Family Matters is pleased to welcome our August guest blogger, Dr Kevin Molloy, Manuscripts Librarian at the Library. Kevin completed his Ph.D. at Trinity College Dublin on the subject of nineteenth century Irish historiography. He currently writes on international Irish print networks, book history, the nineteenth century Irish-American novel, Irish-Australian history, and cultural memory. In this post he tells us about Melbourne identity, John Garibaldi Roberts (1860-1933).
Roberts, executive member of the Melbourne Tramways & Omnibus Company, bibliophile, close friend and patron of C J Dennis, Robert Croll, and Tom Roberts, is now best remembered for his monumental multi-volumed scrapbooks. These unique encyclopaedic compendia document Federation, the Western Front, the 1920s, Roberts’ family history, and the lives of many notable Victorians. Comprising collections of letters, pamphlets, photographs, maps, newspaper cuttings, memoirs and other now rare documents the Roberts scrapbooks have become a treasure trove for researchers writing on the early decades of twentieth century Australia.
Roberts was born at Italian Gully, Victoria, in 1860, to Irish parents of a mixed Irish, Welsh and German background. The first volumes record in great detail his complex family relationships, principally the Roberts, Pounder, Moore and Kechler families, Protestants and Catholics, and the memories of their tragic involvement in two great wars. The first, the momentous events of the 1798 Rebellion in Ireland and the fighting at Enniscorthy, County Wexford, when 15,000 British troops under the control of the English General, Gerard Lake, launched a major attack on Irish insurgent positions on Vinegar Hill. The second, one of the last decisive engagements on the Western Front, when Australian troops broke the German lines above the SommeRiver, and where Roberts eldest son, Frank, was killed on 1st September 1918 on the gentle slopes of Mont Saint-Quentin.
The 127 volume Roberts scrapbooks begin with the memoirs of Ballarat settler John Pounder Roberts, J G. Roberts father. John Pounder Roberts recalled in his youth travelling with a man who had fought with the insurgents in the very first engagement of 1798 Irish Rebellion at the battle of Oulart Hill: ‘It was a fine Sunday morning and the old man told me that he could see the soldiers at a considerable distance and the glitter of the sun on the red coats and the flashing of the bayonets gave him such a scare that he would have run away but an officer threatened to shoot the first man that would run and so he had to remain all of a tremble…But when the first volley was fired he felt fear no longer, it was rush on with your pike’. Although two of John Pounder Roberts uncles were fighting with the Yeomanry on the side of the British forces, Father John Murphy, one of the principle strategists of the Irish uprising, and a friend of the Roberts and Pounder families, had granted them personal protection. Yet, tragedy unfolded; the Roberts and Pounder farms were directly in line of the retreating Irish on Vinegar Hill, and John Pounder Roberts grandfather and uncle were shot by British Hessian soldiers, mistaken for Irish rebels.
Nearly one hundred and twenty years later, in August 1917 young Private Frank Roberts, J G Roberts eldest son, travelled to Ireland to visit family in Wexford and walk the fields surrounding Vinegar Hill. In letters to his wife Ruby, Frank wrote that he travelled to Holyhead for six hours in a carriage full of Australian Irish soldiers of the AIF (Australian Imperial Force) ‘all going to Paddyland for leave’. A returning Irish-colonial, Frank Roberts spent a week in Enniscorthy staying with his cousin Lucy Roberts, walking over the surrounding farms and former battlefield, helping about the house, writing letters, taking photographs, meeting extended family, and even sending back to Melbourne a sprig of shamrock. Frank returned to France in November. A little over a year later he was dead on his own Vinegar Hill – Mont Saint-Quentin. Greatly mourned by his father, the scrapbooks – incorporating extensive family memoirs, photographs, postcards, personal letters from his son Frank, his Irish cousins, and fellow soldiers – became J G Roberts permanent memorial to the tragedy of war and his own family’s war dead of several generations.
The Roberts collection (MS 8508) is one of many WW1 manuscript collections held by the State Library of Victoria. These unique records document in great detail the lives of soldiers, their families, loved ones, friends and memories of the Great War. The Library has started digitising its WW1 photograph albums and plans to have all its Gallipoli, Middle East and Western Front diaries online and freely available over the next four years.