What happened when two couples, one at the pinnacle of society and one working-class, celebrated their nuptials in historic Sydney?
Cassie Mercer speaks to Margot Riley, curator at the State Library of New South Wales, to find out.
On Wednesday 7 August 1878 the city of Sydney came to a standstill. Around 10,000 people gathered outside St James’ Church, opposite Hyde Park, and hundreds of police officers did their best to hold back the boisterous, curious crowd. A wedding was about to take place – a vice-regal wedding no less, and the guest list was a who’s who of Sydney society – leaders, administrators, officials, legislators, naval officers, lawyers and aristocrats. The interior of the church was lavishly decorated with lush plants and blooms from the Botanical Gardens. Everything was in place for the bride’s arrival.
The bride was Nora Augusta Maud Robinson, second daughter of the then Governor of New South Wales, Sir Hercules Robinson. The groom, Alexander Kirkman Finlay, was the wealthy owner of Glenormiston, a large station in Victoria. He was the second son of landed gentry in Scotland, educated at Harrow and Oxford in England before arriving in Australia. The event garnered huge interest because it was only the second vice-regal wedding to take place since the colony was established 100 years before. The couple were at the top of the social ladder in a community that craved a bit of local glamour.
Fast-forward to 1913 and pre-war Australia. Ada Rymills and James Wiseman are madly in love. James’ work as an itinerant shearer and Australian Workers’ Union representative often took him away from his betrothed who worked as a barmaid in Goulburn, New South Wales. During these absences, Ada and James write to each other every two or three days.
The stories of these two couples, the Finlays and the Wisemans, have proved an interesting case study for Margot Riley, curator and dress historian at the State Library of New South Wales. “These two couples exemplify societal and working class weddings at the turn of the 20th century. One was the height of opulence, with a tragic end to the marriage five years later. The other was a love story that didn’t diminish even in the most difficult of circumstances,” says Margot.
The dress, the gifts, wedding feasts, guests – all are at the opposite ends of the scale. And it tells us a lot about the huge divide between society at the time, says Margot.
For Nora and Alexander’s wedding, no expense was spared. The crowd outside the church pushed and shoved their way forward to catch a glimpse of the bride’s luxurious silk gown with its rich brocade train trimmed with flounces of Brussels lace, her head wreathed in orange blossom and heather above a long tulle veil. If they’d known what some of the wedding gifts were they would have gasped in amazement: large solitaire diamond earrings; a pendant set with amethyst, diamonds and pearls; a sapphire and diamond ring; a gold bracelet set with diamond, sapphire, ruby, and emerald – the list goes on. The party afterwards feasted at Government House.
Ada and James, on the other hand, were married in Goulburn, at St Saviour’s Cathedral, on 17 December 1913. It was a more sedate event, with just a small mention in The Daily Telegraph 10 days later, included among other wedding announcements. The story noted that the bride wore a white lace dress with a wreath and veil, and carried a shower bouquet, which, with a gold pendant, was the gift of the bridegroom. After the ceremony the couple left by the mail train en route to Hobart for their honeymoon.
Sadly, as the weddings were in stark contrast, so too were the marriages that followed. When Alexander Finlay died from tuberculosis five years later at his family home in Castle Toward, in Scotland, his wife was not mentioned among the bereaved. He was 38 years old. His personal worth was estimated at £493 (around £33,000 by today’s standards). Four years later Nora remarried in London. She died in 1938, leaving one son and an estate of some £124,000 (around £8 million today).
Ada and James had three children between 1914 and 1918. Their times apart continued after their wedding, as did their love letters to each other, Margot says.
These letters endure today, donated to the Library in 1999 by Ada and James’s daughter Vena Croke. The collections of both couples allows us a rare glimpse into the lives of a high-class couple at the peak of their social power, and a working-class couple bringing up a family in Australia between the wars. A couple who may have at times been separated by distance, but which their love overcame.
Cassie Mercer founded the award-winning magazine Inside History in 2010. The history bug struck her when she discovered the story of her 5x great grandparents – in the late 1700s in Ireland, one was a highwayman and the other was the madam of a brothel, of the Lower Sort.