The Present State and Prospects of the Port Phillip District of New South Wales/Chapter 4

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"Cor.—And how like yon this shepherd's lift, Master Touchstone?
"Touchs.—Truly shepherd in respect of itself it is good life, but in respect that it is a shepherd's life it is naught. In respect that it is private I like it very well, but in respect that it is solitary it is a very vile life. Now in respect that it is in the fields it pleaseth me well, but in respect that it is not at the court it is tedious.

When Shakspeare penned the foregoing lines he little thought that he was writing what would with sufficient point characterize the advantages and inconveniences of a mode of life to he pursued, after a lapse of centuries, by thousands of his fellow countrymen at the antipodes, in regions undreamt of by the wildest speculator of his times. Yet such has been the revolution of events; such too are the unchanging qualities of man, that there never will be wanting those who are unreasonable enough to complain of the absence of advantages, from their very nature incompatible with the mode of life they have adopted; and this I take to be the moral of Touchstone's satire". Thus he who paints in the school of nature produces portraits, the originals of which never die, and uses colours that will for ages continue fresh as when they flowed wet from the pallet of the artist. Thus, too, the descriptions in the earlier books of the Pentateuch almost startle one by the accuracy and fidelity with which they represent a state of life somewhat similar to what we see in Australia. Abraham and Lot's shepherds quarrelling about the water; their dividing the country in which they were each to seek a run; Jacob taking Laban's sheep on terms,—translated thus into ordinary language are nothing more than the every-day occurrences of Australian life.

There are few persons in England who can have formed a notion of an Australian squatter's mode of existence at all, in accordance with the real state of facts. I have never met with a work on the country which even professes to supply this want; so that all the information which exists must have been derived from private sources. And when I consider how very vague and inaccurate all my own notions were on the subject, previous to leaving home, although I had endeavoured to gain as much information as I could, I almost despair of being able to convey any thing of accurate knowledge, while I am at the same time furnished with ail additional motive to make the attempt. I recollect what gave me the most definite notion of an Australian habitation was a print published as a frontispiece to a sixpenny blue paper pamphlet, which represented a young gentleman in a short fur jacket, eyeing intently a hut in the distance, where a number of cocks and hens, of colossal size, were disporting round the door, or perching on the roof. I will try, however, what a faithful description of minute details will do in giving something of just notions on this subject.

The reader is prepared from what I have said of the country to find the dwelling of the squatter surrounded by picturesque scenery. Suppose, for instance, a valley of about one or two miles wide, confined by banks, in some places steep, rocky, and wooded, in others sloping and grassy. A few large trees are scattered here and there over a rich alluvial flat. Either a chain of waterholes, or a river runs along the centre, whose course is marked in some places by reeds, in others by tall gum trees. You see at some distance an enclosure of eight or ten acres, fenced width post and triple rail, in this there is a promising-looking crop of oats and potatoes. There is also a garden, fenced something in the same manner. Near this are three or four huts, which seem to have been dropped in the places they occupy, without the least reference to each other. The principal one, however, stands somewhat apart from the rest, and is surrounded by a paling, which also encloses a small flower garden. This hut is a rude erection, the sides of which are made of upright slabs, about seven feet high, plastered at the interstices, and whitewashed; the roof is of bark; a rude verandah occupies the front, and there are two windows of about two feet square, one on each side of the door. The whole hut is about twenty-two feet long, and about twelve feet wide. The door opens into the sitting-room, which is about twelve feet square, and has a fine large fire-place. It is furnished with a couple of tables, a sofa covered with an opossum rug, and a few chairs. The walls are lined with a coarse canvass, and are hung with bookshelves, a few prints, some guns, daggers, shot-belts, whips, &c. The floor is of slabs, adzed smooth. This room is divided from the sleeping-room by a wall, or screen reaching as high as the wall-plate of the hut, with an opening aboye it, the whole height of the pitch of the roof: behind it there is a kitchen. The other huts consist of men's hut, store hut, shed for carts, overseer's hut, &c.: at a greater distance there is a wool-shed, generally a large building.

I have thus, by giving a detailed account of one individual hut, endeavoured to obtain something fixed to start from in varying the description, so as to make it more general. Some huts are better and many worse, than what I have described: it is rather under than over the usual size—the mode mentioned of dividing sitting-room and bed-room by a screen is almost universal. I only allude to bachelor's huts; where married people reside in the bush, there is of course much more accommodation. Slabs are the most common material for building. These are a kind of plank, generally about two inches thick, and varying in width from eight inches to a foot: they are obtained by splitting with wedges the gum tree, the stringy bark and iron bark. The mode of building is this: Upright comer-posts, of about a foot in diameter, are fixed firmly in the ground, being sunk about two foot deep; a wall-plate is placed at top, from one to the other of these, and firmly secured, and a sleeper at bottom, so as to connect all together, and form a kind of frame. Both wall-plate and sleeper are grooved, and the slabs are fitted into the grooves, and run up close together. Some huts are roofed with the bark of the stringy bark, or with that of the box tree; many are thatched with a kind of wire grass, and a few are roofed with a kind of large shingle called broad paling.

The furnishing of these huts depends a good deal on the habits and taste of their occupiers, which of course vary very much, men of very different grades of society being comprehended in the class of squatters, which, in addition to those mentioned in a former chapter, contains several very excellent and respectable men sprung from the farmers and wealthy yeomanry of England, and besides these a nondescript class embracing considerable variety of character and respectability. This being the case, the interior of some of these simple dwellings resembles the inside of an English farm-house; some (such as that which I have described) have an ambiguous character, something between a rude sporting-lodge and the theatrical representation of a bandit's retreat; while others are chiefly characterized by want of cleanliness and comfort.

The mode of living adopted by the different settlers, varies for the same reason. Mutton is indeed the staple dish at all sheep stations, and beef at those of cattle. Damper, too, in some shape or other, is in general use instead of bread; but the mode of dressing and serving, the cleanliness or dirt with which this is done, all in fact which makes a meal comfortable or the contrary, vary with the habits of your entertainer. Besides this, the addition of butter, eggs, potatoes, and other vegetables, and occasionally fowls, bacon, or ham, makes a considerable variation in the monotony of eternal mutton. If to this be added two or three fine melons for a desert, you cannot complain very much of your fare; and the comfort is, that none of these things cost any thing but a little trouble. Damper is unleavened bread baked in ashes, and when well made is good enough. Many attempts bave been made to improve upon it, and in some instances with success. Very good bread is however made with barm at some stations, and at others with soda. At most stations in the bush, tea forms an accompaniment to every meal; and when the other parts of the repast are only mutton chops and damper, it is a great improvement, but it does not go well with vegetables. The tea in universal use is a cheap kind of green tea called Hyson-skin; it has a pleasant flavour, but is not remarkable for that quality alluded to in Rory O'More, of "taking a great hold of the second water." The shepherds and hut-keepers boil the tea and sugar together, and when a man is heated and thirsty, a pint pot of this, piping hot and without milk, is a most refreshing drink. At many stations, wine is now used at dinner. There is a Spanish wine grown, I believe, in Catalonia, which can be drunk for about 6d. a bottle, which makes very good wine and water. It is a strong, full-flavoured, rather rough, red wine. Teneriffe and Marsala (both cheap wines) are also in use.[1]

Living in this manner, and lodged in the way I have described, the squatter's life passes in an uniform current, varied only by the periodical returns of seasons of greater or less activity.

"So many weeks his ewes have been with young,
So many days ere the poor fools will yean.
So many months ere he shall shear the fleece.

His sheep are either lambing or about to lamb, or are to be sheared, or dressed if scabby—the settler, indeed, who is unfortunate enough to have scabby sheep should never rest. Then there is the carting down of wool, and the bringing up of stores, the parting with and engaging of servants; then either a waterhole is to be cleaned, or a hut to be repaired, or a new one built; and then there is the new paddock, which is always to be begun when there is nothing else to do; all of which, with the general surveillance required in an extensive and necessarily scattered establishment, leave him no room to complain of want of employment. Most men have, besides, some acres of cultivation, and many have gardens, which are another source of employment and recreation. Books, however, form the great source of entertainment for many solitary hours of the settler; and it will perhaps astonish many to hear that a book club has been established in the neighbourhood of the Grange and Wannon, 200 miles west of Melbourne, where there are several married settlers, who thus obtain from England all the recent periodicals and interesting publications. I should not omit the never-failing black pipe, which to a great number of the settlers is that to which they look for enjoyment. Still, with all these employments and these resources, there is many an hour which hangs heavily on the solitary occupant of the squatter's hut. In respect that it is solitary, it is a very vile life. However, most of the stations are jointly occupied by two partners who form society for each other, and there are many now on which married men are residing with their wives and families, who seem to live very happily.

The persons whom I have observed to make the best settlers, are either those men of good education and gentlemanlike habits and feelings, who from the cultivation of their minds, possess sources of entertainment and interest unknown to those who are without such advantages; and who, from a true appreciation of what raises or lowers character, are not, when occasion requires it, above putting their hands to any work however rough. But I must do bushmen in general the justice to say, that on this score there is very little squeamishness amongst them. They are from first to last a hardy, enterprising, hard-working set of men. Or else, those men who, brought up from infancy in rural pursuits as farmers, find little change from what they have been accustomed to &om childhood, save that which is caused by difference of country and climate.

There is one incident, and that by no means an uncommon one, which puts to the proof all a bushman's energy. This is the occurrence of bush fires. All parts of the country, but particularly those which are naturally rich, and where the grass is not sufficiently eaten down by stock, are exceedingly apt to catch fire in the summer-time, when the grass has become withered and dry. Some persons are of opinion that the ignition is spontaneous; but there are quite enough of known causes to account for their occurrence, without resorting to this obscure explanation of their origin founded on a fact which is by no means established. Travellers or shepherds lighting fires (a very frequent circumstance,) the natives carrying about fire-sticks from place to place, their leaving their numerous fires burning when they abandon their encampment, as also settlers setting fire to part of their runs in order to bum off the old grass, are amongst these. The fire when first kindled may burn but slowly for a time, but when a high wind rises it rages with great fury and spreads with terrific rapidity; and if no precautions have been taken against it, or if some natural circumstances do not occur to favour the efforts of the settler to extinguish it, it bums down every thing before it. There have been some instances, though they are rare, of men losing their huts, stores, woo], woolshed, and even flocks of sheep by this means. The most usual precaution taken to prevent his is, to burn a line round the homestead or whateve place you wish to preserve. This operation is not always unattended with risk: one of the most troublesome fires which I remember, was caused by one of our men attempting injudiciously to bum a line between us and a neighbour, during the prevalence of a hot wind; for although he was assisted by three others, the fire overcame all their efforts to extinguish it, and it was not until every man at the station turned out that it was finally got under after three days' fighting with it. This fighting with fire is the most trying work in which a man can well be engaged, as it is most commonly during hot winds that the worst fires occur; the combined heat of the air and fire, together with the suffocating fumes of the smoke, form an atmosphere in which even the slightest exertion would be distressing, and as a man has to exert all his physical power for hours together under these unfavourable circumstances, and generally without being able to get a mouthful of water, some idea may be formed of the distressing nature of the service. I have seen one of the most powerfully-framed and strongest constitutioned men I ever knew, so completely overcome as to throw himself down on his face close to the fire, and lie there perfectly careless whether he was burned or not.

When a fire is to be put out, all the available force of the station is mustered, and the most desirable mode of proceeding having been decided on, (reference being had to the wind and other circumstances,) they spread themselves along the line of fire, each man armed with the branch of a tree; they then go on steadily, one after another, putting it out as they proceed, one man being left at a considerable distance behind to prevent its breaking out again—a circumstance very likely to occur in spite of every precaution. In this manner they proceed until the whole is extinguished, pausing where the grass and bushes are very thick, and making more vigorous efforts where circumstances are more favourable or where a shift of wind gives them an advantage. The most provoking circumstance is, that frequently the hot ashes from the burning trees are blown to a distance and ignite a fresh fire as bad as the first; and as these trees burn for days together, it is nearly impossible to guard against this.

When the fire is burning through a forest, the effect is exceedingly grand. The green shrubs and young trees become enveloped in dense masses of mixed smoke and flame, while the fire sings and crackles merrily, as if rejoicing in the work of destruction. On one side, far as the eye can reach, the blackened earth and smouldering stumps bear witness to its ravages; while, on the other, the green forest waves in all the freshness of luxuriant vegetation; between the living and the dead creeps the long line of fire, like some insidious pestilence spreading its ravages amongst the vigorous and beautiful; over all hangs the lurid atmosphere surcharged with smoke and vapour, through which struggle the rays of a nearly vertical sun, but shining sickly and unnatural. The continued rushing sound of the fire, and the sighing of the hot wind, sounds monotonously on the ear, or interrupted only by an occasional crash, as from time to time some mighty tree succumbs to its fate, and the forest trembles at the fall of its verdant patriarchs.

It is a moot point amongst the settlers whether burning the country is of service or not, and I believe the result of experience is, that where land is fully stocked a better sod will be formed by having the grass eaten down than by burning it, but that where the grass becomes long and rank, it is of no use until burnt down as no animal will eat it, and practically it is only in such places that it is resorted to as a means of improving the herbage. Lord John Russell, when secretary for the colonies, suggested, on the advice of Count Strelisky, that burning the grass should be put a stop to by legal enactment. Several strong arguments were used against this, but perhaps one was held to be sufficient, namely, that it was impossible to do so. The forests recover from the effects of these fires much sooner than could be expected, and all thick underwood is effectually cleared away by them.

When a settler leaves home, he generally travels on horseback. About forty miles is considered a moderate day's journey; and on a pinch, I have known men to ride the same horse seventy miles in a day; this is, however, far too much for a horse who has to go several days' journey. Horses are very cheap, and at almost every station there are a few brood mares, and thus the settlers have a command of excellent horses at little or no expense, save that of the original outlay for the mares. There are always roads or tracks leading from each station towards Melbourne, Geelong, Portland, or Port Fairy, as the case may be, so that a stranger can generally make his way without a great deal of difficulty, as long as he keeps to the main tracks; but when it comes to travelling from one station to another across the country, it becomes more puzzling. Some people never succeed in becoming good bushmen; and there have been instances of persons being bushed (that is, having to spend the night al fresco), within a mile of their own doors. No man should travel without a pocket compass; for in the wooded parts of the country, the forest, though generally open enough for most purposes, is so close, as to prevent your having a view of more than a hundred yards in any direction; and the appearance of the ground and trees being in most places similar, there is nothing to direct you but the wind, the sun, and your compass. The last is the best to trust to, as in summer the sun is so near the zenith that it is not easy to steer by it in the middle of the day; and the wind is not to be depended on for anything of correct steering, and is always liable to change. If you know the course you are to steer, and use your compass properly, you go on very well at first, that is, if you escape being (what sailors call) brought up by some impassable marsh or gulley, not laid down in your instructions. And here I should advise all new comers, before venturing upon a journey through the bush, to ascertain the meaning of the words, a tier, a range, a creek, a gulley, a track, a river, and a road. He may probably imagine that he knows the meaning of the last three; but he may nevertheless find himself mistaken. It sounds rather Irish to say, that when you have arrived at a place, you are in the greatest danger of losing your way; but such is very nearly the case. When you think that you ought to be at the place of your destination, you find yourself suddenly, perhaps, on the edge of an impassable gulley or river, and there is nothing to inform you whether you ought to go to the right or left; and as it is impossible in a ride of ten or twelve miles through a forest, to be sure of steering by compass within less than half a mile of your point, you cannot tell whether you are too much to the north, or to the south, or to the east, or the west. You have then to look out for sheep tracks, or horse tracks, or dray tracks; and if the night be closing in, this becomes a very interesting search. If not successful in obtaining any clue, you must take chance for it« and go either up or down as your fancy leads. If you find a station, you are all right; if not, you may for a last chance cooey,[2] or fire a pistol, and then listen with your ear to the ground for the barking of dogs. If this be in vain, you then tether your horse, look out for a cherry tree, which is the most approved tree to sleep under, as it affords the most shelter, and makes the best mi-mi, or, breakweather. If you have the means of lighting a fire, you may consider yourself fortunate. This is the regular process of being bushed, and in fine weather it is no great hardship, if you are not very hungry.

A summer night in greenwood spent
Were but to-morrow's merriment.

But in the long, and frequently wet, winter nights, it must be anything but a joke.

The chief charm of a settler's life is its independence. There is something too in the reflection, that by his gains no one is injured; his fee is not subtracted from the pittance of indigence, nor his gains derived from the crimes or misfortunes of mankind. By how much his wealth increases, by so much is an addition made to the stores of mankind. By his efforts too, the boundaries of civilization have been enlarged. And if that man be pronounced a benefactor to his species who makes one blade of grass to grow where none grew before, surely he is entitled to at least equal praise, who becomes the pioneer for his fellow-man to regions of almost boundless fertility. These are reflections which do not occur every hour, nor every day, nor to every mind; but they do exercise a more practical influence on the happiness of some men than many people are aware; and there is nothing which so powerfully chills the energies, or throws a damp over exertion, as the being unable to give a satisfactory answer to the question cui bono.

  1. This description only applies to the squatters and not to the owners of purchased land, many of whom have very good houses and live much as people do in England. They are, however, chiefly confined to the neighbourhood of Melbourne and Geelong.
  2. The cooey is a call in universal use amongst the settlers, and has been borrowed from the natives. The performer dwells for about half a minute upon one note, and then raises his voice to the octave. It can be heard at a great distance.