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Title: John Arthur Barry - An Interview and Obituary
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John Arthur Barry
An Interview and Obituary

Project Gutenburg Australia



Interview from The Bulletin
Obituary from The Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser


John Arthur Barry

The Bulletin, April 27, 1911


When a man has written a good deal about this country, and has lived in it for a number of years, he is justly claimed as an Australian writer, no matter where he happened to be born. The next best thing to being born in Australia is being born in a place like Devon, which gave Drake and many famous men to naval history. So J. A. Barry began well by arriving in this life at Torquay, in the year 1850. He went the proper Devonshire way, by taking to shipboard at the age of 14. Since then he has had experiences on sea and land that fall to the lot of few who write, and further on is printed his own brief summary of his career to date.

Barry’s family in England knew the Lockwood Kiplings, and when young Rudyard came from India to go to school, an acquaintance began which resulted, years afterwards, in Barry’s first book being launched from a London publisher’s with a ribbon of Kipling’s verse streaming from the fore-peak. (A nautical simile comes naturally after reading so many of Barry’s yarns.) The book was Steve Brown’s Bunyip (1893), reprinted six times in England, and issued again in a new edition by the N.S.W. Bookstall Co. in 1905. It was followed by In the Great Deep (1895), The Luck of the Native Born (1898: reprinted by N.S.W. Bookstall Co., 1908), A Son of the Sea (1899), Against the Tides of Fate (1899), Red Lion and Blue Star (1902) and Sea Yarns (1910). Old and New Sydney (1903) represents material grubbed out of the records, and dressed up to make a continuous history of the city. It was by far the hardest job of the lot, for, to all good yarn spinners, the writing of formal history is something like writing in a straight-jacket. All save one of the books above mentioned contain odd lengths of yarn. In two cases, The Luck of the Native Born and A Son of the Sea, it runs as a continuous narrative from cover to cover. These are not novels; the plots are too slight, and the characterisation weak: they are episodes through which the hero moves to his destined end, and could be resolved into elements similar to the short stories in the other books.

The main thing about all the yarns is that things happen in them, and happen quickly. They comprise a large assortment of mining and droving adventures, piracy, salvage, wrecks, murders, and hilarious comedy. The grim tragedy of “Sojur Jim” is a few pages from the amusing “Books at Barracaboo”; the ghastly “Red Warder of the Reef” rubs shoulders with the comical fight between the Red Lion and Blue Star captains.

Barry is most at home when his yarns are at sea, and one deduces from them that he has met more good captains than bad, that the men of to-day are as capable as those of the past, and that it is a great thing to go to sea, but better to leave it. He does not attempt “fine writing”; and his yarns depend upon incident rather than style. In them all will be found a hearty spirit in vigorous action, and his books have an honorable place in the small company of good sea stories.

The Author now answers “a call”:

* * * * * * * * *

“What did you come to sea for, you d—d fool?” was a question often put to me during the course of my first voyage, by shipmates fore and aft the swift little Australian trader in which I partly served my time.

And no matter what the reply might be, it was capped by:—“The man who’d come to sea for pleasure ’d go to Hell for pastime.”

And, certainly, the first voyage was somewhat of a nightmare. But rather than confess it when one got ashore again among admiring friends and schoolfellows—gilt buttons shining on the smart uniform, house-flag flying on the gold-braided cap—one would suffer worse tortures than ever fell to the lot of green sea-apprentice.

This was in the early ’60’s; and I was just 14 when a pig of a second mate, as soon as I set foot on board, gave me my first taste of “a life on the ocean wave” by demanding—“What in Hell’s blazes I was gawping at?” Adding, as he dipped my hands into a tar-bucket, that—“Gentlemen’s sons on board this packet ain’t no better than blackfellers dawgs.”

And so we apprentices—“owners’ hard bargains,” as the men called us—found it. But the next voyage, in another vessel, was a pleasanter experience. The third, in my own estimation, turned me out a hardened salt. Then, tired of the somewhat monotonous Australian trade, and dreaming of the “Tropics,” I changed over into the same firm’s West Indian vessels. Rum, sugar, and molasses—Savannah le Mar, Montego Bay, and various other ports. Shockingly slow work on the old droghers, after the dashing passages made by the beautiful clippers that we ran to and from the Antipodes with the first clips of the season.

“Yellow Jack” presently gave me more “Tropics” than I had bargained for, and sent me home, just out of my time, for a spell among the Devonshire orchards.

To China in a “flier” was the next trip— third of her. Ocean-racing with the early teas; mending sails by lamplight, and bending them in a gale of wind; carrying on in weather that other ships hove-to in; leaving a wake of stuns’l-booms from the River Min to the Western Islands. Wet, always wet decks a-wash. A double crew standing by to make and take in sail as the big yacht roared across the seas, smothered in seething brine. A thousand pounds to the first ship home! We came second in one of the great historic races.

Sometimes a shipmate of those distant years turns up, and we drink to the memory of “Ariel,” “Sir Lancelot,” and all their noble, vanished company; and to the health of the splendid Sailormen who ran them.

Then followed a long spell in Far Eastern waters on craft of various kinds and of varying degrees of iniquity, carrying anything from coolies to “general,” and not seldom “contraband.”

By this time I had passed for “first.” But I never stood on the order of my going— was as often in the fo’c’s’le as on the poop. Thus, one day, “flyblown” in Singapore, I shipped A.B. on a barque bound for Adelaide. She turned out the hungriest sort of “limejuicer” conceivable. To appease our clamorous bellies we made a hole in her cargo as big as TIIE BULLETIN office. On arrival at the Semaphore, to escape consequences, the same night we pulled ashore and disappeared into a mangrove swamp, turning up later on at the Echunga Diggings, and riddling “Sailor Gully” with shafts of grotesque design. For a few months it was good fun and bare “tucker,” Then the sea began calling.

Early in the 70’s, after several voyages to South Africa and the East Indies, I picked myself up at Brisbane, mate of a small British ship. The Palmer breaking out, I left her quite informally, and journeyed up-country with several other venturesome sailormen—some of whom left their bones there. And in due course I crawled back to Cooktown with the survivors, dead broke and half-blind with sandy blight.

A few years among the South Sea Islands and on the coast, and then for the second time I strayed into the bush, and entered on a new phase of existence, ranging from “humping bluey,” droving, and boundary-riding, to managing a station. “Coffee in the morning and no fore-royal” now. All night in and “full and plenty.” No more keeping of dreary watches; no more clawing one’s way aloft buffeted by wind, and drenched with rain. No “bucko” mates and hazing skippers; no running foul of hungry hookers, where the diet consisted mainly of weevils and limejuice!

It was in the Bush that the making of stories began. I was a sheep overseer at the time; and one day, taking a certain titled personage to inspect a run, the two of us escaped a bad bush fire by the skin of our teeth. A letter to literary folk at home relating the incident, probably, somewhat embroidered, found its way in guise of a descriptive article into the columns of a big London daily newspaper.

And presently a cheque, equal to several months’ salary, made a simple sailorman think that a glittering and easy way to wealth illimitable had suddenly opened out before him.

Thus, as time passed, many Australian newspapers, including, of course, THE BULLETIN, heard from me. And, on the whole —although not financially following the London daily’s example to any considerable extent—they treated me very well indeed, and printed, and paid for, heaps of sea and bush stories. So did the English and American magazines. Of some British publishers. perhaps, the least said the better. Nevertheless, they have produced seven books of mine.

For a good many years the settled groove of uneventful city journalism has claimed me. But at intervals there comes a desire to put more sea into printed words. A continuous story, South Sea Sailormen, is now on offer in the London markets.


The Late John Arthur Barry

The Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser - September 27, 1911

John Arthur Barry spoke in prose. Of all his delightful stories, many of which have appeared in the “Sydney Mail,” the collection, published under the title of “Steve Brown’s Bunyip,” will live longest in memory. But it was not of the bush only he wrote. A roving, seafaring life, which started when he was only 13 years of age, and lasted for many years, led him into many adventures, the most stirring being a fighting expedition in Mexico. With many of his sea yarns Australians are already acquainted, but the Englishman knows J. A. Barry better through “Blackwood’s,” “Windsor,” and other magazines. He came, on his mother’s side, from a literary family, for one of her sisters, Dinah Maria Mulock (Mrs. G. L. Craik) has made her name famous in British literature by the many novels she wrote, of which “John Halifax, Gentleman,” “The Ogilvies,” “Olive,” and “Agatha’s Husband,” still retain the affection of thousands of readers. Another sister, Mrs. Hooper, was also a writer of novels, but not of the same calibre as Mrs. Craik. Another connection was Charles Longman, the well-known publisher. and Wynn Hooper, financial commissioner of “The Times.”

Barry’s acquaintance with Australia began in 1870, first as a digger in the north of Queensland, afterwards as drover, boundary rider, and sheep overseer in New South Wales. It was in the quietude of the bush that most of his best stories were written, and although the comfortable quarters of the homestead were open to him, he preferred the silent hut, where he lived a hermit’s life. The loneliness of it was only brought home to him when the station where he was employed changed ownership, and he decided to give city life a trial. Plenty of literary work kept back his longings for the bush, but the turmoil of the city was not to his liking, and his health proving indifferent, he decided to revisit the place where he was born, Torquay, in Devonshire, and the many friends and relatives he had not seen for 24 years. He took with him the manuscripts of many stories, with the view of having them published in London, and arrived there in the early part of 1893.

There he became acquainted with many whose names are as well-known in Australia as in Great Britain, and the following extracts from a long letter the writer received from him will show how he fared there: — “Of all my earliest literary and artistic friends, Charles Keene was the oldest! But he has gone, and so have others I miss. My aunt, Mrs. G. L. Craik (‘of ‘John Halifax. Gentleman,’ fame), died six years ago, and her sister, Mrs. Hooper, is now very old. I have met Maurice MacMillan and Charles Longman (both publishers) at many dinner parties. They tell me that Australian stories are at a discount, and so is everything Australian. Mrs. Lockwood Kipling is staying at my aunt’s, and I met her son Rudyard, also Burne Jones, his uncle. ‘Ruddy’ has given me great encouragement to write, and will write one of his charming poems — an introductory one — for my first collection of stories (‘Steve Brown’s Bunyip’). . . . Yesterday I lunched at the Reform Club with Justin M’Carthy and Wynn Hooper, and am going this week to see old Justin M’Carthy, and be introduced to Mrs. Campbell Praed. I have been two or three times to Sir Edwin Arnold’s place, and enjoyed his conversation greatly. I have met no end of literary swells, and although I have got little good out of them, they are very nice, and I like to talk with them. I am contributing articles and stories to the ‘Globe’ and ‘Graphic.’ The only Australian who has got the run of the papers here is Hornung, and the Australian book most widely read is Rolf Boldrewood’s ‘Robbery Under Arms,’ but this is the only work he is known by in England. I am going next week on a visit for some days to the Master of Clare College, Cambridge. . . I met A. J. Balfour, the Opposition leader, at Prince’s Club, the other day, and he asked me many questions about Australia. . . I have seen all the Royalties, but am getting rather tired of the life here, and the ‘bell-topper’ I have to wear. . . Wynne Hooper has insisted on putting me up for the Saville, of which Justin M’Carthy is a member also, but as it takes about 10 years before my turn comes for consideration, I am not anxious for the distinction. . . I shall be glad to see dear old Australia again.’

Barry found the price paid for stories in English magazines a wretched one, with the exception of “Blackwood’s.” The story accepted by it evoked considerable notice, and before he left England he had contracted with the owners of “Windsor” to contribute 12 stories at a price far beyond that given by it to their usual contributors. The bush saw him no more after his return to Sydney, except for an occasional fleety visit, and he settled down to newspaper life as a leader writer. In disposition he was charming. He was not married.



Steve Brown's Bunyip and Other Stories (1893)
In the Great Deep: Tales of the Sea (1896)
The Luck of the Native Born (1898)
Against the Tides of Fate (1899)
A Son of the Sea (1899)
Red Lion and Blue Star (1902)
The city of Sydney (1904)
Sea Yarns (1910)
South Sea Shipmates (1913)


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