Letty Sinclair was my Grandmother. When I was a child she would tell me many stories of Port and I grew up fascinated by that magical place.
Letty was born in 1869, the eighth child of a schoolteacher who had immigrated from Scotland. Within a year of her birth he died of tuberculosis. His widow supported herself and the younger children by scrubbing floors. In 1889, when she was about 18 years of age, Letty married Albert Bellion of Port Melbourne. Albert was one of the younger sons of Benjamin Bellion, a grocer and shipping providor. On the eve of the great depression of the 1890s the prospects of the young couple looked very bright. They moved into a two storied house in Rouse Street where their daughter Ada was born in 1891.
Tensions between Albert and his older brothers culminated in him optimistically setting up for himself as a shipping providor independent of his famiy. Unfortunately within a year the effects of the depression, coupled with his own over trusting nature, found him in financial difficulties. The family moved to a very small house further down Rouse Street, opposite the Swallows factory, and Albert’s business was saved for the time being.
Their second child, Albert was born and Letty was content to live a very quiet life looking after the children and socializing with the neighbours, especially the shop-keepers in the Graham Street shopping centre now long demolished. This little community included the Frazer family, bakers and pastry cooks, and the Falkenreich family who had a dairy. In the evenings the Falkenreich’s daughter Bertha would play the piano and the others would sing, play cards or converse about the wrongs and rights of the world. Father Falkenreich, as I was always taught to call him, had been an early member of the German socialist movement and strongly opposed to the militarist government of Bismarrk. He had migrated to Australia in order to be free of this. During his years in Port Melbourne he assisted a number of his compatriots to do likewise, often illegally as far as the Australian government was concerned.
Suddenly, or so it seemed, the first World War erupted into their lives. Albert’s business had been almost exclusively with one German shipping line so it collapsed over night and Albert went to work on the Yarraville docks. Young Albert overstated his age and left for France to fight. Letty was passionately devoted to him and felt his departure very keenly. Albert took his changed position very badly and drank too much. Moreover their friend Father Falkenreich was interned and died in the camp. Just as the war ended, his daughter Bertha died of the Spanish influenza. Without hesitation Letty took Mother Falkenreich into their home and cared for her until she died, some three or four years later. The gross injustice of the treatment of the Falkenreich family was a frequent theme of the stories told me by both my Grandmother and my Mother. When she was dying Mother Falkenreich gave my mother one of her most treasured possessions, a wall clock, that still hangs on our dining room wall in Evans Street.
The years after World War 1 were a sad time for Letty. Albert was often working with fertilizer on the docks and suffered from frequent attacks of bronchitis. Albert’s drinking had come to dominate his spare time and to make life very unhappy, yet she remained fiercely loyal to him throughout. Moreover her beloved son Albert had returned from France in a very unsettled frame of mind. He tried his pre-war job as a journalist but soon resigned, left Port Melbourne and began a long period of wandering aimlessly in northern New South Wales.
In 1923 Ada made the savings necessary to purchase a State Savings Bank house in Ivanhoe and moved there with them for a short time before her marriage. At last Lettie could enjoy Allbert’s company again and share with him in the planting of a garden where they grew prize roses, apples, walnuts and plums. Lettie loved to play with her two grandsons who lived nearby. It seemed that now her happiness was assured. Sadly it was also short lived as Albert was diagnosed with cancer, almost certainly from breathing in the fertilizer dust on the wharves.
After he died Letty lived with my parents and sometimes with my father’s mother until she died in 1948. I well remember her bringing me on the Garden City bus to see the wonder of the Bank Houses, probably about 1946, when I was on a visit from the country. She was so proud that Port Melbourne people at last had an opportunity to enjoy better housing. Letty was very much a city person. She loved to spend a day in Melbourne. When she was quite ill she announced that she was going to visit The City, quite a journey from where we were living in Creswick, a visit that both my father and mother tried to stop. They were unsuccessful against her quiet determination. Dad went into Ballarat to meet her at the end of the five days. Yes, she agreed, I am worn out. I will never get there again but just take me home and put me to bed, I’ve had a great time.