Rediscovering Ginninderra: A database:
Alfred Mainwaring Rich
Born: 1823; Died: 1893; Married: Margaret Phillips
After his wife died in 1880, Alfred Mainwaring Rich moved from Gundaroo to open a private school next door to the Gribbles’ homestead at The Valley. But all was not what it seemed with this cultured schoolmaster who boasted connections to the English landed gentry. The Queanbeyan Age reported his death as follows: "News has been received of the death of Mr. Alfred Mainwaring Rich, who died at the residence of his son at Gunning. The above-named gentleman who was highly connected - being the brother of the late Major General Rich - was formerly a resident here for many years and was well known both here and at Gundaroo."
It is true that Rich’s father was indeed of noble stock, but the Richs were viewed as usurpers in England. The family had Jewish origins and had won its wealth and titles during the dissolution of the monasteries and had only 'married in' to the gentry. Making matters worse for Alfred, was that, on his mother’s side, he had Mughal Indian DNA and there is even evidence pointing to African ancestry via the South Atlantic island of St Helena. Alfred’s mother’s complexion was so dark, that her British citizenship had to be explained to the 1851 census officer. Some of her cousins in subsequent censuses were even described as ‘African coloured’.
Alfred enlisted in the North Devonshires, which arrived in Australia from 1845. Alfred’s designation at enlistment was ‘labourer’, which suggests that he already fallen upon hard times and may have been estranged from his wealthy family. In 1857 he was among the 100 men who purchased their discharge, choosing to remain in the colony rather than return to England.
At first he settled at Macarthur’s, ‘Richlands’, where he found employment as a schoolteacher. This was also where he met his wife, Margaret Phillips, who also had Jewish heritage and, like Alfred, had chosen not to disclose this publicly.
In Australia, Alfred had already begun sowing the rumour that his family had a castle and manorial holdings in England and that he had only left his native country in despair, having been blamed for a riding accident, which took the life of his sister. These stories were invented. But they were willingly consumed by his Colonial friends and, ultimately, even by his own children in later years. Only after the investigations of his descendants, which began in the 1960s, was it discovered that there was no castle, no sister and no reluctant émigré. Even the profession that he claimed and, on occasion, practised (i.e. surgery), was false. In his defence, it must have been difficult for someone of mixed heritage, to find acceptance in nineteenth-century English society. Perhaps Alfred saw the Jewish and Moslem origin of his family as something best shed in the Antipodes.
Around 1867, Alfred and Margaret moved to Nelanglo, near Gundaroo. There, they combined farming, with the provision of teaching services. Alfred was also actively interested in literature and even dabbled in comic verse, which he submitted to the Goulburn Penny Post under the nom de plume of ‘Jeremiah’. He even provided valuable ad hoc medical assistance, which may help explain the tradition that he had previously served as a military surgeon.
But just as the couple had created new lives for themselves at the centre of their adopted community, tragedy visited. Margaret died unexpectedly in May 1880 at her residence in Nelanglo. Alfred struggled to cope after his wife’s death. It would seem that he had a temperament, unsuited to grief. Matters may not have been helped by the fact that he was living a life of half-truths. His financial position was poor and he proved unable to provide for his five surviving children, who ranged in age from 13 years to a few months. They were farmed out amongst friends.
In August 1881 Alfred moved to Ginninderra, where he established a small private school, located on premises adjacent to Anglican stalwarts, the Gribbles. He ran this school for several years, primarily servicing Mulligans Flat and Tea Gardens, but closed it in March 1892, when enrolments waned and his health started to fail. Alfred took the opportunity to retire to Gunning, where he lived with his son.
At Ginninderra, Alfred had also turned to alcohol. Some financial respite came when his mother died in 1886, and he seems to have been in receipt of a stipend. But at some time before he died, the payments he was receiving from England, also dried up. It is said that Reverend Galliard-Smith, through whom the payments were administered, had reported his heavy drinking bouts to the trustees of the estate. Temperance, it seems, must have been a condition, upon which the payments were predicated.
Despite Alfred’s shortcomings, it seems clear that he was a very well educated and talented man, able to turn his hand to soldiery, teaching, farming and medicine. He appeared to be the sort of ‘refined English gentleman’, who people were looking for and whose flaws (such as his drinking) were happily overlooked.
Alfred Rich died in June 1893 at Gunning, aged 70.
- Gillespie, L. L., Ginninderra: Forerunner to Canberra, Campbell, 1992
- Gillespie, L. L., Early Verse of the Canberra Region: a Collection of Poetry, Verse and Doggerel from Newspapers, Other Publications and Private Sources, Campbell, 1999
- Heffernan, K. and J. Klaver, 'A Conservation and Management Plan for the Gribbles' Homestead Ruin, "The Valley", Gungahlin, A.C.T.', report to the ACT Heritage Section of the ACT Government, Canberra, 1995.
- Lea-Scarlett, E., Gundaroo, Canberra, 1972
- McDonald, J., 'Migration as an Opportunity for Reinvention: Alfred and Margaret Rich of Gundaroo', Obituaries Australia, Australian National University, 2015.
- Various editions of the Queanbeyan Age and Goulburn Evening Penny Post>