Sunday, 5 May 2013

History Re-written

This afternoon, as part of the Heritage Festival on in Perth at the moment, my mother and I traipsed down to Hamilton Hill to visit the Azelia Ley Homestead Museum. It is a beautiful house situated within luscious parklands and it is notable how much time and energy and love has gone into restoring this house for the public's understanding.

Mum and I were interested in the history of the place, the history of one of the founding families of Fremantle, but of more interest was the family rumour of our own personal connections with some of the artefacts preserved therein.
Perhaps I should explain; my mother's uncle was involved with the City of Cockburn's council and when they were assembling the collection at Azelia Ley Homestead it is said within the family that he raided his late mother's linens for suitable pieces. It was known that these pieces had no connection with the house but that instead they were of a suitable age to improve the understanding of the house and times in which it was occupied.

However, saying that, the story also goes that a motivating factor for the use of his mother's possessions was that her initials matched those of the unmarried Azelia Ley, thereby making my great-grandmother's trousseau appear as though it instead had belonged to Azelia. This wouldn't be a problem if the donation were acknowledged somewhere within the museum. Instead the ladies manning the house saw the initials and immediately assumed what my great uncle had wanted them to assume: that these pillow cases were a part of Azelia Manning's trousseau for her marriage to Jack Ley. This is despite their familiarity to my mother (who has never entered the Azelia Ley Homestead museum before), and the fact that the pillow cases are classic european pillow cases and therefore highly unlikely to have belonged to an Australian girl of English heritage. They are far more likely to have belonged to a Maltese woman from Alexandria who insisted upon speaking Italian.

Sadly what this means is not just that these pillowcases have acquired a history incongruous with their real history  but that because of their presence within the Azelia Ley collection they have lost their true history to all but a small handful of family members who remember the donation and the reactions it caused between brothers. The ladies at the house voiced this concern, asking whether they should be remembering and conveying the true providence of these pieces, for I fear my mother and I did unintentionally confuse them as she recognised various items from her own childhood. But to offset this loss of history, my great grandmother's pillow cases are being used to educate , to increase our understanding of the history of the city in which we live, and hopefully to preserve some of this history before it disappears completely.

A small part of me wonders what would have happened to those pillow cases if they had remained in the family. Would we have recognised the initials? Would we have cared? Would we have lovingly cherished them or would they have just remained in a box hidden at the back of a wardrobe, at the bottom of a glory box? Has my great uncle actually given them a better future than we could have offered if they had remained with us?


  1. The great thing about symbols and objects and ideas is that they always change meaning as history marches on around them, as the people who invested meaning in them die around them.

    As they taught us in Honours, it is then the Historians job to decide how they are communicated to the next generation.

    Your family's linen is becoming a truly historical set of linen now! Taking on meaning as required ...

  2. An update on the Azelia Ley Museum Collection, currently undergoing Significance Assessment, and specifically identifying and reinterpreting donated artifacts from our local communities, related to the wider Cockburn area and early era. The pillow cases in question were donated by the Fremantle Oral History Group, very possibly via a local resident, and were labeled according to the information at the time, which was that they were original and showed Azelia Manning's initials. The early settlers to this area were very much of European as well as English origin, Azelia was in fact of Peruvian descent on her grandmothers side, so it was plausible that they could have been hers in keeping with the style of the articles. We do endeavor to be accurate, but hearsay will always impact on the truth, and sometimes is the truth! History is only as good as the people telling it, and is a living thing that can always be enriched.


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