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General Sir John Monash is one of the truly great Australians. He was an Australian military and civilian leader as well as a great contributor to Australian life. His achievements are outstanding. In my opinion, Monash was not just our most outstanding military leader but our most outstanding citizen of all time.

The achievements of John Monash are so extensive and comprehensive that I cannot condense them into a single post,  brief enough to retain the reader’s interest. Therefore I have decided to present them in six episodes of which this is the first. The episodes have been divided into specific eras of his life; Pre 1901 (two parts), 1901-1915 and 1916-1918 and Post WW1. 

Today, we will explore the early years that started with the Gold Rush; how he met Ned Kelly the infamous bushranger; how he turned from a boy to a young man and how he turned from the son of migrants to one of our finest Australians. It is truly a tale worth telling and a story that should be taught in every school across our great country that we call Australia.   

John Monash was born in Melbourne on 27th June, 1865. His parents were Jewish by both race and religion and had migrated from a region in Prussia which is now part of Poland. At the time, people from that region were regarded as German thus the family was regarded as a German family. Their name at the time of their migration was Monasz.

Their family history contained a long line of rabbis and rabbinistic teachers. John’s grandparents had a book binding and publishing business producing Jewish religious literature but due to some poor investments, the business shrank to the point where John’s father, Louis, could no longer be supported as an employee. An outbreak of Cholera infected the little town and killed off many of Louis’ siblings and cousins. With the help of an eminent Jewish historian, Louis and his brother got jobs with a trading house in Berlin.

In April, 1852, six ships sailed up the Thames in London with 8 tons of gold from the Victorian goldfields. Gold fever erupted throughout Europe and Louis decided to change career and go to Victoria.

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the Thames of old London, carrying away the filth and debris of the city and, in return, delivering the riches of the world upon the flood tide rising.

His employer gave him 2,000 marks worth of goods on credit to establish a trading house in Melbourne. He arrived in January, 1854 and set up business in Flinders Lane under the name of Martin & Monash, Anglicising his name to make it more acceptable to the Anglo-Saxon majority.

Louis became a successful businessman and at the age of 32 decided he wanted a traditional Jewish wife. He returned to Europe and in 1863 he married his 22 year old sister-in-law, Bertha Manasse,then returned to Melbourne. They settled in St.Kilda and moved soon after to West Melbourne where John was to be born.

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Swanston St from Flinders Lane circa 1875

Coincidentally, in a nearby town to Louis’ old home town in Prussia another baby was born to another Jewish family. He was named Eric Ludendorff whose name will appear in the third episode.

In 1866 there was a universal financial collapse. Martin & Monash went bankrupt. Martin suffered a stroke and returned to Germany. Louis continued to trade but is himself declared bankrupt in 1868. The household language spoken is German but John’s mother read to him each night in English. John spoke with a slight German accent until by sheer determination eliminated it from his speech by the time he reached adulthood. His mother was an accomplished pianist and, by the age of six, John was able to perform before an audience.

In 1871, prosperity permitted Louis to buy a house in Richmond which he named Germania Cottage. John started school at St.Stephen’s Church of England School, the church that Church Street, Richmond is named after. He impressed his teachers with his hard work and intelligence. His first report card after three years stated “Industry seems to be his chief characteristic”. At the end of 2nd form he won first prize for his schoolwork.

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John Monash 3 years old [1868] / Davies & Co., Photographers, Melbourne

 

At age 8, his grandfather in Germany, now on his deathbed wrote him a birthday greeting letter.

 “I am glad to hear you are doing well at school. If you go on like that you will become a great, good and famous man”.

A prophetic message written in German. The old man was alone. His children had all migrated to Australia and America.

Financial misfortune continued to plague Louis and in 1875 he sold up and moved to Jerilderie in NSW. He opened a branch of his brother’s merchant business. John started at the local school of 70 pupils in 2nd. Form. He is made assistant to the 24 year old Irish teacher, Bill Elliott, tutoring younger and slower students. Within two years he is promoted to form 6. Elliott takes John for extra lessons after hours in Latin, higher mathematics, English literature and geography.

They became lifelong friends and in later life John credits Elliott with laying the foundations of his career. In 1876 however, his mother, Bertha, has had enough of the grind of life in Jerilderie and returned to Melbourne with John and his sister. John was enrolled at South Yarra College. After 6 weeks Bertha had a change of heart and returned to Jerilderie. The principal wrote to her stating how sorry he was to be losing one of his most promising scholars.

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John returned to school in Jerilderie for 18 months. Elliott told his parents that their boy genius was going to waste at a bush school. Elliott recommended his old school in Sydney but Bertha did not want the family to be broken up so the next recommendation was Scotch College in Melbourne. Bertha wanted John to become a doctor. Elliott said to put him in engineering because of his aptitude in mathematics At the time John was studying the third book of Euclid, the “Father of Geometry” and was just 12 years of age.

Bertha and her children returned to Germania Cottage leaving Louis in Jerilderie to run his store. She decided that John would grow up as an Australian in priority to their Germanic background. She cultivated a wide variety of eminent and influential people. The children had to read to her every night passages from books by the scions of English literature.

John was enrolled at Scotch College in October 1877 and placed in the upper third of students. At the end of term, he went back to Jerilderie for the holidays and it was then, in 1878, that he encountered an experience that has become part of Australian folk law.

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Bank of NSW Jerilderie

The Kelly gang were regular visitors to Jerilderie. There they sold horses stolen from Victorian farms. Louis was in need of a new horse and bought four horses from Ned. John took the horses back to the Monash farm and, as he tells the story, Ned paid him one shilling for holding his horse. In February, 1879, the Kelly gang returned to Jerilderie and robbed the Bank of NSW. While the robbery was taking place Bill Elliott arrived at the bank to deposit the collection from the local Methodist Church. At gunpoint, Bill is made to hold open a bag into which the gang tipped the proceeds of the robbery.

Samuel Gill, a local resident, suspected that something was wrong, and went to the police station where he found the police and some townspeople captive in the cells. Gill rushed to Louis’ store to raise the alarm. Nobody believes him. He tries to contact the Deniliquin police station but the telegraph has been cut off by the gang cutting down the poles. He raced out to a farm 10 miles away to contact Deniliquin. The Kelly gang rounded up as many townspeople as they could and locked them in Louis’ store and rode off.

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Soon after Louis sold the Jerilderie store. His brother Max came down from Narrandera to get married and decided to return to Prussia. Louis took over Max’s store in Narrandera. John went with him but decided that this was not the kind of life for him and returned to Scotch College in 1879 where he, at 13, was placed in the matriculation class.

In October of that year he sat for the matriculation and civil service exam. He is one of only five candidates out of several hundred to pass all nine subjects. He was 14 at that time. The next year he received the prizes for mathematics and literature hoping to progress to a Bachelor of Arts degree at Melbourne University in1881.

Dr. Morrison, headmaster of Scotch College, offered him a scholarship to remain at school for another year. John accepted the offer and in that year became Dux of Scotch College earning the prize of five guineas. At the same time, he entered the public examination for university acceptance and won the mathematics exhibition with first class honours also in French and German. Thanks to him, Scotch College becomes the most successful school in the state. John entered university in 1882 at age 16.

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The independence brought by his academic success had undermined the orthodoxy instilled in him as a boy by his mentors. Although he retained his Jewish religion he rejects as bunkum much of his earlier religious instruction. He rejected the Bible as false in favour of practical developments such as electricity, telephone, steam engines and coaxial cable. He planned to complete his arts degree and proceed to engineering. Financially his fees and book had been covered by the 25 pound reward from his mathematics exhibition. His father sent him one pound per month from Narrandera for his living expenses to supplement his earnings from tutoring other students.

The latitude provided by university life as opposed to school distracted him from his academic pursuits. He now devoted much of his time to social activities and he failed badly in his first year exams for his star subjects of higher mathematics, Greek and Latin. He passed his lower subjects. His failure almost tempted him to leave university and start a career in journalism. He decided to stay at university and throw himself into his studies with greater fervour than before and took on studies in arts and literature. He decided to discard his German traits and considered it no longer relevant to his Australian life.

 

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Louis sold his Narrandera business and returned to Melbourne. The family moved from Germania Cottage to a new large house in Hawthorn. John’s activities expanded into new fields of interest in gymnastics and healthy living. Physically he developed into a strong impressive young man with an assertive personality that attracts attention.

In 1884 he succeeded in a project that he has worked on since entering university; the establishment of a Student’s Union. At the inaugural meeting in June 1884 he is elected to the committee and is made editor of The Melbourne University Review.

At the same time, the British government sent officers to Australia to advise the colonial governments on national defense. Melbourne University created a Company and John was one of the first eleven students to enlist in D Company, 4th Battalion, Victorian Rifles. He drilled every day on top of his already busy schedule. At the 1884 exams he passed his second year arts exams and the prerequisites for an engineering degree.

The death of Gordon of Khartoum, Britain’s war in Afghanistan and the perceived threat of invasion by the Russian fleet heightened militia activity. John is promoted to sergeant. Otherwise, 1885 is a bad year for John. Bertha died on 18th October, his father had failed in business again, John had no money and could not pay the 1885 exam fees. He abandoned university until February, 1886 but is compelled to find a job.

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In 1885 he secured a job with David Munro & Co which had just been awarded the contract to construct a new bridge over the Yarra River linking Swanston Street and St.Kilda Road; Princes Bridge.

It would symbolise his crossing from boyhood to manhood and the beginning of a journey that would see him travel across the world far greater than he probably realised was possible

 

 

 The written records of his career and achievements are extensive. The principal source of information about him in my library is Grantlee Kietza’s book titled “Monash”. It runs for 630 pages plus index and references.

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