William Ruse: Pioneer of Cheltenham and Beaumaris

Born in the Suffolk village of Stradbroke on March 31st 1825, William Ruse was baptised there on May 15th, the fifth child of a large family. [1].

His parents, Benjamin Ruse and Margaret Rayner were married at Stradbroke on April 7th 1814. Margaret at the time was a minor.

William’s grandmother, Elizabeth Last, came from the neighbouring village of Hoxne (pronounced Hoxen) about five miles from Stradbroke, and it was there, on March 18th 1789 that she married his grandfather, another Benjamin Ruse. Both his grandparents and his parents signed the marriage register with an X.

Suffolk is part of the East Anglian plain, chalky, undulating country traversed by wide river valleys where there are many water-mills. It is Constable’s landscape, the scene of his famous Flatford Mill.

William Ruse grew up to work in a mill, possibly the one at Hoxne where he had Last relations. His father was described in the marriage register as ‘labourer’ and as this term was applied to mill-workers, there may have been a family connection with the milling trade.

William left Suffolk and went to Cheshire, perhaps working in one of the mills along the Dee. It was in Chester, on the famous Walls, that he courted Betsy Dodd, whom he married at the Independent Chapel, Queen St, Chester on April 9th 1850, Rev. Mr. Bridgman officiating.

The dust from the flour mill and the powder from the grindstones had affected William’s lungs and it was recommended that he should go to a dry climate.

In September 1851, William and Betsy embarked at Liverpool in the small sailing-ship ‘Eagle’, 410 tons, with 152 passengers aboard, including 42 children and 9 infants. The great majority of the adults were in their twenties and thirties.

A steam-tug towed ‘Eagle’ down the Mersey and set her on her long voyage to Port Phillip and Adelaide, taking the clipper route down the Atlantic west of the Cape of Good Hope, and then in an arc almost to the Antarctic Circle, then northward to Australia.

William and Betsy travelled as unassisted immigrants, and, like most of the others aboard, their accommodation was steerage, which was a large dormitory space between decks, with poor ventilation and lacking all privacy.

With so may people crowded into a small space, a highly organised routine was necessary. “All intermediate and steerage passengers were arranged into messes of up to ten people. Each mess would appoint two mess-men for a week, whose duties included collecting the daily water ration of three pints per adult, and the weekly food rations. They also made puddings three times a week and baked oatmeal cakes and bread. Passengers were expected to turn out of bed a 6 a.m. and lights were extinguished at 10 p.m. Drinks were sold between 10 a.m. and 12 noon, but anyone in need of something stronger than ale or port had first to seek permission of the captain. Groceries could be purchased at any time.

For storage, two boxes were normal, one for every day use and one for storage below and brought on deck every three weeks. It was recommended that a canvas or carpet bag be kept available. Two sets of clothing, one for cold and one for hot weather, were suggested. The passenger had to supply his own cutlery and dishes.

The meals for steerage passengers tended to be fairly monotonous. Breakfast consisted of coffee, biscuits and butter, the evening meal of tea, biscuits and butter. What little variety did exist was in the midday meal - beef or pork - pea soup alternated with plum duff, and to finish, biscuits once again.” [2].

Below decks. From London Illustrated News, 1842.

No doubt as much time as possible was spent on deck. Another immigrant, sailing in ‘Eagle’ in 1854, describes “the magic of islands floating by, Madeira, the Canaries, Teneriffe - and the crossing of the Line. … Tropical heat followed with calms, and, later, cold weather when the only means of keeping warm was by brisk walking. They saw icebergs and navigated precariously through floating ice. [3]

What might have been an exciting if uncomfortable voyage for William and Betsy became a nightmare. In intolerable heat, smallpox broke out in the ship, and many died. William caught it and was very ill; but, nursed by Betsy, he recovered, to disembark in Melbourne on New Year’s Day 1852. (The passenger-list of ‘Eagle’ shows that the Ruses had contracted to land in Adelaide.)

Ships on the Yarra River in Early Melbourne.

Melbourne in 1852 must have come as a great shock. “At the time of which we are speaking, Melbourne was not yet a town, it was a warehouse. There were ships and depots everywhere, but nothing restful, nothing intimate; there is something strained and brutal about the first efforts of a new society.” [4]

Lodgings to rent were few and prices appallingly high, fifteen pounds a week for a cramped room in a lodging-house. In the villages outside the town - such as St Kilda - accommodation was a little cheaper.

Food, too, was expensive by the standards of those days - tea, 2/- a pound, coffee 2/-, beef and mutton 5 pence a pound, bread eighteen pence per 4 pound loaf.

“Anything that requires labour is dear, vegetables enormously so, for instance potatoes are 6 pence per pound, green cabbages 6 pence each, green peas something like 1/2d each pea!! Cherries 5/- per pound. A gardener could do well, but he should reckon his own time at 10/- per day.” [5]

Small wonder, then, that William Ruse eventually turned to market-gardening and fruit growing. But first, he did what so many others at that time were doing - he set off for the diggings.

A gold rush had just begun at Beechworth, then called May Day Hills. William and Betsy joined it. Their journey followed a track that was to become the Hume Highway. An eye-witness described the scene in 1852, “the straggling procession that went over the rough and rut-ridden track that passed for a road. Frying pans, iron pots, and kettles dangling behind drays that were loaded with axes, cradles, iron buckets, picks, shovels and sieves. Women and children might be seen seated on top of bedding and luggage; they could be observed gazing in wonderment at the empty space, the cypress-pines, eucalypts and wattle in addition to the tree-ferns, also at the cockatoos, galahs and kookaburras that were totally strange to them - especially strange being the kookaburra and its intriguing sounds, a bird that the children were soon calling the laughing jackass.

Off to the Diggings.

Men could generally be noticed trudging along beside the drays. Most of them wore moleskin trousers and gay-coloured shirts. They had heavy boots on their feet. They would pass bullock waggons which were loaded with produce such as flour, sugar and tea, destined for enterprising merchants who expected to make money, not from searching for gold, but by selling supplies to the diggers and their families.” [5]

Arriving at Beechworth, William and Betsy went on to Yackandandah, six miles north-east, where there had been good discoveries. Here is a woman’s view of the diggings there, seen for the first time:

“What a scene presented itself for my wondering gaze. I cannot describe it. … Heaps and heaps of newly upturned earth; deep holes out of which sickly looking men were drawing buckets more of it; while others, up to their waists in water, were washing pans of the sun-dried clay, and so close were the holes to each other, that there was hardly any room for one cart to pass between them, obliging us to make a constantly zig-zag track. How plainly it all seemed to speak of the grovelling nature of men. What, I thought to myself, can man stoop so low as to burrow in the earth in this way to risk health, and stand in the depth of winter, up to the waist in water, and such fleeting gains.” [6]

Obviously good health was essential, and life on the diggings proved too rough. William turned to other ways of making money. He drove a mob of cattle to Melbourne and sold them there, and found work at Fulton and Smith’s flour mill at four pounds a week. Betsy opened a boarding-house in Lonsdale Street.

However, William had not finished with the diggings yet. He organised a party of four to go to the Bendigo goldfields, a journey that took them five weeks. After nine months there, he had made three hundred pounds.

At one stage during his time on the diggings, he narrowly escaped with his life. Lodging overnight, (perhaps on the return journey to Melbourne) he overheard a plot to rob and murder him. He sat up all night with his gun on his knees, while in the next room he could hear his would-be assassin’s wife crying.

In the middle of the night, the man banged on the door and shouted “Blacks!” but William was not to be lured out.

With the three hundred pounds he had made on the goldfields he bought land, about 12 miles south-east of Melbourne, and established a market-garden.

The Ruses and the Walkers, their near neighbours, named the new district which they were opening up Chester Village, then Chesterville, after the part of England from which both families had emigrated. It was later re-named Cheltenham, but the old name is perpetuated in Chesterville Road.

It was in their house in Chesterville Road that William and Betsy’s first four children were born:

William (born December 4th 1854, died October 13th 1881)
Edward (born January 6th 1857, died December 20th 1857)
Ebenezer Gibson ( born November 9th 1858)
and Elizabeth Ann (born November 15th 1861)

Then they moved to a block of land in Charman Road, bounded by what is now Latrobe Street, Bourke Street, and Patty Street. At that time, this part of Cheltenham was called Beaumaris. Here, William built the house where their last child, Mary Helena, was born on May 26th, 1863, and where he and Betsy remained for the rest of their lives, farming and market-gardening.

This cottage was still standing when I was a child. Set well back from Charman Road, with a big Norfolk Island pine in front of it, I remember it being pointed out to me on long walks to the beach.

A close-knit little community began to grow in the district round Cheltenham. Besides the Ruses, the Walkers, the Fairlams and the Meeres (all later linked by marriage) there were the Beazleys, the Bodleys and the Broughs, the Charmans, the Huxtables, the Judds, the Keirs, the Kings, the Moyseys, the Organs, the Pennys, the Roses and the Wells, all probably emigrants from Britain.

The Church of Christ was a very strong force in this little world. Thomas Walker and William Ruse were among the founder members of the group calling itself at first the Disciples. A strong Christian faith, coupled with a diligent study of the Scriptures, was central to their lives.

In the earliest years, there was no chapel and services were held in Thomas Walker’s house and then a barn-like structure in Chesterville Road, known as “Walker’s Church”.

By 1860 the Church of Christ had grown and taken in a group of disciples from Beaumaris. William Ruse donated part of his land on the corner of Charman Road and Patty Street, and a chapel was built there; six years later it had to be doubled in size. William used to conduct the services, but prominent evangelists would often come down from Melbourne to preach. For weddings and baptisms too a minister would come from Melbourne.

Beach baptisms were a feature of the life of the church. They took place at Munday’s Beach (Cheltenham beach) and involved total immersion, with hearty hymn-singing by the crowd gathered on the sand.

Their church was a focal point in the lives of William and Betsy Ruse. Much of the social life of the community revolved round it as well.

By 1875, the Mechanics Institute, with its more central position, was being used for services and three years later a brick chapel was built on the site of the present Church of Christ.

Church of Christ, Cheltenham. Courtesy Eric Longmuir.

In all these activities, William Ruse was a moving spirit. Among other things he formed and taught Bible Schools, and in 1860 he was presented by his Scriptures pupils with a Family Bible, in which he has recorded the births and deaths of his children, as well as details of his marriage and emigration.

This mid-Victorian period was also the age of high-minded societies. When the Beaumaris Young Men’s Improvement Society was founded in 1863, William Ruse was its Vice-President.

The purpose of the society was to impart useful and entertaining information. Soon the words ‘young men’ were dropped from its title, but it remained a men’s club, apart from the public tea-meetings twice a year. The speeches (by members) of not more than half an hour, were wide-ranging in their topics; The Effects of Lightning, Robert Burns, The Horse, The Moderate Use of Alcohol, Woman, her Place and Power, and The History of Man (in half an hour!) - these were just a few.

Eventually the association, which met at the new Cheltenham Temperance Hall and Mechanics’ Institute became part of that institute. William, who had been instrumental in getting a grant for it, used to run Penny Readings there for the public.

He was also active in getting funds set aside for a cemetery - the Old Cheltenham Cemetery now - in which the first grave was opened in 1865. Before this, William himself had made the coffins and buried the dead in a cemetery in Balcombe Road. His own infant son Edward, who had been buried there, was re-interred in the new Ruse family grave near the main gates of the cemetery.

He helped to get a grant for the Common School when it was opened in Cheltenham, and was on the Board of Advice for Government Schools. He was a J.P., and one of first members of the Shire Council of South Brighton (now Moorabbin).

As well as these activities, spanning many years of his life, William Ruse acted as a lay practitioner in homoeopathic medicine in the district, as did also Thomas Walker.

In the 1860's and 1870's, homoeopathy, introduced by Dr Johann Gunst in 1852, was flourishing in Melbourne, alongside more orthodox medical practice. In particular it provided treatment for the sick poor of Melbourne. The little homoeopathic hospital which opened in Spring Street, Melbourne in 1876 later moved to St. Kilda Road and was to become Prince Henry’s Hospital. William Ruse was present at the laying of its foundation-stone in 1885.

A photograph of the occasion shows him there, looking now as he was remembered by his grand-daughter, my mother - a white-bearded, kindly old man. She recalled that he always called her “Queen of the Valley”, and that he had one pock-mark on his face, the only reminder of the small-pox which he contracted on the voyage to Australia.

For a while, towards the end of his life, William was caretaker of the Mentone Coffee Palace which later became the Brigidine Convent. William was a widower for the last ten years of his life. He died on December 26, 1900, of pneumonia and chronic heart disease. He is buried in the Ruse family grave in the Old Cheltenham Cemetery, which he helped to found. On his tombstone, his date of death is given as December 25th.

Gravestone of William Ruse, pioneer of Cheltenham and Beaumaris. Courtesy David Joy.


  • James borne 1817, Mary born 1819 (went to Canada), Elizabeth born 1821, David born 1823, William born 1825, Hannah born 1827, and probably other children between this year and 1833 when Sarah was born. She married Joseph Shrimpton and died in Essex in 1905.
  • The Voyage to Victoria in the 1850's, article by T.R. Grigg in Ancestor, Vol. 14 No. 9. His information about conditions in ‘Eagle’ comes from The Colonial Clippers by Basic Lubbock, James Brown. Glasgow, 1921.
  • The Earth Between Them, Joseph Beale’s letters ed. Edgar Beale, Wentworth Books, Sydney 1975.
  • Les Voleurs d’Or, by Celeste de Chabrillan, Paris, 1857, describing Melbourne in 1853.
  • Joseph Beale to his wife in Ireland, in a letter written on Christmas Day 1852.
  • Goldfields Settlers (Beechworth) by Andrew D. Osborn, Orana Press, Cape Cod, 1983. The description of the journey is from Land Labour and Gold, or Two Years in Victoria by William Howitt, 1860. The woman’s-eye view of the diggings is by a Canadian woman, Mrs. Campbell, who spent 1853 and 1854 in the Beechworth Camp.
  • This article is taken from “The Fairlams and The Ruses” written by Bronnie Treloar, July 1989.
27 June 2018
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