By Louise Gale
In Ross Edmonds’ post of 14 May 2019 on “Rob the Ranter” (1), he discusses the anonymous “Rob’s” contribution to the cultural life of Newcastle in 1861, and mentions Rob’s literary fellows: three equally anonymous poets who used only their initials in their contributions to the Newcastle Chronicle and Hunter River District News
One of these was a female and Rob “had conceived an ardent desire to see this M.E.H.” (2). He knew only that her father was a blacksmith and that she lived with her family on Lake Macquarie Road. Unfortunately he couldn’t come up with a valid reason to visit a blacksmith. He fantasised that she might have appeared at the window “to cast a languishing and admiring glance at the majestic stranger”, but acknowledged that he did not have the requisite handsomeness for that to be a likely scenario. Luck was on his side when he “happened to be sauntering by the place” and discovered to his “joyful surprise … that besides the blacksmith’s forge, they kept a little shop and a suburban post-office”. Here was his excuse to enter. But more about that later …
Using these clues searches were carried out using the digitised newspapers available at www.trove.nla.gov.au. Search terms were “post office lake macquarie road” and “post office darby street” (the street was known by both names), as well as the simpler searches leaving out unnecessary words which might have eluded the Optical Character Recognition process. Search dates entered were 1855 to 1865, across all NSW newspapers.
Most of the results returned referred to the awarding of mail contracts, but results were also found where the name “Mr Howden” appeared, having the required initial H in the surname (3,4). Once the name Howden was found, it was incorporated into further searches and led to considerable information about Mr John Howden, blacksmith and owner of the general store and Post Office.
Here then was the family of M.E.H. For Rob, however, his wish to gaze upon the wondrous poetess was not going quite as he had hoped. On entering the shop, he was assisted only by Mrs H., the “venerable mother”. Thinking quickly, he enquired whether there was any mail for him, and left disappointed. Not to be put off, he tried his luck again a few days later, asking Mrs H. again for mail, and then for half-a-pound of lozenges to make it worth her while for assisting him. Thank goodness he did, because Mrs H. was rather busy, and at this point she called out “Mary … come here and serve this gentleman”. Rob was carried away by a “wild tumultuous gush of delight” that set his heart a-flutter. Her face was “gemmed by a pair of intensely dark, deep set eyes, lit up with the fire of genius”. The rules of etiquette did not allow him to tarry after completing his purchase, and he reluctantly withdrew, “the first, last and only time” he “had the pleasure of conversing with a poetess”.
Poor Rob! If only he knew that he hadn’t achieved his goal. He was conversing with the wrong daughter! Mary Howden was in fact Mary Kay Howden, the youngest daughter of John and Mary Howden, born in 1843. Mary had an older sister, Margaret, born in 1841, who had the middle name beginning with E – she was Margaret Eliza Howden. (5)
Following the publication in the Newcastle Chronicle and Hunter River District News of Rob the Ranter’s Reminiscences during September and October 1862 (2,6,7,8,9,10), the Chronicle published a rather scathing letter to the Editor (11) by an unnamed correspondent who was highly critical of Rob, both as a person and as a literary figure. Rob’s adoration of M.E.H. also comes under fire: “the person whose name he mentions, I believe, never wrote a stanza of verse in her life”. He also attacks his manners in visiting the Howdens’ shop at all: “an unwarrantable liberty taken with those who are far above him in the social scale, in every respect”. This correspondent appears to have known that Rob had paid homage to the wrong daughter, but disguises this knowledge, leaving the reader to question Rob’s credibility instead.
Searching on Trove suggests that M.E.H.’s poetry published in the Chronicle was confined almost exclusively to 1861. In March 1862 Rob, no longer anonymous but writing under his real name, R. Stevenson, had a poem published in the Chronicle titled “The Return: Written on my arrival from Newcastle, October 24, 1861” (12), a heartfelt piece which suggests his love interest from home had married another in his absence. M.E.H. put in a brief appearance in 1862, replying in the next issue to Rob’s poem in an equally heartfelt manner, imploring him not to give in to despair (13). Robert’s poem in reply, “To M.E.H.”, was published on 2 April where he thanks her for her kindness and counsel. (14).
Margaret married James Stuart Rogers in December 1862 (5). Her obituary in 1918 (15) makes no reference to her literary accomplishments in her “other life” as the poetic M. E.H.
- http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article111164916 (1862, October 1). The Newcastle Chronicle and Hunter River District News (NSW: 1859 – 1866), p. 2
- http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article111169362 (1862, January 18). The Newcastle Chronicle and Hunter River District News (NSW: 1859 – 1866), p. 1.
- http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article128917944 (1865, November 15). The Newcastle Chronicle and Hunter River District News (NSW: 1859 – 1866), p. 3.
- http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article111163743 (1862, September 10). The Newcastle Chronicle and Hunter River District News (NSW: 1859 – 1866), p. 2
- http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article111164485 (1862, September 17). The Newcastle Chronicle and Hunter River District News (NSW: 1859 – 1866), p. 2.
- http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article111163616 (1862, September 24). The Newcastle Chronicle and Hunter River District News (NSW: 1859 – 1866), p. 2.
- http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article111169515 (1862, October 8). The Newcastle Chronicle and Hunter River District News (NSW: 1859 – 1866), p. 3
- http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article111163707 (1862, October 15). The Newcastle Chronicle and Hunter River District News (NSW: 1859 – 1866), p. 2
- http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article111169761 (1862, October 11). The Newcastle Chronicle and Hunter River District News (NSW: 1859 – 1866), p. 2.
- http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article111163858 (1862, March 5). The Newcastle Chronicle and Hunter River District News (NSW: 1859 – 1866), p. 2.
- http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article111169216 (1862, March 8). The Newcastle Chronicle and Hunter River District News (NSW: 1859 – 1866), p. 3
- http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article111169143 (1862, April 2). The Newcastle Chronicle and Hunter River District News (NSW: 1859 – 1866), p. 4.
- http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article140972260 (1918, August 5). Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate (NSW: 1876 – 1954), p. 5.
Post curated by William Chen Greentree (WIL Communication student)