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WILLIAM FEHON, RAILWAY COMMISSIONER & MARY GAUNT AUTHOR

This One Penny ‘Reading’ post card of 1890-99 (the late version that could also be addressed to New Zealand and Fiji) was postmarked with the double circle MELBOURNE/ AM/ 11/ 30 6 00/ VICTORIA and it was addressed to Wm Fehon Esq, Commission Railways, Sydney (Figure 1).

The reverse showed a Sydney reception postmark of July 2 (1900) and was printed with a heading:  ‘Old Colonists’ Association, and the message read:  ‘BALLOT FOR ELECTIONS TO THE HOMES.  Of your charity I pray you to record One Vote in favour of Miss MARY ANN CHAMPION PALMER, an old lady who through no fault of her own, has been placed in very reduced circumstances.

                                                             “MARY GAUNT”

30th June, 1900                                 (Mrs. H. LINDSAY MILLER)

(Figure 2).


William Meeke Fehon, railway administrator, was born in March 1834 in London, son of John Fehon.  Educated at Brixton school, he entered a commercial firm and in 1851 joined the Eastern Counties Railway Co. as a clerk and was later in the engineer's office.  He worked for the Great Western Railway Co. of Canada from 1856 until his brother invited him to come to Australia.  Arriving in Melbourne in April 1858, on 1 May Fehon married Ann Gumm.   He was employed by the Victorian Railways Department and rose to be traffic manager in 1870.  Two years later, he became a partner William McCullouch & Co., a large carrying organization, and in 1876 its managing director.  William became a public figure in Victoria as a member of the Central Board of Health, a Justice of the Peace and a licencing Magistrate.

He resigned from the firm in 1883, went to Europe, reported on the railways and on his return, went into sugar growing and pastoral pursuits, with little success.  Under the Government Railway Act of 1888 he was appointed the second Commissioner of N.S.W. Railways.   His appointment created a storm for he was accused of  partiality to McCullouchs before leaving the Victorian railways.  A Royal Commission was appointed and Fehon was exonerated, somewhat dubiously.  He was reappointed in 1895, now as third commissioner at a lower salary.

His appointment ended in 1907 and he retired with only a year’s salary, being ineligible for a pension.  He served on the Royal Commission of Inquiry on forestry, but resigned in 1908 on account of his increasing deafness.  After visiting Britain, he lived in retirement mostly at the Warrigal Club, although his Federation home, ‘Huntingtower’ was in Strathfield, Sydney.

He died at his son’s Homebush, Sydney residence on 4 February 1911, and was buried at Rookwood Cemetery, Sydney.  He was survived by a son and daughter and left an estate of £3283 in N. S.W., and £500 in Victoria.  A picture of William Meeke Fehon is seen in Figure 3.

The Old Colonists’ Association of Victoria was established in 1869 by a group of prominent Melbourne identities led by George Selth Coppin, an actor, member of Parliament, and philanthropist, to care for elderly people who were far from home and often destitute.  The Association began operating at Rushall Park, North Fitzroy and now has three additional places providing care for up to 483 residents in either residential low and high level care facilities, apartments and independent cottages.  The original cottages, dating back to 1870, still accommodate residents in care of the Association, which is a charitable organization, a non-profit concern, on a non-sectarian and non-racial basis.

Mary Gaunt, novelist and traveler, was born 20 February 1861 at Chiltern, Victoria, daughter of William Henry Gaunt, police magistrate and later judge, and she was educated at Grenville College, Ballarat.   In 1881 she was one of the first women to sign the matriculation roll of the University of Melbourne;  she began an arts course but did not continue after poor results in her first year.  She turned to writing:  'I wrote merely because I wanted to make money', and money was 'a means of locomotion'.  One of her earliest pieces was an article on gold for Cassell's Picturesque Australasia.

Her first novel, Dave's sweetheart, was published early in 1894 and in August that year she married a widower, Dr Hubert Lindsay Miller of Warrnambool who supported her desire to continue writing under her maiden name.   A collection of short stories (1895) and two novels were published in the years before his death on 30 October 1900.  Left with an income of some £30 a year she decided to go to London to be near the literary market, and she left Melbourne in March 1901.

Lodging at first in two rooms in Kensington, Mary struggled to establish herself as an author.  As her stories began to sell, she travelled in France, Italy and Spain.  Successful collaboration with John Ridgwell Essex in adventure tales set on the west coast of Africa led to a trip to the Gold Coast (Ghana) in 1908 and in 1910 led to a commission from her publisher to explore the old west-coast forts.  Her account of Ghana was published in London in 1911 as Alone in West Africa.

She next visited China, and arrived in Peking in February 1913.  She travelled north by mule cart to visit the Hunting Palace of the Manchus at Jehol.  On her return, she rented a small temple in the hills west of Peking and wrote the greater part of A Woman Alone in China.  She returned to England across Siberia, and then via Finland.  Meanwhile war had broken out and she reached England with difficulty.  Her experiences provided her with material for two travel books and several novels and stories.

From the early 1920s Mary Gaunt settled at Bordighera, Italy, and in the next twelve years she wrote ten books and worked on her memoirs.  In 1940 she had to abandon most of her belongings and flee to France.  Her health became weaker (she was asthmatic) and on 19 January 1942 she died at Cannes.

Mary Gaunt was not a great writer but she wrote with economy, directness, imagination and energy.  Six of her novels are set in Australia and these include her best, notably As the Whirlwind Passeth (begun in 1898 and published in 1923) and Joan of the Pilchard (1930).  Her research for all her writing was thorough. Short and stout, with determined features and an imperious manner when the occasion demanded, she was a strong character, often in conflict with authority when she wished to travel in dangerous places. She invariably won her point.

The information on William Fehon and Mary Gaunt was extracted from the Australian Dictionary of Biography.


 
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