Scottish born Alfred Elder migrated to Melbourne in 1875, at age 30 according to Australian immigration records. His shipboard journal reads as a memorandum or testament, with its final passages addressed directly to his brother and sister, who remained in Britain.
Alfred was born in Burntisland, Fifeshire, in Scotland on 19 October 1848, and baptised on the first of December that year, most likely in an Anglican or Presbyterian service. The Elder family lived in various locations in the south east of Scotland, with children born in Fife and in Edinburgh. In his diary, Alfred Elder writes that the long, narrow nature of the Yarra River reminds him of 'the Firth of Forth' at 'home'. The Firth of Forth is north of Edinburgh, in Fifeshire.
Scottish Census records, taken every 10 years during the mid-nineteenth century, show the changes which took place in the Elder family through the period. In March 1851, the Elder family lived in Old Machar Parish in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. At the recording of the census, their father, Alexander, was not home, but their mother, Elizabeth Elder (nee Simson), was listed as the wife of a Railway Guard. Elizabeth and Alexander had two sons at this point, James (aged 3), and Alfred (aged 2).
Alexander Elder died before the next census was taken on 7th April 1861, leaving his wife as the head of the family. Elizabeth Elder is listed as a widow, working as a laundress. The family have moved to Edinburgh. Elizabeth has had one daughter, aged 8. Records listing the surname of Elizabeth's daughter Cassandra vary, with some recording her as Cassandra Muma and others with the initials M. M. A different surname may have come from a different father, meaning that Alexander Elder may have died before her birth in around 1853. Also in the household at the time the census was taken was Elizabeth Ferrier, Elizabeth Elder's niece. The occupation of the two sons is not listed on the 1861 census, making the level of their contributions to the family finances unclear. Their sister and their cousin, who may have been living with them or may have simply been at the house at the time of the census, are listed as scholars.
The 1871 census shows Alfred and Cassandra still living in Edinburgh with their mother. It lists Alfred as working as a grocer's porter and Cassandra as having followed her mother's occupation as a laundress. James is not listed as being at the house. In 1873, Elizabeth died in Edinburgh aged 50. The previous census had listed her as still the head of the household. Alfred Elder was signatory to her death certificate.
Alfred left Britain two years later, travelling from Gravesend to Melbourne on board the S.S. St Osyth in 1875. The voyage of the S.S. St. Osyth on which Alfred Elder was a passenger was the fastest from London to Melbourne on record. The vessel's arrival in Hobson's Bay on 27 June 1875 drew press attention, with three passages printed in The Argus the following day.
Alfred's writing during the voyage takes on a humorous air in some of his diary passages. A particular target of this humour seems to be the wealthier passengers. A level of class consciousness is shown in remarks about the breaking of 'a great many dishes in the 2nd class' during rough weather, the sliding of chairs from side to side during the concert on 1st June, and particularly the noting that the moving of the coals on 3rd June which caused 'the gentry (to have) a share of the dust' compared to the earlier subjection of the 4th class passengers to most of that dust.
The diary gives some clues as to the character and interests of its author. In particular, he seems fascinated with engines and the progress of the ship. Most entries include the S.S. St. Osyth's latitude, longitude, distance from land and course, and many note stoppages to screw up the engines. So too, his postscript style notes about the development of Melbourne focuses in part on the transport infrastructure of this 'new country'. This may be the influence of his father, who worked as a railway guard when Alfred was young.
Alfred's diary seems quite a stoic man, not often displaying sentiment despite his journey taking him away from family across the world. However, conversely, he does write it as an address and testament to his brother and sister, with his writing in the final entry that 'I send you this paltry log according to promise' suggesting a feeling of burden and loss in leaving his family. The diary should possibly be read with the timing of his departure in mind, leaving Britain two years after the death of his mother at age 50, who had for many years and most of his childhood been the head of the household.
Alfred arrived in Melbourne on Monday 28th June 1875. As he writes in his diary, immediately after his arrival, he lived with an Aunt on Franklin Street, North Melbourne. He soon found employment, most likely as a gentleman's servant as is listed on his marriage certificate for the following year. On 19th October 1876 (his birthday), Alfred Elder married Ann Jane Rooney, herself an immigrant from Tyrone, Ireland. Ann Jane also worked as a domestic servant, and lived in Camberwell at the time of their marriage. The Elders were married in Camberwell and lived in St. Kilda, to where Alfred had moved at some point between his arrival and the wedding.
Alfred and Ann Jane had seven children. They were Elizabeth Jane, born 1878, Catherine Matilda Maria, born 1880, James Alexander, born 1882, Alfred , born 1883, Jessie, born 1886, and John Simson, born 1888, and Margaret (birth date unknown). From these dates of birth it is evident that Ann Jane spent much of the decade following her marriage pregnant, and the Elders would have constantly been caring for infants, toddlers and young children during this period.
Three of the Elder's children died before their parents. Jessie Elder died age 6, on 28 October 1892, at the Carlton Children's Hospital. Her death certificate lists kidney and liver problems and exhaustion as causing her death.
Alfred and Ann lived in St. Kilda for most of their married lives. According to Sands and McDougall directories for the period, they lived variously on Fawkner, Inkerman, Havelock and Pakington Streets. Alfred's trade was never listed within the directory most likely because he continued to work as a gentleman's servant, or in a similar position, probably relying upon word of mouth and reputation to gain employment. From 1902, Ann Jane is listed as a dress maker in the directory. By this time, her youngest would have been around 10-12 years old, allowing Ann time to earn money through this trade. Alfred is not listed in the directory from 1901 until 1910, possibly due to financial constraints.
Alfred died on 21st December 1912 in Coburg, Melbourne. He spent his final years on an old age pension. One point of interest surrounding his death is that either through clerical error or an embellishment of family history over time, his father's actual job as a railway guard or chequer of train tickets became 'engine driver' on Alfred's death certificate.
Ann Jane Elder died in 1929, having moved to Geelong. It is unclear at what point she moved to Geelong, but it is probable that she lived with one of her children in her old age.