How a long-forgotten ‘confirmed bachelor’ informs our history


henry bramston john bramston robert herbert confirmed bachelor
Image: State Library of Queensland

When Robert Herbert and John Bramston sailed home to England after six years in the new colony of Queensland, John’s younger brother remained. A ‘confirmed bachelor’, Henry Bramston played a prominent role in Brisbane life but was quickly forgotten after his death.

Robert Herbert, private secretary to Sir George Bowen, arrived in Brisbane in November 1859 to prepare the official welcome for Bowen in his role as Queensland’s first Governor. On his arrival, Bowen appointed Herbert to head the government of the new colony. John Bramston arrived next in January 1860. He had lived with Herbert since they met at university a few years before. Bramston took over as Bowen’s private secretary and later stood for election to parliament himself. Finally, Bramston’s younger brother Henry disembarked in Brisbane in February. Sailing from England to Australia took about three months at the time, indicating the threesome planned their staggered arrivals.

Henry Bramston

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In 1864, Henry and a friend bought a property out in the bush near Roma with Robert Herbert and John Bramston as partners. The next year, the same year that his brother became Attorney-General, Henry received a very convenient government appointment as magistrate at Roma. Such blatant nepotism did not always provoke the same indignation then as now. Henry remained in the public service until the end of his life.

Despite various rural appointments, he mainly lived in Brisbane. He proved a more social animal than either his brother or Herbert. That pair preferred the splendid isolation of their 50-acre farm. However, they were rarely alone at Herston. Robert Herbert and John Bramston welcomed a constant stream of similarly upper-class Englishmen who like themselves favoured boating, fishing, hunting and camping over elegant soirées.

The local squattocracy generally laid on lavish social events in honour of unmarried British gentry resident in the colony. They seized on the opportunity to enhance their social standing by marrying their daughters to toffs. However, it seems the local nobs quickly discerned that Robert Herbert, John Bramston and younger brother Henry had little interest in vows of matrimony.

Herston

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Herston with Robert Herbert, left and John Bramston. Images: State Library of Queensland

A busy man

Henry Bramston was a man about town and something of a dandy — an immaculate dresser and partial to fine jewellery.

He served on the Acclimatisation Society, Philharmonic Society, Hospital and Turf Club committees and on the board of the National Association which ran the annual exhibition. He also worked tirelessly to raise funds for the construction of Fortitude Valley’s Holy Trinity Anglican Church.

Henry owned a house opposite where the Normanby Hotel now stands. His gardens were much celebrated, particularly his potted plants and flowering ornamentals.

He was a busy man.

The Brisbane Courier records him ‘donning the pink’ to act as Clerk of Course at the races and organising balls at the School of Arts. He both supervised the Horticultural competition at the Ekka and won many of the prizes in that same competition.

At the 1878 Ekka, he won 21 of the 39 awards for ornamental plants. Although he did not enter any pansies in the competition, he encouraged others to cultivate the large-flowered hybrid. He donated ten shillings for the best three pansies; the same for the best single pansy; and £1 for the best collection of five pansies.

Dear Sir…

Henry’s voluminous correspondence at times made the Letters column of the Brisbane Courier seem like his personal Facebook page. He reached for his quill to compose comments on any and every topic. Among his favoured subjects — hospital rules. Henry enthralled readers with lengthy treatises seemingly designed to smother with micro-management any patients who survived their ailments.

Henry did not tolerate dissent. Only courageous souls dared propose concepts contrary to the Bramston Manifesto. First and foremost, he objected to charitable endowments that resulted in free treatment for the hoi-polloi. He abhorred benevolence toward a class of people he insisted ‘would never work for what they could get by begging’.

A bit rich coming from a bloke who owed his position in life to a family connection.

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He took particular offence at a proposed children’s hospital, concerned that tending to sick children would encourage the lower classes to breed.

A frequent postscript epitomised his routine tone.

Crave pardon

“I have written plainly… and if I have offended or hurt anyone’s feelings, I can only crave pardon for so doing.”

Crave pardon as he might, Henry tolerated neither dissension nor any slight against his esteemed self — nor his prized bay gelding.

When Henry entered the horse in the harness competition at the Ekka, Prince took second place. That bewildered a newspaper editor who thought the prize undeserved. He ridiculed Prince as using ‘his forelegs as though they were a pair of crutches’ and likened the horse to a cockroach.

How very dare he! Henry dashed off an outraged response.

“I must crave permission to take exception to your remarks.”

Henry Bramston eventually ran into financial difficulties. He overspent during the construction of a grand mansion on 20 acres at Ascot and was forced to sell everything, including his prize-winning pot plants.

He then moved to Newstead and died in 1891 in a private hospital on James St.

Following his death, the newspapers eulogised Henry Bramston as ‘a very old citizen of Brisbane’. But Henry was only 55 years of age. He merely seemed old because of his constant fussing and ‘fuddy-duddy’ nature.

Mayfield

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Mayfield: The mansion Henry Bramston built at Ascot later hosted Edward VIII when he visited Brisbane as Prince of Wales. The house, which burned down in the 1930s, gave its name to Mayfield St, Ascot.

Bitchy old New Farm Queen

In truth, Henry would fit easily into Brisbane’s inner-city suburbs today. We may loathe to admit it, but most Brisbanites have either said or heard the phrase, ‘bitchy old New Farm queen’.

Unlike the elder brother he followed to Queensland, there is no evidence beyond stereotype to indicate his sexuality.

Assuming Henry Bramston was gay because he fitted a stereotype would now arouse angry indignation. We insist emphatically — and correctly — that our communities are diverse. Not all gay men are effeminate, and not all lesbians are butch.

But stereotypes did not simply emerge from the ether. Something inspired them.

Stereotypes arose because of the commonalities manifested by people the general public became aware were same-sex attracted. The most obvious were generally effeminate men and butch women. While not representative, the individuals who refused to conform to heteronormativity were our public face.

Their visibility promoted tolerance of difference long before we dared advocate for law reform.

Sir Robert Helpmann

Lifesavers once dumped Bobby Helpmann in the surf for daring to promenade on Bondi Beach with plucked eyebrows and painted fingernails. However, the openly gay ballet dancer later became Australian of the Year. How do we quantify the acceptance achieved via the social prominence of that celebrated queen of high camp?

Likewise, many now disparage the mincing Mr Humphries from Are You Being Served? as a derogatory stereotype. Yet, mainstream television audiences of the 1970s and early 80s loved the character. They laughed with him, not at him.

Here’s a little secret!

LGBTIQ+ people also loved him. He gave us visibility, and the show promoted acceptance. While amused by the camp eccentricities of Wilberforce Humphries, his co-workers never displayed the slightest intolerance towards his sexuality.

Lilian Cooper also warrants mention as Queensland’s pioneering female doctor and one half of a same-sex couple who lived together openly for half a century. Few accounts of Lilian fail to mention her butchness — both in dress and manner. Yet Lilian Cooper and Josephine Bedford became revered Brisbane citizens for their considerable civic contributions.

In our commitment to repudiating stereotypes, we should not deny their role in advancing our cause. In an era of persecution and prosecution, likeable but stereotypical gay men and women bequeathed our communities visibility and increased acceptance.

Queensland’s arch-homophobe Phyllis Cilento clearly recognised their impact. She admonished her readers on the subject in 1953.

“The danger now is that after the first revulsion of feeling against homosexuality, people will become used to the idea, and take it for granted as ‘just one of those things’…

“They will look around… and find homosexuals among men they formerly admired for their intellectual and artistic achievements or liked for their friendly and gentle manner, and they will feel that really this cannot be so heinous a crime.”

Bachelors and spinsters

The generation of Brisbane bachelors who followed Henry came of age at a time of increased wealth and more frequent social opportunities. Newspapers documented the social lives of nattily dressed ‘eligible bachelors’. Admiring belles surrounded the elegantly attired young men at every garden party, picnic race or masquerade ball. Their ranks included Claude Musson, the stock and station agent who orchestrated the city’s ‘gayest’ balls. And also ‘pretty Willie Morse with his golden curls’, whose father owned the Orient Hotel. Joining their coterie was George Love Warry, scion of a wealthy storekeeping family.

With a wink and a nod, the papers wryly noted that as the years rolled by, some of the town’s most popular single men moved from the column of ‘eligible bachelor’ to that of ‘ineligible bachelor’.

So was the general public as unaware and intolerant of LGBTIQ+ people as commonly asserted?

Or was discussion of LGBTIQ+ people suppressed — and the hatred towards us directed — by the usual suspects? Were they the same people who cause us grief today — clerics insistent on universal submission to their personal god, politicians thirsting for notoriety and sensationalist media?

Let us not forget that those same people acted as arbiters of our history. ‘History is written by the victors.’ But only temporarily. As time goes by, locked archives are accessed and previously hidden memoirs published. However, to some degree, queer history remains hostage to the people who refused us any input into the chronicles of our existence. We were, after all, ‘unfit for publication’.

They told us, for example, how much ‘normal’ people despised homosexuals and illustrated their point with evidence such as the prosecution of Oscar Wilde.

But wait a moment!

Did the public actually despise Oscar Wilde? They continued to buy his books and attend his plays. Decades later, students continued to study Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest as part of the Queensland high school English curriculum. That was despite Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen banning gay teachers in his quest to eradicate the scourge of homosexuality.

In recent years, as researchers gained access to previously ignored or hidden archives, we learned the stories of less famous LGBTIQ+ people.

We now know that Yorkshire’s Anne Lister, the notorious ‘Gentleman Jack’, managed to live an open, if not publicly discussed, life as a lesbian in the 1830s.

In Brisbane, Lilian Cooper and Josephine Bedford lived together as a couple, worked together as a couple and were invited to social events together which they then attended as a couple. Did no one ever think, “Hold on? I wonder if this couple is a couple?’

Likewise, did no one quietly ponder the living arrangements of Robert Herbert and John Bramston? Just a decade later, Queensland’s elite did not hesitate to employ homophobia against the foppish Governor Cairns. But Herbert and Bramston supported policies which enriched the local nobs. Cairns, on the other hand, advocated for Aboriginal people to have the same legal rights as anyone else. He fought against their dispossession and murder and was aghast at the enslavement of South Sea Islanders. The local establishment attacked the Governor not because of his sexuality but because of his insistence on fair and proper governance which would impact their profits.

The Elephant in the Room

Were we actually the social pariahs we’ve always thought?

Certainly, members of our communities did risk prosecution even if surprisingly few actually faced it. Definitely, we suffered prejudice, as we still do. We were sometimes subjected to violence, as we still are.

But with increased access to secrets of the past, we learn of LGBTIQ+ people who did not lead furtive and sorrowful lives: people who benefitted from tolerance in their communities even if their difference remained unstated.

Perhaps we were just another elephant in the room.

Public discussion ignored plenty of other social phenomena in days gone by. Issues like domestic violence, child abuse, alcoholism, teenage pregnancy and others remained taboo in polite society.

Holy f***!

One night in the 1990s, I partook of a few drinks with my mother and grandmother. We reminisced about life in my small rural home town in the 1960s. Our memories travelled house to house as we discussed people we remembered. I mentioned an out of the way house which I knew nothing of except that a single man in his early thirties lived there alone — unusual in a small country town.

I once waited in the car while my father popped in there for some reason.

“Ah yes,” they told me, “The barman. That’s where men went when their wives weren’t putting out.”

Holy f***!

I always assumed that only heterosexual sex ever occurred in our remote rural outpost — that even the cattle copulated exclusively in missionary position and with the lights off.

But no! In rural Queensland in the 1960s, gay sex occurred and the entire bloody town — except me apparently — knew about it and tolerated it.


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