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   Chapter 13 XIIIToC

Thirty Years in Australia By Ada Cambridge Characters: 19389

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


THE BOOM

I am not going to disgust the patient reader with sick-room talk. But certain facts connected with my hospital life bear directly upon the object of this book, which is to reflect in my trivial experiences the character of the country as modified by its circumstances from year to year.

I had to pay £6, 6s. per week while an inmate of the house. This sum did not cover medicines or washing, but board and nursing only. The doctor who gave me chloroform three times charged me £5, 5s. on the first occasion, and the same on the second; then his conscience pricked him, I suppose, for he made me a present of his further services. The surgeon's fee of £105 was comparatively moderate. Per contra, I had a skimpy bed and room, and just the necessaries of life as far as nursing was concerned. My nurse had too many other cases in charge to give more attention to me than was surgically necessary; for little spongings and pillow-shakings, a clean handkerchief, or such trifle of comfort, I had to depend upon my friends when they were allowed to see me. In dangerous crises a night nurse had me in charge; at ordinary times a lay girl slept in my room. I moped in loneliness through the greater part of the day, not knowing when I was well off, until one morning the doctor asked me if I would mind having a patient in with me, as the house was full. I weakly consented, although horrified at the idea, and my one luxury of privacy was taken from me. She was another surgical patient-another poor mother weeping all the time for her children-and my sufferings on her account, which included the total banishment of my friends from what was still my own room, had such a bad effect upon me that they were soon obliged to remove her. With regard to diet, I could hardly have cost more than the cat. Fish, rabbit, cow-heel (not poultry) were the strong meats of my convalescence; most of the time I was on broth and gruel-when not sucking milk and soda from a spout. Nevertheless, I was no green victim to experienced rapacity. None of those in whose power I was-unless it were the chloroformist, who, I have been assured by competent authority, did exceed his rights a little-took any unfair advantage of me. The lady at the head of the establishment was a woman of the very highest character, and is still my dear and honoured friend; and the last of the facts I will give in connection with this case is the fact that she could not make the hospital pay, even on such terms, and although she worked herself to skin and bone to do it.

Why? Because this was the merry Boom time, when rents were what we now call "fabulous"-houses letting at three times the present rates-and the general cost of living in proportion. Her expenditure, kept down to the lowest limit, was so heavy that her large receipts would not cover it.

It is not for me, who never could do sums in my life, to give opinions on matters of intricate finance that have proved beyond the grasp of the most hard-headed experts, but no story of the country, or of anyone living in it during the years when the great Land and Company Boom occurred, would be complete without some description of that amazing episode. I can, at least, give an interesting fact or two from what I know.

While I was still in my hospital bed, one public authority-not listened to, of course-was telling the mad land-speculators that already more allotments had been put up for suburban residences than would suffice to house the population of London. "When the rage was at its height, and land-sales and champagne lunches were de rigueur on Saturday afternoons, every available bit of land in the suburbs was bought up by syndicates ... orchards were ruthlessly cut down, gardens uprooted, hedges broken down, and surveyors set to work to mark out streets and small allotments, while the astonished owners received small fortunes for the title-deeds. Numbers of these nouveaux riches are now-this was written in '92-"touring in Europe, or living comfortably at their ease on competencies thus acquired." But some-friends of my own amongst them-handed over their properties to be thus devastated for a further and higher sale, and got only a first instalment of the purchase-money, or none at all; the "bottom fell out" of the Boom before they knew it. While those who bought and were too late to sell again-"witness," says the writer I am quoting, "the suicides, the deserted homes, the present penury," domestic tragedies beyond anything that "the pen of fiction" could produce.

One affair caused much excitement in clerical (Church of England) circles. Our cathedral was a-building. Dr Moorhouse had started the work, after a strenuous fight on his part for the site it now occupies-in the very heart of the busy city, which time has proved to be the right place-as against one more retired and picturesque, the land in both cases being Church property from the days of old. The work, as far as it had gone, represented about £62,000, "when hungry syndicates were casting about to find city blocks, then considered of unassailable value," and it was announced in the papers that £300,000 had been offered for the unfinished building and the land. "The authorities were informed that even half a million might be forthcoming, if they would appoint a committee to confer upon the subject," and, oh, how that golden bait tantalised us all-or nearly all! Bishop Moorhouse was gone to his see of Manchester, but there were still a few men strong enough to breast the tide. "A fatal odd vote," as it was called, saved us, the voter making himself for a short time one of the most unpopular persons in the community. "Business men will remember bitterly in the future, when funds are scarce, that the sale of the cathedral would have represented a perpetual income of £15,000 to £20,000 a year," wrote one of the many good Churchmen who voiced their feelings in the newspapers; and he said that those business men would be justified in refusing help to the foolish ones who had "persisted in building on a veritable gold mine," when those dark days came. The temptation was scarcely put aside before the collapse occurred, and then, oh, what a sigh of thankfulness went up from us all that the cathedral was there still!

When it was known by the high financiers behind the scenes that the bottom had fallen out of the Land Boom proper, then the company-promoting began. Some idea of the energy that at once poured itself into this channel may be derived from the statement that within one year 270 new companies were registered in Melbourne, having an aggregate nominal capital of fifty-two millions. These were the traps, baited with the names of men in high positions, notorious for piety, respectability, and business acumen, into which walked that long procession of honest toilers who, with their little savings in their hands, aimed, not to make a fortune, but a comfortable provision for old age.

Here is a sample of the kind of thing that might be found daily in the newspapers-it is from the prospectus of the Centennial Land Bank, Limited, Capital, £1,000,000, in 200,000 shares of £5 each:-

"The following statistics as regards the present values in kindred institutions speak for themselves, and it is scarcely necessary to point out the fact that this Company cannot fail, with proper management, to have equally good, if not better, returns:-

Australian Property and Investment Company, £5 paid; present value, £8, 15s.

Henry Arnold and Company, £5 paid; present value, £12.

Standard Financial Investment and Agency Company, £1 paid; present value, £7.

Mercantile Finance and Guarantee Company, 25s. paid; present value, £4, 19s.

Freehold Investment and Banking Company, £2, 15s. 6d. paid; present value, £10, 7s. 6d.

Real Estate Bank, 50s. paid; present value, 73s.

Australian Deposit and Mortgage Bank, £25 paid; present value, £46.

All the above have been paying dividends at the rate of from 10 to 50 per cent."

Is it any wonder that a spider's web of this description was simply black with flies? Poor old maids, widows, parsons, school-marms, small tradesmen who had laboriously put by a little-they tumbled over each other in their eagerness to put a splendid finishing-touch to the work of their industrious lives. They could not believe in frauds and swindles at the hands of such men as they who enticed them to irreparable financial ruin. Of the companies named in the Centennial Land Bank prospectus, all, as I read in the records of the time, came to grief, and "the names of four of them figure in the list of 133 limited companies that the Government Gazette supplies as having had to wind up their affairs during the twelve months from June 1891 to June 1892 inclusive."

I said I would not meddle with figures, which are not in my line, but I am tempted to give just a few more while I am about it.

Purchasers (at slightly under £1100 per foot) of land in Collins Street, on which a draper's shop had been burnt to the ground, refused £2000 per foot for their bargain. Another block, with frontage to Collins Street, was bought for £65,000, and sold a few months later for £120,000. Other premises purchased for £25,000 were sold four months later for £55,000-£2000 per foot. The Equitable Life Assurance Company of New York paid, I believe, £2500 per foot for the fine site on which they have erected the finest commercial building in Melbourne. It was the same in the outside suburbs, where as yet they were not suburbs at all. At Surrey Hills land worth 15s. in 1884 rose to £15 in 1887. A "moderate estimate" of the sales of the latter year was officially rep

orted as over £14,000,000. But one of the best indications of the violence of these ups and downs is afforded by a comparison of the advertisement-columns of the newspapers one year with another. In 1888 the Saturday issue (for several consecutive Saturdays) of a morning journal averaged 170 advertisement-columns of fine print; in 1892 (also for several Saturdays) the average number was 67. It was calculated by "one of our leading financiers" that the "shrinkage" which occurred in stocks and shares, together with the shrinkage in silver (which had had a world-famed boom of its own), from 1889 to 1892 totalled "the appalling sum of £50,000,000." It only remains to add that the population of the entire continent did not total 4,000,000.

G. and I were amongst the fortunate ones who had no spare money to play with, and so, when the crash came, we were in the position of the cathedral-where we were-poor but free, not mortgaged body and bones for "calls," like so many that we knew. Still, we had to bear our little share of the general calamity. About a week after the State Proclamation of five days' compulsory Bank Holiday-disregarded by the only two banks which (with the exception of one little one) passed unscathed through the storm-and when it was supposed that Government had thereby checked the epidemic of bank disasters, G. was paid his stipend, and on the stroke of three o'clock made a wild rush to deposit the money before his bank shut for the day; his bank being above suspicion (to him), whatever others might be. He just, and only just, managed it, and the doors that closed on him a minute afterwards remained closed next morning. And so, as that money was for many a day beyond recall, I had to make mine do for both of us, until I in my turn was rendered penniless. With the narrow-mindedness of my sex in business matters, I withstood the appeals of the manager of my own bank, who assured me that his little all and the combined possessions of his whole family reposed therein, and transferred what I had to the Government Savings Bank, as being an approximately safe place-while inclined to think that a hole in the ground or a tea-pot or an old stocking would be safer-until things should have settled down. When they did settle down, I opened my account with one of the two great banks that had proved themselves impregnable.

From a newspaper of May 20th, 1893, I take the following:-"Counting in all stoppages up to Tuesday last, about £55,000,000 of Australian money is now locked up in suspended banks of issue-not counting the amounts locked up in about fifty bursted land banks, building societies and investment companies, and leaving the Mercantile"-this was the particularly scandalous boom-bank-"out of the calculation altogether.... Within a year 64 per cent. of the working capital of Queensland has been locked up, 60 per cent. of that of Victoria, 55 per cent. in New South Wales, and 40 per cent. in South Australia." So it appears, if these figures are correct, that there was still one colony worse off than we were.

But it was not 1893-it was 1886-when I was in hospital, and the "high old times" were in full swing. When I came out, to remain for a long time under the necessity of reporting myself to the doctor at frequent intervals, I was again, at those frequent intervals, in the thick of the distractions of our still gay capital, where it was the aim of my friends to make me forget that I was going to "die of it" or to persuade me that my medical adviser was a fool.

I was not in the fevered crowd of those who "ran" the boom and made the smell of money so rank in the nose; but it was high tide in the fortunes of the landed gentry, and, indeed, generally speaking, of the whole community. All in their degree were rich and lived lavishly; the upper classes seemed wholly given over to pleasure-making, and their appetite for social diversion was catered for as it never was before or since. It was now that I heard so much good music, saw so much good acting, met so many interesting travellers, enjoyed the greatest race-meetings in the history of splendid Flemington, the hospitalities of Government House in its best days, the most memorable entertainments of a time when nothing but the first-rate was tolerated. I look back now and wonder at my keen appreciation of it all. But it never took much to make me enjoy myself, and I was younger then.

Out of the crowded spectacle, which in memory resembles the dream of Verdant Green's father after the first visit to Oxford, the Centennial Exhibition stands most conspicuous. As first conceived, it was to cost £25,000, because the buildings of the Exhibition of 1880 were still there to work upon. Being a Boom enterprise, it had not gone far before it was estimated that £70,000 would be needed to complete it properly. When the bill at last came in, it totalled £250,000. "A costly blunder," it is called in these soberer times. Costly it was certainly, but a blunder-no. Not to us who made it our haunt and rendezvous, our palace of pleasure in a thousand forms. I should think that no money ever spent gave so much direct enjoyment to so many people.

Ah, those days! Those days! I too had had my little boom on the Australian press, and it was not yet over; bad times were still undreamed of, the London Syndicate had not yet taken possession of the fiction columns, pounds were freely to be had (I received £197 for the serial rights of A Marked Man) where now shillings are hard to come by; and my children were still under the expensive age. So that the cost of two long journeys for a day or two in town seemed not worth considering, and I appear never to have considered it. We were all extravagant together. We made hay while the sun shone, if ever people did.

Therefore, looking back upon those gay times, I have not to regret that I missed anything (except Madame Norman-Neruda), whatever else I may regret. Living nearly 200 miles away I had all the good of the Exhibition that I could have desired; more would have meant satiety. Scores and scores of those orchestral concerts (under Frederick Cowen's conductorship) I must have attended, first and last; there were two a day, and they gave you the best music of all countries, and you only had to stroll into the hall and sit down and listen, as if in your own house. It was here that I learned to be a Wagnerite, after several unsuccessful attempts. By finding a very quiet corner, and listening with my eyes close shut and a fan before my face, I discovered the secret; now there is no luxury in life like a Wagner concert-other music, even other great music, that I am bidden to place higher, seems by comparison what other novels seem beside George Meredith's best (the Meridithian will understand me). As it has chanced, all the Wagner that I have heard since Exhibition days has been rendered by the still more highly-trained orchestra of Mr Marshall Hall, ex-Ormond Professor of Music in the University of Melbourne; and, as a musician, we have never had his equal amongst us here, and are never likely to have his superior.

The Art Galleries of the Exhibition were more to us than the Concert Hall, for we were more in them. Amongst the Loan Pictures, of one country or another, we met our friends; here we sat on soft lounges to muse upon our favourites, in more or less congenial company, or we let the pictures alone and gave friendship the whole field. There were times in the day-the place was open from 11 A.M. to 10:30 P.M.-when persons who desired privacy had no difficulty in finding it at fifty different spots; wherefore it was a very paradise for lovers. And you could live there all day long, with every comfort, including free education worth years of school. It was delightful to show children biscuits and hats and wire-mattresses a-making under their very noses, and when they were tired of that to take them to see the seals fed in the cool Aquarium, or up on the hydraulic lift to survey all Melbourne from the great dome. The meals are a delicious memory-the little lunches and dinner-parties, the afternoon teas (for nothing) in the dainty tea-pavilions-all flavoured with the holiday spirit, the bright talk of meeting friends. And the saunters to and fro, and up and down (fatiguing, no doubt, but I have forgotten that), always with something beautiful to look at, something interesting to do, and generally with a comrade of your heart to talk to about it all! When the place was shut at last, we wandered forlorn and lost for a long time. We were spoiled for humdrum life.

The Centennial Exhibition-our "Great" Exhibition-marked the climax of the Boom, of what we erroneously call the "good times," when we were rich and dishonest and mercenary and vulgar. The end was not far off. A few more luxuries awaited us, of which the one that recalls itself most vividly to my mind is Madame Patey's singing of "Alas! Those Chimes," from Maritana. This was on 27th November 1890. On the 25th June 1801 I saw Sara Bernhardt in Theodora. She it was who rang down the curtain. We were able to give her a good season, to treat ourselves once more regardless of expense; then, upon the heels of her departure, the bubble burst. "Thank God," I heard a man say, "that we got Sara first." It was our last chance for many a long day.

But the best thing that ever happened to Melbourne Society, as I have known it, was the snuffing out of the lights of that feast, the coming of that cold daylight to the revellers. A better example of the vulgarising effects of wealth, and of the refining effects of being without it, was never packed in a neater compass.

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