Inside Story

A small cedar box

Extract | A puzzling gift sends one of Australia’s leading biographers on a journey into her family’s past

Brenda Niall 3 November 2017 2449 words

Cheaper by far: the Maguire family in Liverpool in 1898. Aggie is second from the right in the front row, holding baby Nesta. Courtesy of Brenda Niall

On Christmas Eve, 1940, soon after my tenth birthday, my grandmother gave me a small wooden box with a lock and key. There was nothing inside it, and as far as I can remember she didn’t explain it. I’d been expecting a book: that was what she always gave to me and my brothers and sisters, and our cousins. I still have a later gift: Wilkie Collins’s classic detective story The Moonstone, given when I was fourteen. From earliest childhood I remember her reading to me from Kipling’s Just So Stories and laughing so much at the Elephant’s Child’s persistent questions that she had to stop for breath.

Books mattered to her; she could think of nothing better for her many grandchildren than the gift of words. Even when she couldn’t afford the expense, she bought a five-shilling book, usually an Everyman classic, for each of us who was old enough to read. But the empty box: why then, and why to me?

I knew about the box, though I was too young to understand its meaning, and even now it holds a mystery. I knew that it was part of the story of my grandmother’s arrival in Australia in 1888. She was just nineteen, and she had made the long voyage by sailing ship from her home in Liverpool with her older sister and brother, Minnie and Joe.

She was Agnes Jane, known as Aggie, the fifth of the eleven children of Irish-born John and Jane Maguire. Like hundreds of thousands of others in Liverpool, John and Jane had been part of the great wave of Irish emigration in the 1840s, the decade of the Great Hunger. A million starved; and those who could find the fare left Ireland for England, the United States or Australia.

The New World offered more hope, but Liverpool was cheaper by far. You could get from Dublin to Liverpool in the 1840s for five shillings steerage or tenpence on deck. After some years of struggle, John Maguire prospered in Liverpool, and he married and brought up his family there. When Aggie embarked on the voyage to Australia she came in a spirit of hope and adventure, not the desperation of her parents’ generation.

I can’t remember hearing much about my grandmother’s childhood. For me, her story began in 1888, when the three young Maguires set sail for Australia. By then the family had moved beyond its Irish refugee origins and was well on its way on an extraordinary rags-to-riches journey. The main reason for leaving Liverpool was concern about the health of the second son, Joe, who was nearly twenty-one. He was said to have a “weak chest.” This phrase usually meant tuberculosis or the fear of it. Leaving damp and smoggy Liverpool for sunny Australia would give Joe a chance.

Aggie never said much about the voyage out. An ordeal for anyone, it would have been a searing experience for a nineteen-year-old who had left home for the first time. The Trafalgar was a cargo ship — quite small at just over 1400 tons — that carried twenty-four passengers on the voyage of 1888. It wouldn’t have been especially comfortable, and there were none of the diversions that passenger ships could offer. The Maguires embarked on 22 May and arrived on 23 August. There had been three deaths at sea. Joe Maguire was one of them.

Part of the great wave: Aggie Maguire in 1888, before she left Liverpool for Australia. Courtesy of Brenda Niall

Before he died, he had passed the time in the ship’s carpenter’s shop, making a little cedar box for his sister Aggie to keep things in. The box became a poignant reminder of Joe, and of that desolate day when his coffin was lowered into the sea. It was a link with Aggie’s childhood in Liverpool, the great seaport city of northern England, destination and departure point for the ships of the world.

I don’t know why, more than fifty years on, my grandmother gave Joe’s box to me, but I remember that, just a few months earlier, her flat had been burgled and the box wrenched open. Papers were scattered and some jewellery was taken. At the time, she was away from home. The burglary was reported to my mother, who went to check the damage. I was excited to hear of a break-in so near home and by my first sighting of a policeman.

My mother was distressed about the broken box, and she took it to be repaired. She didn’t make the mistake of giving it a new look; a few fine scratches on the base and some worn edges still showed its age, as they do today. With a new lock and key, smaller than the originals, it seemed as strong as ever, but Grandmother never used it again. A few months later she pasted a Christmas card inside the lid with my name on it, and let me make what I could of this puzzling, remarkable gift, her link with her Liverpool past.

Now, after seventy-five years in my possession, the box is empty. I’ve taken out my own private papers and turned my mind to the box as it was in 1888, to the nineteen-year-old Aggie Maguire on the long sea journey, and to the young woman who went teaching in a one-room bush school in northern Victoria and fell in love with a Riverina grazier.

If Aggie had personal papers in the box, they were lost long ago. I depend on public records, places and people. My own memories are limited: I didn’t ask enough questions. How much can I now discover about my grandmother when she was young? My mother’s papers, which include a family memoir, go back only to her own childhood in the early years of the twentieth century. In her closely written pages, I see Aggie as a young widow, mother of seven, enduring loneliness on the country property left for her to manage when her husband died. Choosing to put her children first, she did her best to give them a happy childhood. She made the same choice for her grandchildren. At a stage in life when she could have put her own needs and wishes first, Aggie created a warm and lively family centre for her many grandchildren in their boarding-school years.

It wasn’t a small matter. There were often half-a-dozen teenagers visiting at the same time, all with different needs and temperaments, most of them missing home. Whether they came from outback New South Wales, Deniliquin or Bendigo, they were all hungry for her attention as well as her cooking and one another’s company. As one of the city grandchildren, I enjoyed the exuberant space she created for us all. “Granny’s Sunday Sanctuary” was a haven for the homesick, a family fortress, a place where you felt free to join in whatever was happening or retreat to read on the back veranda.

To start the search for the young Aggie, I go back first to my own early memories. I realise that Christmas 1940, when she gave me Joe’s box, was a traumatic time for her. The war in Europe still seemed a remote event to many Australians. Life in her quiet street in the Melbourne suburb of Kew went on without much visible change. But it changed for Aggie, whose family in England was facing immediate danger. The bombing of Liverpool at Christmas 1940 meant the obliteration of places she knew well. It was from 1939 to 1942 that she took me to the city, where the Athenaeum cinema showed British films, most of them wartime morale-raisers.

I see these movies now as her way of connecting with her homeland. She wouldn’t have wanted to go on her own: women didn’t sit alone in cinemas. Because of my intermittent bouts of asthma, I was allowed to miss school almost as often as I liked, and was always available and eager for an outing. At ten, I was old enough to enjoy the films, and I looked forward to the milkshake at Hillier’s on Collins Street afterwards. I didn’t know enough to guess at my grandmother’s feelings. A reserved woman, she wouldn’t have wanted sympathy or intrusive questions. She always held my hand on these excursions, which wasn’t really necessary; there was very little traffic and I was used to taking the tram to school on my own. Was it a comfort to have a small child to hold on to? I loved those excursions with Grandmother, but I cannot remember much of what we talked about.

The sessions always began with a Gaumont British newsreel. “Don’t look, dear,” Grandmother would say, covering my eyes whenever an image of destruction came on screen. Our outings had started in 1939 with Ralph Richardson and Laurence Olivier in a comedy spy drama, Clouds Over Europe. Later, she took me to The First of the Few and Noël Coward’s In Which We Serve. These were all unambiguously heroic in tone. We also saw Wuthering Heights together in 1940. I was a bit young for the passions of the Brontë novel, but Grandmother believed that “what you don’t understand won’t hurt you.” I loved the film and read the novel so often that my copy, illustrated from the film with images of Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon as Heathcliff and Cathy, eventually fell apart.

One incident from these outings gives a sense of Aggie’s priorities and her self-deprecating humour. We were just about to cross Collins Street, near the Melbourne Town Hall, when she let go my hand and walked back to give a coin to a disabled war veteran who was sitting on the pavement. Beside him was a sad array of small objects for sale at a penny or halfpenny each: shoelaces, hair slides, boxes of matches. Later, while I was drinking my milkshake, she said, “There were so many beggars in Liverpool, you just gave what you could, and you didn’t always want to look.” She chuckled over a mistake she’d made when she first came to Melbourne. She had given a coin to a man in a wheelchair, assuming he was begging. He returned it, saying icily, “Madam, I am not in want of alms.” He was waiting for his daughter who then emerged from a shop and wheeled him off. “It would have been less embarrassing,” Grandmother said, “if it had been a bigger coin.”

Recalling those distant times, I look up Liverpool during the second world war and find that the newsreels we watched together would have brought devastating sights. Second only to London in strategic importance, it was a prime target for the Luftwaffe. High explosives demolished much of the dockland areas where the Maguires had lived in their early days. Fires burned day and night around Merseyside; there wasn’t any darkness to hide the destruction. Slum dwellings were flattened; they fell as easily as the card houses that Grandmother taught us how to make. The Christmas blitz, between 20 and 22 December 1940, killed 365 people in Liverpool and injured many more.

Liverpool Cathedral was badly damaged in May 1941. The beautiful Custom House was destroyed; so was the Liverpool Museum. There was a direct hit on the match factory in Litherland, near Aggie’s birthplace; her father had worked there in the 1890s. She would have known that the newsreels were censored to limit civilian fears, and that the reality was much worse. Just enough was shown to rouse anti-German feeling, and not enough to weaken morale, or to frighten a ten-year-old. It was never quite real to me. Falling masonry and burning ships were shown, but no burning bodies. But if you knew Liverpool, street by street, as Aggie did, the newsreel would have prompted memories and roused fears of worse to come.

The timing of her gift to me of Joe’s box, after our first wartime movie excursions, now seems significant. We always went early to the cinema so as not to miss the newsreels. We saw film clips and heard Churchill’s voice praising the brave people of Liverpool. Except for her sister Minnie, Aggie had no one who understood how it felt to be so far away, no one else to talk to about the city’s devastation. Letters from home came “Passed by Censor.” I hope that the company of a happily oblivious ten-year-old was better than nothing.

Perhaps, in emptying Joe’s box in this time of destruction, Aggie was closing down her past. Perhaps she thought the box should be tabula rasa, a space for me to inscribe new experiences in a country to which she never quite belonged. Did she hope that one day I would search for its meaning in her life? Whatever she wanted, I’m choosing the search.

To understand my grandmother, I need to go back to her beginnings, and to the Liverpool family to whom she was still emotionally bound after more than sixty years in Australia. Unlike many women of her generation, she had firm, though sometimes contradictory, political views. About twenty years after her death there was a sharp exchange between her two oldest grandsons. One said, “Of course, Granny was a radical.” The other said, “Nothing of the kind. All her values were conservative.” He put pen to paper and sent his views to other family members.

The fact that, in old age, these two men were interested enough in their grandmother’s ideas to have a heated argument about her politics says something about her influence on them both. My mother joined in. She thought “radical wasn’t quite the word,” but was sure that Aggie voted Labor. One reason she gave was that Robert Menzies always won in her electorate, the blue-ribbon Kooyong seat, and it was bad for him to get too big a majority. The other: “A bit of socialism wouldn’t hurt.” Aggie admired James Scullin, prime minister of the Depression years, a plain-living man who, in tough times, said that “justice and humanity demand interference whenever the weak are being crushed by the strong.” Aggie’s instinctive alignment with strugglers and have-nots was unusual in her time and place. It goes back to a Liverpool upbringing that she never forgot. ●

This is an edited extract from Can You Hear the Sea? By Brenda Niall (Text Publishing, $29.99).