A small collection of family papers associated with newspaper proprietor David Syme (1827-1908), publisher and editor-in-chief of The Age from 1859-1908, has recently been re-housed by the Preservation team. The collection includes correspondence, newspaper clippings, documents, diaries and notebooks, and largely relates to David Syme and his son Geoffrey Syme, who was successor to his father at The Age. Several notebooks feature autobiographical writings, by both David and his son reflecting on their professional lives as editorial managers of the The Age.

Open notebook with handwritten notes in black ink
Notebook containing memoirs with many corrections, thought to be written by both David and Geoffrey Syme (the handwriting of father and son is almost indistinguishable), date unknown (YMS 16261, Box 1, Folder 9)

While re-housing a series of letters found carefully stored within a small writing box, a touching exchange was encountered between Geoffrey’s wife Violet and one of her daughters. Violet Newstead Syme was the second daughter of Geoffrey and Violet, and was called by her nickname Hilaire. Many of the letters were written while Hilaire was living in England, where she had relocated upon meeting her future husband during her first voyage to the continent after she left school. She had been married in England, and was expecting her first child. The letters provide updates on family news and day-to-day life. Violet was always keen to hear of Hilaire’s social engagements and activities in England, at times lamenting that her daughter does not write her often enough.

Black and white photograph with hand colouring of  a young girl dressed in costume
Hilaire Syme dressed for the Kismit Ball (1912-1915), Alice MILLS (attributed to), gelatin silver photograph, coloured dyes, National Gallery of Victoria (Accession Number: 2005.55)
View of a small writing box, partially open to reveal a series of folded papers within
Original writing box containing correspondence (YMS 16262, Box 6)
Yellow label with handwritten text tied by string to the handle of a small writing box
Original writing box label: ‘IMPORTANT – Letters of V.A.S. (Violet Addison Syme) & Hilaire’ (YMS 16261, Box 6)

The last of Hilaire’s letters are dated only weeks before she died soon after giving birth in 1926, at age 21. A detailed letter from Hilaire’s husband, Kenneth Peacock, to Violet Syme, recounts the period after Hilaire gave birth and how her condition deteriorated over several days. His sense of devastation and loss is deeply felt as he tries to make sense of what happened. He notes in his letter that Hilaire seemed tired but well after the birth; yet in the days that followed she became distressed and feverish and in her final hours no longer recognised him. Kenneth writes, ‘They told me it was puerperal mania which sometimes occurs after childbirth but that it was only a temporary condition and she would be all right again’.

In the second half of the 19th century it was thought that childbirth could induce a form of mental collapse in women that was often manic and occasionally fatal; a belief that gained momentum in the Victorian medical profession, both in obstetrics and the newly growing field of psychiatry (Louden 1988, p. 76, Marland 2004, p. 20-21). The terms ‘puerperal insanity’, ‘puerperal mania’ and ‘puerperal melancholia’ were variously employed to describe the condition (Louden 1988, p. 76), and reflect the way in which medical practitioners understood and diagnosed the complications of childbirth at the time, as well as the associated view of women as fragile and unstable, subject to the unpredictability of their bodies and the reproductive process (Marland 2004, p. 20).

The letters Hilaire wrote to her mother and also her father and her siblings become more poignant upon learning of her premature death, and convey the thoughts of a young woman who was looking forward to returning to recreational activities and social commitments after the birth of her first child. In a letter to her father she teasingly writes of her baby: ‘I am sure it’s going to have flaming red hair which upsets Ken very much and he insists that if so he won’t be the father’. The correspondence gives a small personal insight into Geoffrey Syme’s life, outside of his better known professional career as managing editor at The Age, and the perhaps less visible experiences of women at this period of time.

Cropped close up image of a handwritten letter in black ink
Letter from Hilaire Syme to her father Geoffrey Syme, 12 April 1926: ‘I do hope you will come and see your grandchild soon if we aren’t able to come to Australia. I am sure it’s going to have flaming red hair which upsets Ken very much…’ (YMS 16261, Box 4, Folder 6)
Cropped close up image of a handwritten letter in black ink
Letter from Kenneth Peacock to Violet Syme, after Hilaire’s death: ‘I so very much want her [Hilaire’s baby] to be christened Hilaria. Hilaire had talked about Penelope – so I think Hilaria Penelope’ (YMS 16261, Box 4, Folder 8)
Series of handwritten letters displayed in an array, held together with archival plastic paperclips
Letters from original writing box, re-housed (YMS 16261, Box 4)

Written by Jessye Wdowin-McGregor.

References:

Louden, I 1988, Puerperal insanity in the 19th century, Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, Volume 81, February 1988, p. 76

Marland, H 2004, Dangerous Motherhood: Insanity and Childbirth in Victorian Britain, Palgrave MacMillan, 2004, p. 20-21

This article has 2 comments

  1. Such a poignant story. Is there any information about the baby? A girl, yes, to be called Hilaria Penelope, but red hair??
    My heart breaks for Violet, to receive such news. I wonder what became of Ken, and Hilaria.
    Thank you for sharing this story, but now to look further.

    • Thank you for reading the blog article and for your question; it is indeed a heartbreaking story. In this particular collection, there is unfortunately no further information about Hilaria Penelope or Kenneth Peacock – the correspondence largely features the time leading up to and just after Hilaire Syme’s death, but nothing further. There are however a few items in the library catalogue that may offer up some additional information, including an unpublished manuscript by Veronica Condon (nee Syme, sister to Hilaire Syme) on her father Geoffrey Syme, and a family tree, also prepared by Veronica Condon, featuring her family history from 1662-1992. Both can be found via the catalogue here. There is also a series of related material held at the National Library of Australia: Papers of Veronica Condon 1945-2009 (MS 9726) (https://catalogue.nla.gov.au/Record/1102060).
      Jessye

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