Kleinian theory by 25 years.

Her therapy with both Jones and Freud was difficult. Freud wrote of her, “She cannot tolerate praise, triumph or success ... she is sure to become unpleasant and aggressive and to lose respect for the analyst.” His concept of Negative Therapeutic Reaction was based largely on his work with her, and later she would write what some regard as her most important original work of psychoanalysis, the 1936 publication Contribution to the Analysis of the Negative Therapeutic Reaction. In it she drew on her personal responses to the analyses of Jones and Freud, her observations of her own clients – she was herself by now a trained analyst – and the theories of Klein. Where Freud saw the reaction as a reluctance to give up the pain of suffering because of a sense of guilt, Riviere argued that it was a refusal to give up control for fear of the inner world of despair which a surrender to analysis might reveal. “This,” she wrote, “has been my own experience.”
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