Category Archives: Melbourne

My Melbourne: Melbourne General Cemetery

Melbourne General Cemetery

I enjoy a visit to a graveyard: these markers of the end of everyone’s story (or, for believers, the end of the fist book and the beginning of the sequel).

One of my favourite cemeteries is Melbourne General Cemetery, which dates from 1853.

Kitty Carrasco lives opposite this graveyard in Kitty and Cadaver, and there’s a very uncomfortable encounter with the dead rising from their graves and the ensuing musical battle where the minstrels try to sing the dead to rest again.

The Melbourne General Cemetery contains the remains of hundreds of Melburnians from all walks of life. Residents include great politicians, social reformers, explorers, singers, public servants and sportsmen from the early days of the colony.

Naturally, there are writers and other contributors to Melbourne’s literary history among the cemetery’s residents. These include Marcus Clarke, author of For the Term of His Natural Life; city co-founder John Fawkner, who produced Melbourne’s first newspaper; and John Stanley James, an early journalist who wrote for “The Argus” newspaper under the pseudonym ‘The Vagabond’.

Explorers Burke and Wills were buried here after their remains were recovered; opera singer Frederick Federici, whose ghost is said to haunt the Princess Theatre, is interred here.

One of the charms of the Old Melbourne Cemetery (and, indeed, of all cemeteries) is the occasional eccentric tombstone; whether it’s a pithy epitaph or an unusual design carved in stone.

One of the most distinctive and evocative headstones in the cemetery is that of Emily Mather, murdered in 1891 by her husband Frederick Deeming (a serial killer who some believed to be Jack the Ripper).

The headstone remarks upon on her murder and gives some frankly victim-blaming advice on being careful who you marry.

Walter Lindrum’s headstone

The 1960 grave of world champion billiard’s player, Walter Lindrum, is much less gruesome – a few stone billiard balls and a cue lie across the polished marble, as though Walter has just stepped away for a moment and will be back to finish his shot shortly.

Another unexpected memorial in Melbourne General Cemetery is the one to Elvis Presley – curious, given Elvis never made it to Australia.

The Elvis memorial

The memorial is said to be the only officially approved shrine outside of Graceland. It was commissioned by the Elvis Presley Fan Club in 1977 and still attracts visitors each year on the anniversary of the hip-swiveller’s death.

Graves can be sad; they can even be morbid. I find them melancholy but restful, a reminder that every life, however, brief, has it’s own story, filled with love, drama, tragedy and joy.

Every story ends. I want to make sure the pages of mine are full.

Review: The Secret Art of Poisoning by Samantha Battams

When I first moved to Melbourne in the late 1990s, I lived in Richmond. At some point during my five years there, before I moved to the city, I learned about Martha Needle, the woman who lived on Bridge Road in the 1890s and poisoned her husband, three children and the brother of her fiance.

That’s as much as I knew, but that little conjured an image of a sly, vicious woman, disposing of unwanted encumbrances to get her own way and maybe a spot of insurance money.

As with all true stories, however, a lot more complexity is unravelled when you start to explore the details. Martha Needle’s guilt, on the face of it, is undoubted, and she was hanged for her crimes – but author Samantha Battams does an excellent job of uncovering the details of Martha’s tragic history and the circumstances of her crimes in The Secret Art of Poisoning: The True Crimes of Martha Needle, The Richmond Poisoner.

Martha Needle circa-1892. Photo: Australian Manuscripts Collection, State Library of Victoria

Battam goes into Martha Needle’s life in detail, beginning with the life of her mother, Mary Newland, who arrived in Adelaide in 1852, one of many women who came to be brides for the male-dominated colonial outpost.

The Secret Art of Poisoning: The True Crimes of Martha Needle, The Richmond Poisoner is a very thorough account of Martha’s harsh and difficult life, her precarious mental health and the deeds she committed and for which she was punished. Biased news coverage, many personal letters, the court proceedings (including the judge’s summing up) and other primary documents are quoted at length, and the final chapter brings together Battams’ observations on the social and historical influences that are so deeply embedded in the fate of Martha Needle and her victims.

On the technical side, a more stringent proofread before publication would have caught some of the more obvious typos and inconsistencies in punctuation which caught my eye and interrupted the reading flow, especially in the early chapters, but it’s a minor niggle in the presentation.

It’s a solid account, but if there’s a disappointment, it’s in an early promise not fulfilled. Battams reveals in the introduction how she stumbled across Martha Needle’s story by first encountering the story of how one Alexander Lee poisoned his wife and children in the 1920s. Lee was Martha Needle’s nephew.

The early suggestion of looking at how these two relatives and their fates were connected is only lightly touched on. I’d have enjoyed a bit more analysis, involving a more explicit look at their parallels, especially since the introduction specifically notes “I was also curious to know, did Alexander Lee know his Auntie Martha and grow up with stories of her infamous deeds?’ while the back blurb reads “What strange quirk of fate led these two relatives… to commit virtually the same crime?” Any answer is inferred rather than fully examined.

Although my curiosity is left largely unsatisfied, The Secret Art of Poisoning: The True Crimes of Martha Needle, The Richmond Poisoner is a thorough examination of a horrible crime, trial by media, the treatment of poverty, trauma and mental health by the 19th century justice system, and how the truth is always so much more complex than a sobriquet like “The Richmond Poisoner” can ever hope to show.

Buy The Secret Art of Poisoning: The True Crimes of Martha Needle, The Richmond Poisoner:

My Melbourne: Saluting Cyril P Callister

Headstone for Cyril P Callister, plus a jar of Vegemite as tribute

In days gone by, I created an app all about the peculiarities of this city I love so much. Among the tributes to the strange and beloved was a post about that most Australian of foodstuffs – Vegemite.

Australians grow up on the stuff and think nothing of it, but migrants and visitors to our shores have to be taught how to enjoy Vegemite. Many never really manage it.

I used to suspect that Vegemite was concocted in some terrible laboratory accident, but it was in fact invented on purpose

Marmite is a whole other controversial foodstuff, also dividing folks into the ‘love/hate’ camps. Australia’s much saltier version came about because the exports of Marmite from Britain to Australia were limited as a result of attacks on ships during World War One. 

Our nation, swearing never again to be desperate for a yeast-extract spread, turned to Cyril Percy Callister. 

Cyril was born in Victoria and schooled in Ballarat. With his Masters of Science from Melbourne University and experience developing explosives for the Brits during The Great War, he invented a process from scratch using spent yeast from the Carlton and United Breweries. I’m not sure where the explosives expertise comes into it, but he scienced like anything and produced the goods!

Vegemite: The Final Product was released in 1923, although it didn’t become popular until the late 1920s.

Cyril also worked on cheese products for his employer, Fred Walker & Co Pty Ltd, which may explain why cheese and Vegemite work so well together – though most Australians prefer it thinly spread on hot, well-buttered toast.

Callister was super-smart and very savvy in the ways of food technology and was all round a pretty decent guy.

Cyril P. Callister passed away of a heart attack in 1949. He is buried in Box Hill Cemetery near the Middleborough Road end, in plot 14 of section 158. Pass by sometime and pay your respects from a grateful nation.

(The jar of Vegemite I left as tribute all those years ago is probably gone now, though.)

And if you’re a non-native and want some tips on how to eat Vegemite like a local, ask away!

Book Launch: Kitty & Cadaver – 3 August 2019

Kitty & Cadaver was revealed to the world at Continuum Convention in June 2019. It was a delightful little do, but restricted to convention attendees and because of the panels going on in rooms all around us, we weren’t able to have any live music as we’d planned.

Now we can welcome Kitty & Cadaver in musical style and to a wider audience!

The official public launch of Kitty & Cadaver will be held at the new queer bookstore, The Back Room, which lives at the back of Carlton bar, A Fan’s Notes, starting at 5pm.

Along with a speech and a reading or two, Jess and Pat of Bronze will be performing five songs from the book: The Rain Song, Down, Song for the Dead, Bury My Heart and Gretel’s Lullaby.

As a taster, here’s an older version of Song for the Dead, which Jess performed a few years ago!

You can RSVP on the Facebook event page or just show up on the night.