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In Bad Company, and other Stories/Sydney Fifty years Ago

< In Bad Company, and other Stories


SYDNEY FIFTY YEARS AGO

Soon after we went to live at Enmore, I being then nine or ten years old, my first pony was presented to me by my father. A tiny Timor mare was little Bet; Dick Webb, the well-known horse-dealer and livery-stable keeper, being the intermediary. Cargoes of these small Eastern horses, degenerate in size only, from scant feeding and crowded pastures, were then imported from the islands of Timor and Lombok. Disrespectful remarks have been written touching the quality of these early Australian hackneys. They were accused of spoiling the breed of our horses. Spoiling, forsooth! Nothing better ever trod on turf than these miniature Barbs, for such they undoubtedly were. Clean-legged, long-pasterned, bright-eyed, lean-headed, mostly with well-placed shoulders and well-bent hocks, each with pluck enough for a troop of horse—where could one get a better cross than these wonderful little 'tats,' with legs and feet of iron, and though only ranging from ten to twelve hands high, able to carry a heavy man a long day's journey?

The Shetland pony, grand little chap as he may be, is a degenerate cart-horse, nothing more; he can trot, walk, and carry a burly gamekeeper up a steep hillside, but he has no pace. The Timor ponies, on the contrary, with light-weights, could make very fair racing time, were high-couraged and untiring, in or out of condition, bequeathing to their offspring the fire and speed of the Eastern horse, with a quality of legs and feet difficult to find nowadays. My little mare was a trotter, a jumper, a clever all-round hack. A colt of my next Timor mare I used to ride when I was a man grown, nearly twelve stone in weight, the which impost he could carry like a bird, and even bolt with occasionally.

More than one fashionably bred racehorse of the present day has the blood of a Timor ancestress in his veins, and though the fact is not obtruded, doubtless owes the staying power and undeniable legs and feet to that infusion. In those early days whole cargoes of them were brought through the streets of Sydney by the sailors, the manner being thus—half-a-dozen were tied neck to neck with strong short ropes, a halter attached to the one on the near side of the string, the which a couple of stalwart sailors tugged manfully, another encouraging the line from the rear. They were half-covered with hieroglyphs in the shape of brands. Prices ranged from five pounds to ten, according to quality. The sons of well-to-do people were to be seen mounted upon them. When fed and groomed they were as showy and fast hackneys as a light-weight would desire.

While dwelling upon these incidents of an earlier day, the hours and limits of school deserve notice. At the Sydney College we were expected to attend at nine o'clock in the morning. At mid-day an hour's recess was granted. In that interval the boarders dined; the day-scholars having disposed of their lunches hurriedly, went in for as much play as the time would admit. From 1 o'clock till 3 p.m. was occupied by afternoon school; the day-scholars departing then whithersoever they listed. The boarders dispersed to play cricket, went for a walk or into town—after applying for leave in the latter cases. On Saturday we worked from nine till twelve, when the half-holiday set in. There was no whole holiday in my day. And three morning hours, multiplied by the weeks in a year, should account for a fair measure of work.

After the country had become fairly prosperous and it was seen that tens of thousands of men could find work and room for their energy in the virgin waste of the interior, immigration was encouraged by the Government of the day. A bounty was paid to each emigrant or to the agent who recommended or persuaded him to come to the far, unknown land.

It was curious, even then, to find a class which held that they had a vested labour interest in the colony—which disapproved strongly of assisted, unrestricted immigration. They complained that other persons should come out at the expense of the State to compete, as they alleged, with them and lower the price of labour.

'It was the prisoners' colony,' asserted the demagogues who formulated this view. 'Free men had no right to come here, subsisted and helped by the Government.'

Enmore, being about three miles from the Sydney College, was rather far for a daily walk before the advent of little Bet, but with the aid of a drive now and then (of course there were no omnibuses) I managed it pretty well at first. The only house at all near us was tenanted by Mrs. Erskine, with whose sons I used to beguile the tedium of the road. Once we asked a wood-carter for a lift, whom not acceding to our request, we pelted with stones. He complained to the authorities, and we suffered in person accordingly. Then an adventure befell which led to grief and anxiety. It might well have been serious. I had started on the home-track in the afternoon, when one of the tropical storms not unknown in Sydney to this day commenced. The rain came down as if to repeat the deluge, an inch apparently falling every ten minutes. The low lands near the Haymarket were flooded. I was drenched. Streams and torrents coursed down every channel. The drains burst up. Things looked bad for a long walk with creeks to cross. At this juncture a tidy-looking old woman (she sold milk) invited me to enter her dwelling. I did so, and found myself in a neat and cleanly cottage. The rain not abating, she invited me to stay for tea, exhibiting most excellent bread and butter. Finally, discovering that I had so far to go and the waters being still 'out,' she prevailed upon me, nothing loth, to remain all night.

Unluckily, as it turned out, my father was in town, and had called at the school to take me home. He was told that I had left shortly before. Driving rapidly, being eager to overtake me, he reached home to find that I had not turned up. After an anxious interval, during which fears obtruded themselves that I had fallen into a creek or waterhole and so got drowned, he rode back into town, searching vainly of course for my extremely naughty self, then calmly reading by the light of a tallow candle, my aged hostess meanwhile knitting. When he again visited the College on the off-chance of my having concluded to return, and was told to the contrary, he gave me up for lost. Mr. Cape, however, stated his belief that R. B., though of tender years, was a boy exceptionally capable of taking care of himself, and probably would be found even now in a place of safety.

This, however, was accepted by my anxious parent merely as an amiable attempt at consolation, whereupon he rode home again through mud and mire in despairing mood. A restless early riser by habit, he was in the saddle before dawn, with a view to having the creeks and hollows searched, when happening to pass my old woman's cottage, I recognised the horses first (Australian fashion), my stern Governor and the groom next. I called out. He turned and saw me. Anger would have been natural and deserved. But he was too overjoyed at my return from the dead, as he doubtless considered it. 'God forgive you, my boy, for what you have caused us to suffer,' was all that he said. I rode home behind the groom, and was received, I need not say, with what transports of delight. Ah me, how ungrateful are we all for the care and tenderness lavished upon us in childhood!

'All's well that ends well' is a comforting and satisfactory proverb. The good old dame was duly thanked and rewarded. Matters soon returned to their former footing. But one mischance, directly proceeding from the demoralisation of the household on that night, was of a serious and melancholy nature. Our inestimable Alderney cow took advantage of the open door of the feed-room to assimilate part of a truss of Lucerne hay; then, 'acting with no more judgment than to take a drink,' died from excessive inflation. An irreparable loss, and one remembered against me at intervals long afterwards.

Promoted to the Timor mare, I used to make pretty good time down Brickfield Hill and so round Black Wattle Swamp and Mr. Shepherd's garden. She was a good trotter, and I have owned a performer in that line—fast, extra, or only moderate, but always a trotter—from that time to this. A trotter is generally a good animal otherwise. I have seen few exceptions.

Mr. A. B. Spark, a mercantile magnate of the day, was our neighbour at Cook's River. I was sent with a letter early one spring morning to Tempé. There I found the good old gentleman in his garden. 'Can you eat strawberries, my boy?' was his prompt inquiry. It is unnecessary to repeat my answer. 'Then set to, and we'll have breakfast afterwards.' That is the way to talk to a boy! I could have died for him; I respect his memory now. At breakfast he told me that the pretty freestone, white-columned house had been built on the model of a Greek temple in the Vale of Tempé. Hence its classical name, which it still retains. The fresh eggs, laid by pure Spanish hens, were the largest I had ever seen. When he showed me some lop-eared rabbits after breakfast and promised me a pair, my heart was almost too full. I rode back the happiest boy in the land, and never forgot the old gentleman's amazing kindness.

It may be that kindly memory, eliding the darker shadows of the past, presents the colonial period which I am recalling, from 1831 to 1840, as almost Arcadian in peaceful simplicity, in steadfast industry, in freedom from atrocious crime, compared with later developments. And yet New South Wales was then to all intents and purposes a convict colony. Ship-loads of prisoners arrived from time to time. Expirees from Tasmania no doubt made their way to a land where wages were comparatively high, and where new country offered a refuge from close official inspection. Whether the old-fashioned rule—strict, vigilant, unrelaxing—was better suited to the natural man, free or bond, than the present mercy-mongering management, may partly be judged by results.

'The bush'—a vast and trackless wilderness—was gradually being occupied and reclaimed by that strange lover of the waste places of the earth, the wilful, wicked, wandering Anglo-Saxon. Tragedies from time to time doubtless occurred. Bushrangers were not unknown, but what were they to the Kellys, the Halls and Gilbert, the Clarks and Morgans? Aboriginal blacks were shot occasionally; more than one cruel murder was brought home to the perpetrators, for which they justly atoned. At the same time a lonely hut-keeper or shepherd was often found prone and motionless, speared or clubbed as the case might be; many a stock-rider's horse came home without him. Yet, in a general way, life and property were far more secure under the modified martial law of the period than they have been known to be under a constitutional Government and quasi-democratic rule. When it is considered that for half a century the worst criminals of the old country, as well as the more ordinary rogues, had been sent to Australia, it says much for the management or for the material that so orderly and improvable a society was evolved.

If there were occasional crimes of deepest dye, who could feel surprise? The wonder was that they were so few in comparison to the population. Captain Knatchbull, ex-post-captain R.N., knocks out the brains of a poor washerwoman for the sake of eight pounds sterling, ending on the gallows a life of curiously varied villainy, which had included attempted poisoning, mutiny, and betrayal of comrades. There was the memorable 'Fisher's Ghost' tragedy, in which a supernatural agent was alleged to have led to the discovery of a deed of blood. There were crimes, doubtless, that cried aloud to heaven for vengeance, but which never will be fully known till the Great Day. But discovery, arraignment, and trial followed close on the heels of wrongdoers. In a general way—I assert it unhesitatingly—Sydney was as quiet, as peaceful and orderly in appearance as any town in Britain, save in the purlieus of that half-recognised Alsatia, 'The Rocks'; more decent, sober, and outwardly well-behaved than George Street and Pitt Street in 1887.

It may truly be suggested that one of the great dangers of modern civilisation—certainly of Australian national life—would appear to be the crowding of an unreasonable proportion of the inhabitants into the cities and larger towns.

An increasingly dangerous class is there encouraged to grow and multiply, averse to the honest and well-paid toil of the country, preferring to it a precarious employment in a city, with the accompaniment of the baser pleasures; clamouring at every interval of employment for relief works, subsisting but for panem et circenses, like the profligate populace of old Rome, the pandering to which eventually sapped the grandeur and glory of the Mistress of the World. Absit omen!

At the corner of Elizabeth and King Streets might have been seen a provisional lock-up, used for the temporary detention of criminals about to be tried at the adjoining courts. A rudely-hewn pillar of sandstone had been deposited there, and served as a seat for wayfarers or persons more immediately concerned. We schoolboys were chiefly interested in the stocks, that old-fashioned detainer in which drunken and disorderly persons were securely placed for such periods—a portion of a day—as the magistrates might consider expedient. In such fashion was Hudibras fast imprisoned when the lady and her steward coming by gazed on him bowed to the earth with shame. In this ancient engine of distraint upon the human property, in default of other, did the malcontents of the day sit, stolid and defiant, upon a more or less uncomfortable seat, 'fast bound in misery and iron.' One doubts whether it would not be more effectual now than the short sentence served in a comfortable, secluded establishment, which the modern offender boasts that 'he can do on his head.'

During the whole period of the time embraced in my reminiscence, I cannot recall a week while we lived in Sydney or near to it, that the Domain and Botanical Gardens were not a joy, a solace, a luxury to us and to the society with which we were acquainted. What a priceless boon was thus bestowed upon the inhabitants of Sydney then and for all time by the dedication of this lovely natural park to the public! What walks—what drives—what merry bathing parties—what lingering in summer eves—what early morning saunters has not this precious primeval fragment, this art-adorned yet beauteous wilderness, witnessed? The pleasure then enjoyed by the toil-worn citizen, the stranger, or the invalid was more exquisite and intense, from an assured freedom from that modern pest, the larrikin. All who were met with in the gardens were courteous and well-mannered persons for the most part; for whomsoever conducted themselves otherwise there was a short shrift, and if not a ready gallows, an effectively deterrent punishment.

The early formation of William Street, now the great arterial highway to Darlinghurst and the aristocratic suburbs, was then progressing. In its straight course it carved away a few acres of the Rosebank suburban property then owned by Mr. Laidley. On the triangular portion so excised were three white cedars, the most graceful of our shade trees. No doubt the proprietor was compensated for the severance and resumption, though not at the prices ruling in favour of latter-day claimants.

What fortunes might have been made by judicious, or even injudicious, purchasers of suburban land in those days! No one foresaw that any notable rise in value would take place in less than a century or two. That land purchased by the acre would sell for such prices in the life of the buyer, by the foot, entered not into the mind of man. Wharves, street frontages, building sites, allotments all passed under the hammer of the Government auctioneer of the day at curiously low prices. Who was to foresee that gold, silver, copper, iron, lead, and tin were all to make their appearance in peaceful, pastoral New South Wales and her erstwhile appanage the Port Phillip District, afterwards the Colony of Victoria?

The great public schools of that day were our College, the King's School at Parramatta, and the Normal Institution, this last organised by Dr. Lang—that eminent colonising clergyman. The Reverend Robert Forrest was the Principal of the King's School. He was understood to have been a strict disciplinarian, as indeed he needed to be. We of the Sydney College thought ourselves superior in scholarship; but doubtless good work was done then as now at the Parramatta school.

Mr. Carmichael—Scottish, of course—presided at the Normal Institution, which was situated on the northern side of the Racecourse, or Hyde Park as at present named. We were near enough to play cricket together sometimes; also to fight, indeed, as occasions of strife will arise among schoolboys. Roland Cameron, a boy by nature warlike in the earlier stages of life, had then his celebrated combat, having challenged an oldster of the Normal, a head taller than himself. He didn't come off victorious, but he walked forth with an apparently calm consciousness that he couldn't be really conquered, which I have rarely seen paralleled among later and more tragic experiences.