The Publican and the Schoolteachers: conflicts in Glenmaggie

A Feature by Chris Watson

A painting of the Glenmaggie Hotel, circa 1900, passed on to Chris Watson by his mother. Artist unknown.

John Fraser, born in Co. Limerick, arrived in Melbourne on the Marco Polo in January 1860. In 1864 at Yackandandah, he was married to Mary Fraher, also from Co. Limerick, Ireland.

In 1865 John took over a newly-licenced hotel in Jericho, on the Jordan goldfields. The licence had been sought by Ma Dock and the hotel was to be the Coy Chong. John renamed it The Rising Sun. In 1866, J. Fraser was one of the applicants for a new mining operation at Red Jacket, also on the Jordan goldfields.

Lawrence Fraser, my mother’s father, born in Jericho, was the third child for Mary and John. John is described on Lawrence’s birth certificate in 1868 as a Miner. By then, Jericho’s best days were over, as the gold-seekers moved on to more promising places. So did those who provided for the miners’ needs. By 1875 John is well-established as proprietor of a hotel at Glenmaggie.

In 1875, Glenmaggie opened its first school. The departmental files include a letter from Patrick Cunningham of Red Jacket, applying for the teacher’s job at Glenmaggie. He had been a teacher at Jericho, and by this time was in charge of the state school at Red Jacket, a short distance away. Cunningham had some  standing in the Jordan district. He is one of three people who organised a meeting to consider the situation when the Catholic priest, Father Courtenay left the district. His signature is on Lawrence Fraser’s birth certificate as the Deputy Registrar in the District of Jordan. While in Red Jacket, he also served as postmaster.

John Fraser was influential in blocking Patrick Cunningham’s appointment at Glenmaggie. Among the departmental files, along with Cunningham’s application letters, is a letter from Noble Tanner, urging the department to employ Cunningham, whom he had encouraged to apply. He rails against ‘an old shanty-keeper, formerly of the Jordan now residing at Glenmaggie and pursuing the same calling “Mr John Fraser” ‘. Fraser had prepared a ‘Memorial’ opposing Cunningham’s appointment. Tanner writes:

I am sure he has done so from reasons of vindictiveness towards Mr Cunningham caused through the latter’s opposition to his election as Member of the Mining board for the Jericho district of North Gippsland, of which he is now a member.

Tanner also accuses Fraser of very dubious behaviour in assembling signatories for this document, which for all he knows might even include a forged version of his own signature. An annotation on the file rejects Cunningham’s employment as potentially divisive.

Clara Weekes.acceptance BClara Weekes was born at Bristol, England in 1852, came to Australia with her family in 1867 and was an assistant teacher at Walhalla where her parents lived and taught. In 1875, she was appointed to the new school at Glenmaggie, and her acceptance letter mentions the need to get a horse to transport her to the new school. This was known for a while as the Gower Creek Bridge School, though the newspaper description of the opening simply uses ‘Glenmaggie’. Departmental files include Clara’s letter in 1885 urging an official name change to Glen Maggie [sic] to avoid confusion. The name was changed

Clara WeekesA young woman of 23 might have seemed a pliable appointment, but Clara, who opened the school in June 1875 to public cheering, soon proved otherwise. The records show a teacher diligent in requesting better conditions for her students. By 1879, the complaints about her led to demands for her removal. They included John Fraser’s view that she ‘carried on in a spirit of arrogance, preferring one child before another.’ Clara’s opponents considered her unduly strict and she was accused of favouritism among the students. By 1884, when the bad feelings again erupted, she was accused of being prejudiced against the Irish, by none other than Noble Tanner, now John Fraser’s ally against her. Such are the vicissitudes of public life.

The public antipathy between Clara Weekes and John Fraser during her time in Glenmaggie has been discussed in several pieces about Glenmaggie and about her. It embodies a number of the cultural tensions besetting the inhabitants of new colonial settlements: religion, nationality, gender, class, styles of entertainment. Clara was a staunch Anglican, a firm disciplinarian in her school, and a strong teetotaller. Already firm in asking authorities for appropriate support, she demanded construction of a fence because drunken men came too close to the schoolhouse which was near the main road. She rejected applicants for assistant positions because their families ran hotels where they had served alcoholic drinks.

Although the settlements in the district were predominantly Scottish and Presbyterian, as suggested by the cluster of ‘Glen’ names, the Irish Catholic and English Anglican divide is to the fore in this particular story. My mother once told me of John’s devout Catholicism, demonstrated by his strict diet (black tea and dry bread, as I recall) on Good Fridays. In 1882, Clara was a member of the Board of Guardians for the Glenmaggie Anglican Church, ‘an unheard of position for a woman in those days,’ according to Linda Barraclough and Minnie Higgins*.

To add to the difficulties of communal life in a small settlement, John was renowned locally for playing the bagpipes which he brought from Ireland. In 1884, a fundraiser for a new Catholic church had ‘John Fraser, the father of Irish music’ performing at an Irish Tea Party. In 1890, the Maffra Spectator referred to him as ‘no doubt one of the best discoursers of pipe music in the colonies’. He played both kinds, as did his son ‘Larry’, who used to tune the chanter in the houses we occupied in Port Melbourne and Albert Park. Entertainment for some, especially those at the hotel, the pipes must have been audible through much of the settlement, and no doubt would have tried the patience of those with different musical tastes and a school to run in the morning. A picture of Glenmaggie at this period shows a short distance between the Fraser hotel and the schoolhouse up the hill.

A chapter in Mary Fullerton’s Bark House Days describes her time at Clara’s school although she does not name the locality. Nor does she mention Lawrence Fraser, born in the same year as her, and probably sharing the same classroom for some of his schooling. However, they may not have shared it for all of the time because a rival school at Gravel Hill (Glenmaggie North) was attracting enrolments from those dissatisfied with Clara Weekes until the Department discouraged the practice. Since Fraser’s hotel was the centre of the opposition to Clara Weekes, his children might well have been transferred to the new school. Reduction in enrolments would affect Clara’s income, already calculated at a lower rate than that of a comparable male teacher. Clara was also taking responsibility for other family members who came to Glenmaggie. Like Patrick Cunningham at Red Jacket, she was appointed in charge of the local Post Office, a position which several years earlier had been located briefly at Fraser’s hotel.

John received a different kind of publicity during these years. With the heading, ‘The Extraordinary Case at Glenmaggie’, The Gippsland Times for 3 September 1877 describes a hearing after John was one of the men accused of murdering Peter Murray, found stabbed and beaten on a bush track. Murray allegedly named him as an assailant (he had been drinking at Fraser’s hotel earlier in the day). John Fraser was acquitted and released from custody for lack of evidence.

John Fraser carried on as hotel-keeper for more than twenty years. with a short break in 1894. At some stage, his wife Mary was separated from him. When he died in 1900, aged 61, he left the hotel to his three daughters, who sold it fairly soon afterwards. Nonetheless, his son Lawrence had a 1900 painting of the hotel, and the family had a photo of the hotel being flooded by the new Glenmaggie dam around 1928.

In 1886, Clara Weekes went to Colac, and then to Melbourne, where she was associated with Vida Goldstein and other prominent suffragettes. She had a prominent part in many organisations, such as the suffragette movement, teetotal movements, the Mechanics’ Institute, the Victorian Lady Teachers’ Association, and the Sisterhood of International Peace. She protested against the First World War, spoke out against the White Australia policy, and campaigned strongly for the rights of women teachers. The Victorian Trades Hall Council has a Clara Weekes project in her honour. She found herself on the same side of the conscription debate as another unruly Irishman, Daniel Mannix. I wonder how either Clara Weeks or John Fraser might have felt about that turn of events.

Chris Watson

Since retiring as Lecturer in English at LaTrobe University, Chris Watson has followed interests in Irish language, literature and history, with several items published in Tinteán and its predecessor Táin. In 2016, he co-edited and co-authored an issue of Footprints, Journal of the Melbourne Diocesan Historical Commission devoted to St Carthage’s Church, Parkville, and its founder Rev. John Norris.  The bagpipes gene passed him by.

*Particularly helpful studies were those by Mary Barraclough and Minnie Higgins, Deborah Towns, J.G. Rogers, and John Adams.
Details of sources available on request: <>
Special thanks to Val Noone, Garry McLoughlin and Patrick Morgan for useful pointers.


2 thoughts on “The Publican and the Schoolteachers: conflicts in Glenmaggie

  1. An fascinating pericope of Irish Australia. My friend Rob Morrison never stopped talking about the history of Glenmaggie. I wish I would have listened more carefully.

  2. It is rare to have family history presented in a unvarnished way, highlighting such significant social issues at play in the politics of a small community. Great stuff! Constant

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