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Editions

Lillie’s love letters

05 Mar 2015

Lillie’s love letters Image

An exhibition currently on display at the Library at the Dock provides a snapshot of a different time and an insight into the life of a very interesting lady.

My Little Melbourne Girl explores the letters of Lillie Duncan, a volunteer at the Mission to Seafarer’s (MtSV) Ladies Harbour Lights Guild (LHLG) during the 1920s and 30s.

Ignoring the etiquette of her time, Miss Duncan maintained correspondence with at least seven seafarers she met at the mission, despite specific LHLG rules against such activity.

The guild operated between the early 1900s and the 1960s and assisted the MtSV chaplain with fundraising, networking and hosting social activities for seafarers.

The current exhibition is a collaboration between the Mission to Seafarers Victoria (MtSV) and the Library at the Dock and opened at the end of January.

According to MtSV curator Catherine McLay, Lillie Duncan’s letters, telegrams, a family photo album and individual photos were donated to the mission by one of her family members in 2011.

She said the exhibition featured around 30 objects, including the LHLG member’s register, photographs taken at LHLG social events and the Duncan family photo album.

The exhibition also includes the LHLG constitution, which shows rules Lillie disregarded including not giving out personal addresses or socialising with seafarers outside of mission activities.

In addition, multimedia elements of the exhibition include a narrated projection of three of the letters Lillie received from different seafarers.

The title of the exhibition was taken from a letter Ms Duncan received from one of her admirers who called her his “little Melbourne girl”.

“The significance of the collection is that it gives as a unique insight into the social context and etiquettes of the period, as well as into the life of an extraordinary woman who disregarded the rules of her organisation to develop romantic relationships with several men,” Ms McLay said.

“Letter writing is a fading method of correspondence in a modern world where the internet provides instant communication, and so collections such as the Lillie Duncan letters are becoming increasingly rare to find.”

According to LHLG records, Ms Duncan and her sister Olive were involved with the LHLG between 1927 and 1931, while they were both in their late 20s and early 30s. It is not known if Ms Duncan’s association with the mission continued after this point.

“Curiously, despite the relationships she had with men early in life, Lillie did not marry her husband James Morgan until 1969 at age 72 and he 73,” Ms McLay said.

“Information given by the collection donor indicated that they had a long-term affair because James’ then wife refused a divorce. So they did not have an opportunity to marry until her death.”

Ms McClay said the collaboration between the MtSV and the Library at the Dock for the exhibition began prior to the library’s opening when City of Melbourne community heritage curator Bronwyn Roper began developing an exhibition presenting the history of Docklands.

“Having had a glimpse of the MtSV collection at that time, Bronwyn saw the opportunity for a display of Lillie Duncan’s fascinating life and the Ladies Harbour Lights Guild,” Ms McLay said.

“She and I have been working on the project in earnest for some time, which included digitising and transcribing the whole collection for our ongoing use as well as following up the stories of the men Lillie was communicating with.”

On March 26, from 6pm to 7pm, the Library at the Dock will host a free talk for visitors from MtSV CEO Andrea Fleming and historians Sarah Rood and Professor Rob Pascoe.

The My Little Melbourne Girl exhibition will be on display at the Library at the Dock until April 14 and is free of charge.

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