Friday, December 4, 2015

Napoleon's Picnic at "The Briars" 200 years later.

 Napoleon's Picnic at "The Briars" 18 October 2015  


Two hundred years after Napoleon came to stay with the Balcombe family at "The Briars" on the island of St Helena at the commencement of his exile there, 60 people gathered at "The Briars" in Mt Martha, Victoria, Australia on 18 October 2015 to celebrate such an occasion.

We enjoyed picnic food similar to what Napoleon ate on 18 October 1815.  We sat at 3 long tables in the dining room which were decorated with red, white and blue, the French colours.  The fine dining china and silverware were most appropriate for the occasion, we sipped on Champagne,  and chatted enthusiastically with the other guests about our associations with Napoleon which was quite varied.

Joy & Peter Olney

Napoleon's picnic fare

The little cakes were delicious but not quite what Napoleon would have eaten!

Anne Whitehead launched her book "Betsy and the Emperor"

"Betsy and the Emperor" is about the British family, the Balcombe family, who lived at "The Briars" on the island of St Helena and incurred the wrath of the British Governor, Sir Hudson Lowe because of their friendship with Napoleon Bonaparte.  Through that relationship with Napoleon they inevitably became closely acquainted with his immediate companions in his household, his devoted chamberlain and biographer, his physician and his valet.

Napoleon spent the first 7 weeks of his imprisonment on the island of St Helena with the Balcombe family while he waited for "Longwood House" to be completed and ready to shift into. Napoleon's friendship with 14 year old Betsy Balcombe whose impudent charm briefly enlivened his exile is interesting reading.

Anne's book follows the Balcombe family back to Britain and to the penal colony of New South Wales. The book argues that Napoleon, a master of strategy, had a particular reason for cultivating the Balcombes.  It also answers how and why the lives of that English family on St Helena, the merchant William Balcombe, his wife who resembled the Empress Josephine, and their two pretty daughters, Betsy and Jane came to be entangled with Napoleon and the reason why he was anxious to entangle them.

My interest is with the Moss and Solomon families, in particular with Saul Solomon (1776-1852), the local Merchant on St Helena, often called "The Merchant King of St Helena". Also Cousins George Moss 1815-1898 and Saul Solomon 1817-1892 who were business associates and owned "The Briars" for half a century, and "Longwood House" where Isaac Moss later lived. 

Extracts from “Betsy and the Emperor” by Anne Whitehead re Saul Solomon & Longwood House.

Page 5 .….. In 1815, William Balcombe had his official duties as superintendent of public sales for the Company but also his separate interests as senior partner in the firm Balcombe, Cole and Company, supplying vessels calling at Jamestown.  Saul Solomon, proprietor with his brothers Lewis and Joseph of the town’s only emporium – ladies fashions, fabrics, lace, jewellery and rosewater – studied the papers for trends, knowing that styles would be half a year out of date by the time their order arrived (allowing three months for the requisition and three for the despatch) but that this did not matter to the ladies of St Helena as long as they kept pace with one another……

Page 9……The immediate issues were housing and catering.  The official ‘Secret letter’ stated that any residence on the island could be allocated for Bonaparte, ‘with the exception of the Governor’s Plantation House’.  Wilks learned from the captain of the Icarus that a retinue was coming with the prisoner, not only his officers and servants but also some aristocratic Frenchwomen.  He thought Longwood House, the lieutenant-governor’s isolated summer residence, could be a possibility, but it was badly in need of repairs….

Page 10 …… With the fleet imminently arriving under the command of the rear-admiral, there would also be another 200 sailors and soldiers and the massive logistical exercise of feeding them all.  Most of the island’s food came from the Cape of Good Hope and shortages were chronic.  It would be a challenge for the commissary-general and store-keeper, who allocated provisions brought by the twice yearly store-ship, and for Solomons Merchants and William Balcombe, the Company sales agent with a providore business on the side.
In fact, the merchants recognised splendid commercial opportunities in the new situation.  Balcombe was pleased; as well as his providore business, he owned the Union brewery supplying beer to the garrison, and has an orchard and large vegetable garden at his home, The Briars.  He would soon, like the Solomons, take advantage of the increase in the island’s population by doubling his prices.  But there were negative implications for the merchants as well: with the island removed from the jurisdiction of the East India Company and patrolled by the Royal Navy, ships of other flags would be unable to call for water, victualling and trading, thereby limiting business.  However, Balcombe was a man who looked in every setback for an opportunity and usually succeeded in finding one ……

Page 32 – 33 …… Admiral Cockburn elected to stay at the castle, where he had access to the warships in the bay, rather than be a guest at Plantation House, the governor’s mansion out of town.  It was determined that Bonaparte permanent home would be Longwood House, up on the high plateau, remote enough to serve as a prison.  It has recently been occupied by the lieutenant-governor and his family as a summer retreat from the humidity of Jamestown, but its earlier use was as a cattle house and barn, to which some rough additions had been made.  It was dilapidated and at least two months’ work would be needed before it could be acceptable accommodation ……

Page 42 …… I walked past the Consulate Hotel down the steep main street, at the bottom of which the RMS St Helena, still at anchor, was framed in the town wall’s archway.  With some surprise I noted the sign “Solomon & Company” on a substantial building – the largest island merchant during Napoleon’s captivity and apparently still …...

Page 63 …. The canaries and Java sparrows Betsy described – brought by East India Company ships had gone, but Indian mynahs flittered about in squabbling, fussy numbers.  A former resident of The Briars was responsible for the preponderance of these drab little creatures all over the island.  In 1868, Miss Phoebe Moss brought a cage of six mynahs from England and released them in The Briars’ garden, imagining they might feast on the invasive white ants.  The crumbling ruin that the house became testified to the fact that they did not ……

Page 74 ….. Mesdames Fanny Bertrand and Albine de Montholon had little to do each day but read, sew, watch their children play in the castle gardens, and find new ways of quarrelling with each other.  During breaks in hostilities they visited Saul Solomon’s store in the vague hope of finding something interesting to purchase. They were a popular sight from the doors of the taverns, wine houses and hostels, teetering on dainty Parisian heels up Jamestown’s cobbled main street, holding lace trimmed parasols aloft to protect their complexions. Their ensembles in satin and mousseline do soie (silk muslin) were the latest in Empire fashion, and Albine’s hourglass shape belied her new pregnancy.  Encased in whalebone corsets, the ladies found the summer hear unendurable.…..

Page 75 …... A welcome distraction came with the news that Admiral Sir. George Cockburn was to host a ball at the castle in late November.  The local society people would attend, and also the military and ships officers, one of whom wrote that if Sir George ‘can find the ladies, of course we shall go there’.  The real excitement was that the French were to be invited, including their diabolical leader.  Whom among the local ladies might he ask for a quadrille?  At Solomon’s store and along the promenade they talked of little else…..

Page 76 – 78 …... As the day drew closer, Betsy’s own excitement could barely be contained.  She had been in boarding school for years and had never attended such a grand occasion.  She would need a new dress and chattered about fabrics and designs.  However, her father ruled that she was too young; Jane could go, but Betsy must wait for at least a year before coming out into society.  She resolved to change his mind.
Written invitations from the castle duly arrived for Napoleon and all his French companions except the domestics.  But there was a major problem with the wording.  On 14 November, which happened to be his birthday, Gourgaud made a glum entry in his journal: ‘We receive invitations to the Admiral’s Ball.   There is one for “General Bonaparte”.  Napoleon promptly refused it.  He said he did not know of such a person on the island.  ‘Send this card to General Buonaparte’, he told Bertrand.  ‘The last news I heard of him was at the Battle of the Pyramids’.
Betsy was still desperate to go, and pleaded with Napoleon to intercede with her father.  He surprised her by arguing her case, and Balcombe relented. Soon she and Jane were paying a visit to Solomon’s store with their mother to choose silks, muslins and ribbons and to pore over the London fashions in “The Lady’s Magazine”.  Betsey was entranced with the design for her dress, which was to be appliqued with delicate paper roses.
One evening, as was their frequent habit, Napoleon and Las Cases came to The Briar’ house after dinner for a game of whist, with sugar plums as stakes.  The senior Balcombes were unaccountably absent – Mrs Balcombe, who suffered from recurrent hepatitis, may have retired early – but the little card table was set up in the parlour.  Napoleon and Jane were to play together against the ill-matched partnership of Betsey and the count.
The cards were muddled and Las Cases was instructed to sort them into suits.  While the former chamberlain was occupied with this fiddly task, Napoleon asked Betsy about her robe de bal.  She was inordinately proud of the new gown, her first, and had him to thank that she would be wearing it to the castle.  She ran upstairs and fetched, showing off the fine needlework and appliqued paper roses.  ‘Very pretty’ he said.
Las Cases returned to the table with the sorted deck, so Betsy placed the dress on the sofa and the game began. It was soon clear that Napoleon was not abiding by the rules.  Betsey caught him ‘peeping under his cards as they were dealt to him, he endeavoured whenever he got an important one to draw off my attention, and then slyly held it up for my sister to see.  I soon discovered this and, calling him to order, told him he was cheating, and that if he continued to do so, I would not play’.
At the end of the hand, Napoleon claimed to be the winner; when Betsey disputed this, he laughed and declared that she was the cheat and should pay what she owed.
‘Never! You revoked! You cheated!
At this Napoleon jumped up and, calling her wicked (‘Ah, you are merhante!’), snatched up her ball drew from the sofa.  He ran from the room with it and up to the pavilion.  She gasped in astonishment.  Then she set off up the path in pursuit.  But he was too quick, darting through the marquee and locking himself in the inner room.  Despite her remonstrances and tears, he called through the door that he was keeping the dress to teach her a lesson.
The ball was the following evening.  There was no sign of Napoleon throughout the day.  Betsey sent several begging messages to the pavilion but was told that the emperor was sleeping and could not be disturbed. Neither of her parents was willing to approach him.  Because she was not yet of an age to ‘come out’ into society, they had not wanted her to go in the first place; nor would they have wished to engage their distinguished guest on such a frivolous matter – although they must have wondered why he bothered with it.
The day wore on and at last the hour arrived for their departure.  The horses were brought around and the young slave boys loaded the tine cases holding the ladies’ silks and satins – but not Betsy’s beautiful gown.  Her mother and sister would be able to change into their evening finery at the castle and she would still be wearing her plain little house dress.  By the time they reached the gate she was inclined to return home, but then Napoleon came running across the grass with her gown over his arm. ‘Here, Miss Betsee, I have brought it for you!  I hope you are a good girl now and that you will enjoy the ball.’  He walked beside their horses until they came to the end of the bridle track which joined the Sidepath.  He asked idly about a farmhouse he noticed far below. As they waved goodbye he called out toe Betsey: ‘Make sure that you dance with Gourgaud!’  The emperor was mocking her as usual.  She detested Gourgaud …..
…..Gourgaud was discomforted to be greeted by their host Admiral Cockburn, who requested – with a firmness sounded like an order – that he should book the first quadrille with Mrs Balcombe, the second with Betsy Balcombe and the third with Miss Knipe, a farmer’s daughter…..

Page 86 – 88 ….. For weeks Napoleon had observed the fatique parties of the 53rd Regiment as they wound around the mountais to the beat of fifes and drums, building materials on their shoulders.  Now they were no longer heaving stone blocks and timers, but rather furniture, rugs and pictures.  Longwood House would soon be ready for occupation…..
Bertrand visited Longwood and reported that the house smelled badly of paint. Betsy would ‘never forget the fury of the emperor.  He walked up and down the lawn, gesticulating in the wildest manner.  His rage was so great that it almost chocked him.  He declared that the smell of paint was so obnoxious to him that he would never inhabit a house where it existed’…..

Page 94 - 95….. The garden at Longwood, with agapanthus and iris flower and the Tricolore flapping on the flagpole, is attractively wooded now, but was bare and unsheltered when the French were installed in December 1815.  Napoleon was partly responsible for the improvement; in 1818, after three years of boredom, he began work, digging and planting out in the sun in loose trousers and a Chinese coolie hat, saying: ‘One day, perhaps one hundred years from now, people will visit this area and admire the garden’.
Napoleon was five and a half years at Longwood House, longer than he ever spent at any imperial residence, for he used his palaces only between campaigns.  Our tour group was guided through the rooms, shrines to the former emperor: the billiard room where he rarely played billiards but spread his old campaign maps on the table; the circular holes in the shutters were he squinted at Governor Lowe and the British guards through his telescope; the huge globe of the world, sepia with age, where the island of St Helena does not appear in the Atlantic, allegedly rubbed out by a furious finger.  There is the dimly lit dining room where meals were served with formal pomp, and the emperor’s little bedchamber and sitting room, with his tricorne hat and a copy of the greatcoat he wore at the Battle of Marengo displayed on the pink chaise lounge.  We peered into the deep timber clad copper bath in which he soaked for house, reading and fretting away his life. ‘Boredom,’ wrote Gourgaud in his journal, ‘boredom, boredom, sadness….’  Most gloomy is the drawing room and the green curtained campaign bed where Napoleon breathed his last on 5 May 1821.
Napoleon was unimpressed with the renovations to the sprawling and rackety farmhouse, still infested with rats.  The only part he cared for was the new addition, an airy wooden reception hall with six windows and a small lattice enclosed porch looking across to the Barn, dropping almost sheer to the ocean far below.  His narrow bedroom on the ground floor adjoined a small study; an antechamber contained the one great improvement to his comfort: a deep lead-lined bath made for him by ship’s carpenters from the Northumberland (later replaced by an imported copper one), and filled from buckets heated over a fire outside…..

Page 96 …..Napoleon loathed the bare surrounding of Longwood.  He was incesed to be told that he could walk and ride freely in an area only 12 miles in circumference, much of it cut by ravines and therefore unusable; beyond that limit he was to be accompanied by a British officer.  A complex code of signals had been issued to every sentry post, tracking the prisoner’s daily movements, whether inside the house, in the garden or within the 12 mile corden……

Page 99 …… Balcombe brought his wife and daughters to visit Napoleon at Longwood House.  They found Napoleon sitting on the steps of the green-latticed porch, chatting with young Tristan de Montholon.  Then he saw them he came forward: ‘Running to my mother, he saluted her on each cheek.  After which fashion he welcomed my sister, but, as usual with me, he seized me by the ear, and pinching it, exclaimed, “Ah! Mademoiselle Betsee, etes-vous sage, eh eh?” – “Are you being good, eh?”
He took them on a tour of his ironically dubbed ‘palace’, leading them first to his bedroom, which she found small and cheerless.  The walls were covered in fluted nankeen fabric and the only decoration she observed were the different portraits of his son and the Empress Marie Louise which she had seen before.  ‘His bed was the little camp bestead, with green silk hangings, on which he said he had slept when on the battlefields of Marengo and Austerlitz.  The only thing approaching to magnificence in the furniture of his chamber, was a splendid silver wash-basin and ewer.  The first object on which his eyes would rest on awaking, was a small bust of his son, which stood on the mantelpiece, facing his bed, and above which hung a portrait of Marie Louise.  We then passed on, through an ante-room, to a small chamber, in which a bath had been put up for his use, and where he passed many hours of the day.
They proceeded to the stone-flagged kitchen, where Napoleon asked Pierron the confectioner to create creams and bonbons for the girls; he then led them into the garden. Betsey found the view dismal and forbidding; the overhanging cliffs and great hulk of the Barn, the iron-coloured rocks scattered with prickly pear and aloes.  Madame Bertrand had told Mrs Balcombe the emperor stared for hours at the clouds rolling across it, wreathing into fantastic shapes.
Life for Napoleon and his court at Longwood settled into a pattern.  He rose late and soaked in a hot bath, revelling in this pleasure…...
After the informalities of The Briars, meals were now observed with great pomp and ceremony and a nighty tussle for precedence, the men in full dress uniform, the ladies resplendent in jewels and decollete gowns.  The liveried servants stood at attention throughout the meal.  No one sat until invited by the emperor…….

Page 123 …… ‘I hate this Longwood,’ Napoleon fulminated.  ‘The sight of it makes me melancholy.  Let him (Lowe) put me in some place where there is shade, verdure and water.  Here it either blows a furious wind, loaded with rain and fog, or the sun beats on my head through the want of shade, when I go out.  Let him (Lowe) put me on the Plantation House side of the island if he really wishes to do anything for me. But what is the use of coming up here proposing things and doing nothing?’….

Page 133 …… Lowe further restricted the boundary of Longwood and commanded the 23 sentries to move close to the house at dusk, rather than at 9pm, denying the prisoner his evening stroll in the garden, for he refused to go out under guard.  Instead Bonaparte requested (not entirely seriously) that the servants did ditches around the perimeter, eight or ten feet deep if necessary, so he could walk in privacy…..

Page 139 …… At Longwood, Bonaparte huddled by the fire, suffering toothache and a cold.  ‘What a miserable thing is man!’ he exclaimed.  ‘The smallest fibre in his body, assailed by disease, is sufficient to derange his whole system.’  He marvelled that his body was a most ‘curious machine … and perhaps I may be confined in it for thirty years longer’.
O’Meara, who extracted the tooth, thought not.  He informed the governor that in his view if Bonaparte continued to stay indoors and refused to take exercise he would become ill and ‘in all probability his existence in St Helena would not be protracted for more than a year or two’. Low asked him to make note of his opinion, cautioning the doctor that in writing it, he ‘must bear in mind that the life of one man was not to be put into competition with the mischief which he might cause were he to get loose’.
 Betsey Balcombe sneaked a visit to Longwood with her father.  Napoleon said that he wished he could return to The Briars.  Betsy found him less amiable than usual, his face swollen and inflamed. He told me “Mr. O’Meara had just performed the operation of drawing a tooth, which caused him some pain”. Betsy exclaimed, “What!  You complain of the pain so trifling an operation can give?” She said “he astonished her, he who had survived countless battles and bullets.  I am ashamed of you.  But, nevertheless, give me the tooth and I will get it set by Mr. Solomon as an ear-ring and wear it for your sake”.  The idea made him laugh heartily, in spite of his suffering, and caused him to remark that he thought I should never cut my wisdom teeth.  He was always in good humour with himself whenever he was guilty of anything approaching to the nature of a witticism….. 

Page 153 – 154 …… The article, which also included an insinuating description of Napoleon and Betsy playing Blindman’s Buff, noted that she was Napoleon’s favourite and would tell him everything that passes through her flighty head. She asked him the most untoward questioned but he answered them all without hesitation.  Montchenu concluded that Miss Betsee was the wildest little girl he had ever met and expressed the opinion that she was folle – a madwoman.  His account was very damaging to a young lady’s reputation and future prospects.  Betsey observed in her recollections “My father was much enraged at my name thus appearing, and wished to call the marquess to account for his ill nature”.  However, her mother’s intercession prevailed, a duel was averted and “an ample apology” was obtained from the marquis.
When Napoleon hears of the affront that “Miss Betsee” had received from the “vieux imbecile” (old fool), he asked O’Meara to call at The Briars with a message for her on his way to Jamestown. He suggested how she might revenge herself: “It so happened, that the marquess provided himself on the peculiar fashion of his wig, to which was attached a long cue.  This embellishment on his head Napoleon desired me to burn off with caustic.  I was always ready for mischief and in this instance had a double inducement, on the emperor’s promise to reward me, on the receipt of the pigtail, with the prettiest fan Mr. Solomon’s shop contained.  Fortunately I was prevented indulging in this most hoydenish trick by the remonstrances of my mother”.
The next time she saw Napoleon, she made much of being too dutiful to disobey her mother, despite her inclination for revenge.  “He pinched my ear, in token of approval”, and said “Ah, Miss Bettee, to commences a etre sage” – “You begin to be sensible”.   He then called Dr.O’Meara, and asked him if he had procured the fan?  The doctor pointed; on perceiving which, Napoleon, with his usual good nature, consoled me with the promise of something prettier – and he kept his word.  In a few days I received a ring of brilliants, forming the letter N, surmounted by a small eagle……

Page 159 - 160 ….. In an interview for The Times, Santini had deplored the conditions in which his master lived: the climate at Longwood was most unhealthy, with extremes of wind, humidity and heat.  The house was a hovel and the roof leaked; it was ‘infested by rats, who devour everything that they can reach.  All the Emperor’s linen, even that which was lately sent from England, has been gnawed and completely destroyed by them……When the Emperor is at dinner the rats run about the apartment and even creep beneath his feet.’  However, his strongest criticism was reserved for the food sent by Balcombe the purveyor.  The provisions were always too small in quantity and frequently of bad quality. Often there was no butcher’s meat for the emperor’s table, and Cipriani would send Santini to town to purchase a sheep for four guineas or some pork for making soup.  ‘I was even, from necessity, in the habit of repairing secretly to the English camp to purchase butter, eggs and bread, of the soldier’s wives, otherwise the Emperor would often have been without breakfast, and even without dinner.’ Santini claimed that he sometimes rose at daybreak to shoot pigeons, or else the Emperor would have nothing for breakfast, as ‘the provisions did not reach Longwood until two or three o’clock in the afternoon.’ He said that in publishing his account he was fulfilling a ‘painful but sacred duty’……

Page 187 ….. The inexplicable suddenness of Cipriani’s death was a huge shock to Napoleon.  He felt a blood tie with the Corsican, for their two families had been friends back in Ajaccio.  Cipriani’s espionage work had facilitated the escape from Elba; on St Helena he had frequented the town shops, mixed with seamen in the taverns, and been tireless in collecting intelligence.  An elaborate headstone was ordered (but apparently never completed), and Bertrand paid Saul Solomon his hefty fee of 1400 gold francs for the burial arrangements……

Page 388…….On 9 December there was a large headline in the Australian “Reported loss of the Nancy”.  A French ship had found the vessel stricken off the West African coast, waterlogged and deserted.
This must have been the most terrifying time in the lives of Jane Balcombe, Betsy and her daughter.  They would have been far from shore, for ships to England never hugged the African coast, and in grave danger of drowning. The passengers had abandoned the ship in lifeboats and, after what must have been days in the baking sun, perhaps with little food and water, had all come to shore somewhere on the barren south-western coast of Africa (today’s Namibia).  It seems they waited for up to two weeks for the Nancy to be towed and repaired, while accepting the hospitality of the local people.
When the ship’s captain was confident of taking the Nancy to sea again they set sail, only to make an unexpected call at St Helena, presumably for supplies of food and water and to ascertain that the repairs were holding. The emotions of Betsey and her mother must have been in turmoil to see their beloved home The Briars.  The upper floor now extended right across the building with at least six bedrooms.  The house was surrounded by mulberry trees, ripe with red berries.  They learned that the East India Company had purchased the property for 6000 Pounds from the merchant Solomon in August 1827, to establish a mulberry plantation for feeding silkworms.  The production of silk was to be St Helena’s new industry, and like most other ventures it was doomed to failure.
They must have visited Napoleon’s tomb, the willows shading it almost denuded by tourists breaking off souvenirs.  But what would have come as the greatest shock was to ascend the mountain (perhaps even taken by the governor in his carriage) to see Longwood.  It was a wreck, having reverted to being a barn and granary.  There was a threshing machine in the drawing room where Napoleon had died, his billiard room was filled with potatoes and straw and his bathroom was a stable…..

About "The Briars" and the Balcombe family in Melbourne, Australia.  


William Balcombe was given the job of Colonial Treasurer in the new colony of Australia in 1824. He took up land in New South Wales near where Canberra is today and called that house "The Briars" also.  His son Alexander Balcombe, as a young man  travelled south.  The Government was granting leases for farming and grazing land on the Mornington Peninsula. "Tichingorourke" was leased to Captian Reid, a retired army officer who found farming difficult, went backrupt and returned to Scotland.  Alexander Balcombe took up some of the land covered by this lease.  It was 40 miles from Melbourne along a rough bush track, a trip that took 2 days. In 1846 Alexander erected the pre-fabricated "Hutch", built the South Wing about 1850 and the North Wing about 1865.  The Balcombes raised and sold livestock.  Animals were taken overland to Melbourne and Balcombes owned a large grazing paddock at Mordialloc.  This was a resting place about half way along the route to Melbourne. The Balcombes also owned a house in East Melbourne called "Eastcourt" where they stayed when in Melbourne.  Alexander became quite wealthy and well known in Schnapper Point, now called Mornington.  In the 1860s Alexander and Emma built a new home, extending onto the first homestead. It had sixteen rooms with fireplaces in every room, high ceilings and French windows which opened onto a wide verandah that went around the house.   This new home was called "The Briars" after the one on St Helena.  Trees were planted and hawthorn hedges were growing.  There were flowers gardens, vegetable and herb gardens. Alexander made wine from the grapes in his vineyard. The farm provided all that the family needed.  Dairy cows for milk, butter and cream. Hives of bees supplied honey, chooks were kept for eggs and meat.  Fodder crops like oats, fed the animals. The house had a wing for the servants.  During this period Alexander was able to buy freehold title to more than 500 hectares. Alexander and Emma had nine children but Stephen and William died when they were babies.  Alexander was well known in Mornington, serving on many committees. He helped start the school and St Peters Anglican Church.  He was a Magistrate. Emma found farm life very hard as she grew older.  Later "The Briars" was leased out to other farmers and the Balcombes went to live at their home in East Melbourne where Alexander died  in 1877 at 66 years old.
"The Briars" at Mt Martha
Peter Olney at "The Briars" on 18 October 2015
"The Briars" at Mt Martha
Edwardian Wing built about 1907. The bricks are laid with the long side of one brick (actually two bricks side by side) alternating with the end of a brick which has been laid at right angles to them.  This pattern is known as Flemish bond which gives a double thickness to the wall.

The laundry/Diary was built 1857-1862.  The laundry is at the far end. During the 1920s era the cook prepared meals here when the kitchen was white-washed every spring.  The central room is believed to be the dairy and the closest room, clad with corrugated iron was probably a store room.
The stables can be seen on the hill.  The block contained stall for three horses and a tack room.  They were built in 1850s.
The Hutch (West Wing) built about 1846.  This wooden structure was the first section of the homestead to be erected.  The family lived here while their brick homestead was being built.  It was a pre-fabricated house that was brought out from England.  Originally it was a two roomed cottage with a rear skillion. Shingles formed the original roofing and these are still in place beneath the present iron roof.

The Garage was built pre-World War 11 and extended from the original in 1955.  It now houses a couple of horse drawn vehicles and a furphy water tank on wheels.
The North Wing was built  mid 1860s of hand made bricks. Four rooms now make up this wing and displays items of interest about St Helena and Napoleon. The front door is a panelled and painted half-glazed door. The verandah roof was originally straight and altered to a curved one when it was re-roofed in the 19th century. The Banksia rose across the verandah is well over one hundred years old and is said to be a cutting from neighbour Georgiana McCrae.


Alexander's descendants, the Murphy and a'Beckett families remained at "The Briars" until 1976.  In that year Richard a'Beckett sold the remaining 220 hectares to the Shire of Mornington and presented "The Briars" Homestead and surrounding eight hectares of lawns, old established trees, gardens and outbuildings jointly to the Shire and the National Trust of Australia (Victoria), for the people and in memory of his wife Elizabeth Clare.

The Homestead today contains a collection of Balcombe family photographs, National Trust owned furniture typical of the nineteenth centry, and the Dame Mabel Brookes Family Records of Napoleon.  It was on the island of St Helena in 1815 that Alexander's father and Dame Mabel's great grandfather William Balcombe befriended the exiled French Emperor, permitting him to live temporarily in a pavilion attached to the original Briars.  William's career with the East India Company was nearly destroyed by this perceived indiscretion and resulted in his recall to England on suspicion of treason. Exonerated in 1824, he was appointed as the first Colonial Treasurer of New South Wales.  



"The Briars" - A Cultural Landscape. This pastoral lease was firstly named Tichingorourke after the Boonwurrung people who lived, hunted and gathered here for tens of thousands of years.

If you see anything that needs correction or for comments, please contact the author, Joy Olney via email -

If you are really interested in Napoleon, St Helena, the Moss and Solomon families you might like to take a look at more posts within this Blog at  

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