Title: Indirections: A Memoir 1909-1947

Author: Charles Brasch

Publication details: Oxford University Press, 1980, Wellington

Digital publication kindly authorised by: Alan Roddick

Part of: New Zealand Texts Collection

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Indirections: A Memoir 1909-1947

Chapter Two — Australian Interlude — 9

page 30

Chapter Two
Australian Interlude

when i was thirteen, my father took us to Australia during the September holidays. This was a venture which he must have been preparing for some time. To us in prospect it meant chiefly the chance of staying with Aunt Emily Forsyth in Sydney. To him it meant revisiting old haunts and seeing the relatives and friends he had known in youth. After his schooling in New Plymouth and Dunedin he had gone to Melbourne University, and always spoke a good deal about that time of his life, so that we knew of, as half legendary characters, many of the people we were to meet. Most of them he cannot have seen since before the war, and it was seven years since the Harts, his closest relatives excepting his brothers, had left Dunedin. Now that Kate and Emily too were gone, Grandmother was dead and Harold killed, Manono must have lost much of its attraction for him. And since Ben was killed, the de Beers' thoughts after the war were turning to England, where it was clear that Esmond would remain. So my father was probably drawn again to former friends, and wished to display his children to them for the first time. Those children had to do him credit, as they grew uneasily aware.

We sailed — it was our first sea voyage: we had not then visited the North Island — in the Ulimaroa, which ran regularly between Dunedin, Bluff and Melbourne, a cool white ship with yellow funnel. My father took for granted that we would be good sailors, as he was. He led us to the bow of the ship as she passed down Otago harbour. At the heads we met a swell, the ship pitched to meet it, and I was promptly very sick. I forget whether Lel suffered. At Bluff we went ashore, and my father bought oysters, which he always relished; he bought a sugar-sackful, page 31at the cost of half-a-crown; we could hardly lug the sack on board. He started on them as soon as we sailed again; we stood on deck and threw the shells overboard. It is the only time I remember his encouraging me to over-eat when I was young. Oysters were new to me, I wasn't sure if I liked them, but he thought it was time I acquired the taste, telling me how good they were, they could do me no harm. Lel I think refused after trying one, and he did not press her; being not quite eleven, she was perhaps hardly mature enough to appreciate such a delicacy. But I — can it have been another test of manliness? — was urged to persevere; rather dubiously I did so, until the ship began to heave, and I was thoroughly sick into Foveaux Strait.

Before reaching Melbourne, where were were to stay with the fabulous Uncle Reuben and Aunt Lucy Hallenstein, we were admonished to be on our best behaviour and to do as we were told whatever it might be.

In Melbourne we were plunged into a new sort of family life. When we got home again, I worked out how many relations we had in Australia, with my father's aid drawing up elaborate family trees, and including all who lived close together or saw each other frequently and whom we met, down to third cousins. They numbered more than one hundred, some in Sydney, but the large majority in Melbourne. All belonged by descent or marriage to the two great clans of the Michaelises and Hallensteins.

The first recorded Hallenstein, an earlier Reuben, had married about 1825 Helene Michaelis (of the second recorded generation of her family) in the village of Lügde near Pyrmont, a well-known watering place some forty miles south-west of Hanover. Their three sons migrated in the eighteen-fifties to Australia; Uncle Reuben was the eldest child of the eldest son Isaac, and my grandmother the eldest daughter of the youngest son, Bendix, who had moved on from Australia to New Zealand; through her Lel and I descended from both families.

Uncle Reuben had not only one brother and four sisters all married with children, but on his father's side alone twenty-four full first cousins (including both my mother's parents). Aunt Lucy was one of eleven children, nearly all of them married with children; if my count is correct she had more than twenty nephews and nieces on her father's side and four whom I know page 32of on her mother's. There had been much intermarriage between the families, whose relationships were formidably complicated.

Grandmother and Aunt Emily de Beer had rather drifted away in outlook from their Melbourne cousins after they grew up; part of their background was different, they were neither orthodox nor conventional, but decidedly thoughtful and intellectual with a strong interest in the arts; Melbourne had no such leanings. My father, attached to both in different ways, swung now, it seems to me, markedly towards Melbourne and away from Dunedin. Melbourne was generously ready to accept us as it accepted him; and we, unquestioning children, were happy to be accepted into its undemanding clannish ease and kindliness.

Uncle Reuben and Aunt Lucy lived in Barkly Street, St Kilda, in a big white wooden house called Woonsocket. If I had been older I think I would have found it ugly and inconvenient, but it was cool and comfortable inside, behind the screens that kept insects out, and its white paint among the green made it fresh and pleasant. In the garden grew a giant Moreton Bay fig tree with massive trunk grey and smooth; its wide-spreading boughs and large pointed leaves of green and bronze cast an open, airy, classic shade.

The household was ruled by Aunt Lucy, a large-hearted benevolent autocrat (Kate remembered her as full of bosom and importance). With her housekeeper-companion Crow as minister, buffer and confidante she kept her finger on everything. She was 'Aunt Luce' to the whole family. Everyone was fond of her, deferred to her, and sought the advice that she was always ready to dispense with supreme confidence, whether she knew anything of the matter in hand or not. The public bodies on which she served no doubt deferred to her much as her family did, who would tell you that she ruled for years the committee of a big Melbourne hospital. She had brought up five children, and was used to running things; in a household where twenty people might sit down to dinner any day of the week she had learned how. Although narrow she was not intolerant, but she was completely sure of herself, and she was always right. It was breathtaking, exhilarating, endearing, and sometimes frightening.

My father had been a favourite of hers in his young days. page 33Since in effect he had no parents (though his father was still alive then, in New Plymouth), she was happy to mother him and instruct him for his own good; he was handsome, sociable, charming, and devoted to her. When we first arrived, he advised her not to give us, and particularly Lel, too much rich food — Melbourne lived with a lavishness unknown in Dunedin; he advised this again when he was visiting Woonsocket one day and some specific occasion arose. Aunt Lucy brushed him aside; she knew perfectly well what children could and could not eat; she had brought up more children than he had. 'Well, I'm telling you,' he said, 'but you must have your own way.' 'I will, Hy, just leave it to me,' she replied serenely. She did have her own way, and as a result Lel was very sick and had to spend a few days in bed. I blamed my father for this.

But it was certainly hard to stand up to Aunt Lucy. Her husband did not stand up to her. He was a weak man, narrow-minded and far from clever, liked rather than respected; but he looked dignified in a dry way, and since he and Aunt Lucy were virtually the joint heads of the whole family at that time, he was consulted and listened to. He was one of the chief figureheads in the family business, Michaelis, Hallenstein and Co., tanners and leather merchants. Of his children, the eldest son, Dalbert, the hope of the family, had been killed in the war. The eldest daughter, Enid, whom my father had been fond of as a girl, was somewhere in Europe and was understood to be studying as a painter; this was referred to rather obscurely, as a matter not likely to bring credit to anybody.

We met a host of other relatives, who all lived in large and, to us, luxurious houses, and in a far more opulent way than we had ever met before. The other great family home was Linden, in Acland Street, which Moritz Michaelis had built in the seventies to house his eleven children. Some of the unmarried and widowed ones still lived in the huge rambling wooden house, white and rather low in its huge garden.

I was fascinated by this strange Melbourne life, the imposing façade of relatives, the grandeur and the homeliness. I absorbed without questioning, and yet I think with a certain barely halfconscious detachment. Their life was a spectacle; I was not to be part of it for long enough to grant it quite the same reality as page 34my own in Dunedin. I felt the same about the glancing, glossy-palm-trees in the parks, the brilliant flowers. They were on parade. One would not live with them.

After a fortnight in Melbourne we went on to Sydney. There too we were to be on our best behaviour. Lel and I went first to stay with Helen and Orwell Phillips, each of whom we called Cousin. Helen (she carefully spelt her name Hélène, after that of her mother's twin sister, whom I was to know later in London) was a first cousin of my father's, Brightie's younger sister. Orwell had been one of his best friends in Melbourne, small, round, jovial, an able businessman with large interests in brewing. He was my godfather. They lived in a brownish-yellow stone house in Potts Point which had been built by convicts about one hundred years before; a wide balcony ran round its upper storey; underneath, the three Phillips children told us, lay basements and passages. With the children, all of them close to us in age, we saw town and harbour and beaches, the zoo, National Park. We met my father's brother, Uncle Reg, and his family, who lived in comparative modesty. And we met more Michaelises, especially the redoubtable Aunt Florence Hart, one of Aunt Lucy's sisters and the mother of Brightie and Helen Phillips. Her husband Uncle Hyam was my father's uncle and had been more or less his guardian in Dunedin. The Harts lived in a discreetly grand house in Darling Point with a view of Elizabeth Bay, in a decided aura which I did not penetrate; Uncle Hyam remained mysterious to me — I saw too little of him; he was deaf, he took great care of himself, I was told, and had no interest except in himself. But there could be no doubt about Aunt Flo. She was another Aunt Lucy, only without Aunt Lucy's ample opportunities. Like many of the Michaelises, she was real and genuine and would have been so whatever her circumstances.

And yet the Michaelises — and not they alone — rather ran to grandeur, both in their persons and in their way of life. All those elderly slow-moving cigar-breathing men with their button-up boots and heavy manner and the sense of importance that surrounded them; all those solid comfortable women a little stiff in the joints, well or easily dressed but never showy, although most of them already wore the regulation few good pearls that were the badge of their station; all with their big page 35houses richly carpeted and still richer meals, often in large family gatherings, with their servants, the chamber-maids and even valets ('my man'), the gardeners and chauffeurs; with their earnest affairs — cigars tailors hotels and ailments for the men (one gathered that in London they stayed at the Ritz, or maybe the Berkeley for variety — not that those names meant anything to me then); children houses cooking causes and ailments for the women; and with, at the edge of all this, kept up for old custom's sake rather than because meaning something vital in their lives, the vestigial Jewish observances: apple and honey on Friday nights, instruction in Hebrew for the boys so that they might be confirmed — Barmitzvah — at thirteen, occasional attendance at synagogue — there was of course a rabbi in the family, or rather he had been brought in by marriage; in all, it made a very strange and vastly imposing phenomenon. The women seemed a good deal nicer than the men, more genuinely kind (my father laid great emphasis on their kindness: I used to wonder, later on, whether it was hard for them to be kind — 'costing', in von Hügel's word), more purposeful, with more to say for themselves, and, with exceptions, a good deal less stupid.

For the men had the dullness of those who have lived too well for too long, taken too much care of themselves, and have nothing to think about. I do not recall more than one of the fifty to sixty males in the family (the rabbi apart) who was not a businessman, and that one was a very distant connexion. Most were in M.H. and Co., as the family concern was known familiarly, or in one of its agencies or subsidiaries (they were amalgamated after the second war as Associated Leathers), which seemed at that time to have ample room for the plentiful supply of sons, nephews, cousins and sons-in-law who were continually coming forward, and a proportion of whom I guessed to be passengers rather than crew. One Michaelis, however, Archie, went from the firm into politics ('the member for Michaelis Hallenstein'); he was Speaker of the Victorian parliament for some years, was knighted, and after eventual defeat returned to ornament the firm's board. One sport Hallenstein, Enid, I was to meet a few years later. Another, her first cousin, whom we met then as a girl, became a well-known Melbourne painter, Lina Bryans. Aunt Flo's third daughter, Margery, the blue-stocking of her page 36family, was to become the mother of the poet Nancy Keesing. Only two of the older Michaelises had any freedom of outlook and genuine intellectual interests, the two youngest sisters of Aunt Lucy and Aunt Flo, May Barden and the unmarried Alice, Dal. In that I think they were alone in their generation of the whole family in Australia.

Lel and I enjoyed ourselves with the Phillipses, who gave us a very good time, but with what relief and thankfulness we went up the North Shore line to stay with Aunt Emily and Uncle Arthur and their young daughter Elespie in their small bungalow at Pymble, where we could wear and say what we liked and be ourselves. Aunt Emily took our view of the Sydney and Melbourne relations; liking some of them, she regarded their way of living and their consciousness of importance with distant, amused tolerance, and she saw them very little. Her interests, outside her family, were in music and books, gardening, the country, public affairs, her friends were musical and literary, some of them university people. She took us for picnics in the bush, by day and by moonlight; sleeping on a veranda, I used to wake in the morning to the peal of a kookaburra laughing its immoderate loud laughter from the top of a tall gum-tree; we learned about snakes and ticks and ants, we met new fruits and flowers; we also learned with surprise that whenever she went into Sydney leaving the house empty, Aunt Emily buried her jewels in a hole in the garden, because of burglaries in the neighbourhood. Too soon, we were delivered again to my father, and returned to Dunedin.

My interest in the family grew as I continued to meet members of it, known and unknown, and learned more about them; but I never again saw so many together, and some I met then in Australia I was not to see again. The genealogical trees I drew up at that time I filled out gradually, later with the help of Esmond de Beer, until between us we had trees for a score of families of relations and connexions, and had traced as well as we could the history of our immediate forbears. How much had vanished with the dead I do not know, because it is beyond recall; that history, all history perhaps, is a skeleton only, with mere rags of flesh clinging to the bones.

page 37

It was a history that took me a long way from Dunedin, from Melbourne and Sydney too, and brought me back again. The ancestors of the Hallenstein brothers, I came to see, must have lived obscurely for centuries in small German towns as petty traders and pedlars, tailors, bootmakers, artisans, butchers, no doubt pawnbrokers and moneylenders too (most of these occupations are recorded among the small number of their relations I can trace), and some of them maybe as pious men, scholars, even rabbis — for the Hallensteins claimed descent as Levites from Aaron brother of Moses. My father's forbears on his father's side no doubt lived in much the same way further east in that disputed ground that was sometimes called Germany and sometimes Poland. His father was born in 1831 in the village of Schwersenz near Posen or Poznan. I have not found the names of his father's parents; but about the year 1800 seven Brasch brothers are said to have come from a village not far north of that. Was one of them my grandfather's father? According to an American descendant of one of the seven, they may have taken their name from an abbreviation of Ben Rabbi Asch, the children of Rabbi Asch — presumably a well-known rabbi; but of him nothing seems to have come down. I like to think that some of my grandfather's family may have belonged to the Hasids, the Pious Ones, followers of that God-intoxicated Blakean mystic of the mid-eighteenth century the Baal Shem Tov; a movement which Martin Buber has memorably evoked.

What led my grandfather Brasch across the world I do not know, but it is safe to assume the wish to better himself. He does not sound particularly enterprising, although he was described on an early passport as small and sturdy, nor did he do very well for himself, ending his life as a tobacconist in New Plymouth. The three Hallenstein brothers were decidedly energetic and enterprising. They plainly wanted a larger world than the narrow circle of their home village, a world in which the age-long prejudices and restrictions of Europe would not apply. It is possible too, as Esmond de Beer surmized, that the failure of the revolutions of 1848 to liberalize society may have further prompted the eldest and most intellectual of them, Isaac, to put Europe behind him; yet in old age after retiring from business in Melbourne he returned to live in Germany, where four of page 38his daughters were married, and took keen delight in concerts, operas and plays.

The three brothers went in turn to Manchester, where a brother of their mother's had settled and was doing well; there they learned English and took to business. Isaac was drawn to California by the gold rush of the eighteen-fifties, and then, still following gold, to Australia, where his brothers joined him. They opened a store at Daylesford in the gold-fields about sixty miles north-west of Melbourne.

To keep house for them they engaged a young woman from Lincolnshire, Mary Mountain. She had come to Australia to visit her brother Tom, who was an officer, and eventually master, on several ships engaged in coastal trade between Australian ports; he was shipwrecked from time to time and Mary was constantly anxious for him. All three brothers fell in love with her; she chose Bendix, who was twenty-six, nine years younger than herself. Having promised her mother that if she wished to marry she would be married from home, she set off on the long journey back to England; Bendix followed by the next ship. They were married in February 1861 at Alford in Lincolnshire. At their farm Thurlby nearby the Mountains had been tenants for four centuries of the great dynasty of the Percies; family tradition had it that one of them had followed John Wesley as a preacher. But none of Mary's brothers wanted to farm, and when their father died the family left Thurlby and scattered widely. Besides Tom, who did not marry, one brother died young in Calcutta and two others left England and were lost to sight; Mary's younger sister Sarah married a rather feckless man at Alford and cared for her mother and seven children of her own, some of whom I got to know later in Hove.

Bendix and Mary Hallenstein returned to Daylesford, where their eldest child, my grandmother Sara, was born in July 1862. The gold rush in Victoria was past its peak. Deciding probably that there was not scope for several partners at Daylesford much longer, Isaac and Bendix crossed the Tasman towards another gold rush and opened a general store in Invercargill. There Isaac's wife soon lost a child, and refused to stay: Isaac took her back to Australia. Bendix and Mary were dismayed by Invercargill for other reasons. It was very cold, and so wet that for weeks at a page 39time you could cross the muddy sloughs of the streets only by laying down long planks; it was also too far from the gold-fields, and the store lost money. Within a year they moved to Queens-town; there they settled, and lived for more than ten years.

Bendix entered into partnership, and prospered. His genial open nature and inventive mind won him confidence everywhere and led him to start a variety of enterprises. One of these was a flourmill, the first in inland Otago, at the Kawarau Falls at Frankton, the only outlet of Lake Wakatipu. Because his partner J. W. Robertson came from New Brunswick in Nova Scotia, and Bendix from Brunswick in Germany, they named it the Brunswick Mill. Bendix bought a farm at Speargrass Flat, where he grew fine wheat and oats and a wealth of small fruit in the rich soil; he built a house of two storeys, large then for the district, which he and Mary called Thurlby Domain.* He took a leading part in local affairs, becoming the second mayor of Queenstown and holding office for three annual terms in succession.

It was during his mayoralty that the small peninsula enclosing Queenstown bay, bare except for rocks and manuka, was set aside as a public reserve named Queenstown Park, and planted with the pines, bluegums, oaks and lombardy poplars which were to grow in fifty years to such magnificence. Bendix was then induced to become member for the district in the Otago Provincial Council in Dunedin, and Member of Parliament too. But travel by sea to Wellington was slow, and Bendix had to spend three months at a time there, so that his business interests suffered, and after one term of office he gave up his parliamentary seat. He remained a member of the Provincial Council until the abolition of the provinces in 1876 — a step he deplored, having found the General Government alarmingly unapproachable.

He and his partner had opened branches of their store in other towns, Arrowtown, Cromwell, Lawrence. Because of the difficulty of supplying them, he decided to start manufacturing clothing in Dunedin; and then in order to sell the clothing more readily, to open a retail store in Dunedin. Similar stores in other towns followed, until Hallenstein Brothers spread throughout New Zealand. Bendix's brothers, in Melbourne and then in page 40London too, worked with him closely; he wrote to one or both of them by every mail steamer; the three were in constant consultation all their lives. Bendix took part in starting several other big enterprises in Dunedin, which was then the commercial centre of the country. He did not enter public affairs again. An accident with a horse had left him lame in his early thirties; his broken leg was badly set and he limped and had to use a stick and suffered intermittent pain for the remaining forty years of his life. But he actively supported the Presbyterian minister Rutherford Waddell, a young man much respected as a fervent practical idealist, in a campaign against sweated labour in the clothing industry in Dunedin, and in favour of trade unions; he was the first prominent businessman to speak out on the subject. Their campaign led in a few years to legislation regulating the hours and conditions of labour.

Bendix and Mary had no sons, but four daughters. Their father engaged a governess for them at Thurlby Domain because, he explained, there were so many rough children at the school in Queenstown. In Dunedin, their mother wrote to her brother Tom, 'dear Bendix is having the girls taught French and Hebrew, so that they should not grow up entire little colonials.' Later the two eldest, Grandmother and Aunt Emily, were sent to school in Melbourne. The youngest, Agnes, went to a school in Dunedin which had been started by Miss Strongi'th'arm and her niece Mrs Cotton when they came from England together. Mrs Cotton had married a worthless young man and her son did no good for himself, but she did not lose her spirit or her intellectual interests and she became a family friend. She was also a friend of the writer B. E. Baughan; for many years she wrote book reviews for the Otago Daily Times. Mother continued to read with her while she lived, and Emily carried on the friendship after. Agnes went on to a Roman Catholic school run by nuns next to St Joseph's cathedral; she became one of the first women graduates of the University of Otago.

My father's mother's family, the Harts, we could trace no further back than my great-great-grandfather John (Israel) Hart and his brother Benjamin, who were born in London late page 41in the eighteenth century. Their early history is sketchy. It seems they ran away to sea when quite young and became able-seamen; turned strolling conjurors; were impressed into the navy and served on the Victory at Trafalgar, although they must have been too old for powder-monkeys, as family legend has it, unless they were exceptionally small. That they were once conjurors comes from an unexpected source, the memoirs of a celebrated showman who was known as 'Lord' George Sanger. He reports that these two came on board the ship Pompey on which his father was serving in the Downs, off Deal, to show their skill and turn an honest penny; that the captain seized them for naval service; that, 'curiously enough', they 'made very good sailors and brave fighting men', and taught his father many conjuring and hanky-panky tricks.

Mary de Beer guessed that their name was anglicized from the German Hirsch, which was the kind of name that Jews often took following the edict of the Austrian Emperor Joseph II in 1788 that they must adopt recognizable surnames instead of their biblical patronymics, but not ones used by Christians. Many odd and ludicrous names resulted, some given in malice by hostile officials. Hallenstein means stone from Halle. Fels, Grandfather told me, was given to his grandfather by a friendly Christian pastor who quoted 'On this rock (Fels) I shall build my church.' Rock is also the meaning of the name of Grandfather's house, Manono, a word suggested to him by the German Governor of Samoa, Dr Solf, when he visited Dunedin. For me, rock and stone have become words of intimate meaning. Of the de Beers, Esmond knew of no ancestor before his father's father, Samuel, but had been told that a de Beer had been traced at Emden in the mid-eighteenth century; the family is thought to have come from Portugal.

After the Napoleonic wars John Trafalgar Hart moved to America and married an Isabella Levy in New York. She bore him four children; one, my father's grandmother, married another Hart, reputedly her first cousin, one was Uncle Isidore de Beer's mother. When his wife died John Trafalgar married again, still in New York, a Miriam Hart; I do not know if they were relations. Their six children were born successively in New York, London and Melbourne, two in each, thus tracing the page 42family's movements; they settled in Melbourne in the early eighteen-forties. An obituary notice of John Trafalgar as a 'much respected citizen' in a Melbourne newspaper of 1864 refers to his service on the Victory at Trafalgar, but does not mention his brother.

Trafalgar Hart seems nearest to being a man of war among my ancestors; but clearly that was not by choice. It pleases me that my ancestors have followed so many occupations I can say nothing human is alien to me and I have every occupation in my blood. I should not be abashed if among those ancestors were whore-masters, hangmen, thieves, for there is nothing I cannot conceive myself being; but I hope none was an informer or blackmailer, and none a spy.

* See two 'Thurlby Domain' poems in The Estate