Silver Beeches

It was once written that the advent of the railways gave life to the long-forgotten medieval tales of dragons in the countryside. What but for the steam engine—chuffing and puffing its way through the steel arteries of land hitherto untraversed by machine, its fine paintwork glistening in the sun of a golden, modern age—could cause such distress? To stand by the platform of a Victorian station was for many to witness a simpering beast, momentarily at rest, disgorging or boarding passengers. Before soon the great machine would again roar into life, the stridency of external combustion and white plumes of steam trailing behind. Were these the hellfire and brimstone of Saint David’s time? 

No. It was the 9:25 to Portland. And, the year being 1902, the only dragons were those occupying the Free Trade benches of Parliament House. 

As this particular locomotive trundles its way out from the commercial bustle of Melbourne, the blue-and-sandstone buildings give way to open pastures, now much revitalised, following the late devastation of what the Argus had dubbed the ‘Federation Drought’. From behind their compartment window, in the western districts, the traveller is treated to fulsome crops of wheat, flaxen spears combed by the clement air, and sheer vistas of verdant land for the beef and dairy industries. It is within one of these such compartments that a Miss Amelia Partridge, eminent suffragist and Labor devotee, lately of Ivanhoe’s ‘Silver Beeches’—her family’s ancestral home and place of manifold public debates and orations—travels for her next speaking engagement. 

‘There’ll be a good harvest to be had this year,’ says the grizzled man in an ill-fitting, three-piece worsted suit who sat opposite her. He leans in to assert his views. ‘I ‘spose Madam hasn’t the foggiest about what the people of these parts had to face. Like Lucifer himself had cast a pall all over the land, it was.’

Regarding the landscape rolling by the window like a zoetrope, where instead of a man racing on horseback there are haystacks and Jersey cattle, Amelia Partridge grins at her fellow passenger’s smug observations. His beery face and dust-mantled hat, bobbing up and down on his pointed head as he speaks, gives the impression of a faded travelling impresario off for his final spiel in rural Victoria. 

‘And so there I was, standing between the Alberton elephant and Graves, the former circus strongman and prominent orchardist, when I-,’ 

Quite suddenly, the train judders and the big man is thrown from his seat. The stained antimacassar reveals chronic Rowlands use, and he is prevented from falling by Amelia. 

The man, speechless and looking upon the various items strewn about him, gives her an honest look. 

‘Perhaps, Madam has the foggiest idea,’ she says happily, helping him to his feet and patting the dust from her dress, ‘of vitality and good physical health.’ She looks upon the man’s straining waistcoat and raddled complexion. ‘Must this be your stop, then?’ She watches signalmen and porters running about the platform. 

‘Dunkeld comes up speedier ev’ry year,’ the abashed man admits, one eye on the window, the other on his things.  

‘And don’t forget these,’ Amelia hands him his leaflets, variously advertising ‘Products for the Domicile’—hair creams and tooth powders. Inside the pile she has slipped several of her own promoting her cause—‘Votes for Women and the Case for a Labor Government’. The man hesitates. ‘Go on, then—quick sticks!’ 

There is the sound of a first whistle and shouting of, ‘all clear!’  

Rushing out of the carriage like a bowling ball down a zealously polished alley, the man soon becomes one of the many voices crying for the omnibus and taxis awaiting new arrivals. Amelia sighs, pleased to have the compartment to herself at long last. 

But, as she relaxes into the overstuffed chintz cushion of her seat, letting the slow motion of the train’s first movements out of the station lull her into a gentle, sunlit sleep, she again hears that voice which rankles. ‘Madam will be in Portland for how long?’ 

She opens her eyes. 

She sees the chapped hands and sturdy arms of her erstwhile fellow around the sash window, his cerise face vainly keeping above the glass. 

‘Four days,’ she tells the gasping man as he runs out of platform. 

Outside the Temperance Hall in Portland, a large crowd has gathered. As was advertised in The Observer by the local chapter of the suffragists, a ‘pleasant afternoon’s occasion’ was to be held in honour of ‘Miss Amelia Partridge of Melbourne’. This social—more a rally disguised behind a ‘selection of popular songs performed by the Loreto Convent choir’—had also been detected by the acolytes of Geoffrey Conifer, local MP and former adjutant to George Reid. 

As such, satirical cartoons had appeared throughout the newspaper, caricatures of dainty debutantes, supine and espousing the franchise of women, all the while being attended to by stooped elderly housemaids. One headline screamed ‘Partridge gives song and flock shall follow’. Another, written by the editor, appealed to the imagined concern of ‘Masculine women quite unable to maintain range and hearth lest this South Australian matter pass’. Although well-aware of these, Amelia had nothing but praise for the publication. ‘Never have so many trees died in vain,’ she crowed to great applause as she was ushered inside the hall. ‘And never before has such a talent emerged from a state of idleness.’ 

Indeed, if there was a stiff saltwater breeze blowing in from the deep-water port, it stood as nothing against the gale of hope gusting out from the central stage of the marmoreal hall. 

‘Ladies and Gentlemen, is it not true that every heart beats a sheer red? Do we not look upon the masterly efforts of Messrs Dunant and Moynier of the Swiss nation, that is the Red Cross, and take courage humankind is safe?’ Amelia in full flight drew perfect silence as she paused, watching the travelling salesman breast his way through the crowd. ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, your wondrous convent here, Loreto, its noble construction aspires to touch the heavens by next year and breach the bounds of the tory blue sky—a familiar struggle, friends, but one worth fighting.’ A small group of schoolgirls squealed before their mother rapped them over the knuckles with her paper fan. ‘Friends, we have the chance, the ascendancy, for we know this: what is a conifer but a red pine?’ 

Although this ‘occasion’ would be recorded as a ‘feminist commune’ by The Observer, on 12 June, the Commonwealth Franchise Act 1902 was passed through parliament, so granting Australian women the right to vote and run for preselection at a national level. And, in 1903, as Loreto Convent’s spire was formally unveiled on Bentinck Street, the results of the federal election preceded the very first Labor government anywhere in the world.        

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