Thursday, June 21, 2012

A Dangerous Occupation

The Perilous Life of the Colonial Shepherd

Idyllic Sketch of a Colonial Shepherd and his Dog

Perhaps the most dangerous occupation in the early days of Colonial Queensland was that of the shepherd. Many lost their lives in conflicts with indigenous people who reacted to the incursion of thousands of sheep into their territories.  Then there were aggressive venomous snakes, and the madness brought on by heat and isolation in crude huts.

Often there were violent altercations with overseers and station owners.  Two such incidents were reported in November 1847.  The first took place on the sheep station of Captain Pike.[1]

It appears that owing to the scarcity of labour, Mr. Fitz, the superintendent to Captain Pike, had the greatest difficulty in keeping the men on the station; several had bolted, and both Mr. Fitz and the overseer had each to take a flock of sheep in consequence.

Mr. Fitz was putting his sheep in the yard, when he was informed that two of his shepherds had just brought their flocks to the head station with the intention of giving them up. He then told one of the men, named Yates, who it appears, was a very flash determined sort of fellow, to take his flock back to the station he had left.

Shepherd "Counting Out" Sheep

Yates did not react well to this command despite the fact that the superintendent had the law on his side. Any contracted employee who abandoned their position could be jailed under the Hired Servants Act. The argument soon got physical.

The man replied in the most insolent manner "that he was the bloody man that would go." Mr. Fitz remonstrated with him for some time, and told him if he did not conduct himself properly, and desist from putting him to such inconvenience, he would not give him one farthing more than his agreement.

Some further altercation then took place, when Yates threw down his blanket in great haste, and said "oh, by Jesus don't think I am afraid of you," and was in the act of rushing towards Mr. Fitz when the latter struck him a blow with the hutkeeper's stick which he had in his hand, and he dropped down, bleeding from the side of the head.

Washing Sheep

The blow would have fatal consequences.

Yates shortly after got up, and went into one of the huts, where he had a fit, and became insensible. On being made aware of the circumstance, Mr. Fitz immediately proceeded to the hut, and bled him. Finding that bleeding did not do him any good, other means were tried to restore him, but all to no purpose, and he shortly afterwards expired.

The foregoing particulars have been furnished by an eye-witness to the scene that took place on the station, and our informant assures us that the man's violent conduct, as well as the insolence of his language, was beyond all bounds, and that Mr. Fitz struck him in self-defence, little dreaming, of course, that such a fatal result would have ensued. 

Canning Downs Station Homestead, ca. 1865
Portrait of Walter Leslie

More bad blood was evident on Leslie’s property, Canning Downs, on the Darling Downs. It involved an overseer and an ex-convict named Charles Parr. [2]

- On the 31st ultimo, a shepherd named Charles Parr, in the service of Messrs. W. and G. Leslie was violently assaulted by Mr. Corson, the sheep overseer, and now lies dangerously ill from injuries received on his head and body. It appears that some altercation took place between them about some trifling affair, which ended in the assault being committed; but the original ground of contention was owing to the circumstance of Mr. Corson, in his capacity of overseer, having found it necessary borne months previous to bring Parr before the Bench, for misconduct, on which occasion he was sentenced to two months' imprisonment.

Wool transport leaving the wool shed Canning Downs Station ca. 1857

The overseer Corson, fearing he would be brought before the courts immediately decamped from the station.

This led to continual disputes between Mr. Corson and Parr, and eventually ended in the latter being assaulted and beaten with great severity by the former, who, fearing that serious consequences might result from the affair left the station, and has not since been heard of.

As soon as the circumstance was made known to the Magistrates, the sufferer's deposition was taken and a warrant was subsequently issued for the apprehension of Corson, who, however, has contrived to keep out of the way, notwithstanding all the exertions of the police to place him in custody.

A Shepherd with his Flock
No further mention is made of Corson so he may have successfully eluded the constabulary.  The correspondent finished his report chiding some employers but offered little sympathy to the “bush servants” and their “gross” behaviour.

If the man had died, this would have been a most serious case for Corson, and it is much to be regretted that those placed in authority over servants should allow their passions to get the better of their reason in cases of this nature. By quarrelling and fighting with their servants, masters degrade themselves to the same level, and seem in many cases, to forget that one in the lowest rank of life may keenly feel an affront as well as one of the highest. 

I do not wish to extenuate the conduct of bush servants generally; everyone knows their behaviour has been very gross of late; but I think that when servants are employed in the labour of life, it ought to be the study of masters to demand that labour in the manner easiest to them; and it should never be forgotten that gentleness is part of the wages due to them for their service.

If servants are so unreasonable, and so blind to their true interests, as to neglect their master's work, and behave in an insolent manner, the law provides a remedy, and to it both parties must have recourse. The Magistrates alone are entitled to inflict summary punishment on its transgressors. I hope what I have written will be permitted to appear in your columns, as there is a strong feeling abroad on the subject.

 © K. C. Sbeghen, 2012.

[1] The Moreton Bay Courier 13.11.1847
[2] The Moreton Bay Courier 20.11.1847

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