Old Melbourne Memories/Chapter 10

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Old Melbourne Memories by Rolf Boldrewood
Chapter 10

CHAPTER X


OLD PORT FAIRY


Mr. Burchett was rather famous for combining pleasure with business when travelling on the road with stock. At times his experiments were thought un peu risqués. It was related of him and Mr. Alick Kemp (I think) that finding themselves so near Melbourne as the Saltwater River, in sole charge of a mob of fat cattle from "The Gums," they held council, and decided that the cattle would be all right in a bend of the river till the morning, being quiet and travel-worn. The friends then started for Melbourne, where they went to the theatre and otherwise enjoyed themselves. They came back the first thing in the morning, to find the cattle peacefully reposing, and as safe as houses. It might well have been otherwise. There was a dismal tale current in the district of the first mob of fat cattle from Eumeralla—magnificent animals, elephants in size, and rolling fat—stampeding at the sight of a pedestrian, on the road to market, being lost, and, as to the greater part, never recovered.

This time we decided to take "the Frenchman's" road, past Crécy, a trifle monotonous, perhaps,—it was all plain till you got to Salt Creek,—but possessing advantages for so large a drove. We reached an out-station of the Hopkins Hill property, then owned by a Tasmanian proprietary, and managed by "a fine old 'Scottish' gentleman, all of the olden time." We put the cattle into a small mustering paddock, and retired to rest with great confidence in their comfort and our own. About midnight a chorus of speculative lowing and bellowing acquainted us with the fact that they were all out. An unnoticed slip-rail had betrayed us. We arose, but could do nothing, and returned to our blankets. Our rest, however, had been effectually broken.

"How did you sleep, Fred?" was my query at daylight.

"Well," meditatively, "I've had a quantity of very inferior sleep" was his rejoinder.

At Nareeb Nareeb, the station then of Messrs. Scott, Gray, and Marr, we, by permission, camped for the purpose of separating our cattle, either by drafting through the yard, or by "cutting out" on horseback. After a brief trial of the latter method, we decided for the stock-yard, there being a large and well-planned one on the ground. But the mud!—it was the merry month of May, or else June only, and rain had fallen in sufficient quantities to make millionaires now of all the squatters from Ballarat to Bourke. We put on our oldest clothes, armed ourselves with sticks, and resolutely faced it. What figures we were at nightfall! We smothered a few head, but the work was done. Our entertainers had a short time since mustered their whole herd, and sold them in Adelaide. We heard some of their road stories. In crossing the great marshes which lie to the north-west of Mount Gambier, they had to carry their collie dogs on horseback before them for miles.

We had nothing quite so bad as this, but after we parted next day, Fred for "The Gums," and in cheering proximity to the Mount Rouse stony rises, the best fattening, and withal best sheltered, winter country in the west, I envied him his luck. I had farther to go, and when I arrived my homestead was situated upon an island, with leagues of water around it in every direction.

To "tail" or herd cattle daily in such weather was impossible, so both herds were turned out, and by dint of reasonable "going round" and general supervision, they took kindly to their new quarters. Fred, I remember, told me that his cattle went bodily into the "Mount Rouse stones," which by no means belonged to his run, and there abode all the winter. He did not trouble his head much about them till the spring, when they came in, of course, as mustering commenced. There were no fences then, and no man vexed himself about such a trifle as a few hundred head of a neighbour's cattle being on his run.

On our way we returned to and camped opposite Hopkins Hill station homestead. A neat cottage in those days, slightly different from the present mansion. Thence I think to Mr. Joseph Ware's of Minjah, a cattle station which had not been very long bought from Messrs. Plummer and Dent, who had purchased from the Messrs. Bolden Brothers. Then past Smylie and Austin's to Kangatong, where dwelt Mr. James Dawson.

We remained at Kangatong for a day, so as to give Joe Burge time to come and meet us, which he did, considerably lightening my labours and anxieties thereby. Thence to Dunmore, which was "as good as home." The next day saw the whole lot safe in a big brush-yard, which Joe Burge had thoughtfully prepared for their reception, thinking it would do to plant with potatoes in the spring. And a capital crop there was!

I always think that the years intervening between 1846 and the diggings— that is, the discovery of gold at the Turon, in New South Wales, in 1850, and at Ballarat in 1851—were the happiest of the pastoral period. There was a good and improving market for all kinds of stock. Labour, though not over-plentiful, was sufficient for the work necessary to be done. The pastures were to a great extent under-stocked, so that there were reserves of grass which enabled the squatter to contend successfully with the occasional dry seasons. There was inducement to moderate enterprise, without allurement to speculation. The settlement of the country was progressing steadily. Agricultural and pastoral occupation moved onward in lines parallel to one another. There was no jostling or antagonism. Each of the divisions of rural labour had its facilities for legitimate development. There were none of the disturbing forces which have assumed such dangerous proportions in these latter days. No studied schemes of resistance or circumvention were thought of by the squatter. No spiteful agrarian invasion, no blackmailing, no sham improvements were possible on the part of the farmer.

From time to time portions of land specially-suited for agricultural settlement were surveyed and subdivided by the Government. On these, as a matter of course, when sold by auction at some advance upon upset price, according to quality, was a purely agricultural population settled. It had not then occurred to the squatter, hard set to find money for his necessary expenditure upon labour and buildings, stock and implements, to pay down £1 per acre or more for ordinary grazing ground. The farmer, as a rule, sold him flour and forage, supplied some of the needful labour, and hardly more came into competition with his pastoral neighbour than if he had lived in Essex or Kent.

I can answer in my own person for the friendly feeling which then existed between the two great primitive divisions of land-occupation. The Port Fairy farmers were located upon two large blocks, the Farnham and Belfast surveys, about ten miles from the nearest and not more than fifty from the more distant squattages. "The Grange," afterwards known by its present name of "Hamilton," was then part of a station, and was not surveyed and subdivided till some years after.

The majority of the squatters found it cheaper to buy flour and potatoes from the farmers than to grow them. Most of us grew our own hay and oats; but in after years our requirements were largely supplemented from Port Fairy, even in these easily produced crops. In return the farmers purchased milch cows, as well as steers for breaking to plough and team; and if these, with the increase of the female cattle, strayed on to the runs, they were always recoverable at muster time, and no threat of impounding was ever made. The agricultural area was enlarged when needed. To this no squatter objected, nor, to my knowledge, was such land purchased by other than bona-fide farmers. I cannot call to mind any feud or litigation between squatter and farmer having its inception in the land question.

Both classes met alike at race meetings and agricultural Shows; and, as far as could be noticed, there was none of the smouldering feeling of jealousy regarding the prevalence of latifundia, or other casus belli, which has of late years blazed up and raged so furiously.

Wages were not high in those days, and yet the men were contented. They certainly saved more money than they do now. They managed to acquire stock, and after taking up a bit of unoccupied country, became squatters, and wealthy ones too. Joe Burge and his wife received £30 a year. Old Tom had 10s. a week; lodging and rations, in which matters, at that time, we shared much alike, were included.

I recall, moreover, instances of genuine attachment as exhibited by old family servants to the children of their masters, though it is generally asserted that this particular kind of faithful retainership is confined to those who are happy enough to be born in Europe.

Mr. John Cox, of Werrongourt, supplied one instance, at least, which illustrates the feeling so honourable to both master and servant. A shepherd named Buckley had saved sufficient money in his service wherewith to purchase a small flock of sheep. He found a run for them on a corner of the Mount Rouse country, where they increased to the respectable number of 14,000. He told me and others that, as Mr. Cox had in the first instance given him facilities for investing his savings profitably, and in every way taken an interest in his welfare, he was resolved to leave his whole property to "Master Johnny," the second son, then a fine ingenuous lad of twelve or thirteen. Buckley was a bachelor, I may state, and had presumably no other claims upon his fortune.

But, about a year before his death, he received intelligence that a sister, of whom he had not heard since his arrival in Tasmania, had emigrated to America, and was still living. He consulted a mutual friend, and was told that Mr. Cox was the last man who would wish, or indeed allow him to neglect his own kin. "I must leave Master Johnny something," he said; and when the old man passed away, and his property was chiefly devised to his sister, a sum of £1000 was duly bequeathed to Mr. John Cox, jun.

Mr. Cox was unfortunately in failing health at that time. The station, Werrongourt, was sold to Mr. Mooney, the great cattle-dealer, for the magnificent(?) price of £5 per head! It was the first rise in cattle after the gold of 1851, and anything over £3 per head was thought a high figure. Mr. Cox, however, was anxious to visit the old country, chiefly on account of his health. The change was unavailing. He died on the voyage, to the great grief of the district, where all revered him as a high-minded, honourable country gentleman. He was, indeed, a worthy son of the good south land, a staunch friend, a true patriot, and as a magistrate famed for the unswerving justice which equally regarded rich and poor. Among his humbler countrymen, "Mr. Cox said it" was sufficient to close any argument, whatever might be the interest involved.

"Master Johnny," some years after, elected to enter the German army. He and a younger brother fought in the Franco-Prussian war; they were both wounded at Sedan, where their mother, an Australian by birth (née Miss Frances Cox, of Hobartville), attended them till their recovery, continuing her unselfish labours by acting as hospital nurse until the end of the war.

The brothers were, no doubt, promoted. They were in the cavalry, as became Australians, and most probably now, as Baron and Count von Coxe, are adding fresh branches to a wide-spreading and generally flourishing family tree.

When "Master Johnny," one fresh spring morning, rode down to Squattlesea Mere from Werrongourt, bringing two couples of draft foxhounds from his father's pack, to be sent to an intending M.F.H. in another colony, we little dreamed of the ranks in which he was to ride, the sport in which he was to share, ere the second decade should have passed over our heads.