Memoirs

A Tough Town

John Bryson profiles the Melbourne suburb in which he was born.

THERE was never a Nobs’ Hill in Brighton. Houses around the foreshore have a tip-toe feeling abut them, like a crowd of local dignitaries trying to catch a glimpse of the Queen. But the topography of Brighton is very nearly even: five thousand acres of upper-income swimming pools.

On pleasant evenings it has a distinctive smell. The air is often tainted with smoke, in winter the scent of small heaps of smoldering leaves, in summer the fragrance is of barbecues.

One-hundred and forty years of high property prices have made Brighton irresistible. It is crowded with lavish houses, but Old Brighton is still hanging in there with a story on every corner. It was a tough town, remembered in its statues, plaques and street names.

EVERYONE knows Tommy Bent. Mayor nine times, parliamentary Speaker and Minister. Then, State Premier of Victoria in 1904, knighted himself in 1908, defeated the same year, died 1909.
His statue stands on the hilltop of Bay Street, watching values of real estate to the south. He made several fortunes looking that way.

On the hustings he was a whirlwind. Newspapers complained that he corrupted electoral processes, but he was unworried. He had worked as the rate collector for Brighton and, in cases of hardship, he had been undemanding. Few ratepayers could be found to speak against him.He rode a horse on his rounds to show an affinity with voters who farmed their land and later, when elections were near, he took off his hat whenever in the presence of a cow.

HENRY DENDY arrived in Port Phillip in 1841, waving the Land Selection Order which would entitle him to Brighton. It was a valuable document he should have kept in his pocket. He thought he needed a manager and soon he had one. JB Were had been in Melbourne for two years by then, was soon to be chairman of the Melbourne Exchange, and his wife was a Quaker. He was a natural. In jargon not of those times, Were had seen Dendy coming.

Were proposed a partnership. Three thousand pounds, half now and the rest later, sign here, and JB Were had taken over half of Brighton. He curtsied into bankruptcy, pulling Dendy down with him, and Dendy’s insolvency followed.JB Were’s brother, Nicholas, acted as his brother’s agent, managing and arranging the subdivision of the Were division. For four hundred and eighty pounds. he also picked up Dendy’s. JB then put Nicholas in control of the Brighton Estate. Henry Dendy left, penniless. He later died, complaining of the cold, in gold mining town Walhalla. JB Were warmed to successes in business and in politics. One of his Brighton houses is now used by the Daughters of Charity.

Another of Were’s houses, Landcox, is still here. It stands in Mavis Street, now as number three. Dendy’s house is gone but a building said to have been his gatehouse stands in New Street.

George Ward Cole’s St. Ninian’s has been demolished. Cole gave wonderful parties there in the 1880s. He was a Legislative Councillor, often seen at Government House, and he made St. Ninian’s the social centre of Brighton. The Captain had made his start in business with ventures in sandalwood, pearls, whaling and running opium.

Captain Ward Cold’s wife divided her life between writing meticulous diaries, raising prized show blossoms, and making jam Her parents were not such decisive people. They had christened her Thomas Anne. She was seldom seen on the beach, though she swam there often. The gardeners were rostered to the east when she went to the west for a swim. She bathed in a robe and one day her disgust at mixed sea-bathing became public. She wrote noisily to the papers, since she had found that it was not the invariable practice of other Brighton bathers to wear anything. Her fight for public decency was to last for many years. But Mrs. Cole swam on.

The beach also excited Nicholas Were. In 1876 it could be worth hundreds of pounds. He thought of a way to establish his claim to it. His ownership seems to have been news to everyone but JB who came out to support him. Brighton rate payers took out an injunction which was settled out of court. The Weres withdrew their claim, but were paid compensation. They came out with seven hundred pounds.

GEORGE HIGINBOTHAM built on land between the beach and St Kilda Street. That house looks over the bay. Higinbotham spoke, it was said, haughtily well, he had been editor of ‘The Argus’ newspaper and he now kept servants and gardeners. All Brighton thought him respectable and elected him to Parliament.

Brighton folk were in for a shock, however. He supported small land-holders against the large; he proposed State aid for the schools of the poor. Calling squatters “the wealthy lower orders” his voice was harsh. Gerrymanders against working class electorates made his eyes moist with anger. His loud opinion of honors and titles caused Knights of the Realm to blush.
In toasting the Queen, he made speeches supporting the fitness of women to vote.

Large grants of State lands to entrepreneurs, were, he shouted, public robberies. The citizens of Brighton could take no more. In 1871 they threw him out.And they elected Tommy Bent.

OLD BRIGHTON has stories, too, of people who were not land dealers, quick merchants, or politicians. But not so many.
Percy Grainger was born here, in New Street. His house looks surprisingly orthodox for a musician who shared a passion for flagellation with his mother. Ethel Robertson stayed here, making notes for “The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney” she would later pretend she was written by a man.

So did Marcus Clarke, who would be remembered most for writing about convicts eating one another. Poet Adam Lindsay Gordon shot himself at the bottom of Park Street. Gunman Squizzy Taylor is buried in the Brighton Cemetery.It was a tough town. I’m glad it’s changed.