An Australian Parsonage/Chapter VI

CHAPTER VI.

Drawbacks to progreas of West Australia—"Dangerous" country—Mr. Drummond identifies poisonous plants—Land when infested by them useless for pastoral purposes—Evil partly remediable—Intelligence required in shepherds—Impossibility on many roads of employing bullock-wagons—Scattered nature of cultivated districts—Narrow news of things in general—Difficulty of introducing tramways or railroads—Grain-bearing eastern districts—Railroad anxiously demanded—Can be formed only by Government funds—Different interests amongst the colonists—Want of means of locomotion—Monotony of colonial life—Seasons in Southern hemisphere—Sunday Lessons seem inappropriate—Hot weather at Christmas—Trouble of cooking—St. Thomas seems out of place at Midsummer—An old-fashioned Christmas—Excitement caused by cow—Khourabene makes a well-timed visit—Boils plum-pudding—Khourabene's old master—Servants' wages paid in live-stock—Temporary prosperity of colony—Reminiscences of hard-work and poverty—Listening for coach-wheels—Grinding flour by hand—Colonial-made steam-engine—Weddings and "traps"—More luxuries and less comfort—Shepherds and March-winds—Gin in the sheepfold—Shepherdesses—Spears in thatch—Poisoned sheep—Bringing home pigs—Gentleness necessary in tending sheep—Anecdote of little swineherd.

One of the peculiarities which has militated against the onward progress of Western Australia is the scattered character of its various settled districts, caused by the large intervals of sterile or dangerous country by which the tracts of good land are frequently separated from one another. By the word "dangerous" I mean those parts of the country on which the poisonous plants, which have proved so severe a drawback to the prosperity of the colony, exist in such profusion as to render the land unsafe to sheep or cattle.

When the country was first settled the colonists were unable to distinguish the poisonous plants from the harmless ones; their sheep and cattle died, and it was evident that the losses were caused by injurious food of some description; but several years elapsed, and much careful inquiry was needed, before the true authors of the mischief could be identified. The settlers owe a debt of gratitude to the late Mr. Drummond, the well-known colonial botanist, for his careful researches and accurate experiments by which the injurious plants were at length discovered, and the best means of destroying them were pointed out.

The most deadly of these plants are of the gastralobrum tribe, and in cases where a large extent of country is infested by them the land is useless for all pastoral purposes. Horses do not seem to suffer, though, as I have already said, a few cases are on record in which they too have perished from feeding upon the "poison," the term always used in the colony to express the existence of any or all of these deleterious plants. "There is poison upon that run"—"the sheep have been among the poison"—and similar expressions are constantly in use. If, however, the "poison" is not prevalent over the whole extent of the country, but only scattered thinly over certain parts of it, it is possible to extirpate it in the course of two or three years by care and watchfulness, while, in the meantime, an intelligent shepherd may succeed in preventing his flock from frequenting the dangerous parts of the run.

In other cases, where the plants are confined to a few localities only, but too plentiful on those spots to allow of total eradication, the evil may be partly combated by fencing out the sheep and cattle from such places, usually small hills, and thus rendering the rest of the land safe and profitable. But it is useless to attempt tasks of this nature, which require not only an energetic employer but also intelligent and careful servants, until a far larger supply of respectable free labour than has yet found its way to Swan River can be introduced. The lazy London pickpocket or housebreaker may do well enough for a shepherd or hut-keeper upon the plains of Victoria or New South Wales, but amongst the forests of West Australia he is worse than useless. Hence the constant cry from the settlers to their friends in England, "above all things send us out respectable intelligent shepherds."

Another evil has arisen from the existence of these poisonous plants; namely, that the internal circulation of the colony has been impeded by the risk involved in driving herds of cattle or flocks of sheep from one district to another. So great is this danger, in some parts of the country, that the Government has been obliged to employ a large force of convicts to grub up the poisonous plants for a distance of a hundred yards on each side of some of the main roads, in order to provide a strip of land over which the animals may be driven with some approach to security, though even with this precaution it is necessary to hurry them over the journey at a quicker rate than is good for them in order to prevent them from straying out of the prepared belt of land.

It is well known that in many parts of Australia bullocks are preferred to horses for dragging the heavy drays loaded with wool from the country stations to the capital. This method of conveying heavy goods is forbidden to many districts of West Australia, owing to the prevalence of "poison" upon most of the roads—another proof, were more proof wanting, of the serious injury which these plants have done to the colony. But besides these obstacles to the internal communication between the different districts, there are also others arising from the existence of large tracts which are too sterile to repay cultivation, or too deficient in water to be of any use as sheep or cattle runs.

I have already mentioned the large extent of forest through which we passed on our journey from Perth to the eastern districts, and the completely wild character of the whole of the road, with the exception of the country immediately around Guildford. This is but a type of the general character of the whole colony, and of the distances by which the settled portions of its territory are divided from one another. The consequence is that each cleared and cultivated district becomes, as it were, an oasis in the midst of the general desert, only that the desert is not always a stony arid waste, but is often covered with magnificent forests of timber, whilst even its sand plains are for three months in the year brilliant with the most beautiful flowers.

This wide separation of most of the settled districts from one another has been the source of many disadvantages. It has led to a cramped and narrow manner of regarding the general interests of the whole colony, since each settlement has naturally fallen into the habit of looking at its own interests and its own wishes in the first place, without much reflection as to the general welfare of the whole country.

But perhaps the greatest evil of all has been the manner in which the introduction of railways or even tramways into the colony has been affected. To take our own district as an example: the country to the eastward of the Darling Range is the first agricultural district, of any considerable extent, which is met with when travelling from the sea-coast at Fremantle directly into the interior. It ought, therefore, to become the chief granary of the capital. The whole district is a wide one, and might, if fully cultivated, furnish sufficient corn to supply not only all colonial wants, but a large export demand also.

These eastern districts are usually spoken of by the collective title of "over the hills," and contain the little towns of York, Northam, Newcastle, and Beverley—Barladong being one of these, though for reasons which have been already stated, I have given it its native name in these pages. These places lie at distances varying from ten or fifteen to twenty or thirty miles from one another; but the country which intervenes is most of it occupied, and settlers' houses occur pretty thickly, that is, about every three or four miles.

The inhabitants are all employed in the same pursuits, chiefly agricultural farming combined with sheep and cattle breeding, and have therefore similar interests and similar desires. A railroad from some part of the district to Perth is that public work which they wish for most earnestly, and in comparison with which every other work appears to them to be almost useless. Now were there a fair amount of population upon the line of country between Perth and the eastern settlements, there would be a good prospect of such an amount of roadside traffic as to render a railway a paying concern at once; but as there is none, it can only be formed by Government funds, and must depend for success upon a future traffic, to be developed by the increased activity which it would call forth. The same argument applies to almost every public work which can be named—the various districts are so far from one another that each place stands alone; its interests are not the same as even those, perhaps, of its nearest neighbour. The settler at Albany has nothing in common with him at Bunbury; the agriculturist at York knows nothing of the wants of the pearl-fishers at Roebourne; each district has its own needs and its own habits of thinking, and does not trouble itself about what the other parts of the colony may be doing. The expense and the difficulty of travelling are both so great, that the inhabitants of one part of the colony very seldom seem to visit the other districts, and I even knew a lady at Barladong who had not visited Perth, or indeed left her own home, for more than twenty years.

The stationary habits involved in these obstacles to locomotion naturally impart a great sameness to life in West Australia, and furnish little to relate concerning it that is either of exciting interest, or that partakes of the character of adventure. One day is an exact counterpart of the other, with no variety but a change of occupations in accordance with the different seasons of the year. A relation of events therefore, in regular sequence, during the five years that we spent in the colony, could only weary by its monotony; nor have I a hope of interesting my readers, excepting by the selection of such incidents and peculiarities as offer a strong contrast to modes of life in England.

It was a long while before I became accustomed to the change of seasons, and I seemed to lose my count of time with the absence of the landmarks (if such an expression may be permitted) that record its flight in the other hemisphere. There was even a feeling of inappropriateness about the Sunday lessons, which in the old country, long habit makes to harmonize with certain states of weather. For instance, the first morning lesson on the Ninth Sunday after Trinity seems well-timed at home, occurring as it does in the middle of summer, and increasing, by its apparent fitness to the season, our interest in the description of Ahab and Obadiah going different ways in their search for water; whereas on the southern side of the world the chapter falls due in the rainy season, and perhaps on that particular Sunday the children would bring me word that, as they came over the bridge to school, they had seen that "the river was beginning to run," an event which was brought about only by many successive days of rain.

But never did the weather seem so little in accordance with our feelings as at Christmas, when the heat was so great as to make all exertion a burden, excepting in the early hours of the morning. To this circumstance I attribute the little notice which that season of joy receives in Western Australia as compared with the acclamations that welcome it in northern countries; and though the traditional bill of fare is strictly adhered to, and the neglect of it would be esteemed an affront to one's mother-country, yet the necessity for much cookery at that time involves such severe conflict with the weather that no one thinks of prolonging the festivity; indeed I should much doubt whether there are many persons, born and reared in the colony, who have ever heard of Twelfth Day. Christmas Day itself was celebrated with all due religious observance and with the meeting together of friends, and though the dressing of the church beforehand was a real labour in such a temperature, volunteers for the work were never lacking. But the one great day seemed to constitute the whole of Christmastide.

On the occurrence of the first Christmas that we spent "over the hills," I felt as if brought to a dead halt in all my previous notions of promoting the happiness and comfort of the poor. My thoughts had been running upon the last time that we had witnessed that festival in our old home parish—the dole of beef distributed to every family—the old women coming to the house through the sleet on St. Thomas's Day to beg for their accustomed shillings—"going Thomasing," as they called it—the waits coming outside our windows at twelve o'clock on Christmas Eve, a chair being especially carried for the accommodation of the double-bass—my mind had been fixed on such recollections as these, and there seemed to be something unnatural in being in a country where neither blankets nor flannel would be seasonable gifts, and where "Thomas" was the tutelary saint not of the shortest day but of Midsummer. By the time, however, that we had lived five years in the colony we had learned to think an excessive degree of heat at Christmas quite as correct as an equal amount of cold would have been at home, and, on the principle of extremes meeting, I daresay that if we had stayed longer the hotter the Christmas the more "old-fashioned" we should have begun to call it. One's ideas, however, of a merry Christmas are not so easily shifted; these require the contrast of sharp weather out of doors with light and warmth within, besides which mirth is so inseparable from activity that the sun-heat in repressing the last goes far to extinguish the first.

Considerable excitement was caused us upon a more than ordinarily hot Christmas Eve, by our cow managing to tumble down the side of a steep bank into the river, where, in about 30 feet of water and only her head above the surface, she was surveyed with perplexity by our own household, and by some sympathizing neighbours. The depth of water into which she had fallen no doubt saved her from breaking her legs, but as it was impossible for her to be got up again into the field by the same road by which she had descended, owing to the perpendicular nature of the bank, we were at a loss what to do. The height from the water was more than twenty feet, and though one of our kind friends tried to cut a sort of staircase for her, up which he thought she might manage to climb, she attempted the ascent in vain; she could neither clamber up herself nor could we drag her up by ropes, so she remained swimming about in the pool, which was nearly half a mile in length. At last a native made a ball of his few clothes, tied them on his head, and with a rope in his hand, swam out after poor "Mooley," who seemed rather to enjoy her bath. When once the rope was round her horns she was soon towed to a landing-place on the opposite side, where she was met by a woman sent a mile round for that purpose, and driven home.

That night, when every door was standing open, we heard a cheerful voice shouting the name of "Master," and in walked Khourabene, whom we had not lately seen, desirous of being informed whether what he had heard in the town was true, that to-morrow was "Kismas." Khourabene knew very well the kind of dinner to expect if this report should prove correct, and had had his own reasons for timing his visit so neatly, for if there is one thing in the world in which natives show a similarity of taste to white people, it is in fondness for a Christmas pudding. He did not mistrust our willingness to give him a share of our plum-pudding, but he had a great desire to make one for himself, in fact, had brought with him flour for the purpose, and, being humoured with the other ingredients, he tied them up all in a cloth, and dropped his bundle very knowingly into the pot where the parson's pudding was already boiling.

Khourabene had gained this expertness in cookery by frequenting the house of a very kind-hearted settler, whose own and wife's great pleasure at Christmas was to make an enormous plum-pudding expressly for the natives, and to see their enjoyment of it, Khourabene's recollections of this good couple were sometimes of the suggestive sort, as for instance, it so happened that my husband being seriously indisposed on one occasion when he paid us a visit, after eying the invalid with tears for a few moments, he informed me that he had cried so much when his "old master" was ill that "missis say, 'Good boy Khourabene,' and give me three sticks of tobacco."

The history of this "old master," as Khourabene called him, who made the natives so merry at Christmas, was an example of the success which seldom fails in a new country to await on the industry of those to whom agricultural labour has been familiar from their childhood. He had left England as a lad, and had come out to Western Australia in a humble capacity a few years after the first foundation of the Swan River Settlement. By degrees his honesty of purpose and steady industry had enabled him to work his way upwards until he became the upper servant or bailiff to one of the more wealthy of the settlers. Now at that period money, which had been plentiful enough quite at the commencement, had become so scarce, owing to the complete failure of the plans upon which the colony had depended for success, that it was out of the power of even the larger landowners to liquidate their servants' wages in cash, and the payments were of necessity postponed.

The consequence of this state of things (some twenty years ago) was as follows:—The wages accumulated, as a debt due from the master, until they amounted to a considerable sum, and when payment was made it was almost invariably in kind. Perhaps ten or twenty head of cattle would be paid as wages to a shepherd or a stockman for two or three years' service, the bargain including the right to run the cattle with the master's herd. Moreover, as all stock had diminished in value, owing to the great depression in which everything was involved, and as the sheep and cattle were taken by the servants at this diminished valuation in payment of their wages, it will easily be seen that the man who landed with nothing but his own hands and head to trust to had, if he was honest and sober, a better chance of getting on, during that period of utter depression, than the originally wealthy settler, whose capital had been sunk in flocks and herds for which he could find no sale, and which he was obliged to part with by degrees to those who watched and tended them, since he had no money with which to pay their wages.

Thus, during the long period of utter stagnation which fell upon this unfortunate colony after its ill-managed foundation, many of the servants had become flock-owners and cattle-breeders, while most of their former masters had been ruined. The servants were therefore in a position to share in the advantages of the artificial life which was breathed into Swan River by the introduction of convicts in 1850, when a sheep, which but a short time before had been worth only eighteenpence, rose suddenly in price to a guinea, and every other description of farm produce acquired a fictitious value. There were then but a few of the original settlers left to share this harvest; many of them had quitted Western Australia disappointed and half-ruined men, others had died of broken hearts, and some few, yet more unfortunate, had become useless drunkards through sorrow and despair.

Of the sad history of these early years an account will be found towards the end of these pages, but it was necessary to refer to them here in order that the reader might be able to understand the history of Khourabene's old master. He was amongst the individuals who profited most by the colony becoming a penal settlement, and, on finding himself a rich man, he visited England for the purpose of assisting his relations at home, and brought back with him to Western Australia fourteen of them in the same ship in which he was a cabin passenger.

As we sat upon the steps of his verandah one hot night, talking of farm labour and of farming lads in England, he gave us a sketch of his own early history, commencing with the assertion that the colonial boys knew nothing of real hardship. Then he told us how he had begun life as a poor child, earning half-a-crown a week by cutting turnips for sheep, and how, in the winter, his feet were so covered with chilblains that he could scarcely pull on his boots in the morning, or do anything but "hobble and cry" for the first quarter of a mile after starting to go to his work—and how eagerly he listened towards evening for the sound of the wheels of the once famous coach 'Defiance,' the punctual passing of which was as good as a clock to the labourers in the turnip field, in announcing the hour, as it rolled by, which brought the day's toil to an end. How, when he was seventeen he took it into his head that he would go to Australia, and how he paid a farewell visit to his old master, who gave him sixpence as a parting present, accompanied with the time-honoured advice "to keep it always in his pocket, so that he might never want money"; and how when he sowed his first bit of land his wife did the bird-scaring with a decrepit gun, of which the cock was missing, so that she had to hit the cap with a hammer each time she fired.

From the windows of his house we now looked over a tract of more than five hundred acres of cleared land, all his own, and covered with waving corn; this open space seeming to hold at bay the primeval forest that bordered it, and in the hollow where a large pool separated the cornfields from the farm-yard, there rose a steam flour-mill, a late addition to the homestead of which the full value can be appreciated only by those who have known what it is to have to grind the supply of flour for the family day after day in a hand-mill. I have heard early colonists allude to this as being the most irksome of their daily occupations, especially on Saturdays, when a double portion had to be ground to last over the Sunday.

In the days when Barladong was first springing up into a town all the wheat was ground in these hand-mills, and great were the complaints of the labour falling upon settlers' wives in consequence. Two ingenious men, one of whom was a blacksmith, chivalrously endeavoured to remedy this hardship by constructing a steam-engine from such odds and ends as could be picked up in the colony, which probably then afforded a narrower choice of materials than the contents of an ordinary marine-store at home. They manfully hammered a lot of old tire-iron into the form of a boiler, and actually succeeded in making their engine grind corn, but it was so noisy over its work, and devoured such a quantity of fuel, that it soon wore out its own constitution, and became useless. It remained, however, even in our day, standing in the old mill in its cashiered condition, an interesting monument of colonial perseverance and courageous struggle with difficulties.

In spite of all the toil and inconvenience that beset those early days, they were fondly looked back to by many of the colonists, and the comparisons which I often heard them draw between times past and times present were not always to the advantage of the latter. It is true that the ladies had left off plaiting their husbands' hats from the straw of their own fields; neither was it any longer necessary for them, as in old times, to patch and mend worn-out boots, in order that one neat pair might be kept for Sundays until the arrival of some long-expected ship. Hats could now be purchased at the stores, and, if boots were wanted, both bootmaker and leather were at hand without any need for waiting for ready-made boots from England.

Neither were there any longer such primitive ways of conducting weddings as were related to me by an early colonist of a marriage at which she had assisted, when the bride and bridegroom were escorted by their friends, all on foot, through the bush to church, and afterwards accompanied to the banks of the Swan, where the pair embarked for their home in a little boat, with an old man in the bows playing on a fiddle, and with a goat and her kid, the property of the amiable bride, bleating discordantly somewhere amidships. Nowadays wedding parties drove very splendidly to church in "traps," as the vehicles resembling dog-carts are colonially called, and the number of these was quoted in deciding upon the merits of the affair, just as carriages are reckoned up on similar occasions in England. "A wedding of eleven traps" was something startling in its magnificence. But I used often to hear people express the opinion that what they had of late years gained in material comfort they had lost in sociability. One fact was especially dwelt upon as being a great change for the worse, namely, that the loaded teams of wool and sandalwood were now usually put under the charge of ticket-of-leave men or expirees as drivers, whereas in former times each gentleman had been his own wagoner, and had, at the evening halt, joined with his fellow-colonists in the merriment around the one huge camp fire, good feeling being thus promoted between persons whose birth was not always equal, although their occupations were similar. The influx of Government money has produced a rapid increase of wealth in many cases, and those who have been lucky in the general scramble too often look down upon those who have remained poor, thus reducing into narrower compass the already small society.

Hitherto my only ideas of a shepherd's life had been formed on the examples which I had seen at home, where, in our own village, the three that I knew best were men prematurely bent with rheumatism, and frequently compelled, nevertheless, to brave the biting east winds at two o'clock in the March mornings, when the very lambs themselves, born at such early hours, and with the weathercock in that direction, often required to be "brought round" by the judicious administration of small doses of gin. Whether no other species of nursing would have induced the lambs to face an English spring I am too ignorant to say, but for the necessity of some such cordial in the sheep-fold I have the authority of a shepherd's wife in a bleak upland county in England. As to such beings as shepherdesses, I had supposed that they were mere fancy creatures invented by the writers of pastorals. However, I now discovered that beneath the benigner skies of Australia not only was there no necessary connection between shepherds and crippled limbs, but that shepherdesses had had a very real existence, and that, if now extinct in the colony, it was only of late that they had become so.

At our friend's house we met two very charming young ladies, whose father had purchased land many years before, in a part of the bush so remote from other colonists that, when he first went there, the natives used to settle their quarrels close to his threshold, and his wife, on such occasions, would have to run out and catch up her younger children who might be playing in front of the house, for fear of accidental hurt from the spears, one or two of which, missing the aboriginal at whom they were aimed, would sometimes alight on the thatched roof, and stick there as in a pincushion.

There was no sort of labour suited to female hands which these young ladies had not attempted in the effort to lighten their father's first struggle with the wilderness, and the elder of the two told me that at sixteen years of age she and a younger sister had been his shepherdesses for many months, their successful care of the flock needing no other eulogy than the mention of the fact that, when relieved from their charge by a hired shepherd, more sheep died of "poison" in one month than in the whole previous six.

To those who own the sheep the task of hindering them from browsing upon "poison" is, as I have said, not only troublesome but very anxious, and my informant told me that if she had had to follow the flock any longer, she "thought that she should have gone crazy." It is not only necessary to watch that the sheep shall not eat the pernicious plants, but also to be able to treat an animal that is suspected of having done so, as is the case when its eyes look heavy and dull; if it is then kept without water for two days there is a chance of its recovery, but if allowed to drink when in that state the body swells and death inevitably follows.

"Once," she said, "a good part of the flock wandered away, and for two days and nights my sister and I neither ate nor slept. We said nothing about it, but as soon as we could see each morning we opened the door softly and hurried out upon the search. At last we met a man who had seen our missing sheep, and he directed us which way to go. You cannot be too gentle in minding sheep; if you run after them you drive them away, and sheep have their regular times in the day when they like to lie down and be quiet, and then the shepherds can sit and rest in their huts. My sister and I had our own hut, where we sat and sewed and read the Bible together, and thought how like our life seemed to that of the people in Genesis. One of our brothers took care of the pigs and brought them home at night; fifty pigs is a great deal to be on the mind of a child of nine years old."

And then followed a humorous description of the dogs helping to get the pigs home, and of the especial trouble given by some individual pig, bigger than the rest, who would presume on his superior size to bully his youthful driver, and be only induced to go the right road at last when one of the dogs fairly dragged him into it by the ear. Though whether the ear, the shoulder, or the tail was chosen by the dog as the best spot upon which to enforce the necessary discipline seemed to depend upon the manner in which he had been educated to the work, each several animal having his own especial method of persuasion from which he never departed.

Of the gentleness which is necessary in minding sheep another lady once gave me a good illustration. She was asked, she said, to look after the sheep in a home paddock for part of a day, during the absence of a servant, and wishing to do her best, was so very energetic in following them up and down, that the sheep, becoming suspicious of her motives, commenced running about, and two unlucky ones, more scared than the others, jumped the fence, and diving into the bush were never again heard of by their owner.

As to the care of pigs, and the anxiety which they cause to the young lads who are usually appointed to that office, I remember another incident which occurred under my own observation. A warder's wife in Barladong was desirous of obtaining employment in the immediate neighbourhood for one of her children, a grave taciturn boy of nine years old, and small for his age. She thought herself fortunate in hearing of a situation as "pig-boy" at a settler's about three miles distant, and at once made application for it on behalf of her son. Terms were agreed upon, and a stipulation was made that the boy should come home for the night every Saturday evening. The week passed over slowly to the anxious woman, and when the much-desired Saturday evening was arrived the lad returned to his happy mother, looking fat and well and quite satisfied with his new master. When bed-time came and the boy retired to his usual couch his mother noticed that he did not fall asleep at once, but lay awake thinking solemnly about something or other which lay heavy on his mind. Next morning she asked him if he was unhappy about anything. "No," he said, "master's very good to me." She then inquired what he had been brooding over the night before. "0, about them pigs,—they will go just where I tell 'em not to go; they will get where I don't want 'em to get." Next Saturday it was still the same,—the boy's mind was quite haunted by the remembrance of the vagaries of his swinish flock. Still another week and another yet passed on, when suddenly, about Tuesday or Wednesday in the fifth week, the boy walked in, having run away from his place, as he owned. His mother scolded him for his behaviour, and asked him if anyone had been harsh or unkind. No, all had been kind to him. She tried to make out why he had left, but for a long time in vain; at length he threw his arms round her neck and sobbed out, "The pigs is so troublesome!"—they had fairly broken his heart at last.