The Singing Line: Tracking the Australian Adventures of My Intrepid Victorian Ancestors

The Singing Line: Tracking the Australian Adventures of My Intrepid Victorian Ancestors

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780385497534
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/03/2000
Pages: 308
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Alice Thomson, the great-great-granddaughter of Charles and Alice Todd, is a British journalist. She lives in England.

Read an Excerpt

Alice lost her virginity
Witness by
The old man gum tree
While the dog sat confused
Patiently licking its wounds
She gave birth
To one stone room
Next a shed then a house

She then stepped one step south
Before the caterpillars knew
Alice grew
With the scenery so strong
The old man gum tree
Witness Alice lose her virginity far before me

--David Mpetyane, Aboriginal artist, 1992

The Proposal

I could have been called Patience, Gwendoline, Kathleen or Maude, all family names. Instead, I was christened Alice after a solemn-looking great-great-grandmother who had black hair framing a round face, pale eyes and delicate hands. In every generation of my family someone had been named after this sepia woman, set in red velvet in our dining room. The original Alice, in her matronly Victorian crinolines, didn't look like an obvious role model. But she had one great redeeming feature; the story of her marriage proposal to a total stranger.

In 1849, when she was only twelve years old, my great-great-grandmother was reputed to have done something few women nowadays would be brave enough to consider. One of eleven children of the Bell family in Cambridge, she was alone in the schoolroom one day and bored. Looking out of the window, she saw a man twice her age with a neat beard and narrow shoulders walk up to her black and white gabled house off the market place in Free School Lane.

Running down to the kitchen, she was told that this skinny, pallid creature was a distant cousin who had come for 'white wine sherry' and Madeira cake with her mother. Intrigued by his forlorn face, Alice slipped into the drawing room and hid behind the chaise longue. There she listened as the awkward visitor explained that he had just been promoted to the job of assistant astronomer at the University Observatory.

The young grocer's son, a Mr Charles Todd, had been given a letter of introduction to his wealthier merchant cousins by his patron, the seventh Astronomer Royal, Sir George Airy. The formidable Mrs Bell politely inquired after the man's family, but with a depressive for a father and an invalid for a mother, Charles was unforthcoming. He and his two brothers and sisters had watched as the family's fortunes, in the form of a tea and groceries emporium in Islington, had dwindled into a four-barrel wine merchants in Greenwich.

Charles would have followed his elder brother into the merchant navy on the first ship out if it hadn't been for Sir George Airy. The famous astronomer had plucked the fourteen-year-old out of the local Roan school in Greenwich. As a governor of the school, Sir George had heard about the young boy's extraordinary talent for mathematics. By seven, Charles used to earn his pocket money in the port's alehouses, adding or subtracting lists of numbers for the amusement of customers.

The Astronomer Royal was reorganising the large Observatory, and needed more human calculators to collate a mass of observations. Charles became a 'supernumerary computer' sitting on a high, backless wooden stool totting up figures with five other, better educated, boys. But he could do it far faster. Desperate to get away from his family home, the diffident youth persevered. After seven years he heard that a colleague had turned down the position of junior assistant at the University Observatory in Cambridge. Eager to study new projects rather than confirm old discoveries, Charles begged his superior to put in a good word. Within weeks he had moved to Cambridge and was spending his nights making the first observations of Eaye's Comet and searching out the newly identified Neptune.

Alice knew none of this story as she heard the twenty-two-year-old politely discussing his new position with her mother. Struggling to think of something to say, Charles explained that he had just seen the shadowy mountains on the moon through the telescope donated by the Duke of Northumberland, but had never before travelled further than London. Mrs Bell, aware that she was probably this gauche astronomer's only contact in Cambridge, asked him whether he had yet found comfortable lodgings. Charles admitted that his rooms were spartan but that he was working too hard to notice.

'You should get married, Mr Todd,' Mrs Bell suggested. 'I fear no one would want to marry such a dull fellow as I,' Charles replied. Suddenly, Alice jumped up from behind the chaise longue and, according to family legend, announced, 'I will marry you, Mr Todd, if no one else will.' There was a long silence. 'You are far too young,' said the applicant astronomer, nervously clicking his lily-white knuckles. 'You can wait for me,' said Alice.

Mrs Bell, blushing at the forwardness of her youngest daughter, sent Alice from the room. But Mr Todd was already smitten by this fleeting vision in pinafore and plaits, with her thick, black hair like a Chinese coolie, freckles and straight eyebrows. The next day, a paper package was delivered to the front door for Miss Alice Gillam Bell. Inside was a copy of the Pilgrim's Progress, inscribed to the young Miss Bell from her friend, Mr Charles Todd.

The book presented Mrs Bell with a dilemma. She couldn't send such an innocent gift back to the poor man. He shared the same nonconformist religious background and was an upright figure. She didn't, however, want her daughter being courted by a pauper. She was well acquainted with the precarious financial circumstances of the Todd family. Through hard work, her own husband, Edward, had risen to become one of the most successful corn merchants in Cambridgeshire. Their home at No. 3. Free School Lane had five floors, and their new warehouse in Pease Lane was the most impressive for miles. Once Mrs Bell had made bonnets to supplement the family's income, now she hoped that one day a son might become mayor of Cambridge. Mrs Bell spent occasional evenings speculating on who would be lucky enough to lead Alice up the aisle, but that would be many years off. Her adored and precocious daughter needed to become less impetuous.

To Mrs Bell's relief, Alice seemed to forget her promise for the next seven years, even though she was sent biblical tracts every birthday, with increasingly daring inscriptions signed by 'your admirer Charles Todd'. Occasionally he would call on the schoolgirl, but she was never allowed to visit his lodgings overlooking Trinity College to drink his favourite blend of Su-Chang and Orange Pekoe tea.

By the time Alice was fifteen, Charles had been sent back to Greenwich to take charge of the 'Galvanic department'. His main job was the maintenance of the time-balls which were placed at Greenwich, and in the Strand in London. Charles had to ensure that these balls, suspended at the top of tall masts, were dropped at precisely one p.m. each day to provide an accurate time check. In London the balls were used by lawyers and businessmen, walking down the Strand, to check their pocket watches on the way to their clubs. But their main use was for ships in port, so that captains could set their maritime chronometers accurately for a voyage. Using the time-balls to check Greenwich Mean Time, the navigators could establish their longitude anywhere in the world by comparing their chronometer's time with an estimation of local time. An hour's difference represented a shift of fifteen degrees in longitude. The chronometer thus had to be set to exactly the right time or every minute lost or gained would mean an error of longitude of nearly twenty miles on the equator, so the time ball couldn't be a fraction of a second out.

This work brought Charles into contact with the newfangled electric telegraph. Since the Napoleonic Wars, Britain had been looking for a way to communicate rapidly with her expanding empire. Throughout the 1830s, men were experimenting with magnetic needles, coils of wire and galvanic electricity. In 1838, Professor Charles Wheatstone and his colleague William Cooke patented the first long-haul telegraph instrument in Britain, where the letters were denoted by a number of motions to the left or right of the needle. In America, Samuel Morse, an artist by profession, had also formulated his ideas for transmitting messages by means of electricity through dots and dashes. In 1844, he inaugurated the first intercity line from Washington to Baltimore with the words: 'What hath God wrought.' In the same year, Queen Victoria used the new telegraph from Windsor to London to announce the birth of her second son, Alfred Ernest.

In Britain the telegraph was originally used as a signalling device by the train companies, but the police soon realised its potential. Pickpockets used to prey on crowds at busy railway termini and then escape by train. The telegraph allowed police to alert stations up the line of a thief's impending arrival. It was also credited with having caught the murderer John Tawell. He tried to escape from Slough by train, having killed his mistress. But the police in London were immediately telegraphed, and they arrested him when he stepped on to the platform at Paddington. Tawell was convicted and hanged, and the telegraph wires became known as: 'The cords that hung John Tawell.'

The Stock Exchange was the next to go on-line. But the public was still nervous of the wire, with some insisting that it was witchcraft. It was only during the Great Exhibition of 1851, when thirteen different telegraph instruments went on display, that people began to be excited by the idea. Morse code soon replaced Wheatstone's more unwieldy system. A wedding was conducted down the line, and there was serious debate as to whether the extension of the wires to Gretna Green would mean the end of runaway marriages because, a disapproving parent could alert the authorities before their child arrived.


In 1852, the Astronomer Royal installed a magnetic clock for the transmission of Greenwich Mean Time around Britain using the new electric telegraph. Stationmasters were issued with the order, 'You are at liberty to allow local clock and watch makers to have Greenwich Mean Time.'

The first time Charles used the telegraph was to convey the time from Greenwich to his time-balls with total precision. Charles wrote of his duties: 'The timeball is connected by wires to that of the Qbservatory, and when the ball falls at Greenwich, an instantaneous shock of electricity will be communicated along the wires. This, acting as an electric trigger to the ball in the Strand, will cause it to fall simultaneously with the one at Greenwich and indicate the exact time to all London.'

The grocer's son had found his great passion. Charles adored this electrical, pulsating wire that could disseminate information so rapidly across the country. He looked forward to the day when the telegraph would ensure that all the timepieces in England were ticking to Greenwich Mean Time, instead of chaffing against each other with their idiosyncratic local times.

On his days off, he would walk to the telegraph offices at the railway termini to talk to Charles Walker, the Telegraphic Superintendent and Electrician of the Railway, and watch the messages arriving. This nineteenth century trainspotter was fascinated by the way the telegraph could control the traffic on Britain's growing railway system by allowing signal boxes to communicate. He also spent hours at the Electric Telegraph Company's office absorbing the latest developments and debating the potential of underwater cables. In 1850, the first telegraph wires, wrapped in a kind of rubber called 'gutta-percha', had been laid under the Channel between Dover and Cap Gris-Nez. The first wire broke because a Normandy fisherman caught the metal coil and thought he had discovered 'a new kind of seaweed with gold in it'. But two years later, in 1852, the operation was up and running and Britain soon made contact with Paris, Berlin and Vienna.

By 1854, over 3,000 miles of telegraph had been erected in Britain, America and on the Continent. There were lines as far afield as Cuba and Chile. It didn't take long for Charles to realise the effect that this thin metal wire could have on the expanding empire. The idea of linking continents and people with a series of dots and dashes appealed to his acute sense of order.


Alice, meanwhile, was obsessed by another code: the list of men's names her elder sisters chanted on returning from dances. There was Herodotus Hollyhead, an earnest young doctor with russet curls and a rich maiden aunt, and Endurance Smith, the pious-looking boy from the Baptist church with golden ringlets who spun her eldest sister, Sarah, round on the dance floor until she felt faint. Admirers went in and out of fashion in the Bell household. Alice, still confined to the schoolroom, would listen attentively. The name Charles Todd barely entered her head, and when it did, it was to read out to her sisters in mocking terms the endearments he sent her.

On her eighteenth birthday, when Alice received a book of hymns with the words, 'To my beloved Alice from her admirer Charles Todd', she barely glanced at it. She was too excited by the thought of her first ball. It was only after spending the night being clumsily whirled around by middle-aged family friends, and tongue-tied youths, that she became intrigued by the idea of Mr Todd. She hadn't seen him for two years and her father had mentioned that he was now gaining a reputation in the field of telegraphy.

When Mr Todd came to tea, he was quite as small and ungainly as Alice had remembered and was wearing the same black-rimmed glasses. He was far more startled by the transformation of schoolgirl into handsome woman. By now, Charles's early vision was three inches taller than he was, with smooth white hands, a steady gaze, a superior nose, and hair coiled into the nape of her slender neck. He was entranced by Alice, who hadn't yet developed the languid torpor expected of mid-Victorian women. Alice was amused by this mathematician's fine wrists and by the way that his moustache curled under his lips. Yet seemed even more twitchy than on his first visit. Alice may not have wanted to marry him, but she wished her admirer would relax and create a good impression on her sister Sarah, who had joined them for tea.

After the Madeira cake arrived, the young man announced to Mrs Bell that he had been offered the chance of a job in the newly created colony of South Australia. The would-be emigrant became eloquent as he explained that India was swamped with second sons of gentry trying to escape the Church. Africa had too many missionaries and he had no calling. But Australia, with its gold, sheep and untouched lands, was the ideal place for a man of small means to make his name.

His new position would be Government Astronomer and Superintendent of Telegraphs for South Australia, for which he would be paid ú400 a year. Mr Todd admitted there were no telegraph lines in this new land, but he could build those, and he relished the challenge of learning about the celestial movements on the other side of the world.

Having spent the past thirteen years working so hard, he had few friends to miss him. The only problem was the question of a wife, which he had been advised to acquire before leaving, there being a shortage of eligible girls in the convict continent. But who would want to marry a mathematician, who lacked the stature of an officer, the weight of a man of God or the glamour of an explorer? Who would be prepared to go to a country thought to be populated by thieves?

'So would you be taking anyone with you?' Mrs Todd inquired anxiously. 'I cannot ask anyone to share what might be a rough and crude life,' Charles replied. For the second time there was a tense silence. Then Alice, feeling sorry for the poor man, said, to her own astonishment: 'I will go with you, Mr Todd.' For several moments no one spoke. Then Charles came to sit next to her on the chaise longue, and, having kissed her forehead, accepted her proposal.

The four months before they left were an anti-climax for Alice. She barely saw her future husband. He was busy getting all his instruments together for the long voyage and gathering information from the Electric Telegraph Company before they set sail. As she learnt more about her prospective new home, a huge, hot continent populated by convicts and 'wild blacks', Alice began to realise the significance of her decision. None of her family would have blamed her if she had changed her mind. Mrs Bell may have quietly wished that her daughter would renege, but Alice never went back on her promise.

Her mother fussed around, making the dove-grey wedding dress and a bonnet lined in pale blue satin. Her sister Sarah bought her a veil of Limerick lace. She was given the schoolroom piano, being the most musical child, the bone-handled spoons, some silver pickle jars and a mahogany sideboard. Mrs Bell also persuaded her own cherished maid, Eliza, to accompany her daughter to the new land.

The wedding was a small affair at the Baptist Chapel in St Andrews Street on 5 April 1855. Charles made a pretty speech commending his new wife, and adding that one day he would like to see a telegraphic string stretching round the world, like the necklace of pearls around Alice's throat. The guests cheered, although they had little idea what he was talking about.

The next month, Charles told his leaving party in Greenwich that he wanted to be 'instrumental in bringing England and Australia into telegraphic communication'.

Only the Australian explorer Charles Sturt was able to appreciate the extent of this young man's ambition when Charles wrote to him out of the blue: 'I look forward to the time when our telegraph system will be extended to join the seats of commerce in Australia.' The Australian continent hadn't yet been crossed.

Charles was in charge of provisions and thought of the smallest details. He bought Alice a toothbrush, a tin of boiled cinnamon sweets and a hand mirror. He even remembered hairpins for Eliza. He methodically wrote down their joint belongings and purchases in a leather notebook. Alice's father supplied them with the best tickets he could afford, two state rooms on the small ship Irene. With seventy tons of cargo, including Alice's piano, the barque set sail from the Downs in late June.

It anchored again in the evening off Folkestone and Charles took his new wife on deck to admire the cutters beating down the straits. This was Alice's first sight of Dover, and as there was 'a fine full moon', Charles could point out the castle and the cliffs. To Alice's delight they even glimpsed a train enter and emerge from the tunnel on its way to London.

The passage down the Channel was rough, with gales, heavy seas and rain. Alice could barely make it out of her bunk before noon. Losing sight of the Lizard, she felt unbearably queasy, but put it down to the swell of waves rather than any apprehension concerning her new life. By the time she celebrated her nineteenth birthday, with a cake made of the last fresh eggs and a tot of rum for the sailors, she had found her sea legs.



The story of my great-great-grandmother's proposal has been embellished by my family over the years, so that by the time it reached me there were several versions. Sometimes Alice would be lying Lolita-like on a bearskin rug, other times she would be playing Spillikins under the table. My mother knew that they were drinking 'white wine sherry', and I had added the lily-white knuckles. But in every story the words were the same: 'I will go with you, Mr Todd.'

However humourless Alice appeared in her portrait, I was happy to share her name. Other female ancestors were less admirable exemplars. One had embroidered slippers and a hotwater-bottle cover to send to Stalin and another had been the mistress of the Kaiser. Alice, I decided, had not only gambled her life in a moment of grand passion-or more probably compassion-but seven years later she was prepared to honour the bet.

It was quite by chance that I discovered that my great-great-grandmother was more than just an ancestral curiosity. My grandmother, another Alice, had bought me a jigsaw puzzle of the world for my thirteenth birthday. As we filled in the endless miles of blank space inside Australia, she spotted Alice Springs. 'This town,' she told me, 'was named after your great-great-grandmother. She was the Alice of Alice Springs.'

The young Mrs Todd had given her name to one of the most famous small towns in the world. Unlike her more worldly cousins, who had settled down with fussy academics and doctors in Cambridge, she had won herself a footnote in colonial history. Charles Todd may have looked like a spindly mathematician.  He developed an appalling sense of humour, insisting every time he drank tea on punning; 'Without my Tea I would be Odd'; he often disappeared into the outback, leaving his wife and children in a settlement that began as scarcely more than a shanty town, he cared little for social etiquette and was always slightly grubby with dust from his travels or with grease from his astrological instruments. But what should have been a five-foot-five marital calamity had managed to put his wife on the map, at the red heart of the new continent.

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