For a number of years we have been annoyed by an old hag in this neighborhood telling fortunes and practicing all sorts of devilry to the annoyance of this neighborhood, and to the eternal disgrace of the parties who are fools enough to employ her, and thereby cause misery not only amongst husbands and wives, but amongst the young men and girls who are about to marry – making heart-burnings in jealousy and misery amongst all of them. This old harridan is doing a roaring trade among the foolish girls who employ her, the charge being two shillings and sixpence…
Letter to the Editor of The Ballarat Star from ‘Reckless’, March 8, 1877.
In May 1896 a mournful funeral procession made the short journey from Lexton Street across the road to the Ballarat Cemetery.
Attended by a healthy number of Ballarat’s citizens, it was a surprisingly large turnout, given the deceased was an elderly lady who professed to be mostly deaf and blind and relied on an income from the Benevolent Asylum.
But Mary Barrell was not just another resident of Ballarat. Fortune teller, cheiromancer, herbalist, sex adviser, gossip and spiritualist, she was accused of being ‘Ballarat’s Witch’.
Background: ‘Cunning women’ and the Spiritualist movement in the Victorian Era
From the 1850s until the 1920s the Spiritualist movement had a firm grip on the minds and emotions of many in the European and colonial worlds. Even Queen Victoria and her husband Albert attended seances; after his death in 1861 the grief-stricken queen employed mediums to send him messages.
Victorians were death-obsessed – and secretly sex-mad. They delighted in tales of the supernatural, of ghosts and vengeful spirits. Writers like Sir Richard Burton, who wrote a version of The Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night (the Arabian Nights), delighted in esoteric pornography and racy orientalised tales of death and doomed love.
Colonialism had opened the western mind to the erotica of India and the Middle East, of China and Japan. Mixed with a severely puritanical bent, the Victorian mind became fevered, wallowed in the misogyny and blood lust of stories like that of Jack the Ripper in periodicals like The Police News, secretly swimming in the furtive pleasures of illicit sex.
At the same time, the folk cures and superstitions of the centuries before persisted, the poultices and charms and country cures, tea leaf and palm reading, soothsaying and love potions designed to win a heart.
They were provided by the ‘cunning’ women and men, those who administered the folkloric medicines, the traditional salves and remedies. Rarely seen as ‘witches’ in the traditional sense and therefore able to avoid the severe penalties applied to them, they were regarded often as pillars of their tiny towns in England, Wales and Scotland.
They held the traditions of their often deeply rural and illiterate communities, and were paid for their skills, often on a sliding scale according to their petitioner’s ability – and sometimes on their knack at grifting a few extra shillings.
Ballarat’s scourge: Who was the real Mary Burrell?
Dr David Waldron is a lecturer in history and anthropology at Federation University in Ballarat and a specialist in folklore, urban legends and community trauma. He is also member of the team producing Tales from Rat City, a podcast exploring the darker, quirkier episodes of of Victorian life in Ballarat. His grandmother, Nana Crow, was still a practising cunning person, selling people cures and fortune-telling, in the 1940s in the Orkney Islands off Scotland.
He discovered the Mary Burrell story while searching for material, largely from outraged letters to the editors of the The Ballarat Star and The Courier over a 30-year time span.
What he revealed behind the printed outrage was an underlying tension over Barrell’s practices between the self-lauded grandees of Ballarat of the time – between the devout Methodist orthodoxies of town father James Oddie and the liberal spiritualism of the wellknown printer and Freemason James Curtis.
Both Curtis and Oddie were on the committee of the Ballarat Benevolent Asylum, which provided not only accommodation but gave money to those considered in need. Mary Barrell was one of the recipients, and this seemed to enrage letter writers to the newspapers.
Or was it the work of just one disaffected, drunken, adulterous husband?
Burrell appears to have been born in 1819, says David Waldron, and her maiden name was Rae. She’s apparently 29 when she arrives in Melbourne, although there’s conjecture about the date.
“She married a guy called William Barrell,” says Waldron.
“There are records of her pursuing him through the courts for child support and for abandonment. He seemed to abandon her after their child died.”
Being an abandoned woman on the goldfields of colonial Australia is a perilous predicament.There are few options to avoid penury, and it seems Mary Barrell used her skills of ‘clairvoyance’ to make an income.
What exactly was that clairvoyance though, and why such outrage? Letters to the newspaper decry her and call for the police to act:
There is at present a woman living on Creswick Rd who calls herself a fortune-teller, going about town persuading (in most cases married) ladies to have their fortunes told them, for which she would receive a guinea upwards. The result of which is that by her misrepresentations many families who have hitherto lived in happiness are compelled to separate and appear before the police court.
Ballarat Star, September 1870
Federation University’s Clare Gervasoni suggested to David Waldron that the nature of Barrell’s fortune-telling may have been more prosaic than clairvoyant – that she was issuing sexual advice, advising on midwifery and perhaps event acting as a conduit for information about the misdeeds of husbands – surely an outrageous act in the solid patriarchy of the time.
“What Clare Gervasoni suggests, by the way they're describing it (in the media), strongly implies they're getting help with things like birth control and informal midwifery, a lot of those sorts of issues, given that it's an almost exclusively female clientele seeing her there at the cemetery,” Waldron says.
A battle in the pages of the papers: The Ballarat Star weighs in
Barrell operates her business from the Ballarat General Cemetery, opposite her home at 25 Lexton Street, now demolished. Her dead son is buried there, and after her death she joins him in the same grave.
It seems the nature of her work and the fact it’s conducted in a place of the dead, and profitably, is enough to work the editors of The Ballarat Star into several written orgies of condemnation.
Letter after letter of violent condemnation is printed by The Star, all anonymous, with non-de-plumes as charming as ‘Reckless’ and ‘Nemesis’.
This old harridan… old hag… her malignant revenge… a notorious character are some of the descriptions of Barrell in the pages.
But a curious thing takes place – another anonymous correspondent, ‘Anti-Reckless’, leaps to Barrell’s defence, describing the attacker as:
none other than one who may justly affix such signature to any and all of his petty vindictive effusions.
The war is on. Accusation and counter-accusation is made, and soon it’s revealed that Mary Barrell’s champion is most likely that pillar of Ballarat society James Curtis, who’s soon accused of being:
a believer in such nonsense as Napoleon’s Book of Fate &c.
Curtis is a spiritualist, a believer in talking to the ‘other side’. He’s also a neighbour of Barrell and a frequent visitor.
In all of this printed vitriol, says Waldron, life in the real world for Barrell is much more violent. She’s assaulted: kicked in the side and punched by a drunk ‘rowdy’ named John Ryan, who had previously threatened to kill her. He gets a 40-shilling fine in lieu of 14 days’ gaol. She’s accused of being a cause of misery, of spruiking ‘witchery’ and ‘reaping a rich harvest from her dupes’.
All of these salacious and sad doings appear in the paper – as do the minutes of the meetings of the Benevolent Asylum Committee. It’s here that the town’s fathers argue over Barrell’s fate. James Oddie says she should no longer receive benefits; she’s making a living, it seems, from her soothsaying. Unless of course, she submits to ceasing her activities. She would then be allowed to live at the asylum. Oddie wants the problem to get out of The Star’s pages; he wants, he says it would be:
a benefit to the public in general, especially to young girls.
Curtis, the liberal publisher, will have none of this. He berates The Star and its editor for publishing the correspondence, argues that the complaints against Barrell ‘were without foundation’, and:
he certainly could not blame her for getting a shilling now and then if she could.
We never hear Mary Barrell’s voice. She asks for the asylum benefit to be curtailed, we’re told, if she’s just allowed to live in her home peacefully.
In 1882, letters are still published complaining about her, but The Star has given up. When she dies in 1896, James Oddie pays for her funeral. A crowd farewells Ballarat’s fortune-teller.
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