The Wisest Words

We left Sara Wise about to set sail for the Antipodes as an English Governess.

“My trip to Australia was not eventful. I was to have sailed on the Waratah, but it never got to England on its first trip from Australia – it disappeared off the coast of S. Africa, and its disappearance has never been solved.”

It was named Waratah after the emblem flower of New South Wales, Australia, but this appears to have been an unlucky name: one ship of that name had been lost off the island of Ushant in the English Channel in 1848, one in 1887 on a voyage to Sydney, another south of Sydney, and one in the Gulf of Carpentaria in 1897. Quite possibly the mysterious disappearance of the ship in 1909 (and no, it was nowhere near the Bermuda Triangle!) brought forth the response ‘The Waratah? Again?’

Waratah plant image by CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=857590

SS Waratah photographed in 1909

Image from: https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=943368

“On 26 July 1909, the SS Waratah, with 211 passengers and crew departed from Durban bound for Cape Town, and disappeared without a trace …” http://www.sahistory.org.za/dated-event/discovery-wreck-passenger-liner-ss-waratah

Emlyn Brown, a marine explorer, searched for more than two decades, once believing he had found it [1999]. However, the above website states “Despite the use of highly sophisticated equipment, Brown was forced to admit defeat in 2004; ‘I’ve exhausted all options. I now have no idea where to look.’”

In 2009, the above memorial was placed by the Queenscliffe Maritime Museum to honour all those lost in the tragedy. http://paulineconolly.com/2014/ss-waratah-australias-titanic/

The SS Waratah being unavailable, as Sara’s memoirs revealed “I came on the Moldavia, P & O.”

http://simplonpc.co.uk/PO_Liners3.html#anchor8156

“I travelled with Mrs Black’s old aunt, a Miss Maria McCauci. She kept a hawk’s eye on me, being determined I should fulfil my contract and not run off and marry the first man who spoke to me. However, I got what fun I could.”

Given that Sara’s memoirs reveal that she could sing well perhaps some of the ‘fun’ was courtesy of the music room on board. Music rooms were a feature of P&O ships from the earliest days. The Moldavia’s Music Room was situated directly above the Dining Saloon.

Image from http://www.poheritage.com/the-collection/galleries/Photographs/Life-on-Board/The-Music-Room-on-board-MOLDAVIA

In 1915, the Moldavia was purchased by the British Admiralty and converted into an armed merchant cruiser. She was sunk on 23 May 1918 off Beachy Head in the English Channel by a single torpedo from U-Boat UB-57. A very full account of this can be found on https://americanlegion142.org/ including a list of the men who died as a result.

But back to 1909, Sara’s journey to Australia being uneventful “We arrived in Melbourne on Cup Eve.” The night before the Melbourne Cup is Cup Eve. The event itself starts at 3pm on the first Tuesday in November and is known locally as “the race that stops a nation”.

Newspaper article from http://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/10745037

William H. McLachlan rode Melbourne Cup winners in 1909, 1910 and 1917.

Melbourne Cup Day early twentieth century from https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/148829962659411288/

Image of jockey from http://www2.sl.nsw.gov.au/archive/discover_collections/society_art/races/ephemera/jockeys/index.html

“My first night in Australia, and for all I knew I might be in the middle of the jungle, especially when I heard what to me was a horrible animal sound outside my window. In the morning I was told it was a possum, and harmless. But worse was to come; when being shown around the park like grounds I was warned to be on the look out for snakes, and after that I imagined a snake under every bush, but though I daily saw tracks across the gravel paths, I never saw one.”

The contract under which Sara had travelled to Australia was that if she stayed for three years, the family would pay her fare back to England. However what she found in her new life was that –

“These people lived in the grand manner of the English aristocracy … There was a large staff inside and outside. The children had a nurse and a nursery housemaid, so there was nothing for me to do beyond the few hours K.G. [kindergarten teaching] every day.

I had meals and spent the evenings with the parents, and though all the families around had governesses, no attempt was made for me to get to know them… So by mutual agreement we broke the three year arrangement and I left there in March or April 1911.”

Archbishop Clarke (Archbishop of Melbourne) and his wife and daughter Elsie visited Sara’s employers.

“Elsie and I became great friends … Mrs. Clarke helped me make my decision to leave and invited me to stay with them until I found something. Though the Black [family] offered to pay my fare back to England I didn’t want to go, as I didn’t feel that what I had seen was typical Australia.”

The Archbishop suggested that Sara might join the staff of a private girls’ school but she decided to take her future into her own hands.

“So I went to an agent that I was personally recommended to go to, and there I met Amy – Mrs Germain McMicking.”

This, it turned out, was Fate.

Having negotiated an employment deal, the party set off for what was to become Sara’s home.

“I will never forget the drive through the gum forest and hills … I felt I was entering a different life and beginning to see the real Australia. And I have loved the smell of gum trees ever since.”

http://treepicturesonline.com/gum_tree_pictures.html

[And in an interesting twist, there is a eucalyptus tree in the Garth of the present RMSG although Sara would not have known the School on this site.]

One who travelled with them was Gilbert, the half-brother of one Cuthbert McMicking. When Gilbert went home the following day, Cuthbert got the news about the new English Governess…

“He turned up at Manus on his motorbike to see Germain [McMicking] on business – he said.”

Cuthbert became a frequent visitor and by January 1912 he and Sara were engaged. [I told you it was Fate!] The last school record of her was ‘married by 1912’. In fact it was exactly 1912, on 18th September, in Parramatta, Cumberland, New South Wales. Curiously the original name for RMIG was The Royal Cumberland Freemasons’ School, although that Cumberland was the Duke of Cumberland, George III’s brother, not his uncle Cumberland, the Elector of Hanover after whom the NSW area was named. There is also Baulkham Heights not far away from Parramatta and there today can be found the buildings of the William Thompson Masonic School (closed 1978), a kind of sister school to the one in London. So in Australia, Sara was both a long way from her school home and not very far at all!

https://www.nationaltrust.org.au/ahf_event/william-thompson-masonic-school-walk/

Germain [Sara’s employer] had bought Pullitop, a large estate between Wagga Wagga and Holbrook, to subdivide, and naturally wanted to sell as many blocks as possible, and got other McMicking boys including Cuthbert involved. Unfortunately, this turned sour and all too soon they were all broke:

“They were growing wheat, and the first season there was a late frost which destroyed the crop, and the next year a disastrous drought, and there were not enough returns to pay the interest, nor the payments on the very expensive machinery … These were the first years of our married life… The conditions were very harsh, I would almost call it pioneering.”

Maps from Google Earth

Life remained difficult with Cuthbert working extremely hard but events conspiring. There were times when Sara and Cuthbert and their six children were having to depend on family support but they stayed together as a family unit.

“Looking back over the long difficult years from the calm seas of the present, I feel the truth of the saying ‘There is a destiny that shapes our ends, rough hew it as we may.’ [Hamlet, Act V, Scene II]

Family was always important to Sara. Her memoirs are littered with references to her brothers and sisters, her parents’ brothers and sisters and, of course, her own children. Despite the hard life they experienced in Australia, all six of Sara and Cuthbert’s children lived to full maturity. Despite the geographical distance that separated Sara from her own siblings, they remained in contact. In 1955, they met together in England, the first time they had done so since 1909.

Images supplied by family

Sara wrote her memoirs in the year she died. Cuthbert had died in 1968 and Sara followed him in August 1970. The McMickings have a private family cemetery at Manus and Sara’s ashes are interred there.

 

http://www.australiancemeteries.com.au/nsw/tumbarumba/mannus.htm photo by Faithe Jones

But the last words should be Sara’s:

“… I don’t think, given the same circumstances, that we could have ordered our lives any differently. I am proud of the way my family has turned out – children and grandchildren alike – and I hope you can remain a well related family group and live in harmony.”

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Wiser Words

(This continues the story of Sara Wise, former pupil)

Sara’s own memoirs of her time at RMIG give us a valuable and unique insight into her life at school. The School at this time was at Clapham where it had been since 1852.

RMIG Clapham

Sara describes her time there as being uneventful with a simple, but thorough, curriculum. It culminated in public exams set by Cambridge University, known as Cambridge Local Exams. As any modern practising teacher will affirm, at some point in their teens most girls switch overnight from being sugar and spice into monsters. This is clearly not a new phenomenon as Sara writes “We all went through a troublesome stage at about 13”. In her case, it coincided with “a certain class with a very ineffectual teacher. The poor thing was just a sitting duck” and Sara admits to being something of a ringleader in making trouble.

“She daily threatened to report me and finally did, and I waited for the blow to fall, but the H.M. [Headmistress] didn’t send for me. Instead, one day as I passed her office she casually called me in, and had a quiet little talk with me, from which I emerged feeling rather ashamed and a bit unsporting at having taken advantage of the poor old dear.”

The H.M. Sara refers to would have been Elizabeth Hutchinson, a former pupil herself.

RMIG Staff 1886, Elizabeth Hutchinson shown by arrow

“Anyhow the salutary little talk bore fruit, and I ended my school life as Head Prefect, and also winner of the Silver Medal for Good Conduct – with £5 bonus!”

In equivalent value, that bonus would be worth £560 today so not an insignificant amount. Sara was very surprised to have been awarded the prize as, according to her memoirs, both she and the rest of the School had decided it would go to someone else.

“Again the H.M. had to take me to her office and explain why I had been given this prize. She knew I was surprised. She laid great stress on the difference between active and passive goodness, and the fact that whereas the worthy girl was very good, she just lived a quiet passive life that had no influence on anyone else. It seems that I, on the other hand, had influence on the girls under my charge – in my dormitory, at the table and the group of girls that were my special charge as a prefect.”

Of course, there is a moral here (and, in case you were wondering, the other girl won a different prize!) and after her prize, Sara discovered that

“Life wasn’t terribly easy after this. It wasn’t enough that my charges behaved themselves, but I had to be careful not to put a foot out of step, and to remember that I was expected to set an example.”

In Sara’s own words, the Headmistress was “a wise and discerning woman” who clearly knew how to get those with leadership qualities – well OK then, potential rebels – on her side!

Sara’s silver medal would have been presented at prize day, a momentous occasion then as it still is today.

“Prize Day was held in May. We prepared for months and put on quite a show. Calisthenics and figure marching for all, choral singing for different age groups, and finally the most spectacular item – a piano recital with eight pianos across the end of the hall and a series of performances. First solos, with one girl at each piano; then duos – one at each piano, but playing in complimentary parts in pairs; and finally, trios – three at each piano, and in which I managed to qualify as bass in my last year. It was fascinating to watch the performance, with all the girls’ movements in rhythm, especially the trios with 24 girls.”

Until very recently, these duos and trios were still a set piece on Prize Day and Drill is still very much a feature.

Duos, Trios and Drill

The value of the prizes, it has already been seen, were large and pupils were asked to select what they would like. Today the girls receive books or book tokens but then, even those who selected books didn’t just receive a single book but perhaps a set of complete works, all beautifully bound.

“The year I got the silver medal I got another prize, I think for French, and I asked for what was then called a Sat-Monday bag – in other words a weekend bag, brown leather, and do you think, dear Head Mistress, that I could have a silver mounted umbrella as well?

She didn’t know if there would be enough money, but she would see. I got it, and there was some silver on the handle. So I went to receive it, with my medal on a pale blue ribbon round my neck, and came marching proudly down with the bag in one hand and the umbrella in the other.”

This Prize Day occasion would have been Sara’s last as a pupil. Due to leave school in 1905, she was retained as a pupil teacher in the Junior school: “My job was to teach the very junior pupils the 3 Rs – with no instructions on how to set about it.” The switch to pupil teacher brought not just a different status but also a small income. All the pupil teachers received two outfits and £1 a week – equivalent today to £112 so a bit more than pocket money. If they were kept on as teachers – and many were – they then became salaried staff with that salary rising incrementally as their experience and seniority grew. Most of the teaching staff had been pupils at the School; it was rare to find a member of staff who wasn’t. Sara’s headmistress, and the Headmistress before her and the one that followed (the redoubtable Bertha Dean) were all former pupils.

Meanwhile, across the Channel:

“With us all away at school, Mother was joined by her sister Agnes Humphreys, and they started a small finishing school for girls from England … They were both very well educated and very accomplished at such things as music, singing and painting etc. A French and a German governess visited and the results were very satisfactory. When the girls went home for the holidays their place was taken by English paying guests, who came over to the Continent for the summer.”

But all that changed when Sara’s mother died at the age of 49. “This made the greatest change in all our lives, because it was no longer practical to live in France.”

The British Chaplain in St Servan was able to place Sara as a pupil teacher with a group known as the Kilburn Sisters.

Emily Ayckbowm

image from http://sistersofthechurch.org/about-us/our-founder

Founded by Emily Ayckbowm in 1864, by 1875 it had opened an orphanage for girls known as the Orphanage of Mercy. It housed 500 girls by 1892. The Sisters established schools in many London parishes and at one of these, St Hilda’s in Paddington, Sara received kindergarten training.

During the holidays, the six Wise children tried to be together as much as possible. They stayed with cousins on their mother’s side and they always tried to be together at Christmas which “we spent with the Aunts in Ireland.”

The picture below, taken in 1907, shows the three girls of the family together.

 

“The Aunts had a wide circle of wonderful friends who were all very impressed with [them] taking on the responsibility of this large family and were very good to us. They mostly had estates and after a shoot always dropped in with contributions of game and other produce from their estates.”

One of these friends had a relation who was over from Australia on a visit with her husband and children. They wanted an English governess for their children, and “as I had almost finished my K.G. training it was suggested I might like the opportunity of coming to Australia.”

Thus it was that, in 1909, Sara went to Australia as a Governess. We will follow her there shortly but for now, we will leave her on the cusp of a new life on a different continent.