Old lady surrounded by dust and cobwebs

What the Dickens? 

Bike rider on the Plenty River Trail at Montmorency
The Plenty River Shared Trail on the Montmorency side of the River, December, 2021, (McLachlan)

Take a stroll up-river from Yallambie and you will soon find yourself faced with a dilemma. Should you choose the River Trail on the western “Greensborough” side of the River, or the eastern “Montmorency” side? The two paths at this point are a legacy from the days when the River north of Yallambie was managed between two now defunct municipal councils, the Shires of Eltham and Diamond Valley. A map might tell you that it’s all become a bit of Banyule today, but that earlier legacy remains, like a choice between the high road and low road of life.

Trees and Plenty River at Montmorency
Looking up stream from the “high road” to the Montmorency side of the River, August, 2021, (McLachlan)

When it comes to a history of maps on the east side of the River, the land dubbed “Epping Forest” by James Willis in 1837, the first attempt at nutting one out was made by T H Nutt in 1839, Robert Hoddle’s Assistant Surveyor. Land sales followed in February the following year when the two main buyers on the west bank were Captain Benjamin Baxter in the south and the Sydney based entrepreneur, Stuart A Donaldson in the north. 

Stuart Donaldson, the man who named “Montmorency” in 1840. (Source: Mitchell Library, via https://www.visittenterfield.com.au/things-to-do/history-heritage/famous-faces/stuart-donaldson)

S A Donaldson was reportedly a somewhat conceited and affected character and it was he who gave a name to the Montmorency or Montmorenci area, though it’s unclear now whether he had any real connection to Montmorency, one of the oldest and most distinguished noble families of France, or just liked the sound of it. Possibly like Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair, his connection with Montmorency was all in his head, but the name stuck anyway. In those cashed up days of Melbourne’s first land boom, and within a few months of the initial purchase, Donaldson sold his heavily forested bush block, grandly styled as the “Montmorency” estate, to a business partner, “Judge” James Donnithorne. 

Stream flowing between trees overhanging from river banks
The Plenty River at Montmorency, November, 2019, (McLachlan)

James Donnithorne the new owner of Montmorency was a retired East India Company civil servant and although a judge at Mysore, India for only a short period of his life, introduced himself as “Judge” James wherever he went ever afterwards. Donnithorne’s wife and two of his three daughters had died of Cholera in India in 1832, and in 1838 Donnithorne packed off a surviving daughter, 17 year old Eliza Emily to London while setting about creating a new life for himself in New South Wales. In Sydney the Judge was involved in numerous money making schemes, becoming like another of his business partners, Charles Ebden, “disgustingly rich” in the process. 

From 1840 onwards, operating as a somewhat faceless, Sydney based absentee landlord, Donnithorne used his Plenty River estate as a nice little property earner, keeping the money down south, literally, while at the same time using the Montmorency property as collateral for loans in his wheeling and dealing.  

The Judge at this time must have appeared to Sydney society as a somewhat moneyed up, eligible widower but wouldn’t you know it? At around this time in 1841 he began a defacto relationship with his Sydney housekeeper, a relationship that would produce both a son and a daughter. In the face of this, Donnithorne’s remaining legitimate daughter Eliza, earlier sent packing to England and now grown, made haste to New South Wales in 1846, it was said to save her inheritance. The housekeeper and her children were given their marching orders and Eliza moved in with dear old Dad and his pots of money at Cambridge Hall, his home in Newtown in Sydney’s west. With James aging, Eliza was to become his carer and confidant and when he died in May, 1852, she found herself the chief beneficiary of his estate. 

Cambridge Hall, the home of James Donnithorne and his daughter, Eliza in Newtown, Sydney, (Source: Wikipedia)

Eliza as a wealthy, 30 year old heiress had been expected to return to England where she still had family, but something seemed to be holding her back, and it wasn’t just the matter of finding a boat big enough to carry off all that loot. Legend has it that Eliza had fallen madly in love, the object of her desires a Mr George Cuthbertson and a date had even been set for a wedding. A gala event was planned and invitations were sent out to the social elite of Sydney. On the morning of the nuptials it was reported that “the bride and her maid were already dressed for the ceremony; the wedding-breakfast was laid in the long dining-room, a very fine apartment. The wedding guests assembled—the stage was set, but the chief actor did not turn up to keep his appointment.” (Australian Dictionary of Biography, quoting from an early source)

Heartbroken, the jilted bride demanded the preparations be kept ready for her fiancé and from that day onward and for three decades after until her death in 1886 aged 64, it’s said Eliza’s “habits became eccentric”. She never again left the house, the blinds were pulled down and the door kept on the chain, never opened by more than a few inches except to the clergyman, physician and her solicitor. Some exaggerated reports even suggest she never got out of her bridal gown and was still wearing its yellow and tattered threads on the day she died. The wedding breakfast was found undisturbed on the dining table where it had “gradually mouldered away until nothing was left but dust and decay.” (Ibid)

Probably you recognize this tale as it is supposed to have been used by Charles Dickens as the model for one of his most famous characters, Miss Havisham in Great Expectations. The identification of Eliza with the atrophied, Miss Havisham is purely circumstantial and probably unfair to Eliza’s memory, but Dickens is known to have had great interest in the Australian colonies. The story of the jilted heiress of Sydney, although apparently anecdotal, was notorious in its day. 

Old lady surrounded by dust and cobwebs
Martita Hunt appearing as Miss Havisham, (or was she playing Eliza Donnithorne?) in David Lean’s classic 1946, Cineguild, screen adaption of Great Expectations.

Could this then be the basis of Dickens’ famous creation? Two of Dickens sons spent time in Australia and the author maintained numerous correspondents in the Colonies for decades. Clearly the writer must have done some research when creating another of his Expectations’ characters, the escaped convict Abel Magwitch, but probably the real story will never be known. There’s a lot written about it on the internet but it rather strikes me like the chicken and the egg story. At any rate, the Dickens Club of the UK were willing to entertain the possibility of truth when they stumped up cash in 2004 to restore Eliza’s Newtown gravesite as a place of Dickensian pilgrimage. In the absence of other historical primary personal sources from the Montmorency area, the result of a long history of absentee ownership, it makes for rather good yarn from the area, don’t you think? 

What is known for certain is that Eliza never married and continued to own the Montmorency estate until her death in 1886, involving herself enough in local affairs to argue from the darkened seclusion of her Sydney home about the building of the railway through Montmorency and access roads across the property. At her death, Montmorency passed to an English nephew who bankrupted himself and his Australian interests in unsuccessful attempts to patent an early form of machine gun, thus ending the association of the Donnithorne name with Montmorency. 

With a bullet. 

Montmorency Station in the early years of the 20th century. (Source: Madden albums of Australian railways photographs, State Library of Victoria picture).

Montmorency continued to evolve in the 20th Century and by 1914 a township was developing within the boundaries of the Eltham Riding. A Presbyterian Church was established in 1917 and a private school, St Faith’s with about 50 students, opened in Mountain View Road. The Montmorency State Primary School opened in 1922 and a railway station in 1923, but in the words of Dianne H Edwards, “Many residents felt geographically they belonged to the Heidelberg Shire and hoped to become affiliated with that municipal body.” Well they had to wait a long time, right up until 1994 in fact and the creation of Banyule Council, but the memory of Stuart Donaldson and the Donnithornes is at least reflected in the name, Montmorency. 

As for Charlie Dickens, he had a knack for creating some of the most memorable characters in 19th Century English literature and many of them have entered the vernacular. When my wife says to me, “It’s looking like Miss Havisham’s,” I know it’s time for a clean-up and if I say to you, “a Dicken’s style Christmas” you will probably know what I mean. 

A Dickensian Christmas

Dickens largely defined the tradition of the Victorian Christmas “zeitgeist” with his 1843 novella, “A Christmas Carol”. The tale of an elderly miser transformed to kinder ways by spectral visits is one that gets wheeled out at this time of year, every year. So this December, if your Australian Christmas celebrations should happen to include ghosts or any other sort of nod to Dickensian Christmas style, maybe spare a thought for our local history and the phantom of Montmorency’s Eliza, whose journey along the high road of life never quite reached her festive season.

Line of tree at Montmorency park
Trees marking old fence line, a relic from the farming days at Montmorency Park, December, 2021, (McLachlan)

3 thoughts on “What the Dickens? ”

    1. Maureen Jones gives the story a page or so in her 2015 book, “Montmorency” but if you Google Eliza’s name you’ll find loads about it on the internet with a number of conflicting theories and dates. The chicken and the egg theory is that the story of Eliza as a jilted bride was already known in Australia when Great Expectations was released in 1861 and Sydney readers drew their own comparisons. An intriguing tale, all the same.


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