On the 18th November 1833 the barque Edward Coulston arrived in Sydney from Liverpool. Amongst its passengers was hat manufacturer Robert Duff and his wife Mary Anne Duff (nee Erskine).
They disappeared from the records for the next eleven years, although they did spend time in the Goldfields; but in April 1844 Duff was nominally at the Pilgrim Inn, Plenty. Located on Plenty Road (now High Street, Thornbury), the hotel is the first know commercial business in Darebin.
Over the next few years Duff would make himself perhaps the most significant figure living in Darebin, having numerous other business interests as well as his hotel. He also made himself known through the developing legal system in the colony.
In August 1849 he brought his “disobedient servant” in front of the courts, charged with refusing to obey Duff’s instructions. The man in question, Michael Davies (or Davis), stated that Duff had called him a “convict, and a runway”. Davis became incensed that Duff was not paying him the amount of money he believed he was owed and threatened Duff’s life. The judge found in Duff’s favour and Davies earned a month in jail.
The next year Duff expanded his range of commercial enterprises, winning a £205 tender to supply wood for the construction of a bridge over the Merri Creek. In addition to the hotel, and lands around Thornbury, Duff also maintained two cattle runs in the Murray area, Bungil & Koetang and Thologolong, paying the government £25 for the use of the land.
In April 1850 Duff had two horses stolen. The loss of cattle and horses were to cause Duff considerable anguish over the next few years, resulting in a letter to the Argus newspaper on 5th April 1851, proposing that gentlemen of property unite together to form a protective agency to defend their goods. Duff’s letter demonstrates he was a well educated, literate man. He also showed a strong protective urge towards his land and property. This, in particular, was to lead him into trouble.
After the great bushfire of 1851 Duff took it upon himself to expose what he saw as over claiming for compensation by a Mr W. Budd on behalf of Mr Cornwall. Apparently Cornwall had been granted £5 compensation for losses suffered and Bud had argued that the true losses approached £500. Duff took it upon himself to ride to the area and form his own assessment of the damage, deciding it was closer to £80. A war of words erupted across the pages of the Argus as the two men fought their very public battle.
Duff’s passionate defence of his property and his love of a legal fight now came close to costing him dearly. His son Robert George Campbell Duff was riding one evening in June 1852 when he bumped into neighbour William Pender. Pender was searching for a missing steer and asked Duff whether he had seen it. Words were then exchanged with Duff claiming that Pender was deliberately putting his cattle in Duff’s paddocks to graze. Robert Duff then appeared and stated that if he found Pender’s cattle on his property he would impound them.
When Pender then entered the Duff’s property the younger Duff warned Pender who admitted in court that he “…treated the thing with contempt.” The younger Duff then rode closer and said,
“The five minutes are up, unless you are out of the place, I’ll blow your ---- brains out.”
Pender asked the young man whether he planned lynch law and Duff replied that he had been on the diggings and “…I’ll give you a taste of it”. He then discharged his gun at Pender.
The defence argued that it was a plot by Pender to get Duff convicted. Both men were publicans and rival squatters with an animosity which stretched back at least seven years. Witnesses were supplied which stated that Pender had offered Robert Dunn £50 if he would swear that he saw Duff fire a gun at him (Pender). The young Duff was also able to produce two other witnesses, Richard Young and William Green who stated that they were with Duff and had heard no shot being fired. Green also stated that the marks on Pender’s hat which Pender had claimed were from the gun discharge were inconsistent with Pender’s version of the story. An early example of forensic evidence. The case was dismissed.
In 1853 Duff again appeared in the Argus newspaper, relating to an assault on one of the candidates for the North Bourke electorate. Duff was charged with assaulting Mr McKillop, after McKillop arrived at the hotel about 9 o'clock on a Saturday night. Duff claimed that McKillop was drunk and provided two witnesses to support his claim. McKillop then produced witnesses to state he was sober. The results of the court case are currently unknown.
In April 1856 Robert Duff was back in the courts, having had officers of the Sewerage and Water Commission arrested for trespassing. The Commission had compulsory acquired a section of his property on the Merri Creek. Duff’s defensive mechanism kicked in and he had called in the troopers to defend his land. This time the Court found against him.
By the 1860s Duff was buying and selling stock from his Murray River runs and was known as Robert Duff, esq. indicating his elevation to the rank of gentleman. As he invested more of his time in horse and cattle sales he passed the licence of the Pilgrim Inn Hotel to Solomon Pitchforth in 1861.
In 1874 Duff found himself in familiar circumstances when he became involved in a property dispute with Isaac Barnett and a Mr Lear. The incident occurred when Barnett and Lear discovered Duff pulling down a fence on what they believed was their property. A scuffle ensued after which Duff was arrested and kept overnight in the Fitzroy lockup.
In court Barnett and Lear stated that Duff had attacked them with an axe and would have killed them. The judge, who described Duff as “…an old man” found in favour of Duff and awarded him damages of £25. A second case saw the disputed land being awarded to Barnett.
Duff died on 10th June 1876 at his home at 74 Rathdowne Street, Carlton
Argus newspaper, 19 October 1847 Argus newspaper, 16 February 1850 Argus newspaper, 5 April 1851 Argus newspaper, 15 May 1852 Argus newspaper, 18 June 1852 Argus newspaper, 21 June 1853 Argus newspaper, 22 April 1856 Argus newspaper, 1 January 1874 Argus newspaper, 12 June 1876 Cole, Robert K. Index of Hotels 1841 – 1949. (Manuscript) Edge, Gary. Surviving the six o’clock swill: a history of Darebin’s hotels. Melbourne. Darebin Libraries. 2004.
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