Colonial Thought-Lines #2: Collected sermons


Collected Sermons

This thought-line runs parallel to the former one, and without any apparent sense of internal contradiction from the squatters' point of view. Consuming spiritually edifying literature was widespread in the region during the fifteen years of early European settlement. Some additional demographic information may help to situate these readers of religious texts within their historical context - in their specifically colonial social and economic setting.

In A Distant Field of Murder: Western District Frontiers, 1834-1848, Jan Critchett calculates from the Chief Protector of Aborigines field reports that there were 3,299 Indigenous inhabitants in the region during 1841. In Men of Yesterday: A Social History of the Western District of Victoria, 1834-1890, Margaret Kiddle calculates from colonial administration census results that there were 1,270 Europeans in 1841, rising to 3,476 in 1846. Kiddle notes that "eighty-nine percent of the classified population...were servants of various descriptions and only eight per cent were landed proprietors...and other employers". She also estimates that by the middle of the 1840s there were 282 licensed "runs", or sheep and cattle stations, covering the Western District. This figure is reasonably consistent with the 322 Western District "runs"portrayed on A.S. Kenyon's Map Showing The Pastoral Holdings of the Port Phillip District 1835-51.

In summary then, there were approximately 300 "squatters" who "sat down" on their "runs" during this period. They formed a highly influential, literate, minority. Their managerial decisions effectively determined the life-circumstances of a further 3,000 Aborigines and 3,000 Europeans, those comprising the predominantly illiterate majority of the region's human population.


The most frequently mentioned religious text by the squatters is, predictably enough, the Bible. A habit of regular recourse to Scripture is evident among the more settled and domestically stable squatters, such as the spinster Anne Drysdale of Boronggook and the married Horatio Wills on Lexington. Wills was a conspicuously diligent student of his Bible, consulting his copies of Addison's Evidences of Christianity and Dwight's Theology, while Drysdale expanded her biblical knowledge with Lamartine's Travels to the Holy Lands and Christian biographies like The Life of Wilberforce.

Customary reading of the Bible is also apparent in the records of unconventional candidates, such as the maritally estranged Annie Baxter on Yambuck and the fearless bushman Alexander Hunter on Mimamaluke. Mrs Baxter is quick to find confirmatory denunciations of her husband's infidelities in Scripture (although less adept when it comes to her own), and even the hard-riding Hunter manages to read a chapter or two when he's in the mood. Bible reading seems a generally ingrained practice, not dependent on denominational affiliation or individual fervour. It is an attitude of mind that is found equally in the lapsed Episcopalian and alcoholic Dr David Wilsone on Upper Wirrobbee as it is in the sternly self-righteous and devout Presbyterian Niel Black of Glenormiston.

The next most commonly noted forms of religious reading are sermons. Of eight squatters reporting instances of religious reading, six reported the Bible, and five of these also recorded the reading out of sermons. Printed collections of homilies written by respectable clergymen in Britain were used in the colonies, where ordained priests and ministers were often not available. This type of text had a particular socio-political application in the Western District. Collected sermons (and the Bible) were the only classification of literature that the squatters felt comfortable sharing with the rest of colonial society. It was deemed the material most suitable for passing onto the masses.This thought-line is typically represented by Miss Anne Drysdale (Presbyterian) and her partner Miss Caroline Newcomb (Wesleyan), who conducted regular Sunday night prayer meetings for their station employees. On Mondays, for she did not write up her diary on the Sabbath, Miss Drysdale made her standard entry for Sunday, concluding with the phrase "read sermon at night when all the men attended".

Squatters like Drysdale and Newcomb felt a social obligation, a sense of moral responsibility, for those within their enterprise. It was a duty to instruct those without the hereditary advantages of strict ethical training from Church, School and Home. This obligation was periodically reinforced by the clear expectations of family and friends, as expressed in their letters from Britain. For example, Dr Wilsone was embarrassed to reply to his brother in Glasgow that, no, he had not instituted the ritual reading of sermons to his shepherds and hut keepers on the station.
When you ask if I read the Service & a Sermon to our men (it was not for want of will) but the thing is impossible, ever one must be away with their flocks by Daylight, & not return until just after sunset when they dine & wearied enough, go to their beds soon after it.
Similarly, the more sober and upright Neil Black confesses to his diary (in  reality a type of long letter to those he left behind in Argyll), that he had not yet acted upon his intention to read a sermon and a prayer to all the servants on the home station on Sunday afternoons - an omission, he hastens to add, that will be rectified as soon as "I have got my books up". Another example of the expectation from Britain that squatters would perform a spiritually pastoral role towards their workers is recorded in the the records of George Russell of Golf Hill. He notes the unsolicited forwarding of six Bibles by one of his principals in the Clyde Company of Glasgow, specifically for distribution in the men's huts.

Compilations of inoffensive and uncontroversial sermons by respectable, mainstream, clergymen were popular in the British Isles and it was assumed they were equally appropriate for use in the colonies. There was considerable colonial compliance with this view. Collections of sermons were considered so inoffensive and mainstream that none of these squatters bothered to identify them by the name of their authors. They refer instead to their reading out loud for the purpose of improving the moral standards and individual behaviour of their employees. This was about reading down the social scale - reading to those not considered entirely adult, the uneducated and unsophisticated - reading to the non-elite.

For instance, Katherine Kirkland on Trawalla, recalls in her memoirs that,
My husband or my brother read a sermon on Sunday; indeed we kept up the form of a religious service as near as we could. Generally all of our servants joined us: but if they did not feel inclined of themselves to come it was vain to try and persuade them.
Mrs Kirkland was less comfortable with the idea of a wider range of working class reading. She remained unconvinced of the virtues of a more literary workforce. For example, she notes that,
Our bullock-driver was very careless; his only work seemed to be finding his bullocks one day, and losing them the next; he was a melancholy-looking little man, and went by the name of 'Dismal Jamie'. Mary told me she was sure he had been a great man at home, he read so beautifully, and knew so much; but certainly he knew little about bullock-driving.

The squatters seem better pleased when their literate employees are devoting themselves to reading Scripture. After inspecting Glenormiston with his station overseer ("Sheep looking better and lambs thriving splendidly"), Neil Black is delighted to find on his return to the homestead "all the men and their wives with each a Bible in hand". Black's pride in his well-behaved Highlanders is echoed in a remark by Dr Wilsone, that "I have noticed our Scotch shepards take their Bibles out with them" to work. The Scottish Highlanders attention to their Gaelic Bibles was thought to be a key element in their diligent work habits, the foundation of their steady, sober and reliable character. 

This is in stark contrast to the squatters' opinions of the rest of the colonial workforce. The majority of shepherds, hut keepers, shearers and bullock drivers were British criminals transported to Australia and who had served their time. The squatters loathed them. Convicts (as Licensed Assigned Government Servants or "old lags") and ex-convicts ("ticket of leave" men) were regarded as a necessary evil. They were cheap  but untrustworthy labour, requiring constant supervision, and inconvenient runaways, or "bolters", were common. And they were prone to chronic drunkenness, theft of stores, and sullen disobedience.

The proximity of the squatters, often on remote stations, to those they viewed as moral degenerates, prompted another concern. It was the fear that without conscious and disciplined attention to their own manners and personal standards, their prolonged periods of isolation in the company of such men could lead to their own moral and material decay. They could let themselves go, (in a phrase, "going native"), becoming indistinguishable from those they despised.

John Robertson on Wando Vale was  convinced that this sort of laxity by individual squatters led directly to their financial failure. He points to the unusually high turn over of original licenses of occupation during the "three eventful years" of 1841 to 1843.
Numbers of young gentlemen who came out to the colony about that time...were totally unable to make comfort for themselves or their servants. In consequence of which they fell back lower in morality and energy than many of their men, for dirt and filth were noticeable in places and persons, and their pride was; who would rough it best. They even went so far in their indolence as to drop shaving themselves...
William Adeney of Choclyn is similarly adamant that "personal character", sufficient to withstand the "normal colonial regimen of "nothing but hard work and bad company", is necessary to avoid becoming "scoundrels"or "low careless middling characters".

The deterioration of personal standards that Robertson and Adeney warn against was also observed by Niel Black on a station he visited in 1840. The risk of contamination by "Gov't men" seemed a very real prospect to the newly arrived squatter, describing
...where a set of money-making bachelors live, half savage, half mad...going about for 12 months half dressed, half not, unshaven, unshorn, shoes never cleaned, living upon tea and damper, his pocket knife serving him for a spoon, his bed on the floor or rather the ground...they take a false pride in it!

These squatters' concerns provide another, unstated but nevertheless inferred, motive for instituting the regular reading from a book of collected sermons on outlying runs. The moral benefit for each squatter voluntarily undertaking this task was potentially significant. The act of assuming some responsibility for the spiritual improvement of employees was in itself a powerful reminder that personal standards mattered.The reading out aloud of religious material to the men, ostensibly a downward motion on the vertical social scale, had a rebound effect that traveled back up to the squatters who made it their regular practice. Each occasion of attempting to improve the character of their workers became an opportunity for the psychological reinforcement of their own class values.

A number of the older squatters, and those who survived the turbulence of the economic crash in the early 1840s, seem aware of this dynamic. Judging by the encouragement that emanated from family and friends at Home, the British middle class with interests in the Australian colonies knew something of it too. An ever-present danger in the colonial adventure, in contemporary minds, was the erosion of civilized identity by an uncivilized environment. The vertical rebound affect of reading collected sermons to employees might help to stem this moral slide.

PRIMARY SOURCES: (in order of appearance)

Anne Drysdale, Diary, SLV, MS 9249, MSB 1138/1.
Horatio Wills, Diary, SLV, MS 9139, MSB 455.
Annie Baxter, Diary, SLV, MS 7648, MSM 35.
Alexander Hunter, Diary, SLV, MS 10300, MSM 151.
David Wilsone, Letters, SLV, MS 9285, MSB 267/1b.Niel Black, Diary, SLV, MS 8996, MSB 99/1.
George Russell, Memoirs, PL Brown (ed), The Narrative of George Russell of Golf Hill,        London, OUP, 1935.
Katherine Kirkland, Memoirs, 'Life in the Bush, By a Lady', Chambers Miscellany, 1.8,  Edinburgh, 1844.
John Robertson, Letter, TF Bride & CE Sayers (eds), Letters From Victorian Pioneers, South  Yarra VIC, 1983.
William Adeney, Letters, SLV, MS 9111, MSB 453.

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