Louis Jules Matras and his lost dog
£10 for you if you find him!
21 December 2016
The National Library’s new exhibition The Sell showcases the Library’s rich collections of Australian advertising, not just with the beautifully produced posters from big companies (like the biscuit manufacturer Swallow and Ariell), or more utilitarian government messages (like a wanted poster for the bushranger Ben Hall), but also with the advertising created for ordinary people. Just like the slightly colourful and eccentric Louis Jules Matras, who, sometime between 1885 and 1891, had this poster produced to advertise a huge reward, dead or alive, for his missing and far from beautiful “mongrel retriever or water dog.”
Moama, where the dog disappeared from, is a small town on the southern border of New South Wales, located directly across the Murray River opposite the larger town of Echuca, which is on the Victorian side of the border.
Having survived being nailed up on a tree or something similar, Matras’ poster is a relatively unassuming object, letterpress printed on calico. The albumen print photograph of the dog (which could have been better trimmed so as not to obscure the text) has unfortunately faded badly. “Secure the shadow, ere the substance fades,” was a common nineteenth century photographer’s advertising slogan, observed here in the breech. Nevertheless enough remains to see that the poster is no different from its modern equivalent, which a bereft pet owner might create using a digital camera, a word processor, and a desktop printer.
In Matras’ day, however, the printing had to been done by Mackay and Foyster, at their Gas Printing Works, Echuca, as the credit on the bottom of the poster reveals. It must have been sometime after 1885, the year the newspaper proprietor and politician Angus Mackay (1824-1886) and the printer and journalist Robert George Foyster (1833-1916) formed a partnership to take over publishing the Riverine Herald, the Echuca, Vic. and Moama, NSW newspaper. The Riverine Herald began publication in 1869 and is still going strong today.
Somebody had to individually typeset each of the larger wood type or smaller metal type letters. Wood type, as seen here in a beautiful fat face (probably a condensed Bodoni Ultra Bold), was used because it was cheaper and lighter, especially for the bigger letters needed for broadsides and posters. After they were placed in a frame, ink was rolled over the raised letters and then transferred to this piece of cloth in a press. A child’s rubber stamp kit with separate letters of the alphabet prints text in exactly the same way.
The photograph might have been created by a local commercial photographer, or perhaps by Matras himself, who might have been one of small group of pioneering amateur photographers who coated their own collodion plates and developed their own albumen prints. From newspaper references we know Matras was a graduate in chemistry from the University of Paris, so he may have been familiar with the necessary processes and chemicals.
Based on his age at his death in 1898, Matras was born in about 1852, possibly in France, or perhaps somewhere like Jersey, which might explain his knowledge of English. He is first recorded in Australia in July 1871 as an assistant master of the Kings School, Paramatta. By early 1872 he had moved on to Yass Grammar School, which described him as a graduate of the University of Paris with a Bachelier ès Lettres et ès Sciences. Unfortunately the Yass Courier is not yet on Trove, but an article by Robert Lehane, “A Frenchman in Yass,” Boongaroon (Yass & District Historical Society), vol. 19, no. 4 (December 2003), pages 3-6, covers Matras’ “brief but sparkling” time in Yass in vivid detail. Robert came across Matras while trawling through the Yass Courier for his Irish Gold and warmed to him sufficiently to write this article.
In June 1872, Matras lectured on electricity at the Yass Mechanics Institute before more than two hundred people, producing an “intensely bright light” that was greeted with cheers and applause, and, at the end of proceedings, offered a popular opportunity to line up and experience a shock from his electric battery. Two months later he lectured on chemistry, which went well, except for one breakage and an explosion with “a most beautiful blue flame.” Matras also tried to establish a chess club (soon mired in acrimony), proposed the establishment of a learned journal, the Yass Literary and Scientific Review, which didn’t take off, and at the Yass Show in February 1873 exhibited a “magic clock,” able to return to the correct time after the being knocked, and an “acrobaroscope,” a water-filled glass tube containing a figure that bounced up and down.
Matras’ time in Yass came to an end after his employer John Shaw left his wife and debts and, as Rose Paterson (Banjo’s mother) recorded in her Illalong Letters, “ran away with an actress (or some such).” From Insolvency Court action in April 1873, Matras was revealed to be £35 out of pocket (he was paid £10 a month). He was then aged 21.
Three months later, Matras was in court again, this time in Young. He had been allowed to stay in a hut on a property in nearby Wombat, but the chimney caught fire and the hut burned down. As compensation for the damage, the owner seized Matras’ horses, saddle, bridle and swag, but the magistrate ruled this was unlawful, returned Matras’ property, and allowed him to proceed to Wagga, where he hoped to find work.
The following year in July 1874 Matras launched legal action in Wagga for unpaid wages for scientific analysis undertaken for his recent employer, the town’s sugar works. Matras disputed the newspaper’s account of the case, but the magistrate found against him.
In October 1874, Matras’ name appears in a newspaper regarding an unclaimed letter in Hay, and in November 1882 he was asked to contact the French Consulate at Melbourne, but no other traces of him can be found for this long period.
Matras is first recorded in the Moama / Echuca area in October 1888, when his name appeared in a column in the Riverine Herald advising the arrival of goods by railway. In November 1889 he was in trouble again, and appeared before a magistrate in the Echuca Police Court for riding his bicycle or tricycle on the footpath. Matras’ defiant response complained about the state of the roads and told Sergeant James to “put that in his pipe and smoke it.”
In 1890 Matras played his organ at the Moama Cake and Apron Fair, but by 1891 he had moved to Coburg, where he placed another newspaper advertisement offering a reward of 10 shillings after he lost a silver-stemmed pipe. Obviously Matras put a considerably higher value on his dog! In 1896 Matras again played an organ he constructed himself at the Easter Fair in the Exhibition Building in Melbourne. Victorian Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages records indicated he died in 1898 in Fitzroy, Victoria, aged 46.
Matras’ poster came into the National Library’s collection as part of the papers of Sir John Ferguson. Ferguson began collecting books and other materials at an early age and is known to have had a network of friends and scouts who shared his interest in history, but beyond that the poster’s origins and its subsequent history are a mystery. It was recently re-discovered by archivist and researcher Michael Piggott, who was awarded a 2016 Library Fellowship to study Sir John Ferguson’s manuscripts and their provenance. At the end of his Fellowship, Michael showed this poster in his presentations as an example of one of Ferguson’s more interesting and unusual items. When asked about its appeal Michael replied:
What piqued my interest was firstly the image of the dog. To the extent that we can still see the faded photo, there was something sad—am tempted to say “hangdog”—about the dog, and that image immediately brought to mind the striking cover of a favourite book, Raimond Gaita’s The philosopher’s dog (Text, 2002), which is from a painting by Piero di Cosimo called A Satyr Mourning over a Nymph.
Second, apart from the improbability of the reward’s physical survival given its ‘inherent vice’ and essentially ephemeral nature, there was the entire improbability of the person, the emotion behind the reward, and all the contradictions involved. Who on earth would offer so much money, and be able to describe the dog in such detail? And also want the body back if found dead? And not name the dog in the notice (no advice to the effect “Answers to ‘Rover’ if called”). The bond between them was clearly intense. We know many dog owners who love their pets don’t care a jot about purity of breed and grooming. Matras’ affection for his mongrel retriever rang true.
Thirdly and inevitably was the Ferguson connection. In a way it was pure JAF to collect it, for we know he was indeed drawn to the humble curiosity as much as the rare significant expensive item from heartland Australian history (i.e. convicts, exploration, great men, etc.). That I could find nothing documenting the acquisition of the reward notice, despite systematically working through the chaos of his 120+ boxes of personal papers, added further to the interest.
All of which suggest it well may be the only known copy of such an item in existence.
£10 became $20 when Australia adopted decimal currency on 14 February 1966, but would have seemed like a lot more in around 1890. Australian historian Thom Blake’s calculator suggests a 2015 equivalence of $1,327, but it is worth remembering that £10 was a month’s wages for Matras in Yass in 1873. Even if it can’t be precisely dated, the poster remains an evocative item, and testament of the strength of Matras’ devotion to his lost dog.