A home of their own
Kennina Fanny Thorburn (1865–1956), known as Tot, was the youngest of Robert and Jessie Thorburn’s eight children. She lived much of her life with her three unmarried sisters at the beautiful home of Meroogal in Nowra. Tot never married, but diaries, letters and oral history accounts from Meroogal’s collection reveal that this was almost certainly by choice.
The ‘rules’ of courtship
Courting in the Victorian era followed defined codes of conduct. While these may seem proscriptive to a modern mind, they were designed to prevent offence being accidentally given or intentions being misconstrued. However, a book published in 1885 indicates that Australian young people were less constrained than many guides suggest: ‘Young people of either sex … have much freedom in their social intercourse in this country, and are with the consent, knowledge and approval of parents or guardians at liberty to associate and mingle freely with those of the opposite sex’.1
Tot’s diaries, written from 1888 to 1896, reveal a life that matches this more relaxed approach. Tot began keeping a diary in her early twenties. At the time, she lived in Cambewarra with her maternal grandfather, Thomas McKenzie, uncle Kenneth and niece Jessie ‘Jess’ Macgregor, the daughter of Tot’s eldest sister and close to her in age.
The diaries show that Tot took pleasure in her friendships with young men, and perhaps sometimes the ‘rules’ weren’t being strictly followed. Although nothing untoward is revealed, it seems ‘Uncle Kenny’ felt the need to reprimand Tot and Jess at times: in 1888, Tot writes that she and Jess ‘unburdened our minds to each other’ as they had ‘both been misjudged by Uncle Kenny’. She continues, ‘it has made us more determined to do what we think is right & to be careful of our behaviour in gentlemans company. I am sure we want less than ever to think of them’.2
No well-bred lady will too eagerly receive the attentions of a gentleman, no matter how much she admires him; nor, on the other hand, will she be so reserved as to altogether discourage him. A man may show considerable attention to a lady without becoming a lover; and so a lady may let it be seen that she is not disagreeable to him without discouraging him.
D McConnell, Australian etiquette, or the rules and usages of the best society, People’s Publishing Company, Melbourne, 1885
A series of suitors
Tot’s brother Tom regularly brought his University of Sydney friends south for visits. Robert ‘Bert’ Dick and Donald McKay Barnet were frequent visitors who feature in the early diaries. Upon meeting Bert, Tot writes, ‘I was a little shy with Bert & so was he, he is very tall nice looking & I believe nice’.3 She describes times spent with Jess, Bert and Donald taking walks, picnicking at Jervis Bay and waltzing in the hallway of Meroogal. On one occasion, she describes how Bert carried her across a creek and waltzed with her in the middle of the water! She writes, ‘I like Bert very much’.4 In 1894, Donald married Jess (the moving story of their eldest son, Robert, is told on our World War I website). However, although Tot and Bert exchanged many letters and remained friends, an engagement never eventuated.
In 1892, the mysterious Mr Mason appears in the diary. Referred to by Tot as ‘the silent man’, Mr Mason was a goldmining entrepreneur met through her brother Robert. He often visited and stayed overnight at Meroogal, and Tot enjoyed playing tennis with him, as well as trips with her sisters to the nearby goldmining village of Yalwal to visit his mining operation. However, a diary entry from 29 November has been edited by Tot, who crossed out the words that detail a private conversation between her and Mr Mason – perhaps a proposal that was declined. The following sentence reads, ‘I treated him badly and felt sorry afterwards’. For the next week she dwelled on what had happened, staying up late to talk about it with Jess, and after her next meeting with Mr Mason she writes, ‘I don’t feel very bright and happy these times’.5 There are no more holidays in Yalwal, and Mr Mason soon disappears from the diary.
In the final years of Tot’s diaries, we hear of Joseph Thornton ‘Thorn’ Tweddle, introduced as the suitor of family friend Lillian Billis. Thorn and Lillian married in 1883, but sadly Lillian died two years later, leaving Thorn a widower. The family story handed down through Tot’s great‑niece June Wallace tells us that Thorn ‘was one of Aunt Tot’s admirers and … was interested in marrying her’. Although they didn’t marry, Thorn ‘remained a great family friend’.6 At Meroogal are two French carriage clocks brought back from one of Thorn’s numerous overseas visits as presents for Tot and her sister Kate.
Tot’s diaries record a happy and independent life. Her days were filled with household chores but also picnics and dances, moonlight boat rides, and games of dominoes, tennis and golf. She loved making and listening to music, and taking trips to Sydney, Melbourne and around country NSW.
Tot lived most of her life at Meroogal with her unmarried sisters, Belle, Georgie and Kate. In 1886 they had experienced the tragic death of another sister, Margaret, following the birth of her son, who also passed away in the following year. This loss may have influenced the sisters’ choice to remain single and childless and instead to share a home with one another. The four sisters were fortunate to have been included in their father’s will, giving them an unusual degree of financial freedom and the ability to choose a single life.
According to June Wallace, the sisters’ ‘lifestyles and domestic routines naturally changed with their transition to old age, but their special qualities of integrity, enduring friendship, a well-organised daily routine, acute interest in current affairs, humour and wit plus gentle kindness remained to the end of their lives (though Aunt Kate in her eighties had a great difficulty in suffering fools gladly)’. Tot was especially close to Kate, and June recalls their companionship in their final years at Meroogal: ‘When Tot and Kate were quite old and had given up social times of days “at home” they would go out for a drive every afternoon, except Sunday, armed with a picnic tea’.7
Over its 100 years as a home, Meroogal was occupied by four generations of women: matriarch Jessie; her daughters, the Thorburn sisters; their Macgregor nieces; and finally June Wallace. In 1985 it was acquired by the Historic Houses Trust of NSW (now Sydney Living Museums).
- 7. J Wallace et al, Meroogal oral histories: June Wallace interviewed by Sue Hunt and Ann Toy, 13 June 1985 (sound recording).
Tot Thorburn's wedding cake
Although she herself never married, Tot’s wedding cake recipe was famous among her friends and family. After Tot’s death in 1956, Helen Macgregor sent the recipe to Tot’s great-niece Winsome Johnson with a note: ‘Aunty Tot’s recipe for your wedding cake. It was a beautiful cake … She made so many for friends and relatives’. The last time Tot made the cake was for June Wallace’s wartime wedding in 1944; read the story below of June’s borrowed wedding dress.
Tot’s wedding cake recipe and other culinary treasures from our collections are available at The Cook and the Curator blog.
From the collection
In 1977, June Wallace (1917–2010) inherited Meroogal, becoming its last family owner. When the Historic Houses Trust of NSW (now SLM) acquired Meroogal in 1985, including the family’s possessions, the Grant wedding dress was part of this remarkable collection.
Of lustrous blue silk, the hand-stitched wedding gown was first worn in 1845 by Margaret Gentle for her marriage to the Reverend William Grant in Perthshire, Scotland. The Grants emigrated to Australia in 1854, settling in the Shoalhaven area of NSW, and brought the dress with them. Over the years, many women borrowed the gown, as shown by the numerous subtle alterations to the bodice.
In the late 1930s the Grants’ youngest daughter, Barbara, gifted the dress to her friend Margaret Steel. In 1944, at the height of World War II, Margaret’s daughter, June, was given just five days’ notice to arrange her wedding to Charles Wallace, who was on leave from the army. June wore the Grant dress and borrowed a veil; the dress fitted as if it had been made for her. She was the last bride to be married in this wonderful wedding gown, almost a century after it was first worn.
In February 1863 this anonymous lacy Victorian valentine was sent to mining engineer Kenneth McKenzie (Tot Thorburn’s ‘Uncle Kenny’), who was working on the Mitchells Creek goldfield, 40 kilometres from Bathurst in the NSW central west. It was then a populous place. A post office had opened in 1862, and there was a twice‑weekly mail service, a Presbyterian church, numerous hotels, and several quartz-crushing batteries extracting precious ore from the rich goldbearing reefs in the area. Quartz reefing paid well, and McKenzie was one of many who ‘made his pile’ at Mitchells Creek, before returning to the family dairy farm at Cambewarra near Nowra on the NSW South Coast. He turned his hand to building and is credited as the architect of Meroogal, built in 1886 for his widowed sister Jessie Thorburn. McKenzie was not so lucky in love. Although he received at least one other lacy valentine – in February 1874, from another anonymous admirer – his own proposals of marriage, made in the 1880s when he was in his fifties, were rebuffed. He remained a lifelong bachelor.