A memorable December

In the early 1830s, walking along George Street from Sydney Cove, one soon came upon St. John’s Tavern, on the north corner of George and Bridge Streets. On the other side of Bridge Street and extending along that street was a Lumber Yard.

The Tavern was one of a number of buildings that stood on what used to be called the ‘Orphan Grant’ or the ‘Orphan House Ground’, which stretched between George Street and the ‘Stream of the Tanks’, and was bordered on the south by Bridge Street and on the north by the allotment of James Underwood. This ‘Orphan Grant’ was subdivided into six separate lots and sold off in 1827. Offered for sale at the same time was the Orphan School Grant at Cabramatta (6,000 acres), subdivided into lots, and offered for lease was farming land near Bathurst also known as the Orphan School Grant (1,000 acres, of which 20 were reserved for a possible church and school).

In October 1830 we find Thomas Brett advertising his recently opened ‘Wholesale and Retail Wine and Spirit Warehouse. St. John’s Tavern, Opposite the Lumber Yard, George-street.’ He acknowledged the ‘flattering patronage’ he had already received, and assured his friends and the public of ‘his determination to persevere in the sale of the finest articles that can be produced, and at such prices as cannot be undersold by any house in the trade.’

The name of St. John was appropriate to a tavern that housed Masonic Lodge Rooms where the Australian Social Lodge held its meetings. The feast-days of St. John the Baptist (24 June) and of St. John the Evangelist (27 December), six months apart, were particular occasions of celebration for the Masonic movement. In December 1831, for example, to honour the anniversary of St. John the Evangelist, the Australian Social Lodge ‘regaled their friends’ at ‘Brett’s, St. John’s Tavern’, while the Leinster Marine Lodge assembled at the Royal Hotel and the Military Lodge gathered in the Non-commissioned Officers’ Mess room at the Military Barracks.

December 1831 was a memorable month. On the 2nd General Richard Bourke arrived to become the colony’s eighth Governor, and on the 5th the town held an ‘illumination’, in which St. John’s Tavern took part. It was also a personally memorable time for Thomas Brett, but the outcome was not what he had originally intended. Nor was it the outcome expected by Rebecca Miller, whose guardian was Mr. William Bennett, baker, of Parramatta. Thomas met Rebecca at Mr. Bennett’s home, became an admirer, made frequent visits, wooed and won Rebecca, and received Mr. Bennett’s approval to marry her. The wedding was set down for around Christmas time, or New Year’s Day at the latest. Wedding clothes were prepared and guests invited.

However, there was a hitch. The Bennetts received warning that Thomas was already married. Enquiries were made and the family were able to satisfy themselves that Thomas had no wife in England, as had been rumoured. But by this time Thomas found himself no longer willing to proceed with the marriage, and he wrote to Mr. Bennett to that effect on 23 December.

We learn these details from the newspaper report of the court case which eventuated. The matter was heard before Justice Stephen and a common jury at the Supreme Court on 18 June 1832. Rebecca Miller, under age, through her guardian, was suing Thomas Brett for breach of promise of marriage, and seeking compensation of £1,000. William Charles Wentworth was counsel for the plaintiff, while counsel for the defendant was Mr. Macdowell, who professed himself in awe of the fame and ability of his learned colleague.

[To be continued.]

Orphan Grant land for sale: Australian 7/4/1827, p. 2. St. John’s Tavern, recently opened: Australian 29/1/1830, p. 1. Anniversary of St. John the Evangelist: Sydney Monitor 31/12/1831, p. 2. Court proceedings: Australian 22/6/1832, p. 3. Louis Green, ‘Macdowell, Edward (1798-1860)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol. 2, 1967, pp. 164-165, and online. Michael Persse, ‘Wentworth, William Charles (1790-1872)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol 2, 1967, pp. 582-589, and online.

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