A French picnic in Balmain 1886

A recent research project for the team – Stephane, a Frenchman who has made Balmain home, came to see us with this original framed photo under his arm.

Stephane’s parents had come across the framed picture in a junk shop in the south of France. The inscription at the foot of the pic reads “Pic-nick d’adieu offert par la colonie de Balmain à M. Toiche, Commissaire du ‘Dupleix’ (Sydney le 21 Août 1886) Auguste Michel”, so Stephane’s parents, having visited him in Sydney, posted it to him. Could you help me find out about the picture? Stephane asked. Here’s what we found.

The photo is of a farewell picnic held at Balmain for M.Toiche, a purser on the Messageries Maritimes steamer Dupleix. Toiche was returning to Marseille.

We searched the 1885 edition of Lloyd’s register of British and foreign shipping and found it lists the Dupleix as an iron screw steamship of 1360 tons, built by Messageries Maritimes, who were the vessels registered owners, at La Ciotat in 1862. The vessel was registered in Marseilles. The regular route of the Dupleix, in 1886, was between Noumea, Sydney, Melbourne and Marseilles. Dupleix worked the Pacific leg of this route in loop with its sister ship the Caledonien.

 We then looked at the Sydney Shipping Masters Index to Arrivals and found a listing for the Dupleix arriving in Sydney on August 9, 1886, from Noumea where it had departed on August 5, under the command of Captain Chahoud. The shipping news of the Sydney Morning Herald August 10 and 11, 1886, also lists the vessels arrival.

To top it off, we located a paragraph published in the August 12, 1886 Sydney Morning Herald that mentioned the farewell picnic in Balmain for “…Monsieur Toiche, who has during the past three years acted as purser of the branch line steamer Dupleix…M. Toiche has been deservedly popular with the travelling public and others during the time he has been in the Dupleix; and his fellow officers and a number of the friends he has made here have been determined to mark their approval of his unswerving courtesy and the good opinion in which they hold him by entertaining him at a picnic down the harbour. M. Toiche will return to Marseilles in the Caledonien, and, after spending a holiday in France, it is expected that he will renew his connection with Australia as purser of one of the larger steamers”

Taking the photo out of its frame, we found markings on the back, usually concealed by the frame backing (“Michel chef ingenieur of SS Dupleix. Messag. de Mar. Thursday 4/ No. 4 black 20/ – 3/6/ 23/6”) suggesting that the photograph was ordered and to be picked up by Michel, the chief engineer of the Dupleix at a cost of 23/6. We believe the name Michel probably relates to the front right inscription underneath the photograph (“Auguste Michel”). And, although it hasn’t been possible to confirm that Michel was a chief engineer with Messageries Maritimes, we think it is likely that the photograph belonged to either M. Toiche or M.Michel; perhaps it brought back memories for its owner in France of time spent working in the Pacific on board the Dupleix? 

 The photograph provides a glimpse of a period in Sydney’s colonial and maritime history when the work of merchant seamen, and the relationships they forged with passengers and other clients, was highly valued. And it offers suggestion of the importance of these relationships to the role Messageries Maritimes played in French colonial expansion in the Pacific during the 1800s. 

Stephane told us he was thrilled to have some answers to questions he had asked himself for several years whenever he had glanced at the photo.

2 comments to A French picnic in Balmain 1886

  • teri

    this is really interesting. good researching work done by your librarians to solve a mystery!

    aix-en-provence, france

  • Frances Estella

    Good research.I know my husband’s grand father was 2nd cook on the Dupleix
    Seemed to be recorded as Marcellin Estello.He was Marcellin Estella.
    Settled in Sydney.

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