Murwillumbah School of Arts finished just in time

After another triumph at Grafton Melba and the concert party again boarded the train and travelled back to Lismore where they were scheduled to give a second concert as bookings for the first on July 29 were so heavy.

However, the trials of train travel, concerts, the welcomes and farewells was taking its toll and everyone including Melba returned to Lismore to bed for a couple of days until they were well enough to return to Brisbane via the train to Murwillumbah and the river boat to Tweed and the train north to Brisbane.

On her way up river a few days earlier, the townspeople at Murwillumbah must have been very anxious as the re-built School of Arts had only just been completed and opened two weeks before the concert. A grand opening ball was held in the new building on July 14 and Melba’s concert which had been booked months earlier, was to be held on July 27. This was followed by concerts at Lismore, Casino and Grafton.

Sign at the School of Arts site , Main St,  Murwillumbah.
Sign at the School of Arts site , Main St, Murwillumbah.

The party arrived at the Murwillumbah wharf on the SS Booyong and were welcomed by the Mayor and the Federal Band playing. The band later serenaded Melba at the hotel.

For the local people it would have been a huge boost to the town which had suffered a massive fire the year before which wiped out most of the town’s main street.

We were welcomed by the Murwillumbah Historical Society wo work out of a most impressive small museum. Their local paper is not on Trove and copies were not held by them so I had to spend a day on the John Oxley Library in Brisbane researching the concert.

However, David and his team were tremendous and provided me with a lot if images and photographs.

While there we also attended a talk by a local man who had worked for Ansett and had accumulated a massive collection of memorabilia on Australia’s airline industry. A small display was also added and he spent time talking about some of the items.

Sunset over the Mt Warning range at Murwillumbah. Canefields are
Sunset over the Mt Warning range at Murwillumbah. Canefields are in the foreground.

The museum is a credit to the local people and the Tweed Council which had renovated the building last year.



Melba’s Triumphant return to Grafton — Nellie Melba’s Back Blocks Tour 1909

As Nellie Armstrong at the end of 1885 and start of 1886, Melba gave four sell out concerts at Grafton so was looking forward to a successful concert again on August 2, 1909. The town didn’t let her down though the strenuous timetable was taking its toll on her and the company. After her final […]

via Melba’s Triumphant return to Grafton — Nellie Melba’s Back Blocks Tour 1909

Melba’s Triumphant return to Grafton

As Nellie Armstrong at the end of 1885 and start of 1886, Melba gave four sell out concerts at Grafton so was looking forward to a successful concert again on August 2, 1909.

The town didn’t let her down though the strenuous timetable was taking its toll on her and the company.

After her final Brisbane concert the party took the train south to Tweed Heads, boarded a river boat and headed upstream to Murwillumbah and the train which took the party to Lismore, Casino and then to Grafton before returning back to Tweed. This was called her Northern Rivers tour.

The train trip was circuitous because the railway and road bridge across the Clarence was not built until the 1930s. When completed it provided the coastal railway route between Sydney and Brisbane which is still used today.

At Grafton she performed at the Rink Hall commonly called the Trocadero which was a skating rink.

It was used because for the concert because it was large and could accommodate the audience.

A special steamer was run to bring people from the lower Clarence to the concert and took them home again.

The Clarence River today at the end of Warf Street, Grafton 2016
The Clarence River today at the end of Warf Street, Grafton 2016.

Sadly, it is no longer there nor is the railway station she was greeted at. However, Roche’s Hotel is still very much operating. On the banks of the river it was part of the prosperous coastal river trade and boasts some wonderful seafaring memorabilia on its walls.

Roche's Hotel Grafton where Melba and her concert party stayed i
Roche’s Hotel Grafton where Melba and her concert party stayed in July-August 1909.

I spent two sessions with the wonderful Robyn and Hazel at the home of the Clarence River Historical Society who worked through my extensive wish list for images and information.

Nothing was too much trouble for them and I was quietly envious of their museum and archive in Schaeffer House, the home of Grafton’s former engineer who designed supervised the building of so many of Grafton’s wonderful buildings.

Melba’s married life at Marian

While Melba did not visit Mackay during her 1909 Back Blocks Tour, we could not drive past without calling in and spending a few days with the people of Melba House.

The society and Melba House have had a long association going back about 16 years.

I arranged beforehand to meet with treasurer Vern Lindbergs and the team of the Pioneer Valley Tourism Association which operate Melba House at Marian as a tribute to Melba and also as a visitor information centre.

Melba House, Marian Mackay. Nellie Armstrong's first home and bi
Melba House, Marian Mackay. Nellie Armstrong’s first home and birth place of son George.

Thankfully, the community rallied around and ensure the home Charles and Nellie Armstrong lived in at the Marian Sugar Mill was not demolished but saved, moved up the road and restored.

Today Vern and the team have set up a room in the house purely for Melba memorabilia – images, objects, books and folders with articles featuring Nellie and Charles Armstrong.

I spent two days going through their archives and the recently acquired Valmai Tongs collection of records, articles, images and letters between herself and Pamela, Lady Vestey who became a friend.

Thankfully the association accepted the collection as it was offered to a museum in Melbourne which  declined to accept it. The collection has the largest number of Melba recordings I have ever seen in one place and has some interesting research.

Melba House, through the association’s work is rapidly being recognized as important to Queensland’s tourism industry as the state government is doing a shoot of the house as part of its strategy.

Wally and I were privileged to be invited to the association’s meeting and learnt first-hand of the challenges of promoting tourism in the region.

Lilydale & District Historical Society's president Sue Thompson
Lilydale & District Historical Society’s president Sue Thompson (left) with some of the members of the Pioneer Valley Tourism Association which operates Melba House at Marian, Queensland.

Marian today is a far cry from the Marian of Melba’s time – 1882-1884. Then it was all pastoral land just venturing into the infant sugar cane industry. David Mitchell went to Marian to build the sugar mill which sadly only operated for a short time but on the same site now is one of the state’s largest sugar mills.

Surrounding the mill and up the Pioneer Valley it is a sea of sugar cane and as it is now harvest time trains are rushing around picking up trucks and delivering them to the mill.

Sugar Cane Harvester ready to cut another row of cane at Marian,
Sugar Cane Harvester ready to cut another row of cane at Marian, Queensland.

One of the cane train engines was called Melba and one of the drivers is trying to locate it for me so I can take a photo of her.

Melba House has quite a lot of information about Charles Armstrong so at last we can being to build his story from his time in Queensland through the years to his death in Canada.

The Pioneer River looking west towards the Marian Sugar Mill who
The Pioneer River looking east towards the Marian Sugar Mill whose chimneys are visible in the distance. This was the river in which newly marriage Nellie Armstrong bathed. The millhome occupied by the Armstrongs was west of the mill. Today the home, known as Melba Park, is located in Lloyd Park, Marian

My next stop is the museum and library in Mackay and a meeting with the Mirani Historical Society where I will give a Melba talk so members learn more about Melba’s later life.

Melba House Facebook.







Glen Innes – just like home to Melba

After leaving Armidale Melba’s train travelled seemingly through the valleys at the top of the world to Glen Innes which must have been a little like a home coming to Melba. She would have felt comfortable among so many people from her father’s homeland Scotland. The town is called the Land of the Beardies and having Celtic origins proudly includes a strip of tartan as part of its logo.

Glen Innes Railway Station is small compared to those of Tamworth and Armidale. Dominating the station was the massive water tower still standing there today on the abandoned station and line. The bridges later built at Grafton and Tweed Heads saw the inland line from Sydney to Brisbane fall out of favour and close.

But in 1909, Melba’s June 23 overnight stop at Glen Innes was her last concert until Brisbane when her next concert was scheduled on June 26.

The water trank for steam trains at the now closed Geln Innes Ra
The water tower at the Glen Innes Railway Station.

As with Armidale, Melba left the train and rested, probably at the Tattersalls Hotel – the leading hotel in town – before driving a short distance to the Town Hall for her concert. After supper at the hotel she would have been driven back to the station to spend the night on the train.

While in Glen Innes we tried to get into the Town Hall which is very little changed since Melba’s visit. However, it was a polling booth for the recent Federal elections and the Electoral Commission had changed the locks and held the keys to keep the ballot papers inside safe.

Still we had a wonderful time with Eve Chappell OAM, Museum Manager and Research Coordinator,

Glen Innes & District Historical Society. The society has taken over the old nurses’ home and other building at the Glen Innes Hospital site and created a magnificent local history museum called the Land of the Beardies Museum and Research Centre.

I spent several hours with Eve who, after receiving my email had spent several hours finding information and images suitable for my Glen Innes story. It was eve who suggested Melba stayed at the Tattersalls Hotel because it was the largest and used by the more well-heeled people when they stayed in town.

The society has a wonderful research centre which made me quite envious. They need lots of volunteers to operate it and offer good service and seem to have no shortage of help.

Eve was able to solve one mystery for me. The local coursing club was holding a two-day event and the day when Melba arrived they promoted it as Melba Day in local advertisements. Eve believed this was not because Melba would attend but because it was being held on the day Melba arrived in Glen Innes. The club knew it would attract more people if it was held when so many people were in town for the Melba concert. Smart marketing.

One mystery which will have to be solved is the missing copy of the Glen Innes Examiner – Friday, June 25, 1909 which would have contained the report on the concert. It is not on Trove nor in the microform held at the museum.

As reports from it have been quoted in publications, I hope the State Library of New South Wales holds a bound original Examiner for that time with the missing edition and will be able to copy it for me. Otherwise, sadly Glen Innes will be the only town in New South Wales not to have a concert report. More homework to do.

The Australian Standing Stones at Geln Innes NSW 2016.
The Australian Standing Stones at Glen Innes NSW 2016.

One night stands in the New England

Leaving the Peel Valley the Melba concert party made the slow but steep trip up the “back” of the great Dividing Range on to the New England plateau. Everywhere the scenery is spectacular with deep green valleys and rocky outcrops strewn along the hill tops.

The next stop is Armidale when again a large crowd is gathered at the station to greet Melba and her party. After the official welcome Melba was driven along the wide streets to the grandiose Imperial Hotel where she and her party rested before preparing for the concert. In the Armidale Town Hall in the next street.

Imerpial Hotel corner of Dangar Street and The Mall, Armidale.
The Imperial Hotel was where all the landed gentry stayed when visiting Armidale. University of New England & Regional Archives, HRCP0975 Imperial Hotel 1895

The station is not as grand as its cousins in the larger towns but today, it is proudly maintained and it is easy to imagine Melba walking through the parlour room out to greet the thronging crowd of people. There is a railway museum worth visiting though opening hours are limited.

As the train would be leaving early in the morning, Melba did as in Tamworth and slept in the vice-regal carriage ready for the early start across the ridge tops to Glen Innes.

Thanks to archivist Dr Philip Ward and his staff at the University of New England Archives, I was able to view the plans for the luxurious Imperial Hotel. It was easy to see why Melba and her party wanted to rest there. Upstairs there was a couple of parlours with rooms attached and as they overlooked the bustling main commercial area below, would have been of great interest to Melba.

The archive generously shared their image collection with me and answered all of my questions as I sought information about this town which today is very much a University Town.

The town hall where Melba performed is rather unique in that it was built in two sections at differnt times in the 1880s. Today, it looks like a building wanting to find a proud new owner or occupier, a far cry from Melba’s triumphant night in 1909.

Melba and Slim honoured at Tamworth

When Melba arrived at Tamworth in 1909, it was a quiet country town divided by the Peel River. The train had spent most of the day winding through the Hunter Valley from Maitland.

Today Tamworth is the country music capital of Australia and along the main street – Peel Street – stand statues of country stars such as Slim Dusty.

The council and historical society have put a lot of effort into heritage signage and the one featuring the Caledonian Hotel mentions Melba stayed there. The plaque is a few metres from Slim’s statue and somehow it seems appropriate recognition of music legends of two different eras.

Plaque of the Caledonian Hotel, Tamworth.
Plaque in Peel Street showing where the Caledonian Hotel, Tamworth was originally located.

However, research has shown that while the plaque says Melba stayed there on June 21, 1909, she and her party actually stayed at the Caledonian on June 19 and 20. The concert was on June 21 but after the concert and supper Melba spent the night on the vice regal railway carriage as the train to Armidale was leaving early in the morning.

Thanks to the wonderful staff at the Tamworth branch of the Central Northern Regional Library, I spent several hours going through the microfilm of their local paper and their local history books.

Shirley from the Tamworth & District Family History Group and the Tamworth Historical Society have also helped with the Melba story at Tamworth.

It is amazing to see how much research has been carried out by local heritage groups and published so people such as me can gain and understanding of life in the town at any time in its history.

Melba stayed at Anambah, Maitland


The central and western sections of her Back Blocks Tour were now behind her. Melba made the 12-hour train journey from Dubbo to Sydney where she paused long enough to give a promised Sydney Matinee on June 16, 1909.

Then it was off north through New England to Queensland and beyond.

With her on this part of her journey was son George, sister Annie Box and school friend Janet O’Connor.

At Maitland Melba stayed with the Mackay family who owned Anambah, a large property just outside of town.

Through the Maitland & District Historical Society I met president Keith Cockburn and member Heather Bell. Heather and her husband had purchased Anambah when it was derelict many years earlier. After careful restoration, the Bells sold the property in 2011.

Heather had done lots of research on the property and Melba and shared a large collection of images taken at the property between 1907 and 1909 by the Mackay family. The children would have met Melba and the family story goes that Melba sang Home Sweet Home on the stairs of the property for family and staff.

Ironically, the Bell’s staged a special evening replicating Melba’s visit to Anambah with opera singer Jennifer MacGregor as Melba. Jennifer also helped us at Lilydale as she performed at Mt Lilydale College for a fund-raising concert held by the society and then Lillydale Museum Trust in the early 1990s.

Our society has photos of Jennifer with the late Pamela Vestey at Coombe Cottage before the concert.

Maitland Town Hall July 2016.
Maitland Town Hall July 2016.

While in Maitland we were lucky the town hall where Melba sang was open and the council arranged for us to have a look at it. The hall had undergone a multi-million upgrade but you could still sense the excitement the several hundred patrons must have experienced when at Melba’s concert all those years earlier.

Interior of the recently renovated Mailtand Town Hall, July 2016
Interior of the recently renovated Mailtand Town Hall, July 2016.

Pioneer’s account of Melba’s visit

Dubbo on the Macquarie River is the edge of the western plains and is a big, bustling city with many historical buildings in the central city area. Alas neither the Court House Hotel nor the Masonic Hall remain – both now blocks of shops but just looking at early photos gives a great idea of what the town was like in 1909. One thing we do know is it was still raining when Melba was there from June 12 to 15 until she returned to Sydney.

We had contacted the Dubbo Family History Group and I was meeting the Local History Librarian, Simone Taylor of the Macquarie Regional Library Service. The library holds a large archive and images which I was able to go through and order.

Dubbo Railway Station July 2016.
Dubbo Railway Station July 2016.

At Dubbo & District Family History Group, Linda Barnes, the group’s librarian was a wonderful help. Dubbo has a special way of changing the names of buildings; erecting new buildings and giving them the same name so it took some detective work to locate the Masonic Hall as there was at least two halls. The Court House Hotel was an interesting story.

At the museum the photo is proudly displayed as Bell’s Court House Hotel (licensees from 1913) but closer examination shows the licensee’s name is Annie Simms. The hotel was simply referred to as Simm’s Hotel. Thanks to Linda and her group’s archive we established Annie Simms was the licensee from 1902 to 1911. More digging and we discovered her life story which was so parallel to Melba’s. Her husband died in his 30s leaving her with a hotel and 3 young children aged 10 to 2. Like Melba she was a single working mother. The duo would have had wonderful chats about New Zealand where Annie was born. Melba had just done a tour of that country and the pair would have swapped many stories.

Annie Simms built up the hotel, became a leading citizen and received a special Illuminated Address when she left in 1911.

The society also gave me the name of a descendant of G. H. Taylor who hosted Melba a reception for local residents and whose son Clarrie had organized the concert at Dubbo. I wanted to see if I could track down the letter and photograph Melba gave G.H. Taylor. Out of the blue I contacted Ellen who immediately said she knew what I was talking about and to pop around to her house later that day. We spent two hours going through the family treasures but didn’t find the photo or letter though Ellen has seen them. What Ellen showed me was G.H. Taylor’s diary of 1909 and his account of Melba’s visit. What a find for the Dubbo chapter – a first-hand account of the welcome, reception and concert. Ellen was happy for me to photograph and carefully scan the pages of the diary.



Orange, Bathurst and Molong


Although warned our next stop was back in the Great Dividing Range to Orange where we spent four very cold days – cold even for the locals. The coldest days was -5 overnight and just 3 during the day.  Still there was work to be done and research to be carried out.

Thankfully, Liz Edwards of the Orange and District Historical Society was a great contact and arranged for me to give some of their members a talk on Melba and talk about her Back Blocks Tour.

It was the day it snowed at Orange. As I was giving my talk outside the snow gently fell. Way back in 1909, the weather was wet and cold but no snow when Melba arrived. Perhaps the weather was in awe of the Queen of Song and didn’t dare snow on her “parade”.

Liz and the members were a great help and at least we were able to photograph the hall Melba sang in and the hotel the concert party stayed at. Both greatly modified but still standing.

The Australian Hall now Theatre in Kite Streeet, Orange, July 20
The Australian Hall now Theatre in Kite Streeet, Orange, July 2016

A day was spent in the library doing the research on the tour as the local paper is not on Trove. Thanks to Liz, she had done the groundwork and saved me a lot of time.

A day was spent in Bathurst 50kms away. Melba stayed at the Royal Hotel and had a short walk down to the Schools of the Arts (modern shops and offices). We decided to treat ourselves and had lunch in the hotel café. The owners explained the café was actually the carriage entrance so we felt sure Melba would have passed our way back in 1909.

After lunch we spent a couple of hours with Alan McRae of the Bathurst District Historical Society and left him with my wish list of images and information. On the way to and from Bathurst pockets of snow were visible, thankfully none on the road.

At the suggestion of Liz Edwards I contacted Sue Milne of the Molong Historical Society. Melba didn’t give a concert at Molong but she went through the station going to and from Dubbo further west. The train stopped at the station both ways and was greeted by many towns people.

On the way back Melba put up her carriage window and spoke with the local boys one of whom asked for her autograph. Melba never gave her autograph to anyone – she would charge 2/6 and all the money would go to a local charity such as the local hospital.

I wondered if anyone knew who conned the autograph and if it is still in existence. Sue suggested I contact Rozzie Smith the editor of the Molong Express. I called in, did an interview and photo and who knows the famous autograph just may surface among someone’s family treasures.

Main Street of Molong June 2016.
Molong was the town Melba stopped briefly at while on the way to Dubbo and back to Orange.