Monday musings on Australian Literature: The Vagabond

Quite by accident – no, I tell a lie, it was through a link sent by a good friend (thanks Kate) – I came across “The Vagabond”, a mysterious journalist who wrote for Australian newspapers – primarily in Victoria – in the late 19th century. The link was for an article he wrote on sixpenny restaurants, but that article was published in the online journal Inside Story to coincide with the publication of The Vagabond papers (ed. Michael Cannon, Monash University Publishing, 2016).

So, who was this Vagabond? Well, for a start, he is significant enough to be included in the Australian National Biography (ADB), where he is listed under the name John Stanley James (1843-1896), born in Walsall, Staffordshire, England. If, however, you read contemporary obituaries for him, as I did before I found ADB’s entry, you would think he was Julian Thomas, born in Virginia, USA! If you continued to search Trove, though, you would find articles written the year after his death identifying him as John Stanley James. Apparently, as ADB tells it, he had a few fallings-out with his father, in England, and in 1872 went to the USA where he changed his name to Julian Thomas. He arrived in Sydney in 1875.

According to John Barnes (ADB), his early articles, published in Melbourne’s The Argus, were

on ‘the social life and public institutions of Melbourne from a point of view unattainable to the majority’. The most substantial of the series were based on his first-hand reports of what it was like to be ‘inside’ certain institutions: to gather material, he spent a day in the Immigrants’ Home, was admitted to the Benevolent Asylum and worked as the porter at the Alfred Hospital, an attendant at lunatic asylums and dispenser-cum-dentist at Pentridge gaol. His accounts of these institutions combined intimate knowledge of their day-to-day working with a breadth of perspective gained from his knowledge of other societies. His shrewd observation, practical judgments and suggestions for reform reveal a compassionate spirit behind his cultivated flamboyancy.

One of the obituaries I found in Trove referred to these articles:

His series of articles for the “Argus” descriptive of life in the benevolent asylums, hospitals, and finally the Pentridge prison, created a furore which had never been eclipsed by any work of the kind done here since.

This obituarist described him as having “A clear, crisp, epigrammatic style”.

Another described him as having “a fluent pen, a versatile imagination, and an interesting manner of personal comment” and also mentioned, albeit more measuredly, his institutional pieces:

his earlier series of Vagabond papers wherein from personal experience he revealed some of the abuses in the administration of penal establishments, lunatic asylums and charitable institutions, attracted considerable attention.

John Barnes sums him up this way:

Outwardly egotistical and reckless, he had a generous and sympathetic nature. Probably his early life had helped to develop in him a keen feeling for those in need, a feeling expressed in his best work and commemorated after his death in a memorial erected by public subscription.

The process of raising money for, and the erection of this memorial, is also documented in Trove.

In 1878, he was sent to New Caledonia to report on a native uprising. Barnes writes that “he shocked readers with details of the brutality of the French colonial administration which he condemned strongly”. These reports, plus those on his experiences in the New Hebrides and New Guinea, were published in his book Cannibals and Convicts (1886). Although he travelled again – including to China, Japan, British Columbia and the South Seas – Barnes argues that it’s his early Victorian pieces and those in this book that represent his best work.

I’ll leave the story of his life there … you can read more at the ADB link above or look for his articles in Trove yourself. Instead, I’m going to end by discussing his article on the sixpenny restaurants, which was published in the Argus on 27 May 1876, his early (well-regarded) years in Victoria.

The sixpenny restaurant

Not only did I enjoy the article for itself, but it reminded me of one I discussed earlier this year, George G Foster’s “The eating-houses”. It was published in New York in 1849, and discusses various types of eating-houses, including sixpenny ones. The articles are different overall, but both provide a picture of an active eating-out scene in 19th century western countries. Fascinating.

So, the Vagabond’s article. Interestingly, the version published in Inside Story starts about two paragraphs into the original published in The Argus. These first two paragraphs make a political statement about Australia’s need for labour, and the Vagabond has a proposition:

I would have printed one million handbills, exactly similar to those which any day, from 12 till 2, you will have thrust into your hands in the principal streets of Melbourne, and the wonders of which will strike an English labourer or mechanic dumb. Imagine poor Hodge, who lives on bread and bacon, and whose only idea of spending six-pence is to purchase a quart of ale, reading from the bill of fare that a breakfast with a choice of 10 hot dishes of meat, bread and butter ad libitum, and “two or three cups of tea or coffee;” a dinner with choice of six soups, 12 kinds of meat, including such epicurean luxuries as “beef steak pudding” or “stuffed ox-heart;” and six puddings or pies, with tea, coffee, and bread and butter, as at breakfast, may be had in Melbourne for 6d. a meal. The supper (which he reads may be had “both before and after closing of the theatres,” pleasantly suggesting that it is the custom for his class to patronise those places of amusement) is even more bewildering” stewed rabbit, “haricot mutton,” “curries,” and some 15 other dishes, with salad, beet-root, and tomatoes. A land which can furnish such delights for 6d., must surely be the working man’s paradise (my emph).

This argument leads into the article proper, which starts by stating that “Most men have to suffer a perpetual combat between their tastes and their exchequer”.

Vagabond describes his surprise at the quantity of food he can buy for 6d. at these sixpenny restaurants. It resulted in his doing a tour of cheap restaurants. He found they are pretty much alike – “the dishes tend to be stereotyped, and the cooking is much the same in all”. There can be, particularly in summer, “more flies in the dishes than refined prejudices might fancy”, and sausages, he writes, are such “bags of mystery” that the “enormous consumption” of them is “convincing proof that faith is strong in the colonies”. Love it!

Workers Cafe, Porto

Workers’ cafe, Porto, Portugal

After discussing the food in some detail, he then describes the establishments, making an interesting observation:

Sixpenny restaurants vary a good deal in style; there are some in the principal thoroughfares which shine with plate-glass, white linen, and pretty waiter girls. But all this extra display, and the cost of the handbills which are so freely circulated, cause perceptible diminution in the quantity or quality of the viands. The places where one really feeds best are the smaller restaurants, kept by married couples, who do the cooking themselves … These are chiefly patronised by working men.”

This brought to mind my experience as a traveller: we’ve often had the best meals in little ma-and-pa run restaurants, in worker-patronised restaurants. We tend not to frequent those places at home because they offer the sort of food we might cook ourselves but when we travel, these places can be the best for learning about local food and life.

But, I digress … Vagabond continues to discuss the experience of dining in cheap restaurants. He notes the “tricks” customers employ to obtain more food, and suggests dining after the rush makes it easier for diners to chat together. He then describes the patrons – and it’s a fascinating, multicultural bunch – before moving on to the staff, the waiters who “are refugees from all classes” and the cooks, most of whom began “with making damper”.

He concludes by mentioning that some taverns are setting themselves up as rivals to the sixpenny restaurants. They give “hot lunches with pint of ale, from 12 to 2 daily, for 6d”, but the food mostly comprises “a plate of corned beef and potatoes” and “you get altogether about half the amount of food you would at a sixpenny dinner”. However, these places are frequented by young clerks, who, he says, are too proud to be seen in a sixpenny restaurant. He concludes his article with:

It would be far better for them if they would put their dignity on one side, and take a dinner in a sixpenny restaurant, which up to this time I consider to be the most wonderful example of Victorian progress and prosperity which I have met with.

I can see what Barnes means by “a compassionate spirit behind his cultivated flamboyancy”. I could read more of Vagabond.


14 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian Literature: The Vagabond

  1. What an interesting fellow Vagabond is! I agree regarding the food, I much prefer the small “hole-in-the-wall kinds of places to the big fancy ones. Better food for better prices and I think a better atmosphere too! Though I can do without flies in my soup 🙂

  2. Miles Franklin claimed she was working ‘undercover’ as a servant in the early 1900s so perhaps she was influenced by the Vagabond style of journalism, she wasn’t old enough to remember it directly. In the end all we readers got out of it was Everyday Folk and Dawn.

    • Which I have on my iPad, Bill, but haven’t read yet. Journalists going undercover has a long history . I wonder when it did start. (BTW, the one I most remember is way more recent: (Gloria Steinem doing a stint as a Playboy bunny.)

      • How interesting. I wonder if Vagabond is an early example of a very Australian brand of reportage with its own humour and sympathy for those at the bottom of colonial society.

        • Good comment Ian … He certainly had a touch of humour which feels a bit Australian (and since Australian humour owes much to English humour I guess we can see through writers like him the genesis of Australian humour, which I see as combining self-deprecation with a sense of the absurd.

Leave a Reply to whisperinggums Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s