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Dancing away


William Donbavand, like many of his family, was a fustian cutter. Fustian is a sort of velvet. It is woven with extra weft threads, forming rows of loops, like a miniature version of corduroy.

The fustian cutter lays out a length of this cloth on a long table, and then uses a long, very sharply pointed knife to cut along a row of loops. Once all the loops had been cut, the fabric would be brushed to raise the pile.  Cutting tables could be up to 150 yards long, and the cloth might have up to 40 loops to cut per inch of width. Cutting a length of cloth two feet wide would involve walking the length of the table up to 480 times. Good cutters could use two knives at once, doubling their output (and earnings). Leaving someone else to finish a piece was frowned upon, as they would hold their knife at a slightly different angle, and it would show in the finished cloth.

Fustians were made in many places across the north of England. William Donbavand's father had been born in Warrington, but moved to Manchester to cut fustian there. He taught all his sons the trade. William married in Manchester and started to raise a family. Then he saw opportunities for the trade over the border in Yorkshire. Not long after the birth of Robert, the family upped sticks and moved to Huddersfield.

Another three children were born after the big move, but William died in 1829. His eldest son was already at the cutting tables, and other children would also be working in the cloth trade. Robert was 14, so would have been in full-time employment. Henry was 10, so was very likely to be spending his time in the mill too.

Robert, though, had another string to his bow. He could dance. The 1841 census shows him as a teacher of dancing. When he married Ellen Hirst at Elland in 1846, though, he was back to dressing cloth.

His marriage to Ellen, though, must not have been a happy one. The 1851 census shows that they were living apart. Ellen is staying with her younger brother Matthew. She is a stay maker. Corsets were fashionable throughout the reign of Victoria, and Ellen carried on the trade after she married.

Robert spent census night in the town centre, in Commercial Street. He describes himself as a Professor of Dancing.

The 1861 census, though, has no sign of either Robert or Ellen Donbavand. There was no obvious death registration for either of them, so where did they go? With a name like this it seemed most likely that the couple had been mistranscribed, so I looked on the 1871 census next.

There was Ellen Donbavand, still in Thomas St, as a widow with two children, George Henry and Ellen.  From the ages, both children should have been on the 1861 census, so back to there. Search for George with a mother Ellen, ignoring surnames. No luck, but there is a George H whose mother is Elinor Day. Ten years later, a Mary E Day had been a lodger in the house in Thomas Street. So it was time to examine the image.

Head of the household is Charles Day, and staying with Charles, Elinor, George H and Ellen, is nephew James Hirst. All the names start to tie together, the only spoiler being that Charles and Ellen were not actually married. George's birth registration confirms that this is the right family. He is officially "George Henry Day Donbavand".

Further searching of the censuses after 1851 failed to turn up any mention of Robert Donbavand, though. Could he have been the "R Donbavand" mentioned on the ship Vimeria arriving in Sydney in 1855?

Then I found a marriage for Charles Day and Ellen Donbavand - in 1875, twenty years after the birth of their first child. Ellen died only two years afterwards.

Recently I discovered TROVE - a huge online archive of Australian newspapers. Nearly every mention of a Donbavand in the archive is about a chap in Melbourne who was a Teacher of Dancing. From 1857, R. Donbavand taught in the numerous private schools in the area, from fashionable Brighton all the way to Geelong, about 30 miles away.

71 Swanston Street, where Robert Donbavand lived, is now part of the central business district, and the site is now occupied by a large store. Besides private teaching at home, he took thrice-weekly classes, charging a guinea a quarter. In the 1870s he branched out, spending the summer in Tasmania. His name appears on the lists of passengers arriving and departing - Tasmanian newspapers were very thorough about informing the few residents about travellers.

At the end of December 1873, The Cornwall Chronicle, Launceston's local paper, announced that Mr. R. Donbavand would be starting a class for Dancing, Deportment and Calisthenic Exercises, at £1 1s per month (in advance). Three times the price of his Melbourne classes! However, it appears that Robert fell ill, because before the first month was up, be sailed back to Melbourne on the SS Tamar.

The next report I have of him is a death notice from the Melbourne Argus. Robert died on 16th September 1874. News must have filtered back to Huddersfield, because his wife Ellen could legally walk down the aisle of St. Paul's church the following June, referring to herself as a widow.

Robert's move to Australia was not a secret to the family. His sister Ann and her husband Isaac Fairhurst emigrated to Christchurch, New Zealand a few years later. In 1862 a letter to Mr. Donbavand of Swanston Street, Melbourne, was detained at Christchurch because of insufficient postage. I wonder if this was an invitation to attend the marriage of his niece Margaret Jane, who married Henry Hargreaves in October of that year?