26 October, 2017

The Poet of the Pivot

Towards the end of 2012 I posted about James Lister Cuthbertson, school master at Geelong Grammar, rowing coach and poet whose passion for the Barwon was often reflected in his verses. However, before the arrival of "Cuthy" in 1875, there was another poet who occasionally cast an eye towards the Barwon.
The gentleman in question was William Stitt Jenkins; a temperance advocate, staunch royalist and frequent contributor to the columns of the Geelong Advertiser, The Age, The Argus and The Ballarat Star. William - or W. Stitt Jenkins as he styled himself when writing to the Advertiser - was an English migrant, born at Whitehaven on 30th June, 1812, who had arrived in the country in or around 1853. Before his ship had even reached port, he had already put pen to paper, crafting a ditty titled "Penned off Cape Otway" which was published in the Geelong Advertiser and Intelligencer, 22nd March, 1854.
William Stitt Jenkins. Image from the National Trust
Whilst I cannot find his name on the usual shipping records, I can deduce that his wife (Elizabeth neƩ Goforth) and at least three daughters - Evangeline, Victoria and Isabella - as well as a son Llewellyn must also have come to Australia. Sadly, their 15 year old daughter Evangeline died two days after Christmas in 1853 and was the first of a number of burials in what became the family plot at the Eastern Cemetery. A fourth daughter - Mary Jane - was born to the couple in 1854, however her death was also registered the following year.
Jenkins worked as a storeman  at Dalgety's in Geelong following his arrival and was quick to become involved in the public affairs of his adopted town. It was he who it is claimed first referred to Geelong as a "commercial pivot" (Geelong Advertiser, 23rd May, 1922) and thus was born the 'Pivotonians' moniker which has stuck to the present day. The name I now suspect, came from a store which Jenkins owned for a brief time in 1854 soon after his arrival in Australia and possibly between stints at Dalgety's (Geelong Advertiser, 4th December, 1854). The store was called The Commercial Pivot Hay and Corn Store and was located on Keera St near the Crown Hotel in Ashby (Geelong Advertiser, 3rd October, 1845). The Crown was situated on the corner of Keera St and La Trobe Tce (now The Esplanade) on what is today the Hertz car rental site. Predictably, Jenkins advertised his wares in verse. The venture was short-lived however and by December 1854 the business had closed.
As a devout Christian and strong advocate for the Temperance Movement (he went so far as to write to Queen Victoria, asking her to take the temperance pledge!), Jenkins' efforts were central to the acquisition of land for the Temperance Hall, built in 1858-9 on the corner of Little Malop St and Aitchison Place, the site now occupied by the Geelong Performing Arts Centre.
Portion of a 1927 photograph by Charles Daniel Pratt showing the old
Temperance Hall in the centre. Image held by the State Library of Victoria
Of particular interest to Jenkins were the youth of Geelong and in predictably vociferous fashion, he was instrumental in obtaining the use of a meeting hall and establishing a local branch of the Band of Hope - a Christian charity group first established in the United Kingdom which was devoted to educating children and young people about the dangers of drugs and alcohol.
In the name of public entertainment and the betterment of the working classes, Jenkins also advocated for the establishment of a local version of the Penny Reading Movement which staged readings and performances at the indicated cost. In addition, he established the Recreative Society with the aim of providing evening concerts for the entertainment of the public (Geelong Advertiser, 16th June, 1859), no doubt with a view to turning their attention from the lure of Geelong's many public houses, however as with many of Jenkins' ventures the Society appears to have struggled for patronage.
By 1858, his credentials as - if not a poet, then at least a writer of verse - were well established, as was his propensity for commenting in the media on issues of local importance. On the 16th December, 1858 The Age referred condescendingly to "no less important a personage than the "celebrated" Geelong rhymer W. Stitt Jenkins", going on to describe his "admirable" - but in their opinion, no doubt misplaced - "zeal". In fact this seems to have been the attitude of many in the public arena - especially newspaper editors - towards Jenkins' frequent literary crusades which often attracted some rather strident criticism. On the 17th December, 1859, Jenkins was moved to write to the editor of the Geelong Advertiser, that "I shall not any more, Mr Editor, trouble myself to notice any further abuse with which I may be favored..."
Of particular interest to Jenkins - and indeed most of Geelong - as the 1850's drew to a close, was the issue of water. For years Geelong had struggled to secure a clean, reliable water supply in the face of a disinterested and obstructionist Melbourne government (for further details see this post).
Presumably wanting to bring attention to the issue, Jenkins wrote a poem which was published in the Geelong Advertiser of 4th April, 1859, bewailing the townspeople's plight and using such phrases as:
We oft used to visit your capital plan
Of mixing us water and mud in the dam.
The mud still remains, we are sorry to say,
But the water, your honors, has all gone away,
The dam in question was of course (Governor) La Trobe's Dam, now Johnstone Park. Mention was also made in the poem of Mr Gray whose water tank stood in the Market Square and was at the time, the main commercial water source for the town, pumped from a polluted Barwon River. In order to ameliorate the situation Jenkins began agitating for the installation of public drinking fountains for both man and beast, however his endeavours were met with the usual lukewarm response.
Johnstone Park, 1930. Site of the former La Trobe Dam, looking north east
across what is now Johnstone Park. Image by Charles Daniel Pratt 1930-
1940. Image held by the State Library of Victoria
On the 9th December, 1859 he wrote to The Age berating his fellow citizens for their failure to support a fundraiser he had organised in an attempt to raise money for the installation of the suggested fountains. In all, Jenkins claimed to have spent around £12 in staging the event which only raised around £6, leaving him to contemplate how to cover the rest of his costs and no closer to realising his ambition of providing water to the good citizens of Geelong.
By 1860 Jenkins had raised enough money to erect a number of fountains in central parts of Geelong. A drinking fountain/trough suitable for both man and beast was erected "on the south side of the railway bridge in Mercer-street" (Geelong Advertiser, 12th February, 1861) or in today's terms, somewhere near the corner of Mercer St and Railway Terrace, adjacent to Johnstone Park. The fountain contained a memorial to Captain Cook on one side and a poem and advertisement for the Geelong Total Abstinence Society on the other. It's life at that location however, was short-lived. Much to the disgust of Jenkins, it was torn down and unceremoniously dumped in the nearby railway reserve in 1867 by what he referred to as a "semi-military horde" (Geelong Advertiser, 18th October, 1867). The horde in question was probably the local division of the Victorian Volunteer Rifle Corps, although why they would have had cause to dismantle the fountain is unclear.
According to the Victorian Heritage Database the above fountain (which it claims was for animals only) was re-erected at the Market Square in 1879, however various contemporary articles from the Geelong Advertiser show that more than one fountain was erected by Jenkins. The Argus (27th March, 1860) noted that "One or two small fountains for persons to drink at have latterly been erected in different parts of the town, and there is a rather superior one of Barrabool stone, just about being finished in the Market Square."
An 1890s photo showing the fountain situated at the roadside on Moorabool St
with the gardens and the Exhibition Building occupying the Market Square
 site behind. Image taken from a brochure titled "Do You Remember?"
published by Solomons Pty. Ltd. in 1944, held at the State Library of Victoria

The same day, the Geelong Advertiser noted the fountain in the Market Square had been officially turned on the previous day and on 28th March it provided the following physical description:
It is built of Barrabool stone, in pretty large blocks, and consists of one basin, and two small ones for cattle and other animals which basins are supplied through a lion’s mouth, while for those who experience human thirst there is a bubbling fountain running over an artificial rock. At present in the absence of drinking cups, the water which is tolerably clear, is either imbibed as it wells up, or is diverted into the eye of the passer by, by small boys who have evidently practised that kind of sport at the pump spout.”
In typical fashion however, the fountain was controversial from day one. Inscribed on the back by a person unknown to either newspaper was the inscription "whosoever drinketh of the water which I give unto you shall never thirst." The Argus was keen to point out that "the Barwon water is not by any means proverbial for promoting longevity, nor for quenching thirst, and a much less impious invitation would have suited the purpose better" whilst the Advertiser felt that "from the motto to the inevitable literal application is just the one step from the sublime to the ridiculous".
1934 photo of the fountain erected by William Stitt Jenkins on Moorabool St
near the Market Square. Image held by the State Library of Victoria
Nor was this the only problem. Within two months of its opening, the Market Square fountain had been vandalised and days later, "Mr Jenkins's dog-troughs" were "completely destroyed" (Geelong Advertiser, 1st June, 1860). I can't help but suspect the vandalism was at least in part, the response of some in the community unhappy with Jenkins' particular form of zealotry, none-the-less, the fountain at the Market-square survived, unlike its counterpart in Mercer St.
By 1875 the fountain was dry and in need of repair and in 1878 a petition before the Geelong Town Council asked that "the fountain in Moorabool-street be repaired, and that the name of the late Mr W. Stitt Jenkins who had died a month earlier, be inscribed on the base of the fountain as a mark of their respect (Geelong Advertiser 1st October, 1878).
By 1910 moves were afoot to change the Market Square frontage on Moorabool Street after a deal was done between the Geelong City Council and Mr Julius Solomon who built new premises for his Solomons Department Store which opened on the site in 1913. At the time, there was concern that the Stitt Jenkins fountain should be "redressed and moved to a conspicuous location" (Geelong Advertiser, 5th October, 1910). Two years later on the centenary of Jenkins' birth his son-in-law Rudolph Johan Frederick Steel, wrote to the Geelong Advertiser reminding the community of the contributions Jenkins had made to the town including the implementation of a Saturday half-holiday, the establishment of Queen's Park as a public reserve, the building of the Queen's and Prince Albert Bridges (today's Queen's Park and Prince's Bridges respectively), the purchase of land for the Temperance Hall and the establishment of the Free Library in what was originally the Geelong Chamber of Commerce building on Moorabool St (Geelong Advertiser, 4th July, 1912). Like others, Steel was concerned that some would see the fountain scrapped and instead felt it should be "renovated a little and placed in one of our parks in a prominent position..."
On 28th July, 1912 the fountain was dismantled and put into storage at the City Hall depot (Geelong Advertiser, 28th December, 1912), its fate presumably still uncertain. By December, 1914 however, it had found a new home in Johnstone Park, about 100m from the fountain erected on Mercer St.
More recent photograph of the Stitt Jenkins fountain, in Johnstone Park.
Today, the  sandstone has deteriorated even further. Image taken from the
Victorian Heritage Database
And this is where the sadly deteriorated remains of the fountain can still be found today. At the current time however, the site is inaccessible due to works being undertaken to upgrade the park.
Also high on Jenkins' list of priorities was the establishment of the Geelong Free Library and to this end, he was instrumental in securing a site from which it could operate. First however, the usual public debate ensued as to the the location, the type of building (pre-existing or purpose-built), the cost, the type of library most suited, indeed, the need for a library at all. One punter even suggested a competition, with the winning design to be approved by a committee. The matter was finally settled in 1875 when the purchase of the former Chamber of Commerce building on the east side of Moorabool St was eventually negotiated.
The Geelong Free Library after 1875. Photograph by John Henry Harvey.
Image held by the State Library of Victoria
By 1876 however, only a few short years after Geelong was eventually connected to a reliable water supply, Jenkins had had enough. In poor health and disheartened at the lack of support for his many causes, Jenkins and his wife left Geelong for Melbourne. In his own words, he left Geelong "quietly, sadly, and alone, heart-broken at the miserable apathy of most of its inhabitants", however he was not entirely bereft of sympathy and support as a bank draft to the value of £50 was forwarded to him by the mayor; a token of esteem from a number of his remaining supporters in the town (Geelong Advertiser, 17th June, 1876).
As he attempted to establish a new life in Melbourne, he took a position as a clerk in the Lands Department, however his health does not appear to have improved and on 1st August, 1878 William died. He was buried two days later in the family plot at the Eastern Cemetery in Geelong. Later that year, the Lands Department granted a gratuity of £12 - equivalent to one month's salary - to his widow Elizabeth (Votes & Proceedings of the Legislative Assembly, 1878).
The Stitt Jenkins' family grave at the Eastern Cemetery, Old
Church of England Section, Grave 536, October, 2017
A marble plaque placed on the headstone at the time of William's death reads:

"Let him alone, let no man move his bones"

A REQUEST
When I am gone. When I am gone,
Then bear me to the lonely spot
Where birds with lullaby of Song
Shall warble fond Forget me not.

When I am gone. When I am gone,
Let no vain sculptures mock the dead;
But one umbrageous tree arise
To wave its branches o'er my head

When I am gone. When I am gone,
Let none approach in garb of woe, 
Who cared not for the living man;
What care they for the dead below.

When I am gone. When I am gone, 
Too late will tears bedew the sod;
Give me to earth and go your way,
And leave me to myself and God.

One last poem; a parting shot at his detractors from the Poet of the Pivot.
Yet even in death, Jenkins managed to cause a stir in the media. The content of his will was widely circulated in newspapers across the country when it emerged that it had - of course - been written in verse. And then, in a final twist - through no fault of his own - Jenkins' character was once again called into question in 1912 when media comment on plans to move his fountain from the Market Square went awry after a supporter, quoting the verse on Jenkins' grave inadvertently substituted the word "scriptures" for "sculptures". A local reader styling himself "Churchman" was quick to inform the Geelong Advertiser (29th June, 1912) that he felt the phrase "vain scriptures" was an insult to the good Christians of Geelong. This in turn led to a hue and cry from Jenkins' supporters, explaining the mis-transcription, at which point "Churchman" quickly withdrew his assertion that the best place for the fountain was on the scrap heap!
Elizabeth survived her husband by a further 15 years. She died in Melbourne in 1893 and was buried with William and many of their descendants in the family plot.
I will look a little more at Jenkins' poetry in my next post but will finish this one with an assessment of Jenkins published in the Geelong Advertiser on 10th May, 1920, almost 42 years after his death:
He composed a few really good poems, but he made the mistake of writing too much on trivial themes, and thus exposed himself to jibes of Melbourne jokers about "Sleepy Hollow" and its poet laureate. As to the suggestion that his poems should now be collected into a volume, I am afraid it comes too late, for a new generation of Geelongites has arisen that knows nothing about him, and is not interested in his work or personality. But although perhaps of not much value in the main as poetry, such a book would be of some historical interest, as Jenkins commemorated in verse almost every outstanding event in the annals of Geelong.

1 comment:

  1. A wonderful historical story. We pay too little to those who went before us, and the contributions they made to our heritage. We pay more attention to the fleeting, and temporary things, dished out in these modern times, and overlook the fact, that our history was built on the shoulders of such men. Thank you for this essay.

    ReplyDelete