Thursday, July 11, 2013




Too many owners of brand new computers underestimate the power of their machines.  They use them for a variety of mundane purposes, the mere sending and receipt of messages, the playing of games, recording of day to day business.  The very hub of their shiny new contraption is a mystery to many and that’s a great shame.

Unbeknown to numerous owners of nimble fingers there are search engines within waiting for a simple instruction to lay bare the secrets of someone’s life, to reveal the history of a little known event from the past.  If there is a life after death then my many ancestors must be writhing in their graves as bit by bit I uncover the bits and pieces, both admirable and otherwise of their everyday lives.

Geraldine McGowan, my great-grandmother is a perfect example.  Her past reads like a Victorian novel full of hidden secrets and intrigue.  Yet her domestic life in Levuka where she raised her brood of McGowan and Foreman children between 1872 and 1910 must have seemed to her the very essence of normality even perhaps of insignificance.

The one item I could never find was photographic evidence of her presence in Levuka and there should have been.  Renowned photographers, the Dufty brothers were in residence there at the same time and the European presence in the 1880’s wasn’t overwhelmingly large.  Perhaps the wife of a trading ship’s captain didn’t warrant a photographic session, or perhaps as a thrifty Scotsman’s wife she regarded the cost of such luxury unwarranted.

Or she may have been far too busy raising a succession of little McGowans and Foreman’s.  Whatever the reason I lamented the loss, made do with the one image taken during her time in Fiji…until I chanced upon the album of an un-named world traveller from the 1870’s.  An obviously well heeled American who sailed the Pacific stopping off in Levuka, New Zealand and Australia, at the same time utilising the skilled work of local artisan photographers to compile a tasteful record of his travels.


Albums such as this one were popular in far distant days. Cameras were complex and rare; photographers a breed of their own.  This gentleman’s Card Album was compiled in an accordion style compendium with the photographs featuring hand written captions.  At a recent auction this particular creation was on offer at bids starting at $5500, a figure incomprehensible to our people from the past.

The unknown traveler obviously possessed no camera of his own and relied on local photographers to record his journey, the result - professional images skilfully composed and captured.


The photographs above of Sydney were thought to have been the work of Alexander Brodie.  I for one was surprised at the size and uniformity of Sydney town in those early years circa 1880.

In Levuka, where no doubt the unknown American tourist sailed his vessel and anchored for a while off the township, his album included photographs of outriggers and native trading canoes, a view of Levuka looking towards the north of the town and a spectacular indoor shot of an assembly hall in the then Government House at Nasova… a hall very much in the native Fijian style.

For me though the piece de resistance was an incredible composite montage photograph of the inhabitants of Levuka at that time.

This magnificent and complex creation could only have been compiled and created by the talented and photographically prolific Dufty Brothers. 

Somewhere amid these stamp sized images of the good citizens of Levuka is without a doubt the image of both Geraldine and of Captain William McGowan.  I have no idea what my great-grandfather looked like, and I have only the image below of Geraldine to compare with a perhaps 15 or so years younger Mrs. McGowan in 1880, hopefully featured somewhere in the montage.

This enlarged and split version of the grouped photographs reveals the inclusion of a number of small children and even a scene of Europeans bathing in a favoured swimming hole.

It is a remarkable presentation, revealing not only the comfortable melding of Levuka’s diverse cultures, but as well the ingenuity and humour of the men who first compiled and then pieced together these literally hundreds of individual images.
They must have had the patience of Job.

Trying to pin down the one family member, husband or wife, is virtually impossible, but if I were to nominate a likely candidate for Geraldine I would choose the lady extreme bottom right on the top half of the split photo.  Her hair is piled high and neat unlike many other lady’s with flowing tresses; the age feels right and the angle of her head is very similar to the studio portrait taken in later years.  Both images share a haughty, self assured demeanor.

I’m surprised more copies of the Levuka collage haven’t surfaced.  Surely they were prized keepsakes at a time when photography was a novelty.  But then again life in Levukas steamy climate when Geraldine was resident wasn’t really all that kind to the storage of photographic material.

For the moment at least I am quite content with this latest find.

If you want to know more about Geraldine’s complex life from her childhood in Sussex, her earlier sea journeys to New Zealand and to Australia, the mystery of her first child and her subsequent flight to Fiji, the ensuing tragedy of early widowhood and her unhappy second marriage, just click on the links below.

Robyn Mortimer ©2013

The story of Geraldine Sweeny McGowan Foreman is told in the following blogs: