Project Canterbury

Thirty Years in Tropical Australia

By the Right Reverend Gilbert White, D.D.
Bishop of Willochra

London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1918.

Chapter XVIII. Some Northern Pioneers (1886-1915)

IT is right, I suppose, to begin with those representatives of the King who have either had the North under administration or visited it from time to time. Of these, four stand out in my recollection. First, the bluff, rugged personality of Sir William MacGregor, who was first Administrator of New Guinea, and afterwards Governor of Queensland. He combined an extraordinary strength, courage, and adventurousness which carried him with half a dozen guards into the midst of the wildest cannibals in search of a murderer, with the most colossal learning and encyclopaedic knowledge. His tables were spread with scientific pamphlets in half a dozen languages, and he read his Greek Testament more diligently than nine-tenths of the clergy. He spoke the broadest Scotch and I remember the puzzlement of the children of a little mission school when he told them to write down at his dictation what sounded to them like "A cart sat on a mart."

Sir William MacGregor was followed in New Guinea by Sir George Le Hunte, also a man of great capacity, vigour, and character. He became Governor of South Australia in later years, and is remembered with affection and esteem.

Lord Beauchamp, who had just completed his term as Governor of New South Wales, was, with Sir G. Le Hunte, present at my enthronement at Thursday Island, or rather they intended to be, but their boat was late, and as it was not signalled the service began and they only arrived at its conclusion. It would be impertinent on my part to speak of the high ideals which Lord Beau-champ brought to Australia, or the generosity with which he assisted the Diocese of Carpentaria, as he did every good work. Perhaps he will forgive me if I relate an amusing experience of my own. Some little while before he left New South Wales, a great turmoil arose out of the fact that Lord Beauchamp, who was a devout member of the Anglican Church, thought it his duty to attend, as Governor, the opening of St. Mary's Roman Catholic Cathedral in Sydney. The preacher published as part of his sermon certain offensive remarks which he had omitted in the actual preaching, and the public jumped to the conclusion that these remarks had been delivered in the presence of the Governor. Hence much turmoil and excitement. A few days later I was going by train from Sydney northward, and was travelling in a coupe carriage which held four, the other corner being occupied by a young man. At Strathfield, two hundred women were waiting on the platform on their way to some convention in Newcastle. Four big stout women hoisted themselves into the carriage; one sat down on the young man in the corner and I saw him no more, and the others disposed themselves as best they could. Presently they began to discuss the all-absorbing topic of the Governor and St. Mary's. "Pore young man," said one good dame, "we must not be too hard on him. You see he is only half my age, and has only half my experience of life. As for them Romans, they're allus the same, ever since St. Paul told them they was a wild olive-tree. Howsomedever, next time he will know better. If you put your head into lionses and tigerses mouths, they'll bite."

The present Viceroy of India, Lord Chelmsford, paid more than one visit to Thursday Island when he was Governor of Queensland, and, it is needless to say, won the hearts of all by the simplicity and charm of his manners and his quiet camaraderie. During his stay he was to dine one night at the officers' mess and we waited long in vain. At last he turned up on foot, assisting Mr. Milman, the Government Resident, who was no mean weight, wet through with dirty water and overcome with indignation. The local cabman, alias carter and milkman, had overturned his cab and pitched out its occupants into a wet ditch. The future Viceroy had the good fortune to fall on top, and took his adventure with the greatest cheerfulness.

My first memory of Thursday Island is connected with the Government Resident, the Hon. John Douglas, C.M.G., a man of remarkable personality and appearance. His huge leonine head was crowned with a mass of snow-white hair, and he attracted general attention in any assembly. He was at one time Premier of Queensland, but an unwise act compelled his retirement, and he spent his declining years at Thursday Island, beloved by all who knew him, and adored by all the natives of the islands for a hundred miles round. A gentleman in the truest sense of the term, he was also a man of wide reading and refinement. He died in July 1904, after a week's illness, still at work, but glad to lay it down and rest.

He was succeeded by Mr. Hugh Milman, another man of marked individuality, a nephew of the well-known Dean, and brother of a late Missionary Bishop. A somewhat gruff exterior clothed a very tender heart, and he did good and faithful service to the time of his death in September 1912.

The island was extremely fortunate in obtaining as its third Resident Mr. W. Lee Bryce, a man of great tact and ability, whose keen interest in and able treatment of the native population of the surrounding islands has led to many reforms and the initiation of many changes which his older predecessors could hardly have been expected to undertake. He too died suddenly of fever not long after I left Thursday Island.

One of the best known and most widely popular men of his day in the North of Queensland was George Henry Stanton, Bishop of North Queensland from 1877 to 1891. Bishop Stanton came out to Australia in middle life, with no knowledge of rough bush life, and only the experience of a London parish. He threw himself into his new experiences with extraordinary gusto. He immediately set to work to learn to ride and to swim, and he won the hearts of the dwellers in the bush by his wonderful geniality and his deep and intelligent interest in their occupations. He was at the same time a man of great intellectual power, and he always kept fully abreast of the latest scientific and philosophical thought. He had, however, the gift of translating these things into the simplest language, and illustrating them with a wealth of imagery drawn from his hearers' own observation and experience. His sermons were at once intellectually stimulating and extraordinarily fresh and vivid. He was one of the humblest of men, and most abstemious and self-denying. His private income was all devoted to his work, and no one knew the limits of his generosity. His modesty was sometimes very trying, as when he would insist on carrying his own bag while you walked empty-handed beside him, or as when, having to share a room with him, I found him ensconced on the mattress on the floor intended for me, and apparently fast asleep, while the comfortable bed had been left for his embarrassed young chaplain.

Few perhaps realized the depth of the spiritual life that flowed under the somewhat jesting and critical surface of his ever-ready words, and even I, who thought I knew him so well, did not realize, until I visited him at Newcastle just before his death, how lofty was the secret ideal which he jealously screened from prying eyes. He had a thousand quaint stories to tell of his bush experiences, and I fancy that he found the respectability of Newcastle somewhat dull after his northern diocese. His charity of soul was so great that while it attracted good men it was also sometimes taken advantage of by the bad, and one or two very weird specimens of clergy made their way into his diocese. It is, however, not a little remarkable that out of a little diocese containing twenty clergy no less than three--the Revs. C. G. Barlow, E. A. Anderson, and G. White--became bishops, and two archdeacons--the Revs. F. Tucker and Seymour.

The Rev. C. G. Barlow succeeded him as Bishop of North Queensland and afterwards became Bishop of Goulburn. He, too, was a remarkable man, but failed to become a great man through lack of early education and training. Unfortunately, he elected as a boy to follow Bishop Stanton to Australia instead of going to the University as he had intended. Had he followed out his original intention he might, I think, have developed remarkably. He had a most marvellously magnetic personality and great gifts of character reading and observation, combined with a most fervid Celtic eloquence, but he wanted those gifts of decision which were required to make his gifts fully effective, and his lack of early training made him diffident in speaking of matters outside his own sphere of observation. In spite of his drawbacks, he did a great work, at a great cost to himself, for his delicate sensitive nature felt every little trouble and anxiety with undue keenness, and he was apt to require of his friends, not only the affection which was always his, but a community of thought which was not always possible and the absence of which gave him pain. Like Bishop Stanton, he was often misjudged by those who did not know him well, or realize the high ideals, the keen self-criticism, and the unfailing sympathy for the sorrows of his fellow-men which always distinguished him. He paid the penalty of a highly sensitive nature in a nervous breakdown which hastened his death.

In the early days of the Church in North Queensland we were fortunate in having many laymen, pioneers chiefly of the pastoral industry, who helped to lay the foundations of the Church. Of such were William Hann and Walter Hays, who contributed generously to the building of the cathedral in Townsville, and Mr. R. Christison. The latter was one of the best type of pioneers. He swam his horses ashore near Bowen, went up country, and for many years fought with all the troubles of the land until at last, like the patriarchs of old, he was blessed with many flocks and herds. He had a simple faith in God, and having in his pioneer days vowed that if God would bless him he would make an offering of a tenth part, he remembered and performed his vow when wealth came.

But the pioneers of the North were of all sorts and kinds, and many of them not respectable like the dignified gentlemen I have been describing.

I was riding one day through the bush when I heard a distant shout of "Dinner!" I looked about, and on the repetition of the shout I saw an old bushman waving his arm, and evidently inviting me to share his meal of very ancient salt beef, damper, and inky black tea. His manners were polite, though his dress was dirty and his person neglected. His talk, however, was not of the bush, but of literature and philosophy, and he quoted freely from Greek authors in their own tongue. Who he was and how he came there I never discovered. When I was at Herberton the community was greatly taken with a fascinating gentleman, who arrived from England in search of rest, a good climate, and pleasant companionship, all of which he found to perfection in Herberton. He was accompanied by his son, an enormously fat boy, and was voted a great acquisition until the arrival of an English policeman, who invited him to return to England on the charge of having left with some thousands of his employer's money. Curiously enough, it was through the fat boy that he was discovered.

All our mysterious English visitors were not of one sex. I knew well a delightful old lady who lived in a tiny North Queensland township, on a pension received from her family, a very well-known and distinguished one. While her strength lasted she used to take long walks of ten to fifteen miles through the bush, and when she died her friends caused a tombstone to be erected over her grave. No one ever knew why she went into voluntary exile. A more mysterious case was that of the lady known as Annie Bags, from her fancy for attiring herself in old flour-bags. She used to wander through the bush accompanied by a' pack of mangy mongrel dogs, and often lived with the blacks, who respected her as being obviously mad. She spoke with the accent of a highly educated woman, and I have heard her play the piano most beautifully. She was more than once arrested by the police on the charge of being without visible means of support, but she escaped by showing that she had several hundred pounds in the savings bank, and was allowed to return to her strange method of life.

The mass of the pioneers were, however, hard-working and right-living men and women, and it is a life which involves much hardship and needs considerable courage.

The stockman rides from daylight to dark, lives on beef and damper and tea, and sleeps usually under a tree. The "cocky" farmer has to work from daylight till after dark in his battle against floods, droughts, cockatoos, grasshoppers, and locusts, to say nothing of bandicoots and wallabies. The miner works shorter hours, but finds it difficult to get fresh food, and has to be content with very poor water, while gold, which is worth at the utmost £4 an ounce, costs on the average about £5 to win. Yet the miner is of all men the most hopeful. His show is always going to be the brilliant exception which is to bring him wealth and happiness for his declining years.

It is, perhaps, the bushwoman who has the greatest claim on our sympathy and admiration. Bush life is hard for a man, but far harder for a woman, yet wherever one goes, save only in Central Australia, one finds women accompanying their husbands and sharing in their toils. It is no uncommon thing to find women who have spent ten or twenty years on the roads as the wives of carriers, accompanied perhaps by half a dozen children, whose only home is the tail-board of the wagon and whose only bed is a cot slung underneath it. On stations, in mining camps, in bush clearings, they are doing a splendid work in preventing the men from sinking to the primitive level of their surroundings, and introducing elements of stability and hope.

Of those with whom I have been more or less brought in touch in the course of their efforts to help either the coloured or the white inhabitants of the North, four stand out prominently in my mind--James Chalmers, Albert Maclaren, Florence Buchanan, and William Wilkinson. Chalmers I met at Thursday Island, shortly before his murder. His life is so well known that I need not refer to it. He was not without his faults, but for manly Christian courage and heroic devotion to duty he would be hard to beat. Albert Maclaren I never met, though we were often on the point of meeting.

The late Deaconess Buchanan was one of those rare and beautiful souls who seem lent to earth for a short time till they can no longer be spared from their higher tasks in a higher sphere. In look and character she reminded me irresistibly of St. Catherine of Genoa, as depicted by Baron Von Hugel in his "Mystical Element of Religion." There was the same frail body compelled to obedience by the imperious soul, but revenging itself by occasional fits of utter prostration, the same life of constant unremitting service of the sick and suffering, the same sturdy independence of character which made Catherine dispense with a spiritual director for the greater part of her life, the same extraordinary influence on those who surrounded her, the same teaching by conversation and example rather than by formal address or written statement. She was extraordinarily abstemious. One small cup of tea and one slice of dry toast was her usual meal. It is almost incredible that any human being, however slight, as she was, could support life on so little. Her labour was almost incessant. In vain did one try to check the over-exhaustion of her powers. With gentle but invincible obstinacy she persisted in giving herself to her self-imposed tasks, spending herself and her means entirely on her work. All who came within reach of her influence became her devoted slaves, and were ready and willing to do anything for her. Pilots and seamen, wharf labourers and draymen, high officials and heedless girls, overburdened and sometimes short-tempered mothers, children of all ages, Japanese, South Sea Islanders, and men of every nationality, all found in her some one to love and trust, some one who seemed in each individual case to regard them with special care and affection, and who remembered the special occasions and anniversaries of their lives. At the same time she had a robust intelligence which saw through all attempts at fraud or imposition, and enabled her to form a cool judgment, combined with a keen and unquenchable sense of humour. She would smile without a trace of malice at the exasperating weakness and follies of those among whom she worked, and at her own pains and sufferings. As with St. Francis, the eager soul would deride the slowness and incapacity of "brother body," and then smile at itself for its impatience. It was impossible to be in her company without being drawn to her. The mobile, pain-drawn face, the great spiritual eyes, the frail little body dressed in the plainest uniform, were some of the outward marks of the tremendous energy, unconquerable will, and ever-present purpose within. It was imposible not to feel that her life was dominated by a supreme purpose. "Wist ye not that I must be about my Father's business?" was the never expressed, but always present, response to every effort to induce her to spare herself. In the midst of her work she passed through the gate of a time of special suffering into the higher life with the words "It is good to suffer "on her lips. The last of the four, the Rev. William Wilkinson, is happily still alive and is hard at work as ever. He is well known to every miner and bushman in the Cape York Peninsula, the Gulf country, and the Northern Territory. With no home save a little iron room, on one side of which he keeps saddlery and bags of chaff, and on the other a few books, he rides ever from daylight to dark through the most remote bush districts, where no other minister of religion ever goes, hunting up every man, wherever he is to be found, even if it means a day's journey off the track, and striving, with an unobtrusive kindliness which is never capable of being mistaken for officiousness, to do him service. Many years ago the Sydney Bulletin, which is not given to flattering the clergy, published an amusing and sympathetic account of his work, relating that its correspondent was standing at the door of the hotel of a remote bush town when he saw an elderly bushman rounding up a string of pack-horses into the yard with exceptional skill. On his coming up to the hotel, he put him down for a surveyor, and cheerfully asked him to have a drink. The drink was declined, and he was further disconcerted by having a mysterious engine pointed at him (Mr. Wilkinson is deaf), and by being asked a series of pertinent and slightly disconcerting questions as to himself and his business. He concluded that the Sydney Bulletin ideal of the country parson did not always conform to the facts.

Mr. Wilkinson's duties as he travels from point to point, with his mob of perhaps a dozen horses, packed with feed (which is often unattainable in the dry season), books, slides, and even a big acetylene lantern, are many and various. He carries mails and parcels to distant parishioners in "the Never Never," he gives not only spiritual advice, but information as to the prospects of one-man mining shows that no one else ever heard of, news of friends and relatives, writes letters, gathers the children to teaching and baptism, makes wills, takes charge of the fossicker's tiny packet of gold, which represents six months' supply of flour and tobacco, and generally goes about "doing good "to every man he can find. Of course he has his troubles: once a pack-horse rolled on £10 worth of lantern slides; another was seized by an alligator; another, into whose eye he was putting some healing drops, rose up and smote him down, and then trampled on his head, so that for a week he lay between life and death. A week later he crawled into the saddle and continued his way.

Mr. Wilkinson is not altogether an easy person to live up to. I well remember my first trip up the Peninsula with him. We started from a little bush township where I had arrived the night before. Mr. Wilkinson was up before daylight looking after his horses and adjusting the weights of the many pack-bags. I did not offer to help, for long practice had given him an exactitude that no outsider could rival, and to offer to help an expert is unwise presumption. About 12.30 P.M. all was at last finished and the horses got away in charge of a black boy. "Just time for lunch at the hotel before we leave," I thought, but no such luck; we must leave at once or we should not reach our camping-ground before dark. On our arrival the horses claimed the first care and we got our delayed lunch at 8.15 P.M. Next morning was a repetition of the last, save that the horses got away earlier, while we stayed, as was indeed right and proper, to have Morning Prayer without the least jot of those skippings and abbreviations which, it is to be feared, less conscientious priests sometimes indulge in. The last member of the Royal Family duly prayed for, we got on the way again, and about 1 P.M. I was meditating a mild inquiry as to dinner when Mr. Wilkinson turned round and said, "No dinner to-day," and devoted himself again to the track. We got dinner, salt beef and damper, with a pot of jam added as a special concession to my weakness, at 8 P.M. Next day I began to get desperate. After all, I thought, I am his bishop and he is bound to obey his ordinary in all things lawful and honest. I will have some dinner to-day even if I have to appeal to his oath of canonical obedience.

Happily it was not put to the test, for a station turned up about noon, and we were graciously allowed two hours, as Mr. Wilkinson wanted to call on the manager and men. I don't know what he lives on when he is not travelling with luxurious and dinner-requiring bishops. The total income derived from his living (?) does not cover horseshoes and horse-feed; but he has been doing it for ten years without getting into debt or being unable to buy new horses as the old ones die from snakebite, overwork, or old age. He says it is God's providence, and I believe he is right.

Note. Since the above was written Mr. Wilkinson's health has compelled him to transfer his sphere of labour to South Australia, where he is still engaged in Bush Mission work.

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