A Letter to My Great Grandmother
Jill Thomas, Australia
My Dear Rose,
You would not believe how different the world is today from the world into which you were born! Here I am, 180yrs later sitting at my own computer, in my home office, wanting to say so much to you and yet barely able to start or to put into words this feeling of being connected to you. We are alike in so many ways you and I and yet your journey began across the sea in Ireland and my journey has well and truly evolved here in Australia.
For me, the earliest link between us was entwined with my earliest memory at the age of four years, at my Christening in 1937. It was a private family service for me and my new born baby brother held one Sunday afternoon in the grand surroundings of the Collins Street (Melbourne) “Independent Church” and has left a vivid memory with me. I seemed to be made aware from that time onwards, that you, my great grandmother, had enjoyed Fellowship within that Congregation. [This Church re-named “St. Michaels Uniting” in 1990]
It was only going to be a matter of time before I decided to research the ‘Irish Family’ history and hope I have your blessing to tell this story I hold very dear to my heart.
Your final resting place in the Melbourne General Cemetery (Victoria, Australia) seemed to be the best place to begin and sure enough there it was – the Switzer Grave. However, I am getting ahead of myself.
Your life began in Dublin where your father, Thomas William Parr, was an Apothecary. You had six sisters and one young brother named Thomas, after his father. St. Peters Church in Dublin was where the family gathered on Sundays quite close to St. Stephens Green and only a short walk away from home. In keeping with ideas of the time, we can only get glimpses at the family history through the life of your brother who attended Trinity College in Dublin. It has been re-told many times that your brother Thomas “would NOT wear his hat and gown in the street” on his way to Trinity College even though your father (so it was said) threatened to “cut him off with only a shilling” if he disobeyed! It could be seen from this snippet of conversation that your father was a strict man and a very proud one.
Did your marriage to Edward Henry Switzer, bootmaker, possibly upset your father too? You were married in St. Michaels Church, Limerick, in August 1864 and there has been the suggestion that you eloped! Was your father hoping you would marry someone else – perhaps someone from Dublin even from Trinity College? We will never know. But what we do know is that you and your new husband Edward immediately set sail on the Clipper Ship “The Red Jacket” to start a new life together in Australia and it was a long journey! Made even longer from your account of two weeks in the doldrums, that calm period experienced in part of the Atlantic Ocean just north of the Equator when there is little or no wind to fill the sails. I can’t imagine this but surely it must be a very frustrating experience for crew and passengers alike.
Rose, how I wish I could have seen “The Red Jacket” in full sail coming into Port Phillip Bay on that warm summer day in December. Or that I had been standing at water’s edge to give a welcoming wave to you both as the ship pulled alongside the wharf at Port Melbourne.
I’m sure your thoughts must have been with your family in Ireland as you and Edward stepped ashore, would you ever see them again?
You settled into this new life in the city of Melbourne in Australia with husband Edward who was working his trade as a bootmaker, and you were living above the small shop at 93 Little Collins Street, Melbourne. Nearby was a Protestant church and in continuing the tradition of both your families back in Ireland this church became important to you. Known as the “Independent Church”, it became your family place of worship. It was situated on the same city block as the “Switzer Bootmaker” shop!
The Independent Church played a significant part in the lives of your two young daughters Mary (b.1866) and Edith (b.1869). As time went by, the family moved from the inner city to live at “Shannon Cottage” in Albert Park. The girls were growing up and had developed into two fine young ladies and the family still travelled together back into the city for Church on Sundays.
Meanwhile a young man arrived on the scene at Church. Louis Calame came from La-Chaux-de-Fonds in Switzerland and could not speak English very well at the time – French being his native language. However, he was a dedicated watchmaker and had set up his own small business in the city not far from his older brother who had emigrated a year earlier with a wife and young family. Louis spent his weekends hiking around the countryside whenever he had the opportunity. He often explored the high country so many of his weekends were spent travelling by train and coach to the Alpine Region to explore as much as he could of this country he had come to adopt. Until one day he noticed he’d worn a hole in the sole of his boots!
Louis came across the name “Switzer” on the bootmaker’s shop window when he was looking for someone who could do the boot repair for him. The name of “Switzer” caught this young “Swiss” man’s attention and a friendship developed. The older man is reputed to have said “I will make you a pair of boots that you will NEVER wear out” and so the family story goes Mr. Switzer did make Louis a new pair of boots but yes, Louis did over time did wear that sole out too!
So this encounter between the mature bootmaker and the young watchmaker was to encroach upon Rose’s quiet domestic life. Her two daughters came to know Louis and seemed very fond of him. Louis asked the family for permission to take Edith the younger sister strolling along the banks of the Yarra River on Sundays after Church. Approval was given only after the parents were assured that the young couple was to be chaperoned by Mary, the older sister. A romance developed even under Mary’s watchful eye and the three young adults formed a strong bond of friendship.
Meanwhile Rose, as you watched your family blossom, you had your own favorite pastime. Preserved to this day is “The Scrapbook” you so lovingly and patiently compiled over time. Your many pieces of writing, the poems and cut-out pictures have left us with a warm image of the young wife and mother who came across the sea from Ireland.
But tragedy was about to strike – Edith was only 20years of age when she died suddenly at home. She had taken ill with consumption and we can only imagine the grief and trauma experienced by each one of the family. Your husband’s grief was quick to turn into anger and he vented this anger towards young Louis. Oblivious to the situation in the home Louis called at the house to innocently enquire after Edith. Had he missed seeing her at Church that morning? We do not know. What we do know is that a grief stricken father confronted Louis at the front door and shouted angrily “So you’ve called to see Edith have you? Follow me he shouted!” And with that he angrily flung the door open wide and marched Louis through the house to her bedroom pointing to the lifeless body of Edith – dead on the bed! Louis did not encounter Rose or Mary on that shattering occasion but it could well have been the end of our story Rose. This was November in the year 1890.
All families deal with trauma in their lives in their own way, and today we can still see the fine tribute where Edith was buried, and think of the journey you, her parents, shared from there on. We know that your eldest daughter Mary left the family home soon afterwards to reside in the Young Womens Christian Association Hostel (Y.W.C.A.) in Melbourne. Was her father’s grief too difficult to live with? We will never know. But some years later Louis would begin courting Mary who was now 30, and Louis was 26. They were married in the Independent Church, Collins Street Melbourne, on Christmas Eve, 1896.
Rose, as I pause in re-telling your story, I think of a piece written by you, and carefully preserved in the pages of your “Scrapbook”. The poem is written about this time in your life and signed by you.
From the land of snow clad mountains
a youthful stranger came;
So pure and fresh in mind and form,
and with a spotless name.
With prayers and tears the mother sent
Her well beloved to gain,
In a wealthier land, toils recompense,
And a hope of future fame.
And deep within his heart he keeps
The memory of her love,
Shielding him from a thousand snares,
That ever around him move.
With simple tastes and gentle ways
Our hearts he quickly won;
For such are rare in this bright land,
Beneath this southern sun.
May truth and honour still retain
A home within his breast,
And Fortune smile upon his toil,
Crowning his days with rest.
And if in years his steps return
To his native Switzerland,
May parents, sisters, brothers meet,
A yet unbroken band.
Written by: Rose A. Switzer Shannon Cottage, Albert Park.
I have a strong feeling that this was written by you Rose with affection towards Louis your son-in-law at the time of a significant family reconciliation. Could it be after your period of grief had lost its anger, its bitterness, and had mellowed with thoughts of what might be ahead as your eldest daughter married Louis Calame.
A small family snapshot in our photo album shows you and Edward with a very happy Mary and Louis enjoying a day in the Melbourne sunshine. Now, as Mr. & Mrs. Calame, they settled together into their own home, not far away, in Richmond and lived there for many years raising your six fine grandchildren. All were well educated, reminded of their Irish heritage from time to time, but I don’t think any of them ever travelled back to those shores which you and Edward left behind in 1864.
Edward Henry died in 1914 and was buried beside his beloved daughter Edith. while you Rose, spent the last years of your life happily living with Louis and Mary and their young family in Richmond, until your death in 1920.
Thank you for the journey you made across the sea to Australia and for your part in my own life story. I have been truly blessed!
Your affectionate great grand-daughter,
Mrs.Jill Thomas (nee Calame)