By Meg Hill
“Because of the publishing house pressures to meet a certain number of pages and edit out much of the history, we end up getting history books that give credit to prime ministers and kings and queens,” Dr Douglas Wilkie told the Docklands History Group last month.
“They make it out that those ‘big people’ made everything happen, when actually it was ordinary people who made things happen.”
Dr Wilkie was presenting on Charles Brentani, who he described as one of those ordinary people pushing history along, submerged below the historical record.
One of the few monuments to his name in Melbourne today is Docklands’ Brentani Way.
Charles, born Carlo, is usually described as a gold rush jeweller. Born in northern Italy in 1817, he was sent to Van Diemen’s Land as a convict in 1835 after a stint in England to study silversmithing.
He stole silver instead of smithing it.
He was granted a certificate of freedom in 1841 – “like today’s parole” – and ended up in Melbourne.
“Melbourne was a brand-new settlement and offered far better prospects than Tasmania,” Dr Wilkie said.
He can tell you basically anything about Brentani thanks, largely, to the digitalisation of history.
Dr Wilkie was researching his own family history in relation to the Victorian gold rush when he stumbled across a few characters – Charles Brentani, Joseph Forrester and Alexandre Duchene.
They seemed more central to the period of history than their rare mention suggested.
They went to a part of central Victoria – now between Ballarat and Maryborough – to look for gold. Hundreds of people rushed there after them and were chased away by the police.
A few years later Victoria became its own state, and about a week later the gold rush began.
“The reason Charles LaTrobe, the Governor, hushed it at the time is that when Victoria was part of New South Wales, any revenue made here was sent to Sydney,” Dr Wilkie said. “So, they sat upon the story of the gold until Victoria was separate.”
So, Brentani, who became known as a jeweller, silversmith and gold purchaser operating on Collins St during the gold rush, is much more a part of the history than given credit for.
But, Dr Wilkie’s ordinary people exist below Brentani too.
He was not actually a jeweller, or a silversmith, or any kind of tradesperson – he was a retailer.
“The retailer got all the credit,” Dr Wilkie said. “Brentani went down in history as being the silversmith responsible for making the original Melbourne Cup, for example, and it was actually his employed silversmith Joseph Forrester.”
Brentani died in Melbourne in 1853 a wealthy man. But, despite his time as a convict, he was actually already from a well-to-do background.
Dr Wilkie said that although the digitalisation of historical records could mean you had to sift through a lot of irrelevant references when searching names, you found the real gems.
Like Frankenstein author Mary Shelley’s account of staying in the Brentani Hotel at Lake Como in 1940 in her book Rambles in Germany and Italy.
Charles Brentani was already in Australia, but his mother and brothers were still running the family hotel. Shelley wrote that she hoped to see them again one day.
Brentani passed away from the effects of delirium tremens – the most severe form of alcohol withdrawal characterised by delirium and tremors.
Mr Wilkie wrote: “We might assume that Brentani suffered from both the delirium and the tremors for some time before dying. Perhaps he had thoughts similar to those of Mary Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein as he lay on what he believed was his death bed.”
The Docklands History Group event was held on June 25 at The Library at The Dock.