Re published with permission of Brighton Historical Society
This dressing gown, made from a double bed crazy quilt, shows the work of many hands over many years, from around 1860 to 1915. Initiated by the family of Emerald Hill hoteliers William and Polly Hodgens, the quilt became a communal work featuring contributions from relatives, friends and guests. Together, they filled the colourful patchwork with images and figures from their everyday lives, offering us a unique insight into both the journey of the Hodgens family and the comings and goings of early Melbourne.
Design aspects of this quilt suggest its construction may date from as early as 1860, a significant time period for the Hodgens family. In 1861, William and Emily (Polly) Hodgens married in England before embarking upon a voyage to an unknown future in Australia. News of opportunity in the 1850s Victorian goldfields likely influenced their decision as in 1864 they were living in the Victorian town of Daylesford.
Thousands made the journey to Australia by sailing clipper or auxiliary steamship, an arduous journey of several months. Quilt-making was encouraged aboard ship, the craft having risen in popularity since the 1840s as industrially produced textiles became increasingly affordable. The ‘crazy quilt’ patchwork style became fashionable in the late nineteenth century. These quilts were often constructed of exotic garment remnants such as silk, satin and brocade and embellished with drawing, painting and embroidery.
We know little about the Hodgens’ life in Daylesford, but one infamous figure of the goldfields is seemingly represented in the quilt: an embroidered dancing woman bears a resemblance to international star of the stage Lola Montez. Lola arrived in Sydney in 1855 for a yearlong tour of Australia, including the goldfield towns of Ballarat, Bendigo and Castlemaine, where her erotic Spanish-inspired ‘spider dance’ earned her both notoriety and fervent admirers. Dance halls and music were popular respite from the hard labour of gold mining.
Around 1875, with the gold rush in decline, William, Polly and their five children, Emily, Daniel, Ada, William and Mabel had moved to the prosperous, growing settlement of Emerald Hill and established the Adelphi Family Hotel in Ferrars Street, just south of the junction of the St Kilda and Port Melbourne train lines. This close proximity to the train line offered commercial opportunity with access to people, industry and shipping. In 1886 William applied for a victualler license, which would allow him to supply food, beverages and provisions to shipping crews.
Businesses essential to the basic needs of a growing community were soon established nearby, including J. Kitchen & Sons’ soap and candle factory, an abattoir, boiling down works, manure and glue factories. Residential areas were set aside, with low-cost housing constructed. Designed to attract “persons of the artisan class”, “labourers, firemen, boilermakers, mariners and shipwrights”, these “neat two roomed cottages and land” were set upon flood-prone mudflats alive with insects and wildflowers.
Life and community in Emerald Hill
By 1883 William and Polly had nine children. The last four, Alfred, Helen, August and Eulalie, were born in Emerald Hill after 1875, with little Helen passing away in her first year. The completed hotel offered ten rooms for guests in addition to those occupied by the family and staff.
In following years, the family’s daughters invited friends and guests to contribute to the continued creation and decoration of the quilt, recording people, events and surroundings. Particularly striking are several painted portraits, which are credited to daughter Ada Hodgens and feature human hair.
Far-flung countries are represented and bereavements and celebrations recorded. When two Hodgens sons established a brewery business, “Bravo”, in Warrnambool around 1896, the occasion was marked with several embroidered patches – as was the appearance of Halley’s Comet, on its 75-year visitation cycle, in 1910.
The close of an era
Records show that Polly Hodgens remained in charge of the hotel as late as 1913. She died soon after in 1915, with William following in 1916. Family lore states that around this time the pub was sold to the Railway Corporation as part of further rail development. The quilt was passed through the family, reinvented into a dressing gown in the 1970s, before ultimately finding its way to the Brighton Historical Society archives.
Through an act of shared craft, we get a sense of how individuals might have connected within a community. In this way, a simple quilt becomes a record of belonging to a certain place in time, a gift to the future offering an image of early Melbourne.
Annabel Butler, 2019
Adapted page design for Brighton Historical Society by Jessica Curtain
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This research was funded by a Local History Grant from Public Record Office Victoria.
Brighton Historical Society Costume Collection Project, 2018-2019.
Originally published at www.brightonhistorical.org.au 20 October 2019