ISAAC SELBY AND THE OLD MELBOURNE CEMETERY

[Presbyterian Section, Old Melbourne Cemetery]

View of the Presbyterian Section, Old Melbourne Cemetery

Much of the knowledge that we now have of the burials in the Old Melbourne Cemetery is due to the efforts of Isaac Selby. He was a tireless campaigner for saving and recording the history of this site.

Isaac Selby was born in 1859 in the Greenwich Registration District of London, England the son of Isaac Selby and his wife Isabella, nee Gilholm. His father, a joiner who worked on ships, was born c1825 in Coldstream, Berwickshire, Scotland the son of Charles Selby and his wife Elizabeth, nee Elliot.

About 1868 the Selby family migrated to Dunedin, New Zealand, where young Isaac attended the Middle District School, excelling in mental arithmetic. At an early age he became involved with the local Freethought Association, acting as their Honorary Secretary. This organisation held regular public lectures in theatres accompanied by musical items. In 1882 Selby sailed to Australia on the "City of Sydney" where he continued his involvement in public meetings on subjects such as debating whether or not the National Gallery and Museum in Melbourne should be open on Sundays. He later lectured in theatres in Newcastle and Sydney, New South Wales where his topic was "The Nearer the Church, the Further from God.".

In 1884 he returned to New Zealand and continued to lecture on such subjects as "Darwin and Moses" and "Is the Bible our Highest Guide to Morality?" Here he met up with Miss Theresa ("Tessie") Beatrice Chapman who was herself giving lectures on "Why I Left the Roman Catholic Church." On 28 October 1885 Isaac Selby and Theresa Chapman were married in the District Registry Office in Auckland. Miss Chapman was dressed in an elegant costume of ivory satin, a present from the local Rationalistic Syndicate. At their wedding breakfast their host, Mr. W. C. Dennes proposed a toast to the couples "health, happiness, and prosperity" and stated that he felt assured that their future career would redound to the credit and further the advancement of Freethought. On 1 November 1885 a public meeting was held in Abbott's Opera House, Auckland at which Isaac and Theresa participated in a 'Secular Marriage Ceremony' (with scenic effects) to commemorate their union, after which Isaac Selby delivered a lecture on "Luther, Calvin and Paine." A few days later they began a lecture tour of New Zealand.

By October 1886 Selby was in Adelaide where he spoke at the funeral service of a son of Henry Oliver, Honorary Secretary of the South Australian Freethought Society. In November 1887 he was lecturing in Queensland. Then came a report in March 1889 that following a severe illness he had "abandoned the infidel's position" and believed in the existence of God and the divinity of Jesus. His wife also was publicly declaring her faith in Christ. It was during these years that their three children were born: Vivian/Vivience Selby (1886) in Newcastle, New South Wales; Grattan Selby (1888) in Queensland and finally Wickliffe Selby (1891) in Melbourne, Victoria. During the early 1890s Selby became the Rev. Isaac Selby, an evangelist and minister at the Church of Christ in Lygon Street, Carlton where his duties included performing marriage ceremonies.

[Isaac Selby]

In January 1896 he toured New Zealand giving lectures as a 'Former Freethought Lecturer, but now Christian Minister.' His lecture "The Story of the Bible" was illustrated with '80 Limelight Views showing how the Monuments of Egypt, Assyria, Greece and Rome corroborate the statements of the Bible.' He soon returned to Melbourne but the following year was giving lectures in Gloucestershire, England and in 1898 sailed on the "Anchoria" for New York, U.S.A. After apparently spending some time in Kentucky and Ohio he made his way to San Francisco in California. Here his marriage ran into trouble. His wife, having gained the support of a local furniture dealer named Donald McRae, refused to return to Australia with Selby. When Selby started legal proceedings against McRae for alienating his wife's affections, his wife commenced divorce proceedings. Isaac returned to Australia alone and shortly afterwards stood for election as a candidate for the North Melbourne Seat in the House of Representatives in the Federal Parliament. Not only did he lose in the election, but whilst campaigning he was accidently thrown from his carriage and broke both of his wrists.

Selby then returned to America where his former wife had custody of their three children. Her petition for divorce was eventually granted in January 1904 but required one year to become absolute. In San Francisco Selby acted as his own attorney, coming into conflict with the presiding Judge (Judge J. C. S. Hebbard of the Superior Court), who on one occasion had him ejected from the witness box over his attacks on his wife's character. Selby also spent four days in jail for making contact with his daughter and was threatened with six months jail if he tried to see her again. Feeling that he had been badly treated by the legal system, Selby wrote threatening letters to the Judge. He then purchased an American Bulldog Revolver and turned up at City Hall on 28 November 1904 where Judge Hebbard was on the bench presiding over a case. Selby entered the courtroom, drew the revolver and fired a shot at Hebbard, just missing his head and lodging in the leather upholstery on the back of his chair. Hebbard was the first to grasp the situation and, leaping over the reporter's table, tackled Selby. During the scuffle others joined in and it was said that a second shot would have been fired had not Attorney Kase placed his thumb behind the trigger of the gun. Selby was arrested and taken to the City Prison.

During his trial his lawyer pleaded insanity against his wishes, and Selby tried to plead his own case but was refused permission to do so. After an eventful trial Selby was found guilty and sentenced to seven years in prison. After 4 months in a County Jail he was transferred to San Quentin State Prison for the remainder of his sentence. On the day he was due to be released he was asked if he was prepared to leave America on the first available ship. Selby replied that he intended to remain in America for a time and commence legal action over his incarceration. Upon hearing this the local authorities had him transported to the Stockton Asylum in San Joaquin, California and confined there indefinitely. However, with the assistance of the British Consul, and with money sent to him by his younger brother in New Zealand, he was after four months able to sail on the "S.S. Mariposa" on 19 July 1910 for New Zealand via Tahiti.

On arrival back in New Zealand in September 1910 he was reunited with his brother, Andrew Elliot Selby. He also had three sisters - Isabella (Mrs. William Henry Neale); Grace (Mrs. John Francis Botting) and Elizabeth (unmarried). He apparently had another brother, named Charles, who had died in 1906. His father, Isaac Selby, a well respected Justice of the Peace in Dunedin, had died on 14 October 1909 aged 85 years, and his mother had died in 1899 aged 75 years.

Once back in New Zealand Selby began a series of lectures, describing himself as a Unitarian Minister and Liberal Lecturer. He aimed at raising £1,000 to commence legal action against the authorities in San Francisco, but his lectures were not well attended so he sought to take action through other channels. A month later he sailed on to Melbourne and Sydney where he lectured on 'William Shakespeare,' 'Martin Luther, the Liberator of Europe' and against 'Home Rule for Ireland' as well as on his own experiences in America titled 'The Preacher in Prison' and 'The Stranger in San Francisco.'

Selby continued to lecture on various subjects in Melbourne during the First World War and advertisements for his meetings often appeared alongside those about the early history of Victoria with speakers such as Mr. C. R. Long and William Alfred Hall. Then in late February 1918 Selby appeared as one of the speakers at a meeting by the Old Melbourne Cemetery Preservation League in the Presbyterian Assembly Hall in Collins Street to protest against the annexation and conversion of the old cemetery into a public market. Then on 19 March 1918 Selby was the main speaker at a meeting where his topic was 'John Batman and his Contemporaries' in the Methodist Church on the corner of Lygon and Queensberry Streets. A fortnight later he spoke at Batman's Monument in the Old Cemetery on 'Melbourne Men of Letters Buried Here.' This appears to have been the first of a long series of Sunday afternoon lectures at Batman's Monument on subjects connected to Melbourne's pioneers. In May 1919 some hundreds of citizens attended a memorial service in the Old Cemetery to mark the anniversary of John Batman's birth. Colonel Springthorpe, Isaac Selby and Mr. C. R. Long addressed the gathering, and the Cambrian Singers rendered selections.

[Isaac Selby at Batman's Memorial]

On 17 June 1919 Selby, describing himself as the Secretary of the Old Cemetery Memorial Union, wrote to "The Age" newspaper stating "The men who perished at the front were called "pioneers," and this is the old pioneers' ground. it is the only memorial left to us of the first years of our settlement; therefore by a monument to the soldiers you might preserve the ground, and remember the men who created our city with those who defended our Empire." Then, at a meeting at the Old Melbourne Cemetery on 25 January 1920, Lieutenant-General Sir John Monash spoke "I claim a special right to join in the protest against desecrating this hallowed ground. Here lie buried the pioneers in every sphere of the life of Melbourne. I am not only a citizen of Melbourne: I was born in Dudley street, less than 150 yards from the spot where we are assembled." It was then resolved that a deputation, headed by Sir John Monash should meet with the Lord Mayor, Councillor Aikman, M.L.C. This occurred on 10 February 1920, and while the Lord Mayor sympathised with the deputaions objectives, said he thought that it was "a little late in the day' as Parliament had already consented to the scheme and taken council land in exchange for the section of the cemetery in dispute.

On 30 May 1920 about 300 people assembled at the Batman Monument for a memorial service and to once more plead for the preservation of the burial ground. Isaac Selby told of his regret that arrangements had not been able to be made to have the visiting Prince of Wales place a wreath on the tomb of Batman as he had done on the tomb of Washington in the United States. Mr. C. R. Long, M.A. gave an address upon "The Pioneer Village" and Mr. J. Brown of Carlton, the tradesman who erected the Batman monument in 1881, was also present. A further memorial service was held at Batman's monument on 22 January 1922 with about 100 persons in attendance. Dr. J. W. Springthorpe told of how he did not think the decision to move the old cemetery would have been made had all the 'diggers' who were fighting in the War been at home at the time. Concern was also expressed that a plan by the City Council to provide space in the nearby Flagstaff Gardens for relocating some of the gravestones had been rescinded.

Eventually the site of the Old Melbourne Cemetery was taken over for use as a car park next to the Queen Victoria Market. Many of the remains and gravestones were moved to a special section at the Fawkner Cemetery, and some of the remains were moved to other cemeteries.

Selby's interest in the Old Melbourne Cemetery led him to compile a history based on the lives of the early settlers who were buried there. This was published in 1924 as "The Memorial History of Melbourne."

In preparation for Melbourne's centennary celebrations Selby wrote a pageant drama entitled "The Birth of Melbourne" which was performed at the Imperial Theatre at the end of May 1934. It was produced by Mr. Mostyn Wright and 60 performers and depicted the departure of Batman from Launceston, shipboard scenes, the transfer of land by the aborigines, the pioneer township of Melbourne and the death of Batman.

In 1946 Isaac Selby was named as one of 28 cousins of the Selby family laying claim to an English estate of £4 million from Chancery. He stated that Thomas James Selby, whose estate had remained unclaimed since 1772, was his father's uncle. Before his parents had left England 78 years previously they had discussed filing a claim to the Selby millions, but as they had been moderately successful in England and the West Indies they decided not to risk their money in litigation. According to Selby, his great-uncle went to London, where he saw the need for fish, and through his foresight accumulated his great fortune in that trade. When Selby visited England many years earlier he discussed his case with a leading Gloucestershire lawyer; the lawyer, whose firm had a claimant for the estate, later wrote confirming his facts. However Selby was 86 years old in 1946 and stated "the money cannot be of much service to me, but it might be to my relations."

Selby continued to give occasional lectures right up until the time of his death at the age of 93 years. He died on 26 March 1956 at the Mount Royal Hospital, Parkville, Victoria and was buried on 28 March 1956 in the Other Denominations Section at Fawkner Cemetery in the same grave as his son Wickliffe who had died in 1938.

An article about Isaac Selby by Frank Strahan appears in volume 16 of the "Australian Dictionary of Biography." Works by Selby, under his own name and under his pen name of Paul Peritas are held by the State Library of Victoria. His "Old Pioneers' Memorial History of Melbourne" can be viewed on the internet through the catalogue entry at the State Library.

[Isaac Selby's History of Melbourne]

( Contributed by Alexander Romanov-Hughes. PPPG Member No. 52 )

Earlier Article 1
Later Article 1
Later Article 2


List of Newsletter Articles  |  Back to Home Page