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Mary Jane Muirhead’s letter from Port Phillip to Ireland – Investigator December 2021

Transcribed and edited by Daryl Wight

This letter is a rare example of a female correspondent writing about squatting life in early Victoria.  Unsentimental in tone, Mary Jane Muirhead, wife of squatter, Robert Muirhead, describes day-to-day pastoral life ‘miles from anywhere’ and her efforts to domesticate the run’s home station.  She also shares family news, including the death of a new-born son, and enquires about news from ‘Home’.  Given the Muirhead family’s later connection with Osborne House, this most interesting letter is published below.  

About the author

The writer of this letter, Mary Jane Muirhead nee Adams (1816?-63), was born in Portglenone, co. Antrim, Ireland, the youngest child of William Adams and his wife Elizabeth (nee Hill).  She came out to Port Phillip in about 1842 to her brother, Robert Adams, then of Geelong and the Greenvale pastoral run, near present-day Wickliffe.  In 1846, she married the squatter, Robert Muirhead, of the neighboring Yarram Yarram pastoral run.  There she bore six children, three of whom survived infancy.   After more than a decade of squatting life, the family moved into their new home, Osborne House, on the shore of Corio Bay, north of Geelong, in 1858.  She died there in 1863, having outlived her husband by a year.  Both are buried in Geelong’s Eastern Cemetery.  (A further Adams connection to Geelong was Mary Jane’s niece, Annie Adams, who married in Geelong in 1856 to Thomas Hawkes, of the firm Hawkes Brothers.)

About the letter

The original of this letter was presented to the Australian High Commission, London, in 1960, by a descendant of the Adams family, Dr Campbell Gardner, of Belfast (a grandson of William Adams, to whom the letter was addressed).  It now forms part of the National Library of Australia’s Manuscript Collection – MS 674 – and was transcribed by the editor some years ago.  The letter is addressed to William Adams Esq., Portglenone, co.  Antrim, Ireland.  It has the postmark of Geelong, dated 6 January 1848; two [Irish?] postmarks dated 18 and 19 April 1848; and the postmark of Portglenone, dated 20 April 1848.  Note: In some instances, original punctuation and spelling have been edited to improve readability.

27 December [18]47

My Dear William,[2]

I received your letter on the 26 of Sepr [1847].[1]  It came in 4 months.  I was delighted to hear from you as it was the first letter I have ever had from Portglenone.  I humbly trust the famine and distress is quite over now.  We cannot understand why Government don’t send them out here, as there is plenty of room & plenty of food and to spare.  We are giving from 28 pounds to 30 pounds a year to all our men, hut keepers & shepherds; our married couple gets 36 pounds a year and all our neighbours are giving from 40 to 50 pounds a year and cannot even get them at that.  We require 13 and 14 men constantly and a man & his wife.  I have a nice clean active woman now from Vandemans Land.  She had lived with Major Gibson & family.[2]  The old Major is dead.  The man has put our garden in fine order.  It would appear very poor looking to you after all your flowers, but I 

[page 2]

can beat you in vegetables &c.  We have melons, cucumbers, pumkins as large as a bushell, all growing in the open air, also vines which are looking very well.  I got them in a present from a Mr Bruce[5] who has a very fine garden.  You would be delighted with this climate.  Everything can be grown in the open air although the winters are generally wet and cold, yet few ever get colds or fevers.  Since I last wrote you we have got a very good comfortable house built which has cost 200 pounds.  It has 6 rooms the doors &c all cedar.  R. Muirhead bought 30 head of quiet cows so we have 50 head now.  All our mares are at present at …Docter Barkers on the Wannon River.[6]  They had beautiful foals last season.  He [Muirhead] also bought a screw press for to press the wool which cost 40 pounds in Melbourne.  We have 72 bales of fine wool.  Each bale containing 200 fleeshes or 300 pounds [weight] each.  We are expecting 13 pounds [per bale] this season as it is not so dear as it has been for the last two years.  We have got our shearing over this season, five shearers.  They shore uppardys of 9000 at 10s per 100 and 4s a day for washing the sheep. 

[page 3]

I was surprised at some of the messages that you mentioned in your letter. I was sorry to hear of Mrs McNeill death. You did not mention where Mrs Hogg and family resided. Tell me when you write if Mr and Miss Braidy are still in your place. Who is living in my Aunts old house and Mr Borlands? I sent your letter to Robert. He was quite pleased with it. They are quite well and have two big strong boys. Mrs Adams is expecting her confinement soon. She came over here last summer and stayed with us while Robert was in town. They wish me to go over this season when Mr Muirhead is going to Melbourne. They are one day’s journey nearer town than we are. I still have plenty of fowls; 24 turkeys; 12 ducks and a large flock of geese. I take the credit of having the best poultry in the country. We have plenty of eggs and lots for killing. We also kill our own beef, pork &c and a sheep every day and Muirhead brings up every little thing from town that I require. So we live most comfortably. We


have plenty of potatoes, vegetables cheese & milk and butter so that I have every comfort that this country can afford.  You would be delighted with our place.  We are surrounded by the fine Grampians and Mount William.  There has been a new map of Port Philip been made lately.[12]  If you were to get one of them, you would see where we are.  Each of the stations are numbered.  Ours is 100; Roberts is 97.  We have a large extent of land.  Our run would hold 30,000 sheep but no water in summer but at the Home Station.[13]

[page 5]

Tell Sarah[14] I am expecting her letter daily that she mentioned in yours. I am glad to hear that friends are well.  Is Old Mrs Lyttle still living? Where dose Mrs John Lyttle live?  Tell James[15] I got his two papers for which I am much obliged.  I am sorry he did not come to this country when I came.  He would have had something handsome now.  You wished to know in your letter if we had any Clergymen or Doctors.  We have no Clergyman.  The neighbouring settlers are giving 10 pounds each to a Doctor Wilson[16] from Melbourne for three years.  It amounts to 300 pounds a year to him.  He lives 35 miles from us.  Still it is better to have him there as we live 100 20 [120] miles from town. 

When I required him, as I was ill on Sunday night, we sent for him on Monday but he did not come till Wednesday but my little son was dead.[17]  I am now quite well.  Thank God for raising me up from the bed of sickness.  I was glad to hear of your little family being all well.  I trust they will be a blessing to you.  Give them good education.  You know early information is the best.  Give my love to … all, also to Thomases children.[18]

[page 6]

Give my love to Thomas, James, Elizabeth[19] and tell them I would be glad to hear from them.  You must forgive my writing as the pens are very bad.  The quills get so hard here that they won’t make a pen with.  I am joined by Muirhead in kind love to Sarah and you and believe me to be, my dear William, 

your very affectionate sister

[page 7] 

Mary Jane Muirhead


[1] The head station of Robert Muirhead’s Yarram Yarram pastoral run (32,000 acres), was at the foot of the Grampians.

[2] Mary Jane’s brother, William Adams (d.1872).

[3] Not extant.

[4] Brevet Major James Alexander Gibson (1772-1841) (Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1)

[5] Bruce or Bunce?

[6] Dr Edward Barker, of the Kenilworth run on the Wannon River, near present day Cavendish.  The context here suggests he had an entire horse to service the Yarram Yarram mares.

[7] The McNeills were maternal cousins.

[8] Mary Jane’s paternal grandmother was a Borland.

[9] Mary Jane’s brother, Robert Adams (1813?-62), of the neighbouring Greenvale run (56,000 acres), with whom she lived in Port Phillip until her marriage to Muirhead.

[10] John Dalrymple Adams (b. 1845) and William Anderson Adams (b. 1846).

[11] Jane Adams (nee Anderson), wife of Mary Jane’s brother, Robert.

[12] Ham’s Map details

[13] Consequently, Yarram Yarram run was licensed to carry only 13,000 sheep.

[14] Mary Jane’s sister-in-law, Sarah Adams (nee Raphael), wife of William Adams

[15] Mary Jane’s brother, James Hill Adams (b. 1805)

[16] Dr Wilson

[17] Neither death or burial of this un-named son is recorded officially.

[18] Mary Jane’s brother Thomas Adams’s children.

[19] Mary Jane’s sister, Elizabeth Adams (1803-68) married Revd William McClintock Wray.

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