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The Mystery of Mary Gardiner's Diaries

A QUICK NOTE ABOUT THE BOOK: My book, Ashburton Stories is on its way! There's been a delay with printing so it is now expected 12-13 June. The shop is now open for pre-orders.

John Gardiner

In the past few weeks, while I wait impatiently for my book to come from the printers, I’ve been looking into the Gardiner family. If you aren’t familiar with the Gardiners – John, his wife Mary and their daughter Anna Maria – they came up from Van Diemen's Land to become the first British settlers in the Boroondara area of Melbourne. For this reason, their name adorns a plethora of local places. Among them are:

  • Gardiner Road, Street and Parade

  • Gardiner Train Station (from 1890)

  • Gardiner Preschool

  • Gardiner Retirement Lodge

  • Gardiner Park

  • Gardiner Reserve

  • John Gardiner Ski Lodge

  • and of course, Gardiner's Creek (Kooyong Koot)*

From what I have read so far about John Gardiner, it is quite baffling to me that he has so many things named after him. He was certainly wealthy and this afforded him social connections. Yes, he was the first British settler in the area and he drove cattle and sheep overland from Sydney to Melbourne. That is an accomplishment. But no-one seems to care the same cattle and sheep destroyed Kooyong Koot and the lives of the Wurundjeri people.

Mary Gardiner

Not only that, I've learned he was a pretty crappy husband. Having talked his clever and pretty young wife Mary into moving to Van Diemen's Land in the first place, John Gardiner proceeded to wander from one business venture to another. He dragged Mary along without consultation. Just when Mary would adjust and settle in one place, he'd uproot her and move on to some other ill-thought out business venture without a care for her feelings.

For a long time, Mary made the best of it as much as she could. But it seems she was a woman who liked a steady home, doted on her daughter, enjoyed books and the social life that came from church and family. She was just not the adventurous pioneering entrepreneurial type. The two were completely incompatible. It is not surprising that long before they arrived in Boroondara, their relationship had cooled considerably.

It could also have been because John Gardiner was involved in violence against Aboriginal people in Van Diemen's Land. And Mary knew it.

Leslie J Wilmoth: Gardiner's biographer

Much of what I've written above comes from a manuscript written by Gardiner's biographer, Leslie J Wilmoth. Wilmoth was a very thorough researcher but he did not approach his subject objectively. He wrote the first biography of Gardiner in the late 1930s. John Gardiner: Pioneer and Overlander is a glowing portrait of a man Wilmoth obviously admired. Wilmoth is quite happy to gloss over the less complementary aspects of Gardiner’s life. It is available in the State Library and Hawthorn Library.

Wilmoth wrote his second manuscript on Gardiner, the Gardiners of Gardiners Creek, in the late 1950s. This is more analytical and thoughtful. It is handwritten but fortunately, digitised by the National Library. I am in the process of painstakingly transcribing it. This is what it looks like:

An extract of the Gardiners of Gardiners Creek (c.1959)

Yes, my eyes hurt, why do you ask?

I'm finding the big difference between the two manuscripts is that in the interim 20 year period, Leslie Wilmoth got his hands on Mary Gardiner's diaries.

John Gardiner and the Black War

Let's see the difference that Mary's diaries make.

The Gardiners had arrived in Van Diemen's Land in 1823 and purchased land on the Macquarie River. By 1830, relations between the white settlers and the Aboriginal people had descended into violent conflicts known as the Black War. Below is Wilmoth writing in the 1930s in John Gardiner: Pioneer and Overlander:

“It was felt that if this remnant of primitive humanity would be segregated in one part of the island the cause of the trouble would be overcome and the settlers freed from their constant depredations. The military forces at the Government’s disposal were requisitioned for the task and a proposal was made to all free settlers to assist in the movement. Thus commenced what has been ironically called the “Black War”. This move on part of the Government must have been very annoying to John Gardiner who but a few months previously had settled down to his new venture of storekeeping. Both he and Eagle [George, Gardiner’s brother-in-law] placed themselves at the disposal of Government in this action against the aboriginals.”

The paragraph shows Wilmoth’s clear bias in the white setters’ favour. Wilmoth's attitude is very much in keeping with his time and there is a lot to dissect in that paragraph. But let’s focus on what Wilmoth calls ‘this action against the aboriginals’ John Gardiner got himself involved in. For years, Governor Arthur paid lip service to the protection of the Aboriginal people but ultimately the white settlers had free reign to act with impunity. They suffered no legal consequences for anything they did to their foe. What Wilmoth describes is actually the Black Line, an ultimately disastrous military-backed offensive within the Black War.

For the Aboriginal people:

“The Black War resulted in the near-destruction of all Aboriginal people living in ‘Tasmania’ due to frequent mass killings. Many of our Mob view the Black War as an act of genocide (intentional action to destroy an ethnic, national, racial, or religious group of people).”

Now Wilmoth is a thorough enough researcher that he has discovered Gardiner's involvement in the Black War. Yet he stops short of saying anything more. It is never mentioned again.

Mary Gardiner has a lot to say

Let's now jump forward 20 years to the Gardiner's of Gardiner's Creek and things start to get really fascinating. Below is a passage that Wilmoth quotes from one of Mary's diaries. According to Wilmoth, it was written in 1830 and refers to the family’s time at the Macquarie River, six years earlier. Wilmoth uses it as a reason why Mary could not handle life as a pioneer in Van Diemen's Land and why the couple moved to Hobart.

But 1830 is just when Mary's husband John is volunteering to join the Black Line. It turns out Mary Gardiner has quite a lot to say about the way the white settlers treated the Aboriginal people. And she is not at all happy about it.

Wilmoth quotes her writing:

"Dreadful accounts of the depredations of the blacks. They are a miserable race of beings and have been improperly used by the white settlers from the first formation of the settlement. The first step was Lieutenant Bowen’s ordering them to be fined amongst when they were advancing to him across his landing in a peaceful manner. They have been shamefully, wantonly and cruelly aggravated by the stock-keepers in out stations, taking their women away and when tired of them turning them out, whilst the poor creatures would still linger around the hut the savage stock-keepers would then fire at her until they succeeded in making her leave the place. The tribe she belonged to would naturally show some resentment and this was the signal for their being butchered by the whites."

Wilmoth acknowledged that not all the settlers condoned the Black War and Governor Arthur's actions. It turns out Mary Gardiner was one of them, setting her in direct ideological conflict with her husband. And we know today that Mary’s observations of how the settlers treated Aboriginal women are spot-on.

Clearly, Mary Gardiner's diaries shed a whole new perspective on her husband. But where are they?

Leslie Wilmoth's papers

Leslie Wilmoth acquired Mary Gardiner's diaries from her granddaughter Mary Harriet Austin’s husband, William Austin around 1940. Towards the end of his life, Wilmoth donated research papers to the State Library of NSW. Unfortunately, none of Mary Gardiner’s diaries seem to have made it into the collection. Part of one of them, describing her arrival in Port Phillip from Sydney in 1837, is currently held by Cambridge University. That’s the only one I’ve managed to track down. If the others have survived, it's quite possible they're still in private hands, passed down through Anna Maria's descendants.

And that's my reasons for writing all this. If you’re reading this and you know more about Mary Gardiner and whatever became of her diaries, let me know.

Mary Gardiner has a lot more to say.

*Settlers used "Gardiner's Creek" to describe Kooyong Koot Creek from around 1840. The creek was described as Kooyong Koot on early maps and on official records until around the 1950s when it became "Gardiner's Creek". It is now referred to by both names.

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