Chocolate on the Cheek

At the suggestion of people in Wagga we called into the Junee & District Historical Society based in the Broadway Hotel to see if they had anything more on Wantabadgery and Melba.

After chatting with the volunteers, a file on Wantabadgery was produced and found a wonderful Melba Moment.

While waiting for the train to Albury with Ethel Macdonald, Melba met two young pre-schoolers, one of whom had been eating chocolate. As always Melba chatted to the children and gave each a kiss. No-one told Melba she had chocolate on her cheek.

Junee Railway Station courtyard 2016.
The courtyard area at the Junee Railway Station which is on the right. the two-storey Railways Refreshment Room is in the centre which is where Melba and George waited for the Albury train.

Another Junee member Shirley Hart kindly found a lot of information about Wantabadgery Station, the Macdonald family and Captain Moonlight and his gang for me.

At Cootamundra I met the wonderful Betti Punnett of the Cootamundra Local History Society Inc. who took me through their museum at the historic railway station and then on to the shire library to go through their archive for any images I wanted.

She told me Cootamaundra loves parades which might explain why Melba walked almost the length of the town to her hotel. Was she re-enacting the parade given to our Governor-General Lord Northcote just three years earlier? Whatever it somehow did seem most appropriate.

From Cootamundra is was back on the train back through Junee and out west to Forbes via Parkes for her next concert.

Of all the railway stations, Forbes was just a small simple country station surrounded by nothing but wide open plains. After the formal welcome, the local photographer was quickly on the job and captured a wonderful photo of Melba a car just before taken for a drive and then to her hotel.

A second photo outside the hotel appears to have been taken the same day with Melba on the hotel balcony.

The wonderful volunteers at the Forbes Family History Group – Peter, Ros, Jill and Bernie opened their vast collections to me and left me quietly in the corner finding all the local newspaper reports about the day Melba arrived in town. They also happily found any information I wanted.

The Forbes Museum gave a great overview of the town’s past but did have an image credited as Melba which it wasn’t so I hope my note has led them to change their captioning on their online and mounted images.

Our next stop is Orange back in the Great Divide where snow was forecast.

Bushrangers at Wantabadgery

With the Wagga Wagga concert behind her, Melba and George motored out of town to spend a couple of days with her friend Ethel Macdonald of Wantabagery Station, 37kms east of Wagga.

Ahead was her Albury concert before her return to Victoria and concerts in Melbourne and towns throughout   the state.

At Wantabadgery Melba and George could rest and soak up life on the historic station. Melba and her friend Ethel caught up on all the latest news and she met the four children. Melba and George also heard Falconer and Claude Macdonald’s first-hand taccount of the day when bushranger Captain Moonlight and his gang held them up and occupied their home for a weekend before help arrived.

During an evening in mid-November 1879, Captain Moonlite and his gang held up Wantabadgery Station and took a number of hostages. After eating and drinking, the gang moved to a nearby pub, The Australian Arms Hotel, and more hostages were taken.

Andrew George Scott, alias Captain Moonlight 1879.
Black and white sketch of Andrew George Scott, alias Captain Moonlite. David Syme & Co. 1879

At 4am, officers from Wagga Police arrived and gunfire was exchanged with the gang. Officers retreated and waited for reinforcements from Gundagai. On arrival of Gundagai Police, the officers attended nearby McGlede’s farm and found Captain Moonlite and his gang. Shots were exchanged and Senior Constable Webb-Bowen was shot in the neck. On Sunday 23 November 23, 1879, Senior Constable Webb-Bowen, known as Edward Bowen, died as a result of the gunshot wound.

On September 3, 2015 the Police and community unveiled the monument to Senior Constable Bowen which stands adjacent to the Wantabadgery MacDonald Memorial Hall at Wantabadgery. (Wagga Wagga & District Historical Society September 3, 2015.



Life at Wagga Wagga in 1909

Our stay in Wagga Wagga was a busy one. I gave my first Melba talk outside of Victoria at the Wagga Wagga & District Family History Centre – a former pre-school. There were 23 people at the talk including members of the Wagga Historical Society.  Our thanks to Leanne Diessel who organized everything including a morning tea earlier in the day.

Leanne Diessel is the researcher for the Wagga Wagga & District Historical Society and research officer for the Wagga Wagga & District Family History Society.

Over supper I chatted with a lady who told me Melba had given her grandmother a brooch to thank her for her help. This was during Melba’s 1909 visit as the member has a photograph of her grandmother wearing the brooch holding her one-year-old mother. Her mother was born in 1908. The brooch is still in the family and I urged the lady to write down everything she knows and put it with the brooch as its provenance. She said the brooch was a simple gold bar with a small stone in the centre.

We spent time in the Wagga Library before visiting Jillian at the Charles Sturt University Archive. With Jillian’s help a couple more pieces of Melba’s visit were put into place.

You can read the CSU Archive blog at:

Melba visited the Wagga Wagga Experimental farm on Friday afternoon before her concert. Many were surprised but the explanation was simple: the farm was at the forefront of research at the time and Melba would have been gleaning information for her father David Mitchell. The farm had an extensive dairy herd, a vineyard and a pig herd – all areas of interest to her father.

Wagga Experiment Farm
Wagga Experiment Farm A view of the Two Sisters hill and the eastern end of the Wagga Experiment Farm, showing the vineyard. The vineyard was established under George Valder and A.C. Benson, who arrived on the Farm in 1894. This photograph is from an album of photographs belonging to Clive Charles Crane, Housemaster and Lecturer in Science, Maths and Book-Keeping at the Wagga Experiment Farm from at least 1913 until 1926. CSU Ref: SA1634/6

Wal and I spent two hours going through the farm’s letter books hoping there was some acknowledgement of Melba’s visit. We came up empty-handed but did find that Captain Payne from Yarra View Lilydale had sold a breeding pig to the farm.

Archivist Jillian Kohlhagen supplied images from the farm and Wagga and also helped us answer a few other questions.

After the archive we visited the Museum of the Riverina and met with curator Michelle Maddison who added gave us various images.

However, there was one gap we were keen to fill – where did she and the concert party stay on Thursday and Friday night? We know the concert party left for Albury on Saturday while Melba and George spent the weekend with friend Ethel MacDonald at Wantabadgery Station east of Wagga.

Melba arrived at Wagga at 7.30pm on Thursday and after an official welcome was driven away – obviously to her accommodation but where?

I was told the story that Melba had the chimes of the Wagga Wagga Local Court clock tower turned off at 11pm so she could sleep. This is why the chimes today stop at 11pm. Melba made a similar request when staying at Bendigo.

This coupled with its location two doors from the Oddfellow’s Hall (later the Oxford Theatre) and Melbourne theatrical connections of its owner Thomas Smith Bellair, points to Bellair’s Commercial Hotel being where Melba and her party spent Thursday and Friday night.

Fitzmaurice Street, Wagga Wagga. c 1920s
Looking down busy Fitzmaurice Street with push bikes, horse and carts and cars. On the far right is the the three storey Oxford Theatre.

On Friday morning she visited the shops in Fitzmaurice Street – something she often did – and purchased a painting. In the afternoon she visited the Wagga Experimental Farm in the afternoon.

On Saturday, Melba headed off the Wantabadgery Station with Claude and Ethel Macdonald. But that is another Blog.

Melba at Narrandera

Melba’s arrival at Narrandera  for her concert on September 1, 1909 was overwhelming.  All the tickets had been sold two weeks earlier so a full house was guaranteed for the concert in the public hall.

As the party in the vice regal carriage attached to the regular mail train pulled into the station, the Mayor Cr and Mrs Elwin and the Town Clerk P.W. Higgins and several prominent citizens welcomed Melba on the platform.

The school children were given the day off so they could welcome the diva.

The Narandera Argus and Riverina Advertiser of September 3 1909 reported on the arrival.

“From the platform to the conveyance a strip of carpet was laid, and this was lined by the school children bearing bunches of fragrant wattle, forming an avenue which the party passed as the children sang “Advance Australia” under the baton of Mr W. Johnson.”

The event is recorded in the book Narrandera Shire by Bill Gammage but no one mentioned the location of the public hall.

Public Hall Narrandera prior to 1925 when it bunt down.
Narrandera’s privately own public hall in East Street with the Globe Outdoor Theatre next door prior to 1925 when it burnt down.


Thanks to the help from the Parkside Museum and the Narrandera Library which is part of the Western Riverina Libraries, the puzzle was eventually solved. The public hall was a private building erected in 1890 and burnt down in 1925, never to be re-built.

Determined to find out more and hopefully an image, I wandered through the museum and what should I find tucked away in a frame with a series of other images – the Public Hall and Globe Theatre in East Street (Narrandera’s main commercial street).

Armed with a photograph of the image, library manager Sue Killham helped connect everything together for me.  Without her help and that of fellow librarian Jenny and Robert and Roy at the museum, this small slice of the town’s history would have been forgotten.

It was in 1909 that the shire and leading citizens decided more needed to be provided for the community and it was a time many public buildings were erected including halls. It would be nice to think that perhaps Melba’s visit helped in some small way.

Below is another wonderful gem found at the museum. Melba and the concert party stayed at the Royal Mail Hotel. The sketch is from 1891 and the photo is of the hotel today.

Royal Mail Hotel 1891
Coloured Litho of businesses and places at Narandera in 1891. Drawings by Rider & Mercer Litho Ballarat.
The Royal Mail Hotel, Narrandera June 2016.
The historic Royal Mail Hotel Narrandera built c 1874 in June 2016.

Melba at Albury 1909

Unlike Melba’s other concerts on her Back Blocks Tour, the Mechanics’ Institute was not booked out weeks beforehand. Perhaps part of the explanation is because she had given a concert to open an extension at the institute the year before on February 6, 1908. Then the patrons were “packed in like sardines” and hundreds more stood outside making a noise so Melba ordered the doors open so they could all  hear the concert.

Blog Mechanics Institute Dean Street Albury 1960s - ARM 14.821
Albury Mechanic’s Institute prior to demolition in 1966. (Albury LibraryMuseum ARM 14.821)


Dean Street site of the former Albury Mechanic's Institute.
Parkland beside the Albury Town Hall in 2016. This was formerly the site of the Albury Mechanics’ Institute which was demolished in 1966.

In 1909 the audience seemed subdued and took some time to warm up the Diva. By the end of the evening they were loudly applauding her.

The media reported due to the poor attendance it was unlikely Melba would return to Albury. However, 1500 people heard her sing one last time – in July 1927

Melba , her son George, friends and the concert party all stayed at The Globe Hotel which was a short stroll to the Mechanics’ Institute.

Albury was her final New South Wales concert and she was probably keen to get back to Melbourne.

The Albury Historical Society and Emma Williams from the Albury Library/Museum provided me with valuable information about Melba’s time in Albury in 1909.

As recently as 2001, Melba memories have been published in the local media such as the Albury Border Mail.

Back Blocks tour on track

Planning for the Back Blocks tour began in 1908 when before returning to England Melba announced she would be doing a tour of the towns of Australia the following year.

The tour had severe constraints to be overcome. Flautist and co-artist John Lemmone was appointed manager and was assisted by the experienced concert manager of W.H. Paling’s & Co in Sydney Harry Southwell.

The concert criteria sounds simple but in 1909 was not an easy one:

  • a large hall;
  • a piano in tune or a store that can provide one;
  •  and most importantly to move around New South Wales and Queensland in three months,  each town had to be on a railway line.

Communication was difficult and mostly via telegram or mail so careful advanced planning was essential.

concerts dates had to be carefully planned to ensure there was a train – passenger or mail train – to move the party to the various venues in time. A State or Vice Regal carriage was put at Melba’s disposal though I’ve been unable to determine which carriages were used.

The tour started from Sydney early June and the New South Wales and Queensland section finished at Albury on September 6, 1909.

The selected towns and the order were announced in early 1909 but some were subsequently deleted or altered.

The official reason given for the tour was because a few years earlier Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind had done one.

For Melba it was more than copying Lind, it was a chance for her to see more of Australia; spend time meeting with country people and put something back into a country she was so proud to call home. However, Melba was also a shrewd business woman. Ever the entrepreneur the tour provided her with a chance to promote herself as Australia’s royalty – Queen of Song, make some money and promote her records and her secretary Agnes Murphy’s new book: Melba: A Biography.

Coonamble robbery while at Melba concert

Even in small country towns in 1909 it seems you cannot go out for the night. Take the case of Mr and Mrs Curran owners of Curran’s Hotel. They  travelled 160kms on June 14, 1909 to attend Melba’s concert at Dubbo.

The thieves were the pub’s former groom Dick Hayes and local man Alf Flaherty. Sgt Scott and his constable soon captured their men who had stolen £66 from the drawers in the Curran’s room. (Mudgee Guardian and North-Western Representative June 17, 1909 pg3).

The Coonamble Museum is trying to find out more about the case for me.

To see the article go to:

Do you know anything about the Curran family and their hotel? Do you know what happened to our two hapless thieves?




Welcome to my blog for the Nellie Melba Back Blocks Tour completed in Australia in 1909. For the next 6 months I’ll be visiting the 30 plus towns where Madame Melba performed in New South Wales and Queensland. Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia and West Australia will be travelled in 2017.

Each concert and town has been researched and contact made with local groups to add any more information. Photos of the town in Melba’s day and today will be collected and added to this blog.

In the next couple of weeks I will be adding the places and dates Melba visited and perhaps you have a Melba story you can contribute.

Sue Thompson