Friday, 30 June 2017

Henry and Mary Marsh: Melbourne pioneers

Henry Marsh was born on New Year’s Day 1858 ‘within the sound of bow bells’, at Wandsworth, south-west of London.

Tradition dictates that only those born within earshot of the 'Bow Bells' can claim to be true Londoners - Cockneys.

Henry’s father William was said to be a ‘master osier’ – meaning basket weaver - with a willow farm in Wiltshire. This is the family story, but exactly how this worked is not clear given the distance between Wiltshire and Wandsworth is 127 kilometres as the crow flies.  Nonetheless, the 19th century brought immense popularity for wicker so business was presumably good for William.

William died when Henry was young, most likely in about 1860.  By the age of twelve, he was apprenticed to Prices Patent Candle Co, a large London manufacturer of soap and candles, where he eventually qualified as a ‘distiller’. 

No, he didn’t produce gin or the like - he was a manufacturing chemist.

Prices owned a half interest in J Kitchen and Son Ltd, their counterpart in Melbourne, who were in trouble with a large contract for the supply of candles to the mines at Broken Hill, New South Wales, where silver deposits had recently been discovered.  

Well, at least that’s the way the story has been told. The timing of this description may not be entirely correct and probably mixes two separate issues. 

Broken Hill was founded in 1883 by boundary rider Charles Rasp, who discovered what he thought was tin, but the samples proved to be silver and lead. The orebody they came from proved to be the largest and richest of its kind in the world. Rasp and six associates founded the Broken Hill Proprietary Company (BHP), later BHP Billiton, in 1885 as the Syndicate of Seven. 

The demand for candles would have been underway in 1885 and Marsh certainly benefitted from it but it was not the reason for his move to Melbourne in 1880.

Kitchens had apparently been unable to extract the glycerine from the fats from which the candles were made and the candles wilted and collapsed as soon as they were subjected to the heat of their own flame.

In 1880 the 22-year-old Marsh was asked to go to Melbourne on a five-year contract. He accepted and three colleagues from Prices went with him – John Cron, an engineer, Tom Testro, an accountant, and a young man (whose name has been lost) with managerial training who later managed the catering service at Spencer Street Railway Station.

Before Henry left England, he was engaged to Mary Ann Hitchcock (or Hiscock) who was born 2 May 1858 at Lechlade Gloucestershire to John a farmer and his wife Catherine. 

Mary was an attractive young woman who, thinking there must be better ways of earning a living than living on a farm, went to London at the age of eighteen and apprenticed herself to a firm of dressmakers and milliners.

Among the firm’s customers were ladies of the ladies at Court, the most notable being the then Duchess of Gloucester. Mary was often required to go with another apprentice of her own age to the Court to deliver parcels, show the ladies samples and execute other commissions. Mary told the story of one of her companions who met Edward, Prince of Wales (later Edward VII), within the palace walls. He tried to kiss her and received a slap on the face to ‘teach him manners’.

Mary followed Henry in the Chimbarazo arriving in Melbourne on 21 December 1882. She had relatives in the Colony at Ballarat and maintained some contact with them. Henry and Mary were married shortly after and went to live in Emerald Hill, now South Melbourne.

Emerald Hill was a favoured place for Melbourne’s middle class, with fashionable terraced housing. The grand South Melbourne Town Hall was brand new when Mary arrived. Their first three children were born there, Edith, William and Elsie in 1884, 1885 and 1886 respectively.

William sadly died in 1887 of unknown causes and was buried in what is now the car park Queen Victoria Market.

Henry saw out his contract with Kitchens and two more years. His services were in demand, and in 1887 he left Kitchen’s and Melbourne to join W H Burford and Son Ltd in a similar capacity in Adelaide.

The broad-gauge railway linking Adelaide and Melbourne had just been completed and the family travelled to Adelaide in the first or second train to go through.

Before Federation of the Australian States, Victoria and South Australia were sovereign independent states. Customs clearance was required at the then border town of Serviceton. The station also provided for engine maintenance, refreshments and overnight accommodation: the journey took two days.

Henry and Mary Marsh in the 1880s.



The next post will take up their story in Adelaide.

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Grandfather Poe and the King of Chinese Cinema

When I started asking about my grandfather, Alexander Marion Poe, and his work in vaudeville, my father told me he went to the United Kingdom (UK) and that his theatrical agent was Ramos and Ramos.

This occurred during the second time he ‘went missing’ from Australia, roughly 1908-1912.

He had first arrived in Australian in 1902 at the age of 17 and was back in California, the place of his birth, in early 1906 though returned to Australia before October that year.

I could find nothing about Ramos and Ramos in the UK. People I wrote to there just said ‘there is no record’ of such an agent.

The other stories about this period included one that grandfather Poe’s vaudeville stage act was performed after a film about Edgar Allan Poe was shown. Grandfather Poe would then be introduced as a ‘direct descendant’ and perform his act which may have included magic, mind reading, flamenco guitar or singing.

Part of the story was that he returned to Australia with two English friends he had met in the UK and on the way, they worked in ‘China’.  It all sounded a bit farfetched but I kept an eye out for ‘Ramos and Ramos’ checking the internet from time to time. 

Eventually, they popped up on The Australian Variety Theatre Archive which began in 2011 as a research website devoted to popular culture entertainment between 1850 and 1930. The item was written by Juan Ignacio Toro Escudero as part of his PhD research.

All of a sudden one short paragraph on Ramos and Ramos gave some credibility to the stories. So, who were Ramos and Ramos?

One of the most important pioneers of Chinese cinema and a significant presence in the ‘Far East’ as a vaudeville entrepreneur was Antonio Ramos Espejo. He operated the firm Ramos and Ramos with Ramón Ramos (no relation) from the early 1900s, initially out of the Philippines. Antonio became so successful with his film theatres that he was known as ‘The Spanish King of Chinese Cinema’.

By 1906 they had established themselves in China and within another three years were running live shows and films in Manila, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Tianjin (in north-east China), Macao and Beijing.

Australian vaudeville acts toured for Ramos and Ramos and were signed up by the firm’s Australian representative, Amaro Lopez, for a six-month tour of Hong Kong, Shanghai, Tianjin, Macao and Beijing. Lopez was based in Sydney. 

The path to China was well trodden by artists of the time. Lopez placed an advertisement in the Sydney press in October 1909 seeking vaudeville artists for Ramos and Ramos to work in Hongkong and Shanghai. At least 40 applicants responded – more than he was looking for.

However, the story I had was that Poe was linked with Ramos and Ramos in the UK and headed back to Australia via China with them.

I asked Juan Ignacio Toro Escudero for advice as he is the only person dedicated to studying Ramos & Ramos. Much of his research was derived from newspapers, but he didn’t find any reference to grandfather Poe, though one of his stage names, Abdul Khan, did ring a bell. Acts did change their names often following suggestions from local entrepreneurs. Sounded like grandfather’s kind of people.

Juan was especially interested that his agent in England was Ramos and Ramos. Ramón Ramos was the first agent for Chinese vaudeville artists in Europe that he has knowledge of. So the story of Poe being engaged from the UK fits with what is known, though it certainly is an area for further study.

Juan's thesis is now completed though it is in Spanish and his focus is on Ramos' film enterprises. For a fascinating introduction to his work please see his video ‘Antonio Ramos Espejo, el emperador Española del cine Chino’ [The Spanish Emperor of Chinese cinema]



One of the features of the Ramos shows was to combine a film show with a stage act. Grandfather Poe's time with Ramos and Ramos in China may be the origin of a story that he did his stage act after the showing of a silent film about Edgar Allan Poe.

The basis of this speculation is that the only film which fits the story would be D.W. Griffith's film 'Edgar Allen [sic] Poe' made in 1909



This would fit the time he was away from Australia (1908-1912). In some cases, these films were shown a year or two after their release in the USA, so if it played in China in 1910 or 1911 this is consistent with it happening just before his return to Australia. Although there is apparently no record of this particular film being shown in China, Griffith’s films were popular and widely distributed in China, so it is highly likely to have been shown there.

As an aside, the story that he was related to the poet would have some credibility given that grandfather Poe was of a similar complexion. Whether the relationship is actually true is, of course, another story.

There is not enough information of grandfather Poe’s two English companions to identify where they were exactly at this time. One of his companions was certainly Jack Wright. Jack had apparently learned martial arts in Japan but was also an entertainer. He certainly arrived in Australia at about the same time as grandfather Poe did so the timing fits. 

Wright's family does not know anything about his time in ‘the Far East’. However, within a few years of arriving in Sydney, he made a short film called Yellow Fang set in China which he combined with a demonstration of Jujitsu.
Ramón Ramos, who may have signed up Poe
to work in China. Via 
The Theatre, December 1909.

The other part of his China story is that he supplemented his interest/skills as a herbalist during his time in China. As yet there is no way to verify this, except that he only began working as a herbalist after he arrived back in Australia in about 1912. He was apparently able to communicate in 'Chinese' with Chinese herbalists back in Australia. This would be consistent with him having spent some time in China and most likely in Hong Kong if it was Cantonese he was familiar with.


In spite of many gaps in the record, the story of his time in China is at least consistent with some verifiable facts. There are many stories which (as yet) are not.

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

What do we know about William R. Poe? Part 3

William and Margaret moved to Missouri in the 1820s. They were not alone. Many settlers moved from Kentucky to areas further west.

In 1816 a small army of settlers began moving from Kentucky to Indiana, then on to Illinois. In the following years, many more people migrated westward with more than half moving to Missouri and most of the rest going to Indiana and Illinois.

On 9 August 1824, William R Poe (WRP) was possibly the party to a bond signed by Joseph Casteel binding his daughter Mary, as an apprentice to ’William Powe’ until 27 Feb 1827, to ‘learn to knit, sew, etc’. If this is him it would have been soon after his arrival in Missouri and may be an illustration of his enterprise. But there was one other William Powe in Clay County at this time. He had also come from Garrard County Kentucky and the two are often confused.

By 1830 William was using the middle name Romulus, possibly to distinguish himself from the other William. ‘Powe’ at this time a more common usage than ‘Poe’ which they would all later adopt. Whether he was related through his Powe ancestors to the other William is not known. There were family connections through his wife’s family – the Browns. You can imagine that sorting out the Browns is even more difficult!

The use of Romulus or the middle initial ‘R’ helps identify him clearly in land records and various court proceeding. It is safe to assume that any references to William Powe without the ‘R’ after about 1830 are to the other fellow.

Perhaps he adopted the name himself though it is not clear what its significance may be. Romulus was a co-founder of Rome and regarded as an example of tyranny. Powe is associated with Whigs who supported Alexander Hamilton the popular federalist, remembered on the US five-dollar note. Hamilton had wished to ensure limitations on presidential power. So perhaps WRP was having a joke on himself if he was regarded as autocratic.

WRP made several land purchases in Missouri. A number of these pieces of land were purchased from the government, with funds to be used for schools and payment of teachers. So, he had real wealth with which to buy the land. It would be interesting to know exactly how he made his money.  

In October 1848 WRP was certainly a founding member, though never an officer, of the Plattsburg Masonic Lodge. The Masonic records of Kentucky for the earlier period do not show anyone with the surname Powe, Poe, or Pow in any records, so it appears it was not the family custom at this time.

WRP was convicted for gaming during this period and also of selling liquor to the Indians.

Census and court records show he and Margaret had four children, though it is possible and consistent with the time that one or two others may have died at a young age, perhaps in Kentucky before their move to Missouri.

Those who there are records for are Agnes Roster (1823) born in Kentucky and three boys all born in Missouri; Alonzo Marion (1826), Americus Napoleon (1827) and Alexander Hamilton (1832).

Who came up with those names? Agnes may have been a family name and Royster may be the surname of his or his wife’s family – though as yet none have been found. Alonzo may have been named as part of a plan to distinguish his Powe family from the others who filled their families with a confusing array of Williams and Johns. 

Third in the ‘A team’ was Americus Napoleon. Americus was a pen name of popular politician Alexander Hamilton, but Napoleon – the tyrant. Perhaps this is more family humour. His youngest son was named, perhaps more respectfully as Alexander Hamilton, clearly in honour of the Federalist

Naming children after founding fathers was a common practice, with many George Washingtons and Benjamin Franklins appearing.  But there were few Alexander Hamiltons and even fewer Americuses - again, WRP was being unique.

The interesting thing about the census record is that I can find no entry for William in the 1830 census, but he is there as 'Wm R Pow' in the 1840 census as is the person he is often confused with 'Wm Pow'.  

His eldest son, Alonzo, decided to ‘go west’ at the age of 18. He signed up for a job with Lemmon‐Walden party who left Missouri in April 1845 arriving in the Washington Territory in October. Young Alonzo Poe was a naive lad getting himself into a bit of trouble with Indians whom he assumed (perhaps based on his life experience to that point) would always be friendly.

There is no indication about what made him go west at such a young age. He seems to have been often bored on the journey and wasted bullets shooting at small creatures to pass the time. Perhaps this shows a comfortable upbringing as well as a restless spirit - and perhaps his leaving followed tension in the family. Alonzo claimed land and built a small home but complained of loneliness to his friend Issac Ebey. His younger brother, Americus joined him within a few years after he settled in the Washington Territory.

Back in Missouri, the family was not in good shape.

WRP left his remaining family and Margaret was successful in obtaining a divorce in 1849 on the basis that he had abandoned her and a minor child, Alexander who was 17 years old at the time. Property listed as frozen during the dispute included land within Clinton County, ‘two sorrel horses, … nine head of cows and steers, and one waggon’ as well as kitchen utensils and farm implements.

Once we get to the 1850 census both WRP and Margaret appear in the census records living in separate states.

WRP was beyond the reach of the Clinton County authorities by 1850 and did not appear in his own defence in the property dispute. The court found against him and his land was subsequently sold on the courthouse steps to Americus in October 1851 who bought it for a token sum of $50 (it was valued in 1860 at $3,000).

Americus presumably had to come back from the Washington Territory which probably explains the delay in this action taking place. The time for mail to get to him and his journey back would have taken the best part of a year. 

Two years later he transferred the land to his youngest brother Alexander, who had by then turned 21. Alexander would support his mother for the rest of her life.  

Margaret herself bought at least two further plots of land after the divorce settlement. Later following Margaret’s death, the land was split three ways between his remaining children, Americus, Agnes who had married by then, and Alexander in the absence of Americus who was now in California.

In addition to various land transactions, there are other deed registrations which if examined closely may reveal family or business connections, but at present, I only have index references, not details.

What was WRP doing while this happened?

On 29 April 1849, WRP was married to Mary Jane Dale, some 35 years his junior, by a Justice of the Peace, Mr Saunders, in Buchanan County, Missouri. (It looks like the JP forgot to register the marriage in any courthouse, so we only have these details from Mary's later statement after she was widowed.) Soon after, they moved to Indiana where they had a son, named after him, in April the following year. In his second marriage, he abandoned the ‘A team’ idea.

After about 5 years WRP and Mary moved to Franklin County Illinois and in all had seven children, though only four survived to adulthood. They were William R (1850-1863), Lucy Jane (1852-1946), Edgar Adam (1855-1868), Winifred Scott (1857-1858), Sydney Allen (1859-1928), Pleasant Newton (1859-1928) and Robert Dale (1866-1943).

Winfield was presumably named after Winfield Scott, a popular United States Army general and unsuccessful presidential candidate of the Whig Party in the 1852 presidential election.

In 1850 William and his new family had moved to Indiana and in the census, he is described as a plasterer. Around 1855 they moved to Illinois and by 1860, the family was living in Perry County Illinois, where he is also described as a plasterer.

WRP died in 1866 at the age of 70, soon after his eldest son, Alonzo, died of tuberculosis on the other side of the country.  

A nineteenth-century plasterer, via Wikipedia.



Tuesday, 6 June 2017

William R Powe’s land bounty for 1812 service: part 2 of his story

The previous post summarised what we know about William in the early part of his life prior to moving to Missouri.

In summarising the elements of his service in the war of 1812 it seemed that if we could find that he took up the land available to him as a veteran this may confirm his correct identification in those war records.

It turns out that I already had the answer but had put it aside. 

Originally, I believed the stories that he had died in prison in Missouri after being convicted of grand larceny in the early 1850s. These stories were persistent. I managed to get a hard to read a copy of the court record of the conviction. However, that record refers to a William Powe – not a William R Powe. 

I was eventually able to get a copy of the prison record which confirmed details of the person in question. He was only 22 years old, a whopping 6’ 4” tall with auburn hair, grey eyes and a light complexion. Obviously, a different man, William R was an average height of 5’6” with dark hair and more than double the prisoner's age.

Long before that, someone had sent me a copy of a land patent which I now realise matches his 1812 war service. It dates to October 1860 and grants 160 acres to “William Powe, who served under the name of William Pow”, as a private in Captain Wood’s Company in the Kentucky Militia of the War of 1812.  This is exactly the person whose service enabled his widow to obtain a pension much later in her life.

It also matches his widow’s description of the land grant as being for 160 acres as a result of war service that included the battle of New Orleans. We know that Captain Wood’s company was part of Lieutenant Colonel Slaughter’s regiment. In her submission for a pension, Poe’s widow could not recall the name of the company her husband had served in but she had correctly remembered the substance of it. 

It’s worth noting that most people eligible for this land grant seem not to have taken it up.  In addition, as with the other land warrants granted so long after the event, the land itself was not taken up by the veteran but was ‘assigned’ by them to another person. In this case, one John H Rust ended up owning the land and he presumably paid Powe an agreed price. 

The land was in Kansas, far away from Illinois where William was living at that time. Poe’s then wife was presumably aware of the transaction which would have resulted in a substantial increase in their household income. Those who interviewed her for the pension would probably have been able to determine she was genuine even if she was not aware of some details.

I am now very confident that the identification of William R Powe as the William Powe in this warrant which was the basis of his widow's claim for a pension is correct. However, the identification of him as also Corporal William Poe of Virginia in the same war remains possible, but the only tie which is currently obvious is that he was known to have been born in Virginia. Other information available in the 1920s now seems to be lost. 

Neither set of records identifies his parents but certainly does suggest the focus for that search should be in Garrard County initially and then Virginia.  It may be a process of elimination rather than direct identification.


Below is a picture of the military land warrant. The next post will cover WRP's later life.