Geoffrey Syme in England in 1901
In 1901 David Syme sent his two youngest sons, Geoffrey and Oswald, to England. Some of Geoffrey’s letters to his parents have survived; they were written during the last months of his time in England, and in the first of these letters he is nervously awaiting their reaction to the news that he has become engaged to Violet Garnett. The mail took about five weeks to get to Melbourne and then another five weeks to get an answer, and he had sent them a cable to more or less prepare them for what he was to tell them.
Geoffrey had been given an arduous programme of work to do for his father in England. He had been a staff member of the editorial department of The Age for about seven years, but he seems to have had to relinquish his salary while he was away. He was given an allowance, but he was required, or perhaps just willing, to show his parents exactly how he spent the money. He was on a tight budget. In England he was not on holiday; he was working. When he was on the Continent he spent an average of £1-1-0 a day, which included fares, and the combined cost of his and Oswie’s holiday in Italy was £51.
In September, when he was still in London, he says in a letter to his mother “I should mention that we have nearly come to the end of our resources ….. I can furnish a full statement at any time and show that we have kept within the margin you said would be the cost per day”. At this time Geoffrey was twenty-eight years old and engaged to be married.
 Oswald had been employed in the clerical part of his father’s business and was not on the editorial staff. He was often with Geoffrey, though he seems to have been allotted a much lighter programme in England, one that included less business and more sight-seeing as well as visits to their Aunt Minnie, (Jane Mary Johnson), and her children, Graham, Francis, Winifred, Maurice and Alan, who were living Aberdeen. Geoffrey is very much the older brother, and in his letters he tells his mother about Oswie’s plans and their travels together. Oswald is never given his full Christian name; Geoffrey always calls him Oswie and writes about him kindly. He never reports back any problems or unsuitable behaviour.

Minnie Syme's house in Aberdeen.

Many of the letters were written from 10 Montague Place, near Russell Square, which was their base in London. Presumably this was a small hotel, or perhaps a boarding house. Geoffrey always writes affectionately to his father and mother, and sometimes the letters are addressed to “Dear Father and Mother.” He is obviously at ease with both of them, despite the worry he felt concerning the news they are about to get about his engagement. The letters to his father usually relate to the tasks he has undertaken for him; the visits to ink factories, printing works, paper mills, newspapers, meetings with newspaper editors and chiefs-of staff, details regarding his father’s investments in companies, and occasionally to his unsuccessful search for suitable Maltese goats for his father’s farm at Killara.
He gives his father plenty of information and often comments on what he has read in the rather old copies of The Age that were made available to him in London. With his mother he is more concerned with telling her who he has seen and where he has been, though there is little difference in the way he writes to them. What is particularly noticeable is his failure to say much about his fiancée. Of course he may have described her in more detail in his earlier letters to his parents, but his comments about her are not very romantic. He seems more worried about their reaction to his engagement and his future prospects. In September 1901 he still thought he was returning to The Age as the new chief-of-staff, and it is not clear when and why David Syme changed his mind and decided his son was to be the first editor of Every Saturday.
In a letter to his mother on 12th September he says “The anxiously awaited cablegram arrived on Wednesday and now I know a little where I am, though of course I have to wait for a letter before everything is clear”. He points out that he knows that Oswie is anxious to get away and that there is not much advantage in him staying on in England - here he is the solicitous elder brother and says “you need not be anxious about him going and I will go back with him to Italy and put him on the boat at Marseilles”. He mentions his eldest brother Herbert, who had left Geoffrey’s future home Conisboro and was getting settled in his new, much larger house, Rockingham, which lay on the southern boundary of the Blythswood land, on the opposite side to Conisboro.
The gate between Rockingham & Blysthwood.

On 18th September he writes to his mother from Clitheroe and says “Your letter written after the receipt of your cablegram has reached me. I am very much gratified as it contained more assurances than I had hoped for, considering the little information you had to go upon. The cable to you was more with a view to advising and preparing you for an event and I am sure I had no reason to be vexed for having to wait a few weeks for an answer. I haven’t said much to you about Violet because I’m not used to such descriptive writing, and, besides, I believe Mrs Garnett (Violet’s mother) wrote pretty fully. She wants very much to write to you herself by this mail, if she has not already done so. I now have to exercise my patience until the arrival of the Roma about four weeks hence, when I expect letters supplementing your cable and answering my first letter. Of course our plans are not so rigid that they cannot be altered if necessary. They depend largely on what your letters contain.” Geoffrey then switches subjects and tells his mother about an unsatisfactory Baldwin Engine which has given the Midland Railway a lot of trouble.
 On 20th September he tells his parents that he had delivered an opossum rug on their behalf and that he has discovered is a bundle of unbound copies of his father’s book, (but he doesn’t say which book).
He writes to his father on 17th October, again from Clitheroe. “Your letter has just reached me. I sincerely hope that everything will prove satisfactory for you as well as for ourselves I have not been curious as to my future salary but as to whether I would be able to make myself thoroughly entitled to what you would allow me. I am looking forward to taking up the work of chief-of-staff and hope I will prove myself competent in the position which I know is no sinecure. It will be hard work and I am anxious to prove myself at it… anyway I hope by February or March to be in harness again and be of some assistance to you. Though the date of the marriage has not been settled, it will I expect be somewhere towards the end of January.” (His future mother-in-law, Edith Fanny Garnett, was waiting the birth of her eighth child, Horatia, who was due in November).
His letter to his mother, also dated 17th October, is rather different. “I hardly know how to reply to your letter for there is so much I could say but cannot write, With regard to Violet I can only say very little now, She is, I know, very young and she is not what you would call domesticated, but then I think English girls are nothing like Australian girls in that respect because they have not the same necessity for becoming that when young. Their very environment and the number of domestics always tell against them in that respect. Her bent has always been for study. I suppose I could point out one or two imperfections, but her warm-heartedness will make up for those and I hope she will find a warm welcome in your heart as I know she wants to. …You will have received my cable saying that we would like Conisboro very much. For many reasons we would like to be there and near you. I was doubtful for a long time how to reply, because in some respects I think it would be better to live somewhere else handy to the train, as, for example, near Barkers Road Station or else right away, say Heidelberg, for a few months till we had settled down to ourselves and then return near you.  These considerations are however outweighed by the advantage of being at Conisboro and I know that being so close to you will be a great comfort to Violet. Whatever you like us to do will please us best, Moreover I wouldn’t like the idea of strangers in Conisboro.”
Living close to Annabella Syme turned out to be far from a comfort to Violet. She was frightened of her mother-in-law, but, oddly enough, was quite at ease with her father-in-law. She was never frightened of him and liked talking to him. Any contemporary memories of Annabella, and there are very few, are of a well-meaning but dominating woman who always believed her decisions to be right. She liked to be in control, for people to follow her directions without question. In 1901 Geoffrey’s attitude in his letters to her was loving, but servile. Violet turned out to be neither, but had to try and hide her feelings. Undoubtedly Annabella was a good woman who always tried to do what she believed was best. She probably never meant to be deliberately hurtful, but she was both bossy and insensitive, a trait that was also noticeable in her elder daughter Lucie. She would not have wanted her docile son Geoffrey to go against her wishes. She was always generous to him, (in September 1901 she sent him £500). His engagement was probably one of the very few times that he had acted impetuously or without her knowledge.
At the end of October Geoffrey and Oswie left for Italy. They went via Paris, Basle, Lucerne and the St. Gotthard Pass, going on to Venice, Florence, Rome and Naples, and returning to France to put Oswie on board the Roma at Marseilles.
The two brothers had an interesting journey, one that would have been greatly appreciated by Violet, had it been possible for it to have taken place later, after Oswie had gone back to Australia and she and Geoffrey were married. Geoffrey has a few descriptive passages in his letters, enough to show that he probably could have written well, had he wanted to. He didn’t like Paris, loved Lucerne, quite liked Milan and Florence and was most enthusiastic about Venice. His six days in Rome interested him, though he tells his mother he does not want to bother her with his impressions. He says ”I certainly do not want to set foot in Naples again” but he enjoyed his visit to Pompeii and the sight of Vesuvius wreathed in clouds.
On 30th October he was in Milan when he wrote to his mother “I don’t know how to thank you for your offer about Conisboro, which, needless to say, will be very much appreciated.  I think you will understand the spirit in which I wrote on previous occasions about living elsewhere for a short time, but, as I said, we would prefer to be near. I have not said anything to Violet about it, though I have written for her mother’s benefit, telling her about what you said about linen and silver.   You ask whether Violet has any special likes or dislikes as to colours. I say no, but cannot speak with authority as to the likes, though I don’t know of any she has in these matters.”  He was not in England when he wrote this letter, and he seems to have forgotten to check with his fiancée next time he saw her. She did indeed have strong views about colours and her views were not the same as her mother-in-law’s. It was Geoffrey’s fault that Conisboro’s rooms were painted in rich dark colours, whereas Violet liked white and pale greens and blues, colours that might have made the gloomy villa a bit more cheerful. When she arrived in Melbourne there was absolutely nothing she could do to change the paint at Conisboro. She had to pretend to be grateful for Annabella’s choice, even though she hated the colours and the furniture.
Geoffrey had given the wrong reply to his mother’s question. He probably did not bother to think that her tastes might not be the same as his fiancée’s. Violet did not mind that Conisboro was a small villa. Her own home, Radeclyffe, in Clitheroe, was not a particularly big house and it was always crowded with her many younger brothers and sisters, but she did mind that she was given no part in the decoration of Conisboro. Most of all she minded the frequent visits that Annabella paid to her new daughter-in-law. Annabella would appear without warning, coming into Conisboro by the gate that led from Blythswood into its back garden. Violet was not only frightened of her, but resentful of the supervision of her housekeeping, and of any criticism. It had been arranged for a Miss N Ramishall come with her from Clitheroe to be with her in Melbourne. N Ramishall's 2nd saloon ticket from London to Melbourne cost ₤ 40-14-0. Violet Syme’s, ticket, which was only from Marchelles to Melbourne was 1st saloon and cost ₤ 71-10-00. There is no record of how long Miss Ramishall stayed at Conisboro or indeed if she ever took that passage to Melbourne.
Nor did Violet fit easily into the big Syme and Johnson family.  In England she was the eldest child of an eldest son, with four grandparents who loved her and spoilt her. Now she was the youngest and newest daughter-in-law, and David and Annabella Syme already had fourteen grandchildren, with more to come. At the beginning of 1902 Herbert Syme had two children, Francis Syme had nine, Arthur Syme had two and Lucie Macalister had one. Violet’s daughter Marjorie, who was born on 30th October, was David Syme’s fifteenth grandchild, so her birth was not a particularly exciting event for her Melbourne grandparents. It was fortunate that Geoffrey’s very homesick bride was gregarious and fun-loving and made friends easily (mostly outside the family), but throughout her life she remained homesick for her parents and family in England.

Copyright © 2012 Dr Veronica Condon. All rights reserved.