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By Paul Terry
Allen & UnwinCopyright © 2014 Paul Terry
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In the summer of 1863 — 64, a young woman called Rose Paterson crested the last hill on a taxing journey and looked down on the broad and busy valley of Narrambla Station, near the town of Orange in New South Wales. In the centre of the valley stood a three-storey tower of convict-made bricks flanked by a tall, circular chimney. A rhythmic thumping could be heard coming from inside the tower as a heavy steam engine ground rich local grain into flour. Further down the shallow slope, the sound of clashing metal rang out from a busy wheelwright's shop. Sheep grazed serenely on yellow hills that folded gently up from a tree-lined creek, and the distinctive odour of cheese rose from a small factory.
Overlooking it all was the homestead — a modest timber building of eight rooms shaded by a wide verandah. Bright English flowers bloomed in carefully tended gardens around the house and fruit hung ready to be picked from trees in a large orchard. It was a welcome sight to Rose, who had come here to have her first child.
Narrambla was the home of the Templer family — Rose's aunt and uncle. Rose had travelled there — probably with her husband Andrew — from their home 100 hilly kilometres away to the northwest. The road they had followed was rutted and narrow, rising steadily as it cut its way through an unfenced semi-wilderness of sheep, emus and kangaroos. A hard-driven horse and sulky could make the journey in one day, but it would be a long and sweaty day that took its toll on both horse and passengers. Rose and Andrew had probably broken their journey by stopping on the way at the home of close friends at a station near the town of Molong. Now, as the sulky jostled its way down the final hill, the parents-to-be looked forward to a warm welcome at Narrambla.
They had married in April 1863 at Rose's childhood home of Boree Nyrang Station near Molong. Rose was just nineteen and still under-age when she wed thirty-year-old Andrew, but her father had given his blessing to their union. Andrew was a gentle man, invariably good-natured and slow to anger. He knew the value of hard work — indeed his dedication to his work was one of his few faults as it meant he was often away from home.
The marriage of Rose and Andrew had completed a neat family link; Andrew's brother John had married Rose's sister Emily in 1861 and the brothers had gone into partnership running three properties — Buckinbah in the district of Obley, Illalong near Yass, and Stainbourne Downs in Queensland. John and Emily lived at Illalong while Rose and Andrew began their married life at Buckinbah. Their home in a small stone cottage at the edge of a creek was isolated and a long way from medical help. For this reason, they had chosen to come to Narrambla to begin Rose's confinement.
Rose Paterson was a young woman of excellent breeding. Refined and educated, she would raise her child to be a gentleman or a lady and to be successful. And while Rose and her husband were not wealthy, the child would be given every chance to make its mark on the world. But as the journey to Narrambla came to a welcome end, Rose could not begin to dream that the baby she carried would earn lasting fame by capturing the essence of a nation that was still going through growing pains of its own.
* * *
The only surviving home from Narrambla's glory days is a ramshackle house of weatherboard and tin that once stood near the main homestead. A fancy building for its time, it was brought to Narrambla as a kit home from America in the late 1840s or early 1850s. At an unknown date, the house was moved to the top of a hill in the centre of the Narrambla run, where it commanded sweeping views over the hills to the east, while the back door opened on to an impressive sight of the deceptively high Mt Canobolas to the south-west. There is no way to be sure, but some believe the little timber cottage that once stood near the Templer family's historic mill was the place where Rose Paterson delivered her first child on 17 February 1864.
Eight days after the birth, somebody — perhaps the proud father — rode the 3 kilometres into Orange where the new arrival was registered as 'Baby Paterson'. On 11 March, the Anglican minister H.H. Mayne baptised the baby at Narrambla homestead. The parents christened him Andrew Barton Paterson. He was always known within the family as 'Barty', but for generations to come, the rest of Australia would know him as 'Banjo'.
After three months of recuperation, Rose took little Barty back to Buckinbah, where he would spend the next six years. As an adult, his memories of Buckinbah were limited but years later, when he was an old man, he wrote down his childhood memories after persistent questioning from his four-year-old granddaughter. The result was Illalong Children, a wonderful, evocative account of a bush boyhood written for his grandchildren, Rosamund Campbell and Philippa Harvie, and published in 1983 by the two women in Singer of the Bush — one of two large volumes celebrating the 'complete Paterson'.
Illalong Children was a rose-coloured reminiscence that overlooked the hard times for people on the land, the tribulations of having a father often absent from the home, and the grinding reality of genteel poverty for a family with good breeding but little money. Yet it also delightfully brings to life the people and animals that shaped young Barty's life. It begins with 'First Impressions', a brief account of a little boy's early memories at Buckinbah. It tells of emus wandering without fear up to the house, mobs of wild horses galloping through the gum trees and long days when' motionless sun brooded over a motionless forest till one could almost hear the leaves whispering to each other'.
Home was a solid stone cottage of five rooms overlooking a creek of clear water that curved its way around a broad flat. A second stone building incorporated a storeroom and a tool house with a loft on the top floor. Nearby were a kitchen and servants' quarters as well as stables and a storehouse, also with a loft. Vegetable gardens dotted the creek banks and fruit grew in a small orchard near the main house.
Andrew Paterson ran sheep and cattle on the mostly unfenced property, but the demands of the family's other property, Stainbourne Downs in Queensland, meant he was often away. Because of Andrew's absences, young Barty spent much of his time with the men who worked at Buckinbah. He did not attend school in those early days but he gained an invaluable education from the shepherds and station hands. One, 'Jerry the Rhymer', gave the boy an early introduction to verse, and, although Jerry's rhymes were of no literary merit, they sounded wonderful to Barty's young ears. In Illalong Children, he recalled a rhyme about two dogs that Jerry created for his son Jimmy:
Baldie and Nigger gets bigger and bigger,
with eating their muttons like so many gluttons,
and if we don't stop 'em,
your Pa'll have to whop 'em.
Tall and bearded, Jerry was something of a local celebrity who had been sent from the 'old country' for a minor offence he had supposedly not committed, but he had 'done very much worse things which had never been found out'. Jerry was a man of extraordinary skills. As well as being able to rhyme, he could plait stockwhips, was a dab hand at smoking bees from their nests and knew how to brew honey beer that 'would make a native bear dance a jig'. He was a man for a small boy to admire.
There were few children in the area and Barty grew up playing with his sisters, Rose Florence (Flo), who was born in 1866, and Emily Jessie ( Jessie), who arrived two years later. It was a kind household where corporal punishment of the children was rare. Laid-back Andrew was particularly lax in this regard. As Rose later wrote, her husband 'was so good tempered that it would be a hard matter to offend or quarrel with him'.
Barty and his younger sisters played along the reed-lined creek that enclosed the house's home paddock. Sometimes the creek was almost dry, but when heavy rain fell, a wave of brown water roared between the banks. At these times, the children would recall the story of a family friend who had been cast away in the wreck of a small schooner on the Great Barrier Reef. A party that included the children's uncle had sailed on the brig Maria to rescue the castaways. If the children saw a log carrying a snake surge past in the rushing water of the creek, they would name the log Maria, and if the snake clung to the log without it rolling over, the real Maria would safely return with the rescued sailors.
Like many stations, Buckinbah had a roadside store that sold to travellers everything from mohair coats to mouse traps. A passing parade of swagmen stopped at the store, but other children were rarely seen. The only other young person at the station was Jerry the Rhymer's son, Jimmy — a boy aged about twelve. Jimmy was a person of substance in Barty's eyes because he could ride a horse, boil a billy and track sheep across the plains.
To his delight, Barty was put to work with Jimmy as a trainee shepherd, but their careers suffered a setback — a terminal one for Barty and a painful one for Jimmy — when they carelessly allowed two mobs of sheep to become mixed. At the time, Jimmy was climbing a tree and his father — who was supposed to be supervising the boys - was absent, possibly asleep. As a result, the mobs became so mixed that 'separating them would have been like unscrambling scrambled eggs'. It cost a day's work to redraft the sheep and Barty was sacked as a shepherd. Jimmy got a beating from his father, and a passing swagman with a dog was put in charge of the sheep. For their part, according to Paterson's memories in Illalong Children, the sheep took it all in their stride:
Not a word was heard as we marched the two mobs back to the homestead ... The sheep put up with it with their usual lack of interest in life. I suppose they thought the sorrow was divided about fifty-fifty between them and their owners, and when a sheep comes out anywhere near square with anybody, he thinks he is doing rather well. They don't expect much.
* * *
These were the sun-drenched memories of a child, written for children. They were carefree, school-less days for Barty and his sisters, but in the world of adults, the reality was far harder. Despite Andrew's hard work, the family continued to struggle financially. The price of wool began to fall late in the 1860s and a long dry spell had left little feed for the station's sheep and cattle. The Paterson brothers had overstretched in their investments and the downturn meant that Andrew was increasingly away tending to the property in Queensland, leaving Rose at home alone to raise the children and maintain the house.
When Barty was a baby, Rose had to deal with a terrible situation. One of the workers at the station was trying to extinguish a fire in a chimney when he fell on to a paling fence and was horribly impaled. The Bathurst Free Press reported the man was taken to the hospital at Wellington where 'human skill and kindness were unavailing' and he died a few days later. He had been working at Buckinbah for only a few weeks and left a wife and children in Scotland.
All sorts of characters drifted in and out of station life. Some were not savoury. In one case, a shepherd named Howard was implicated in a highway robbery in which a traveller was robbed of gold on a nearby road. A trooper arrived at the homestead one night, seeking a warrant from Andrew Paterson, who was a police magistrate, to arrest the shepherd. But Andrew had just left for Queensland and Rose was unsure what to do. Old Jerry's advice was sought. Jerry said that Howard 'had more names than the King of England' and he was sure to clear out. Sure enough, Howard had already vanished and the robbery presumably remained unsolved.
Throngs of swagmen regularly made their way along the road looking for work or a feed. Most were well-behaved but some might commit theft, or worse. Rose, who had been taught music, classical languages and painting as a girl, now had to learn to use a gun. Her son never forgot the evening Rose handled an old muzzle-loader in the house after a particularly 'villainous-looking' stranger arrived:
Putting the hammer down, she let it slip and the gun went off with a frightful bang, bringing down a shower of whitewash from the calico ceiling and scaring the life out of a family of possums who lived up among the beams and were just preparing to go out for the night. I suppose the stranger must have heard the shot down in the travellers' hut, for he was very civil when he came along in the morning to draw his meat, tea and sugar: 'And if you could spare a bit of bread, lady, I'd be glad of it. I ain't much hand at makin' damper.'
When Barty was about three, he had an accident that affected him for the rest of his life. He had a fall — possibly as a result of being dropped by his Aboriginal nurse, Fanny — and broke his right arm. The accident was never reported to his parents and they did not realise the bone had been broken. But as the days passed, the boy's distress grew, so Rose took him to a doctor in the town of Wellington, about 45 kilometres away to the north-east.
The doctor thought Barty was suffering from 'inflammation of the brain' caused by teething, and three times a day for three weeks, the little boy's head was blistered and his gums lanced. Of course, this did nothing for the broken arm and it was only two years later, after Barty fell from a horse and hurt the arm again, that Rose learned it had been broken in infancy. Paterson's arm was shortened for life, and while it must have caused him discomfort, it did not prevent him from becoming an accomplished athlete and a master horseman.
Moments of drama aside, life at Buckinbah was often lonely for Rose. It did not help that Andrew had to travel to Sydney in May 1866 to give evidence in the trial of a man who forged a cheque for 10 in the names of Andrew and his brother John. Far more serious was the worsening drought. As the 1860s drew to a close, farmers across a vast swathe of the western country looked in vain to the skies for a sign of rain. Day after day they were disappointed. Creeks stopped flowing, the earth cracked open and pastures wilted. Over-extended and battling to meet repayments, the brothers were soon in trouble.
Paterson later recalled that, in desperation, Andrew drove a flock of sheep from the Queensland property to Buckinbah. But disaster struck when the ever-cruel weather changed again. This time the land of drought delivered flooding rains and Andrew and his sheep were trapped on a sand hill that became an island surrounded by rushing brown water. The sheep had to be sheared on the hill and the wool was lost. It was the final straw. Their properties would have to be sold.
In May 1869, Buckinbah, Illalong and Stainbourne Downs were offered for sale with a combined total of almost 23,000 sheep in what stock and station agents in Sydney said was a buyer's market. The drought and falling wool prices were stifling interest in sheep stations — unless sold at a bargain price — and investors were looking at the safer option of cattle properties.
The Patersons' properties were passed in at auction, but the auctioneers later received interest from private buyers. Illalong remained in family hands — but Buckinbah and Stainbourne Downs were sold at a loss in 1870. Andrew and Rose packed up their children, horses and whatever goods remained, and headed southeast to Illalong. For the parents it was a humiliating blow, but for their son it was the beginning of a wonderful new adventure that left him with cherished memories. It was also a farewell to the western country, a place that left a small but indelible imprint on his memory:
Across the landscape moved mobs of kangaroos and flocks of emus, quaint uncanny creatures moving silently through that grey light like the creatures of a dream. If ever a great Australian play is written, the scene will be cast, not in the hills which never change, but in the flat country which can stage anything from the desolation of a drought to a sea of waving grasses, with a march of strange animals and a dance of queer, self-conscious birds.
These were the memories that remained. Not the hard scrabble of a bush family struggling to stay afloat, but a place where opal and pearl colours glowed in the false dawn way beyond the Divide, a place populated by strange animals where a boy could see forever under a silver sky.
Excerpted from Banjo by Paul Terry. Copyright © 2014 Paul Terry. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
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Table of Contents
2 A Bush Boyhood,
3 Growing Up,
4 A Horse Called Banjo,
5 The Man from Snowy River,
6 Twin Deities,
7 Waltzing Matilda,
8 Growing Pains,
9 The Boer War,
10 Rule .303,
11 World Travels,
13 Back to the Bush,
14 The World at War,
16 After the War,
17 The Writer Reflects,