Monthly Archives: March 2017

‘Bush Studies’ by Barbara Baynton


1999, 140 P

A funny thing happened on the way to reading this book. I’ve been aware of it for some time, and always thought that I’d read it sometime but I never actually did anything about doing so. Then, last December, it turned up as our read for CAE bookgroup, even though no-one had selected it. When the secretary for the group rang to complain, she was told that another book that we had selected would be sent if it returned on time.  We’d have two books to read over Christmas, but that was no problem. When the second box of books arrived she opened it, only to find another book we hadn’t selected (Reading in Bed reviewed here). And so, here I was finally reading Bush Studies, even though I didn’t really mean to.

The version that I read started with an introduction by Elizabeth Webby. I often don’t read the introduction until I’ve finished a book, figuring that I need to read the book first before I want to engage with someone else’s opinion about it.  However, in this case I did read the intro, and I’m glad that I did so, as Webby’s introduction was followed by a memoir of Barbara Baynton written by her grandson in 1965.  In Webby’s introduction she follows Sally Krimmer and Alan Lawson in virtually debunking the whole of the family story that Baynton had put about and that her grandson had swallowed.The effect of this debunking was to put me on my guard as a reader, and alert me to the fact that this was one slippery woman.

Bush Studies is a compilation of short stories, and as I have said many times, I struggle to review a volume of short stories, aware as I am that what I am reading has been consciously curated from a selection of material that was written as stand-alone stories.  The first story, A Dreamer, was about a daughter returning home to her mother in a storm.  It was all very dramatic and Wuthering-Heights-y, and rather predictable.

The second story, Squeaker’s Mate is probably her best known story and one of the strongest in the collection.  The woman, unnamed until the end of the story, has been the mainstay of a timber-cutting partnership, hardworking and stoic and quite frankly taken advantage of by her feckless partner, Squeaker. When she is injured, it doesn’t take him long to find a substitute. There’s no freedom in this bush: it’s grey and harsh, just like Squeaker’s Mate’s prospects.

In Scrammy ‘And  an old shepherd is left to mind the selection. He talks to the dog to quell his fear that Scrammy ‘Hand- a bushman thief- would rob him. I found myself reading this book as a historian, mindful of John Hirst’s work on ex-convicts and their place amongst small selector society.  She’s writing from experience here, and it’s historically pitch-perfect.

The story I admired most was Billy Skywonkie, where a Chinese girl travels out to a selector. Racism is an unsettling undercurrent that runs through the story, and there’s no heroic bushman here. The story thrums with menace.

I have no idea how to read Bush Church at all. Is it a comic piece?

The final story The Chosen Vessel reminded me, as it does most readers, of Lawson’s The Drover’s Wife in the isolation and stoic vulnerability that being left behind in the bush engenders.  It’s not a snake she’s frightened by, but a man – not unlike the old convict in Scrammy Hand, but she has more to fear that mere robbery. I’m not sure about the Virgin Mary twist at the end though, and the story was chilling enough without it.

No wonder Barbara Baynton has been placed in the constellation of late nineteenth-century ‘bush’ writers but it’s a different bush that she’s writing about in her stories. There’s no ‘legend’ here. There’s isolation, racism and menace in this bush, and it brutalizes men who brutalize women in turn.

Sue at Whispering Gums has written several separate posts on Bush Studies, where she writes far more thoughtfully than I have done, as I’m writing some two months after I read the book. Both Squeaker’s Mate and Billy Skywonkie have stayed with me, which speaks to their strength I think, because short stories tend to wash over me a bit. and I must say that I’m glad that I’ve finally read Bush Studies (even though I didn’t mean to!)

Source: CAE bookgroup


I’ve posted this review to the Australian Women Writers Challenge.


‘State of Wonder’ by Ann Patchett


2011, 353 p

I don’t often think of films while I’m reading a book, but I did this time.  A few months back I went to see ‘Embrace of the Serpent’ (my short review here). I was rather nonplussed by the lack of plot in the movie at the time, but it complements this book beautifully.

Marina Singh is a 42-year old research scientist, working on cholesterol drugs for a pharmaceutical company.  Like Barak Obama, she was the daughter of a white American mother and, in this case, an Indian graduate student who returned to India.  When a research colleague, Anders, dies suddenly on the Brazilian Rio Negro, Marina is encouraged by her boss (with whom she is having a clandestine affair) and Anders’ widow, to go to find out what happened and, indeed whether Anders is even dead- something that his widow cannot believe. Anders himself had been sent by the pharmaceutical company to find out what happened too, but in this case the object of his enquiry was the intimidating Dr Swenson, who had been ensconced in the Brazilian jungle for years, working on a bark-based fertility potion observed amongst the Lakashi tribe. Lakashi women gave birth right throughout their lives: a burden to them, but a honey-pot to any Western pharmaceutical company catering to infertile Western women.  Dr Swenson had been funded by the company to undertake her research in Brazil, but she was not forwarding her results or progress to them.   Now that Anders had died, Marina was sent to follow up.

Marina knew, and feared Dr Swenson.  She had encountered her during her hospital internship as a doctor, when Dr Swenson castigated her for a surgical error, prompting her to leave medicine for good.  Now Marina meets her again, unsure whether Dr Swenson even remembers her.  Dr Swenson has surrounded herself with protectors, intent on blocking the company’s inquiries.  The doctors who work in her research program alternate between love and fear of her, and all the tribespeople obey her. Almost against her will, Marina finds herself being drawn into Dr Swenson’s orbit as well.

There are echoes of Conrad’s Kurtz here (can any book about the jungle ever escape parallels with Kurtz?) and it raises questions about the pharmaceutical industry and the ethics of fertility treatment in the face of other more urgent public health demands.

This book reminded me very much of Patchett’s earlier book Bel Canto which I read in 2002 and then again in 2014 for my bookgroup (but oddly enough, did not review in a blog post). Bel Canto, set in Latin America, involved a group of opera-lovers at a house concert being taken hostage by terrorists.  There was an opera element in State of Wonder too, but the most striking similarity is that in both books the author placed a group of people in an isolated setting, feeling powerless but increasingly coming under the thrall of those exerting power over them.  However, where in Bel Canto she managed to move between characters and fill them out, in a rather cinematic fashion, in this book there was really only one really robust and memorable character- Dr Swenson.  The other doctors in the group never really emerged as individuals, and even Marina as the main character seemed rather ‘thin’. It’s not clear why Marina was satisfied enough with the affair with her significantly-older supervisor Mr Fox, and there were too many pages spent in the Brazilian metropolis of Manaus, where Marina was deflected from travelling to the jungle by a young married Australian couple, Mr and Mrs Bovender, who are house-sitting Dr Swenson’s city apartment. There is much attention paid to Marina’s vivid nightmares, induced by the anti-malarial medication Lariam, a plot detail which takes on more significance by the end of the book.  It’s a relatively long book, and it meanders almost as much as the river that dominates the setting.

That said, I did find it rather compelling and did want to keep reading it. It was a book that was more rewarding during the act of reading, rather than thinking and discussing it afterwards.  In this case, I arrived at bookgroup having quite enjoyed it, but by the time we’d finished pulling it apart, the ‘State of Wonder’ seemed a little less wondrous after all.

My rating: 7/10

Read because: CAE face-to-face bookgroup




This Month in Port Phillip 1842: February 1842

The year is getting away from me and I’m so behind that I’m going to write just the one entry for February.

George Arden gets into trouble again.

George Arden, the young editor of the Port Phillip Gazette had a particularly ‘troubled’ relationship with the resident Judge, John Walpole Willis. You might remember that in September 1841 Arden had been ‘bound over’ against adverse comments about the judge prompted by a letter that he published signed ‘Scrutator’. Arden was required to stump up £400 in recognizances (i.e. a type of good-behaviour bond). Then Governor Gipps arrived in town, and as bonhomie spread throughout the town, Willis released Arden from his recognizances once Arden made a public apology.

But now it all flared up again when Arden published another very critical article, prompted by Willis’ commentary from the bench in a civil case involving the editor of the Port Phillip Herald and his solicitors. I’m finding myself thinking of Trump’s attacks on the press in recent weeks, and although I wouldn’t want to push the analogy too far, there are some parallels. Here we have a powerful judicial and (although he wasn’t supposed to be) political figure, determined to get the press under control.  However, we’re also talking about a colonial town, with an absent governor, no representative political bodies, and without a tradition of satire or a strong philosophical commitment to ‘freedom of the press’.  Nonetheless, following the analogy as far as it can take it, the Port Phillip Gazette and the Port Phillip Herald generally supported each other (and perhaps gave each other more overt support than segments of the U.S. media are giving each other today), while the Port Phillip Patriot generally remained strong in its support for Willis (the FOX news of Port Phillip, so to speak). So when Willis savaged George Cavanagh the editor of the Port Phillip Herald in court, George Arden’s editorial next day described Willis as an ‘infuriate’, suggesting that he was not of ‘blameless life and irreproachable character’ and there was crime past and present:

crime in married life and in single- of crime in office and at home- of prejudice, passion and pride… of violence of language, of bitterness of expression, and of thoughtlessness of carriage (PPG 12/02/41)

Not surprisingly, Arden found himself before Judge Willis again and was sentenced to twelve months gaol, a £300 fine and imprisonment until the fine was paid.  As a 21st century tweet might say: “Bad!”

Arden was well-connected within the networks of Port Phillip public life. Not only did he have his newspaper to report on his progress in jail and agitate for him during his imprisonment, but groups like the Debating Society signed a ‘testimonial of respect’ in Arden’s favour. An announcement was made at the theatre (especially as Arden was supposed to star in an upcoming play!); people talked on the streets.  A judge sentencing an editor for a newspaper column about himself was not a good look. And this time, all three papers were united in their condemnation, and even the Port Phillip Patriot, which usually leaned towards the judge lent its support in a letter signed by ‘Junius’ (a commonly used pen-name when criticizing the judiciary- a long story) even though it took pains to state that it was only printing it “to afford the utmost facility to free discussion”. (PPP 24/2/42)

Botanical Gardens….but not as we know them

. The government authorized Mr Hoddle to mark off as a reserve about 50 acres at Batman’s Hill for botanical gardens. The area was bounded by Little Collins to the north, the Yarra to the south, the east at the fence of the premises currently used as a survey office, and the west by the abrupt declivity into the swamp. It encompassed the whole of the hill and garden recently in possession by Mr Baxter. The land was set aside, but no one appointed to lay out the gardens, and nothing much was done with the site.

Not only was there to be a botanical garden on Batman’s Hill, but there was talk that La Trobe had plans for Batman’s cottage too, which he’d taken over as his own office  shared with the sub-treasurer.  It was rumoured that he wanted to turn it into a Colonial Museum and Library. That didn’t happen either.  It could have been quite a promising spot really. Batman’s Hill was later bulldozed for the Spencer Street (Southern Cross) railyard, but when the gradient was still there, it would have overlooked the water down where Docklands is today.

Dudding the wet-nurse

I’ve been interested in looking for hints about women’s experience of childbirth and motherhood in the Port Phillip newspapers. It is no surprise that these male-dominated papers are largely silent on the matter. But here’s an exception.

Elsewhere in my blog I wrote about Mrs McDonald, who gave birth to triplets on 30 December at the Crown Hotel, having had twins 18 months earlier.  Five under 18 months!! I wondered in that posting what happened to Mr and Mrs McDonald and the five little McDonalds, and here they are on 2 February back in the news!

A Wet Nurse, — On Wednesday a most respectable female, named Quigly, brought before the Police Bench a Mr. M’Donald, whose wife, it may he remembered, brought forth three children at one birth, at the Crown Inn, Lonsdale-street, on a demand of wages due for her services in attending his lady as a wet nurse. Mrs. Quigly had been engaged, it appears, for the sum of forty guineas. On the expiration of some weeks Mrs. M’Donald thought fit to discharge her; when she applied to Mr. M’Donald for payment of her wages, he told her to ” Be off” she went accordingly and summoned Mr. M’D., whose only defence was, that he did every thing in his power to persuade Mrs. Quigly to return, whose services were still urgently wanted, but that she refused. Mrs. Quigly said that although she had only agreed to nurse one child, yet she suckled two of the little strangers, from a wish to relieve the  mother. The Bench, after expressing their astonishment at the conduct of Mr. M’D., intimated their regret that Mrs. Quigly had not sued in the Supreme Court, when assuredly she would have recovered the forty guineas, which were justly her due. Mr. M’Donald was ordered to pay the sum sued for without delay. (PPG 2/2/42)

Public works

There was a flurry of public works activity during the early months of 1842, largely as a way of mopping-up all the emigrants who continued to flow into Port Phillip.  Although the emigration scheme was supposed to be self-funding, once the tap had been turned on, it was not easy to turn it off and those ships just kept arriving. Despite government squeamishness at public works (even then being strongly into entrepreneurialism and privatization), something had to be done with these displaced, unemployed new arrivals. As a new settlement, there was plenty to be done to ensure that the water supply was protected from sea-water contamination. A decent road was needed to facilitate easy travel from the beach to the town, and they needed a better wharf to unload goods that had been transported up the Yarra.  The gaol mentioned is the first section of what is now Old Melbourne Jail; Queen’s Wharf was at the end of King Street; the breakwater was level with Market Street and separated the salt and fresh water; the road was (I assume) City Rd  crossing the river at what was to become Princes Bridge, heading towards Bay Street Brighton.

Public Works. — The commencement of the year 1842 sees several fine and useful public undertakings progressing with ordinary despatch. The New Gaol built on the hill on the northern boundary of the town, near Latrobe-street, is in the course of erection of the most durable material, and of a size and convenience that will amply meet the wants of the district. The building at present used for the purposes of a gaol will be converted into a watch-house for the Western division. There will then be the central one near the General Market, another on the Eastern-hill, and a third at the opposite extreme. New Town will, we presume, now that the act for the alignment of streets has been extended to that suburb, be provided with a constabulary establishment and lock-up. The Queen’s Wharf enclosing the north bank of the Yarra Yarra, and extending from the head of the basin to the Steam Navigation Company’s Yard, is nearly complete; it is constructed with piles driven a considerable depth under water, and faced towards the river with pine hoarding. A platform of hardwood, placed on blocks level with the heads of the piles, and covered with hard woodplanks, affords, what was long wanted, a convenience for landing and keeping dry the cargoes discharging from the river. If we understand rightly, the space of ground stretching behind the wharf will be levelled up and metalled for the traffic of drays to the foot of the Custom-House door. The pier or breakwater is another most useful work, and is designed to form a barrier between the salt tides and the fresh water in the bed of the river; it is now being carried across the stream at the head of the basin on the north bank to the ferry house on the opposite side or south bank. When finished, the sea tide will be prevented mingling with the river water above, and the element will thus be kept pure for the consumption of the town’s inhabitants. The road to the beach has been lately marked out, and large gangs of immigrant labourers are employed in its construction; it will ultimately, we believe, be made a street, as the land on each side will be sold in building lots ; it will be, when complete, a safe and easy mode of conveyance or passage from the town to the beach, and will form the best mode of communication with the shipping. It will start from the south bank at the point where the government bridge across the Yarra Yarra is to be erected, and following a straight line to the lagoon near the sea, will diverge to avoid the impediment, and come out on the hill to the east of Liardet’s Hotel, where several parties have been accustomed to make their summer residences.

Eat your veggies…

As I write this is March 2017, our own garden here in Melbourne in 2017 is yielding cherry tomatoes by the bucketload, and it has bestowed a bounty of cucumbers and peaches upon us. Of course, with cold storage we can have any fruit or vegetable we want at any time of year, depending on how much we want to pay for it.  But in 1842, what was available in the market?


The Debating Society

You’ll remember that on 2o January two indigenous prisoners, Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyheener were executed. A fortnight later the Debating Society chose a very topical theme when they debated the amenability of indigeous prisoners to British law.  I’ve copied the whole report of the debate, which was dominated by two Reverends and Mr Smith. This, of course, is a debate performance, where the speakers do not necessarily need to believe what they are arguing. Nonetheless, I think that it’s interesting that, intellectually at least, people could argue that indigenous people had been dispossessed and had justification for resistance.

Debating Society.— According to previous notification the proposition involving the propriety of holding the aboriginal inhabitants of New Holland amenable to the same laws which govern the white population, was opened by Mr. Smith in the affirmative. The British laws had been pronounced by the most able commentator upon the jurisprudence of Great Britain as the “pe fection of reason,” an assertion which their various excellencies strongly merited : applicable to all sorts and conditions of men, justice was denied by them to none ; impartial in their administration, the poor equally with the rich derived a reciprocal benefit, and whilst the innocent were protected the guilty rarely escaped from punishment. Such being the nature and benefits derived by Britons from the exercise of those salutary regulations, it was perfectly consistent with justice and polity, that Europeans should introduce their observance along with their habits and customs, and that they should apply their enforcement towards the aboriginal inhabitants of any portion of the Globe, where the British standard had been planted and possession taken in the name of the Sovereign power. Here the speaker entered into a dissertation respecting the right of nations to found colonies, and seize upon the uninhabited territory of weaker powers, justifying the exercise of such right, by reference to national laws, divine permission, and imperative necessity, and in conclusion adverted to the present condition of the aboriginal population of this Island — their savage state, ignorance and ferocity, showed the absolute necessity of restraining their passions by punishment, and that, consequently, unless the British possessors of this colony, could revert to the state of barbarism in which the natives were now placed and could adopt those laws which were in use amongst them, they must in order to prevent aggressions hold the black offenders amenable to the British laws. In reference to the case of the two blacks who lately suffered the extreme penalty of the law, the speaker maintained that they richly deserved the punishment inflicted, and that, the power of recommending mitigation of punishment being vested in the hands of the presiding Judge, had the least doubt been entertained of the propriety of the sentence, their punishment would have been commuted.

The Rev. Mr. Forbes, in reply, could not refrain from an expression of dissent from the sentiments promulgated by Mr. Smith, he could not understand the propriety or justice of holding a savage amenable to a law which he could not understand ; first make him acquainted with the law before punishing him for breaking it. The natives of this colony, (the Rev. gentleman said,) looked upon the white population as intruders — in former times every aboriginal family possessed a certain portion of land which he considered his own, and which at stated periods he visited for the purpose of hunting — this inheritance descended from father to son, and continued as an heir loom to succeeding generations. The usurpation of the white man had, however, materially affected the happiness of the native, who, driven by force from his domestic enjoyments, brooded over the injuries which be had received and upon every fitting opportunity availed himself to wreak his vengeance upon the aggressors. Thus was the aborigine justified in resorting to means whereby he satisfied his vengeance at the expense of the oppressor, and nurturing within his savage breast, a remembrance of inflicted wrongs, sought to obtain satisfaction by wreaking his passions upon every European who came within his reach.The Rev. gentleman then explained his views regarding the treatment which an enlightened policy dictated, and expressed a confident hope that the time would soon arrive when the moral condition of the black would be greatly benefitted and improved.

The Rev. T. H. Osborne followed on the same side, expressing his pleasure at finding the society taking an interest in questions, which in his opinion were of the greatest importance ; he in common with the last speaker could not agree in the inference which Mr. Smith had drawn from his arguments ; no British law had as yet been framed, but, to use a homely simile, a coach and six could be driven through it, education must precede coercion, and until the native became instructed, it must be unjust to punish him with that severity which was used to European offenders ; until, therefore, some scheme was devised in order to ameliorate the condition of the aborigine, or by a wise and prudent application of the land fund, an adequate sum was devoted to their support, he could never be brought to sanction their being held amenable to the British laws. The gentleman concluded his very able address, by declaring that, in his opinion, if laws were necessary, our present system must be greatly modified and improved ere it could be made applicable to the circumstances of the New Hollanders.

It being past ten o’clock, Mr. Smith was called upon by the president to reply. The sentiments (he said ) expressed by Mr Forbes did credit to both his head and his heart ; but unfortunately they were impracticable to carry out, Ignorance was no excuse. Let man be ever so degraded, he must know that when guilty of theft, or murder, he was committing an offence which deserved punishment. It was absurd to suppose that he (Mr. Smith) meant to hold the aborigine amenable to the moral or civil law, it was only in cases of wanton aggression that he advocated punishment; kindness and conciliation had signally failed in inducing the savage to respect the rights of the white man, forcibly illustrated by the two men lately executed, and also by the fact that firmness and severity were more efficient protection than indiscriminate indulgence. Government had done all in their power to ameliorate the condition of the native tribes, reserves had been allotted, missionaries sent amongst them, protectors appointed, food, clothing, &c. supplied; but all had been found useless in inducing them to abandon their erratic mode of living, or to prevent their committing outrages upon the British settler, consequently it was consistent with justice and policy to hold them amenable to the laws. The society then divided, when the question was decided in the negative. The question for next evening’s discussion is — Are literary and scientific pursuits suited to the female character. The honourable Mr. Murray opens and is to be responded to by the Rev T.H. Osborne — the Rev. Mr. Forbes supports the proposer, and will he answered by Mr. Smith. An animated debate is expected. A Stimulant for Eloquence. [PPP 3/2/42]

How’s the weather?

I haven’t been able to find the monthly compilation for February in the Government Gazette, which is where it was normally published some two months or so after the event. I’ve only been able to find a weather report in the Port Phillip Patriot of 21 February which recorded between 13-19 February. It was pretty mild, with a top temperature of 76 (24.4) and a low overnight of 50 (10 C).

The Port Phillip Gazette said of the weather (and this doesn’t seem to tally well with the Patriot’s temperature readings):

The Weather has latterly been subjected to those violent changes of temperature which usually mark the height of the summer. On the whole, the season has been far less oppressive than that of last year, but still sufficiently hot to convince the new comer that he is in a new country, bordering on a tropical climate. The state ‘ of the river, the reservoir, from which the inhabitants of the town are supplied with water for consumption, has, with the exception of a few days, been uninfluenced by the sea water, which usually at this time of the year is forced up the bed of the stream, and imparts an unwholesome brackish taste to the river water. So mild have the few last weeks proved that people began to reckon upon the summer having past, when the wind suddenly re-visited them from the interior, and during three days drove them into the coolest recesses of their houses, there to feed on hope and lemonade. (PPG 19/2/41)




‘Looking for Rose Paterson: How Family Bush Life Nurtured Banjo the Poet’ by Jennifer Gall


2017, 192 P & notes

I can remember how disappointed I felt when I first read Graeme Davison’s article ‘Sydney and the Bush:an urban context for the Australian Legend’, published in Historical Studies in October 1978 [1]. It was written some 20 years after Russel Ward’s The Australian Legend and it argued that the bush legend sprang not from the trenches of the goldfields or Gallipoli, but from the streets of central Sydney. How un-bush-like!  I couldn’t remember the details, but I did remember a map of Sydney, with dots depicting all the places where the ‘bush’ writers (Lawson, Price Wurung) lived, often in boarding houses and close to the radical centres of urban Sydney life.  Where were the ‘lowing cattle’ and  stringy eucalypts there?, I wondered.

I’ve only just gone back to look at the article to refresh my memory, and my eye snagged on Davison’s qualification that “’Banjo’ Paterson was the one important figure with even fair ‘bush’ credentials” (p. 192)  That’s good, then, because I’ve just finished reading Jennifer Galls’ book Looking for Rose Paterson: How Family Bush Life Nurtured Banjo the Poet. The crux of her argument is that Banjo (Andrew Barton) Paterson’s  short stories and poems like Clancy of the Overflow  and The Man from Snowy River drew on his childhood upbringing in small country towns in New South Wales (close to Orange and then Yass) and the influence of strong women of the bush- women much like his mother, Rose.

The author, Jennifer Gall is a curator at the National Film and Sound Archive in Canberra, and this is at least the second book of hers that has been published by the National Library of Australia.  I’ve been thinking about why a library, in particular, might publish a book about an individual.  In some cases, the subject has achieved fame, and the documentation held by the library or museum might be published to add an extra dimension to their already-public character (I’m thinking, most pertinently, of Germaine Greer’s archive which is about to become available from the University of Melbourne archives).  Alternatively, the library or museum may hold a collection that is notable for its completeness, or the illumination it throws on otherwise-undocumented, lived experience, but the creator him/herself is unknown (and I’m thinking here of the Goldfields Diary held by the State Library of Victoria). In such cases, the publication of a hard-copy, illustrated book would be a way of bringing the wealth of that particular archive to public attention.

Looking for Rose Paterson is a combination of both these spurs to publication.  As the title and cover design lettering suggests, this book is indirectly a commentary on the famous Australian writer Banjo Paterson, but the larger emphasis is on his mother Rose Paterson, rather than her son.  The book is based on the collection of thirty nine of Rose Paterson’s letters written to her younger sister Nora Murray-Prior between 1873 and 1888 and available online at  The letters had once been part of the Murray-Prior estate and were crammed into an old sea-chest that had been cleared out of a family home.  In this regard they are like the family letters of any family that has had the education to generate and value the letters in the first place, and the wealth and stability to keep family documents through a limited number of shifts of location and strong family ties. The letters were purchased by academic Colin Roderick,  author of several books on Henry Lawson and Banjo Paterson, who recognized the significance of the placenames and personalities (Banjo himself and  Nora’s step-daughter the author Rosa Praed) and hence the letters also have value because of their links with famous people. Roderick  published the letters in 2000 and offered the letters to the National Library.

So who was Rose Paterson, other than Banjo Paterson’s mother?  In her own right, she lived and died without recognition beyond her family. She was born in 1844 in Australia, four years after her parents had arrived separately in the colony on the same ship. She was part of the lineage of a pioneering pastoral family. Her mother had educated her at home, along with her siblings in a standard classical education- English and French, and an introduction to the rudiments of Latin, Greek, German and Italian.  She married at the age of 18 in one of those sisters-marrying-brothers constellations found in many family trees. Her husband, Andrew Bogle Paterson  was often absent on pastoral work on the three stations co-owned by the brothers in NSW and Queensland.  When the elder brother John died suddenly at the age of 40, his remaining brother Andrew lost the stations but was kept on at their Illalong station as an overseer.  It was in this environment that Banjo Paterson grew up, with his three siblings and cousin, and it was here  at Illalong that Rose wrote to her younger sister Nora, who lived with her much-older husband Thomas Lodge Murray-Prior along with her twelve step-children and eight own children. One marvels that Nora had time to correspond, but judging from Rose’s side of the correspondence (Nora’s is lost), she clearly did, facilitated most probably by money and material comforts that her sister Rose lacked.  After the death of Rose’s husband in 1889, the connection with Illalong was severed and Rose shifted to her mother’s house at Rockend, in Gladesville, Sydney where she died in 1893 at the age of 49.

These are just the sort of letters that a historian craves. There is continuity and detail, and they provide an entrée to the world of women who have intermarried into a small subset of pastoralist families and who are known to each other.  Although Rose’s life at Illalong was hard, she maintained her connections with her much more genteel and refined pre-marriage life. The line between a wealthy squatter and an impoverished one was a permeable one because of clan connections, particularly in the Scots pastoral fraternity.  If you’re looking for details of interactions with the indigenous people who had either been ‘turned away’ or still lived and worked on the stations, you’re not going to find them here. Instead, through the intimacy of sisters who see each other on occasion at their mother’s house in Sydney and who take an interest in their nieces and nephews, we gain a family-based, woman’s-eyed view of childbearing, motherhood, parenting and social life. In this, I was reminded of the repository of letters by Anna Murray Powell in Upper Canada, and Katherine McKenna’s wonderful use of them in writing A Life of Propriety.    However, in Gall’s book the narrative is driven by themes rather than chronology, and what rich themes they are!

In Chapter 1 ‘This poor old prison of a habitation’, the circumstances by which Rose ended up at Illalong are detailed, but the chapter then moves to a discussion of sewing, mending, trousseaus and marriage.  Chapter 2 ‘All utilities and no luxuries’ highlights the drudgery of farming, the isolation and cheerlessness of living on a remote station, and the financial strain of drought and the poor remuneration for overseers.  Ch. 3 ‘Smuggle a bottle of chloroform’ was absolutely fascinating in exploring the experience of pregnancy – a topic that is delicately avoided in most colonial correspondence, particularly when the correspondence itself is infrequent, addressed to and read by the men of the family, and covering months of news, rather than the day-to-day.  The two sisters write about the pregnancies, births and losses of mutual acquaintances, and Rose’s letter to Nora after her nine-month-old baby died gives the lie to the assumption that parents were inured to the loss of children at a time of high infant mortality.  They write of the search for doctors, or failing that,  ‘gamps’ – midwives- and plans for confinement where there will be assistance. Gall points out that Australian women were more likely to call on a doctor during their confinement than women in Britain and Europe, who turned to midwives instead, suggesting that this might reflect the disproportionate rate of men to women in early decades of Australian settlement.

There is an abrupt change of pace and direction in Chapter 4, where Gall returns to the ‘Banjo’ thread of her narrative.  I found this rather jarring, as the spotlight is turned to the son, rather than the mother.  Having noted the dearth of commentary about Aboriginal people in Rose and Nora’s letters, it was startling to turn the page to see a full-length portrait photograph of Banjo, known to the family as ‘Barty’, aged possibly 2 or 3,  sitting on a chair with his Aboriginal nurse Fanny, who was barely more than a child herself.  Rose accuses ‘that horrid Black Fanny’ of allowing him to climb trees and injure his arm, but there is no other comment in the text (and presumably in the letters) of the presence of Aboriginal people on the station or in the domestic setting of the home.  This chapter is more chronological, briefly tracing through Banjo Paterson’s career,  the writing of Waltzing Matilda and his work as war correspondent.  Was this chapter necessary? I think maybe not, or perhaps it could have been better incorporated into the introduction, because it broke the narrative thread of the other chapters.

Chapter 5 ‘Judicious neglect and occasional scrubbing’ returns to the domestic world of childcare, child rearing and education. As an educated woman herself,  Rose placed high importance on education for both her sons and her daughters, and she sought to secure the best tuition she could with the limited money available to her.  For her sons, this involved boarding in Sydney to attend Sydney Grammar School, but for her daughters this involved tuition through a governess, and later through boarding with school teachers in nearby Yass, and the passing on of skills from one sister to another.   Chapter 6 ‘No better dower than a good education’ continues this theme, describing the career paths and life choices available to Rose’s and Nora’s daughters.  Rose’s awareness of the literary success of Nora’s stepdaughter Rosa Praed, and her responses to the books that she is reading hint that Rose could, perhaps, have been a writer herself – like Louisa Lawson perhaps? Chapter 7 ‘We shall have a fine houseful’ describes Roses’s social life and larger cultural world, which encompassed what could be termed ‘bourgeois’ families in the local area, wider contacts within the intermarried squattocracy families, and at her mother’s house in Sydney.  The chapter discusses etiquette, the importance of the piano, visiting protocols, weddings and country balls- and here again I was reminded of the Powell family in Upper Canada and the transference and ubiquity of middle-class domestic practices  across the colonies of the Empire.

The book finishes with a short summary of Rose Paterson’s legacy and returns to the theme announced in the title of ‘How family bush life nurtured Banjo the poet’ – something that I wondered if Gall was going to return to at any stage.  The book closes with an expression of regret that no photo had been found of Rose, but as we read in the obviously-later-written introduction, there is a photograph of her- and what a beautiful photograph it is.

The book is interspersed with reproductions of Rose’s letters on yellowed paper, with the ink faded to brown, and occasionally cross-written (the historian’s curse!). There are lengthy quotes from the letters in the text, marked with the icon of a pen-nib to denote when the original has been reproduced on the adjoining page, and as a reader you never felt that the author was holding the sources back from you.  The book is lavishly illustrated with images, only few of which relate directly to the Paterson family.  At times I wondered if the images were being used  too tangentially.  Barely two pages of text passed without an illustration, and the ‘coffee-table’ presentation tended to  detract from the scholarship of the work, in the quest for atmosphere and context.

I very much enjoyed this book.  As a historian of a ‘famous’ man myself, this archive of correspondence is just the sort that I craved and sought in vain,  in trying to flesh out the domestic world that lies behind us all- famous and unknown alike.   Gall has served us well, in presenting the archive, contextualising it within the milieu of nineteenth century Australian pastoralism,  and drawing out the themes of women’s lives in that class and environment.  I felt sorry to leave Rose- or rather, sorry that she left us- a sure sign that a  letter can reach  across time and generations.

[1] Graeme Davison ‘Sydney and the Bush: an urban context for the Australian Legend’ Historical Studies, vol 18, no 71, October 1978.

Source: Review copy NLA, courtesy Scott Eathorne, Quikmark Media

My rating: 8.5/10

aww2017-badgeI am posting this review to the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

‘Dreams From My Father’ by Barak Obama


1995, 2004, 442 p.

I was so downcast and discouraged by Trump’s inauguration that I decided to finally take Barak Obama’s memoir off the bookshelf where it has been languishing for years, and read it to expunge the current Presidential oafishness from my mind.  I knew that it had been top of the New York Times bestseller list for months and months, but nonetheless I was pleasantly surprised by the easy tone and Obama’s self-deprecating yearning to find answers to his questions over identity and masculinity.

This book was written in 1995,  before he took political office of any kind. Born in Hawaii, his Kenyan father had returned to his homeland while Barak was only two years old. His white American single mother remarried, and the family shifted to Indonesia, although Barak returned to the care of his grandparents in Hawaii when he was ten.  It was at the age of ten, too, that he met with his father for a short, awkward time, and never met him again. His father died in a car crash when Barak was twenty-one years old.  He was brought up on the myths of his father, told to him by his mother and grandparents, and much of this book deals with his disillusionment at how the rest of his father’s life unfolded, and his own search for identity as a mixed-race child, fitting neither into white or African-American society.

The book is divided into three parts: ‘Origins’, dealing with his childhood in Hawaii, Jakarta and New York; ‘Chicago’ set in Chicago (naturally) as he works as a community organizer in the African-American community, and ‘Kenya’ where he returns to meet his Kenyan family.  Having visited Kenya, I loved this last part- especially his description of the Mara which captured just how I felt about it!  His potted history of Kenyan colonialism, from the point of view of his Luo family, is masterful.

This is a beautifully written book, whether the author became President of the United States or not and, written in 1995, there is no consciousness at all that this could even possibly be his destiny. As a work of memoir, he has invented conversations and combined or renamed characters, but the book rings true to its very core.  I can’t imagine that there could be a greater contrast than that between ‘Dreams from My Father’ and ‘The Art of the Deal’, the memoir of the current presidential incumbent.

And look at this- a video from 1995, just after the book had been published. Oh, I miss that easy eloquence and gentle humour already.

This Week in Port Phillip 1842: 24-31 January

Oh dear, I have fallen so behind with my weekly reviews of Melbourne 175 years ago! However, I am comforted by the knowledge that old news is old news, and it doesn’t really matter if it’s 175 years and 5 weeks instead of 175 years exactly.  Nonetheless, I’ll sit down soon and condense the whole of February 1842 into one posting, before March gets away from me.  But first, I’ll finish off January 1842, cobbled together from my incomplete jottings.


After the tumult surrounding the execution of Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyheener during the preceding week, there were a few somewhat positive stories about Aborigines in the newspapers in the week immediately following.  This was unusual. On 25th January the Port Phillip Herald corrected the report from another of the Port Phillip newspapers that natives on Mr Bathe’s run at Westernport had fired four acres of barley.  Instead, the Herald reported, the ‘blacks’ had tried to extinguish the fire, and their ‘chief’, Gellibrand, had conducted himself in “the most praiseworthy manner”. (PPH 25/1/42)

Then, in the following issue was a report of the drowning death of an aboriginal man who, it would seem, was engaged in salvage work near the wreck of the William Salthouse, which had sunk the previous November near Point Nepean.

LOSS OF LIFE. Sunday last. Two aborigines, known as Jem and Pigeon volunteered to dive to recover a barrel of tar which had fallen overboard from the cutter Diana which was lying alongside the wreck of the William Salthouse. Jem dived several times but was unsuccessful; Pigeon followed him example but never rose to the surface. (PPH 28/1/42)

However, these glimpses of Aborigines working within the settler economy are leavened by a report about the Assistant Protector, Charles Sievwright, and his charges.

THE BLACKS AND THEIR PROTECTOR. Mr Seivwright has left the neighbourhood of Lake Killembeet, and pitched his camp on or near a splendid run belonging to Mr Cox, at Mount Rouse. We wish the settlers in that quarter joy of their new neighbour.  Before Mr Seivwright left Killembeet, the blacks under his charge paid a farewell visit to the flocks of Mr Thomson, and drove off one hundred and fifty sheep,the remains of which were found in the direction of Mr Seivwright’s.  A number of cattle, the property of Mr Ewen,in the same neighbourhood, were also speared.  The Corio, Colac and other blacks have had a regular fight with the Westward blacks; one woman got killed, the westward blacks were beaten. (PPP 27/1/42)

Draining the swamp…

The Flinders Street swamp, that is, not Washington. It wasn’t actually a swamp as such, although there were plenty of those in the immediate vicinity of Melbourne.  No, this was instead a boggy patch between the new Queens Wharf roughly at the end of King Street today and the customs house, which was on the allocated customs reserve, the site of the present day Immigration Museum (which is housed in the third Customs House built on the reserve).

 THE QUEEN’S WHARF. The wood work of the Queen’s Wharf is going rapidly forward, and if persevered in with the same spirit that has marked its progress hitherto, will be close upon completion in the course of five or six weeks from this date.  The style of workmanship, as well as the rapidity with which the work has progressed, so different from the dilly-dallying mode in which the public works of the province have heretofore been carried on, is highly creditable to Mr Beaver the contractor,  who certainly has spared no pains to turn his work out in a workman-like manner. There are no symptoms yet, however, of a commencement being made towards draining off and filling up the swamp between the wharf and the custom house, and as that is likely to prove a work of some duration, we are desirous of seeing government embark in it as early as is practicable, that the improvements on the wharf may be made available at once. (PPP 24/1/42)

The same issue of the Patriot reported a bushfire further down along the Yarra (towards the Bay), reminding us that although the grid of Melbourne and the brickfields opposite may have been denuded of trees for fuel and building, the bush wasn’t far away:

 BUSH FIRE. On Thursday last some person or persons not having the fear of Lord John Russell before their eyes, set fire to the bush on the south side of the Yarra Yarra, immediately opposite the long reach. The wind being high the flames raged furiously for some hours and would doubtless have completely extirpated the withered grass to which his lordship has taken such a fancy, together with the scraggy looking tea trees which adorn the riverbank in that particular locality, had not the rain which set in during the night put a stop to its progress. (PPP 24/1/42)

Temperance meeting

The dominance of hotels in Melbourne, the male-dominated immigrant population and the scarcity and insecurity of housing made Port Phillip a fertile field for temperance campaigners.  The Port Phillip Temperance Society, founded by Quakers James Backhouse and George Washington Walker, had been in operation since 1837.  However, the issue of whether ‘temperance’ meant ‘just a little’ or ‘total abstinence’ was a lively one, as seen in a Temperance Society meeting held in late January in the Scots School Hall and chaired by Superintendent La Trobe (thereby ensuring that it was a thoroughly respectable occasion).  The Patriot had a long report on it, no doubt reflecting the enthusiasm of the Patriot’s editor, William Kerr, who was mentioned by name for signing the pledge.  It seems that there were more speakers for temperance than abstinence- or perhaps the reporter just presented it that way:

Temperance Meeting.- A numerous and respectable meeting of the members of the Temperance Society took place in the Scots School on Tuesday evening ; His Honor C. J. La Trobe, Esq., in the chair. The business of the meeting commenced at 8 o’clock, and the Rev. W. P. Crook spoke at great length in favor of Temperance, adducing instances of families being saved by its healing influence from destruction. The Rev. gentleman also spoke of the success which had attended the Sydney Temperance Society, and stated that he was the first person who there signed the pledge, the second being Mr. Kerr of this office. A gentleman present spoke of the advantages of temperance. Mr Wade, whose speeches in behalf of total abstinence at recent temperance meetings have acquired for him the name of the Teetotal Champion, made a lengthy and able speech, in which he endeavoured to prove the superiority of the total abstinence principle to that of moderation, quoting largely from eminent writers on the subject. Mr. J. A. Smith, the next speaker, argued in behalf of temperance and against total abstinence, endeavouring to base his arguments on Holy Writ. Mr. Davies also spoke in behalf of temperance, and against total abstinence, and, to prove that the latter was injurious to the human constitution, quoted a written medical opinion purposely obtained by him from an eminent practitioner resident in Melbourne. The Hon. J. E. Murray then addressed the meeting; he congratulated the Society upon having their chief magistrate as their chairman, and also upon the support afforded by the attendance of the Rev Mr. Crook, who, he was happy to find, had lost none of that energy which distinguished him throughout his career in the South Sea Islands. Mr. Murray related a number of interesting anecdotes respecting the Irish peasantry, illustrative of the great benefit conferred upon them by the exertions of Father Mathew. The meeting was then addressed by Mr. Rogers in behalf of total abstinence. Dr. Wilmot advocated the cause of temperance, but said he was averse to teetotalism ; he also expressed his concurrence with the greater portion of the medical opinion quoted by Mr. Davies. At ten ‘o’clock, after thanks had been voted to His Honor for his presidency on the occasion, and a collection had been made, the meeting broke up, all present being highly pleased at the proceedings of the evening. [A pressure of other and more important matters precludes our giving more than the above synopsis of the proceedings of this meeting.]

How’s the weather?

A fairly typical summer pattern, with a high for the week of 95 degrees (35 C) on 24 January, then cooler. Once again, the nights were cool.  25th Jan: High 74 (23.3) Low 53 (11.7); 26 Jan High 72 (22) Low 49 (9.4C- that’s pretty cold for January); 27 January High 66 (18.9C) Low 53 (11.7); 28 January 65 (18.3C) Low 54 (12.2), 29 January High 65 (18.3C) and Low 51 (10.6).