Nellie’s Putney Picnic

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Nellie’s Putney Picnic

Before the reform of Australia’s marriage laws in 1975, getting divorced was a difficult and generally humiliating experience.  One party had to prove their spouse was at fault in an open court of law. Lawyers could challenge the other side’s deposition, while seeking to show their client as the aggrieved party.  This often exposed intimate details of illicit liaisons, drunken behaviour or failure to provide proper family support.

Reporting tales of alleged degeneracy, “scandal sheets” such as “The Truth” adopted a tone of moral outrage on behalf of their readers. Salacious accounts hinted at further “truths” that could not be revealed for propriety’s sake. Left unsaid, these festered in the readers’ imagination and, of course, sold more newspapers.

In September 1925 “The Truth” published an account of the divorce proceedings of Frederick W. Bracey and his wife Nellie Vine.  Bracey was a locomotive driver at Mortlake Gasworks and the proprietor of Mortlake Swimming Baths. (Note: Situated in Northcote Street, Mortlake, they were also known as Bracey’s Baths, and they were gone by 1927.)

At age 60, Bracey embarked on a second marriage having divorced his first wife, Ellen Matilda Maloney. In the same year he married 36 year-old Nellie Vine, also a divorcee. Bracey soon began to suspect his wife was seeing another man and began to secretly follow her.

He discovered Nellie was meeting another Gasworks employee, labourer Everett Roy Saunders. Nellie and Saunders sought each other out, crossing the river to Putney where they picnicked at their favourite spot, hidden from view by the dense surrounding bush.

Leaving the children at home, Nellie and Saunders camped there overnight when Bracey was away, until one morning Bracey and his neighbour discovered them together.  Bracey was a powerfully built man and despite his age, clearly intimidated Saunders.

Far from being chastened Nellie continued to meet Saunders.  On one occasion Bracey discovered the pair lying in a drunken state on waste ground near the gasworks.  Bracey then moved out of the cottage he shared with his children and lived in a room above the swimming pool.  His adult children remained in the cottage, where Nellie had separate quarters.  In evidence before the court Bracey gave Nellie’s drunkenness as the reason for him leaving the matrimonial home, although it also established that they were not living together as man and wife.

Bracey was also quick to point out to the Court how he had generously provided for Nellie since their separation.  This was strategic as the Court’s key interest was to ensure a divorce, if granted, would not leave his wife in impecunious circumstances.

That such tales of marital discord were not unusual is evidenced by the popularity and longevity of newspapers such as the “Truth”.  They were more than the Secret Lives of the Wives of Mortlake, to give this a modern equivalent.

From an historian’s perspective, they reflect social values of the time.  They were read because they tested social conventions and provided a sense of daring and vicarious excitement.  Changes in those conventions have meant that such stories no longer have the same currency, but they have not disappeared as viewers of television soap operas and “reality” shows demonstrate.  These viewing /reading habits are a metric of social change – reflecting on why such stories can hold our interest is a way of better understanding who we are. This is when pop culture morphs into historical enquiry.

(Based on an article printed in The Truth on 13 September 1925. Andrew West)

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