Colonial Thought-Lines #7: Fear of Failure


1. A Polite and Commercial People

   Paul Langford's volume of the New Oxford History of England  has the title A Polite and Commercial People (1989). Langford says this phrase was coined by the eighteenth-century judge William Blackstone in his magisterial Commentaries on the Laws of England (1769). It is an expression that characterizes the English nation in the Age of Enlightenment as "a society in which the most vigorous and growing element was a commercial middle class". This middle class were purposeful and energetic. They were also anxious. In Langford's perceptive definition, this new and dynamic element in English society occupied the tenuous ground between "the court and the spade" - those who had, by their industry, skill and luck, "succeeded in raising themselves above the ruck of the labouring poor", but "who dreaded nothing more than descent [back] into the ranks of the truly poor". 

The squatters who occupied the Western District basalt plains with their flocks and herds in the first fifteen years of European settlement were of this entrepreneurial middle class. What was a nascent class in Georgian Britain, had become pretty much dominant by Early Victorian times. They had grown in confidence as their innovations transformed the heart of the Empire into an industrialized, and increasingly urbanized, super-power. And as they acquired more wealth and influence, so too they became more personally and politically anxious, for now they had more to lose. The squatters in the south western corner of the Port Philip District of the Colony of New South Wales were no exception. They referred to themselves, privately, as 'Improvers', 'Capitalists' and 'Investors'. And, it is fair to infer, they were fearful. They were fearful of financial failure and, more acutely, they were fearful of the disgrace that failure might bring.

2. Dr David Wilsone on Upper Wirrobbie

2.1 Letters 
12 March 1839 "We are considered exceedingly fortunate in thus getting ourselves located so well; but we have been obliged to go beyond our tether to get it; and to enable us to have the full advantage our lands possess...all the best informed settlers round this have urged exceedingly the priority of adding to our stock...which would cost us 600 pounds more...I may be induced to draw on you ["my our 2,000 pounds" in Lloyd's Bills heavily discounted by "SA Coy bank", mentioned in letter dated 28 November 1838] and I feel confident that you will aid our views, when so much advantage will accrue to us from it, and if you allow it to be a loan we will pay you 10 per cent until it is all paid back; if I could explain and show you how much this will facilitate our business, I am sure you, or any of our good brothers in Law would never scruple to do so..."
18 April 1839 "...we had to pay cash for all the extra materials attached to the station amounting to a good sum [249 pounds 4 shillings and 9 pence according to letter dated 12 March 1839], and to lay in a good stock of provisions  for our own & mens use for the winter...It seems fated to me that whatever I try & likely to succeed in is by some unforseen event obliged to be parted with; in this case it became necessary to retire a bill Mackenzie and Campbell had granted in part payment, which is now for 200 pounds...After maturely weighing all these circumstances I came to the determination to draw on you for the Sections & as much more as  will by the blessing of God keep all right until we begin to reap the benefit of our purchases ['Loan' drawn from brother George in Glasgow was 500 pounds according to letter dated 9 September 1839], & feel assured that you will not be backward, in at the present state of our affairs of aiding us so far, having still 2 more sections you are perfectly safe with the advance...I have written three letters to accompany the bills advising you, & two letters to Miss Melhuish, Gray & Co. London, so that I trust all will go well with us all...As to my Rio business my dear George you will arrange in the best way you can, if I am spared no ultimate loss will be [enough?], that you may rest assured of..."
16 December 1839 "...we must have time to make it pay, to draw on me before we have Simpson's bond paid would blast for ever all hope of doing good here...I pray earnestly to God that he will strengthen and support me through all these difficulties - for my heart is like to sink; God help me there seems nothing I put my hands to, but tends to depress me, and come to nothing under my auspices...It has pleased God to afflict me deeply, the worst may now be past, and I will live in hope that it may be so - But my dear George never will you see me again, should matters be reversed, I will be able to get my bread someway here I believe, but to return a beggar, never, never; much my beloved George as I had cherished the hope of returning, I must forsake the thought...I never will return, if I do not, with the means of living, however moderately enable me to do so, with my own exertions here..."
20 May 1840 "My Dearest George...Private & Confidential...we have been most unfortunate in beginning in a year of famine which still continues...we have been sorely and bitterly triedwith our flocks this season, a worse one could not have been, & deeply we have lost...I deeply, deeply regret that you have been so deeply a loser [ in "my Rio business"] in that d      d market & in the hands of a rascal...Everything I have ever been concerned in, in the way of investing money has turned out unfortunate and lost in the transactions..."

Wilsone's rising note of hysteria in this series of letters to his merchant brother George illustrates the panic felt by squatters who had been sent out with 'hard-earned' family money to 'make good' in the colonies. Wilsone had, by his own imprudent actions, contributed to the stressful conditions that all settlers experienced. His land speculations in South America and South Australia on the journey out were foolish. These 'investments' reduced the amount of capital he had left to establish a sheep station when he eventually arrived in the Western District. As a result, he then went on to treat 500 pounds of his brother's discounted bills as his own money in order to meet pressing debts, thus adding family fraud to his list of woes. Also his alcoholism, which was known to his family before he left Britain, was now coming to the attention of his fellow colonists. As Niel Black of Glenormiston disapprovingly noted in his diary entry for 8 April 1840, "Dr Wilson is often very unwell and not likely to live long owing to his dissipated habits". In fact Wilsone did not have long to live. He died, insolvent, in Melbourne on 18 August 1841.

3. Captain Hanmer Bunbury on Barton

3.1 Letters
27 April 1841 "By the bye I have spoken of buying cattle. I mentioned in my letter to Emily that I was just starting on an expedition up the country to look at a herd of cattle and Station that were for sale; with the cattle I was so much pleased that I purchased the whole lot immediately on my return...altogether we have about 330 head, 160 cows and 50 or 60 fine bullocks...we have paid 6 pounds 6 shillings a head for our cattle, all under six months given in, nothing to pay for the Station, considered a very good bargain even at the present time." 
13 July 1841 "My Dear Father...I am in a scrape and must beg assistance. Like our neighbours we are sufferers by the odious Bill system of this place; paying cash is never thought of & is considered a sign of a 'Mark', the very significant name for newcomers here...I have no money in hand and am very unwilling to sell cattle for now at a serious sacrifice for we could not get more than 3 pounds or 3 pounds 10 shillings for cattle that we gave 6 pounds 6 for. I have therefore been obliged to draw upon my Agents for the necessary sum 350 pounds...I fear my Agents will not have sufficient funds of mine in their hands to meet them; will you therefore be so very kind as to advance me what is necessary and deduct it from next year's allowance...pray if you can manage it pay that sum into my Agents hands or let them know you will do so, and authorise their accepting the Bill on that understanding, for a Bill returned to me from England would very seriously injure my credit here. We are sure of getting our money from our friends here in time but we may have to wait three or four months for it. Tales continue as numerous as ever; there have been no failures of the slightest consequence & every one says that in five or six months time business will be as flourishing as ever again..."
14 August 1841 "...without money I could not start [back up to 'Barton, my cattle station at Mt. William'], for besides butchers bakers grocers and others in town who wanted to be paid, I had divers and sundry Bills to meet which I had given for cattle horses etc., money must be forthcoming or the Bills would be dishonoured and my name disgraced, but how to obtain it was the question & a mighty difficult one to solve...well, in any endeavour to obtain money I put up sixty cows, most of them in calf or with calves by their sides, to auction & the highest bid I could get was 3 pounds and that in Bills at 3 & 4 months!...nothing was able to sell at any price, without taking Bills which I knew would be dishonoured & so throwing away my property for nothing. At last, Thursday last came, yesterday I had a large Bill to meet and in despair at the impossibility of obtaining any money drew upon you for 500 pounds and have paid my Bills, though I fear at the expense of annoying you very much...I well know my dear Father your punctuality in business matters. I fear this proceeding of mine will vex you very much & it has been with very great reluctance that  I have done it & not until every other chance of saving my character had failed...I was willing to sell anything and everything I possessed but utterly unable to find a purchaser. Dishonouring Bills is an everyday occurrence here & hundreds are perfectly indifferent on the subject, even persons from whom one would expect better things...But I trust I shall never have a Bill of mine in that predicament, however I have been fearfully near it and have only escaped it by feeling confident that if you had been here yourself you would rather have assisted me and lent me the money; than see me disgraced in consequence of imprudence arising from my ignorance of the country...I gave Bills feeling quite confident that I could meet them, but not even the most experienced colonial could have foreseen the present scarcity of money, it is in a degree as unprecedented as the rage for land speculating was last year. This letter will be sent with the Bills themselves by the Bank..."

Bunbury is certainly polite, but not all that commercial. He shares Wilsone's fear of failing the entrepreneurial test and, even more so, the disgrace of insolvency. He writes too with a similar tone of rising panic. Like Wilsone, Bunbury tries to rationalise defrauding a family member in order to avoid the public shame of not being able to pay his debts. Nevertheless, there is also an ethical undertone to his concerns, a sincere desire not to take the popular path and default. Bunbury is fortunate to have had a father of means and generosity. Sir Henry Bunbury, baronet of Barton Hall in Suffolk, did not send his son out to Australia without providing some support. Hanmer, and therefore his wife and children, received a regular "allowance" of 216 pounds a year until they could establish their own financial independence (reduced by Sir Henry to 160 pounds a year in 1842 when he received Hanmer's 500 pound Bill).

4. Niel Black of Glenormiston

4.1 Diary
31 October 1839 "I never sleep so sound or feel so contented as on board ship. When ashore my mind is like the cable of a ship at anchor, there is always a strain upon it, sometimes less sometimes more. When at sea they are both entirely at ease. Yet I w'd much prefer Anxiety if attended with Success than ease of mind and useless idleness. The one is dozeing away existence, the other is enjoying it."
18 January 1840 "...I have this day heard 3 of the passengers by our ship say that their health is suffering from the intense anxiety of mind that they endure. The Blacks or natives have occasioned me much uneasiness for some time. I could not stand the thought of murdering them, and to tell the truth I believed it impossible to take up a new run without doing so, at least the chances are 50 to 1. But after they have got the first taming by means of a few doses of lead effectively administered, it seldom happens that they occasion much trouble afterwards. I know that in every other respect I have been as free or more free than any other passenger from that intense enervating anxiety which so effectually over-powers the mind and enervates and fevers the frame."
1 February 1840 "...Another suicide was committed in The Lamb Inn by a Dr Smith from Edn. It was the most deliberate act of the kind I ever heard of. He wrote his will and a long justification of himself showing that existence had become intolerable to him; that as a member of society he was totally useless, consequently a loss to no-one; that it was not by volition or the impulse of his own will he had come into existence, therefore he had a right to put an end to what had been forced upon him without his consent. He put an end to his existence by swallowing a doze of prusic acid. Two others died at the barr of said inn."
28 March 1840 "On my return home late in the evening heard that a flock of sheep was on the other side of the creek, opposite McArthur & Cole. I have scarcely time to eat my food, but flying from one part to another to keep off the enemy - civilized man. He is much more troublesome to me than the savage. I am very anxious to get down the country to buy cattle, but cannot get away as no other can fight my battles here as well as myself."
5 May 1840 "Capt Fyans has been appointed Commissioner of Crown Land in my part of the district. He is to go up to my place in a few days to decide between me and Messrs Craig & Ewen. I may say all my days and my nights here have been spent under deep anxiety of mind striving to make the best of it, and in whatever light my stewardship may be regarded by other parties, God knows it has cost me more anxiety than my own interest did 10 times over. The expenses of keeping the country is what wounds me above all, and unless it is judged by the Commissioner that I have the stock for it I may be deprived of it after all..."

Black may have found stress to be enervating but it is interesting that he reports Dr Smith's suicide in such detail. Black's fears about murdering Aborigines were unnecessary as it turned out. The previous management of Glenormiston did the slaughtering for him, some months before he purchased the run. He did however lose part of the vast area he had occupied to the interlopers Craig and Ewen (Marida Yallock).

5. Boom and Bust
      The fear of failure exhibited in Wilsone's and Bunbury's letters 'home' (and to a certain extent in Black's diary, which was itself to become a sort of 'long letter home'), is linked to a middle class sense of personal responsibility for other members of the family. Expectations of family members still in Britain were that their trusted brother, son, uncle or cousin, would 'make good in the colonies' with the modest amounts of capital they had been sent out with. Many of these squatters were intending to make opportunities for others in the family whose future economic prospects were tied to their success. Fear of disappointing these expectations generated anxiety, particularly when things were not going so well. A climate of economic confusion and uncertainty prevailed in the Port Phillip District during the period of early settlement, particularly in the early 1840s. The shrewd and self-made squatter, John ('Poor Man') Robertson on Wando Vale, estimated that of the twenty young men who took up stations around him in 1840, none were left. The "three eventful years...of 1841-2-3 swept off these young gentlemen with their herds and that I am left the only one now". Following a period of urgent speculations, often on credit, equally dramatic bankruptcies became common.
      From my research, reading the diaries, letters and memoirs of a small sample of thirty Western District squatters, and at the fundamental level of 'who got rich' and 'who went broke', this was a turbulent period of commercial instability in the colonies. While thirteen of this sample of thirty squatters ultimately became successful, at least sixteen failed. And ten of these failures were apparent before 1850. Six of the thirty were forced to leave their runs because of insolvency. Dr Wilsone on Upper Wirrobbie  and Mrs Katherine Kirkland on Trawalla went in 1841, Dr Kilgour on Tarrone and Mrs Eliza Henty on Sandford went in 1845, and Charles Burchett on The Gums and Mrs Annie Baxter on Yambuck went in 1849. Four others narrowly avoided the indignity of bankruptcy by beating a timely retreat to the relative security of government employment in the colonial administration. Captain Hanmer Bunbury on Barton became Williamstown Harbour Master in 1844, Captain Foster Fyans on Colet Colet never left his original billet as Commissioner of Crown Lands but sold off his ff-branded cattle in 1847, Edward Bell on Englefield became Superintenent La Trobe's private secretary in 1849, and Evelyn Sturt on Compton became Melbourne Police Superintendant, also in 1849. In summary, the financial failure of ten squatters, or one third of the cohort of thirty, was obvious to their peers within the first fifteen years of settlement in the Western District from 1835 to 1850. The publicly observable failure of others, the undeniable rate of attrition among neighbours and social peers,occurred concurrently with their own experiences of managing practical difficulties in the 'bush' and meeting the the expectations of patrons and investors at 'home'. (Only a handful from my sample of original squatters went on to become seriously rich; Niel Black of Glenormiston, Francis Henty of Merino Downs, and George Russell of Golf Hill. All three of these had a body of substantial investors behind them and were able to weather the times of low commodity prices and subsequent credit squeeze). 


Popular posts from this blog

American Story: Burwell Boykin

A Grandfather's Tale: Chapter 3, THE VIRGINIA TRADE