The Ashes: Australia's Most Famous Perfume Bottle?


Post by Greg Young


At the turn of the 20th Century, as Australia headed inexorably to independence and nationhood, one of the wealthiest and most influential people in the colonies was Janet, Lady Clarke. Even by today’s standards Janet Clarke was enormously wealthy; an article published in 2004 estimated her fortune as the equivalent of $2 billion dollars . She was the wife of pastoralist Sir William Clarke who owned large estates in Tasmania, Victoria and Queensland, as well as much other property. After William died in 1897, Janet inherited his fortune.

The Ashes: Australia’s Most Famous Perfume Bottle?

800px-Ashes_Urn_1921Photo Stolen Wikipedia

Such was Janet Clarke’s prominence in the colonies that artist Tom Roberts included a portrait of her in his famous painting of the opening of the first Australian Parliament. Significantly, Roberts places her close to the first Prime Minister, Edmund Barton, right next to Barton’s daughter. Not bad for a girl born on a station in Tallarook who worked as a governess before marrying.

Lady_Janet_Clarke_circa_1880Photo Stolen WikiMedia

Janet Clarke was a noted philanthropist, founding the first Australian women’s university college, kickstarting the career of Nellie Melba and establishing the Australian Women’s National League, the second-biggest political organisation in the country (after the Australian Labor Party). After she died in 1909 at the age of 58, a rotunda was built to her memory in Melbourne’s Queen Victoria Gardens, which can still be seen today.

Lady Janet Clarke Memorial Pete Dowe Road Safety AdvocatePhoto Stolen petedoweroadsafetyadvocate

Janet Clarke and her husband Sir William built a massive and luxurious mansion in East Melbourne called Cliveden, on the site where the Hilton Hotel later stood. The Cliveden mansion commanded what would have been a stunning view over Yarra Park, the MCG and the river. Sir William was President of the Melbourne Cricket Club, and that probably played a big part in our story. The Clarkes entertained lavishly at Cliveden, and the house was much admired. Confectioner Macpherson Robertson made many fruitless offers to buy the house. During the crash of the 1890s, Janet used the kitchens at Cliveden to feed the poor of nearby Richmond and Collingwood.

The Clarkes also owned a huge country house called Rupertswood, near Sunbury, which is still in existence; today it is a hotel. This is what Rupertswood looked like in the 1890s.

Rupertswood_circa_1890Photo Stolen WikiMedia

Sir William and Lady Janet hosted many important guests at Rupertswood, notably the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall when they came to inaugurate Parliament in 1901. Many years before they entertained royalty, in 1882, a visiting English cricket team captained by Ivo Bligh stayed at Rupertswood.

On Christmas Eve 1882, a social cricket match was played at Rupertswood between the English players and a team made up of Rupertswood staff and guests. The English won and, perhaps as a joke, a servant burnt the bails and the ashes were put into a little cosmetics bottle, which Janet Clarke presented to Ivo Bligh as a memento of his visit.

Janet Clarke’s bottle was about 6 inches high and made of red terracotta. It was in the shape of a classic amphora, with squared off handles.

That little urn is now known as The Ashes.

Ashes_Urn WikipediaPhoto Stolen Wikipedia

For more than a hundred and twenty years since, international Test cricket series between Australia and England have been referred to as The Ashes. It is ironic to think that, for all her wealth, influence and philanthropy, one of Janet Clarke’s most enduring contributions to Australian history is her little perfume bottle.

What do you think? Is this the most famous perfume bottle of them all? Do you know of another historic perfume bottle?

14 thoughts on “The Ashes: Australia's Most Famous Perfume Bottle?

  1. This was really interesting. I hope that you’ll write more about Australian history and historic figures in the future, although who knows how you will make it pertain to perfume


    • Damn, this was a long comment and only a fragment of it posted. So the Internet is directing me to be less wordy! Anyway, thanks, Greg, really enjoyed this.


    • Glad you liked it FJ. History and trivia are keen interests of mine, which is I guess why I like to buy vintage perfumes too. Some of them smell horrible, but I’m a sucker for the stories behind them. Hopefully I can come up with a few more.


  2. What a wonderful story, Greg. It seems to me that someone has used at least parts of Janet Clarke’s story in various movies and dramatic series. What a strange token of remembrance!
    Azar xx


    • It is unusual, isn’t it. I think it’s probably the last thing Janet Clarke would have thought would be her major legacy, given all of her philanthropic works and business empire. Still, she does have a rotunda and a college at Melbourne Uni named after her as well, so her philanthropy has not been forgotten.


  3. What a cool piece of Aussie history! i had no idea…

    i would offer up, not in any religious sense, but as a historical pefume vessel:

    the girl with the alabaster jar.


  4. Glad you all like the story, and share my obsession with trivia like this.

    It’s great to think of the Ashes as a perfume bottle but, given what they put in it, I suspect it was maybe a powder or make-up bottle of some kind. Still, we will claim it anyway.


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