Comte Gabriel de Milhau

Sonia Wilson

Considered one of the founders of Hunters Hill in Sydney, Comte Gabriel de Milhau (1819-1893) and his recently wed wife, Marian Adcock, arrived in the colony of New South Wales on 21st July 1849. Born in Castres in the south of France of aristocratic parentage, Gabriel de Milhau fled to England from Paris following the February Revolution in 1848. He wed Marian Adcock in the same year. Although she was born in Birmingham of an English father, secondary sources indicate she had lived in Paris since childhood and spoke little English.

The Milhau family papers are housed in a large archival box and an archival filing folder. The latter holds the family photographs, each image inserted into its own transparent pocket by the cataloguing archivist. Here is Ferdinand de Milhau, the youngest brother of Gabriel. He poses next to a large rock, his hand placed on its side. In the background are tree ferns. He is on a visit from France at ‘Paraza”, one of the three houses Gabriel de Milhau had constructed in Hunters Hill and which still stands. Below, a quartet of small studio portraits show Ferdinand’s first three daughters at various ages. A photograph of a young man, posing with a dog on a town street in France, follows. These, like the studio portraits of Armand and Léon Mahuziés, sons of Gabriel de Milhau’s older sister Marguerite, have been taken in France and sent, or brought, to NSW. Grouped by family, they are sequenced with the Sydney studio portraits of Gabriel de Milhau, Marian de Milhau (‘Grandmama de Milhau’) and their daughter Émilie, born in Sydney in 1854. This was also the year in which de Milhau acquired land in Hunters Hill. By 1862, he was Chairman of the newly-minted Municipality. The ‘album’ closes with five photographs of the Château de Paraza near Béziers in southern France. This is – or was – the family seat: here is its courtyard and front entrance; its rose terrace; a view of cultivated fields and of the Château taken from below, perched above the terraced bank of the Canal du Midi.

The large box contains a variety of printed and hand-written matter. There are numerous hand-written letters. There are four faire-parts, bordered in black – announcements of family deaths in France (1838; 1911; 1914; 1920). Possibly the oldest document in the collection, the first faire-part announces the death of Gabriel de Milhau’s father, Comte Jules Auguste de Milhau, in Toulouse in 1838 and therefore predates the Milhau’s arrival in the Colony by eleven years. There is a will. There are two calling cards: one for a Mademoiselle de Milhau Carlat, the other for the Duc de Penthièvre. There is a slim, cursive-filled green notebook; three clippings from French newspapers and a small bundle of pages folded together that, when opened out, form an extensive family tree covering seven double notebook sheets, each stuck to the next. All, with the exception of the will and one of the letters, are in French. There are also two fragments which defy generic classification. One is a corner, torn from elsewhere; the other is composite in nature, handmade. On the first, a family crest is printed.

The second is a small greyish card on which three more crests, each carefully cut from elsewhere, have been pasted. In the centre, slightly raised, is a crown, with the ‘Duc de Nemours’ handwritten below. Flanking the crown on either side are the crests of the “Countess de Chambord” and the “Comte de Chambord”. These fragments leave little doubt where Milhau political allegiances lay. The second son of King Louis-Philippe, the Duc de Nemours provided cover for his father’s escape from the Tuileries during the February Revolution of 1848 and joined him in exile in England following the former’s abdication. From there, he sought to reconcile the two branches of the house of Bourbon through dialogue with Henri d’Artois, comte de Chambord and grandson of Charles X. This was seen as a first step in re-establishing the French monarchy. It did not succeed.

To open and read the green notebook and examine the family tree is to understand these two fragments as part of a wider geneaological endeavour, a quest to document aristocratic lineage carried out by family members in France and sent to Australia. Of his family, Gabriel de Milhau alone emigrated to Sydney. Each object works in conjunction with the next. The writing in the notebook traces the origins of the “Comtes de Milhau”, beginning with the death of Lotare II in 629. The chronology stops in 1251. Four sections follow, established by the writer himself, who signs and dates at the end: Comte Fernand de Milhau Carlat, 17 novembre 1905 – Gabriel de Milhau’s nephew. Conclusions are drawn; documents are cited; relevant articles from French newspapers are summarised or quoted; arms, titles and services are noted or described. The blue printed crest on the torn page corner is indeed the crest of the Milhaus. The documents referred to throughout are, the writer notes at the end, in the hands of the widow of Comte Joseph de Milhau Carlat. One archival holding always points to another although not always so explicitly: here, in 1905, a link is created to what, by now, may well be a ghost archive. The family tree, drawn on the Seyes-ruled paper that is still commonly used in France today, stretches to 1937. It includes Gabriel and Marian de Milhau’s two grand daughters, Gabrielle and Nora Brenan, both born in Sydney.

These objects cohabit with other papers, which enact kinship and relatedness in an entirely different register. There are eleven letters, all of which convey great tenderness. A long letter signed “your devoted sister Claire” and dated 3 April ’53, sent from l’Isle d’Abby in the south of France, tells us much about the strength of the Milhau siblings’ affective bonds. Claire Pélegry, née de Milhau, was Gabriel de Milhau’s youngest sister. Before beginning her letter, she rereads her brother’s for the sixth time. In it, Gabriel has clearly shared news of his and his wife’s imminent departure from Ramornie, the cattle station on the Clarence River that he, Léon Émile Chauffert (French) and Étienne Jean Léonard Bordier-Roman (Étienne Bordier; Swiss) purchased in March 1850. It was a short-lived venture. News of the discovery of gold at nearby Bathurst in 1851 was followed by the departure of their employees. The men worked the station themselves until 1852 when they sold the property at public auction in Sydney. Research carried out by the Clarence River Historical Society hints that the three were ill-suited to station work and management. Claire Pélegry seems to harbour similar reservations concerning her brother’s suitability for his next project. If her wishes were sufficient, she begins warmly, gold nuggets and blocks would materialise beneath his fingers and he would soon return to France with a brilliant fortune. However she notes, steering her and – as she evidently hopes – her brother’s attention toward more pragmatic considerations, how is he going to manage? He, an “elegant Parisian”, is hardly going to turn his “pretty hand” to scraping and sifting dirt or, with his monocle at his eye, strain his eyesight to sort the metal from the dust or break his back to collect it. Of note too is Claire’s passing observation on the proliferation of posters “even in the smallest towns” advertising the need for labour in Australia (workers, stonemasons, carpenters) and reassuring prospective migrants of the safety of the colony.

It is indeed thought that the Comte tried his own hand at gold cradling, although there seems to be little textual evidence of this. In addition to the land purchased in Hunters Hill in 1854, he appears to have been involved in a number of business transactions – the purchasing and selling of various properties in the Colony and of livestock (broken-in colts); he was also registered as a spirit merchant. In 1867, he was appointed Postal Inspector in the colonial Post Office, a position he held until his retirement in 1888 and for which he travelled extensively through regional NSW.

The six letters in this collection written by him to his daughter Émilie, the first while on business in Dunedin when Émilie was about seven, are deeply affectionate. Most moving is the close material proximity in this collection of two letters. The first, written by Gabriel de Milhau to his daughter on February 19 1882, the day after her wedding, expresses his joy and deep sadness at seeing his daughter leave the parental home. The second is older: undated, it is addressed to “Mademoiselle Marie Adcock” just days before Gabriel de Milhau’s own wedding in 1848 and written by his sisters, Henriette Belloc de Milhau and Claire Pélegry. They convey their fondest sisterly wishes to a woman they have not yet had the pleasure of meeting but of whom their brother speaks highly. Henriette notes that she calls Marie Adcock by “the sweet name of sister” all the more gladly in view of the boundless affection she appears to have for Gabriel, the greatest proof of this being Marie Adcock’s willingess to follow him to Oceania – an expatriation that breaks Henriette’s heart.