Yesterday I went on my annual pilgrimage to the Royal WA Historical Society’s book sale. I scoured the tables laden with local history books and only stopped when my bag got too heavy to carry home.
Far at the back, away from the main crowds, was a table labelled ‘old and rare’. Moth-eaten, crumbling and decayed – I knew I would find something special to take home.
As most of these older books don’t have their titles printed on the cover (or have long lost their dust-jackets), I was careful to pick each book up and look inside.
One name kept recurring: Lefroy.
It was scrawled across end pages, decorated on fore pages and scratched into covers. Either this person really didn’t want to lose their books or they were very bored in class.
Fun fact: I went to a certain maroon-clad girls’ school located in Perth’s northern suburbs. There are six houses at SMAGS: Riley, Wardle, Craig, Wittenoom, Hackett and – you guessed it – Lefroy.
As a Riley (dark blue) girl, it was automatically assumed that I would uphold the long-standing grudge against Lefroy house (light blue). I don’t know how long this rivalry existed, how it started or if it persisted after I graduated in the mid-90s… but I always viewed the name Lefroy with a mix of suspicion and begrudging respect.
The school also drilled into us that each of the six houses had a long and venerated history and were named after six worthy individuals.
So when I saw these ancient books, clearly owned by a member of the Lefroy family, I knew I had to buy one.
School History of England is interesting because I am currently writing a novel set in 1913 at the Claremont teacher training college. I am curious to understand what student teachers would be learning and teaching at the time, although this book seemed significantly older than the period I am writing about.
The book has lost its first few pages, so I cannot determine when it was published. It ends with a page titled ‘Progress of Civilisation’ A.D. 1837 and a footnote refers to ‘a princess royal’ being born on November 21, 1840. When I googled her name, I discovered it to be Princess Victoria, the eldest daughter of Queen Victoria.
So I can only surmise that the book was published in 1841 or soon after.
I’d love to say the book is in great condition considering it is 180 years old, but its owner has had a lovely time writing her name across its cover, front page, forepages and end pages. In her wonderful spidery copperplate, her tools of the trade include ink, lead pencil and unbelievably, coloured paints. She has also carved her surname, presumably with a knife, in the front cover, something I find hilarious and entirely at odds with how you would expect a mid-19th century schoolgirl to behave.
At a later stage, she has stuck a bookplate in the front bearing a coat of arms with a side profile dragon, atop two smaller dragons and what looks like a poop emoji but is most likely a rock. The Latin motto reads Mutare Sperno, which loosely translates as ‘to spurn change’ [please correct me if I am wrong].
It’s only when you look closely do you see her full name ‘Bessie Lefroy’ in the top corner written in pencil.
The other book is in slightly better shape and titled The Monthly Packet. It sounds like an obscure reference to women’s health concerns but is, in fact, a selection of readings for the ‘younger members of the English Church.’ Its contents include plays that can be performed, information on the local birdlife, the crusades and the solar system.
It is dated January-June 1855 and I bought it because I plan on writing a book set only a few years later. It will be valuable to understand how the world was perceived and understood at the time, what facts were known and what the commonly held attitudes were. Also because it is over 165 years old and quite beautiful.
An inscription inside this book reads: Annette Elizabeth Lefroy from her affectionate brother, as a birthday present. April 24th 1871.
Curious to see how Annette and Bessie were related to the Lefroy family who gave my alma mater house its name, I immediately searched for them.
Apart from sharing a surname, initially there seemed no other connection between the two book owners. There could have been potentially three decades between their owners, and the handwriting was different. Was I looking at books owned by mother and child? Siblings?
I found Annette first. A document from the State Library lists a collection of letters from the Lefroy, de Burgh and Brockman families. The document is 22 pages long and lists hundreds of letters, but Annette’s full name and marriage in 1878 to Henry de Burgh are mentioned in the explanatory paragraphs. Clearly, she is the matriarch of this large and influential family.
A bit more exploration and I could see the names de Burgh and Lefroy peppering early West Australian white history as two of the early settler families, with ancestors of both arriving in 1841 when the Swan River Settlement was a youthful 12 years old.
I got excited for a moment thinking that perhaps the settler Henry Maxwell Lefroy (who I determined to be Annette’s father) may have brought the little school-book with him on that long voyage out from England until I realised he arrived in January of 1841. I doubt the book publishing industry has ever worked that quickly.
Born in 1856, Annette would have been 15 years old when her brother gave her the book (side note – she was a year younger than the book itself!). And while he doesn’t name himself in the inscription, it was quite easy to determine that the affectionate brother who gifted Annette the book was Charles E. C. Lefroy (also referred to as Charlie) not only because there was a lot of correspondence between the two, but because Annette called her youngest son Ernest Charles, and you don’t tend to call your kids after people you hate.
And while the gift of church-appropriate readings may be considered a little stuffy for a fifteen-year-old girl, it was the 1800s and a few decades later Charlie would end up being the Anglican Archdeacon of Perth.
Trawling through the large State Library document it became apparent that Annette Lefroy – with her neat and tidy book of church readings – was in fact the same as Bessie Lefroy – who liked to carve her name into books and paint all over the pages. Bessie must have been a nickname taken from her middle name, Elizabeth.
It makes sense that she would not deface the gift from her older brother, especially since it would be expected she read aloud from it in respectable company (although she clearly had no such qualms about her school books).
I had discovered two sides to the matriarch of one of Western Australia’s oldest families, but I still hadn’t made the direct connection to my old school.
According to the school’s website, Lefroy House was created in the 1980s after the ‘pioneering family’ but with specific references to John Henry Maxwell Lefroy [aka Maxwell] (1865-1936) and Sir Anthony Langlois Bruce Lefroy (1881-1958).
Maxwell, it turns out was Annette/Bessie’s brother and apparently a great mate of Reverend Charles Riley, the namesake of my own house.
(Fun fact: Charles was made Bishop in 1894 when Perth was then the largest Anglican diocese in the world with an area of over 2.6 million square kilometres, albeit with a tiny population of 100,0000. He was promoted to Archbishop in 1914.)
So after swanning around in a rabbit hole for a few hours, I have discovered the heritage of not only my newest old acquisitions but also that the so-called rivalry between Riley and Lefroy houses is a complete stitch-up. The namesakes of these houses were best buds and both families went on to do some amazing things.
(Final fun fact: I also purchased two issues of the Western Australian Reader, a selection of stories published by the Education Department for schools. The 1932 book was owned by Lennie Fletcher of Mt Hawthorn while the 1945 edition was owned by Laurie Flanders. I googled Laurie and discovered him to be a well-loved local boxer and trainer for the West Australian football community who sadly passed away in 2018. When purchasing the books, the older lady tallying my purchases laughed and said remembered the readers from her time at school. Some of the excerpts in the books include Victor Hugo, Henry Lawson, Wordsworth, Tennyson, Hans Christian Anderson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Whitman, Shakespeare and Dickens. A rather impressive list for schoolkids!)
After sharing this blog on my socials I got some great feedback from readers (hi Niall!) who found out that the bookplate stuck in the front of the book is one of the Lefroy family crests (which I really should have figured out myself), and the poop emoji is in fact a hood. The hood represents those opposed to the Duke of Alva who basically was a tyrant and squashed anyone who revolted against Spanish rule (ie Protestants). The Lefroy family was one of those who fought back and their family motto, which I translated as ‘to spurn change’, is more accurately understood as ‘I refuse to change (my religious convictions)’. So there you go!
Fun Fact: Niall also informed me that the ‘dragon’ in the crest is actually a wyvern because it only has two legs!
Lefroy family history Lefroy (fremantlestuff.info)