It looks like an ordinary jotter – the type of exercise book used by generations of school children. But this is no ordinary school jotter. It is, in fact, the Minutes Book of the Fernan Literary Society and records their meetings from October 1886 to March 1890. (The name is not a typo – the old spelling, Fernan, is used throughout the book.)
It must have lain in the schoolhouse from 1890 until the school closed in 1968, during which time many generations of mice nibbled its edges and probably made nests from the odd page or two. The book was then transferred, with other papers and the school records, to Kenmore School and it came to light during the search for the Fearnan School Records.
The Minutes of the Fernan Literary Society reveal that every Tuesday evening throughout the winter months, between 20 and 30 men from the village would meet in the schoolhouse at 8pm for an evening of literary enjoyment (only men, this being Victorian times). It is remarkable to think of them making their way in the dark and cold from local crofts and houses along the lochside, sheltering their lanterns from the wind, rain or snow, to reach the school and spend the evening in discussion and debate by lamplight.
The Society had a set of Rules that were found tucked inside the Minute Book. Written in beautiful copperplate writing on foolscap paper, they set out the purpose of the Society:
“The object of the Society shall be the moral and intellectual improvement of its members, to be furthered by means of Essays, Debates and other exercises agreeable to the Society.”
The Rules also set out the arrangements for the management committee, the means by which members are elected and subscription levels (one shilling for ordinary members and two shillings for ‘honorary ‘ members – i.e. the committee members).
The Rules also specify that: “Subjects exclusively religious shall not be discussed.” There is, however, no mention of that other potential cause of serious argument among friends – politics!
The first meeting sees the members commit 8 shillings to cover the purchase of a Minute Book, coal, candles and the services of a fireman (to ensure warmth and comfort in the school room). Later purchases include a ballot box for voting on their lively debates, 3 lamps and the services of a cleaner. Income and expenditure are meticulously recorded in the back of the Minute Book, with a surplus being carried forward every year. Mindful of others in the community, they specify in the Minutes that the lamps furnished by the Society are to be used for other purposes, such as Prayer Meetings and Sunday School.
The group would agree the programmes and topics in advance. Half hour of each meeting “will be allowed to the Essayist to read his paper, which shall be subjected to criticism, no single criticism to exceed five minutes in length.” This would be followed by a Recitation and then the Debate, for which half and hour was allowed.
An extract from the Minute for 25th January 1887 gives a flavour of the meetings. Chaired by Mr P McMartin “who opened the evenings entertainment with a Recitation of ‘The Ruins of Breadalbane’ and which was unusually well received. The President then gave a most interesting essay on the Social Condition of Breadalbane during the latter part of the last century and beginning of the present. The Essayist treated his subject in a most profound, instructive and masterly manner, captivating the attention and admiration of all the members throughout. Mr John Fraser recited the “Spirit of Contradiction” in a most creditable manner.”
Later in the meeting, it is agreed that a Social Meeting will be held in July, and a Committee appointed to organise it. It being Burns Night: “On the motion of the President, Mr A Anderson was asked to sing the well-known song of Burns ‘There was a Lad was born in Kyle’ in commemoration of the great Bards’ anniversary.”
Although the Minutes are specifically about the Society, from time to time snippets of events in Fearnan are referred to, and on the 23rd March 1886, the Minute records their ”deep sense of regret at the loss of two of the members, Messers McLean and Ferguson, who were leaving this country for Australia”.
A joint meeting with the Kenmore Literary Society is discussed and a letter of invitation despatched. Unfortunately, no reply is received to the letter!
The Debates seem to have been lively and often on topical subjects. In December 1887, Steam v. Electricity was discussed with “excellent papers read on both sides, and on the question being put to the ballot, it was found that Steam had a majority of 3.”
A debate on “which is the greater cause of crime and misery – ignorance or intemperance?” split the members 50:50, as did “Is wealth productive of happiness?”
Moral dilemmas were also considered viz. “In the event of being shipwrecked, which would you save, your intended wife or your mother.”
The Minutes tell us “both these gentlemen gave ample justice to their respective sides and on the question being put to the ballot, it was found that the mother had a majority of one.”
(H’mmm, I hope the good wives of Fearnan had a sense of humour!)
At that time, books were expensive to buy for personal use and given the values that Victorians placed on self-improvement, it is perhaps not surprising that the Society remained popular over the winter months for some 4 years. Towards the end of the 1889 – 1890 sessions, attendance starts to drop away. The Minutes do not speculate on why this might be – the records show that it was not a particularly bad winter, but there was a ‘flu pandemic that year and maybe people felt less inclined to meet in large social groups. Or perhaps the Society had run it’s course.
The last recorded meeting took place on 3rd March 1890. It was to be the final meeting of the session and the plan was to discuss the forthcoming Dance that had become the Society’s annual social meeting. However, the meeting quickly departs from the planned agenda when a letter is read giving news of the sinking of the ship The Quetta in the Torres Straits reaches the school house. A former secretary of the Literary Society was on board (unfortunately, this former secretary is not named) but there is no news of his fate. It is decided that they will reconvene on the Friday of that week, by which time they hope there will be more news.
Research into the fate of the RMS Quetta reveals that she was a British-India Steam Navigation Company liner, specifically built for the Australia run, with refrigeration capacity for the frozen meat trade. The ship was launched in March 1881 and made her first voyage to Brisbane in 1883.
The Quetta disaster was recorded by Albert Maclaren, a Missionary in New Guinea who was waiting to get away from Thursday Island, when news arrived of the disaster.
“The British India royal mail steamer Quetta, bound from Brisbane to England with 292 souls on board, struck on an uncharted rock near Adolphus Island (Albany Pass) on the night of 28th February, 1890, and sank in less than three minutes. It was a beautiful and calm night, and many of the ladies were singing in the music saloon, practising for a concert, others were writing letters in the saloon. Some of the survivors said that the noise caused by the vessel in striking sounded like a tank going overboard, then there was a grating sound, and then a swell of water from the engine-room. The ship did not seem to sink, the water merely seemed to rise round her. Then the stern rose high out of the water, and the propeller and a large part of the keel became visible. She hung in that position for about half a minute, then listed to port and suddenly disappeared. The captain had ordered the boats to be lowered directly she struck, and called out, “All who want to be saved, come aft”. Some of the ship wrecked passengers and crew reached Mount Adolphus Island clinging to the boats, and next morning one of the boats went to Somerset to wire to Thursday Island for assistance. “
Of the 292 people aboard, 26 were saloon passengers (of whom only 19% survived), and 75 steerage passengers (of whom 86% survived).
The Quetta now lies on her port side in 18 metres (59 ft) of water and is a protected historic shipwreck under Australia’s Historic Shipwrecks Act of 1976. Relics raised during salvage attempts months after the disaster, and later, can be found in the Quetta Memorial Church on Thursday Island, which was consecrated in 1893.
Back in Fearnan, the former Secretary’s friends and colleagues met again later in the week but there was no further news of his fate. “It was proposed as a tribute of respect to his memory by his sorrowing Associates to close the session in silence and by abandoning the Social evening this year. The Treasurer then submitted his accounts which were approved and signed by office bearers and committee.”
The records show a balance of £2 6s 4½ in the account.
Unlike previous years, no date was set for resuming meetings in October 1890, and if the Society continued into 1890-91, we have no record of this. However, the Minute Book still has plenty of unused pages, so we must assume they did not. Could those villagers of long ago have imagined that literary debate and criticism would revive in Fearnan 125 years later – also on a Tuesday night – in the form of the Fearnan Book Club?
Defibrillator Training – Molteno Hall, Fortingall at 7pm Wed 20th January.
Pudding Night – Sat 20th February at 6pm in the village hall. Live music and as much as you can eat from the fabulous spread of puddings for £7 per person, school age children half price. BYOB.
Fearnan Village Association AGM – Saturday 5th March at 11.30am in the village hall.
March Coffee Morning – Tuesday 15th March at 10.30am in the hall.