State Library of Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 16 October 1975


Early Australian Reminiscences of Gordon Augustus Thomson
of Belfast, Ireland.

Being now a relic of the past Century, having been born in 1799; and in the course of my wanderings over the world, seem some of the early days of what is now Melbourne & Victoria; I take the present opportunity of jotting down one or two of the old time pencillings being now as I believe the only remaining survivor of any of those who saw the ground which noble Melbourne now occupies, a wilderness covered with large trees & thick scrub.
In the month of June 1836 having in view a visit to the then almost Terra incognita of Port Phillip I came by land from Hobart town to Launceston; thence descending the Tamar river in a small boat with two ticket of leave men as rowers. When about half way down the stream we were overtaken just as night was about coming on by a dense fog, which caused us to lose or rather miss our way. Hearing another boat on the river we hailed it, and it came to us, having but one man in it. Of him we asked whereabouts the sawyers huts were, of the which we were aware as a place of shelter.
He directed us how to boat for them, & we pulled there, finding a poor little shanty where we passed the night. The next morning we got down to George's town, and there I remained 3 or 4 days. During my stay there I learnt that a notable bushranger was captured on the river; one on whose head a very large sum of money had been set. This, strangely enough, turned out to be the very man to whom I have before referred as telling us our way in the fog on the river. He was I believe afterwards hung, but I do not at the moment remember his name.
I crossed the Straits to Port Phillip in a small schooner chartered for sheep, so much was she laden indeed, that I remember the pens or crates in which they were confined reached pretty well half-way up the mast.
I remember quite well coming into the Heads. They were in some manner impressed upon my mind as well as if I had seen them before. Even at this present time when I re-entered them in October 1872 I knew them again immediately by that rush of water coming in.
We came up as far as Hobson's Bay in the schooner, & landed the cargo of sheep as soon as possible. I do not well remember how I got up to Batman's hill from their landing place, but I suppose it was in a small boat.
On our arrival we heard that a murder had been perpetrated some mile or two out of Melbourne, by the natives. The victims were a Mr Smith a settler, and his herdsman. They had evidently been assaulted & their heads cut open from behind, their hats being cut through in the same direction, & apparently with tomahawks. The murder committed, the natives then stole all the property they could lay their hands on. Amongst other things there was I remember a barrel of lime which the natives appropriated, mistaking for a tub of flour, & tried to make damper of, but with ill success as may well be imagined. They took away all the property they laid their hands upon, getting clear off with their booty before any discovery was made. The bodies were found shortly after the committal of the deed, and I remember that I arrived in the settlement the day after the discovery took place. If I had arrived a little earlier, I should have had the opportunity, & should certainly have embraced it, of going out with the party of 17 that went out after the murderers, with some friendly natives as trackers. The traces were followed for two days & a night, & until on the second night the fires of those they were in search of, were seen.
The pursuers then agreed to go on, branching off in two divisions, to the right & left, & so surrounding the party of hostile natives, & they were not to fire until close in upon them. But one of the attackers getting, as I suppose, nervous or excited, fired somewhat sooner than was agreed upon, & this necessitated throwing aside the intended cautious plan of action; so that they made a rush in upon the natives in a body. They were all 17 armed with guns, & whether or not each man individually marked down his aim, 17 of the natives were killed. The identification on the bodies of objects belonging to Smith and his herdsman was easy, by means of such articles as pencil cases, knives and so forth. Amongst other articles of booty they had carried off Smith's guns which were flint locks. They had put the powder into the pan, & the ball into the gun. I must mention here that when the party was surrounded, the body of a baby child was found roasting on the fire, and it was then supposed that they were cannibals, but I heard of no further corroboration of that view.
A few days after my arrival here, the first funeral as I believe in the settlement took place; it was that of a child, & the place of burial was somewhere about where Queen street is now formed, in the vicinity of the river.
There were no births that I heard of while I was here but there were women in the settlement, and I saw such evidences of civilisation at the doors of some of the dwellings as fowls & tame kangaroos. The food of the settlers at that time consisted principally, if not almost entirely of damper & salt Irish pork with tea & sugar, but there was, as far I could judge, a sufficiency of food, such as it was. Of course we could get kangaroo & wild fowl in abundance for the shooting of them, or in whatever other way we trapped them.
At the time I am now referring to, the principal residence for so it must be called, in view to its special pretensions which I will proceed to mention was a small hut on Batman's hill, in which Batman himself resided. This hut, had as I remember, a brick chimney, & I mention this particularly, because the brick chimney was a conspicuous architectural feature in those days. Batman possessed, not only a brick chimney, but a boarded floor in addition, an article of special luxury, as may be well imagined. Whether these things had anything to do with it, or whether it was entirely as a mark of general recognition of his comparative social standing in the new colony, he used to be generally spoken of, & addressed as “The Governor”.
A little further up the bank of the River Yarra Yarra, there were a few “wattle & daub” huts, in which I remember that Dr. Thomson & his wife, Fawkner, Gellibrand, Buckley & some others lived; each man having a separate hut. As for myself I got my food from Dr. Thomson & his wife, on the agreement to work for them, so that I used to call myself the “hewer of wood & drawer of water” to Melbourne, or rather as we called it then, after the name of the river, “Yarra Yarra”.
Buckley the “wild white man” who, as I have said, was then living in the settlement, had his hut & gun to himself, & could now speak English pretty well again, his powers of memory being re-awakened. He was at that time filling the post of interpreter between the whites & blacks, & the way an acquaintance was struck up between us was in this wise: I was introduced to him as the bearer of a message for him from an hotelkeeper in Launceston, who had been his fellow prisoner, the purport of the message being a warm invitation to him to go over to Launceston, & spend the remainder of his days — if he so pleased — in the house of his former mate in distress, free of expense. From this fact perhaps of being the bearer of such an invitation, & other causes combined, he & I soon made up some what of a bond of friendship, & often wandered out in the bush together, to shoot, or what not. On such occasions I used to draw him out as much as I could on the subject of his reminiscences & experiences of the native life.
What he told me of his earlier days was that he and two other fellow prisoners escaped from the ship — which had brought out, as we know, the batch of convicts to these shores, the evening before she set sail again from here to Hobart town. Buckley & his two companions
who had appropriated a stock of provisions & useful articles from the ship's camp on shore, remained undiscovered — if search was made for them — but they seem rather not to have been missed; & appeared to have subsisted for some time in the bush together; but of the ultimate fate of the two companions I am ignorant. As regarded himself, Buckley told me, that after being here some length of time, he was tired of life, and one day sitting down under a shee oak tree, longed for death. While thus sitting, he fell off into a doze, & was awoke by the noise made by some native ginns who during his sleep had gathered around him, & were evincing their curiosity to one another. When they saw him awake they immediately scuttled off into the bush, and bye & bye while he was still lying there a number of their male relatives — to whom they had imparted the sight they had seen — came round him, & asked him by signs where he came from. He, to make as favorable an impression on them as possible, rose up from the ground, & pointing up to the sky, signified in the best pantomime that he could, that he had come down expressly from thence to visit them. They then made signs for him to follow them, and he did so, but in ignorance of their intentions towards him, altho' somewhat in fact expecting to be roasted, the more especially, when he was led up to a large fire they had made. They merely however danced round the fire, singing their native songs, & then gave him a roasted “possum” to eat, which he told me was, without exception, the sweetest thing he ever ate in his life.
With that same tribe he remained, becoming connected to them by marrying the daughter of a chief, & living more or less contentedly with them after their fashion, but having no descendants by his native bride. He told me that his general place of abode whilst with the natives was the trunk of a hollow tree for house building was not an aboriginal acquirement, the mia mia or break-wind being the general extent of their efforts in that direction. He told me that the time thus passed by him amongst them was somewhere about 30 years, & other detail which I do not now call to mind; & our intercourse remained on the same friendly footing till my departure for Hobart town, when he came down to the vessel to say Goodbye, & taking a stone axe from his belt pressed it on me as a keepsake, telling me he had carried it for two thirds of the time he had been among the natives. This was in the last week in June and the vessel I am speaking of as the one that conveyed me in company with Mr Gellibrand to Hobart Town was a cutter named the “Vansittart”, of about 80 tons burthen & besides we two there were only the crew on board.
While referring to the aboriginal element I may as well mention here that the natives used to visit the settlement while I was staying there; and on one occasion I saw a Corroboree amongst them, the women keeping time to the movements of the dance, or rather call it posturing of the men, by striking on “possum” or other skins stretched across their knees. The men were covered with streaks of white paint in various patterns, & had girdles of “possum” tails round their loins. The natives were very expert in the use of their spears, which they threw with much increase of power by aid of the leverage of a notched stick called by them the “Yoummaru”. The target for these displays of skill was generally an old hat, & much dexterity & precision were shown in piercing its crown from sometimes considerable distances.
During my stay in the settlement a rough map or plan of it was given to me, on which were marked out a number of allotments of land; the site of such allotments being on the south side of the river Yarra, but at no great distance. Some little time after this sketch map was given to me, I went down in the cutter with Gellibrand to Geelong by water, taking the map with me; & after surveying the harbour in a general manner, I added some outlines of the district to my map. To enable me to do so, in addition to my inspection of the harbor — of which by the bye, I remarked at the time that it would be of no use on account of the bar there which had then only about 6 feet of water on it; I made a hasty tour of the district, visiting & ascending amongst other places Station peak. From its summit I observed to the westward a beautiful expanse of plain, which I entered on my plan as Low-wood plains, giving it that name merely from old family association.
I returned from Geelong by water to Melbourne, or rather as we used then to call the village Yarra Yarra.
There were many sales of land took place while I was here between the natives & Batman & the other whites. As far as I can remember the white purchasers were enrolled as, or at all events, called themselves a Company. There were various documents drawn up with reference to these transfers or sales, & I remember that Mr. Gellibrand was the draftsman. I also remember being much struck at the time with the practical solution of the difficulty that presented itself as to how the natives should make their sign-manual of assent to the deed or deeds. The way it was done was this: Mr Gellibrand having mixed up some lamp black & grease, & explained as he best could, through Buckley, the purport of his actions to the native land owner; proceeded to black that native's hand with the mixture; & then placing the paper on some convenient block or tree, he guided the hand so prepared to the proper place on which to stamp its imprint; and thus did the Native acknowledge that as his “act & deed”.
My total stay in the settlement was about a month, & when about half that time had elapsed, I remember going out on an excursion with Mr Gellibrand, the object we proposed to ourselves being to build a bridge over a river to the westward. It would be either the Saltwater or the Werribee as I think, because it was only some 2 or 3 hours journey to it from the settlement as what is now Melbourne was then generally called, in speaking of it. I was on horseback, & Mr Gellibrand took charge of the bullock dray that conveyed our necessaries, two ticket of leave men accompanying us. On the way I cantered off from the party a little, & so lost myself. I was much frightened, taking every bush for a native, or something else objectionable, but fortunately for myself, by dint of riding about, I came after a time across the tracks of the dray, & followed in the direction they were leading till I reached the banks of the river, & then came upon my party.
We did not progress very far with the project we started out with, for, as I am inclined to think, the morning's light found our zeal frozen out of us. The excursion took place in the cold weather, in the month of June, & on the evening of our arrival when we had chosen our camp we made our supper off damper & Irish pork washed down with water, for other liquor we had none in our canteen. At nightfall we made up a fine fire, but had nothing to lie upon but the bare ground, and very cold it was, with only a tarpaulin from the dray to cover us.
The way Gellibrand & I contrived to get as much warmth as possible, was to lie close together in the centre; & then flank ourselves with one of the ticket of leave men on either side of us.
I had my saddle for a pillow, & for greater security to the flour, & comfort to myself, I put the bag containing it, inside the saddle.
About the middle of the night, my prisoner, as I may call him, got up — thinking as it appeared afterwards that it was much later — to make the damper for breakfast, and began looking about for the flour bag, which of course he could not find. His searching awoke me, & hearing him muttering about the “having no damper, if there was no flour to make it with”, I quickly handed over the flour bag to him. But he then blighted my hopes about its approaching breakfast time by discovering from the face of the sky that he had miscalculated the time, and turning in again for another nap.
When morning did come, on getting up we found the ground all covered with hoar frost, & as I have said somehow or the other our bridge building propensity had evaporated, & we returned as we came without putting a stroke to it.
As an instance of the manner & mode of living in the settlement, I may mention that in Batman's house there was on the right hand of the Hall door, a small room which he called his parlor by day, but which was converted at night into a sleeping room, by a feather bed being thrown down on the floor. Then there used to be a rush for tenancy, & the 4 or 5 fortunate enough to get first into the room, flung themselves down in the clothes they stood upright in, & so established their claim to the dignities of civilisation, while the others did
without. I cannot from recollection say anything about the female part of the population, altho' of course some of the settlers had their families with them, but I remember Dr. Thomson's wife quite well, not only from — as I have before said — being their “hewer of wood & drawer of water”, but also from the fact of a Scotch cousin relationship between us.
I returned to Launceston in the Vansittart in the beginning of July 1836, the complement of hands consisting of Gellibrand, myself, the Captain, cook, & perhaps some 3 or 4 men for the crew. In spite of our small numbers we ran short of provisions, & well we might, for I remember, we had only one piece of Irish pork on board, & other things in proportion. To make up the deficiency we set to work to catch fish, making bait with the crimson lining of an old cloak I had by me. In this way we caught an immense quantity of barracoota, in fact so much that we salted it down on board, & made presents of it afterwards in Tasmania.
The voyage lasted 8 or 9 days but its monotony was vastly relieved by the versatile talents, & willingness to employ them for our amusement of Mr Gellibrand. I can remember well how in the evenings he used to delight us by personating the Constituent Members of a Court of Justice all by himself; he was prisoner, he was Counsel, he was Judge & Jury, & everybody else.
The only noticeable incident on our passage was the getting becalmed about at the entrance of Storm Bay, & the finding that we were drifting by the action of the current on to the shore.
We took to our boat, to prepare for the danger, but still keeping alongside our vessel, when a breeze springing up opportunely off shore we scrambled on board again, & pursued our voyage without further let or mishap. At Launceston I received & accepted an invitation to a Ball & supper given by Major Fairweather & the officers of the 21st Fusileers to His Excy Sir George Arthur, on the occasion of his departure with his family for England. I remember that the actual date of the Ball was on the 16th of July 1836. The card of invitation is still in my possession.
It was not long after, in the August of the same year that I went to Sydney, taking my passage in the “Lady of the Lake”, Capitn Pearson commanding, a barque of about 300 tons register. There seems to have been some sort of affinity between this vessel & myself, for it was in her that I had come from China to Sydney in the beginning of the same year; it was in her that I travelled from Sydney to Tasmania, and finding her still waiting for a complement of cargo, it was in her that I returned to Sydney, as I have just said.
I still carried my Port Phillip map with me, & in Sydney there was then a considerable amount of excitement with reference to the new settlement, & a great desire to obtain trustworthy information about it.
During my stay in Sydney I was living in Bridge street in the house of an engraver named Clint, and considering that the excitement shown about the Port Phillip settlement, made my map, rough as it was, of some interest, I took occasion to show it to my landlord.
He immediately asked me why I did not publish it, asserting I should make my fortune by doing so. To this I replied that I had no particular desire to go into the speculation, but that if he like to take upon himself to publish it, he had my permission so to do, & he accordingly availed himself of the occasion, giving me for an equivalent, as many of the maps as I chose to take for the use of myself or friends. Many years afterwards I found one of those very maps amongst my papers in Belfast, & sent it to a friend out here, but it has been since lost sight of.
As a closing reminiscence, & an instance of the primitive mode of life then still existing in Australia, I may mention that in all my travelling about the colonies, I never as a rule carried any money with me, but say, on arriving at an inn I simply gave my name in to the landlord, told him I had no money on me, & enquired if an order on my Sydney or Hobart town agents, as the case might be, would suffice; & the answer was always in the affirmative, whether for shillings or pounds — Richard Jones & Co of Sydney & Kemp & Co of Hobart town (familiarly known as “Old Brass Button”) were my talismanic “Open sesames”. This was all the more necessary for that in those days money often did not come
to hand with desirable regularity, inasmuch as I remember on one occasion, a letter of credit, not reaching me at its destination, till it was some time out of date, & I necessarily had some trouble about it.
I well remember when in Sydney in January 1837 being invited to accompany “Missionary Marsden” as he was called, to New Zealand; the natives of which Islands had asked him to obtain from the King of England, then William the IVth, a schoolmaster for them, promising that they would all obey his dictates faithfully; but I declined the offer & the honor.
And now, having returned to Melbourne — but how changed from the early Melbourne of my byegone recollections — on the 14th Oct 1872 per ship Coimbatore; I purpose passing the close of my days in our modern capital of Victoria the golden.