Tag: James Minahan

An Australian shovel in Shiquli, Xinhui — research trip update IV

The village of Shiquli in Luokeng, Xinhui (新會區羅坑鎮和平村石渠里) sits at the heart of one of my ongoing research projects. Victorian-born James Minahan (1876-?) spent more than twenty-five years in Shiquli, from the age of about five to thirty-one, when he returned to Australia. Arrested as a prohibited immigrant after failing the Dictation Test on his arrival in early 1908, his case proceeded to the High Court (Potter v. Minahan 1908) and he was eventually granted permission to stay in Australia. Whether he did or not I still don’t know, even after exhausting every lead I have found in the archives in Australia and now visiting Shiquli for a third time.

A two-storey white building with front balconies and a pointed roof
Shiquli’s ancestral hall and primary school, built in 1935, is in great need of repair
A group of people standing in front of old grey-brick houses
Australian huaqiao houses in Shiquli

While I might not yet have uncovered James Minahan’s fate, I have discovered that the tiny village of Shiquli sent dozens of men to Australia from the 1860s into the twentieth century. The earliest were gold-miners, with some becoming storekeepers, but many in later years were simply gardeners. While I was in Shiquli last Saturday, we found a poignant piece of material heritage that reflects this history.

An old grey-brick house
The house of Chen Zhidian, built around 1948 when he returned to Shiquli from Australia
Two small brick buildings, one with bright blue doors
The shed (with blue doors) adjacent to Chen Zhidian’s house where we uncovered a treasure

Stashed away in a shed next to one of the few huaqiao houses in the village — the house of Chen Zhidian 陳稙典 (pronounced Tsun Zek Din in Xinhui dialect), built on his return to the village in 1948 (22°27’08.14″N 112°55’47.93″E) — was an old shovel that was said to have been brought back from Australia many years before. Once the dirt and a bit of the rust was cleaned off, I could just make out the words SAVAGE and SYDNEY underneath an insignia of a six-pointed star in a circle. Bingo!

Men standing around looking at an old shovel
Look! A shovel from Australia!
Close-up of the rusty handle of the old shovel
But can we read what is says on the handle?
A man crouched over cleaning a shovel with a rag
Let’s give it a bit of a clean and see…
Detailed close-up of a rusty shovel handle
Aha! A star and the words SAVAGE and SYDNEY

The shovel has now been acquired by the fine gentlemen of the Kong Chew Chan Clan Culture Research Association (岡州陳氏文化研究會), with whom I was visiting the village, who plan to treasure it appropriately. I promised to find out what I could about the shovel’s origins, so this post is a brief outline of what I’ve been able to find out online from China (honestly, what would we do without Trove?).

Longman Chen, Director of the Xinhui Foreign and Overseas Chinese Affairs Bureau, and Chen Ruihuai, head of Shiquli village, with the shovel
Five men and one woman in front of a large rock with the Chinese characters for Shiquli etched into it
Me with members of the Kong Chew Chan Clan Culture Research Association at the entrance to Shiquli

W. Savage & Co., the manufacturers of the shovel, were originally based in Newcastle, New South Wales. In 1926, a notice was published in Sydney’s Daily Commercial News that a new company, W. Savage & Co., had been registered to acquire the business of W. Savage & Co. at Newcastle. The company were wholesale and retail storekeepers, general merchants, ironmongers and engineers (Daily Commercial News, 12 January 1926). In the late 1920s the company was the Newcastle agent for a range of building and hardware products and machinery, including:

W. Savage & Co.’s involvement in shovel manufacturing began in mid-1928 when they set up a new factory at their premises in Parry Street, Cook’s Hill, Newcastle (Newcastle Sun, 2 July 1928).

A Mr Gaythwaite, ‘an experienced shovel-maker from Cumberland, England’ had, a number of years earlier, come up with a new design for a shovel which he patented under the name ‘Gaylac’. The shovel had corrugations on either side of the handle that were said to strengthen the shovel across the back of the blade and counteract leverage stress. Gaythwaite began manufacturing the shovels in partnership with a Mr Black in around 1926, just in their spare time, and distributing them in the Cessnock and Kurri Kurri districts in the Hunter Valley.

The shovels proved very popular and so Gaythwaite and Black went into partnership with W. Savage & Co. By 1929 ‘Gaylac-Star’ shovels featured prominently in W. Savage & Co.’s advertising (Newcastle Sun, 5 August 1929).

Black and white advertisement from a newspaper
Advertisement for W. Savage & Co., Newcastle Sun, 5 August 1929

The shovels were made in Australia from entirely Australian materials — the billets were made by BHP and rolled by Lysaght’s into sheets from which the shovels were cut. They were then pressed into shape with a machine, tempered in an oil bath, and set and balanced by hand.

By the end of 1931, W. Savage & Co. was based in Sydney. In December that year they were in court arguing over the rent they could charge for the commercial premises they still owned in Parry Street, Newcastle (Newcastle Morning Herald, 23 December 1931). These premises had been for sale in mid-1930 and it seems likely that this was when W. Savage & Co. relocated to Sydney. The business was one of several in Parry Street that were broken into in August 1929 (Newcastle Sun, 24 August 1929), at which time a safe in the W. Savage & Co. offices was blown open and cash and a cheque were stolen.

W. Savage & Co.’s move to Sydney came around the time of the Great Depression (1929-1932), and it seems that it was after the difficult times of the depression that things took off. There aren’t any advertisements or articles about the company in the newspapers between 1929 and 1932.

In 1932 council granted permission for W. Savage & Co. to erect a new brick factory to manufacture shovels in George Street, Erskineville (Sydney Morning Herald, 6 December 1932).

In 1934 and 1935, Savage & Co. appeared before the Industrial Commission in a dispute over wages for two ironmongers they employed to manufacture shovels using a ‘specialised process’ (Sydney Morning Herald27 September 192426 February 1935, 27 February 1935).

By the mid-1930s, the shovels were no longer being advertised as ‘Gaylac-Star’ shovels, but simply as ‘Star’ shovels, part of an expanding range of ‘Star’ products that included forks, scoops and spades. Their high quality was said to come from ‘years of experience in the heat treatment of the best quality Steels — the usage of first grade Handles — and the employment of highly skilled artisans’ (Newcastle Morning Herald, 12 October 1935).

Black and white advertisement with pictures of two shovels
Advertisement for Star shovels, Newcastle Morning Herald, 12 October 1935

In 1940 a fire broke out in the George Street factory caused by a burst oil pipe leading to the furnace. Twelve employees escaped from the fire, but overhead pulleys and other machinery were damaged (Sydney Morning Herald, 18 October 1940).

Export manifests show that W. Savage & Co. were exporting their shovels in the 1930s and 1940s to places as diverse as Papeete, Calcutta and Suva (Daily Commercial News, 25 January 193612 June 1946, 30 December 1948).

Advertisements from newspapers around Australia show that Star shovels were sold in Western Australia, Tasmania, Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland and the Northern Territory from the early 1930s to the early 1950s (Western Mail, 16 November 1939Mercury, 3 September 1942; Argus, 2 August 1932Northern Star, 20 August 1951; Central Queensland Herald, 1 September 1938Queensland Times, 11 April 1953; Northern Standard, 15 April 1938).

Black and white advertisement for tools with seven pictures of shovels and forks
Advertisement for Star tools, Central Queensland Herald, 12 January 1939

The National Museum of Australia in Canberra has a Star shovel in its collection. It is part of the Claude Dunshea collection (who seems to have been a miner, judging from other items of his in the museum’s collection). The museum’s shovel has a very short handle, while the one in Shiquli has a long handle as shown in the 1930s advertisements.

(Fewer than) six degrees of separation: James Minahan and William Ah Ket

I grew up in the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Sydney, and come from very good, solid Adventist stock. My paternal grandmother’s family were among the earliest Adventists in Australia, and my father’s uncle, Arthur Shannon, was behind the company that eventually sold its best-selling product Weet-Bix to Sanitarium. Both my maternal grandparents worked, as doctor and nurse, at the Adventist hospital in Wahroonga, and a wing of that same hospital was named after my Shannon relatives. I went to the Adventist school next to the hospital and, as a child, it seemed that everyone we knew was related or connected – somehow – to everyone else. Much like a country town, I guess. Or like the early Chinese Australian community.

Recently I’ve been looking again at James Minahan, the Anglo-Chinese man whose case went to the High Court in 1908, and thinking about connections between the players in his story. James Minahan left Australia as a young boy, and returned twenty-five years later. Although he could remember little of his Australian childhood – he no longer spoke English, nor could he remember his Australian mother – he was returning to a community that both expected his return and looked after him when he found himself in legal difficulties.

Legal representation was found for him after he was arrested in Sydney and, at the High Court hearings, he was represented by Frank Gavan Duffy KC and William Ah Ket. Frank Gavan Duffy was the outstanding KC who, five years later, would join the ranks of the High Court, later becoming Chief Justice. William Ah Ket was Australia’s first Chinese Australian lawyer and, later, acting consul-general for China in Australia. I haven’t yet established who exactly it was that organised James Minahan’s legal representation; the Chinese consulate began its operations the following year.

I hadn’t imagined that there was any real connection between James Minahan and William Ah Ket. Although born in the same year to families that lived no more that 50 kilometres from each other in rural Victoria, James and William’s childhoods had taken them in very different directions. James grew up in his father’s ancestral village in Xinhui, attending the local village school and failing three times to pass the gruelling imperial examinations; William was educated at Wangaratta High School and at home by a Chinese tutor, and studied law at the University of Melbourne.

But, curiously, the lives of James Minahan and William Ah Ket were connected through a web of kinship and intermarriage:

  • James Minahan was related to Chin Kee (they both were Chens of Shiquli village in Xinhui)
  • Chin Kee married Ethel Hun Gip
  • Ethel Hun Gip’s cousin was William Hoyling (their mothers were sisters, Isabella and Emma)
  • William Hoyling married Ruby Yon
  • Ruby Yon was the niece of barrister William Ah Ket (her mother was William’s sister Margaret)

Did you get that? Here’s a diagram:

Diagram showing the relationship between James Minahan and William Ah Ket

I’m not sure that it means anything particularly significant, except that it demonstrates the family ties that existed among early Chinese Australian families, and it’s kinda cool.

Who is an Australian? (c.1908)

For the past couple of years I have been researching, on and off, the story behind the 1908 High Court case Potter v. Minahan – a case which revolved around the question of exactly who could be an Australian. A short article about the case and my research has just been published in in the National Archives of Australia’s Memento magazine, issue 38, 2010, pp. 16–18. You can download the whole issue as a pdf (4mb), or just read my article below.

It seems somehow fitting (although coincidental) that I’m posting this on Australia Day. Not only does Potter v. Minahan centre on the idea of who belongs as Australian, it was on 26 January 1908 that James Minahan arrived in Melbourne (via Sydney) from Hong Kong on the S.S. Wollowra. Instead of being allowed to land, and to meet the friends of his father’s who had come to collect him from the ship, Minahan was held on board until an interpreter could be arranged so that Customs officers could interview him. Customs decided that Minahan could not land in Melbourne, and he was sent back to Sydney so that he could be deported back to China.

But that didn’t end up happening either…

Aussie lad or Chinese scholar?

A researcher’s journey through the archives can lead to unexpected discoveries and unknown places. But what happens when a tantalising archival trail arrives at a dead end? Dr Kate Bagnall shares an unsolved archival mystery she uncovered while researching Australia’s historical connections to China.

In the winter of 1882, the parents of five-year-old Jimmie Minahan packed up their home in the small mining settlement of Indigo in northern Victoria and made their way south to Melbourne. Jimmie had been born at the lying-in hospital in Melbourne to 17-year-old Winifred Minahan in October 1876. Winifred was also Melbourne-born, the eldest daughter of immigrant Irish parents. Jimmie’s birth registration made no record of his father’s name, for his parents weren’t married, but he did not grow up fatherless. Soon after Jimmie’s birth, his father, Chinese storekeeper Cheong Ming, took Winifred and the baby back to their home in Indigo. Until the age of five this was the only home Jimmie knew.

The family’s return to Melbourne in 1882 was the first part of a journey that would see members of the small family separated forever. Cheong Ming had become ill and wished to return to China to recuperate, taking young Jimmie with him to receive a Chinese education. Winifred was not to accompany them, and spent her final weeks with Jimmie in Melbourne as Cheong Ming made preparations for the longer journey ahead. Having lost a baby daughter to severe bronchitis only months earlier, Winifred would likely have been saddened by the departure of her little boy – perhaps comforted by the thought that he would return to Australia once his father had recovered.

The father and son’s destination was Cheong Ming’s home village in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong. From Melbourne, the pair travelled to Hong Kong, then by boat to the district capital of Jiangmen, and from there to the village itself. The village name as recorded in Australian court records was Shek Quey Lee. It was the first time that Cheong Ming had returned home since he left for Australia in the early 1860s, but he quickly settled back to village life, taking on the role of local schoolmaster. The process of adjustment was more difficult for young Jimmie, who later described his tears as his father shaved his head according to Chinese fashion and as he encountered the ‘foreign devil boy’ taunts of his schoolmates.

From gum trees to Confucian classics

As time passed, Cheong Ming’s health did not improve and he and Jimmie remained living in Shek Quey Lee. They lost touch with Winifred, and Jimmie’s memories of his mother gradually faded. The little Australian lad, raised in the bush with red dirt and gum trees, became a Chinese boy, schooled in Confucian classics and fluent only in his father’s native tongue.

The Australian part of the story of Cheong Ming and Jimmie could well have ended there, as it did for many Chinese who chose to return to China after trying their luck in the Australian colonies during the second half of the nineteenth century. But when Cheong Ming left Australia, he had maintained a share in the business he owned at Indigo and his partner Chin Shing regularly remitted a share of the profits to China. Cheong Ming had also instilled in his son the belief that one day he should return to Australia, indeed that it was his birthright, to take up his father’s business and to become a teacher of Chinese children in the colonies. After Cheong Ming’s death in about 1896, young Jimmie, now aged 20 and known by the Chinese name of Ying Coon, decided to honour his father’s wishes. He continued to study, and attempted the gruelling imperial examinations in the provincial capital of Guangzhou three times – all unsuccessfully. After his third failure, he made the decision to return to his country of birth. He later said that he ‘always wanted to return to Australia.’

The National Archives holds two files which document the story of James Minahan’s return to Australia in January 1908 and the events which followed. In the time between his departure as a five-year-old boy and his return as a man of 31, the Australian colonies had federated and the attitude towards non-white immigrants, particularly Chinese, had hardened. The Immigration Restriction Act 1901 and its infamous dictation test set the tone with which Chinese arrivals to Australia were met – even those of long-term Australian residence, of Australian birth or those with part-white heritage. When he landed in Australia, James Minahan’s identity was questioned by Customs officials and he was made to sit the dictation test, which he failed, resulting in his arrest and prosecution as a prohibited immigrant.

Landmark court case

After a decision in his favour was granted in the Victorian lower courts, the Commonwealth appealed to the High Court. There, in a landmark decision, the High Court again ruled in Minahan’s favour. The case Potter v. Minahan continues to be cited in court judgements 100 years later.

The two files in the National Archives – one created by the Department of External Affairs (which administered the Immigration Restriction Act) and one created by the High Court – provide a fascinating background to the complex legal discussions found in the judgements of the five justices of the High Court. The case before the High Court centred around the idea of who exactly was an immigrant, and who could be considered a member of the Australian community. What did the framers of the Australian Constitution envisage when they gave the new Commonwealth powers over immigration? Did immigration simply mean the process of entering the country, or were there subtleties to its meaning and if so, what were they? Could a man, both a British subject by birth and the son of a British subject, be considered an immigrant (and, therefore a prohibited immigrant) when returning to Australia, the land of his birth?

To explore these issues within Minahan’s case, the courts heard evidence from James Minahan himself, as well as from a range of witnesses, many of whom were Chinese and who had known Cheong Ming, Winifred and their son in Victoria or had contact with father and son in China. Their testimony painted a picture of their lives, first in Indigo and then in Shek Quey Lee, detailing the ongoing connections maintained by many Chinese living in Australia, both with kin in Australia and at home in China. There was Deung Garng, a French polisher and kinsman working in Melbourne, whom father and son first met on their return to the village; and Ah Chew, a cabinetmaker from Carlton, who had been at the village school with Minahan and had attended Cheong Ming’s funeral. Dern Hoy, another Melbourne French polisher, had met father and son before they left for China in 1882 and had also seen Minahan in the village two years earlier and spoken with him at length about what life was like in Australia.

Then there were those whose testimony told of the family’s early life in Victoria, when Minahan was still a small boy. Cheong Ming’s business partner at Indigo, Chin Shing, told what he knew of the ‘English woman’ who lived with Cheong Ming and had his child. Chan Num, a Melbourne tobacco dealer, who employed Winifred Minahan’s younger sister as a nursemaid, said Winifred and her son had once stayed with him at Beechworth, Victoria. Ching Kay, formerly of Hang Yick & Co. in Melbourne, had done business with Cheong Ming and recalled the small boy who called Cheong Ming ‘papa’ and ‘Minnie’ Minahan ‘ma’.

James Minahan vanishes

Among all the detail in the court records and the departmental file on Minahan’s case, however, there is no clue to suggest what James Minahan did after the High Court ruled in his favour. After working all those years to gain an education, so that he could teach Chinese children in Australia, is that what he ended up doing? Or did he return to Indigo to work in the business he had inherited? Or did he decide, given the unhappy reception he had received in Australia, that he would return once again to build a life in China?

With the archives proving silent on Minahan’s fate, perhaps his hometowns of Indigo and Shek Quey Lee might provide some clues. A visit to Chiltern in northern Victoria revealed that the old mining settlements at Indigo no longer existed, but led eventually to contact with a descendent of Cheong Ming’s business partner, Chin Shing. She revealed that Chin Shing had continued to run the business at Indigo with his Anglo-Chinese wife into the early decades of the twentieth century. From what she knew, it seems that Minahan had not returned to make a life for himself there.

What then of the village Shek Quey Lee, described as being 20 li (Chinese miles) from the district capital of Jiangmen? Had Minahan returned to that home? A preliminary research trip to the area in the northern spring of 2009 provided some tantalising clues – a village now written as Shiquli, whose name in the local dialect is consistent with the earlier anglicised name Shek Quey Lee, and the revelation that the same village has had a long history of migration to Australia. What remains now is to continue following the leads in the archival trail, using details from Australian records about the village and its men, together with Chinese village records and the memories of local people, to establish the fate of James Minahan, the young man who had said he ‘always wanted to return to Australia’.