Showdown at Government House - the Nil Desperandum Society


The Hamilton Literary Society is the oldest continuing literary society in Australia. It was established in 1889 by Lady Teresa Hamilton, wife of the Governor of Tasmania, Sir Robert Hamilton. Well-educated and forceful, she was imbued with new ideas of the activities suitable for women. 

In July 1889, Lady Hamilton invited 25 women to tea at Government House to form a society with the aim of fostering an interest in literature. Originally called the Nil Desperandum Society, it became, on her departure, and with her approval, the Hamilton Literary Society as it is today. The President of the Society is by tradition the wife of the current Governor of Tasmania. Membership is limited to thirty.

Lady Hamilton Society.jpg

Members invited were serious young women who were challenged by Lady Hamilton herself to serious endeavour. Maud Montgomery, wife of Bishop Montgomery, attended her first meeting on 13 June 1890 at Government House. A number of meetings were subsequently held at Bishopscourt, before the big falling out in early 1891.

Lady Hamilton later commented that the society was formed for "mutual pleasure and intellectual profit". Learning to think and judge is a form of education we all need, she wrote, and to get out of our grooves is profitable. She chose the subjects and the speakers, and each member was given a topic, on which she presented a paper at one of the fortnightly meetings at Government House. Other members then discussed the paper. There was a great variety of topics, from "Manners Maketh Man" to Trade Unions. One member, Sarah Walker commented in her letters that friends of hers thought the society "will be very good", though the members were a "funny mixture". She was asked to join and wrote unenthusiastically, "I suppose I had better". In August 1890, Teresa Hamilton entertained about a hundred women at Government House to celebrate the Society's first anniversary but trouble soon arose.

The 24th meeting of the society was held at Bishopscourt. Seven out of the eight women present disapproved of Ladies taking part with Gentlemen in the game of cricket. Three more meetings were held at Bishopscourt, culminating in a gathering on 23 October 1890 at which Mrs Montgomery read a paper on her father's account of the Oberammergau Passion Play, a controversial passion play performed since 1634 as a tradition by the inhabitants of the village of Oberammergau, Bavaria, Germany. 'It proved too much for most' of the twenty-one women there, six of which were married. The meeting terminated after a very short debate.

Maud Montgomery next attended the 31st meeting on 27 November 1890 at Government House. The topic 'Passion Plays of the Middle Ages' found participants better prepared. The paper was followed by a 'very animated discussion as to the advisability of introducing sacred plays as a means of educating children'. Maud was an active contributor.

Mrs Montgomery never attended another meeting and by 1894 was no longer listed as a member of the society. Part of the reason may be explained by the 'grand quarrel that arose between Lady Hamilton and the Dobsons' around early 1891. Ethel Dobson, daughter of Sir Lambert Dobson, Chief Justice of Tasmania and a leading churchman, wrote a letter of apology to the society's secretary, a letter which Lady Hamilton considered insulting. Maud Montgomery unsuccessfully tried to make peace. Ultimately, Lady Hamilton aked those who defended Ms Dobson resign. Ten did so. Attempts at reconciliation were never fully successful. 

Showdown with Lady Hamilton - the summer of 1891

In the summer of December 1890 - January 1891, Hobart was packed with visitors, including six naval ships, and Teresa Hamilton gave the most glamorous ball the city had ever seen. 

Not surprisingly, the January meeting of the Nil Desperandum Society was sparsely attended, and in the next month a full-scale argument erupted. "There is a grand quarrel berween Lady H. and the Dobsons," wrote Sarah Walker. Ethel Dobson, daughter of Sir Lambert Dobson, wrote the society's secretary a note, which Teresa Hamilton considered insulting, though the secretary, Miss Patty Mault, thought it was an ordinary note of apology. (Patty came from the family who "worshipped the aristocracy".) 

Teresa Hamilton demanded Ethel's resignation, Ethel said she did not think she had done anything wrong, and though Patty Mault begged her not to continue the quarrel, "Her Excellency was obstinate". Sarah Walker thought her "very foolish and undignified", and put the quarrel down to the "never friendly feeling" between the Hamiltons and the Dobsons, and the low attendance in January, which had annoyed Teresa Hamilton, who thought it was due to a rush after officers. 

Maud Montgomery, Bishop Montgomery's wife, tried to make peace, but "Lady H. does not love Mrs M. - she is too independent", so her attempts did no good. Meanwhile Ethel Dobson made matters worse with a second letter, written with help from her father. It was held to be in bad taste, "very Dobsony", but Sarah Walker thought that Teresa Hamilton's course was "altogether out of proportion to the offence".

At the next, very tense, meeting the matter was discussed. Only two of the 17 members were on Teresa Hamilton's side, but she told the meeting that all who thought Ethel Dobson had been harshly treated should resign. Ten did so, the younger ones going up "white & trembling like martyrs to the stake. You know they stand in great awe of Lady H. and she has been very kind to some of them". 

Patty Mault asked Teresa Hamilton whether her own daughter would not have asked her father's help in such a situation, and she replied, "Big as she is I would have her whipped", and looked furious enough to have struck Miss Patty in the face, Maud Montgomery told Sarah. "It was rather dreadful was it not?" Sarah commented. She added, "Her Excel1ency told them what they owed to her & the courtesy due to her from her position & Miss Patty said Lady Hamilton is it not from you we look for it before all others ... Of course Lady H. will never forgive any of them". 

Later, Sarah had a chance of finding out the inside story. She and her friend Poppy Clarke walked to Government House to say how do you do to Lady Hamilton, who insisted on them having coffee. She "dismissed the servants & drew up our chairs & was settling down to a long narrative when to our extreme annoyance in walked Mr & Mrs James", who stayed until it was time to go home, so Sarah never did hear Teresa Hamilton's explanation. "Both [Poppy] and I had been wanting to hear what she had to say."

There was a reconciliation, then another "bust up", and Teresa Hamilton returned the subscriptions of those who had resigned, to their fury. A dance at Government House in April was poorly attended, and finally in May the hatchet was buried. The Literary Society continued, and in 1892 was still meeting fortnightly at Government House and discussing such topics as the works of Rudyard Kipling (with animated debate for and against), and "There's Nothing like Leather".

When Teresa Hamilton departed from Tasmania, she chose a committee to run the society, which, the next year, was renamed the Hamilton Literary Society in her honour. By the time of her death in 1932, it was a venerable body, the oldest existing such society in Australia.