‘Miss D and Miss N’ by Bev Roberts

If I were a well-travelled person, at this point I would wave airily and announce that I always try to read a book set in a place that I am visiting.  Alas, I am not;  I can claim that I read Henry James’ The Bostonians while in Boston, and Dickens while in London…but that’s about it, I’m afraid.

So, a couple of weeks ago when we went down to Geelong (a whole 100 kms away!), I decided that of course I must read a Geelong book!!  But where to find a Geelong book? you ask.  The answer is: Miss D. and Miss N.  In fact, there’s a chance that if you’re on the Bellarine Peninsula that you’ll drive right through the areas named for them: Drysdale and Newcomb.


2009, 326 p.

The two women share an entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography.   Drysdale was twenty years older than her friend Caroline Newcomb.  Anne arrived in Port Phillip in 1840, aged forty-seven, with the experience of farming in Scotland under her belt, capital at hand, and determined to take up sheep farming in the booming pastoral industry of early Port Phillip.    Caroline Newcomb had arrived in Hobart in August 1833 and found a position as a governess with the family of John Batman, one of the members of the Van Diemen’s Land- based  Port Phillip Association that looked across Bass Strait to establish pastoral runs in what they perceived (incorrectly) as land for the taking.   When she arrived in Port Phillip on April 19 1836, she was one of only thirty-five women in the settlement, out of a white population of 177.  In March 1837 she shifted to Geelong, presumably as governess to  Dr. Alexander Thomson.  The two women met at Dr Thomson’s house where they formed a strong friendship, despite the twenty year age difference between them.   This friendship became a partnership that lasted twelve years when Anne asked Caroline to join her as a pastoralist on Boronggoop, a squatting run on the Barwon River at Geelong.  In August 1849 they achieved their wish “to have a piece of land &c a stone cottage” when they moved to Coriyule, a beautiful stone house that they had built (and which, it seems, still exists).

This, then,  is Anne’s diary, commenced from on board ship in Scotland in September  1839 going through to 1852 and 1853 when she fell ill and the writing of the diary was taken over by Caroline.

The original diary comprises four volumes- the fifth has been lost.  The entries are largely a record of observations and events: the farming tasks undertaken, visitors greeted and church services attended.  As might be expected from a working diary, there is quite a bit of repetition and mundane detail, and so the editor, Bev Roberts, has pruned the narrative at times, especially in the latter years.  Much of the diary presented here centres on the first year, when they were establishing their run at Boronggoop, with fewer entries from the years up to November 1847.  The fourth volume from the series of five is missing; then Roberts takes up again in June 1851 when they have shifted to Coriyule.  It is in the fifth and final volume that Caroline takes over the writing, and it is such a joint record of their lives that when Caroline takes up the pen near the end, it is barely noticeable.

Roberts has presented the diary chronologically, with an introduction at the start of each chapter where Roberts provides contextual information and summarizes what is to follow, highlighting particular points of interest. There are 11 chapters in all, and while following their progress chronologically, the chapters themselves are thematic in title e.g.  Ch. 4 Arrival; Ch 5 Geelong  Ch 6 Boronggoop: the first year  Ch. 7 The daily round etc.

The prelude to the book starts with Anne Drysdale, on board ship, opening her diary and making her first entry.  The next two chapters introduce the people we are about to meet in the diaries.  In Chapter 2, ‘Partners’, Roberts explores the concept of ‘partnership’ and how we are to make sense of it today.  We probably leap too quickly to the assumption of a sexual relationship, especially with the knowledge that they shared a bed and shared a life.   Certainly, it was a relationship that deepened over time and brought great joy to Anne, at least, who is writing the diary.  We see the shift in the way they referred to each other, moving from “Miss Newcomb” to  “Miss N.” then, eventually to “Caroline”. Anne herself is excited about the life that they are embarking upon:

Miss Newcomb who is my partner, I hope, for life, is the best & most clever person I have ever met with.  There seems to be magic in her touch, everything she does is done so well & so quickly (1841 p.88)

She gives thanks for their friendship:

This is indeed a very happy quiet life & I have nothing left to wish for.  How much cause have I to be grateful to God for having placed me in such a situation & for having given me such an excellent, pious & kind friend  (Nov 1 1841, p. 195)

Whatever their relationship is- and we really cannot know from the few references that Anne makes to it- it is an understated, warm, companionable partnership over many years that does not have even a whiff of scandal about it. They are both very pious women, and their religious observance is interwoven into their daily routine.  Missionaries and preachers (Hurst, Tuckfield, Dredge,  J. D. Lang) come by and stay with them; they attend church and chapel regularly and Anne makes a note of the sermon preached; and they have bible readings at home.

It’s not only missionaries and preachers who come past- it seems that everyone who is passing calls by for bed, food and companionship.  Sometimes she notes the number of people staying with them in their tiny cottage- 13 and 17 people!- and being by themselves is such a rare occasion that she specifically mentions that they are “Quite alone all day!”  There’s a succession of familiar names: Governor La Trobe, Governor Franklin and his wife, Bishop Broughton and a whole parade of Port Phillip identities passing through.

They are new settlers in the area and the local Wathaurong  Aboriginal people are still present and visible.  On Dec 9 1840, while still in Geelong she wrote:

Yesterday a tribe of natives, all men, came marching past the house about 60 in number, they walked in regular order each carrying his speak & a cockatoos feather in his head.  The women & children followed & made their miam miams close to the house.  They are quite tame & seldom do any mischief here  (p. 79)

Nonetheless, she was unnerved when she met a group in the bush just after they had arrived on their run:

It rained heavily the whole way & we were a little alarmed by being met in the forest by a number of natives but they only called to us & we passed on & arrived safely tho’ very wet ( August 18, 1841 p. 90)

The work on the run is constant- especially for Caroline who seems to be able to turn her hand to anything.  They have shepherds who move the sheep from place to place around the run, and they have servants working on the farm.  There’s a matter-of-factness about life-

Fine, wind S. This morning Vair was taken ill.  Jack took Dobbin for Dr Clark who came to breakfast. …About 4 o’clock Vair had a son. (31 December 1842 p. 153)

They have problems with Hyland’s drinking and once the gold rushes have started, poor Caroline rides down to Geelong whenever a ship comes in, hoping to hire a servant, but no-one was interested.

Miss D. and Miss N. were  well known in the area, largely because the idea of two women pastoralists working a property together was so unusual.  Their diary is significant for this fact alone, but for all the exceptionality of their situation,  their diary provides a valuable insight into the regular, day-by-day life in pre-Separation Geelong and Port Phillip.  Does Judge Willis get a mention? Not at all- none of that politics for these women!  They are hard working, sociable women of faith, and their focus is very much on their run, their sheep and the people around them.

Historians work on presenting diaries for several reasons.  Sometimes (as in this case), it is to make an inaccessible work available to other historians and interested readers to integrate into their own work;  sometimes it is to introduce readers to a lively and exceptional work; other times it is to engage and critique the diary as a narrative or historical artefact.   In this case the editor, Bev Roberts tells us:

My aim in this book is to make the diary of Anne Drysdale available to contemporary readers, so that the story of Miss D. and Miss N will be more widely known in the country where they were courageous and indomitable pioneers. (p. xii)

Most of this book is turned over to Anne Drysdale’s words and Bev Robert’s role as editor has been largely off-stage, so to speak, transcribing the diary entries, pruning and selecting and shaping the work into a significant contribution to a more generalized historiography.  In making these diaries available to a broader audience, Roberts is paying a respectful tribute to two stalwart women.  She is an insightful guide, alert to the nuances in the diary itself and knowledgeable about the broader picture of which it forms part.

awwbadge_2013I will be posting this review to the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2013.

10 responses to “‘Miss D and Miss N’ by Bev Roberts

  1. My sister, a wearer of sensible shoes who lives on the Bellarine, told me about the Misses Drysdale and Newcomb. Thanks for fleshing it out a bit.

  2. Yes… I remember Bev Roberts speaking about these two women at the time she was writing the book. A fascinating story…

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  5. Thank you, this fascinating historical story has always been a favourite.

    • Yes- in such a male-dominated frontier historiography, it’s striking to have two female settlers like this. Thank you for commenting

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