Tottie Thorburn's Diary
Click here to listen to a soundscape of excerpts of Tot Thorburn’s diary (1MB)
About this hand-written diary, 1888–1893 and 1895–1896
This diary was written by the youngest member of the family for whom Meroogal was built, Kennina Fanny Thorburn (1865–1956), known to her family as Tottie. In 1879, when Tot was 14, she was sent to live with her elderly Mackenzie grandparents as their housekeeper. They lived at Fairfield, the old family home in Cambewarra where Tottie stayed for 14 years and where she began her diary.
In the opening entry made on 1 January 1888 (the Centennial year) when Tot is 23 years old, much is revealed about the author, her family and their times. It is significant that Tot’s diary begins with Hogmanay - the Scottish New Year, a very important celebration for Scots.
‘This is my first attempt at keeping a diary, I wonder how long it will last, Jess (1) and I have started together. We are waiting to see the New Year in & wondering what it will bring for us. Tom Stafford (2) and Mr Hunt (3) are also waiting for the New Year Georgie (4) Bruce (5) Mary Stafford (6) Grandfather (7) & Uncle Kenny (8) are in bed I wonder where we will all be this night next year I also wonder if we will be all spared to each other. We have had many blessings through the past year only one has gone from us to a better country (dear little Teecie ) many might have been taken. Will Jessie (1a) and I be in the same place (sitting in our bedroom) one thing if we are absent from each other in the flesh (if spared) we are together in Spirit & the one Father will be with us & I trust will all our loved ones. My thoughts are with all our dear ones in Melbourne & those in Nowra & wish them all much happiness in the coming year. Will dearest Jessie (10) be spared to us’
Tot’s words speak of the fragility of life, of how situations could suddenly change. She places importance on counting blessings in the face of ever-present death, ‘We have had many blessings through the past year only one has gone from us…’ Her language is that of a person with a deep religious faith: ‘… we are together in Spirit & the one Father will be with us’. This faith is confirmed by other entries eg on 8 January 1888 she writes of teaching her Sunday school pupils, ‘… tried with God’s help to make them see what a cheerful thing religion is.’
While Tot worked hard and was devoted to religion and family she also loved social activity and enjoying herself. In this first entry she has stayed up to celebrate Hogmanay with her best friend Jessie, her young, widowed, brother-in-law Tom and family friend Mr Hunt, while the older generation and baby have gone to bed.
Like four of her six sisters, Tottie did not marry. As the gender imbalance of early colonial days had been corrected, perhaps Tottie’s single status was a matter of choice. An intriguing and ambiguous reference to a Mr Mason (he is not awarded a first name) implies that he may have proposed marriage but was rejected: ‘I treated him badly I think & felt sorry afterwards’ (27 November, 1892).
Tottie moved into Meroogal in 1893 when she was 28 years old, and remained in the house until 1945 when she turned 80. She left after the death of her sister Kate, to whom she was devoted, and never returned. Her diary reveals a detailed picture of a respectable middle class ‘lady’, who led a busy life. When she died in 1956, she had outlived all her siblings and all but three of her nieces and nephews.
(1) Jess was Tottie’s niece and best friend Jessie Macgregor who was four years Tot’s junior. When Tottie was 14, she had gone to live with her grandparents as a housekeeper. In contrast to Tottie Jessie at 15 was sitting a Junior Public Examination from Sydney University and preparing for paid employmenT This detail illustrates the dramatic differences in opportunities and expectations between the two generations of women.
(1a) When Tottie started her diary Jessie was living with her at Fairfield, her company saving Tot from the loneliness and frustration she often felt as housekeeper to her grandparents and middle aged uncle. Jessie worked in Cambewarra as the Post and Telegraph Mistress until her marriage to Donald Mackay Barnet in 1894.
(2) Tom Stafford was the husband of Tot’s sister Margaret Hannah. When he and Margaret married, they went to live at Wallerawang, NSW where he was in charge of the school. Margaret died there after the birth of her second son, two months after her mother and sisters moved to Meroogal. The two baby boys were taken home to Meroogal where their aunts cared for them. The new baby, Thomas, or Teecie, died within a year. One year old Robert Bruce stayed at Meroogal until his father remarried and took him to Sydney (Neutral Bay) when he was four years old. The Thorburn sisters appeared to have visited them there for lengthy periods.
(3) Mr Hunt met the family through Tom Thorburn (Tot’s older brother by five years) at St Andrew’s College where the latter had studied for a Bachelor of Arts degree and to train for the Presbyterian ministry.
(4) Georgie was Tot’s unmarried older sister (by 11 years) who lived at Meroogal.
(5) Mary Stafford was a relative of Tom Stafford.
(6) Bruce (born in 1885 the year that Meroogal was built) was the surviving son of Tom and Margaret Stafford.
(7) Grandfather was Thomas McKenzie, first generation pioneer settler and father of Jessie Catherine, the matriarch of Meroogal.(8) Uncle Kenny was the eccentric bachelor Kenneth McKenzie, engineer and architect of Meroogal who in retirement at 50, came to live at home with his parents. Tot also looked after him and seems to have been wary of his moods eg her diary entry on 2 January 1888 reads: ‘ I was much disappointed at not getting to see dear little Teecie’s & dear Mag’s grave (her sister Margaret Stafford) I was afraid to ask Uncle to go, it was not easy to pass without going’; and then on 3 January, ‘ … all the others wanted me to stay and go to Yalwal so Tom asked Uncle he was a bit vexed at first but very kindly let me stay…’
(9) Teecie was Tot’s sister Margaret’s son who died within a year of his mother’s death.
(10) Jessie: Jessie Billis was the wife of Tot’s brother Robert Thorburn who financed the building of Meroogal. Tot was right to be worried about Jessie’s health as her sister-in-law died on 14 January 1888.