The first mainland field season took place between Monday, 8 July, and Tuesday, 23 July, and was largely concentrated on historic properties in the Western Districts of Victoria. Site visits occurred on all but one day in this period. Evidence of magic in the form of evil-averting marks and practices was found at various locations throughout the survey area and adjacent areas. The principal objective of the season was to determine whether the magic we found in Tasmania was also used in mainland Australia. This objective was achieved. Once again, just as in Tasmania, we found evidence of the use of magic by blacksmiths, building tradesmen, cunning folk and horsemen. Additionally, it is now clear that cauls were used for protection against drowning. This is the magic of mariners but has now been found to have been employed by people who lived in proximity to rivers or who crossed fast-flowing streams or bodies of water in the course of their daily work herding sheep or cattle.

It was believed in the 19th century that anyone who carried a caul would never drown. Sailors prized cauls for their protective powers against their greatest fear – drowning. An advertisement in the Times, London, in 1835 read:

“A Child’s Caul to be disposed of, a well-known preservative against drowning, &c., price 10 guineas.”

Babies born “in the caul” (when their amniotic sac, or amnion, has not burst and remains intact on the baby’s head or face like a circular crown) were thought to be lucky, special or protected. According to Wikipedia, this may happen in less than one thousand births. The watery symbolism of the amniotic fluid led to both children born in the caul, and subsequent bearers or wearers of cauls as a charm, to be deemed in English folklore as unable to drown.

Prompted by the possession of a family caul, I conducted research into cauls on Trove, the National Library’s excellent newspaper research tool. There I found two interesting reports. In May 1838 a shepherd named John Brown was driving sheep from Major H. C. Antill’s property at Molonglo Plains to Stonequarry Creek when he was accosted by three men who robbed him of cash and his jacket, in the collar of which a caul had been sewn. Although he was far from the sea, Brown’s work involved driving sheep through rivers and streams. The caul sewn into the collar of his jacket was to protect him from the perils of the rivers and streams of the Molonglo Plains district.

And there was this advertisement in a Sydney newspaper in 1840:

TO BE SOLD— An lnfant’s Caul, in a perfect state of preservation, price £10. Apply by letter (post paid) to A. H., Australian Office, Bridge-Street. 

Taken together, these reports and the caul passed down through my family from a seafaring ancestor, suggest that cauls were well-known, if not common, in Australia in the first half of the 19th century. There may be other cauls, surviving but unrecognised, in the community. This is not probable: cauls are fragile and likely to have been discarded by those who do not understand their significance.

Picture1 Caul
An object of great rarity, this caul came into the world as a result of the birth of a family member, Camilla Evans, at Austral Eden or Gladstone, NSW, in 1863.

The caul I have is a charm that comes as a result of ancient and almost forgotten beliefs and with a distinct history of its origin in Australia. Very shortly after the 1863 birth of Camilla, a daughter of my great-grandfather, Alfred Evans, the membrane that she brought into the world on her head was transferred onto a piece of parchment-like paper to keep it safe, which then was folded and placed in a very small purse. The sheet of paper on which it was placed measures 100mm square. It was folded several times and when reduced to 25mm square was placed in an inner pocket of the purse.

The secret this object held for so long is now revealed. A ritual of English seafarers was carried to Australia by a named individual and embedded into life in a specific location here. I know of no other such example of magic’s transmission from England to Australia.

Picture1 purse

Camilla carried the purse throughout her life and it eventually came to me, and so provided direct evidence of a rare form of magical protection. Camilla’s caul combines the mystery of birth with ancient beliefs in spiritual powers to safeguard men who braved the perils of the sea.

Picture2 relative
Camilla Evans and the purse (above) in which she carried her caul. Camilla’s father, Alfred Evans, was a cooper who went to sea in whaling ships and, as a mariner, would have been aware of the belief in the power of cauls to protect people from drowning.

The work carried out in Victoria was an extension of research conducted by the Tasmanian Magic Research Project in 2017 and 2018. Team members for the 2019 project included Tully Brookes, location scout, Dr David Waldron from Federation University, Ballarat, Annie Evans, cook, and Dr Ian Evans, Project Director.

The team was based in Ballarat, in housing owned by Federation University. Ballarat is the largest centre in the region, with some 100,000 residents. Its prosperity in the 19th century was largely due to gold mining. Elegant houses and substantial shops, stores, banks and other enterprises bear witness to the wealth of Ballarat in its peak years.

The Western District comprises rural areas of the state of Victoria. The district is located within parts of the Barwon South West and the Grampians regions; extending from the south-west corner of the state to Ballarat in the east and as far north as Ararat. The district is bounded by the Wimmera district in the north, by the Goldfields district in the east, by Bass Strait and the Southern Ocean in the south, and by the South Australian border in the west. The district is well known for the production of wool.

Wool and gold were the principal sources of the wealth of the region. Large rural properties were the location of many imposing houses. We were privileged to visit many of these during our time in the Western Districts. A significant number of these were found to contain evidence of the practice of magic during the 19th century. We found burn marks in stables, plus concentric circles as well as hexafoils in a mill and in a stable building. And there was an amazing group of marks in the cellar of the Ballarat Mechanics’ Institute.

Perhaps the most enigmatic signs of past belief in magic are the marks written with the smoke from candles on the ceilings of buildings. To date, only sixteen sites where these marks survive have been found in England. There is just one such site from America. The English researcher Timothy Easton has been investigating these marks for more than 20 years but despite his best efforts candlesmoke marks remain mysterious. Sites where the marks have been found in England date from the second half of the seventeenth century.

Easton suggests that the fear of witchcraft may have been a factor in their use. If the marks are apotropaic in nature, it is possible that the sacred flame from a church was carefully carried to the site and used to draw protective marks and symbols on ceilings in vulnerable areas of buildings. Candlesmoke marks are scattered across ceilings, seemingly at random. Initials and symbols including stylised crosses are common.

Picture1 roof starspng
Candlesmoke marks in the cellar of the BMI. A fluorescent light fitting partly obscures marks at the top of the image.

Having been aware of Easton’s recording of English candlesmoke marks for some time it came as a considerable surprise to discover them in a significant 19th-century building in Ballarat, 160km north-west of Melbourne. The plaster ceiling of the Ballarat Mechanic’s Institute is generously decorated with the marks. The purpose of the marks is somewhat enigmatic: but there is sufficient content in these messages on the ceiling to suggest apotropaic intent.

These are the first marks of their kind yet found in Australia. They may be unique in this country. The person who made them may have been working from a memory of such marks in England. The letters RFJ, repeated in several places on the ceiling, were perhaps the initials of the person who created the marks. Research to identify this person is underway. Mechanics’ Institutes are educational establishments, intended to provide information about technical subjects to tradesmen and to offer them an alternative pastime to drinking in hotels or gambling. The first of these were established in Scotland in the early 1820s. Hobart’s Mechanics’ Institute opened in 1827, followed by Melbourne in 1833. They offered inspirational and vocational reading matter for a small rental fee. The Institutes were an important step towards a more egalitarian society. The Ballarat Mechanics’ Institute was founded in 1854 and the building in which it is now housed opened in 1860. The building has seen many changes but its lending library continues to operate. The BMI’s website sums up the important role these organisations played in community life:

Before Government-funded libraries and adult education, the Mechanics’ Institute providd people with much-needed access to books, newspapers, periodicals, lectures and scientific demonstrations. Their halls also provided local communities with a place for social, cultural and recreational gatherings.

Picture1 white building

Picture1 bw library
Above & right, the BMI today and the library in 1909. (Museums Victoria 152606)
Picture1 men in library
Australian and American soldiers in the reading room at the BMI, 1942. (Museums Victoria 77369)

Comprising books, journals and newspapers acquired by the Institute since its inception, as well as the Institute’s own archive of records and objects, the BMI collection includes 16,677 books and journals, 1592 volumes of newspapers (approximately 80,000 issues) and institute records dating from c. 1857 including minutes, correspondence, annual reports, lithographs, artifacts and objects.

Flooding has been a problem in the cellar of the BMI since at least 1877. It has been suggested that this is the result of defective construction of an adjacent building. Numerous attempts to solve the problem have not succeeded. Entering the cellar at the present time requires the use of masks to avoid inhaling mould spores which appear to exist in the area to a considerable extent.

Picture1 smoke starIn 1882 Frederick W. Atkinson leased the cellar and a wine shop with frontage onto the street outside. It was not a success and Atkinson fell out with the board of the BMI. This conflict and the frequent flooding of the cellar may be linked to the text and symbols painted on the ceiling with lighted candles. The date of the candlesmoke marks appears to be 1882 as this year appears among the symbols on the ceiling. The symbols appear to have been made with some care.

The shape is drawn onto the ceiling with an instrument, possibly guided by a carpenters’ rule, and then the fully-realised mark is made by tracing over the pattern with the smoke of what was probably a candle. This all seems very deliberate and not random patterns made by some idle person. The device used to establish the framework of the marks may have been a carpenters’ pencil. These have thick leads and draw a sturdy line.

One of the designs bears a strong resemblance to a mark found in St. Andrews Church, Whittlesford, Cambridgeshire, and photographed by Dr David Waldron (below).


Magic proved to be thinner on the ground in Victoria than it had been in Tasmania. The reason or reasons for this may be several, prompting reflection of the cause or causes. Possibilities that were considered initially included the somewhat later settlement period in Victoria and less convicts among the population. Conflict with the aborigines occurred, much as it did in Tasmania.

On the face of it, it appeared that what were assumed to be triggers for the use of magic in Tasmania were present in the Western Districts. The result, however, was significantly different. The reason for this will require research that is at present not in the remit of the Magic Project. Superficial though it may be, the initial conclusion is that magic was more deeply ingrained in the population of 19th century Tasmania than it was in Victoria.

The cause of this reduction in the apparent use of magic is not of concern to this study: we did find ample evidence of the use of magic in the Western Districts of the state. And we found the same signatures of magic: hexafoils (more correctly multifoils), concentric circles and burn marks. Additional to these were the ubiquitous concealed objects, recorded some years ago in my PhD thesis.

We found candlesmoke marks, probably of apotropaic intent, in the cellar of an important building in Ballarat. These date from perhaps two centuries later than in England. The marks may be unique in Australia. The event or events that precipitated their use remains obscure although the space has its particular issues. The marks are on the ceiling in the cellar – a place which even today is hostile to people. Long subject to flooding, the cellar of the BMI is best visited wearing a mask for protection from the powerful odour of mould.

The research process initiated and conducted in Tasmania and on the mainland of Australia is unique. We have developed and implemented a new way to discover and understand the use and extent of magic in the wider world. Evidence for the practice of magic is sparse or non-existent in archives and libraries. Magic was widely known but not recorded in the contemporary documentary archive. Scholars have looked for it in the printed record, letter or memoir in Europe, North America and in Australia. Nothing has yet been found. But the story is there, hidden in plain sight, on and in buildings of the 19th century. The following pages contain the record of finds made in Victoria’s Western Districts in July 2019.

During the two weeks in July members of the Project visited numerous properties, covering several thousand kilometres during days that often extended for 10 or 12 hours.

Principal team members were Dr Ian Evans, Project Director, location scout Tully Brookes, cook Annie Evans and, when his university schedule permitted, Dr David Waldron, historian from Federation University. Particular thanks are due to the UK Vernacular Architecture Group which supported our work with a most welcome grant and to Lee Prosser and Nick Hill of the VAG team.

We were privileged to be able to visit many wonderful properties during our first mainland field season. Our sincere thanks go to all of the people who provided access to buildings on their properties and who made this research possible. Because of them, a forgotten story from the history of Australia is being brought into the light of day.

Picture1 coragulac
Coragulac, Coragulac
Picture1 glenormiston
Glenormiston, Glenormiston South: the stables.

The Glenormiston homestead was built with five rooms in 1847 and was enlarged into a twenty-roomed house in 1859. Enlarged a number of times from the mid-nineteenth century onwards, the 1908 homestead is representative of the grandeur and scale typical of prominent Western District homesteads, reflecting the great wealth attained by these families.

The building is of aesthetic significance for its particularly fine Arts and Crafts entry hall interior, which includes timber panelling, light fittings and an outstanding carved timber staircase by distinguished woodcarver and cabinetmaker Robert Prenzel. The staircase, with thirty-six carved panels representing Australian flora and fauna and sinuous waratah newel posts, was among the first of Prenzel’s major works executed in a distinctly Australian idiom and is one of the most elaborate examples of his career.

Below, the multifoil in the stables at Glenormiston. With its extra petals in the circle, it closely resembles the mark at Anderson’s Mill, some 160 kilometres away. The possibility that these marks were created by the same person cannot be discounted. This issue is explored in depth further on. Below right, a possum carved by Robert Prenzel on the staircase at Glenormiston.


Picture1 building chimney
Anderson’s Mill, Creswick–Newstead Road, Smeaton.

Picture1 window location


                                           Concentric circle mark ⇒



Multifoil ⇒

The marks are clear to the eye but not so much in a photograph. They have been overpainted several times. They are positioned in an important location, next to stairs at the southern end of the building.

Anderson’s Millat Smeaton with its huge bluestone mill building is part of a complex built for the Anderson brothers, immigrants from Scotland, in the 1860s. The buildings and structures are indicative of the transference of the Andersons’ experience of building and industrial practices in Scotland. The mill processed flour and oatmeal until it closed in the late 1950s. Members of the Anderson family lived continuously in the residence on the site until 2008.

With fieldwork completed there was time to look at what I soon realised was the season’s most intriguing discovery. We had found just two hexafoils in two weeks of fieldwork. I say hexafoil but these are not like any hexafoil seen before in Australia. Instead of the usual six petal shapes within the circle there were 12, the result of what appear to be two interlocking hexafoils. These are known in England as multifoils.

The first was found and recorded at Glenormiston on 8 July. We noted its unusual form and decided it could be worth a second look. Three days later we found another mark, differing in some of the detail but essentially identical. This was at Anderson’s Mill, Smeaton.

Following the conclusion of fieldwork I sat down to write this report. It was then that I found the opportunity to take a long, slow look at the two marks. It became clear that these were not hexafoils. Strictly speaking, their numerous arcs made them dodecafoils but multifoil is easier to say. So, two marks with considerable similarity.

Another point of similarity between the two finds was that both of the main marks were found to have a companion: the concentric circles mark. Instead of the usual cluster of 8 or 10 circles, each set within the other, there were three circles at Glenormiston and four at Anderson’s Mill.

The circles had been made with dividers which also served to create the petals of the multifoils. A large pair would have been required, as would considerable strength to manipulate the tool and force its point into the timber of the stable wall at Glenormiston and the plastered reveal of the window at Anderson’s Mill.

Examination of the context of the finds provided an additional similarity. They were not in the stables or barns of less than prosperous settlers, scratching their living on small farms. Both marks were created at sites of considerable prosperity, in fact, wealth.

Glenormiston was established in 1839 on land that within a few years amounted to 17,000 hectares. Enlarged in a number of phases from the mid-nineteenth century, the extant homestead is a two-storey rendered building in an Arts and Crafts style with entrance belvedere tower, two-storey faceted bays, corner quoin work and Art Nouveau balustrading to the entrance hall staircase.

The Anderson’s Mill complex comprises a huge bluestone mill building, water wheel, 23-metre tall brick chimney, bluestone office, stables, granary, blacksmith’s shop and residence. The complex was built for the Anderson brothers from 1861 onwards to service Creswick’s prospering agricultural district. The ten bay bluestone mill building is four stories high with an attic storey in the gabled slate roof.2 Another point of similarity may be of no significance: both properties were owned by Scots.

compassConsidering the matter carefully, I’ve concluded that the marks we found in these buildings were made by the same man. There are just too many similarities for coincidence to come into play. I say he was a man because of the strength required to scrape the marks into the wood and plaster with a pair of dividers.

He may have been a professional, known in his area and called in by owners or managers concerned to take all necessary steps to protect valuable property. An employee, perhaps a groom? I don’t think so. The two properties are quite different in nature. A cunning man? Or he might have been someone higher in the ranks of magical practitioners, a conjurer or self-styled wizard. An impressive title could have justified a higher fee.

I do not know who he was or where he came from but getting to the sites would have required journeys on horseback or, less likely, by carriage. The two sites are a considerable distance apart. On the modern road, the journey is 160 km.

This man is a phantom to us. But we can see where he has been and what he has done. In his time, he seems to have been the go-to man for protection against the forces of the underworld. He was highly skilled and knowledgeable in his craft. He worked in Victoria’s Western Districts and he may have lived there as well. The marks he created are, at the present date, unique in Australia and not common in England.

And he raises the question: who made the hexafoils we have found? It’s possible that these were the work of professionals: invisible men who will most likely never be identified. But now we have reason to believe that they were there, protecting Australians from evil by placing apotropaic marks on their walls or furniture. Their story has never been told but these anonymous magicians were important and probably feared men in their time. Unseen and long forgotten, they played a silent role in our history.

Above,  The Glenormiston concentric circle mark, overdrawn to better illustrate its shape.

The wall on which the marks were found is a dividing wall of timber. The wall is seen at right in the image below.

stables room

Below, the multifoil adjacent to the concentric circle mark in the Glenormiston stables. It has been overdrawn to illustrate its shape more clearly.

The surface on which the apotropaic marks were created was stone with a plastered finish. Paint applied perhaps many years later partially obscured the multifoil and the concentric circles.

Below, magic at Anderson’s Mill. At left, the four concentric circles found adjacent to the multifoil. The multifoil itself is housed within two concentric circles. The mark consists of faint lines showing through at least two coats of paint. The dotted lines complete the pattern of the mark. The missing arcs did not show up as clearly as the other arcs.

While in some cases apotropaic marks were left deliberately unfinished this was not the situation with this example. The missing lines could not be clearly seen but were sufficiently visible for the design to be completed.


multifoil outline



salt creek
Salt Creek Merino Stud, Woorndoo: stables

Salt Creek homestead was built by Robert Grieve Armstrong and his wife Nicholas Elliot Armstrong circa 1871. Today it’s home to the merino stud founded in 1905 by F.C. Coy. The stables contained both burn marks and X-marked hinges, evidence of the use of magic by grooms and a blacksmith (below).

guildford 1
Guildford Hotel, 35 Fryers Street, Guildford.

The Guildford hotel was built by 1856 for Joseph Sherer and the stables by 1857. The building had stalls for 16 horses, hayloft, harness room and squab nests. An office was used to deal with bookings for the Cobb and Co. coach service. The music hall provided entertainment for travellers and gold miners.

The Chinese camp in Guildford in the 1850s became known as Old Canton and was one of the largest during this period. Old Canton provided all necessary services and supplies to Chinese miners, including barbers, restaurants, letter-writers, opium shops and gambling houses. (1)

We found 8 burn marks on posts in the stables.

Kate Bird, State Library of Victoria, blog 29/1/19.

Every rural property in the western districts of Victoria had at least one stable. Some had a stable for working horses employed on the farm and another for the horse or couple of horses used in carriages to transport family members to and from the nearest town.

Without horses, life on the land and the production of grains for food would have been impossible. Horses were valuable: in 1830s Hobart a single horse was worth £60 to £70.1

Larger properties typically had several heavy horses, powerful animals used for ploughing and other major tasks. In stables, heavy horses were provided with large stalls – a function of their size and power.

The Hobart Town Gazette in 1826 described a typical day’s work for horses at that time:

“The ploughing is done by horses in pairs without a driver, each ploughman feeding and grooming his own horse. The horses work nine hours a day when employed on the farm, in which time a pair will plough an acre….” (2)

horse hay
Charles Keane and his team of heavy horses cutting hay, Springbanks, Tasmania, 1930. (Bill and Priscilla Cox archives)

While it would be unrealistic to expect that every farm horse was well treated we found evidence suggesting that respect and affection for the horses was perhaps more likely than the alternative. At Woolbrook, Teesdale, the stables are gone but the names of horses painted on an old wall speak of respect and affection on the part of the property owner at the time. There were Rose, Liz, Lion, Nell, Prince, Una, and Ajax. Ajax would certainly have been a heavy horse, as perhaps were Lion and Prince.

Stables were built with considerable care and no small expense. These were home to valuable horses. The grooms who cared for them lived onsite, often next to the tack room where harnesses and saddles were stored.

Bluestone was the material of choice for stable construction in the Western Districts of Victoria. Floors were constructed with cobblestones laid so that urine flowed away from the stalls and drained out of the building. Hay stored in the attic space was funnelled down through chutes into a hopper located against the back wall of each stall.

The risk of fire was a constant danger. Horses living among highly inflammable hay and straw were a source of worry and fear. In many 19th century stables in both Victoria’s western districts and in the Midlands of Tasmania grooms took precautions against malicious acts inspired or caused by beings from beyond our world. It appears that marks burned with candles into the wood of stall posts and partitions were thought to immunise buildings against fire.

Reports of the destruction of stables and other farm buildings are common in Australia during the 19th century. The timber stables at Junction Lodge, Carisbrook, constructed to house thoroughbred horses, burned down some 50 years ago. (3) The stables at Woodlands, Crowlands, were destroyed when a lightning strike ignited dust in the air, causing an explosion that seriously damaged the build- ing. (4) A man who carried a candle into the stables of the Bricklayer’s Arms, Elizabeth Street, Hobart, one night in December 1826 was responsible for a fire that destroyed the stables and the inn.

Burn marks in stables are the most numerous indications of the practice of magic in the Western Districts of Victoria. The same can be said for the Midlands of Tasmania where these marks are very common in 19th-century stables.

Belief in the magical power of burn marks may have originated in Scotland with the formation in the 17th century of a secret society known as the Horsemans’ Word. Its members were said to have power over horses and the ability to command them to obey by using a secret word.6 These men were the original horse whisperers and were often employed as grooms. They were sometimes called horse witches.

New members were initiated into the Society in a ceremony conducted in a stable or barn at midnight. The new recruit was blindfolded and made to shake the Devil’s hand – in reality, the hoof of a goat – and then given a secret word which he was sworn never to reveal. While it is not known if any members of the Society came to Australia the widespread use of burn marks in Australian stables may be an indicator of their presence here.

cobble stables

burn and chain small

Far left, the wonderfully intact and atmospheric stables we inspected near Carisbrook. Property details have been withheld at the owner’s request. Numerous burn marks were found here.

Above right, massive hardwood posts in the stables at Belmont, Raglan. One of the burn marks found here is seen in this image. Its creation must have taken a good deal of perseverance.

  1. Colonial Times, Hobart, 20 August 1830 page 3. 2. 23/12/1826, p2.
  2.  Conversation with owner, 14/7/2019.
  3. Conversation with owner, Woodlands, 23/7/2019. 5. Colonial Times, 25/12/1826, p3.
  4. Davidson, The Horsemans’ Word, a Rural Initiation Ceremony, 1956.

The Magic Project’s fieldwork in Tasmania and Victoria found numerous examples of the use of magic by a good many people. On and in houses, farm buildings and mills we recorded hexafoils, concentric circles, burn marks and deliberately concealed boots, shoes, garments and the skull of a Tasmanian devil. Sites of these finds included houses both humble and grand, police stations, courthouses, the Melbourne mint, a 1930s high-rise building and a lighthouse in Western Australia.

We identified just three practitioners of magic, two cunning men and a cunning woman. Cunning folk were magic’s general practitioners. They claimed to be able to locate stolen property, identify thieves and future husbands, find lost or stolen cows, procure love, heal the sick, provide protective charms, cast horoscopes and release the bewitched from evil spells cast upon them by enemies.

Both of the Tasmanian cunning men were publicans. William Allison ran the British Hotel in Hobart in the 1850s. “Dr.” Benjamin Noakes was the publican at the Albemarle Arms, near Oatlands, in the 1830s.

The first identified Australian cunning woman, Mary Barrell,
was discovered by Dr. David Waldron of Federation University, Ballarat. Deserted by her husband, Mary Barrell made her living by telling fortunes. We know nothing of her life story before she bobbed up in Ballarat in the 1860s. But we know quite a lot about her husband, William.

Thanks to the local police, who issued a warrant for William on a charge of desertion, we know that he was aged 56, about 5 feet 7 inches tall, of medium build and fair complexion with grey hair. He wore a small grey goatee, had missing front teeth, a scar over his right eye and had a birthmark like a bunch of grapes on one arm. His initials were tattooed on his arm, together with a design of a ship, the latter implying that he was or had been a mariner. (1)

Mary Barrell, left without the support of a husband, scraped an income telling fortunes. It is easy to be critical of people like Mary but she, like many others at that time, found themselves out of luck and with very few choices. This is a story that still resonates in the Australia of today.

Mary set up business from her home in Lexton Street, adjacent to the old cemetery. From there, she was available to comfort and advise a stream of women who came to have their fortune told. The price, according to a local complainant, was one guinea and upwards. (2)

Telling fortunes would not be enough to label Mary Barrell as a cunning woman. But she was also accused of activities that complete the picture of her practice of magic. A neighbour in Lexton Street, probably a labourer named John Ryan who conducted a vendetta against her for many years, accused Mary of pretending to cure sickness and disease and of foretelling death and misfortune. (3)

Complaints against Mary Barrell continued over the years. In February 1876 Ryan threatened to kill her. (4) He appeared in the City Police Court on 9 March and was ordered to keep the peace. (5) The peace may have lasted for a time but in January 1878 Ryan assaulted Barrell, kicking and punching her. He was fined 40/-. (6)

There were many more dramatic moments in the life of Mary Barrell but we do not need to know them all. The events quoted above give the flavour of the years she spent dispensing advice and fending off her critics. Despite failing eyesight and deafness. (7) she continued to meet clients in Lexton Street until her death in 1896. She was buried in the old general cemetery, close to her home. John Ryan’s vendetta against her continued for years, perhaps until after her death. Mary’s grave was desecrated and it remains today as a patch of bare earth among the granite and marble memorials to Ballarat’s elite.

  1. Police Gazette, Melbourne, 25/11/1887.
  2. Ballarat Star, 13/9/1870, p3.
  3. Ibid, 14/8/1882, p3.
  4. Ballarat Courier, 3/3/1876, p 5. 5. Ibid, 9/3/1876, p5.
  5. Ballarat Courier, 16/1/1878.
  6. Ballarat Star, 22/4/1879, p3.
  7. Ibid, 13/5/1896, p3. 9. Site visit, 7/7/19.


“Dr.” John Harries (1828–1863) a well-known Welsh cunning man. (National Museum of Wales).

This research was funded by the UK Vernacular Architecture Group and assisted by Federation University, Ballarat.

© Ian Evans 2019


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