an ebook published by Project Gutenberg Australia
Title: “Banjo” Paterson Tells His Own Story
Author: A. B. (“Banjo”) Paterson
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Date first posted: 2021
Most recent update: 2021
This eBook was produced by: Walter Moore
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A. B. (“Banjo”) Paterson
Part 1 — The Sydney Morning Herald - Saturday 4 Feb 1939
In the Days of the Gold Escorts
The Sport of Kings
A Slight Dispute
Part 2— The Sydney Morning Herald - Saturday 11 Feb 1939
Giants of the Paddle, Pen, and Pencil
Poet by Circumstance
Part 3— The Sydney Morning Herald - Saturday 18 Feb 1939
A “Reliability” Drive to Melbourne
Coming of the Trout
Retreat from Moscow
Part 4— The Sydney Morning Herald - Saturday 25 Feb 1939
An Execution and a Royal Pardon
Execution of Morant
Part 5— The Sydney Morning Herald - Saturday 4 Mar 1939
Political Giants and “Pilgrim Fathers”
Reading and Writing
In the Days of the Gold Escorts
Lambing Flat Diggings
What the Teamster Said
Some seventy years ago, two Scotsmen, John and Andrew Paterson were “squatting” at a station called Buckenbah, somewhere near the town of Obley, in the western district of New South Wales. This place was held on lease from the Crown at a few pence per acre and was worth no more. It was dingo-infested, unfenced country where the sheep had to be shepherded and the cattle, as the blackboys said, could go “longa bush” and wander afield until they got into somebody else’s meat cask or could be mustered and driven away by enterprising people who adopted this cheap method of stocking-up. In these surroundings, I, the immature verse-writer, son of Andrew Paterson, had my first taste of bush life.
My father was a lowland Scot, a son of a captain in the old East India Company’s service, though his family before him had for generations farmed their own properties in Lanarkshire. One of my father’s forbears was John Paterson, of Lochlyoch, who founded the breed of Clydesdale horses by importing a black Flemish stallion called Robin.
Robin was to the Clydesdale breed what Eclipse was to the thoroughbred, as may be seen in the Clydesdale stud book. There was also a further connection with horses in that my grandfather, going out to India to seek his fortune, joined up with John Company’s army, in which his original rank was that of a roughrider. He rode the rough horses so well that he afterwards obtained his commission; and it is something of a coincidence that in the Great War more than a hundred years afterwards I, his grandson, was given a command as major in a roughriding unit. This, and my early experiences as a small shepherd, may account for whatever of accuracy there may be in my versified descriptions of bush life and of horses.
An ancestor whose talents I, unfortunately, failed to inherit was William Paterson, who founded the Bank of England, He is described in the Encyclopaedia as a “Scotch adventurer,” and “adventurer” is right, for, not satisfied with starting the Bank of England on its primrose path, he aspired to follow the example of Clive and Hastings and found a sort of Scottish East India Company at Darien, on the Isthmus of Panama. Had his Bank of England luck stuck to him he might have been another Cecil Rhodes, for the Scotchmen poured their money into the venture, but the malaria and the mosquitoes beat him, and he returned to Scotland to face his countrymen who had lost their money. Instead of upbraiding him they subscribed £10,000 to put him on his feet again! Of my father I saw little, for he was mostly away pioneering in Queensland. There he had a skirmish with blacks, during which his cousin, James Paterson, had his spectacles knocked off his nose by the tip of a boomerang: he tried to take sheep out to some new place, but was caught on flooded country between two rivers, and had to shear them on a sandhill; and finally he had to get out of Queensland — just another of the many pioneers who unsuccessfully threw dice with fate. I never knew the name of his place in Queensland, but I understand it adjoined Lammermuir, the station described in “Christison of Lammermuir,” probably the second best tale ever told of bush life; Jeannie Gunn’s “We of the Never Never” being the best.
However, to meet losses in Queensland, Buckenbah had to go, and we moved to Illalong, a station in the southern part of New South Wales. Here we were on a main road between Sydney and Melbourne, with the Lambing Flat diggings, now called Young, only a day’s ride away. It was an unlucky place — enough to break anyone’s heart — for the Free Selection Act had just been passed, and the selectors, droves of them, all seemed to pick on us, as there were creeks everywhere which solved for them the water problem.
But all these troubles meant nothing to me, a boy of six. There were swimming pools in the creek 10 feet deep and half a mile long, horses to ride, and the tides of life surged round us. The gold escort from Lambing Flat, too, came by twice a week, with a mounted trooper riding in front with his rifle at the ready and another armed trooper on the box with the coachman. I used to hope that the escort would be “stuck up” outside our place so that I might see something worth while, but what with the new settlers and the scores of bullock teams taking loading out to the back country, no bushranger stood half a chance of making a getaway unseen.
The roads were quite unmade, and when one track got so cut up that a waggon would sink down to its axles, the bullockies would try a new track. Thus the highway became a labyrinth of tracks, half a mile wide, with here and there an excavation where a waggon had been dug out, and when, as often happened a waggon got stuck in the bed of the creek they would hitch two teams of bullocks to it and then (as one of the bullockies said) either the waggon or the bed of the creek had to come.
I was not encouraged to go anywhere near the bullockies, who were supposed to be up to stratagems and spoils, especially in the way of stealing horses, but a lonely child will go anywhere for company, and I found that they travelled with their families, dogs, and sometimes even fowls. These latter gentry after fossicking about the camp for worms and grasshoppers, would hop up into the waggon as soon as the bullocks were yoked, making for their crate where a little food awaited them. They hurried too!
I found that these teamsters were like Bracken’s hero — “not understood.” Hard as it may be to believe, they were really fond of their bullocks, and only took the whip to shirkers. One of them gave me a demonstration with a bullock-whip, cutting great furrows in the bark of a white gum tree. When I said that it was no wonder the bullocks pulled, he remarked, feelingly “Sonny, if I done that to them bullocks I’d want shooting. Every bullock knows his name, and when I speak to him he’s into the yoke. I’d look well knockin’ ‘em about with a hundred miles to go and them not gettin’ a full feed once a week. Many a night I’ve dug up a panel of a squatter’s paddock and slipped ‘em in, and I’ve been back there before daylight to slip ‘em out and put the panel up agen. So long as they’ll stick to me I’ll stick to them.”
Which, somehow, recalls the story of the bullock driver who was asked to join up for the South African war and was told that he need not fight as he would be more useful driving bullocks.
“Not me!” he said. “I’d sooner fight. If there come any trouble, all you coves could run away, but I’d have to stop with the bullocks, and get caught!”
By this time I had learnt to ride and to get me away it was decided that I should ride four miles to school every day in Binalong, a two-pub town famous for the fact that the bushranger Gilbert was buried in the police paddock. Here I sat on a hard wooden form alongside some juvenile relatives of Gilbert.
Carlyle in his “Sartor Resartus” speaks of his hero, Diogenes Teudelsdrock, as being educated at the Academy of Hinterschlag (stern-whackers), and there was plenty of Hinterschlag at this little bush school in Binalong. The master, Moore by name, had to meet emergencies of one sort or another every day, and he met them like a Napoleon. Spare, gaunt, and Irish by descent, he ran to gamecocks and kangaroo dogs in his private moments. It was nothing unusual for his flock to go out with him in the long summer afternoons to watch a course after a kangaroo, and the elite of the school, the pound-keeper’s son and the blacksmith’s boy, would be allowed as a favour to stop after school and watch a “go-in” between two cocks without the steel spurs, as part of their training for more serious business.
One day the sergeant of police from Yass, in plain clothes, drove up to the door of the school in a natty little trap with a pair of ponies. We jumped to the conclusion that he had heard of this cockfighting business, and we expected (and hoped) to see the schoolmaster led away like Eugene Aram with gyves upon his wrist. While the sergeant was inside with the teacher we children swarmed all over his buggy, and there in a neat lattice-lined box under the seat we found a gamecock, clipped and looking for fight!
The gamecock was rather surprised to see us in charge of his caravan, but not nearly so astonished as we were to see HIM. It was our — or, at any rate, my — first introduction to the ways of the world and to those who go about in sheep’s clothing, but are inwardly ravening wolves.
Apart from his sporting proclivities, there was little fault to find with our teacher. Poor man, he was almost daily confronted by irate mothers, real rough sorts, whose children he had whipped, and who threatened to bring “the old man” down to deal with him if it ever happened again.
My first introduction to the racing business came about in this way. It was a New Year’s Day and a general holiday. My father was away, and the station roustabout having filled the water-barrel, cut the wood and fed the fowls, was free to go to the Bogolong races some eight mile, away. He suggested that I should go with him, and my mother agreed, though I would not have had a hundred-to-one chance of getting leave from my father. Picture us then, a youth of eighteen and a boy of eight setting out to take part in the sport of kings!
Bogolong (now called Bookham) was a township on the main southern road, and consisted of two “pubs,” half a mile apart, with nothing in between! When I asked the roustabout what had happened to the rest of the town, he said “This is all they is. One pub to ketch the coves coming from Yass and the other to ketch the coves from Jugiong.”
The track was about half a mile out of the town, unfenced, with no grandstand, and was mostly laid out through a gum and stringy-bark scrub. The racehorses were tied to saplings, as were hundreds of other horses ridden by wild men from the Murrumbidgee Mountains, who had all brought their dogs. There was a sprinkling of more civilised sportsmen from Yass and Jugiong, blackfellows and half-castes from everywhere, and a few out-and-outers who had ridden down from Lobb’s Hole, a place so steep that (as the horse-boy said) the horses wore all the hair off their tails sliding down the mountains. The days of racing in heats (i.e., running the horses three times against each other to see which was the best) had died out everywhere except in these outlandish places; but there was one heat race still on the programme. This was the Bogolong Town Plate of a mile, possibly the last heat race that was ever run anywhere.
I had ridden over on a pony with a child’s saddle, glancing at the pony to see that he was all right, I saw a Murrumbidgee mountaineer about seven feet high taking the saddle off my pony and putting it on a racehorse. Running over to him, I managed to gasp out “That’s my saddle.”
“Right-oh, son” he said “I won’t hurt it. It’s just the very thing the doctor ordered. It’s ketch weights, and this is the lightest saddle here so I took it before anybody else got it. This is Pardon,” he went on, “and after he wins this heat you come to me an I’ll stand you a bottle of ginger beer.”
In after years a man who speculated largely told me that he could put ten thousand pounds into a speculation without a tremor, but if he put a pound on a horse he could hardly hold his glasses steady enough to watch the race. Imagine then, the excitement with which I watched Pardon’s progress — watched him lying behind the leaders as they went out of sight behind the stringy-bark scrub; watched them come into sight again, with Pardon still lying third; and then the crowning moment as he drew away in the straight and won comfortably. Greater still, the delirious joy when he led the field all the way in the second heat, so that there was no need to run a third.
I had the ginger beer — bitter, luke-warm stuff with hops in it — but what did I care? My new friend assured me that Pardon could not have won without my saddle. It had made all the difference. Years afterwards, I worked the incident into a sort of ballad called “Pardon, the son of Reprieve.”
We had eight miles to go to get home, so we had to leave before things got really lively but before we departed two men had an argument about a bet and each made a run to pull a stirrup-iron out of his saddle.
My old friend the sergeant of police from Yass had no objection to a fight, but he drew the line at stirrup-irons! He and the mounted trooper handcuffed first one man and then the other with their arms round saplings, a performance which I had never seen before and have never seen since.
As we rode home through the shades of evening we passed by the door of Dacey’s selection; and old blind Geoffrey, a giant of an English agricultural labourer, who was living out his last few years as a pensioner on the bounty of Dacey, came out when he heard the horses.
“Who beat?” he asked.
Of course I had to pipe up that Pardon won the Town Plate with my saddle on him.
“Ar cares naught aboot that,” he said “Who beat — the Prodestans or the Carthlics?”
Giants of the Paddle, Pen, and Pencil
Henry Lawson at Work
When the Booms Burst
When I was sent to school in Sydney a new world opened before me. As a start my cousin and I bought an old boat, mostly held together by tar, and by way of brightening up the colour scheme we painted the floor with white paint over the tar. This was not entirely satisfactory, as the tar turned the paint to a sort of unwholesome muddy colour, which refused to dry; so then we had to buy caustic soda to remove both tar and paint and begin all over again. When we got her finished she was a fine fishing boat, for there was generally as much water inside as out, which kept our fish fresh till we got them home.
But fishing was only a sideline; our real interest lay in the scullers who worked on the championship course right in front of our door. Beginning with Hickey and Rush, on down through Ned Trickett and Elias Laycock, to Beach and Hanlan, Stanbury and Maclean, last and greatest of them all, Harry Searle — we knew every man of them, and could tell them by their styles at three-quarters of a mile distance.
Stalking with their trainers through the little town of Gladesville, they were like Kingsley’s Gladiators stalking through the degenerate Romans. Elias Laycock could eat a dozen eggs for breakfast; Maclean, an axe-man from the northern rivers, could take an axe in either hand, and fell any tree without stopping for rest; Searle had an extra rib on either side of his body, or so his opponents implicitly believed. A flaxen-haired giant, he was the hero of a queer incident at a dance given at the Gladesville Mental Hospital. These dances were for the amusement of the patients, and all visitors were expected to dance with them. A lady from Sydney, no less than a daughter of Sir William Windeyer, Judge of the Supreme Court, was very good-natured about it all, and after trotting several of the patients out she invited Searle to have a turn.
On coming back to her chaperon she said “What a pity that fine young man is mad. He talked quite sensibly until all of a sudden he said that he was the champion sculler of the world. I got away from him as soon as I could!”
These great scullers were mostly young country men reared on home-grown food, and it would be hard to find their equals in these days of flats and tinned vegetables. The discovery of Beach, the Dapto blacksmith, was due to Dr. Fortescue, a great surgeon of those days, who had his home on the Parramatta River.
Somebody brought Beach to see him, and the doctor said that he had never seen such a perfect physical specimen. “This man,” he said, “will beat that little Canadian” (Hanlan). He backed his opinion with his money, too, helping Beach to get boats and a trainer. Hanlan was so superior to all other scullers that the cognoscenti on the River declared that he must have a secret machine in his wager boat to help him along. This idea was about as sensible as the theory that the Germans, during the Great War, had a wireless transmitting station up a gum-tree in the Blue Mountains; but people would believe anything in those days, and, for that matter, so they will now.
I went to the Sydney Grammar School, where I succeeded in dividing the Junior Knox prize with a boy who is now a Judge of the High Court. If I had paid as much attention to my lessons as to fish and rabbits, I too, might have been a Judge of the High Court. There is a lot of luck in these things!
Leaving school, I had a try for a bursary at the University, but missed it by about a mile and half, so I had to go into a lawyer’s office. Here I began to learn more of the world. We did a lot of shipping business and one of my first jobs was to go out and gather evidence for the defence of a captain who was prosecuted for not showing a riding-light over the stern while at anchor. Evidence! It was too easy. The captain had seen the boatswain put out the riding-light. The boatswain remembered that riding-light well, as he had nearly fallen overboard while fixing it. The chief officer had been strolling about the deck and had noticed the reflection of the riding-light on the water. I chuckled to think how small the opposition would feel when we unloosed our battery of testimony.
Then the sea-lawyer who was on the Bench, without whys or wherefores, and without summing-up, found the captain guilty and fined him a fiver!
I walked away from the court with the captain, and was just starting to speak a piece about this awful iniquity when he said: “Oh, well, I didn’t know you had to have a riding light. They’d drive a man mad with their regulations in these — places.” An unnerving experience, but it taught me that a case at law is like a battle: If you listen to the accounts of the two sides you can never believe that they are talking about the same fight.
Later on, I became managing cleric for a big legal firm which did the work for three banks in the depression which preceded the dreary days when the banks themselves had to shut. For months I did nothing but try to screw money out of people who had not got it. Then I went into practice for myself, and, of course, was confronted by closed banks. I saw bank booms, land booms, silver booms, Northern Territory booms, and they all had one thing in common — they always burst. My partner and I had banked some money for a client in the Bank of New Zealand, and we were told that “she was sure to shut.” We shifted the money into another bank and the New Zealand concern weathered the storm, while the bank into which we had put the money folded up like a blanket!
We managed to keep going even through the depression and when a cavalry officer came out from England and started a polo club we took to the game like ducks to water. This polo business brought us in touch with some of the upper circles — a great change after the little bush school, the game-cocks, and the days when I looked upon the sergeant of police as the greatest man in the world.
We played a match against the Cooma team, real wild men with cabbage-tree hats, and skin-tight pants, their hats held on by a strap under their noses. I must have had the gift of prophecy because, before we went up, I wrote a jingle called “The Geebung Polo Club,” a jingle which has outlasted much better work. But this reminds me that it is time to say something about writing.
Up to the time of my arrival in Sydney, my experiences of life had been limited to contacts with the unsophisticated children of Nature. Had I learnt anything from them? Have I learnt anything worth while in the sixty years or so which I have lived since? I take leave to doubt it. There was a time when they called these people the “great unwashed,” but I think that the “great unsatisfied” would be a better name. Fully ninety per cent. of people have neither as much money nor as high a social position as that they would like, or (as they think) deserve. In those hard times nobody was satisfied, so I thought — like Hamlet — that it was up to me to set the world right. I read heavily in history and economics, and the outcome was my first literary effort — a pamphlet called “Australia for the Australians.” I blush every time that I think of it!
When my pamphlet fell as flat as the great inland desert, I tried my hand at “poetry,” and strung together four flamboyant verses about the expedition against the Mahdi, who was going well and strong at the time. As “The Bulletin” was the most unsatisfied paper in Australia, I sent them to that paper. I had adopted the pen name of “The Banjo,” after a so-called racehorse, which we had on the station. I was afraid to use my own name lest the editor, identifying me with the author of the pamphlet, would dump my contribution, unread, into the waste paper basket.
My verses actually appeared, and in the same issue was a request that I would call on the editor. Off I went, and climbed a grimy flight of stairs at 24 Pitt Street, until I stood before a door marked, “Mr. Archibald, Editor.”
On the door was pinned a spirited drawing of a gentleman lying quite loose on the strand with a dagger through him; and on the drawing was written: “Archie, this is what will happen to you if you don’t use my drawing about the policeman!” It cheered me up a lot. Evidently this was a free and easy place.
Anyone who wants to know what Archibald looked like should see his portrait by Florence Rodway in the Sydney Art Gallery. It is a marvellous likeness of the bearded and bespectacled Archibald, peering at a world which was all wrong. Not that he ever put forward any concrete scheme for setting it right; he diagnosed the diseases, and left others to find the cure.
In an interview of ten minutes he said he would like me to try some more verse. Did I know anything about the bush?
I told him that I had been reared there. “All right,” he said, “have a go at the bush. Have a go at anything that strikes you. Don’t write anything like other people if you can help it. Let’s see what you can do.” And that is how I came to meet Henry Lawson.
Henry Lawson was a man of remarkable insight in some things and of extraordinary simplicity in others. We were both looking for the same reef, if you get what I mean; but I had done my prospecting on horseback with my meals cooked for me, while Lawson had done his prospecting on foot and had had to cook for himself. Nobody realised this better than Lawson; and one day he suggested that we should write against each other, he putting the bush from his point of view, and I putting it from mine.
“We ought to do pretty well out of it,” he said. “We ought to be able to get in three or four sets of verses each before they stop us.”
This suited me all right, for we were working on space, and the pay was very small — in fact, I remember getting exactly thirteen and sixpence for writing “Clancy of the Overflow” — so we slam-banged away at each other for weeks and weeks; not until they stopped us, but until we ran out of material. I think that Lawson put his case better than I did, but I had the better case, so that honours (or dishonours) were fairly equal. An undignified affair, but it was a case of “root hog or die.”
To show how a poet can be without honour (or profit) in his own country, I remember Lawson’s wife telling me that she was quite happy because Henry was “working” again.
“What’s he working at,” I asked, “prose or verse?”
“Oh, no,” she said. “I don’t mean writing, I mean working. He’s gone back to his trade as a house painter.”
And this was the man whose work was afterwards translated into foreign languages!
Lawson had an experience which happens to few people. He fell over a cliff at Manly and was reported dead. There was no time to make inquiries, so a section of the Press came out with very flattering obituary notices, which Henry read with great interest and enthusiasm.
I asked him what he thought of these final “reviews;” and he said that, after reading them, he was puzzled to think how he had managed to be so hard up all his life!
Other celebrities of the day were Hopkins and Phil May. Except that they were both self-taught artists, they were as unalike as possible in every way. A large expansive person named Traill had taken a chance on going abroad and hiring Hopkins in America and Phil May in England. Hopkins was of the large, somnolent type; but give him an idea for a comic picture and he would make three jokes grow where only one grew before. May was a bundle of nerves and vitality, wearing himself out before his time. He had learnt his drawings by practising on costers and street-arabs in London.
Hopkins had been reared on a farm in Ohio, and had then, in the American way, taken a job as conductor on a sleeping car so that he might see the world. He practised on the passengers, and one has a vision of Hopkins peering round the corridor and working by fits and starts. I think it was Andrew Carnegie who said that, with a bag of oatmeal and determination, a man could teach himself anything. I took Hopkins on a trip — I suppose he would have called it a buggyride — down through the rough country to the head of the Murrumbidgee Uiver. He compared everything unfavourably with Ohio, until, down on the river flats. I showed him a crop of maize which reduced him to civility. He had to get out of the buggy and handle the maize before he would believe that it was real. Also he said that there was nothing to draw in this unspeakable stringybark wilderness until we passed an old deserted wool-shed built of slabs and bark, with a big beam sticking out through the top as a lever to press the bales. He said that this in itself was worth the trip, and he spent an hour drawing it, and made an etching which I wish I had now. Some day, somebody will begin collecting old Australian work, and these little etchings by Hopkins will come into their own.
A “Reliability” Drive to Melbourne
Epic of Martyrdom
Back to the High Hills
A man once went over Niagara Falls in a barrel and when asked why he did it he said: “Well, I was the first to go, anyhow!” This craze for being the first to do anything, even though it may sometimes be silly, has had important results. When Hargrave was experimenting with his box kites he was looked upon as an amiable lunatic, and when the Wright Brothers announced that they had actually flown, few people believed it. I cannot claim that I was ever the first to do anything, but I saw the beginnings of a lot of things — motoring for instance.
I was a passenger with J. M. Arnott in his car on the first reliability trial from Sydney to Melbourne, and “trial” is exactly the right word. All sorts and conditions of cars competed, and as for the drivers — they required to be seen to be believed.
One elderly enthusiast turned out in a little one-cylinder rubby-dubby, of which he know so little that his only accessories for the trip were a tack-hammer and a pair of pincers. Falling to get anyone with experience to accompany him, he had picked up a Sydney larrikin for company; but after the first day’s drive (from Sydney to Goulburn) this miscreant deserted him, saying that he preferred dishonour to death, or words to that effect.
The elderly driver thereafter spent most of his time on his back under the car, and finally threw in the towel at Gundagai.
A French driver named Maillard had taken part in some of the big motor races in France, and was a hot favourite for the event. He was driving a De Dion, and beat everybody to Goulburn. On leaving Goulburn he went past the other cars like an express train, but unfortunately he had no knowledge of Australian roads. He could not even speak English.
In those days the roads beyond Goulburn were crossed here and there by steep gutters to drain off the water.
They were quite invisible from a distance, and all the experienced drivers had their passengers standing up on the back seat to yell out “gutter” when one hove in sight. The poor little Frenchman, blissfully unconscious of this, hit the first gutter at fifty miles an hour, sending his car up in the air like a hurdle horse which has hit a jump. Parts of the car were scattered all over the road and the Frenchman ran from one to another shouting: “Pourquoi les canivaux?” (why are the gutters there?) As I had some sort of Surry Hills knowledge of French I did my best to explain things, but the only result was to make him cry worse than ever.
A Melbourne stock-broker, having his first long drive, had a first class “cockatoo” standing up in the back of his car (cockatoos always set a sentinel to look out for trouble) and did so well between Goulburn and Gundagai that he insisted on shouting champagne for all the drivers and their associates. Nothing like this had happened in Gundagai since the big flood and as soon as the word got round the whole population of the town drifted into the bar and started to lap up champagne like milk. He drank with all and sundry and did himself so well that when he left Gundagai next morning the bridge was not wide enough for him and he hit the abutment fair and square with his radiator. This car, also, became a casualty; but the owner said that if a man was a sport it was up to him to BE a sport and he insisted having the car repaired at Gundagai, so that he could save his face with his friends by finishing the trial even if everybody else had weighed in and gone home when he arrived.
Sad to say the local blacksmiths were unequal to a repair job which practically meant taking the tail light and building a new car onto it. He and his cockatoo passed us somewhere about Seymour sitting on the remains of their car in a railway truck, waving bottles and shouting encouragement.
Other drivers were Charley Kellow, once a crack cyclist and, later on, famous as the owner of Heroic; Harrie Skinner, of Tivoli Theatre fame; and a death-or-glory boy whose name I cannot remember, but who was out to beat everybody for speed, and hang the consequences. He was driving a Renault, and, coming to a partly-opened railway gate, he opened it the rest of the way by hitting it with his car, thus saving perhaps half a minute but bending his axle. He was the last to leave and the first to arrive at every control, but he lost the reliability competition because of his bent axle. He said that he never expected to win it, anyhow, as he was not using the brand of tyres favoured by the promoters. We, ourselves, needed no such specious excuse, as we lost our chance by taking a wrong road near Tarcutta. We did not go 20 yards on the wrong road; but just to avoid going back those 20 yards we look a short cut across some long grass, apparently smooth, but it was like the Goulburn Road.
Somebody had dug a deep drain across it — a drain hidden by the long grass, like one of those pits they dig to catch wild animals in in Africa. Bang went some spokes of a wheel, but there were three perfectly good wheels left. Some flour-mill mechanics at Albury bolted stout timber supports on to either side of the wheel, and with many stoppages we got into Melbourne just before the speeches of welcome were quite finished!
Such was motoring in those days. Every horse that saw us, kept his tail up and bolted across country like a wallaby. If attached to a trap, so much the worse for the trap! At our stoppages en route the rude forefathers of the various hamlets would come up and put their hands on the radiator, to see whether it was hot; which it generally was — sometimes very hot. One of these veterans made all his following put their pipes out lest the car should blow up. Yet, the last time that a car stuck me up on that road a twelve-year-old boy got off a passing cart and put it right! The world moves, even if sometimes in the wrong directions.
Another of the novelties which this chronicler met within his time was the first introduction of rainbow trout to Australia. Among other rivers, the trout fry were liberated in the Goodradigbee River. Sufficient time was allowed them to grow up and then the local inhabitants set about catching them. A few blackfellows, hanging about the river, used to spend hours fishing for these trout with cod lines baited with half a parrot. They could see the trout jumping, but could not induce any of them to bite; and the trout, generally speaking, were voted a complete washout.
There was a tradition on this part of the river that a bunyip had once come ashore once — something like a calf with whiskers. If there were any truth in the story it was probably a seal which had found its way up from the mouth of the Murray, but the black-fellows believed that the bunyip was still in the river, and that it was eating all the trout which were big enough to bite. Otherwise why couldn’t they catch them?
Then came the tourists from Sydney, fitted out to beat the band with artificial flies and spinners; but these people had little better luck than the blackfellows, for the river was so full of feed that the trout did not bother themselves to rise at flies when they could get the pupae of dragon flies and other delicacies without any trouble. Dry-fly purists, and chuck-and-chance-it fishermen who lowered their flies down the rapids, alike had the poorest of luck; but they held on in the belief that only a barbarian would use live bait for trout. Then somebody caught a big haul of trout using grasshoppers for bait — but the president of the dry-fly school said that he would sooner use a fish-trap than a grasshopper. Later on, he was seen by a sheep-musterer on his hands and knees grabbing at some objects in the grass. Said the sheep-musterer: “Are you ketchin’ grasshoppers, mister?”
“No,” said the dry-fly purist. “I’m looking for my knife! I dropped it here somewhere.”
Believe it or not, the trout in the southern rivers had an effect on the pastoral industry in those parts. Owners of small mountain stations, stuck away in inaccessible places with only a few sheep, were always hard put to it to get good shearers but when the trout came in the shearers caught the trout-fishing mania and all sorts of crack shearers — really great men — would push out to these places for the sake of the fishing. One small settler on the Snowy had only a few sheep and no shearing machines. Meeting a couple of shearers on the road one day, he suggested that they should come out and shear his sheep for him.
“There’s only about 1,500 sheep apiece for you,” he explained, “but my wife does the cookin’ and you’ll have a nice holiday.”
“Is there any fishin’?” was the question.
“Oh, yes, tons of trout. But I ought to tell yer I haven’t got machines. We shear with the blades.”
“With the blades! Why don’t you take it off ‘em with a hoe? Never mind, we’ll come. And once we get started you won’t be able to sack us — not while the fish are bitin’!”
In all parts of the world the “hill billies” are — well, I won’t say greater thieves — but they are more enterprising and resourceful than those of the flat. They have to be, in order to get a living. Walter Scott himself wrote:
Ask we this barren hill we tread
For fatted steer and household bread?
The American hill billies who went without boots and lived mostly on plug tobacco and moonshine liquor were classic examples. We had nothing quite like them in Australia, but we did the best we could.
By way of curing some sort of nervous breakdown I found myself for some years a hill billy, on 40,000 acres, consisting mainly of country that had been left over after the rest of the world was made.
The place had a history. It had been taken up in the early days by a man who had no capital and no station plant except a wheelbarrow. He built himself some sort of a humpy, got an assigned servant, and set out to build some yards. Yards and a branding iron were all that they wanted in those days to get a start in life. Moving the timber for the yards was a problem, but he solved it by hitching himself on with a sort of harness to the front of the wheelbarrow, while the assigned servant held up the handles and “drove” his boss, giving him such directions as “come over to the left a bit,” “keep away from that gully,” “look out the barrow don’t run over you down this slope” and so on.
After a time this got on his nerves, and he sold out to a member of the Ryrie family, who did some real pioneering There were girls in the family, and one of them — afterwards known to hundreds and hundreds of patients as Matron Ryrie of The Terraces hospital — killed sheep when the men were not at home, and carried all the water for the house in buckets from the river.
Then came John MacDonald as next owner, a hardy and determined Scot, who afterwards became a big financial magnate and breeder of three Derby winners at his Mungie Bundie stud; but when he was at this mountain place he had little else than a branding iron and a fixed determination to use it.
The country was unfenced, and one could ride for miles and miles in the ranges seeing nothing but wild horses, wild cattle, wombats, and wallaroos, and hearing at night the chatter of the flying squirrels playing among the gum tree blossoms. His country bounded on a block taken up by a gentleman named Castles, of Cavan, at one time a schoolmaster, who had “gone bush” in the hope of making some money. Some of Mr. Castles’s old pupils, sons of William Lee, who founded a then priceless stud of Shorthorns, gave Castles some breeding stock — Lee bulls and cows.
A schoolmaster was hardly the man to handle that country. Some of his young bulls got away, and their stock ran wild, unknown, unbranded, and mixed up with all sorts of pike-horned scrubbers which had escaped from other people.
All these unbranded clean-skins were the lawful property of anyone who could yard them, and MacDonald got them out of the mountains, not in tens and twenties, but in hundreds. Starting out at daylight with a couple of cattle dogs and a stockwhip, he took after the wild mobs; and when in after years I asked the oldest inhabitant whether MacDonald had been a good rider, he said: “Well, nothing out of the ordinary in the buckjumping line, but put him after a clean-skin and he’d show you some class. He’d take two or three falls rather than let a clean-skin get away from him.”
He built trap yards away up in the mountains, sometimes working on by moonlight after his men had gone to camp and his trap-yards were still there when I took the place. Unfortunately, by that time, the supply of clean-skins was exhausted.
It was to this mountain station that I succeeded when I went back to the bush.
As a station proposition it was best avoided; as a homestead there was nothing better. We had eight miles of a trout river, which ran all the year round, clear and cold in summer, a fierce snow-fed torrent in winter. As the sun was setting, the lyre-birds came out of their fastnesses and called to each other across the valley, imitating everything that they had ever heard. Gorgeous lories came and sat in rows on the spouting that ran round the verandah, protesting shrilly when their tails were pulled by the children. Bower birds with an uncanny scent for fruit would come hurrying up from the end of the garden when the housewife started to peel apples, and would sit on the window-sill of the kitchen, looking expectantly into the room.
Part of the run was enclosed by a dingo-proof fence of thirteen wires, with a strand of barbed wire at top and bottom; and outside of this there were about ten thousand acres of unfenced country, where one could put sheep when there was any water, and chance the dingoes coming in from Lobb’s Hole.
One winter they came in when there were a couple of inches of snow on the ground, and the fiery cross was sent round to the neighbouring stations; for the presence of a “‘dorg” will make the hill people leave all other work and go after him. We mustered some eight or ten armed men, and as I rode in front on a cream-coloured mountain pony I happened to look round at the overcoated and armed figures following me through the snow.
“Where,” I thought, “have I seen that picture before!” And then I remembered it. Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow! I, too, retreated from the mountain Moscow, fortunately with less loss than Napoleon, and resumed city life, not without regrets.
An Execution And A Royal Pardon
Dramas of Yesterday
How Morant Shot A Padre
We all know how Dreyfus was sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island and how he was subsequently restored to citizenship; among other memories of mine is that of the convict Edmund Galley, who was sentenced to death for murder and afterwards pardoned and compensated. As it so happens, I knew Galley fairly well—as well as a young boy could be said to know an old “lifer,” and so it may be worth while to relate his story from the Australian end.
I first met him when I was sent out in a spring cart to take his weekly rations. As the old song says:—
“Ten pounds of flour, ten pounds of meat,
some sugar, and some tea
Are all they give to a hungry man to last
till the seventh day.”
Out I would go past the Bullock Hill and up Kuryong Creek, through unfenced country till I saw the bark roof and slab walls of Galley’s hut. He was always on the lookout for the cart—all the shepherds except the mad ones were on the watch for the cart on ration day—and as soon as I hove in sight he would leave his sheep and come trotting down to the hut.
He was a little, hard, wiry Englishman, perhaps a provincial of some sort, though I have no recollection of his using any dialect. On my first visit he looked hard at me to see whether I could by any possibility be the man who committed the murder for which he had been sentenced to death. This was his obsession.
“Will you come in and have some tea? You’re not afraid of me, are ye?” he asked.
I knew nothing about Galley except that he was a sent-out man—one of the “Old Hands”—so I said that I was not a bit afraid of him.
This seemed to indicate a lack of appreciation of his importance, so he came out with his story, all of a rush.
“I’m sent out for life,” he said, “sent out for a murder I never done. There’s lots would be afraid of me, I know the man that done it, though I never knew his right name, ‘Twas a man they called the Kentish Hero. He got lagged for something else afterwards and he’s out here somewhere now, and some day I’ll find him.”
Later on, I used to take Galley’s rations to a new hut which he shared with a man named Howard, who had a wife and some half-dozen children. This mixed menage seemed to get along well and Galley must have welcomed the change from solitude; but, one day, there arrived at the homestead a rider on a sweating horse to say that Howard had been found dead at the foot of a tree with his skull crushed in and nothing to show how it happened.
Rumour ran rife round the scattered huts and homesteads that Galley and Howard had had a quarrel and that this was the result. By the time that the story had got a good start people had already invented the cause of the quarrel and added all sorts of picturesque details. The Yass police were called in; and, with Galley’s record at his back, things might have gone hard with him, only that the police puzzled out the explanation.
Howard had been ringbarking a tree when he was killed. A large branch of dead timber was found lying alongside his body. Marks on the tree-trunk showed that this branch had been leaning against the tree and that the vibration caused by the ringbarking had made it slip off the tree-trunk, killing Howard with a glancing blow as it fell. Some of Howard’s hair was found on the butt of the branch.
To try to upset a conviction in those days was like trying to take Gibraltar with a rowing boat, but there must have been a strong doubt as to the justice of Galley’s original conviction. The “Exeter Times” (England) took up the case; members of Parliament brought up the matter in the House of Commons; and years after the conviction a request was made for testimonials as to his character in Australia. These were signed by my father, by Henry Brown, and by Walter Friend, a brother-in-law of Henry Brown. All were magistrates of the colony, and Walter Friend and Henry Brown were wealthy and influential men.
Walter Friend was a hard-headed business man. His name carried weight, and after the testimonials arrived the Law in England admitted that it had made a mistake, and issued a Royal pardon to Galley in 1879. The authorities also awarded Galley the sum of a thousand pounds as compensation for the wrong done him and of this compensation money my father was made trustee, to administer it at his discretion for Galley’s benefit.
My bush upbringing had made me tolerant of the battlers of this world, for, but for the grace of God, I might have been one myself. Here is a story of a celebrity with whose career I managed to get mixed up.
In my mail one morning I found a letter from an uncle of mine, a hard-headed grazier who had been through the mill; who had been broke and had made a fortune; and who had accumulated a great knowledge of the ways of the world.
He wrote: “There is a man going down from here to Sydney, and he says he is going to call on you. His name is Morant. He says he is the son of an English Admiral, and he has good manners, and education. He can do anything better than most people; can write verses; break in horses; trap dingoes, yard scrub cattle; dance, run, fight, drink, and borrow money; anything except work. I don’t know what is the matter with the chap. He seems to be brimming over with flashness, for he will do any dare-devil thing so long as there is a crowd to watch him. He jumped a horse over a stiff three-rail fence one dark night by the light of two matches which he had placed on the posts!”
That same afternoon a bronzed, clean-shaven man of about thirty, well set up, with the quick walk of a man used to getting on young horses, clear, confident eyes, radiating health and vitality, walked into the office and introduced himself as Morant.
“I’ve been stopping with your uncle, Arthur Harton,” he said, “and when he heard I was coming to Sydney he told me to be sure and call on you. Fine man isn’t he? He knows me well. He said if anybody could show me round Sydney you could.”
This set things going, so to speak, and the talk drifted from stag-hunting on Exmoor to galloping up alongside wild cattle and ripping them with a knife, in the scrubs at the back of Dubbo, which, in those days, was quite far-out country. We had a hunt club in Sydney in those days, and he said that he must get a horse and come out with us. He talked like a man without a care in the world. I found myself comparing him with the picturesque heroes of the past who fought for their own hand. Nowadays we would call him a case for a psychologist. Yet, he was no Micawber; he did not wait for something to turn up; he tried to turn it up for himself.
Time passed on golden wings while we were chatting about the bush, and it was just on three o’clock when he hurriedly looked at his watch. “By Jove,” he said, “I’ve enjoyed myself so much talking to you that I forgot I had to cash a cheque. And now the banks will be shut. Perhaps you could cash a cheque for me for a fiver. I’ve got to pay some bills and I’ve run myself clean out of money.”
Almost unwillingly I said that I did not have it about me, and suggested that he should let his creditors wait till the banks opened in the morning. He dismissed the matter with a wave of his hand, and neither then nor at any other time did he bear any malice for the refusal.
His reputation as a daring rider, and his relationship to an admiral, made him a social lion. Asked to stay with some of our best people, he turned up riding a pony, with his luggage on the saddle in front of him. This was a great act, and went over big. He got them to take in the pony for him and borrowed some clothes from the son of the house who happened to be about his own size. Then a charity gymkhana was organised, and a buckjumper was wanted to give tone to the proceedings. Who could provide a buckjumper so well as Mr. Morant? He fairly lived on buckjumpers away back in his own wilds. He borrowed ten pounds from the gymkhana committee to pay the expenses of the buckjumper, a celebrated grey animal which he meant to bring down from Dubbo by rail. This also went over big, and people flocked to the gymkhana to see the celebrated Morant’s celebrated buckjumper.
Unfortunately the man who owned the buckjumper knew Morant quite well; and while he was unwilling to lend his animal to anybody, his unwillingness to lend it to Morant amounted to an obsession. Did this disconcert our hero? Not a bit of it. He went out to the saleyards and agreed with a dealer who bought horses by the carload to break in for him a grey horse, one of a truckload; and this horse (as it turned out) knew no more about buckjumping than it knew about the Einstein theory. The animal’s performance at the gymkhana was such a “flop” that the committee squealed like anything about their ten pounds, and said that they were going to stick to the grey horse until they got their money back. A fair enough proposition, until the owner of the so-called buckjumper turned up and offered to give the secretary of the gymkhana a lift under the ear if he did not give the animal back.
After this, our hero’s reception at his temporary home was anything but enthusiastic, but, with his queer flair for theatricalism, he managed to make an exit with a certain amount of glory. He said that he was called away suddenly to Queensland, to inspect a station, and as they had treated him so well he wished to present the son of the house with the pony which would be of no further use to him. He would take no denial, and he handed over the pony with a sort of Arab’s farewell to his steed—a touching scene which lingered in their memories till the owner of the pony cast up and took it away, saying that he had paid Morant a couple of pounds to quieten it for a little girl!
Such was the man who was shot by the British Army after a court-martial for defying Army orders and shooting a prisoner in revenge for the death of one of his best friends. I happened to know all that was to be known about Morant’s trial and execution, for the lawyer who defended him, one J. F. Thomas, of Tenterfield, asked me to publish all the papers—evidence, cablegrams, decision, appeal, etc.,—a bulky bundle which he carried about with him, grieving over the matter till it seriously affected his mind. He blamed himself, in a measure, for the death of Morant, but I could not see that he had failed to do the best he could with a very unpleasant business.
This was the story of the Morant affair, told me by Thomas, and confirmed by reference to his bundle of papers:—
“Morant,” he said, “was detached from his own command in South Africa, and was acting under the orders of a civilian official named Taylor, who knew the country and had been appointed by the Army to go round the out-lying farms requisitioning cattle. They knew that Morant was a good hand with cattle, so that was how he was put on the job. He had a few men under him, and pretty well a free hand in anything he did. They had to keep their eyes open, for wandering bands of the enemy used sometimes to have a shot at them, and in one of these skirmishes a mate of Morant was killed.
“Morant told me,” said Thomas, “that he had orders not to let all and sundry wander about the country without proper permits. He questioned a man who was driving across country in a Cape cart on some business or other. According to Morant, he thought that this man was acting as a spy. It so happened that Morant had just seen the body of his mate and claimed that it had been disfigured; that somebody had trodden on the face. Of course, everybody was excited, not knowing when there might be another skirmish. Morant told his men that he had orders to shoot anybody in reprisal for a murder or for disfiguring the dead or for spying. So he took this man out of his Cape cart and shot him! Unfortunately, the victim turned out to be a Dutch padre.”
Somehow, I seemed to see the whole thing — the little group of anxious-faced men, the half-comprehending Dutchman standing by, and Morant, drunk with his one day of power. For years he had shifted and battled and contrived; had been always the under-dog, and now he was up in the stirrups. It went to his head like wine.
“Morant was sentenced to death,” Thomas said, “but I never believed the execution would be carried out. When I found that the thing was serious I pulled every string I could; got permission to wire to Australia, and asked for the case to be reopened so that I might put in a proper defence. It was of no use. Morant had to go. He died game. But I wake up in the night now, feeling that Morant must have believed that he had some authority for what he did and that I ought to have been able to convince the Court of it.”
Poor Thomas! He died years ago, and has taken his troubles to a Higher Tribunal.
[Note.—Mr. F. M. Cutlack writes: One takes a man as he finds him in this life, especially in the bush, but as one who knew Harry Harbord Morant well and affectionately—adventurer as he was—I deplore that “Banjo” Paterson does not even remember his universally known nickname of “The Breaker,” the name with which for years he signed his verses in “The Bulletin.” Perhaps he deceived some people, and left them angry, but he was known in all the back country from Queensland to the Lower Murray, and great numbers of other people of careless habits—or even of some scrupulous rectitude—loved him despite his faults. A great cry of protest went up when he was shot—reprieved too late we heard, by Kitchener—and when I last saw it, in 1913, his grave was the greenest in Pretoria Cemetery, and so kept by an Australian committee. His Boer War story is told in “Scapegoats of Empire,” by Lieutenant Witton, one of those court-martialled with him, and also in a smaller volume, “Bush-veldt and Buccaneer,” written under a pen-name by Frank Fox, then of the “Bulletin” staff.]
Political Giants And “Pilgrim Fathers”
New Hebrides Venture
A Magnificent Failure
In this casual chronicle it is impossible to give more than a sort of thumbnail sketch of some celebrities who strutted their hour upon the stage. Plutarch, in his “Lives,” did not disdain personal details; in fact, it was the details which made the “Lives” such a success. Here goes, then, to follow far behind Plutarch’s tracks, deeply imprinted as they are in the soil of time.
With whom shall we begin? Sir Henry Parkes and Sir John Robertson stand out like lighthouses of the past. It so happened that I came in personal contact with these two great men, getting a sort of worm’s eye view of them, and of their activities.
Sir Henry Parkes, with his mane of silvery hair and his Nestorian beard, adopted the role of the aloof potentate; in the argot of the prize-ring, he let the other fellow do the loading, and then countered him heavily. It is said that a field-marshal in war cannot afford to have any friends, and Parkes was a field-marshal, plus. Not but what he could relax on occasion, but always in an aloof, Jupiterish sort of way. I remember seeing him at a public dinner when the waiter poured him out a glass of champagne from a full bottle, and then moved off with it.
“Leave that bottle,” said the statesman, who always got the temperance vote. “I’ll finish that and probably another one after it.”
The old man never had any money, though goodness knows he had opportunities enough of getting it “on the side” had he been so minded. On various occasions he came into the lawyer’s office where I was employed, always full of dignity, in a frock coat and a tall hat, to discuss his pecuniary complications. But personal finance bored him. He despised money; he was Sir Henry Parkes.
Sir John Robertson was also silver-haired and Nestorian-bearded but he was by nature what the Americans call a “mixer,” prone to sit for hours in clubs or pubs entertaining his cronies; in fact, anybody could be his crony who was found linguistically worthy. He, too had a rough ride over the financial rocks.
In the gloomy days just before the banks shut I was told by one of them to write Sir John what the bank called “a nice firm letter” requesting the payment of some money. The old man came in, ran his eye over the office and asked, through his nose: “Who’s looking after the affairs of this English, Scottish, Continental, Japanese, Australian . . . Bank?”
I said that I was.
“Well, you tell them not to write me any more d—d silly letters,” and with that he went off to the club.
The bank asked what reply Sir John had made to the nice firm letter, and I said that he had given a nice firm answer.
Then there was Jim MacGowan who was (I think) the first Labour Premier — a serious-minded man, a Sunday school teacher, and with enough personal magnetism to hold his inexperienced team together.
The Labour people in those days preferred solid leaders like MacGowan and J. C. Watson (who had been an “Evening News” compositor) to the Dantons and Robespierres and fiery Ruperts of debate. Not but what some of them had their human side. Donald MacDonell, a shearer, after whom MacDonell House is named, came back from an election campaign so hoarse that he could hardly speak. I asked him how the election was going.
He put his mouth close to my ear, and I thought I was going to hear some important political secret.
“Never mind the (adjective) election,” he cloaked, “what’s going to win the Doncaster?”
I think, if I may say so, that there was a lighter touch, more of the rapier and less of the bludgeon about political controversy in those days.
When Graham Berry, Premier of Victoria, appointed himself a delegate to the Home Office to get some amendment of the Constitution, did his enemies assail him with vituperation? Not at all. They hired a Yarra bank orator, a black man, to whose surname of “Henderson” they added the affix “Africanus” to give him some dignity — and sent him home in the same ship with Graham Berry to burlesque the show! Unfortunately, “Henderson Africanus” was blocked somewhere in America, and London missed an historical comedy, if there is such a thing. A pity, too, for it was said of “Henderson Africanus” that he could talk the hind leg off a horse.
Sir George Reid and Sir Edmund Barton were latter-day successors to Parkes and Robertson — Barton all strength and solidity; Reid all repartee and tu quoque.
I saw Reid as a comparatively young man addressing a temperance meeting on behalf of the publicans, pleading for fair play. The temperance people, of course, gave him the “raspberry” and other unseemly noises with some spirited hissing. In a moment of quiet he said: “I came here to answer your arguments, but all I can hear is the ginger-beer bubbling in your brains.”
With all his readiness in speech he was slow to come to a decision. When the kanaka question came up for settlement one way or the other, kanaka or no kanaka, Barton declared himself against the kanakas, but in favour of giving the sugar-growers time to get rid of them. It so happened that I went up in the train with Sir George Reid when he had to declare his policy in Brisbane. There were other Pressmen on the train, and in the intervals of sleeping and eating lollies he put us through a cross examination as to the views of our editors on sugar. After a while the senior reporter drew me aside and said: “You’ll hardly believe it, but George doesn’t know what he is going to say.” Sure enough, in his speech he refused to give any decision, but said that he would go up and see the sugar country for himself.
This drew from some Bull of Bashan at the back a roar of, “Don’t bother to do that George. They’ll send the sugar to you in Sydney.”
This qualified for first place in any “nasty remarks” competition; and Australia remained white when there was every indication of its going black.
I mention this because it was one of the crises of our history.
As these are personal reminiscences I suppose I may be allowed to bore people with some of my experiences in reading and writing.
Looking over the shoulders of the young men of to-day, in trams, I find that they are mostly reading serious literature and high-brow stuff, while the elders are poring over love stories and sensational detective yarns, trying, perhaps, to recapture the past. The more things change the more they are the same. In our day, too, we young men read all the “improving” books we could get.
Henry George, an American compositor and apostle of the single tax, had a tremendous following, and when he came out to Australia we rolled up in thousands to hear him debate against a barrister named Rose. I can remember to this day the magnificent domed forehead of Henry George, gleaming under the gaslight. He was in deadly earnest, but his opponent had been platform grappling from boyhood, and threw punches from all sorts of unexpected directions — punches which disconcerted the philosopher.
Dropping Henry George, someone put me on to another hard one in Thomas Carlyle, and in Carlyle’s “Past and Present” I thought I had found a workable formula for saving the world.
Briefly put, his argument was that men are quite unfit to govern themselves, and that their only hope lies in finding the right leader. Experience later on inclined me to think that there might be something in his theory. Impressionable as I was at the time, I heard a big Government contractor say that if six hundred men were left leaderless on any job two hundred of them would go off after women, two hundred after strong drink, while the spiritless remainder would go on with the job! A very great man, this Carlyle, but there is a difficulty in convincing the world that it is unfit to govern itself. I read so much of his work that I can write fairly good Carlyle myself on occasion. For instance, how about this: “Consider man, insignificant insect, around him looms the universe, lurid, lit by lightnings; beneath him waits the Old Boy, expectant, disillusioned; and were man but worthy to know it, his destiny lies in the stars”?
Writing, too — what are we to say about writing ?
A man may have the luck to light on a line of his own — such as rough Australian verse — and get away with it. Failing this, the would-be writer has to go up against Shakespeare and Alexandre Dumas, which is like trying to take Gibraltar with a rowing boat.
Journalism, too, is like literature — everybody is at it. In certain universities they have schools of journalism; but without feeling particularly certain about anything I am inclined to think that the world will have little time for the machine-made journalist. The world wants the choice cuts in journalism, even though the butcher use his cleaver somewhat roughly.
For this reason I say nothing about wars, though I was in three of them as a spectator, and in one as an officer in the remount service.
The war is by now a ten-times-told tale, and there is little left to be said unless by a Lloyd George, who could have won the war in no time had it not been for the infernal Generals!
Apart from such studious activities, I once came very near being an Empire builder — if I had had any luck.
James Burns, or perhaps I had better give him his proper title, Colonel the Honourable Sir James Burns, of the firm of Burns, Philp and Co., was, at all events, as near to the Empire builder as we ever saw in these parts.
A thin and austere Scotsman of the old son-of-the-manse type, few people would have taken him for what he was — an outstanding financial genius. The great O’Sullivan might toss millions about with the abandon of an elephant throwing hay; but James Burns risked his company’s money, and his own, in ventures which required a lot of pluck and a lot of foresight. They were merchants, ship-owners, island traders, and graziers; putting the firm’s money behind settlers away up on the Queensland rivers where they were liable to be scuppered by blacks at any time; financing storekeepers in little one-pub towns, where these storekeepers found grubstakes for prospectors and miners; sending their vessels to the islands where no boat’s crew dared land unless the bow-man had a loaded rifle; running small steamers to places where there were no wharves, and the boat just tied up alongside the bank. Anywhere that there was a risk to be run and money to be made you would see the flag of James Burns. If he had been dealing in diamonds, instead of copra and bananas, he might have been another Cecil Rhodes.
I was sent by the “Sydney Morning Herald” to accompany a mob of Australian settlers which Sir James was sending to colonise the New Hebrides. A sort of Pilgrim Fathers affair, this, the settlers going down to live among wild savages in the land of the golden cocoanut. I found “Cecil Rhodes’s” under-study in his office and he gave me the plan of operations.
He said that his firm had bought thousands of acres in the New Hebrides. “Some,” he said, “we bought from the old Scotch company which lost a lot of money in the islands and sold out to us; other areas we bought from native chiefs, traders, and so on. Now the French have gone down there, and we may have to fight for our land. The Scotch company areas should be all right as they were taken up and occupied before the French made any claim, but where we bought, say, a thousand acres from a native chief the French are now claiming that they bought the same land from the same chief or that they bought the same land from another chief who had a better right to it. Nothing can be settled till a Court is appointed to confirm the titles. We are sending these settlers down there so that, when a Court does sit we will have men on the spot in possession.”
This promised some adventure.
Soon I was at sea with the Australian Pilgrim Fathers in search of the land of the golden cocoanut. This was not a bad ship, except that at some time or other she had tried to shift a coral reef and had got a sort of kink in her keel. The captain, a gigantic New Zealander, said she was inclined to steer a bit north by south unless carefully watched! “If you let her alone,” he added, “she will go round and round in circles; but she’s quite good enough for a trade where, any dark night, you might walk her right up on to a reef which has risen out of the sea since the last time you were along. There’s a volcano on Ambrym — you’ll see that — and I wouldn’t be surprised, any night, to see fire and a new island coming up out of the sea. We’ve got the missionaries on board; it’s their synod trip. They’re good, well-meaning chaps, nearly all doctors, who do a lot for the niggers.”
“Are the niggers dangerous?”
“They were until they got rifles. They could not hit a barn with a rifle if you put ’em inside it. If they want to kill a man they hide in the jungle and knock him with a waddy.”
I made friends with the settlers and found they were the genuine article — hard-handed, anxious-faced men, miners, farmers, shearers, mechanics — all off to tackle a job of which they knew little in a land of which they knew less. Many of them were born adventurers who would start off anywhere at the drop of a hat, just for the sake of seeing something new. I fancy there must have been some of this sort with the original American Pilgrim Fathers.
Leaving Lord Howe we hit the real tropics and began to have adventure. A lady passenger came aboard at Norfolk Island and went almost straight to the ladies’ bathroom. The ship had been fumigated for cockroaches before leaving Sydney, and the cockroaches, opposing instinct to science, had crawled into the tap of the bath. When she turned on the water she got a stream of cockroaches, all in the highest health and spirits. They fled in various directions, drying their whiskers as they went. It was just a first taste of the tropics, a prelude to the performances of the tree-climbing crab and the cocoanut-eating rat, the lawyer vine, and the stinging tree.
Here, too, the Pilgrim Fathers got the first taste of what was ahead of them. They hired horses and went riding inland, where they saw Norfolk Island pines, and loquats, and bananas, and oranges, growing wild. Round the homesteads they saw kumeras (yams), sweet potatoes, coffee, fowls, ducks, pigeons, pigs, and cattle.
Our settlers had a sort of Parliament in perpetual session, comparing notes and experiences, quoting from pamphlets and political reports, in none of which they had any faith. Someone mentioned the humidity of the climate, which brought forward a man who had been sleeper-cutting on the Johnstone River.
“I ain’t afraid of the humidity,” he said. “I stood the Johnstone River for two years. We used to wrap our matches in flannel and put them in a little bottle. Then we’d wrap that bottle in flannel and put it in a pickle bottle. Then we’d put the pickle bottle inside our coats, and then the matches would be wet. Bring on your humidity!”
What in the end stopped the development of the scheme? Simply that the French and English Governments waited to see what would turn up before authorising any decision about the land. Some of the settlers went on with their work but were met with tariffs, while their French neighbours were encouraged with bonuses! That was the end of a glorious undertaking
Project Gutenberg Australia