Thursday, 23 May 2013

Some Observ-ations--1 James Backhouse

It is important at this point to pay due acknowledgement to Dr. George Mackaness, whose trilogy of monographs entitled Fourteen Journeys Over The Blue Mountains of New South Wales [1] (still available at Blue Mountains Libraries) has proved invaluable to local ‘Mountains historians such those of us at ‘Warrimoo History’.

Mackaness has not only researched the obvious authors: early exploration diarists such as Blaxland, Evans and Cox, but also the records of subsequent travelers across the ‘Mountains: those who had gamely followed the trailblazers and ventured into new territory as European observers.
The first-hand accounts of these early tourists make fascinating reading and their observations, as we shall see, provide a detailed and provocative picture of life across the ‘Mountains in the 1830’s. Thank you, Dr. Mackaness, for your efforts in finding and publishing, word for word, these cherished primary sources… 

1) James Backhouse—1835

Backhouse was a Quaker, and as a member of the ‘Society of Friends’, had been sent from London to carry out traveling missionary work in the Colonies. He was in no hurry, and tended to linger in those areas where he and his companion, George Walker, could do some good. His account is therefore quite detailed, thoughtful and objective.

James Backhouse (1794-1869)--Quaker, after he had returned to London. He was 41 years of age when he travelled through 'Warrimoo' on his Mission to the Antipodes

 After ministering to the inmates of the ‘Ironed Gang’ stockade at Emu Plains, he described his entry to the Blue Mountains… 

On leaving the Ironed-gang, we proceeded along dusty, mountain roads, through forests of Gum and Stringy-bark, in some parts of which, fire was raging with fury; it had burnt the scrub off other parts, and left it black. On reaching a place, called The Valley, where there is a plain, country inn, with the sign of The Woolpack, having moderate accommodation, we gladly rested for the night.[2] 

So Backhouse stayed at the Woolpack Inn, around 2 kilometres further on from present-day Warrimoo. Clearly, for James Backhouse there was not a great deal to comment on about the bushland mountain country he had thus far passed through, except to say that it was dry eucalypt forest land where fire was a common occurrence—possibly moreso than it had been in the preceding centuries, because it was no longer fully ‘managed’ by the Darug as it had been in the past.

A group of 19th Century Quakers in traditional garb

After traveling to Springwood and beyond, Backhouse encountered two ‘Ironed-Gangs’ that maintained the Western Road: 

About five miles from our lodging place, we visited another Ironed-gang, and three miles further, a third; in each there were about sixty men, and both were under the charge of a young military officer. The prisoners were lodged in huts, upon large, open areas, by the road-side, without any stockade. When not at work, they were kept on the spot, by a guard of soldiers, who are ordered to fire upon any that may attempt to escape, and who will not stop when called to. We were informed, that they had no Bibles, or other books, and that their only religious instruction consisted in the reading of prayers by the officer, or sergeant in charge, on First-days (Sundays—ed). A few of the prisoners lodge in moveable caravans, which have doors, and ironed-barred windows, on one side. Four or five men sleep in each end of them, on the floor, and as many more, on platforms. They are not less crowded than the huts, and are unwholesome dormitories. Many of the men sleeping in them, become affected with the scurvy. [3] 

It is not difficult to understand how readily diseases such as scurvy and ‘consumption’ (tuberculosis) flourished in such conditions, especially when coupled with a diet of weevilled flour and salted meats—fresh fruit and greens were rare. Cox’s achievement in totally avoiding scurvy during the six months of constructing the Western Road, is all the more impressive given this kind of working life twenty years later. 

At last, Backhouse assessed the Mountains road as follows: 

The road over the Blue Mountains, winds nearly forty miles, along their ridge, which ascends and descends a little, at intervals. Some parts of it have been cut with much labour, by prisoners, and others are sandy and rocky, but most of it is now good for carriages. There are a few miserable, solitary public-houses, by its side, in addition to the better ones, already mentioned (the Woolpack Inn—Ed), and another, of decent character (the Weatherboard Inn--Ed). Along its whole course there are no grassy openings to afford pasturage for cattle. At the present time, the little rigid herbage, in the forest, is dried up. The bullocks traveling with the settlers’ drays, are “ill favoured and lean fleshed,” from the scarcity of grass in the countries below. Dead bullocks were numerous by the road side. Wedge-tailed Eagles were frequently to be seen, feeding upon the fresh ones.[4] 

According to Backhouse, there were now a few shabby pubs by the side of the road. The impression is that they are shanty bark-huts which had no real longevity, supplied with locally-made liquor, and only in existence for the ‘quick kill’ of supplying bullockies with moonshine in their constant to-ing and fro-ing across the Mountains. These ‘Public-Houses’ must be distinguished from the more permanently established, albeit weatherboard, accommodation establishments called ‘Inns’.

A gathering of Quaker women. Quakers were generally more open-minded and progressive than most Christian sects: they respected women as equals and led the campaign against Slavery in the United States

At this stage, there were four known Inns operating in the Mountains: the ‘Pilgrim Inn’ at present-day Blaxland, which operated at the junction of all three roads ascending Lapstone Hill: Cox’s Road (the contemporary Highway), the Bathurst Road (today’s Old Bathurst Road) and Mitchell’s Pass (still named thus today). 

The second was the ‘Woolpack’ or ‘Welcome’ or ‘Valley Inn’ situated near present day Valley Heights station. Initially this possessed good, clear pasture behind, in its ‘Valley’, but clearly by the time of Backhouse’s journey this had been rendered ‘plain’ by constant grazing and dry conditions. 

The others were the ‘Weatherboard Inn’, at the location of what was to become ‘Wentworth Falls’, and the ‘Scotch Thistle’ at Black Heath, both of which were mentioned by Backhouse. 

One of the most striking observations made by the missionary was of the poor state of herbage all the way across. There was simply no way of supplying fresh grass to transportation animals (horses and bullocks), nor of adequately feeding stock-herds on their way to market from the western plains around Bathurst, with the poor vegetation of the ‘Mountains. The combination of drought and over-grazing, as well as accidentally sparked bushfires, had rendered the charcoal bushland arid and sparse. 

One of the consequences of such poor conditions was the common sight of road-side carrion, in this case dead bullocks, the favored beast of burden for freight trips across the Divide. Backhouse noticed that this in turn, led to the proliferation of Wedge-Tailed Eagles feeding from their flesh, later to become a symbol of Warrimoo itself.

The badge of Lower Blue Mountains Junior Rugby League Club, which commenced its life as the 'Warrimoo Eagles'

The image of this mighty bird is the key representative icon for Warrimoo Public School, the Warrimoo Rural Fire Service and the Lower Blue Mountains Junior Rugby League club, and has resulted in the township of Warrimoo being designated as the “Place of the Eagle”, despite the fact that they are rarely sighted today.

[1] MACKANESS, G., Fourteen Journeys Over The Blue Mountains of New South Wales, Review Publications, Dubbo, 1978
[2] Ibid, p10
[3] Ibid., p10
[4] Ibid., p11

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