Fearless Females 13: Moments of Strength – Emily Melvin

Emily Melvin (nee Partridge) with her husband Stephen Gillespie Melvin, probably c1906-1910.

In honour of Women’s History  Month, Lisa Alzo of The Accidental Genealogist blog presents Fearless Females: 31 Blogging Prompts to Celebrate Women’s History Month. This post is my response to Day 13, Moments of Strength.

Emily Partridge was the second wife of Stephen Gillespie Melvin. His fist wife, Janet Melvin, had died fifteen months earlier on Peel Island shortly after arriving on Australian soil.

The year 1887 was to be an annus horribilis for Emily and her family, a year of many moments demanding courage, determination and loyalty. Emily was still only a young woman of 28 but she needed all the strength she could muster.

1887 started with a major flood in Ipswich, Queensland in which her husband Stephen Gillespie Melvin, nearly drowned. Some newspaper reports suggest he was trying to move goods from his bakery and confectionery store, but given the year’s subsequent events I do wonder if it was an accident. A young man, Thomas Shadrach Livermore, was awarded a bronze Humane Society medal for saving Stephen from the flooded Bremer River.

No sooner had the family recovered from that fright, than Stephen was involved in a legal case over a land dispute to develop a coal mine, in which he was one of the defendants. Around the same time his business went into liquidation, no doubt partly due to the court case and perhaps also due to stock losses from the flood and his over-ambitious expansion plans. Stephen lost the court case and the judge charged him and four others with perjury believing they had given false evidence at the land case trial. At the subsequent trial Stephen was found guilty and sentenced to 5½ years gaol. Two of the others were also found guilty while the remaining two were declared not guilty.

Throughout these terrible times, Emily would have had to keep her young family of five children together and her spirits up. The evidence suggests that she was supported in this by her parents, William and Hannah Partridge. Her family had been in Ipswich since the early days and it’s likely she found the whole experience bewildering and shameful. Her family were staunch Methodists and the Melvin business had had a good reputation, so it surely must have been humiliating to be in the public gaze in this way.

We can barely imagine how Emily felt when her husband was sent to gaol for those long years. I’ve read the trial papers in detail and I certainly felt that the evidence was ambiguous: very much a case of “he said, she said”.  Fortunately for the family, Stephen was granted a remission of his sentence after appeal to the Queensland government executive. Thanks to this, 1887 Emily’s annus horribilis ended on a positive note and the family could start to regroup. Emily’s courage and determination had been rewarded. Emily and Stephen’s reunion must have been celebratory as my great-grandmother Laura was born in due time after Stephen’s release from gaol.

Emily continued to work with Stephen to rebuild their business and some years later she bravely relocated with him to Charters Towers to start afresh. Emily went on to have another 8 children with Stephen 6 of whom survived to adulthood. She must have been both emotionally and physically strong.

52 Weeks of Personal Genealogy and History: Week 13: Sweets Lollies and Desserts

52 Weeks of Personal Genealogy & History:

Week 13’s topic is Sweets. What was your favorite childhood candy or dessert? Have your tastes changed since then?

This week’s topic intersects both my genealogy and my own personal history. As I grew up I was told that my maternal great-grandfather owned a chocolate factory. You can imagine how much my mouth watered at that! Although the sceptical side of me assumed this was an extension of the truth, I’ve subsequently managed to prove it was correct….he was a skilled confectioner and pastry cook. So I suppose it almost goes without saying that I have a “sweet tooth”. One of the benchmarks of a true dessert aficionado is the need to check what’s on the end of a restaurant menu before deciding on the main course, and whether there’s room for an entrée. Having said that, the power of the desserts is slowly losing its hold on me….perhaps because there are so few that truly live up to expectation?

Do you associate sweets/biscuits etc with your relatives? I remember my maternal grandmother (who died when I was young) by the round, jam-spliced shortbread biscuits she would bring when she came for a visit –it was her father who was the pastry chef/confectioner so I guess she had a sweet tooth too. My paternal grandmother is Orange Cream biscuits and my paternal grandfather the Ginger snaps he’d dunk in his tea. My maternal grandfather is associated with the rich, complex Hungarian cakes that neighbours would give him in exchange for home handyman work he’d do for them in those post-War migration years. My mother goes with sponge cakes and my father sums it up with “custard, cream or ice cream” to which he’d reply “yes please”. He never did bother with the “or” in that query! My grandson associates his aunt with chocolate crackles that they make together and me with making smoothies together or the tiny ice cream that they have after their afternoon nap…I wonder what their memories will be of this as they grow older.

A delicious slice of custard tart.

When I was a child my birthday request would often include home-made custard tart –delicious but temperamental to cook, especially to ensure the pastry remained firm but melt-in-the-mouth. Mum would make lamingtons with her home-made sponge cake, and these were another favourite as my mother’s sponge cakes were “to die for”.  For special events she’d sometimes even make the lamingtons with pink icing rather than chocolate…girly heaven.

But I don’t want to focus on desserts but rather on the confectionery side of this topic – lollies, sweets, candy or whatever confectionery is called where you come from.

My Easter raffle prize tin - without the lollies.

My stand-out memory of lollies is the year I won the Easter raffle at my primary school. I need to tell you that despite my strong Irish ancestry, the luck of the Irish for me involves black shrivelled shamrocks, not buckets of money at the end of the rainbow. This explains why a win of a metal tin of home-made lollies has stayed so strongly in my memory over such a long period. I’m a sucker for pretty “containers” and an even bigger one for delicious lollies so it was a double whammy. The tin still lives with me and holds some of my childhood memorabilia. The lollies inside the tin were all hand-made and included marshmellows, coconut ice, toffees, and chocolate fudge. Delicious!

In those days it was not uncommon for women to make their own lollies –or perhaps it was and I was just lucky to know so many who were skilled at cooking confectionery. My mother would sometimes make marshmellows, usually in winter I think, as it’s an item which can be very temperamental to make in a sub-tropical and humid environment and needed the “right” sort of day before it could be made.

Coconut ice is another confectionery item that I used to love but these days it’s remarkably difficult to find one with the right texture and taste, even among the home-made varieties. A few years back I found a commercial one at a deli in New Farm in Brisbane, and I would stock up when I went down there for a visit….not that it would last long. J  Mum’s coconut ice was pretty good too but some could be too creamy, others too sugary, some just too sweet and ikky.Wholesome Cook’s picture of coconut ice looks perfect. And just in case you were wondering about whether I really liked coconut, we’d also have home-made pink coconut ice blocks during the summer ;-)

Mum would regularly made toffees for school fetes or the birthday morning teas that were a part of our school-day celebrations. These toffees would be made in patty cake papers and usually the top was sprinkled with hundreds and thousands.

The best chocolate fudge that I remember was made by the man who lived across the road and whose daughters were childhood friends of mine. He was ahead of his time and very comfortable in the kitchen –a change of pace, and possibly stress-release, from his real job as a train driver. Jim’s fudge was smooth as silk, rich and dark and melt-in-the-mouth. Nothing since has quite matched his standards.

In the 1950s school and church fetes were huge and most of the things on sale were hand-made. Confectionery was among the many appealing things available to buy and you got to know which ones you liked best. Toffee apples were a feature and so appealing with their bright red toffee coating and crisp healthy inside: do you think the healthiness of the apple offsets the sugar factor?

Even the lollies on sale at the corner store had some ceremony rather than being packaged up as they are today: they were stored in large glass bottles with silver lids, and our shop probably had about 10 jars. For most kids a treat involved being allowed to buy a small paper bay of lollies from the corner store and the ones I remember best are the hard heart-shaped ones which had messages written on them or the bright pink musk lolly twists. There was also a stick-jaw type mint stick with chocolate coating. What were they called?? These are the ones that have stuck in my mind along with the round gold-foil-wrapped Coconut Rough chocolates- now I can only taste the copha fat in them.

In another post I’ve talked about the Ekka and its role in the life of Brisbane children. It is inextricably linked with the show bags which were so fantastic in the 50s with all sorts of miniature and real-sized lollies and treats.  Not to mention those strawberry and ice cream cones. It’s difficult to convey the sheer excitement and anticipation of this wonderful event and the treats associated with it.

It’s not surprising that hand-crafted items, be they clothing, houseware, or food are regarded as luxury items now. Once they were “normal” but we’ve become so accustomed to the mass-produced goods that the old-style things are now luxurious because they’re less common.

Having said that, one of the quite surprising things about Darwin is that we have a fabulous pastry chef here at Kurt’s Cakes who works behind a glass wall of the Bar Espresso at the interestingly-named Ducks Nuts. Kurt makes wonderful, amazingly decorated cakes that add impact to a special event. We bought my daughter’s wedding cake from him and “special” birthdays also merit his special cakes. It’s also one of the comparatively few places in Darwin where a coffee shop offers a range of delicious sweet treats to go with coffee….thanks Kurt! Its location next to the city cinema is very clever!

We recently had a week in Provence and found the most heavenly cake-shop in Aix en Provence, L’instant thé Riederer …talk about lush. Heaven and decadence rolled into one. We sampled some but if we’d been there longer we’d have made it our mission to sample more.

Delicious sweet-treats in Aix en Provence

Whatever my age or where I live, a delicious cake or a tasty sweet-treat will always make my day!

BTW I’m now on the rampage for some good coconut ice and today’s wonderful Portugese custard tarts, or the ones from Chinatown in Sydney…but they’re all so far away ;-(

52 Weeks of Personal History & Genealogy-Week 5 -Favourite Foods

Favourite Food

Thinking about this topic I’ve realised how strong has been the influence of my mother’s grandparents –my great-grandfather was a confectioner and pastry cook and the family owned tea rooms in Charters Towers in the late 19th century and prior to that a confectionery business in Ipswich, Queensland. Judging on a few newspaper reports found through the Trove website (www.trove.nla.gov.au) he was a very good pastry cook and confectioner at that! He should have stuck to that as his excursion into property and mining brought him financially unstuck.

The Ipswich Show “John Marstellar took first prize for the best 61b. of fresh butter, Mr. F. Whitehouse for the best bread, Mr. S. G. Melvin for confectionery, and an excellent display it was” The Queenslander, 16 December 1882.

From The Brisbane-Courier of 25 December 1882 talking about the Christmas display in Ipswich: “Mr. Melvin had a very enticing display of confectionery- about the best ever seen here-and there was no lack of purchasers of his toothsome compounds.”

My memories of favourite foods seem to focus almost entirely on cakes, biscuits and desserts.

Probably my favourite memory is around a ginger shortbread slice for which I recall my mother won a prize in one of the magazines or newspapers. The contrast between the sweetness of the gingery-golden syrup topping and the crunchiness of the shortbread base was delicious. (Recipe at the end of this story)

Another of her slices which I loved was rather tricky to make & could only be baked when the weather wasn’t too humid (sometimes a challenge in sub-tropical Brisbane). It also had a very short, cakey-shortbread base with a layered topping of marshmellow. Again, delicious! At my all-girls high school it was traditional to bring cakes and treats for lunch time celebrations and both these slices were very welcome additions to the “treats”.

It was traditional in our house for Saturday to be baking day and my mother always made a variety of biscuits and slices or cakes. Her sponges were high and feather-light with cream and when possible, fresh strawberries.

One of my birthday treats was to request a home-made custard tart for dessert. It was really delectable but again could be temperamental when the weather was hot and humid.

In those traditional days of Catholicism, we ate fish on Friday as a matter of strict religious observance. How I loathed the smoked cod we’d have fairly often! The “curried” prawns, made as they were in those days with Keen’s brand curry, were much more enjoyable. And for school lunches I’d sometimes have a treat of sandwiches made with tinned sardines and potato crisps from a packet at the tuck shop. Sounds quite revolting now but I used to really enjoy it then.

Other special foods included my mother’s wonderfully moist Christmas cake & pudding and also my Scottish grandmother’s shortbread which was only ever made at Christmas time.

As you can see, it’s “sweets” all the way for my favourites list as a child and teenager.

As I got older, we’d sometimes go to one of the good-quality Chinese restaurants where the food was both exotic and delicious. Then in high school one of my best friends was of Italian descent and through her I learned about olives, garlic and Italian food. Progressing into University, my weekend job was with a Greek-owned fruit shop and again my food knowledge expanded as I learned about mushrooms, capsicums, eggplant and a variety of vegetables which were unusual in Australia at the time and certainly not used in most homes. Not to mention having octopus sandwiches with the Greek owners!

As an adult my tastes have become vastly diverse and I love all sorts of ethnic foods but my favourites are proper Indian or Thai curries, reflecting my husband’s family’s influence and the changing times. But I still check the dessert menu first in a restaurant, then work back from there!

Ginger or Cinnamon Slice

Biscuit base:  Topping: 
4 oz butter or margarine  4 tablespoons icing sugar
2 oz sugar  1 teaspoon ginger/cinnamon
1 cup self raising flour  3 teaspoons Golden Syrup
1 rounded teaspoon ginger/cinnamon  1.5 oz butter

Process:

Biscuit base: cream butter & sugar. Sift flour and ginger/cinnamon & add to creamed mixture. Press into a greased lamington tin –flour your fingers or use a flour measuring cup to help level it out. Bake at 175C until lightly browned (approx 15 minutes). Let it cool a little before adding topping.

Topping: put all ingredients except icing sugar into a saucepan. Stir over a low heat only until melted and mixed, then take off stove and add icing sugar. Pour over biscuit base and spread evenly. Cut while still warmish as it will crumble less.