Even though Anthony George Maldon Michell was not born in Maldon, and lived there for only a few years as a boy, the small gold rush town in the colony of Victoria was to have a significant and enduring effect on his life. With Maldon as a middle name he could hardly forget; more importantly however the hardships, resourcefulness and feats of ingenuity that he witnessed there would help shape his future career.
His father John Michell was born in 1826, and his mother Grace (nee Rowse) was born in 1828. Both grew up in the town of Tavistock (in Devon, England), where they met and were married.
Most of the men from both families were miners, as they had been for many generations, and worked in the numerous mines in Cornwall and Devon. John was to continue this tradition, but knew that it was a hard life and wanted something better for his own children. The working day of a miner was tough – long hours in a cold, dark, damp and cramped mine with poor quality air, and the constant threat of a sudden mine collapse. Many men died at a young age, either from accidents at the mine or lung damage caused by inhaling the coal dust.
John and Grace were an energetic and adventurous young couple, and while still in their twenties joined the gold rush to the colony of Victoria in early 1855. Victoria had only been created four years prior, when the region south of the Murray River was separated from the colony of New South Wales under an act of British parliament.
These were the days of timber sailing ships, and the very dangerous journey from England to Australia took about 80 days.
The couple arrived at Port Phillip to find the fledgling town of Melbourne crowded with the thousands of people that were arriving each day to seek their fortune at the goldfields. Although Melbourne had been founded only twenty years earlier, by this time it had a population of 70,000 and was the largest town in Australia. It was however a dirty and unsanitary town, with muddy streets and poor housing. John and Grace joined the large trail of people that were making the slow and arduous journey to the goldfields by whatever means available, mostly on foot, along the narrow dirt tracks.
The couple headed for Mount Tarrangower, located between Bendigo and Ballarat, approximately 130 kilometers from Melbourne. Gold had first been discovered in that region in December 1853, and was one of the many gold deposits found during the rush sweeping the colony of Victoria. The deep reef gold mines here proved to be among Victoria’s richest, and a total of more than 2 million ounces of gold would eventually be recovered.
They arrived to find a rough township, then known as Tarrangower. As was typical around most diggings in the goldfields, it was little more than a collection of tents and crude huts. Life was made particularly difficult by the scarcity of water. Considered a precious commodity, water was vital not only for drinking but also for separating the gold from the soil. The nearest available water was from the Loddon River, 12 kilometers away.
Thomas Adair conducted the initial survey to formally establish a town, and in 1856 he renamed it Maldon after the town in Essex.
John and Grace built a hut in Templeton Street and John immediately commenced work as a miner. The couple had their first child only a few months after arriving in Maldon, and named her Elizabeth. The family continued to grow; Grace was born in 1857, Amelia was born in 1861, and their first son John Henry was born in 1863.
George described his parents as “unscholastic, but very respectful of scholarship, and very quick to recognise intellectual superiority”. They produced a close-knit family, and were dedicated to providing opportunities for their children.
In 1857 John’s brother James moved to Maldon with his wife Mary, and in 1880 James became the town’s shire engineer.
The town rapidly grew in size, achieving a population of 18,000 in 1856, and for a time was the eighth largest town in the colony of Victoria. However, two years after the initial discovery the alluvial gold had already started to peter out and many miners began to leave the town. Those who remained gradually turned their efforts to extracting the gold from the quartz rock, although this was far more difficult and required special machinery.
For many years Maldon lacked a hospital and many other essential utilities, and the rail line from Melbourne did not reach the nearby town of Castlemaine until 1862.
In 1863 the Maldon Mechanics’ Institute was established on High St, in a timber building specially constructed for the purpose.
Mechanics' Institutes are educational establishments that were originally formed to provide adult education to working men, particularly in technical subjects. The primary function of the Mechanics' Institutes was to provide a library service to the adult working class, and offer them an alternative pastime to gambling and drinking. The Institutes also provided lecture courses and laboratories, and some had a museum.
The world's first Mechanics' Institute was established in Edinburgh, Scotland in October 1821. The first Mechanics' Institute in England was opened at Liverpool in July 1823 and the London Mechanics' Institute followed in December the same year. By the mid-19th century there were over 700 institutes in towns and cities across the UK and overseas, some of which eventually became colleges and universities.
In Australia, the first Mechanics' Institute was established in Hobart in 1827, followed by the Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts in 1833 and the Melbourne Mechanics' Institute in 1839.
John Michell appears to have been successful in his gold prospecting ventures, and by 1865 was the major shareholder of the North Block Quartz Mining Co. He owned 400 shares (each had a value of £1), which was a third of the total company holdings.
The Michell family, including the four children, journeyed back to England in 1870 to visit friends and family. In those days most people who migrated to Australia did so on the understanding that they might never see England again, as the journey was expensive and dangerous. Families maintained contact by mail, which took months to arrive. John had enjoyed a successful mining career in his 15 years at Maldon, and had accumulated sufficient wealth such that he did not have to work much in the following years.
Grace was already pregnant during the journey, and when they arrived in London she gave birth to a son on 21 June 1870 at Islington. He was christened Anthony George Maldon Michell, his first name taken from his maternal grandfather Anthony Rowse, although from an early age he preferred to use the name George. His third name was in honour of the town that had become home to his family. He was to be the last addition to the family, for his mother was now 41 years old.
As a boy George often asked his parents for information about his ancestry. He learned that his mother’s family (Rowse) was originally Huguenot, French Protestants who had suffered terrible religious persecution in France.
After gaining the French throne in 1594, Henry IV had issued the Edict of Nantes, which reaffirmed Catholicism as the state religion of France but granted the Protestants equality with Catholics under the throne and a degree of religious and political freedom. Louis XIV gained the throne in 1643 and became increasingly aggressive towards the Huguenots. He imposed penalties, closed Huguenot schools and excluded them from favoured professions. In 1685, he issued the Edict of Fontainebleau, which revoked the Edict of Nantes and declared Protestantism illegal in France.
Hundreds of thousands of Huguenots fled to England, which was considered a haven because the Church of England had broken ties with the Catholic Church, and they were particularly well received because most were artisans, craftsmen and professionals.
The Rowse family had been brought to England from France by Antoine Rousse, during this purge. Regarding his mother’s relatives, George remarked on the “persistent nonconformity of the family”. He believed that his father’s family was at least in part also of French extraction, however it would appear that their arrival in England dated back much earlier than the Huguenot migrations.
Regarding the pronunciation of the Michell name, George was always emphatic – “the paternal surname is pronounced with stress on the first syllable and with that syllable rhyming with ‘rich’ and ‘which’“. The lack of the letter t, as in the name more commonly seen in England, led many people to incorrectly pronounce the name with a French accent.
The family returned to Maldon in 1873, and moved into a house in High Street. The town did not yet have a school so George was tutored at home by his sisters and brother John, who taught him reading, writing and mathematics.
As a result of the 1872 Victorian Government Education Act, which made free and secular education in the colony of Victoria compulsory for all children, the town of Maldon obtained approval to build a school. Maldon State Primary School, designated school number 1254 in Victoria, was opened in 1874. It was a fine building, constructed of brick with a slate roof, and was large enough to accommodate 800 students. On his first day at school the teachers placed George in a class of children older than him, because he had already learnt so much in his lessons at home.
This occurred only one year after the completion of the Australian overland telegraph line, which covered the 3,200 km between Darwin and Port Augusta (in South Australia). For the first time rapid communication between Australia and the rest of the world was possible, via an undersea cable connection between Darwin and Java.
Maldon was now a well-established town, with available services including a post office, two banks, ten churches, a hospital, a court house, and a theatre.
It is remarkable that all five of the Michell children survived until adulthood. In those days the infant mortality rate was typically about 10%, and even higher in rural areas. Pennyweight Flat cemetery in Castlemaine (6 miles from Maldon) contains a children’s cemetery, in which more than 200 children were buried over a 5 year period (1852-1857). Maldon Cemetery, consisting of 20 acres, was not opened until January 1861.
One of George’s earliest recollections was in December 1874, when his father showed him the transit of Venus through smoked glasses. The transit of Venus is a rare occurrence, during which the motion of the planet Venus in its orbit brings it between the Earth and the Sun, so that it can be seen as a dark spot moving across the Sun.
The last time this event had occurred was in June 1769. On that occasion, the Royal Geographic Society considered it to be such an important event that it had dispatched a young British Captain by the name of James Cook to a location most advantageous in order to observe it. His voyage on the ship HMS Endeavour with a crew of 80 took him to the tiny South Pacific Island of Tahiti, where the event was observed and recorded in great detail from a place on the island now known as Venus Point.
After successfully witnessing the transit, Cook opened a sealed envelope from the Admiralty in order to obtain instructions on the second part of his voyage. He learned that he was to attempt to prove the existence of the great Southern Land, also referred to as Terra Australis, which was believed to exist to the west of New Zealand. He eventually discovered the east coast of Australia, and spent many months exploring and mapping it.
Michell clearly remembered as a young boy hearing discussions between his father and other miners regarding the search for gold, and the methods used for extracting and processing it. England was terribly far away, and the pioneers were forced to become self-reliant and resourceful by making their own tools and equipment. Initially much of it was crude and inefficient, however with perseverance driven by necessity some fine machinery was soon produced, including steam engines and stamping batteries. Seeing these devices awakened in George an interest in engineering.
Some other examples of inventiveness displayed by early Australians include the rock drill invented by Robert Oswald, the stump-jump plough invented by Richard Bowyer Smith, and sheep shearing equipment invented by Frederick Wolseley. Also noteworthy is the mechanical refrigeration equipment invented by James Harrison, to provide ice for the chilled transport of food over long distances.