Mattei Matters – Joe Mattei

The end of the line, part one.

barb_mullen2by Barb Mullen, Australia

Of the twelve children in first generation of Mattei’s born in Australia to Alessandro Mattei and Catherine (nee Mulcahy), four have no living family known of. It is a sad thing to see a family line come to an end. The shared histories of a family are lost unless the present generation keeps them alive.

Joe and his family spent their final years together in Murtoa, Victoria, Australia. They had lived ‘north of the Victorian divide’ for many years, apparently seeking a warmer climate to relieve Joe of his debilitating rheumatics.

In their years as publicans, Joe and his wife Mary appear to have contributed to their community, even though they moved around a lot. When Joe died, he was given an impressive farewell in his community in Murtoa.


Figure 1: the bank and church of England, Murtoa, 1910. A typical
rural main street in northern Victoria

Family sizes

By 1887, in Catherine and Alessandro Mattei’s home at Blakeville, Victoria, there were twelve children spanning twenty years.

The three eldest were young adults, the next three girls were all teenagers, the three girls after that were primary school age, then the last three boys were under four years old. It would have been chaos.

The eldest girl Mary would have early felt the burden of caring for the younger children. Nellie also had that responsibility.

Meanwhile, their mother, Catherine was almost continually breastfeeding or pregnant.

Getting clean water, growing, harvesting and preparing food, washing both people and clothes and keeping warm in winter were all a constant concern.

The children observed this chaos and decided their lives would be different.

Joe’s childhood

When Joe Mattei was born in the Spring of 1869 , there would have been a sigh of relief and grand celebrations. Alessandro, his father, had another son who would be working by his side, helping the family.

Alessandro ‘s own experience as a child in Cevio was that to ensure survival of the family, a large family that worked as one economic unit, was essential. Both he and Catherine had committed themselves to Australia and building a future for their children. Joe was an integral part of that.

Cottee’s Mill, where Joe was born, was a timber mill in the forests near Bolwarrah, and Korweinguboorah, in Victoria. He was named after his grandfather and great grandfather, Giuseppe is Italian for Joseph. It was a weighty heritage.

Joe’s first memories would have been the morning chorus of forest birds, the sound of axes and saws on wood. One of his first significant experiences would have been moving house.

In those days, moving house often meant the physical lifting of the timber dwelling and carrying it to the next location. Their home would have been timber framed wattle and daub, floors were dirt. The houses were of one or two rooms. Cooking would have been over an open fire, bathrooms-a bowl of water out the back. Conditions were primitive.

By the time Joe was six, they had moved at least three times and he had three little sisters.

As a boy Joe would have looked to his older brother Alex, and as all boys do, they would have loved their father deeply and followed his every move. Boys are treated differently to girls, and in these times, it was especially so. Every chance he had, Joe would have wanted to be with his father. In those early years, Alessandro was working either as a laborer in the local timber mill or as a splitter in the forest.

Of his schooling, we know Joe was nearly seven when he attended the Moorabool West State School, which had only opened in August of the previous year. There must have been a wait and see by the parents, before they allowed the four eldest to attend. He may have started school earlier, we haven’t yet confirmed this.

And then, by about 1882 the family moved a little bit further afield to Blakeville Road, where the school there had just opened.

An early adulthood

By the time he was 14 or 15 years old, Joe would have been working with his big brother Alex and his father. He would have probably been pleased to be out working, the house these days was full of girls. And Mary, the eldest girl, had learnt well from her mother and she was not one to be crossed. Joe by that age would have started working full time in the timber industry.

By 1890, the family moved to Green Hills in the Blackwood district. This was a turning point in their lives, there was hope that they could leave the grinding poverty of those earlier years behind.

Green Hills was one of four large communities in the area. It numbered about 200 people. The largest of the communities was Barry’s Reef. It was here that Joe fell in love.

The social events in Blackwood would have revolved around the churches for families and St Malachy’s Catholic Church in Red Hill, Blackwood, would have been very important to the Mattei family. The other important social venues were the many hotels in the gold mining community.

Joe breaks the mould

On 25 Nov 1891, Joe, a sawmiller at Green Hills, married Mary Ann Mackay, a domestic at Barry’s Reef. They were both 22 years old. It is likely that Mary was a domestic at the Commercial Hotel where John Mackay was publican. Her father though was Thomas Mackay, a miner. Not surprisingly, neither of the witnesses to the marriage was a Mattei – the marriage took place at St George’s Church of England, Trentham.

Sectarianism was a feature of life in Australia in those days and for many years after, and Joe had married a non Catholic. Those early years of marriage would have been a struggle for the young couple. And the idea of Joe contributing to the economic well being of the whole Mattei family suddenly faded.

By 1896 Joe, now a father, applied for a mining licence at Barry’s Reef. He was definitely no longer working with his family at Green Hills.

In the 1903 Electoral Rolls, the couple are living in Sebastopol, Joe is mining.

By 1907 they were established enough to begin their life as publicans, their first hotel the Albion Hotel at Allendale in rural Victoria and many miles from the Mattei family.

Mattei’s in hospitality

Joe and Mary worked in many hotels in their years together. Sadly the first hotel, the Albion Hotel in Allendale, burnt down in 1908. They were in Diapur (the Wimmera) for two years before moving on to Lillimur just a few miles away, where they stayed for another couple of years. They moved further south of Ararat to Buangor for another couple of years before settling down in Murtoa in 1917 where he became the licensee of the Club Hotel.


Figure 2: The hotel in Buagor today. Photo by Kev Court,

It was in 1917 that Joe, the proud father walked his daughter, Laura, down the aisle. Walking down the aisle would have been difficult for Joe. He apparently had been suffering ill heath for many years. When the fire burnt the Albion Hotel in 1907, it was because he was not sleeping well that he heard the flames.

He was only 49 years of age when he died in Sept 1920. His chronic rheumatism had made him an invalid using a chair and crutches, and eventually contributed to his early death of pneumonia and heart failure. When he made his will on 31 August 1920, shortly before his death, he was so ill that he couldn’t sign his name but had to make his mark instead.

Those early years in the damp forests followed by a few years mining with water as a constant companion, had taken their toll on his health.

Joe had separated from his family

Joe was considered to be always cheerful and jovial, in spite of his ill health. He was well thought of in his community.

His funeral was described as very large with 40 vehicles in the cortege. None of the pall bearers were from his family. He was buried by the Rev Father Davis, a Catholic Priest.


Figure 3: The gravestone for Joe and later, Mary. Photo Detleff R. Papsdorf

 By this time, both his parents were dead and his siblings were all involved in their own struggles to become established. Joe was the first to break free.

As a young man he had turned his back on what had been  planned for the family. Joe chose a different path and in doing so, he challenged the family values by marrying outside the church. His decision also put an enormous strain on them economically. When Joe married Alessandro was 53 , so that left just Alex to carry the physical burden.

Joe’s decision to live so far from his family added to this sense of separation. Of course, it is likely that Joe and Mary sought the drier, hotter climate for the sake of his health.

Joe’s legacy

Grieving with his widow was Joe’s married daughter Laura. Laura had earlier married Percy Charles Sprake, it is believed this couple had no children. Percy died in Hamilton Vic in 1965, Laura died in Hamilton in 1978.

Without Joe, Mary would have had no income and it is unlikely that Joe had been able to leave her wealthy. It is not surprising that in 1921, Mary married John Hind who died in Beulah in 1927. She then remarried for the third time, to Ernest Alfred Ware in 1930. In 1937 Mary died in Ballarat, she was buried two days later in Murtoa, with Joe.

While Joe may have been estranged from his family, he had strong friendships and the support of Mary’s family. His best man at his wedding, Thomas Findley, who was living in Derinallum when Joe was dying, was a witness to his will. John Mackay, the publican back at Barry’s Reef but now living in Ballarat, was the other witness to the will.

Those who knew and loved Joe, no longer live, sadly we can’t even show you a picture of our uncle.

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