Monday, August 22, 2011

“Old Tom” visits Ipswich and the Darling Downs (Part 3)

(Extracted and edited from articles by “Old Tom” in The Brisbane Courier and The Queenslander of June 1869.)

Old Tom crosses the Gap and pays visits to the homesteads of Neil Ross and Colin Campbell, Laird of Glengallen.  After delivering the summons, he takes a short cut and gets lost.  Despite his admiration for the “Grass Barons”, he makes views known regarding the squatter versus selector debate.

Paintings are by Conrad Martens who toured the Downs in 1851-2.

The old road to the Downs, through Cunningham's Gap, was the only one in use at the time I write about, in existence, and those who have had the pleasure and the accompanying fatigue to take that line of country, will perfectly understand the state of my feelings when I made the upward journey, with a sore seat and nearly knocked-up horse. But as the longest lane has a turning, so the highest mountain has a top, and when on the summit of the last terrible pinch, I turned round and beheld the sublime scene of the vast unbroken forest, with the grand mountain peaks standing out against the pure Australian skies, the recompense for my past toil was ample. I shall not attempt to chronicle the visions of the future that rapidly passed through my mind on the occasion of my first ascending the spurs of the Main Range, but simply resume my journey.

The Track Through Cunningham's Gap
Once within the Gap, the stillness of death seemed to pervade the solitudes of the dense scrub, through which a narrow track had been made by the pioneer explorers, and one's spirits seemed to be lightened of a great load when, after an hour's travelling, you emerged into the open forest land, forming the western slopes of the Great Dividing Range. Gradually, as you pass from within the gorge leading to the Gap, found and passed through by Cunningham in 1829, the eye is feasted with the opening beauties of the far-famed Darling Downs. Readers, fancy the sensation of this old nigger, pent up for thirty years in the stifling atmosphere of a town, breathing the pure breath of heaven, as it came wafted over the broad expanse of these fertile prairie lands; and my old mare seemed to wake up to a new state of existence, as I followed my guide to Neil Ross' comfortable homestead, then placed some half-dozen miles from the Glengallen station.

Did any o' ye ken old Ross and his bonnie daughters, and recollect the smiling welcome accorded to every honest traveller? May the stock never die out; they were a blessing to the old folks, and the homestead they made happy by their presence —is it not recorded in the annals of the Darling Downs? But we must shake hands with honest Neil Ross, and away through the clearing to Glengallen. Shades of early days! how vivid you rise to memory in the form of the brothers Campbell— Colin, the Laird of Glengallen, stands out the beau ideal of a true-hearted son of old Scotia[1]; the frank and generous friend of every deserving man.

Glengallen Station

A couple of days' spell under the hospitable roof of the Campbells made a wonderful alteration in the gait and appearance of both man and beast; and, when I started from Glengallen for the adjoining station, occupied by the brothers "Gammie," I felt as if I could venture on the overland journey to Maitland. To ride across—or rather through—the park like scenery lying between the two homesteads, was a treat few can appreciate, unless they have been stived[2] up for a long period in a populous neighbourhood, and have almost lost the sense of wild flowers.

A short two hours' ride, and my destination was reached, and my introductory letter[3] to Gentleman George was received as a matter of course, with frigid politeness, and, upon perusal, a warm blessing upon the sender. But a few minutes' conversation soon put matters to rights between us; and, as I had the power to make easy terms with the victim of misplaced confidence, I flatter myself that when I, later in the day, left the Gammies, they had no prejudice against "Old Tom" for his unwelcome visitation. The old residents in these districts can fully apprehend the incessant struggle of the early squatter to keep his head above water. There was in those days no appeal to the Legislature for relief to the outside squatter. On the contrary, the government of Sir George Gipps kept the screw tightly fixed on the pastoral tenants of the Crown. They took up the outside country on speculation, and if it would not pay, on their shoulders were the losses laid.

On the gold discovery at Bathurst in 1852, I recollect meeting John Gammie at Thorn's, in Ipswich, on his way to the "pots," to boil down[4] into cash some 10,000 sheep, their fear being that the whole country would be almost depopulated with the gold excitement, and that hands would not be obtainable to shepherd or shear the flocks. Fortunately for the Gammies, these fears were found to be without weight, and they wisely took the sheep to the Downs again; and I think some four years afterwards, George Gammie sold the stocked station, and went back to the old land, it is said, with a clear £50,000. What a contrast between my visit to him in 1843 and the result of 1853! Wonderful transmogrifications!

Leaving the Gammies, I was directed a short cut across the plains to Frank Forbes', where I hoped to get a shake-down for the night. But what new chum ever made a short out in a new country? I should like to see the phenomenon, and have him shown for a curiosity. My short cut was something like that of Gill's, the present worthy postmaster at the head of the navigation. He was once found by Dr. Dorsey wandering on the Darling Downs with not the slightest idea of his whereabouts, and it was said that if the good doctor had not so very opportunely fallen across poor Gill, when on a medical tour, Ipswich would never have had the honour of receiving by the hands of its pre- sent man of letters their daily news. My case was not quite so bad. After jogging along, as I thought in the right direction for Castle Forbes, I found myself about an hour before sundown in front of a very dilapidated looking humpy, placed near the bank of a nasty looking creek, with not so much as a dog to bark a welcome ? Here was a fix. Where was I? To what and upon whose run had I wandered? I cooyed[5]; but no welcome response came to my ears.

Slab Hut 

I then examined the location. There was a stockyard and sheep-yard near the hut, but no cattle or sheep. This, I thought, must be some deserted station; yet in peeping through the closed shutter of the hut, that evidently served for a window, I saw sundry kitchen fixings, such as iron pots, tin pannikins, a rough table and stools, and other signs of recent habitation. Somebody lived here, that was evident; so I thought the best way was to unsaddle my horse and wait.

Just at sundown, the barking of dogs and the cracking of a stock-whip assured me I was |in the land of the living. Presently a man, tolerably well mounted and accompanied by three or four kangaroo dogs, rode up and dismounted at the door of the hut, and upon seeing me, gave me a kindly " Good evening," and called his dogs off from making a closer inspection of my calves, fortunately encased in galligaskins[6] of sound tough leather, or they might, after bailing me up, have made their mark thereon. To my inquiry into whose hands I had fallen, I was informed the venerable looking homestead was the head station of Messrs. Pitts and Bonnivant, and the locality Canal Creek, and that I was about the same distance from Mr. Forbes' station as when I started in the earlier part of the day from Gammies.

This information at first appeared anything but pleasant news; but as I fully believed in that excellent maxim, "What cannot be cured must be endured," I asked, and at once, with genuine bush hospitality, was accorded all the accommodation the hut afforded for a shake down and a feed. My entertainer was Mr. Bonnivant, his partner, Mr. Charles Pitts, being at the time absent from the station. How I have lived (or rather, shall I say existed or vegetated!) twenty five years in this land since that evening. I have churned in with oil sorts and conditions of men; I have fed upon the fat of the land in company with the gentlemen of the Downs and other districts, and I have shared a shepherd's ration of scabby mutton on the outskirts of civilisation, and listened to many yarns; but that night with Bonnivant, under the bark roof of these hard-working ill-requited pioneer squatters, was a thing to be remembered after many years.

To listen, as one must listen if he takes an interest in passing events, to the truthful catalogue of dangers, vicissitudes, and hardships attending a life in the far-off bush, would be, I think, sufficient to make the most ardent advocate for free selection sympathise with these adventurous men. I have been charged, with other Brisbane men, with antagonism to squatting. God knows I have never envied these men the occupation of their broad domains, and have rejoiced when I have heard of their successes, whether in the wool market or in the Legislative Council. But, as I have the opportunity, I will here record my conviction that they (the squatters) have not in all things done unto others what they have wished should be done unto themselves. They who try to shut out the world's great family from these sunny lands commit a grave mistake, and lay the way for their own and their adopted country's retardation most materially.

As I have stated, the general conversation between Bonnivant and myself on that, to me, memorable evening related principally to squatting pursuits, Bonnivant contending, with great force, that to take up new country upon which to depasture stock without sufficient ready money capital to carry through all the necessary operations of travelling stock, fixing and finishing the head and out stations with huts, hurdles, and the thousand and one other items requisite for a new home, was the height of folly. The man, who did so, speedily became the prey to the hungry sharper looking out for cheap investments, made valuable by other men's labour. The truth of these remarks has many times since that night been verified by the subsequent career of dozens of men who attempted to do, an impossibility.

When I left the genial fireside of Pitts and Bonnivant the next morning, and wended my way under the guidance for some miles of my friend of the overnight, I confess to being a sadder yet a wiser man than previous to my advent on the Downs. I saw men of extensive information, of gentlemanly manners, and accustomed to all the amenities of civilized life, isolating and shutting themselves out voluntarily from all those domestic comforts which most men prize; subsisting for months on salt beef and damper, with the hope that they will ultimately win a home in the wilderness, to which some day they may have the pleasure of conducting the one dear form they have long loved so well.

Squatter at Ease

No doubt the readers of the Queenslander who recollect something of the "Old Times" will draw some curious deductions from this exposition, and cease to marvel at the influences brought to bear by those so largely interested in retaining the almost exclusive possession of this noble and valuable tract of country; and, if one looks back through this long vista of years, and still sees, on inspecting the map of the Darling Downs, that the whole length and breadth of country lying between Warwick and Drayton still remain in the possession of some half dozen individuals, can it be wondered at that some grumble at our one-sided legislation, which permits one section of the community to buy up at a mere nominal figure thousands of acres of the finest lands in the colonies, and doles out to the other portion, with jealous caution, a few hundred acres of unsuitable country.

© K. C. Sbeghen, 2011.

[1] Scotland.
[2] Stifled or suffocated.
[3] The summons Tom Dowse was commissioned to deliver.
[4] The carcasses of the sheep were reduced down to tallow, which was exported to be used to make soap & candles amongst many other products.
[5] Cooee! A loud Australian bush call used to indicate the caller’s location. It was learned from the Aboriginal people.
[6] Leather leggings or gaiters.

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