Colonial Thought-Lines #4: Aloneness


William Adeney deliberately projects an image of abject 'aloneness' from the remoteness of his draughty slab hut in the Western District. Adeney was the sole licensee squatter on Chocolyn run, 5,948 acres of fertile lunette country abutting the large land holdings of the Manifold family on Lake Purrumbete. In his letters home to his mother, father, brother Henry and sister Ann, at 16 Sackville Street, Picadilly, London, he gives an impression of isolated loneliness, entirely bereft of human companionship, silently enduring hardships that are unimaginable to those he has left behind.

7 September 1843 "I am the only person in my hut my shepherd and his wife having gone to sleep in a watchbox near the sheepfold about 1/4 mile off. During my solitary life I cannot help thinking sometimes how much I should like to walk into the dear old sitting room & have a little chat with the dear ones there, but such thoughts as these must not be encouraged so I dismiss them as quickly as possible hoping the time may come when I shall again return to enjoy the comforts and society of civilised life."

In reality, Adeney was rarely alone on his station. At least not in the literal sense of having no other people around him. In the same letter he complains of a week of such pouring rain that, "I have been scarcely able to do anything but sit over the fire the greater part of the day with  no-one to speak to but my shepherd's wife who like the man Friday 'keeps my hut neat and tidy'". At times his two-roomed bush hut became quite crowded.

26 February 1844 "...while I write this I have a great black savage looking fellow who calls himself Mr Gibbs sitting on the same stool with me and his lubra is sitting on the floor in her opossum rug in the other room admiring my shepherd's white piccaninny."

Adeney's real complaint is that that there is no one like himself to talk to. His melancholy is self-generated, prompted by his own perception of a social, moral, and intellectual gulf between himself and the large majority of colonial society from whom his employees were drawn. Prior to the democratising forces of mass-migration in the Gold Rush era, the division between master and servant in the Australian colonies was acute. This separation was already evident in Adeney's arrangements to establish his run earlier that year. 

22 June 1843 "I have bought a horse & dray & hired a man & his wife and shall take possession of the sheep in a few days. There is an old hut on the run where the woman will live and work during the day - at night she will sleep with her husband in a watchbox near the fold."

In the early European settlement of the Western District, a watchbox was a low, rectangular box ("coffin-shaped and coffin- sized") with handles at one end and wheels at the other (like an elongated wheel barrow). It was designed for sleeping one shepherd, with his dog chained up outside to raise the alarm if Aborigines or dingoes "rushed" the hurdled flock. Adeney's automatic assignment of both the shepherd and his wife to this cramped sleeping arrangement reflects his attitude as a master to his servants - a squatter who might take as much care in kenneling his dogs. He thinks in terms of providing basic physical needs for them, food and shelter, but not much beyond that. (On the other hand, the enforced intimacy of the watchbox possibly contributed to the "shepherd's white piccaninny" that is being admired in February 1844).

In the period between the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788 and the end of Transportation in 1853, approximately 148,000 convicts were landed in New South Wales and Van Diemens Land. Convicts were arriving at the rate of 4,900 each year in 1835, peaking at 5,00 in 1840, before declining to 4,000 per annum from 1841 to 1845 and 3,000 from 1846 to 1852. In the 15 years before Separation therefore, the Port Phillip colonists were still part of a system of indentured labour, the by-product of penal sentencing and a garrison state. Despite later claims that Victoria was a free-immigrant colony, its early European settlement was founded on a predominantly convict and ex-convict workforce. These workers, generally accompanying the squatters'livestock, were imported directly by the "overstraiters" from the penal colony of Van Diemens Land, and by  "overlanders" from the Sydney Settled Districts of New South Wales. On the eastern seaboard of Australia in 1830, and out of a non-Aboriginal population of about 70,000, "90% had either been transported or were the progeny of convicts. Even by 1840, "convicts and ex-convicts still comprised 71% of of the white labour force".
[ K. Federowich, 'The British Empire on the Move, 1760-1914', in S. Stockwell (ed.), The British Empire: Themes and Perspectives, Malden MA, 2008 (sourcing A.G.L. Shaw, Convicts and the Colonies, Dublin, 1998, and R.B. Madgwick, Immigration into Eastern Australia, 1788-1851, London, 1937)]

The Western District squatters regarded their 'conscripted' labour as, at best, a necessary evil. They were considered cheap but truculent and untrustworthy workers, who required constant supervision; a class of moral degenerates with an innate disposition to chronic drunkenness. It is perhaps not surprising then, that Adeney believed himself to belong to a cultural elite. A sense of aesthetic uniqueness radiates from his letters. He did not expect to share his intellectual and literary interests with those who surrounded him in the day to day activities of operating his sheep station. His enthusiasm in 1845 at unpacking the long awaited box of books from London and his delight in the discovery of some fossil bones on Chocolyn highly personal pleasures, shared only with those close family and friends he is confident will appreciate them. It seems that, in Adeney's mind at least, he is a sort of lone sentinel of British civilization in this part of the Australian wilderness, a single flame of Enlightenment values in the midst of ignorance and unreason.

12 October 1845 "The box of books you were kind enough to forward has arrived safely but was detained so long in a store in Geelong that I feared it had been lost...The Cyclopaedia came to hand, but one tome containg. 2 vols is missg. & Lyell's geology has not arrived. I presume they were not packed in the same case or that it is an oversight & will come by the first post am as certain. The extra papers enclosed in the case of Mags. were very interesting and welcome.."."
29 November 1845 "My sheep are now beginning to increase in number & consequently my circumstances are much easier. I do not now work quite so hard as I did as I can pay a man to do the heavy work instead. This makes me feel the want of society more now than when I was more laboriously employed although I have now all my books round me while not very long ago my whole library consisted of 3 old newspapers which I used to read over & over again beginning with the title & ending with the printer's address...Not long since I found some fossil bones belonging I think to some extinct and undescribed animal these I forwarded to one of the leading scientific men here who proposed their being sent to Owen in London. They excited much interest here for some time as they were at first supposed to belong to a large animal described by the natives as the Bunyeps and affirmed by them to be still alive in some of the deep lakes & waterholes of this district. I think this to be only a creature of their imagination & not being able to account for these remains they have placed them to the credit of that fearful monster to which they describe here as going on two legs with a neck & head like a large [...], & a breast covered with shaggy hair & killing men by hugging them with his large flappers."

[William Adeney, Letters 1843-1854, State Library of Victoria, MS 9111, MSB 453
 Pastoral: Chocolyn, PB 6, 5,948 acres, 7,000 sheep, sole licencee 1842-1867]

An interesting footnote to Adeney's comforting self-image is found in the diary of another squatter, Horatio Wills on Lexington. Wills is occasionally disturbed to note his outbursts of temper on the run: "inflicting correction with a stick upon one of my shepherds for determined peverseness", having "angry words with the shearers whilst washing sheep", or giving "a black's dog a dose of poison". The presence of his books, and now a special room in the new homestead to admire them, is one way in which he can replace the memory of these baser failings with higher thoughts. It helps to restore his sense of identity as someone who can be distinguished from other inhabitants on the station, black or white. These personal possessions, artefacts that signify cultural difference, are almost lovingly described.
22 August 1851 "Yesterday left our old House, the roof of which has covered our heads for years...These are the first lines I have written in my new House - in my own private room or library. I write at a table, facing the front window or verandah. Before me, left for reference, is an Atlas, classica & dictionary, French dictionary, Cobbett's French and English grammars, an old 'General Gazetteer', which belonged to my father, geography for children, Keith on the globes - and Buchan's domestic medicine, a present from my old friend Edward Lee - a case of mathematical instruments, etc etc -; on my right between the fireplace and the front wall, a terrestial and celestial Globe - with maps on the mantel for my 'quarter' / implements of native warfare intended for Tom - behind me, arranged on shelves, including an Encyclopaedia Brittanica [...] on my left a box of loose books, my old double barrell, my pistol carbine (old friends from Sydney) and Tom's fowling piece - ..."
[Horatio Wills, Diary 1843 - 1851, State Library of Victoria, MS 9139, MSB 455
 Pastoral: Lexington/La Rose/Mokepilly, W. No. 62, 120,000 acres, 2,000 cattle, 20,000 sheep]


In 1850 George Russell returned to Scotland to consult with his Clyde Company partners, after fourteen industrious years in the Port Phillip District, (and five years before that in Van Diemens Land). His responsibilities had grown to cover the overall management of three large Western District stations, 72,700 acre Golf Hill, 57,600 acre Terinallum, and 98,600 acre Hopkins Hill. Russel was an archetypal economic 'Improver'. His reputation among other squatters was formidable, as "a hard man to deal with but...a strictly honest one". 

On his voyage 'home', Russell remained in character, true to his colonial reputation as an intently focused individual, very much the 'new economic' man of early Victorian capitalism. He was never really comfortable unless he could see evidence of commercial development, such as "the tall smoky chimney-stalks of a manufacturing town". Consequently he was unimpressed by the jewels of Empire, India and Egypt, irritated by the apparent agricultural backwardness of these ancient civilisations. He duly noted certain depressing similarities between "the banks of the Hooghly" near Calcutta and "the valley of the Nile" near Calcutta. Paying particular attention to the "inefficient manner in which the ground is tilled", he observed  that the "plough used by the natives of Bengal is exactly similar to the Egyptian plough". His subsequent Grand Tour of Europe in 1851 was memorable, not so much for the ornate architecture of Leipzig and Dresden for example, but for his chance discovery of a first class Saxon Merino stud farm along the railway line between those two cities. On his Highland Tour of northern Scotland later that year, Russell is critical of the arcane management practices of the woolgrowers on the large Sutherland sheep-walks, while he is always keen to talk with small scale crofters who might emigrate to become employees on Clyde Co. sheep-runs in the Australian colonies. Even 'on holiday', Russell is always the engaged businessman, the interested investor-capitalist, alert to financial opportunity.

Nevertheless, his Travel Diary also contains the comment, "I do not know how I could get over the continued monotony of a voyage without books". One of the titles the squatter read on his ocean passage was Sir Walter Scott's novel The Pirate. Later in his travels, in the remote Scottish Highlands near Cape Wrath, he recalls that reading - but in terms that are unrelated to his habitual obsession with matters of political economy.

Narrative, p. 306; "From the thinly scattered population & the consequent absence of frequent intercourse [sic.] with each other, more particularly in the winter months, in these exposed northern situations, together with the wild desolate scenery with which they were surrounded, I fancied that the secluded lives with which these ladies at Durness [Mrs Scobie and her two daughters] must lead during the winter months must resemble very much the description of life passed by a respectable family in Shetland [Magnus Troil and his two daughters] during the same season, as portrayed so graphically by Sir W. Scott in his novel 'The Pirate'; and these circumstances brought the description in that work forcibly to my mind."

Russell is struck by the resemblance between what he is actually observing and Scott's literary representation. The two images of tiny, isolated, educated elites, restricted to long months of their own company, were brought "forcibly to my mind". Despite the opportunity to make alternative connections between his tour and the novel he has read - the geographical similarities of poor and infertile soils, the political similarities of Highland and Island population clearances, the same economic contest between methods of traditional 'runrig' agriculture and agrarian reforms - the coincidence this squatter remarks upon are 'people' who remind him of himself. What seems to be resonating here is Russell's own, singular, existence beneath the distant, southern, skies of Australia. Earlier in his memoirs, he records a poignant scene from 1836, with the foundation of the first outstation of Golf Hill on the Moorabool River near Geelong. 

Narrative, pp. 118-119; "I lived in a small bell-tent about ten feet in diameter for several months...On cold evenings I had a fire outside but I sat by the fire as little as possible, for I could not read or write excepting in the tent...The two men I had with me...'Big Jack' and 'Little Jack'...sent out to Tasmania as a convict about the year of 1831 for machine breaking...Big Jack's tongue was always at work, but little Jack was seldom or never heard."

The squatter is generally positive about these two ex-convicts, praising their willingness to work, and was tolerant of their past crimes. In daylight hours, in newly occupied Aboriginal country and miles from armed assistance, the three men's survival depended on one another. But after sunset, when the physical work was done and his thoughts turned to reading and writing, these uneducated men became a distraction, and he retired to the privacy of his bell tent. This was a conscious decision on Russel's part. It was a self-imposed act of 'exile'.
[George Russell, Memoirs, P.L. Brown (ed.), The Narrative of George Russell of Golf Hill, London, OUP, 1935
 Personal: b. 1812 Fyfeshire; m, Euphemia Carstairs 1851 Fyfeshire; d, 1888 Golf Hill (Estate 236,277 pounds)
 Pastoral: Golf Hill, P.B. No. 50, 72,700 acres, 36,000 sheep, manager for Clyde Co. 1836 -1858, then freehold]


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