Summary

Chronological Tree of Victorian History, a picture designed and written by James McKain Meek, printed and published by John Paten, in 1873, and photo-lithographed by John Noone, Crown Lands Office, Melbourne. The picture is in the shape of a gum tree, with a stylised geological and political map of Victoria forming the 'leaves'. It includes substantial statistical information about the colony of Victoria. The author produced a number of such large pictures that promoted the colony.

James Meek included this legend among his extensive text: 'This chronological tree of Victorian history is by permission most respectfully dedicated to William Henry Archer, Esq., Registrar-General of the Colony of Victoria, and Honorary Corresponding Member of the Statistical Society of London, etc. by his obedient servant James McKain Meek. … Victoria is, by her general and healthy climate, by her auriferous, metalferous and mineral deposits, her pastoral capabilities, the productiveness of her agricultural lands, the compulsory education of her children, destined to become one of the great nations of the earth.'

In a now lost autobiography, Meek described the inspiration for and iconography of the chronological tree: “I was a resident of the town of Warrnambool in which place I wrote the History of Victoria in the form of a gum tree in tablet form. The blossoms of the tree denoted the towns - the foliage occupied the space of the map of Victoria. The branches have the geological features of the country - and the barrel its history arranged in chronological order. Such an undertaking was a very trying one to accomplish the drawing being 6 feet by 5 feet, however in due time I completed my task. In the intermittent time to relieve the monotony I composed my epic poem “The Creation”, and when finished, I lent it to my friends for their perusal, all admired the sentiment and advised me to get it published, which I did.” (Meek, James McKain. Extract of page of [lost] autobiography, nd. Transcript by John T Dallimore, 1986, Journal of the Meek Family Fellowship, 1 (Nov): 4)

Physical Description

The picture is in the shape of a gum tree, with a stylised geological and political map of Victoria forming the 'leaves'. At the base of the 'tree' is a pen and ink drawing of a wilderness scene with an emu and kangaroo, ships in a bay, and a distant lighthouse.

Significance

This quirky document was produced in 1873 by James McKain Meek, 1815 - 1899. Meek emigrated from Norfolk to Sydney in 1838, possibly as a tutor to the children of Governor Gipps, and arrived in Port Phillip District in July 1847 with his wife and young child. He was a pioneer of the Ballarat gold fields, where he was successful in finding gold, ran a store and also a 'soda water factory' (possibly a sly grog shop). He invested the money obtained in a fishing boat enterprise at Sandridge, together with a café near the pier. This business failed when the three fishing boats were sunk in a storm. He then moved with his family to Curdie's Inlet at Peterborough, where he possibly smoked fish that he'd caught. By August 1855 he had moved to Warrnambool where he set up a fishmonger's store and established the West Coast Fishing Company (1858) which had failed by 1859. Meek then worked as a Librarian at the Melbourne Public Library, before returning to Curdie's Inlet where he fished and sold smoked fish to the people of Warrnambool. He sought gold in the area, explored an inland track from Peterborough to Terang, and produced a number of pen and ink illustrations. In 1874 he and the younger members of his family moved to New Zealand, where he was a schoolteacher for a time. In 1890 when he was 75 he returned to Victoria to live with a married daughter. He was 'Assistant Bookkeeper' at the Ballarat Benevolent Home, where he completed a large historical picture of Ballarat. He died in Warrnambool in 1899.

Meek was a draughtsman who delighted in exercising his skill in miniature penmanship. In 1861, Meek's 'Map of Australasia', which gave the history of the Australasian colonies, won first prize at the Melbourne Intercolonial Exhibition. It was sent on to a World Fair in London in 1862, and a copy is held by the London Stationers' Hall. He also produced 'The Ballarat Historical Gum Tree' that was also sent to Stationers' Hall. He apparently received a certificate from Queen Victoria declaring him to be 'the best penman in Australia'. To amuse friends, Meek would write the Lord's Prayer on a sixpence or a postage stamp; whenever there was a family wedding he produced an intricate scroll for the occasion. Meek was also a writer and a poet. In 1869, at Warrnambool, his The Resources of the Western District was published. In 1874 he published a long poem, 'Creation', published in Melbourne; he tried to get this set to music by a Ballarat schoolteacher to be performed to benefit the Benevolent Home. In c.1880 he published Commodore Goodenough's dying words, with an addendum on life and death; and other original poems. This was published in Warrnambool. He also wrote an Epic Poem, published in Christchurch, New Zealand, in 1886, and a song, Zealandia's Annie Macquaid: only a stewardess: Albion's Grace Darling, that was printed in Ballarat in the 1890s; the last two works are held by the National Library of New Zealand.

This 'Chronological Tree of Victorian history' was produced after Meek's success with the Map of Australasia, and was presumably made to be sold to provide much-needed cash for the artist's family. It sets out to promote the colony as a terrific place for investment, with much information about the development of the colony, its natural resources, and the progress of the colony since representative government had been introduced. But it is not a serious attempt at communication, despite the facts and figures: one gets the impression that the artist's delight was in the detail and the tiny size of the text. Miniature writing was a nineteenth century hobby, and Meek used his hobby to produce this document that 'boosts' the colony where he had made his home.

More Information

  • Collecting Areas

    Public Life & Institutions

  • Acquisition Information

    Purchase

  • Artist

    James McKain Meek, Victoria, Australia, 1873

  • Lithographer

    John Noone, Victoria, Australia, 1873

  • Inscriptions

    The picture includes extensive text, arranged under the headings: Victoria/Principal Boroughs and Shire Towns/ City of Melbourne/ Metropolitan Boroughs/ Timeline' Geological features/ Statistical Summary of Victoria/ names of Ministers in the Present Government, 1873/ Names of Ministers, First Responsible Government in Victoria, 1855/ details about Edward Henty, and a note that the work was 'Registered by Act of Parliament'.

  • Classification

    Governance, Victorian state government, Reference materials

  • Category

    History & Technology

  • Discipline

    History

  • Type of item

    Document

  • Primary support

    896 mm (Width), 1143 mm (Height)

  • Image

    591 mm (Width), 1000 mm (Height)

  • Frame

    974 mm (Width), 42 mm (Depth), 1395 mm (Height)

  • References

    See Mrs R. Duruz: 'An unusual pioneer in Victoria: a biographical sketch of James McKain Meek' in Victorian Historical Magazine, v.44, February 1973, pp.40 - 47; catalogues of the State Library of Victoria and the National Library of Australia. See also Hay, PR, 'Meek, James McKain (1815-1898)', The Biographical Dictionary of Western District of Victoria, Gordon Forth, General Editor (ed), South Melbourne Victoria, 108-109 (1998)
    [Article] Pryde, Pam. 2006. John Noone, Government Photo-lithographer, 1861-1888. Script & Print: Bulletin of the Bibliographical Society of Australia and New Zealand. 30 (1): 31-38.

  • Keywords

    Artworks, History of Melbourne, Victorian Pioneers