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As mentioned before on this blog page, quite often while working on one historical topic another aspect or story is encountered which, although tangential or even irrelevant to the main research, nonetheless provides fascinating reading and is too significant to simply discard.  Such a find emerged while expanding and documenting the script for my DVD documentary “The Truth about Lasseter” (completed last year), to produce a more permanent record for anyone interested in the Lasseter’s Reef mystery.

In the course of explaining the different and conflicting accounts that “Harry” Lasseter began telling in 1929-30, about when and how he stumbled across the rich gold reef he alleged he found in Central Australia as a young man, I found myself dealing with the fantastical version he peddled to the Western Australian government in contacts with one Michael James Calanchini, the public servant who headed that state’s Department of Mines.

My interest was initially focused on establishing the basis for Calanchini’s brisk assessment that Lasseter’s tale did not stack up or deserve to be taken seriously by his minister, the Hon. Selby Munsie.  This entailed examining Calanchini’s public service career, looking at how long and where he had served—seeking to show if his judgement in matters regarding Western Australia’s gold resources truly deserved acceptance and respect.

Information available on the internet quickly disclosed the broad outline of Calanchini’s career.  This showed that he had a record of employment in the Department of Mines dating back to at least 1906, and had been chief clerk in the department before beginnIng a period when he was frequently acting departmental head with the title of either Secretary or Under-Secretary for Mines from 1910.  After serving as the Secretary for Mines (no longer ‘Acting’) in 1919-20, he was the permanent Under Secretary for Mines from 1921 until he retired in 1937.  After retirement, he continued to hold a number of directorships in mining companies with gold and other mineral interests across the State.  He died in Perth on 10 May 1955, apparently unmarried.

Send-off given to A. W. Canning on 10 May 1906 by chief officers of the Lands and Mines Department, on Canning’s departure to survey the 1800-km North West Stock Route from Wiluna to the Kimberley region.  Calanchini is seated front row, third from right.  (State Library, WA)

Although still feeling in need of authoritative details about Calanchini’s appointments and promotions, I considered I had sufficient grounds for regarding him as an experienced and knowledgeable official who was well-qualified to give his minister the advice that he did.  All well and good for my original purposes.  But it was when I started probing a little further into his background history that I came to realise there was another story deserving of note.

Initially I suppose my interest was piqued by curiosity about a man with Anglo-forenames of ‘Michael James’ and an obviously Italian surname like Calanchini.  One could not help wondering where he had come from and how he became an important government official in Western Australia.  Discovering that he had been born in Victoria in 1874, in the goldfields town of Dalylesford between Ballarat and Castlemaine, son of an Italian-speaking miner named Guiseppe Calanchini and an Irish-born mother, became the key to unlocking a window into another little-known past.

Guiseppe Calanchini was not actually Italian. He was born about 1841 at Cevio in Ticino, one of the two Italian-speaking cantons of Switzerland.  Arriving in Melbourne in September 1855, at the height of Victoria’s gold rushes, he apparently went straight to the Daylesford-Hepburn area and stayed there for most of his life, moving to the Walhalla goldfield east of Melbourne only a few years before his death in 1910.

It was at Daylesford that Guiseppe met his wife Alice, the daughter of Michael and Ellen Murphy from Limerick, Ireland, within a few years of her family’s arrival in 1860 when she was aged only 14.  Between 1864 and 1884, Alice bore Guiseppe at least four sons, and also four daughters (two of whom died in infancy). It appears likely that there was a fifth son who also died in infancy, because Victorian records list the death of a Michael James Calanchini in 1874—the same year in which the future Under Secretary was born.

Guiseppe (or Joseph as he often called himself later) tried making his fortune not from mining alone but through other business ventures.  He became a shareholder in the Anglo-Swiss Gold Mining Company formed in 1864 and also opened a bakery in Vincent Street, Daylesford.  Unfortunately neither venture prospered, and in March 1866 he was declared insolvent, citing losses in business and mining speculation.  Trade at the bakery was probably not helped by one of Calanchini’s workers, Serafini Bosetti, being arrested and charged over the murder of a Daylesford woman in January 1865.

Guiseppe Calanchini stayed in the Daylesford area for the next 35 years, combining the occupations of mining (in 1875 he was mentioned as head of one of the co-operative parties of miners working the Hepburn field) and farming (an 1891 Handbook on Viticulture for Victoria lists him as growing vines on a half-acre at Hepburn), but by the late 1890s it had apparently become clear that Victoria did not offer sufficient prospects for all his children.

Some time after November 1897, when 16-year-old third son George Francis had become an apprentice with Victorian Railways, the three eldest Calanchini brothers—Peter, Michael and George—headed for Western Australia to try their luck on the eastern goldfields at Kalgoorlie.  Unlike Michael, who moved on to a public service career in Perth, the other two brothers remained miners at Kalgoorlie.  George went off to World War I in 1916, serving with the AIF’s No 3 Tunnelling Company in France before returning to Australia in 1919.  Peter died in January 1922, George in August 1946; both were unmarried.

The remarkable thing about researching this tale was the discovery that the Calanchini family was part of a recognisable pattern of Swiss migration to the Victorian gold rushes—significant enough to earn Guiseppe brief mention in a Ph.D. thesis (Bridget Rachel Carlson, Immigrant Placemaking in Colonial Australia: The Italian-Speaking Settlers of Daylesford, Victoria University, 1997) and an article in a historical publication (Anna Davine, ‘Community life: Italian speakers on the Walhalla goldfield 1865-1915’, Italian Historical Society Journal, Jan.-June 2008).

Reading the literature on the contribution of Italian-speaking migrants to the development of modern Australia emphasises how remarkable was M. J. Calanchini’s career. To have made his mark in Western Australia within a single generation of his father’s arrival from the fairly restricted and closed society that was Switzerland in the nineteenth century, is testimony not just to his personal ability, but to other elements of the migrant experience which Australians today tend to overlook or take for granted.