In 1920, in the old Dennison house on the Tourist Track, a triple-certificated nurse from Ballarat married a Chinese lawyer. Irene May Estelle Connell, nee Harris, married Ling Ah Mouy, aged 52, and settled on a Fairy Dell Road property running down to the Emerald Road.
Mrs Ah Mouy ran a hospital for unmarried mothers. This occupation made the Ah Mouys an exception in the general picture given of early Monbulk as one big happy family. Her Chinese husband was not included. He seems to have been the only Chinese settler in Monbulk. For those who flooded the Emerald goldfields in the 1890s and 1930s had all moved onto fresh fields. Yet Ling’s father and family were famous.
Ling’s father, Louey Ah Mouy, was spoken of as the first Chinese to land in Victoria. A builder by trade from Canton, he came in 1851 aged about 26, under contract to erect some buildings for Captain Glendinning, the master of the sailing vessel by which he travelled. It is claimed that he built the first houses in South Melbourne and Williamstown. Diversion of a private letter to his brother in China was said to initiate the immigration of about 37,000 Chinese to gold rush Victoria, naming Louey ‘the Father of the Chinese in Victoria.’ He was one of only eight Chinese privileged to be naturalised in 1857.
‘With the assistance of Chinese labourers he opened up gold mines at Yea, Ballarat, Elaine, Mount Buffalo, Bright and Walhalla. He also had various commercial ventures. He was credited with the establishment of a rice mill in Flinders Street, the first of its kind in Victoria. At Swanston Street in 1852 he was one of the first residents in Victoria to engage in the tea business; he later became an original director of the Commercial Bank of Australia in Melbourne. In addition Ah Mouy was a land speculator, acquiring sites in Armstrong Street, Middle Park. Through his trade, land and mining operations he amassed great wealth but lost heavily in the economic depression of the 1890s.’ – Australian Dictionary of Biography, ANU.
Ling and his brothers were all well-educated and followed reputable careers. His siblings included a sister and brother from his father’s first marriage in 1855 to a teenage Irish orphan who died at 23. There were also seven brothers and three sisters from his Chinese mother who had married aged just sixteen in 1861. The sisters scattered across the oceans.
Ling attended Scotch College, where he is said to have displayed an aptitude for study considerably above the average. His legal career took him to the Titles Office and the law courts. Much more is known of his well-recognised, award-winning brother Louis, although his nationality limited it to partial reward. He quite surpassed the level of reputation and respect that Ling and his brothers enjoyed.
Why then did Ling Ah Mouy come to Monbulk to marry a convicted thief and suspected murderer in Monbulk? Did this highly respectable lawyer know who he was marrying? Their backgrounds were astonishingly different.
In Irene Connell’s suburban hospital the year before her marriage to Ah Mouy, a dying man appointed her executrix of his will, leaving an estate of 179 pounds to his two children. A couple of months later, the man’s widow questioned the nurse’s dealings with the trust. A month later and Connell was pleading with the widow not to take proceedings, for she had been ‘hard up’. Promising to repay by instalments the hundred pounds she had spent.
In April 1920 Irene May Estelle Connell appeared in court charged with the murder of her husband Michael Connell who had died at their home in Hawthorn. Traces of strychnine found in his stomach contents were not the only causes of suspicion. She was remanded awaiting an inquest.
It took two years but the widow eventually located Connell, after she reappeared in Monbulk from Ballarat, to marry a lawyer. Labelled ‘the foreigner’s wife’ with her new name of Stella Ah Mouy, she was identified and again became involved in legal proceedings. The murder charge was then apparently dropped.
By then the widow had also discovered that Connell had earned three months for larceny in 1913 and a fine in 1917 for falsely registering a child. In the first year of her marriage she served two months for perjury.
How, we might wonder, did this affect the respectable Ling Ah Mouy’s reputation? However did this marriage come about?
Mrs Ah Mouy’s hospital, of course, was not patronised by local girls who ‘got into trouble’. City girls came to hide their shame in Monbulk. But a local informant only smirked at the mention of a girl who had ‘been to a Melbourne dentist’, replying, ‘She had more out than a couple of teeth!’
Despite all this the Ah Mouy family found friends in the Dennisons and young Jack Dennison in particular was impressed. Jack Dennison said, ‘Ling Ah Mouy was a marvellous man, gentle, well educated, worked in the law courts, and the Titles Office. He played cricket for South Melbourne and had beautiful trophies, including a clock in a round glass case. Later he played cricket for Monbulk.’ Jack was fascinated by Ling’s one valve wireless set, and his gramophone with its big horn and cylindrical records, neither yet seen anywhere else in Monbulk.
Nor had Jack Dennison met anybody quite like Mrs Ah Mouy. He found her ‘generous, but tough’. He said she ‘used to humiliate her husband, who was beautifully educated and used to look troubled at times. A fiery lady. Police and doctors avoided going there.’
Together the Ah Mouys fostered six children. One ‘disappeared from a tent where he was sleeping out and was said to have been kidnapped. A hell of a hunt for him round The Patch. Mrs Ah Mouy set off by train to look for him after hearing rumours that he was seen in Shepparton, but he did not reappear.
Legal adoption did not begin until 1929. ‘State kids’ in the settlement were commonly taken in to help the settlers earn their bread. One of small Jack Ah Mouy’s jobs was ‘to take nappies down to the creek and swish them round.’ He ran into Dennison’s one night ‘with big bruises round his shoulder, where Mrs Ah Mouy had taken to him’ Later she came looking for him but Mum wouldn’t let her in.’ An adoptee aged twelve, he made the paper when he disappeared after being seen onto a train at Lilydale. Fortunately he was found the next day.
The Dennisons did not allow the common prejudice to stop family interaction. Jack Dennison enjoyed his first ride in a car when Stella Ah Mouy drove his family down the Zig Zag Road (Birmingham Road) to Lilydale. Sometimes on a Sunday, all dressed in their best, they parked near the football oval in Richmond. They enjoyed picnics in Mordialloc via the back of a friend’s open truck, door to door for a shilling. At other times they simply went as far as Belgrave to mingle with others from around the hills.
After Mrs Ah Mouy’s hospital burnt in a fire that spread through Fairy Dell and The Patch in 1926, they built a new house and stayed on in Fairy Dell Road.
Did Ling Ah Mouy marry in Monbulk in ignorance of Stella’s need to hide? Or was he perhaps trying to rescue her, knowing personally the harshness of the law and more about her background? When young Stella Harris, employed as a domestic servant, had pleaded guilty to the theft of silk, laces and other articles from her Brighton employer, her lawyer had said on her behalf that she had no friend in the world, suffered from consumption and had been an inmate of Greenvale Sanatorium.
Perhaps Ling could also sympathise with the discrimination that both she and her patients suffered. Did she marry for his money or reputation or did she see a possibility of support she had never known? Or perhaps her husband’s intent was rescue?
Whatever the truth there were no more court cases. Mrs Ah Mouy cared for homeless children and girls in trouble, enjoyed life and earned no further discoverable fines or sentences. The end came when Ling Ah Mouy died in 1933, aged 65. The adopted family moved to Ferntree Gully and dropped the Ah from their surname.
DOROTHY B. WILLIAMS
References: Jack Dennison, Trove