Monday musings on Australian literature: Bush Sketcher (Intro)

I was uncertain about whether to title this post The Australasian or “Bush Sketcher”, but have decided on the latter. However, I will start by introducing The Australasian!

The Australasian was a weekly newspaper established in 1864 by the merger of three Melbourne weeklies, and later incorporating a couple of other publications, including, in 1889, the monthly Australasian Sketcher with Pen and Pencil. The Australasian was the weekend companion to the Argus, and lasted until 1946 when it became the Australasian Post. That publication had a bit of a chequered history, but lasted until 2002 (albeit named, by then, Aussie Post.)

The reason, though, that I checked all this out was because of a regular column or section in the Australasian called “Bush Sketcher” as it was under this banner that Katharine Susannah Prichard’s short stories, “The bridge” and “Christmas tree”, were published (links are to my recent posts). It was when I saw the second story appear under the banner that I decided to check out this “Bush Sketcher” business. Through my best Trove jiggery-pokery (without spending hours), I think I can say that this “Bush Sketcher” column ran from around 1895 to 1925.

Bush Sketcher

Ernest Reid, Australian station storiesArticles ranged from 600 to 3000 or so words, with most being in the vicinity of 1500 to 2500 words, so this was more than a “column”. All the articles have by-lines, but many are pseudonyms (like Bushwoman, Millewa and Coriander) or just initials (such as J.A.M., A.H., and R.V.L). However, as we already know, some authors, like Katharine Susannah Prichard, are fully identified. Another well-known author who came up in my search was Daisy M Bates. Other lesser known writers (to me) include Hetty Ralph-Baker, Ernest Reid (whose short stories from The Argus and The Australasian were published in 1930 in a collection titled Australian station stories), and  E.S. Sorenson (novelist, poet and short story writer who appears in the Australian Dictionary of Biography). So, a varied bunch.

The content is varied too as a random selection of article titles shows:

  • “Aboriginal relationships” (Daisy M Bates – a detailed description of Western Australian Aboriginal kinship systems, written in 1922)
  • “Racing in the never never” (Bushwoman)
  • “A day at Bushvale” (Coriander)
  • “Far north blacks” (Hetty Ralph-Baker – but this article is barely legible, so worn or faded is it)
  • “The old station” (Ernest Reid)
  • “Sundowners” (ES Sorenson)

And, not only is the content varied, but the form also: some of the articles are short stories, while others are more journalistic or slices-of-life non-fiction.

I will return to “Bush Sketcher” in future as there’s some fascinating material here, but will close by sharing one …

“Women’s work in the North West”

Written by A.H. and published on 18 December, 1920, this article is written by the mistress of a station homestead. Focusing on wash-day, it describes the work undertaken by women in managing a homestead – though in fact the women whose work is mostly described is that of the Aboriginal women (or “gins” as she calls them). I think A.H. is being genuinely inclusive in her title, “women’s work”.

The homestead is set in the Kimberley area and provides insight into life there. The story starts with a somewhat purple but highly evocative description of the landscape around the station, then tells us that it’s wash-day. The arrival of the indigenous women reminds her that there’s no time to waste:

The women, running up with their shouts, laughter, and repartee to their lazier men folk, warn us that if the great mountain of soiled clothes in the laundry is to be clean goods by noon we too must be on the move.

She tells us how they all wear white in the house! Really? In the red-earthed north-west! And she describes the women: “Hebe, our bed room girl [who] has been well trained for her work from the age of ten …The other women … were all older – Chatterbox, the children’s nurse; Chloe, the dining room and pantry maid; Mirabon, the kitchen help; and old Biddy, Hebe’s mother, a general utility, able to clean windows, wash down verandahs, and help in the laundry.” She describes the challenges involved in keeping them on task, including bribing them with “a tin of apricots”.

However, once she’s got the women started on the washing, she writes that:

I can safely go in now to the half-past 6 breakfast, which is spread on the shady verandah. The children are in their nursery, the netted in end of the vine-covered verandah, where a swing and a hammock, a rocking horse, and boxes of bricks, with slates and pencils, minister to their amusement and interest through the long hot day. Every one, native and white, has a siesta from 12 till 3 in the afternoon, noon. Breakfast is taken at 6 or half-past, tiffin (a light meal of cakes and tea or coffee), at 10, lunch at 12, (a light meal also); afternoon tea at half-past 4; and dinner at half-past 7. Such are our rules, and these vary little among the station homesteads between the Gascoyne and Marble Bar, Broome, Derby, and Wyndham.

So, we get a lovely time-table of station-life.

The whole thing is paternalistic as you’d expect from the times – at one stage she calls the women “happy creatures” – but A.H. is not totally closed-minded to indigenous lives and ways. I was fascinated by this:

When the copper has its first consignment, the women pause for a drink of cold tea and a nice repast of broiled frogs, which Topsy a 10-year-old Coorie, has brought up smoking hot from the camp, and they do not look untempting, lying well browned on a mass of gum leaves in the boat shaped Tar-doo, which serves the natives as a tray. With a sleight of hand quite wonderful the frog is stripped of its brown coat, attendant ashes, and in the same movement the shrunken “innards,” leaving only the succulent limbs, which are swallowed as we swallow oysters.

She also describes some of the lively repartee with Chloe who, though under our writer’s control, is not afraid to express her frustration, telling A.H., “Missis too much wongi wongi: make black-fella woman bad fella”. Then, having given this “frank opinion”, she gets back to work “on the tubs.”

Particularly interesting, though, is A.H.’s concluding paragraph:

The natives who belong to the territory taken up by the squatter become, by an arrangement with the Government, his indentured servants. He is responsible for their upkeep. A liberal scale of diet is specified by the Protector of Aborigines, who also sends an agent from time to time on surprise visits to see that all regulations are fairly kept.

That, I suppose, is to reassure the city-readers that all is properly managed and happy on the stations.

There is of course so much we, a century later, could read into this wash-day slice-of-life, but I’m not going to say the obvious here. My point really is to show what a rich source “Bush Sketcher” is for providing insight into Australian outback life – including values, attitudes and language – at the beginning of the Twentieth Century. I’ll be back with more …

12 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Bush Sketcher (Intro)

  1. I really admire you for drawing our attention to this rich source of insight. I recall in 1982 teaching a class of Year 8 lads at Homebush Boys – a “parallel ESL English class”. We were reading some extracts from a text-book I had selected. “Bukbuk” (from Tiger in the Dark) was particularly revealing in the manner you have pointed out in your review, WG. Written by Mary E PATCHETT (1897-1989) a piece of racist writing – but oh so valuable because so blatant. Children’s hands described as “paws” while adult men were referred to as “bucks” – along with highly inaccurate cultural information. We checked the terminology in our dictionaries. We all shook our heads!

    • Thanks Jim. It’s important to understand how things were isn’t it. “The natives who belong to [not who “own”] the territory taken up by the squatter, become, by an arrangement with the Government, his indentured servants”. I mean, really!

  2. This is such interesting stuff. Going back and reading these pieces seems like it can be so enlightening. Thanks for posting those quotes. It really was a different time. With that, certain things about people stay the same.

  3. I’ve been meaning to review Daisy Bates’ collected journalism, The Passing of the Aborigines, ever since I started. I really must get down to it.

    But, to deal with the ‘obvious’, just as we Whites must call Aboriginal deaths what they were, wars, massacres, murder; so must we acknowledge that the system of allowing people to remain on their own land only if they did work for the white owners was slavery. No, they weren’t bought and sold, though Ernestine Hill reports that they were kidnapped, but nor could they leave.

    • Yes, exactly, Bill … I was thinking exactly that – about it’s being slavery – as I lay awake last night. It’s hard to see it any other way, isn’t it. And on their own land!

      I wonder if the Bush Sketcher piece I read is in that book.

    • Yes indeed, Hebe ‘well-trained since 10 years old’ jumped out at me as a matter for shame. Is that my 21st century eyes, or did anyone back then recognise the moral wrong?
      I wonder what became of little Hebe…

      • Yes, I wondered too. You can’t really tell from the tone of this story how much the writer reflected on the whole business. I suspect she was a generally kind person (or realised kindness resulted in better work!) but believed in her culture’s rights and superiority.

        I wonder whether with those names they were given – Hebe, Chatterbox, etc – the people involved and their descendants would be able to find these stories about them to prove their continuity/connection with the land – because that’s one value at least stories like this can provide.

        As for little Hebe, yes indeed. I wonder what did happen to her. Was she safe with the men there? (AH also mentions 4 jackaroos whose washing had to be done – I don’t think they wore white though!!)

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