In his reminiscence of his first visit to Sydney, in 1879, Joseph Conrad recalled ‘the tinkle of more or less untuned cottage pianos floated out of open stern-ports till the gas lamps began to twinkle in the streets, and the ship’s night-watchman, coming sleepily on duty after his unsatisfactory day slumbers, hauled down the flags and fastened a lighted lantern at the break of the gangway. The night closed rapidly upon the silent ships with their crews on shore.’ The night watchman was himself: just twenty-one years old, an Ordinary Seaman, his ship was the London wool clipper the Duke of Sutherland moored, while her captain sought a cargo for the return voyage, for five months at Circular Quay West.
Conrad goes on to describe a chance meeting on one of those autumn nights at the Quay. ‘I had an hour or so of a most intellectual conversation with a person I could not see distinctly, a gentleman from England, he said, with a cultivated voice, I on deck and he on the quay sitting on the case of a piano (landed out of our hold that very afternoon) and smoking a cigar which smelt very good. We touched, in our discourse, upon science, politics, natural history and operatic singers. Then, after remarking abruptly, “You seem to be rather intelligent, my man,” he informed me pointedly that his name was Mr. Senior, and walked off — to his hotel, I suppose. Shadows! Shadows! I think I saw a white whisker as he turned under the lamp-post. It is a shock to think that in the natural course of nature he must be dead by now. There was nothing to object to in his intelligence but a little dogmatism maybe. And his name was Senior! Mr Senior!’
This passage, from The Mirror of the Sea, published in 1906, was written a quarter of a century after the encounter it recalls. It is, I suppose, without much consequence, apart from the resonance of the name, or at least its resonance for Conrad. ‘Senior’ is an anglicisation of the French ‘seignior’, meaning feudal lord; for some reason it is a common surname in the north of England and among lowland Scots. Later, in 1963, T S Eliot described Joseph Conrad (to Igor Stravinsky) as ‘a grand seignior, the grandest I have ever met.’ The name stuck in my mind too and after my book, Marlow’s Dream, about Conrad’s adventures in the antipodes, was written and had gone to the publishers, I thought I would inquire further into the identity of Mr Senior, on the off chance that I might be able to find out something more about him. As it happened, I could.
The first clue came, courtesy of WikiData, in the form of a record of a man called Stanton John Senior, a sea captain, born sometime before 1876 at Mold-Green, York, England. Stanton Senior in Sydney in 1895 married Harriet Holtermann, the daughter of the man after whom the Holtermann Nugget was named: the largest single mass of gold ever found. It was uncovered by Bernhardt Holtermann and others at the Star of Hope mine at Hill End in 1872 after explosives, detonated at midnight on October 19, exposed ‘a wall of gold’. Following hard upon Harriet’s untimely death, aged 27, in 1901, Stanton Senior married Annie May Summerbelle at St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney. They had twin sons together before he abandoned the family and moved to South Africa, where he married for a third time, and where he died (it is thought) around 1918. May Summerbelle had already, in 1912, divorced him.
One of the newspaper reports of the Senior-Summerbelle wedding identifies Stanton’s father as George Senior, Esq, of Derbyshire. A man of that name and designation was, in 1865, proprietor of Hasland Lane & Dunstan Collieries and Managing Director of the Chesterfield & Midland Silkstone Company at Chesterfield, south of Sheffield. In this capacity, in February of that year, he gave a supper for about a hundred of his employees at the Prince of Wales Inn; even though he was absent at the time, having gone down to London on his honeymoon. His brother Edward presided and their bookkeeper, Mr Wilcockson, was his deputy. Toasts were proposed and drunk, and a glee, ‘Fair Flora’, along with other songs, sung. Edward Senior said that ‘where managers and workmen pull well together, all parties benefit’ and this was greeted with cheers by the assembled workers.
George Senior and his wife Emma, née Coe, had two other sons, both Australian born: Sacheveral George (b. 1885) and Edward Wilson Hastings (b. 1888). Sacheveral was killed, aged 30, at Gallipoli, in August, 1915 and is buried in the cemetery at Lone Pine. Edward, who also served in the war, as a sapper, survived. Born in Mosman, Sydney, he died at Austimer, near Wollongong, in 1955. When and how the Senior family emigrated to Australia isn’t clear. As with any genealogical inquiry, there is plenty of scope here for speculation; and, while it is by no means certain that the gentleman Joseph Conrad encountered at Circular Quay was George Senior, Esq., of Derbyshire, he might have been. If so, he was a wealthy man, with a wife and a young son, who had imported a piano from the old country, perhaps to grace the family home in Mosman.
Genealogical inquiry can also open doors which might otherwise have remained closed. May Summerbelle, whom Stanton Senior married in 1901, was at that time a widow with a seven year old daughter from a previous marriage. Born in 1867, the child of another sea captain, in January, 1893 she married Edwin Hubert Glasson, known as Bertie, the youngest son of a family of wealthy graziers from the western districts of New South Wales. He was 25 years old, a stock and station agent who also had an interest in a butcher’s shop in the town of Carcoar. Bertie was, by all accounts, handsome, popular and easy-going, a good sportsman and a fine judge of a horse. The Glassons, who were Cornish, were Wesleyans while the Summerbelles were Catholic.
The Evening News reported: ‘A very pretty wedding took place at St. Joseph’s Church, Woollahra, on Wednesday, the 18th instant, when Miss Annie May Summerbelle, the talented young pianist and composer, daughter of Captain William Summerbelle, of Double Bay, was married to Mr. Bertie Glasson, of Stanfield, Carcoar. The youthful bride looked charming. She was attired in ivory merveillenx, with empire sash, her veil being fastened with a diamond crescent, the gift of the bridegroom.’ Her sisters, Blanche and Stella, in pink crepon silk dresses and carrying bouquets of pink roses, were her bridesmaids. The couple afterwards went to the Carrington Hotel at Katoomba in the Blue Mountains and thence to Hobart and to New Zealand for their honeymoon. The newspaper reported ‘the presents were both numerous and costly.’
Bertie and May lived together in the luxurious Metropole Hotel, on the corner of Young and Bent Streets in Sydney, for some months after their wedding and it must have been while they were there that May fell pregnant. But all was not well. Bertie, who may have been a gambler, and who had fallen out with his older brothers over his share in the family property, was in financial difficulties. The butcher’s shop in Carcoar, which he co-owned, was mired in debt and about to be sold out from under him by the City Bank in Bathurst. Evidently, the lifestyle he and his wife lived at the Metropole was not just lavish, it was beyond their means. Bertie decided to attempt to ease their predicament by desperate measures. He told his creditors he was about to come into a large sum of money and took a train to Carcoar.
There, after visiting a family friend, who sensed nothing amiss, at 2.30 am he broke in through a window to the Carcoar branch of the City Bank on Belubula Street. The manager, John Philips, who lived upstairs, heard a noise and came down to investigate. He had a pistol in his hand. When he saw Bertie, whom he knew, he tried to talk him out of whatever his mad plan was. Glasson demanded the key to the safe and when it was not forthcoming (Philips did not have it) attacked and killed him with a ‘razor-sharp’ tomahawk. He also struck Philips’ wife in the face with the axe, and despatched her sister (or perhaps her friend), Frances Cavanaugh, with a single blow. Fanny had the Philips’ three year old daughter, Gladys, in her arms when she was hit and the little girl lost two fingers and a thumb.
Glasson, having murdered two people and seriously injured two more, fled, without any money, on a horse stolen from the local vicar, who was his cousin, and was arrested the next day at a barber’s shop in Cowra. His bloody clothes were found in a field on the family farm and there was a pathetic, unsent letter to his wife (it may have been an attempt at an alibi) in the pocket of his jacket: ‘O my precious Queen, I am going mad, and felt it coming on for some time. I came to myself today, Sunday, in one of Stanfield’s paddocks, and I had on a black suit of clothes all covered in blood. What I have done I have no idea. I remember leaving Sydney to go to Orange . . . ’
At the trial he pleaded insanity and in his defence suggested he had inherited his malady from his mother Elizabeth’s side of the family; her maiden name was Paull and, like the Glassons, they were Cornish. It was to no avail: he was convicted and hanged in Bathurst Jail in November. His wife was refused permission to visit him there and it was during this period, pregnant and alone, that she wrote the song ‘Love is a Fadeless Flower’. Their daughter was born the next year, 1894, and called by her mother Noëla Beatrice Myer Ewart Glasson. When, in 1901, May Summerbelle married Stanton Senior, seven year old Noëla (pronounced ‘Nola’) took her stepfather’s name and it was as Noëla Senior that she was herself married, in Ashfield in 1922, to the poet Kenneth Slessor.
Captain William Summerbelle, English born in 1834, came out to New South Wales at an unknown date and worked on ships, sailing mostly to and fro and in between the islands of the Pacific. He married Honora Savage in Sydney in 1859 and they had six children, four girls and two boys. May was their fifth child. Captain Summerbelle’s obituary records that ‘having made his fortune in South Seas trade and feeling the need to spend time with his growing family, William became the manager of the North Shore Steam Ferry Company. He passed away, aged 62 years, in 1896 at Ryde, New South Wales.’ He had lived long enough to witness the denouement of his daughter’s disastrous first marriage.
May Summerbelle was a pianist who wrote light classical music and popular songs. She had been a student at the Phillip Street, Sydney, school of Alice Charbonnet-Kellerman, the French-Australian composer of romantic and classical music, teacher of the opera singer Nellie Melba and of the composer Lydia Larner, as well as the mother, by her violinist husband, Frederick William Kellerman, of the famous long distance swimmer, vaudevillian, screen actor, nude model and educator Annette Kellerman. May Summerbelle’s first compositions appear to have been written in the early 1890s, around the time of her courtship and marriage to Bertie Glasson.
She went on to write over a hundred tunes, including ‘So Long’, which was played as the Third Australian Light Horse embarked at Circular Quay for Gallipoli, where they fought, dismounted and without their horses, as infantry. Another of her compositions, ‘Ave Maria’ (1910), was ‘written specially for and sung by Madame Melba’. Some of her music was selected to be performed at the 1924 British Empire Exhibition in London. In later years Ms Summerbelle who, after Stanton Senior left, never re-married, involved herself in repertory theatre. She died in 1946. Recently her reputation has been restored as a part of a drive to rehabilitate neglected Australian woman composers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Another of the Summerbelle sisters, Stella, also married a sea captain, Francis Joseph Bayldon. Their wedding, with Catholic rites, took place in Sydney in 1898, three years before May married Stanton Senior. Bayldon was born in Lincolnshire, England in 1872, the son of an Anglican minister. In 1887, aged 15, he was apprenticed to Devitt & Moore, shipowners, and became a cadet officer in their passenger clippers sailing, as Joseph Conrad did, out to Australia via the Cape of Good Hope and back to England around Cape Horn. He earned his chief mate’s ticket in 1894 and his master’s in 1896, after which he ‘went into steam’. For four years he was with the Canadian-Australian line, steaming between Sydney and Vancouver. In 1901 he was employed by Burns Philp and became a chief officer and a master on ships engaged in their Pacific Islands trade for the rest of the decade.
Bayldon joined the Royal Naval Reserve in 1898 and was promoted lieutenant in 1907. He was a skilled hydrographer who corrected defective charts and added new details to them, including the Bayldon Shoals, off Tulagi, to the east of Iron Bottom Sound in the Solomon Islands, where after his death his ashes were scattered. His observations of the zodiacal light were published by the British Astronomical Association and by the Lick Observatory in the US. His treatise, On the Handling of Steamships During Hurricanes on the East Coast of Queensland, was highly recommended by other master mariners who steamed those waters. He retired from the merchant marine in 1910 and that year opened the Sydney Nautical Academy ‘catering for all types of nautical certificates’. He sold the school in 1947, the year before he died; its curriculum went on to form the basis of navigation studies at Sydney Technical College.
Bayldon was a fellow of the Royal Australian Historical Society and contributed articles to its journal, including one, in 1925, on the 1606 voyage of Luís Vaz de Torres from the New Hebrides, now Vanuatu, through the strait that bears his name to the Moluccas and then on to Manila. This essay was severely criticized in the introduction to the book, New Light on the Discovery of Australia, as Revealed by the Journal of Captain Don Diego de Prado y Tover, edited by Henry N Stevens and published by the Hakluyt Society in 1930. Bayldon, who had sailed through Torres Strait himself and knew its waters well, was incensed. He took every opportunity thereafter to counteract what he called Henry Stevens’ ‘most misleading deductions’.
Bayldon was also a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society of London, a foundation councillor of the Geographical Society of New South Wales, president of the League of Ancient Mariners and vice-president of the Shiplovers’ Society. A quiet, unassuming man, nick-named ‘Gentle Annie’ by his fellows, he was not, however, a prude, ‘for he drank, smoked and swore’. He was also the model for Captain Dobbin in the Kenneth Slessor poem of that name. Slessor wrote: ‘He had a magnificent library, more than a thousand books about the sea and seamen, logs, journals, learned papers, instruction manuals, maps and charts, many of them exceedingly rare and valuable. Fortunately the Mitchell Library acquired them after his death.
‘Since he was my wife’s uncle, I was allowed to browse through this collection on my weekly visits [to his house in Darling Point]. Over a glass of sherry I was encouraged to ask questions, and his enthusiasm, his scholarly gusto and his astonishing knowledge of unfamiliar details soon infected me with his own worship of Cook. Indeed, all that I have written about Captain Cook I got from Captain Bayldon. The Five Visions, rough and incomplete as they seem to me still, are merely fragments of the image he built for me.’
Curiously, Slessor’s biographer, Geoffrey Dutton, while he tells the story of the Glasson murders, fails to realise that Noëla was Bertie Glasson’s daughter. He thinks Stanton Senior was her father and that she was born on Christmas Day, 1905, making her a girl of sixteen when Slessor married her in 1922, not the 28 year old she actually was. Slessor, seven years younger, was 21. Dutton’s portrait of Noëla is unsympathetic. He describes her as ‘a vain, frivolous, selfish woman’, who ‘occupied a shrine in Slessor’s heart where she appeared as a goddess.’ She was thus a burden and a drag upon the great man. How much his misapprehension as to her age and her antecedents contributes to this assessment is difficult to say; it must have had some effect.
Whatever the nature of their relationship, it is clear that Kenneth loved Noëla all her life. Moreover, her death, from cervical cancer in 1945, coincided with the end of his poetry writing (there was just one more poem). He several times in interviews remarked upon his inability to write poetry once she had gone. There are of course many reasons why a poet might stop writing and the lack of anything more to say, which Slessor also alluded to in interview, is foremost amongst them. However he didn’t actually abjure the writing of poetry, he merely said he was waiting for the conditions in which poems would come to mind again to re-occur. In Noëla’s absence, they never did.
Noëla, and the wider network of the Summerbelle family, were thus an indispensable part of the ecology out of which Slessor’s poetry grew, as his association with Captain Bayldon demonstrates. You could also reach back to Captain Summerbelle’s position with the ferry company for a ghost connection to Slessor’s most famous poem, ‘Five Bells’, an elegy for his friend Joe Lynch, drowned in Sydney Harbour after accidently falling into the water from the ferry Kiandra on the night of May 14, 1927. The Kiandra was operated by Sydney Ferries, which grew out of the North Shore Steam Ferry Company, which William Summerbelle managed.
The influence upon Noëla, and through her on Slessor, of the Glasson murders, is harder to construe. Slessor’s sternly Presbyterian mother Margaret, a Scot whose family were from Hebrides, opposed the marriage, perhaps because the Summerbelles were Catholic, perhaps because of the association of Noëla’s mother with the notorious killer. Margaret Slessor, née McInnes, was from Orange, where Kenneth was born in 1901, when the Glasson murders were still in living memory. His father, Robert, an English mining engineer of German Jewish descent, changed the family name from Schloesser just after the beginning of the First World War. Whether because of Noëla’s Catholicism, her antecedents or for some other reason, Margaret Slessor disapproved of her and told Kenneth that she would never receive her. She never did.
I don’t know if Noëla knew who her biological father was, nor whether Slessor did either. Common sense says they both must have, but whether that means their marriage was haunted by the spectre of Glasson and his bloody crime is impossible to determine. Again, common sense suggests not. Nevertheless, the presence of a veritable axe-murderer in his wife’s genealogy suggests that the apprehension of a kind of gothic horror lurking just outside the penumbra of ordinary life might also be adduced as another part of the ecology out of which Slessor’s poems grew.
Dutton’s hostility towards Noëla is unremitting; yet his version of her is derived mostly from Slessor himself; even though he acknowledges, as others have done, that Slessor was a very private man, intricately masked, and that no-one really knows, or can know, what the marriage was like on the inside. A reviewer of Dutton’s 1991 biography of Slessor, Dennis Haskell, quotes a friend of Peter Porter’s: ‘All marriages are opaque’. Perhaps Noëla’s alleged frivolity was an escape from the darkness of her background. Or perhaps she inherited certain traits from her mother. Dutton remarks disparagingly upon Noëla’s ‘inexhaustible appetite for shopping’. Haskell points out that Slessor, ‘whose poems are full of closely observed and often exotic objects, seems to have enjoyed these outings just as much. Noëla’s fastidious tidiness was another obsession that he shared.’
It isn’t uncommon for a biographer to feel they know better than their subject how they ought to have lived their life. As such, Dutton is sometimes guilty of the kind of proprietorial judgement that illuminates his own predilections more than it does Slessor’s character or experiences. His failure to realise Noëla’s antecedents is a more egregious error, depriving her of a decade of lived life, and making her five years younger than her husband, when she was in fact seven years older. The long and happy marriage of Raymond Chandler and his wife Cissy, who was eighteen years his senior, comes to mind. The mistake seems to open the way into an alternative past for both Kenneth and Noëla, as well as leading to a different future for them; which, at this point, remains unwritten.
One of the episodes in this unwritten story might show, as in a movie, May Summerbelle composing a song for Nellie Melba to sing upon the piano Joseph Conrad remembered sitting in a crate on the dock at Circular Quay in 1879, while he talked to its owner, Mr. Senior, who in this version is Noëla’s step-grandfather. Noëla, meanwhile, is a teenage girl listening to her mother’s songs as they are born, and borne, upon the air, in the same way that as her husband’s companion she witnessed, in some sense, all of the poems he made during the twenty-three sometimes tempestuous years of life they shared with one another. She was, to use an antiquated term, his muse. This vignette, though plausible, is also retrograde, crossing the line between biography and fiction and thereby becoming something that may be imagined but which cannot be attested to as real.
This raises the question: in biography, and indeed in autobiography, what is the status of the real they claim to reproduce? Somehow, in non-fiction writing, the conviction that truth is available to readers persists. Meanwhile, in fiction, the notion that a kind of meta-truth might emerge from a confection of narrative and descriptive sources, including inventions, relying for their impact upon their imaginative coherence, likewise endures. Perhaps non-fiction differs from fiction not in kind but in degree; perhaps our (relatively recent) distinction between the two is artificial, made not because one tells the unvarnished truth and the other tells the varnished kind, but because they follow different methodologies. That is, one relies upon invention while the other recovers what we think of as fact.
Even these methodologies may not be as dissimilar as they seem: both memory and research are as necessary for the construction of a work of fiction as they are for one of non-fiction. Furthermore, in any of the kinds of writing that are conventionally termed non-fiction ― autobiography, biography, memoir, the log of a scientific experiment, the progress of a voyage, a confession, a meditation, a manifesto or a dream ― there will be a proportion of willed or unwilled forgetting, if only because the multifarious nature of the world requires a writer to select and in selection there is always both remembering and forgetting. If there are also inventions, and often there are, they will not be identified as such.
It may also be that in some states of mind a writer does not so much remember as intuit those aspects of circumstance, character, action, description and the rest that make compelling work possible. As if under the guidance of the superannuated muses, swiftness, accuracy, power, meaning and beauty, in a miraculous way, manifest and allow what might otherwise have been laboured or botched, effortlessly to appear. This, too, applies as much to the writing of non-fiction as it does to fiction. Writers of non-fiction are, or can be, just as imaginatively engaged in their work as any fictioneer might be.
A reprise: the tinkle of cottage pianos at Circular Quay is succeeded by the blue notes May Summerbelle plays on Mr Senior’s instrument, in memory of her first husband, the hanged man, while their daughter, Noëla, hears and remembers. She transmits, perhaps by occult means, what she has heard to Kenneth Slessor, who writes: ‘Between the double and the single bell / Of a ship’s hour, between a round of bells / From the dark warship lying there below / I have lived many lives’. Later in the poem, listening, without hope, in the night of the harbour, for the voice of his friend who has drowned, he continues: ‘I felt the wet push its black thumb-balls in, / The night you died, I felt your eardrums crack, / The short agony, the longer dream / The Nothing that was neither long nor short’. Or, as Joseph Conrad wrote in a letter in 1915: ‘reality, as usual, beats fiction out of sight.’
images : the Duke of Sutherland at Circular Quay; X-Ray of Joseph Conrad’s left hand, Glasgow, 1898