On the literary road: Omeo, Omeo, wherefore art thou Omeo?

The Omeo Plains near Benambra from Mount Blowhard

Omeo Plains (Released into Public Domain, by John O’Neill, via Wikipedia)

Ok, that’s a pretty weak beginning I know, but hands up if you’ve ever heard of Omeo in Victoria, Australia? I must say that I hadn’t until recently when I started planning our latest foray into Victoria. We decided to  travel to Melbourne via the Great Alpine Road, in Victoria’s High Country … and in that gorgeous region we found a very pretty little town called  Omeo.

And so, I checked my literary guide* and I discovered some interesting literary connections for the town. It was part of the big Gold Rush of the 1850s, and the area features in novels by Rolf Boldrewood and Henry Kingsley. I’m a bit embarrassed that I really hadn’t been aware of Kingsley until a year or so ago, but Omeo features in his best-known novel, The recollections of Geoffrey Hamlyn (1859), and in another of his novels The Hillyars and the Burtons (1865). This latter novel apparently incorporates a story inspired by the Omeo Disaster of 1854 in which a number of diggers rushed over the Great Dividing Range from Beechworth searching for gold. It was not successful, however, and some of the diggers did not survive their return trip.

Boldrewood is a better known writer, primarily for his novel, Robbery under arms. It is another novel of his, though, Nevermore (1892), that features this area, which he saw as wild and lawless. In this novel he recreates three real events that rather support his assessment – the murder of Cornelius Green, the Ned Kelly Gang cattle rustling, and the Tichborne Claimant affair. All of these had connections with Omeo. Cornelius Green was a gold-buyer who was hatchetted to death by two bushrangers in 1859. The Tichborne claimant, who made a fake claim on a fortune and a title in England, had worked around Omeo in the 1850s. It was a well-known case at the time in both England and Australia. And the Kellys, well, if you don’t know them, click the link to Wikipedia and all will be revealed!

By 1900 Omeo had become far more respectable and was recognised for the beauty that we saw on our visit. Poet Bill Wye wrote:

There’s a wild charm in the mountains that is not met elsewhere,
Free as the vagrant winds, and pure as snow
There are songs in fountains, bubbling in the hills up there,
That echo the name of ‘Omeo’…

Not great poetry perhaps, but you get the picture, as you do in the following which was included by one RH Croll in his 1928 book on bushwalking:

As I came over Livingstone
The day was like a flame,
But suddenly I saw below,
Far and far and far below,
The shining roofs of Omeo
And said its singing name.

Ah, Omeo, Omeo, methinks you deserve better poets than these!

*Peter Pierce (ed)
The Oxford Literary Guide to Australia
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983 (rev ed)
ISBN: 0195536223

29 thoughts on “On the literary road: Omeo, Omeo, wherefore art thou Omeo?

  1. I don’t know Henry Kingsley either (another one for the wishlist) but I can vouch for the fact that Robbery Under Arms has survived the test of time. I read it for an ‘Aussie classics challenge’ (which shows how sometimes these challenges are a good way of discovering new books & authors) and I really enjoyed it. It’s not just a rollicking adventure, it’s also Boldrewood exploring remorse, repentance and regret in an era when crime and punishment was viewed in a cut-and-dried kind of way (see http://anzlitlovers.com/2009/09/06/robbery-under-arms-by-rolf-boldrewood/)
    BTW Omeo even today has been known to be a bit ‘wild and lawless’. It’s not a good idea to park outside the pub with any kind of greenie sticker on the car, because the local timber-workers see themselves as an endangered species and they might not like it…

  2. Oh good, glad I’m not the only one re Kingsley, Lisa. I was very surprised when I came across it a year or so ago. As for Omeo, that’s interesting … We didn’t see any evidence on our short stop but we have not had stickers on our cars since the No Dams one back in the 1980s. Not very brave, but sensible.

    Oh, and I do like your alliteration on Rs when you write here on Rolf!

    • Ah yes, Marg, you could very well have heard of it in relation to bushfires as they have clearly been in the vicinity though I don’t think the town itself has suffered. Unfortunately we didn’t have much time there, and what we did have was limited by a heavy threatening storm that hit as we were leaving. We plan to explore the area again though one day as there’s a lot to interest.

  3. I do like your Omeo poetry at least as well as the others. The picture is incredibly beautiful. I still haven’t read True History of the Kelly Gang and this reminds me I must. And now you and Lisa have added Robbery Under Arms to the list.

    • Thanks Kerry … The book pile just keeps growing doesn’t it? I’m glad you like the photo … I was thrilled went came up via Wikipedia as I didn’t have my camera attachment to upload one of mine. I do like the way the poems both refer specifically to the name. It is apparently an indigenous word for “mountains”.

  4. Several years ago my husband and I did the inland trip across the Great Alpine Road down to Cann River, and followed the coast road up to Sydney. Being a Victorian I was also aware of Omeo. I remember reading Henry Kingsley at High School, and just looked in my Seventh Grade Reader and found his story, A Bush Fire. And in the Eighth Grade Reader, another story Sam’s Ride on Widderin. Kinglsey must have been well thought of literary wise because most of the poems and stories in the Readers are of British origin. If you want to read a very interesting book on the Tichborne Claimant affair, I would recommend The Man Who Lost Himself by the Australian writer Robyn Annear.

    Meg .

    • Oh thanks Meg, re Kinglsey. I do have Geoffrey Hamlyn but some short stories would be good to read too. and thnaks too for the Annear recommendation. I’ve heard of her but have never read her.

      That sounds like a good drive. Last time we drive to Melbourne we came down the Hume, the way we are returning this time, and returned via Cann River. I now need to fill in the gap between Cann River and Mallacoota to complete those main eastern roads … I think.

    • Thanks Judith. I saw mention of this movie when I was following up some of my Omeo leads, but I didn’t know the film (other than vaguely recollecting its title) so decided to leave it. Now you and Guy have intrigued me.

      • It is a full-on genre film – an Australian western in the grand style – very violent, and with some over-the-top bits – but quite beautifully photographed and well-acted. People either love it or hate it, signs it is bound to become a cult movie and thus have lasting value. I wonder if genre in film is more acceptable to literary readers than on paper. The setting in this case – the Australian high country – is a major character in its own right.

  5. I have just come across this site as I searched for details about an Omeo Valley primary School-one teacher- in the early 1900s where my late Father in law was sent as a teacher. Interesting diary-eg boarded with Lynch and Connelly families. Mentions some children by name etc.Anyone interested? he mentions that the Connellys Boarding House was burnt in the 39 fires-also Lyn ch ‘s.need to contact me by email as I am not a computer wiz and probably wouldn’t find this again!

    • Nice to hear from you Jean … not sure if you will see this response but people won’t know your email from this comment. You’ll only know if someone is interested, I’m afraid, if you checked the “notify me of comments” box and someone does comment. Good luck with your research.

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