An undated On Her Majesty’s Service cover was addressed to Lord Brassey, Govt. House Melbourne by R. Fullarton, Commanding, Naval Brigade, and the MINISTER OF DEFENCE, FRANK STAMP, VICTORIA was applied in blue. This letter would have been sent during Thomas Brassey’s term as Governor of Victoria in the years 1895 to 1900 (Figure 1).
Thomas Brassey,1st Earl Brassey was born in England on February 11,1836 at St. Mary’s Stafford, England, and he was the son of Thomas Brassey and Maria Farringdon Harrison. Thomas Brassey, senior was a wealthy business man and railway contractor, with multiple global interests. Young Thomas was educated at Rugby school and University College Oxford, graduating with a B.A. & M.A., and was admitted to Lincoln’s Inn as a barrister in 1864. He became a recognized authority on English naval affairs and was elected to the English parliament as a Liberal member for Hastings (1868-86), and he became civil lord of the admiralty (1880-83) under Gladstone and then parliamentary secretary (1884-85). Later he served as president of the Institution of Naval Architects (1893-95). His other posts included a term as Governor of Victoria, at the time of this letter..
He first married Anna Allnutt on October 9, 1860 in London and they had one son and 4 daughters. Anna died on September 14, 1887 on board their yacht Sunbeam off Port Darwin and she was buried at sea.. They had many trips on this yacht and Baroness Brassey wrote Voyage of the Sunbeam. Thomas Brassey is seen photographed at the helm of the yacht (Figure 2).
On September 18, 1890 he married Sybill de Vere Capell in London and they had one child, a daughter. On his return to England he became the warden of the Cinque Ports (1908). He founded the Naval Annual (1886) and wrote the British Navy (1882-83). He was created K.C.B. in 1881, made a Baron in 1886, and in 1911 an earl, and he was usually addressed as the first Lord Brassey. He was a renowned sailor and has been recorded as the first person who circumnavigated the world in his yacht the ‘Sunbeam’. He died on February 23, 1918 at the age of 82 and his only son, Thomas Allnutt Brassey succeeded him as the second Earl Brassey.
Little is written about Thomas Brassey’s tenure as Governor of Victoria. One writer described him as “the governor of a leading colony, he showed himself restless and a little undignified”. Another wrote: “Tom Brassey, simple, honest, hard-working son of the great contractor and millionaire, whom I have watched grow rapidly up from nothing to a peerage, with only boundless money and commonsense as his aides-de-camp.” Yet another wrote: “He is a pleasant looking man of medium height, clean shaven, with sandy hair, prominent eyes and a Saxon type of face. He has travelled much, and is industrious in making commonplace books. Accordingly, he is a well informed person, and if he possessed a little more originality he would be a very interesting companion. He is friendly and good-natured, but without much sense of humour, so takes himself very seriously.”
It is fair to say that Lord Brassey’s adult life was wrapped up with things related to the sea, and it would have been interesting to know the contents of the letter sent from R. Fullarton, Commanding, Naval Brigade and why it had the frank stamp of the Victorian Minister of Defence. Nothing was learnt from an internet search about the sender, but an Australian email correspondent gave interesting facts about him: “Robert Fullarton enjoyed various senior appointments in the Victorian navy. Lt. Fullarton was in charge of an (HMVS) Nelson gun crew and was unable to explain how a practice shell apparently veered a quarter mile off target! This was in the late 1870s, (but) Fullarton’s career was not greatly affected. The practice shell landed in Melbourne’s St. Kilda, causing damage to several houses.”
The naval brigade was first formed in the Australian colonies in 1859 and the force contained a high proportion of ex-Royal navy men. Service was part time and unpaid. Trained in infantry and artillery drill, both ashore and aboard ship, the brigade supplemented the small permanent navy. The Victorian brigade was divided into Williamstown and Sandridge (Port Melbourne) divisions.