This intricately decorated writing desk belonged to my great, great grandmother, Mary Ann. I’m not sure how she came to own this desk. She may have brought it with her from England or maybe acquired it later on the Ballarat goldfields.

In 1850, and just seventeen years old, she left England with her husband, Charles, and one year old daughter, Mary Emma. They arrived in Melbourne in 1851 and headed to the Ballarat goldfields. By 1856 my great grandmother, Mary Louisa had been born and Charles had left the family living in a tent on the goldfields.

To make ends meet Mary Ann took in dressmaking. Possibly this writing desk came into our family as payment in lieu of cash as she often used to barter and buy and sell goods.

This desk is an example of Tunbridge ware. This is a form of decoratively inlaid woodwork made in the Tunbridge Wells spa town in Kent in England and was very popular especially from 1830 -1900. It was made by gluing together bundles of specially shaped wooden rods and then slicing them through with a fine saw. The pieces were put together to create pictures, mainly of local points of interest, and sold as gifts or souvenirs. The scene on this writing desk is probably Eridge Castle near Tunbridge Wells.
The desk has two inkwells with matching mosaic lids, a cradle for pens hiding a secret compartment and a storage box, possibly for nibs, covered with a decorated lid with a tiny handle. The desk opens out to make a writing slope covered with crimson baize that has a raised pattern stamped into the fabric. Underneath the slope is another larger compartment for storing paper. The whole thing can be locked with this tiny key.

Writing desks were a popular gift or item to bring to Australia when emigrating. This writing desk is a poignant reminder that for most people when they left England they would never see their families or England again. The only communication would be from the letters that were written from desks just like this.

This writing desk has been handed down through the women in my family for five generations. The last time it was used as a writing desk was by my mother as a teenager in the 1930s. In my memory it was used as a storage container for some old gold sovereigns. Today it resides in my bookcase to be occasionally brought down, admired and wondered about the letters that were written using it.

Music: Out of the skies, under the earth by Chris Zabriskie from FMA (

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